Cook-sacred interruptions

I have come to Deuteronomy 15:1-16:17 in Stephen Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy.

This divides into four sections that seem quite different. In 15:1-11 the topic is debt relief. In 15:12-18 it is the release of indentured servants. These at least have debt as a common factor. But 15:19-23 is about sacrifices of firstborn animals. And 16:1-17 is about religious festivals.

Cook insists that, in spite of the varied topics, these passages all hang together with the Sabbath commandment. They all, he says, promote the practice of “sacred interuptions”. This goes back to what Deuteronomy has previously said about the land being a place of rest, a place where he provides breathing room for beleaguered Israel (12:10).

In regard to the release of indentured servants 15:15 echoes the fourth commandment in the form Deuteronomy gives it:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you to do this thing today (NET Bible).

A saying “no” to the Egyptian notion that it is Okay to treat God’s people as though they did not share in their God’s freedom is part of the point of all these provisions.

First, there is the sacred interruption of the debt cycle. In God’s new land people have to let go of debt every seven years. In practical terms what this protected was the passing on of land in families and clans. The original inheritances had to be reset at intervals. These kinship groups included people who would otherwise be landless like Levites, foreigners settled in the villages, widows, orphans, and distant relatives.

Cook claims that this law in Deuteronomy abrogates the previous law in the Covenant Code (Exodus 23:10-11). Nehemiah 10:31 tried to harmonize the two. But Cook thinks Deuteronomy addresses a new situation by superseding the older law. The new situation would be the one we see Micah railing against where Jerusalem officials and an Iron Age version of crony capitalists were using debt laws to claim old clan estates.

Second, the worst effect of the selfishness of the creditor elites was that some Israelites got sold into compulsory labor to satisfy unpaid debts. People were not only losing their land. They were losing their freedom.

Cook takes the position that Deuteronomy is totally against slavery. It has a Utopian view of society (15:4). However, it tempers this with knowledge of the hard reality of life (15:11). One of the ways it accommodates to this hard reality is by accepting limited, temporary bond servitude. Yet by treating women and men equally (v. 12) and insisting on generous provision for the released servants (v. 14), it goes beyond the older law of Exodus 21:2-11.

The release of bond slaves at seven-year intervals aims at extending the rest of the Sabbath commandment so that God’s people share in the rest and freedom of God.

Third, Cook sees the instruction not to work firstborn oxen in verse 19 as meaning that the sacrifice of the firstborn also connects to the fourth commandment.

Deuteronomy 15 effectively expands Sabbath virtue to include reverence for the God’s ownership of all life, all creation. Limits on human economic exploitation, the text adjures, must be interconnected with limits on human exploitation of natural life.

Finally, Cook sees the repeated use of the number 7 (7 times) in 16:1-17 as another pointer to Deuteronomy’s extension of the Sabbath law. The Passover reminds Israelites that they do not belong to themselves. The position of these laws right after the firstborn sacrifices, reminds Israel of the death of the Egyptian first born that they escaped by God’s mercy. So now they have to make a new pilgrimage to the new Horeb where they celebrate Passover as a kind of super Sabbath:

You must eat bread made without yeast for six days. The seventh day you are to hold an assembly for the Lord your God; you must not do any work on that day (16:8 NET Bible).

Cook’s application of this to modern society takes the Liberation Theology perspective in regard to third world debt and environmentalism.  To me this is disappointing, but expected.  Academics operate in a kind of progressive echo chamber these days.  It would be startling for scholars to acknowledge that using the State to promote social justice is problematic and subject to unintended consequences.

After all, the Sabbath theology of Deuteronomy is about limits.  Possibly that applies even to government.  It was the Egyptian government that enslaved Israel.  Part of the problem in Micah was corrupt government officials.

What laws, taxes and regulations ought to expire every seven years?

But the political application is only a few paragraphs amidst much very valuable material.

Posted in Deuteronomy, Exodus | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cook-defying Sheol

The main feature of Stephen Cook’s interpretation in Reading Deuteronomy is his refusal to interpret the book at face historical value. In other words, the literary time of the text is the days of Moses as the people camp just across the river from the land promised to them. But historical criticism points to an actual date for the compiling of the book in the late monarchy and on into the exilic period.

So he looks at the those laws in Deuteronomy that seem to target Canaanite practices and asks what relevance they have in a post-Canaanite age, when the actual cultures confronting Israel are Assyrian and Babylonian, not Canaanite. Also, the culture of Israel itself has gone off the tracks so that Deuteronomy confronts it from a prophetic stance.

