Tag Archives: Israel

Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord

The Blasphemer, as in Leviticus 24: 13-23, by William Blake circa 1800

The Blasphemer, as in Leviticus 24: 13-23, by William Blake circa 1800

Deuteronomy 16:20-17:7 Only the LORD your God

1You must not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has a defect, anything seriously wrong; for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.

                2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3 by going to serve other gods and worshiping them– whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden– 4 and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 6 On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

For the author of Deuteronomy the first and central commandment that the people are only to have the LORD as their God. It comes at the head of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me

and in Deuteronomy 6: 4-5:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Even before this Deuteronomy 4 emphasizes this same theme, as do Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9. Deuteronomy 12 again addresses this issue in relation to destroying places of worship for other gods, and all of Deuteronomy 13 addresses this issue in stark terms of what the punishment is to be for violating this covenant relationship by individuals or by entire towns. It comes up here again at the end of 16 and beginning of 17 because it is such a central issue for the Deuteronomist that the author wants no chance for the hearer/reader to miss it. Being an aural culture the things that are central will be repeated over and over to ensure that they are heard by the listening audience. The death penalty for following other gods may seem harsh to us, and I address this question in greater detail when I talk about Deuteronomy 13, but this unique relationship with the LORD is to be at the center of the life of the people of Israel.

The LORD is not to be worshiped in the same way that the gods of the nations around the people are worshiped, there is to be no blending of the gods of the nations and the LORD. The people are also to bring their best to the worship of their LORD, not the animals that are defective. For the Deuteronomist these are life and death decisions, and yet they are still bound by the due process of the law. Justice is expected and a thorough investigation of any claims of idolatry are to be made. Deuteronomy 17 probably lays behind the command in Matthew 18.16 of wanting claims to be confirmed with the testimony of two or three witnesses and also behind the command for the one who is without sin to ‘cast the first stone’ in John 8 (even though this deals with adultery). In a contemporary fictional setting it is similar to the insistence of Ned Stark in the Game of Thrones that the one who passes the sentence should swing the sword, but instead here it is the witness who has testified against a person who must cast the initial stone of the community’s judgment. As Walter Brueggemann can state, “The book of Deuteronomy is committed to a rule of law even if it is a severe rule of law.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 181) The nation of Israel is to be a theocracy where ultimately the LORD their God is at the center of their judicial, religious and political life and the central place of their LORD their God should, in the view of Deuteronomy, impact the way they structure the leadership and judicial life of their community

Deuteronomy 17:8-13 The Levitical Judicial Function

8 If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another– any such matters of dispute in your towns– then you shall immediately go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose, 9 where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case. 10 Carry out exactly the decision that they announce to you from the place that the LORD will choose, diligently observing everything they instruct you. 11 You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12 As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the LORD your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.

The vision of Deuteronomy is for a theocracy, a nation that is an extension of the covenantal relationship with the LORD their God, and so all of the functions of life are structured around trying to create that type of a nation. In many respects ancient Judaism and Islam share this desire to create nations that are structured in this manner and so in ancient Judaism, like some Muslim states, the highest court of appeals is a religious court and not a secular one. For people who live in Europe or the United States this may seem a strange concept because we live in a post-enlightenments modern society where religion is viewed as a private portion of a person’s life, but this is a relatively recent development. The law for the Jewish people was a reflection of their covenantal relationship with their God and it was viewed as a gift that God had given them. Even the judges that were a part of the tribes were expected to judge in accordance with the ideals outlined in the law. It doesn’t take long reading through books like Judges or 1 Samuel to find ways in which the judges often failed in this respect, but the ideal was that those entrusted with ministering to the LORD in the tabernacle or temple would be those most focused on the ideals of justice that the LORD called for. People are to obey the judgments of this religious and tribal courts, for a judge whose sentence holds no power is not going to be effective in enforcing this justice. So again, it is a harsh justice, where the penalty for disobeying a priest or a judge in their sentences is execution.

Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 The Model King

                14 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” 15 you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. 16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Willem de Poorter, 'De afgoderij van konig Solomo'-Solomon's decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Willem de Poorter, ‘De afgoderij van konig Solomo’-Solomon’s decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Most people assume that the monarchy, and particularly the Davidic monarchy, was universally embraced by scriptures and particularly King David and Solomon are the great kings where everything went well during their reign. The bible is not unanimous in endorsing having a king at all and for example in 1 Samuel 8, when the people are demanding of Samuel a king the LORD’s response is telling:

“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly want them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 1 Samuel 8: 7-9

The Deuteronomic history (the books beginning with Judges and stretching through 2 Kings) is pretty unromantic when it describes the failings of the kings that would rule over Judah and Israel, and it is telling the way that Deuteronomy describes the aspects of who the king is to be, they are the opposite of King Solomon. Most Christians know little of the story of Solomon, other than his request for wisdom and his building of the temple, but the way 1 Kings tells of his reign he quickly is drawn into a quest for wealth, military power and in making alliance is led astray from being faithful to the LORD, the God of Israel. Solomon imports horses from Egypt and has 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots. Horses in the ancient world are a sign of military might. With power centralized and the military muscle to back up that power the king of Israel may begin to act like the Pharaohs of Egypt and the people become plunged into dependence under the burden of supplying for the hunger of a large military budget. 1 Kings goes at length into describing the wealth that Solomon accumulates as well as the incredible investment in projects beyond the temple, like his own palace. Solomon’s reign is reported to have brought in more than five tons of gold a year in addition to countless other resources. Finally Solomon is lifted up as having seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines. All of these are direct counters to Deuteronomy’s vision of what a king is to be, and are ultimately blamed for the rising opposition to Solomon in his life and the splitting of the kingdom in two after his death. I tell about this briefly in the Place of Authority posts.

