Devarim: A Book Out of Place
2016 S.H. Parker

These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel   אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר משֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

דְּבָרִ֗ים (devarim) means "words." דְּבָרִ֗ים also means "things." So this book can also be called "the book of stuff."

Devarim has been described as the quintessentially "Jewish" book (I think it was Max Dimont in Jews, God and History). It has also been described as the foundation for "Judaism" (The Jewish Study Bible, introduction to Deuteronomy). It is sefer Devarim that first claims that "the Torah embodies the terms of the covenant," Ibid.).

Perhaps because we have become used to Moshe's transition into "a man of words," perhaps because of the discontinuity of reading Torah in weekly chunks, we don't notice something rather striking: this book doesn't belong here (scholars have, we do not).

The Tetrateuch, the four books (Bereishit/Genesis through Bamidbar/Numbers) tells a continuous story (or three) from the inception of terrestrial order, through the flood, the patriarchs, the enslavement, the exodus, to Israel's sojourn in the wilderness.

As Bamidbar (Numbers) came to an end last week, Israel had fought the War of the Seven Nations. They receive several final exhortations about what must happen when they fully possess the land, Israel's borders are described, the Levitical cities and ireh miklot (cities of refuge) are set aside. Israel is formed up for its re-crossing of the Jordan to conquer the northern portion of Judea (in the War of the Seven Nations, Israel has already conquered southern Judea). Israel is camped in Moab, ready for the final fulfillment of the ancestral promise.

What we would expect next is the account of the crossing of the Jordan and the taking of Jericho. And we do. But not until the book of Joshua. Devarim interrupts the story for three lengthy Mosaic discourses before resuming the narrative in Joshua.

But, why?-Why break the thread of the narrative?


Sefer Devarim "separates not only Moses but also the reader from access to the land whose covenantal promise was the basis of the entire narrative" (Ibid., p. 359). Sefer Devarim physically separates us from the fulfillment of the promise. Sefer Devarim moves the promise into the future. And because when we finish reading Devarim we immediately begin again with sefer Bereishit (Genesis), we are also temporally separated from the conclusion. In fact, by tradition, we never reach the conclusion, the fulfillment of the promise.

In separating Bamidbar from Joshua, possession of the land is no longer the focus of the covenant. The covenant is no longer the promise of the land. From sefer Devarim onward, Israel's covenant is obedience to the Torah, it's rulings and legislation (in exchange for being a people set apart).

Not only is the covenant deferred, its terms change. New ritual objects like mezuzot, totafot (interpreted as tefillin) and tzitzit are introduced in Devarim. The Shma makes its first appearance. The notion of "due process," which has been entirely absent up to now, is introduced. This new material shows that Devarim is not a simple repetition or summary of the Tetrateuch. Kingship is first mentioned and immediately limited, worship of any other gods is prohibited (for the first time - before it was understood that "you will not have other gods in front of me" did not proscribe lesser deities), the death penalty is made almost impossible to impose, standards for proper treatment of captives are decreed, standards for witnesses are established, muzzling a plow animal in the field is forbidden, extensive, powerful admonitions about protecting other's and their property are repeated ... many of the mankind's highest, most noble teachings are first found in sefer Devarim (granted, along with a few bizarre ones, like the "stubborn and rebellious son," it must be said).

The changes to the covenant are certainly informed by the Babylonian exile and its loss of the land. For Judahite survival, the land simply can no longer be the focus. Without the land, the promise collapses; if the promise is the land, Judahite religion also collapses - as is usual in the ancient world after a conquest.

But Sefer Devarim reflects more than just the expansion of Judahite religion beyond the parochialism of the land. It reflects Josiah's reforms of the late seventh century which completely redefined Israelite religion - Josiah's reforms centralize sacrifice to a single sanctuary in Jerusalem and restrict the priesthood to Aaronids alone. Josiah "nationalized" the Pesach celebration (2 Kings 22-3) and, of course, destroyed "foreign" elements (as commanded at 12:29 ff.). All of these are found only in Devarim. Like Hezekiah, Josiah polluted foreign worship sites, rendering them impure and, therefore, unusable.

Josiah's reforms are a profound, and not very subtle, assertion of Judahite independence. Judah was in danger. By the end of the seventh century, constant Assyrian incursions had reduced Judah to a rump state. In response, Josiah throws off syncretistic ("adopted") practices and destroys the Assyrian idols and temples. It was not, however, for Assyria to finish the work. But the work was finished, by Babylonia.

In short, Israel lost the land. For Israel to continue, the land can no longer be the promise; without the land-promise, Israel is lost. Thus Torah moves to a more universal conception of Israel's purpose. But, reflecting Josiah's reforms, it maintains Israelite particularism, Israel's mission as a holy nation, a nation of priests ministering to the nations.


This bears repeating: in the ancient world, if one nation conquered another, it was obviously because one god was more powerful than the other or because one ruler enjoyed the favor of the gods and the other did not. Recognizing this, conquered people adopted the gods of the conqueror. Alexander reinterpreted this: my gods decreed my culture therefore my culture is superior to yours and this remains the prevailing weltanschauung to this day (for much of recorded history, loss in war usually resulted in forced conversion or death).

Whether Devarim was written after the Babylonian exile or written before and edited after is irrelevant. By the time it took its current form, Israel had lost the land. Theo-Logically, this means that the promise is defunct. Israel ought to cease to exist (as the Sadducees did after the destruction of the Temple).


Unless the covenant is  re-imagined (and, while we're about it, made portable, not bound to a specific patch of earth), Judah joins Israel ... 12 "Lost Tribes."

Unless the covenant is re-imagined, there is no ... us; you and I are ... not.

Re-imagined, the great, foundational idea of Israel continues to live and we are its custodians. But that's another d'var.

From Wikipedia:

Deuteronomy occupies a puzzling position in the Bible, linking the story of the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness to the story of their history in Canaan without quite belonging totally to either. The wilderness story could end quite easily with Numbers, and the story of Joshua's conquests could exist without it, at least at the level of the plot; but in both cases there would be a thematic (theological) element missing. Scholars have given various answers to the problem. The Deuteronomistic history theory is currently the most popular (Deuteronomy was originally just the law code and covenant, written to cement the religious reforms of Josiah, and later expanded to stand as the introduction to the full history); but there is an older theory which sees Deuteronomy as belonging to Numbers, and Joshua as a sort of supplement to it. This idea still has supporters, but the mainstream understanding is that Deuteronomy, after becoming the introduction to the history, was later detached from it and included with Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers because it already had Moses as its central character. According to this hypothesis, the death of Moses was originally the ending of Numbers, and was simply moved from there to the end of Deuteronomy.