You are children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave your forehead bald for the sake of the dead. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth (14:1-2 NET Bible).

Many commentators say that the cutting and shaving are Canaanite practices. But Cook sees them as indigenous to Israel. They were extreme Israelite funerary practices. The problem with altering your body as a reaction to death is that it links you to the realm of death. The faithful response to death is to mourn for a period and then rejoin the community praising God. But if you retain the marks of mourning in your body, then you stand as a contradiction to the community of praise. You cannot, on the one hand, link your body to the realm of death, and, on the other hand, affirm life with the community of God. (See Psalm 115:17-18).

Leviticus 21:5-6 spelled this out for priests. Deuteronomy democratizes the prohibition by applying it to all Israel. You are the children of God. You are a holy people. You are chosen and prized.

After a section about the acceptable diet for Hebrews, it is again stressed that the Israelites constituted a people holy to God (14: 21). The command against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is about separating life from the realm of death. The milk is life-giving. The young goat is dead. Humans may consume once-living things. But they must defy the realm of death by not mixing the two realms. The realm of darkness and decay must not encroach on covenant life.

The diet section, 14:3-21 deals with animals destined to die. But from Deuteronomy’s point of view some animals are more “deathful” than others–those that eat carrion, for instance. But it would also include animals not fully drained of blood or the road kill that has taken on the characteristics of a corpse (the most unclean of all things) by beginning to rot. Deuteronomy restricts Israel’s meat diet to domestic grass eaters and a few kinds of wild game and fish. This shows respect for life.

Many misunderstand the unclean animals as though these animals were all disgusting or inferior. Cook points out that the stork was seen as magnificent (Job 39:13) or the raven as under the care of God (Psalm 147:9). The prohibition on eating these animals was supposed to honor their lives. It was not a value judgment.

“Contrary to all misconceptions, Deuteronomy’s dietary rules are nothing more and nothing less than a symbolic construct, a ritual program for forming Israel into a holy community, distinctly hallowing the name of the God of life.”

I am glad I have read Cook’s previous book, The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism.  Otherwise I might assume that Cook thinks this “symbolic construct” was constructed just for Deuteronomy.  However, his actual position is that Deuteronomy has roots that we can trace at least as far back as the coup against Queen Athaliah.  He assumes that they go back further than that, but that historical methods fall short in trying to find them.

I do not know what his stance is toward an opinion like Avraham Faust’s that some of the dietary laws were originally ethnic identifiers over against the Philistines or Phoenicians.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Deuteronomy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cook-eschatological totalitarianism

Is Deuteronomy 13 totalitarian? In totalitarian states loyalty to the party is everything. Family members get recruited to spy on other family members. Any deviation from the party line is reported. Those deviating are labeled as reactionaries or enemies of the people. They are eliminated or sent to camps.

Deuteronomy 13 says that you must eliminate first prophets who encourage rebellion against the Lord, then your brother, son, daughter, wife, or best friend if they try to entice you away from God, and finally whole cities if they turn to other gods.

This is not liberal toleration or multiculturalism.

In Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen Cook says this is either/or thinking and that it is most applicable to eschatological thought where the triumph of God at the end of history is contemplated. Then there will be community solidarity and all that is anti-God will be eliminated. He says Deuteronomy 13 compares to sayings of Jesus like the one in Luke 14:26 about discipleship requiring you to hate father, mother, wife and children. Yet he says that the Bible in many ways acknowledges that you cannot apply either/or thinking in real life.

He emphasizes how 13:14 requires inquiry, search, and questioning before one can take action. Some semblance of due process has to happen. Thus the text recognized the possibility of false accusations and hasty judgment. He points out that the kind of action against prophets urged in 13:1-5 was attempted against Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:10 and 26:8). The point of that is that Jeremiah seems to have been in the circle of Deuteronomy so the book was not compiled in ignorance of the possible abuse of chapter 13.

As a Christian, I also thought of the actions taken against Jesus (and Stephen) as showing the dangers of any attempt to enforce Deuteronomy 13 in real life.

To Cook this passage speaks of the radical requirement to keep the first commandment. You have to brush aside the fulfillment of this as eschatological rather than of this age in order to use this passage as a weapon.

To be frank, I do not find anything justifying an eschatological interpretation of the chapter in the text. You have to turn to a kind of canonical context in order to make this interpretation. In other words, in the context of the later prophets and even the New Testament you can take these words up as a kind of projection of the ultimate triumph of God.

Cook rightly shows that Deuteronomy 13 depends upon the language of Near Eastern vassal treaties. He thinks this chapter and chapter 28 depend on Assyrian treaty language. The vassal treaty of Esarhaddon from 7th century Assyria talks about conspiracies of prophets and close relatives just as does Deuteronomy 13.

There is a discussion among scholars about whether late Bronze Age Hittite vassal treaties might not be an even better match for Deuteronomy 13. Joshua Berman has argued that Deuteronomy 13 may rely on the Hittite treaties and so be much older than the 7th century. There have been scholarly responses to Berman. See here. Cook doesn’t mention the Hittite treaties. He obviously disagrees with Berman.

I wonder if there is a middle ground. Berman’s thesis is suspect because certain kinds of apologists will use it to push for Moses as literal author. This seems to me to be a non-starter for several reasons. However, the gist of Deuteronomy 13 could be very old. I say this partly because the role of the Levites as enforcers of something like Deuteronomy 13 seems to be very old. Also there are stories in Judges about the tribes taking collective action against a single tribe that seem to follow a pattern similar to Deuteronomy 13:12ff.

The provisions of the Hittite and Assyrian treaties were meant to enforce political loyalty. Deuteronomy 13 apparently adapts them to enforce a theological loyalty.

As far as the ethics of this are concerned it seems to me that as usual Cook has made some good points that mitigate a practice that is clearly culturally alien to me. Yet I have a suspicion that this law was enforced in real life more often than we would like to think.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Deuteronomy, Ethics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments


I am reading the new commentary on Deuteronomy by Stephen Cook, Reading Deuteronomy.  I have reached the crucial 12th chapter.

Deuteronomy 12 centralized worship in the temple at Jerusalem. This was a revolution. Before this there were many shrines around the country where worship was acceptable. Cook thinks that in light of the historical prelude in the first 11 chapters, what chapter 12 does is to establish a new Horeb.

Just as the people had to go on a long pilgrimage from Egypt to the mountain of God. So now the people must travel to Jerusalem for festivals to assemble for worship and instruction. The centralization reestablishes the nature of Jewish faith as a pilgrimage or journey.

This is how Cook phrases his take on the centralization:

“The people of Israel reunite at the central shrine to recapitulate God’s binding them together as an integral, integrated ‘Thou.’ Forming this ‘Thou’ afresh, they invoke the ‘I-Thou” encounter between themselves and God that stands at the heart of Deuteronomy’s covenant. The single shrine of Deuteronomy furnishes Israel with a staging ground for an event, for the performance of a word-act of divine encounter. In this place, on this stage, Israel acts in freedom and power, recreating itself as a ‘Thou’ who invokes the Lord. It acts to re-member itself, inclusive of all members of its entire populace, so as to summon God forth.”

The emphasis is on encounter. God does not dwell in Jerusalem rather than heaven. Jerusalem becomes the stage upon which Israel encounters God. This is the meaning of the statement that God’s name dwells in Jerusalem. It is the place where God’s voice may be heard and his presence experienced. But God is in no way confined to Jerusalem.

So Cook does not see the centralization of worship as much as a power play by the priestly establishment and the royal court as some scholars do. The God who had revealed his name at the burning bush at Horeb now reveals his name in Jerusalem. But his voice is heard in the Temple precincts through voices like the prophetess Huldah and the prophet Jeremiah, who challenge the Jerusalem power structure. Rural Levites can come and exercise their traditional role in the capital.

In fact, one of the anti-elitist features of the centralization of worship is the welcome accorded to all Israelites regardless of gender or status.

“You shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord your God, along with your sons, daughters, male and female servants, and the Levites in your villages (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you)” (Deuteronomy 12:12 NET Bible).

One of the problems for modern scholars that stems from the centralization of worship in Jerusalem is that after Deuteronomy the annals suppressed the reality that before this there were several shrines, not just the apostate ones like Bethel, but shrines that were acceptable places of worship. For instance Moab claimed to have destroyed an Israelite shrine near Mt. Nebo, the very site where Moses delivers the discourses of Deuteronomy. But the Bible never mentions this shrine. Archeology and biblical criticism show that there were a number of such shrines. But after Deuteronomy Israel pretended that centralization had always been in effect and that other shrines were all apostate.

Cook gives a strong defense of centralization as theologically meaningful and full of values like hospitality and rest (vs. 9-10). He claims that it was not a political power play. I am not fully convinced. This is probably because I cannot help but resent the rewriting of history. I know this is a modern, liberal, Western prejudice. But there it is.

