God’s Great Do Over: Thoughts on Deuteronomy by Peter Eisenstadt

images-131An essay I read recently by Jacob Neusner, the man of a thousand books, on the creation of the Torah, has got me thinking.

Most of Neusner’s 1000 or so books have been devoted to the explication of the Talmud, and his basic, though controversial thesis is that the complex corpus of documents known as the Talmud need to be read through the perspective of its final redactors. This means for the Talmud, everything it says about the Pharisees, about Hillel and Shammai, is filtered through the biases of those who lived hundreds of years later, which means it’s a poor historical source for the earlier period. And the Torah, for Neusner, especially the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah to be written, is filtered through the scribes, from the time of the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE to Ezra and Nehemiah, a century or so later, who created the Torah we know today.

jhumitlyi-r-1p9qhqca8gsbytp197wdgezetrmvhecyxrh1de0gqtq_su96ofprn7jss126And this means, according to Neusner that the book of Deuteronomy was shaped, not as the narrative indicates, by Israelites about to enter the land and create their nation, but by Israelites (or by this time, Jews) who were re-entering the land, starting from scratch; building a new temple, a new nation, out of the overwhelming sense of the failure of their first effort. It was a sacred text written by a people who saw their society smashed, lived in uncertain exile, and now, thanks to some good fortune, were returning to the land. And so, I would suggest, the way to read Deuteronomy is not as the story of those trying to enter the land, but the story of re-entering it, God’s great do over.

This I think explains much about Deuteronomy. It was shaped by people with an acute sense of what can go wrong in nation-building in the Middle East, as our politicians like to say. The theology of Deuteronomy can seem a bit simplistic; follow God’s laws, blessings upon you; don’t follow God’s laws, don’t ask. But perhaps the point is not that good things always happen to good people, but that it’s very easy for bad things to happen to the unwary, the careless, or the callous. God may be a shepherd, a rock, a redeemer, but God is not a safety net.

Deuteronomy emphasizes the things that Ezra and Nehemiah and the other scribes wanted to emphasize; the centrality and single unique location of the Temple cult, the importance of not seeking other gods or other non-Jewish women, among other principles. But another important theme is the fragility of God’s promise. The Promised Land never quite becomes the Gifted Land. God never gives the land to the Israelites, outright. He rents it to the Israelites with a revocable lease, reserving the right to cancel it any time, for any reason. It’s not a gift; it’s God’s land. It’s a short term loan. God foreclosures.

And of course God did foreclose. The Jews are now on their third try to make a go of it in their homeland with sort of ambiguous results. The problem is, far too many American Jews, even those who don’t believe in God, believe, in the words of the old song, “this land is mine, God gave this land to me.” But they have never really read Deuteronomy, a book written by people who knew what it was to love a land, see it go disastrously astray, and lose everything, a book that stresses not the certainty of God’s promises, but their conditionality, but of contingency and fragility. It is a lesson we need to learn again.