#349. Does the book of Deuteronomy contain “all the words” that Yahweh spoke to Moses across the Jordan OR not? (Deut 1:1-3 vs Ex 21-31, 34-40; all of Leviticus; Num 1-10, 15, 17:1-20:13, 28-31)


The book of Deuteronomy opens with this seemingly innocuous claim:

These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the plains before the Suph (sea), between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Di-zahab (11 days from Horeb by way of mount Seir up to Kadesh-barnea). And it came to pass in the 40th year in the 11th month on the 1st day of the month that Moses spoke to the children of Israel of everything that Yahweh commanded him concerning them.

These are the words that Moses spokeThe book of Deuteronomy’s opening verses claim that in the 40th year of the wilderness period, on the 1st day of the 11th month, Moses spoke of everything—Hebrew kol, literally “all”—that Yahweh charged him to say to the children of Israel. Verse 1 seems to reinforce this claim by implying that “these are [all] the words” which Moses spoke to Israel on the other side of the Jordan. In other words, this text—that is our narrator/author—is claiming that everything (kol) that Yahweh charged Moses to say to the Israelites Moses speaks “these words,” “all (kol) that Yahweh had charged him with,” to the people assembled before him on the plains of Moab in this last month of the 40-year wilderness period.

This is quite the claim when we stop and think about it. Our author, who is obviously writing from the west side of the Jordan, that is from the land of Canaan, is claiming that all that Yahweh commanded Israel, through Moses, on the other side of the Jordan is here narrated, or renarrated as the case may be, in this book! Thus the original scroll of Deuteronomy was written to stand on its own, claiming that its contents preserve “all the words Yahweh spoke to Israel” from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea to the plains of Moab. This is the scope of the geography envisioned in verse 2.

Since the book of Deuteronomy presents itself as a series of speeches that Moses gives, at first glance we might be persuaded by the text’s sweeping claim that these are all of Yahweh’s words that were delivered on the other side of the Jordan. For indeed, in the opening chapters of the book, we see Moses renarrating:

  • Yahweh’s commandment to depart from Horeb (Deut 1:6-8),
  • his commandments immediately after their departure (Deut 1:9-18),
  • Yahweh’s words as they pertained to the spying of the land incident at Kadesh-barnea (Deut 1:18-45),
  • Yahweh’s commandment to therefore retrace their sojourn toward the southern part of the wilderness in the peninsula (Deut 2:1),
  • and then Yahweh’s words and commandments 38 years later to head northward and conquer and possess Transjordan (Deut 2:2-3:22),
  • and even Yahweh’s words pertaining to Moses’ “sin” and his viewing of the promised land (Deut 3:23-28).

In Deuteronomy 4-5 Moses renarrates Yahweh’s words and commandments given at Horeb, even reproducing the Ten Commandments and the stipulations of the covenant.

In Deuteronomy 6-8 Moses reproduces Yahweh’s words on how the Israelites are to conquer Canaan, exterminate its indigenous population, divide its territory, set up cities of refuge, and most importantly keep the land that Yahweh had promised their forefathers. There is even a renarration of the giving of the stone tablets and the Golden Calf episode (Deut 9:4-21), the quarreling at Taberah and Massah, and the manna incident at Kibroth Hattaavah (Deut 9:22), and even a renarration of Aaron’s death (Deut 10:6-9) and the stipulations and commandments Yahweh gave to the people regarding keeping the land that he had granted to them (Deut 10:12-11:12).

Finally Deuteronomy 12-26 present themselves as the words—the laws and commandments—Yahweh gave to Moses at Horeb to be recited now 40 years later on the plains of Moab. So the book does at first glance seem to keep to its sweeping claim of presenting “all (kol) that Yahweh commanded to Moses across the Jordan.”

Yet as we will see in forthcoming entries, there are huge omissions of Yahweh’s words, law codes, cultic legislation, other narratives, and even Yahweh-decreed “eternal” covenants from Moses’ renarrations in the book of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, many of Moses’ renarrations of Yahweh’s words and commandments contradict Yahweh’s own words, covenants, and commandments as they now appear in other textual traditions which were preserved in the Torah as it has come down to us. As we shall see in forthcoming posts, Moses’ renarrations in the book of Deuteronomy—supposedly a reproduction of “all of Yahweh’s words” that he spoke to Israel across the Jordan—do not even represent 10% of which Yahweh commanded to the Israelites!

Now, we could just chalk this up to hyperbole—the literary trope of exaggeration. That is maybe our narrator was exaggerating when he claimed that these were all (kol) the commandments given to Moses by Yahweh across the Jordan. Yet as we will see throughout our forthcoming textual analysis, rather than being hyperbolic, our author was being subversive in his use of kol.

