Deuteronomy Great & Awful

Deuteronomy Great & Awful
Abstract image of Moses with his head looking like Ten Commandments tablets and a fire burning behind him, illustrating a post about Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy. Somehow I have got to make my peace with this biblical book.

But it’s hard. Deuteronomy is unlike any other book of Torah. It’s got a brief intro and a nice poetic and emotional ending. But between those bookends, it’s basically law code all the way. Plus a few stories re-packaged to sound like threats.

The other books have bits of law. But mostly they are about the tension between following God and living a typical chaotic human life.

Genesis is full of family strife. In Exodus, people worship a golden calf.

Leviticus gives detailed rules for ritual practice in the mishkan (sanctuary). And then Leviticus hits us with the story of a disastrous opening day at the mishkan.  Priests make a mistake, they die, and the whole sanctuary has to get a restart.

Leviticus also tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. And then it immediately tells a story about people fighting and cursing each other.

Numbers is full of community meltdowns and rebellions.

But Deuteronomy is just laws and a barrage of consequences for those who don’t obey. Death penalty, invasion, famine. There’s just no room for error. Because God owns the world. And you can’t fool God. And, oh by the way, remember Egypt? God wreaked some heavy destruction there. So, be warned!

It sounds almost as if God is an overbearing king, an aspiring autocrat, or some kind of tyrannical nut. And there is in fact a theory that King Josiah commissioned the book to help enforce his own laws and consolidate his own power. So, “obey God” may really be a code for “obey the king.”

But Deuteronomy is part of the Torah. So, I’ve got to find something positive about it! At the very least, it’s the source of some great memes. By “meme,” I mean a unit of thought that people grab on to and keep using in new contexts. Each new context adds to the original meaning. The meme becomes deeper and more resonant. Eventually, it’s impossible to read the original without all those meanings flooding in.

Take the Shema, for example (Deut. 6:4). “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One.” In Deuteronomy it’s just another instruction on how to follow God. But somehow the Shema has found its way into all kinds of rituals. The Shema written in a mezuzah protects and blesses our homes. The bedtime Shema helps us fall asleep. The deathbed Shema helps us say goodbye to loved ones with a deeper peace. So now, when we read the Shema in Deuteronomy, it drips with all these beautiful meanings and memories.

Here’s an example of another beautiful meme: Ha’el hagadol hagibor v’hanora (Deut. 10:17). The great mighty awesome God. Or, for a more poetic translation, closer to the feel of the Hebrew: the God, the Great, the Mighty, the Awesome.

In Deuteronomy, the phrase is a reminder not to cross God. But, now, this phrase opens the Amidah, the standing silent meditation. And this phrase closes the Hineini, the leader’s personal prayer for guidance on Rosh Hashanah.  So for many people, this phrase is now a contemplative mantra. It opens up a great and mighty and awesome space in our hearts, where we might learn something about what God means to us.

And that, in the end, is how I approach Deuteronomy. Not as a book of rules. And not just as a book of poetry. But as an opportunity to reflect. What in it rings true in my communal experience of Judaism? And in my personal experience of the divine?

Image: Detail from Moses Fire by Nina Paley.

Originally presented as part of a Torah service at Or Shalom Synagogue.

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