When you’re a religious studies major, a field sometimes called “comparative religion,” you take questions like “[H]as any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (v 34) as a bit of a challenge. Can I think of any examples matching that description?
Actually, it’s hard. Maybe people who are more experts in world mythologies can think of some, but about the closest I could come to was the Mexica being led from Aztlan by Huizilopochtli, and the Lord works in mysterious ways, maybe even as a hawk landing on a cactus (look it up). Most nations seem to assume that they have a direct link to a god by virtue of their ancestry, or that they were created special to begin with. The narrative idea that Deuteronomy is pushing in this passage is that God created everyone, but chose a nation, not because of a distinguished history, but… well, it doesn’t quite say why. The midrash I read about Abraham attributed his choosing to defying the idolatry of his peers, but that’s midrash, not the Bible. The Bible is very silent about why.
Being all Lutheran and such, I was always taught to see that this is the miracle of grace. God chooses people not because they’re great but because they aren’t. God isn’t in the business of elevating people who are already elevating. He prefers the weak and the sinner. He’s there to heal the broken and free slaves.
That’s a pretty compelling narrative, of course – the triumph of the underdog. The problem in Deuteronomy is how that narrative argument is tied in with then crushing other nations after you’ve been chosen by God. That the conquest of other nations proves that God has chosen them. And that if they were ever conquered (and they had been by the time that this was written; v 25-31 scream of having been written during the Exile) it was a punishment for sin, and could be remedied by repentance.
That idea gives you a sense that you’re very much in control of things. Be good, good things happen; be bad, bad things happen. I suppose you could even apply it backwards: the Israelites had to be enslaved in Egypt because of Joseph’s misdeeds to the Egyptians. But in regular life, this doesn’t always work… but I suppose I can talk more about that whenever I get to Job… probably more than a year from now.
I suppose, however, that divorced from the awkward theodicy and the conquests, that this chapter does define Israel’s unique greatness in another way: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (v 7-8) The first is rather sweet – the God of Israel is intimate, listens to them, etc. The latter, the NOAB would like to point out, makes the code of Israel different from, say, the Code of Hammurabi, which praises its wise kings and the commands they give. In Deuteronomy, it’s the people themselves who are wise and just.
There’s also a strong sense of communality in this chapter. Moses it telling the people to remember what they saw and heard on Mount Sinai, but we’ve already established that none of the generation who was Sinai survived. That doesn’t matter; every living Israelite is to feel like they were the ones who saw God, because their ancestors did. That’s not so much Moses’ message to them as the editor/author’s message to his readers.
As an American with 0 attachment to her German ancestry, I have more than a bit of envy for Jewish people, having that kind of history. I can’t trace my heritage back past the 1870s, much less 1500 BC.
The Japanese: ryoushiki “good sense, common sense” (v 6), sazukeru “to give, to offer” (v 8), hitasura “earnestly, entirely,” shougai “lifetime” (v 9), osoreru “to be in awe” (v 10), fumoto ni “at the foot of,” chuuten “midair,” mitsuun “dense cloud,” tarekomeru “to brood, to hang low” (v 11), daraku suru “to corrupt, to lapse, to go astray” (v 16), banshou “all creation, the whole universe” (v 19), ro “furnace” (v 20), kesshitenai “by no means, in no way” (v 21), moukeru “to have children” (v 25), shougen suru “to testify” (v 26), kagu “to smell something, to sniff”(v 28), sakanoboru “to date back to” (v 32), kokoromi “trial, endeavor,” aete “to go so far as to…” (v 34), ito suru “to intend to,” ikinobiru “to survive, to live on” (v 42).