Moses “Went” or “Finished”? – Deuteronomy 31:1
The antepenultimate parasha in the Torah is called Vayelekh, after the opening word in MT,  which in this case is problematic, and perhaps erroneous:
MT (+ SP, Pesh, Vulg)
1QDeutb (+ LXX)
דברים לא:א וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת (כל) הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
דברים לא:א ויכל משה לדבר את כל הד[ברים האלה אל כל ישראל].
Moses went and spoke (all) these words to all Israel.
And Moses finished speaking all [these] wor[ds to all Israel].
This difference reflects the relative order of the third and fourth letter of the first word. Modern scholars debate which text is more likely original, with BHQ preferring the MT and NRSVue following the Qumran text and the LXX.
To my mind, the key is context. Deuteronomy is organized as a series of speeches before and after the revelation of the law. The speech preceding this chapter begins in Deuteronomy 29 with:
דברים כט:א וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם...
Deut 29:1 Moses summoned all Israel and said to them…
The speech runs the length of chapters 29 and 30. The logic of the Qumran and LXX text is clear, and 31:1 notes that Moses completed that speech. The logic of MT is less clear, however, since what does “Moses went” mean in the context of one speech followed by another. Where did he go? The problem has long bothered commentators. R. Avraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) suggests that he went individually to each tribe to deliver the next speech:
וילך משה – הלך אל כל שבט ושבט להודיעם שהוא מת, שלא יפחדו.
“Moses went”—he went to each tribe to inform them that he was going to die, so that they would not be afraid.
This is a midrashic answer, inventing a backstory to explain a problem. Another possibility, proposed in the commentaries of Shadal (Samuel David Luzzato, 1800–1865) and Hoil Moshe (Moshe Ashkenazi, 1821–1898), is that it means “again,” noting the parallel usage in describing Isaac’s increasing wealth:
בראשית כו:יג וַיִּגְדַּל הָאִישׁ וַיֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל עַד כִּי גָדַל מְאֹד.
Gen 26:13 And the man grew richer and richer again until he was very wealthy.
Applying this understanding to our verse is a stretch, however, since while the root is the same, the grammatical construction is quite different.
The simpler explanation, therefore, is that וילך in 31:1 is the result of a textual mishap (metathesis)וַיְכַל →וַיֵּלֶךְ. From there, the MT took a second step, smoothing out the grammar from לדבר “speaking” to וַיְדַבֵּר, “and he spoke.”
Beyond just a textual mishap, I suggest that the MT may have preferred this reading to solve a problem: the same verse appears again after the Song of Moses:
דברים לב:מה וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה לְדַבֵּר אֶת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 32:45 And Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel.
Clearly, Moses did not finish speaking twice, and the second appearance of the phrase is an example of a resumptive repetition, often a sign that material has been added between the two appearances of identical phrases. This would imply that the song in chapter 32 was added later. Understandably, this doubling may have bothered later scribes or editors. Changing the first verse to read “Moses went” instead of “Moses finished” would obviate this problem.
Notably, in 32:45 MT has the phrase “all these words,” whereas in 31:1, MT reads only “these words.” It is possible that MT deleted the word “all” in 31:1 to make it appear that the earlier verse referred only to the previous speech (chs. 29–30), while this second reference refers to all the speeches in Deuteronomy. This presumed development further supports the possibility that the change was purposeful or, at least, the mishap was embraced by a later scribe who further refined it.
If this analysis is correct, the parashah is named after a non-original reading in MT.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
August 24, 2023
November 7, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Emanuel Tov is J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible (emeritus) in the Dept. of Bible at the Hebrew University, where he received his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. He was the editor of 33 volumes of Discoveries in the Judean Desert. Among his many publications are, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Textual Criticism of the Bible: An Introduction, The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library 31 and The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research.
Essays on Related Topics: