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September 2, 2006

Missing the Point on Deuteronomy

One of the pleasures of this project has been the opportunity to read or reread much of the Bible. This has not always been easy to explain to friends, many of whom have spent considerable energy, particularly in their early teens, avoiding reading the Bible. Still, it is hard to turn a page -- in either Testament -- without getting a new take on a familiar line. a new perspective on an aspect of an old religion or a sense of the complex dance performed by belief and disbelief.

Knowing some history certainly helps, particularly with a book like Deuteronomy, which appeared magically and conveniently one day while the temple in Jerusalem was being renovated and just happened to support every argument the king, high priest and the rest of the Yahweh-alone forces had been making. The message that only one God should be worshipped (Yahweh), in only one place (that temple in Jerusalem) -- put in the mouth of Moses -- is repeated over and over. It is, consequently, in Deuteronomy, more than anywhere, that monotheism is being created. Along the way this one God has to demonstrate that he can handle alone what the whole heavenly host had previously managed: that he could handle weather like Baal, that he could handle fertility like Asherah. The book contains a fascinating mix of threats, bribes and bluster.

David Plotz' misbegotten "Blogging the Bible" feature on Slate, however, manages to read Deuteronomy without any sense of its history and significance. No new perspectives arrive. The screen fills, instead, with the muted gurglings of a writer in over his head.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 2, 2006 8:49 PM


Never thought I'd be wanting to reread any of the bible after being force-fed the entire thing in catholic high school, but...yeah, esp these posts on Deuteronomy. It has (also) been an age since i read _Moses and Monotheism_; might be worth a revisit if you haven't been there lately, in connection with your interesting point here, M. One very cool thing about your blog is that you admit to being in just a bit over your head, yet you manage to offer all kinds of thoughtful insights about topics and texts that wouldn't normally be read/thought together... nearly always generating fresh, interesting (usually historical) perspectives ... thanks.

Posted by: JM at September 2, 2006 11:47 PM

I thought, though, that that was Plotz's point: he's reading the Bible without any special knowledge or training or, in fact, anything except a sort of generic "gosh, this is the sacred book of my religion and so it's true!" attitude - which brings him to a lot of "in over his head" moments, and even a few "WTF?????" ones. He's John Doe Everyman and the Bible is too much for him...

Posted by: The Ridger at September 3, 2006 11:47 AM

I agree with you on this one Mitch. I personally think that taking any literary work out of its historical/cultural context can easily distort its meaning. Imagine blogging Plato. What an idiot he would seem.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 5, 2006 2:52 PM

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