We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

David Frankel





The Covenant in Moab: Deuteronomy Without Horeb





APA e-journal

David Frankel





The Covenant in Moab: Deuteronomy Without Horeb








Edit article


The Covenant in Moab: Deuteronomy Without Horeb

Deuteronomy has Moses receiving a revelation at Horeb, but only teaching the Israelites its contents decades later in the Land of Moab. This two-step revelatory process, which is presented as two covenants (Deuteronomy 28:69), masks an earlier form of Deuteronomy that had no record of a Horeb revelation.


The Covenant in Moab: Deuteronomy Without Horeb

Sinai Mountain (detail) 1994 Richard Mcbee

A Repetition of the Law?

The name Deuteronomy comes from the Greek term Deuteronomion, meaning “second law,” the name given to the book in the ancient Greek Bible translation, the Septuagint. This reflects the conception that in Deuteronomy, Moses repeats the law that he first related to Israel at Horeb (Deuteronomy’s name for Sinai) to the Israelites encamped on Land of Moab. The rabbis similarly refer to Deuteronomy as a משנה תורה, in the sense of “a repetition of the law,” a term they borrow from the law of the king (Deut 17:18).[1]

But this is not the meaning of the phrase in Deut 17:18, where it means that the king should have “a copy of the teaching” that was kept in the Temple under the care of the Levitical priests, so that he might read from it regularly and keep all its stipulations.[2] The same meaning of mishneh appears in Joshua 8:32, where a copy of Moses’ Torah is written upon plastered stones so all would be able to see the law of the land.

Deuteronomy’s Conception of the Revelation at Horeb

Deuteronomy does not, in fact, present itself as reviewing and repeating the laws that Moses already told Israel at Horeb. Rather, according to Deuteronomy, God proclaimed only the Decalogue at Horeb, then carved them on tablets and gave them to Moses (Deut 5:19{22}).[3]

God intended to continue proclaiming his additional commandments to the people. However, the Israelite leaders, fearful they might die “if we continue to hear the voice of YHWH our God any longer” (אִם יֹסְפִים אֲנַחְנוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עוֹד; Deut 5:22{25}), approached Moses with a special request that he listen to God’s laws for them. Then, after receiving the additional laws from God on their behalf, Moses should relay these laws to them, which, they assure Moses, they will obey (Deut 5:20-24{23-27}).

God’s response to this unexpected Israelite request was positive and he tells Moses to free them from further communication with God (Deut 5:25-28{28-31}). In short, according to Deuteronomy 5, while Israel as a whole heard the Decalogue from God, they were to hear the rest of God’s commandments only via Moses. Moses relates these commandments to them for the first time only in his Deuteronomic address.[4]

Moses Relates the Horeb Laws to Israel on the Plains of Moab for the First Time

Several considerations point to this conclusion:

1) They Leave the Mountain – According to Deut 5:27-28{30-31}, God tells Moses to disperse the Israelites that were standing at the foot of the mountain and have them return to their homes, while Moses alone stays to hear the laws:

דברים ה:כז{ל} לֵךְ אֱמֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶם. ה:כח{לא} וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם וְעָשׂוּ בָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לָהֶם לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 5:27{30} “Go, tell them to return to their tents. 5:28{31} But you stay here with me so that I may give you all the commands, decrees and laws you are to teach them to follow in the land I am giving them to possess.”

We are never told that he gathered them back again to this spot to hear the laws upon Moses’ descent. This stands in stark contrast with the account of the Sinai event in Exodus 20, according to which even after the Israelites ask Moses to speak with God on their behalf, the Israelites wait at the foot of the mountain for Moses to descend:

שמות כ:יח{כא} וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם מֵרָחֹק וּמֹשֶׁה נִגַּשׁ אֶל הָעֲרָפֶל אֲשֶׁר שָׁם הָאֱלֹהִים.
Exod 20:18{21} So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.

Moreover, when Moses descends in Exodus, he recites the laws to the people and writes a “book of covenant,” which he reads aloud (Exod 24:3-8).

שמות כד:ג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְ-הוָה וְאֵת כָּל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה נַעֲשֶׂה. כד:ד וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְ-הוָה… כד:זוַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.
Exod 24:3 Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of YHWH and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that YHWH has commanded we will do!” 24:4Moses then wrote down all the commands of YHWH…. 24:7 Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that YHWH has spoken we will faithfully do!”

