Why Devarim Matters to Jews Today
Devarim: A Book that Recasts Old Stories
The book of Deuteronomy is written as the last will and testament of Moses. This has allowed even traditional commentators to treat the book as a משנה תורה, a second Torah, a repetition and reworking of what came before. The purpose of what is about to come is made clear in verse 5 of the first chapter: Moshe באר- “explained” this Torah; the purpose is elucidation, ביאור.
The book is framed, either by its original author or by a later editor as a retelling, a reworking that takes place after other material was already known to the People. However, while traditional commentators believed this retelling to be from Moses himself, most biblical scholars attribute much of this act of reworking previous material to the circle of scribes and scholars in the court of Josiah in the 7th Century BCE.
The book’s style and structure reveal that the writers saw themselves in a position that generations of Jews found themselves in – beholden to a textual and narrative tradition on the one hand while possessing a strong desire to institute wide-scale reform and innovation on the other. This tension is played out in many different ways throughout the book. One key way of bridging the gap between “old” and “new” is by recasting familiar stories.
Moses Appoints Judges: The Deuteronomic Version
Parashat Devarim, contains several retellings; I will examine one of them carefully. In chapter 1 Moses explains that one of his tasks in the desert was to appoint judges to assist him in judging the People, who had become numerous.
The strongest parallel to this story can be found in the tale of Jethro in Exodus Chapter 18, but it also bears similarities to Numbers 11:16-26 and part of it resonates with the story of Tzelofchad’s daughters in Numbers 27. Several key points of comparison demonstrate the unique perspective and worldview of the Deuteronomic author.
Unlike in the story in Exodus, here Jethro is nowhere to be found and instead it is Moses who feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of Israelites (who are multiplying as God had promised). The second person pronoun “you” when Moses says ואמר אלכם “I said to you…” (v. 1:9) does not refer to God but to the people. The idea of bringing in additional assistants seems to come from Moses himself and he instructs the people to bring eligible candidates:
יג הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים ,וִידֻעִים–לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם
1:13 Get you wise and understanding and knowledgeable men according to your tribes and I shall set them at your head’
Once they are gathered, the speaker, in this case Moses, is quick to point out that “you”, the People, approved of the idea:
וַתַּעֲנוּ, אֹתִי; וַתֹּאמְרוּ, טוֹב-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת
1:14 And you answered me and said, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good to do.’
Thus, appointing judges is a human idea that receives human approval. Even though Moses does say in the course of this section that “משפט לא-להים הוא” – “Justice is God’s” – God as a character is absent from the story, as well as in the future scenario that Moses presents. Should a difficult case come up, a case where the answer is unclear, Moses says, come to me and I will tell you what to do.
In Numbers, God serves as the Higher Court
Numbers 27, in Parashat Pinchas, provides one of several examples of just such a case, where an issue is brought to Moses to be resolved. However, in this case God is involved:
 And Moses brought their case before the LORD
 And the Lord said to Moses saying…
 And this shall be a statute of law for the Israelites as the LORD has charged Moses.
This is similar to the way that Jethro describes how things are supposed to work in Exodus 18:
יט ….. אִיעָצְךָ, וִיהִי אֱלֹהִים, עִמָּךְ; הֱיֵה אַתָּה לָעָם, מוּל הָאֱלֹהִים, וְהֵבֵאתָ אַתָּה אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים.
19... I shall give you counsel and may God be with you. Be you for the People, over against God, and it shall be you who will bring the matters to God.
This section in Numbers is part of the P source and it may be that the author is familiar with the story in Exod. 18 attributed by scholars to the earlier E source. Whereas in the earlier sources, both P and E, the judges and Moses are to take their direction from God, in our section in Deuteronomy it is Moses who must find the answer on his own.
What it Takes to Be a Judge
In the same vein, these judges are required to be “wise and discerning,” whereas in Exodus 18 they are to be “strong men, God-fearers, people of truth and haters of spoil.” For the author of Exodus 18, judging is a matter of receiving divine truth, not of human discernment. In order to do this one has to fear God and be interested in and able to accept the truth. While only one of these characteristics refers explicitly to God, I would argue that they all present a person who is strong in their resolve to accept and promote the truth. They do not, like the judges in Deuteronomy, need to be able to figure out on their own what the the truth is, for the truth itself is ultimately divine. They do need to accept and ensure that this truth is not distorted. In contrast, the role of the judge in Deuteronomy is much closer to how we are accustomed to imagining the role of a judge in our own time – a judge needs to have wisdom and smarts to make a decision as to who is right. This is an inherently human act. 
