Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:4-6ff

In the previous Saturday Series study, we looked at the opening verses (vv. 1-3) of Deuteronomy 32 (the “Song of Moses”), in light of the earlier critical analysis, to see how the various areas and aspects of Biblical criticism relate to the overall interpretation of a passage. This week we will proceed to the next section of the poem (vv. 4-18), based on the following outline:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

We begin with the first portion (vv. 4-6), which establishes the principal theme of the Creator God (YHWH) as the Father of the people Israel.

Deuteronomy 32:4-6

Here is my translation of this section:

4The Rock—His work(s are) complete,
indeed, all His ways (are with) justice,
a Mighty (One) firm with no deviation—
He (is the One ever) true and straight!
5(Yet) His sons <ruined their loyalty to Him>,
an Age (now) crooked and (all) twisted!
6Would you deal this (way) with YHWH,
(as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?
Is He not your Father who created you?
(Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?

After the exordium (vv. 1-3), these lines establish the fundamental theme of the poem. However one views the origin and composition of the Song itself, it must be read in the context of its position in the book of Deuteronomy. The entire thrust of the historical narration, presented as a speech (or speeches) by Moses, is as an exhortation (and warning) to the people to follow the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) established by YHWH. In the initial sections of the Epilogue (chapter 31), it is foretold that Israel would, in large measure, violate the covenant (vv. 16-18, 20-22) in the years to come. For critical scholars, who view the book of Deuteronomy as a product of the kingdom period (e.g. the reign of Josiah, and thereafter), the actual historical situation has been retrojected and presented as ex eventu prophecy (i.e. prophecy written after the fact). Many traditional-conservative commentators, of course, accept the book as recording Moses’ actual words, at least in substance, in which case it represents authentic prophecy announced by God. Either way, its purpose (and power) as a warning to Israel, to remain faithful to the covenant and its Torah, comes through loud and clear. We see this especially in verses 26-29:

26Take this account of the Instruction {Torah}, and you shall set it alongside the box of [i.e. containing] the binding (agreement) of YHWH your Mighty (One) {Elohim}, and it shall be there among you for a witness (always). 27For (indeed) I know your defiance and the hard (back of) your neck! see—in my (be)ing yet alive with you th(is) day, you have been (act)ing defiant with YHWH, and so (then) how (much more will you) following my death! 28Gather to me all the elders of your staffs [i.e. tribes] and (the one)s administering (for you), and I will speak these words in their ears, and I will make [i.e. call on] heaven and earth (to) give witness a(gainst) them. 29For I know that, following my death, you will go (completely) to ruin, and you will turn (aside) from the path which I have charged you (to walk), and the evil shall meet you in the days following, (in) that [i.e. because] you did the (thing that is) evil in the eyes of YHWH, and provoked Him with the (thing)s your hands (have) done.”

There is a strong parallelism at work in these verses:

    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—written, i.e. the book of Deuteronomy itself as a record of Moses’ words (v. 26)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 27)
    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—oral, Moses’ words given directly to the leaders of Israel (v. 28)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 29)

All of this sets the stage for Moses’ reciting the poem of chap. 32 (the Song) to the entire assembly of the Israelite people (v. 30). Thus, central to the poem is the idea of the binding agreement (b®rî¾, ‘covenant’) God made with Israel, and their need to remain faithful to it. There is a strong echo of the covenant-treaty formula in the opening words of the Song, as discussed previously. Now, in the first main section (vv. 4-18) the basis of the covenant is established and confirmed, through poetic narrative. The relationship between the two parties—YHWH and Israel—begins with YHWH’s position as Creator (of all humankind), and special role as Father of Israel. As such, verses 4-6 are fundamentally theological—presenting and describing the character and attributes of YHWH; and the primary characteristic is the faithfulness and loyalty He possesses, which informs His side of the binding agreement. This is expressed several ways in the first lines (2 bicola) of verse 4 (a-d):