By subversive I mean that our 7th century Deuteronomic author was consciously aware of the fact that his renarrations of the past (Deut 1-11) and his version of the giving of the laws (Deut 12-26), all of which were presented through the authoritative mouthpiece of Moses, sought to subvert, that is undermine, an already existing authoritative tradition whose telling of this same past exhibited numerous differences and competing ideologies to those of the author of Deuteronomy.

That is this book’s sweeping claim that “these are all the words which Yahweh spoke to Moses across the Jordan” is meant to subvert the claims of an earlier tradition! Moreover, the author of Deuteronomy authenticated his new telling of the past by having the authoritative figure of that very tradition—Moses himself—seemingly renarrate the very tradition that the Deuteronomist sought to subvert!

In the words of professor Bernard Levinson, whose book Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation deals with this literary technique:

Later innovative traditions present their innovation on prior textual authoritative traditions thereby subverting the previous authoritative tradition while nevertheless claiming the innovation as the ‘real’ authoritative tradition. . .

Retelling “history” then becomes a process of setting forth a new, contemporary and innovative reading of the past for religious and/or political agendas contemporaneous with the author, but indeed this is presented and packaged as not authoring a new story but retelling the authoritative tradition. Thus innovation is clothed with the subversiveness of denying innovation, authorship, and originality.

Thus in re-presenting the narrative of his sources, the Deuteronomist re-tells it to suit his own religious agenda and needs, changing the traditional version, but nevertheless presenting his new “history” as nothing more than a re-telling of the earlier tradition that has already become authoritative for the community. Thus, in putting forth completely new and innovative religious practices and beliefs (as we will see in our forthcoming contradictions), the Deuteronomist actually subverts the tradition that he is using as his source by presenting these innovations as nothing more than a truthful renarration of this earlier tradition. One literary technique that aids in this is to present this new composition, the book of Deuteronomy, as authored by the earlier source itself, traditionally accredited to Moses.

However unbeknown to the author of Deuteronomy, the textual tradition that the Deuteronomist sought to subvert in his new telling of “history” was also preserved by later scribes and can now be found in passages from Exodus and Numbers. Thus modern readers can compare these two tellings of the past, these two traditions, and textually see how the later Deuteronomist, through the mouthpiece of Moses, modified and even contradicted this earlier telling. In forthcoming posts, we will even come to understand why the 7th century Deuteronomist willingly altered the tradition that he himself inherited!

But not only does the Deuteronomist’s use of kol—“all”—subvert this earlier Elohist-Yahwist tradition, but as noted above “all the words of Yahweh” that are actually re-presented in Deuteronomy merely represent a minute fraction of what other traditions have accorded to Yahweh. That is to say there are gross omissions from Deuteronomy’s Moses’ renarrations of “all that Yahweh commanded” Israel across the Jordan!

Some of the omissions that we will examine in greater detail in forthcoming entries include Moses’ lack of knowledge about (lack of knowledge because Moses completely expunges these events from his renarrations):

  1. The giving at Sinai of the instructions for the construction of the ark, Yahweh’s altar, the Tent of Meeting and all its equipment, and the selection and consecration of Aaron and his sons as Yahweh’s sole anointed priests (Ex 25-31 & 35-40)
  2. The giving of the “eternal covenant” of the Sabbath (Ex 31:12-17)
  3. The “eternal covenant” of circumcision (Gen 17; Ex 12:43-49)
  4. The selection, sanctification, and Yahweh-decreed “eternal covenant” of the priesthood to only Aaron and his seeds, that is to only Aaronid Levites (see Contradictions #152 & #299)
  5. The giving at Sinai of the whole sacrificial and cultic legislation embodied in the book of Leviticus!
  6. The fact that only Aaronid priests can eat Yahweh’s offerings (Lev 6; see Contradiction #256)
  7. The fact that non-sacrificial slaughter is strictly prohibited (Lev 17; see Contradiction #187)
  8. The cultic calendar (Lev 23 & Num 28-29; see Contradictions #194-197, #198-204, #205-208)
  9. The fact that only Aaronid priests are beneficiaries of Yahweh’s tithes (Lev 27; see Contradiction #214-216)
  10. The fact that Yahweh ordered all non-Aaronid Levites to serve the Aaronid priesthood (Num 3)
  11. The fact that Yahweh commanded that only Aaronids can burn incense in front of Yahweh (Num 17; see Contradiction #254)
  12. When the 1st generation of Israelites were killed off. See Contradiction #280
  13. Where and when Aaron died (Num 20:23-29; see Contradiction #339-340
  14. The Midianite massacre (Num 31)

What we glean from this abridged list of omissions in Moses’ renarrations of “all that Yahweh had commanded to him about the Israelites” is that Deuteronomy’s Moses displays no knowledge, absolutely zero, of the legislative and narrative content—laws, commandments, eternal covenants, the Aaronid-led cultic institution and sacrificial calendar, etc.—now contained in Exodus 25-31 & 35-40, the whole book of Leviticus, and 75% of Numbers, that is of what later scholars have identified as the Priestly source!

As my readers are well aware of, these blatant and at times blasphemous omissions on the part of “Moses” is easily explained when we approach these ancient texts from the knowledge gained about the Torah’s compositional history and competing textual traditions accumulated over the past three centuries. “Moses'” omissions, in other words, are explained by acknowledging that when the core of Deuteronomy was written, the Priestly tradition had not yet been written! So the very reason why Deuteronomy’s Moses “omits” to mention any of this priestly material is that chronologically speaking the Priestly source had not yet been written when the Deuteronomist sat down to write his composition! And, as we shall see, void of the knowledge of this material, the Moses of Deuteronomy actually contradicts Yahweh’s words as recorded in this later body of literature now called the Priestly source.

“Omit” then is not quite the right word; for there was nothing yet to omit! That is to say, the priestly composition that would become Exodus 25-31 & 35-40, all of Leviticus, and 75% of Numbers had not yet been written! This is why Deuteronomy’s Moses—a 7th century literary creation—can renarrate the past and make absolutely no mention of the content now contained in these passages on the one hand, and on the other hand because of this lack of knowledge about a text that had not yet been written contradict the very words of Yahweh now expressed in this later composition.

Thus, this book’s sweeping claim to present “all of Yahweh’s words and commandments that he gave to Israel across the Jordan,” fails utterly when we acknowledge the Torah’s other and variant textual traditions. This fact will be presented through this blog’s forthcoming posts comparing Deuteronomy’s Moses’ renarrations to those of the earlier Elohist-Yahiwst traditions now preserved in Exodus and parts of Numbers, and to the later 6th century Priestly traditions now contained in the book of Leviticus and the majority of Numbers.

4 thoughts on “#349. Does the book of Deuteronomy contain “all the words” that Yahweh spoke to Moses across the Jordan OR not? (Deut 1:1-3 vs Ex 21-31, 34-40; all of Leviticus; Num 1-10, 15, 17:1-20:13, 28-31)

  1. By “Transjordan” I really meant southeast, east of where the Jordan would be if it extended south of the Dead Sea. I admit I still find the geography of the area confusing.

  2. I see a few interesting things in the first verse.

    It seems to suggest the writer thought that Kadesh-Barnea was located in the Transjordan. I am uncertain about Kadesh and Kadesh-Barnea and whether they are intended to mean the same place, but this verse at least implies it is on the way to Moab from Mount Seir.

    It also seems natural to assume that the journey from Horeb to the plains of Moab took 11 days in at least some point of the tradition. Otherwise it seems kind of pointless to mention. This suggests that the spy narrative and subsequent 40 year wandering was a later interpolation.

    I don’t know if any of the place names have been identified, but Laban is definitely a familiar name. I suppose it might be a coincidence that it shares the name of Jacob’s father-in-law, but it seems unlikely.

    1. True, many of these place names remain unidentified, but scholars are pretty much in agreement that D’s Kadesh-barnea was understood as Kadesh by this author. For instance look at the renarration of the spy story in Deut 1, which like J starts out from Kadesh, Kadesh-barnea.

      The confusion here may have been created by my phrase “from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea to the plains of Moab.” I understand the geography of verse 2, even granting that these places are unidentified, to highlight the extent of the wilderness (midbar) and the plains (’arabah) between Horeb (wherever that may be) and the southern extremity of Canaaan, i.e., Kadesh-barnea. So the 11 days march would seem to identify the geographical trek of a northwesternly direction if one viewed Horeb in Midian, as some traditions do, just below the range of mountains of Seir.

      From Horeb to Kadesh

      The Deuteronomist tradition furthermore tells us that the Israelites remained in this geographical area for approximately 38 years, and only crossed into Transjordan in the 38th year (Deut 2:14). So “These are [all] the words…” seems to suggest all the words during this 38 year period and within this geography. Since however Deuteronomy 1-3 recounts the narratives of the Transjordanian conquest, I added this into the mix in my “from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea to the plains of Moab.” But it doesn’t look like Transjordan is indicated in the geographical material of verse 2.

      And finally, yes I too see the 40 year wandering motive as a later interpolation, especially here in D. Besides I think 2 verses, most of the book of Deuteronomy displays no knowledge of the 40-year wandering. I will discuss this in more detail when I post about Deut 2:14.

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