Structural Analysis – Sefer Devarim
Moshe's 'Last Lecture'

Boundaries of the Book

  • Names – The name "אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים", which is derived from the opening words of the book,1 dates back to antiquity.2  Rabbinic sources3 refer to the book as "משנה תורה", referring to the book's review of earlier history and law.4  This term is found already in Devarim itself and in Sefer Yehoshua, though from the context of these verses it is difficult to know which book/s or texts the phrase encompasses.
  • Themes – Sefer Devarim is distinct from previous books of the Torah in that it is consists almost entirely of Moshe's various speeches before his death. The book contains very little new narrative, as Moshe instead reviews past history and concentrates on reinforcing the nation's relationship with Hashem and preparing them for their future in the Land of Israel.
  • Setting – In contrast to Sefer Bemidbar, the events of which occur in multiple sites throughout the wilderness, all of Sefer Devarim takes place in a single location, the plains of Moav.
  • Timing – While most of the earlier books of the Torah5 span many years (from the thousands of years of Sefer Bereshit to the almost four decades of Sefer Bemidbar), the vast majority of Sefer Devarim6 transpires over a period of, at most, five weeks.7
  • Characters – The main characters of Sefer Devarim, like those of the books of Shemot, Vayikra, and Bemidbar, are Moshe and the nation.8 However, while the Israelites of earlier books were the generation that left Egypt (דור יוצאי מצרים), in Devarim they are already the next generation, דור באי הארץ. In addition, while the Israelites are active characters in these earlier books, they are mainly passive in Sefer Devarim.
  • Speaker and genre – Sefer Devarim is distinct from the rest of Torah in that it is written almost entirely in first person, thus presenting to us the perspective of Moshe.9 This reflects its distinct genre: a series of farewell addresses.
  • Law and narrative – Similar to Shemot and Bemidbar, Sefer Devarim contains both narrative and legal material.  However, the proportions of each subject are reversed. While the majority of the other books is narrative, Devarim is mainly prescriptive in nature.
  • Elaborate introduction – Unlike the other books of Torah, Devarim opens with an elaborate five verse introduction setting the book's location, time, and purpose, clearly demarcating that the book is a new and independent unit which stands alone.

Division into Units

I. Double Introduction (1:1-5)
II. The Historical Speech: Lessons from the Past (1:6 – 3:29)
III. The Legal Speech: Laws for the Future (4:1 – 32:52)
IV. The Final Farewell (33:1 – 34:12)

  • Content – Sefer Devarim comprises Moshe's farewell addresses to the nation. The opening verses of the book introduce both of Moshe's main speeches. It is followed by Chapters 1-3 which comprise the historical, and shorter of these speeches, while the next section, the bulk of Devarim, contains his legal speech.10  The book closes with Moshe's blessings to the tribes and his death.11
  • Literary markers – Chapter 4 opens with the declaration, "וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמַע אֶל הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים", marking it as the beginning of the legal speech.12

Subdivision of Unit I – "Double Introduction"

A. Introduction to the Historical Speech (1:1-1:2)
B. Introduction to the Legal Speech (1:3-5)

The many doublings in verses Devarim 1:1-513 provide the primary motivation for suggesting that these verses constitute a double introduction to the book.

  • Content – Verses 1:3-5 specify that Moshe relayed "all that Hashem commanded" and that he "explained this Torah".  This is a fitting introduction to the legal speech in which Moshe explained laws commanded by Hashem ("מפי הגבורה").  The historical speech, on the other hand, delivered Moshe's own content ("מפי עצמו") and is thus introduced in verse 1:1 with the more general formulation, "these are the words spoken by Moshe".
  • Location – The place names of verse 1 include those spoken about later in the historical speech.  Verse 5, in contrast, mentions Moav, the site in which Moshe makes his legal speech.
  • Time markers – Verse 2 which speaks of the 11 day journey from Chorev to Kadesh Barnea alludes to the journey mentioned by Moshe in the beginning of his historical speech (1:17). Verses 3-5, in contrast, mention the fortieth year, as that is the date in which Moshe delivered the legal address.
  • Parallels – Verses 3-5 are parallel in content to the opening of the legal speech at the end of Devarim 4, further supporting that they provide an introduction to that speech specifically. Both speak of the "תּוֹרָה" that Moshe was to teach "בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן" after the conquest of Sichon and Og.

