Vayeleich (Deuteronomy 31:1 – 31:30)

DEUTERONOMY 31:1-3

SPOTLIGHT
Moses is giving his final speeches and the author of Deuteronomy will use this literary genre to comment on Israel history and its outlook for the future. There will be failures, spiritual and in matters of national character. But there will also be reasons for continued hope.

The history of Judah has been a disappointment by the time the author writes these words. But he still firmly believes God has been in the events with Israel all along. יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ (Adonai Eloheicha hu ‘oveir lefaneicha, “Adonai your God, he will cross over before you”). Deuteronomy in its first draft seems to have been written shortly before the end of the kingdom, when there was still some small hope for its future. But a second layer was added after Jerusalem was destroyed, when all the institutions of the worship of Adonai have come to an end. It seemed that God was dead.

But Deuteronomy is among those texts of the Bible that face the darkness with hope. As readers, we are all too familiar with the letdown of life, where good passes all too quickly and corruption lurks in every shadow. Those hungry for a better world need encouragement. Where people fail, God will succeed. The question is not “if,” but “when” and “how.”

OUTLINE
Moses speaks about dying and Joshua taking up leadership.

OVERVIEW
Moses is idealized in this story, having reached the maximum age span of 120, as declared in Genesis 6:3. The numbers in his life story are suspiciously round, as he was precisely 80 before the wilderness journey and has led Israel exactly 40 years.

Ancient ideas about chronology were very different from our own. The ages of the patriarchs in Genesis are all clever examples of using symbolic numbers in mathematical combinations. Moses’ age is three periods of fulness: forty years in Egypt, forty in the desert, and then forty years leading Israel out.

Joshua will be replacing Moses, but God himself will be with them, just as he had been with them during Moses’ term of leadership.

DEUTERONOMY 31:4-6

SPOTLIGHT
Be strong (חִזְקוּ chizqu). And courageous (וְאִמְצוּ ve’imtzu). The saying became a motto for Joshua, words from his mentor Moses and words he passed down to his own generation. Facing the Canaanites and a new land and a new way of life, change on every front, these words were both a challenge and a comfort.

How can we be strong? How can we find courage?

The answer of Deuteronomy would have to be: “from your own convictions that God is with you, that what you are doing is right, that you have a purpose to fulfill.”

Joshua 1:6 says he should be strong and courageous because of the promises to the patriarchs. God’s plan has been known from long ago. 1:9 says he should be strong and courageous because God is with him wherever he goes. 1:18 is a challenge to stay strong and courageous even when the work is hard. 10:25 is where Joshua challenges the people to see what God has done and believe he will do it over and over again.

Since the days of Joshua, God has withdrawn even more. He is hidden and silent. Theophanies are no more. Even in ancient Israel, stories of divine appearances and angelic visitations are far apart and rare. It takes perhaps even more strength and courage to live in the face of silence and believe. But what is the alternative? To give up hope? Or to maintain the conviction that God is with is, that believing in him and doing the Torah is right, and that humanity has a purpose?

After the author of Deuteronomy wrote all these words, God brought the children of Israel back from Babylon. Jerusalem was rebuilt. The temple was set up again. The seemingly hopeless situation reversed. Judaism did not die. Faith in the God of Abraham survived and even passed on to the world, through this tiny Jewish people. The work of God in the world may be hard at times to see, but be strong and courageous. God has been with us and he will be again.

OUTLINE
God will give you victory as over Sihon and Og (4-5), be strong and courageous (6).

OVERVIEW
Moses appoints Joshua to succeed him, as God had earlier instructed him (Deuteronomy 3:23-28). The author of Deuteronomy is interested in the way fledgling Israel faced the challenge of greater nations standing in their way. In the time the book was written, Babylon loomed over everything. How did the ancestors find courage to face the Canaanites?

“Adonai your God himself” will bring you into the land, Moses had said. Joshua will be the new Moses. And the same kinds of victories Israel saw under Moses’ leadership, triumphs over Sihon and Og, will characterize the entry of the people into Canaan.

As Moses prepares for his death and for Joshua to succeed him, he says the famous words “be strong and courageous.” This saying will become Joshua’s motto (Joshua 1:6, 9, 18; 10:25).

DEUTERONOMY 31:7-9

SPOTLIGHT
Torah is, among other things, a written document, a book. This seemingly innocuous fact led to the intensely literate Jewish culture, to a people obsessed with a book. In the words of Deuteronomy, “Moses wrote down this teaching.”

“This teaching” seems to mean, for the author of Deuteronomy, part or all of the book of Deuteronomy. It does not mean the “whole Torah” as we know it today (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) which was gathered together as a unified book after Israel returned from Babylonian exile, probably by Ezra the scribe (see Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?).

What the author of Deuteronomy seems to have in mind is that “Moses wrote Deuteronomy.” Perhaps he meant that Moses wrote the law code (chapters 12-26) of Deuteronomy, albeit in an earlier form. The laws as recorded in Deuteronomy contain some clear changes from what was written down earlier in E and P (two other source documents which are now layers of Torah). That is, Deuteronomy contains developments and changes in the law from earlier versions now found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerning matters such as the temple, sacrifices, clean and unclean food, and the tithe.

So how can the author of Deuteronomy say “Moses wrote it down”? He seems to view Torah as a document open to change. When Moses “wrote” it was acceptable for Israel to have multiple sanctuaries and there was no “one sanctuary” law. When Moses wrote perhaps the tithe was given to the Levites from the other tribes. When Moses wrote, it would have been unacceptable for Israel to have a king since they were led by a prophet. But over time, Israel’s situation changed and so did the laws of Torah.

The character of Israel’s religion, being based so heavily on a written code, is the reason Jewish culture has been historically so literate. It is why Hebrew remains the language of Jewish prayer. It is why Jewish religion has kept the Jewish people so tightly knit around a common body of teaching. The fact that Torah, as it has been combined into one unified document since the Persian period of history (roughly 450 BCE), addresses the deepest human questions (where did we come from? what is right and good?) has made it a source for philosophy and speculation as well as religious observance.

When the temple was destroyed for the second an final time by the Roman army in 70 CE, it was a natural development for Judaism to re-center itself. Instead of being based now on Jerusalem and the worship structure at the central temple, Judaism became a religion of the study of the Torah. Prayer and Torah study and observances of time (Sabbath) and culture (dietary law) came to define the Jewish way of life.

OUTLINE
Moses commissions Joshua (7-8), Moses makes a copy of the Torah (9).

OVERVIEW
In the sight of all Israel, Moses transferred leadership to Joshua. In the writings of the prophets, such as Isaiah, we see that much of the responsibility for the people’s well-being was placed on the leaders of the nation and Deuteronomy shares this view. The Torah for Israel is not only a religious code, a matter of worship, but also of civil and ceremonial laws for the entire nation to keep. It is a governing document and the supernatural blessings promised in the Torah can only happen when the nation is led from the top toward faithfulness.

Vs. 9 is an important idea in the development of Torah. The tradition of law and covenant needed to be written and preserved. The ones doing the preserving were the priests. This idea of priests preserving a written tradition of Torah is in agreement with the theory that two of the sources of the Torah are priestly. E, as it is known, is the layer of Torah preserved by priests from the northern kingdom before it fell in 722 BCE. P is the name for another layer, the product of priestly circles in Jerusalem. What we do not now is what written sources might have been available to the authors of E and P. It is reasonable to think that Moses may have written a law code that predated Torah as we know it.

DEUTERONOMY 31:10-13

SPOTLIGHT
Imagine a people bound together by the shared experience of reading and rereading a text. Imagine a people continually discussing the questions raised by our existence and by our experience in the world. What is good? How do we attain to the ultimate life? Where did we come from?

This people bound together by a text and regular reading is, of course, the Jewish people. From an ancient law about reading the whole Torah on Sabbath years, the custom developed of reading portions every week and even every day.

From this law about Sabbath year reading Ezra the scribe returned from Babylon and brought with him something new: a unified Torah bringing together what had been four separate strands. We read of Ezra, “he was a scribe, skilled in the Torah of Moses which Adonai, God of Israel, had given” (Ezra 7:6(4)). “Ezra had committed his mind to the study of the Torah” (7:10).

