Deuteronomy For the Non-Religious

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"A text that could not be radically reinterpreted to meet the needs of the day was dead; the written words of scripture had to be revitalized by constant exegesis. Only then could they reveal the divine presence latent within God's Torah. Midrash was not a purely intellectual pursuit and study could never be an end in itself: it had to inspire practical action in the world". - Karen Armstrong, 'Midrash', The Bible- A Biography


This is the second of three articles. The first outlined the nature of a new Christianity, or Christianity 2.0. This article sets the context for the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures section of the Bible. This Book, although obscure to many, is a cornerstone of Judaism and forms the most important underlying tenants of our society today. The third article will look in detail at a section of Deuteronomy known as the Ten Commandments. Most people have probably heard of these laws but the commentary will reflect a post-modern analysis that is more relevant today than ever. The three articles are excerpted from anCanaan up-coming book entitled Post-Modern Christianity and Deuteronomy.


What is the Book of Deuteronomy and why should we care?

Deuteronomy demands that the torah be stated in fresh ways for each generation and that remains true today as it did 2500 years ago. Deuteronomy is one of the five books of the Jewish Torah and forms part of what is commonly called the “Old Testament” (now more correctly referred to as the Hebrew Scriptures). Although we may pass it off as a compilation of ancient wisdom, when we begin to look seriously at this writing, especially from a post-modern perspective, it becomes almost impossible to overstate its relevance and importance to our society today. Here is why.

At the moment our Western culture seems to be adrift. Aside from the acquisition of money, power and consumer goods it is increasingly difficult to find any sense of societal cohesiveness or common purpose and direction (1). This situation was several centuries in its making but on the surface at least until the 1950s society’s common glue was provided to a large extent by religion. Although religion provided a degree of absolute morality for us, it unfortunately also tended to contain a great deal of human-generated baggage. Thankfully the vast majority of our society has jettisoned this baggage but in the process we have also rejected the mystery we call God and have become almost totally secularized and intellectualized. There no longer exists an ultimate arbitrar of social morality and we now find ourselves in a nihilistic society where the only universal values seem to be avarice and the quest for power. And this is not good judging from the amount of anger, conflict, poverty and unhappiness all around.

Since our rejection of the (irrational) mystery and our experiment in secularism has failed to replace the purpose to life that we lost with the rejection of archaic religious beliefs, maybe we have to return to that outside of time/space phenomenon we call Spirit and start over again. While most of us deeply intuit something called “good’ and something called “truth” perhaps in Spirit there is absolute truth and absolute good. These assumptions in fact originated around 4000 years ago. Although it is popular to study and expound upon Greek mythology, it’s the Hebrew mythology that addresses the “absolutes” of life so beautifully and so directly. We ignore it at our peril because Hebrew mythology truly is our mythology, the mythology of Western Europe and North America. I think the Book of Deuteronomy is one of the foremost avenues through which we can explore our origins and our values. However, like all great wisdom, it must not be taken literally.


The Post-Modern Approach: The term “God” is in no way defined here. Nevertheless, the reality of God is not in question. Although in Deuteronomy God is deemed to be an active player (this was the belief at the time), we read Deuteronomy with a post-modern sense of God. The post-modern sense of God refers simply to whatever experience or intuitive knowledge we havebook of deut as individuals that we choose to call God or Spirit. Our experiences and intuitive knowledge may be greatly divergent and varied in degree. In spite of that however, the involvement of God in day-to-day life that we read in Deuteronomy is analogous to the post-modern view that God is a verb – a presence or force that incessantly nudges and pushes our consciousness towards absolute awareness.

The stories of Adam and Eve (the Book of Genesis) reflect an ideal state of being in their depiction of the Garden of Eden as a state of consciousness that, at the very least, implicitly implies absolute truth and absolute good (2). But Genesis also makes it clear that we are not residents in this Garden. The Book of Deuteronomy picks up this theme, although with a different spin. Absolute good and truth naturally occur when our consciousness (self awareness) allows us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, and allows us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Further, Deuteronomy goes on with describing in some detail not only what such an ideal society would look like but also how we should live in the meantime while awaiting the ideal to materialize. This is real, down-to-earth wisdom and it underpins the essentials of Western society still today. Deuteronomy in fact can be a “life-changer”.


