By Israel Drazin 


We will look at an oft-used metaphor and some apparent contradictions between Deuteronomy and the prior biblical books. The Talmuds, Midrashim, and classical Jewish commentators note the apparent contradictions, discuss them, and show why, in their opinion, they are not contradictions. Ibn Ezra, for example, wrote that the seeming contradictions reflect a characteristic biblical style: whenever the Bible repeats an event or law, it adds to it or narrates it differently to include a deeper perspective. Others recognized that there are differences. Rabbi Tzadok wrote that Deuteronomy is Moses’ view of the Torah: he developed innovations that would fit the new needs of the Israelites as they leave their poor nomadic life and begin urban communities. He felt that Deuteronomy was the first Oral Torah. Arnold Ehrlich argued that Deuteronomy wasn’t composed until the seventh century BCE and was based on traditions that were different than those in Genesis through Numbers.


Finger of God

This is, of course, a metaphor and shouldn’t be taken literally; God has no hands or fingers. What is the difference between “hand” and “finger of God”? Ehrlich explains in Exodus 8:15 that “hand” indicates usual work, while “finger” suggests a more delicate and precise process. It is used to describe the writing of the two tablets of the Decalogue in Exodus 31:18.


More contradictions?

         What was done with golden calf dust?

Deuteronomy 9:21 states that when Moses discovered Israelites worshipping a golden calf, he burnt it, beat it into pieces, grinded it very small, “and I cast its dust into the brook that descended from the mountain.” But Exodus 32:20 says that Moses mixed the dust “in water and made Israelites drink it.” It is possible that Moses scattered the dust in the brook as in Deuteronomy and forced Israelites to drink from the book as in Exodus.[1]

Why did Moses compel Israelites to drink the dust of the golden calf? The Talmud[2] suggests this was an “ordeal to reveal truth,” similar to the test of the wandering wife, the Sotah.[3] This suggestion is problematical, but can be resolved: Deuteronomy doesn’t indicate that the water revealed guilty parties, and Sotah water was swept up from a “holy” place, the tabernacle floor, while ashes of an idol are used here.[4] How can the Talmud compare the two? The absence in the Bible of a revelation of guilty people is not unique; there are many biblical episodes where the end is left to the reader’s imagination. In regard to “holy” vs. “idol” dust, one could argue: dust is dust.

The Sotah is a woman suspected of having adulterous sex. Her husband warns her not to see the alleged adulterer again. Witnesses testify that despite the warning, she saw the man, but no witnesses saw her having sex with him. She undergoes “a trial by ordeal” with specially prepared water made from the dust of the tabernacle floor. If she becomes ill, this proves her guilt. The Talmud states that the practice of testing the Sotah ceased when the land of Israel was filled with adulterous women.[5]

What does this mean? If the Sotah procedure works, shouldn’t it be especially used when adultery increases? This is clearly a nuanced statement. Ancient people in many cultures believed that when humans couldn’t determine guilt, they could have God inform them whether the person is guilty. There were instances where people tossed suspected guilty parties over a cliff; if she lived, God was saying she was innocent. However, over time, people realized that this was superstition and stopped the practice. The Talmud is saying, women no longer feared the Sotah water and engaged in adultery, and the procedure was discontinued because it had no effect on women.


                        When were the Levites given a tabernacle function?

Deuteronomy 10:6-9 report when Aaron, Moses’ brother, died and says “at that time, the Lord separated the tribe of Levi to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him, and to bless in his name, until today.” This seems to say that the tribe of Levy wasn’t assigned the role as tabernacle functionaries until the end of the forty year desert travel. However, Exodus 32:26 indicates they were appointed to the task forty years earlier immediately after the episode of the worship of the golden calf. Rashi explains that “at that time” in verse 8 does not refer to the time of Aaron’s death, verse 6, but the event mentioned in verse 1, the worship of the golden calf.

Rashi’s view seems reasonable since both verses 1 and 8 use ba’eit hahi, “at that time.” However, Ehrlich disagrees and insists the Levites were allocated the duty after Aaron’s demise. He imagines that Korach’s claim that Moses used nepotism when he made his brother’s family priests was right.[6] Moses realized this, but out of respect for Aaron’s feelings, he waited until after Aaron’s death to rectify the situation by giving Korach’s tribe Levy the tabernacle work.

Where did the Israelites travel?

The Torah’s description of Israelite travels during the forty year desert wanderings has many difficulties and we are unable to know where or when they traveled. One of the difficulties is that names in the itinerary in Deuteronomy 10 are markedly different than Numbers 33. Similarly, 10:4 states that Aaron died in Moseirah but Numbers 20:25-28 states he died in Har Hahor. Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that Scripture frequently gives more than one name to a place.[7] While he doesn’t state it here, the Torah also uses different names for the same person and will on occasions spell names differently.[8] Not surprisingly, Ehrlich disagrees and claims there are two different traditions reflected in the two books.

[1] Sefer Devarim, Mossad HaRav Kook.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 44a.

[3] In Numbers 5:11ff.

[4] Devarim, Olam Hatanakh.

[5] The various laws of the Sotah are contained in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah.

[6] Numbers 16.

[7] For example, Sinai is also called Horeb. Other commentators offer other solutions.

[8] Arguably, this is similar to calling a person with different names at different time, such as Joseph, Joe, Joey, Yose, and the like. An example of different names is Yonatan and Yehonatan for King Saul’s son. An example of different spellings is: Kings and Chronicles spell King David’s name differently; the latter adds a yud to his name. Also Horeb sometimes has a vav and at other times the letter is missing.