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SBL e-journal

Ethan Schwartz





Torah: Deuteronomy's Version of Wisdom for Israel





APA e-journal

Ethan Schwartz





Torah: Deuteronomy's Version of Wisdom for Israel








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Torah: Deuteronomy's Version of Wisdom for Israel

Deuteronomy reflects influence from ancient Wisdom traditions, such as those in the book of Proverbs and in other ancient Near Eastern literature. Yet Deuteronomy presents Torah as Israel’s own Wisdom teaching. This serves both to elevate Torah and to insist that it be in dialogue with the broader, non-Israelite world.


Torah: Deuteronomy's Version of Wisdom for Israel


Introduction: The Torah-Reading Service

During the Torah-reading service in the traditional Jewish liturgy, the process of removing the Torah from the ark, and later returning it, is accompanied by the recitation of a pastiche of biblical verses. One such verse comes from the book of Proverbs (4:2):

כִּ֤י לֶ֣קַח ט֭וֹב נָתַ֣תִּי לָכֶ֑ם תּֽוֹרָתִ֗י אַֽל־תַּעֲזֹֽבוּ:
For I hereby give you sound instruction; do not forsake my teaching [torati].

In this context, “torati” refers to both the physical Torah scroll being deposited in the ark and the tradition it represents. In its original biblical context, however, it refers to the personal teachings of the author of Proverbs.[1]

Wisdom in the Ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible

Proverbs is part of an ancient literary genre that modern scholarship calls “Wisdom literature”[2] because of its focus on Wisdom—חכמה in Hebrew.[3] Commonalities between Wisdom texts across the ancient Near East help to clarify its features.[4] The three most important commonalities are:

  1. Individualist: Wisdom is accessible to the individual as an individual, by means of his or her own human faculties. The subjects of Wisdom texts are described as personally undertaking to inquire about the way of the world.
  2. Cosmopolitan: Wisdom transcends communal boundaries; it is not the exclusive property of any single group. This is related to the first commonality: because Wisdom is accessible to the individual, it is accessible to all
  3. Practical: Wisdom is concerned with the practical results of a person’s conduct.[5] A dominant stream of Wisdom, sometimes called “establishment” Wisdom, encourages good behavior by asserting that, as a rule, the good fare well and the evil poorly. Against this, a stream of “anti-establishment” Wisdom argues that because the reverse is just as often true, personal conduct might not really matter.

Proverbs is the Bible’s clearest example of establishment Wisdom,[6] presenting practical advice:

לְמַ֗עַן תֵּ֭לֵךְ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ טוֹבִ֑ים וְאָרְח֖וֹת צַדִּיקִ֣ים תִּשְׁמֹֽר: כִּֽי יְשָׁרִ֥ים יִשְׁכְּנוּ אָ֑רֶץ וּ֝תְמִימִ֗ים יִוָּ֥תְרוּ בָֽהּ: וּ֭רְשָׁעִים מֵאֶ֣רֶץ יִכָּרֵ֑תוּ וּ֝בוֹגְדִ֗ים יִסְּח֥וּ מִמֶּֽנָּה:
That you may walk in the way of the good and keep the paths of the righteous. For it is the upright who will inhabit the earth, the blameless who will remain therein. But as for the wicked—they will be cut off from the earth; as for the treacherous—they will be rooted therefrom. (Prov. 2:20-22)

Proverbs also reflects Wisdom’s cosmopolitanism and focus on the individual. Although it presents YHWH as the source of חכמה, He is never presented as the covenantal God of Israel. Rather, he appears as the universal God of the world. With the exception of the book’s superscription,[7] the word “Israel” never appears in the entire book.

Echoes of Wisdom Literature in Deuteronomy

By reciting Prov. 4:2 during the Torah service, the congregation implies that what Proverbs says about Wisdom also applies to Torah. This identification of Torah with Wisdom, which flowers in post-biblical literature,[8] has its roots in the Torah itself: in the book of Deuteronomy. Traditionally, the authors of biblical Wisdom texts like Proverbs are regarded as students of the Torah. Biblical-critical scholarship, however, suggests that the reverse is sometimes the case: the authors of Deuteronomy, who played an important role in editing the entire Torah, are students of Wisdom.

Deuteronomy is clearly influenced by the ancient Near Eastern Wisdom genre.[9] For instance, it portrays Moses’ relationship to Israel in terms of a parent teaching a child—a Wisdom staple, as reflected in Prov. 1:8, which reads:

שְׁמַ֣ע בְּ֭נִי מוּסַ֣ר אָבִ֑יךָ וְאַל תִּ֝טֹּ֗שׁ תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ:
My son, heed the discipline of your father, And do not forsake the instruction of your mother.

