Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43

Deuteronomy 32:1-43

I have chosen the great poem in Deuteronomy 32 as a way to demonstrate Old Testament criticism involving Hebrew poetry. It is often referred to as the “Song of Moses”, while in Hebrew tradition it is known by the opening word Ha°¦zînû, “Give ear…”. As with our earlier study on Exodus 32-34, I will be examining this section according to different areas or aspects of Biblical criticism—

    • Textual criticism
    • Form criticism
    • Source criticism
    • Historical criticism

followed by a brief exegetical survey of the text as it has come down to us, according to what is typically called Literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

An important component and emphasis of textual criticism is the determination, as far as it is possible, of the most likely original form of the text. This is based on the fundamental premise that the text has experienced corruption at numerous points during the process of transmission. The word “corruption” can be misleading, suggesting a moral failing; but this is not at all what the word means in the context of the science of textual criticism. Textual corruption simply means that the original text (as authored/intended) has been altered in some way at various points (variation units). This alteration may have been intentional, or, much more frequently, occurred by accident. The alteration may be limited to particular manuscripts (or manuscript groups), or, in some instances, has been preserved in the main line of transmission of the text as it has come down to us. In the case of the Old Testament, this main line of transmission is identified as the “Masoretic Text” (MT). Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially the texts from Qumran), the oldest copies of the Hebrew text were from the 9th-10th century A.D.—many centuries after even the latest of the Scriptures were composed. The Dead Sea Scrolls have changed the textual picture considerably. While the Scripture texts from Qumran (and other sites) have confirmed the general reliability of the Masoretic Text, they have also brought up many differences, including numerous points at which the Qumran MSS agree with the Greek version (and/or the Samaritan Pentateuch) against the MT. In such instances, the readings of the Qumran copies must be given most serious consideration.

A particular problem related to Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament, is that the poetic portions often contain older or archaic language which can be difficult to recognize and interpret. This was probably as true for ancient copyists, working centuries after the poems were originally composed, as it is for scholars today. There are many points in Old Testament poetry where the text appears to be corrupt. It is often difficult to be sure, since the confusion may be the result of a genuine word, phrase or syntactical construct, which is unknown or unintelligible to us today. However, a comparison with the Greek version (Septuagint), and, more importantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls, can help to clarify some of these difficulties, and to confirm points at which the Masoretic Text may indeed be corrupt.

There are three points in the Song of Moses were there is evidence for textual corruption, and/or variant readings. Let us look briefly at each of them in turn.

Deut 32:5

The first line (colon) in verse 5 appears to make very little sense as it has come down to us:

Šiµ¢¾ lô lœ° b¹n¹w mûm¹m
literally: “he made ruin to/for him his sons their blemish”

If you go to this verse in your English Bible, you will likely see a footnote indicating that the Hebrew is obscure or uncertain. As noted above, this is frequently the case in Old Testament poetry. There are hundreds of verses or lines where we simply do not know for certain what the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text (MT) means, or how to translate and interpret it, or whether the apparent confusion is the result of textual corruption. The Rabbis noted the difficult syntax of this verse and sought variously to explain the MT, without any emendation. For example, Nahmanides explains it along the lines of: “their blemish caused them [i.e. the Israelites] to act corruptly toward Him” so that, as a result, “they are not His sons”.

Many critical commentators believe that the verse, as it has come down to us, is corrupt. One suggestion (cf. J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary [1996], p. 301) is that originally the line read something like—

šiµ¦¾û lô b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“His sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

or, possibly:

šiµ¦¾û lœ°-b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“(the ones who are) not-His-sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

Admittedly, this would make a better fit with the second half of the line, but it remains quite speculative.

The Greek version (Septuagint, LXX) is somewhat confusing as well:

h¢mártosan ouk autœ¡ tékna mœm¢tá
perhaps: “they sinned, children (of) blame (who are) not to me [i.e. not mine]”

Unfortunately, verse 5 is not present among the manuscript fragments of Deuteronomy preserved at Qumran, so there is no help from that side in elucidating the Hebrew syntax. One must always be cautious in emending the text that has come down to us (i.e. the Masoretic text), especially when there is no clear manuscript support for such emendation. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to accept the MT blindly, ignoring places where the received text is difficult or unintelligible. Here textual criticism reaches it finest, and most challenging, point.

