I have Hebrew class in about 45 minutes and this chapter isn't going well. It's Deuteronomy 28 and it's just piles and piles of unique vocabulary. Up to now I felt like a Hebraic rockstar and now I feel like I'm fumbling through the main riff of Iron Man.
It's also a depressing chapter, the blessings and curses that Israel takes upon themselves in accepting a covenant with God. They seem more than a little vivid and harsh but my Hebrew teacher passed on to me the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, an Assyrian royal document from the 7th century BCE, giving a sense of a cultural milieu that wrapped the destinies of two parties into a binding and everlasting covenant, which neither party is looking to transgress, calling curses upon themselves if they do so. In Assyria this is between the king and a number of vassal princes. In Israel it's between God and Israel.
Plus, as uncomfortable as Deuteronomy 28 is, it can't really rival this treaty's curses. The line "may the urine of an ass be your drink, may naphtha be your ointment...may demon, devil and evil spirit select your house" really gives Assyria a leg up on imagining something that would make even an Eli Roth cringe.
But that's why context matters and why recovering the (non-homogenous, multivalent, and unceasingly fascinating) biblical world is important. We have so few strands that run through the scope of global human history that extend up through today, that reconnect us to this path that humanity has travelled over thousands of years and what has consistently mattered to us. Is this a story of gross insensibility? Of course not. The grotesque and extreme always finds its way back into the culture. If you're not sure of this, check your local Redbox.
But here in Deuteronomy (and even in the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon) these fates - some imagined but some real observations of illness, affliction and desperation - are to be avoided at the service of fidelity and honor. At weddings we say the words "til death to us part" not thinking of funeral parlors, embalming fluid, and coffins but it's all assumed and it's all there.
As much as I don't like the passage I remember that at the very core of this section (and this is apparent, not the product of creative readings) is the desire to bind ourselves irrevocably to the Wholly Mysterious, Wholly Other who communicates Himself not in silence but Presence and Providence. Where some see a gap we see an eye. Where some see neglect we see a hand hovering just below to carry and rescue. Faith isn't a flight of fancy but fidelity to one who is experienced as wholly faithful.