The Unreliable Narrator in the Torah

This week, we begin reading the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah. In Greek, Deuteronomy means "second law." But in Hebrew, Deuteronomy, translated as "Devarim," means "words." Both are fitting titles to a book that repeats the law in the form of three speeches from Moses to the Jews.

The first speech, which starts in this week's portion, is a historical recounting of the forty years in the desert. The second speech reviews the laws already discussed in the earlier books. The third speech is Moses' good-bye to the Israelites on the eve of his death.

Devarim is written almost entirely in second person, with Moses addressing the Israelites as "you." The emblematic "God said to____," a phrase appearing hundreds of times in the other four books, is absent in Devarim. Here, we learn history and law, taught through the lens of an entirely human mind, aware of its presence in the text. On its face, in Devarim, there is no pretense of Divine authorship.

In the Jewish tradition, some found it unacceptable to imagine a book of the holy Torah, conveying the words of a human mind. Aberbanel, a Portuguese statesmen and Jewish philosopher (1437-1508), resolved this difficulty by imagining that after Moses spoke the words of his own initiative, God commanded Moses to transcribe his speeches. However, our tradition is not unanimous on this point. At least in reference to one of its passages, the Talmud sees Devarim as substantially different from the other four books of the Torah. Both Davarim and Leviticus record a largely similar list of evils that will befall the Israelites if they stray from God and the Divine law. This list is known as the "curses."

Abaye said: According to the Tannaim, this rule [that when reading the Torah in public, portions of curses should be read by one person only] is valid only for the portion of the curses in Leviticus, but the portion of the curses in Deuteronomy may be divided between several readers. Why? The first are said in plural, and Moses said them guided by the Divine, but the latter are in singular and Moses said them on his own." (Migillah 31b)

By allowing several public readers when the curses appear in Devarim but demanding a single reader when the curses appear Leviticus, the Talmud acknowledges, incredibly, that for the curses in Devarim, "Moses said them on his own." Rav Tamir Granot, in his sermon on Devarim, explains as follows:

In the curses in Sefer Vayikra, God speaks through Moshe. Moshe is the "medium" of revelation, a mouthpiece for the Master of the universe. The words issue from his mouth, but his mouth here is nothing but a conduit for God's words. The curses in Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, are uttered by Moshe; God is mentioned here in the third person. It is not the Divine Presence that speaks here through Moshe's throat, but rather Moshe himself who is speaking about the Divine Presence.

Ultimately, Devarim is book about a man speaking about his God. Here, we see the process of the human mind speaking, not with God, not to God or for God, but about God, as he understands God to be. This is the process that has come to characterize Jewish intellectual history, starting with Devarim and moving forward, through interpretations of interpretations.

In Devarim, Moses is not the lawgiver but the law interpreter. And, as an interpreter, he tells a decidedly different story than the one we have heard before. Earlier, in the Yitro portion, in the Book of Shemot, or Exodus, Yitro, the father in law of Moses, who is traditionally thought to recognize God and witness the Torah giving at Sinai, suggests to Moses that Moses appoint judges to administer the law instead of judging all the cases himself (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

In Devarim, appointing judges is Moses' innovation (Deuteronomy 1:13) and Yitro is nowhere to be found. In changing the story in this manner, the text allows us to see the imperfection of memory, the production of the past by human motivation and the likely flaws in the transmission of cultural memory. Even Moses is an unreliable narrator. Devarim is both the Torah and its interpretation. Here, there is a change from God speaking, to speaking about God. Devarim grants permission to claim authority for the intellectual process of spiritual inquiry—a process that does not require God.

8/2/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Anna Batler
    About Anna Batler
    Anna Batler is a writer and an attorney based out of Washington, D.C. She writes about faith, feminism, spirituality, and religious identity at She also writes a weekly feminist Bible commentary at