This comparison reveals two important aspects that characterize the book of Deuteronomy and indeed the entire corpus attributed to the Deuteronomic School responsible for the writings or editing not only of Deuteronomy but of parts of Joshua, Judges, Kings and Jeremiah. This school differs dramatically from both the P source, responsible for the sections quoted in Numbers above, and the E source of the Jethro story in Exodus. Two of the most striking characteristics of D are its attitude toward the Divine and its focus on wisdom.
According to the biblical material originating in Priestly circles, the Divine is a constant presence amidst the People of Israel. For example, the point of the sacrificial system is to actually bring God’s physical presence into the world and it is possible to do so (see Exod. 40:34 for example). For D, however, God’s physical presence is never in the world, rather in heaven, and only God’s name is on the earth (see esp. Deut. 12). The place where worship is to take place is called the place that God has chosen for his name to reside (see, for example, Deut. 12:5,12). While one group saw God’s physical presence in the world and in the sanctuary (which was imagined to be movable before it was established in Jerusalem), another was careful to treat God as transcendent, only mentioning the resting of God’s name, rather than His presence in a very specific place He had chosen (or would choose).
This otherworldly, transcendent view of the divine is also reflected in the fact that the phrase וידבר ה אל משה לאמר “God spoke to Moses saying” so popular in other biblical sources is virtually absent in Deuteronomy. A God who is removed from the world does not often speak directly to people, even Moses. In our case of the judges, it is therefore not surprising that God is not physically present to give Moses an answer to difficult questions. The story remains the same, with an important omission that makes it consistent with and supports the worldview of the author.
As mentioned, the judges here are primarily meant to be “wise” and indeed the root ח-כ-מ is used many times in D and through Deuteronomic literature. Numerous statements place an emphasis on wisdom and understanding, and view these traits as accessible to people.
For example Deut. 6:4, casts both the laws and the people of Israel who maintain them as wise, and insightful, using the roots, ח.כ.מ, נ.ב.נ and ב.נ.ה. As mentioned in the introduction here, Moses says he will “explain” the Torah in verse 1:5. He also says that when he came up with an idea, the people thought it was a good one (1:14.) The logical, accessible aspect of wisdom and Torah is stated poetically in 30:14, “this thing is not far from you, it is very close.”
The Deuteronomic concept of the Divine and its emphasis on wisdom are related. What emerges is a very human ‘this-worldly’ religious outlook. In fact it is just these aspects that may have made the book so appealing to contemporary biblical scholars engaged in Judaism on a practical as well as an academic level. Unlike the Priestly tradition, Deuteronomy presents a religion and a worldview that can operate in essence, without the immediate presence of God. This world is not devoid of values and goodness, in fact the opposite is true. In this literature, we repeatedly see that laws are framed by an assertion that they are the right thing to do, that they apply in a universal way to everyone, at least to all Israelites.
In the absence of a Divine Presence to order the world into good and evil, we must rely on the intellect and wisdom of both our leaders and ourselves, to ensure that the right and just is done. However, this is not only about the ability of human beings to discover the truth and thereby to do what is good. The unique hermeneutic of Deuteronomy provides a model in which human intellect can in fact reinterpret, sometimes radically, earlier truths found in earlier sources.
We live in a world where it is not just God’s presence in the world that is called into question but God’s very existence. Most people today do not see miracles, and do not experience sin and impurity in the very tactile way they must have been felt by the Priests. However, we, or perhaps I should speak only for myself, do want to believe in the truth and power of the Torah. We can look to D as a first step towards our own, more inherently secular worldview. By secular I do not mean one where no God exists, but rather a world in which the manifestation of God is in the behavior of people, and the playing out of God’s will is seemingly in our own hands. Deuteronomy provides us the with a powerful precedent for the belief that what is discernible as right and just to us is also what God wants, and that what God wants is righteousness and justice.
For those of us with doubts about our own ability to determine God’s will–doubts unlikely to have been shared by the authors of D –we can look to the book, to the testament of Moses, as a support for our own striving to do what is right and good in the world in the hope that it is what God wants. When D speaks about Torah being “not far but very near,” this resonates with our own feeling that the Divine can feel very far away but that the words of Torah and the values it contains can feel very close indeed.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 27, 2014
September 28, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Shoshana Cohen teaches Midrash, Talmud and Gender Studies at the Conservative Yeshiva and is the founder of Yeshivat Talpiot, a new egalitarian yeshiva for Israelis in Jerusalem. She is a graduate of the Advanced Talmud Institute of Matan, holds a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic studies from Brandeis University, completed the Hartman Institute’s Melamdim educator’s program, and is currently pursuing semicha.
Essays on Related Topics: