Political Philosophy in the Iliad

Book Two of the Iliad is the most politically revealing passage found in Homeric literature.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique_Ingres_-_Achilles_Receiving_the_Ambassadors_of_Agamemnon,_1801
“Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1801)

Recall our heroes, the disparate Achaean princes feuding with one another. Despite being united under the arrogant leadership of Agamemnon, who is regularly deemed “the shepherd of the people,” the Achaeans are squabbling over property. The Achaeans have banded together to form a collective whole composed of many distinct parts to confront the strong walls of Ilium (Troy) in battle. Paris, son of Priam and brother of Hector, has wrongfully eloped with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and this gross degradation of Menelaus’s honor causes a series of tribal treaties to be invoked, compelling the greater Achaean territories to war with Troy. Woman, in this case Helen, is the most dangerous creature, an object of immense beauty that impels terrible destruction. She makes inferior men like Paris a salve to their passions. However, in the ninth year of this war, Agamemnon and Achilles are confronted with reasons to return home before Menelaus’s wife is rightfully returned to him. The question of whether the woman is worth pursuing is raised.

After receiving a deceitful Dream from Zeus, Agamemnon gathers his counsel of princes. He speaks first to the leaders, then to the masses, convincing them to return home from Ilium. Remarkably, throughout the proceedings, the Greek body politic is civil -the Greeks are listeners. Each man speaks in his own turn. Homer, as the teacher of the Greeks, presents a highly civilized model for a future culture. Mimesis requires politics as the crucial foundation from which to create. Recall the promise of friendship exchanged by Glaucos and Diomedes of Argos with one another in Book VI, or the exchange of gifts between mortal enemies Ajax and Hector in Book VII.

Amidst this political struggle, Odysseus emerges as the model statesman, the ideal prince. Beckoned by wise Athena, Odysseus moves through the masses of people restraining them. Toward kings or men of influence, he speaks softly in an attempt to persuade them of the need to continue fighting. Toward the loud masses of men, Odysseus forcibly strikes them with his staff. Odysseus, the most cunning of the Greeks, behaves differently toward the noisy crowd than he does toward the leaders of men. His purpose is to marshall the men in support of war, and in order to best shepherd the people, Odysseus employs a combination of speech and force, persuasion and compulsion. Perhaps this is why Homer explicitly identifies Odysseus as “the equal of Zeus in counsel” (Book II, 169)

The_Love_of_Paris_and_Helen_by_Jacques-Louis_David
“The Love of Paris and Helen” by Jacques-Louis David in 1788

As the title of the text reveals to us, the book is about the city. The birth of Greek identity. Broadly speaking, the Iliad acknowledges and reveals to us the concealed forces that govern our actions and reactions, as they are apportioned to the city. For example, Eris and Envy are ever present gods to the Greek mind. Conflict and pain are necessary forces that govern life. For the Greeks, the Iliad reveals to us our inner human pains and envies, as our churning will manifests itself in politics and war. Rather than denying and suppressing our inner drive toward arete, our will to power, the Homeric politeia acknowledges envy, spite, anger, and honor as elemental life-yielding truths. Each Greek leader believes himself to be the best of men, and a competition of excellence necessarily ensues. A timocratic politeia begins to develop -each caring not for his own individual self-preservation, but rather for his honor and respect. Each man believes he is owed due goods so that he may not lose his respect and honor. Agamemnon believes he is the best of men because he rules the largest number. Achilles believes he is the best of men because he is the mightiest warrior. Odysseus seeks no justification for his excellence. He is both wily and wise, so much so that he “knows” the voice of Athena when she speaks to him. Much like the serpent in Genesis, Odysseus is “cunning,” and a leader of men. When Thersites of the “endless speech” who was the “ugliest man” (Book II, 210-216) verbally abuses Agamemnon, Odysseus publicly threatens him and strikes Thersites, forcing a tear in his eye as the Achaeans laugh. We moderns must resist the urge to read this passage as tragicomic, lest we find ourselves in a dizzying Quixotic bind. To the classical audience, it is a merely comic scene. The Greek citizen laughs in the face of weakness, like that of Thersites. Hellenism shows no kindness toward the meek and mild. How foreign is this kind of laughter to the modern mind!

