Mosaic Rhetoric: The Lawgiver's Last Will to the Children of Israel
By Brandon Marlon, Special Contributor
On the brink of the grave, and at the very borders of the Holy Land, the Hebrew lawgiver and prophet Moses delivers a series of discourses as the sun sets upon his life and leadership. Embodying the roles of patriot, shepherd, politician, statesman, and philosopher, Moses has spent most of his lifetime serving the wellbeing of his people, Israel. Previously, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the new nation voiced a polyphonic consent to the Torah, an intention more easily declared than carried out. Rebellious and stiff-necked, the Israelites have proven challenging for Moses. Yet his has been a labour of love, and with this deep-seated concern for its survival and success does Moses adjure the people with heartfelt, thoughtful homilies. Here in these verses, by turns hortatory and admonitory, Moses lays the groundwork for his nation's prosperity.
The central subject of the deliberative discourse section analyzed here is the two ways forward laid out by Moses: on the one hand, life, good, and blessings; on the other, death, evil, and curses. These polysemic options are additionally represented as cosmos versus chaos. Cosmos represents "order, law, [and] unity"; chaos refers to what is "desolate and void" (Hertz 882). Also imbedded in Moses' instruction is the tripartite portrayal of the relationship between Israel and the deity, in ascending stages: loving God, obeying God, and cleaving to God. This concept includes the notion of divinity as a noumenal phenomenon, and the principle that divine punishment for disobedience is temporary and always subject to an overriding repentance.
The occasion for the discourse is the last day of the prophet's life, in the eleventh month of the fortieth year of wandering in the Sinai desert, circa 1250 B.C.E. At a hundred and twenty years old, Moses has been informed by God that his time is coming to an end, despite his retention of health and wits. He will not lead the people into the Promised Land but will remain east of the Jordan River. In the land of Moab, within the Abarim mountain range, along its northern section called Pisgah, and atop its highest peak Mount Nebo, Moses will die after relinquishing authority to Joshua. The discourses and their imperatives serve as Yahweh's last task for His loyal servant.
The purpose of the discourse in this section of Deuteronomy-the Torah portion Nitzavim ('You Are Standing')-is to act as a final reminder for the people of the two ways originally averred in the earlier portion Re'eh ('Behold'): "Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse" (Deuteronomy 11:26). In essence, Moses is declaring that all decisions in a human being's life fall into one category or the other, which in rhetorical terms equates to both definition through division and relationship through contradictions. By postulating these mutually-exclusive paths, Moses is teaching of a moral universe, one in which a human being remains their own master in possession of free will. With free agency, however, comes the burden of personal responsibility: if the reins of conduct are grasped by the individual, then the individual must be held accountable. Since Judaism is not satisfied with merely asking the right questions, Moses supplies the people with the right decision, in no uncertain terms. Whether or not they follow this decision, as individuals and as a people, is left up to them, yet all choices come with ineluctable consequences and Moses goes on to describe these in stark terms, denying them any excuses going forward. He expounds on both divine judgment and divine blessing, with a view toward inclining Israel to pursue the proper conduct and thereby receive the attendant benefits.
The audience is especially germane to the discourse, and includes the twelve tribes of Israel as well as converts and strangers in their midst. Assembled witnesses, however, do not encompass the entire audience, as Moses himself is careful to point out: "But not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing with us here today before the Lord, our God, and with those who are not here with us, this day" (29:13-14). The audience, therefore, is all Israel, present and future- an inclusive audience, to be sure. The expansiveness of the intended audience is a reflection of the meaningfulness and timelessness of the discourse.
