By the Book
This week’s reading contains a curious provision. Moses instructs the Israelites that as soon as they cross the Jordan River to enter their future homeland, they are to write down the words of “this Torah” on a set of specially prepared stones. In fact, the passage is quite emphatic that this be done right away:
And when you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is granting to you, you shall set up for yourself some large stones and coat them with plaster. Then you shall write on them all the words of this Torah after your crossing…And it shall be that when you cross over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you, on Mount Ebal, and you shall coat them with plaster… And you shall write on these stones every word of this Torah, distinctly and clearly. (Deut 27:2-8)
Why was this so pressing a need that it had to be done as soon as the Jordan was crossed?
The Torah doesn’t say. Perhaps it has to do in part with the particular circumstances of this week’s reading. Moses knows he is about to die; God has already told him repeatedly that he is not to cross the Jordan with the rest of the people. Quite naturally, he must have been worried about the people’s reaction to being in a new place and under new leadership. He certainly must have had some confidence in his designated successor, Joshua; still, in such dramatically different conditions, how could he be sure that everything would go as planned? Writing on these stones was a way of insuring that the Torah would remain in people’s minds.
But beyond such a concern, it is simply the case that writing plays a special role in the book of Deuteronomy. For example, the future king was commanded to write his own copy of the Torah and keep it with him (Deut 17:18-20). A man who wished to divorce his wife had to write a “document of divorce” and hand it to her (Deut 24:1). The people were even commanded to write down the easily memorized farewell song of Deuteronomy 32. “Write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites, put it in their mouths” [i.e., have them memorize it] (Deut 31:19). If it is to be memorized, why start out by writing it down?
This seems especially strange insofar as Israel, like its neighbors, was still largely an oral culture: things were simply said and remembered. We know that sometimes even very long and complicated texts were known by heart and transmitted with astonishing accuracy. (Indeed, I’ve met people nowadays who are capable of reciting the whole weekly Torah reading—in fact, more than one at a time—from start to finish.) Of course, written documents also existed, including the Ten Commandments and various other written texts mentioned in the Bible. (And by the way, it’s thanks to texts written in cuneiform that we know much of what we do concerning Israel’s neighboring civilization.) But for one reason or another, the Torah commanded here that Israel’s first act on crossing the Jordan was to write the Torah on these stones.
Perhaps it was hinting that from now on, written documents were to become an increasingly central part of the life of Israel, as nowhere else: children would need to learn to read and write. If so, one may observe in passages such as that in this week’s reading the beginning of that oddest of phenomena, a religion centered on a book.