However, the Homeric tale leads us not only into the Achaean camp, but also behind the walls of the Trojan city. Here, in Troy we encounter the aging Priam, the shining strength of Hector, and the weakness of Paris, sometimes called Alexandros. Hector is an equally admirable hero to any of those we find in the Achaean camp. He is determined to preserve his city’s honor, Hector leads the Trojan armies despite his younger brother’s impassioned disrespect for custom. After young Paris is swept away from battling with Menelaus over possession of Helen, Hector enters the mighty gates of Ilium and berates Paris. More than three times he addresses Paris as, “Strange man.” Paris is a stranger not only to nomos, but also to his own brother. His disrespect for law is foreign to the people of Ilium. The downfall of Troy is in the decision to protect this stranger, a native son, who follows the wayward whims of his heart over the political demands of the city. He poses a threat to the honor of the city, and is thus a potential weakness.

A careful examination of where Homer’s temporal presentation leads is also helpful. During scenes of politics, the author recollects the moment. It is presented to the audience in the past tense. However, during scenes of battle, the author often uses the word “now” to indicate urgency or immediacy. Politics is better understood in reverse, knowledge comes when one engages in the activity of recollection -and knowledge of things political is the highest form of knowledge attained within the city. The chaotic motion of the battle makes it more difficult and dizzying to have knowledge the moment. In order to understand political things, men must climb higher than the ground-level to survey the scene. They must stand on high mountains, to see things a little more clearly. Men must also have space and order to recollect things past.

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A 1st century fresco found in the house of a tragic poet on Pompeii depicting Achilles surrendering Briseis

Politics escapes none in the Iliad, not even the gods. Zeus is compelled to balance the wishes of Hera, Athena supports the Achaeans, Ares is easily angered by the battalions. The will of each god also comes into conflict with the humans in their war, and their politics. However, the frivolity of the gods binds the fate of the warriors. The humans fight each other to become “like the gods” and yet they surpass even the gods in their desire to be best. Not even the gods can stop the strong-willed Greeks. Their competing inner intentions are embroiled to overcome the status of being human, of the finality of life. The highest political thing to the Greeks, honor, transcends the value of self-preservation, and they fight to overcome death. The gods are envious of the humans and the terminal finitude to their lives. They live an existential life wherein the character and quality of death can cause angst. Our heroes ask themselves: How will I die? When will I die? For what purpose will I die? Achilles must decide between dying honorably in battle or returning home for a lengthy but forgotten life.

Therefore, Homer exposes to us not merely the dynamics of the city, but also the underlying tensions that form the body politic. The Iliad reveals to us our nature. The inner competing wills that lie beneath the politeia.


For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

What Is Mosaic Law?

In the most pivotal moment of the Torah, Moses is called “up” the mountain of Sinai to retrieve the law for the Israelites (Exodus 19-20). The Mosaic law is too important for the Lord to come “down” the mountain, and communicate it to the people. Instead, the Lord ensures a shroud of secrecy behind the creation of the law, only for the eyes and ears of Moses and Aaron.

The law is hierarchical, proceeding from the top down. It begins with God who communicates the law onto stone or clay tablets to Moses. These words are then to be read aloud to the people. The law originates with the deity, then it is communicated to the leader of the people, who communicates it to his subjects. The people must be made to know the law, otherwise how will they be held accountable for committing criminal actions? In theory, one cannot be punished without the ability to recall the law. In other words, insane people may not be held to the same, or perhaps equal, standards.

For what reason does God give law to the Israelites?

His explicit purpose is to further confirm his “covenant” with the Israelites so they can become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Therefore, the law is given to the Israelites as a kind of tool. In the same way that a chisel is used to perfect a work of beauty out of a slab of marble, the Lord gives the gift of law in order to better shape the souls of the Israelites. Recall that the Lord’s relationship with humans is tumultuous. The humans try at every turn to disobey the Lord, and He attempts to dissuade, punish, confuse, and eventually destroy humans, though he ultimately salvages their existence with the story of Noah and the Flood. After His attempt to control humanity falls apart at every turn, the Lord decides to focus on one group – His chosen people, the Israelites. In order to successfully command and form this nomadic and enslaved ‘stiff-necked’ people into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, he introduces law to which they are bound.

The ten “Commandments” or “Words” that God speaks to Moses, begin with an invocation of God’s authority and a reminder that he is the deity that brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. He beckons the Israelites to recall the miracles and wonders that God performed. In the Mosaic Law, miracles and wonders must be performed as a precondition for law. The existence of law is not a self-justifying condition. It is not rational law, because it points to the possibility of the suspension of the natural order of things. Rather, the Israelites must be reminded of chaos through the law, in order to be compelled to a condition of political order.

