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.]

II. Words, Words, Words: Echoes of God, Echoes of Humans

(Part 2 of a two-part essay begun last week

In last week’s essay, we looked closely at the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) and teased apart those texts that are clearly the voice of a Narrator living well after the time of Moses. Now, we will explore the probable dating of that Narrator, and close with a meditation on the significance of the book being a product of many generations.

This past week’s public Torah reading contains two of the most famous passages in the Bible: the Ten Commandments and the “Shema” affirmation. Each of them contributes to the theme we are pursuing.

The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah. This version differs in some small respects and in one major respect from the version found in Exodus chapter 20. The major difference is in the rationale given for the commandment to rest on the Sabbath. Exodus grounds that mandate by stating that God established the day of rest, leaving unsaid the implication that in resting, we are emulating God.

For in six days
The LORD made the heavens and the earth
The sea and all that is in it
Resting on the seventh day;
Therefore The LORD gave the seventh day his blessing and hallowed it.

(adapted from Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Exodus 20:11)

Deuteronomy omits that rationale and substitutes the appeal to the Exodus from Egypt. Much as in the first of the Divine Utterances, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of serfs” (Deut. 5:6), God’s liberation of the Israelites gives God the standing to replace Pharaoh’s laws with new ones. This assertion of the standing of the new monarch to legislate for his subjects is a standard feature of Ancient Near Eastern treaties. In the context of the Sabbath:

You are to bear in mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt
But the LORD your God took you out from there with a strong hand
And with an outstretched arm;
Therefore the LORD your God commands you to observe
the day of Sabbath. (5:15)

Contemporary students of Deuteronomy glean an important lesson from the renewed emphasis on God’s liberation of the Israelites found in that book. Deuteronomy contains terminology that was current in the northern part of Biblical Israel, rather than in Judah. For example, as we saw last week, in Deuteronomy, the Mountain of Encounter between God and Israel was not called “Sinai” but rather “Horev”.

Americans ought to be familiar with this kind of variability. Our Southern Civil War historians refer to battles by the nearest settlement, for example, the Battle of Sharspburg, whereas Northern writers refer to those same battles by nearby geographical features. What Southerners call “Sharpsburg” Northerners call “Antietam”, after Antietam creek, which waters the plain of the battlefield.

Building on many of these linguistic hints, scholars have come to believe that Deuteronomy originated in a circle of pious Israelites living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. When the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by an Assyrian invasion in 721 BCE, these scholars fled to unconquered Judah, taking their text with them. Judah’s dramatic rescue from the Assyrians, narrated in II Kings 19, gave a powerful contemporary resonance to the familiar story of the birth of the Israelite nation in its liberation from the Egyptian Pharaohs. (For an authoritative exposition of this thesis, see Jeffrey Tigay, “Introduction”, Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society,1996), xxii-xxv.)

So the kernel of Deuteronomy may indeed go back to living memories from the days of Moses, but as a text, with its own narrative voice, our book has something to do with the time period of the deliverance of the Judeans from Assyrian rule. That would place it in the 8th century BCE.

Time went on, and the Book of Deuteronomy was lost or suppressed. We know this from the biblical report of its rediscovery. II Kings 22-23 narrates the discovery of a Scroll of Torah in the Temple during a building renovation undertaken at the command of good king Josiah— late 7th century BCE. We can infer that the scroll in question was Deuteronomy because in response to its teaching, Josiah piously ended all the worship of the LORD in high places around the country, centralizing all sacrificial worship in the Jerusalem Temple (II Kings 23:8-9). The prohibition against decentralized worship of Israel’s own God is found only in Deuteronomy, chapter 12. Therefore, Josiah’s actions, taken to fulfill the words of the newly-rediscovered scroll, are strong evidence that the scroll in question was Deuteronomy.

The authors of the Book of Kings were so impressed by the fidelity of Josiah to God’s teachings that they praised him in resonant words:

No king before him had turned to the LORD as he did,
With all his heart and soul and might
Following the whole Torah of Moses,
Nor did any king like him appear again. (II Kings 23:25)

This passage ought to remind us of Deuteronomy in two important ways. First, the phrase, “all his heart and soul and might” echoes the words of the “Shema”: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and might” (Deut. 6:5). Second, the praise of Josiah echoes the praise of Moses that we examined last week: No prophet arose after Moses who was his equal, and no king arose after Josiah who was his equal.

The conclusion is that the authors of The Book of Kings are in some way connected to the narrator’s voice in Deuteronomy.

The narrative of Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses, and an early version of the Book of Kings likely ended with the triumph of Josiah. But Josiah was later killed in battle, and the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed. The Book of Kings was given an epilogue, telling of the sad destruction of Jerusalem, but finding a glimmer of hope—God is present even in Exile (II Kings 25:27-30). Likewise, there are hints of a final revision of Deuteronomy, undertaken by faithful Jewish leaders in the Babylonian Exile. This revision does not show up as an epilogue to the entire book, but rather as a recasting of “the Rebuke”, near the end of the address of Moses making up the bulk of the book.

In the first ending of the Rebuke, the Israelites are lost in Exile, so desperate that they put themselves on the slave auction block, but fail to find a buyer (Deut. 28:68). But in a later passage, that I believe reflects the search for hope among the Judeans/Jews languishing in Babylonian Exile, the authors add:

When there come upon you all these things
The blessing and the curse that I have set before you
And you take them to you heart
Among the nations where the LORD your God has thrust you away,
And you return to the LORD your God and hearken to his voice…
The LORD your God will restore your fortunes
and have compassion on you
He will return to collect you from all the peoples
Wherein the LORD your God has scattered you…
And… will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed
And you shall possess it.
He will do well by you and make you many more than your fathers.
(30:1-5, excerpts)

I have placed these words in italics, following the convention established in this essay, because the words are quoted as being by Moses. But what if they actually reflect the realities of the Babylonian Exile, seven centuries later?

“Don’t put words in my mouth!” is a typically modern put-down. But in ancient times, historians routinely put words in the mouths of great historical figures. They did so not out of unworthy motivations, but because they understood their mandate as being the task of bringing those historical figures to life.

In the last analysis, the Book of Deuteronomy is an attempt to make Moses, man and message, present in the life of later generations of Israelites and Jews.

What is the take-away from this analysis?

All of this means that we fail to understand the Bible if we read it with a fundamentalist mind-set. We collapse the words of bearers of our tradition into the words of the founders of our tradition, and we collapse the words of humans into the words of God. But people are not God—that is the central teaching of Judaism.

The equation of limited, human understandings of God with God’s own will is what permits hateful people to apply literally verses that mandate cruel treatment of women and children (Deuteronomy 21:21 and 25:11-12). The Rabbis, Founding Fathers of our religious tradition, did not make that mistake. They carefully walled off these inhumane verses, making them inapplicable. But we see from many quarters the citation of various Holy Scriptures (Bible, Quran) as justification for cruel, even abominable, behavior. That is an offense against God, Who wants us to love each other.

Read the Bible as an essential chapter in the ongoing encounter between God and ourselves, and always strive to know God better—even when that means putting the words back into their human and historical context. Read, not with literalist blinders on, but with a searching heart and an abiding commitment to know God better tomorrow than God was known yesterday.

Shavua Tov,

Rabbi Michael Panitz