* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Deuteronomy 28-34: Blessings and Curses, and Putting Deuteronomistic History in Its Place

The narrative of Deuteronomy ends with Moses passing the mantle of authority to Joshua, son of Nun, and dying on a mountain overlooking the Promised Land.  The bulk of the final chapters of Deuteronomy are taken up with promises of blessings and warnings of curses: blessings for those who are obedient Israelites, and curses for those who adopt the practices of the cultures around them.  Archaeologists can trace to a certain extent the development and compilation of the actual documents that eventually became the book of Deuteronomy, but the idea of blessings and curses from something outside of ourselves seems to be as old as religion itself.

First, a brief look at why Deuteronomy exists in its current form.  King Josiah is largely responsible.  Josiah was an Israelite king who appears biblically in the second book of Kings and whose existence is supported by archaeological evidence.  During the 7th century B.C., the eight-year-old Josiah became king of a polytheistic Israel, during a time of international instability.  When he was in his mid-twenties, temple renovations led to the discovery of a scroll which was possibly the original text of the book of Deuteronomy.  Some would say that this document was not a discovered scroll at all, but was rather written by 7th-century priests to unite the kingdom under Josiah with the church as a prominent power structure.  At the very least, the original text was adapted to serve this purpose, which is understandable given a certain amount of international upheaval around Israel at the time.  Many biblical scholars believe that the Jewish history which runs from the book of Joshua to the second book of Kings was written during Josiah's time on the throne to further solidify his authority and to anchor the authority of the temple more firmly in the culture. Monotheism served this purpose better than the polytheism that had been the norm for the historical Israelite community.

In scholarly terms, this religious reform is the core contribution of the Deuteronomist source, one of three major contributors to the Old Testament.  The Deuteronomist history reflects a movement, or a philosophical school, rather than a single individual, revising or creating books of Jewish scripture over the course of a couple of centuries, based on an ideal.  In many ways, their efforts preserved Jewish culture and religion during times of occupation and captivity by foreign empires.  Still, it's important to remember that the cultural ideal preceded the writing, and that cultural ideal related to a select group of people who were special, set apart from the rest of the world because of their bloodline, and obligated to behave in a way that reflected how set apart they were from the rest of the world.  It was clearly in violent opposition to the way the rest of the world behaved.

This may seem harsh, but you're nothing special.  Sure, you have a unique personality and skill set, and you have capabilities that other people don't.  You are the only one who can create your life, and you have a unique impact on the people around you.  But that describes every single person on the planet.  We are all special.  We are all unique.  We are all worthy of respect.  We are all valuable.  One group doesn't need to proclaim why they are better than another group, because they simply aren't.  No country or culture or religion or community has any right to claim superiority.  We are all wonderfully unique, amazing people, and we benefit from connection and relationship with other wonderfully unique, amazing people.  Life is not a contest, and it doesn't have to be a battle.  Our only real competition is with ourselves.

Which is why blessings and curses are simply a matter of perspective.  There is no entity watching our actions and waiting to smite or reward us.  We do that all on our own.  The threat of being cursed may encourage some people to do what is right out of fear, but living in fear keeps us from truly engaging in life.  Whatever we do, there will be challenges.  "Bad" things happen to everyone, and "good" things happen to everyone.  Some of those blessings and curses are direct results of our behavior.  We don't like to blame ourselves when someone else is within easy pointing range, but many times it's our own behavior that directly results in the rewards and challenges we face.  Sometimes, though, it has nothing to do with us.  We just happen to be moving through the intersection when someone runs a stop sign.  We just happen to pick the winning lottery numbers.  We just happen to have been at the company for a short time when they go through a round of lay offs.  We just happen to drive a different route on the day the bridge collapses.  Some things are just out of our control.

We make our own blessings and curses, though.  When we engage in life fully, taking responsibility for our own decisions, respecting ourselves and other people, creating lives that reflect what matters most to us, the results will look like blessings.  When we ignore our own value and the value of other people, when we blame everyone and everything around us and play the victim, when we give in to fear and deny our own beauty and creativity, the results will look like curses.  Of course, a lot of people are miserable in some areas of life, but very proud of their successes in other areas.  We all have strengths and weaknesses, and from time to time we all give some goals a lot of attention while ignoring other things that matter to us.  It can look like we are always blessed and cursed if we want to think of things in those terms.

The truth is that we are alive, and as long as we are alive we have opportunity.  We can make choices and decisions about who we are going to be and what kind of life we are going to create for ourselves.  Whatever our circumstances, and however people around us behave, as long as we are alive, we have the opportunity to create beauty, the opportunity to be connected to other people, the opportunity to experience -- life.  If there is any blessing, it is that we are alive, and that trumps any curse if we want it to.


  1. As you know, I love the historical aspects of the bible -- there so much more richness to the text when you understand its source, contextual events, and the motives of the author(s). Not to mention that it's incredibly interesting!

    I just want to point out that several aspects of Deuteronomy bear a strong resemblance to ideas and books that came from the northern kingdom of Israel when it was destroyed by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. It's possible that those writings and ideas are what inspired Hezekiah, also a king of Judah, to enact similar reforms (2 Kings 18: 3-7) about 100 years before Josiah did (2 Kings 22 and 23).

    While it's unclear when (and where) the ideas of Deuteronomy were formed, and separately, when those ideas where strung together and composed into the book in its current form, your point persists: it comes not at all from the time of Moses. It was written from a perspective of looking ahead to their possession of the Promised Land, but in reality, it was looking back on Israel's history.

    Exceedingly cool stuff. Go Randy!!

  2. Thanks. It's comforting to know that there are people who appreciate the historical context of the Bible without being militantly "inerrantist" (if I can use the word that way). When believers read their scriptures as if every word were written specifically to them, without any real sense of historical or cultural context, they wind up believing some very odd things about what God wants.

  3. Agreed. And they also almost certainly miss the point the author intended. Completely inauthentic. :)