The Mosaic Law is delivered by God in a series of words, or commands. The commands are given in the first person singular form, and are spoken as if to each individual Israelite, universally. They are also a-temporal, not bound by any time-frame, and unequivocally without context. The “Words” give no specific punishments for their demands (unlike when God delivers the promise of a punishment of death to the humans in early Genesis. Their punishment for eating of the forbidden fruit was that their eyes would be opened seeing both good and evil, and also that they would surely die. Apparently this false threat did not phase the humans). However, not all of Mosaic law delivers punishments. Some commands provide rewards. Therefore, God has notably changed his strategy for delivering the law to the humans in Exodus; He has has given incentives. This was not introduced in the Garden of Eden, and was a better strategy employed by the Serpent. Whereas God promised death, the serpent promised rewards. Perhaps God learned something from the serpent.

The ten “Words” proceed as follows:

1. “You shall have no other gods beside Me” (literally “upon my face” in the original Hebrew). The first “Word” begins with an acknowledgement of other deities, but with a strict commandment not to allow other extant deities to infringe on His sovereign authority. This first “Word” is directed to all Israelites, as a whole, perhaps mostly to the leaders and the priests -the faith leaders. This reading is also consistent with God’s purpose for giving the law to the Israelites; to shape a people of priests and a holy nation. The first “Word” is esoterically directed the faith leaders, but is exoterically directed both to the whole nation and also to each individual. As was aforementioned, there is no textual evidence regarding the punishment an Israelite would receive if they embraced another god aside from YHWH. It remains a mystery. Like a Greek tragedy, the assumed violence occurs in the imagination of the audience offstage. Perhaps this is why the law is more terrifying, than a cut and dry explanation of punishments.

2. “You shall make no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth.” The second “Word” is delivered explicitly to the creators, the artisans, as well as to every non-artisan in the Israelite community. This “Word”, as with the others, is communicated as a response to a presumed future actions, and perhaps also as a reaction to a past action. Both carved likenesses, such as statues, and also images, such as paintings, are prohibited. Thus far we have seen emphatic restrictions placed on both the priests and the artisans, similar to the banishing of the poets as described in Plato’s Politeia or Republic. Why do both the artists and the priests pose such a considerable risk to the lawgivers? For the person establishing the law, the priests and the poets and the artists all have the same status as creators to influence the body politic, however their capacity to influence the body politic need not be made for the good of the people. The artists are compelled by the wayward passions, rather than the wisdom of a political leader. However, unlike in Plato, the second “Word” is far more restrictive to the creators. It expressly forbids the creation of works of art that represent the three spheres of life: the heavens, the earth, and the waters. These works are also notably visual representations -such as statues or paintings – that are forbidden in the law.

Unlike the previous “Word”, the Lord informs the Israelites that they must not bow or worship these carved likenesses and images, because He is a jealous God that reckons the crimes of the fathers with third and fourth generation sons. This is the first acknowledgement of divine punishment, followed by the promise of rewards to the thousandth generation if the law is obeyed. This is a also a reminder of the Lord’s covenant.

3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not acquit whosoever takes His name in vain.” The Hebrew word used here means to “bear”, as in an oath or a vow. This “Word” is directed to each individual Israelite, rather than being emphasized to a particular group, such as priests and artists. God is concerned with his name, that it not be used falsely. Thus far, the Lord has not been able to control what is said about Him -He is the victim of rumors with the potential to ruin the enduring nature of His name. This “Word” is also coupled with a punishment that cannot be avoided. It is unforgivable. There is also, notably, no reward for good behavior in this law.

4. “Remember the sabbath day to hallow it. Six days you shall work and you shall do your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” The Fourth “Word” impels the people to remember -to recall the sabbath day. It is the sole calendar ritual of the commandments that can be replicated. Rather than a command not to perform an activity, the fourth “Word” presents a proactive ritual that must be performed, and also remembered. In other words knowledge is required to maintain this law, and this knowledge is of the creation story in Genesis.

5. “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long on the soil that the Lord your God has given you.” The fifth commandment, according to Jewish tradition, marks a notable shift from human obligations to God, to human obligations toward one another. The fifth commandment encourages a proactive activity and ‘state of mind’ that is coupled with a reward of long life. Perhaps the commandment is directed to the younger generations of Israelites whose parents are still among the living. Note that the desire to live a long life overcomes the desire for honor or glory (contrast this ‘Word’ with the options given to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, the choice between an honorable death or a forgettable but lengthy life).

6. “You shall not murder.” Rather than more modern and sophisticated translations, the original Hebrew for the sixth commandment explicitly forbids murder, not killing. We can assume that there are legal ways to kill people, perhaps through war according to the sixth ‘Word’. What constitutes murder is not explained, however it is important to note that a good kingdom cannot be founded on the unjustified killing of one another. From the sixth commandment on, each command is neither coupled with a punishment if disobeyed, nor a reward if obeyed.

