Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:26ff, 43

In the recent Saturday studies, we have been exploring the great poem known as the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, using it was a way to consider, and demonstrate, how principles and methods of critical analysis apply to a particular passage (here, involving ancient Hebrew poetry). Last week, I discussed verses 15-25 in some detail; today, I wish to bring this exploration of the Song of Moses to a conclusion. There will be three parts to this study:

    • a survey/summary of verses 26-42
    • an examination of verse 43, and
    • a brief consideration of the poem in relation to verses 44ff that follow

Verses 26-42

First, a reminder of the structure of the bulk of the poem:

    • 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)

Verses 26-42 belong to this second division; vv. 19-25 (discussed last week) narrate the punishment to be brought on the people as a result of their violation of the covenant. That this punishment would be both severe and deadly is clear enough from the dramatic language and imagery used. However, it would not result in the complete destruction of the people, nor is their any hint of a future Exile. Instead, we see in verses 26ff a theme of deliverance emerge. It follows the same line of thought as in the Golden Calf narrative in Exodus 32ff—Israel will suffer a devastating punishment, ceasing to be God’s people in the way that they were under the covenant bond; at the same time, because of YHWH’s own goodness and mercy, and through the intercession of Moses, the people will not be cut off completely, but will be restored to YHWH as His people under the covenant. Just as Moses appealed to YHWH’s honor, referring to how this punishment on Israel would be perceived by the surrounding nations (Exod 33:13-16), so we find the same thought expressed emphatically in the Song; indeed, it is a theme that dominates vv. 26-42.

Central to the entire poem is the contrast between YHWH and the deities recognized by other nations; it is the same contrast that effectively separates Israel (as YHWH’s own people) from the other peoples (who ‘belong’ to other deities, see the discussion on verse 8). Because of this, YHWH (and His own honor) cannot allow the nations to triumph over Israel completely, though they may attack and inflict immense suffering and destruction on the people and land (vv. 23-25). This is expressed in the opening lines of this portion of the poem (vv. 26-27), and could (almost) be understood as reflecting a kind of personal insecurity on the part of YHWH:

I said “I shall split them to pieces,
stop (all) memory of them for man(kind)!”
were it not [i.e. except] that I feared provoking the enemy,
lest (those) oppressing them look at (this),
lest they say “Our hand is lifted high—
and YHWH did not make all this (happen)!”

The focus is on curbing the wicked/fleshly ambitions and aspirations of the surrounding nations. However, to understand the lines correctly in context, we must realize the true significance of this aspect. The success of the other nations (over Israel) might lead people everywhere to think that their deities were equal (or superior) to YHWH. Thus the rhetoric and mode of expression here is fundamentally theological. The declaration in verse 31, expressing the thought of the poet/people rather than YHWH’s own pronouncement in the prior lines, is a good example:

For not like our Rock is their ‘Rock’
nor (the one)s our enemies (trust as) guardians.

The precise meaning and syntax of the second line is uncertain, but poetic parallelism suggests that the plural noun (or participle) p®lîlîm should be related to Akkadian palilu used as an epithet of deities (JPS:Tigay, pp. 310, 404). “Rock” (‚ûr) of course is used as a divine name throughout the poem, parallel with °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God). Another example of the same sort of contrast is seen in the taunt by YHWH in verse 37ff, part of the announcement of judgment on the nations that shapes the remaining lines:

He [i.e. YHWH] will say, “Where are their ‘Mighty Ones’,
the ‘Rock’ in whom they sought protection

This expresses again the principle that the deities worshiped by the nations are not “Mighty” (°¢l, i.e. God) in the same sense that YHWH is. Even more pointed is the declaration in verse 39a:

“See then that I—I am He
and there are no ‘Mighty Ones’ with me”

While it would be a mistake to read this as a statement of absolute monotheism, it does point in that direction. Certainly it reflects the principle expressed in the first command of the Decalogue, which is central to Israelite monotheism (Exod 20:2-3; Deut 5:6-7). It is never quite stated in Deuteronomy that the deities of the surrounding nations do not exist, only that they are not comparable to YHWH and do not have anything like the same power or nature (Deut 3:24, etc). God’s ultimate judgment on the surrounding nations is essentially a condemnation of their deities, and a demonstration of their weakness compared to YHWH. Indeed, it is clear from the second bicolon (and concluding colon) in verse 39 that only YHWH truly has the power to give life and take it away (i.e. through the disasters to come in time of Judgment):

(For) I bring death and give life,
I smashed (them) and I will heal

A final thought in the poem—a warning to all people—is that YHWH’s judgment is universal, it applies both to the nations and also to His own people Israel when they violate the covenant (v. 41b, see also v. 43 below):

I will return vengeance for the (one)s oppressing me,
and for the (one)s hating me I will complete (it in turn)

The idea of reciprocity is important, and is central, indeed, to the ancient covenant idea—punishment is made according to the nature and mode of the crime, the violation being “paid back” in kind. The closing bicola of verse 42 offer a final, graphic expression of the divine Judgment.

