This was my final paper for a graduate-school class called Bible: Text and Context. It’s probably the nerdiest, most jargon-filled piece preserved here, but I just really love it.
The phrase “ספר התורה” (literally “the document of instruction”) serves an interesting dual purpose in its appearances within the Hebrew Bible. On a textual level, it is one of the identifying locutions of the Deuteronomic Historian. The appearances of the phrase link the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and (Second) Kings to each other. The books of Nehemiah and Chronicles, understood as originating more recently than the Deuteronomic history, similarly employ the phrase to emphasize their link to the world-view of the earlier books. However, the phrase also functions on a metatextual level, acting on the text while it acts within the text. The employment of the phrase (and variations of it) within these texts subtly insists that the very texts in which the phrase appears be incorporated into the canonical version of the scripture.
Although neither word is particularly scarce in the Hebrew Bible, “ספר” and “התורה” only appear together in the construct state nine times, first appearing in Deuteronomy 31:26. Having delivered his final words of law and set out consequences for its followers should they be faithful or disobey, Moses transfers leadership to Joshua. Moses presents the Levites with “this book of Teaching (ספר התורה הזה)” to place alongside the Ark “as a witness against you.” Menahem Haran notes that ספר, when used in this way, refers to the physical artifact of the document, remarking “It is not the designation, or part of the designation, of the work as such, as a thing separate from its scroll.” Moses is not simply delivering information – he’s delivering a sacred object.
The contents of this document are evident when we read the verse without our modern notion of תורה as the Pentateuch: the verse indicates that the document of instruction Moses writes and presents to the Levites is Deuteronomy itself, the particular teaching he has just completed. The text even hints that the specific contents are central portion of Deuteronomy, spanning chapters 4 to 31. This is conveyed through textual bracketing, the repetition of language at the introduction and conclusion of a section to set it out. Bernard M. Levinson explains that the repetition of language signals a textual insertion (440). Specifically, this repetition represents the seams connecting the earliest version of Deuteronomy, a law code, with the literary framing provided by the Deuteronomic Historian (358-9). So, chapter 4 introduces this Teaching, written by Moses himself, in verse 44: “This is the Teaching (התורה) that Moses set before the Israelites.” Following the insertion, Deuteronomy 31:26 concludes the section echoing this language, with Moses instructing the Levites to take this Teaching and set it beside the ark.
A similar bracketing technique is employed on a more localized scale within Deuteronomy 31 to integrate two insertions into the main text. Following Moses’ final instructions to Joshua in verses 7-8, verse 9 states “Moses wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel.” This introduces Moses’ final instructions to the Levites in verses 10-12.
According to Richard Friedman, the next section is composed of two insertions, first from the E source (14-15, 23) reporting God’s direct charge to Joshua, divided by a section from Dtr2, verses 16-22 (Sources Revealed 359). These insertions are incorporated into the larger text by a repetition of the Mosaic writing theme in verse 24: “When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Teaching to the very end […]” This verse neatly extends Moses’ writing, which seemed to have concluded in verse 9, to include the insertions from E.
When the Dtr2 revisions were inserted, reflecting an exilic reality in which God appeared to have turned away from Israel, a similar method was employed. In verse 19, God tells Moses “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” Although this insertion refers to itself as poem (השירה) rather than Teaching (התורה), the emphasis on writing (as in verses 9 and 24) and witness (as in verse 26) demonstrates an attempt to connect with the writing around it. While the first use of bracketing described above functions to encapsulate and frame a large section of text, in this instance, the bracketing serves to weave the insertions into the text surrounding them.
When the phrase “ספר התורה” next occurs in the Bible, bracketing is also involved, but this time the verses about ספר התורה are the insertion. In the opening chapter of the book of Joshua, the new leader of the Israelites receives his marching orders from God for entering the Promised Land. But within this otherwise militarily-focused chapter, there is a passage about ספר התורה inserted. The insertion is made visible both by the general use of language familiar from Deuteronomy, but also by the employment of bracketing phrase drawn from Deuteronomy 31 (verses 6, 7, and 23), “Be strong and resolute. (חזק ואמץ)”. Friedman identifies verse 23 as an interpolation from the E source, meaning that in Deuteronomy 34, too, this phrase is used to link the insertion to the larger text (Sources Revealed 359).
As used in the insertion in Joshua, חזק ואמץ is transformed from a military rallying cry to a religious one:
But you must be very strong and resolute (חזק ואמץ מאד) to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching (ספר התורה) cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. (Josh. 1:7-8)
The linguistic references pointing directly to Deuteronomy 31 lend the passage an element of performativity. It reads like a commandment to incorporate Deuteronomy into the canon, or at least into the life of the nascent Israelite nation. Joshua is told not only to remember or follow the commandments – he is specifically instructed to observe all that is written in this specific ספר התורה. Michael Fishbane credits these verses with setting “a tone for the fulfillment of Deuteronomic rules found throughout the book” (415).
