Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

[Note from Rabbi Panitz: This and next week’s columns are designed to give us a perspective on our Bible perhaps different from that which some of us habitually adopt. If the Bible is to be our life-long companion and inspiration, it is important that, with an adult’s level of comprehension, we grow beyond the first approximations of Biblical interpretation that we were given as children. I ask you, while reading these essays, to keep in mind that their aim is not to be critical, in the negative sense of calling verities into question, but is rather to prepare us for the task of breaking through to an understanding of the Bible, an understanding that is at once loyal to religious teaching but also willing to balance tradition and change.]

Introducing Devarim (“The Words”): Whose Words?

I. Hearing the Separate Voices in the Biblical Choir

We have just begun our annual encounter with the Fifth Book of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy. The English title of the work comes from the Greek words “Deutero” and “nomos”, meaning “second [statement of] the law”. That is equivalent to the Rabbinic name for the book, “Mishneh Torah”. But the older Jewish convention of naming a book by its first significant word gives us the word “Words” (Devarim) as the title of the book.

Indeed, the book is about words. On the face of it, Devarim is a book of speeches by Moses, with a few added words of scene setting, clarification, a description of what Moses did after he finished speaking the words of this book and finally, a proclamation of the unparalleled status of Moses.

But here is where things get very intricate, even problematic, and full of important possibilities. Whose words are the words of Devarim? God, directly or by way of inspiration of the other authors? Moses himself? The unnamed narrator (author(s)?) of the book? And when did they add their words?

To make this point more clear, let us use different typographical fonts to illustrate the different voices found in Devarim. We will use regular font for the narrator, italics for the voice of Moses and bold face for the voice of God. Let us look at the opening of the book, and also at an interesting aside from this past week’s Torah reading, and finally, at the conclusion of the book:

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel…
According to all that the LORD had commanded him…

Moshe set about to explain this Instruction, saying: (Deut. 1:1,3,5)

The LORD our God spoke to us at Horev, saying:
Enough for you, staying at this mountain!...
See, I give before you the land;
Enter, take possession of the land…(1:6,8)
(translations taken from Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

Thus far, it is easy to keep the various speakers separate. But at this point, it begins to get confusing. Who speaks the very next line: God?

About which the LORD swore to your fathers….

In which case God is being self referential in the third person (does God do that?)
Or perhaps Moses is the author of this line, in which case we ought to render it:

About which the Lord swore to your fathers…

In which case Moses is intertwining his own words with those of God, without any alerting of the Israelite audience (does Moses do that?)
Or perhaps, this is the explanatory note of the narrator (authors?) of Devarim, in which case we ought to render it:

About which the LORD swore to your fathers….

In which case it is the narrator (author(s)?) whose words are mixed with those of Moses and/or of God without any clear indication (did Biblical authors do that?)

If at this point you are feeling increasingly confused, and perhaps a bit irritated, please take that as a sign of progress beyond complacent literalism. Let’s move on to an aside found in the midst of the first speech of Moses. Again, we will use regular font for the words of the Deuteronomic narrator, italics for the words of Moses and bold face for the words of God:

The LORD said to me:
Do not harass Moav,
Do not stir yourself up against them (in) war.
For I will not give you (any) of their land in possession,
For to the children of Lot I have given Ar as a possession.
-- The Emites/ Frightful Ones were formerly settled there…
But the Moavites call them Emites.
Now in Se’ir the Horites were formerly settled;
But the Children of Esav dispossessed them, destroying them
From before them and settling in their place
(just) as Israel did to the land of their possession,
Which The LORD gave to them. (2:9-12)

This kind of “narrative frame-break”, in which the narrator of the text breaks the time frame of the speakers being quoted, recurs in this chapter. It becomes ever more clear that the narrator’s voice comes from a later time period than the voice of Moses. Thus, in verse 22, we hear for the first time an expression common in the later historical books of the Bible that bear stylistic affinities to Deuteronomy: “until this very day.”

The Lord spoke to me, saying
You are crossing today the territory of Moav, Ar.
When you come near, opposite the Children of Ammon,
Do not harass them, do not stir yourself up against them
For I will not give any of the land of the Children of Ammon to
as a possession
For to the children of Lot I have given it as a possession.
It, too, is considered the land of the Refa’ites,
Refaites were settled in it in former times….
Yet the LORD destroyed them from before [the Ammonites, who]
Dispossessed them and settled in their place until this very day.

What day would that be? Clearly, a time long after the day of Moses. The words of Moses in Deuteronomy are exhortatory, not pedantic. Moses cites history in order to enjoin obedience to God, not simply to clarify questions of geography and demographics. This text breathes a different spirit. Moreover, this aside makes sense as a learned explanation to a later audience, because that later group, not the Israelites of the day of Moses, would need to have this historical knowledge refreshed.

We can be even a bit more precise: This narrator includes a lesson about people who came from Crete (Kaftor), invaded Canaan and conquered part of it:

As for the Avvites who were settled in villages as far as Gaza
Kaftorites who came from Kaftor destroyed them
and settled in their place (2:23)

We know both from archaeology and from the Biblical text that the Philistines were those who came from the Aegean, bearing with them the secret of iron technology, and with their superior weaponry they became masters over Canaan, until King David liberated the Israelites from their overlordship.

So the narrative voice of Deuteronomy, dating to after the encounter with the Philistines, is separated from the time of Moses by generations, probably by centuries.
One final example will make it abundantly clear that the voice of the Narrator of Deuteronomy is from a time period far later than the time of Moses. At the end of the book, we hear of the death of Moses--- even the Rabbis of the Talmud debated whether or not Moses could have written those words. Then, we hear a glowing affirmation of the uniqueness of Moses:

…There arose no further prophet in Israel like Moshe,
Whom the LORD knew face to face… (Deut. 34: 10).

These words could not have been said until there had been a sufficiently large cadre of prophets in Israel to serve as a basis for comparison. Consider: would any American, writing in 1796, have written, “There arose no further president in America like George Washington”? Those words would have to have been uttered when the example of George Washington could have been contrasted favorably with all later presidents.

There were prophets aplenty in Biblical Israel, but the Golden Age of Prophecy was during the time of Kings rather than earlier. The most likely time for this verse to have originated would have been after Nathan and Samuel, after Elijah and Elisha, perhaps even after Micah, Amos and Isaiah.

The words of Devarim, we may conclude, come to us from many centuries. Far from being a stenographic report of the valedictory addresses of Moses, what we have is a conscious presentation of great memories from a time long before the composition of the book. The book is more complicated than we might have supposed… but in this complication there is much room to delve and derive lessons of value.

Shavua Tov!

Rabbi Michael Panitz