Is Israel’s Repentance a Foregone Conclusion?
The rebuke (תוכחה) in Leviticus 26 ends optimistically with the return of Israel to its land, as God remembers the covenant. In Deuteronomy 28 a Leitwort, a repeated thematic root, is “wiped out” (ש.מ.ד), and reflects the obliteration of Israel. Unlike Leviticus, Deuteronomy’s God is not concerned for the divine name, which is defamed when God’s people are persecuted, and Deuteronomy 28 imagines the possibility of Israel disappearing, eventually assimilating into the nations where it is exiled.
Different Covenant Models: Priestly and Deuteronomic
The difference between these rebukes is related to distinct understandings of covenant in P and H (the Priestly Document and its related legal section, the Holiness Collection) and D (the Deuteronomic Law Collection, the bulk of Deuteronomy). As the Israeli Bible scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963) noted, for P/H, the covenant between God and Israel is a ברית ברזל, “an iron-clad covenant.” In contrast, as Jeffrey Stackert notes, the main strand of D models the covenant after Assyrian covenants, where
Failure to adhere to the stipulations of the covenant constitutes cause for the nullification of the covenant, and such nullification both severs the relationship between the parties and triggers the onset of attendant covenantal curses. According to this model, a renewed relationship requires a new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-34).
Thus, Deuteronomy 28 is best understood as the climax, or better yet, the anti-climax to Deuteronomy, envisioning the destruction of Israel because it did not heed the covenant with God.
The Composition of the Book of Deuteronomy
Scholars continue to debate the composition of the book of Deuteronomy—when its first layer was written (in the period of Hezekiah? Josiah? during the Babylonian exile?), and how many times it was supplemented. Despite disagreements, the broad scholarly consensus is that Deuteronomy is not a unity, and reflects a core text that has been supplemented and updated, perhaps often. Deuteronomy 30:1-10 is one such supplement.
Does Deuteronomy 30 Continue Chapter 28?
Deuteronomy 30:1-10, which predicts the future restoration of Israel, presupposes the great rebuke in ch. 28—its opening words, וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ “When all these things befall you — the blessing and the curse that I have set before you,” refer to ch. 28, which is comprised of a brief blessing (vv. 1-14) followed by a much longer curse (15-68). 30:1-10 is a remarkable unit, repeating the Lietwort שוב,” “return,” seven times, forming “a majestic fugue on the theme of shuv.”
Several reasons, however, suggest that ch. 30 is not the continuation of ch. 28, and was not written by the same author of that chapter to reassure its listeners that the exile predicted there will end. First, as noted above, restoration is key to P/H, but not to the main author of D, who penned the bulk of ch. 28. Second, a number of terminological differences divide ch. 30:1-10 from ch. 28. Chapter 30:
- Refers (v. 7) to the curses as אלות and not קללות as in ch. 28.
- Describes (v. 1b) the non-Israelites among whom the Israelites will be dispersed as גוים whereas Deut 28 (v. 64) uses עמים.
- Uses the root נ.ד.ח for dispersion whereas פ.ו.צ is used in ch. 28.
Strikingly, the verb נדח, “to banish,” is used only three times in relation to the exile in all of Deuteronomy, all of them in ch. 30! Thus, Deuteronomy 30:1-10 knows ch. 28, but is not by the author of that chapter.
Reading Deuteronomy in Light of Jeremiah
The use of נ.ד.ח, “to banish,” offers a key to understanding the composition of Deuteronomy 30:1-10. A full third of the verb’s uses (18/54), all found in reference to Israel’s banishment among the nations, are found in Jeremiah. This suggests that Jeremiah may have influenced Deuteronomy 30.
From the critical perspective, which suggests that the prophetic corpus and Torah developed at the same time, with each, on occasion, influencing the other, this is not surprising. Just as certain prophets knew texts that were incorporated into the Torah, some Torah texts knew texts that were incorporated into particular prophetic collections that became part of Nevi’im—the Prophets.
The suggestion that Deuteronomy might here know Jeremiah is not based solely on the use of the word נ.ד.ח but is substantiated by the very close correspondence between Jeremiah and this section of Deuteronomy, including the rare metaphorical use of circumcision for repentance in these two texts.
The reliance of Deuteronomy 30.1-10 on Jeremiah suggests a new understanding of the Deuteronomic unit. Jeremiah 31:34 notes that in the ideal future, all Israel will automatically know God:
ירמיה לא:לד וְלֹ֧א יְלַמְּד֣וּ ע֗וֹד אִ֣ישׁ אֶת רֵעֵ֜הוּ וְאִ֤ישׁ אֶת אָחִיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר דְּע֖וּ אֶת יְ־הוָ֑ה כִּֽי כוּלָּם֩ יֵדְע֨וּ אוֹתִ֜י לְמִקְטַנָּ֤ם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם֙ נְאֻם יְ־הוָ֔ה.
