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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The Spiritual Life as Unfinished Business

Bible texts: The First Five Books of the Bible  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

In Judaism, the Torah is the inner core of the Bible, the canon within the canon. Christians know the Torah as the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These books contain a lot of legal material. But the Torah is much more than a legal code. It is essentially a narrative. It tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through 40 years of nomadic life in the Sinai, to its arrival at its destination, the land of Canaan, which is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.

It is, in one sense, a national epic. It provides the foundation story for Israel. It details how Israel came to be and the essentials of its identity.

But there is a peculiar twist to this story. It recounts a journey. But when we come to the last chapters of Deuteronomy, Israel has not yet finished its journey.

Deuteronomy ends with Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. It is poised to cross over and take up residency in the Promised Land. Israel, however, has not yet done so.  Even Moses at the end of Deuteronomy gazes at the land from a distance. He dies outside the land.

One has to read on into the book of Joshua to read how Israel crosses the river and takes up occupation of the land that God had promised. If one reads further on into the historical books, one will finally reach the story of the capture of Jerusalem, the construction of the temple, and the Solomonic empire. Here one reaches what we might consider the apex of Israel’s history. The historical books form part of the Hebrew Bible, but they are not included in the Torah proper.

Now this is odd, if we compare the Torah with another epic of national origins and identity, the Roman story narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid, too, is a story of a journey. Aeneas travels from fallen Troy to Latium in Italy, where his descendants build Rome.

 The epic ends on a similar unfinished note. Aeneas kills Turnus, but the city is not yet founded. Nonetheless the epic still celebrates the greatness and glory of Rome at its height. In Book Six, Aeneas visits Hades, where he is given a vision of the glorious future of Rome. That future culminates in the greatness of the empire of Augustus Caesar. In that sense the epic ends on a note of triumph.

The Torah, on the other hand, ends with an uncompleted journey. It, too, looks ahead to a conclusion of the journey, but the conclusion is not included in the Torah proper. This means the core text of Judaism is a story of unfinished business.

This raises an important question. Why did the scholars who created the Hebrew canon decide to exclude Joshua from the Torah?

I suspect the answer is that those scholars sensed, even if only in their guts, that the conclusion of Israel’s journey is not the historical possession of Canaan under Joshua and the later Solomonic empire. The fulfillment of the promise still lies in the future.

Whether Israel lives in it own land or lives in other peoples’ lands as a diaspora, its life is fundamentally a life of unfinished business. What governs that life is the narrative of the journey. The Torah’s stories, principles, and laws provide the divine wisdom for a people whose life is always a spiritual journey. That journey will remain uncompleted until that glorious day of the Lord when the kingdom of God comes finally and definitively.

The Christian Application

Now this understanding of the Torah holds great significance for Christians as well. When Christian writers on the spiritual life write about that life, they often resort to the metaphor of a journey. A few examples: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical Life of Moses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe all are drawing upon the paradigm of the Exodus as narrated in the Torah.

The Christian understanding of the journey begins with the crossing of the Christian Red Sea in baptism. It continues as a wandering through the wilderness of the world. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews will draw upon the language of strangers and exiles wandering on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), as will the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:11). That journey brings both divine blessings and many false turns, both joy and sorrows. It ends with death, which Christians have traditionally celebrated as a crossing of the Jordan.

So for Christians, too, the spiritual life remains a journey of unfinished business. The journey does not reach its final destination until after death when we arrive in God’s perfect Sabbath rest, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. Hope, therefore, remains a fundamental virtue of the Christian life.

Now this has significance for the conduct of Christian evangelism. One popular way of preaching the good news is to set before unbelievers the great blessings they will gain by placing their trust in Christ. Traditionally those include love, joy, peace, healing, and sometimes very concrete material blessings such as prosperity and worldly success. If we base evangelism on these promises, what do we do when inevitably new believers encounter turmoil, serious illnesses and reverses, hostility, and even persecution or worse in their Christian lives?

Such forms of evangelism forget that we are inviting others into a life with Christ that will include both blessing and trials,  both happiness and sorrows, both fulfillment and unfulfillment. What we are inviting people into is a journey, a journey of discipleship. And that journey will not reach its destination in this life. We remain spiritual nomads all of our lives.

But that does not mean the journey is not worth taking. Rather our spiritual lives remain unfinished business until that day when we meet the Lord face to face and he invites us into the joy of our spiritual homeland at last. In the meantime the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible gives us guidance for making the journey with integrity.

Note: I do not want to give the impression that this understanding of the Jewish Torah is an original one with me. I first encountered it in James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). I recommend it if you wish to explore the thought deeper.