The title of the book of Deuteronomy comes from verse 18 where it refers to a copy of the law (in greek deutero nomos-second law) that the king is to read from each night and to be the way in which the king stays grounded in the covenantal life the people are called to.  Ultimately in the view of Deuteronomy the king is subservient to the will of the LORD. In reality, this rarely seemed to be the case in the story of the people of Judah and Israel. In a time where the majority of the population would be illiterate and not have access to written copies of the law they did rely upon the leaders including the king and the religious authorities guiding them in their actions. The bible evaluates the kings theologically: were they faithful to the LORD their God or did they lead the people to follow other gods?

I am writing from a Christian perspective, and in the church year we are approaching Christ the King Sunday and perhaps as Christians it might be worth examining how Jesus who we call Messiah or Christ (which means anointed king) lives into this identity. In Paul’s short statement of who Christ was in Philippians 2:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2: 6-8.

Many of the servant songs from Isaiah, which Christians read as talking about Jesus probably originally were trying to consider a monarch that might embody the vision of passages like Deuteronomy 17. Perhaps when the New Testament talks about explaining who Jesus was from the law and the prophets this is one of the places in the law where the early Christians went back to.

Deuteronomy 14: Boundary Markers and Celebrations

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Deuteronomy 14

1 You are children of the LORD your God. You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead. 2 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; it is you the LORD has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

 3 You shall not eat any abhorrent thing. 4 These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5 the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep. 6 Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. 7 Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. 8 And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.

 9 Of all that live in water you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. 10 And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.

11 You may eat any clean birds. 12 But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 13 the buzzard, the kite, of any kind; 14 every raven of any kind; 15 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk, of any kind; 16 the little owl and the great owl, the water hen 17 and the desert owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18 the stork, the heron, of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. 19 And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. 20 You may eat any clean winged creature.

21 You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.

 You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

                22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish– oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.

 28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

 

If we look upon this chapters as merely a set of prohibitions of a couple practices and a lot of animals the people of Israel were not to eat we would miss the point. If we try to come up with rational explanations for why they shouldn’t eat certain things or imagine that the only reason these animals and practices are forbidden is because the Canaanites and other nations around them did it we would also miss the point. For the Israelites these are a part of bearing the identity of being a treasured possession or a people holy to God. As a people who bear the place where God’s name will dwell these practices also become a people whose identity is formed around certain practices that set them apart as holy. Part of being holy for Israel is living out of these practices for no other reason than they have been asked. As the Jewish writer Ruth Sohn can state:

According to Torah, God asks that we abstain from eating certain foods, not because they are unhealthy or intrinsically problematic, but simply as an expression or our devotion…These prohibitions are like the requests of a beloved; we may not understand them, but we are, in essence, asked to follow them purely as an expression of our love. (Thompson, 2014, p. 122f.)
The practices become boundary markers between the people of Israel who are called to be holy in a special way and who are to enjoy a special relationship with the LORD their God and the rest of the people. They are not called to impose these practices on others, in fact even within this section here we see ways in which these allowances can be used for mercy for the outsider, the provision that an animal that has died on its own may be used to feed the aliens residing in their town. It doesn’t mean that these are painless for the people who are living out of them. In a culture where meat was a luxury, as it is in most ancient agrarian communities, the prohibition of certain food sources that may have been readily available would have proved a constant temptation. Yet these eating practices proved to be one of the distinctive marks of Jewish identity for hundreds, even thousands of years. For example much later 2 Maccabees refers to the Jewish struggle against persecution under the Seleucid Empire in the reign of Antiochus IV with a specific reference to diet:

Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life. (2 Maccabees 6: 18-20)

These practices of what to eat and what not to eat may seem strange to people who are not Jewish and have been a way in which others sought to get the Jewish people to relax their boundaries, yet for many Jewish people the food rules remain in practice in some form today.

The tithe, which is discussed in the final seven verses of the chapter is also a distinctive practice of the people but it is more about celebration than a burdensome requirement. The practice is in a sense a tax and a way to acknowledge the sovereignty of their God, yet God doesn’t need the grain and the wine and the animals. They are to bring them together and to enjoy together in God’s presence the produce of their flocks and fields. To take the ten percent of an accounting of the field and the firstlings of the flock are to be used to celebrate. Acknowledging the spread out nature of the community there is the provision to be able to convert the produce into money and then come and spend the money for whatever the family wants to use to celebrate. Meat in the ancient world would be eaten primarily at celebration times when a large group is gathered because there is no refrigeration to preserve the meat and so it would be an invitation for a large number of people to gather together around an ox that had been slaughtered. God allows for the people to purchase wine and strong drink as a part of the celebration as well. This is not a burdensome practice but rather a joyous one.

