Understanding Deuteronomy on Its Own Terms
The names of biblical books in Hebrew are generally taken from their opening words. Thus, we know Deuteronomy as Devarim (literally “words”), while the the previous four books are Bereshit (“in the beginning”), Shemot (“names [of]”), Vayikra (“and he called”), and Bemidbar (“in the wilderness [of]”). Alternately, books were named based on their content. Thus the third book in the Torah was called Torat Kohanim (“the law of the priests”) or in Latin, Leviticus (“about the Levites”), since it mainly deals with the priests and Levites and their service in the Tabernacle, their duties and rights.
The Harmonistic Meaning of the Name Deuteronomy
Similarly, the name Deuteronomy, meaning “repetition of the law,” reflects the content of the book and is parallel (and perhaps a translation of) the Hebrew title Mishneh Torah, understood as “second Torah.” The term Mishneh Torah appears in Deuteronomy 17:18, where it means “copy of (this) teaching.” This phrase was chosen as the book’s name following the idea that the laws in the book are not new, but a repetition of laws given at Sinai and already delivered to the people.
According to this idea Moses repeated and interpreted the instructions he had already delivered to the Israelites once again before his death and before the people’s entrance into the land. It is the job of the readers to merge all of the Torah’s laws and understand that each law collection alone is only a partial representation of the whole picture.
Deuteronomy Is Not Really a Mishneh Torah According to Deuteronomy
But this depiction of Deuteronomy as an interpretation of what preceded is never found in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy instead presents itself as Moses’ final communication in which he is conveying, for the first and only time, all the laws he received at Horeb forty years earlier (5:1-6:1). The only earlier revelation in Deuteronomy is the Decalogue, which Israel heard at Horeb directly from God. (I will quote the most relevant verses here, but it may be worthwhile for readers to open a chumash and follow along.)
After the people hear the Decalogue, they get nervous and ask not to hear additional instructions directly from God:
דברים ה:כב וְעַתָּה֙ לָ֣מָּה נָמ֔וּת כִּ֣י תֹֽאכְלֵ֔נוּ הָאֵ֥שׁ הַגְּדֹלָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את אִם־יֹסְפִ֣ים׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ לִ֠שְׁמֹעַ אֶת־ק֨וֹל יְ־הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ ע֖וֹד וָמָֽתְנוּ:
Deut 5:22 So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of YHWH our God any longer, we shall die.
God accedes to their request and instructs Moses alone to remain to hear the rest of the laws:
דברים ה:כז וְאַתָּ֗ה פֹּה֘ עֲמֹ֣ד עִמָּדִי֒ וַאֲדַבְּרָ֣ה אֵלֶ֗יךָ אֵ֧ת כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֛ה וְהַחֻקִּ֥ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תְּלַמְּדֵ֑ם וְעָשׂ֣וּ בָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לָהֶ֖ם לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:
Deut 5:27 But you remain here with Me, and I will give you the whole Instruction—the laws and the rules—that you shall impart to them, for them to observe in the land that I am giving them to possess.
Then God gave Moses all the laws and Moses delivers them to the people decades later, just before their entrance into the Land:
דברים ו:א וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְ־הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:
Deut 6:1 Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the ordinances that YHWH your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.
Notice the similarities between the above two verses.
- Both make use of the terms המצוה, החוקים, והמשפטים.
- In both verses the word לרשתה appears.
- In both God ordered to teach (ללמד) the Israelites the instructions.
- According to both of these verses, the purpose of the teaching is to observe the orders in the Promised Land.
This clearly means that Deut 6:1 tells about the fulfillment of the commandment in 5:27. Thus, according to Deuteronomy, Moses waits until this moment to deliver the laws he received from God at Horeb. The notion in the book of Deuteronomy is, therefore, that the Deuteronomic laws are the only laws received from God, and Moses delivers them to the people only once. The Deuteronomic law collection ignores the other law collections in the Pentateuch and presents itself as the single law collection.
In other words: Deuteronomy, its main part, according to its own testimony, is an independent book, which includes an independent law collection. It is likely that the Deuteronomist knew other law collections, and he wrote his, with a narrative framework, to supplant those collections.
The Proper Understanding of the Word באר
In short, the book’s self-perception is the opposite of the harmonistic view, reflected in the title Deuteronomy (Mishneh Torah). This harmonistic notion influenced not only the later title of the book, but the Jewish interpretation of a crucial verb as well. Deuteronomy 1:5 reads: “Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab הואיל משה באר this law as follows.”
The verb באר was translated and interpreted in ancient times as “to expound” and this understanding penetrated into later Hebrew, making the verb באר an equivalent to the verb פרש in the post-Biblical Hebrew. But is this what it means in context?
The verb באר is very rare and appears in the Bible only three times; twice in Deuteronomy (1:5; 27:8) and once in Habakkuk (2:2).
דברים א:ה בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֑ב הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לֵאמֹֽר:
דברים כז:ח וְכָתַבְתָּ֣ עַל־הָאֲבָנִ֗ים אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב:
חבקוק פרק ב:ב וַיַּעֲנֵ֤נִי יְ-הֹוָה֙ וַיֹּ֔אמֶר כְּת֣וֹב חָז֔וֹן וּבָאֵ֖ר עַל־הַלֻּח֑וֹת לְמַ֥עַן יָר֖וּץ ק֥וֹרֵא בֽוֹ:
In Deut 27:8, the expression באר היטב modifies the verb כתב, while in Hab 2:2 the verb באר parallels the verb כתב: “then YHWH answered me and said: Write (כתֹב) the vision ובאר on tablets.”
In light of this evidence, the original meaning of the verb באר was most probably “to write” in some form. The passages outside of Deuteronomy 1 clearly connect באר with the act of writing, and it is in this sense the verb should be understood in Deut 1:5 as well. The action of writing the Torah is indeed found throughout Deuteronomy (17:18; 31:9, 24). Indeed, the late Hebrew University Professor of Hebrew Language Zeev Ben Hayyim has convincingly demonstrated that Samaritan Aramaic preserves the original sense of באר as “to write.”
It is tempting to argue that the word לאמר at the end of the verse in 1:5 indicates that התורה הזאת, the syntactical object of the verse, was transmitted orally, and therefore the meaning of the verb באר in the middle of this verse is not “to write.” This argument, however, is not valid because the Bible often uses לאמר in relation to written communications. We may therefore conclude that Deut 1:5 tells that Moses wrote the Torah, namely Deuteronomy, and that this composition was independent from other parts of the Pentateuch.
Reinterpreting באר and the Meaning of the Book
Only once Deuteronomy was appended to the earlier books now in the Torah, and became the final book of the Torah, was the book, and the word באר, understood differently. The fact that Deuteronomy in its present place comes after the book of Numbers and is interpreted as Moses’ speech to the people before his death enables the reader to view this speech as a repetition and clarification of earlier laws, which God had conveyed to Moses in the past, and Moses had already delivered to the people.
This notion led to name the book Mishneh Torah = Deuteronomy, using a phrase which appears in the book itself—though the name understands the phrase in a different manner than its original occurrence. In addition, the verb באר was interpreted according to that tendency as bears the meaning of expounding. This traditional notion of the book, however, should not prevent us from understanding the book in its own terms, as Moses’ “one and only” presentation of God’s revelation to him at Horeb which Moses wrote (באר) later.
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July 21, 2015
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Prof. Itamar Kislev is professor of Hebrew Bible and Medieval Jewish Exegesis at the University of Haifa. His Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kislev’s book, On the Threshold of the Promised Land [Hebrew] was published last year.
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