Sibble Sunday: Previously on… (Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22)

We’re done with Numbers and into Deuteronomy! Deuteronomy is an interesting book, as it includes a number of thematic elements (such as monotheism, redemption from exile, and explicit legalism) which appeared only sparingly in the earlier books. As a result of both these thematic elements and good archaelogy, Deuteronomy is one of the few Torah texts where we have a pretty solid idea on the time and motivation of authorship. The previous books were presumably at various times cobbled together from old stories, so the “authorship” on them could plausibly stretch back at least to the third millennium BCE. But Deuteronomy was almost certainly written in its entirety during the Assyrian exile, in the comparatively recent eighth century BCE. As a result, Deuteronomy’s a pretty unusual book by Torah standards.

So we start out with פָּרָשַׁת דברים (“Words” portion), which mostly recaps the interesting narrative events of Numbers

The quick snarky summary: You guys suck. No, really. You never do a single fucking thing I tell you, and I work so hard for you. And check out all the battles God and I won for you!


From verses 1:1 to 1:5, we get a brief sense of time and place: Israel’s camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan, forty years after the Exodus, and Moses speaks. Verse 1:6 begins the text of Moses’s monologue. This particular open-quotation-mark will not close until verse 4:43, and even then only for a quick summation.

Moses’s speech here is not anything we haven’t seen before, although it squeezes castigation which had ordinarily been spread through several chapters of Numbers into a very small space. The story being told basically begins in mid-Exodus, and varies in a couple of significant details from the story seen before.

First off, this story begins with the Israelites’ departure from “Mount Horeb”. This is already kind of problematic, because the Israelite itinerary, as detailed previously, doesn’t make a big deal about a place called “Horeb”. The strong implication is that Horeb and Sinai are the same place, but here Sinai isn’t even mentioned. This implication is supported somewhat by mention in Exodus 33 (shortly after the incident of the Golden Calf, which happened while Moses was up Mount Sinai) of departing from “Horeb”. This is somewhat indicative of alternative authorship (much like the multiple names associated with, e.g. Moses’s father-in-law); apparently the documentary hypothesis associates “Sinai” with the J and P authors, and “Horeb” with E and D. So this entire book, drawing from the Deuteronomist authorship, would use “Horeb” where the older sources use “Sinai”.

Anyways, in verse 9, we get the commencement of complaint about how difficult the community of Israel is to deal with. In this version of the story, Moses finds the community too troublesome to deal with, and proposes an assignation of submagistrates to handle day-to-day affairs, organizing the people into tribes and cohorts of 1000, 100, 50, and 10, and assigning an administrator to each cohort. This is basically the same story as we see in Exodus 18:13–26, where Moses judges the people, and it becomes obvious that he can’t do this all by himself, and he assigns judges. But there are two surprising variations to this story as relayed here which suggest it might come from a highly divergent source to Exodus (or has been extensively modified to fit a particular author’s view): first, assuming that the aforementioned “Horeb” is in fact the site departed in Exodus 33 (i.e. Sinai), we’ve switched the chronology around. In Exodus, the delegation of judicial authority came before the revelation on Sinai; here it comes after.

More importantly, a major character has been written out of the story in this version. Here in Deuteronomy, Moses gets frustrated at having to deal with people’s piddling little issues and realizes he has to delegate his authority; he takes this idea to the people and has it approved by them. Here Moses is presented as a wise leader faced with a feckless community, and one who confirms his decisions with the community, suggesting a rudimentary democracy. In the Exodus narrative, by way of contrast, the community is basically absent: no mention is made there of the frivolity of the people’s needs, nor of any sense in which Moses realizes this is problematic. Instead, it’s his father-in-law who realizes that this is poor leadership and who suggests to Moses that he delegate, which he does by fiat. Exodus is thus at less pains to present Moses as particularly inspired: the community is less slandered, and the good idea here isn’t Moses’s, nor is it taken to the community for approval. In comparing these two stories, it becomes pretty clear that the Deuteronomical authors are pursuing a pretty significant Moses-glorifying agenda.

Some of the other events on the journey are elided at this point (we return to them later; as mentioned, the chronology in Deuteronomy is a bit muddled), and the next highlight of this all-star parade of Israel’s worst moments is the narrative of the Spies, back in Numbers 13–14. This issue too has been subjected to significant editorial revision. Back in Numbers 13, the rebellion was pretty much explicitly presented as the Spies’ fault, when they delivered the report: “Canaan looks great, but it’s way too well-defended.” In that light, the people’s response was, if cowardly, at least rational. Here, the Spies’ report is boiled down into the first half of that assertion and the people’s fear is presented as completely arbitrary. Other than that, this recapitulation follows pretty closely to the story told before, with God’s anger leading him to punish the complainers with death in the wilderness, and the attempts of the generation to escape their fate leading to their military defeat (in Exodus, by the Canaanites; here, by the Amorites). But this difference is pretty significant, and again it’s in a way which builds up Moses and tears down the community. In Numbers, some of the blame may have been on Moses, for choosing men of little faith to do the reconnaissance, which was reflected in their report. Here, little blame is cast on Moses and the Spies, and it’s the community which bears the brunt of the criticism.

From Chapter 2 on, the story mostly synchronizes in part with that told back in Numbers. For instance, here, as in Numbers 20:14–17, the Israelites steer clear of the Edomites (here identified, in accordance with Deuteronomic tradition, with the descendants of Esau). There’s a radical departure, however, both in chronology and in international relations, in Deuteronomy 2:9, in which the Israelites are forbidden to battle the Moabites. Back in Numbers 22–25, the Israelites did find themselves in conflict with the Moabites. In the story they oddly don’t actually go to war with the Moabites (but rather with their collaborators the Midianites), but this whole episode with Balak and the sin in Shittim speaks to enduring hostilities there which don’t square with the prohibition against quarreling with Moab.

A great deal of the discussion here deals with God parceling land out to their destined peoples, which again seems to be a Deuteronomic innovation. The previous sources indicated God’s interest being primarily focused on the people of Israel, and only meddling with other nations to the extent of their interactions with Israel (this is par for the course for monolatralism, which posits that Israel has their God, and every other nation has their own Gods). But here, there are assertions that the former inheritants of Moabite land were dispossessed by God in favor of the Moabites, and likewise for the Ammonite and Edomite lands. Note that is exactly these God-destined nations that the Israelites have been forbidden here to meddle with, conveying an impression of a God much more interested in international politics than the God of, say, Exodus was made out to be.

The remainder of the chapter tracks closely to the military and travel aspects of Numbers 21–32. The Israelites defeat Sichon, and Og, and despoil their nations. The conquest of Midian is elided here, but the assignment of their previous property to the Transjordanian tribes is mentioned at this point, concluding this parsha.

So, all in all, the story told here is very similar to specific elements of Exodus and Numbers, but it’s in the divergences that we can see the heavy Deuteronomic hand. There’s a much greater reverence for Moses, the great lawgiver, and a greater contempt for the people. God’s much more involved in global affairs, and has a plan for nations other than Israel.

These issues, and others, will continue to tint the retelling of the Exodus as we continue throguh Deuteronomy. However, in the next parsha we’re mostly going to move away from retconning the story and into Deuteronomy’s other notable aspect, which is an emphasis on civil laws and behavioral policing.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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