Deuteronomy: Yahweh (or YHWH – intended to be unpronounceable) is the Hebrew name for God. Yahweh is the only God, the creator of the universe and the source of all. Not only is Yahweh the creator, Yahweh is intimately involved in day-to-day life. Deuteronomy puts forth the very essence of Judaism (and so, much of Christianity). The book’s storyline is about the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. They are pledged to complete loyalty to each other: Yahweh is to assure well-being of Israel and Israel is to live in trust in and obedience with Yahweh and the rules of his covenant.

The book is organized into three great speeches of Moses together with a concluding section concerning the death of Moses, the leadership of Joshua and the future of Israel. Most attention is given to the long middle speech that forms the bulk of the the land of milk and honeybook (chapters 4 – 28).

It is likely the oldest part of the book and contains materials that were gathered over a long period of time (3)


The context: The book of Deuteronomy is metaphor. At the end of a long wilderness journey (the Exodus from Egypt) the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River to conquer the promised land, the land of milk and honey. The book is written as a series of addresses by Moses to Israel. Moses is addressing Israel with a strong message about God’s covenant. Thecovenant is a simple either/or: either the people obey God’s commands and they will prosper or they don’t obey the commands and will disappear. There is no mincing of words here. Moses knows the land of promise. This land is not empty, it has long been settled by the Canaanites. Thus, even if they successfully conquer the land the Israelites will find themselves in a serious fix. The seductive cultures and religions that already exist among the indigenous people there will severely challenge their faith in Yahweh. They will always face a choice, every moment of every day: the easy path of giving in to pleasure and greed (overcoming human instinct) or the difficult one of obeying Yahweh. The latter choice just happens to be the only road to survival.


About Moses: There is little if any evidence that there ever really was a person such as Moses. Rather, Moses was an ancient tradition dating back to the legends of Sinai where the basics of Judaism are said to have originated. In this tradition then, anything attributed to Moses was deemed to be authoritive and the use of Moses in Deuteronomy was just a device used by the authors to make an important claim. It was not a deception or intended to fool anyone. This tradition continued in the Christian scriptures whereby the gospels are attributed the disciples, most of whom would have been long dead by the time the gospels were written as we know them today.


The development: The origins of the materials in Deuteronomy are lost in pre-history but most likely they come from all around the Mediterranean region over a period of several centuries. The Israelites (or Hebrews) had always been indigenous to Canaan along with various other groups or tribes. As well, Canaan was a heavily travelled region with conquerors coming and going. The Israelites were early adopters of the single, all powerful God and in order to secure their faith and way of life they needed a unique identity. This need led to the evolution of “their story”, the story of the Exodus:DoubleGate22 the story of captivity, of the Passover, of leaving Egypt en mass, wandering the wilderness for 40 years and finally arriving at the Jordon and getting ready to invade Canaan.

The tales are not fiction as we would describe it. They almost certainly contain snippets of historical memory but we have no way of knowing.   Nevertheless, we can recognize that underlying all of the tales is the real story of their wrestling with God: their growing knowledge and conscious awareness of God and the challenges and decisions created by this growing spirituality. This is wonderfully summarized in the Book of Deuteronomy. The uniqueness of Deuteronomy is that it was a living document - intended to provide direction in response to the various crises (primarily wars and exile) that cropped up time to time, threatening their society. It was therefore always being edited, old material revised and new material incorporated as needed. So, it is hard to actually put a date on its creation. The final written version was compiled most likely in the era around 500-600 BCE during the Babylonian exile (another crisis).


The setting: The "historical" time of the book of Deuteronomy is set roughly 200 years before it was written, probably 700-600 BCE. This was during a period when Canaan was under the domination of one of many empires that rose and declined in that part of the world.


The big issue: The book represents a hard-fought consensus in Israel about the key claims of Yahwistic faith. As stated earlier, one key claim concerns the exclusive gift and demand of Yahweh, that prosperous life (the gift) only comes with the demand that loyalty (i.e. behavior) to Yahweh has to be front and centre in every aspect of life. (This is a challenge that we’re still attempting to accomplish).

So, what is this community to look like? In the list of rules and regulations (chapters 12-25), we can see the attempt to state exactly what Yahweh's exclusive rule means. A torah-based community is nothing less than radical; it is to take the form of (i) a “Sabbath economy” in which there is abundance for all (as opposed to the artificial economy of scarcity we have today) and a radical, absolutely just distribution of this abundance, (ii) a politics of discipline and compassion, and (iii) a faith that cedes all authority to the Holy. It is to be a community of radical equality, viable public power, faithful conduct of war, and Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 33-1 Bible Illustrations by Sweet Mediasustainable ordering of family life. It is to be a distinct community, a "contrast society" – a society that clearly shows that it is different from everyone else around . The writers know that their proposed alternative way, a way that is based on complete consciousness of God, is their only option.

But it was not so simple. The Israelites did not live that way. Like us today, they had egos (4) and also like us today these egos provided the gifts of cheating, lying and stealing. Deuteronomy recognized this reality thus, in addition to describing Deuteronomy (or "the second law"), it also has another agenda – describing how people should live together while waiting for their consciousness to overcome their egos’ need for power and acquisition.

We see this immediately when we study the laws. We can see a strong tension between incredible generosity among members of the community and harsh stands on anything that could cause social disorder in that community. As long as community members abide by common rules of behaviour there is generosity among them. However, if an individual or family acts contrary to the common good there are very strict punishments. Similarly, since Israel does not exist in a vacuum, Deuteronomy must struggle with the difficult issue of who is in and who is out. There is a generosity to foreigners but only if there aren’t very many of them. There is deep anxiety about keeping people from other cultures out in order to maintain the community. Israel is "in the world" ("in Canaan") but not "of the world" ("Canaanite"). Some of its responses to this issue are clumsy and awkward, but the issue is for that reason no less important. So, without any attempt to "explain away" the harshness in the text, we can see that the harshness reflects high anxiety.

Despite this tension however we see that Deuteronomy set in motion not only the goal of achieving oneness with God but also an ethic that still continues today in the revolutionary ethical convictions of Judaism and Christianity.


Its relevance today: As stated in the first sentence, perhaps one of the most outstanding things about Deuteronomy is that it demands that the torah be stated in fresh ways for each generation. Time and again, phrases warn against literalism, emphasizing that, although the words were given to their ancestors, God is stating them once again to today’s generation. As well, throughout the book YHWH refers to the importance of their children and their children’s children:

Deut 5: 1 Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.postedprayer

Deut 6: 1 Now this is the commandment--the statutes and the ordinances--that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children's children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

In other words, it was never intended that there be a fixed interpretation. It remains open always to being revisited and reinterpreted, even today, in the light of new circumstances (5). We must allow Deuteronomy to be a metaphor, a use of words in other than their literal sense. Such an awareness does not give license for the text to mean just anything, but it means to listen attentively (honoring our intuition) for what may be present in the text beyond what is obvious.

The theological point of this text is that the "promised land" is to be understood as hope for the promised well-being that comes later to be called the "Kingdom of God." Israel is not yet in the land. It’s on the way there. How it gets there is the harriet tubmanoverriding issue. The future is gift, but it is a gift that can be readily lost. Israel must always again re-choose that future in the form of present­ tense obedience. The choice offered Israel is "covenant" or "idols."

And the same choice is offered us today, perhaps even more urgently. Our rapidly failing society (Europe, North America) shows we have long ago chosen the “individual rights” of avarice and power-over because we are totally immersed in a culture in which we are nothing more than a “consumer unit”. Our individuality has become a commodity itself, an item which is used by the powerful and wealthy for their exclusive benefit. Now, we may engage in some dialogue and public acts in order to counter the consumer-unit idol, working towards maybe a slightly softer, more humanitarian culture, but we remain part of a consumer-unit culture nevertheless. Predominant culture is very difficult to counter. It is so much easier to give up and be carried along by the continually renewed wave of images generated by the secular culture, images of the happiness that is supposed to come from buying a new car or having whiter teeth or rooting for the winning team or making lots of money or committing adultery or having a high prestige job or living in the right area and drinking expensive scotch. Even worse is giving into the humanitarian consumer-unit image – contributing to a food bank or housing the homeless rather than forcing our society to change the economics which creates homelessness and the need for food banks in the first place.