With his introduction having appeared much earlier at the beginning of his first discourse in Deuteronomy, a general outline of this section of his third discourse consists of the following:
i. Exposition of the nature and constituents of the present assembly of the people, a covenantal event between Yahweh and Israel, to endure the ages (Chap. 29:9-14)
ii. Exposition of the admonition against idolatry, and elaboration on the curse, the lesser of the two ways, whose negative repercussions will last generations (Chap. 29:15-27)
iii. Exposition of Israel's change of heart in exile, and elaboration on the blessing, the greater of the two ways, whose benefits are enduring (Chap. 29:28 to Chap. 30:10)
iv. Exposition on the accessibility of the Torah (Chap. 30:11-14)
Conclusion, with a final reminder of the two ways, final warning against disobedience, and command to choose life and love God, for Israel's own survival
In Chapter 29:9-15, Moses begins his rational appeal with the common topic of definition, identifying the significance of the present event, and its participants. The Israelites and those strangers among them are assembled for the reason of covenantal reaffirmation. A comparison of similarity is then made between this oath and that of the patriarchs, creating a sequent parallel in the minds of the people. He returns to a comparison of similarity when describing Israel's predicted punishment for transgressions: "It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage" (29:22).
From the initial appeal to reason, Moses switches to an emotional appeal in Chapter 29:16-27, evoking the garish imagery of pagan nations, mentioning their "repugnant idols", and likening the straying Israelite to "a root that produces hemlock and wormwood" (29:17). His vivid narration of God's fury and penalties against the land and people, including being uprooted and exiled from the Promised Land, conjure a fearful scenario spanning generations: "Your descendants, who will rise after you [...] will say [...]: Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land!" (29:21-22). There is also the relationship of cause and effect in evidence here, in that it will be the sins of the people causing the outcomes of plague, disease, and dispersion.
Chapter 30:1-3 resumes the rational appeal and once again illustrates the relationship of cause and effect: "and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul [...] then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you" (30:2-3). This is both a statement of reason and empowerment, for it posits Israel itself as the determining factor in its own destiny. In 30:4-7,pathos reappears as Moses stimulates the feelings of the people when referring to divine compassion: "Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and [...] will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed [...] and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers" (30:4-5). In culminating his deliberative emphasis on the worthy and advantageous course, the cosmic way of life, good, and blessing, Moses expounds on the benefits of clinging to the Torah: "And the Lord, your God, will place all these curses on your enemies and [...] will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil" (30:7, 9).
The appeal to reason dominates the remainder of the peroration. Chapter 30:9-15, 17-18, & 20 is largely an iteration of the preceding comparison with the revered Hebrew ancestors and the relationship of cause and effect in the obedience-reward/disobedience-punishment dynamic, but it also introduces the common topic of relationship through contraries with regards to the Torah and its intended domain: "It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it [...] that we can fulfill it?' Nor is it beyond the sea [...] Rather, this thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it" (30:12-14). Here Moses asseverates that the Law applies to the worldly realm, and thus there are no excuses for the people to avoid its regulations which have been clearly set out and given to them in writing, in combination with oral explanation. The relationship of antecedent-consequence appears as well, when Moses warns Israel collectively that "if your heart deviates and you do not listen, and you will be drawn astray, and you will prostrate yourself to other deities and serve them [...] you will surely perish, and [...] not live long days on the land" (30:17-18). With undertones of pathos, the wearied prophet then concludes by adjuring Israel to love, obey, and cleave to God, "for [He] is your life and the length of your days" (30:20).
The ethical appeal is present in Moses' discourse both as a suffusing, 'hidden' element throughout, as well as in specific passages. Overall, the ethos is derived from Moses' being a man of tremendous moral character, being of a hoary age, and as a result of his selection by Yahweh as leader and lawgiver to Israel. There are also particular verses imbedded in the discourse which speak to the ethics and altruism of Moses, and of his keeping faith with his brethren in this and future generations. Part of his depiction of Israel's fate includes the confident belief, "and you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord and fulfill all his commandments, which I command you this day" (30:8). It is a benevolent trust in the repentance of his nation which allows Moses to temper his prophecy of exile and speak decisively of a positive future. The other pertinent passage evinces Moses' deepest hope for the people, and the reason for his firm entreaties to them now: "I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments [...] so that you will live and increase, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in the land to which you are coming to take possession of it" (30:16). This verse demonstrates the magnanimous regard of a shepherd for the welfare of his flock, which extends well beyond his own lifetime.
