The Book of Deuteronomy, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) which we begin reading this week, is written in a different style than the earlier biblical books – not from the perspective of a divine narrator, but from the perspective of a human being, Moses. At the same time, this book is included in the Torah, in which every word and every letter is traditionally believed to have been revealed by God. Over time, traditional commentators and academic scholars have offered various views on the provenance and authorship of Deuteronomy, shaping our understanding of the literary genre to which this book belongs, and its contemporary relevance.
The book of Deuteronomy is traditionally regarded as having the same divine provenance as the other four books of Moses. The Talmudic rabbis teach that anyone who denies the divinity of any word of the Torah is regarded as a heretic and has no share in the World to Come, “even if he asserts that the whole Torah is from Heaven, except a particular verse, which he maintains was uttered not by God but by Moses himself” (Sanhedrin 99a). In contrast, academic scholars of the Bible maintain that the book of Deuteronomy is the product of a group of revolutionary Jewish sages who were active in the kingdom of Judea prior to and following the destruction of the First Temple, when the book reached its final form. The prevailing academic theory identifies the book of Deuteronomy with the scroll discovered by the priest Hilkiyah during a major renovation of the Temple in the reign of King Josiah in the seventh century BCE, as recounted in II Kings 22. Scholars argue that this text was composed in the context of religious reforms advanced by King Josiah, including the prohibition on religious worship outside the Temple, which appears only in Deuteronomy and not in the preceding biblical books. The Judean monarchy, in an effort to centralize religious worship in the Jerusalem Temple, articulated its theology in the form of a lengthy address delivered by Moses to the Israelites.
Yet we recognize that our portion this week states: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan… in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month”(1:1-3). Deuteronomy purports to have been authored by Moses himself – this is the assumption the book asks its readers to accept when they begin reading. Most of the book is written in the first person and is narrated from Moses’s perspective through his own emotional experience of struggle, anxiety, and triumph. Today we might refer to it as a memoir, in which the author shapes his or her own experiences into a literary work guided by aesthetic considerations and often more faithful to the author’s subjective, emotional experience rather than to the reality of what “actually” happened.
There are many seeming discrepancies between the earlier books of the Bible and Deuteronomy which indicate that the latter is more memoir than history. If we are to regard the book of Deuteronomy as a memoir of sorts, we must recognize that it is different from any other memoir in the sense that Moses’ life is also the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the forging of the Jewish nation, and the giving of the Torah, as narrated in the previous biblical books. As such, Deuteronomy is not just Moses’s artistic rendering of his own life experiences; it is also a rewriting of the previous biblical books from Moses’ perspective. It is both part of the Bible and the earliest commentary on the Bible, in which an individual reflects on and interprets Torah in light of his own experience.
In our own day and age, it has become very popular for everyone to tell their own version of their life story. Not only are memoirs a popular literary genre, but platforms such as Facebook and Instagram encourage individuals to “curate” their experiences and accomplishments to share with a wider audience. The book of Deuteronomy—at once Moses’ memoir and his contribution to Torah—is a reminder that if we live our lives in accordance with Jewish tradition, then the story of our lives is not just our own personal memoir; it is also part of the next chapter in the unfolding of the story of the Jewish people.