I mentioned in my last entry that forewarning of curse leads to inference of past wrongdoing, and this chapter substantiates my argument. Deuteronomy predicts that when foreigners see the destruction of Israel, they will conclude “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (v 25) Again: if you are suffering, it’s because you deserved it. Which, again again, undercuts Deuteronomy’s exhortations to help those who are suffering.
This chapter also hints at another way of looking at suffering, one that’s didactic rather than punitive. In past books, the wandering in the wilderness was explicitly a punishment for the Israelites’ panic when they realized how powerful the Canaanites were. In this chapter, however, the wanderings become a teaching process, whereby God is making them understand that he is their God. They saw the disasters in Egypt, but they didn’t understand them; they didn’t have “a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear.” (v 4) God gives them this ability over the course of their journey, through the various trials they endure, so that by the time they reach the Holy Land they will be prepared to fully commit to the covenant.
Whether that sounds like boot camp or Stockholm Syndrome depends on how gracious you’re feeling toward the Deuteronomist image of “God” after the last chapter. If the writer hadn’t just said that God enjoys punishing people, then you might buy him as the tough-love drill sergeant. But if you take what last chapter said as face-value truth, then why would you want to make a covenant with this guy?
This is why the kind of “plain English” literalism of fundamentalists can lead to such vile results. You can’t look at parts of the Bible and say, “Well, that doesn’t match up with Jesus” or “Well, the Talmud interprets that as…” It says it, black and white, in English (there are fundies who consider the KJV divinely inspired, wrap your head around that), free of context, no authorial intent, no grand-scheme-of-things, no (acknowledged) interpretive lens. Well, screw that. It’s not the only way to read the Bible. It’s not even the oldest way to read the Bible.
The final verse of this chapter is very ambiguous: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children for ever, to observe all the words of this law.” (v 29) What are “the secret things”? Why do I suspect Kabbalah was heavily inspired by this one verse?
Even without the potential implication of mysticism, I think it’s a good moment of insight breaking in through Deuteronomy’s diatribe: we don’t know everything. There are things we can’t understand, secrets known only to the Omniscient. I’d argue that the certainty with which Deuteronomy ascribes suffering to sin and to God’s will is a certainty that forgets this simple law that there is mystery in the world, things beyond our comprehension.
If I have no use for most of these recent chapters, I at least like this final verse.
The Japanese: furubiru “to age,” suriheru “to wear out, to fray” (v 4), kumu “to pump, to draw out” (v 10), kokorogawari suru “to have a change of heart,” dokusou “poisonous plant,” nigayomogi “wormwood” (v 17), uruou “to be moistened” (v 18), netami “envy,” noshikakaru “to press on” (v 19), eriwakeru “to sort” (v 20), kutsugaesu “to overturn, to reverse,” sanjou “terrible spectacle” (v 22), kozotte “all together, unanimously” (v 23), keiji suru “to reveal” (v 28).
Another case of the Japanese following the Jewish numbering, so all the verses are off by one. I’ll be very glad when I get to the New Testament and I don’t have any more instances of this.