This week we are beginning the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah. If you’ve been reading this column for a while, and certainly if you’ve been following my close reading of Genesis, you know that I like to read slowly and carefully to notice as many of the details of the biblical text as I can. When it comes to the weekly Torah reading, I often get stuck on the very first verse, and sometimes even on the very first word.
That happened again this week, and it gave me an idea that I want to discuss in this week’s column. I’ve presented lots of interesting ideas to you that I’m absolutely convinced are 100% right, and I try to try to sell them as vigorously as I can. This time, I’m not actually convinced that my idea is correct. But it interests me, so I’m going to put it on the table and you can judge it for yourself.
What is the first word of the book of Deuteronomy? It is אֵ֣לֶּה éilleh ‘these’ — “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the far side of the Jordan.” There’s another book of the Torah that begins with the word éilleh: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” That’s the beginning of the book of Exodus. It’s something of a parallel.
I wouldn’t make too much of it except that there’s another similar parallel in the Torah. That is between the book we just finished, Numbers, and the first book of the Torah, Genesis. To see the parallel here, you must look at the Hebrew names of those books: Bemidbar and Bereshit.
Genesis is called that because it begins with the word בראשית bereshit ‘in the beginning’ (see here for a discussion and better translation of that word).במדבר bemidbar ‘in the wilderness’ is not the first word of that book, but Jewish tradition skips past “YHWH spoke to Moses” to find the first distinctive word.
Both names start with the preposition b- ‘in, at’ and continue with a noun in construct form. (See Lessons 13 and 14 of my Hebrew course to learn about construct; watch Lecture 1 for free here.) So these names really mean “in the wilderness of” Sinai and “at the beginning of” God’s creation of the world.
In this case, it’s the distinctive words in Genesis and Numbers that provide the parallel; for Exodus and Deuteronomy, it’s the repeated word that links them. What book do we have left? The middle book of the Torah, Leviticus, where the first word is quite different from any of these.
It’s the verb וַיִּקְרָ֖א va-yiqra ‘[someone] called’ to Moses. Those who joined the column after Leviticus started can read more about that unusual beginning here. I’d like to speculate about what it might mean if these large-scale parallels are not coincidental but deliberate.
If we call the bereshit / éilleh pattern of Genesis and Exodus A & B, then Numbers and Deuteronomy, with bemidbar / éilleh, again are A & B. Leviticus, in the middle, would be C:
- A B = Genesis → Exodus
- C = Leviticus
- A B = Numbers → Deuteronomy
What could such a pattern be telling us?
Exodus and Deuteronomy are both books that are future-oriented. The entire book of Deuteronomy, Moses’s farewell speech, takes place just before he dies, just before the Israelites will cross into the land of Canaan, which has been the goal of everything. Ever since Joseph lured his brothers away from the land of Canaan down to Egypt, the whole Torah has been focused on getting them back there.
But Exodus is also future-oriented. The “sons of Israel” have barely gotten to Egypt (in narrative terms) when the story of the exodus begins and they leave. The whole second half of the book ends with reaching a goal as well, having the Tabernacle built so God can dwell among the Israelites.
What about our other pair of books, bereshit and bemidbar, Genesis and Numbers? There’s a second b’ + construct phrase in Num 1:1 that gives it away. YHWH spoke to Moses not merely “in the wilderness” but b’óhel mo’ed ‘in the Tent of Meeting’. According to Exod 40:34, that’s the same as the mishkan, the Tabernacle.
What does creation have to do with the Tabernacle? Only everything. Scholars medieval and modern have long realized that the end of the book of Exodus is framing the creation of the Tabernacle as a new creation, a new “dispensation” (to use the Christian term) — something that happens on planet Earth that completely changes the relationship between God and humanity. The Jewish term, I believe, would be “covenant.”
There was a new relationship between God and humanity after the first humans were expelled from the Garden, another after Noah and his family survived the Flood, and the Tent also embodies a new relationship, the covenant at Sinai.
In short, our A–B books match not only grammatically but also conceptually. What is C, what’s in the middle? It’s the book of Vayiqra, Leviticus, at the center of the Torah — the book that, you may remember, takes no time to happen. It’s outside of time, simply describing the rituals that center around the Tabernacle, the spot where YHWH interacts with humanity. And that is the center of the Torah.
Traditional Jews believe that Moses handed the text of the entire Pentateuch to the Israelites before he died, from Genesis at the beginning to the very last verse of Deuteronomy. Academic scholars would tell you that’s not so. The Jews did not have that text as an entire composition until much later.
R. Mordechai Breuer, one of the great traditional Bible scholars of the 20th century, wrote an article saying that if you want to believe that Moses gave the Israelites the entire Torah complete before he died — as we do, he said — you have to find some way to take into account the different voices that academic scholars have found in the Torah, what people like to call for short J, E, D, and P. (See here for more discussion of R. Breuer.) For my part, I feel that we academic scholars need to find a way of coping with the unified text that was created by putting the sources together. I propose to see it as an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation, just as a musical composition might have.
Our first A–B pairing shows the breakdown of the relationship between God and humanity and then, with the construction of the Tabernacle, the repair of that break. The second A–B pairing lets the Israelites move that Tabernacle, in portable fashion, to the doorstep of its permanent home in the land of Israel. All that’s missing is a permanent Temple to house it. That story is in the sequel to the Torah.