Within the celebration is also the provision for the needs of the unsupported ones of the community. The Levites who have been set aside for the operation of the tabernacle or temple need to be provided for so out of every third year’s tithe they are to be taken care of. Those who are the vulnerable of the community are also to be cared for out of this third year tithe: the resident alien, the orphan and the widow. They are to be the beneficiaries of this practice as well. As the claimed ones of God the people are to be the ones claiming responsibility of caring for those no one claims.

Deuteronomy 7 A People Set Apart

Gustave Dore, The Midianites Are Routed (1866)

Gustave Dore, The Midianites Are Routed (1866)

Deuteronomy 7: 1-6: The Command to Destroy

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you– the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you– 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

In Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods, there is a scene where the main character, Shadow, enters an endless room of forgotten gods. This uncountable number of gods’ followers have vanished from the earth and they have vanished as well, passed away from the memory of time or history. The desire of this and other passages in Deuteronomy desire that the gods of these other nations would also be destroyed and wiped away from the memory of the peoples and the remembrances of time. This is a difficult passage for it calls for a divinely authorized extermination of other peoples and cultures. The word behind you must utterly destroy is the Hebrew word herem and sensitive interpreters should feel uncomfortable with this commands for the genocide of these other nations. It stands in contrast even within Deuteronomy for the mercy they are to show to the alien in their midst with the contrast that they are to show no mercy. This is a part of our scriptures and it, like many other passages, are something we should engage and wrestle with as we come to determine how we will use this and other passages in Deuteronomy and throughout the bible.

As a Lutheran pastor I try to follow a hermeneutic that is similar to Luther’s in what I do. Luther’s hermeneutic views the bible through the lens of Was Christum treibut (what pushes Christ) (Wengert, 2013, p. 5) and while I will use many lenses when trying to interpret scripture when it comes to authority, as a Christian and particularly as a Lutheran Christian, it is this coherence to the revelation of God in Jesus that forms the canon within the canon for my interpretation. So the command in Deuteronomy to utterly destroy cannot command a greater authority for me to ‘love my enemies and to pray for those who persecute me.’ (Matthew 5.43 paraphrased) Yet, too frequently Christians have been all too willing to enter into wars or campaigns to wipe out other religions, in particular our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, as well as other groups of Christians.

Another point in this passage is it demonstrates two among the possible responses of a group of people encountering a religiously pluralistic world. One response it to eliminate that religious pluralism by force, to wipe out the other peoples and gods to provide a place where everybody can believe and practice in the same manner. This has been a response at innumerable places and times throughout history.  In our world it may be difficult for modern people to understand when we see the world very differently than those who viewed the outsider as a contamination of the purity of their worship and group and therefore a threat to their holiness. However, we still see religiously and secularly motivated attempts at genocide happen in our time as well. The second option is to pull away from the surrounding society, and that option is also demonstrated in this passage when they are commanded not to intermarry. This is still an option that many religious groups undertake in our society today. Yet for most people of faith destruction or isolation are not options in their pluralistic world and so they have to find a way to live distinctively in the midst of the surrounding culture.

Deuteronomy 7: 7-11: The Divine Choice

7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you– for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. 11 Therefore, observe diligently the commandment– the statutes, and the ordinances– that I am commanding you today.

The God of the Bible is an active, passionate, and uncontrollable God. In contrast to many modern conception of God where the divine is passive and uninvolved in the lives and concerns of the world, the biblical picture of God is of one who takes sides, chooses one people over another, involves Godself in the movement of empires and the lives of individual people. This God has chosen the people of Israel and they now live in the gift and challenge of that choice. God saw their oppression and their weakness and chose to act on their behalf and because of God’s hearing and acting they are now constituted as God’s people. This love of God is something that God refuses to give up on. For example the prophet Hosea can record:

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am a God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. Hosea 11.8f.

Those who have read my work on Jeremiah know that I approach the book of Jeremiah from the perspective of a wounded God who is mourning the broken relationship between God and God’s people. Perhaps a disengaged god is easier to manage, or a god who dispassionately answers prayers but this is not the God of Israel, the LORD presented in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. This choice of God also involves commitment from Israel, to be chosen is to be held to a different standard, to be called to be a distinctive gift to the rest of the world. The people of Israel and the people of the Church will both fail in this calling, and yet the persistent calling of God remains.

