Cook-umbilical theology

Once again I am posting about Stephen Cook’s commentary on Deuteronomy, Reading Deuteronomy.

The longest of the three discourses of Moses in Deuteronomy take up most of the book, 4:44-29:1. It is the heart of the Torah or instruction that became the focus of Deuteronomy.

It is no surprise that this section begins with the Horeb or Sinai experience (Except in the added poem in chapter 33, Deuteronomy prefers to call the mountain as Horeb rather than Sinai. This corresponds with the usage of the parts of the first four books of the Pentateuch that we usually call the E layer or source.)

You can’t separate the experience at the mountain from the giving of the Ten Commandments. So right at the beginning of this segment we find Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments (5:6-33). God spoke these commandments face-to-face out of fire. He never spoke that way again. So there is something final about these laws.

A different version of the Ten Commandments exists in Exodus 20. The commandments in Deuteronomy are distinct in that they make the focus fall upon the commandment to keep the Sabbath.

Be careful to observe the Sabbath day just as the Lord your God has commanded you. You are to work and do all your tasks in six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On that day you must not do any work, you, your son, your daughter, your male slave, your female slave, your ox, your donkey, any other animal, or the foreigner who lives with you, so that your male and female slaves, like yourself, may have rest. Recall that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there by strength and power. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, NET Bible)

For Cook this makes the Ten Commandments about the well-being of Israel as the people of God. The Sabbath is a gift of well-being in that it commands rest over against the unjust and debilitating labor they had known in Egypt. It is a gift to the lowest ranks of society as well as the highest. It applies to children and slaves and aliens as well as Israelite householders.

This attitude comes out in the fifth commandments as well. The purpose of the commandment about honoring father and mother is that “it may go well with you”, a phrase that 6:3 repeats as the purpose of keeping all the commandments.

Cook says that this same notion of the “good” of the people was part of the thinking of the prophets Hosea and Micah (Micah 8:6 and Hosea 8:3). Thus the idea that keeping the law was for the well-being or good of the people extended back to the tradition behind Deuteronomy.

This vision of the well-being of Israel applied to the village culture (“within your gates” 5:14) based upon the extended families that inherited the land. The fifth commandment is not just about children respecting their parents. It is about sustaining the intergenerational family so that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren held the land and respected the ancestors buried on it so that the units of kinship like clans and tribes could pass on the commands of God and preserve the well-being of all Israel.

In thinking about how this worked, I thought of the refusal a Naboth to sell his family land (1 Kings 21:3). This, I think, would be a concrete example of keeping the fifth commandment. Cook says that Deuteronomy inserts the word “field” into the tenth commandment as something one must never covet. The word is not in the parallel in Exodus 20:17.

Cook calls this ideology of intergenerational loyalty “umbilical theology”. He sees it at play in the third commandment as well. When you respected the name of an ancestor, you maintained an umbilical connection with them and kept covenant loyalty. So Israel must uphold the name of God, the ultimate landholder. When they settled the land, they were to blot out the names of other gods (Deuteronomy 12:3).

In Deuteronomy there is a close connection between how we respect God and how we respect our neighbors. Unlike Exodus, Deuteronomy repeats the wording of the third commandment in the ninth. The command not to bear false witness in Deuteronomy 5:20 literally says not to bear “vain” testimony against your neighbor.

It is well known that most Protestants number the ten commandments differently than do the Roman Catholics (and Lutherans). Catholics combine the first two and separate the last into a command not to covet your neighbor’s property and a separate command not to covet your neighbor’s wife. Seeing these as two commands is implicit in the Hebrew in Deuteronomy but not in Exodus. Cook sees this wording as an advance for women.

I am not so sure about this. Both versions of the Decalogue are careful to include women (sons and daughters, father and mother). But they include them in a patriarchal structure where women in some sense belong to fathers and husbands.

Anyway, the important insight here is that Deuteronomy sees the Decalogue as the basis for the well-being of Israel, a blessed community living in God’s sacred land.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ancient Israel, Deuteronomy, Exodus and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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