Deuteronomy on the Problem of Using the Senses to Experience God
Moses’ Subjective Account
In contrast to the first four books of the Torah, Deuteronomy is largely narrated from a first person perspective—from the “I” perspective of Moses who recounts the experiences of Israel from his particular angle of vision. The decision to tell its story from a subjective and personal perspective may be related to another distinctive quality of Deuteronomy: its interest in the subjective dimensions of religious experience.
More than the other books of the Torah, Deuteronomy focuses on what happens inside the subjective minds of the Israelites—their memories, for example, or the emotional connection they feel toward God, their love or fear of God. This includes a focus on the senses, which Moses enigmatically accuses Israel of being unable to use properly (Deut 29:1-3):
דברים כט:א אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֗ם אֵ֣ת כָּל אֲשֶׁר֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְ-הוָ֤ה לְעֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לְפַרְעֹ֥ה וּלְכָל עֲבָדָ֖יו וּלְכָל אַרְצֽוֹ׃ כט:ב הַמַּסּוֹת֙ הַגְּדֹלֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָא֖וּ עֵינֶ֑יךָ הָאֹתֹ֧ת וְהַמֹּפְתִ֛ים הַגְּדֹלִ֖ים הָהֵֽם׃כט:ג וְלֹֽא נָתַן֩ יְ-הוָ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם לֵב֙ לָדַ֔עַת וְעֵינַ֥יִם לִרְא֖וֹת וְאָזְנַ֣יִם לִשְׁמֹ֑עַ עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
Deut 29:1 You have seen all that YHWH did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: 29:2 the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. 29:3 YHWH has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until this very day.
Moses identifies Israel’s problem as its inability to interpret the input of its eyes and ears properly.
Eyes Wide Shut: The Account of the Spies
An interest in the senses surfaces at the very beginning of Deuteronomy with the retelling of the story of the spies told in Numbers 13-14. In both versions, the people refuse to continue on into the land out of fear. In Numbers, the fear is engendered by the spies themselves:
במדבר יג:כז וַיְסַפְּרוּ לוֹ֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ בָּ֕אנוּ אֶל הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שְׁלַחְתָּ֑נוּ וְ֠גַם זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֥ב וּדְבַ֛שׁ הִ֖וא וְזֶה פִּרְיָֽהּ: יג:כח אֶ֚פֶס כִּֽי עַ֣ז הָעָ֔ם הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִ֗ים בְּצֻר֤וֹת גְּדֹלֹת֙ מְאֹ֔ד וְגַם יְלִדֵ֥י הָֽעֲנָ֖ק רָאִ֥ינוּ שָֽׁם…
Num 13:27 This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 13:28However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there…
במדבר יג:לב וַיֹּצִ֜יאוּ דִּבַּ֤ת הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּר֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ אֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר הָאָ֡רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֩ עָבַ֨רְנוּ בָ֜הּ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֗הּ אֶ֣רֶץ אֹכֶ֤לֶת יוֹשְׁבֶ֙יהָ֙ הִ֔וא וְכָל הָעָ֛ם אֲשֶׁר רָאִ֥ינוּ בְתוֹכָ֖הּ אַנְשֵׁ֥י מִדּֽוֹת:
13:28 Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…
In Deuteronomy’s account, however, their panic comes not from what they learn from the spies, who offer a wholly positive account:
דברים א:כה וַיִּקְחוּ בְיָדָם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ וַיּוֹרִדוּ אֵלֵינוּ וַיָּשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָבָר וַיֹּאמְרוּ טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נֹתֵן לָנוּ. א:כו וְלֹא אֲבִיתֶם לַעֲלֹת וַתַּמְרוּ אֶת פִּי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Deut 1:25 They took some of the fruit of the land with them and brought it down to us. And they gave us this report: “It is a good land that YHWH our God is giving to us.” 1:26 Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of YHWH your God.
Moses implies in v. 26 that their refusal to enter the land stemmed from fears that took shape in their own minds as they sulk in their tents. Thus Israel fails to respond to its sensory experiences—i.e., the report of the spies—correctly.
