Torah Ecology: Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22)

Deuteronomy (Devarim, “things” or “words”) is attributed to Moses, his final words to his people in which he summarizes their experiences over 40 years wandering. Since it is presented as a repetition of material in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it invites intra-textual comparison.

What interests me about this book is its different tone and theology. Perhaps one of the places Deuteronomy’s distinctive theology is most apparent is in the Ten Commandments, and the distinction is clear when we compare it with the Ten Commandments of Exodus:

Ex. 19:11 – And be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai (וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים, לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי:  כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִשִׁי, יֵרֵד יְהוָה לְעֵינֵי כָל-הָעָם–עַל-הַר סִינָי).

Deut. 4:12 – And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ:  קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל).

While there is a palpable sense of a corporeal presence in the Exodus passage, Deut. makes it clear that there is no form, only a voice. By skillfully manipulating the verbs, Deut. doesn’t contradict Exodus, but it is clear that this G-d is conceived as a more abstract phenomenon. For more on the idea that the biblical G-d seems to have a body, according to some parts of the text (primarily priestly), check out “The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel,” a fascinating podcast by Prof. Benjamin Sommers.

While Judaism generally, outside the sphere of Jewish mysticism, posits that G-d has no body, Christianity is founded on the idea that G-d did take on a body. The Torah suggests both/and through skillful literary strategies.  Intra-textual comparison demonstrates that both ideas derive from the biblical text.

In this portion, we see a less layered communal arrangement, really just Moses and the Israelites. In addition, the Israelites consistently bear responsibility, good and bad, that was distributed in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.

In Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro (Jethro) observes Moses judging the people and tells him his burden is too great — that he should appoint judges:

Ex. 18:22 – And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for thee and bear the burden with thee (וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, בְּכָל-עֵת, וְהָיָה כָּל-הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ, וְכָל-הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ-הֵם; וְהָקֵל, מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְנָשְׂאוּ, אִתָּךְ).

In Deuteronomy, Moses makes this recommendation himself:

Deut. 1:12: How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? (אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם).

Deut. 1:13: Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you’ (הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים–לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם).

In Numbers, the responsibility for Moses (and Aaron) not entering the Land is placed squarely at the feet of Moses and Aaron themselves based on their action at Meribah:

Num. 20:12 – And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’ (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם)

In Deuteronomy, Aaron disappears from the equation, and Moses attributes the fact that his entry is barred to the people of Israel:

Deut. 1:37 – Also the LORD was angry with me for your sakes, saying: Thou also shalt not go in thither (גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה, בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר:  גַּם-אַתָּה, לֹא-תָבֹא שָׁם).

In addition, while Moses accepts his fate without complaint in Numbers, in Deuteronomy, this exchange occurs:

Deut. 3:25 – Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon (אֶעְבְּרָה-נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן:  הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה, וְהַלְּבָנֹן).

Deut. 3:26 – But the LORD was wroth with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me; and the LORD said unto me: ‘Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto Me of this matter’ (וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְהוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי; וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, רַב-לָךְ–אַל-תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד, בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה).

Once again, blame transfers to the Israelites — and after the extraordinary and intimate relationship between G-d and Moses described in Exodus and Leviticus, it is surprising to hear this sharp rebuke at the end of their journey together. The flattening of Israelite society with the disappearance of the priests (and Yitro, a “priest of Midian”) is also noteworthy.

Even as the priests are thrown out of the story and Moses becomes the solitary leader, Moses own stature decreases as he blames the people he leads and begs G-d for a reprieve. In addition, we get less sense of the “personality” of the Israelites, their passions and fears, even as G-d becomes a more abstract entity. What can these differences in the telling of the story mean?

Certainly there is the explanation of source criticism, that Deuteronomy derives from another source, one not favorable to the priestly tradition. On the other hand, priestly texts in the other books direct profound criticisms at the priests through the Golden Calf episode and the Rebellion of Korach, and even in the episode in Num. 20:12 where Aaron is criticized along with Moses. These criticisms are potentially more damaging than simply eliminating the priests from the story.  In addition, scholars generally agree that the Torah was redacted in the 5th century by priests whose imprint is on the entire document.

Several thoughts occur to me: first, that while the Deuteronomist may have been antagonistic toward the priests, the priests were probably less than positive toward the Deuteronomist. As texts were both preserved and synthesized, it resulted in a diminution of all leaders. At the same time, failures in leadership transfer to the people of Israel, satisfying both those who would exalt Moses as the supreme leader and those who would exalt the Aaronides or priests.

These thoughts assume acceptance at some level of the documentary hypothesis, and I have always preferred to view the received text more holistically. Clearly there are differences of style, tone and content in Deuteronomy — but I like to think about how this book integrates with the whole Torah.

One way to think about it is as the story of Hebrew scripture itself presents it, Moses’ words at the end of his life. In this case, the changes in style and tone become a function of Moses’ age and perhaps exhaustion, his somewhat dispassionate reflections on his life and forty years of wandering with this people, his passion and devotion to a cause and his tragic disappointment that results from one impulsive moment. It is a glimpse of the same story through another lens.

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