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D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:24 And it was, when Moshe finished writing the words of this Torah on a scroll, until their end ...
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Moshe is now getting close to the end of his time. He has finished his recapitulation of the Torah to the Children of Israel assembled on the plains of Moab, about to go into the Land under the leadership of Joshua; he has publicly commissioned Joshua as leader in his place; he has written everything down and reminded the priests to read it to the people every seventh year when they gather to celebrate the feast of Sukkot;HaShem has given Moshe one last thing to write and teach to the people - a poem where He foretells their disobedience and falling away from Him in the days to come. This verse starts Moshe's final instructions to the Levites, to place the writing beside the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place at the centre of the Tabernacle.
The text contains three verbs in the infinitive form. The first, , is the Pi'el infinitive of the root , to be finished - but "to finish" in the Pi'el stem - with a preposition prefix. This construction is usually translated as a temporal clause: 'when' something has happened. In this case, when Moshe had finished. The second, , is the Qal infinitive of the root , to write, is the action which was to be finished and is here translated as a participle. The third, , is yet another Qal infinitive; this time from the geminate root , to end or complete, with a 3mp suffix - the dagesh in the middle letter hiding the third letter of the root.
It is the "when he finished" and "until their end" that attracts the attention of the commentators. How does 'when' fit into chronology of the narrative, given that there are still three chapters of the book of D'varim to come? When is 'when'? It looks as if he hasn't finished yet after all! TheSforno starts by explaining that "until their end" includes the two following portions of Ha'azinu and V'zot HaBracha, by which he means that "the words of this Torah" is the entire Torah from beginning to end. Ibn Ezra disagrees; he says that this text follows "Moshe wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the L-RD's Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel" (D'varim 31:9, JPS), just as "And He charged Joshua son of Nun: 'Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you'" (v. 23, JPS) follows "The L-RD said to Moshe: The time is drawing near for you to die" (v. 14, JPS) - "all of which demonstrates that the verses of the Torah are not necessarily in chronological order." The Ramban has the final word: "At first, [Moshe] wrote the Law, then that same day he added 'this song' to the Law. Then he commanded the priests (v. 26) to put it beside the ark of the covenant and instructed them not to add to or take from it. Then G-d told him to "Get up this mountain" (32:49) and he wrote that at the end of the book as well. Thus everything took place in the order stated in the Torah."
As a mechanical detail, the word , here translated 'scroll', is almost universally rendered as 'book' by all the major English translations. However, Jeffrey Tigay points out that, "In the Bible, , used today for 'book', means any kind of written document - even one as brief as a letter, a legal document, or an inscription - whether written on a sheet or scroll of papyrus or parchment, on stone, plaster or pottery. In the present verse, a leather scroll is undoubtedly meant."
There is a certainty about things that are written. In the ritual of the Sotah, the woman suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, the words of the curse are written on a scroll and rinsed off with the water of bitterness so that she drinks them. King Josiah reformed the religious cult of Judah according to the scroll found in the Temple: "And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the L-RD, to walk after the L-RD and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant" (2 Kings 23:3, ESV). The prophet Ezekiel is given a scroll containing G-d's words, that tasted as sweet as honey, to eat so that it becomes a part of him. Jeremiah is told to dictate all the words which HaShem has spoken so that Baruch can read it in the Temple. The edict of Haman to destroy all the Jews was "written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king's signet ring" (Esther 3:12, ESV) and sent to all the governors and satraps throughout the Persian empire, "for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked" (8:8, ESV); then Mordechai "wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed it with the king's signet ring" (8:10, ESV) to send the command for the Jews' salvation. In the book of Nehemiah, the returnees from Babylon who have been oppressed commit themselves in writing: "Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests" (Nehemiah 9:38, ESV). All the signatories then affix their seals to the document to affirm its completeness.
In the times of the gospels, the Hebrew Scriptures have taken on the status of a "sacred text". They cannot be altered or changed. Even if scribal errors are found, they cannot be removed or corrected in the text, but may only be marked in the margin. The gospels themselves repeatedly use the phrase, "It is written" (e.g. Matthew 4:4 and many others) to refer to something that is fixed and unchangeable; so too do all the writers of letters, "since it is written" (e.g. 1 Peter 1:16 and many others). In the introduction to his gospel, Luke writes, "It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:3-4, ESV), as writing bring certainty and fixed status to a more flexible oral tradition. Chris Keith says that, "writing is a particularly effective means of stabilising group identity in the crisis of memory and therefore of transitioning collective memory into cultural memory."1 According to Jan Assmann, writing offers "the possibility of preservation."2
Perhaps this is why we find John writing at the end of his gospel, "Now Yeshua did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of G-d, and that by believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31, ESV). The book preserves the certainty of the original events so that they may be accurately passed on to others and to another generation. While the record is not exhaustive, it is complete - that is, finished - so that everything that is needed is there. Rav Sha'ul echoes that thought to the community in Rome: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). The written texts record the past so that we may learn from what happened in those days.
Then, just as those in Nehemiah's day affixed their seals to the written document, we find the gospel and letter writers doing the same. At the end of his gospel, John says, "This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24, ESV), offering both a personal and community assurance that the writing is complete and true, while at the end of his letter to the community in Thessalonica, Rav Sha'ul writes, "I, Sha'ul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thessalonians 3:17, ESV) - "You can recognise my writing", he says to them: "this really is me." The risen Yeshua, authenticating Himself to John in an unmistakable theophany of glory, then tells him to "Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches" (Revelation 1:11, ESV), then each church is addressed in the same way: "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write ..." (2:1, ESV).
Moshe was concerned to write down everything he had been told and shared, even if the closing events of his own life were not so comfortable for him to write. The gospel writers made sure that they had written down everything that was necessary. Each of us is writing a story in our lives, in the people we meet, the things we say and the memories that we create in and for others. We too should make sure that we have done everything, that we see the job through to its end, getting it fully and properly recorded. Your life may be the most complete and important testimony to what you believe and the G-d we follow!
1. - Chris Keith, 'The Textualisation of Mark's Gospel', in Tom Thatcher (ed.), Memory and Identity, SBL Press, 2014, 172
2. - Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies, tr. Rodney Livingstone, Stanford University Press, 2006, 69
Further Study: Job 19:23-27; Hebrews 13:7
Application: What story does your life tell when it is read by others? What story are you leaving for the next generation, to inspire and encourage them to follow the L-rd our G-d?
Comment - 13:01 02Oct16 Barri: This was wonderful, thank you. Loved the last sentence.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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