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The Biblical heartland of Deuteronomy

Updated: Sep 29

Dan. Dan toran. The words are a transliteration from the Hebrew. In Hebrew the a is pronounced as the a in father, and the stress in the word toran is on the second syllable. Dan is a boy’s name. Dan toran means Dan is the monitor. But dan also means he judges. It is the name Rachel gave to the son her handmaid bore to her husband, as it is said in the Book of Genesis: And she gave him Bilah her handmaid to wife; and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilah conceived, and bore Jacob a son. And Rachel said: ‘God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son.’ Therefore called she his name Dan. And I too named my son Dan. And when my son Dan had his bar-mitzvah I returned to the Hebrew Bible and started to study its splendor.

Dan, Dan toran, were the first words I learned in my Hebrew primer in nursery school. I remember standing in the doorway to the class as my mother handed me over to the teacher. I was reluctant to cross the threshold, terrified at the unknown ordeal that awaited me as I left the playground to which my imagination had grown accustomed. The teacher took me by the hand and introduced me to a new world of strangers, some of whom I may have known but whose faces belonged to this new world and so were hardly recognizable. But the teacher persisted, her soft hand intertwined in mine did not let go until she had led me to a seat in a circle and given me that soft-covered book whose pages children much like me fingered and flipped, bending the pages back. Soon we were opening it and staring at Dan the monitor, a boy much like myself, and tracing the letters and dots which combined to form those magical words, Dan toran. My terror of a few moments ago subsided and yielded to ecstasy at this new language that unfolded on pages full of children who could do no harm. And so began that strange bond between terror and ecstasy which would not leave me for half a century, until my last and favorite analyst unpacked the link and explained how words remained when the events they described were long gone, and the feelings which dominate a child’s mind and even terrify him lose their power when confronted with the simple facts of an adult world, however formidable.

The patriarch Jacob was not a nice man, I learned when reading the Bible later in life and able to think about the text for myself. He stole the blessing from his elder brother with the conniving help of his mother. He married the wrong sister, because he too, like the father he deceived, could not see straight when his feelings overpowered him, and all his attempts to repair his failings only created havoc among his children. Even on his deathbed he repeated his mistakes as a parent, leaving all the good stuff to his favorite son of his favorite wife. God may have judged, but Dan was shortchanged along with the rest. I suppose it is hard to forgive sons who nearly murdered one of their own and then tricked their father into believing he was dead. But Jacob, a trickster by nature, should have looked in the mirror rather than be so eager to be deceived. Terror and ecstasy haunted him as well, I now see, and he had no analyst to set him straight. No wonder Moses decided to put an end to all that family drama. Or tried, in Deuteronomy, that book where Moses, it is said, said all those things, retelling the story of Israel’s crimes and misdemeanors in the hope he would forestall recidivism.

Picture them, Moses and the children of Israel on the eastern bank of the Jordan, waiting to enter the Promised Land as if it were a nursery school, Moses forbidden to enter, his minions a multitude that did not know Egypt, the trauma of Sinai, the countless betrayals that led their parents to shed their weary carcasses in the burrows of the desert. So Moses tells them the stories, hoping his words will accompany them when he cannot, words of wisdom, a guide to the invariably perplexed. Remember, he starts, forgetting they cannot remember, but nonetheless reminding them that they too were there, as if they were there, and so it would be for their children as well, and their children’s children, even mine. And after the stories, and between one story and the next, Moses again laid down the laws that were to rule them in their land once they entered and conquered it. When you go out to battle, he told them in one peroration. When you come into the land, he told them in another. And between the going out and the coming in he laid down nothing short of what today we would call a constitution.

