Deu 1:1-4 contain the heading to the whole book; and to this the introduction to the first address is appended in Deu 1:5. By the expression, “These be the words,” etc., Deuteronomy is attached to the previous books; the word “these,” which refers to the addresses that follow, connects what follows with what goes before, just as in Gen 2:4; Gen 6:9, etc. The geographical data in Deu 1:1 present no little difficulty; for whilst the general statement as to the place where Moses delivered the addresses in this book, viz., beyond Jordan, is particularized in the introduction to the second address (Deu 4:46), as “in the valley over against Beth-Peor,” here it is described as “in the wilderness, in the Arabah,” etc. This contrast between the verse before us and Deu 4:45-46, and still more the introduction of the very general and loose expression, “in the desert,” which is so little adapted for a geographical definition of the locality, that it has to be defined itself by the additional words “in the Arabah,” suggest the conclusion that the particular names introduced are not intended to furnish as exact a geographical account as possible of the spot where Moses explained the law to all Israel, but to call up to view the scene of the addresses which follow, and point out the situation of all Israel at that time. Israel was “in the desert,” not yet in Canaan the promised inheritance, and in fact “in the Arabah.” This is the name given to the deep low-lying plain on both sides of the Jordan, which runs from the Lake of Gennesaret to the Dead Sea, and stretches southwards from the Dead Sea to Aila, at the northern extremity of the Red Sea, as we may see very clearly from Deu 2:8, where the way which the Israelites took past Edom to Aila is called the “way of the Arabah,” and also from the fact that the Dead Sea is called “the sea of the Arabah” in Deu 3:17 and Deu 4:49. At present the name Arabah is simply attached to the southern half of this valley, between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea; whilst the northern part, between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, is called el Ghor; though Abulfeda, Ibn Haukal, and other Arabic geographers, extend the name Ghor from the Lake of Gennesaret to Aila (cf. Ges. thes. p. 1166; Hengstenberg, Balaam, p. 520; Robinson, Pal. ii. p. 596). - סוּף מֹול, “over against Suph” (מֹול for מוּל, Deu 2:19; Deu 3:29, etc., for the sake of euphony, to avoid the close connection of the two 8-sounds). Suph is probably a contraction of יַם־סוּף, “the Red Sea” (see at Exo 10:19). This name is given not only to the Gulf of Suez (Exo 13:18; Exo 15:4, Exo 15:22, etc.), but to that of Akabah also (Num 14:25; Num 21:4, etc.). There is no other Suph that would be at all suitable here. The lxx have rendered it πλήσιον τῆς ἐρυθρᾶς θαλάσσης; and Onkelos and others adopt the same rendering. This description cannot serve as a more precise definition of the Arabah, in which case עֲשֶׁר (which) would have to be supplied before מֹול, since “the Arabah actually touches the Red Sea.” Nor does it point out the particular spot in the Arabah where the addresses were delivered, as Knobel supposes; or indicate the connection between the Arboth Moab and the continuation of the Arabah on the other side of the Dead Sea, and point out the Arabah in all this extent as the heart of the country over which the Israelites had moved during the whole of their forty years' wandering (Hengstenberg). For although the Israelites passed twice through the Arabah, it formed by no means the heart of the country in which they continued for forty years. The words “opposite to Suph,” when taken in connection with the following names, cannot have any other object than to define with greater exactness the desert in which the Israelites had moved during the forty years. Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, when it was still in the desert, in the Arabah, still opposite to the Red Sea, after crossing which it had entered the wilderness (Exo 15:22), “between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-Sahab.” Paran is at all events not the desert of this name in all its extent, but the place of encampment in the “desert of Paran” (Num 10:12; Num 12:16), i.e., the district of Kadesh in the desert of Zin (Num 13:21, Num 13:26); and Hazeroth is most probably the place of encampment of that name mentioned in Num 11:35; Num 12:16, from which Israel entered the desert of Paran. Both places had been very eventful to the Israelites. At Hazeroth, Miriam the prophetess and Aaron the high priest had stumbled through rebellion against Moses (Num 12). In the desert of Paran by Kadesh the older generation had been rejected, and sentenced to die in the wilderness on account of its repeated rebellion against the Lord (Num 14); and when the younger generation that had grown up in the wilderness assembled once more in Kadesh to set out for Canaan, even Moses and Aaron, the two heads of the nation, sinned there at the water of strife, so that they two were not permitted to enter Canaan, whilst Miriam died there at that time (Num 20). But if Paran and Hazeroth are mentioned on account of the tragical events connected with these places, it is natural to conclude that there were similar reasons for mentioning the other three names as well.
