Cook-Amalekites and first fruits

In Reading Deuteronomy, a new commentary, Stephen Cook sees in the book’s law code an elaboration on the Ten Commandments one after another.  For him this is the canonical shape that the compilers and editors of Deuteronomy have given the book.  So it is not necessarily the original intention of the laws.  It is the way that the laws have been organized for the purpose of teaching and forming the people of God.

As I have said in several of these posts, I just do not see some of the laws that he says apply to various commandments as having anything to do with those commandments.

I can show my problem by talking a little more about how he deals with the commandment about coveting, the tenth commandment.  He claimed, as we saw in my last post, that the leverite marriage custom of marrying off widows to brothers-in-law was about not coveting your neighbor’s wife.  When he moves on to the part of the commandment about not coveting your neighbor’s property, he claims that the laws about not keeping fraudulent weights and measures (25:13-16) apply.  They may.

The last commandment has to do with desire, not action.  Stealing is actually taking something that is not yours.  Coveting is having the intention to do so, whether you act on it or not.  So the law about false weights does seem to relate.  The law forbids you to have such weights in your bag or in your house.  Having them shows an intent to defraud, whether or not you have done so.  If this were the only thing Cook tried to subsume under the heading of the tenth commandment, I could not complain.

But the next law in Deuteronomy requires Israel to wipe out the Amalekites.  I agree that this is symbolic.  The Amalekites no longer existed when Deuteronomy took on its canonical shape .  So a literal commandment to wipe them out makes no sense.

You can see the symbolic function of the Amalekites in Esther.  In Esther 3:1 the villain Haman is said to be an Agagite, that is, a descendant of Agag the Amalekite king that Samuel executed.

Haman may be a fictional character.  That an official in Persia five or six hundred years after Samuel was actually an Amalekite is unlikely.  But connecting him to Agag and the Amalekites served the symbolic purpose of highlighting his lack of conscience and vicious nature.

The Amalekites were emblematic of evil.  They had attacked Israel in the wilderness and targeted the defenseless stragglers (Deuteronomy 25:18).  And Haman had also tried to exterminate the people of God.

But what evil did the Amalekites represent?  Cook talks about them incarnating “archtypal covetousness.”  Why?  What exactly did they covet?  It looks to me like their evil lay more in irrational antisemitism, an affliction that is still around today.  Do we know what motivated the Amalekites to attack Israel in the wilderness?  Exodus 17:8 just says Amalek came and attacked Israel in Rephidim.  Deuteronomy 25:18 says that they did not fear God.  But I don’t see anything that shows their main sin to be covetousness.

Cook mentions Targums.  These were explanations, paraphrases and expansions of Scripture that were later read alongside of Scripture in the synagogues.  I am not familiar with them.  I am guessing that Cook gets some of his idea that the law code of Deuteronomy is an explanation of the Decalogue from the Targums.  But he does not cite them in detail, so I don’t know.  Maybe he is just interpreting Deuteronomy in their spirit.

Deuteronomy concludes the law code portion with the basket-offering brought to the Temple in 26:1-15.  The little historical confession in verses 5-9 is in the tradition of Hosea 12:12-13 and Psalm 78.  The summary does not include the confrontation with God at Sinai/Horeb.  This, says Cook, is because God meets Israel here and now at the central sanctuary to which they make their pilgrimage with their grateful tithe of first fruits.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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