Deuteronomy 7: 12-16: No Need for the Fertility Gods of the Surrounding Lands

                12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the LORD your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; 13 he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. 14 You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The LORD will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, he will not inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. 16 You shall devour all the peoples that the LORD your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity; you shall not serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

In the worldview of the Deuteronomist where obedience to the LORD of Israel and blessings are directly correlated there is no need for any other gods. The LORD is promising to provide for the people fertility in their homes, flocks and fields, freedom from illness and all the blessings they need to be an abundant people. This is an exclusive covenant that the people have been offered and the continual fear of the Deuteronomist is that the people will be led astray by the people of the land to follow these other gods. On the positive side this is concerned with passing on the faith and the story of the way their LORD has been active on their behalf from generation to generation. Yet in the midst of the continual return to this theme there seems to be an underlying fear of the loss of their children or their children’s children to these other seductive faiths.

The loss of the children to the faith is a fear that is present in most religious bodies, certainly in the United States with the changes in the broader culture there has been a lot of concern about the decline of Christianity in the United States. Recently the Pew Research Center released a study where the number of people who are unaffiliated is now larger than both Catholics and mainline Protestants and the number of unaffiliated is growing rapidly while all major groups of Christians show decline (report at: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). I know a lot of congregations are dealing with the anxiety that their children or their grandchildren are no longer active parts of their congregation or any congregation. Perhaps in our own time and situation of digital pluralism the biggest concern of the faithful is no longer other religions but rather other competing ideals. In a world of almost infinite options for how time can be utilized and the expectation that people of all ages will be involved in a wide array of activities from sports to work to politics to entertainment or shopping. Although the struggle of the people of Israel entering into the promised land and encountering other people with new sets of beliefs and practices was challenging and different than our time, there is always the allure of these alternative images which are seen in the street, schools and marketplace. In every generation the congregation of the faithful has to wrestle with how they will remain faithful in their time and pass on the faith to the next generation to enable them for their own journey in their own time.

Deuteronomy 7: 17-26: Do Not Fear and Do Not Covet

 17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the LORD your God brought you out. The LORD your God will do the same to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. 20 Moreover, the LORD your God will send the pestilence against them, until even the survivors and the fugitives are destroyed. 21 Have no dread of them, for the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God. 22 The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. 23 But the LORD your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. 24 He will hand their kings over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. 25 The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God. 26 Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction.

As the narrative continues to prepare the people for their entry into the promised land and the beginning of the leadership of Joshua where the people will enter the promised land. These words above resonate with one of the recurring themes of Joshua that can be seen, among many other places in Joshua, in Joshua 1: 9

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD God is with you wherever you go.

Through Moses the people are reminded of the way God has acted for them in the past: that they were a people who were rescued from the superpower of their day and who the LORD has sustained throughout their journey. If the LORD can handle Egypt, the LORD can handle these nations that are before them. They are not to fear these nations for they will be slowly driven out before the Israelites but they are also not to covet what they have. The lure of the silver and gold the nations have committed is to be dedicated to destruction. They are not to take an idol and value it for its components, instead they are to destroy it rather than risk the wrath of their LORD. They are not to try to secure their own wealth and prosperity in the land but rather their relationship is one where they are dependent on their LORD to provide their prosperity and blessing. They are to resist the materialistic urge to procure their own security through the captured wealth of these nations but rather they are to rely upon the abundance of the blessings the will receive in this land flowing with milk and honey from their LORD who brought them into the land.

Deuteronomy 1: Retelling The Story For A New Time

Moses Speaks To His People at Moab, Charles Mosley, 1747

Moses Speaks To His People at Moab, Charles Mosley, 1747

Deuteronomy 1: 1-8 Retelling the Story

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan– in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. 2 (By the way of Mount Seir it takes eleven days to reach Kadesh-barnea from Horeb.) 3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the Israelites just as the LORD had commanded him to speak to them. 4 This was after he had defeated King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and in Edrei. 5 Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows:  

6 The LORD our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Resume your journey, and go into the hill country of the Amorites as well as into the neighboring regions– the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, and the seacoast– the land of the Canaanites and the Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. 8 See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.”

I was sitting with some of my colleagues earlier this week when someone asked, “Why do you write on things that can be gloomy or less interesting, you spent over a year going through Jeremiah and now you are going to do Deuteronomy. You are about to get married, why not write on something like Song of Solomon.”  And my answer was simply I think there is wisdom in going back to these books that as Christians we don’t spend a lot of time in, that rarely appear, for example, in the Revised Common Lectionary, and that those who do spend time with them do it from a moralistic perspective and may be selectively choosing parts that fit their idea of what is important. I also think there is a need for understanding the God of covenant which is the background for the stories of the gospels and the New Testament as a whole. As a person who understands God primarily as a gracious and loving God I also need to be able to wrestle with the multiple pictures of God that are painted by the numerous authors of scripture. I think it is also important to walk with the God who is present in these stories because it is too easy for us as modern people to reduce God to ideas, God is love or God is the unmoved mover, or God is omnipotent, omnipresent, all knowing, etc. I think without continually going back to the narratives that we have we run the risk of falling quickly into H. Richard Niebuhr’s statements about American Christianity, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” (Niebuhr, 1988, p. 193) I could easily write on the gospels or Paul’s letters but I also spend time here because it is a part of scripture I don’t know well and I trust that although it may not be the easiest place to engage the story of God, it remains important.

