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SBL e-journal

Steven Weitzman





Was Moses Our Teacher a Good Teacher?





APA e-journal

Steven Weitzman





Was Moses Our Teacher a Good Teacher?








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Was Moses Our Teacher a Good Teacher?

Evaluating Deuteronomy’s angst about Israel’s future in light of the story of Ahiqar and modern educational research into student resistance.


Was Moses Our Teacher a Good Teacher?

Moses speaks to Israel. Illustration from “The Boys of the Bible” by Hartwell James, 1905 and 1916.

Faced with his forced retirement and immanent death, Moses realizes that this is his last chance to have an impact. He writes down his torah and gives it to the Levites for safekeeping (31:9). He even establishes a way for the Israelites to review things periodically by instructing them to read the torah aloud every seventh year during Sukkot so that all the people “may hear and learn” its words (31: 10-13).[1] But nothing he does in this chapter suffices to instill what he seeks to teach.

As Moses prepares to take his leave from the Israelites, God gives him a glimpse of the long-term effects of his (Moses’) teaching. The feedback is not encouraging: God predicts that soon after the prophet’s death, the people will go astray after other gods and break their covenant with God, only understanding their mistake when it is too late (Deut 31:16-18).

In consequence, God instructs Moses to teach the Israelites a song he has written (Deut 31:19), Haazinu, which will serve as a witness in the future to the fact that Moses warned them about what will happen when they forget his teachings about God and the covenant:

דברים לא:כ כִּי אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָיו זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי.
Deut 31:20 When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant,

Moses also offers his own rebuke about their future behavior:

דברים לא:כז כִּי אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת מֶרְיְךָ וְאֶת עָרְפְּךָ הַקָּשֶׁה הֵן בְּעוֹדֶנִּי חַי עִמָּכֶם הַיּוֹם מַמְרִים הֱיִתֶם עִם יְ-הֹוָה וְאַף כִּי אַחֲרֵי מוֹתִי… לא:כט כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אַחֲרֵי מוֹתִי כִּי הַשְׁחֵת תַּשְׁחִתוּן וְסַרְתֶּם מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶתְכֶם וְקָרָאת אֶתְכֶם הָרָעָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים כִּי תַעֲשׂוּ אֶת הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ-הוָה לְהַכְעִיסוֹ בְּמַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵיכֶם.
Deut 31:27 Well I know how defiant and stiffnecked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant toward the LORD; how much more, then, when I am dead!… 31:29 For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the LORD and vexed Him by your deeds.

Haazinu itself underscores this point in poetic form, predicting to Israel that it will forget the God that bore it (32:18).

צוּר יְלָדְךָ תֶּשִׁי
וַתִּשְׁכַּח אֵל מְחֹלְלֶךָ.
You forsook the God who made you
And spurned the Rock of you support.

The prophet ascends the mountain where he will end his days with reason to fear his people will soon forget everything that he has been trying to teach them. But why? What happened to all the torah Moses taught them?

Unteachable Israelites

The original meaning of the word torah is closer to our word “instruction” than it is to “law” or “revelation,” so torah refers precisely to the sort of lesson teachers try to instill in their students.

Devarim recognizes that the torah it is trying to impart is not so easy to teach, and by the end of the book, God and Moses have tried practically “every trick in the book” to get the Israelites to learn what they are trying to teach them. Moses describes the marvelous feats God performed, that no Powerpoint presentation can match (Deut 29:1-6). He uses the carrot and stick approach, promising them great rewards for obedience (Deut 28:1-14) and threatening them with horrific punishments for disobedience (Deut 28:15-68)—but nothing seems to stick.

Moses’ Complaint about Student Resistance

The rabbis saw Moses as “our teacher,” rabbeinu, the master pedagogue from whom they inherited their own mission as teachers.[2] But in Devarim his success as an educator is less clear. On the very day he will climb Mount Abarim to die, a confounded Moses tells the people (Deut 29:1-3),

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ-הוָה לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִםֹ. . . וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt… yet the Lord has not given you the mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until this day.

Moses’ complaint can be described in modern terms as “student resistance,” the refusal of students to learn what their teachers try to offer them. Sometimes students will be overtly defiant, directly challenging the teacher’s authority, but often such resistance is passive or indirect—students will simply disengage or drop out. Teaching is supposed to be for their benefit, and yet confoundingly, students often reject it.

Why Is Easy Material so Hard to Learn?

