The Last Words of Moses

Mic­ah Good­man; Ilana Kur­shan, trans.

  • Review
By – February 26, 2024

In the appen­dix to his provoca­tive new study of Deuteron­o­my, Mic­ah Good­man writes of Deuteronomy’s great para­dox. It is a book with a human voice that mer­it­ed inclu­sion in a divine work.” These words encap­su­late the dar­ing nature of Goodman’s insight­ful book.

Tra­di­tion­al approach­es to the Tanakh, from the ear­li­est com­men­ta­tors to now, tend to har­mo­nize dis­crep­an­cies between the dif­fer­ent books of the Bible. Good­man, how­ev­er, sees Deuteron­o­my chart­ing a new path. He argues that Moses’s last words put forth two rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas: a divorce of reli­gion from polit­i­cal pow­er, and a con­comi­tant polit­i­cal pow­er that accepts limitations. 

Good­man shows that, in Deuteron­o­my, Moses tries to lim­it rit­u­al activ­i­ty, the actions of the priest­ly class, and the tem­ple itself. He believes that divin­i­ty exists out­side the tem­ple, in direct rela­tion­ship to the peo­ple them­selves — hence the need for peo­ple to become holy on their own terms.

Moses’s oth­er rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea is that lead­er­ship can­not be absolute. Pharaoh is an exam­ple of the cor­rupt­ness of absolute pow­er. Moses and Joshua, his suc­ces­sor, are mod­els of good lead­er­ship, rul­ing the peo­ple with advi­sors who rec­og­nize their lim­i­ta­tions under God’s ulti­mate direc­tion. Good­man argues that Deuteron­o­my calls for a kind of ear­ly ver­sion of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, a lim­it­ed monarchy.

Moses’s last words are a pre­scrip­tion and a warn­ing, and Good­man sees the fraught his­to­ry of king­ship as emblem­at­ic of lead­ers not liv­ing up to these two rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals. That idol­a­try grew dur­ing Solomon’s more abso­lutist reign is case in point. Good­man also notes the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Solomon and Pharaoh, a link­age that goes as far back as midrash.

On one lev­el, Moses’s rev­o­lu­tions fail. The peo­ple fall to idol­a­try. Kings grow more absolute in their pow­er, and ulti­mate­ly the king­doms col­lapse, lead­ing to the first dias­po­ra. But on anoth­er lev­el, Moses’s ideas live on in the text itself. In Goodman’s analy­sis, the eth­i­cal lessons of Deuteron­o­my inform the voic­es of the prophets and the oral Torah. Beyond that, the author pro­pos­es that Moses’s vision of lim­it­ed rule influ­enced enlight­en­ment thought and, ulti­mate­ly, the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers in demo­c­ra­t­ic governments.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the final sec­tion of this ambi­tious study deals with Zion­ism and Israel. Good­man writes that even the sec­u­lar Zion­ists of Israel’s first two gen­er­a­tions under­stood the Bible to be the cen­tral text of Israeli soci­ety. But he argues that the third gen­er­a­tion has lost its famil­iar­i­ty with the Bible. This has led to a divorce in Israeli soci­ety, with the reli­gious right claim­ing the Bible and with sec­u­lar soci­ety gen­er­al­ly indif­fer­ent to or dis­mis­sive of it. Good­man offers a salu­tary defense of the val­ue of the bib­li­cal texts, not just as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sov­er­eign­ty but [as] an appre­ci­a­tion of its dangers.” 

The Last Words of Moses pro­vides a deep read­ing of Deuteron­o­my. It’s an impas­sioned call for the eth­i­cal behav­ior of any gov­ern­ments at any time. Both Moses’s words and Goodman’s own could not be timelier.

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

Discussion Questions