Why Does the Torah End with Deuteronomy?

Shouldn’t the book of Joshua be included?

A Torah scroll in the old Glockengasse Synagogue of Koln, Germany. Photo by Willy Horsch. Used under Creative Commons license.

Many peoples of the world have what scholars call a foundation myth. This is the story which recounts their origins as a distinct ethnic/cultural group. It may also express what they view as their purpose and destiny.

A sophisticated example is Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. In this monumental poem Virgil narrates the origins of the Romans as refugees from a burning Troy. It also foresees their destiny to rule the world.

On a first read, one might be inclined to see the Torah as Israel’s foundation myth. The Torah (I am using its most limited meaning) is the name given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are also known as the Books of Moses or as the Pentateuch.

The Torah is a mixture of both narrative and legal material. In its narrative sections, it tells the story of Israel’s origins, beginning with Abraham’s journeys and culminating in the great national journey of the Exodus.

In the Torah’s telling of that Exodus journey, Israel as a people leave their bondage in Egypt under Moses’ leadership and wander through the Sinai desert for 40 years. As a narrative it can hold its own with Aeneas’ wanderings from Troy to Italy in terms of its engaging story telling.

The Torah, however, is more than a narrative. It also prescribes the laws and worship practices that will give Israel its distinctive identity and will regulate its communal and worship life. In that respect, it’s like a constitution for the nation of Israel. Because of its story and its laws, the Torah has always been central to Jewish life. It holds a pre-eminent place in the Hebrew Bible.

The Torah breaks with the mold

But there is one odd feature about the Torah as a foundation myth. As a collection, it ends with the book of Deuteronomy. At the end of Deuteronomy, Israel stands poised to cross over the Jordan River and take possession of the land of Canaan. This is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. But–­and this is the surprising but­–Israel has not yet done so. Torah ends on a note of incompletion.

I say it’s odd because the fuller Exodus narrative does have a completion. Israel does cross over the Jordan and takes up possession of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. That is the story recounted in the Book of Joshua.

But the odd thing is that the compilers who put together the canon of the Hebrew Bible excluded the Book of Joshua from the Torah proper. We don’t expect that in a normal foundation myth, where the completion of the journey of origin and the possession of a land identified with the story’s particular ethnic group is an essential part of the myth. The story gives the rationale for why a particular people occupies the land they do.

So why does Israel’s foundation story not conform to the pattern? That’s the question I find myself asking. Why did the editors of the Torah decide to end Torah with Deuteronomy instead of Joshua?

I find the most illuminating answer to that question in a book I read many years ago. It is James A. Sanders’ Torah and Canon. In it he discusses the development of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. He points out that the canon as it came finally and definitively to be set includes this odd fact that the Torah ends with Deuteronomy.

He finds scattered evidence in the Old Testament that that may not have been the case in earlier eras of Israel’s history. Before the Babylonian exile, early versions of the Torah seem to have included the Book of Joshua. Other early versions may also have posited that the Exodus journey did not really end until David captured the city of Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple. Either ending would have given the Exodus story its triumphant ending.

But the canon of the Hebrew Bible rejects such a triumphalist conclusion. It ends the Torah with Deuteronomy. In the last chapters of Deuteronomy Israel is poised to complete its journey but has actually not yet done so.

Sanders believes the canonical version of the Torah received its final formation during the Babylonian exile or in the years afterwards. One decisive thing had changed in that period of Israel’s life. Israel had been dispossessed of its land, its capital, and its temple. Jews were living in a dispersion around the Near East and in the Mediterranean. The diaspora had begun. It has largely continued to be the reality of Jewish life from that point on, although the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 has launched a major reversal of that reality.

Establishing the perennial relevance of the Torah

 How could the foundation myth of Israel that ended with the conquest of the land speak to Jews in diaspora? Had it not been discredited by the facts of history? Could not therefore its laws also be discarded as irrelevant to the life that Jews lived in diaspora? That seems the logical conclusion.

But what if the Torah ends with Deuteronomy? In a case, Torah ends with Israel still outside its land, still on its journey. The laws and the stories of the Torah still apply to a people who have not yet arrived at their destination.

They are something that a people in diaspora can relate to. The provisions of the Torah are then not historically limited. They gain a perennial relevance to generations upon generations of Israelites into the future.* Says Sanders: Through the Torah, Israel passed from a nation in destitution to a religious community in dispersion that could never be destroyed.**

Through the constitution of the Torah, the stories and the laws of ancient Israel continue to shape the identity of Jews and govern their behavior. Continues Sanders commenting on Ezekiel 33:10:

In Babylonia after the news had arrived in 587 B.C. that Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple been destroyed, some elders came to the prophet Ezekiel and asked him the pertinent question: “ ‘ Ek nihyeh?’ How shall we live?” In now what does our existence obtain? What now is our identity?

 The answer finally came in the form of the Pentateuch and the laws which JEDP had inserted within it. And that was when we knew that our true identity, the Torah par excellence, included the conquest neither of Canaan (Joshua) nor of Jerusalem (David) but that Sinai, which we never possessed, was that which we would never lose.***

The Christian inheritance from the Jewish Torah

This understanding of the boundaries of Torah is part of the heritage that Christians have inherited from our Jewish origins. For this understanding of Jewish life as an uncompleted pilgrimage is transformed by Christian spiritual writers into an understanding of the Christian life as an uncompleted pilgrimage in this life. This is one of the themes of the book of 1 Peter in the New Testament.

The Christian journey does not end until we too pass over the spiritual Jordan of death to enter into the true promised land, the Kingdom of God that lies in the future. And so, gathered as a people around the Bible, our Christian Torah book, we sing:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through the barren land;

I am weak, but Thou are mighty;

Hold me with Thy powerful hand;

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,

Feed me till I want no more,

Feed me till I want no more.****

______________

* They do, however, need to be adapted to the changing circumstances of Jewish life. That is the task of the oral Torah that culminates in the Talmud.

** James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. Page 51.

*** Sanders, Page 53.

**** Welsh revival hymn by William Williams, 1745

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2 thoughts on “Why Does the Torah End with Deuteronomy?

  1. Gordon …great to see you in print, every now and then. This way of thinking is a far cry from Zionism, which basically postulates that the Holy Land is meant to not only be possessed, but, actually lived in by the faithful remnant. Several steps in thinking beyond the death will bring completion theory. One is a very concrete assertion of what God has done, and is doing, in history and thus a possession of the land theory…the other has no basis for any earthly claim to the land. Very different, indeed. Shalom, Richard

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