Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 25 July 2015 / 9 Av 5775

Parshat Devarim

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In the latter half of the nineteenth century the Divine authorship of the Torah was challenged by the Wellhausen school of ‘Biblical Criticism’, which claimed that the Torah had multiple, human authors, and was compiled over a period of several hundred years. Interestingly enough, Abarbanel confronts a similar, albeit less dramatic, challenge which existed in his time. Because the fifth Book of the Pentateuch, Devarim, is primarily Moshe’s first-person farewell address to the nation, the question arose as to whether Moshe, rather than G-d, was the author of this final Book.

Abarbanel explains that the impetus for such a challenge comes from three anomalies in the Book of Devarim. First of all, if G-d was the sole author, why would it be necessary to repeat so much material in this Book? If the purpose was to give a further explanation, what would be the purpose of mentioning them earlier if they had to be clarified later on anyhow? This is not how authors normally proceed. Secondly, the first four Books are written as a third-person narrative, but the Book of Devarim, until the portion of Vayelech, is written as Moshe’s first person narrative. If G-d was the author, how could Moshe ascribe these words to himself? Thirdly, if the entire Book was written by G-d how can we explain the Talmudic passage (Megillah 31): “The curses in the Book of Vayikra were received by Moshe from G-d and given over in the plural, while the curses in the Book of Devarim were spoken in the singular by Moshe himself.” The clear implication is that these curses were not transmitted to Moshe by G-d.

Abarbanel answers that the Book of Devarim must be viewed from two perspectives. Firstly, it should be viewed as Moshe’s personal farewell address to the nation. His purpose in repeating some of the mitzvot was not to admonish the nation or to teach them mitzvot that they had not heard at Sinai. On the contrary, they had already received all the mitzvot at Sinai. Some had been explained in detail, while others had been mentioned briefly or only hinted at. Knowing that his death was imminent he took it upon himself to explain those matters that required further clarification. In regard to the historical events that had transpired during the forty years in the wilderness, especially those which had transpired immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, Moshe’s goal was to explain to the new generation that was about to enter the Land what had happened to their fathers so that they would not have any doubts about the imminent entry into the Land of Israel. This answers the first question.

In regard to the second question, even though this was Moshe’s personal address to the nation, its final written form as the Book of Devarim was dictated by G-d. In essence, G-d himself was the final Editor. Moshe delivered the speech; that is why it is expressed in the first person. But it was G-d who determined the exact wording to be recorded for posterity. Furthermore, there are numerous instances of first-person dialogue throughout the other Books of the Torah. In the Book of Exodus, for example, there are numerous instances of Pharaoh and Moshe speaking in the first person. Once again, G-d determined exactly how that dialogue was to be written down.

This approach answers the third question as well. After having Moshe explain the mitzvot to the nation, G-d gave him the general commandment to issue blessings and curses to the people. The exact detailed content was left to Moshe. But, as we mentioned above, it was G-d who dictated to Moshe the final form of these blessings and curses that were written down in the Book of Devarim.

The principle that emerges from all of this is that the entire Book of Devarim is the precise word of G-d, Who commanded how it was to be written, word for word, like all the other Books of the Torah.

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