Moses by Michelangelo

Moses by Michelangelo

In reading Deuteronomy, I was struck by how different it was, stylistically, than the other books I’ve read so far. Deuteronomy is far more refined, far more poetic. If I had to make a guess, I would say that the other books were written down as an attempt to capture the essence of narratives that were being told orally – short stories that could be embellished by their tellers, and that depended a great deal on performance. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, was composed as a written document first (though, of course, it drew on pre-existing traditions).

As a result, it’s the most cohesive of the Pentateuch books. The narrative doesn’t bounce around nearly as much as, say, Numbers – it doesn’t feel like fragments sewn together.

David Plotz says much the same in his summary of the book:

Deuteronomy seems intentionally written as a CliffsNotes or sourcebook for Judaism. The other four books of the Torah are choppy and episodic. Their moral lessons are haphazard and hard to discern. Even Leviticus, for all its laws, is a jumble. But Deuteronomy is as tightly organized as a Supreme Court brief. There are no sloppy asides, no incoherent stories with talking asses, no inconsistent patriarchs. In fact, there are no people of any kind. It’s all argument—an attempt to knit the chaos of the first four books, that random array of laws and stories, into a single coherent theology.

I also noticed that, while Deuteronomy draws on Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, it does not draw on Genesis. It could simply be because Genesis does not share the same legalistic concerns as the other four books of the Pentateuch, but I find the setting up of Moses as a sort of foundational patriarch interesting. When Abraham, Jacob, and the other patriarchs are mentioned at all in Deuteronomy, it is only to say that the Promised Land was originally promised to them. They are completely stripped of their own narratives, as though their names are little more than just magical/nonsensical words in a litany.