This kind of parental address is echoed in Deut. 4:1, which is the beginning of Moses’ long theological speech in Deuteronomy:

וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת…
And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am teaching you to observe…

Deuteronomy is the Torah’s most extensive reflection on intergenerational education.[10] In fact, the Hebrew word ל-מ-ד the verbal root of both “learn” and “teach,” appears nowhere else in the Torah!

Furthermore, Deuteronomy appears to incorporate Wisdom sayings as part of its covenantal law code. These Wisdom-influenced laws are unparalleled elsewhere in the Torah.[11] Only in Deuteronomy (19:14) do we find the following law:

לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּבְל֖וּ רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים בְּנַחֲלָֽתְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּנְחַ֔ל בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ: ס
You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that Yhwh your God is giving you to possess.

It has a direct parallel in Prov. 22:28, which reads:

אַל תַּ֭סֵּג גְּב֣וּל עוֹלָ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עָשׂ֣וּ אֲבוֹתֶֽיךָ:
Do not remove the ancient boundary stone that your ancestors set up.

Like Wisdom, Deuteronomy privileges human interpretation over direct divine speech. Almost all of Deuteronomy comes from the mouth of Moses, not God.[12] Lastly, both Deuteronomy and Wisdom texts are oriented toward worldly prosperity. The rewards of covenantal observance in Deuteronomy—life, abundance, and secure possession of the Promised Land—echo the rewards of prudent action in Wisdom literature.[13]

Deuteronomy: A Particularist Wisdom Text

Yet in contrast to biblical Wisdom works like Proverbs, Deuteronomy largely reflects a particularistic concern with Israel, so much so that, in spite of its monotheism, it tolerates other peoples’ idolatrous worship:

וּפֶן תִּשָּׂ֨א עֵינֶ֜יךָ הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וְֽרָאִיתָ אֶת הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ וְאֶת הַיָּרֵ֜חַ וְאֶת הַכּֽוֹכָבִ֗ים כֹּ֚ל צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ֛ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִ֥יתָ לָהֶ֖ם וַעֲבַדְתָּ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר חָלַ֜ק יְ-הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֹתָ֔ם לְכֹל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים תַּ֖חַת כָּל־ הַשָּׁמָֽיִם: וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:(דברים ד:יט-כ)
Lest you lift up your eyes to the heavens and, seeing the sun and the moon and the stars—the whole heavenly host—you are driven to bow down to them and worship them, which YHWH your God apportioned to all the other peoples under the whole of the heavens. But it was youwhom YHWH took, bringing you out of the iron furnace—out of Egypt—to be His inherited people, as is the case today. (Deut. 4:19-20)

Deuteronomy isn’t trying to eliminate idolatry from the whole world but only from Israel,[14]which, as YHWH’s “inherited people,” is radically distinct from every other people.

At the heart of Deuteronomy, then, is a profound paradox.[15] This most particularistic book of the Bible is unmistakably influenced by the Bible’s most universalistic genre. How do these two contradictory dimensions fit together?

Hearing instead of Seeing

In an important study,[16] Stephen A. Geller argues that the key to making sense of this paradox is Deuteronomy’s fourth chapter, the crown jewel of the theological material that sandwiches the book’s legal core (chs. 12-26). Geller’s argument is rooted in Deut. 4:36, which reads:

מִן הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם הִשְׁמִֽיעֲךָ֥ אֶת קֹל֖וֹ לְיַסְּרֶ֑ךָּ וְעַל הָאָ֗רֶץ הֶרְאֲךָ֙ אֶת אִשּׁ֣וֹ הַגְּדוֹלָ֔ה וּדְבָרָ֥יו שָׁמַ֖עְתָּ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ:
It was from the heavens that [YHWH] caused you to hear His voice, to discipline you; while it was upon the earth that He caused you to see His great fire, hearing His words from within the fire.

By associating the ear with the heavens and the eye with the earth, Deuteronomy 4 insists that hearing is the medium of YHWH’s relationship with Israel—that is to say, the covenant, Deuteronomy’s central theme. The book repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of hearing for the covenant, hammering it home in the book’s most famous verse (Deut. 6:4):

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד:
Hear, O Israel! YHWH is our God, YHWH alone![17]

In contrast, visual language and a concern with the ways of the earth dominate Wisdom literature. Sight is the primary medium of Wisdom: the individual acquires Wisdom by looking at the world.

Although Deuteronomy occasionally appeals to the eye, it shows an unmistakable preference for the ear. The book’s paradox is that it teaches Wisdom that is heard (through revelation and interpretation) rather than seen (through personal investigation of the world), and this Wisdom is contained in the covenant. “Covenant,” Geller says in no uncertain terms, “is to replace wisdom.”[18]

Torah: Covenant Wisdom Learned through Hearing

Deuteronomy gives this new covenant-Wisdom a name: Torah. In Genesis through Numbers, the word “torah” refers to an individual instruction or law. The Deuteronomists, however, were the first to use the word consistently with reference to a collective body of teaching—indeed, the collective body of Teaching-with-a-capital-T. To be sure, the scope of Torah for Deuteronomy is smaller than it would become in later Judaism, for in Deuteronomy it refers only to the Teaching found in the book itself.[19] Nevertheless, this is a radical innovation in this word’s usage, and it would be fair to call it one of the most important innovations in the history of Judaism.

