I continue with Stephen Cook’s new commentary, Reading Deuteronomy.
Cook says there are three great discourses by Moses in Deuteronomy. The first one takes up most of the first four chapters and was an addition to the version of Deuteronomy that Hilkiah found in the Temple.
From this first discourse I am picking out just one issue to highlight. The issue is the struggle for the Transjordan in chapters 2 and 3.
Deuteronomy apparently follows accounts of this from sources–the Elohist and perhaps others. Israel did not fight with Edom, Moab or Ammon. But they were to clear the territory that had once belonged to Jacob and was now occupied by kings Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 2:24-3:11). This is a conquest story and is troubling to modern sensibilities for that reason. We think of American manifest destiny or South African Afrikaner entitlement. Or we may think of violent jihad, a religion-driven assault on infidels
Cook says that in E these stories are stories of divine conquest more than of human warfare. In Exodus 23:27 God’s “terror” goes before Israel and throws her enemies into confusion. Deuteronomy 2:25 and other passages show that Deuteronomy draws on this idea. For this reason, Cook says that no one can make this text serve an imperialist or genocidal agenda.
Deuteronomy is about God setting up a “bounded sanctuary-land”. This will be a new form of community. Just as God had given Esau Mt. Sier (2:5) so is God giving Israel back the land of Jacob. Cook thinks it is significant that about the time he reckons the final edition or our Deuteronomy came to be, apocalyptic writing and ideas arose in Israel. In apocalyptic one must wait patiently for God to act. Thus, there is never any justification for impatiently starting a war.
The war against Heshbon and Bashan is given a spiritual dimension. Popular belief was that semi-supernatural people occupied these lands before nations like Israel or Moab. Cook points out that the sense of 2:10 is that God gave Moab a land once held by legendary giants. So also King Og of Bashan is a remnant of the Rephaim, legendary people who still existed only as ghosts or evil spirits according to popular thought. So God gave Israel the land by taking it away from spiritual terrors, not so much from identifiable historical peoples.
Now 3:11, which talks about King Og’s bed, probably referred to a dolmen. These are burial slabs which had been laying around the Bashan area for maybe a thousand years by biblical times. They looked a little like beds for giants.
Anyway, Cook holds that for Deuteronomy the conquest is not a historical, military triumph, but a struggle against underworld forces.
I agree, at least, with the point that the conquest was not historical. The viewpoint of all the Pentateuch is skewed by the idea that all Israel was in Egypt. Historically this is very unlikely. When Moses and the band of former slaves arrived in the Transjordan, some Israelite tribes already lived there. I take Judges 11:26 as a bit of actual history that has slipped through. Also the story of Jacob being buried in the Transjordan (Genesis 50:11) has been suppressed by a sanctuary legend from Hebron.
Also Merneptah’s reference to an Egyptian war against Israel in about 1209 BCE has been interpreted as meaning Moses must have led the people out much earlier. But this is doubtful. The exodus and hill country settlements more likely correspond to the decline of Egypt after 1200 BCE. Merneptah’s Israel was probably pre-Moses. So Moses did not need to conquer the land when he arrived.
I am sure there were wars against Canaanite cities on both sides of the Jordan, but nothing like a short, sustained war of conquest. This is what I am working out, but it partly corresponds with Cook’s position. Cook, though, is mostly concerned with what Deuteronomy meant for people in late exilic through post-exilic times.
It helps me to understand that the conquest stories make a literary point, but that Israel was not historically an invading force from the outside. There probably was a good deal of warfare between rival warlords tribes and city-states, but the scenario of Israel coming in as an invading army is a literary way of making the point that God gave them the land.