What is God?
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Deuteronomy is traditionally considered to be a very long speech given by Moshe to the entire Israelite nation on the plains of Moab just east of the Jordan River. It is unclear from the text how long this speech took in real time, but it begins on the first day of the 12th month of the 40th year after the Exodus. This was the last month of the complete 40 year period of wandering (they began on Passover, the 15th day of the first month). The text ends with the death of Moshe which Jewish tradition has occurring on the 7th day of the 12th month, so the traditional period of time of the entire book is seven days. There is almost no narrative in the entire book other than a few sections towards the end.
The Bible critics consider this book to be a document that is distinct from the other four books of the Chumash. The author(s) are known fittingly, as ‘D’, or the ‘Deuteronomist’. The Bible critics see a completely different writing style in the entire book. They also see many contradictions and repetitions when compared to the other books – telltale signs of a separate document that was merged with the others at some later time. They generally date this document fairly late, definitely after Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, and possibly after Leviticus. Some ascribe it to Ezra the Scribe of second temple fame.
Needless to say, the traditionalists scoff at all this. To them it is just the fifth book of the Chumash, though perhaps written a little different than the other books. They see nothing threatening in the repetitions or the contradictions other than new ways of understanding the laws and the stories. As far as the late date is concerned, they point to things like the failure to mention Jerusalem anywhere in the text – a glaring oversight if the book was indeed written at a time when Jerusalem was absolutely central to the Jewish people.
The key point of disagreement between the traditionalists and the critics centers on a prominent feature of Deuteronomy. This is the prophetic promise of exile and return from exile that comes in a few different places in the book. To the critics this is a dead giveaway to later authorship. How could a 13th century BCE author possibly predict such a distant future event? The traditionalists, of course, only see this as proof, if more was needed, of the divine nature of the Chumash. How indeed could such a thing have been predicted if not for the prescience of prophecy?
Everyone agrees that Deuteronomy is not like the other books in being the direct word of God received through prophecy. This is Moshe’s speech. It may be prophetic in nature, but it is still his words. What does not fit into this obvious point of agreement are the final eight verses of the book, which of course are the concluding verses of the Torah. The verses are narrative, describing how Moshe ascended Mt. Nebo and died, and was buried on the mountain. It doesn’t say who buried him, but it does say that nobody knows where he is buried. How could Moshe have written verses about his own death?
What are the contents of this book and why is it so important? It can essentially be divided into three roughly equal parts. The first third (up to the 12th chapter) is Moshe’s historical recap of everything that the Israelites have gone through from the Exodus up to the plains of Moab. The stories are retold, though much briefer and with emphasis on slightly different aspects. Included among these is the second telling of the Ten Commandments. Surprisingly, the words of the commandments are not exactly the same as the Exodus version. The differences range from subtle to glaring. It is a bit strange that such an important text should have even small differences in the wording. The Bible critics, of course, have a field day with this nuance. There is a clear emphasis in the verses preceding this version on the absolutely unique nature of God and the contrast between God and the pagan deities. This will be our first source for another image of God.
New ideas are also brought out in the midst of these stories. Included among these is the famous paragraph known as the Shema – the Torah declaration of the oneness of God. This has become the central dogma of Judaism and the core statement of Jewish faith. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the Shema in Judaism. It is both the crucial dividing line between Judaism as it turned out and Christianity as it turned out, in addition to being the oldest and most important statement of monotheism. It has been interpreted in numerous ways by rabbinic authorities, philosophers, mystics, and Jews of every color and flavor. It will be the second of our images.
Towards the end of this first third is a series of verses that stress another aspect of God’s uniqueness. This is a long description of God’s dominion in the world. Everything belongs to God; God controls everything from the laws of nature to the spiritual struggles of human beings. This is a very Deuteronomist description. God no longer carries any of the physical-like qualities that were found in the earlier books. The bodily descriptions like hand, face, back, arm, nostrils flaring, Man of war, are all absent from this section and from most of Deuteronomy. In this sense, Deuteronomy represents Judaism as it came to be in medieval times more than the other books do. This will be our third image.