An unwritten constitution, however; more a set of basic laws whose jurisdiction extended everywhere: war and peace, inheritance and divorce, captives, hygiene, commercial transactions, civic duty, charity, trials themselves. The list goes on and on, no matter too trivial or too disagreeable. How to take birds’ eggs from the nest. How to deal with conquered enemies. Which cities to put to the sword, which to turn into vassals. Compensation for a woman spurned, stoning for a criminal son, justice for sexual wantonness and repudiation of a dead brother’s wife. From the viewpoint of modernity one shrinks at some of the prescriptions, but that is hardly the point. For the first time in history a society was to be ruled not by royal caprice and might, but by law. And where one says law one says jurisprudence, and where one says jurisprudence one says dispute, rulings, interpretations. Interpretation is the key, then and now. Built into the law, it is also built into the stories that surround this first book of laws, whose poetry beckons the reader to ask what is going on and so learn something about the human condition. One has no need to whitewash the Hebrew Bible, or to condemn it. One has only to read it.

And so let us read. In this last of the Five Books of Moses it is no longer God talking to Moses and Moses to the people of Israel, but Moses himself reminiscing with the assembled throng of the people he has led, reciting the history of events and laws we have already read in the three preceding books. But as happens when we retell the story, even before a court of law, the story gets told somehow differently. Memory plays tricks, and if not memory the unconscious. The Ten Commandments undergo subtle changes. It is not Moses who told the tribal elders to go forth and spy out the land of Canaan, but now it is the elders themselves who came and suggested the idea, as if Moses could not refrain from reminding the people once again of their perfidy. And how could he not, for the very same backsliding which assailed him time and time again resulted in his striking the rock to bring forth the water instead of speaking to it, a flash of anger that led to his being forbidden to enter the Promised Land. It rankled, and we know it rankled because Moses refers to it time and time again in this book of recaps, though he denies it bothers him and dismisses its import. The irony, inescapable, runs through the text, and rings true because it is the very stuff of life, harsh though it may be, making the Hebrew Bible thoroughly politically incorrect, but the template of western literature for thousands of years. And anything but fundamentalist, the only part written in stone being the Ten Commandments, and even they had to be written so twice.

Twice-told tales is a Biblical invention. Two Creation stories. Pharaoh’s double dream. Two versions of King Saul’s death. Two blessings to the children of Israel: one by Jacob to his sons at the end of Genesis, one by Moses to the nation of Israel at the end of Deuteronomy. But where there are two there is doubt, and where there is doubt there is again interpretation, the stuff of sublime literature. Like the two portions in Deuteronomy that lie at its heart: Ki Tetze, When You Go Forth; Ki Tavo, When You Come In. And in the latter again a doubling over. When you come in to the land, Moses tells his beloved children of Israel, you shall set up an altar and write these words upon great stones that you may never forget the one overarching principle that admits of no interpretation, namely: the Lord is your God, One and Only, Who brought you out of Egypt to give you this land. And if you worship only Him and keep His laws, you shall be blessed, blessed in your comings and goings; but if you do not, if you abandon Him and worship foreign gods and idols and ignore His precepts, then you shall be cursed, cursed in your comings and goings. And this if/if clause of the contract repeats in its stylistic formulation the very choice which the rule of law lays open for people, offering freedom because the law can be challenged, interpreted and changed as long as the Basic Law is adhered to, much as de Tocqueville explained in his commentary on Democracy in America: religion is the hidden cement which makes liberty possible.

It matters little, therefore, if the modern reader takes exception to this stricture or that, for the deeper meaning lies waiting in the text for revelation. The inhabitants of distant cities may be spared, but those of the nearer ones have to be eliminated or Israel will succumb to their influence and descend into idol worship. Then as now once again, for what are the depraved Palestinian thugs but idol worshippers who send their children to the slaughter like the Moloch worshippers of old? Of course it is not nice to say such truths, but truths they are, putting the lie to the peace process that never happens. Just as it is not nice to read that the idol worshippers among the Israelites should be taken out and stoned, but then this terrible thing God was doing with the Exodus from Egypt was not child’s play in a nursery, but a great and awesome attempt at historical innovation. It took, but it had its price, just as modernity took and had its price in two hundred years of religious conflict in the West. Woe be to those who would backslide, as Moses himself well knew and tried to impress on his Israelites to his very last breath. Hence in the portion Ki Tavo, When You Come Into The Land, Moses lays out the blessings and curses, but the curses are three times as long as the blessings, laid out in blood-curdling imagery, and this too for the third time since we first read of them in the Book of Leviticus.

For if, when you come into the land, Moses told his assembly, you do not hearken unto the voice of the Lord your God and disobey His commandments, then He shall smite you with pestilence and consumption, the rain shall be powder and dust, you shall be visited with the boil of Egypt, with blindness and astonishment of the heart. Another man shall lie with your betrothed, live in the house you have built, enjoy the vineyard you have planted. Your children shall go into captivity, but before that you shall be besieged and forced to eat their flesh, yea even your women will be driven to eat their afterbirth. Plague and exile shall be your lot, where you shall live in fear and trembling and worship the idols you have longed for. Over fifty lines of vivid curses does this portion of Deuteronomy contain, ending with the ironic kicker: And the Lord shall bring thee back into Egypt in ships. The curses are so terrible and powerful that when they are read on the Sabbath in synagogue tradition has the reader of the Torah whisper them. But their graphic horror exists to drive home the point that backsliding always threatens, the passions of men are always there to be unleashed against the law and destroy it, sending society into civil strife and destroying the bonds which enable them to live every man under his fig tree and unafraid. Shakespeare knew that too, borrowing from Deuteronomy to formulate the curses which the Dowager Queen Margaret hurls at Richard the Third, foreshadowing the murder and mayhem his evil heart will unleash and which will devour the kingdom. Freud also knew that, making the analysis he suggested to tame the demons the interminable and uphill struggle he knew it to be.

The surprising outcome is that the Hebrew Bible took. For two thousand years it took, even was instrumental in unleashing the Reformation which inaugurated the modernity whose denouement we are witness to today in the misnamed and misunderstood secularism that the self-righteous are quick to champion. For where would Martin Luther have been if he had not had the Hebrew Bible to hurl against the Church and argue that any man who could read could achieve salvation? And where would our latter-day high priests of diversity and inclusion be without the lingering Biblical injunctions and truths which prevent the descent into chaos? For these priests misunderstand the nature of modernity, which thrives on diversity and inclusion, widening the scope of entitlement far beyond the bond of family and clan, to which the history of usury can testify. You may lend and borrow at interest outside the nation, Moses tells his Israelites, but not within, indicating that the rule of law which was to govern the ancient Hebrew commonwealth was not to be exported by imperial means, but offered by way of example. Yet it also underlined how the claims of family still lingered in the Israelite confederacy; and still do for those who see themselves first as members of the tribe. With lending at interest legitimized, a modern economy was free to grow and expand, lubricated by the circulation of money. To achieve this a modern economy had to burst asunder the confines of family, which always threatened the rise of stable national governance, and remove the contest of power from rebellion and usurpation to its legally sanctioned transfer. In a way Moses’s lifetime effort foreshadowed this, for the Exodus signalled not only the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage but the exodus of the Hebrew experiment from the family carnage of Genesis to the national freedom envisaged in Deuteronomy once the Israelites crossed the Jordan. Jacob again was returning home, but this time not as patriarch; instead, as a sovereign nation to be.

The difference is captured in rapturous pathos when we compare the blessings Jacob gave to his sons on his deathbed at the end of Genesis with the blessings Moses gave to his children of Israel at the end of Deuteronomy. In the former, Jacob’s blessings amount to curses bequeathed to all but Joseph. In the latter, the blessings are true blessings, for Moses has pardoned his flock for all their misdeeds. He has laid out the curses that await them should they once again decide to abandon the experiment, betray God and nation, refuse to shoulder the burden of this evolution in societal differentiation. He has even warned them of his misgivings that they in fact shall do so, knowing from first-hand bitter experience their tendency to backslide into the nastiness of tribal life. They did, after all, on more than one occasion threaten to kill him and his brother. But his eyes were not on the past, not even on the land he could only see from a distance. His eyes were on the future, on the project he had concocted in partnership with the Lord and which the poet now recorded in the form of a song and a blessing. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, said Jacob. But Moses said Dan is a lion’s whelp that leapeth forth from Bashan. Dan, Dan toran. Quiet hope, hope against hope here too, when terror and ecstasy are unpacked, and courage and resolution preside. Who then, even now, would abandon this Book of books?

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