    • V. 4a (1): The word ƒûr (“rock”) as a title (Haƒƒûr, “The Rock”), used repeatedly in the Song (vv. 15, 18, 30-31, 37); a rock by nature is strong and sure, while a hill or cliff is a natural position of refuge and protection; thus, the title indicates the reliability, security, and protection which God provides.
    • V. 4a (2-3): It is further said that His actions (pœ±al pl., root p¹±al) are complete (t¹mîm)—that is, there is nothing lacking or amiss in anything He does; for His part, He is utterly faithful and reliable. The call for the people of Israel, likewise, to be complete (t¹mîm) in 18:13 is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Matt 5:48: “Then [i.e. if you follow my teachings] you will be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”.
    • V. 4b: Similarly, it is declared that “all His ways/paths” (k¹l-d®r¹k¹yw) are “justice”. Here, the noun mišp¹‰ may be used in an adjectival sense (“just, right”); however, one can also understand it in a predicate sense—i.e., “all His paths (are in/with) justice”. Everywhere that YHWH walks and acts, there is justice, and nothing that is not just or right; clearly the thought in this half line (colon) is parallel to the one previous.
    • V. 4c: Here His faithfulness and loyalty is stated more directly, with two declarations:
      (i) He is a firm Mighty One (“God”)—that is, He is firm and true in everything He does, using the noun °§mûnâ, parallel to the noun mišp¹‰ (“justice”) in the previous line. He is also the only true Mighty One (°E~l, “God”); all other supposed “Mighty Ones” (whether “gods” or Rulers) are false and unreliable. This lays the groundwork for the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the surrounding nations later in the poem.
      (ii) There is no deviation (or corruption) in what He does; it is specifically stated that “there is no (°ên) deviation (±¹wel)”; moreover, such “deviation” is characteristic of idolatry, and likewise introduces the dualistic theme than runs through the remainder of the poem.
    • V. 4d: YHWH (“He”, hû°) is characterized by two fundamental attributes:
      (i) ƒadîq, often translated “faithful”, but, in the context of the covenant-setting, perhaps better understood as “true”, “loyal”; it is parallel with the noun °§mûnâ in the prior half-line.
      (ii) y¹š¹r, “straight”, clearly parallel with “there is no deviation”.

If YHWH is a completely faithful and reliable partner in the covenant, the same can not be said of the people (Israel). Their lack of faithfulness (to the covenant) is described in vivid, even difficult, terms, reflecting both past (i.e. the Golden Calf incident) and future violations. Despite the harsh language used, it does not necessarily mean that Israel was responsible for flagrant immorality, and the like; any violation of the covenant, however slight, could be described in this manner.

It is just here, in the bicolon of verse 5, that the force of the language used gives way to a significant textual difficulty, as I discussed in a prior study. Many commentators suggest that the text in the first half line, as it has come down to us in the Masoretic text, requires emendation. For the purposes of this study, I have tentatively adopted a reading along the lines of “His sons ruined their loyalty to Him” (see the translation above). The verb š¹µa¾ (“[go to] ruin, destroy, corrupt”) was used earlier in the section preceding the poem (31:29, see above), in Moses’ foretelling the people’s violation of the covenant. This lack of loyalty—to be understood primarily in terms of “idolatry”, as in the Golden Calf episode—characterizes an entire Age or generation (Heb. dôr) of the people. In the second half-line of verse 5, they are characterized as: “an Age crooked and (all) twisted (up)”. This crooked/twisted character of the people is in marked contrast with the “straightness” of YHWH.

In the two lines of verse 6, the contrast—between YHWH and Israel—is developed further, with a pair of questions (each beginning with the interrogative particle h¦-); the question in the first line is:

“Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”

In Torah scrolls, the initial h¦- particle is especially large, perhaps to emphasize the enormity of the question, i.e. “Would you really treat YHWH this way?”. The contrast between one who is foolish (n¹»¹l) and wise (µ¹k¹m) is an essential element of Hebrew Wisdom literature, with ancient roots. The second question builds upon the first, and continues the contrast between YHWH and the people:

    • Character of the People:
      “Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”
    • Character of YHWH:
      “Is He not your Father who created you? (Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?”

If the people acts as faithless, defiant sons (v. 4), YHWH, by contrast remains a faithful/loyal Father to them. His role as Father begins with his more primary function as Creator of all things (and of humankind). Three verbs are used which mark YHWH-El as Creator God:

    • q¹nâ—a primitive root with the basic meaning “create”, sometimes confused/conflated with a similar root with the meaning “buy, purchase, acquire”. Its ancient Semitic religious use is attested in the famous formula of Gen 14:19, 22.
    • ±¹´â—a common verb indicating basic action or work, “make, do”.
    • A causative form of a primitive kn root (kûn, k¹nâ, k¹nan), with the basic meaning here of “cause to be” (see the parallel in Psalm 119:73)

This vital contrast in vv. 4-6 prepares the way for the narration in vv. 7-18, in which the contrast in played out through a colorful description of Israel’s early history. I would ask that you read through this section carefully, noting how the contrast is expressed and the various themes or motifs that are introduced within the fabric of the poem. Consider also the specific textual question in verse 8 (discussed in a previous study)—how does the overall sense and thrust of the passage differ depending on which reading is adopted? We will continue moving through this marvelous poem when we meet again here, next Saturday.

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