Devarim Seven: Seven Nations

“When the Lord, your God, brings you into the land to which you are coming to possess it, He will cast away many nations from before you: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you (Deuteronomy 7:1).” This is one of the things that I find particularly disturbing about Tanakh. I’ve heard numerous explanations about why the people needed to destroy the seven nations, and why there was no option for clemency for them. However, it doesn’t make it ok for me, coming from a twenty-first century perspective, to have entire nations slaughtered with no regard for the differences amongst the people within them. The fears of God and the people were intermarriage and idolatry, which had to be avoided at all costs, including mass murder. “For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6).” Therefore, because of the special relationship between God and the people, they were somehow obligated to carry out even this gruesome mission.

Once again, the relationship between the people and God is conditional. If the people follow the commandments, then God will stick to the covenant and bless the people in numerous ways. We are given a list of the blessings that God will give to the Israelites, including the curses that God will bestow on the other nations. “And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you (Deuteronomy 7:13).” Blessings for us, curses for others. Does one nation really have to suffer for another one to come into its blessings?

Devarim Six: Shema

With all of this buildup to the giving of the laws, one might be expecting some vital, specific regulations for society. Instead, we get the Shema, the focal prayer of the Jewish people. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).” This seems to be pretty much all-encompassing. These aren’t laws that are tied to a specific situation or time period, but rather are meant to be constantly present and meditated on throughout the day, and a lifetime. We are obligated to pass them on, to keep them close, and to live by them.

“You shall fear the Lord, your God, worship Him, and swear by His name. Do not go after other gods, of the gods of the peoples who are around you (Deuteronomy 6:13-14).” We are obligated to remain loyal to our God, the God who brought us out of Egypt and gave us all of the blessings of the land. We are given a premeditated response to give in the event that our children, in the future, ask what the laws that God gave the people are. “You shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. And the Lord gave signs and wonders, great and terrible, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out of there, in order that He might bring us and give us the land which He swore to our fathers (Deuteronomy 6:21-23).”

I like that the central laws aren’t about property, or relationships, or even worship. Rather, they are connected to our souls, and are meant to be central to our lives, not brought out at specific occasions. That way, they’re never relevant or irrelevant. They are integral.

Devarim Five: Shamor v’Zakhor

Moses continues his prelude to the laws and statutes that the people will need to follow. He reminds the people how special their position in history is. “Not with our forefathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, we, all of whom are here alive today. Face to face, the Lord spoke with you at the mountain out of the midst of the fire: and I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to tell you the word of the Lord, for you were afraid of the fire, and you did not go up on the mountain, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Deuteronomy 5:3-6).'” Then, he recaps the giving of the Ten Commandments, with a few differences from the first version. One famous example of this is the commandment regarding Shabbat. “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God commanded you (Deuteronomy 5:12).” This differs from the original iteration of these words. In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the Shabbat commandment is to remember the day in order to sanctify it. Much has been written and explored about this difference. Why both? Why was one not enough? Was one more important? Which is accurate?

In the classic Shabbat evening song, Lecha Dodi, the first verse says, Keep and Remember were uttered as one. Somehow, in one moment, we were given a dual commandment, to both keep and remember Shabbat. Both the action and the intention are necessary in order to fully fulfill the commandment and do the appropriate honor to Shabbat. By having two versions of the Ten Commandments in Tanakh, we see the multiple layers of their messaging, something that God could convey in one breath, but that we need to completely understand their meaning.

Devarim Four: Special Bond

“And now, O Israel, hearken to the statuses and to the judgments which I teach you to do, in order that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, God of your forefathers, is giving you (Deuteronomy 4:1).” These laws are specific, and aren’t meant to be added to or taken away from, but rather just followed in their entirety. It is meant to be an honor that God gives the people these laws, and entrusts them with the responsibility of following them. “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is at all times that we call upon Him (Deuteronomy 4:7)?” God’s closeness with the people is what has given them the unique relationship that merits these laws.

“Beware, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image, the likeness of anything, which the Lord your God has forbidden you (Deuteronomy 4:23).” There is a great deal of emphasis on the ordinance against making a graven image, which is said to be the catalyst for corruption on the part of the people and is considered evil in the eyes of God. Now, we have a prophecy. “I call as witness against you this very day the heaven and the earth, that you will speedily and utterly perish from the land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess; you will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations to which the Lord will lead you (Deuteronomy 4:26-27).” Even before entering the land, the people are being told that they will not possess it unconditionally, and will eventually lose it. However, they will never lose their relationship with God, because no other people will ever have this close bond with Him.