7. “You shall not commit adultery.” Commandment seven is the first to address the politically vital issue of marriage. If adultery is permitted, then marriage is meaningless, and the foundation of the family, and also possibly the city (according to Giambattista Vico) is rendered null.

8. “You shall not steal.” Commandment eight is concerned with private property. Like the injunction not to murder, what constitutes stealing is not specified. If private property is eliminated, the body politic is rendered a peonage. The new Israelite kingdom is intended, at least, not to be tyrannical. The horrors of the 20th century, namely the communist revolutions of the east, were reactionary movements against these founding moral codes for civil society.

9. “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man.” Integrity is the goal of the ninth “Word”. Much like the command to not profane the name of the Lord, humans are not to lie to one another. Otherwise, a system of laws will be meaningless. This “Word” is directed primarily to the masses. Notably, the ninth commandment introduces a crime of thought rather than action, as presumably one can seem to tell the truth outwardly, while maintaining a lie internally.

10. “You shall not covet your fellow man’s house. You shall not covet your fellow man’s wife, or his male slave, or his slavegirl, or his donkey, or anything that your fellow man has.” The tenth commandment is curious because it is redundant. Both the eighth “Word” protecting property and the seventh “Word” protecting marriage have addressed this issue. The only distinction is that this commandment alone addresses the inner desire, and yearning for personal property. Israelites should not steal from one another, and also they must not want to steal from another. A punishment for disobeying the tenth commandment must be entirely internal. The commandments have thus proceeded from the top of a hierarchical society down to the innermost thoughts of an individual Israelite.

These are presumably the conditions needed to build a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, as the Lord claims.

Throughout these ten “Words” runs the assumption that human nature is fraught with evil impulses that must be corrected, or at least kept at bay. In the past, the humans have forgone their promises, and forgetten their covenants made with one another, as well as with God. Therefore, the Lord decides He needs to correct the humans’ behavior. Rather than seeking out the inner intentions of the human beings, the Lord wants to persuade and compel their actions. Since he could not persuade individual humans, he decides to proceed from the kingdom down to the individual.

The commandments proceed in order of importance. The first four address the immediate threat to the Lord’s authority, and expressly forbid the activities that cause these threats from the leaders, while the remaining six are for the whole. The “Words” proceed from the few to the many. Moses, not the law-giver but rather the law-deliverer, is the vessel for the deity. In this way he is distinct from the Greek lawgivers, such as Lychurgus and Solon. Whereas Hesiod gives an account of the origins of the gods from a human perspective in his Theogony, Genesis gives an account of the origins of man from the deity’s perspective. Greek authors are named (Homer, Hesiod and so on) while Hebrew authors are anonymous, the work of many hands. The distinctions between Athens and Jerusalem grow sharper.

The “Words” or commandments are also distinct from the New Testament speech to the masses, commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus delivers a list of blessings to the meek and the poor in spirit, and also a series of commands to love one another. This, it should be noted, is in stark contrast to the moral commands of YHWH in Exodus. With the ten “Words” he is concerned with restricting and controlling particular activities, rather sending blessings and love to the people. His goal is a kingdom on earth, while Jesus’s explicit focus is on the kingdom of heaven.

In the Mosaic law, there is no modern conception of a “separation of church and state” because the theological is intimately connected to the political; it is the necessary condition for the political. In Platonic terms, we might call it the noble lie, or the lie in waiting, though the word “lie” may be too strong. It is the necessary life-affirming myth to reaffirm the law. Therefore, the Mosaic law is more enduring than, say, the code of Hammurabi because of the compelling narrative, and also due to its simplicity: ten moral commands. Following these ten commands in Exodus 19-20, the Mosaic law is further augmented with ordinances and necessary rituals for the priests, or Rabbis, in Exodus and Leviticus.

However, the ten commandments are the beginning of the law. They set the parameters in which all further law must be followed. They are what we moderns might refer to as a constitution -they contain the express incentives and the prohibitions for the body politic. Also, as a whole, the ten commandments are to be given universally, spoken to the largest number of people, thereby establishing a moral foundation on which the kingdom can thrive.


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

Genesis III: In Defense of the Serpent

Garden-of-Eden
Michelangelo’s The Fall and Expulsion From Paradise, a fresco from the Sistine Chapel (1510)

In the garden of Eden, we encounter two trees: the tree of knowledge (good and evil) and the tree of life. Both trees presumably represent differing pathways for humanity. In Genesis Chapter III, we start to discover humans in the garden (assuming we accept either the seven day creation narrative of Genesis I, or the ‘soil and rib’ narrative of Genesis II). The humans freely roam in the garden, eating of the vegetation as they please. We have no textual evidence that they are carnivorous at the outset. It is safe to assume that humans in the garden live a simple life like animals. They are given the unique privilege of naming all the animals, and thus humans are distinct among living creatures.