Notably, the one remaining passage requiring analysis, and the most critical of the current discourse-perhaps of the entire Torah-features mixed appeals of logos, pathos, and ethos: "This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses that I have warned you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live" (30:19). Speaking on behalf of the deity, Moses tells the Israelites that while free will is ultimately theirs, there is only one of the two ways that is rationally sound, emotionally edifying, and preferable to a moral-ethical being. Here is the common topic of testimony through authority in its most defensible manifestation: choosing life over death, good over bad, blessing over curse, and cosmos over chaos is the only practicable alternative according to the informed opinion and expertise of one in the know: God.
The validity of the discourse's logical form is evident throughout in its internal consistency, with the apparent exception of two instances. The first is an ostensible fallacy in 29:17-22, when Moses seems to make an unwarranted inference that the land as a whole will suffer due to the idolatry of the individual or the few: "Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day [...] to go and worship the deities of those nations" (29:17), followed by "and the Lord will separate him for evil, out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant [...]" (29:20). Yet now the divine retribution seems to broaden well beyond a limited affair, eventuating in "plagues of that land and the diseases with which the Lord struck it" (29:21). This discrepancy between the extent of punishment for idol worship, however, is clarified at the end of the chapter with a further reversion to logos, in which definition through division reappears: "The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah" (29:28). This salient distinction is made to assure Israel that it is accountable only for those trespasses made publicly within the community, with its implied complicity; private sins of the individual, though, will not result in collective punishment.
The second instance of apparently invalid argumentation occurs when Moses describes Yahweh's restored favour which will ensue Israel's repentance: "And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you may love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life" (30:6). Some might find here a non sequitur in that Israel's loyal worship and observance of the Torah would be for the sake of Yahweh's own exaltation, not mortal subsistence. Yet Moses is making a crucial point here, indicating that the Israelites' following of the laws does nothing for God, who remains God whether Israel is devoted to Him or not, but rather Torah obedience is for the sake of the people's edification of character and enlightenment of mind. This paramount idea is reprised in the peroration's last verse concerning adherence to God: "For that is your life and the length of your days [...]" (30:20). Upon careful examination, then, both instances of incoherence only appear to be logically inconsistent, when in fact explication affirms their sequacious form.
As to the truth of his arguments, Moses relies heavily on testimony through laws-specifically, the testament of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai-and testimony through precedents in history. The Ten Statements received at Sinai engraved upon tablets serve as the legal testament par excellence, and no contemporary Israelite would have refuted their existence and substance. Of the six-hundred thousand males and three million souls said to have participated in the Exodus from Egypt and who stood present at the foot of the mount, virtually all would have witnessed the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the destruction of Pharaoh Ramses and the Egyptian army, the pillars of cloud and fire that attended the people over their forty-year sojourn en route to Canaan, and the victorious battle against their enemy Amalek. God was a reality for them, present not merely in general history but in firsthand experience, a visible and undeniable entity whose signs and wonders they had acknowledged as eyewitnesses. Through His spokesman Moses, Yahweh had been addressing Israel for decades by the time of the prophet's final discourses. Moses clearly depends on Israel's direct knowledge of Yahweh and the Exodus to strengthen his argument: "For you know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt, and how we passed among the nations through which you passed" (29:15).
In sum, Moses' allocution begins and ends with reminders of the Covenant and the charge to commit to the Torah, the mediating influence of morality in a lawless, heathen world. With these discourses, Moses has laid the foundations for a "spiritual democracy", establishing the Torah as the eternal "heritage of the congregation" (888). Yet, from the very outset, Judaism reveals itself as a faith of finer distinctions. The free will Moses describes in his peroration offers another definition through division, as a significant distinction is made between heritage and inheritance: the former is fixed, the latter expendable. The Torah is the heritage of all Israel, yet each Israelite can either claim or repudiate his or her inheritance. It will be up to the responsible individual to select which of the two ways to follow. Moses makes it clear that the entire future of the person, and of the nation collectively, depends upon making the right choice.
"Nitzavim". Chabad.org. Comp. Rabbi Yosef Kazen. n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?AID=36239&p=complete >
The Pentateuch and Haftorahs . Dr. J. H. Hertz, ed. London: Soncino Press, 1979. Print. 878-888.
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from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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