Jer 31:34 No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, “Heed YHWH”; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me — declares YHWH.
In other words, in this era, Israel will follow God and God’s laws. Deterministic worldviews are known in later Judaism, for example, especially among the Essenes.
This same belief is found at the beginning of Deuteronomy 30, which, as the appendix discusses, should be translated in a deterministic fashion as follows:
דברים ל:א וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֙ אֶל לְבָבֶ֔ךָ בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִדִּיחֲךָ֛ יְ־הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃ ל:ב וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד יְ־הוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ ל:גוְשָׁ֨ב יְ־הוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְ־הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃
Deut 30:1 When all these things befall you — the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, then you will take them to heart amidst the various nations to which YHWH your God has banished you, 30:2 and you will return to YHWH your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, 30:3 then YHWH your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where YHWH your God has scattered you.
A Traditional Precedent: Ramban Deterministic Understanding of Ch. 30
This understanding of ch. 30 already has precedent in the commentary of the Ramban, Nachmanides (1194-1270), who realizes that this passage agrees with Jeremiah, and reads it as a prediction that Israel will surely repent:
אבל לימות המשיח תהיה הבחירה בטוב להם טבע לא יתאוה להם הלב למה שאינו ראוי ולא יחפוץ בו כלל והיא המילה הנזכרת כאן כי החמדה והתאוה ערלה ללב ומול הלב הוא שלא יחמוד ולא יתאוה
But in the messianic age, the desire to choose what is good will be a natural urge, and the heart will not desire to do what is improper, will not desire it at all. This is the reference to circumcision that we have here, since coveting and desiring are a foreskin of the heart, and circumcising the heart means that one will no longer covet or desire.
Nachmanides continues with the argument that Endzeit gleicht Urzeit, “the end of things mirrors the beginning of things”:
וישוב האדם בזמן ההוא לאשר היה קודם חטאו של אדם הראשון שהיה עושה בטבעו מה שראוי לעשות ולא היה לו ברצונו דבר והפכו כמו שפירשתי בסדר בראשית (ב ט) וזהו מה שאמר הכתוב בירמיה (לא ל- לב) הנה ימים באים נאם ה’ וכרתי את בית ישראל ואת בית יהודה ברית חדשה לא כברית אשר כרתי את אבותם וגו.
Humanity will return at that time to what he was like before the sin of Adam, who naturally did what should be done, and did not have in his mind to do something and its opposite, as I explained in Genesis (2.9). This is what the text in Jeremiah (31.30-31) means when it says: ‘See, days are coming-the utterance of YHWH-and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors...
Nehemiah Paraphrasing Deuteronomy
This interpretation of the opening of Deut 30 is also supported by Ezra-Nehemiah. Nehemiah opens with a prayer by the protagonist, which includes the following (Neh 1:8-9):
נחמיה א:ח זְכָר נָא אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה עַבְדְּךָ לֵאמֹר אַתֶּם תִּמְעָלוּ אֲנִי אָפִיץ אֶתְכֶם בָּעַמִּים. א:ט וְשַׁבְתֶּם אֵלַי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם מִצְוֹתַי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲכֶם בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם מִשָּׁם אֲקַבְּצֵם (והבואתים) [וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים] אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּחַרְתִּי לְשַׁכֵּן אֶת שְׁמִי שָׁם.
Neh 1:8 Be mindful of the promise You gave to Your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 1:9 You shall turn back to Me, and faithfully keep My commandments. Even if your dispersed are at the ends of the earth, and I will gather them from there and bring them to the place where I have chosen to establish My name.’
These verses explicitly state that they are recalling the Torah, אֶת הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוִּ֛יתָ אֶת מֹשֶׁ֥ה עַבְדְּךָ֖, “the promise You gave to Your servant Moses.” They must be citing Deuteronomy in particular—the phrase אָפִ֥יץ בָּעַמִּֽים “to scatter… among the peoples” is found there, but not in Leviticus.
Furthermore, Nehemiah 1:9 refers to the Jerusalem Temple in stereotypical Deuteronomic language, “the place where I have chosen to establish My name,” and is most likely paraphrasing Deuteronomy 30:1b-2 when it states “You shall turn back to me and faithfully keep my commandments.”
