Two Pluralistic Texts from Deuteronomy

The relations between different cultural traditions pose opportunities for those traditions to articulate how they view the Other. Human history shows that there is no shortage of ways to demonize and degrade the Other. Here I would like to comment briefly on two biblical texts that illustrate two different ways a pluralistic view of the Other might be articulated. By pluralistic I simply mean a view that accepts the validity of another cultural tradition, or parity of another cultural tradition with one’s own.

The first text is Deuteronomy 2. Here, the Israelites are making their way to the Promised Land and in the process have to cross the land of the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites (groups of people that lived in what we now call Jordan). When the Israelites come to the boundary of each group, the god of Israel tells them not to engage with the people because he has given them their land for a possession. There is a lot that could be discussed about this chapter of Deuteronomy, but what is of interest here is this idea that the god of one people (the Israelites) has also made some provision for three other groups (Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites). It could be said that this is a bit ethnocentric of the biblical author to think that his god has done the same thing for other groups as he did for the Israelites, after all, we know from other texts that those people have their own gods. Be that as it may, it is one way that the biblical texts articulate a reason for NOT destroying the Other.

Another well-known text from Deuteronomy 32:8–9 expresses a recognition of the parity of other groups and their religious traditions. Scholars have commented on this text extensively, so what I will say about it is hardly original, nevertheless, it is interesting when brought into the conversation on religious diversity. The verses are as follows:

“When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”

Scholars have long noted a textual problem with the phrase, “the number of the gods.” The traditional Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) has, “the number of the Israelites,” which doesn’t make great sense here. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek version of the Old Testament read as above. This latter reading is most certainly correct. The manuscript evidence is better for it, it makes better sense in context, and the change to “Israelites” seems theologically motivated. Given that the correct reading is “the number of the gods,” this text paints a picture of the high god (El Elyon translated here as Most High) handing out the different groups of people on earth to his children (i.e., the beney elohim), who appear elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Job 1:6; Psalm 82:1; 89:6–7). In this text, the god of Israel (the LORD), gets Jacob (=Israel) as his allotted people. Again, so much could be said about this text, but the key point here is that the biblical text expresses this idea the relationship between the LORD and the Israelites is somehow parallel to that between other groups and their gods.

Both of these text express a certain parity or equality between cultural and religious traditions. You only need read the context of these verses to recognize that this parity or equality is not absolute, and is not see as applying to every group. Nonetheless, both texts hold out the possibility for cultural and religious groups to find a place in their ideology for those who are different.