“You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for the Lord your God.” (16.21)
How depressingly fitting to be reading this on Christmas, when we Christians frequently put up sacred trees next to our altars… really, Christmas is our most syncretic of holidays. The date comes from the feast day of Sol Invictus, the plant decorations from various Germanic New Year’s festivities. And to top it off, a lot of non-Christians celebrate it as a day for getting together with family and swapping with presents. Which is to say nothing of the Japanese turning it into a date night where everyone eats cake.
Christianity in general has embraced syncretism in a way the authors of Deuteronomy would find appalling. Christians didn’t have their own iconography, so they borrowed liberally from everyone around them. Early portraits of Jesus are modeled on the healing god Aesculapius. The Madonna and Child image is loosely based on Isis and Horus. Numerous saints are older deities with a Christian backstory pasted over them (see St. Bridget for a good example). We positioned holidays to explicitly replace older ones (Christmas and All Saint’s Day). Jesuits in China wanted to allow people in East Asia to continue ancestor veneration, and my church in Japan would clean graves and have services in cemeteries during O-Bon.
Christianity’s ability to absorb non-Christian ideas is rooted, I think, in its ability to absorb non-Christian people. As a proselytizing religion, all the things I mentioned above were done explicitly to make it easier for people to transition out of their old religions and into their new one.
This is the diametric opposite of what Deuteronomy is trying to do. The author doesn’t want outreach, it wants identity-construction. The idea is that too much foreign material has come in, and it needs to be kicked out.
As a Lutheran, I’m not unsympathetic to their concerns. The veneration of saints and Mary was initially intended as a segue to let polytheists adjust to monotheism. It became a permanent, vital part of Catholic practice, to the point that (as far as Luther was concerned) it began to negatively impact their understanding of God. God because somebody angry and aloof from the world, while the saints and Mary were merciful intercessors. For Luther, who saw God’s true nature as loving and merciful, this was unacceptable, and the saints all had to be restored to models of living, inspirations, our brothers and sisters in Christ, but not anyone who intercedes on your behalf with God.
Even if you’re not at all impressed with Deuteronomy’s call to kill anyone who worships other gods (see? I knew they’d close that loophole), there’s something to be said in favor of its legal system. No death penalty can be given without “two or three” eye witnesses who agree on testimony. I just watched a program on National Geographic about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, and I doubt (without a conspiracy that would violate other commandments) you could actually get three people to agree on anything they saw. What’s more, they have to be willing to carry out the execution themselves. While the truly sociopathic wouldn’t have a problem gaming this system, the majority of people would likely feel uncomfortable having to be the first to throw a stone.
Even better is the restriction on kings. First, kings are optional, not mandatory. They could go on with their system of local councils of elders, or in the case of modern Israel, a Knesset. Kings cannot acquire horses (build too large an army), acquire too many wives, or acquire too much wealth. Even more surprising, they cannot make law. They are only allowed to study the Torah and practice from that. So kings are to be very limited in their power, probably negotiating treaties and leading armies in times of war, but not much else.
Would that Christian Europe hadn’t forgotten either of these commandments, with their willingness to hang anybody and give kings unilateral power.
Of course, in reality this chapter is actually describing what Israel wasn’t like, something we know from both archeology and the Bible itself. This is a polemic against problems that may or may not have been widespread but were, as far as the author is concerned, the cause of all of Israel’s problems.
What was religion like in ancient Israel? Well, they worshiped YHWH, but they put up poles for the goddess Asherah alongside his altars as his consort (16.21-22). They sacrificed blemished animals rather than high-quality ones (17.1). They worshiped their neighbor’s gods, particularly gods of the sun, moon, and stars (v 17.3).
And what were kings like in ancient Israel? They amassed too many horses, often from Egypt (v 16). They had huge harems, and often worshiped the same deities as their foreign wives. They acquired fortunes of silver and gold rather than caring for the poor (v 17). They made laws on their own and ignored anything that was passed down as a tradition from Moses (v 18-19).
All of this, I know from reading in the past, will show up whenever I eventually get to Kings.
The Japanese: kekkan “defect, fault” (v 1), shikkou “execution, exercise” (v 7), momegoto “trouble” (v 8), somuku “to violate, to disobey” (v 11), oui “the throne, position of kingship,” genbon “original copy, source book” (v 18), takaburu “to get excited, to get nervous,” tamotsu “to keep, to retain” (v 20).