Nehemiah’s suggestion here that repentance in exile is inevitable, in a passage based on Deuteronomy 30, buttresses the understanding of the beginning of Deuteronomy 30 proposed above, that God will make Israel repent in the exile.
Can Israel Really Disappear?
I am suggesting that Deut 30:1-10 was written to counter the great curse two chapters earlier, which suggests that as a result of its apostasy, God will totally destroy (השמיד) Israel. Perhaps this unit’s author simply believed that Israel cannot disappear. Or maybe he was influenced by Leviticus 26, which saw the covenant between God and Israel as unbreakable. Or possibly he had just read or heard the prophecies of consolation by Jeremiah. Or perhaps he was writing in the post-exilic period, after God indeed restored Israel, and wrote 30:1-10 to “predict” this restoration. Several of these reasons may have functioned together.
But what is most remarkable is the striking theological distance between chapter 28, which predicts Israel’s complete destruction, and chapter 30, which insists on its complete restoration. Though proximate in location, they could not be more divergent in theology.
A close look at aspects of Deuteronomy 28-30 thus illustrates how biblical texts develop over time—not by an author excising or whiting out an earlier tradition or view that he disagrees with, but by writing a counter-text that will follow and supplement the earlier one.
Perhaps the earlier text was seen as too important to delete, so it could only be “corrected” by supplementation. But this correction was very successful, for the view that most people nowadays have of the covenant is precisely that of Deuteronomy 30 and Leviticus 26—that the covenant between God and Israel is eternal and unbreakable, as opposed to the much more pessimist view of Deuteronomy 28, that Israel may one day be destroyed for violating God’s words.
The Syntax of Deuteronomy 30:1-10
In English, clauses that begin with “if” or “when” are typically completed by clauses that begin with “then”; to use fancy linguistic terminology, the first, conditional clause is called a protasis, and the following result clause is called an apodosis. For example, a parent might say to a child:
“If you eat your main course [protasis], then you will get dessert [apodosis].”
In Hebrew, a protasis is typically introduced by the particle כי, but Hebrew has no specialized word to express “then.” In other words, the apodosis, the result, must be recognized by content rather than by the presence of a specific word. This can happen in English as well, as in the sentence:
“If you eat your main course [protasis], you will get dessert [apodosis].”
Instead of a word like “then,” Hebrew may use the multi-purpose particle waw to mark the opening of the apodosis, or may leave it unmarked. The use of the waw to express “then” is clear, e.g., in the first brother-sister story in Genesis:
בראשית יב:יב וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ׃
Gen 12:12 “If/when the Egyptians see you, and think/say, ‘She is his wife,’ then they will kill me and let you live.”
In this case, context suggests that the second waw after the initial כי clause introduces the protasis, while the first waw after the כי is part of the protasis: “If/when the Egyptians see you, and think/say, ‘She is his wife.”
In some of cases in the Bible, it is unclear where a protasis ends, and the apodosis begins, in other words if a clause beginning with a waw is part of the protasis or the beginning of the apodosis. Deut 30 is one such case. The protasis begins with the כי clause in the first half of v. 1:
דברים ל:א וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ...
Deut 30:1 When all these things befall you — the blessing and the curse that I have set before you...
It is clear that by v. 3 the apodosis has begun:
דברים ל:ג וְשָׁ֨ב יְ־הוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְ־הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃
Deut 30:3 YHWH your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where YHWH your God has scattered you.
But does the apodosis begin only in v. 3, as suggested by the NJPS translation, “then YHWH,” or might it begin earlier? The Hebrew allows it to begin, e.g., in the second half of v. 1, or in v. 2—all of which start with the particle waw.
Given the meaning of this passage, that repentance and then restoration are inevitable, and the likely influence on our passage of Jeremiah, with his emphasis on God forcing Israel to behave, I believe that the protasis begins in the second part of v. 1, and continues through much of the unit. That is why earlier I suggested translating vv. 1-3 as:
דברים ל:א וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֙ אֶל לְבָבֶ֔ךָ בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִדִּיחֲךָ֛ יְ־הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃ל:ב וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד יְ־הוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ל:ג וְשָׁ֨ב יְ־הוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְ־הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃
Deut 30:1 When all these things befall you — the blessing and the curse that I have set before you [conclusion of protasis], [beginning of apodosis] then you will take them to heart amidst the various nations to which YHWH your God has banished you, 30:2 and you will return to YHWH your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, 30:3 then YHWH your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where YHWH your God has scattered you.
In other words, these verses prophesize that God will make Israel repent in exile, and as a result, Israel will be restored.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
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