Did God write Deuteronomy?[1]


Bible critics, as is well known, insist that neither God nor Moses wrote Deuteronomy. Many of them contend that the essence of the book originated during the first Temple period in the reign of King Josiah (640–609 B.C.E.) and that it was organized into its final form during the early second Temple period by Ezra the Scribe.



1. What are the “traditional” views of the rabbis and Bible sages concerning the author of Deuteronomy?

2. If we believe that Moses wrote the book without a divine command, is it still holy?


Different views on the authorship of Deuteronomy

Contrary to the common belief that the entire Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses, traditional scholars have different answers to this question.



The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 31b, notes that both the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain lists of curses that will plague the Israelites if they fail to observe God’s commands, but the former addresses the Israelites in the plural, while the latter uses the singular. The Talmud concludes that God dictated the former to Moses, while Moses uttered the latter on his own initiative.

The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 88b, also recognized that Moses composed the curses in Deuteronomy. The Talmud contrasted Moses’s human articulation with the better composition by God and concludes that God is different than humans. God blessed the Israelites with twenty-two letters and cursed them with eight. Moses reversed the numbers. He blessed them with eight and cursed them with twenty-two.[2]



The thirteenth century mystical book Zohar to Vaethanan agrees, “Deuteronomy was said by Moses himself.” It is “the oral law,” since it originated with Moses who was explaining the first four books.



Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague (around 1512–1609), in his Tipheret Yisrael, also admits that Deuteronomy contains Moses’ opinions.


Abraham ibn Ezra

The rational Bible commentator Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), believed that some parts of Scripture could not have been written by Moses because the events occurred after his death. He wrote that the post-Moses author(s) composed what they wrote with “divine prophecy.”[3]

Ibn Ezra does not explicitly address the issue of the origin of Deuteronomy as a whole. He writes in his commentary to the Ten Commandments that the Exodus version was the original divine version of the Decalogue and the text in Deuteronomy, which differs in many respects from Exodus and has additions, is Moses’ “explanation” of the Decalogue. This could suggest that Moses wrote not only the Decalogue and the other sections that ibn Ezra specifically identifies, but also more of Deuteronomy.



The mystic Nachmanides (1195–1270) had a somewhat similar idea. In his commentary to the beginning of Deuteronomy, Nachmanides divides the book of Deuteronomy into three parts. The first contains words of reproof; the end has blessings, curses, and a song; while the middle and largest section is a recapitulation and elaboration of the statutes and ordinances. Nachmanides states that when Moses is instructing the Israelites with new previously unmentioned laws, he is stating words as commanded by God. However, when he repeats and explains laws, or otherwise gives his opinion on matters, he is presenting his own view. Thus, he accepts the notion that at least the greater part of Deuteronomy contains Moses’ own vision of Israelite history and the laws in the prior four Pentateuch volumes. Nachmanides adds a new notion: that Moses had no intention of recording his explanations until God told him to write them in Deuteronomy.

As C. B. Chavel translates the words of Nachmanides: “Moses wished to explain the Torah to them [the Israelites]. This is said to inform us that Moses saw fit to do so although God had not commanded him thereon [but afterwards when He commanded him to write down the entire Torah, God Himself said all these words that were originally spoken by Moses; and Moses wrote them as He commanded. Hence there is no difference between the first four books of the Torah and the fifth book, Deuteronomy, as all are equally the word of God].”


Isaac Caro

Isaac ben Joseph Caro, a Spanish scholar who was expelled from Spain in 1492, addressed this question in his book Toledot Yitzhak. He points out that Mishnah Sanhedrin and the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a, seem to contradict the view that Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy, or at least parts of it on his own initiative. He explains that, despite appearances, these sources do not contradict the idea that Moses wrote his own thoughts.

The Mishnah states: “The following have no portion [in the world to come]….He who maintains that…the Torah was not divinely revealed.” The Talmud elaborates: “And even if he asserts that the entire Torah is from heaven, except for a particular verse, which [he insists] was not uttered by God but by Moses [he is deprived of the world to come].”

Caro answers the seeming inconsistency between this talmudic statement and the opinions that we previously quoted by saying that the position in Sanhedrin only applies to the first four Pentateuch books. But, he continues, Deuteronomy, as Nachmanides states, contains Moses’ thoughts, which after Moses had expressed them, God told Moses to record in the Torah.


Don Isaac Abarbanel

Caro’s contemporary Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) disagreed. He contended that every word of the Torah, including Deuteronomy, “comes from the mouth of the Almighty: God commanded that it be written word for word.”



There are different answers to the question: did God or Moses write the book of Deuteronomy? The points of view differ widely, from one extreme to another, with a spectrum of opinions in between. What must be remembered, however, is that even if we assume that parts or all of Deuteronomy was composed by Moses without a divine command, this does not detract from its sanctity. For the wisdom of the Torah was inspired by God. Besides, even the rabbis who felt that Moses wrote his own ideas in Deuteronomy stated that he was explaining what God had commanded.



[1] This is a version of what I wrote in my book “A rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary” published by Urim Publications.

[2] There are many more differences between Deuteronomy and the first four books of the Pentateuch as I discuss in my recent book “Mysteries of Judaism.”

[3] Critics have understood for a long time that ibn Ezra was a “radical.” Some claim that he only hints at his radical views, criticizes the radical ideas of others but reports them at great length because he secretly believed them and wanted to publicize them, and adds statements such as “but it was done with divine prophecy,” even though he did not believe it, to deceive his general readership and protect himself from criticism and censor.