After Moses tells the Israelites God’s “Ten Commandments”, he goes back up Mount Sinai and listens to God proclaiming 48 or more additional rules (depending on how you count them)—four in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and at least 44 in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). The lengthy list includes religious observances, civil and criminal laws, and ethical guidelines.
Then Moses came and he reported to the people all the words of God and all the laws. And all the people answered with one voice, and they said: “The things that God has spoken, we will do!” (Exodus 24:3)
Apparently Moses has a phenomenal memory. And the Israelites are eager to obey all the orders he has passed on orally. But how will they remember these rules?
Moses speaks, writes, then reads
Then Moses wrote down all the words of God. And he got up early in the morning and he built an altar beneath the mountain, and twelve standing stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. (Exodus 24:4)
What are “all the words of God” that Moses writes down at that point? The Torah does not say. I think the most reasonable inference is that Moses writes down the Ten Commandments and the 48 or so rules God has just given him. But according to Rashi,1 Moses wrote down the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus up to, but not including, the account of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Apparently he brought some parchment and ink with him from Egypt.
Then he took the seifer of the covenant and he read it out loud in the ears of the people. And they said: “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will listen!” (Exodus 24:7)
seifer (סֵפֶר) = book (in scroll form), scroll, written document.
This time the Israelites respond with even more fervor, promising not only to obey God’s rules, but to listen to them, pay attention to them. Moses prepares a burnt offering on the altar, and splashes some of the blood on the people to seal their covenant with God.
After this, Moses follows another instruction from God, taking Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders halfway up Mount Sinai. They get far enough to see God’s feet on a sapphire brickwork. (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)
Then Y-H-V-H said to Moses: “Come up to me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the torah and the commandment that I have inscribed to instruct them.” (Exodus 24:12)
torah (תּוֹרָה) = teaching, instruction; law as a whole. (The word torah later came to mean the first five books of the bible.)
Even God wants to create a written record for future reference.
And Moses took Joshua, his attendant, and Moses went up the mountain of God. And to the elders he said: “Wait for us here until we return to you …” (Exodus 24:13)
Moses takes Joshua with him. But the Torah reports only Moses entering the cloud at the top of Mount Sinai and staying inside it for forty days and forty nights.2 There God gives him lengthy instructions for building a sanctuary and ordaining priests. When Moses finally hikes back down with the two stone tablets, in the portion Ki Tisa, Joshua pops into the picture again.
And the tablets were God’s doing, and the writing was written by God, engraved on the tablets. Then Joshua heard the sound of the people shouting, and he said to Moses: “A sound of war in the camp!” (Exodus 32:16-17) The Torah never says what Joshua was doing during those forty days, or exactly where he was on the mountain. God’s instructions in the cloud are addressed exclusively to Moses.
Joshua copies, then reads
Joshua remains Moses’ attendant until the end of the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses lays hands on him to make him the new leader of the Israelites, the one who will take them across the Jordan River into Canaan. Then God tells Moses:
“Here, the time draws near for [your] death. Call Joshua, and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, and I will give him orders.” (Deuteronomy 31:14)
There God speaks at length to Moses about the future of the Israelites, and teaches him a poem. Then God speaks to Joshua the first time:
And [God] commanded Joshua son of Nun, and said: “Be strong and resolute, because you yourself will bring the Israelites to the land that I promised to them, and I will be with you.” (Deuteronomy 31:23)
After Joshua hears this brief encouragement, Moses has more writing to do.
And Moses finished writing the words of this torah in the seifer until it was complete. (Deuteronomy 31: 24)
In the book of Joshua, God repeatedly gives Joshua instructions for the next step on his conquest of Canaan. But God does not tell him any new rules. Joshua faithfully carries out all the instructions he has received from both God and Moses.
