Portion of the Week: A Tale of Two Covenants

Parashat Ki Tavo.

'Joshua Leading the Israelites Across the Jordan on 10th of Nisan,' unknown artist, circa 1500.Wikimedia Commons

Biblical scholars hypothesize that the “Book of the Teaching,” discovered in the Temple under Josiah, King of Judah, and also called the “Book of the Covenant,” is a version of Deuteronomy: “And the king went up to the house of the Lord … and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:2). A fitting name for Deuteronomy, which describes two central covenants established between God and Israel in the nation’s formative period.

The first covenant was drawn up in Horeb immediately following the Exodus from Egypt, when all Israel received the Ten Commandments and Moses alone heard the other laws. Unlike the Book of Exodus, Deuteronomy states that Moses conveyed those latter laws to Israel not at Horeb but rather in a second covenant, made in real time, during his final speech – in Moab, prior to Israel’s entry into Canaan. This week’s reading marks the end of the laws’ transmission, whereas next week’s reading, Nitzavim, depicts the ceremony of the second covenant.

Besides the covenants of past and present, Parashat Ki Tavo describes a future covenant — not a third covenant, but a reminder of the second one, so that Israel will remember its commitment to God and his laws as it approaches a new reality: “And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over; that thou mayest go in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of thy fathers, hath promised thee” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).

The next verse and those following it seem to duplicate, but in fact may contradict the previous ones: “And it shall be when ye are passed over the Jordan, that ye shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in Mount Ebal, and thou shalt plaster them with plaster” (Deut. 27:4). Partly because of the chronological problem, scholars suggest these verses were added to the text later. We read initially that the ceremony will take place “on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan” and then learn it will be held on Mount Ebal, although Israel cannot reach Mount Ebal on the day it crosses the Jordan.

This partial redundancy makes it difficult to reject the hypothesis that the text contains several layers. Anyway, the chronological problem might be solved by following the suggestion of my teacher, Baruch J. Schwartz: The words “on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan” do not necessarily indicate a specific day but refer to a chronological stage extending over time. Israel is not obligated to reach Mount Ebal within 24 hours of crossing the Jordan; it can hold the ceremony there later.

Other examples in the Bible show that “day” does not necessarily mean “24 hours.” In Genesis, in the second recounting of Creation, the phrase “on the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (Genesis 2:4) actually means “when God created heaven and earth,” which is also the meaning of “When God began to create heaven and earth” (Genesis 1:1), which opens Creation’s first recounting.

Return to the plastered stones on Mount Ebal. They are not simply a monument, because elsewhere Deuteronomy prohibits Israel from imitating the Canaanite nations’ rituals or to make use of monuments. Moses thus commands Israel to turn this ostensible monument into a text: “And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly” (Deut. 27:8).

What are “all the words of this law”? If we consider Deuteronomy as a discrete text and do not translate “law” (“torah”) as referring to the entire Pentateuch, we can conclude that the phrase refers to Deuteronomy’s laws, which Israel has just heard from Moses.

As elsewhere in Deuteronomy, this is really a subtle argument against other possibilities existing in biblical tradition. The story of the granting of the Torah in Exodus includes the ceremony of a covenant that remarkably resembles the one described in this week’s reading; there as well, the laws are written on stone, an altar is built — both texts requiring the use of whole, unhewn stones — and peace offerings are presented. Deuteronomy transfers this ceremony from the past to the future, placing it not at Horeb, when the journey to Canaan begins, but rather in Canaan, at the journey’s end, with the laws being written on stone not by Moses but by his successor. Ki Tavo does not mention by name Joshua, who did indeed do “as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses” (Joshua 8:31).

Deuteronomy does not describe the Book of the Covenant as an ancient document no longer in our possession, as Exodus does, but instead sees itself as the Book of the Covenant (this is also how Josiah sees it). Deuteronomy is the first text in Jewish culture to refer to itself as a text, to see itself from the outside and to instruct readers how to use it. Contrast this with the Creation stories in Genesis, which do not include a narrative frame clarifying their status, origin and future role in public life, or with the depictions of the granting of the Torah in Exodus, which describe a sanctified text that existed in the past but which do not define themselves as a text sanctified in the past, present or future.

We received Deuteronomy not as a discrete text but rather as the final segment of Judaism’s most important document, the Pentateuch, which, like Deuteronomy, calls itself “the law.” The result of this process is that, when the Torah is read sequentially, we understand Deuteronomy’s many reflective statements about itself as references to the entire Pentateuch. Deuteronomy thus unintentionally contributes not only to the definition of the Torah’s status as a canonical text in Jewish culture, but, first and foremost, to its own definition as a text.