I summarized Adam Welch’s critical analysis of Deuteronomy 12 in this post a few years back.  Welch dealt with old traditions now embodied in Deuteronomy.  But I still find Welch’s approach illuminating.

Posted in Deuteronomy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cook-a way, not a law

Stephen Cook in Reading Deuteronomy makes something of the differences in the Golden Calf story between Exodus and Deuteronomy.

According to Exodus–the E account, which is a source for Deuteronomy in Cook’s analysis–Moses pleads with God for mercy upon Israel (Exodus 32:11-14). However, in Deuteronomy 9:14 God is at first finished with Israel. And Moses lets that stand. Moses smashes the commandments (v. 17).

I have read both Deuteronomy 9 and Exodus 32 and I don’t see as much difference as Cook does. The sequence is a little different. He sees much significance in that.

To Cook Deuteronomy’s account has to do with the smashing of the covenant in the late monarchy. This is why Jeremiah prophecies a new covenant. God ended his old way of dealing with Israel. It is time for a completely new start. So Moses prays, fasts, and comes down from the mountain with a fresh covenant.

The role of Moses in Deuteronomy has a lot to do with his death. He must die on a mountain before the people can cross the river. But the account of Moses going back up Horeb to receive a new covenant prefigures his death. He not only goes without bread and water forty days (9:9), but when put together with 9:18, 9:25 and 10:10, it appears he did it at least twice, possibly three times. This is a symbolic death. He starved himself to death on the mountain, as he perhaps literally did on Mount Nebo.

Also Moses prostrating himself before God may mean he took the position of a dead man (see 9:18 and 25). Cook says “the Hebrew rings with connotations of falling down in death.”

Moses becomes the exemplar for a life-style of self denial for Israel and, especially, for Levites.

Deuteronomy 10:11 concludes the section of the book recounting the wilderness experiences of Israel. This section has been a historical prelude to the core law code. But in 10:12-13 Moses shows that this law is not to be just a rigid regulating of life. Moses calls on the people to seek what God truly desires.

Five verbs in these verses take in Israel’s response to the God who has led them to the edge of the land: “fear”, “walk”, “love”, “serve” and “keep”. That love is at the center of these responses refers back the the Shema’s call to “love the Lord your God.”

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good? (NKJV).

Cook makes a significant point about the call to walk in his ways. Deuteronomy is more a way than a law. The Message translates “follow the road he sets for you.” The book of Deuteronomy reveals that road. This is in line with Cook’s argument that Deuteronomy is more about emulating God’s lifestyle than following arbitrary rules.

One of the interesting things about Cook’s approach is that he puts Deuteronomy within a tradition that goes back to earlier works like the Elohist, Hosea, Micah, and the Psalms of Asaph. If you look at Micah 6:8, for instance, you will see a prefiguring of Deuteronomy 10:12.

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you,

But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? (NKJV)

The point of view of Deuteronomy may even go back to one of the sources behind Samuel who saw his ministry as to instruct Israel about the “good and the right way” (1 Samuel 12:23).

There seems to be a question behind this whole tradition: What does God require of man? Priests and Kings had their answers to that question. But there seems to have been another movement that answered the question in a more practical way for ordinary Israelites. That movement led to Deuteronomy.

Posted in Deuteronomy, Exodus | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cook-testing and spiritual formation

Stephen Cook’s new commentary on Deuteronomy, Reading Deuteronomy, is my topic for this series of posts.

Cook saw the Assyrian and Babylonian threat in the late monarchy as the actual historical setting for Deuteronomy–though it deals with Moses and the people on the verge of entering the promised land as a literary device.

Besides the threats from foreign powers, there was another side to Israel’s existence in the late monarchy. That was the prosperity of Israel. The book warns Israel not to think that “the power and might of my hand have gained me this wealth” (8:17).

In 8:14 they are warned not to let their “heart be lifted up”. This seems stilted and not too meaningful in English. But the warning is actually against arrogance, self-importance, and lack of gratitude. Deuteronomy buttresses this warning by recalling the years Israel spent in depredation and need in the wilderness. Yet this was a period of particular intimacy with God. It was a time of formation as God’s special people.

I have noted that the idea of spiritual formation gets taken up by Cook as an important concept in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy reaches back to the journey of Israel in the wilderness to speak of Israel’s continuing journey with God. This is at the forefront in 8:2:

Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test you to see if you have it within you to keep his commandments or not (NET Bible).

