Deuteronomy contains almost equal parts review of the Israelite’s escape from Egypt and wandering in the desert, and guidance from Moses before he sends them to the promised land with Joshua.
The book starts with Moses retelling the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness extended by their rebellion against God. Interestingly, Moses blames the Israelites for his own dismissal from the promised land (Deut. 1:37). He does this even though we know it was really because Moses didn’t publicly acknowledge God when he brought water from the rock, the same reason God forbid Aaron from entering it as well. Moses had said as much previously.
Chapters 2 and 3 give more detail to the battles of Sihon and Og touched on in Numbers. Moses explains again how the Israelites killed Sihon, his sons, his entire army and the entire populace “men, women and children — we left no survivors” (Deut. 2:34). Chapter 3 starts with the defeat of Og, and the same fate befalls his entire family, army and populace. Deuteronomy 3:4 says 60 cities and towns get destroyed with no survivors. I shudder at the thought of a loving God commanding the slaughter of 60 towns full of people. But often in these first five books God is more interested in showing his power to instill fear. Deuteronomy is no different. “This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you” (Deut. 2:25).
The idea of impressing God’s commandments on children comes up frequently in the first few chapters. I’m torn about this. On the one hand I understand a parent wanting to teach their child a way of life that they know, and one we’ve seen from earlier books that would keep a society intact and functioning (albeit barbarically at times). On the other hand, giving no context to commandments can be dangerous, especially if those commands are tied to you and your people being chosen by God. It teaches first and foremost a difference between yourself and others based on something that you not only must accept, but can not question. That mentality can make a person view others as lesser.
In a 1960s study Israeli psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal found that around 60% of Israeli schoolchildren would totally approve of the total destruction of an Arab city in the same way Joshua totally destroyed Jericho. Of that same group only 20% totally disapproved. But when told a similar story of a fictional “General Lin” destroying a city and killing the populace only 7% agreed, with 75% totally disagreeing. Again, the same story was told but Joshua and other specific names/places were changed. The difference here is simple: the Arabs are different because of religion, and therefore don’t deserve to live. The answers provided by the children say as much. “I think they acted well, as Joshua did, because the Arabs want us to believe in their idols” and “Joshua acted properly because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.” The Arabs believe in a different religion and, therefore, they are fundamentally less.
This study, though older, is fascinating (I encourage you to follow that link if you haven’t already) and can easily translate to today. The religious tensions in the Middle East haven’t gotten better (you could certainly argue they are worse). But even in “Christian America” you can see the same effects: treatment of LGBT individuals as less than human (looking at you, North Carolina) and framing equal rights for those individuals as an attack on religious freedom. Also, the rampant spread of Islamophobia has led to hate crimes and the recent and extreme claim that Islam is not a religion but a death cult.
On a personal note, growing up in a Christian background it was heavily implied if not outright stated that any non-Christian, anyone who had not accepted Jesus as their savior, was going to hell. So my Mormon friends, the Buddhist families who opened their homes to me when I traveled to Asia, the billions of Muslims and Jews in the world and the millions more who had never even heard of Jesus…they were all going to hell? For what? I wish I had an answer for that question but I still don’t.
Prejudice is learned, and while I am not saying people are teaching their children to explicitly show prejudice, I am saying religion can easily define others by what they are not, which can often outweigh what they are. Take that mentality and pair it with a belief that you are doing God’s will, and the groundwork for justifying atrocities is well-laid.
Along these lines, Deuteronomy 7 gives explicit instruction on how to take over the promised land:
“[when] you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”
Brutal, simple and clear. Destroy them completely solely because of their gods. Chapter 9 even states the wickedness of others serves as justification for their destruction, not the goodness of the Israelites. “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut. 9:5). So we have blind obedience paired with orders to destroy entire cities, men, women and children, based solely on perceived wickedness rooted in a differing religion. This is religious cleansing. We shudder at the idea of this happening today, but here it is laid out in explicit detail in the foundation for Judeo-Christian belief.
I want to block quote chapter 13 here:
6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people.
We now extend the cleansing to friends and family. Most previous calls for death of family members in the Bible comes from acts that jeopardize the family and community system already in place. If you sleep with another man’s wife, for instance. I’ve written before about how many of the laws, draconian by today’s standards, could allow a nomadic community to stay together without crumbling. This is different. This disrupts the family group and by extension the community for something that does not directly affect the social structure. This makes the other punishments appear more like additional blind obedience than an attempt to keep a social structure in place. It also reminds me of honor killings, which most Western societies abhor. But again, it’s laid out in Judeo-Christian text.
Chapter 18 has an interesting double standard. “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire … Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord” (Deut. 18:10-12). What about Abraham and Isaac? Is it not detestable because God stopped Abraham from actually sacrificing his son?
Chapter 20, worth reading, gives instructions regarding going to war and taking cities. God asks more mercy be shown to fruit trees growing near the cities than the women or children living in them.
Chapter 22 discusses marriage violations. The one that stuck out to me was if a man “doesn’t like” his wife, he can claim she was not a virgin. Then her parents have to prove her virginity with a cloth (presumably the bed sheets after the newlyweds had sex the first time, but I’m not sure). If they don’t prove her virginity, she gets stoned to death. The phrase “purge the evil from among you” is used here, the “evil” being the “outrageous act” of promiscuity. If the parents do prove her virginity, the man must pay his father-in-law 100 shekels.
Deuteronomy 28 contains both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. There are 14 verses for blessings; 54 for curses. This keeps with the theme of the first five books of short descriptions of God’s love paired with long, detailed excerpts describing the horrors that come with disobedience. Some noted curses: “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her” (Deut. 28:30); “You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule” (Deut 28:37); “Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you” (Deut 28:53). Chapter 29 then doubles down on these promises, describing a wasteland of death and ruin if the Israelites disobey God. Chapter 30, to be fair, notes that if the Israelites return to God’s commandments he will restore them to the promised land. But again, the “God of love” is not present in the Old Testament.
Deuteronomy 32:3-4, the song of Moses, sums up the overarching theme that I have an issue with:
I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
4 He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
upright and just is he.
I disagree with Moses. The blanket statement that God does no wrong justifies all the horrible things he both does and, through his laws, allows. Something that would be unilaterally condemned suddenly becomes okay, simply because the Hebrew god says that’s how it needs to be. I can’t honestly say a God that orders the extermination of entire cities, or the stoning of a girl whose husband doesn’t like her, or the murder of a brother or sister who doesn’t believe in him has perfect works. I can’t say his ways are just. I can’t say he does no wrong.
Thank you for reading,