Portion of the Week: Living to Tell the Tale

Parashat Va’etchanan

Lithograph of Moses addressing the people of Israel
Wikicommons

Midway through God’s revelation at Horeb, as depicted in Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), the Israelites’ leaders turn to Moses: “Behold, the Lord our God hath shown us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire; we have seen this day that God doth speak with man, and he liveth” (Deut. 5:20). Indeed, an important motif in Deuteronomy is God’s direct verbal revelation, unprecedented in human history, to Israel at Horeb.

Early in this week’s Torah portion, Moses emphasizes that, “For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?” (Deut. 4:32-33). Moses urges Israel to look to the past in order to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this divine revelation.

Scrutiny of the text reveals that, according to the above two citations, what is unprecedented is not actually the revelation itself but the fact that human beings who experienced it did not die as a result: “... we have seen this day that God doth speak with man, and he liveth,” the Israelites tell Moses, and he asks them, “Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?”

Parashat Va’etchanan acknowledges the danger facing anyone who encounters God directly. Turning to Moses, the Israelites ask: “Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?” (Deut. 5:21-22).

In real time, the Israelites do not yet know that they will constitute a precedent and they are not interested in becoming part of an experiment. Rather, they ask Moses to mediate: “Go thou near, and hear all that the Lord our God may say; and thou shalt speak unto us all that the Lord our God may speak unto thee; and we will hear it and do it” (Deut. 5:23). After God approves the Israelites’ request, Moses alone hears the divine words directly. But according to Deuteronomy, before the request is made, the entire nation hears the Ten Commandments (literally, the “Ten Words”), as is stated explicitly: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly” (Deut. 5:18).

In his book, “Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition,” Benjamin D. Sommer shows that the assertion that Israel hears the Ten Commandments is based on Deuteronomy’s interpretation – an interpretation that derives from the vagueness of the earlier story of the revelation at Horeb that appears in Exodus. The latter also relates that the Israelites ask Moses to mediate, although the phrasing is slightly different: “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:15). It might be understood from this passage that the Children of Israel did not hear God’s words at all, that they preferred not to hear them. In contrast, in Deuteronomy, the nation claims, “if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die.” The implication is thus that Israel has already heard some of the Almighty’s words, but fears “if we hear … any more.”

It is unclear from Exodus whether Israel heard some of the Ten Commandments – perhaps only the first two, as some medieval commentators believe, perhaps all of them or perhaps none at all. But Deuteronomy dispels the fog, clarifying unequivocally that the nation indeed heard all the commandments. Why does Deuteronomy do this?

In order to answer this question, we should consider the Ten Commandments’ role in each of these stories, in the wake of what the late scholar Menahem Haran wrote in “The Biblical Collection.” As was noted here last week, Deuteronomy agrees with the tradition described in Exodus by which Israel enters a covenant with God at Horeb (not Sinai) and hears the Ten Commandments from God himself, and then Moses alone receives the laws from him.

As noted, the two narratives part company. In Exodus, Moses reads out the laws to Israel and writes them in the “book of the covenant,” which includes all the statutes and ordinances, perhaps also the Ten Commandments. But the latter, at most, serve simply as the introduction to Exodus or as a declaration of principles, whereas the covenant was drawn up with respect to the entire body of statutes that the nation promised to obey.

In contrast, according to Deuteronomy, Moses conveys all the statutes to Israel only after 40 years have passed. But these are statutes appearing only in Deuteronomy, not the ones in Exodus, which Deuteronomy does not acknowledge. Moreover, Deuteronomy links the statutes’ belated transmission to an additional covenant, “beside the covenant which he made with them in Horeb” (Deut. 28:69). This additional covenant is entered into in real time in Deuteronomy, in the land of Moab, on the eve of Israel’s entry into Canaan. However, a problem arises: If Israel did not hear the statutes at Horeb and there never was a “book of the covenant” – what is the covenant’s content? And what document records it? The answer to these questions is that we are talking about the Ten Commandments, which is why Deuteronomy makes two changes in the story it receives from Exodus.

First, Deuteronomy clarifies several times (we’ve mentioned only a few) that Israel indeed heard all the Ten Commandments, and it phrases the nation’s words to Moses accordingly. An additional discrepancy is that the “tables of stone,” as they are called in Exodus (24:12, etc.), on which the Ten Commandments were written, are referred to as the “tables [tablets] of the covenant” in Deuteronomy (9:11, etc.). According to Deuteronomy, these tablets constitute the document that attests to the establishment of the covenant, rather than to the “book of the covenant” per se, which is accorded pride of place at the revelation at Horeb according to Exodus but, which, according to Deuteronomy, never took place.