Torah Portion of the Week: Even Timeless Works Have a Context

Parashat Re’eh.

Josiah hearing the reading of Deuteronomy. Illustration by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.
Wikemedia Commons

Reading the Torah, we discern at least three different time frames. The most ancient is when the narrative itself actually unfolds. In Genesis, the narrative encompasses millennia – from Creation to the journey of Jacob and his family to Egypt. From Exodus to Deuteronomy, the time span is 120 years – Moses’ birth to his death. The most recent tense is the reader’s time – for example, in another minute or two, when you read the quotations from Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) that appear below. The reader's time is defined by an initial point, when the Torah was first written and disseminated, not by a termination point, as long as people continue (God willing) to read and explain the Torah.

Many readers unconsciously shift from the most ancient tense to the contemporary one. There is a third point of time between them – critical for understanding the Torah: its composition time. This is divisible into sub-points: oral traditions, written units, continuous sources created over time and their blending into a single composition. For our purposes, we will talk about a single point in time when most of the material was written. According to the traditional reading of the Torah, this point does not exist. Traditional reading permits no gap between the time most of the Torah’s events occurred – Moses’ lifetime – and its composition time. Moses is considered the author. Traditional reading also disregards any historical or chronological gap between the author and us, in the belief that the text has been written for all posterity.

This whole discussion is relevant, for example, in understanding what Moses means when he tells Israel, in this week’s reading: “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8). The narrative sequence is the first law Moses conveys to Israel, called in biblical scholarship the law of cult centralization. The accepted custom in the ancient Near East was to establish throughout the land numerous temples and altars dedicated to the same god. Deuteronomy demands that all religious activity be conducted in one place: the “place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there” (Deut. 12:5).

Besides the fear that the Israelites will be tempted to worship the local gods, Moses warns them of the danger of turning pagan places of worship into places of worship for Israel’s God. Since this possibility could be perceived by some as legitimate, Moses emphasizes that Israel’s God prohibits worshipping him “upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree” (Deut. 12:2). Moses commands the Israelites, on the eve of entering Canaan, to avoid using the land’s pagan places of worship and to destroy them.

What is meant by “this day” when Israel acts in accordance with the concept “every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes”? Moses explains: “For ye are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance, which the Lord your God giveth thee. But when ye go over the Jordan, and dwell in the land which the Lord your God causeth you to inherit, and he giveth you rest from all your enemies round about, so that ye dwell in safety; then it shall come to pass that the place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there, thither shall ye bring all that I command you: your burnt-offerings, and your sacrifices ...” (Deut. 12:9-11). According to Moses, offering sacrifices in different places is legitimate only until Israel finally arrives and settles in Canaan: After Israel reaches the “rest and … the inheritance,” all religious activity must be concentrated in one chosen place.

Moses’ words are puzzling. First, the statement “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes” sounds like a rebuke, yet he has no grounds for rebuking Israel. Cult centralization has not yet gone into effect at this point; thus Israel’s present actions are legitimate. Second, the description is mystifying: Wandering in the desert for 40 years, how could the Israelites have created a network of temples and altars? Furthermore, neither Deuteronomy nor the Pentateuch’s first four books mention such activities. When Moses admonishes, “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day,” readers might imagine Israelites offering sacrifices “upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree.” But nomadic life in the desert is unsuited to such activity; Moses’ poetic speech sounds disconnected from its context.

The context might be another point in time altogether: neither when the events occurred nor when the Torah is being read, but, rather, when it was composed. According to 2 Kings 22-23, in what we calculate to have been 622 B.C.E., the “book of the Law” (sefer ha-Torah) was accidentally discovered in the Temple in Jerusalem. After the book’s discovery, Josiah, King of Judah, introduces sweeping religious reforms, including a renewed covenant with God, removal of idolatry from Judah, and centralization of worship of Israel’s God in a single place – as demanded by Moses in Parashat Re’eh.

What is this “book of the Law”? The many links between 2 Kings:22-23 and Deuteronomy’s content and style led Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette to propose a hypothesis that has been central to biblical scholarship for the past two centuries. He argues that the “book of the Law” was Deuteronomy (although not all of it). De Wette claims the book was not only discovered in the late First Temple period, but was written then, inspiring Josiah to launch reforms.

If this hypothesis is correct, Judah’s inhabitants understood Moses’ words well, hearing his call, “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day,” as a harsh and justified rebuke: Throughout Judah, they worshipped Israel’s God “upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree,” as attested to often in the Bible and by archaeological finds. Moses’ poetic speech arouses its readers to correct the situation. Like contemporary readers of the Torah, Josiah and his officials assumed the text was aimed at them. Unlike contemporary readers, they were right, apparently: The text was aimed at them.

The description attributed to Moses, and which occurs “here this day,” suits neither the Israelites’ nomadic life in the desert nor contemporary readers. Reading the text against the backdrop of its assumed time and place of writing, however, we can perhaps better understand it.