Devarim Three: Continuing Flashbacks

After the flashback to the incident with Sihon, Moses moves on to Og, king of Bashan. “Then we turned and went up the way of Bashan, and Og, the king of Bashan, came forth toward us, he and all his people, to war at Edrei (Deuteronomy 3:1).” They reminisce about the destruction of Og and his people, and his cities. “And we utterly destroyed them as we did to Sihon, king of Heshbon, utterly destroying every city, the men, the women, and the young children. But all the beasts and the spoils of the cities, we took as spoil for ourselves (Deuteronomy 3:6-7).” Then he moves on to talking about the different cities that were conquered, and the distribution of the land on the other side of the Jordan to Reuben and Menashe. The promise that these two tribes made to the collective is reiterated.

“And I commanded you at that time saying, ‘The Lord, your God, has given you this land to possess it; pass over, armed, before your brothers, the children of Israel, all who are warriors. But your wives, your young children, and your cattle for I know that you have much cattle shall dwell in your cities which I have given you, until the Lord has given rest to your brothers, just as for you, and until they also possess the land which the Lord, your God, is giving them on the other side of the Jordan, then every man shall return to his possession, which i have given you (Deuteronomy 3:18-20).” By asking for land that might have been easier to obtain, these two tribes might have thought that they didn’t need to take on the responsibility given to the rest of the tribes. However, by exacting this oath from them, God has ensured that the people will remain united and dedicated to the same cause. Moses now continues talking about the conquering of the land. There will be obstacles ahead of the people, but they are all surmountable. “Do not fear them, for it is the Lord, your God, Who is fighting for you (Deuteronomy 3:22).” If there is a victory, it will be God’s, with the people as the tool, not the people on their own.

Moses now flashes back to when he found out that he wouldn’t be crossing the Jordan with the rest of the people. He pleads with God, asking to be allowed to cross over and finally see the land that has been his goal for forty years. But God doesn’t waver in His resolve, and will not let Moses into the land of Israel. However, Moses is able to see it. “Go up to the top of the hill and lift your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan (Deuteronomy 3:27).” To me, it sounds like torture. He’s so close, he can see, and practically touch the land, but those last few steps will always evade him. He has been responsible for shepherding the people through the desert and towards this goal for a lifetime, and yet he is kept from achieving it. Moses seems comforted, but I can’t imagine how a glimpse of the Promised Land would suffice.

Devarim Two: Sihon Flashback

The recap of the journey of the Israelites continues. They went into the desert by way of the Red Sea, and to Mount Seir, where they spent a great deal of time. Then they went towards Edom, and through the desert of Moab. “And the Lord said to me, Do not distress the Moabites, and do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land [as] an inheritance, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot [as] an inheritance (Deuteronomy 2:9).” I like that even though the Israelites are the chosen people, God doesn’t favor them at the expense of other nations, and He has bonds with other peoples as well. The Israelites can’t infringe on the land given to the descendants of Lot by God, and their rights to it are equal to the Israelites rights to Israel. Moses also includes a recap of the incident with Sihon, king of Heshbon. “And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold I have begun to deliver Sihon and his land before you; begin to drive him out, that you may inherit his land (Deuteronomy 2:31).” In this case, the Israelites are allowed to conquer the land of another people. I guess God didn’t designate the land to Sihon, and therefore it was fair game. Moses recaps the battle, and the destruction of the people.

Devarim One: Waiting on the other side of the Jordan

The fifth book of the Torah should essentially be called Moses: the monologue. It’s comprised of speeches from Moses to the Israelites while they’re on the other side of the Jordan River, waiting to enter the land of Israel. “It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had commanded him regarding them (Deuteronomy 1:3).” At this point, the Israelites have spent forty years wandering in the desert, and are poised to fulfill their destiny and finally enter the land. But before that, there’s a lot that they need to hear. “See, I have set the land before you; come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them (Deuteronomy 1:8).”

