Okay, everyone, it’s time to indulge the nerdy side of my English major brain that has spent far too many hours analyzing literary elements. I know, isn’t that just the most exciting prospect ever? Try to contain yourselves, please.
As I read Deuteronomy, a prevailing undercurrent in the text seemed to emerge to me: God as a character and a protagonist seemed really inconsistent in his actions and motivations, especially when viewed through the lens of his relationship with the Israelite people. We see an incredibly repetitive refrain of vacillating between favor and punishment, veering wildly between the two. The notion of accurate transcription and preservation of the original message is always an issue that has the potential to arise, but it does not seem to be the issue here. We are presented not with Moses as an unreliable narrator, but rather we find evidence that God’s own characterization seems somewhat inconsistent in the provided text.
To highlight these extremes, we can look to quite a collection of passages within Deuteronomy:
- 4:23-31: “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God … For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. … You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. … When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.”
- 5:8-9: “…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.“
- 6:13: “It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.“
- 7:4: “Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.“
- 7:6-11: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. … Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.“
- 8:19: “And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.“
- 9:13-15: ““Furthermore, the Lord said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’ So I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire.”
- 10:10: “I myself stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, fand the Lord listened to me that time also. The Lord was unwilling to destroy you.”
- 10:17: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.”
- 11:17: “…then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.”
- 11:26-28: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
- 12:8-9: “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you.”
- 12:28: “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.”
- 26:18-19: “And the Lord has declared today that you are oa people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments, and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.”
- 28 in its entirety deals with the dichotomy of blessing and punishment
- 29:27-28: “…Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.'”
- 30:1-3: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.”
- 31:8: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
The God of the Old Testament seems to be much more wrathful in general, but this is highlighted especially with his relationship with the Israelite people. Hot and cold doesn’t even begin to sum it up, basically. At one moment, they are blessed and protected by God and their covenant with him; the next, he is threatening to destroy them and raise up a new group of people because of his displeasure with them. God comes across as a volatile protagonist who displays emotions and whims that are more fitting of a human than an omniscient, all-powerful being. We are given this image of an intolerant, wrathful God, who errs on the side of extremes with his attitude towards the Israelite people. It is also strange to see God reacting to Moses’ imploring and counsel; for God to be seen as an omniscient and omnipresent being, it seems strange that he would sway to the pleas of a flawed mortal.
The entirety of Deuteronomy 28 deals with the consequences of obedience and disobedience. If the people disobeyed, it wasn’t as simple as falling out of favor with God. No, it was a promise to systematically torture and punish them with all manner of horrors, and then wipe them out. It even says that God would take delight in punishing and destroying them if they disobeyed him. I don’t know about you, but having that kind of threat hanging over my head wouldn’t make me feel like much of a Chosen People. Good to know God wasn’t a big believer in overkill, huh? In 30:1, Moses promises that God will return his favor to them and gather them together to be blessed again if they turn back to him. Later on it says he will take great delight in blessing them and making them prosperous. It all seems to be very hot and cold with the character of God presented in this text.
Harkening back to 10:17, that isn’t very consistent with the image of a God who is “not partial and takes no bribe.” Showing favor to a chosen people to begin with shows partiality, and the promise to destroy them so thoroughly if they disobey further highlights that bias. He commands the people to pursue justice and banish bias in regard to their decision-making and handling legal matters, yet in passages like 5:8, he says he will punish later generations for the sins of their ancestors. That doesn’t quite fall in line with the image of a God who is impartial. In fact, there is more contradiction on the guilt and punishment within Deuteronomy. As Contradictions in the Bible points out, there is a promise in 5:9 to visit “…the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” However, 24:16 asserts that “Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, and sons shall not be put to death for fathers. They shall each be put to death through his own sin.” So which will it be? Is each individual responsible for their own sin, or will their iniquity be visited upon their children and future generations? It seems to be another inconsistency revealed through God’s motivations and relationship with the Israelite people.
Moses even implores the people to “be careful” to obey all of the commands passed down to them, which sounds more like a warning than a religious plea. Moses himself would not be allowed into the Promised Land, and he understood the consequences of not obeying those commands.
All the while, the Promised Land seems to be held above them as incentive for their obedience. God had already said that the older generation who had disobeyed him would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land, so there was that threat of losing out on the promised home for them if they did not carefully keep all of the statutes set before them. The Promised Land itself is yet another interesting facet of the view of God as a character and protagonist. As Contradictions in the Bible points out, we have seen in earlier in Genesis that God presented the vow of the Promised Land as part of that unconditional covenant with them. Yet in Deuteronomy, such as in 4:1, 4:40, and 12:8-9, the Israelite people are reminded that they have not yet reached the Promised Land and they must be careful not to err or be disobey so they will be able to inherit it. So which is it, according to God’s word? Is it an unconditional promise, or is it something that can be taken away if God was displeased with them?
All in all, it seems to present a rather inconsistent “character development” of God as the protagonist and within his relationship to the Israelite people. His vacillations between blessing and punishment, favored or shunned, and so much more present him much more as a figure led by humanistic whims and emotions and motivations than an omnipotent being.