Verse 43

With regard to the textual situation surrounding the closing lines of the poem (v. 43), I discussed that in some detail in an earlier study, and will only summarize it here. The bicolon parallelism, used consistently throughout the poem, is largely missing from v. 43, which, in the Masoretic Text, consists of 2 bicola (4 lines). Yet there is parallelism overlapping in the second and third cola, suggesting that the text may be corrupt, with perhaps two lines missing (just prior and after):

Make a shout (then), (you) nations, (for) His people,
{missing line?}
For He will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants,
and return vengeance for the (one)s oppressing Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

This would seem to be confirmed, rather decisively, I think, by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, as well as in the Greek Septuagint version. The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve the consistent parallelism of the poem (differences with MT indicated by italics):

Make a shout, O heavens, with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all (you) Mighty Ones!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to the (one)s oppressing Him.
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (°§lœhîm). The reading of the Septuagint for the first bicolon actually appears to be a conflation of two variant Hebrew versions, one corresponding to a text like 4QDeutq, and the other a precursor of the MT—resulting in four lines:

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

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed, which makes a fitting parallel to the opening address of the poem (v. 1). In the MT, and the second part of the conflate Septuagint text, it is the nations, who ‘belong’ to those divine beings, who are being addressed. In terms of the overall message of the poem, both aspects go hand in hand. However, if we adopt the text of 4QDeutq, with its emphasis on the relationship of YHWH to the other ‘deities’ (an aspect that is mitigated in the MT), then the coda of verse 43 actually functions effectively as a kind of summary of the entire poem:

    • Bicolon 1: Address to the heavens and divine/heavenly beings
      • Parallel to the opening address (vv. 1-3) and first section(s) of the poem, which establish the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the other nations (vv. 4-9ff)
    • Bicolon 2: Promise to pay back the suffering inflicted upon Israel (by other peoples) during the time of judgment
      • Parallel to the central sections focusing on Israel’s violation of the covenant, judgment upon them, and subsequent restoration (vv. 15-25ff)
    • Bicolon 3: The declaration of universal judgment on those who reject YHWH, with a promise of restoration/vindication for Israel
      • Parallel to the closing sections of the poem (vv. 26-42, esp. verses 36-42)


Finally, it is worth noting the relationship of the poem to the narration that follows in verses 44-47ff. It picks up the Deuteronomic narrative from where it left off (at the end of chapter 31), continuing with the same line of thought. The purpose (and importance) of the poem is re-stated, setting it in context with the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The “all these words” and “this Instruction” refer to everything recorded in the book of Deuteronomy—all of Moses’ discourses to the people, together with the poem of chapter 32—all of which is aimed at exhorting the people to be loyal to the covenant with YHWH, adhering to the terms of the covenant, outlined in the Instruction (tôrâ, Torah):

“…You should charge your sons [i.e. children] to watch [i.e. take care] to do all the words [i.e. everything as it is stated] in this Instruction.”

According to the ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural mindset, abiding by the terms of the covenant was of the utmost importance. Violation of them was thought to result (potentially) in terrible consequences, including death and destruction, suffering and disease, etc—the judgment of God (or the divine powers) released upon those who break the agreement. This is expressed most clearly in the vivid and graphic language of the poem (see above), but also in the closing words of the narrative here:

“For (indeed) it is not an empty word for you—it (is) your (very) life! and by this word you will lengthen (your) days upon the land which you are crossing over the Yarden {Jordan} there to possess.”

That is to say, if the people of Israel (and their descendants) will adhere faithfully to the Instruction, the terms of the covenant, then they will live long and secure in their Promised Land.

References marked “JPS:Tigay” above are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy <yrbd, commentary by Jeffrey H. Tigay (Jewish Publication Society: 1996).

* * * * * *

This concludes our study on the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Next week, I will begin exploring a particularly interesting (and difficult) passage from the letters of Paul—namely the excursus in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, long a focus for much scholarly debate regarding its origins, authorship, and purpose in 2 Corinthians. It should prove most valuable as a way of demonstrating how various critical theories and approaches to the text are vital to a sound examination and understanding of the Scriptures as we have them. I would ask that you read through the letter, paying close attention to the language Paul uses, and to the line of argument that runs through the main sections. Consider how 6:14-7:1 fits into the context of the letter. Does it seem at all out of place? Do the images and language differ noticeably from what Paul using elsewhere in the letter? Try skipping over the passage, reading from 6:13 to 7:2ff—what effect does this have of the line of thought and argument in these chapters? We will begin exploring these questions in detail here…next Saturday.

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