YHWH’s Word Is Not Contained in a Single Scroll
The Book of Deuteronomy begins with a phrase that appears to be self-referential:
דברים א:א אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן...
Deut 1:1 These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan…
To what specifically might “these words” refer? David Glatt-Gilad has argued that it refers to the Deuteronomic Law Collection (chs. 12–26), while Jack Lundbom understands it as a reference to “the First Edition of the book of Deuteronomy” (in his opinion, an early form of Deuteronomy 1–28). In contrast, Eckhart Otto believes that it refers to the entire (post-Priestly) Pentateuch. These answers vary depending on the scholars’ reconstruction of the complex literary history of Deuteronomy.
The same question can be asked about the phrase’s meaning towards the end of Deuteronomy. Immediately after Moses finishes his address about the importance of Israel choosing to follow the covenant (ch. 30), the next address opens with:
דברים לא:א וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 31:1 Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel.
Does the phrase “these words” refer to Moses’ address of chapters 29–30? To all of Deuteronomy up until that point? To some earlier version including the laws and select parts of the addresses?
“This Book of the Torah”
The same question can be asked about Deuteronomy’s use of the phrase “this law/torah.” Towards the beginning of Deuteronomy, poised between Moses’ first and second address, we are told:
דברים ד:מד וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 4:44 This is the law that Moses set before the Israelites.
To what does “this law/torah” refer? Moshe Weinfeld and Richard Nelson both see this as an introduction to the second address that immediately follows, thus referring to what comes after the verse (through chapter 26 or 28 or perhaps later), while Jack Lundbom understands it as an inclusio, referring backwards to chapters 1–4.
Again, the same question can be asked towards the end of Deuteronomy, when we are told that Moses writes “the torah” down:
דברים לא:ט וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וַיִּתְּנָהּ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי הַנֹּשְׂאִים אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה וְאֶל כָּל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 31:9 Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of YHWH, and to all the elders of Israel.
The description of Moses writing down “the torah” in the book that is ostensibly the Torah compelled the medieval commentator R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) to suggest that this passage must have been written after the time of Moses; this is discussed in covert terms in what ibn Ezra calls “the secret of the twelve.” Putting aside this verisimilitude problem, what are we supposed to imagine as the specific referent of “the torah”?
The question is even more acute later in chapter 31. After Moses requires the Israelites to gather every seven years to read the laws, the text returns to the writing theme, clarifying that Moses finished writing all the words of the torah on a scroll:
דברים לא:כד וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לִכְתֹּב אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר עַד תֻּמָּם. לא:כה וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם נֹשְׂאֵי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר. לא:כו לָקֹחַ אֵת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֹתוֹ מִצַּד אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהָיָה שָׁם בְּךָ לְעֵד.
Deut 31:24 When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end, 31:25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of YHWH, saying, 31:26 “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of YHWH your God; let it remain there as a witness against you.”
What is written on this scroll exactly? Jean-Pierre Sonnet understands it as “the comprehensive Torah ‘book,’” while Jeffrey Tigay argues that it is a reference to the book of Deuteronomy.
Even limiting the referent to Deuteronomy leaves many options: Does it mean just the law collection, starting in chapter 12 and ending in chapter 26? Everything from the beginning of Deuteronomy until this point (chapter 31)? Or perhaps, only beginning in chapter 4 and ending at chapter 26 (the end of the laws) or 28 (the blessings and curses), or maybe chapter 30 (the end of the covenant address)? Or does it perhaps, refer to some earlier configuration of Deuteronomy which includes select portions of these sections?
Textual Reconstructions are Not the Answer
As can be seen in the examples surveyed above, the challenge posed by understanding these phrases is often solved by appeals to reconstructing different sources behind the text and/or earlier versus later editions in the book’s literary history.
I too assume that Deuteronomy had a complex literary history, especially given the textual plurality and textual fluidity in which authoritative texts existed in the late Second Temple period. Nevertheless, I would argue that making recourse to theoretical earlier editions or limiting the meaning to a very specific part of the current biblical text reflects an anachronistic understanding of “text” that greatly undermines our understanding of ancient literature.