Moses wrestles with this kind of resistance throughout Devarim. In the immediately preceding parashah, Nitzavim, Moses was insisting that his “course material” could not be easier to learn (Deut 30:11):

הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ…
This commandment which I command you today is not too baffling for you…

Nothing inherent in the subject matter makes it hard for the Israelites to assimilate the commandments of God; they are not too abstruse or esoteric, and they do not require any special training to master; even a child should be able to learn them.

But here and there in Devarim, the text also acknowledges that it not so easy to teach the Israelites in an effective and enduring way. Moses constantly calls for the Israelites’ attention—“listen!” (שְׁמַע), “watch yourself” (הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ)—just like a teacher trying to call an unruly class to order. He seems anxious that what he is saying will go in one ear and out the other, or so he suggests by repeatedly enjoining Israel not to forget (4:9; 4:23, 6:12). Between the lines of Devarim there is a frustration recognizable to anyone who knows what it is like to try to teach students who do not want to learn what we want them to learn.[3]

Academic Research into Student Resistance

Student resistance has been a subject of academic research since at least the days of the educational philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952), and educators are still working hard to understand the psychological, political, social and economic forces that produce it. Even so, in practice, many teachers today still do not understand student resistance or know how to prevent or overcome it—and I must include myself in that group.

Why do students sit in the back of the room and read text messages when their presence in a college classroom is supposedly of their own volition? Why don’t they read more? Why are so many skeptical of feminist criticism when they have never studied it before? Why do some students resist taking religion seriously as a subject of study? Why do others resist critical approaches at odds with their beliefs?

I have come to realize that the answers to these questions are not straightforward. The students themselves—their background, their feelings, their interactions among themselves—are part of the answer, but so too is the context in which we encounter each other, and my own performance as a teacher.

Student Resistance in Wisdom Literature

The author of Devarim did not have the benefit of recent educational research, but he was steeped in the educational culture of his day, and thus recognizes the problem of student resistance. Devarim is influenced by the Wisdom tradition, and its language often uses terms that appear in didactic texts like the book of Proverbs, and it seems preoccupied by how to get its audience to pay attention, understand and remember what it is saying.[4]

The comparative study of the Tanakh that tries to place a text like Devarimin the context of ancient culture has come to recognize that it shares much in common with pedagogical texts from cultures like Egypt and Mesopotamia, including texts that record the teachings of the wise, namely Wisdom Literature, such as the Egyptian Instruction of Ptahhotep or the Akkadian Ludlul Bel Nemeqi (“I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom”). Reading Devarim in this context illumines how its author understood the challenge of student resistance.

Ahiqar the Sage: A Wisdom Text from the ANE

Of particular interest is a text recovered by German archaeologists at the beginning of the twentieth century known as The Words of Ahiqar. Written in Aramaic, the Words of Ahiqar was discovered in Egypt among the ruins of a fortress in southern Egypt inhabited by Judeans in the fifth century BCE, but it tells the story of a Mesopotamian sage active in the Assyrian royal court, and it may have been composed in that setting.[5]

Ahiqar was a sage Assyrian official who without a son of his own decides to adopt his nephew Nadin and instruct him to be his successor. But Nadin turns out to be an ungrateful backstabber, who convinced King Esarhaddon that Ahiqar committed treason and thus, causes his uncle to be thrown in prison. Luckily, Ahiqar had once saved the jailer from a similar fate, and succeeds in convincing the jailer to help him escape.

We do not have the rest of the story, but important for our purposes is the list of wisdom sayings that Ahiqar ostensibly taught his nephew; these often resemble the kind of proverbs found in the book of Proverbs. Here are some particularly poignant examples, considering the story of Ahiqar and Nadin (taken from the Slavic version; Anadan is Nadin):

117 My son Anadan, what has been unjustly got will go lightly.
118 My son Anadan, as water dries quickly off the earth so let not a backbiter remain near thee.
121 My son Anadan, seek not to have the goods of another; in a few days, thine own wealth will pass into other hands.

Despite his great wisdom, Ahiqar does not have much success as a teacher. His successor Nadin not only refuses to heed the counsel of his wise uncle, growing ungrateful and corrupt, but actively turns against him, falsely accusing Ahiqar of treason against the king.

Comparing Ahiqar and Deuteronomy

On the surface, Devarim and Ahiqar seem to share little in common. The setting of Devarim is the wilderness, not a royal court. Moses is no imperial bureaucrat. In contrast to Nadin, the prophet’s adopted successor, Joshua, is stalwart and upright. The narrative in Ahiqar frames a series of proverb-like sayings. Unlike Ahikar, Moses’ final teaching is a song, Ha’azinu, presented in Devarim 32.