Tophel is supposed by Hengstenberg (Balaam, p. 517) and Robinson (Pal. ii. p. 570) and all the more modern writers, to be the large village of Tafyleh, with six hundred inhabitants, the chief place in Jebal, on the western side of the Edomitish mountains, in a well-watered valley of the wady of the same name, with large plantations of fruit-trees (Burckhardt, Syr. pp. 677, 678). The Israelites may have come upon this place in the neighbourhood of Oboth (Num 21:10-11); and as its inhabitants, according to Burckhardt, p. 680, supply the Syrian caravans with a considerable quantity of provisions, which they sell to them in the castle of el Ahsa, Schultz conjectures that it may have been here that the people of Israel purchased food and drink of the Edomites for money (Deu 2:29), and that Tafyleh is mentioned as a place of refreshment, where the Israelites partook for the first time of different food from the desert supply. There is a great deal to be said in favour of this conjecture: for even if the Israelites did not obtain different food for the first time at this place, the situation of Tophel does warrant the supposition that it was here that they passed for the first time from the wilderness to an inhabited land; on which account the place was so memorable for them, that it might very well be mentioned as being the extreme east of their wanderings in the desert, as the opposite point to the encampment at Paran, where they first arrived on the western side of their wandering, at the southern border of Canaan. Laban is generally identified with Libnah, the second place of encampment on the return journey from Kadesh (Num 33:22), and may perhaps have been the place referred to in Num 16, but not more precisely defined, where the rebellion of the company of Korah occurred. Lastly, Di-Sahab has been identified by modern commentators with Mersa Dahab or Mina Dahab, i.e., gold-harbour, a place upon a tongue of land in the Elanitic Gulf, about the same latitude as Sinai, where there is nothing to be seen now except a quantity of date-trees, a few sand-hills, and about a dozen heaps of stones piled up irregularly, but all showing signs of having once been joined together (cf. Burckhardt, pp. 847-8; and Ritter, Erdk. xiv. pp. 226ff.). But this is hardly correct. As Roediger has observed (on Wellsted's Reisen, ii. p. 127), “the conjecture has been based exclusively upon the similarity of name, and there is not the slightest exegetical tradition to favour it.” But similarity of names cannot prove anything by itself, as the number of places of the same name, but in different localities, that we meet with in the Bible, is very considerable. Moreover, the further assumption which is founded upon this conjecture, namely, that the Israelites went from Sinai past Dahab, not only appears untenable for the reasons given above, but is actually rendered impossible by the locality itself. The approach to this tongue of land, which projects between two steep lines of coast, with lofty mountain ranges of from 800 to 2000 feet in height on both north and south, leads from Sinai through far too narrow and impracticable a valley for the Israelites to be able to march thither and fix an encampment there.
(Note: From the mouth of the valley through the masses of the primary mountains to the sea-coast, there is a fan-like surface of drifts of primary rock, the radius of which is thirty-five minutes long, the progressive work of the inundations of an indefinable course of thousands of years” (Rüppell, Nubien, p. 206).)
And if Israel cannot have touched Dahab on its march, every probability vanishes that Moses should have mentioned this place here, and the name Di-Sahab remains at present undeterminable. But in spite of our ignorance of this place, and notwithstanding the fact that even the conjecture expressed with regard to Laban is very uncertain, there can be no well-founded doubt that the words “between Paran and Tophel” are to be understood as embracing the whole period of the thirty-seven years of mourning, at the commencement of which Israel was in Paran, whilst at the end they sought to enter Canaan by Tophel (the Edomitish Tafyleh), and that the expression “opposite to Suph” points back to their first entrance into the desert. - Looking from the steppes of Moab over the ground that the Israelites had traversed, Suph, where they first entered the desert of Arabia, would lie between Paran, where the congregation arrived at the borders of Canaan towards the west, and Tophel, where they first ended their desert wanderings thirty-seven years later on the east.