Moses’ Attempt to Diffuse the Situation
Deuteronomy introduces another change into the story by creating a speech which it puts into the mouth of Moses. This address is aimed at diffusing the situation and coaxing the Israelites into agreeing to enter the land despite their fears (Deut 1:29-32; see bolded words):
דברים א:כט וָאֹמַ֖ר אֲלֵכֶ֑ם לֹא תַֽעַרְצ֥וּן וְֽלֹא תִֽירְא֖וּן מֵהֶֽם׃ א:ליְ-הוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ הַהֹלֵ֣ךְ לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם ה֖וּא יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֧ה אִתְּכֶ֛ם בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם לְעֵינֵיכֶֽם׃א:לא וּבַמִּדְבָּר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָאִ֔יתָ…
Deut 1:29 I said to you, “Have no dread or fear of them. 1:30 None other than YHWH your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 1:31 and in the wilderness, where you saw…
This is a speech without parallel in Numbers. Its addition to the story, together with the shift in how the spies’ report is presented, turns the spy episode into an illustration of how Israel did not understand what its eyes were revealing to it. According to Moses, the people had plenty of visible evidence of God’s power—it had seen with its own eyes what God did for it in Egypt and earlier in the wilderness—and yet it chose not to believe:
דברים א:לב וּבַדָּבָ֖ר הַזֶּ֑ה אֵֽינְכֶם֙ מַאֲמִינִ֔ם בַּי-הוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Deut 1:32 Yet for all that, you have no faith in YHWH your God
In the end, God hears their complaints (more on this sense in the next section) and punishes them, saying that none of them will ever see the land:
דברים א:לד וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע יְ-הוָ֖ה אֶת ק֣וֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶ֑ם וַיִּקְצֹ֖ף וַיִּשָּׁבַ֥ע לֵאמֹֽר׃ א:לה אִם יִרְאֶ֥ה אִישׁ֙ בָּאֲנָשִׁ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה הַדּ֥וֹר הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֚ת הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִשְׁבַּ֔עְתִּי לָתֵ֖ת לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶֽם׃
Deut 1:34 YHWH heard the sound of your words, and He was angry. He vowed: 1:35 “Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall seethe good land that I swore to give to your fathers.”
Other Sight-Related Additions
Deuteronomy’s spin on the spy story is part of a larger series of seeing-related additions inserted throughout the first four chapters.
Not to Forget What You’ve Seen – On several occasions, for example, Moses feels it necessary to remind Joshua about what he has seen with his own eyes:
דברים ג:כא וְאֶת יְהוֹשׁוּעַ צִוֵּיתִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר עֵינֶיךָ הָרֹאֹת אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לִשְׁנֵי הַמְּלָכִים הָאֵלֶּה…
Deut 3:21 I also charged Joshua at that time, saying, “You have seen with your own eyes all that YHWH your God has done to these two kings…”
Moses similarly reminds the Israelites what they have seen with their own eyes (Deut 4:3) or urges them not to forget what they’ve seen (4:9).
דברים ד:ג עֵינֵיכֶם הָרֹאֹת אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ-הוָה בְּבַעַל פְּעוֹר…
Deut 4:3 You saw with your own eyes what YHWH did in the matter of Baal-peor…
דברים ד:ט רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ
Deut 4:9 But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes…
Again, these verses suggest that Israel just doesn’t understand the input of its eyes.
Moses May See the Land – In this same section, Moses recalls how he had wanted to enter the land of Canaan for himself but was denied by God (3:25-26). Nevertheless, God grants him permission to see the land:
דברים ג:כז עֲלֵ֣ה׀ רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ יָ֧מָּה וְצָפֹ֛נָה וְתֵימָ֥נָה וּמִזְרָ֖חָה וּרְאֵ֣ה בְעֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּי לֹ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּ֥ן הַזֶּֽה:
Deut 3:27 Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.
The prophet can only see from afar what he hungers to see and experience up close, but will not. This is Moses’ problem, but Israel’s problem is quite different. The Israelites will be entering the land for themselves and they will see and experience everything. And yet, Moses worries that even this will not have the desired effect, and that they will not internalize the significance.
Israel Cannot See God or God Cannot be Seen: Deuteronomy vs. Exodus
Deuteronomy calls attention to another problem with seeing in its recasting of the revelation at the mountain story. In both accounts of the revelation, the Israelite do not see God, however, the reason differs.
In Exodus, God is on a mountain covered in smoke, which is why he can’t be seen:
שמות יט:יח וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ מִ֠פְּנֵי אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרַ֥ד עָלָ֛יו יְ-הֹוָ֖ה בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַיַּ֤עַל עֲשָׁנוֹ֙ כְּעֶ֣שֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁ֔ן…
Exod 19:18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for YHWH had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln…
Moreover, God specifically warns the Israelites not to come up the mountain to try to see him:
שמות:כא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה רֵ֖ד הָעֵ֣ד בָּעָ֑ם פֶּן יֶהֶרְס֤וּ אֶל יְ-הֹוָה֙ לִרְא֔וֹת וְנָפַ֥ל מִמֶּ֖נּוּ רָֽב:
Exod 19:21 YHWH said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to YHWH to gaze, lest many of them perish.
Note that the fear is that if people go up the mountain, they will see God, and many—not all—will perish as a consequence. In other words, according to Exodus, God appears on earth in a bodily form that can be seen, which is the reason for the smoke and for the rules about keeping the Israelites away. In fact, in Exodus 24:9-12, God does permit a select group of Israelites to glimpse him while they eat:
שמות כד:י וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר:
Exod 24:10 and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.
In Deuteronomy, by contrast, God does not manifest himself on earth in a bodily form. God does make a fire, and speak from the fire, but the Israelites should not imagine that God in some corporeal form was in the fire:
דברים ד:יב וַיְדַבֵּ֧ר יְ-הֹוָ֛ה אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָאֵ֑שׁ ק֤וֹל דְּבָרִים֙ אַתֶּ֣ם שֹׁמְעִ֔ים וּתְמוּנָ֛ה אֵינְכֶ֥ם רֹאִ֖ים זוּלָתִ֥י קֽוֹל:
Deut 4:12 YHWH spoke to you out of the fire: the voice of words you heard but you did not see a form.”
Although the verse states that the voice came from the fire, later in the chapter we hear the voice originates in the heavens even if it is projected from the fire:
ד:לו מִן הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם הִשְׁמִֽיעֲךָ֥ אֶת קֹל֖וֹ לְיַסְּרֶ֑ךָּ וְעַל הָאָ֗רֶץ הֶרְאֲךָ֙ אֶת אִשּׁ֣וֹ הַגְּדוֹלָ֔ה וּדְבָרָ֥יו שָׁמַ֖עְתָּ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ:
4:36 From the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; on earth He let you see His great fire; and from amidst that fire you heard His words.
However one understands this idea, it is clear that in Deuteronomy, God is only manifest in words and in fire, not in a bodily form, and that Moses is reminding the Israelites that they learned this first-hand during their encounter with God at Horeb.
Idols – Ignoring What They Learned with their Eyes
Once again, however, Moses worries that Israel will disregard its sensory experience—as they did in the golden calf account—by filling in a blank space in the visual experience of God with substitute and ersatz images (or idols), that falsely ascribe to God a bodily form (Deut 4:15-16):
ד:טו וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם מְאֹ֖ד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֤א רְאִיתֶם֙ כָּל תְּמוּנָ֔ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֨ר יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֲלֵיכֶ֛ם בְּחֹרֵ֖ב מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ: ד:טז פֶּ֨ן תַּשְׁחִת֔וּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם פֶּ֖סֶל תְּמוּנַ֣ת כָּל סָ֑מֶל…
4:15 For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when YHWH your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—4:16 not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever…
Deuteronomy connects the lack of a manifest bodily form during the revelation with the prohibition to make idols: Israel must not worship God in a visual form because it saw for itself that God does not appear before humans in a bodily form. This idea is unique to Deuteronomy; Exodus never really explains why God prohibits divine images.
