Sitting at a Starbucks while working on a client assignment, I noticed that a woman at the other end of the table seemed to writing something, or at least editing.
Respecting her obvious need to concentrate, I avoided engaging her in conversation. Finally she sat back and sighed a bit while sipping whatever drink it was that fueled her.
“Are you a writer?” I asked.
She replied, “In a way. I’m working on my dissertation.”
“The Book of Deuteronomy,” she replied. Then she went on to explain that she already possesses two Master’s Degrees in theology. This was work for her doctorate.
I told her I’d love to read her dissertation because I’m interested in all things theological. She promised to send it along and took my email address.
In the meantime it struck me that it would be good to read the book of Deuteronomy again. The last time I’d read it was during a Bible in 90 Days adventure at our former church. Dozens of people signed up to read 12 pages of the Bible every day. That brings you through to the finish in 90 days.
I know. It doesn’t sound possible or probable. Seems like there are a lot more pages in the Bible than that.
Well, the book of Deuteronomy does not disappoint in its richness or its imagery. It is a book of directions and laws passed down from God to the people. In biblical history it represents that portion of time when those who’d wandered in the desert were now going to be blessed with their own lands. God was going to deliver on that promise.
But the promise comes with a few commitments and commandments. God wants his people to separate themselves from all the traditions and ways of the peoples occupying the lands he has promised his Chosen.
Well, if you’ve read any of the Old Testament, you know where this line of reasoning is about to head. God wants a clean slate. “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them––the Hittites and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites––just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.”––Deuteronomy 10: 16-18.
As well all know, that constitutes genocide in the name of the Lord. And it rather makes you wonder, if the Jewish people have any sense of history at all, why they should be surprised that history provided a brutal payback when the German Holocaust rolled around.
The answer to that form of quid pro quo thinking is that genocide is no longer acceptable under any circumstances. Which means we must ask whether genocide ever was an acceptable act on behalf of God.
Because we know that King David had it in his heart to build a temple to the Lord. Solomon wanted to follow through on his father’s promise: 1 Kings 5:3 “You know that because of the wars waged against my father David from all sides, he could not build a temple for the Name of the Lord his God until the Lord put his enemies under his feet.”
Well, that was the justification given at the time. But we should also remember that God had a little direct discussion with David before he died. And God told David that he was unfit to build a temple because he had too much blood on his hands. That’s right. God told David he was a little too good at his job of war and genocide.
According to Deuteronomy, God had some funny rules as to who could be included in the kingdom and how they were to be consecrated and purified through the laws of God.
It takes balls to be with God
For example, no one with crushed testicles or a severed penis was to be admitted into the presence of God. Yet David seemed a little too ballsy for the Lord at times. He stole Uriah’s wife by sending him off to war to be killed.
So there’s a strange dynamic we’re supposed to derive from Deuteronomy. It’s all about achieving some sort of balance between taking action in the name of God and yet remain humble and consecrated when success is achieved. God is show to be a jealous God, one who does not want even a trace of other “gods” to remain among his people.
Slaves to biblical law
And speaking of people, God lays downs some laws in Deuteronomy that would not exactly fly in a modern era democracy. In fact we’ve fought civil wars over the issue of slavery, yet Deuteronomy treats slavery as a commonplace dynamic of society.
It also treats women as property, especially in the event that female captives are taken during war. “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God turns them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full months, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. ” ––Deuteronomy 21: 10-14
Well, Holy Moses, isn’t that a sweet little story for modern Christianity to consider? Because it raises some pretty crazy questions here in America. As in, if the United States was founded as a Christian nation, why did we dump slavery and grant women the right to vote or were or choose their own destiny.
The answer of course is that America was not founded strictly on Old Testament or New Testament principles. It does not abide by the laws of Deuteronomy any more than it plays literally by the rules of the New Testament.
Or if it does, then a certain patent form of revisionism had to occur. The outmoded and outdated laws in Deuteronomy and a host of other places in the Bible had to be discarded in order to form a republic under a Constitution that guaranteed equal rights for all its citizens. It also guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.
But people who want the Bible to be the law of the land seem somehow to refuse this obvious reality that we no longer abide by many of the laws and traditions found in the Bible. It doesn’t take a dissertation to figure that out.
Take this example if you don’t believe that’s true. In a section titled “Rebellious Children” the book of Deuteronomy issues some harsh advice on how to deal with a child that does not want to listen to his or her parents. “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of our is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.”
Now it could be that the rebellious son actually stands for something more than a belligerent kid. It could be that there’s a metaphor at work here. God and Jesus like to play at that level, using individuals to communicate broader principles.
But that’s not really the context here. In Deuteronomy, God is laying out specific laws by which his people are supposed to behave. So the context here really is literal. If a kid screws up, we’re supposed to kill him.
Sanctity of life
So much for the morality or immorality of the death penalty. And what about the supposed ‘sanctity of life’ that so many Christians like to brag about? Is all that supposed to be tossed down the slippery slope of Deuteronomy?
Recently Pope Francis issued a statement about the Bible that should clear up much of the confusion about which Old Testament and New Testament laws we should abide by. He said, “If laws don’t lead to Jesus, they are obsolete.”
That includes laws against homosexuality and gay marriage, which fortunately are being struck down by civil society as an abomination against equal rights in America. It may take the Catholic Church a few more years to come around to that complete understanding of biblical law, and a few million conservative evangelicals as well, but the Pope is right. In many places, Deuteronomy and it laws are often effectively wrong.
Diss or dissertation
That’s the closest most of us need to come to reading a dissertation on Deuteronomy. The slaughter and abuses it advocates against other people, along with the view that other human beings are property, have long been considered outdated by modern society.
We can hope and pray that society will continue to recognize that much of the Bible is outmoded when it comes to establishing laws for any republic. Otherwise we are playing the same ugly game as conservative Muslims who want to invoke Shariah law wherever their faith can be imposed.
And there you have it, in a nutshell. The hopeful difference between an enlightened faith and one that is simply murderous by nature.