Monday, October 19, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 21

What do you bring in
When you go out
And what do you take out from within?

[For full chapter click here
The chapter is a mixed back of disparate laws. Its opening reiterates and intensifies the themes of the previous chapter, while its closing looks ahead, to a time after settling in the land, defining the relationship between parents and children in a society where inheritance is at stake.

The opening section reiterates the previous themes of “coming in” and “gone out,” yet complicates them. If in  the previous chapters, we established a sacred space “within” and then “went out” to war, here what is out is brought in, and what is in is taken out.

The opening returns us to the laws of murder, and the metaphysical responsibility for blood: “you must expunge clean blood from within you.” Yet the movement “out” has changed the responsibilities “within” (a key word in all these chapters). In chapter 19, we dealt with the laws concerning inadvertent manslaughter, and the need to provide refuge for the killer from vengeful relatives who seek to “redeem the blood”—a responsibility to those who fit “within” (k’r’v) the roads and center that define Israel. Here, the responsibility is instead to the anonymous corpse, to the outsider who has no relative to demand “redemption.” Literal closeness, physical proximity, creates a bond: “then your elders and judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance unto the cities which are round about him that is slain. And it shall be that the city which is next to he that is slain, the elders of that city shall take a heifer that has not drawn a yoke…”

The ritual of atonement enacted by the elders brings what is outside into the intimate sphere. The unbroken heifer is taken to a wild “river that is not worked,” and what is beyond human habitation comes to atone for human habitation. The ritual shares much in common with the enigmatic laws of the Red Heifer, which comes to purify after contact with death. Here, we restate the connection between inheritance and blood, but a level of primal rituals of contact with the earth.  The stranger is brought “within” the circle of responsibility, and the unmarked spaces beyond the roads are webbed in to the sacred.

After bringing the outside in, we once again move “out” to the laws of war (the two sections are connected by a word play on yi-matze—“find”-- and te-tze—“go out”). Yet if the previous section on war mandated complete destruction, so as to prevent “learning from their abomination,” here, there is a possibility of bringing a captured woman “into your home.” After following a ritual of mourning and symbolic severing “inside your home,” the outside can become intimate: “and afterwards she shall be your wife.”

Uniting these two sections is a focus on seeing and eyes: the elders must swear that “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it,” so that they will do “the right in the eyes of God.” The unseeing eyes then open  to see “among the captives a woman of beautiful form” (21:7). 

At the closing of the chapter, the focus on seeing shifts to a focus on hearing, as the breakdown of relationship between parents and children is defined by "he does not listen to us" (21: 20); and the son's death penalty is supposed to make "all of Israel listen." Here, what is closest is expunged, as the parents "take out" (ho-tzi-u) their son to the court.
There is constant pulsation between bringing in and going out, between closing the senses, and opening them.]

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