Also for our Jewish ancestors Deuteronomy is at the very heart of their understanding of God, one of the five books of the Torah, and in many ways a distillation of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. It is a book which contains the central Jewish command, the Shema, which we will see in chapter 6. Going into the book of Deuteronomy requires me to step into another perspective and another time, and perhaps I like the Psalmist can learn to meditate on this ‘second law’ and find delight. As Psalm 1 states “but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1.2) The word Deuteronomy comes from a mistranslation and the name literally means second law, and it is a second telling of the story and a highlighting of certain key portions of the law. The narrator of Deuteronomy places these words in the mouth of Moses as the people is almost ready to finally enter the promised land after their generation long sojourn in the wilderness. It is the end of Moses journey and the passing of the torch from Moses who led them out of Egypt to Joshua and the new generation who will move into the promise land.

Deuteronomy is not a neutral retelling of history, nor is any of scripture, but it is told in a way to make certain things clear. It is a book that talks about the faithful covenant God who has journeyed with the people from Egypt and will continue to journey with the people. It expounds and interprets history through the lens of God’s covenant faithfulness. Deuteronomy begins by telling the story of God and interpreting the people’s identity in light of that story. Deuteronomy narrates Israel’s identity at this crucial moment as they stand at the transition between sojourners and residents of the promised land, a generation ago they understood themselves as slaves in Egypt and that identity does not easily pass away, but now they are the chosen people called to live in a covenant with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It is an identity that they have failed to live into in the past and it is an identity that they will not easily shoulder in the future but for Deuteronomy their lives and future are at stake as they place the people there in the valley hearing Moses tell about their past so that they may live into their present identity.

 

Deuteronomy 1: 9-18

 9 At that time I said to you, “I am unable by myself to bear you. 10 The LORD your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the LORD, the God of your ancestors, increase you a thousand times more and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 But how can I bear the heavy burden of your disputes all by myself? 13 Choose for each of your tribes individuals who are wise, discerning, and reputable to be your leaders.” 14 You answered me, “The plan you have proposed is a good one.” 15 So I took the leaders of your tribes, wise and reputable individuals, and installed them as leaders over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officials, throughout your tribes. 16 I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. 17 You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” 18 So I charged you at that time with all the things that you should do.

 

Moses is characterized as the type of leader who takes everything on his shoulders and the people follow, but this type of leadership not only burns out the leader dealing with every issue that comes up but it also prevents the people from taking ownership for their own calling. Now in the ancient world where most people were not literate and relied on kings, priests, and judges to be not only the interpreters but the readers of the law it was crucial to have people entrusted to this. This may refer back to both Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 which refer to two separate events, but the character of Moses in the retelling is interesting. In Exodus 18 it is Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who sees Moses spending all his time adjudicating minor manners and says to him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you and you cannot do it alone.”(Exodus 11.18) and so it is at his father-in-laws urging that Moses appoints judges. In Numbers 11 the people are complaining and Moses reaches his breaking point saying, “Why have you treated your servant so badly?…I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (Numbers 11.11, 14) Now it is Moses who appeals to God from exhaustion, frustration and in desperation looking for assistance and God provides a portion of the spirit that is on Moses and give it to these seventy elders. In Deuteronomy Moses is the wise and trusted leader and Moses comes up with the idea and the people respond, “the plan you have proposed is a good one.”  The story perhaps begins with the appointing of judges because of the critical nature having good judges will play in the story as it goes forward. Living justly requires a set of good and competent judges and a strong and impartial legal system which cares for the poor and the rich, the citizen and the immigrant is critical to living out their identity as the people of God.

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

 

Deuteronomy 1: 19-33

 19 Then, just as the LORD our God had ordered us, we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrible wilderness that you saw, on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, until we reached Kadesh-barnea. 20 I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the LORD our God is giving us. 21 See, the LORD your God has given the land to you; go up, take possession, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.”

 22 All of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to.” 23 The plan seemed good to me, and I selected twelve of you, one from each tribe. 24 They set out and went up into the hill country, and when they reached the Valley of Eshcol they spied it out 25 and gathered some of the land’s produce, which they brought down to us. They brought back a report to us, and said, “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.”

 26 But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; 27 you grumbled in your tents and said, “It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. 28 Where are we headed? Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!'” 29 I said to you, “Have no dread or fear of them. 30 The LORD your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. 32 But in spite of this, you have no trust in the LORD your God, 33 who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take.”

 

There is no identity without knowing one’s story. The book of Deuteronomy narrates again the story of the people at the edge of the promised land a generation ago in order to construct a different identity in this new generation. They are the children of those who did not trust the LORD at this crucial moment in the story and they have the opportunity to act differently than their ancestors. They are the children of the people who God, “who carried you, just as one carries a child” but still had not learned to trust in the God who journeyed with them. Perhaps learning to trust in the LORD who we don’t always see is one of the hardest things to learn, and even though I think Luther is correct to interpret the first commandment, “We are to fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1994) It is more difficult to live that ideal out in the realities of life and conflict. Moses can see and interpret reality to the people, that the LORD has given them possession of the land and that it is a good and prosperous land but people will always see the giants and the walled cities.