The second third of the book (chapters 12 thru 25) is a long list of laws. These laws range from a recap of the Festival pilgrimages (Passover, Shavuot, Succot) to the laws of kashrut to laws of government to laws against forms of idolatry. They are so varied and in such a seemingly random order that it is hard to find any common theme that unifies them. To the philosophical or theological minded they are rather dry. To those looking for history they have nothing to offer. But to the legal minded rabbis of the Talmud they were Manna from heaven. They only rarely discuss God directly, so we won’t find any new images in this section.
The final third of the book (chapters 26 thru 34) deals with Israelite destiny and the relationship between Israel and the rest of the nations on the one hand, and with God on the other. There is a second round of tokhaha (rebuke), longer than the first round in Leviticus but stressing many of the same themes. The destiny section begins in the 29th chapter. It is vintage Deuteronomy. It contains the exile, the return, the centrality of the Torah to the Israelites, and the unequivocal statement of freedom of the will. This short section would become one of the core components of Judaism, with God’s role in the destiny of the Jewish people being so dependent on individual responsibility and repentance. The idea of God returning the Jews to their land comes right out of this section. It is an idea that of course would have incredibly important ramifications for the long history of the Jews in exile and for the Zionist movement and the modern state of Israel. God’s role in exile and return will be our fourth image from Deuteronomy.
The final three chapters of the book consist of a long Biblical version of poetry, Moshe’s final prophetic blessing to the 12 tribes of Israel, and his death. These three chapters stand independent of each other and largely independent of the rest of the book. The poem deals with the fate of the Israelites if they do not follow the guidance of the Torah. It is harsh and does not mince words. The blessings cut to the essence of each tribe – where it would settle in the Promised Land and what it's key assets and deficiencies were. When all this is over the unique fate of the entire Israelite nation is briefly stated: ‘Israel, you are fortunate, who is like you – a people whose salvation is in Hashem…’ (33:29). It takes a total of only two verses, but it hits on the essence of the relationship of the nation to God. This is the Deuteronomist statement of the Chosen People – a central idea that would be both a blessing and a burden to the Jews. Our image from these chapters comes from the poem. At the core of the poem lies that image of the Rock, the final image of the Chumash.
A thorough look through Deuteronomy reveals that both the traditionalists and the Bible critics are correct to some degree. This book is different. It does seem like a supplement to the other books. We find only a single occurrence of the most common phrase in the Torah: ‘And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying…’ This phrase is found everywhere in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, introducing Hashem’s instructions to Moshe. Deuteronomy has no instructions or commandments introduced in this way. The single case of it occurs when Hashem tells Moshe to prepare for his impending death. This is Moshe’s book. Throughout the book Moshe is driving home last-minute warnings about the difficulties they will encounter in the Promised Land, living among peoples who worship strange gods, the temptations of intermarrying with them, adopting their customs, and ultimately abandoning the God who created them as a nation.
On the other hand, this book is so necessary as a complement to the first four books that it is impossible to imagine the Torah without it. Would the Torah be complete without the Shema? Would it be complete without the final words of Moshe, warning his people, blessing them, and then going off by himself to his death in an unmarked grave? While the wording and the content of this book sets it off from the other books, the book itself gives the reason for any differences – this is Moshe’s own words.
This is Moshe’s book – it is his own review of everything that happened earlier. It is the work of the man who, more than any other person, dedicated his life to the cause of creating the Israelite people and bringing them into their destiny as a nation living in the land that God had promised them. He was unable to enter that land, but this makes his efforts all the greater. He knew that his task was nothing more than a phase in a much greater plan. He was a mere human being, doing his part as the servant of his personal God, Hashem. As the final words of the book put it, though we can never know who actually wrote them: ‘There never arose again in Israel a prophet like Moshe who knew Hashem face to face; For all of the signs and wonders that Hashem sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all of his servants and to all of his land; For the acts of strength and all the great awe that Moshe did, before the eyes of all Israel’ (34:10-12). Moshe himself could not have written these words. Maybe somebody later wrote them. But they are just as essential to the Torah as ‘In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth’.
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