As such, Deuteronomy does claim to be a Wisdom text, but only in a manner of speaking—only if we are referring to the Torah that it promotes in place of traditional Wisdom. Torah is “Wisdom 2.0,” as it were—Israel’s very own Wisdom Teaching, taught by the heavenly Wisdom Teacher Himself. It has all of Wisdom’s strengths but with the unquantifiable advantage that it comes from God, rendering the cosmopolitan Wisdom of the nations obsolete for Israel. Deuteronomy is, in the apt words of Karel van der Toorn, “the self-confident affirmation of the superiority of the Jewish way of life.”[20] The book asks rhetorically, “Who needs Wisdom when you have Torah?”

Israel’s Wisdom is Still “Wisdom”

At the same time, however, Deuteronomy subtly pushes back against the notion that the only Wisdom worth its salt is Torah. Deut. 4:6 reads:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֘ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם֒ כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חָכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֚ת כָּל הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאָמְר֗וּ רַ֚ק עַם חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה:
You shall keep [the commandments] and do them, for that is your Wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the other peoples, who will hear of all of these statutes and say, “What a wise and discerning people is this great nation!”[21]

Initially this might seem to underscore the idea that Torah renders broader Wisdom irrelevant: even non-Israelites will set aside their own sense of Wisdom as they cede the superiority of Deuteronomistic Torah! However, this verse actually means the opposite: Israel’s Torah-Wisdom is held to the standards of the nations’ Wisdom, an independent category of knowledge and experience that remains valid. The phrasing “your Wisdom andyour discernment” points toward this independent category, as if to say, “This is yourWisdom, but it is not the only Wisdom.”

Furthermore, despite Deuteronomy’s usual preference for hearing, here priority is given to “the eyes of the other peoples.” It is true that “in the eyes” is a standard biblical idiom for “in one’s opinion.” However, because the contrast between eyesight and hearing is so theologically significant for Deuteronomy, it is likely that this is in the background. The idiom is used with a deliberate theological twist, emphasizing that the “heard Wisdom” of Torah is, to a certain extent, measured by the “seen Wisdom” of the other peoples. Deut. 4:6 thus clarifies that the identification of Torah with Wisdom does not invalidate Wisdom altogether. Indeed, if the Wisdom of the nations really were worthless, then comparing Torah to it would have little value.[22]

In actuality, Deuteronomy cares very much about what the outside world thinks. Faithful fulfillment of covenantal obligation will meet with praise amongst the other peoples because it makes sense to them—even though they do not themselves share that obligation. If Israel is observing the covenant in a way that doesn’t prompt this reaction, they are simply doing it wrong.[23]

What Deuteronomy presents, then, is not a Torah that replaces Wisdom but rather a Torah that is wise. It quite sincerely believes in Israel’s distinction from the other peoples, as we saw in the verse about foreign worship. But it also rejects the solipsistic view that Israel and the rest of humanity have no common moral or intellectual framework, as if they inhabited different universes. That common framework is Wisdom.

Conclusion: Rejoicing in Torah’s Wisdom

The Torah reading for the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah (literally, “rejoicing of Torah”) includes, appropriately enough, one of the Torah’s most famous uses of the word “torah” itself (Deut. 33:4):

תּוֹרָ֥ה צִוָּה לָ֖נוּ מֹשֶׁ֑ה מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה קְהִלַּ֥ת יַעֲקֹֽב:
Moses commanded us torah—the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.

Simchat Torah is about celebrating this inheritance, which sets Israel apart from the rest of the world. For many modern Jews, however, this separation prompts more anxiety than joy. In modernity, it is often assumed that authentic Jewish life demands that Jews choose Torah over the outside world. This can make the joyous “inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” feel isolating and lonely.

However, exploring the Wisdom heritage of Deuteronomy’s concept of Torah offers a challenge to modern claims that Torah is opposed to the world. It reveals that meaningful dialogue with the outside world has been an essential part of Torah since the advent of the idea of Torah itself. Thanks to the ancient Jewish Wisdom writers of Deuteronomy, Jews celebrating Simchat Torah can rejoice in a Torah that aspires both to set them apart as God’s inherited people and to make them a respectable and, indeed, “wise” part of the rest of humanity.


November 1, 2015


Last Updated

June 11, 2022


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Dr. Ethan Schwartz holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. He received his B.A. in philosophy and Jewish studies from the University of Chicago and his M.A. in Hebrew Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary.