September 9: Deuteronomy 32:1-3

Deuteronomy 32:1-3

The next series of daily notes will focus on the poem in Deuteronomy 32:1-43, the so-called “Song of Moses”, but better known in Jewish tradition from the opening word of the poem Wnz]a&h^ (Ha°¦zînû), “Give ear…”, being thus called the Shirat Ha°azinu. In terms of the preserved language, the Song is one of the oldest surviving pieces of Hebrew poetry, dated (on objective grounds) to at least the 10th or 11th century B.C. Conceivably the original form of the poem could go back to the 12th or 13th century, which would put it closer to the time of Moses himself. I have previously posted a three-part study (parts 1, 2, 3) which can serve as an introduction to the Song, and I would strongly encourage that you read it before continuing with the exegesis below. These daily notes are an expanded version of a smaller set I produced earlier.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to consider the thematic outline of the Song. Such an outline normally would follow the sort of study we are doing, being the result of it; however, in this instance it will help things along to include it here beforehand.

    • 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 start with the first verse (and line) of the Song.

Deuteronomy 32:1

The Song begins with a call (by the poet) to all of creation— “the heavens and the earth”:

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

This first line (bicolon) demonstrates the parallelism, common to much ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, which runs throughout the song. I examined this in the earlier study on Form Criticism, but it is worth illustrating again here.

By parallelism we mean that the second half line (colon) is parallel to the first, restating the idea or image, with some variation or difference in emphasis. This can be seen in an English translation of the first four bicola (vv. 1-3):

    • “Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
      —and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth!
    • Let my instruction drip as rain-fall,
      —let my speech trickle down as dew-cover,
    • As showers upon the sprouting grass,
      —as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants.
    • For the name of YHWH I call (out)
      —(You) set (out) greatness for our God!”

There are different sorts of parallelism. Most common is synonymous parallelism, where the second half-line is more or less equivalent in form and meaning to the first. This properly characterizes the first three bicola above. Often the parallelism extends to each of the three elements (or stress units) in order. I indicate this by color-coding the first line and adding the Hebrew (in transliteration):

    • Give ear [ha°¦zînû], O heavens [haš¹mayim], and I will open to speak [w~°¦¼abb¢râ],
      and hear [w®¾išma±], O earth [h¹°¹reƒ], the words of my mouth [°imrê-¸î]!

The fourth bicolon above is an example of synthetic parallelism, where the second half-line builds upon the first, intensifying the thought, and, occasionally, pointing in a slightly different direction— “I call the name of YHWH”, and so you, also, must “set/give greatness to our God”! A third type of parallelism, antithetic—i.e. the second half-line making an opposite (though related) point from the first—is rather rare in the poem; an example would be from later on in verse 27b:

    • “Lest they say, ‘Our hand raised (this)’
      —and ‘It is not YHWH (who) has done all this (work)’!”

Such parallelism is not simply a stylistic device; it also allows the poet to emphasize certain themes and ideas, giving two (or more) variations of a basic motif, the second restating or building upon the first. Here the dual-concept of the universe (creation) as consisting of the pair “heaven and earth” serves to establish the parallelism in the line. This sort of opening is actually a traditional literary (and rhetorical) device, seen in other places in the Old Testament—Isa 1:2-3; Jer 2:4ff; also Psalm 50:4; Mic 6:1ff. It draws upon ancient religious and cultural traditions, including certain conventions associated with establishment of binding agreements (covenants) and treaties, etc. In establishing such an agreement between parties, it was customary to call on deities as witnesses, as way of “hallowing” the agreement, and, in a quasi-magical manner, to bring down divine judgment if it should ever be violated by one of the parties. We see a faint vestige of this sort of practice today in our continued use of oaths (with a hand on the Bible, etc) in official legal proceedings and public ceremonies.

Of course, in the context of early Israelite monotheism, Yahweh was the one called upon in oaths and the like. In the case of the covenant between God (YHWH) and Israel, the typical custom (of calling upon deities as witness) could not be applied in the same way, nor was it entirely appropriate. Nothing of the sort is found in the early covenant traditions (in Gen 15, 17; Exod 24, etc) preserved elsewhere in the Pentateuch. However, it does appear several times in the book of Deuteronomy: 4:26; 30:19, and at 31:28, just prior to the Song. Though “heaven” and “earth” as such were viewed as deities in the ancient Near East, they are not treated this way here. Rather, they represent “all of creation”—i.e. the universe, the created order. The poet, following God’s own word, calls on heaven and earth to hear the words of the Song. According to 31:19, the Song itself serves as witness of the covenant, to which heaven and earth join, according to the traditional motif. This enhances the importance of the Song and its message.

Deuteronomy 32:2

“Let my instruction drip as rain-fall,
let my speech trickle down as dew-cover,
as showers upon the sprouting grass,
as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants.”

