The Opening Of Devarim: A Recounting or Different Version of the Wilderness Experience?
Where does the book of Deuteronomy begin? This may seem like a simple question—surely a book starts at chapter 1 verse 1! But Deuteronomy turns out to be more complicated than most books. The Mishneh Torah—Deuteronomy proper—where Moses will repeat the laws of God, begins only in chapter 5 and opens with the famous verse (Deut. 4:44): וְזֹ֖את הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל “This is the teaching (Torah) that Moses set before the Israelites.” Everything before this verse appears to be an introduction or a preamble. In this preamble, Moses tells the story of the desert experience to the generation of the conquest.
Identifying the Sources
Although one might expect the rehashing of the desert story to match the original description of events more or less, upon examining the text carefully, many contradictions to the original accounts present themselves. Here are ten examples:
1. The Mountain of God
In Deuteronomy (1:5) God tells the Israelites to leave Chorev. However, in Exodus (19:11) the mountain is called Sinai.
2. The Court System
According to Deuteronomy (1:9-13), the court system devised in the desert was Moses’ idea. However, according to Exodus (18:17-22), the idea was not Moses’ but that of his father-in-law Jethro.
3. The Scouts
According to Deut. 1:22, it was the people’s idea to send scouts to get a feel for the land before the invasion. However, according to Numbers 13:1-2 it was God who first commanded that scouts be sent.
4. The Panic
According to Deut. 1:25-26 the Israelites react with panic at the idea of conquest, even after the scouts say positive things about the land. However, according to Numbers (13:26-14:3) the panic of the Israelites follows upon the negative report of the scouts.
5. The Loyal Scout
God references only Caleb in Deuteronomy 1:36 as the loyal scout who survives the punishment of the desert generation due to his loyalty. Although this parallel’s Numbers 14:24, it contradicts God’s claim in Numbers 14:30.
6. The Punishment of Moses
Moses claims in Deuteronomy 1:37 that his punishment of not being allowed to enter Israel was guilt by association to the desert-generation Israelites—since they cannot enter neither can he. However, in Numbers 20:9-13, the reason is because of Moses’ failure at Mei Meribah, where he hit the rock.
According to Deuteronomy 2:4-6, when the Israelites wished to wander past the land of Edom—not to cross it—they are to purchase water and food from them. The story in Deuteronomy continues with the implicit (later, in 2:29, made explicit) assumption that this is what happened. However, in the account in Numbers 20:17-21, the Israelites begin with a request for food and water which elicits a belligerent response from the Edomites. As in Deuteronomy, the Israelites here do not pass through Edom, but the sequence of events and the associated implications about Edom’s relationship with Israel is quite different.
In Deuteronomy 2:24-25, God tells Moses to pick a fight with Sihon and conquer his land. However, in Numbers 21:23 the war seems to be the accidental consequence of Sihon’s own belligerence.
In Deuteronomy 2:29, Moses tells Sihon that the Moabites sold the Israelites food and water. Not only does this contradict Deuteronomy 23:5, where the Israelites are forbidden to marry the Moabites because they did not give the Israelites bread and water, but it seems to contradict the account in Numbers 21 which has no record of a request for food and water from Moab (or Ammon).
Furthermore, it contradicts the spirit of Numbers 22:2-7. In this account, Balak expresses fear of the Israelites, claiming to his Midianite allies that the Israelites are living next door to him and will soon gobble up everything in Moab. This speech implies that Israel has yet to enter Moab or converse with them, but that Balak fears for the future.
In fact, the account of Balak in Numbers appears after the conquest of Sihon and Og,which continues to Moab being petrified. This implies an entirely different geographic route / reality, since there would be no need to ask Moab for water or food at this point, as they do in the Deuteronomy account, once Israel conquers the other territory.
10. Reuven, Gad, and Part of Manasseh
In Deuteronomy 3:18-22, after conquering the Transjordan, Moses suggests that Reuven and Gad can stay there as long as they send their army across to the Cisjordan to help their brothers conquer their own territory. However, in Numbers 32:16-19, this suggestion is first brought up by Reuven and Gad after Moses explodes in anger at their request to remain in the Transjordan permanently.
The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience. Here is an outline of the story as presented in Deuteronomy 1-3.
The Israelites are told to leave the mountain of God at Chorev and head towards the Promised Land. On the way Moses appoints judges to help him rule the people. When the Israelites got close to the land, they asked for Moses to send scouts in first, which he does. The scouts return with a favorable report but to no avail. The people panic and accuse Moses and God of trying to destroy them by bringing them into a war they cannot win. In response God punishes everyone from that generation, saying that they will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The one exception was Caleb, who stood with God. Even Moses will be unable to enter, but will have to hand the reins over to his protégé Joshua. (No explanation for why Joshua will be permitted to enter the land is offered; perhaps the text envisions him as having been very young.)
Years later, once the march towards the land is begun again, the Israelites bypass Edom, Moab and Ammon, only buying food and water from them but not molesting them at all. This is because their land was also given to them by God, just as the land of Canaan will be given to the Israelites. When Israel comes upon Sihon and the Amorites, God tells Moses that the conquest will now begin. Sihon is conquered as is Og king of Bashan, and Moses begins to settle various tribes in these lands—parts of Manasseh as well as Reuven and Gad. Moses then informs them that even though they have received their inheritance, they are still required to assist their brethren in the conquest of their lands.
Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there appears to be no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. The simplest literary approach is the academic one which posits multiple authors with multiple traditions. How such an approach meshes with traditionalist belief requires serious thought but it is necessary to start by recognizing the simplicity and straightforwardness of the academic approach.
Finally, it appears to me that being able to accept that there are contradictory perspectives expressed in the Torah allows us to offer meaningful interpretations of each and to address significant tensions in the text without feeling the need to create hollow apologetic explanations. Think of our other holy texts, the Mishna and the Talmud, for instance. They are filled with debates about Torah principles, and yet we say that eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim chayim – each position is the word of the Living God. We are a religion that loves incongruity and debate and our Torah study thrives on the productive tension inherent in multivocality and conflicting perspectives.
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July 1, 2013
October 14, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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