Hearing: Turning down God’s Volume
Sight is not the only sense that comes up in Moses’ discourse on Horeb. As noted above, while the Israelites see only a fire, they hear God’s voice. Moses reiterates this in the next chapter as well (hearing bolded, seeing underlined):
דברים ה:כ וַיְהִ֗י כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶ֤ם אֶת הַקּוֹל֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַחֹ֔שֶׁךְ וְהָהָ֖ר בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַתִּקְרְב֣וּן אֵלַ֔י כָּל רָאשֵׁ֥י שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֖ם וְזִקְנֵיכֶֽם׃ ה:כא וַתֹּאמְר֗וּהֵ֣ן הֶרְאָ֜נוּ יְ-הוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֵ֙ינוּ֙ אֶת כְּבֹד֣וֹ וְאֶת גָּדְל֔וֹ וְאֶת קֹל֥וֹ שָׁמַ֖עְנוּ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָאֵ֑שׁ הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ רָאִ֔ינוּ כִּֽי יְדַבֵּ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת הָֽאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃
Deut 5:20 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, 5:21 and said, “YHWH our God has just shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire. We have seen this day that man may live though God has spoken to him.
Israel hears God’s voice coming out of the fire, and they see God’s majestic presence (though again not his body). They also see that they survived, that speaking to God was not fatal. And yet, in keeping with their inability to assimilate what they see properly, the Israelites believe that if they keep seeing God’s fire and hearing God’s voice, they will die anyway:
ה:כב וְעַתָּה֙ לָ֣מָּה נָמ֔וּת כִּ֣י תֹֽאכְלֵ֔נוּ הָאֵ֥שׁ הַגְּדֹלָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את אִם יֹסְפִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ לִ֠שְׁמֹעַ אֶת ק֨וֹל יְ-הוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ ע֖וֹד וָמָֽתְנוּ׃ה:כג כִּ֣י מִ֣י כָל בָּשָׂ֡ר אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׁמַ֣ע קוֹל֩ אֱלֹהִ֨ים חַיִּ֜ים מְדַבֵּ֧ר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵ֛שׁ כָּמֹ֖נוּ וַיֶּֽחִי׃
5:22 Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of YHWH our God any longer, we shall die. 5:23 For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak out of the fire, as we did, and lived?
Having come to this conclusion, they ask Moses to serve as an intermediary:
דברים ה:כד קְרַ֤ב אַתָּה֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע אֵ֛ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֹאמַ֖ר יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאַ֣תְּ׀ תְּדַבֵּ֣ר אֵלֵ֗ינוּ אֵת֩ כָּל אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְדַבֵּ֜ר יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ וְשָׁמַ֥עְנוּ וְעָשִֽׂינוּ:
Deut 5:24 You go closer and hear all that YHWH our God says, and then you tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will hear and do it.”
God hears their words—the same exact phrase used in the spy story, although this time God does not seem to be angry.
דברים ה:כה וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת ק֣וֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶ֔ם בְּדַבֶּרְכֶ֖ם אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֜ה אֵלַ֗י שָׁ֠מַעְתִּי אֶת ק֨וֹל דִּבְרֵ֜י הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבְּר֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יךָ הֵיטִ֖יבוּ כָּל אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽרוּ:
Deut 5:25 YHWH heard the sound of your words that you spoke to me, and YHWH said to me, “I have heard the sound of the words that this people spoke to you; they did well to speak thus.”
Replacing Hearing God’s Voice with Hearing Moses’ Voice
Although God agrees to work through Moses, God is concerned that such a filtered revelation, without the sensory experience of God’s voice and fire, may have less impact, and that Israel will forget what they briefly experienced at Horeb.
Thus, throughout Moses’ discourse to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of their hearing him:
וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת
And now, O Israel, hear the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe,
וַיִּקְרָ֣א מֹשֶׁה֘ אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם שְׁמַ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶת הַחֻקִּ֣ים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י דֹּבֵ֥ר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם
Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day!
וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם…וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֤ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֣ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת
And this is the Instruction — the laws and the rules — that YHWH your God has commanded me to impart to you…Hear, O Israel, and be careful to keep them…
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד:
Hear O Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.
שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אַתָּ֨ה עֹבֵ֤ר הַיּוֹם֙ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן…
Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan…
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ וְהַכֹּהֲנִ֣ים הַלְוִיִּ֔ם אֶ֥ל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר הַסְכֵּ֤ת׀וּשְׁמַע֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ נִהְיֵ֣יתָֽ לְעָ֔ם לַי-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:וְשָׁ֣מַעְתָּ֔ בְּק֖וֹל יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ אֶת מִצְוֹתָו֙ וְאֶת חֻקָּ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:
Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of YHWH your God: “Hear the voice of YHWH your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.
Replacing God’s Voice with Repetition of the Mitzvot
In addition to his plea for the Israelites to hear, Moses establishes a series of practices meant to keep the memory of hearing God’s words alive in Israel’s ears (Deut 6:6-9):
דברים ו:ו וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ו:ז וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
Deut 6:6 Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. 6:7 Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
These, of course, are the famous words of the Shema, a key text of Jewish prayer. Read in its original literary setting, the words reflect the text’s effort to find a solution to the challenge of hearing God’s voice. It is not possible to hear that voice directly, but neither can Israel allow those words to fade from its memory. Thus, Moses commands them to constantly review the words of God’s revelation, reciting them day and night.
Moreover, he commands them to place reminders of the mitzvot all over:
דברים׃ו:ח וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃ ו:ט וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃
Deut 6:8 Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as totafot (?) on your forehead. 6:9Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The practices enjoined in this passage—teaching Moses’ words to one’s children, reciting them continuously, binding them on the body, posting them on one’s doors and gates—are probably drawn from the kind of practices teachers used to make sure their students didn’t forget their lessons. Deuteronomy gives them a new function as a simulated or mediated experience of God’s voice, buffering it so that it that wouldn’t engulf its hearers while also keeping it alive as a sound in their ears.
Satiety: Eating to Excess
Deuteronomy never lays out a systematic list of senses, though it comes close in its description of the false gods Israel will worship in exile:
דברים ד:כח וַעֲבַדְתֶּם שָׁ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֔ים מַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא יִרְאוּן֙ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּן וְלֹ֥א יֹֽאכְל֖וּן וְלֹ֥א יְרִיחֻֽן:
Deut 4:28 There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell.
The verse lists four senses, three of which (sight, hearing, and smell) overlap with the well-known “five senses” of modern parlance: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The fourth, eating, is related to the sense of taste, except that in biblical texts, the emphasis is not on flavor, but on what the mouth does for the stomach. We might call this the “sense of satiety.”
Just as the opening chapters of Deuteronomy discuss hearing and seeing consistently, chapters 6-9 are stock full of references to eating and satiety. Chapters 6 and 8 describe the grapes, olives, pomegranates and other delectable foods to be found in “the land of milk and honey” (6:11; 8:7-9). And yet, Moses is concerned that God’s granting the Israelites satiety in the land will have a paradoxical effect, and that instead of making them thankful to God, it will actually make them forgetful of God and God’s commandments:
וּבָ֨תִּ֜ים מְלֵאִ֣ים כָּל טוּב֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא מִלֵּאתָ֒ וּבֹרֹ֤ת חֲצוּבִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא חָצַ֔בְתָּ כְּרָמִ֥ים וְזֵיתִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא נָטָ֑עְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ: הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים:
houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget YHWH who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.
אֶ֤רֶץ חִטָּה֙ וּשְׂעֹרָ֔ה וְגֶ֥פֶן וּתְאֵנָ֖ה וְרִמּ֑וֹן אֶֽרֶץ זֵ֥ית שֶׁ֖מֶן וּדְבָֽשׁ: אֶ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹ֤א בְמִסְכֵּנֻת֙ תֹּֽאכַל בָּ֣הּ לֶ֔חֶם…וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן לָֽךְ: הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֨י שְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֹתָיו֙ וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֣יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:
a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint… When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to YHWH your God for the good land which He has given you. Take care lest you forget YHWH your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.
דברים יא:יד וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ: יא:טו וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ: יא:טז הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם:
I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.