In Deu 1:2 also the retrospective glance at the guidance through the desert is unmistakeable. “Eleven days is the way from Horeb to the mountains of Seir as far as Kadesh-Barnea.” With these words, which were unquestionably intended to be something more than a geographical notice of the distance of Horeb from Kadesh-barnea, Moses reminded the people that they had completed the journey from Horeb, the scene of the establishment of the covenant, to Kadesh, the border of the promised land, in eleven days, that he might lead them to lay to heart the events which took place at Kadesh itself. The “way of the mountains of Seir” is not the way along the side of these mountains, i.e., the way through the Arabah, which is bounded by the mountains of Seir on the east, but the way which leads to the mountains of Seir, just as in Deu 2:1 the way of the Red Sea is the way that leads to this sea. From these words, therefore, it by no means follows that Kadesh-Barnea is to be sought for in the Arabah, and that Israel passed through the Arabah from Horeb to Kadesh. According to Deu 1:19, they departed from Horeb, went through the great and terrible wilderness by the way to the mountains of the Amorites, and came to Kadesh-barnea. Hence the way to the mountains of the Amorites, i.e., the southern part of what were afterwards the mountains of Judah (see at Num 13:17), is the same as the way to the mountains of Seir; consequently the Seir referred to here is not the range on the eastern side of the Arabah, but Seir by Hormah (Deu 1:44), i.e., the border plateau by Wady Murreh, opposite to the mountains of the Amorites (Jos 11:17; Jos 12:7 : see at Num 34:3).
To the description of the ground to which the following addresses refer, there is appended an allusion to the not less significant time when Moses delivered them, viz., “on the first of the eleventh month in the fortieth year,” consequently towards the end of his life, after the conclusion of the divine lawgiving; so that he was able to speak “according to all that Jehovah had given him in commandment unto them” (the Israelites), namely, in the legislation of the former books, which is always referred to in this way (Deu 4:5, Deu 4:23; Deu 5:29-30; Deu 6:1). The time was also significant, from the fact that Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, had then been slain. By giving a victory over these mighty kings, the Lord had begun to fulfil His promises (see Deu 2:25), and had thereby laid Israel under the obligation to love, gratitude, and obedience (see Num 21:21-35). The suffix in הַכֹּתֹו refers to Moses, who had smitten the Amorites at the command and by the power of Jehovah. According to Jos 12:4; Jos 13:12, Jos 13:31; Edrei was the second capital of Og, and it is as such that it is mentioned, and not as the place where Og was defeated (Deu 3:1; Num 21:33). The omission of the copula וְ before בְּאֶדְרֶעִי is to be accounted for from the oratorical character of the introduction to the addresses which follow. Edrei is the present Draà (see at Num 21:33). - In Deu 1:5, the description of the locality is again resumed in the words “beyond the Jordan,” and still further defined by the expression “in the land of Moab;” and the address itself is introduced by the clause, “Moses took in hand to expound this law,” which explains more fully the דִּבֶּר (spake) of Deu 1:3. “In the land of Moab” is a rhetorical and general expression for “in the Arboth Moab.” הֹואִיל does not mean to begin, but to undertake, to take in hand, with the subordinate idea sometimes of venturing, or daring (Gen 18:27), sometimes of a bold resolution: here it denotes an undertaking prompted by internal impulse. Instead of being construed with the infinitive, it is construed rhetorically here with the finite verb without the copula (cf. Ges. §143, 3, b). בֵּאֵר probably signified to dig in the Kal; but this is not used. In the Piel it means to explain (διασαφῆσαι, explanare, lxx, Vulg.), never to engrave, or stamp, not even here nor in Deu 27:8 and Hab 2:2. Here it signifies “to expound this law clearly,” although the exposition was connected with an earnest admonition to preserve and obey it. “This” no doubt refers to the law expounded in what follows; but substantially it is no other than the law already given in the earlier books. “Substantially there is throughout but one law” (Schultz). That the book of Deuteronomy was not intended to furnish a new or second law, is as evident as possible from the word בֵּאֵר.