The Deuteronomic Theology of Australia

The Hebrew creation narratives are not some naïve prescientific view of the world, as one might conclude from the impoverished six day "creation science" ideologies of fundamentalist churches. The creation narratives of Genesis are a sophisticated critique of the Babylonian world view of chaos and capricious gods who held humans at their mercy. (See here)

In Genesis, God is in control. God is not capricious. God overcomes the chaos. The creation is a good place. Humanity (adam in the Hebrew) is placed at the pinnacle of creation, not as a bothersome being to be wiped out whenever it suited.  Adam ("male and female he created them") is god-like... and of course, that can be taken in the wrong direction, for which Genesis 3 has been the corrective.

Following this stream of thought we have Deuteronomy (the fifth book of the Old Testament.) The name means (deuteros + nomos) "second law." It's a reprise of much of the story of Israel's Exodus from Egypt.

The story is told that during the reign of King Josiah, the Priest Hilkiah discovered a long lost scroll (which we now know as Deuteronomy) in the temple, during renovations. (Such convenient discoveries have occurred elsewhere: "In Mesopotamian shrines there were foundational tablets that were punctually discovered during restoration work." Simone Venturini.) The King realises that the nation has not lived according to the Law and that this is the source of its troubles. It is said to Josiah that

because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. 20Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.’ (2 Kings 22)

This prophecy fits exactly with the theology of Deuteronomy, where Moses says:

 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days... (Deuteronomy 30)

Theologically, this is a great advance over the chaos and capricious Gods of the cosmology of Babylon.  Live well, and life will treat you well, because, after all, God is blessing you for your faithfulness.

The "observing [of] his commandments, decrees, and ordinances" was very much associated with the fulfilment of temple worship, and the keeping of the daily rules of living in the community.

We have inherited this theology in secular Australia: Live well and properly, and you will be rewarded. It has been possible to believe in this as a measure of a good life because we have lived with the privilege of enormous wealth and political stability. This is failing. The working man's paradise of the early 20th century has succumbed to the excessive riches of a very few, with a growing dispossessed and displaced class.

Some socially conservative churches have taken Deuteronomic theology and debased it with crass prosperity theology: if you serve God in the right way and pay attention to (what are always arbitrary lists of local moral shibboleths) then God will reward you with riches.  Prosperity theology is the logical extension of Deuteronomic theology in a consumer society.  It is the theology (conscious or not,) of the Liberal Party. 

And as it fails under the assault of the climate catastrophe there will be a huge sense of betrayal.  The Liberals (and Labor) will do their usual thing of seeking to deflect the anger onto the less fortunate, using them as scapegoats to distract people from the reality. They have practised this for decades with the demonization of refugees, and we have seen this summer the sudden blaming of the Greens— who have, in fact, had nothing to do with the cause of the fires, the blaming of the National Parks which governments have been defunding, the blaming of mostly mythical arsonists... the list will grow; anything to avoid the terror of seeing that our underlying Deuteronomic theology, prosperity theology, has been a lie, and offers us no protection at all. Anything to avoid seeing that our prosperity theology is the cause of our dilemma.

We have all been born into, and enculturated by, this theology. It is our normative view of the world. To overturn it is to plunge ourselves into uncharted territory.

By contrast to Deuteronomy:

Jesus says Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9)

He is quoting Hosea, who says in Chapter 6,

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. (Here)

(The Greek word translated as mercy in Matthew 9 is the same word ἔλεος used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew of Hosea 6: 11. The Septuagint was the common translation of the Hebrew scrolls in the period the New Testament was written.)

Matthew's gospel has a serious call to faithfulness, but it is not Deuteronomic.

The faithfulness in Matt 25 that makes all the difference is not doctrine and not rule keeping. It is mercy, which is compassion, which is not sympathy but vulnerability which is to sit-with, and feel with (co-suffer), which is to be vulnerable-with... which, of course, may well lead to crucifixion with the poor and vulnerable. The promise is resurrection. (Andrew Prior)

And if we think about it, the temptations [of Jesus] in Matthew are all temptations to give in to the Deuteronomic vision: the creation of bread (bread and circuses in another part of the Empire) is cheap populism; it avoids the pain and risk of healing. The pinnacle of the temple is not only a tempting of God; high places are a symbol of power. In the movie Jesus of Montreal, Daniel, the Christ figure, is wined and dined in a skyline restaurant by some of the movers and shakers. In the end, what Deuteronomy offered was success: money, living long in the land, status among the people.  That is not the gospel. (Ibid)

Also from this text:

Matthew’s implacable hostility to Deuteronomic theology and prosperity teaching can be devastating to those people who have absorbed the view that discipleship means life will be good. Prosperity theology is not merely about money; more deeply, is the underlying idea that God rewards our good, moral behaviour. It is a pharisaic theology; it underlies the theological world view of the Pharisees, and we'll come back to them.

One of our great opportunities to enlarge people's world and faith and to model compassion, which is the mercy of God, is to help them discover God as a presence which does not correlate, necessarily, with a nice leafy green suburb, but is a potent presence and healing in the mental health wards and ICU, and in the outer drying and dying suburbs.  (Ibid)

Deborah said to me once that the purpose of life is to find out how to die.  My own theology is that we find purpose in a life which seeks to give rather than to get. To be compassionate and risk loss of control and all the small deaths associated with that loss is a way of finding a way through death, and finding that it does not own us.  Compassion, at its best, is agape, the word for love of the kind which seeks the best for neighbour, even at one's own expense. Richard Beck says of this love that it is "the allocation of our dying." And when Roy Scranton who I quote in Easter in the Anthropocene says this "civilisation is already dead," it is the culture of Deuteronomy to which he is referring.

Andrew Prior (Jan 2020)


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