Choosing an Ending to the Torah: Moses’ Death, or Entrance into the Land of Israel

December 1, 2008
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Norman Cohen

The sojourn from Egypt to the Promised Land is both the main trope of Jewish life and the metaphor for our individual lives. The promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people is the hallmark of God’s covenant throughout the Bible. So why, then, does the Torah end with the death of Moses rather than the culmination of the Israelites’ journey out of slavery and into the land? Furthermore, why leave the people at the end of Deuteronomy bereft of their leader Moses, fragile and lacking confidence as they prepare to enter Canaan to do battle with “giants”? (In Numbers 13:33, the spies described the inhabitants of Canaan as anakim , giants, and the Israelites were like grasshoppers in comparison).

With Moses’ death, they could feel that God was no longer in their midst, since they had come to identify the Divine presence with Moses. (Deut. 31:17) In addition, the note upon which Deuteronomy ends — in contrast to the uplifting end of the Israelites’ journey into their Promised Land — is the recalling of the plagues wrought upon the Pharaoh and Egypt, and Moses’ power and might. (Deut. 34:11-12)

Some biblical scholars think that the death of Moses originally belonged to the end of the Book of Numbers. We read in Numbers 27:12ff (which is similar to the end of Deuteronomy) that the Israelites are camped in the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho, and Moses is told to ascend and view the land given to the people of Israel that he will not enter because of his impending death. This passage probably concluded the “Tetrateuch” (the four books, Genesis through Numbers), which was formed from the literary strands designated as J, E, and P. In contrast, Deuteronomy, the product of a different literary source (D), is much closer in style and doctrine to the so-called Early Prophets (the books of Joshua through Kings). Moses’ death notice, appended to Deuteronomy 34, enabled Deuteronomy to function as the conclusion to Moses’ biography and the entire Torah.

Had the compilers of the Torah focused primarily on the people of Israel instead of the life and contribution of Moses, they might have included the Book of Joshua, which describes the conquering of the Canaanite tribes and the settling of the Land. Some early scholars suggested that a “Hexateuch” — a six-part collection — would have ended with Joshua 24. Such an ending would have recounted the journey of the people from Abraham through the exodus from Egypt, the 40 years in the desert, crossing the Jordan River, and ending with the burial of Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites brought with them from Egypt. (Joshua 24:32) This ending would have symbolized the completion of the journey from Egypt and slavery into the freedom of their own land, giving us a better understanding of the essence of freedom that Erich Fromm captures in his work, Escape from Freedom . Once people are free from all constraint, they can join in a covenant with God, live on their land, and create a society based on the values and ideals of the Torah, thus fulfilling their highest selves.

That powerful message would provide a fitting ending to the great, early historical epoch of the Jewish people — the fulfillment of God’s promise to the people from the time of the patriarchs. How could the narrative end without fulfillment of the promise, with the people situated outside of the land after their 40-year trek through the desert? For contemporary Jews living in a world beset by violence, suffering, and uncertainty, such an ending to the Torah would affirm people’s faith in the future and the world’s potential. Furthermore, the theological importance of the land needed to be affirmed. For a people who believe that “living in Exile from the Land outweighs all Divine afflictions,” ( Sifrei Deuteronomy 43) ending the story with Joshua would be an ideological statement that would resonate through the ages. It surely would focus Jews today, many of whom have little connection to Israel, on its importance to Jewish life and to humanity. Finally, every Jew in every generation needs to know that though there will never be another Moses, new leaders will arise, instilling new hope (Deut. 34:10ff) and enabling us to continue our journey to the fulfillment of God’s ultimate promise.

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