Nothing like this is mentioned in Deuteronomy, which has Moses write the “book of the law” (31:9, 24), presumably a reference to the core of Deuteronomy, only in the land of Moab.[5]

2) Horeb laws taught in Moab – The parallel between Deut 5:28{31} and Deut 6:1 suggests that the laws Moses received on Horeb were only conveyed to Israel at Moab:

דברים ה:כז{ל} וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם וְעָשׂוּ בָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לָהֶם לְרִשְׁתָּהּ
Deut 5:28{31} But you stay here with me so that I may give you all the commands, decrees, and laws you are to teach them to observe in the land I am giving them to possess
דברים ו:א וְזֹאת הַמִּצְוָה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 6:1 These are the commands, decrees, and laws YHWH your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.

The correspondence between these verses is clear, and the obvious implication is that Moses fulfills God’s directive at Horeb to teach Israel the Horeb commandments only in the land of Moab.

3) Today in Moab Israel is a people – For Deuteronomy, the covenant in the Land of Moab is continually referred to as the founding national event. Thus, we read in Deut 27:9:

…הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
…Take heed and hear, O Israel: Today you have become the people of YHWH.

The emphasis on “today” implies that Israel was not the “people of YHWH” in the full sense of this phrase previously.[6] Presumably, the Israelites become the people of YHWH “today” in the Land of Moab because it is only then and there that they hear the laws of Horeb (beyond the Decalogue) and accept them.

4) Commanded today in Moab – The commandments are referred to more than twenty times as אשר אנכי מצוך/מצוה אתכם היום, “which I command you today.[7] This implies that they were not commanded to the people previously, at Horeb.

In a word, the Deuteronomic address in the Land of Moab is where Moses first reveals the laws he received at Horeb to the people.

Delaying what was Learned at Horeb to Moab

The idea that God reveals laws to Moses at Horeb, but that Moses only reveals them many years later in the land of Moab, seems strange. This problem is especially pressing if we assume, like most scholars, that Deuteronomy was not meant to be read as a continuation of the previous books of the Torah but as an independent document representing the one correct version of Israel’s narrative and law. Thus, the idea that Deuteronomy’s Horeb laws were only to be taught at Moab leaves us with a number of questions:

  1. Delayed teaching – Why should Moses delay his teaching of the additional divine laws to the Israelites for forty years? This seems like a quite unnatural thing for Moses to do! And weren’t the people at all curious all those years to know just what laws God had told Moses while he was up there on the mountain top for so long?[8] Don’t the Israelites need to keep at least some of these laws already in the wilderness?
  2. Delayed writing – Why should Moses only write down the laws years after he received them? Even if he was not going to teach these laws until later, why not write them down immediately after learning them, like he does in Exodus 24 with the book of covenant?[9]
  3. Importance of the Land of Moab Covenant – Why is the “covenant in the Land of Moab,” so important in Deuteronomy, such that Israel only becomes God’s people in the Land of Moab and not at Horeb? The people already agreed to keep the laws at Horeb; is their hearing the laws so important?
  4. Relativizing Horeb – On the flip side: Why should the Horeb event be relativized in this way, as if it were merely penultimate to the truly central event for the formation of Israel? After all, God appears in thunder specifically at Horeb and it is there that the Israelites hear and accept the Decalogue from God (Deut 4-5).

In sum, why did the Deuteronomic authors bother with two different covenants at two different sites altogether?[10]

Weinfeld’s Approach: Horeb Covenant Was Abrogated

The late Moshe Weinfeld (1925-2009), an important Bible scholar from Hebrew University, suggested that Deuteronomy sought to highlight the covenant in the Land of Moab and to diminish the centrality of the Horeb covenant because the latter was believed to have been broken and invalidated by the sin of the molten calf, as symbolized concretely by the breaking of the tablets.[11]

This answer has little textual support. Deuteronomy offers no indication that the Horeb covenant is null and void, requiring a new covenant at a new site. On the contrary, Deuteronomy 5:3 insists that the Horeb covenant was made with Moses’ living audience present in the Land of Moab:

דברים ה:ב יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כָּרַת עִמָּנוּ בְּרִית בְּחֹרֵב. ה:ג לֹא אֶת אֲבֹתֵינוּ כָּרַת יְ-הוָה אֶת הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת כִּי אִתָּנוּ אֲנַחְנוּ אֵלֶּה פֹה הַיּוֹם כֻּלָּנוּ חַיִּים.
Deut 5:2 YHWH our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 5:3 It was not with our fathers that YHWH made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.

