Devarim: What are these words?

Moses dedicates the last days of his life to a long speech: the book of Deuteronomy/ Devarim (“Words”).  He tells the Israelites their history since they left Mount Sinai, and he repeats the laws and decrees God gave them during their 40 years in the wilderness.

During this oration the Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from Jericho in the “promised land” of Canaan. The  book of Deuteronomy begins:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the desert plain opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di-Zahav. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1)

Suf = reeds, water weeds; coming to an end

Paran = place of tree-branches, of beautifying with boughs

Tofel = probably an alternate spelling of tafeil = whitewash, whitewashing

Lavan = white; the name of Rebecca’s brother and Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law in the book of Genesis/Bereishit

Chatzerot = courtyards

Di-Zahav = enough gold

At first glance, the opening sentence seems to be giving coordinates for an actual geographic location.  Yet the place-names are all either invented, or located far away from the east bank of the Jordan. Why are they mentioned here?

Commentary as early as Targum Onkelos, from the first century C.E., found an alternate meaning in the list of supposed place-names. According to Onkelos, the list is a reminder of the times the Israelites made God angry during their wanderings in the wilderness. A few centuries later, the Talmud agreed, and it became the traditional interpretation of the verse.

Which offenses do the six place-names refer to? In other parts of the Torah, the word Suf is a place-name only in the combination Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds (known in the English tradition as the Red Sea).  This is the sea the Israelites crossed to escape from the Egyptian army; it lay between Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, far away from the Jordan. When the Israelites came to the Red Sea, they asked Moses why God had brought them there to die; weren’t there enough graves in Egypt?

Paran was an unpopulated area just south of the Negev desert, south of the border of Canaan at the time.  The Israelites were camped there when Moses sent twelve men to scout out the “promised land” to the north, and ten of the twelve who reported back said that the Israelites could never win a battle against the residents of the land. The people rebelled against entering Canaan. According to classic commentary, Moses mentions Paran at the start of his speech in Deuteronomy to remind the surviving children of Israel that their fathers’ lack of trust in God doomed the people to wander in the wilderness for another 38 years. Now that they have another chance to cross into Canaan, albeit from a different border, they had better not repeat the earlier generation’s mistake!

No location named Tofel is mentioned anywhere in the Jewish bible, except in this single sentence. With a shift in vowels,  the word is tafeil, whitewashing or plastering over. First-century commentaries consider tafeil a metaphor for slander, and explain that the Israelites slandered the manna–which is described as  white, lavan, in Exodus/Shemot 31.

Chatzerot (Courtyards) was the name of the place the Israelites went right after Kivrot Hata-avah, the camp where they complained that they wanted meat instead of manna, and God sent quail–along with a plague (Numbers 11:35). In Chatzerot, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on account of his wife, and God punished Miriam.

The last place in the list is  Di-Zahav, a variant of dai zahav, which means “enough gold”. Classic commentary pointed out that the Israelites brought so much gold out of Egypt, they could use it to make the golden calf at Mount Sinai. (Fortunately, they still had enough gold left over to make the furnishings for God’s sanctuary.)

Maybe the place-names in the first verse of Deuteronomy are indeed reminders of how the earlier generation of Israelites irritated God. Moses might begin his long speech with these reminders in the hope that the new generation would not repeat their parents’ mistakes. He knows he will die on the east side of the Jordan, so he will not be able to shepherd them.

On the other hand, in the original Hebrew there were no capital letters, no consistent way to indicate a word was a proper name.  The letter nun, pronounce like our letter N, was only occasionally added to an ordinary word to make it a place-name. So the first sentence of Deuteronomy could be legitimately translated with all of the so-called place-names as common nouns or verbs:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the desert plain opposite coming to an end between beautifying and  whitewashing, and then whiteness and courtyards and enough gold(Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1)

As Deuteronomy opens, Moses’ journey with the Israelites is coming to an end. Their end is on the opposite bank of the Jordan; his end is on the eastern side, where he will die. Should he give his people a glowing picture of Canaan, formerly described as the land of milk and honey, in order to increase their desire to cross over? Or would beautifying what lies ahead of them really be whitewashing it, covering up the hard reality that they will have to fight battles for the land?  Should he describe the land as full of white milk, and courtyards, and gold?

No, Moses decides; it is better if the Israelites do not expect to walk into a life of luxury.  Canaan is good land, but the people should not conquer it merely for the sake of its beauty, its food supply, its cities, its riches. They should conquer Canaan because God told them to.

And so after Moses hints at the beauty of the land across the Jordan, he begins his lengthy account of how the people  angered God on their journey, and how God helped them to seize the land on the east bank of the Jordan anyway, and how they must nevertheless go on.

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