Artificial appearances are essential if we are to avoid seeing the day-to-day reality we live in. To live without glittering diversions, to face the world as it really is would only make us more conscious of our emptiness, our impotence and the insignificance of our situation. With images, with vacuous sparkles portraying “the good life” however, everything unpleasant is erased and our drab existence decorated by their charm and false security. Above all, we must not become aware of reality, so artificial appearances create a substitute reality. Artificial images, passing themselves off for truth and good, obliterate and erase the reality of our life and our society.

Thus, it is not a big move from the warning of Moses to our present context. At that ancient boundary, Moses understood that the ethical stakes in a decision for Torah (the word of God) were very high. They continue to be very high.

Our choice is simple: we can choose “covenant”, a life totally devoted to enacting God’s dream for us: a life of “milk and honey”, a life of truth, love, justice, beyond ego; or we can choose “idols”, the power of "commodity", the laws of commerce and of rich and poor which, to the same degree, command complete loyalty and have complete authority. As much as we might wish, there is no “happy medium”. There is no compromise. Choosing covenant with all its prerequisites, perplexity, and exposition was not easy then, nor is it now.


So, with that background, we will head into part of the text itself. A traditional Jewish and Christian doxology or “mission statement” goes ( in the King James Bible English):


Hear O Israel

The Lord our God is one God

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all the heart,

with all thy soul, with all thy strength and with all thy mind.

This is the Great Commandment.

The second is like unto it.

Though shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.


This sums up the very essence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam then and today. It probably rings a bell for most readers. Another bell ringer (at the very least for Gary Larson fans) is the Ten Commandments. They are perhaps the more specific Objectives of the Mission Statement, and it's to the Ten Commandments that we'll turn in the next article.


(1) This theme is developed eloquently in great detail by B. Gregory. The Unintended Reformation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

(2) The Garden of Eden is a metaphor. Other metaphors for the same thing include the “Land of Milk and Honey” and the “Kingdom of God”. Putting aside picayune details, we might say as well that these metaphors are equivalent to “Cosmic Consciousness” or “Nirvana” or “The Void” as used in other faith paths.

(3) Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001.

(4) I use the term “ego” as that with which we identify ourselves externally. We know good and evil because of our self-consciousness and we most often choose to try to do good. Nevertheless, our egos also involve the instincts to survive, propagate and eat. These reside in our brain stems and without them we would never have evolved. So, we still lust, we have greed and we like to have power over others.

(5) "This would become typical of Jewish exegesis. Instead of looking back uncover its historical meaning, the interpreter would make the text speak to the present and the future". Armstrong, Karen. The Bible- A Biography. Toronto: Douglas and MacIntyre, 2007. p.41

Also: "A text that could not be radically reinterpreted to meet the needs of the day was dead; the written words of scripture had to be revitalized by constant exegesis. Only then could they reveal the divine presence latent within God's Torah. Midrash was not a purely intellectual pursuit and study could never be an end in itself: it had to inspire practical action in the world. The exegete had a duty to apply the Torah to his particular situation and make it speak to the condition of every single member of his community. The goal was never to clarify an obscure passage but address the burning issues of the day. You did not understand a text until you found a way of putting it into practice. The rabbis called scripture miqra: a 'summons' that the Jewish people to action". Ibid, p.82.

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  • Comment Link David MacLeod Thursday, 07 February 2013 00:44 posted by David MacLeod

    I just want to let you know I have really appreciated your posts on this site. When I was in high school many years ago I was getting a lot out of reading books like C.H. Mackintosh's "Notes on the Pentateuch." My views and outlook have shifted a lot since then, and I appreciate how you've pointed out how this text is still relevant to us today whether religious or non-religious.

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