One thing I noticed about this is that there is a changed dynamic. In the previous section Moses made the suggestion about the judges and the people felt it was a good idea, but here the people make the suggestion of exploring the land and Moses felt the plan sounded good. Perhaps, without reading too much into this, this is one of the dangers that leaders face. Knowing when to listen to the people they lead and knowing when to stick with their own plan. The time of scouting out the land allows many of the doubts to return. The murmurs of the journey through the wilderness return. The people continue to misunderstand who the LORD is and the way they are to relate to this God who has led them or their journey. The people see the LORD’s absence while Moses sees the LORD’s presence and continually calls the people to trust in the LORD who has been present throughout the journey.

 

Deuteronomy 1: 34-45

 34 When the LORD heard your words, he was wrathful and swore: 35 “Not one of these– not one of this evil generation– shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors, 36 except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his descendants I will give the land on which he set foot, because of his complete fidelity to the LORD.” 37 Even with me the LORD was angry on your account, saying, “You also shall not enter there. 38 Joshua son of Nun, your assistant, shall enter there; encourage him, for he is the one who will secure Israel’s possession of it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you thought would become booty, your children, who today do not yet know right from wrong, they shall enter there; to them I will give it, and they shall take possession of it. 40 But as for you, journey back into the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea.”

 41 You answered me, “We have sinned against the LORD! We are ready to go up and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.” So all of you strapped on your battle gear, and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. 42 The LORD said to me, “Say to them, ‘Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies.'” 43 Although I told you, you would not listen. You rebelled against the command of the LORD and presumptuously went up into the hill country. 44 The Amorites who lived in that hill country then came out against you and chased you as bees do. They beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 When you returned and wept before the LORD, the LORD would neither heed your voice nor pay you any attention.

 46 After you had stayed at Kadesh as many days as you did,

 

Can we learn from our past or are we somehow destined to repeat it? One of the things that the prophets of Israel will do over and over again is to take these central stories, like the story of the exodus and recast them to be heard again in their day. The will use the stories of the past to tell the people of their time the cost of their disobedience to their covenant with God. The God of the Bible does get angry, does show emotions, is become wounded by the disobedience of the chosen people. This time when Israel refuses to hear the word of the LORD leads to the LORD being unwilling to hear them. This is one of those times where the people missed their window of opportunity, and the LORD through Moses (even in the midst of God’s anger) tells Moses to warn the people not to go up, but the people strap on their equipment and proceed to walk into their own defeat.

This disobedience has consequences not only for the people but for Moses. The narrative places the blame for Moses’ inability to reach the promised land at the feet of the people. Their disobedience not only brings anger on themselves but on Moses, and even though Moses has stood in the gap between the people and God, now Moses finds himself caught between the people and the LORD.

One of things this makes me ponder is the God who refuses to hear. We often act as if God hears every prayer regardless of how we interact with the world God has made, and there may be some truth in this, but there is also truth in the view of the Deuteronomist where our actions and our lives matter to God. The LORD presented by Deuteronomy does care about the lives of the people who are supposed to represent God in the world. Yet there is a hope, it is not an immediate or cheap hope. God will not stay angry forever, there will be a time when God listens to the people again. It may be a generation later when the sons and daughters who grow up in the wilderness now are adults ready to enter the promise land but ultimately, for Deuteronomy, God will uphold God’s part of the covenant but not on a human timeline.

Perhaps in a later time, when all the books scholars like to label the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings) are brought together the people are looking back on their history trying to make sense of their world. They are trying to bring order to the chaos of living in the midst of the exile in Babylon. As they look back over their story they find meaning in who they are called to be and how they are called to live. Even without the land or the temple or a king they are still the people of the covenant and perhaps in this time of disobedience where a generation is lost in the wilderness they can find hope in their own lost generation in exile.

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 5: A New Crisis of Collapse in Judaism and a Summary of Authority to this Point

Detail of the Arch of Titus Showing the Sack of Jerusalem

Judea and Galilee have had the seeds of revolt planted in the popular memory of the Maccabees and in the practices that have held their identity as a Jewish people after the exile.  The memories of the Exodus and exile, the memories of past greatness and the desire for a new Davidic king, in addition to the very real burden of taxation felt by many of the people (and the consolidation of land/wealth by the elite) provided a volatile environment by the beginning of the Common Era.  Even a ruthless, yet effective, ruler like Herod the Great who is able to rule through force, fear and political intrigue only delays the coming firestorm. Herod may rebuild the temple in glorious fashion and may want to occupy the role of a Davidic king in the people’s imagination but there are two major factors against him and his offspring. First he is not of Jewish decent, he may be a practicing Jew, but he is not of a Jewish much less Davidic bloodline and second he is aligned with Rome. After Herod dies in 6 CE his reign divides between his sons (many also named Herod) and none of them, or the people Rome replaces them with are able to exercise the type of power of Herod the Great. In 66 CE the region explodes into revolt against the Romans, first in Galilee and spreading quickly to Judea.  The Romans respond quickly and decisively destroying the temple in 70 CE and performing mop-up operations for a couple of years.  When the Judean Jews revolted again in 132 CE, the Roman response was even harsher attempting to crush any hope of another uprising.  Judaism did not die, but it did transform-it would no longer be tied to a temple, there would no longer be a concentrated Jewish homeland, the hope for a messiah would remain but in the meantime the people got on with their lives and being Jewish became portable.  Rabbinic Judaism becomes the dominant expression of Jewish identity. Rabbinic Judaism is centered in the exposition of the Jewish Scriptures and oral traditions. Gathering in local tabernacles became the place where identity was formed.  In addition to the scriptures and tabernacle, the Jewish people continued to practice the actions and festivals that made them distinctively Jewish. The loss of a central authority did not destroy their identity, but rather finding themselves dispersed throughout the Roman Empire they evolved to become a community centered on scripture, tradition and practice.

Throughout this part of our journey we have seen authority rest in families, in king and temple, in narrative and practice.  With authority comes the access to wealth, military might, and most centrally to people of this time land. The people give up some of their autonomy (or at least the autonomy of their family, clan or tribe) for the greater security of monarchy-and yet even security has its limits. As we can see from the incident of Rehoboam the tribes and families may choose to go a different direction (as they did at the splitting between Israel and Judah). Even with the temple and monarchy at its strongest there is still a prophetic critique of both, and yet in the memory of the people as the monarchy goes (or the monarchy and the temple) so goes the people. The loss of power, land and military might leads to a process of re-evaluation, a process that draws on the prophetic imagination. The Hebrew people center in on their stories and practices and as much as possible attempt to remain true to their identity without assimilating into the dominant culture.  In trying to remain distinct there is a conflict between purity and assimilation the seeds of revolt are sewn.  Yet throughout a millennia of conflict, crisis, exile and return, revolt and repercussions Judaism adapts and evolves, it is never so dependent on one place of authority that it cannot re-center itself on what it means to be the chosen people in a new time and place.

One of my discoveries in re-reading in what lies before is the role of fear in the transfer of authority. The fear of the nations around them allows tribes and families to cede their authority to a centralized monarchy and temple.  Yet, too much consolidation of power (and wealth) by the monarchy leads many of these tribal leaders and families to rethink their authority and to appoint a king they find more favorable to their desires.  When monarch, land, temple and wealth are destroyed and the people find themselves in exile they fear assimilation and they bring together the stories and practices that allow them to maintain their identity in a world they perceive is hostile to their identity.  Even in the return to Judea there is a fear of the outsider, the gentiles, and purity becomes an overriding concern. Now certainly there are other issues that contribute to these transformations and yet where we place authority depend on a desire for security and stability in the midst of the chaos, real or perceived, a group of people find themselves within.

This is where we will leave one journey behind, Rabbinic Judaism continues across the world and has adapted to any number of challenges that have come its way.  The Romans were not the last to try to oppress them, force them to relocate, or even try to wipe them out.  That journey continues, but I am not the one to tell that story.  Instead we will begin the other story that emerges in this point out of the Jewish story…the story of Christianity and its own struggle to locate authority.

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The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 2: King, Temple and the Prophetic Critique

David and King Saul, Rembrandt

David and King Saul, Rembrandt

 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8.10-18

 

At roughly 1,020 BCE a decisive change takes place and Israel enters the time of monarchy.  Power becomes consolidated briefly under King Saul.  Two men, King Saul and Samuel, whose title before had been that of a judge but functioned as a mouthpiece for God at this point, hold the religious and political authority.  Israel begins to act as a powerful actor in the region, constantly moving from one conflict to another, but internal conflict emerges when David emerges on the scene.  Without getting bogged down in the story or trying to parse out what happened historically  by 1000 David would unify his power as king and Israel became for a brief shining moment a power player on the world stage, Jerusalem becomes the capitol, and then perhaps decisively for this era the temple is established under Solomon.   Especially for the Southern Kingdom of Judah this is decisive because the monarchy and the temple become linked as the dominant secular/religious authority. There is a prophetic voice within that critiques the monarchy and temple, but for the most part the people give up a portion of their freedom for the relative security, power and identity of being a part of the unified kingdom of Israel.  That is not to say that family, clan and tribe have lost their power or authority, but that the people become much more linked to the kings and temple than at any previous point in their history.

This is probably a good point for a fun interlude, it is hard for us to imagine being bound in systems where our autonomy is defined so externally.  We don’t have any experience of a monarchical system and so our reaction might be somewhat like the peasants in this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Even a romanticized king when we look from our perspective seems like a tyranny or despot.