Now, of all the beasts in the field, the serpent is described as the most “cunning” (the original Hebrew employs a clever pun connecting the two words “cunning” and “nakedness”). While the humans are naked, exposed, and vulnerable; the serpent remains concealed, masking his inner intentions like Odysseus. He, thus, has greater power over the humans. Latter theological interpretations of the serpent’s power will find evil, but removing any sense of revisionism, we find the serpent to be a curious character. He demonstrates to us the capacity for persuasion.

Up until Genesis III, we are given no textual evidence that the humans have had greater ambition other than to obey the will of God who commands them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil. The humans up until this point are docile and obedient. It should be noted that God’s commandment carried with it a warning of punishment if the law is disobeyed. If the forbidden fruit is eaten, the humans shall surely be doomed to die. The law is supported by a threat, the potential for punishment. This is the birth of law in Genesis. But how well to humans obey laws?

The crafty serpent successfully persuades the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit, but rather that she will possess new knowledge of good and evil and she will become “like a god.” What do we make of the serpent in this speech? Surely his motives are at odds with God’s, but could it be in the best interest of the humans to become like a god? The prideful Greeks, after all, were honored at the thought of becoming like a god. The woman rebuts the serpent, yet she cannot resist the lustful temptation of forbidden fruit. Humans respond to incentives rather than punishments. It can be said that the woman, rather than wishing to be like a god, eats of the fruit solely of her own wish. The fruit is so desirous simply for its own sake -but the law has made it even more compelling. She desires to break the law because she forgets about God’s threat of death in order to focus on becoming like a god. She is allured by the promise of the serpent. As St. Augustine later notes in his Confessions, the sin of eating an apple arises merely from the apple being an object of terrible beauty, stemming from its own sinful desire (see also Paul’s discussion of the law in his Epistle to the Romans). The woman’s actions in Genesis, and all human actions for that matter, render perfect obedience to law an impossibility, leaving an Edenic Kallipoli (a la Plato’s Republic) to be nothing more than a city in speech. Perhaps this is why God notably omits labeling his human creation as “good” at the close of the sixth day. Presumably, law and goodness are at least connected. At any rate, the woman’s desire to become “like a god” overpowers her.

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The Fall of Man by Venetian artist, Titian (1550)

Upon eating the fruit the woman gives it to the man and, contrary to God’s bluff, the humans do not die. Indeed God does not make good on his vow that the humans shall surely perish. Rather, their eyes are opened, as promised by the serpent, and they see good and evil. The serpent was true to his word unlike God. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, the humans rush to conceal themselves, thereby protecting their vulnerabilities. With new moral knowledge, the humans gain a unique sense of separation from the beasts who are not bound by law. In learning about the existence of evil, it is fitting for the humans to seek ways to protect and preserve their substance. They immediately cling to what we might call personal property -leaves and branches- used to cloak themselves.

Do the humans “become like gods?” Though they are banished from the garden, they produce offspring and become political. The man and woman live for an extended period of time, but they do eventually die seeing their many offspring populate the earth. They die, while gods surely do not die. Because we are not given any textual evidence that the man and woman would have died had they remained in the garden, latter more sophisticated theology suggests this is because the humans were meant to be eternal, thus overturning the serpent’s promise of godlike knowledge.

In closing, is it possible to entertain the notion that the serpent has actually aided the humans by beguiling them with new godlike knowledge, good and evil? Without falling prey to more recent and sophisticated theological interpretations involving comparisons between the serpent and ha-satan, or the “adversary,” let us instead reassess the serpent in Genesis III as a creature of good will, bringing truth, moral knowledge, and also politics to the humans. God, envious and threatened by the humans’ new knowledge, quickly banishes them from the garden before they can eat of the tree of life and become immortal, too. Theology, as confirmed by God’s character in the Torah, remains skeptical of the human quest for knowledge. The desire, or lust, to learn is evil in the eyes of God and can be dangerous to humans. Perhaps there is some truth to these claims, however much we may find them problematic. Jerusalem, in contrast to Athens, is the theological city. One might also call it the tension between God’s law and human law. God desires obedience, absolute invigilation, though latter Christian theology finds hope in life through forgiveness from an entirely different glimpse of the divine than we find in early Canaanite mythology found in Genesis. Theology rejects human greatness in favor of human safety, whereas the cunning serpent encourages the humans to become like gods, in pursuit of knowledge because it is both good and also rewarding, though he notably makes no mention of the dangers in the pursuit of knowledge.


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

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.