Yom Shlishi, 14 Heshvan 5780
Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Parashat Ki Tavo 5774

Rabbi Pete Tobias
11th September 2014

Chapter 28 of the book of Deuteronomy is one of the more challenging and difficult sections of the Torah. It lists the blessings that God will bestow upon the Israelites if they choose to listen to God’s voice and obey God’s commandments (verses 1-14) and then the curses that God will visit upon them should they choose not to do so (verses 15-68).

Not only are there almost four times as many curses as there are blessings, these curses are truly awful. In fact they are so awful that I do not even wish to detail them here. I will limit my selection of punishment and plague, famine and disaster that will be visited upon the disobedient Israelites to just two verses. Compared to some of the appalling consequences of the Israelites’ failure to listen to God’s voice, these two verses may seem fairly innocuous. They speak however, of an important political reality at a critical moment in Israelite history and offer a clue as to how this extraordinary list of dreadful things finds a place in the Torah, our holy book.

Before focusing on this one verse, however, I’d like to take a little more time to look at how Jewish tradition regards these curses that appear in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. W Gunther Plaut has the following to say in his Torah commentary:

‘It became the custom, when the annual cycle of Torah readings would reach this section, to call up a volunteer for the curses (sometimes the synagogue’s contract with the [male] sexton included his obligation to “volunteer”). Such a person would often be called up, not in the customary fashion, by name, but rather as ‘he who wishes’. The entire passage (verses 15-68) itself would be read without interruption and in a low voice… In Reform services, the passage is seldom read in its entirety.’ (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p.1364). I suspect that frequency reduced to ‘never’ in British Liberal congregations.

Lurking in the middle of this list of punishment and suffering are the following verses:

‘The Eternal will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors, where you will serve other gods of wood and stone.’ (Deut 28:36)

‘The Eternal will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like an eagle – a nation whose language you do not understand.’ (Deut 28:49)

If, as tradition would have us believe, these words were delivered by Moses to the Israelite people standing in the wilderness, these particular curses would seem pretty minor compared to the various pestilences and plagues with which they had been threatened. Placed in a historical context, however, specifically at the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, they acquire a much greater significance.

At that critical point in Israelite history, the prophets and sages of the day were struggling to redefine their theology. The idea that Israel’s God was invincible and that the people would never be defeated had taken a severe knock when the Assyrians had destroyed Samaria in 722 BCE and the ten northern tribes had simply disappeared. Jerusalem and Judah survived, but its wise ones knew that they had at best been granted a stay of execution, and it was only a matter of time before the people of Judah met the same fate as their northern cousins.

The challenge that faced the prophets and teachers of Judah was how they might ensure the survival of their identity and traditions once they were taken into exile as they knew they surely would be. Their first attempt to address this challenge brought us the Torah, that occasionally haphazard compilation of legend and myth, of regulation and parable, the main purpose of which was to remind Jerusalem’s exiles of their origins, their ancestors, their traditions and their beliefs.

The location in which the Torah was produced, as well as some of the stories in it and the influences upon it, produces further insight into the place in which it was compiled as well as the identity of the nation referred to in the two verses from chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. It also gives an insight into what the authors of this chapter of Deuteronomy were seeking to achieve.

There can be little doubt that the nation referred to in these verses is the empire of Babylon. Having defeated the Assyrians, the Babylonians emerged as the major Mesopotamian power late in the seventh century BCE. Nebuchadnezzar exerted great pressure on the little kingdom of Judah and, when Judah tried to rebel against that pressure, the might of Babylon descended upon Jerusalem.

This was the moment that the prophets of Judah had feared and anticipated. This was the event that could have removed Judah from the map as its citizens were taken into exile in Babylon and forced to abandon their previous identity and heritage and assimilate into Babylonian culture. Ancient Israelite religion would disappear and Judaism, which would take its name from the people of Judah, would never emerge to take its place on the stage of world history.

An enormous theological shift had taken place, however. The prophets and teachers of Judah, both those left behind in Jerusalem (such as Jeremiah) and also those in Babylon (Ezekiel may be counted among these, but I believe that there were several of Jerusalem’s scribal elite also working in Babylon to maintain the identity of the Judahite exiles) urged the people not to forget Jerusalem. They also assured them that their presence in Babylon was not due to weakness or failure on God’s part. It was the people’s weakness and failure that had brought them here.

How had they, along with their king, ended up being exiled in this nation unknown to them or their ancestors? Why had this nation, whose language they did not understand, come against them from afar? Because, as Deuteronomy chapter 28 verse 15 assured them, they had not listened to the voice of the Eternal One their God. It was they, the people who had let God down, and not the other way around. Many, if not all, of the literally unspeakable curses in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy were also likely to sound familiar to the Judahite listeners in Babylon – they described conditions in Jerusalem under Babylonian siege in ways that may well have reflected the exiles’ recent experience.

So whether we read it or not, whether we say it aloud or in an undertone, the clues offered to us in Deuteronomy chapter 28 provide compelling evidence of a major shift in Israelite theology following the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom – a shift that ensured that Judah’s exiles in Babylonian would retain their identity and would, in due course, return joyfully to Jerusalem and plant the seeds of what would eventually become the Jewish religion.