In continuing with an analysis of the poetic devices used in the Song, we might draw attention to the use of end rhythm/rhyme, as can be seen in verse 2b (above):

    • ki´±îrim ±¦lê-¼eše°
      w®½ir»î»îm ±¦lê-±¢´e»
      “As showers upon the sprouting grass,
      and as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants”

All of this becomes lost in translation, but it is important to keep such things in mind, and to study these features as part of the passage, as far as it is possible for you to do so.

Verse 2 extends the idea of creation as witness, hearing the words of the Song, through the natural imagery of rain and dew—i.e., water from heaven, which, drawing upon sky/storm theophany, has God as its source. God’s word—that is, the inspired message of the Song—comes down from heaven to the earth.

Commentators sometimes refer to the call to heaven and earth in verse 1 (and similar passages) as part of a “covenant lawsuit” tradition, whereby one calls upon the (divine) witnesses to deliver a complaint that the binding agreement (treaty or covenant) has been violated. Such violation will result in divine judgment, often understood in military terms—attack upon the party who violated the covenant. While verse 1 almost certainly draws upon such a tradition, it must be said that there is no real sense in the Song of a legal proceeding. It is, however, present more decidedly in Isa 1:2-3ff and Jer 2:4ff, passages which were doubtless influenced by Deut 32; indeed, there are a number of rather clear parallels between Isa 1:2-31 and the Song of Moses. For examples of heaven/earth taking a more active role in the proceedings, see Mic 6:1-2; Jer 4:28; 6:19; 51:38. Natural disasters and other phenomena were typically understood as manifestations of divine judgment.

This last point is significant, and can easily be overlooked in a casual reading of vv. 1-3. By injecting a developed (later) form of monotheism into these early Scriptures, there is also a tendency to exaggerate a separation between the transcendent Creator God (YHWH) and the Creation. In early Israelite thought and expression, God and the Creation (heaven and earth) were much more closely connected than is often realized by Jews and Christians today. While not “gods” in the sense found in ancient Near Eastern religious lore, heaven and earth, along with all of the natural phenomena contained within them, obeyed YHWH and worked/acted on His behalf. As witnesses to the covenant, they also would “act” against the violators of the agreement, as indicated in the passages cited above. We can see in the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32), for example, how natural features and phenomena are utilized to bring judgment on the people (vv. 20, 35), presented in tandem with attack by military forces (“the sword”, vv. 25-28), and this could be repeated numerous times from similar passages in the Old Testament. Here in the Song, upon violation of the covenant, the earth itself, which was at first fruitful (vv. 13-14), would turn against the people, through the burning fire of God’s anger which consumes the earth’s produce and fertility (v. 20). Along with this, there will famine, plague, disease and attacks by wild beasts (v. 24)—all natural disasters which will strike the people, even as they will also be attacked by the sword of invading military forces (v. 25). This is all very much part of the traditional language of divine judgment in the Old Testament.

It is also especially significant in light of the primary theme which runs through the Song: the contrast between YHWH as Israel’s God, and the foreign deities which the people came to worship, thereby violating the covenant. This will be discussed in our study on subsequent verses in the Song, but it is important to note how the theme is established here in the opening. We have seen how the call to heaven and earth draws upon ancient Near Eastern tradition whereby the gods were called upon as witnesses to a covenant or treaty. Thus there is here an implicit reference to the religious distinction, from the Israelite standpoint, between the one true Creator God (El-YHWH) and all of the other deities recognized by the surrounding nations. In early Israelite monotheism, this distinction was not as sharp as it would later become. The “sons of God” had not yet been reduced to “angels”, and could refer to various sorts of divine and/or heavenly beings. In the context of the traditional language of verse 1, heaven and earth are obedient servants of YHWH, and their natural activities (rainfall, etc) parallel God’s own word being spoken (v. 2).

Deuteronomy 32:3

This unifying sense of purpose is emphasized by the declaration which follows in verse 3:

“For the name of YHWH I call out—
Give greatness to our Mighty (One) [i.e., God, Elohim]!”

Note again the parallelism here, where the second half-line builds upon the first (an example, I would say, of synthetic parallelism). The poet calls out “the name of YHWH”, a way of acknowledging that Yahweh is his God, and that he is serving a prophetic, oracular role in making Him known (His word and will) to the people. In the second half-line, the poet calls upon the people to respond in kind, acknowledging and declaring “the greatness of our God”. The word translated “God” is the plural noun <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), which, when applied to the Creator El-Yahweh, is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural, meaning something like “Mightiest (One)”. When used as a true plural, of course, it would refer to other “Mighty Ones”—deities or divine beings, such as those worshiped by the surrounding nations. The Song plays heavily upon this dual meaning and use of the word, as we shall see.

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