Lest the message be lost, it is repeated in nearly identical terms near the end of the book of Joshua, in chapter 23, verse 6. An aged Joshua calls together the leaders of Israel’s tribes and commands them “…be most resolute to observe faithfully all that is written in the Book of the Teaching (ספר התורה) of Moses, without ever deviating from it to the right or to the left.” These echoes of Deuteronomy, functioning as advocates for that book, thus bracket nearly the entire book of Joshua.
The term ספר התורה disappears from the work of the Deuteronomist Historian for nearly the rest of his writing, resurfacing towards the end of II Kings, in chapter 22. This mirrors the disappearance of the actual object from the consciousness of the Israelites. In II Kings 22, the high priest Hilkiah announces the discovery of ספר התורה in the Temple. Although JPS translates 22:8a as “Then the high priest Hilkiah said to the scribe Saphan, ‘I have found a scroll of the Teaching in the House of the Lord,’” the Hebrew phrase ספר התורה features the definite article, which Ziony Zevit observes “marked [the Teaching] as something already known” (771). Taking this into consideration, an amended translation would read “I have found the scroll of the Teaching,” i.e., Deuteronomy, the scroll presented by Moses to the Levites back in Deuteronomy 31. Zevit confirms “the contents of this scroll and Josiah’s and the people’s reaction to it suggest that it was some form of the book of Deuteronomy” (771).
The existence of a king further links Josiah’s reaction to a section of Deuteronomy 17 known as the Laws of the King. Zevit contends, “Deuteronomy is the only book in the Torah to project an image of the idea king (Deut. 17.14-20), who bears a striking resemblance to Josiah as depicted in Kings” (669). This section is most crucial to our understanding of the relationship between the books of Kings and Deuteronomy. Verse 18 states “When he [the king] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching [התורה] written for him on a scroll [ספר] by the levitical priests.” Taken at face value, this verse seems to ensure that any future king will be physically reminded that he is bound by the laws of God no differently than the rest of the Israelite community. Jeffrey H. Tigay furthers this idea with the understanding that the king should write for himself a copy from the original in the custody of the Levites, presumably the copy presented to them by Moses in chapter 31, citing Philo’s interpretation that the act of copying makes the physical reminder of the Teaching even more visceral for the king (168). By the time of Josiah, this practice, if it had ever been instituted, had certainly fallen out of custom.
However, like Josh. 7-8, this verse also operates on a metatextual level, insisting that this very text itself become an integral part of Jewish law in the future. By commanding future kings to produce a copy of itself, this text ensure its own perpetuation. And by placing the source of future copies in the hands of the Levites, this verse makes a strong case for a Mushite priesthood, entrusting one of the most important artifacts not to the Aaronid preists, but to the broad priestly tribe. Although the promotion of the entire Levite tribe as priests is a recurring concern in Deuteronomy, in the context of the Laws of the King this concern takes on additional significance. By placing the care of the document in the hands of an entire class of people rather than a hereditary office such as High Priest or King, the chance of textual alterations for personal or political gain would seem to be greatly reduced. However accurate this supposition might be, in the context of the rediscovery of ספר התורה in the time of Josiah, it would seem to reduce the likelihood of a forgery, pious or otherwise.
The discovery of ספר התורה forms the climax of the book of Kings, and the coming full circle of the Deuteronomic History. When the discovery is presented to King Josiah, he immediately repents of all he’s done that has unwittingly violated the teaching and sets about restructuring his kingdom through reforms “with their emphasis on cultic purity and centralization in Jerusalem, closely mirror[ing] Deuteronomy”(Zevit, 773). The remainder of Josiah’s reign, as reported in II Kings 22, is devoted to instituting Deuteronomic law. And while the text provides specific examples of him doing so, in case that proved to be too subtle, the point is driven home in verse 24b, “Thus he fulfilled the terms of the Teaching recorded in the scroll that the priest Hilkiah had found in the House of the Lord.”
The connection between Deuteronomy and Kings, and indeed between Moses the giver of law and Josiah the institutor of law, is further emphasized in Josiah’s eulogy, verse 25, “There was no king like him before who turned back to the Lord with all his heart and soul and might, in full accord with the Teaching of Moses; nor did any arise after him.” The wording echoes Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”) as well as the eulogy for Moses in 34:10a, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” Friedman points out “the words ‘none arose like him’ are applied to only two people in the Bible: Moses and Josiah,” continuing on to enumerate an additional seven ways in which language applied to Moses recurs in the Bible to describe Josiah (Who Wrote… 111). Kings and Deuteronomy are bound together by both language and law.