Israel’s problem is again the same; they do respond to their senses properly. They experience satiety and instead of that confirming God’s assistance, they have a tendency to then forget God. One solution is to remember to thank God for bounty (8:10). Although it is unclear if the biblical text has an actual ritual practice in mind, the Rabbis took this sentiment as scriptural inspiration for the practice of reciting a blessing after meals (t. Berachot 6:1).
Hunger and Fasting
Deuteronomy expresses the fear of Israel’s misinterpreting satiety in other passages, in which Moses tells the Israelites that God starved them in the wilderness, but kept them alive, so that they learn that life comes from God:
דברים כט:ד וָאוֹלֵ֥ךְ אֶתְכֶ֛ם אַרְבָּעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר לֹֽא בָל֤וּ שַׂלְמֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ מֵעֲלֵיכֶ֔ם וְנַֽעַלְךָ֥ לֹֽא בָלְתָ֖ה מֵעַ֥ל רַגְלֶֽךָ: כט:ה לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אֲכַלְתֶּ֔ם וְיַ֥יִן וְשֵׁכָ֖ר לֹ֣א שְׁתִיתֶ֑ם לְמַ֙עַן֙ תֵּֽדְע֔וּ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
Deut 29:4 I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet; 29:5 you had no bread to eat and no wine or other intoxicant to drink — that you might know that I YHWH am your God.
The same point is stated earlier in Deuteronomy as well, in the same section in which Moses repeatedly expresses his concern over how Israel will react to satiety:
דברים ח:ג וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן הוֹדִעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי יְ-הוָה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.
Deut 8:3 He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of YHWH.
According to Deuteronomy, God starves the Israelites as a way of teaching them that “man does not live by bread alone,” a lesson that God and Moses hope will prepare the Israelites to handle satiety without misinterpreting it.
Eating to satiety, according to Deuteronomy, represents another way to experience God’s beneficence and protective care (reflected in the produce Israel will enjoy in the land). But like seeing and hearing, satiety also imperils Israel’s relationship to God, for Moses warns Israel that once it eats its fill and grows satiated, it may become haughty and forget the God that brought it out of Egypt.
These chapters also include Moses’ recollection of his own fasting on the mountain.
דברים ט:יח וָֽאֶתְנַפַּל֙ לִפְנֵ֨י יְ-הֹוָ֜ה כָּרִאשֹׁנָ֗ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְאַרְבָּעִ֣ים לַ֔יְלָה לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אָכַ֔לְתִּי וּמַ֖יִם לֹ֣א שָׁתִ֑יתִי עַ֤ל כָּל חַטַּאתְכֶם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר חֲטָאתֶ֔ם לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת הָרַ֛ע בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה לְהַכְעִיסֽוֹ: ט:יט כִּ֣י יָגֹ֗רְתִּי מִפְּנֵ֤י הָאַף֙ וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָצַ֧ף יְ-הֹוָ֛ה עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְהַשְׁמִ֣יד אֶתְכֶ֑ם וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֵלַ֔י גַּ֖ם בַּפַּ֥עַם הַהִֽוא:
Deut 9:18 I threw myself down before YHWH — eating no bread and drinking no water forty days and forty nights, as before — because of the great wrong you had committed, doing what is wicked in YHWH’s eyes and vexing Him. 9:19 For I was in dread of YHWH’s fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you out. And that time, too, YHWH heard me.
In Deuteronomy, Moses’ self-starvation is aimed at calming God’s wrath. This again is a very different presentation of the 40 days and 40 nights than we find in Exodus:
שמות לד:כח וַֽיְהִי שָׁ֣ם עִם יְ-הֹוָ֗ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְאַרְבָּעִ֣ים לַ֔יְלָה לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אָכַ֔ל וּמַ֖יִם לֹ֣א שָׁתָ֑ה וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב עַל הַלֻּחֹ֗ת אֵ֚ת דִּבְרֵ֣י הַבְּרִ֔ית עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים:
Exod 34:28 And he was there with YHWH forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water; and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
In Exodus, the lack of eating and drinking is connected to an otherworldly experience Moses has with God, carving the commandments on tablets. This is clear from the next verse in which Moses descends the mountain glowing, making him in part like a heavenly being. In short, Exodus is not about depravation. In Deuteronomy however, when read together with Deuteronomy’s other references to hunger as suffering and as a test from God, depravation is the point. Moses’ ability to persevere through such a long period of starvation demonstrates that he, at least, can pass this test, and this virtually forces God to hear Moses’ plea on behalf of Israel.
