In memory of Rabbi Adin Steninsaltz, who passed away last weekend.
“These are the statutes and the laws that you shall keep to do in the land that the LORD, God of fathers, has given you to take hold of it all the days that you live on the soil.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz considers the relationship between the mitzvot concerned with the holiness of Israel and the mitzvot against idolatry that are in the parashah. The former concern korbanot (sacrifices) and their site, the maaser tithe, the shemitta year, the cities of refuge, and the pilgrimage festivals. The latter involve idolatrous prophets,the enticer who draws people away from God, and apostate cities.
Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:
When the People of Israel entered the Land, they had to learn to adapt to a world of seasons, agriculture, and an almost sensual connection to the land and its labor. When they found in the Land a preexisting practical and cultural foundation of connection to the earth, it is very difficult to distinguish between the professional, technical, agricultural side and the idolatrous element that was connected with it.
These considerations do not inherently create a desire for outright idolatry, but instead lead to the development of a mixed life. The people worshiped God, since this was their way of life and their ancestral tradition, but they also frequently gave in to the temptation to worship Baal, which represented a connection to the earth and to the land.
The repeated emphasis on maintaining distance from idolatry derives from the need to recall Judaism’s uniqueness, otherness, and apartness. Israel must remember that ultimately they are “a people that dwells apart” (Num 23:9), … For in spite of the Jewish people’s attachment to the Land of Israel, they are still are not “people of the land” but “people of heaven.”
Peter C. Craigie, “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies,” Biblical Archaeology Review
But how did the Canaanites conceive Baal? What was the nature of their faith?
Fundamental to this faith was Baal’s role in nature; through rain and storm, he made provision for fertile ground which produced the crops and fed the cattle upon which human life depended. But this faith also recognized the vulnerability of human life in a changing world. If the rains did not come, if the soils did not produce their crops, human life could fail. In mythological language, if the gods of chaos reasserted themselves and if the god Baal lost his preeminence, all human existence was threatened. And thus the goal of Baal’s religion was to secure his supremacy; only while he remained supreme, so his worshipers believed, would the crops and cattle so essential to human survival continue.
The Ugaritic texts make it clear that the religion of Baal had to do with necessities of life, the crops and food on which survival depended. Moreover, that fundamental appeal may have been bolstered by a further attraction: There is debate among scholars as to the role of sexual activity in the Ugaritic worship of Baal; in the mythology, the appetites of Baal for sex and violence are considerable.
Moses is warning is people not to be seduced by the religion and culture of the new land. That religion is sensitive to needs of an agricultural life. How is the religion of God different? What is the vision of life that Moses is trying to communicate, that goes beyond simply living on the land?