Does the Torah End with “The End”?
The Torah ends with the people so close they can see the Promised Land, but their arrival there is in the future. The Torah doesn’t end with the end — the conclusion, the fulfillment, the denouement of the story. It doesn’t end with Israel’s arrival in the land. The people are still on the journey. Moses dies. The fulfillment of what was promised to the patriarchs begins in the next book, Joshua.
This fact led some of the early modern critical scholars to speak of a six-book work, a Hexateuch, Genesis-Joshua, instead of a Pentateuch, Genesis -Deuteronomy. In fact, scholars who viewed the Torah in terms of its sources saw two main sources (known in critical scholarship as J and P) continuing into Joshua.
But whether the story is read through its sources or is read holistically (and holy-istically?!) in the traditional way, the story really culminates in Joshua — with Abraham’s descendants settling in the land and beginning their life there — not in Deuteronomy. Parashat Ha’azinu, which contains Moses’ farewell song, dramatizes this fact: it points to the future. It is introduced in the preceding parashah as a witness for Israel in some distant future (Deut 31:19-21). In it, God explicitly says: “I’ll see what their future [not their “end”] will be.”
So why does the Torah end at Deuteronomy? Here are answers from critical and traditional perspectives.
The Torah contains prose, poetry, and law, as well as lists, records, and genealogies. It is composed of these many things, but in certain ways the law stands out — so much so that Rashi’s famous first comment on the Torah was: why does it start with the story of creation instead of starting directly with the first law to Israel, which doesn’t come until Exodus 12.
When a person says “I live my life according to Torah,” people normally understand him or her to mean mainly that he or she follows its laws — not that he or she sings the Song of Miriam daily or that he or she is dedicated to fight against anyone who would doubt that the world began with two naked people, two magic trees, and a talking snake. And so in the book of Nehemiah, when the entire Torah is read to the people (for the first time in history, I believe), the description of what follows is about the people’s taking actions to fulfill its laws (Nehemiah 8-10).
As is well-known, most English translations of the Hebrew Bible render the word Torah itself (rightly or wrongly) as “law”; this understanding has a noble pedigree, dating at least to the Greek translation of the Bible, where torah is translated as nomos, Greek for law. In Israel, law is never given apart from history. It is embedded in history. But that merger of law code and history ends in Deuteronomy.
The book of Joshua is not about giving law. Indeed, it says right at its beginning that the Torah is already given and is meant to be followed (Josh 1:7-8). Joshua and the rest of the Hebrew Bible that follows do not generally give any more laws (with the strange possible exception of portions of Ezekiel, but that is a topic for another day). So the Torah ends where the law ends: with Deuteronomy.
The Torah came to be ascribed to the hand of Moses himself. Though scholars have questioned that doctrine in recent centuries, the fact remains that for a couple of millennia it was treated as a fact in normative Judaism. The Torah was “The Five Books of Moses.” The book of Joshua simply did not participate in that prior text.
Some traditionally suggested that Joshua may have written the last chapter of Deuteronomy. But, even with Moses’ gift of prophecy, no one had reason to suggest that he wrote any of the events of the book of Joshua. So the Torah ended with Moses: with his story, with his writing, and with the account of his death.
Aside from those first two practical considerations, one could argue (and I do) it really was better to have the Torah end where it does: looking forward. It ends looking to the whole future of the people of Israel — really to the whole future of the world. Like the recent film Lincoln ending with Lincoln still alive — and showing him leaving for the theatre — we don’t have to feel disappointed that it didn’t show what we all know happened next. On the contrary. It was more powerful precisely because we didn’t see it but we knew it.
With the Torah, we know that the promises of Genesis will be realized later in the accounts. So, near Torah’s end, ha’azinu has God saying in Moses’ song, “I’ll see what their future will be.” But it doesn’t proceed into the account of that future. It doesn’t look to Joshua. Instead, ha’azinu looks back to Genesis! Look: In verse 2 Moses’ song refers to vegetation (Hebrew דשא ). That word first occurred in Genesis 1, in the creation account, and it doesn’t occur again in the Torah until here near the Torah’s end. In verse 10 the song refers to a formless place (Hebrew תהו). That word, too, first occurred in Genesis 1, in the creation account, in which the initial state of the earth is תהו ובהו, and it hasn’t occurred again in the Torah until here. In verse 11 the song refers to a bird’s hovering (Hebrew ירחף). And that word, too, first occurred in Genesis 1, where God’s wind hovers over the waters, and it hasn’t occurred again in the Torah until here. And in verse 24 the song refers to crawlers (or serpents) of the dust, which sounds like nothing so much as the curse on the snake in Eden in Genesis 3: “you’ll go on your belly and eat dust.”
What does this mean — that instead of directing us forward to Joshua, Moses’ song directs us back to the beginning, to parashat bereshit? It implies: Start over. Read the Torah again. And when you arrive back to this point in a year (or three), start over and read it again. And when we’ve read it many times, and we’ve become clearer and clearer about our past, then, like God (imitatio Dei), we’ll be better equipped to see what our future will be.
Now, in terms of the Torah’s sources in critical scholarship, how in the world did this happen? The first three terms that resurface here come from Genesis 1. In critical scholarship, we attribute the creation account in Genesis 1 to the Priestly source (P). In my work I date this source to the period of King Hezekiah (circa 700 BCE), though most biblical scholars date it to a later period, during or after the Babylonian exile (6th century or later). And the Genesis text about the snake’s being cursed to eat dust is attributed to the source J, which I date to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah (922 to 722 BCE), though some scholars date J much later. But Moses’ song in ha’azinu is almost certainly older than these texts by almost any critical scholar’s reckoning. So how did it come to have these allusions?
Some scholars like to solve all their enigmas by reference to an unknown, omnipotent editor (redactor), who changed texts. I have never felt comfortable with that sort of thing. There is no reason to think that an editor took out a stylus and a manuscript of the Torah and added four words from Genesis here and there in Deuteronomy to produce a literary inclusio. Even sheer chance is a more likely explanation than that. Or it may be that the Song of Moses was sufficiently famous — that it actually was sung in Israel — that it, consciously or unconsciously, impacted on the Genesis prose authors’ choice of images and wording.
But, whatever the reason, the result was the magnificent song that looks forward and draws us back. It reminds us of creation: what started with תהו can culminate in a bright future. And it reminds us of Eden, where eternal life was lost, but now Moses says about the Torah after his song here: “It’s not an empty thing for you, because it’s your life.”
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 1, 2013
November 28, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman is the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and is the Katzin Professor (Emeritus) of Jewish Civilization of the University of California, San Diego. He earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard, and is the author of Who Wrote the Bible?, The Disappearance of God, The Hidden Book in the Bible, Commentary on the Torah, The Bible with Sources Revealed, The Bible Now, and The Exile and Biblical Narrative.
Essays on Related Topics: