Is Moses Telling ‘Fake News’?

The line between “interpretation” and “alteration” isn’t always clear.

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

Deuteronomy is given its name from Greek, meaning, “second law,” and the text we begin reading this week embarks upon retelling the stories of the Israelites throughout their journeys. Yet, the narrative wastes no time straying from its previous iterations, and this portion opens with a befuddling incongruity.

Moses recounts the dramatic mission first told in Numbers 13-14 (in Parashat Sh’lach), in which God commands Moses to send 12 leaders to scout the Land of Canaan and return with a report. In Numbers, they return with a report, but 10 of the spies go further than reporting, opining that the land is not conquerable. A crisis ensues, and God punishes the whole generation (minus the two more optimistic spies, Caleb and Joshua), banning them from entry into the Land of Canaan. The Israelites are dished a 40-year sentence to wander in the wilderness. So the story goes.

Until we get to Parashat Devarim, and Moses alters critical details. In this text, God does not initiate the commandment to send spies — it is the people who demand that the Land be scouted. The spies do not issue the negative report, expressing reservation, as they did in Numbers — here, the blame is set squarely on the people: “You refused to go up and flouted the command of the Eternal your God” (Deut 1:26). Moses transfers the self-doubt of the 10 scouts to the people themselves, and in so doing, this narrative inculpates the entire community of Israel. To make matters even more irreconcilable, in Deuteronomy Moses is addressing the next generation, following the punitive 40 years. In other words, he transfers the sin of the spies to the Israelites, and then from the Israelites to their children.

These two conflicting versions of a story have demanded metaphorical acrobatics from commentators throughout the ages. No matter how one reads Scripture — whether as literal word of God or man-made holy literature — there is no denying that the facts of the story change. As  Moshe Weinfeld, the late Hebrew University Bible scholar, argues in his commentary on Deuteronomy, “The author of Deuteronomy changed the original tradition on purpose.” Whether one views Moses as the story changer or some anonymous biblical author with a political agenda, the incongruity raises the question: When it comes to altering stories, what liberties can one responsibly take? Is Moses lying? Another prominent Bible scholar the late Nehama Leibowitz writes, “What Moses did in our [portion] was interpret the history events recounted in Numbers.” That is certainly one viewpoint, but when we carefully examine the alterations from one story to the next, isn’t “interpretation” somewhat euphemistic?  

Throughout the history of biblical commentary, perhaps no character receives more exoneration than Moses. Our Midrash is filled with justifications for every one of his mistakes, venerating his anger, timidity and, in this case, alteration of an account; it’s all rather ironic, too, since the Torah itself does very little to whitewash Moses’ flawed character. 

Of course commentary always reflects the world in which it is written. The way we see the events of the past always passes through the filters of our anxieties, biases and the fluid demands of contemporary life. However, when we allow “interpretation” to be synonymous with “alteration,” do we not run the risk of compromising our pursuit of truth? How much liberty may we take when altering the narratives that construct our reality?

Today, there is no denying the vulnerability of the structures and institutions that our citizenry depends upon to discern reality— i.e., to know “our story.” Mainstream media outlets are under attack, subject not merely to critical scrutiny but to power campaigns of delegitimization. Moreover, completely unreliable, often intentionally fallacious media outlets, now appreciate greater syndication than ever.  This is not hyperbole; it is the reality of a globalized, digital world. More people now are reading false narratives claiming to be reality than at any moment in world history. Perhaps in this age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” it behooves us to read Moses’ story — and the story that he alters — with critical eyes and rigorous pursuit for trustworthy reporting. 

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