Subdivision of Unit II – "The Historical Speech"

A. Appointing Leaders: Aids to Moshe (1:6-18)
B. Year 2: Derailed by a Fear of Giants (1:19-46)
C. Year 40: Conquering the Giants (2:1 – 3:20)
D. New Leadership: Replacing Moshe (3:21-29)

  • Plot – The unit is framed by two accounts of leadership appointments, one to aid Moshe and one to replace him. In the middle units, Moshe tries to ensure that the people do not repeat the mistake of the spies by teaching them that their fear of giants is unwarranted.  As such, he begins by retelling the fiasco of the spies and concludes by recounting a series of conquests over giants.  Moshe conveys the message that, with Hashem's help, there is nothing to fear.
  • Timing – The first two units recount events that took place towards the beginning of the nation's wandering,14 while the last two units speak of events of the 40th year.
  • Setting – Each unit is set in a different location. The first unit speaks of events that took place while the nation was still camped in Chorev. The second section recounts the failure in Kadesh Barnea.  The third unit speaks of the nations of the eastern bank of the Jordan: Seir, Ammon, Moav, and the Bashan, while the fourth unit takes place in the plains of Moav.
  • Characters – While the first two units speak of the nation as a whole, the third unit includes other nations, and the final one focuses on just Moshe and Yehoshua.
  • Literary markers – Each of the first three units opens with a command to (or statement of) travel. Thus 1:6-7 commands, "רַב לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם", verse 19 continues, "וַנִּסַּע מֵחֹרֵב וַנֵּלֶךְ", and 2:1-3 echoes "וַנֵּפֶן וַנִּסַּע .. וַיֹּאמֶר י"י... רַב לָכֶם סֹב אֶת הָהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ"

Subdivision of Unit III – "The Legal Speech"

A. Introductions (4:1 – 5:30)
B. Speech of the "מצוה": Fundamentals of Loving God (6:1 – 11:32)
C. Speech of the "חוקים ומשפטים": Practical Laws (12:1 – 26:19)
D. Covenantal Agreements (27:1 – 32:52)

  • Plot – The introductions of Chapters 4-5 present the events at Sinai as the basis for belief and observance.  Moshe then discusses the commandment to love God and other aspects of the nation's relationship with Hashem, providing further philosophical basis for observance. This leads into the practical laws of Chapters 12-26. The speech concludes with the establishment of covenants on both the relationship based laws and the practical laws.
  • Openings – Each of the first three units opens with a declaration relating to the laws about to be discussed. 
    • Devarim 4:1 opens, "שְׁמַע אֶל הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים", providing a general introduction to the whole speech. The second half of this introduction states "אֵלֶּה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים", adding "עֵדֹת", a reference to the Decalogue which is discussed right afterwards.15
    • Devarim 6:1 similarly begins with "וְזֹאת הַמִּצְוָה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים", replacing "עֵדֹת" with "הַמִּצְוָה" which, from context, likely refers to the specific command to love God and is the subject of this sub-speech.16
    • Finally, Devarim 12:1 opens "אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים" as it begins to lay forth the practical laws between both man and God (הַחֻקִּים) and man and his fellow man (הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים).17
  • Genre – The two main sections of the speech are distinguished by their genre. While Chapters 12-26 are almost entirely legal in nature, Chapters 6-11 mix narrative and law.

Subdivision of Unit IV – "The Final Farewell"

A. Blessings to the Tribes (33:1–29)
B. Moshe's Death (34:1–12)

  • Plot – The first unit comprises Moshe's blessings to each individual tribe while the second describes Moshe's death.
  • Genre – The two units are distinguished by their genre.  The blessings to the tribes are poetry, while the description of Moshe's death is prose.