With All Thine Heart, and with All Thy Soul, and with All Thy Might
Reading the Fifth Book of Moses, called Deuteronomy, chapters 1-14
In this newsletter, I am reading the approx. 850 authors and works of Harold Bloom's Western canon, from cover to cover, from the Epic of Gilgamesh of ca. 1200 B.C. to Tony Kushner's 1991 play Angels in America. For today I’ve continued the third item on Bloom’s list, the Holy Bible.
“Deuteronomy” comes from the Greek for “second law,” and the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible stress the notion that the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch, the texts that form the groundwork of the Israelite religion, constitutes a deliberate revision of the religious teachings that came in the four preceding books. For King Josiah of Judah, as described in a future book of the Bible1, found a “book of the law in the house of the LORD,” that is, the temple in Jerusalem, and this book is thought by ancient and modern scholars alike to be Deuteronomy. The editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible suggest that at least part of Deuteronomy is in fact the product of Josiah’s own attempt, in the seventh century B.C., to reform the Israelite religion.
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That Deuteronomy is a revisionist book can be seen in how it begins by recapitulating and reinterpreting events from Exodus through Numbers. Moses, repeating the words of God to the Israelite congregation, still in Moab east of the Jordan River and thus east of the promised land, just as they’re poised to invade the land and eliminate its inhabitants, recounts the handing down of the law on the stone tablets on mount Horeb2:
Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons; Specially the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness and clouds, and thick darkness. And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.3
And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it. Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and he stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. But the LORD hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.
As a rationalization for the commandments not to make any graven image or worship idols, Deuteronomy has God and Moses note that the Israelites, when they heard God make the ten commandments4, didn’t see God take on any visible form. Deuteronomy doesn’t go as far as to deny that the LORD has any physical aspect at all, but Moses’ seeing God’s back (for seeing his face would have been too dangerous) and the notion that the LORD created Adam “in his image”5 are ignored in favor of an emphatically abstract understanding of God that tends to condemn all forms of idol worship.
If the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible are correct and part of Deuteronomy was written at the command of Josiah as a tool of religious reform, monotheism and idolatry were evidently his primary concern, for commandments to have no other gods before the LORD and to not make idols are expanded by Deuteronomy to encompass the entire law of the Israelite religion:
And now, Israel, what doth he LORD thy God require of three, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’s thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is. Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name. He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen.
The Israelites are commanded to love and fear the LORD as their only god, and this command contains virtually all other commandments God might give, presumably because anyone who loves and fear God will obey any other laws he hands down. Thus disobedience becomes idolatry or lack of due reverence for the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Thus what in Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers might have been a minor sin that would have resulted, at most, in being exiled or disowned by one’s fellow Israelites becomes a grave matter that has implications for the LORD’s very relationship with the children of Israel. And Deuteronomy empowers every Israelite to deal with idolaters harshly:
If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to distrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you.
If thou shalt hear hear say in one of thy cities, which the LORD thy Go hah given thee o dwell there, saying, Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known; Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you; Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. And thou salt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the LORD thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again.
God is worried that the Israelites will forget him and worship other gods because, after all, they will be occupying a land previously inhabited by heathens:
Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree: And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.
As for where the Israelites shall worship their god it must be precisely one place:
But when ye go over Jordan, and dwell in the land which he LORD your God giveth you to inherit, and when he giveth you rest from all your enemies around about, so that ye dwell in safety; Then there shall be a place which the LORD your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all hat I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto the LORD: And ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God, ye, and your sons, and your daughters, and your menservants, and your maidservants, and the Levite that is within your gates; forasmuch as he hath no part nor inheritance with you. Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest: But in the place which the LORD shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee. Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh in all thy gates, whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, according to the blessing of the LORD thy God which he hath given thee: the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the roebuck, and as of the hart.
In all of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, I never noticed any suggestion that all meat had to be offered to God at the altar in front of the tabernacle: the Israelites were required to make regular burnt offerings and, at least until the Levites’ livestock were substituted, every firstborn domesticated animal belonged to God, but I understood the peace offerings made by the Israelites and shared with God, unless otherwise required by statute, to be voluntary. So I think in this passage we have evidence of an Israelite religious practice that, if the hypothesis of the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible is correct, was possibly banned by the religious reforms introduced by Josiah through Deuteronomy. It would seem that before these reforms the Israelites could make an offering to the LORD wherever was convenient, but every domesticated animal that was slaughtered had to be offered to or shared with God. We do have evidence that at one point in the Israelites’ past sacrifices could be made anywhere: Abraham and Jacob erect pillars and make sacrifices to God during their wanderings, and in Exodus God hands down, and almost immediately repeals, instructions on how to build earthen altars for sacrifices. And the references to game animals, the roebuck and the hart, suggests that wild animals that were killed by hunters did not have to be shared with God under this regime, and that Deuteronomy is expanding this exemption to include domesticated animals as well.
Also showing evidence of theological revision is the reference to God’s name dwelling in a certain designated location where sacrifices will be made. The reference is apparently to the temple that will be built in Jerusalem (the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible suggest that the text is being coy about the location of this chosen place because naming it would make it obvious that Deuteronomy is not a contemporaneous account of Moses’ final sermonizing to the Israelites'), but it’s notable that only God’s name is to dwell there, rather than the LORD himself, when it’s clear in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers that God literally lived in the tabernacle among the Israelites. I think this distinction could be another attempt by the reformist authors of Deuteronomy to disavow scriptural allusions to God’s physical form. In general the project of the authors of Deuteronomy was apparently to centralize and purify the Israelite religion, situating its ritual practices in a single location and eliminating all inclinations to idolatry and polytheism by denying God any physical or visible form. There is also a tendency to sublimate the specific commandments and statutes of the LORD into a general respect for God as the god of the Israelites, the author of their delivery from hard labor in Egypt and the keeper of the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: “thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” We will further examine the reforms of the Deuteronomists in the later chapters of the Fifth Book of Moses next week.
2 Kings 22:8
The mountain of God, where this event takes place, is called Sinai in Numbers and parts of Exodus.
This is the first time in the Bible that the ten commandments are referred to by that name, and this is the first time we get the notion that the ten commandments and the ten commandments alone were written on the two stone tables which Moses later smashed and had rewritten. In Exodus, all that is said is that God’s commandments were written on the tables, which could easily include the detailed instructions about the construction of the tabernacle and about the priests’ vestments, and the smattering of civil law regarding slaves and other matters. I always assumed, and I think this is a common belief, that the ten commandments were written over both tables, perhaps the first five on one table and the second five on the other, but the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible suggest that each table had all ten commandments written on it, as with treaties between empires and vassal states where each party would keep a copy of the terms of the vassal state’s surrender.
In Exodus there seem to be different versions of the story, one where all Israelites heard the LORD hand down his law on the mountain, and one where Moses was the intermediary between God and the children of Israel. Deuteronomy harmonizes these accounts by having all the Israelites hear the ten commandments directly, but then, out of terror of God, insist that Moses alone listen to the rest of the statutes and fill in the Israelites in on them later.
I’m aware that theologians in later centuries would offer interpretations of this phrase that save Christian and Jewish belief in a non-material God, but these interpretations are tortured and counterintuitive compared to a plain reading of Genesis that makes the LORD an anthropomorphic deity that created Adam in such a way that his creation would visually resemble him. If the Old Testament or the entire Christian Bible is taken as a whole, then we probably need to have access to these non-obvious interpretations of the claim that Adam was created in God’s image, but Genesis, taken singly, would give the LORD a head, a torso, two arms, and two legs.