Parashat Va-Ethanan

July 17, 2021

by Bettijane Eisenpreis

“For your own sake, therefore, be most careful – since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire – not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever…”  — Deuteronomy 4: 15-16

The book of Deuteronomy is unique among the five books of the Torah. It was written much later and repeats much of what the other books, especially Leviticus contain, with sometimes striking differences in wording and emphasis. The passage quoted above is a prime example. It is an introduction to the Commandment: “Thou shall have no other gods beside Me.” I have quoted only part of the passage, but the author goes on to describe in great detail what the Israelites must NOT worship – “the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth,” and on and on, through birds and snakes and fish, sun, moon and stars.

It is safe to assume that this emphasis on the prohibition of idolatry must show that idolatry was a big problem when this passage was written. Other sins forbidden by the Commandments –murder, stealing, covetousness, disrespect of parents — were all problems, and they still are. But they are eternal problems, and civilized societies will always try to strive against them. Idolatry, on the other hand, was the accepted religion of the nations around Israel. Other cultures imagined their gods to be like people, more powerful, but with all the virtues and faults of humans.

Now, the Israelites were being asked to worship an invisible, all-powerful, mysterious God. They were instructed not even to say the name of this deity, the four letters that we hold sacred, that were sometimes pronounced as “Jehovah”. Worship of God would make them “a kingdom of priests and a holy people,” but worship of other gods would lead to destruction.

Did the people obey? Did they worship the one God, without exception? The answer is, “not always,” but they certainly tried to. The religion of those early Hebrews cannot be called monotheism. They worshipped the God of Israel, but at that early stage, they did not rule out the existence of other gods, the gods their neighbors worshipped. While Exodus says, “Thou shall have no other God before me,” Deuteronomy substitutes “beside” for “before.” The earlier book seems to say God comes first, but there are other gods, while this book is groping to introduce the concept of a single God. It was remarkable enough that, for all their faults, the people were able to unite in the worship of their God. It was and remains, all these generations later, the key to their survival amid all their troubles.

The Book of Deuteronomy may repeat a lot of the previous material, but there is a good reason. Passages like this one show how the people of Israel grew. They kept on learning, reaching for a more perfect understanding of the world and their place in it. That learning process continues among us to this day.