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Dead Sea Scrolls

The Words of Moses

The Words of Moses (1Q22 [1QDM])

These fragments from Qumran belong to a kind of literature called the Testament or Farewell Discourse. A Testament represents the "last words" of a famous person in Israel to their descendants or followers. Testaments are a little bit like the modern "Last Will and Testament," except, instead of containing instructions for the distribution of money and assets, they give predictions of the future, warnings of dangers to come, and instructions on behavior.
The Words of Moses
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Many of these Testaments were actually written long after the biblical characters themselves had died, during what is often called the "Intertestamental" period. That was the period of time between the writing of the Hebrew scriptures (called by Christians the Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. Some Testaments have come down to us from sources other than the Dead Sea Scrolls, in Ethiopic, Syriac, Greek, and Coptic translations.

The Bible also contains some examples of "Last Words" or Testaments. For example, in Genesis 49, Jacob, who is about to die, calls all of his sons to him and pronounces blessings over them, blessings which also serve to some degree as predictions. 2 Samuel includes the "Last Words of David" in chapter 23 (see 2 Samuel 23:1). Jesus' words at the Last Supper in the Gospels might also be considered examples of the Testament or Farewell Discourse (see, for example, John 13:31b-17:26).

In the Words of Moses, God commands Moses to interpret the law for the leaders of the community, and at the same time predicts that the people will fall away from the worship of God. Moses, in turn, commands Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron, and Joshua, son of Nun, to speak the words of the law. Moses then goes on to order the people to choose for themselves men who can interpret the law for them, and himself repeats some of the laws. He warns them that they are to be very careful in obeying the law and keeping all of the precepts that they have been given.

The content of the manuscript is heavily influenced by the biblical book of Deuteronomy, which is primarily a long speech by Moses to the people of Israel before they enter the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy itself reviews, quotes and reworks some of the material from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The Words of Moses reworks material from Deuteronomy. This is not at all surprising, since much of the literature of this time (3rd century B.C.E. to 1st century C.E.) is based on older biblical texts. It was a common practice, as we can see from many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to take passages from the Bible and rework them in some way for a particular religious purpose. The Words of Moses was perhaps intended to serve as a reminder to the people to obey the commandments given by God through Moses. It may also have served as a warning of what would happen if they did not.

Photograph by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Princeton Theological Seminary. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan.

Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.