The Words of Moses

Deuteronomy comes to us from the Greek meaning “second law,” and the Hebrew Devarim meaning “spoken words” or also “these are the words.” It is presented as the valedictory speech of Moses which he delivers across the Jordan shortly before his death. It is the most rhetorical book of the Torah, and since rhetoric can be considered the art of persuasion, Deuteronomy is meant to persuade its audiences. What is the book of Deuteronomy attempting to persuade its audience of? Could the text be trying to compel its readers to action?

Moses recounts the sojourns of the Israelites based on what God had said to him. He speaks with a rare assumption of authority -to call the Israelites to battle and to not forget their God who will lead them in conquering the tribes of the Canaanites so they can claim their land. What is Moses’s purpose in making this extended booming declaration? Several times he alludes to Joshua and the forthcoming of his leadership, while Moses will not be permitted by God to dwell in the promised land of ‘milk and honey.’ Moses looks to instill fear about the ‘great and evil’ things that God is capable of, should they neglect His demands. Moses reminds the people of the laws, so that they may be remembered and obeyed.

He reminds the people of Israel that the Lord presented them with laws and led them to wander in the wilderness in order to test their obedience to his commands, and also he presented them with manna in order that they know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by the words of God. Hence why the title of Torah, meaning guidance. Moses is very much aware of the audience to which he is speaking. This is a message for the mass of people, many of whom are not wealthy, and thus he reminds them that blessings and wealth emerge only from the divine. In addition, he hopes to make it clear that the guidelines provided by God must be remembered. They must be able to recall the speeches and deeds of God, through the mouthpiece of Moses.

It is Moses’s task in Deuteronomy to persuade the Israelites of the importance of the laws and rules they have been handed (Exodus through Numbers), not only from the two tablets of “words” from Mt. Sinai, but also orally through the words of Moses. They must be made to fear God, but go without fear into battle against their fellow human beings. Otherwise, the Lord will encounter the same problem he faced after the death of Noah, the death of Abraham, and the death of Joseph -namely that his covenant will no longer endure among new generations of people.

Moses closes his booming speech with a solemn poem, sometimes called the Song of Moses, in Hebrew called the Shirat Ha’azinu. The poem itself is thought to be much older than the work of Deuteronomy, and may date back to the early era of the judges, as the structure of the poem mirrors other significant and early Ugaritic writings.

Throughout this poem God is compared to a great many things, such as a rock, and is also referred as Elyon, the Canaanite sky god who was apparently adopted by the Israelite from the Canaanite pantheon.

Upon finishing the poem that Moses sings to the people, the Lord invites him up the mountain of Abarim and Nebo to look over Jericho and see the whole Canaanite land that He plans to give to the Israelites. Then Moses the “Man of God” gives one last song, a poem of blessing to the Israelites before he goes up the mountain to die. The poem gives a short blessing to each of the twelve tribes of Israel, promising them crushing victory against their enemies in the Canaanite region.

Moses dies atop the mountain and he is buried at the age of 120, though no one knows where Moses found his final resting place. Upon the death of Moses, political power is transferred to Joshua, as commanded by the Lord. Although Joshua becomes filled with the spirit of wisdom, by the touch of Moses, no one in Israel ever is able to lead like Moses, who was face-to-face with God and led them out of Egypt and performed acts of great fear. All of these were performed “before the eyes of Israel,” as the book of Deuteronomy is a book of witnessing.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.

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