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On the face of it, Deuteronomy seems to be a book filled with triumph — the pronouncement of the commandments, the end of the Israelites' long exile, the coming of the Promised Land. / But Daniel Berrigan here turns a searching eye toward this text and finds its darker side. Moses, the people's leader for forty years, is denied entrance to the land he dreamt about. The people desperately create a golden calf to worship even as God is giving Moses the two tablets. The Promised Land, full of milk and honey, is also...
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On the face of it, Deuteronomy seems to be a book filled with triumph — the pronouncement of the commandments, the end of the Israelites' long exile, the coming of the Promised Land. / But Daniel Berrigan here turns a searching eye toward this text and finds its darker side. Moses, the people's leader for forty years, is denied entrance to the land he dreamt about. The people desperately create a golden calf to worship even as God is giving Moses the two tablets. The Promised Land, full of milk and honey, is also full of inhabitants — gaining entrance means destroying or driving out a number of its people. / Berrigan draws clear parallels between Deuteronomy's time of mingled triumph and broken law and our own moment in history, uncovering the stories within the story of this complex biblical book. With both great grace and incisive candor, he turns Deuteronomy inside out and makes us look at it — and ourselves — in a fresh light.
the fortieth year,
the first day of
the eleventh month....
The words, the numbers, are like a held breath. How carefully noted, and how poignant! We near the end of a seemingly endless sojourn, recounted in detail in Exodus and Numbers - and now in Deuteronomy.
We have come so far; we stand so near. Moses stands so near - and yet farthest of all. This side of death, he is forbidden entrance to the Land of Promise, that dearest - and nearest - of rewards. He stands under a fierce indictment, a delict held in secret by the god.
An astonishing irony - a miscarriage of justice? His offense is unknown (unknown to himself?). The consequence is known to all-to all the ages.
No accounting for this God!
* * *
Moses is circumspect. The god keeps a secret; so will he. In an ever-so-slight reference to his "crime" and its punishment, he says only this to the people (in v. 37):
The Lord was angered
also against me,
on your account,
"Not even you
shall enter here."
"On your account"? The mystery remains; the delict stands. A harsh sentence is decreed. The classic insider, the man of unparalleled access to the Holy-he will undergo the death of an outsider. Worse-of a reject.
A biblical conundrum, this delict of Moses. One ponders the implication as the pen of our scribe lifts from the page, circumspect. He shakes his head, slowly. No, it shall not be told. Let the dire effect be underscored, the cause left blank.
Is the implication an instance of the deity's double mind regarding his favorite? Has Moses drawn too near, does he know too much, is he too powerful? Does he threaten, all unwitting (or perhaps witting), to play the supplanter? Must he, in consequence, be rudely reminded of his creaturely status?
"Fear God, and grow wise." Indeed, Moses had obeyed the command to the hilt. But, but - did God fear him?
Of all the mysteries that shroud the mystic and lawgiver, this seems the deepest: the deity's ambivalence toward one pre-eminently chosen from among the chosen.
* * *
At the start of the Moses saga, we were told of an inexplicable, near murderous attack against the favored one. Now, as he nears the end, the grand entrance, triumph is denied him.
* * *
In the desert years, we recall, Moses and Aaron hardly stood alone in divine disfavor. For a variety of sins, the entire nomadic generation was condemned. The corpse of Moses, together with that of his brother and sister, would be mingled with a vast trail of bones in the wilderness.
Experts have sifted those bones over the centuries, seeking clues as to the traditions surrounding great Moses. The bones keep their secret.
Like the bones of Ezekiel's vision?
No, these bones are different; they refuse to knit together.
* * *
One example of the inflation of the "legend of beginnings." The priestly scribe of 500 C.E. calculated that Moses led an armed force of some 600,000 men. The number suggests a population of Exodus folk of some 3 million. In The Old Testament without Illusion, John McKenzie remarks acidly, "One may calculate that a Hebrew host of this size would have caused an exodus of Egyptians rather than Hebrews."
* * *
Scholars have likewise sought light on the notorious Mosaic default "at Meriba, by the waters." As noted before, little of substance has come to light. The text, livid with divine anger, is opaque to probing eyes. The god does not easily give away the god's secrets.
* * *
In the era of Moses, the God of compassion, the God of the prophets, is emerging slowly, painfully, ambiguously, in national consciousness. At least on occasion, the god stands with the oppressed. With due reservations about fiery moods and reprisals, one is grateful for isolated acts of mercy and mitigation.
Still, an ethic of "to-fro" holds firm. Powerful opposing influences are at work. As we approach the imperial era, another god than a champion of the underdog appears. The emerging royal deity is a phobogenic projection, a fabled warrior seizing the reins of history, riding fast and furious.
War after war erupts. And in the era of kings, we note a series of ominous social developments, including, for the first time, an army of conscripts. Forced laborers construct grandiose emblems of empire. Taxation throttles; a class system coddles the wealthy and ignores the poor. Israel, in sum, has become a new and onerous Egypt.
And, crowning all, a pharaonic god. The God of the oppressed is nearly in eclipse, in favor of a god of the oppressor.
* * *
All, however, is not lost. Indeed, the worst times beget the breakthrough. Kings, whether David, Solomon, Hezekiah, or the royal nonentities who follow-the oppression that is their stock-in-trade brings in its wake an inspired opposition.
We will never have done with hailing them, the grand prophets. They salvage an onerous, odious scene, announcing a radically different God than the official deity of the greedy and violent. More-these passionate truth-tellers hold their rulers accountable for the sin that brought ruin to Egypt: idolatry.
Thus, out of the darkness of a wicked time, a dawn at last: the blessing bestowed on their time (and ours as well) of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and company.
Our text is a summons to remembrance. In memory lies healing from the world's incursive ills. In memory apprehended and courageously acted on, truth and strength flourish.
* * *
Firmness and suppleness here, and a deep human sense. It is as though the shade of great Isaiah stood near the scribe, attentive to the voice of Moses.
The address is direct, the memory urgent, the instruction lucid. We had not heard before a command imbedded in a code of law. Probity and compassion, we are told, are hallmarks of a people of faith. "Justice" issuing from "you judges" must be prophetic, unambiguous.
Justice above all! Before the just judge, a stranger at the gate stands equal to a tribesman. Ordinary person or grand personage-no matter; distinctions of class and station are disallowed:
Fear no man,
judgment is God's.
This is the sublime eminence of the judge. With fear and trembling he is appointed, to mime the Event of the last day, the final judgment.
Fear and trembling befit those appointed. And in the community at large, no fear and trembling. Fear only God, who is also named Judge; and who one day will judge the judges.
One can hardly conjure a more awesome vocation.
* * *
And in our day and place, one could scarcely summon a status more corrupted in practice, more entailed and betrayed, more sunk in racism and cronyism, in special interests and suppression of truth.
American judges? From the Supreme Court down, many of the incumbents are in servitude to a culture of death.
How, in a deadly atmosphere, are works of justice to flourish with independence of mind and needful passion? The contrast between the biblical injunction and American judicial behavior could hardly be more stark.
* * *
And we wonder: What inspires this voice of Moses, sounding forth with such clarity? The text, we are told, was set down in a woeful time. The institution of judges had long since proven decadent-and the kingship as well. It is as though, against all odds, a century of mayhem had sought to retrieve a golden age - alas, long gone.
Somehow, someone intervened, perhaps to underscore a truth lost in wicked times. Something like this: Granted, juridical misbehavior is the ugly norm. No matter; rendering justice with compassion must be insisted on. Long neglected, abandoned in practice, justice as a peerless civic virtue must be taught and underscored anew.
Let the text be set down, a reproach and a judgment. Do the words invoke a ghost rather than a robust reality? So be it. But let the ghost, summoned as it were to the bar, grow solid flesh and bone. Let the resurrected bear witness against shame and high crime, let him summon a humane and heartfelt sense of the neighbor.
* * *
In a given culture, judges illustrate the flourishing or decline of ideal and practice. In the times of the text, the magistrates have fallen away from justice, have bartered away their birthright. Inevitably, they oppose as well the justice of God. They must be made accountable once more, must repent and undergo conversion.
Let the text lie open, a summons.
* * *
Another text, of a later, hardly lesser poet. He takes the guise of a species of (black-robed?) cynic, urging a like sour spirit on others:
Child of Europe, Part IV Grow your tree of falsehood from a single grain of truth. Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality.
Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself, So the weary travelers may find repose in the lie.
After the Day of the Lie, gather in select circles, Shaking with laughter when our real deeds are mentioned.
Dispensing flattery called: perspicacious thinking. Dispensing flattery called: a great talent.
We, the last who can still draw joy from cynicism. We, whose cunning is not unlike despair.
A new, humorless generation is now arising. It takes in deadly earnest all we received with laughter.
* * *
One lingers with intense longing over the instruction of Moses.
O for a better way, a more humane behavior! Emotions stir the heart, movements akin to those evoked by the text. A like summoning of integrity and compassion was once claimed as our moral armature. We have squandered a grand legacy. We must assemble as one, and mourn it.
We would have our children and their children know: Forbidden virtues are honored in our hearts - if not in our behavior.
The old man's memories meander hither and yon, in free association. There is no discernible time sequence. Back and back time takes him; he stands once more in the wilderness years. Conflicts with Yahweh stand out like jagged rock formations struck by lightning. And now and then, a very Himalaya rears up; no surmounting it, death on the peak, death on the flanks!
Two of his companions will enter the Land of Promise, but Moses will not. It grieves him unutterably, this dire edict. Why are Caleb and Joshua favored? Joshua will succeed him; must Joshua supplant as well?
Great Moses, alas, must resign himself to falling short, deprived and punished.
And what of the children, born in the wilderness? They will enter the Land of Promise, those who, in a curious phrase,
do not as yet know
good and evil.
Meaning what? In the eyes of the deity, is this to be accounted a virtue, this "not knowing good and evil"? Perhaps an ironic hearkening back to the scene in Eden, and the temptation of the serpent? There, Eve foolishly entered into conversation with the intruder, skilled in bending the truth to his own devices.
Only listen, he avers, this utterly sincere serpent: The woman and man shall not die for tasting of the fruit of
the tree of the knowledge
and evil ...
The curious phrase lingers on unlikely lips - of God and of hasatan. To the latter, the fruit of the tree oozes sweet promise. It implies no fealty to God - and, for that matter, no death threat.
The Promise is heady as a fruit of paradise: You shall no longer be mere creatures of God. Come up, come higher!
You shall be
* * *
In our text, this would seem the implication: The second generation of Exodus have had no part in the divagations of their elders. Knowing the good, the younger have spurned evil.
They have thus merited the Land of Promise. A moment will come, a signal, a blast of the shofar. Cross the river and enter - the grand occasion so long desired, so long delayed!
By supposition - or by hope - or perhaps by foreknowledge - those poised at the river will be honored by the embrace of the deity. They have surpassed the generation of murmuring revolt and idolatry. For them, a Destiny unutterably sweet beckons. Come in, welcome!
Moses, for his part, seems confused regarding the will of the god.
One occasion looms big and dangerous: a resolve to do battle against the Amorites. Obedient or disobedient (we are not told), the chosen gird for battle.
The battle goes badly. And Yahweh, for his part, seems perversely content, like a parent who has let a recalcitrant child fall on its face, somewhat like, "I told you so! Next time, listen to me!"
* * *
The geography of the forty-year trek is also confusing, when it is recorded at all. Did the wanderers pass through Sinai from Egypt to arrive in Canaan? The mountains of the Sinai are all but impassable; the surrounding land is a waste. And prior to the fourth century A.D., no identification was made of the route of passage.
We have, in other words, a mythological leader and his tribe, moving like a mirage in an improbable landscape. Surreal, the caravan staggers about under a punishing sun.
And above and beyond, transcendent and awful, reigns the god, whose thunderous blows all but extinguish noon.
The people grow heartsick, disoriented. And no wonder. Who can forget (who is allowed to forget) the original sin, and its judgment, weighing heavy from the first days of "freedom"?
You are never
* * *
Meantime, how to describe the remaining years of a people proscribed? Life is reduced to a "meantime," a "marking time," a "doing hard time." These are a species of interim people. They come from somewhere, but they will go nowhere. This is the judgment. It is irrevocable; this generation exists only to produce a progeny better than themselves.
Does it bear meaning or no meaning, this scene, the interminable trek (and bearing, perforce, its stigma, a curse)? Trudging and bivouacing, colliding and bickering, faithful, idolatrous - the murmuring, the tent, and the momentous gift of the law. A parable - dire, fabulous, alluring - of the human pilgrimage through time?
* * *
That law has come down, a hammer blow. A momentous matter: the law is found wanting, wanting in love. It lacks heart. No wonder, then, if periodic revolt erupts. This restive tribe, their future proscribed, cry out, break out. They have had a surfeit of law, of lawgiver - of Moses.
A strange mix of truth and falsehood, of aspiration and illusion, of dread, decline, and death, is this cultural matrix, the fabled story of beginnings.
These Israelites, it appears, are not the sole favored descendants of Abraham. The author(s) must take into account large competing interests. And with what surpassing care Yahweh must play his hand, lest a wrong bidding set favorites at the throat of - favorites!
The Edomites, for example, descend from Esau. Hands off them; pass them by. "I will not give you so much as a foot of their land."
Likewise, the Moabites will be spared, for a time. They spring from the tribe of Lot, nephew of Abraham, so they are exempt from the incursion of the would-be settlers: "Do not provoke them.... I will give you nothing of their land."
And the response we read: "So we gave a wide berth to the land of our brothers...."
As for the other tribes, outsiders all, they are simply written off. Pereant, full speed ahead.
We have come to the thirty-eighth year of wanderings. The tone is of a dying fall; every one of Moses' generation, "even to the last man," has perished. And what of himself, solitary and aging?
Events that follow are presented austerely, as matters of divine will. "Take it or leave" is the tone. The time of exemptions is ending; lines are drawn firmly. Do armies impede the progress of the chosen? Sweep over, crush them, with utmost violence.
We mourn and are confounded, pondering a history which names itself "sacred."
Excerpted from NO GODS BUT ONE by Daniel Berrigan Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Berrigan. Excerpted by permission.
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