Deut 32:8

The Masoretic Text (MT) of these lines in verse 8 reads:

B®hanµ¢l ±Elyôn gôyim
b®ha¸rî¼ô b®nê °¹¼¹m
yaƒƒ¢» g®»¥lœ¾ ±ammîm
l®mi´par b®nê Yi´r¹°¢l

“In the Most High’s giving posessions (to) the nations,
in His breaking apart [i.e. separating] the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples,
to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of Israel.”

The last line has always struck commentators as a bit peculiar. Since the context overall suggests the dispersal of the nations (following the traditions in Genesis 10-11), occurring long before Israel was a people, establishment of the traditional number of nations (seventy, according to Gen 10) in terms of the number of Israel’s descendants (Exod 1:1-5; Deut 10:22, etc) seems somewhat out of place. Many commentators were drawn to the alternate reading in the Greek version (Septuagint, LXX), which, instead of “according to the sons of Israel”, reads “according to the Messengers of God” (katá arithmón angélœn Theoú). This version of the text finds confirmation in one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutj):

l®mi´par b®nê °E_lœhîm

“…(according) to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of God

The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic term for divine beings—”gods” generally, in Canaanite religion. Within the context of Israelite monotheism, this idea was modified so as to refer to heavenly beings, i.e. Angels (“Messengers”), who are not to be worshiped as gods. A traditional number of seventy such beings goes all the way back to ancient Canaanite religious lore, and was preserved in Israelite and Jewish writings. This variant reading would seem to be confirmed again by the context of verse 8 within the Song. An important theme throughout, as we shall see, is the need for Israel to serve and worship only Yahweh, and not to follow after the other nations, who worship other ‘deities’ (such as represented by the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies). While the other nations may have been allotted to various heavenly beings, Israel is God’s own portion (v. 9). Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (4:19-20) we find similar language to 32:8-9, which suggests again that the reading of 4QDeutj may be original (see further below, on verse 43). Indeed, a tradition reflecting this reading is preserved in Jewish writings, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the “Sayings of Rabbi Eliezer” (chap. 24). The Targum makes reference to “the seventy angels, princes of the nations”, in the context of the the Tower of Babel episode and the dispersal of the nations. For a good discussion, see J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary (1996), pp. 514-5 (Excursus 31).

Deut 32:43

Here is another example where the Masoretic text appears to be corrupt, in this instance due, it would seem, to a portion of the verse having dropped out. Here is the MT as it has come down to us (for the moment, I give it only in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to His opponents,
and will cover [i.e. wipe away, cleanse] His people’s land.”

Commentators have noticed the lack of poetic parallelism in the first lines, quite in contrast to the style and technique used consistently throughout the poem, and raising the possibility that the MT is incomplete. Indeed, the Greek version is more complete, and, in part, this has been confirmed by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, where v. 43 reads as follows (note the differences in italics):

“O heavens, cry out [i.e. rejoice] with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all gods [lit. Mighty Ones]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to His opponents,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will cover [i.e. wipe away, cleanse] His people’s land.”

This preserves more accurately the three-beat bicolon (3:3) strophic structure and parallelism characteristic of the rest of the poem. The Septuagint Greek is more expansive, which could indicate its secondary character. The first lines, in particular, appear to conflate (combine) the text from 4QDeutq and MT:

“Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O heavens, with Him,
and kiss toward [i.e. worship] Him, all (you) sons of God!
Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O nations, with His people,
and let all the Messengers of God strengthen themselves in Him!

It is easy to see how the word °§lœhîm (“gods”, LXX “sons of God”), along with the line containing it, might have dropped out or been omitted during the process of transmission. It could have been misunderstood as supporting polytheism in some way (i.e. the existence of other deities), even if here the plural °§lœhîm (lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) and not pagan deities as such. The LXX wording (“sons of God”) more accurately reflects the typical Hebrew usage in the Old Testament (see Psalm 29:1, etc; but note Psalm 97:7). In favor of the Septuagint reading is the close association of the nations and the deities (or Angels), such as we saw in what is likely the original reading of verse 8 (above). Yet the Qumran text strikes me as being more precise and favorable to the ancient poetic (and religious) outlook. The call to the heavens also serves as a fitting conclusion, functioning as a parallel to the opening words of the poem (v. 1, “Give ear, O heavens…”).

I hope that this demonstrates some of the issues involved with the study of Old Testament poetry, especially in a poem as old as the Song of Moses appears to be. Textual and interpretive difficulties abound, and must not be glossed over or ignored. Continue to study and meditate on this great poem, and we will continue with our discussion next week, picking up with the remaining areas of critical analysis which need to be explored (such as form- and source-criticism). I will see you here again next week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *