The book of Deuteronomy – Devarim – is different from the other four books in that it is not what one would expect. It is not a continuation of the previous book, Numbers – Bamidbar, just as the book of Exodus – Shemot is a continuation of the book of Genesis – Bereishit, or the book of Leviticus – Vayikra is a logical continuation of Exodus. It is a self-contained, stand-alone book. The book of Bamidbar, which we concluded last week, ends with Moses establishing the last set of laws related to the division among the tribes of the Promised Land which they are about to inherit. It is a logical place to end the Torah; after all, it is the end of the 600 years-long journey, give or take 100 years, which starts with Abraham leaving his place of birth and going to an unknown country, and culminating in God bringing them to the Promised Land. And so, it would have been logical to end the Torah with the Moses’s last speech at the conclusion of the book of Bamidbar, saying: “You are about to cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan” and ending with the last sentence of the book: “These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord commanded the Israelites through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan, near Jericho.”
However, when we turn the page – surprise; there is one more book – Deuteronomy – Devarim. The book starts with an introduction stating that the book contains words that Moses spoke to the Israelites when they stood in the desert on the east bank of the Jordan. It also provides the exact date and a meticulous description of the place as if to make sure that there will be no room for doubt that this is exactly what Moses delivered to the Israelites together with a time and place stamp. When one takes a bird’s eye view of the structure of Devarim, one can immediately recognize it as a legal document: a contract. Contracts in the ancient world had a very specific structure. Just like modern contracts, they start with a statement of place and time and the identification of the parties to the contract. They then proceed with a background narrative describing the past and present relationships between the parties, and previous agreements and contracts between them. It then goes in detail into the substance of the present contract. Next, it enumerates the rewards that the parties will be awarded if they live up to their end of the deal and the penalties they will suffer if they don’t. Finally, it concludes with naming the witnesses – two, as required by law. Other than the lengthy narration of past and present relationships between the parties, not very much has changed in the way contracts are structured today as they were then. The book of Devarim follows this exact structure. This is a contract between God and the Israelites. It is not a new contract; rather, it summarizes and reiterates what was already been stated in the previous four books. The various commandments and regulations that are interspersed between the stories of the exodus and the wondering in the desert are repeated, sometimes as variants, in a concise manner here. The book describes all the wonderful things that will happen to the Israelites if they fulfill their end of the bargain and follow the Mitzvot and Mishpatim, and the dire consequences if they don’t. This too is a restatement of what was already said in Leviticus-Vayikra. It ends with naming of the witnesses: “Gather to me all the elders of the tribes and your officials that I may speak all these words to them and that I may call Heaven and Earth as witnesses.” What more appropriate witnesses can there be for a contract with no expiration date?
So, if there is nothing new in this book, what is its purpose? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. The tradition sees this book as Moses’s Last Will and Testament, a document summarizes the past and present relationship between the Israelites and God and a roadmap to a future relationship. It is a document that will be given to Joshua and future leaders who are expected to lead the people in its path. It also is a supplement of sorts to the other books. The rabbis believe that if God repeated a commandment, it is for a reason; and they found ingenious ways to discover the new messages hidden in the repeats. Secular Bible scholars, on the other hand, believe that the book of Devarim is a later addition written in the 7th century BC. Commonly, they identify it with the book “found” in the temple by the High Priest Hilkiah during the reign of King Josiah as described in II Kings, 22-23. The discovery of the book resulted in Josiah launching a merciless campaign against idolatry and idolaters and the restoration or rather, the establishment, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the Davidic dynasty, of the worship of a single god, the God of Israel. According to this view the “discovery” of this lost book served Josiah’s political agenda of reform and consolidation of his power by centralizing all religious and ritual activities in the temple in Jerusalem under his loyal High Priest Hilkiah. The destruction of the altars throughout his kingdom and killing their priests wiped out the local power bases that challenged his authority.
Our parasha is the beginning of the narration concerning the history of the relationship between God and Israel. Since this contract is drafted by God or on His behalf, it tips the scale in God’s favor and sets the stage from His perspective. God has always been true to His word, always lived up to His commitments and covenants. The Israelites, on the other hand, didn’t. God enumerates their victories over their enemies when they listened to Him; when they didn’t, the results disastrous. Interestingly, now we learn that the sparing of certain people from attack while they were traveling through the hill country and the territory east of the Jordan, were not accidental. It was not because of their enemies’ might. Rather, it was because God had had covenants with these nations too and God lives up to His covenants. So, the reason gives why they were instructed to avoid any conflict with the Edomites is that they were the descendents of Jacob’s brother, Esau, who was apparently included under God’s covenant with Abraham. It is said, “I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau.” Similarly, we now hear for the first time why God commanded them not to attack the Ammonites and Moabites; it is because “I have assigned it as a possession to the sons of Lot,” who apparently was also covered under the covenant with Abraham. Nowhere else is there a hint that Lot and Esau were special to God too. Why mention now God’s commitments to other nations when it is a contract with Israel that is being drafted? It is for good reason. The message is clear: God stands by His covenants with all peoples. His word is good for eternity.
The Haphtarah today is the third of the haphtarot of rebuke read before Tisha Be’Av. It is one of the most scathing rebukes delivered by the prophet Isaiah, a dire warning to the people for violating the contract with God and the looming disaster that will befall them as a result. Isaiah calls upon the same witnesses who served to witness the contract: “Hear O heavens, and give ear O earth for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up – and they have rebelled against me!’.” And with a broken heart in words that evoke the opening verse of Jeremiah in Megilat Eicha – the book of Lamentations – “אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם” (How has she become lonely, the city that was once so populous!) he mourns what happened to his beloved city “אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה”(How has she become a harlot, a faithful city?).
Like the other two haphtarot of rebuke it also ends on a positive and hopeful note. There is redemption in repentance: “Zion shall be redeemed in justice and her repentant ones with righteousness.”