While the connection with the book of Joshua is not quite as strong, neither should it be discounted. Marc Brettler cites several events in Joshua that occur in agreement with prescriptions from Deuteronomy, including one pericope that draws on ספר התורה (100). Joshua chapter 8:30-35 describes Joshua’s fulfillment of the commandment to set up a monument to God within the borders of Israel, as originally prescribed in Deuteronomy 27. Carol Meyers observes that this episode interrupts the flow of the story from 8:29 to chapter 9, saying, “Its presence here maintains the importance of the Book of the Teaching of Moses in the Joshua narrative (cf. 1.7-8) and also affirms again Joshua’s legitimacy as successor to Moses” (478). Prefiguring the account of Josiah instituting Deuteronomic practices in his day, Joshua is similarly tied to Deuteronomy by both language and law.
Although the term ספר התורה seems to have originated in the work of the Deuteronomist Historian, it does appear twice in the Bible outside of the works associated with him, in books considered to post-date the work of the Deuteronomist: Nehemiah and Chronicles. As later additions to scripture, there would have been an authorial/editorial impulse to camouflage any changes in Israelite law or societal structure. In other words, these books need to seem like they aren’t changing anything while making whatever changes they need.
One tactic is to adopt the language of the Deuteronomic Historian to fit in to the cannon and link to familiar stories, while replacing the Mushite worldview of Deuteronomy with an Aaronid perspective on the priesthood. In Nehemiah chapter 8, ספר התורה is brought into a new setting, a public reading by Ezra the scribe/priest. Friedman suggests that the ספר התורה referred to in Nehemiah 8:3, which is more frequently referred to as תורת משה, the Teaching of Moses, may not be the same ספר התורה from the Deuteronomistic stories. While that was clearly a particular artifact, Friedman notes that references to Ezra’s document “include material from JE, D, and P. It is therefore likely that the book that Ezra brought from Babylon to Judah was the full Torah – the Five Books of Moses – as we know it” (Who Wrote…159).
The reference to ספר התורה in II Chronicles 34 is even more camouflaged than the Nehemiah mention. The pericope retells the narrative of the rediscovery of ספר התורה in the time of Josiah. David Rothstein mentions that some scholars believe “that Chronicles understood the discovered scroll to be Deuteronomy” (1820). However, he gives more credence to the view that:
Chronicles’ much extended treatment [of this story, relative to its account in II Kings 23], which involves elements from various Torah sources, reflects Chronicles’ view that the scroll found by Hilkiah was the entire Torah (more or less), whereas Kings maintains that only ‘a scroll of the Teaching,’ which most scholars identify as an early form of Deuteronomy alone, had been discovered. (1821)
By integrating elements from the entire Torah into this account, the Chronicler advances a more integrated view of Jewish law than the Deuteronomy-centered view of Kings. Furthermore, subtle references to Levites being separate from priests, such as in 34:30 (“and the priests and the Levites”), promote the later, Aaronid view of the priesthood. Just as the Deuteronomist Historian canonized his version of law by citing it as such and demonstrating leaders following the laws, the Chronicler rewrites the history with a version that seems to incorporate the Deuteronomist Historian’s work while actually advancing a different and at times directly contradictory worldview.
This metatextual activity could not be possible were it not for the inherent intertextuality of these books. It is only through each book’s references to previous volumes that each can establish the grounding and credibility to affect the pseudo-canonization discussed here. Deuteronomy gains credence as part of the Torah because its laws reflect familiar concepts from the previous books, albeit sometimes in unfamiliar perspectives. The bracketing of the law with a narrative proclaiming that the book itself is ספר התורה at once elevates its contents to the level of scripture. Each successive reference to ספר התורה in the books following Deuteronomy serves to validate those books as equally legitimate contributions to Israelite tradition. This is achieved by simultaneously linking themselves to Deuteronomy while insisting on its authority by virtue of the examples of leaders of the Israelite people following its laws. And while the post-exilic books turn these techniques inside-out by using them to rewrite and even reverse the outlook previously established, their success in doing so is perhaps the best testament to the power of these techniques.
Brettler, Marc Zvi. How to Read the Bible. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005.
Fishbane, Michael. The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002.
Friedman, Richard Elliot. The Bible With Sources Revealed. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003.
– – -. Who Wrote The Bible? New York: Summit Books, 1987.
Haran, Menahem. “The Books of the Chronicles ‘Of the Kings of Judah’ and ‘Of the Kings of Israel’: What Sort of Books Were They?” Vetus Testamentum XLIX, 2: 159.
JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
Levinson, Bernard M. (2004) Deuteronomy. In A. Berlin and M. Brettler (Eds.) The Jewish Study Bible (pp. 356-450). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Meyers, Carol. (2004) Joshua. In A. Berlin and M. Brettler (Eds.) The Jewish Study Bible (pp. 462-507). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Rothstein, David. (2004) Chronicles. In A. Berlin and M. Brettler (Eds.) The Jewish Study Bible (pp. 1712-1825). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
Zevit, Ziony. (2004) Kings. In A. Berlin and M. Brettler (Eds.) The Jewish Study Bible (pp. 668-779). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
 All Biblical translations are from the 1999 (second) edition of the JPS translation.