Reading Time: 4 minutes

[back to LEVITICUS]


You’re a thirtyish Israelite. You’ve been wandering in the desert your entire life and are now poised on the doorstep of the Promised Land. You can practically taste the milk and honey—which, after nothing but manna all your life, sounds pretty damn good. Just one ordeal remains: the Trial by Sermon. Moses is geared up to give you Israelites a three-sermon thrashing, telling y’all (1) why you don’t deserve the reward you are about to get, (2) all the arcane rules you must henceforth follow, and (3) the many, many people you will have to exterminate — Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites — for not vacating the Promised Land. For though Yahweh was apparently able to promise you the land, he was not in a position to evict the previous tenants himself.

(For the actual slaughterfest, read Joshua. Deuteronomy is just the marching orders.)

Hangest thou in there, O Israel, until the end of the third sermon, and I promise you, Moses will finally die. Then you can proceed to the Promised Land and get on with the holy business of genocide.

So who’s ready for the most delightful combination of comedy and genocide since Springtime for Hitler?

SERMON #1: Dad reminds us what happened last time…like we’d forget

Moses reminds the Israelites of the reason for their troubles: God tried to lead them into the Promised Land 40 years earlier and they had disobeyed. (Okay, Moses was the one who actually incurred God’s wrath, but as he makes clear in Deut 4:21, the Israelites made him mess up. Did I promise comedy or did I?)

Now, as they enter the suburbs of Canaan, Moses is essentially turning around in the front seat and saying “Now listen, we’re about to pull into my boss’s driveway again, so I’m going over the rules one more time. And if you kids embarrass me again, so help me, it’s Deuteronomy 28! Got it?”

SERMON #2: The Rules

Moses: “Now listen carefully. I can’t go with you into the Promised Land, because—as I believe I mentioned—you made me disobey Yahweh. So I’ll give you the rules and then die. They are simple rules—so simple even a Hittite could follow them:

“Once you’re inside the P.L., worship only Yahweh, and only in the designated areas. Don’t listen to people from other cultures and religions. In fact, kill them. Drink, but don’t get drunk. No shrimp or pork, and if you enslave another Hebrew, be sure to let him go after six years. No fortunetelling or witchcraft. Kill stubborn sons and all Amalekites, but NOT fruit trees, the mothers of newborn birds, or livestock that have fallen over, because that would be mean.

“No mixing fabrics, crops, or genders. Follow thus-and-such rules for marriage, loans, hygiene, and military service. Don’t sacrifice blemished animals. And if you’ve murdered someone, we have designated three cities where you can flee for asylum.

“I believe that covers everything. Oh, one more, this is important: Women are forbidden to grab the groin of their husband’s enemy (Deut 25:11, lest ye doubt). Can’t believe I almost left that one out. That is all.”

That’s the gist of the sermon, but the way it proceeds is interestingly different from the earlier attempts to lay down the law—much more lawyerly and tight. He doesn’t just instruct the Israelites to worship only one god; he backs them into an epistemological corner with a pretty impressive rhetorical Q&A. It’s like Socrates, with worse logic but a much better beard—all circularity (“Yahweh is the only real god because he’s the one who spoke from the midst of the fire,” etc.) and argument from authority. But a tip of the yarmulke for at least making an effort at argument.

Take a moment to read and appreciate the breathtaking bloodlust in Deut 20:16. I’ll use the happiest, breeziest translation possible for this (The Message), and it still retains the ability to disgust an ethical humanist:

But with the towns of the people that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, it’s different: don’t leave anyone alive. Consign them to holy destruction: the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, obeying the command of God, your God. This is so there won’t be any of them left to teach you to practice the abominations that they engage in with their gods and you end up sinning against God, your God.

Cross-stitch THAT one on your throw pillow, Grandma.

Okay. So there’s the LAW portion of our program. Now for ORDER.


Sign no treaties with the heathens. Show them no mercy. Kill them all, smash their altars, chop down their sacred trees. And if your brother, or your son or daughter, or your wife, or your closest friend urges you to worship a rival god, show him no pity or compassion. Take his life. “Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death.”

And then it gets serious. Remember the hypothetical dad threatening his kids with Deut 28? Here goes. If you break Yahweh’s laws:

“You shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky.”

“The Lord will strike you with hemorrhoids, from which you shall never recover.” (28:27)

“You shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed.”

“If you pay the bride price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her.”

“You shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!;’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘if only it were morning!’—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”

“She who is most tender and dainty among you will secretly eat the afterbirth that issues from between her legs because of utter want.” (sometimes translated as eating the newborn itself)

Moses, creatively exhausted, dies, then (according to those who continue to assert that he wrote Deuteronomy) writes about his burial and the thirty days of mourning that followed.

Looking for the milk of human kindness in the Bible? Stick with the gospels—no no, better make that the synoptic gospels—and cherry-pick the epistles and proverbs, but steer clear of Deuteronomy. On the biblical wind-chill scale, Deuteronomy — please forgive the expression, Wiccans — is the witch’s tit.


How amazingly strange to learn that the very same evening I wrote about the death of Moses, Charlton Heston died.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.