When he reaches the two hills in front of Shekhem in Canaan, Eyval and Gerizim, he follows a set of orders Moses gave in the Torah portion Ki Tavo: writing on standing stones, then making offerings on an altar, then assembling the tribes on the two hills to say “Amen” after each curse or blessing the Levites call out.3 Moses started with the order to write on stones:
“Once you cross the Jordan to the land that Y-H-V-H, your God, is giving you, then you must erect large stones for yourselves and coat them with limewash. And you must write on the stones all the words of this torah …. You must erect these stones that I am commanding you about today on Mount Eyval …” (Deuteronomy 27:2-4)
All the words of which torah? The implication is that the Israelites should write down rules that Moses has passed down from God in the book of Deuteronomy—either all of them, or a subset. One logical selection would be the twelve curses that Moses then says the Levites should proclaim.
These curses are actually rules. Each one begins “Cursed be anyone who—” and then states a deed that God forbids, such as making idols or accepting bribes. Eleven of the curses repeat rules that Moses has previously delivered. The twelfth is:
Cursed be one who does not uphold the words of this torah, to do them. And all the people shall say: Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:26)
Is “this torah” the instruction of the twelve curses, or what is written on the twelve stones?
When Joshua leads the Israelites to Mount Eyval, the priests are carrying the ark, which now contains the whole seifer Moses wrote. At first it sounds as if Joshua has the whole scroll copied onto the stones.
And [Joshua] wrote there, on the stones, a copy of the torah of Moses, that [Moses] had written in front of the Israelites. (Joshua 8:32)
But after Joshua conducts the ritual of curses and blessings, he reads out loud from Moses’ scroll.
And after that, he read aloud all the words of the torah, the blessing and the curse, out of all the writing in the seifer of the torah. There was not a word out of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read opposite the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and the little ones and the foreigners who went among them. (Joshua 8:34-35)
These two verses are difficult to interpret. At first it sounds as if Joshua is reading out the torah or teaching about the blessing and curse ritual they have just performed. But then it sounds as if Joshua reads the entire “seifer of the torah”, the record that Moses wrote at the foot of Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, and subsequent additions. That scroll might take all day to read out loud.
The tradition of public readings of scrolls continued. In 2 Kings 22:8, the priests find a “seifer of the torah” when they are repairing the temple in Jerusalem. King Josiah summons all the people of Judah to listen to him read it out loud. Then he swears that his people will observe all of the commandments and laws in it. They do not respond with “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will listen!” the way the people did at Mount Sinai. Nor do they say “Amen” then way the people did at Mount Eyval. Their response is positive, but muted:
And all the people stood up for the covenant. (2 Kings 23:3)
For more than two thousand years, Jews have been reading out loud from a seifer torah hand-lettered on a parchment scroll. Everyone who comes to services watches the scroll being unrolled, and hears someone chant all or part of that week’s portion in Hebrew. In the course of a year, the seifer torah is chanted from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy.4 And those who do not know Hebrew can follow along by reading a translation.
For Moses and Joshua, the advantage of a written record is that it can be read out loud later. The assumption is that people will learn God’s rules better if they hear them—repeatedly.
I know that today some people absorb information better by listening, while others absorb it better by reading it. I hope someday to accompany my blog posts with podcasts in which I read my own writing aloud. But I am no Moses, so this project will have to wait until I finish rewriting my book on ethics in Genesis.
There are other texts that everyone should be familiar with. For example, the United States still uses an amended version of its original constitution. Many Americans refer to the authority of the constitution without knowing what it actually says. It is easy to find a written copy of this document, but I believe it should be taught in schools again, article by article, amendment by amendment, along with some of the various interpretations. And maybe we should even read it out loud in public once a year, just so everyone will know the source text that inflames such passions today.
- 11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the most quoted classic Jewish commentator.
- Exodus 24:15-18.
- See my blog post Ki Tavo: Making It Clear.
- But some Jewish communities follow a tradition of reading a third of each Torah portion each week, so the five-books of the Torah are completed over the course of three years.