Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you. . . – Deuteronomy 9:4-5
In my last entry I wrote that Numbers 33 is a great place to go for a synopsis of the second, third, and fourth books of the Bible. Well, if you’ve got some curiosity left after that but still don’t want to read the whole thing, flip to the book of Deuteronomy. I’m 9 chapters in, and so far it’s all recap. But more than that, it’s well-written recap. In fact, it’s the best writing I think I’ve seen in the English Standard Version since Genesis.
I initially wanted to read the King James version because I had heard that it was particularly well-written, but a free version wasn’t available through my Kindle app. The ESV has, so far, not nearly overwhelmed me with artful prose. I don’t doubt that the style will pick up after these first five ancient books, with which translators through the ages may have been somewhat reluctant to take colorful liberties.
Compared to what I’ve read so far, a few lines in the first part of Deuteronomy stood out to me for their literary quality. Chapter 8 verses 11-16 have Moses saying to his followers:
“Take care. . . lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble and test you, to do good in the end.”
As Moses speaks I see in my mind the future and the past of his large tribe. I see their gold and silver, their future farms and cities of plenty, and their self-satisfaction. I see that contrasted with their past in “the house of slavery.” I see their harrowing trials against “fiery serpents and scorpions,” beasts I don’t remember at all from the previous books. I can envision a “thirsty ground” and a “flinty rock” from which water flows. Those two phrases remind me of the indelible imagery of the well scene near the beginning of one of my favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. Passages with transporting, virtually panoramic writing like this are what I hoped to see a lot of while reading the Bible, and what I anticipate a lot more of once I get further along.
Another interesting passage in the early part of Deuteronomy is 9:4-5, quoted at the top of this post. Don’t get full of yourselves, Moses warns his people. You will not succeed at capturing the promised land and creating a great civilization because you are righteous. You are not righteous, he tells them elsewhere; you defied the wishes of God on numerous occasions, and have been “stubborn” at every step of the way. But God has promised to help you, so he will. This seems like a good passage for everyone, religious or otherwise, to keep in mind. Even atheists such as myself can benefit from remembering that success does not often come from one’s own intelligence and hard work alone. Outside help nearly always plays an important role. “You didn’t build that,” Moses is effectively telling his people.
Oh, and it helps that your enemies are wicked. This part I find a little harder to understand. Are the enemies of the Hebrews more wicked than the Hebrews themselves? I suppose so, especially since they don’t worship the same god. But doesn’t this imply that the future, self-assured Israelites would be justified in attributing their success to at least some degree of righteousness on their own part, at least relative to the righteousness of other peoples? I can’t help but feel that there’s some contradiction here, although the main message is clear enough: other people are bad, but always remember that you’re not much better.
I can’t close this post without referencing my favorite song from the musical Cats:
Old Deuteronomy’s lived a long time
He’s a cat who has lived many lives in succession
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession
Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives
And more; I am tempted to say ninety-nine
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
And the village is proud of him in his decline
At the sight of that placid and bland physiognomy
When he sits in the sun on the vicarage wall
The oldest inhabitant croaks
Well, of all things, can it be really?
Yes, no, ho-hi, oh my eye!
My mind may be wandering, but I confess
I believe it is Old Deuteronomy
Really quite a touching song, if you ask me.