Here and elsewhere, Moses seems to embody a kind of sensory attainment beyond the reach of the Israelites: he can hear God’s voice while they cannot bear it; he can control his hunger while they cannot. Moses’ abilities may not be something that the Israelites can emulate, if anything, Moses’ attainments expose their limitations. Nevertheless, God gives them a way to at least approximate Moses’ experience by developing a kind of mediated hearing or, in this section, a kind of mentally focused eating.
Deuteronomy as Sensory Guide
Deuteronomy expresses ambivalence about the use of senses. On one hand, the senses are an important way of experiencing God. God manifests his glory through a great flame, speaks to Israel with a voice, and grants them a land which produces food enough for satiety. On the other hand, the Israelites display a tendency to misinterpret their senses. They saw no corporeal God on Horeb, but still wish to make graven images of him. They see God’s fire and hear God’s voice at Horeb but are afraid to keep seeing and listening lest they die. They will be granted satiety but, Moses predicts, this will only lead them to forget God and trust in their own success and prowess.
In Deuteronomy, Moses attempts to combat this tendency by reforming the Israelites’ mental life, penetrating the workings of the mind, and overcoming the ways in which they resist God.
The prohibition of idols reminds the Israelites that God is beyond this world and not a part of it; the repetition of God’s commandments reminds the Israelites of God’s revelation at Horeb; and the need to thank God when satiated reminds the Israelites whence this bounty comes, as did the Israelites experience of hunger in the wilderness.
Until Today – The Day Deuteronomy Was Given
In Deut 29:3, with which we opened this essay, Moses tells Israel that it hasn’t understood its experiences because God “has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear even unto this very day” (עד היום הזה). Although this is the common translation of the verse, perhaps we can offer a different interpretation based on the findings above. Moses may be saying that God hasn’t given them the means to interpret their senses properly “until this day,” i.e., that now, on this day, through the book of Deuteronomy they have been given the means.
The sermon on the senses we have traced here identifies two basic perceptual problems that undercut Israel’s relationship with God:
- A direct experience of God is impossible for the people: they can neither see God nor hear God’s words directly;
- The people’s relationship with God cannot persist in the absence of such experience; they will be distracted by the false gods they can see, and their memory of God will fade over time.
Deuteronomy itself and its commandments are the solution to these problems, an attempt to develop a way of experiencing God that falls in between overwhelming raw sensation and no experience at all. For the generations that come after Moses, God is not apparent in a directly sensible way, Moses acknowledges, but this is not because God isn’t there but because Israel has not learned know how to use its senses properly. The lesson the prophet is trying to impart through Deuteronomy is meant to correct for this shortcoming.
Sensing God’s Abiding Presence
If the Israelites follow its instructions, the book announces, they will feel God’s presence in ways that eluded even those to whom God was revealed directly. They will know there is more to God than the eyes can reveal. They will hear God’s thunderous voice echoing in the words they are supposed to repeat with their own mouths. And they will be able to sense God’s abiding presence, God’s concern and his love, in both the hunger that they suffer and in the pleasure of being able to fill their stomachs.
“What great nation is there that has God so close to it” (כִּי מִי גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו; Deut 4:7), Moses declares earlier in the book. If it can but understand what its eyes, ears and mouth have been revealing to it, Israel will know that God has been close to it all along.
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Prof. Steven Weitzman serves as Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University after completing his B.A. at UC Berkeley, and spent several years teaching Religious Studies at Indiana University and Stanford, where he also served as director of their Jewish Studies programs. Weitzman specializes in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish culture and in his scholarship, he seeks insight by putting the study of ancient texts into conversation with recent research in fields like literary theory, anthropology, and genetics. His publications include The Jews: A History (co-authored with John Efrom and Matthias Lehman), a biography of King Solomon titled, Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom (Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series) and his The Origin of the Jews: the Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton University Press, 2017).
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