Deuteronomy 1:1 to 3:22
In Torah, words have power. God created the world with words. Now, in Deuteronomy – the last book of Torah – Moses delivers his selected words to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. Moses and Torah teach us through the power of words.
“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan….” (Deut. 1:1-3)
Like all the other portions which begin each of the books of Torah, this week’s parsha takes the same Hebrew name as the Book itself – D’varim. When translated into English it means “words.” Over the next weeks we will study the “words” that Moses used to educate the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land.
The book also has a second, more commonly used name, Deuteronomy. It’s derived from the Greek and means “Second Law” or “Second Teaching” … emphasizing the fact that the book contains a retelling of the first four books of Torah.
In examining the “words” of Moses, let’s first look at the purpose of the text. “ The literal reading of the text indicates that Moses was addressing the Israelites. As God had decreed, the Israelites would wander the wilderness for forty years … until all who left Egypt would be dead. (This is generally assumed to mean all over the age of 20.) So, Moses is talking to a generation who didn’t know slavery. And, many who were not present at Sinai … or witness the sins of the Golden Calf or the Scouts/Spies. Moses was teaching them the lessons learned since the exodus from Egypt.
Most modern Torah scholars have added a second audience. They believe that the Deuteronomy was actually written by the priests who claim to have found it during the time of King Josiah (621 BCE) ….. a time of radical religious reformation. Here the “words” of Moses were directed at the Israelites of this period. For the most part, the book retells the content of first books of Torah. However, there are major revisions including the establishment of a single place where offerings and sacrifices were to be made (Jerusalem). In the past, they could be made in special places throughout the land. Also, Deuteronomy states that the offering of the Passover shall be made at the Temple in Jerusalem. Earlier it is stated that this holiday should be observed in the home. There is also an emphasis on the evils of idolatry which was a problem at the time.
The content of this first parsha in Deuteronomy delivers strong messages that remain a central theme in all of Deuteronomy…. God is with the Israelites. They must have faith and follow the Eternal’s commands and laws in order to enjoy success in the land. If the people lose faith, or don’t follow God’s commands, they will also lose God’s support. This message is forcefully documented by Moses’ retelling of the story of the scouts/spies and how the people reacted to their assessment of the land they were about to enter.
Moses begins his “words” by reminding the Israelites of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to create a numerous people. Moses emphasizes that God was with them and they now number in the hundreds of thousands.
Then, Moses notes that early in the travels of the Israelites, they approached the land that God had promised. He told them: “Go up, take possession as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, promised you. Fear not and be not dismayed.” (Deut. 1:21)
“Then all of you [the Israelites] came to me [Moses] and said, ‘Let us send notables ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.’ I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your notables, one from each tribe.”
The scouts/spies reported: “It is a good land that the Eternal our God is giving us.”
“Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Eternal your God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘it is out of hatred for us that the Eternal brought us out of the land of Egypt to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out…. We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and even Anakites.”
“I said to you, ‘Have no dread or fear of them. None other than the Eternal your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as [God] did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, eyes, and in the wilderness…. Yet for all that, you have no faith in the Eternal your God, who goes before you on your journeys.” (Deut. 1:22-33)
And the Eternal became angry and vowed, “Not one of the men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers – none except Caleb… [and] Joshua son of Nun … shall enter.” (Deut. 1:34-38) The result was thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness.
But, the people saw their error and replied: “We stand guilty before the Eternal. We will go up now and fight…. But, the Eternal One said to me, ‘Warn them: Do no go up and do not fight, since I am not in your midst; else you will be routed by your enemies.” Many did not listen and were routed in battle. (Deut. 1:41-46)
It is important to note that there are many differences between this version of the scouts story and the narration in Numbers. We can only speculate why….. Maybe this is the way Moses remembered it…. Or, maybe the story was slightly changed in Deuteronomy to place less guilt on the scouts, and more the people and God’s reaction.
After the account of the scouts, Moses continues his comments by skipping forward to more current happenings… The successful battles the Israelites just completed. Moses recounts how, when the Eternal told the people not to attack a nation, they didn’t and passed around these people. But, when told to attack, the Eternal was with them and victory resulted.
These “words” of Moses at the opening of his long messages are key to all future success in the new Land… God has been with the Israelites to help them survive and become successful. Faith in the Eternal is essential for future success. With faith in the Eternal, the Israelites will triumph. Without faith … or the taking actions against the commandments of the Eternal … a tragic outcome will result.
With these strong “words” as introduction, next week Moses will begin a review of the rules, laws and commandments that God has given the people of Israel.