Even though King David is often looked upon romantically like the King Arthur of legend, one of the incredible things is that the recorded memory of David includes many ugly situations, many family struggles, many times where he is at odds with the prophetic voice of the time.  The whole Bathsheba and Uriah episode (2 Samuel 10-12), incest within the royal family (2 Samuel 13) and eventually the usurpation of the throne by his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15-19) as well as other internal rebellions are a part of David’s roughly forty years of consolidated rule.  Even though the King amasses incredible authority previously unattainable in anyone’s imagination the constant warfare and internal struggles begin to wear on the people.  By the time Solomon, David’s son, ascends to the throne it is a relatively peaceful time but the energy is directed internally on large building projects, the temple, but also many houses and palaces for Solomon and his entourage. The temple becomes, at least for a large group of people, the central focus of worship, and yet again just like with the idea of consolidating power with a king there is a large amount of space dedicated to the critique of the temple

 King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the Gebalites did the stonecutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house.  1 Kings 5.13-18 NRSV

This is a huge commitment of people and resources which are directed internally.  In fact it is such a strain that immediately upon Solomon’s death when Rehoboam takes power the people come and plead for relief:

Your father made our yoke heavy.  Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed upon us and we will serve you. 1 Kings 12.4 NRSV

To which the narrative has Rehoboam reply three days later in our language, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet, you think my father made things hard on you?  Well prepare to be screwed!’ Most translations clean this up significantly…but the little thing that is thicker than his father’s loins is probably not a finger (see 1 Kings 12: 6-15 particularly v.10) Things are not nearly as clean in the Bible as we sometimes want to make them.  The people are offended, the kingdom splits apart and now there are two kings, two places of worship, a prophetic voice that continues to grow louder…but even with this prophetic voice within the Kingdom of Judah in the South and the Kingdom of Israel in the North growing stronger the fate of both nations is linked to the actions of kings and the worship at the temple in Judah and the worship at various sites in the North.  Particularly for the Southern Kingdom of Judah, so long as there is a Davidic king and the Temple who they are as the people of God seems secure.  Yet this too will change….

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The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 1: Families, Clans and Tribes

Samson and Lions, Rome 350-400 CE

Samson and Lions, Rome 350-400 CE

For those who despise history, and I know that there are many out there, I will warn you that I am beginning a long engagement with looking back through time at the narrative of where authority has rested at various points in time.  Originally I planned to do this in one, and then a couple, then three, and well I found our as I began wrestling through this I apparently had a lot to say, so to keep it in shorter bites this may be part 1 of many so read what you want, I will try to make it worth your while.

We often think of things in terms of secular and religious authority as if they are nice and discreet things, but that is a recent phenomenon. In reality, authority has rested in a couple key places at any one time but the distinction between secular and religious authority is not as defined as we might expect from our worldview.  Although the breakdown of the time periods is guided by Phyllis Tickle’s breakout in the Great Emergence, what follows are my own thoughts and reflections upon authority at each of these epochs.

Prior to 1,000 BCE, roughly 3,000 years ago authority rested heavily on a family’s ability to influence the course of actions for the realm around them.  For the Abrahamic faiths this is the time of Judges, when the people would rally around a great leader in the time of crisis and these men and at least one woman would provide stability for the rough confederation of tribes and families that would become Israel.  It is a time where these leaders and families would set up a shrine or worship sites but there is relatively little centralized authority.  Family is the central place where authority rests and there is a struggle internally between the tribes and externally with the people of Aram, Moab, Philistia, Cannan, and Ammon for land (the primary source of wealth) and power.  Much as in the song “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof a person’s role within the family and the practices, stories and traditions handed down from one generation to another shaped who they were and what they would become.

There was no centralized religious authority, there was no scripture, certainly there were stories but things were much more fluid than we often imagine.  Even in the remembered story of Israel we see that the memory is that of a chaotic time, even a brief survey of the book of Judges within the Bible points to this:

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten years.  So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephriam, north of Mount Gaash.  Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2.8ff(NRSV)

Someone will say, but surely there would be the first five books of the bible and Joshua as scripture, and the short answer is no.  Even if one were to believe that Moses wrote the Penteteuch by himself and handed it on to Joshua and the people of Israel (which you would be hard pressed to find any reputable scholar of the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament who does) even if that were the case, this was a time of very little literacy, very little true priestly/scribal organization, very little rule of law.  In a very real sense might did make right.  Take for example the story of Samson in Judges 13-16, one of those stories that many people have some acquaintance with, which is set within one of the times of crisis.  When I read the story Samson makes Conan the Barbarian look both ethical and smart, and yet the story tells of a person who judges Israel for 20 years, delivers them from the Philistines.  There is no centralized worship place or practice, families set up their own shrines, construct their own ‘idols’ or representations of who their god, gods, of God (depending on how one looks at it) are and if you need a good demonstration of this (this is one of many) take a look at Judges 17, the story of Micah and the Levite.

In a time of heavily decentralized authority, where family, clan and tribe hold the power and the wealth (i.e. land at this point) there is constant struggle and fighting to gain possession of more wealth, more power and to expand one’s familial authority.  The book of Judges for example does not remember this time fondly, it is a dark time where horrible things happen, where former allies are almost exterminated, where enemies are everywhere and as they looked around them and as they remembered their own story they began to see a different way.  As 1 Samuel remembers it:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” 1 Samuel 8.4f (NRSV)

And that is where we are heading next…

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