Deuteronomy – Blessings and Curses (But Mostly Curses)

Deuteronomy – Blessings and Curses (But Mostly Curses) August 14, 2016

Hebrew Writing

The book of Deuteronomy occupies a strange place in the Old Testament canon.  It is considered the final part of the Torah or Pentateuch, but in many ways it actually seems to work better as the prelude to the historical books that follow (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings).

It’s been 40 years and God’s people are finally ready to take possession of the promised land.  They’re on the border, getting ready for the invasion.  Decades of trials and tribulations have led to this moment.  We are on the cusp of the climax of this story.  Every piece is in place…

But don’t think for a second that we don’t have time for an entire book’s worth of laws before we get to the fun part!

Deuteronomy begins with a lengthy recap of the journey of the Israelites since the Exodus (which reminded me of one of those “previously on…” teasers you see at the beginnings of episodes of a television show), and then most of the rest of the book is taken up by more laws and commandments by Moses, many of them darker and more violent than what we’ve seen thus far (which is saying a lot).  If you can get through that, your reward is a lovely bit of poetry at the end, and then Moses dies.

Deuteronomy lays the foundation for all manner of horrible theologies and exegeses conceived in the millennia since it was written.  It all comes down to chapter twenty-eight, a treatise modeled on the suzerain-vassal treaties common in the ancient Near East, especially in Assyria.  Essentially, they were treaties between a conqueror and his conquered, and detailed the mutual obligations between both parties, focusing on blessings provided to the vassal for fidelity, and curses for disloyalty.  Sound familiar?

This is by no means a new or unique observation; I knew about it going in.   Still, actually reading the “Blessings for Obedience” and “Warnings against Disobedience” sections in chapter 28, and seeing with my own eyes that the “warnings” section was more than three times as long as the “blessings” section really drove the point home.

On its own, this section of course refers specifically to the first generation of Jews in Israel, who had an insane history of turning their backs on Yahweh basically for shits and giggles, but divorced from this immediate context (as all theology is by nature), Deuteronomy creates a God that favors the powerful and privileged, as well as divine justification for an imperfect status quo.

Think of it this way:  the covenant is meant to refer from present to future.  If you are faithful, if you keep these commandments, you will be blessed; if you are treacherous, you will be punished.  It is a very minor jump from this to a present-past movement, where, as John Dominic Crossan puts it in my favorite book of all time, “You are blessed, therefore you obeyed; you are cursed, therefore you disobeyed” (p. 94).

See, the wealthy and powerful are such because they are good and have obeyed the will of the Lord.  The poor and dispossessed are such because they are wicked and unfaithful.  This attitude deactivates all concern and compassion for the needy, for the orphan and the widow and the stranger.  After all, they deserve it, don’t they?

This toxic idea in some form or another is at the root of evils ranging from divine right to the Prosperity Gospel.  It is opposed even by other authors of the Hebrew Bible, most famously by Job (see Robert Frost’s play “A Masque of Reason” where God himself admits that the purpose of Job’s suffering was “to stultify the Deuteronomist”).

The sad part is that there is more to Deuteronomy than this awful idea.  There is also the promise of renewal of the covenant when Israel inevitably fails; there are the beautiful words of the Song of Moses; there are the laws meant to protect the orphan and the widow and the resident alien.  Unfortunately, in my mind and the minds of many others, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the name of this book is sanctions and punishments.

Next week, Joshua takes the Israelites into the promised land.

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    I think one reason why the book goes overboard on sanctions and punishments is because by the time it was finally completed, Israel had already been destroyed. The book is one great big long “told you this would happen” interspersed with the occasional “and this is what you could have had” with a side helping of “and you still can if you get your act together”.
    I think it is also important not to read into an ancient work about the fate of Israel as a nation 21st Century individualism: this is the whole class being punished, not individual malefactors.
    Prosperity gospel is a spectacular misreading of the thing: the message is for the losers, not the winners. The exiles in Babylon are taking comfort from the curses in the covenant: God has not abandoned them, rather he is still in control and they are paying for their sins (or if you read in Isaiah, the sins of the whole nation) and if they endure and stay faithful through their exile, they can still inherit the promises and will be restored to their land.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      100% agreed. I try to stress that later familiar interpretations of OT theology aren’t necessarily what was originally meant at the time but maybe I don’t always make that clear enough.

  • Theophile

    What the author misses is the blessings & curses are for the nation of Israel “as a nation collectively”.

    If there is one thing that can be argued has “changed” from the Old Testament to the New, is the move from a collective/national relationship with God, to a individual one.
    The proof of this is in the opening chapters of Joshua concerning Achor & the accursed thing.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      I don’t think I missed the collective aspect of the covenant. My point is more that the curse/blessing model was later used to justify more sinister theologies. As I said, Deuteronomy “laid the foundation” so to speak.

      • Theophile

        “More sinister theologies”… My bet is “not as sinister” as the abominable doctrine that the “Old Testament is the old covenant, it’s all done away”, that the millennial point click “American first & foremost” Christian follows.

        The blessing / curse model is FUNDAMENTAL throughout The Bible:

        # Cling to sin = dead & go to hell(curse)
        # Repent from & turn away from sin = life without hell(blessing)

        Sorry if the “cause/effect” sinister doctrines concerning sin, repentance, & judgment don’t fit in the feel good Universal Reconciliation false doctrine of this age..

  • Theophile

    Hi Christian,

    When I think of Deuteronomy, I remember that is what Jesus quoted defeating Satan’s temptations in the wilderness:

    # When Satan tempted Jesus to turn the stones to bread:

    Deuteronomy 8:2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God
    led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
    And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

    # When Satan suggested Jesus was protected(according to Psalms 91:12), Jesus quoted:
    Deuteronomy 6:16 Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God, as ye tempted him in Massah. Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded thee.

    # When Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only bow to him, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy:

    6:13 Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name. Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you)lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.

    ## & When Jesus was asked: “What is the greatest commandment”? … Jesus quoted Deuteronomy:

    6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

    When Jesus showed John(Revelation) that the anti-Christ would require a mark on the right hand & forehead, Jesus knew that those truly desiring to know God’s
    Word would of already taken steps to bind God’s laws & commandments to
    their hand & forehead, just like Deuteronomy instructs, which leaves no room for the marks of Satan’s world kingdom:

    6:6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

    Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.