Nasah, the Hebrew word for testing, is full of meaning. Cook says it is God’s way of bringing his people through trying and refining experiences so that they own for themselves a relationship with God that is more than an expression of their self-interest. It leads them to authentic intimacy with their divine Lord.

In testing them, God is not performing a capricious experiment upon his people. Instead, he is teaching them to revere him by pushing them to the limits but holding them close even in times of trial and suffering. Thus they learn that they do not “live by bread alone” (8:3).

Cook strongly argues that Deuteronomy has gotten a bad reputation as a legalistic book. It is not an ironclad book offering punishments and rewards. He cites more than one scholar who claims that Job’s friends based their insistence that Job was being punished for his sins on Deuteronomy. But Cook says this does not fit with Deuteronomy 8 at all. Here God tests his people in a way similar to the testing of Job. He does not automatically reward good behavior with material benefits.

Undeserved bad happens. And undeserved good happens too. When people prosper they should not think it is a reward for their virtue. Rather, they should be grateful and humble. And when they suffer, people should see it as a challenge to cast off “self-sufficiency and control needs, throwing oneself instead on the mysterious provision of God . . .”

When I think of Deuteronomy I think of the sense of gratitude conveyed in the book. Clearly the book calls us to see whatever blessings are in our lives not as accidents but as manna and water from the rock, divine gifts. I loved Cook’s perspective on chapter 8.

Posted in Deuteronomy, Spirituality | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cook-mythic annihilation

In Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen Cook has already shown how the Israelite occupation of the Transjordan was conceived in Deuteronomy as a battle, not against actual Canaanite people and tribes, but against mythic, even occult, forces.

In Deuteronomy 7:16 we have another appalling call for ethnic cleansing

You must destroy all the people whom the Lord your God is about to deliver over to you; you must not pity them or worship their gods, for that will be a snare to you.

Once again Cook denies that this command was meant literally. After all, if this came from Josiah’s time, it was at least 600 years after the actual time of Moses. Canaanites no longer had armies or kingdoms within the land. Deuteronomy is relying on a Near Eastern combat myth so that chaos and death are God’s true enemies and the Canaanite pagans stand for these more mythic enemies. The listing of seven tribes in 7:1 is  a symbolic listing of evil forces arrayed against Israel. This emphasizes the point also made in 7 and 17 that Israel is puny compared to the powers over against it.

But, according to Cook, these powers are the powers of Sheol that hate God (v. 10). A standard feature of cosmic combat myth and poetry is the intervention of a divinity to cause a stunning, unexpected turn-around. This is exactly what we get in 7:23.

I was interested in the “hornets” v. 20 says God sends against Israel’s enemies. According to Cook, this is too literal a translation. The word actually signifies the “awful dread” associated with God as a divine warrior. Its result is a panic that disables God’s enemies.

In his discussion of chapter 7, Cook says:

In this canonical context, Deuteronomy 7 aims to vindicate the truth of the Shema over against all of Israel’s fears about their own internal security. The Israel of King Josiah’s day must learn to trust the Lord, not rely on military treaties, strategic maneuvers, and empire building. Israel must not divinize doctrines of national security; the terror of Death must not reign; Assyria can be no cause for fear.

Most of this quote would also serve as a summary of Jeremiah’s message. So I suspect that Cook has interpreted Deuteronomy 7 through the lens of Jeremiah. That is not necessarily bad. Deuteronomy and Jeremiah are indeed close in many ways. That is probably part of what Cook means by “canonical context” here.

However, I don’t think this interpretation solves all the problems about the seeming annialationism of Deuteronomy 7. In the Near East annihilation was often literal even if described in mythic language. King Mesha of Moab, for instance, in a royal stele spoke of annihilating an Israelite army. Even allowing for exaggeration and mythic language, Moab and Israel fought an actual war and actual people were annihilated.

The Bible has no moral qualms about the sudden mass death of an Assyrian army, although God is the one who killed them according to 2 Kings 19:35. This is part of the Deuteromonistic History. So one would have to think that the compilers of Deuteronomy did not have any semblance of our political correctness.

Nevertheless, Cook does have several good points that do mitigate some of our modern concerns. There is a mythic background to the language, and you can align it somewhat with Jeremiah’s critique of militarism. However, Jeremiah’s message is also in a context. So you can’t use it as a blanket critique of the use of force.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Deuteronomy, Ethics | Tagged , | 1 Comment