In other words, the very assumption that self-referential phrases like “these words” or “this book of laws” refers to a specific, independent, fixed, piece of literature is problematic. Instead, while self-referential phrases in Deuteronomy do refer to itself, they do so only as a way of pointing beyond itself, because no specific manuscript of Deuteronomy can possibly contain all of “these words” or “these laws.” God’s revelation is only incompletely and therefore imperfectly recorded in any specific text or text-within-a-text.
Is Deuteronomy YHWH’s Words Verbatim?
Throughout Deuteronomy, we find an ambiguity about the exact relationship between Moses’s words and YHWH’s words. Clearly, what Moses tells the people in Deuteronomy, including all the laws, ultimately derived from divine revelation, as the text states:
דברים כח:סט [*כט:א] אֵלֶּה דִבְרֵי הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה לִכְרֹת אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב מִלְּבַד הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת אִתָּם בְּחֹרֵב.
Deut 28:69 [*29:1] These are the words of the covenant that YHWH commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.
At the same time, Deuteronomy consistently speaks in the voice of Moses, including in the verse quoted above. Such texts are not meant to represent YHWH’s words in a literal word-for-word manner. In other words, YHWH would clearly not refer to himself in the third person and Moses in the first person when speaking to Moses. Instead, Deuteronomy is a literary expression of that revelation; indeed, this is implied in the opening passage of Deuteronomy which states:
דברים א:ה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר.
Deut 1:5 Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows.
In other words, Moses is expounding upon YHWH’s revelation in his own words, making sure the people understand it, using rhetorical flourishes, and, of course, speaking about himself in the first person and YHWH in the third.
The phrase “these words” in Deuteronomy can refer to something quite circumscribed. For instance, in the Shema passage:
דברים ו:ו וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ. ו:ז וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ. ו:ח וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. ו:ט וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזוּזֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ.
Deut 6:6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 6:7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 6:8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 6:9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Here the phrase “these words” cannot literally refer to the entire Book of Deuteronomy, or even just the law collection, since such texts are too long to fit on a mezuzah or phylactery scroll. “These words” likely refer to the paragraph (Deut 6:4–9), but this act has a metonymic function—that is, the part stands for the whole. What is written down is representative of the person’s commitment to all the words of the law.
A similar limited usage appears to lie behind the requirement of writing the words of the torah upon stones:
דברים כז:ח וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל הָאֲבָנִים אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב.
Deut 27:8 You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.
It seems more likely that the intention here is not to a specific verbatim text but to something that would express that YHWH’s laws must be followed in this land. (For the problem of the word “all,” see addendum.) Whatever would be written, the metonymic function is paramount: the laws on the stones represent something much greater than just the specific words, as they point to the reader to YHWH and the centrality of YHWH’s revelation writ large for Israelite society.
Implied Incompleteness: List of Curses
Chapter 28 lays out what seems like a comprehensive list of curses that will befall Israel if they do not keep the laws of Deuteronomy, but at the same time, explicitly notes possibilities not found in the text:
דברים כח:סא גַּם כָּל חֳלִי וְכָל מַכָּה אֲשֶׁר לֹא כָתוּב בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת יַעְלֵם יְ־הוָה עָלֶיךָ עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ.
Deut 28:61 Every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, YHWH will inflict on you until you are destroyed.
Thus the curses too are not meant to be a formal complete list such that only the specifics mentioned in the chapter are divine punishments.
Implied Incompleteness: The King’s Manuscript of the Law
Deuteronomy requires the king to have his own personal copy of the laws:
דברים יז:יח וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם. יז:יט וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם.
Deut 17:18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 17:19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear YHWH his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes.
Nowadays, when we think about a copy of a text, we imagine an exact copy, like a print run of a book. Indeed, this is what the Proto-Masoretes would eventually start to produce around the beginning of the first millennium C.E.
