Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Troubled by the Deuteronomist

Posted on: August 22, 2014

Re’eh Deuteronomy12:29 – 13:19


When I first looked at the Torah reading, Re’eh, with a view to preparing this introduction, it was the day after a ceasefire commenced in Israel and Gaza. All hell was breaking loose in the UK over Baroness Warsi and the Tricycle Theatre. That now seems a long time ago; ceasefires have come and gone; I’m writing this on Wednesday and I feel with pessimistic certainty that there will be further developments by Shabbat.

There was no getting away from the fact that our text begins, “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land…’ and I wondered if it was going to get better as it went on.

The charge against the other nations is that they sacrifice their children to their false gods, particularly a deity called Moloch.

The text goes on to say that, if a false prophet should arise, and promote the worship of other gods by claiming supernatural knowledge of them, this prophet should be rejected and executed. And if members of your family urge you to follow other gods, resist them. Indeed, our text commands that all such people who advocate pagan worship should be put to death. If a whole town turns to paganism, there should be a herem on that town, people, animals and property. The valuables are to be burned and the town is not to be rebuilt. To carry out a herem is translated variously as to ‘ban’ or ‘proscribe’ or ‘totally destroy’. It is used typically of hostile towns, and, in today’s language, signifies ethnic cleansing or genocide. It is a term used very much in the book of Joshua, in which Joshua leads the Israelites into the promised land and battles to displace the Canaanites and other non-Israelite inhabitants.

So what is the agenda of the book of Deuteronomy, and by implication, the book of Joshua, which, according to the documentary hypotheses, has authorship in common with Deuteronomy?

The book of Deuteronomy plays a very significant part in the account, in the second book of Kings, of the reign of Josiah who had ordered repairs at the Temple in Jerusalem. A sefer Torah was discovered, which, by its content, appears to have been Deuteronomy. Josiah had it read aloud to the people and then set about destroying the idolatrous altars which proliferated in Jerusalem and beyond.

Josiah’s zero tolerance of pagan worship may have been influenced by the militancy of the Deuteronomists, or, vice versa; a case has been made (Frank Moore Cross) to say that the book was written to endorse Josiah’s policy. The suggestion that the passage we are going to read was written in a particular, historical context doesn’t sit well with the Torah min shemayyim view, that Moses received Torah on Sinai.

And this, I think, is the difficulty in the present context of synagogue worship. It’s relatively easy for me to explain the parasha by talking about the agenda of the Deuteronomists, but much more difficult to read it as Holy Scripture and then square it with the commandment to love the stranger. It would call for the kind of exegetical contortionism which is beyond me, so all I can say is listen to it yourselves and then, go figure.

It’s because there are passages like this in Tenach, difficult to explain at the very least, that I don’t like to quote other people’s holy books against them. The crimes people perpetrate in the name of scripture are their own crimes, not, as Richard Dawkins would have it, the crimes of religion per se.

And if God did give us the written Torah, he also gave us the world to inhabit. Nothing about our bible gives the impression that this will ever be easy, but then, according to a famous dictum from Pirke Avot, ‘It’s not for us to complete the work, though neither are we free to desist.’ Meaning what, in this context? Let’s say I mean that Torah is always a work in progress, never completed, not unlike the road works in Myddleton Park Road.

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