Grad school is wicked time consuming! This blog is currently on hold as the semester grinds on!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Deuteronomy 28: A long list of blessings and curses

- or -
"You don't want to eat a placenta, do you?"

Deuteronomy 28: Blessings for Obedience / Warnings Against Disobedience

Yesterday the twelve tribes of Israel stood on two separate mountains - six on each - and agreed to twelve curses. Today there will be more curses applied to the Israelites, but blessings will also be given as well.

In the bible, a blessings and curses are contracts, of sorts. In yesterday's reading, individual terms of the contract were revealed, and then these terms were assented to by the Israelites:
"Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother." "Amen."

Today the contracts will be long sections of conditional rewards and punishments. The contract requires obedience of the Lord through diligent and faithful observation of the Lord's commands. If the contract is fulfilled, the Israelites will be blessed. If the contract is not fulfilled, the Israelites will be cursed. Clearly the biblical author favors negative over positive reinforcement. And who can blame him? There is something to be said for a good old (un)healthy fear of God.

Blessings for Obedience: Deuteronomy 28.1-14
As stated above, obedience to the Lord is rewarded by blessings, and the Lord will set the Israelites "high above all the nations of the earth."

"Blessed shall be" blessings (Deut. 28.3-6)
Four specific blessings are offered in exchange for obedience (Deut. 28.3-6):

  • "Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field" [a blessing that suggests the Israelites will be blessed everywhere]
  • "Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock" [a blessing of prosperity, and "nature's" bounty]
  • "Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl" [a blessing of material goods]
  • "Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out" [a temporal blessing that likewise suggests ubiquitous coverage]

"The Lord will" blessings (Deut. 28.7-14)
These blessings are succeeded by a second, more general section of blessings. These terms are not written in the same blessing formula. Here the formula is "The Lord will..." The terms of the contract are now related in a different way. The repetitions and different style indicates that these blessings may come from a different source than the ones that precede them.

  • Israel's enemies will be defeated by the Lord: "They shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways."
  • Barns and manual tasks, are blessed. The people will be blessed.
  • The Lord will establish the Israelites as his "holy" separate people, but only if they obey him.
  • All the people of the earth, seeing Israel's relationship with the Lord, will fear the people.
  • A second blessing of prosperity is bestowed on the fruits of womb, livestock, ground.
  • A metaphor: "The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow."
  • Israel will be the head, not the tail; the top, not the bottom.

All this will come only if the Israelites obey the commandments of the Lord their God.

Warnings Against DisobedienceDeuteronomy 28.15-29.1
If Israel does not heed God, it will be cursed.

"Cursed shall be" curses (Deut. 28.15-19)
The first set of curses (Deut. 28.16-19) is written in a negative form of the first set of blessings (Deut. 28.3-6) [e.g. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field]. The point-counterpoint style indicates that these two are very highly probably part of some tradition that includes parallel blessings and curses. The matching of blessing and curse offers an aesthetic symmetry to the Lord's commands - and keeps them easy to remember.

"The Lord will" curses (Deut. 28.20-28)
The next section of curses serves as a negative rewriting of the second section of blessings above. As with that section, these terms are parallel in form, all beginning with the same formula: "The Lord will." Though some passages are scattered throughout, this section is not a term-by-term parallel with the blessing section.

The Lord will send disaster, panic, and frustration on everything the Israelites try to do, until they are destroyed. They will be afflicted by pestilence, illness, mildew. "The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron" - suggesting the Lord's wrath is hard, impenetrable, impersonal, militant. Rain will turn to dust. The Israelites will be defeated, and the Israelites will be an object of horror, their corpses food for birds and animals, with no one to frighten them away. The Lord will actively afflict the Israelites with physical and mental illness.

Curses of helplessness (Deut. 28.29-34)
Next comes a section of curses that do not employ the formula "the Lord will." All are concerned with a feeling of utter helplessness that will result if the Israelites do not obey the Lord.

The Israelites will grope about, unable to find their way. They will be abused and robbed, without anyone to help. They shall be married, but their wife will be raped; build a house, but not live in it; plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit. Their ox will be butchered and they will not receive food, their donkey stolen and not returned, their sheep given to their enemies. Their sons and daughters will be taken. Foreign people will eat the fruit of their labors.

More "The Lord will" curses (Deut. 28.35-37)
This is just more of the same.

More curses of helplessness (Deut. 28.38-46)
This is also more of the same.

The Lord retaliates (Deut. 28.47-52)
This section demonstrates the retaliation of the Lord on Israel, and the reversal of Israel's fortune.

The Israelites will serve their enemies with an iron yoke [metaphorical] the Lord puts on them. The Lord will sponsor another, completely different nation to destroy the Israelites, one that speaks a different language, does not respect the old or favor the young.

And then things will become desperate and the people will begin to starve.

Desperate straits (Deut. 28.53-57)
The situation gets so bad in the siege of this foreign people that "you will eat the fruit of your womb, the sons and daughters whom the Lord your God has given you" (Deut. 28.53). This phrasing makes a grotesque image even more revolting. Not only will the Israelites eat their children, they will eat their children that the Lord has given them. They have fallen so far from the Lord that they take away the most physical representation of what the Lord has granted them.

The biblical author goes into greater detail. Even the most refined man will begrudge the flesh of his son to his closest brother. Even the woman will begrudge even the afterbirth of her newborn children to her husband and son and daughter. The Israelites will be reduced to eating placentas - and will be in such desperate straits that they will not share it.

And then... (Deut. 28.58-29.1)
The Lord will reverse the fortunes of the Israelites. The diseases of Egypt will return. The promise of progeny will be reversed. Just as the Lord took delight in helping the people prosper, he will take delight in taking that prosperity away. The people will be scattered and serve other gods. Their eyes trembling, eyes failing, spirit languishing, they will never rest.

In the morning they will wish it was evening. In the evening they will wish it was morning.

Finally, "The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer" (Deut. 28.68). The reversal of fortune is not only complete, but the situation is made even more dire. The Israelites will again be slaves, but this time they will be slaves that no one even wants.

As for the "ships" part of the curse, the reference is vague, and might or might not point to a (probably pretty epic) tradition in which the Israelites escaped Egypt by ship. ("Hey Dan Brown, I have a new book for you.")

In any case, these are the words of the covenant, an additional covenant besides the one the Lord made with Israel at Horeb.

Sounds like a good thing to obey.