Yet, these two texts share a a kind of deep pedagogical pessimism. Each narrative is about an elderly sage-like figure trying to teach something to the next generation—Nadin in Ahiqar, the children of Israel in Devarim—but that next generation fails to absorb the lesson.

Devarim is more open-ended than Ahiqar: the Israelites have not yet behaved in the way Nadin does. Perhaps they will change their ways before it is too late or repent of their actions, but the outcome that God forecasts for them makes them very similar kind of pupils—forgetful, ungrateful, traitorous and ultimately willing to abandon everything they have been taught.[6]

I am not suggesting that one text has influenced the other, but they both register the same problem, a problem evidently recognized by exasperated teachers throughout the ancient world.

Socrates: Virtue Cannot Be Taught

In one of Plato Dialogues, none other than the philosopher Socrates gives voice to the pessimism about which we are talking. Virtue, he argues, cannot be taught, a point he illustrates by telling a story reminiscent of both Ahiqar and Devarim, a story about how the great Athenian leader Pericles was unable to impart virtue to a young man entrusted to his charge or to spare him from becoming corrupted (Protagorus 319-320).

The Moses of Devarim hasn’t given up on the teachability of God’ commandments in the way that Socrates argues against the teachability of virtue, but he recognizes a similar problem and strives to find a way beyond what he sees as the Israelites’ incorrigibility.

The Teachers’ Contribution to Student Resistance

Modern education research has shown that teachers sometimes contribute to student resistance. One survey of 250 college students identified 28 categories of teacher misbehavior that demotivated, distracted or alienated them, ranging from putting students down to going off on tangents to grading unfairly and not asking students if they have questions.[7]

Neither Ahiqar nor Devarim ever suggest the fault lies with the teacher or his techniques, unless one counts being generous as a technique. Nadin seems to have been spoiled rotten by an indulgent upbringing. In Devarim, the problem is, in part, Moses’ absence—once he is dead, he can no longer keep the Israelites in check. Even so, Devarim makes some effort to put the blame on Israel’s bad upbringing.

Spoiled Children Forget about God

This point becomes especially clear in the next parashah, Ha’azinu (Deut 32). There the Israelites are explicitly described as spoiled children who grow fat and forget the God who has cared for them (v. 15). As much as Devarim looks forward to life in the Land of Milk and Honey, its author did not regard it as the best learning environment.

The feeling of satiety that was possible there makes the Israelites complacent and forgetful. This closely resembles the sort of explanation Ahiqar offers for Nadin’s incorrigibility; in fact, according to the later Syriac version, the privileges of his upbringing include eight wet nurses and a diet of honey, a detail that recalls the diet of milk and honey that helps corrupt the Israelites according to Devarim 32:13-15.[8]

Pedagogy Ancient and Modern

Looking at the description of teachers and students in ancient wisdom texts such as Devarim and Ahiqar through the modern lens of educational theory, we may note a key difference between ancient and modern theories of pedagogy. When attempting to explain the failure of students, Devarim and Ahiqar assume the teacher is always right and the student is a bad egg.

Modern pedagogy, however, paints a more complex picture, in which a teacher also has failings and, in many cases, must take at least some of the blame. The irony inherent in these texts, i.e., that Moses was the greatest teacher yet Israel will sin, or that Ahiqar is the wisest sage but his student and adopted son is wicked, was one that their authors may have grasped, but they were part of an educational culture that did not fully comprehend the reasons for students’ recalcitrance or know how to overcome it.

Yet Somehow the Torah Succeeds to Educate

Despite Devarim’s pessimism and the fact that its author could not tap into recent research on student resistance, its pedagogical goals have succeeded, likely beyond the authors own expectation. Students—including those reading this essay!— are still learning Torah thousands of years later. Understanding how this feat was accomplished requires studying the interactions of untold numbers of Torah teachers and their not always compliant pupils, but as I have tried to suggest, the beginning of the story lies with the Moses of Devarim, the first in Jewish tradition to grapple with how to reach students who resist being taught.


October 6, 2016


Last Updated

November 9, 2022


View Footnotes

Prof. Steven Weitzman serves as Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University after completing his B.A. at UC Berkeley, and spent several years teaching Religious Studies at Indiana University and Stanford, where he also served as director of their Jewish Studies programs. Weitzman specializes in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish culture and in his scholarship, he seeks insight by putting the study of ancient texts into conversation with recent research in fields like literary theory, anthropology, and genetics. His publications include The Jews: A History (co-authored with John Efrom and Matthias Lehman), a biography of King Solomon titled, Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom (Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series) and his The Origin of the Jews: the Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton University Press, 2017).