By Israel Drazin


(I changed the number of the Unusual Interpretations. The number 44 indicates that this is the 44th portion of the 54 biblical portions.)


We will look at some things in this discussion on the portion Devarim that make us realize that what we think we know may not be so. We will also touch upon the idea presented by biblical critics[1] that the book of Deuteronomy was found and perhaps even composed during the reign of Judean King Josiah.[2]


Corrupted names of books

The Hebrew names used today for the books of the Pentateuch[3], as well as those for the weekly portions, are mostly the significant opening word of the book or portion. However the names of two of the five books, Bamidbar and Devarim, are not words found in the portion. The fourth book opens with the word Bemidbar, “in the desert of,” but rabbis corrupted the word to Bamidbar, “in the desert.” This is similar to their corruption of Midrash to Medrish. Both mean the same, but Medrish has a Yiddish sound. We have no idea why they called the book Bamidbar. The fifth book begins eileh hadevarim, “these are the words”; so the books name should either be these two words, or if we drop the somewhat insignificant eileh, “these are,” it should be Hadevarim, but people dropped the ha, “the” and called it Devarim, “words.”

These are the modern names, but ancient Jews had other names for the five books of Moses, names that reflected what they considered the primary content of each book. Deuteronomy was called “Mishneh Torah,” literally “repetition of the law,” a phrase in 17:18. The phrase was taken out of context and misunderstood by the Greek translators of the Septuagint who thought it referred to the entire Torah or the entire book of Devarim, and named the book Deuteronomy, “second law.” Actually, 17:14-20 contains the laws that apply to kings and verse 18 states that the law of 17:14-20, should be copied and given to the king, so he can read it frequently and “learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law.”


More on Medrish

Many rabbis seem to think it is more religious to say Medrish in their sermons and class discussions since their teachers used it, and say, “The Medrish says.” They mislead their audiences in two ways: into believing that the name of the various books is Medrish and not Midrash and into thinking that the teaching they are quoting is in all books of Midrashim[4] and is the sole true teaching of Judaism. There are more than a dozen Midrashim and even when several address the same subject or story, each Midrash tells it in a different way. Rabbis should identify which Midrash they are referring to and, preferably, also reveal how other Midrashim discuss the subject.


The paradigm midrash

 A perfect example of a midrash not being the plain meaning of the biblical passage is Rashi’s comment on Exodus 21:1. He wrote that the addition of the Hebrew letter vav, “and,[5] to introduce the first sentence of the portion Mishpatim teaches that just as the Ten Commandments mentioned in the prior portion were revealed by God at Mount Sinai, so were the civil laws contained in Mishpatim. Everyone would agree that this is a fine sermon but it fails to recognize that virtually all the 54 biblical portions begin with a vav: only eleven of the fifty-four do not, six in the fifth book Devarim.

Arnold Ehrlich focuses on the missing vav in Devarim and suggests that its absence shows that the first two sentences of Devarim belong to the end of the book Numbers or were a late addition after Devarim was completed. He supposes that Devarim actually begins with verse 3, which starts with a vav, “And it happened in the fortieth year….”



 The book Devarim contains many retellings of events and laws contained in the prior four books of the Pentateuch and there are always differences between the two versions. An example is the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. Abraham ibn Ezra explains in his commentary to Exodus 20:1 that it is the biblical style to change the story or law when it is repeated and the alteration gives us a deeper insight into the event or law.

In this portion, 1:22 states that the Israelites initiated the idea that they should spy out Canaan before invading it, while Numbers 13:2 has God command the reconnoiter. Ibn Ezra does not comment on 1:22 but would probably say that Deuteronomy reveals that the idea was initiated by the people and Numbers informs that God agreed.

Ehrlich does not accept ibn Ezra’s approach here. He[6] states that Numbers was written at an early period in Israelite history when Israelites believed that God could make a mistake. However, much later when Deuteronomy was composed, the Judeans felt that God, who understands human nature, would not err and advise the Israelites to spy out the land; therefore they changed the facts to place the blame on the Israelites.

Another apparent contradiction is: 1:37.[7] Moses state that God punished him and did not allow him to enter Canaan “because of you (Israelites),” while Numbers 20:12 reports that Moses was punished because of his own act, he did not sanctify God before the Israelites. Ibn Ezra would probably see no contradiction. However, Ehrlich states that just as the Jewish attitude about God changed and the people stopped thinking that God could do wrong, they also began to think that the Israelite ancestors could do no wrong. So while Numbers describes Moses acting improperly, Deuteronomy exempts him and reproaches the Israelites.[8]


Material in Deuteronomy that is post-Moses

We saw that Ehrlich felt that Deuteronomy was composed long after Moses’ death. One proof is 2:12 that states that Israel had disposed the land of its inhabitants, a description of what occurred years after Moses’ demise. Rashi notes the difficulty and explains that the verse is stating that God gave the Israelites the power to do so in the future. Rashi’s view seems reasonable because we know that the Israelites never succeeded in possessing the entire land of Canaan, as anyone writing during a later period would know. The verse is simply stating what had been stated previously with other words: I, God, will drive out the inhabitants from the land.[9]



We have seen that the Bible has many exaggerated statements. Moses statement to the Israelites in 1:10 that they now number as much “as the stars of heaven” is another example.


[1] In modern times by De Wette in 1805; although the ancients, including the Talmudic rabbis, were also sensitive to the problem of texts that appear to have been composed after Moses’ death.

[2] Josiah lived between 649 and 609 BCE. His story and the finding of a book of the Torah is contained in II Kings 22-23 and II Chronicles 34-35.

[3] Greek meaning “five books” of Moses.

[4] Plural of Midrash.

[5] Also meaning “but,” “because,” and the like.

[6] He accepted the ideas of the biblical critics who say that the Bible was not divinely revealed and was composed at different times post-Moses.

[7] As well as 3:26 and 4:21.

[8][8] Anyone reading the early books of the Torah will see that the Israelite patriarchs made many mistakes. In fact, none were blameless. However, as Ehrlich points out, later Judaism preferred to see the Israelite ancestors as being beyond error. Thus, for example, the Babylonian Talmud, 55b and 56a, state that despite what the Bible seems to say, Reuben never had sex with his stepmother, and Eli’s children, Samuel’s children, King David, and King Solomon did no wrong. Some Bible translators also changed the text to present an improved portrayal of Israelite ancestors. Targum Onkelos did if over a hundred times in the Genesis translation. See my introduction to Onkelos on the Torah.

[9] Why was this prophecy never achieved? Tosaphot on Yevamot 50a notes that virtually all biblical prophecies never materialized and explains that a prophecy is not what will be but what should be.