It seems what Ezra had done is bind together so expertly these four different layers of Torah that only in recent times have we been able to see the separate strands. He included the writings of J, someone who was not a priest but who lived in Judah, whose stories told history since creation. He may have inherited a text that already combined J with E, a document from the priests of the northern kingdom, with laws and stories. He wove these with P, a priestly text from Judah, which may have already been combined with H, a second layer of priestly laws. He appended to these D and made one unified Torah out of them all (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?).

And then, in Nehemiah 8, “All the people gathered as one person into the square before the Water Gate.” The city and temple had risen again from rubble and ash. Ezra brought the “book” or perhaps “scroll” (סֵפֶר sefer, could refer to either a codex [an early form of the book] or a scroll) of the Torah out and read it to all the people. In Judaism, we have been reading it systematically ever since. It has spawned a large library of commentary, of further writings on law and tradition, and philosophies. Some claim that everything is contained within it. No one can deny that a great intellectual and spiritual tradition sprung from it, affecting not only the Jewish people, but Christianity and Islam as well.

Deuteronomy’s innovative idea — that the text should be read aloud every Sabbath year — turned into something that helped shape the Western world and much of human history.

OUTLINE
Public reading of Torah in Sabbath years.

OVERVIEW
“At the end of seven years, and the appointed time for the year of remission . . .” Vs. 10 refers the reader back to Deuteronomy 15:1-18, the laws for Sabbath years. Deuteronomy called for the people to release debt-slaves and even debts themselves in Sabbath years. The idea of remitting debts is something new to Deuteronomy, another of its innovations.

Exodus says only that the land must be rested (23:11) and has a similar provision for the release of debt-slaves after six years of service (not exactly the same as releasing them specifically in Sabbath years). Leviticus 25 says the land must be rested in Sabbath years and in Jubilee years property is reverted to the clans, land is rested, and indentured servants are freed (not clear how this differs from freeing them in Sabbath years). Only Deuteronomy commands releasing debts.

Some feel this remission made sense in rather small agricultural loans, but not in larger business loans which became the norm as Israel’s economy grew. Now in Deuteronomy 31 we find another observance in Sabbath years: a public reading of Torah (or Deuteronomy, or part of Deuteronomy) at Sukkot (Tabernacles). Vs. 13 emphasizes the descendants and children, a concern of Deuteronomy’s throughout: generational education.

DEUTERONOMY 31:14-19

SPOTLIGHT
“But I will surely hide my face.” The Hebrew idiom is emphatic and might be rendered more literally, “but hiding, I will hide my face.”

Many of us have felt it. God is hidden. The stories in the Bible where he appears intrigue us, creating in us a longing to have a similar experience. The reality is we spend our lives experiencing the absence of God. Tragedies happen. The world is not right. When will he rend the heavens and come down among us? We become used to his absence and we look for any sign of his presence.

There are a number of different reactions to the fact that God is hidden. Some insist that he is actually quite present and active and for them the small ups and downs of life require theological explanations in abundance. When positive things happen, that surely must be God’s doing. When life goes poorly, then there is something causing God not to bless us. This is an understandable reaction of people who want to have faith.

A related position is to doubt that God exists because surely if he did life would be more explainable according to divine cause and effect.

What are we to make of the hiddenness of God? At the end of Deuteronomy, the author predicts that Israel will be unfaithful to God’s covenant and will blame its ills on God’s absence. “Surely it is because God is not in our midst,” they will say, “that these evils have befallen us.” In the wilderness stories, people could see a visible manifestation of God over the tabernacle at any time. We can hardly imagine life with such a constant symbol of God’s nearness to us.

But when Israel leaves the wilderness and enters the land, we find that the Bible depicts life on earth more as we know it. God’s absence is palpable, real. The continual presence that Israel experienced in the wilderness is no more. Their lives are in that sense more like the days before Moses came, when they were slaves in Egypt and no one ever saw God.

Modern readers should realize, the Bible does not depict life as a continual succession of divine appearances. The times when God appeared and spoke are like brief punctuations in the continuing story of millennia. Here is reality as the Bible depicts it: God hides himself during the time of this present world and much that happens follows the course of natural cause and effect. Those of us who believe in God must see through the silence and believe that it will not always be so. God will appear and end this silence, but the time is not yet.

