The first book I ever remember reading was Deuteronomy. Long before I embraced the works of Dr. Seuss or discovered the magical lands of Fantasia, Narnia, and Pern, I read about God’s threats to the Israelites, should they stray from his commands. I loved the cadence and rhythm to Deuteronomy 28 – it was almost a form of poetry – and I loved the drama.
I sat in the den on a blue gingham-checked sofa and read from my sister’s lavender, leather-bound NIV Bible. The first twelve verses of the chapter detail how the Lord will bless the Israelites if they obey the Ten Commandments, but it was the later verses I found so thrilling.
“You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hands to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him.
The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess.
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish.
The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron.
The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.
The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth.
Your carcasses will be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.
The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores, and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.
The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind.
At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.
You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and ravish her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit.
Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them.
Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.
A people that you do not know will eat what your land and labor produce, and you will have nothing but cruel oppression all your days.
The sights you see will drive you mad.
It goes on from there, another 34 verses of curses. God threatens to throw the proverbial book at them if they fall or falter, up to and including genocide, cannibalism, loss of status, loss of livelihood, and the rape of a man’s fiancé. I think this is an odd book of the Bible to start with. Surely most children hear about Noah and the animals, or Adam and Eve and creation, or Jesus performing party trick miracles, before they read the details of God’s version of “justice”.
My mother tried to interest me in the blessings that started off the chapter as well; surely they held the same poetic appeal, the same cadence and music. But the blessings are a scant 12 verses long, and the cursings are 56. Besides, the curses were more descriptive. The sense of total destruction and utter woe is captured as well in this chapter as in almost anything I’ve read since in my life.
I think this was why I never believed the sentiment “God is love”. God was justice to me, not love. Love suggests something gentle, nurturing, and kind. Justice, on the other hand, makes room for both the carrot and the stick, heaven and hell, blessing and cursing. So my God growing up was powerful and just, omnipotent and omniscient, but I never thought he was all-loving or omnibenevolent.
(Originally appeared on my Old Blog.)