The clear implication is that the Horeb covenant remains fully binding and authoritative for these Israelites and for all subsequent generations, and that, if anything, the covenant in the Land of Moab is grounded in that of Horeb.

Additionally, Deut 10:1-5 relates that the second set of tablets, inscribed with the very same commandments as the first set, were placed in the ark and entrusted with the Levitical priests. Thus, whatever negative effects the sin of the calf and the breaking of the tablets may have had on the status of the Horeb covenant, they were apparently rectified already at Horeb and without recourse to an additional covenant.

The Original Deuteronomy: One Law-giving and One Covenant

A more compelling answer to these questions, in my view, is that an earlier form of the book of Deuteronomy did not speak of a Horeb revelation at all. The materials in Deuteronomy that speak of a Horeb revelation or assume one (e.g., 4:9-40; 5:2-6:3; 9:8-21; 10:1-5, 10-11; 18:16-22; 33:4) are all, I believe, late and secondary, including Deuteronomy’s version of the Decalogue. The original Deuteronomic work presented all its laws as having been given to Israel by Moses at the one and only covenant site – the Land of Moab. And there was only one written testimony to that covenant – the book of law written by Moses.

This explains why the Deuteronomic texts that speak of Israel entering the covenant of the Land of Moab “today” make no reference or allusion to any earlier covenant. The Israelites become the people of YHWH on the Land of Moab for the first time, since no revelation took place at Horeb.

Absence of Horeb in Deuteronomy’s Historical Overviews

This explains, for example, why there is no reference to Horeb in the historical review of Deut 29:1-8{2-9}.[12] Before Moses calls upon Israel to keep the terms of the covenant, he reviews Israel’s previous history. He speaks of the great signs and mighty wonders that God wrought in Egypt, of his miraculous preservation of Israel’s clothing and sandals through the forty-year wilderness journey, and of the victory over Sihon and Og, but nothing about the event at Horeb![13]

This failure of Moses to make reference to Horeb in this historical overview stands in stark contrast to his words at Deut 4:9-10:

דברים ד:ט רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ. ד:י יוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב בֶּאֱמֹר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי הַקְהֶל לִי אֶת הָעָם וְאַשְׁמִעֵם אֶת דְּבָרָי אֲשֶׁר יִלְמְדוּן לְיִרְאָה אֹתִי כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הֵם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה וְאֶת בְּנֵיהֶם יְלַמֵּדוּן.
Deut 4:9 Again, however, pay very careful attention, lest you forget the things you have seen and disregard them for the rest of your life; instead teach them to your children and grandchildren. 4:10 You stood before YHWH your God at Horeb and he said to me, “Assemble the people before me so that I can tell them my commands. Then they will learn to revere me all the days they live in the land, and they will instruct their children.”

One can hardly assume that the author of Deut 29:1-8 was aware of Moses’ discourse of Deut 4 on the vital importance of relating the Horeb narrative to the next generations but chose not to mention it, emphasizing instead God’s preservation of Israel’s clothing!

The same thing may be said regarding the summary of great divine acts of Deut 11:2-7. It mentions the divine wonders wrought in the land of Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds, the divine provision in the wilderness and the destruction of Datan and Abiram. No mention is made of the great revelation at Horeb.

One Covenant or Two

Deuteronomy 29 continually refers to only one covenant (verses 8, 11, 13, 20, 24) and not, as would be required by Deut 4:13; 5:2-3; 9:8-21, to two covenants. Of course, a double covenant is mentioned in the summary verse 28:68 {29:1}, but this is the exception that proves the rule and is a redactional insertion:

אֵלֶּה דִבְרֵי הַבְּרִית אֲ‍שֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה לִכְרֹת אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב מִלְּבַד הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת אִתָּם בְּחֹרֵב.
These are the terms of the covenant YHWH commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb.

The final clause of the verse (in bold) is editorial. The clause begins with the term מלבד, which, as has been clearly shown by many scholars, introduces secondary, editorial clauses throughout the Torah.[14]

Adding Horeb to the Law of the Prophet

The secondary nature of the Horeb tradition in Deuteronomy is evident in the law concerning the prophetic office in Deut 18:9-22. The first section of this text presents a Mosaic speech to Israel prohibiting occult practices and consultation with diviners of various sorts. Moses emphasizes that these are foreign practices for which Israel has no need, since God will appoint prophets like himself for them, who will relate the divine will to them directly.

The section stands perfectly well on its own. However, verses 16-22 suddenly and disjunctively [15](note the difficult syntactic nature of verse 16’s ככל אשר שאלת) grounds the institution of prophecy in the Horeb revelation.[16]

דברים יח:טו נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן.
Deut 18:15 YHWH your God will raise up for you prophets like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; it is to them that you must listen.
יח:טז כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתָּ מֵעִם יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל לֵאמֹר לֹא אֹסֵף לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהָי וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת לֹא אֶרְאֶה עוֹד וְלֹא אָמוּת.
18:16 This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly. You asked YHWH your God: “Please do not make us hear the voice of YHWH our God any more or see this great fire any more lest we die.”

The bulk of this section appears in the form of a first-person speech of God addressed to Moses alone (verses 17-20; in verses 21-22 God suddenly addresses Israel directly) and the speaking voice of Moses disappears completely. Without entering into an extended analysis, it is sufficient to note here that verses 16-22 constitute a secondary addition.[17]

Adding Horeb to the Introduction in Deut 4-5

A last example of the secondary introduction of the Horeb revelation in Deuteronomy is seen in the transition from Deut 4:44-5:1 to 5:2ff. The section first references what Moses will teach the Israelites:

דברים ד:מה אֵלֶּה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל… ה:א וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם וּלְמַדְתֶּם אֹתָם וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשֹׂתָם.
Deut 4:45 These are the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances that Moses spoke to the children… 5:1 And Moses called all Israel and said to them: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances that I speak into your ears this day that you may learn them and observe to do them.”

Just when the readers expect to hear the “testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances that Moses spoke to the children of Israel” “today,” on the other side of the Jordan, the text moves to a prior period, to a narrative report concerning a covenant made at Horeb:

דברים ה:ב יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כָּרַת עִמָּנוּ בְּרִית בְּחֹרֵב. ה:ג לֹא אֶת אֲבֹתֵינוּ כָּרַת יְ-הוָה אֶת הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת כִּי אִתָּנוּ…
Deut 5:2 YHWH our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 5:3 YHWH did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us…

This seems rather disjunctive.[18]

Reasons for the Incorporation of the Horeb Material

Why did the later editors of Deuteronomy[19] ground the laws and covenant of the Land of Moab in the Horeb revelation? Three important concerns probably motivated them:

Harmonization – The original Torah of the Land of Moab was either unaware or otherwise independent of the tradition of the Decalogue and the revelation and covenant at Horeb. Yet it claimed to contain the definitive record of God’s covenantal demands of Israel. This situation could continue only as long as the Decalogue achieved limited standing and status.[20] At a certain point in Israel’s history, however, the Horeb/Sinai covenant, and the Decalogue, must have become more prominent. At that point a place for it (and the traditions related to it) had to be found within the Deuteronomic corpus.

Divine Participation in the Covenant – Whereas the Horeb/Sinai tradition speaks of a dramatic descent of a thundering God to the top of the mountain to enter into a covenant with his new people, the Land of Moab tradition presents a God whose physical presence can hardly be discerned, in spite of the fact that the Israelites are said to have stood before YHWH when they entered the covenant (29:9). The supplementation of the Horeb tradition adds this dramatic element to the book.

Authorization of the Law – In Deuteronomy, God never proclaims the commandments; only Moses issues commands. At times Moses presents his commands as the commandments of God (Deut 4:2, 44-45; 8:11; 11:8, 26-28; 13:19; 28:1), but it is still Moses that issues them, and they are never presented as quotations of God.

At times it would seem that Moses is even presented as commanding on his own authority, as when he explains the rationale behind a particular law and follows this with the phrase “this is why I command you this thing today” (Deut 15:15).[21] In any event, the laws of the Torah of the Land of Moab seem to lack explicit divine authority. The supplementation of the Horeb material and the depiction of God communicating his laws to Moses thus provided unambiguous divine backing for the Mosaic law.


It is often asserted that the Horeb/Sinai revelation constitutes the most fundamental core of ancient Israelite faith. The analysis presented above shows that this assertion is an overstatement.[22] Israelite faith was diverse and ever-changing. Sinai became all pervasive only late in the game.


July 27, 2018


Last Updated

April 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).