OUTLINE
Moses and Joshua appear before God (14-15), God foretells the apostasy of Israel and instructs Moses to write a song as witness in coming days (16-19).

OVERVIEW
Vs. 14 is the only reference in Deuteronomy to the “tent of meeting” (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, ‘ōhel mōeid), though it is named one hundred and twenty eight times in Exodus through Numbers. Since this is not the characteristic term for the sanctuary in Deuteronomy, how do we explain this usage near the end of the book? The answer, simply, is that the editor of Torah (perhaps Ezra the scribe) has inserted a few passages from the E source in chapter 31 (vss. 14-15, 23). In fact, chapter 31 is a combination of the main layer of Deuteronomy (vss. 1-13, 24-27), E (vss. 14-15, 23), and a later post-destruction layer of Deuteronomy (vss. 16-22, 28-30; see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed).

The E source’s version of the story of Moses’ death may have originally included more, since the story the editor has included from E seems incomplete (just vss. 14-15, 23). God calls Moses to bring Joshua to the “tent of meeting” (perhaps the tabernacle, though some argue it was a separate tent) where God himself will instruct Joshua in the task of replacing Moses. The people will see that Joshua meets directly with God, as Moses had before him.

In foretelling the coming defection of Israel, God says the people will blame their ills on the lack of a visible Presence in their midst. Once the Israelites enter the land, God’s Presence will be hidden in the tabernacle and not visible as it was in the desert. But God has Moses compose a song and append it to the Torah as a witness to the true reason for Israel’s rapid descent into disloyalty. That song is Ha’azinu, which Moses will sing in Deuteronomy 32.

DEUTERONOMY 31:20-24

OUTLINE
Israel’s coming apostasy and the Ha’azinu song as witness (20-21), Moses writes and teaches the song that day (22), God speaks to Joshua directly (23), Moses puts “this teaching” in writing (24).

OVERVIEW
We are prepared by these introductory remarks to regard the poem of Deuteronomy 32, Ha’azinu, as highly significant spiritually and theologically. The song gets at the heart of the covenant between Israel and God. In vs. 23, we read almost a verbatim repetition of 31:7 except that, upon closer reading, we notice that God speaks directly to Joshua (God is the speaker from vs. 14 on).

God says nearly the same thing to him that Moses has said earlier. God’s charge, which is fitting for all his children, is to be strong and determined to prevail (in doing God’s work). The basis of the charge is faith in the divinely foretold outcome. The message to Deuteronomy’s readers is about being strong during hard times, believing God desires to renew the world. Israel has a supernatural covenant which can bring an end to the ordinary conditions of life, bringing paradise down on earth. In God’s covenant, no deed of love is without merit.

DEUTERONOMY 31:25-30

OUTLINE
Command to place Deuteronomy in the Holy of Holies (25-26), the deposited copy as well as the poem (Ha’azinu) will be a witness against future generations to call them back (27-30).

OVERVIEW
The phrase “this Torah” (rendered “this law” or “this teaching” in most translations) has been used throughout Deuteronomy to describe itself (see 1:5). Moses commanded the Levites, who disassembled and reassembled the tabernacle, to deposit the scroll of Deuteronomy in the Holy of Holies. This would involve disassembling the Tabernacle (which de-sanctifies it) and placing the scroll in some kind of vessel.

In the days of King Josiah, the high priest Hilkiah found “the scroll of the Torah” in the Temple (2 Kgs 22:8). The connection between Deuteronomy and Josiah’s reforms is very strong. This is strong evidence that Deuteronomy, with its changes from the earlier layers of the Torah, originated during Josiah’s time. Richard Elliott Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible?) suggests the circle of Jeremiah and perhaps even Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe.

Deuteronomy represents Moses saying the scroll will serve as a witness to a people he knows will be rebellious. This is not necessarily fiction. The story could be based on a memory from the Mosaic era, even if Deuteronomy did not exist in Moses’ time. At any rate, it happened in Josiah’s day, just as Moses said. The people were on the brink of abandonment by God when the scroll of Deuteronomy became the basis of a great revival.