Sunday, December 13, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 28

What do you see,
what can't you see?

In a world of doubles
split down the middle
a path running between
What will come on you?

Will you be swallowed by a mirror
Where the center cannot hold?

For full chapter, click here
This chapter follows seamlessly from the previous chapter’s command to set up the “blessing” and the “curse” on facing mountains. If in the previous chapter, the children of Israel were to be split between Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eival, half articulating the “blessings” while the other half articulated the “curse,” this chapter continues and emphasizes this binary structure. The chapter is set up along a clear split between the blessings that will come “if you listen” and the curses that “will come” “if you do not listen.” This overall frame is repeated on a microcosmic levels, as the individual blessing / curses are also structured along binary oppositions: “blessed are you in the field blessed are you in the city” “be cursed in your leaving be cursed in your coming.”

Between these mountains of blessing and curse, a path runs. Again, and again, the chapter emphasizes the leitword d’r’k, path, road: “You must not shift to the left or to the right” “you will walk in His paths.” These binary structure does not simply delineate isolated instances of consequence, but rather a path leading inevitably to a destination. The blessing and the curse will “come upon you and overtake you,” like the sun comes up, or a flood follows rain.

Yet as the chapter continues, the binary structure is also complicated and undermined. A single word unites both the blessing and the curse: n’t’n, “given”—the same word used to introduce this whole section of covenant: you will either be "given" blessing, or "given" into the hands of your enemies, or given a "fearful heart" you will wish to escape. A single concept unites the opposite sides: the question is how it is utilized. 

What is more, the description of the curses is far more detailed and extensive than the presentation of the blessings. Though they echo each other, there is also a break in the pattern. In the end, the curses become a kind of canon, raising and repeating the same issues again and again, in infinite regress, with continuously growing complexity. 

For example, the simple “Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land, ,” is first directly echoed in “cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land." 
But then the curse is expanded: it is not simply that the “fruit of your body” are cursed—they will be actively taken away: “your sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and your eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day…” 
Then it it is not only that they will be taken away—they were never truly yours: “You shalt beget sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours; for they shall go into captivity.” 
And in the final horror, it is you yourself who destroy these “fruit of the body”: “You shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters whom God your Lord gave you.”

The terror of the curses seems to lie specifically in this break of the binary structure. A cursed world is a hazy world, where one cannot--or does not want to--see: "you shall grope in the afternoon like a blind man." The curses undermines the clear demarcation of heaven and earth, as "dust shall rain from the sky." They make the distinction between "city" and "field" meaningless, as the walls of the city are "pulled down" and the outside comes in. Even past and future becomes fluid, as the past is not really past. "God shall bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the path that I said to you "you shall never see it more." With the erasure of these primary distinctions, the relationship between self and other breaks down. Brotherhood, "the wife of your bosom," beloved child--all turn into the enemy. One cannot even relate to one's self: disease attacks from within, and one "watches your life hanging in doubt before you."

If up to this point, Deuteronomy has been concerned with establishing the lines between inside and outside, ingroup and outgroup (see for example 21, 20, 19), this chapter gives a sickening glimpse into what it would mean to break down all these distinctions. What if opening the bounds does not make all men brothers, but rather assures that no men are kin? )

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