Moses has been leading the people for forty years. However, he couldn’t bear the burden of doing so all alone, so he had the tribes appoint leaders from among themselves in order to be judges and counselors over the people. Moses commanded the judges in their work with the people. “You shall not favor persons in judgment; you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord, and the case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it (Deuteronomy 1:17).” After relaying these words about justice, Moses reminisces about the spies, and the incident that brought the people to this point. They’re tired and weary from having wandered for a full forty years in punishment. It’s probably important that they be reminded of this moment right now, because they’ve come full circle. They are once again poised to enter the land, and this time, they need to do it properly.

Bamidbar Thirty-Six: Finishing Bamidbar

In this final chapter, we have a flashback to the story of Zelophehad’s daughters. The head of their clan comes to Moses as the land is being divided, and reminds him of his promise to them. “They said, ‘The Lord commanded my master to give the Land as an inheritance through lot to the children of Israel, and our master was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. Now, if they marry a member of another tribe of the children of Israel, their inheritance will be diminished from the inheritance of our father, and it will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and thus, it will be diminished from the lot of our inheritance (Numbers 36:2-3).” With this, a precedent is set. Any daughter who inherits from her father because he dies without sons should marry within their own tribe so that the ancestral lands remain within the tribe. The daughters of Zelophehad agree, and “Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah married their cousins (Numbers 36:11).”

The chapter, and the book, ends. “These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded the children of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho (Numbers 36:13).” With that, we are done with Bamidbar. The fourth book is complete, and I’m so eager to continue with this project. This was one of the books that I didn’t have much experience with coming in, and was worried that it would get dry or repetitive, but I really enjoyed learning something new in each chapter. Project 929 has made me look at each chapter, each verse, of Tanakh, through nothing more than the lens of my own thoughts, without commentators to shape my views. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next, as I begin the final chapter of the Torah.

Four books and 153 chapters down, 776 to go!

Bamidbar Thirty-Five: Cities of Refuge

So the land is being divided, but one tribe isn’t getting any of it: the Levites. Now, we hear about their inheritance. “Command the children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites from their hereditary possession cities in which to dwell, and you shall give the Levites open spaces around the cities. These cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open spaces shall be for their cattle, their property, and for all their needs (Numbers 35:2-3).” We are given the measurements of the open spaces around the cities, and understand that the Levites are not meant to suffer from lack of land. Rather, they are to have their needs taken care of so that they can take care of God’s needs.

All together, the Levites are to be given 48 cities. Amongst these 48 are six special ones, designated as cities of refuge. A city of refuge is a place where a person charged with murder can run to. “These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation (Numbers 35:12).” However, there are conditions to being accepted as a refugee into one of these cities. A person has to have committed murder unintentionally. If he meant to commit the crime, he has to face his punishment, usually in the form of his own death. But if it happened accidentally, then judgment must take place. “The congregation shall protect the murderer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall remain there until the Kohen Gadol, who anointed him with sacred oil, dies (Numbers 35:25).” From this we learn that the refuge isn’t an eternal option. A person can come to escape revenge, but must face judgment eventually. It’s unclear to me why this is contingent on the death of the high priest, though.

Bamidbar Thirty-Four: Borders

For several books now, we’ve been working towards the ultimate goal of the people coming into the land of Israel, of having sovereignty over the land that was promised to their ancestors generations ago. Now, we learn what exactly that land consists of. “Your southernmost corner shall be from the desert of Zin along Edom, and the southern border shall be from the edge of the Sea of Salt to the east. The border then turns south of Maaleh Akrabim, passing toward Zin, and its ends shall be to the south of Kadesh barnea. Then it shall extend to Hazar addar and continue toward Azmon. The border then turns from Azmon to the stream of Egypt, and its ends shall be to the sea (Numbers 34:3-5).” The chapter continues, laying out the dimensions of the western, northern, and eastern borders as well. The detail allows for there to be no confusion at this point about what the borders of Israel are. If only we enjoyed the same certainty today!

Moses tells the people that the land will be divided by lot amongst the nine and a half remaining tribes that need a portion. This is because two were already given their land, on the other side of the Jordan. Then, we are given the names of each of the tribal chiefs who will be in charge of helping to appoint the land. It’s not a particularly meaty chapter, but does provide a much needed base for understanding what is coming in terms of the conquering of the land.