by YAAKOV JAFFE
Each of the five books of the Bible uses multiple genres, and many of them speak to multiple audiences, shifting perspective from chapter to chapter. In the Pentateuch, it is comparatively easier for a reader to quickly determine the genre of a particular text, and the audience to whom the text is addressed, especially when compared with some other books of the bible.1 This essay will focus on one verse of the Pentateuch whose genre and audience remain far from clear, and the source of ongoing confusion and debate until this day.
The Pentateuch uses two genres of writing predominantly, the historical narrative genre and the legislative genre, with fewer examples of poetry (among smaller songs: Genesis 49, Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32 and 33), genealogies (Genesis chapters 5, 10, 11, 25, 36 and 46 among other examples), and hortatory or motivational texts (mostly Deuteronomy chapters 4, 6-11, 29-31). An astute reader of the text can usually pick out with little difficulty whether the text uses one genre or the other. To be sure, a few notable examples of passages with debatable genres exist,2 which have been developed and addressed over centuries of Biblical study.
A somewhat similar, though slightly different situation exists when considering the intended audience of various sections of the Bible. Most sections of the Bible can be read as simultaneously being addressed to two different audiences: the Israelites who lived at the time of the writing of the Bible, and also the later reader. The audience of the imperative to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), for example, is likely both the ones alive at the time the words were first spoken/written, and also future readers in different generations. A small number of
sections address only one of the two audiences, however, with some parts of the narrative only addressing the later generation reading the text (Gen. 36:31 may be a good example),3 and some sections addressing only the listening audience at the time of the words original utterance/writing. Deuteronomy 29:1-16, as opposed to the rest of chapters 29 and 30, is a good example of something only addressed to the audience of the time. When a modern reader reads those verses, it is as if we are “listening in” to a dialogue between Moshe and his own generation; the words are not addressed to us directly. To be sure, there are lessons a modern reader can learn from reading the text, but we cannot experience it as first person participants, only as a distant reader listening to a conversation from the past.
This paper will consider Deuteronomy 9:7, a verse whose genre and audience are unclear, and have been under debate for centuries. We note at the onset that this verse also makes reference to an unclear biblical event, and so the later stages of our analysis will consider the referent of the verse as well.
The ninth chapter of Deuteronomy begins with a short hortatory passage (verses 1-6), and then transitions to a longer narrative passage, which recounts the events of the golden calf (beginning with verse 8). Verse seven, the verse in question, has traditionally been understood as being the final verse of the hortatory section, admonishing and encouraging the people. The JPS translation follows, with my disambiguation of the second person as being either singular or plural, as the verse switches midstream, something that is difficult to capture in the English: Remembersg – never forget, how yousg provoked the Lord, yoursg God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that yousg left the land of Egypt until youpl reached this place, youpl have continued defiantpl toward the Lord (Deut. 9:7).
The verse has generally been taken as a hortatory admonition to the Israelites of the time the words were first spoken who were told – as a group in plural, and as individuals within that group in singular4 – to consider that in their own personal past they have been rebellious, and that consequently the gift of the Land of Israel comes not from their own merit. Among the medieval commentaries, Rashbam and Seforno both take the verse in this manner explicitly, and the Talmud’s silence on the verse also bespeaks such an understanding as well. If the verse was a legislative verse speaking also to a modern audience, the Talmud should have addressed it as such. Yechiel Michel Epstein (in Aruch Hashulchan 60:3-5) is explicit in this understanding of the Talmud’s silence: “It seems clearly that it was addressed only to the generation of the desert, for this is demonstrated from the verses in Deuteronomy 9:1-7.”
Thus, the predominant understanding of the verse, at least until the year 1500, was that the intended audience of the verse, the “you” who is enjoined to remember, is the generation of the desert and the entry into Israel. In this verse, they are encouraged to remind themselves of their rebellious nature when they conquer the land of Israel, and realize that none of their victories are the result of their spiritual merit, for they are a rebellious and defiant nation.
