The rational Spanish sage Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), whose views are included in most rabbinical Bibles with commentaries, stated that Moses did not write the entire Torah. Realizing that Moses was on top of the mountain alone where he died and did not descend to report what happened there even before he died, Abraham ibn Ezra states that Moses did not write all twelve passages in this chapter. He suggests that the chapter was written by Joshua who knew what occurred through prophecy.
While this seems innocuous, it is actually part of a general concept of ibn Ezra that he calls the “secret of the twelve.” He seems to contend that just as these twelve verses were not written by Moses, so too there are other passages that Moses did not write. Since most people could not or would not accept this idea, he decided to keep it a secret.
Ibn Ezra’s secret of the twelve
Ibn Ezra mentions his “secret of the twelve” in his commentary to Deuteronomy 1:2. The “secret” is not spelled out in any detail, probably because of his fear of offending those with a contrary view. It is explained by ibn Ezra’s super commentator Josef Bonfils in his Zophnat Panei’ach, which he wrote in 1370. Ibn Ezra lists six biblical passages that he felt could not have been composed by Moses.
- Deuteronomy 1:1 relates that God spoke to Moses on the “other side of the Jordan.” This implies that the writer wrote from the eastern side of the Jordan, but Moses never crossed the Jordan.
- Deuteronomy 31:9 uses the third person “and Moses wrote.” This seems to indicate that some other writer is narrating the deeds and writings of Moses.
- Genesis 12:6 recites that Abraham traveled throughout the land of Canaan. It adds “and the Canaanite was then in the land.” The statement appears to exclude the time when the passage was written when Canaanites were no longer in the land. Therefore, it must have been composed after Moses’ death, after the Canaanites had been driven from Canaan.
- Genesis 22:14 calls Mount Moriah the Mount of God. Since the mountain probably did not acquire this name until after the building of the Temple on this site, the choice of the Temple site was not made during Moses’ lifetime, and Moses did not indicate any spot chosen by God, the phrase must have been composed many years after Moses’ death.
- Deuteronomy 3:11 states that the bed of Og, king of Bashan, was nine cubits long and four cubits wide. Since the bed was probably not discovered until the city of Rabbath, where it was located, was conquered by David, it could not have been written before the Davidic era.
- Deuteronomy 27:1 reports that the Torah was written on stones and the rabbis explain that there were twelve stones. Ibn Ezra remarks, if Moses wrote all of the material that we consider the Torah today, it could not be placed on only twelve stones.
It is of course true that one could explain each of the half dozen passages mentioned by ibn Ezra and show that they do not necessarily imply that Moses did not write them. Indeed, the Talmuds address and answer these and similar problems and many later Torah scholars wrote explanations. However, ibn Ezra felt that they prove that Moses did not write the entire Torah.
In 1670, Baruch de Spinoza (1634–1677) – who was excommunicated for his beliefs – published his Tractatus Theologico-Publicus and took the expected next step. He mentions the passages that ibn Ezra noted and writes that while the “secret of the twelve” could refer to the last twelve verses of the Pentateuch, it could also refer to the twelve stone tablets, which suggest that Moses’ Torah was far smaller than the Pentateuch we have today. He contends that ibn Ezra must have noted many more passages that show that Moses did not compose them. He lists about another half dozen passages of this type and concludes:
“From what has been said, it is clearer than the sun at noonday that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived long after him.”
The story of the death of Moses raises the question, did Moses write the entire Pentateuch? The Talmud and Midrash have two opinions, yes and no. Maimonides is obscure and can be interpreted both ways.
Ibn Ezra clearly did not believe that the entire Torah was written by Moses, although he does not state his opinion openly. He mentions about a half dozen verses that indicate to him that they could not have been authored while Moses was alive. Spinoza insisted that ibn Ezra would agree with his view that more verses than he mentioned were also not composed by Moses.
A great essay about Ibn Ezra’s acceptance of biblical criticism. For an interesting take on the Documentary Hypothesis see Rabbi Joshua Berman’s newest book called Ani Maamin where he attempts to refute biblical criticism. He touches on ibn Ezra’s “secret of the twelve” but does not try to refute it. Nonetheless, while I prefer your take, I think you will enjoy the book as much as me.
Thanks for the compliment. Josh is a friend of mine. He is very smart. I am in the middle of reading his book. He has some novel ideas worth considering. I will review the book and praise it after I fish reading it.