This chapter wasn’t just long, it was dark. That’s all I’m going to talk about, really – why this is the darkest chapter I’ve read, darker than the flood, darker than the killing of the firstborns.
It goes beyond the usual unpleasantness of reading about God causing disasters of any kind. That I’ve sort of learned to expect from the writers of these books. If something bad happens, God caused it, somehow.
It’s the detail into which this chapter goes. My main criticism of other horrors is that the Bible doesn’t seem to want to dwell on how people suffered. It’s easy to say “and then everyone drowned in the flood,” it’s another thing to describe them trying to escape the water, trying to swim, etc. The Bible is vague, intentionally I’d imagine, about the suffering of God’s victims.
Here, though, the detail is excruciating, detailing every horrible thing the Israelites will endure if they don’t follow gods’ laws. Their corpses will be left unburied, eaten by wild animals. They’ll be afflicted with a panoply of plagues, their crops will be blighted, they’ll be driven mad, they will be so starving get to the point where parents are hiding food from their children to keep for themselves, or even eating their own children.
You could say that at least this level of detail is reserved for themselves, a judgment on their own actions, as opposed to condemning other nations. Unfortunately there’s a lot of parallels to earlier passages about possessing the land from the Canaanites. If they don’t obey God’s commands, “You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit.” (v 30) That sounds a lot like the earlier reminder that they were taking a land with “large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (6.10-11). Coupled with previous observations that some of the acts God is forbidding were practiced by the previous inhabitants, it seems inescapable that this is the general punishment for not following God’s commands.
Which is the downside of any warning like this: it can be applied retroactively. “If you do bad things, you will suffer” easily transforms into “if you’re suffering, you did bad things.” People who are suffering are transformed from objects of compassion and care into people who deserve what they’re getting. This isn’t just true for logic of divine punishment; it goes doubly for systems of karma. Hinduism had essentially no ethic of charity prior to their exposure to Islam and Christianity, precisely because poverty, disease, infertility, all the things that this chapter calls curses, were seen as bad karma, your punishment for sins in a past life. Deuteronomy is, unintentionally I imagine, undermining its own command to help the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Why should we help them if the poverty and loss are the result of divine disfavor?
Truthfully, though I don’t think Deuteronomy is saying that all misfortune is the result of divine misfavor. Read in context, they obviously acknowledge that human injustice to other humans is the most common cause of want. If the Israelites lived justly, after all, they’d have no poor. I think that what Deuteronomy is ascribing to God’s wrath is the Exile – the horrific details of this chapter may actually be the nightmarish memories of what they went through when they were conquered by Assyria and Babylon. The enormity of their loss can only be conceived as God revoking his promises and undoing what he did in the Exodus.
But the real awful darkness of this chapter is all in one verse: “And just as the Lord took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction.” (v 63) When prophets talked about the exile, they often depicted God as a pained lover, or that the conquest was a natural consequence that the anxious, parental God was making them learn from. Here, though, God is gleefully bringing about destruction. God is happy, God is enjoying himself. No other part of the Bible so far has even implied that level of sadism.
That’s…. messed up, Deuteronomy. Did you really believe that’s how God felt over the Jewish Exile? It just doesn’t seem right that a God that cared enough to stick by you through all the troubles in the desert would ever enjoy seeing you suffer. It doesn’t fit, it’s gruesome, and it’s one of those moments where you just want to say, “Why do we keep this in the Bible? It’s only going to be used by people who are sadistic themselves.”
The Japanese: masaru “to exceed, to surpass” (v 1), genjitsu suru “to realize” )v 2), konebachi “mixing bowl” (v 5), korashimeru “to punish, to chasten,” kieuseru “to vanish, to disappear” (v 20), haibyou “chest disease,” akusei “malignant,” kurobobyou “smut (kind of fungus),” akasabibyou “lead rust (another fungus)” (v 22), hokori “dust” (v 24), eshiki “prey,” obiyakasu “to threaten, to menace” (v 26), kaiyou “ulcer, canker,” dekimono “boul,” hizen “scabies” (v 27), sakuran suru “to derange, to unhinge” (v 28), juurin suru “to devastate,” kasumetoru “to steal” (v 29), shuujitsu “all day long,” shitau “to long for,” otoroeru “to decline, to decay” (v 32), arisama “condition, state” (v 34), asakeri “scorn, mockery” (v 37), shinogu “to surpass,” hiraku suru “to decline” (v 43), kotokaku “to lack,” kubikase “pillory,” hameru “to fit” (v 48), sondai “arrogant, disdainful” (v 50), kengo “firm, solid” (v 52), oitsumeru “to hound, to hunt down,” konkyuu “poverty” (v 53), zeitaku “luxury,” monooshimi “stringy” (v 54), shukujo “lady” (v 56), atozan “afterbirth,” ketsubou “lack” (v 57), matoisuku “to follow about” (v 60), hikinuku “to uproot” (v 63), hitoikitsuku “to catch one’s breath” (v 65), obieru “to be scared” (v 66).
So hey! “Smut” originally meant a kind of fungus, not pornography. You learn something new every day. I am so glad I am done with this chapter.