And yet, text criticism has made clear to us that it was common for ancient scribes to create some variation when copying a text, and I am assuming that even the ancients understood “copying down these words” in ways that are reflected in the metonymic function of these self-referential phrases. Thus, the king was to have a copy or manuscript of the laws, but that is a general statement about his having some version of these laws, and not a specific delimited text.
A Faithful Rendition, Not an Exact One
When we look at these various examples, we see that “these words of this law” are something bigger than any “copy” or manuscript and bigger than any recitation or reading of any manuscript.
If we could interview the ancient scribes of Deuteronomy, I think that they would insist that any ספר (“manuscript”/“scroll”/“book”) that they copied was a faithful copy no matter how much we might protest that it is incomplete or different in some way than other versions. “YHWH’s words,” they would respond, “cannot be contained in any one manuscript.”
Each rendition is one written instantiation of a much broader tradition so much so that any manuscript is in some sense understood as a partial written representation of the whole. And yet, because of the power of metonyms, the same manuscript can nevertheless fully represent the whole of what God spoke. In fact, without the possibility of such variation, they would assert, the whole cannot be represented.
When “All” Does Not Necessarily Mean “All”
On the face of it, there are two difficulties with interpreting “these words” and “this torah” in a metonymic sense as opposed to as a reference to some specific, delimited text.
1. “All” of YHWH’s Words and Laws
After Moses teaches the Israelites the Haʾazinu song (Deut 32:1–43), the text refers to the requirement for Israel to keep “all” the words of this torah:
דברים לב:מו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם לְכָל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
Deut 32:46 He (Moses) said to them: “Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law.”
Does this not imply a complete set? Yes and no. I contend that this phrase refers to God’s spoken words in the past, not the written word available to either Moses and the people or the later readers/hearers of Deuteronomy. In other words, it is a general description of all YHWH’s commandments, not a delimited set in a specific book or manuscript.
Nevertheless, the “all” of what has been written has a metonymic function of pointing to “all” that God spoke/commanded. Paradoxically “all” refers to part of what God spoke that nevertheless represents faithfully the whole of what God spoke.
2. Not Adding or Subtracting
A more significant problem is that Deuteronomy includes commandments against adding or omitting anything from God’s law:
דברים ד:ב לֹא תֹסִפוּ עַל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ מִמֶּנּוּ לִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְוֹת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם.
Deut 4:2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of YHWH your God with which I am charging you.
דברים יג:א [*יב:לב] אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ.
Deut 13:1 [*12:32] You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it.
These verses seem to be working with a fixed text, such that a copyist leaving something out or adding something in can be guilty of changing YHWH’s words. And yet, I suggest that our notions of “sameness” and “difference” are culturally relative in ways that conflict with the ancients’ understandings.
The ancient scribes who copied the biblical scrolls found in Qumran, and other versions, were not working with verbatim reproduction as the ideal. Moreover, we have evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran that the same textual community preserved different versions of the same biblical books without worrying that they were lending a hand to violators of Deuteronomy’s prohibition.
It seems likely, therefore, that the book of Deuteronomy is working with this notion of “sameness,” one that would allow a ספר (“manuscript”/“scroll”/“book”) to metonymically represent “all the words” even if “all the words” are “not recorded” verbatim. These two verses clearly show that all variation was not tolerated. While we cannot reconstruct exactly what their understanding of “sameness” and “difference” was, it must have been significantly different from our own.
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Prof. Raymond F. Person, Jr. is Professor of Religion and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Ohio Northern University. He earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies from Duke University. Person is the editor of many books, including Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch, Hexateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History (with Konrad Schmid, 2012) and Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism (with Robert Rezetko, 2016). Among his many monographs are In conversation with Jonah (Sheffield 1996) The Deuteronomic School (Brill 2002), The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles (Brill 2010), Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia (2014), and Scribal Memory and Word Selection (forthcoming).
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