The Opening of Devarim: Redaction Criticism and Modern Midrash
Academic Bible study notes that the storyline of the wilderness period as described in the opening section of Deuteronomy—what I call the preamble—contradicts that which is found in Exodus and Numbers (see The Opening of Devarim: A Recounting or Different Version of the Wilderness Experience? for details.) The question arises, how does a modern person read these stories as they are now presented in the Torah, a single book?
To answer this question, I would like to focus on two of the many contradictions. In Exodus it is Jethro who pushes Moses to appoint judges to share his burden but in Deuteronomy the idea is all Moses’. In Numbers the idea to send scouts is God’s, in Deuteronomy it is that of the people. First, we will look at how these two contradictions were dealt with by traditional commentators and then I will offer an alternative approach.
Traditional commentators, who assume that both accounts must be factual representations of actual historical events merge the details from the various accounts in order to paint one overall consistent picture. For example, to solve the problem of Moses claiming the appointment of judges as his own idea, R. Bachya ben Asher (14th cent. Spain) adds a gloss (Deut. 1:9):
ואומר אליכם בעת ההיא לאמר. ע”י יתרו שאמר לי והקב”ה הסכים על ידו.
I said to you at that time – following Jethro who suggested it to me, and the Holy One agreed.
This effectively creates one timeline for both descriptions of the events. First, as reported in Exodus, Jethro makes the suggestion. Then, as reported in Deuteronomy, Moses adopts the idea as his own, and receives the go ahead from God.
The contradiction regarding the scouts receives similar treatment in traditional commentators. R. Ovadiah Seforno (ca. 1475-1550, Italy), for instance, attempts to build a timeline covering both versions.
נשלחה אנשים. נבחר אנחנו אנשים ונשלח ולזה לא הסכים האל יתעלה ואמר למשה שלח לך שיבחר הוא האנשים ולא הם פן יבחרו הדיוטות שיוסיפו להרע.
Let us send men – let us choose men and we will send them. But God did not accept this, but said to Moses: “You send,” meaning, you pick the men but not them, lest they choose average men who will add to their guilt.
Seforno believes that the scout story began with a request by the people as in Deuteronomy, but was followed up by a modification of that request by God, as in Numbers.
Interpreting the Final Form of the Text – Modern Midrash?
Coming at the text from a historical-critical perspective, where the attempt to create a single timeline from the different accounts is not critically compelling , how can one read contradictory versions in a way that makes some meaningful sense of the tradition? As an exercise of Torah study, it seems woefully inadequate to just say that there is more than one tradition and leave it at that. The Torah was redacted to create the book that we have; what does it mean now?
One useful approach is to consider the differing narrative frameworks of the versions. Whereas Exodus and Numbers are presented as “objective” third person descriptions, Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ speech, where he shares his perspective and recollection.
The use of the omniscient third person narrator in Exodus and Numbers is meant to imply that events are being recorded in an objective way. Looking at our examples with this third eye reveals some messy and unexpected phenomena. It isn’t Moses who first suggests a court system; rather it was his non-Israelite father-in-law. The suggestion to send a scouting party—and even the names of the scouts themselves—was God’s, and even so it was a dismal failure.
Each story is different when retold by Moses decades later. Preparing for his death and digesting the bitter pill of partial failure and his consequent punishment, Moses’ version of events reflects his own take. At this stage, Moses is anything but dispassionate and objective. Thinking over the system of judges now in place, Moses feels pride in a robust system and his part in creating it. Leaving off the reference to his father-in-law reflects a standard foible of human memory and perspective. All Jethro did, in the end, was suggest the idea, Moses took it and ran with it. Similarly, thinking back to the immense failure of the scouts and the panic that ensued, Moses cannot help but believe/remember that the idea originated with the people. He cannot accept that the idea to send scouts, and therefore to some extent, the failure of the mission, was really God’s. “They really wanted the scouts,” Moses tells himself. “They were insecure about the mission the whole time.”
To clarify, I only suggest this at the level of the redaction as a kind of modern midrash. At the level of text composition it makes little sense. The challenge of learning Torah in the modern world is balancing an attempt to understand the multivocality of a work redacted from disparate sources with an attempt to understand the final product as it appears in the canonical tradition.
In Derashot ha-Ran, towards the beginning of the ninth derasha, the Ran (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven) claims that the key to the preamble in Deuteronomy is to understand that it is meant as a rebuke (tochecha) of the Israelites. Moses prefaces his Mishneh Torah with a speech describing the wilderness period from his own perspective. This retelling will be peppered with Moses’ critique of Israel’s failure to follow God, a failure which led to the demise of the entire wilderness generation.
In this preamble, Moses allows himself to emote and share his personal take on the past. He does so with the hope that hearing his rebuke will allow this new generation to really listen to his final oeuvre, the Deuteronomic speech, in a way their parents never could. In Moses’ view this is of paramount importance, since the Mishneh Torah will be his final attempt to convey to Israel “what it is that God is asking of them” (Deut. 10:12) before he dies and the Israelites finally enter the Promised Land.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 5, 2013
November 20, 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).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series