The major proponent of an alternative reading was the 16th century kabbalist Isaac Luria, shifting the understanding of the audience and the genre of the verse.5 Luria first argued that though the verse was found within the context of a hortatory section, the formulation of the verse was very similar to legal portions of the Bible, and so this verse should also be understood as a legal passage. As a helpful parallel, we might note that the other three verses in the Bible that begin with Remember! (Ex. 20:8, Deut. 24:9, 25:17)6 were all codified as legal passages and appeared in legal context, and thus so too should Deut. 9:7. Based on this, Luria saw this verse in a new way: commanding the audience to remember as a legislative passage.
Shifting the genre necessitated a shift in the audience as well, since a legislated legal section of the Bible is almost always understood as being addressed to all future readers of the text, and not just the Biblical generation. Thus, Luria further argues that the command to remember was directed towards all later readers, and not only the contemporary generation. In essence, this reading detaches 9:7 from the preceding six verses which speak about the emotional and spiritual response of the generation that would conquer the land of Israel. That message ended with the conclusion of verse six and a new independent message for all times, to remember the time you aroused God to anger, begins with verse seven.
Though clearly not the predominant early view, Luria’s reading took off with great speed, and gradually grew to become adopted by various prayer books. Many recently printed prayer books offer Luria’s reading as the correct one for Deuteronomy 9:7.7 A reading that was in the minority for much of the history of Biblical interpretation, had become the consensus of modern prayer book publishing. “Do not be arrogant, and therefore please remember, you desert Israelites, how you were rebellious” has become “Modern readers – you are hereby commanded to remember how your [ancestors] were rebellious.”
WHEN DID THE PEOPLE PROVOKE GOD?
The simple reading of the text is that the phrase how you provoked the Lord your God is a general and generic one, not referring to any specific event. Nahmanides and Ibn Ezra both understood the verse in this general sense. The next verse begins At Horeb you so provoked the Lord which gives the impression that Deuteronomy 9:7 refers to the general experience of the people having provoked God, with the story of the Golden Calf at Horeb being but one example of the angering of God which follows, albeit a central one.
Indeed, the word katzaf, anger, serves as an organizing key word for the section, appearing in a generic opening verse (9:7), in the verse which introduces the longer first example, the Golden Calf (in 9:8, introducing 9:8-21), and introducing a closing verse which presents a short undeveloped list of other examples (9:22-24, speaking about Taberah, Massah, the Graves of the Desire and the sin of the spies). The simple reading of the text makes clear that whether the key verse is hortatory or imperative, it refers to the general act of angering God, and not the Golden Calf specifically. Surprisingly, both Luria and many of his modern adherents read the verse as referring to the Golden Calf, which is hard to accept as a simple interpretation of the text.
EARLIER ECHOES OF LURIA’S VIEW
Most traditional commentators prior to the sixteenth century read the genre as hortatory and the audience as the original generation; however one critical Bible commentator showed some sympathy although not agreement to Luria, albeit in an unusual work. The great 13th century exegete Nahmanides, from Christian Spain, considers the alternative view; although he remains ambivalent about the view and ultimately seems to reject it.
Across his many writings, Nahmanides demonstrated a heightened awareness for the instruction Zachor, to remember, and on many occasions he considers whether the word constitutes an imperative or not.8 Usually, the word indicates an imperative as the Jews are commanded to recall the Exodus (Ex. 13:3), the Sabbath (20:8), the battle with Amalek (Deut. 25:17), and the story of Miriam (24:9) – although in these four occasions the entire context is legislative and so the reading of the word is far less controversial.
Our passage goes unaddressed in the entirety of Nahmanides’ Bible commentary, although in his discussion of Maimonides’ list of commandments Nahmanides concludes his discussion of Miriam with a short footnote on our verse: “And I do not know if this is a warning to those that angered God, themselves, in other words the generation of the desert. And perhaps it is a command for generations, to know the kindness of God upon them, and His keeping of the covenant of our forefathers, and to give thanks to His name and bless Him for all . . . And if so, it should be counted as one of the commandments.” In essence, Nahmanides is unclear whether the verse should be read as an imperative or as an admonition, and if the audience is the one listening to Moses (about whom one could say You provoked God to anger) or a modern one. Yet, his ultimate sympathies lie with the conventional reading, as his list of commandments does not include an imperative to remember provoking God, and his Bible commentary fails to mention that the verse is an imperative.9
Strikingly the actual translation of the verse Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness has not changed. Rather, the wider understanding of the verse within its context is what has changed. A hortatory verse is understood by many today to be an imperative, and a verse originally addressed to the original generation of listeners is now understood by many as speaking to all generations. Lastly, the story to be remembered was originally understood to refer to a generic condition but is now taken by some to refer specifically to the Golden Calf.
The study of biblical genre and intended audiences is often forsaken in the place of more traditional or complex methods of understanding. However, they are critical tools and techniques for the field of Bible study, and can reveal many critical aspects of the texts in question.
- To cite a few brief examples: The Book of Micha contains many complex passages whose intended audience is unclear, as the prophet may be addressing the Northern tribes, the Southern tribes, or both. Psalms also contains chapters whose intended audience is unclear (e.g. it is unclear whether Psalms 137 is intended to be read by the generation of the exile or some other generation). The genre of some of the Psalms, such as whether they are thanksgiving or petitionary Psalms, can be unclear.
- The sages of the Mishnah (Hullin 7:6) already considered whether Genesis 32:33 is a legislative verse using the voice of the lawgiver Moshe, or if it reflects an extension of the narrative, describing the practice of the children of Israel living after the story. The imperative and blessing to procreate (Genesis 1:28, 9:1 and 9:7) has also been subject to much debate, and has been taken as using the voice of a legal command or of a blessing in the course of the narrative. Exodus 31:16-17 and 14:13 are other short passages that have been subject of confusion or debate. In general, Moses of Coucy, 13th century author of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, was the most adamant Jewish commentator to insist that hortatory texts should really be understood as imperatives; see negative commandment 13 and 64 and positive commandment 17, based on texts that are traditionally understood as being hortatory.
- Though beyond the scope of this paper, Deuteronomy 1:1 and 34:6 clearly speak to a later audience living in Israel and not to the audience watching the events unfold. Centuries of Jews have considered whether they speak to the audience living one generation later in the times of Joshua, or generations even later still. See TB Makkot 11a for further discussion.
- Fluctuation in the number of second person verbs is not uncommon in the book of Deuteronomy, and in general reflects the fact that the nation as a whole can be addressed as a singular collective, or as a plural body with many individuals. Still, it is worth noting when this occurs, as it does in our verse.
- Luria’s position was summarized by the influential 17th century jurist Abraham Gombiner in Magen Avraham Orah Hayyim 60:2. It is unclear whether the citation is completely accurate, as the parallel passage in the Kavanot of Luria makes mention of other remembrances but not this one.
- The word zachor also appears in the Torah in a non-initial position of a verse. See Deut. 7:18, Ex. 13:3
- The older but very influential 1928 Siddur Otzar Ha-tefilot (Vilna: Romm), pp. 445-446 offers Luria’s reading of the verse with some discussion of the topic in the footnotes. More recently The Artscroll Siddur (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications), pp. 176-177 in the original 1984 edition and all subsequent printings; The Artscroll Siddur Chinuch Chaim Shlomo (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1996), p. 91; The Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2011), p. 216 and The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2015), p. 198 all follow Luria.
- In his commentary to Deuteronomy 24:9 and 25:17 and in his glosses on Maimonides’ count of commandments in Sefer haMitzvot, positive commandment 7. Nahmanides agrees with Maimonides and the simple reading of the Talmud (TB Megilah 18a, Berakhot 12b, and Berakhot 20b) that three remembrances are positive imperatives, and also adds the recollection of Miriam as a fourth command.
- Nahmanides notes that his own ambivalence stems from the midrash Torat Kohanim to the start of Leviticus 26 which also reads our verse as an imperative. This passage in Torat Kohanim is cited by TB Megilah 18a, but only in regard to the recollection of Amalek, and not to the recollection of provoking God to anger. It seems as though this source does not mandate the recollection through reading from a Torah scroll, although the implications of that were also subject to debate, see Nahmanides to Deut. 25:17 cited above, Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin to TB Megilah 30b, Magen Avraham, and Baruch Epstein Torah Temimah to our verse, disagreeing with his father (Yechiel Michel Epstein, cited above) and agreeing with Luria.
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Minyan and as the Director of Tanakh Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education.