Who and when and where?
Layers of narration
Before and between and across
Mutability of relation
What lies before your face
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A new book, and what a change of ambiance! If the closing of Numbers revolved around a growing complexity in our relationship to language, the opening of this Book of Words (the literal meaning of the Hebrew name, Devarim) feels almost like a text book play on literary narration.
We open with am omniscient narrator: "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel--on the edge of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain, across the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tofel...." From there we move to the interdiegetic first-person narration in Moses' voice: "God our Lord spoke to us in Horeb, saying..." And from there into an intra-inter-diegetic level of narration, in the reported speech: "and you crowded on me, all of you, and said: 'Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come."
And with the proliferation of narrative levels comes an almost post-modern play on the narrative strategy and the process of storytelling. For Moses' retelling is a not a straightforward rendition of the stories we have heard before. Speakers change--words that were spoken by God are now spoken by the people, words attributed to Moses are suddenly put in God's mouth, Moses' prayer to God becomes an adress to the people; stories are conflated --the punishment of Moses becomes part of the story of the spies, rather than a separate incident; related events merge into a single cry of pain. Jethro's advice to appoint judges in conflated with Moses' later demand for help "How can I bear alone, your cumbrance, your weight, your strife."
Yet even as the players and events change, they key words remain the same--"alone" "spy" "cry": we can recognize the incident through the indelible presence of the leitwort, which takes on its own reality. A dream redreamed, a story retold. There is a core of truth--the key word--seen through different levels of perspectives (Moses' viewpoint) and time (retrospective recounting). Not for nothing is the chapter built around multiple coordinates in space and time, a dizzying mix of prepositions:"in" "against""before" "between". Robert Alter's comparison between Biblical narration and Cubist art is particularly apt in this chapter.
The conflation of time frames emphasizes the thematic image of childhood that echoes throughout the chapter: "you saw that God carried you, like a man carries his son, through all the paths you walked, until you came to this place". We return to the childhood of humanity itself: "your little ones...and your children, who today know not good and evil, they shall go in [to the Land], and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it."
Implicit is also the return to Moses' childhood. Moses' address is defined by the coordinates of the "Reeds" and the Jordan River--two boundaries of water for the child who was "drawn from the water." If the Jordan represents unpassable water, the "Reeds" returns us to those moments on the back of the water, before the arc got caught "in the reeds", and the later moment when Moses "parted the waters" to allow Israel to escape Egypt.
Moses' birth, his moment if greatness, and his end are all held within these boundaries. And the sad irony that the man who split the sea cannot cross the river.