September 23: Deuteronomy 32:36-42

Deuteronomy 32:36-42

These verses continue the themes from the previous sections, blending together two aspects of YHWH’s judgment against the wickedness and idolatry of humankind: (1) His judgment against His people Israel (vv. 19-25, discussed in a prior note), and (2) the judgment against the other Nations (vv. 32-35, cf. the previous note). Both sides of the judgment are combined here. The basis, or reason for the judgment, in each instance, is given in vv. 15-18 and 26-31, respectively.

Wickedness is defined primarily in terms of idolatry—which, according the religious/theological standpoint of Deuteronomy, simply means acknowledgement and worship of any deity other than YHWH. While not stated expressly, the basic premise is that these other deities (<yh!ýa$, “mighty [one]s”) have no real existence; certainly, they do not have the power which the true Creator God (El-Yahweh) possesses. A mocking polemic against polytheism is very much present throughout the Song, though it has not yet reached the sharp level it would in the subsequent Prophetic tradition.

Verse 36

Indeed, YHWH will make judgment (for) His people,
and obtain relief Himself over His servants.

This initial couplet provides the joining point for the two aspects of the judgment noted above. It plays on a dual-sense for both verbs /yD! (“judge, make/bring judgment”) and <j^n`. The latter verb has a semantic range that is difficult to capture in English; the basic meaning is something like “find relief”, in a more literal sense being roughly comparable to the English idiom “take a deep breath”. It is often used in a transferred, figurative sense, for the resolution of a point of conflict or tension; here the judicial aspect is prominent—e.g., of a plaintiff receiving relief or satisfaction for a wrong or crime committed against him. Both verbs can be understood here in terms of YHWH’s judgment against Israel, for their blatant violations of the covenant (vv. 15-25), but also of judgment on behalf of Israel—i.e., against the other nations. Both aspects are woven through the following lines.

Verses 37-38

For He shall see, when (their) hand goes away,
and (they are at) an end, closed up and abandoned;
and He shall say, “Where (are) their ‘Mighty (One)s’,
(the) ‘Rock’ in (who)m they sought protection,
(the ones) who ‘ate’ (the) fat of their slaughterings,
(who) ‘drank’ (the) wine of their (offering)s poured out?
May they stand up and help you (now)!
Let (them) be a covering [i.e. protection] over you!”

God does bring judgment against His people; but then, when they have been defeated and are helpless, having endured the proper punishment, He finally moves to act again on their behalf. The way this judgment is framed here implies that Israel has effectively become just like the other nations, trusting in other deities rather than YHWH. They meet with a comparable fate for such ‘idolatry’; only at the brink of destruction will they come to realize their folly. This is expressed in terms of a taunt by YHWH, condemning (and mocking) His people for trusting in other deities. This taunt in verse 37ff is 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” (la@ °E~l, i.e. God) in the same sense that YHWH is. The distinction between them and YHWH is made all the more clear by use of the divine title rWx (“Rock”), which was used specifically to identify YHWH as Israel’s God (emphasizing the special covenant-bond between them) in vv. 4, 15, 18.

Verse 39

Even more pointed is the declaration in verse 39:

“See then that I—I am He
and there are no ‘Mighty Ones’ with me!
I cause death, and I give life,
I smashed, and I will heal—
and there is no one snatching from my hand!”

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

Verses 40-41

“For I lift my hand to (the) heavens,
and I say: ‘(As) I live, (in)to (the) distant (future),
if I should point my flashing sword,
and my hand take firm hold in judgment,
I will return vengeance for the (one)s hostile (to) me,
and for the (one)s hating me I will complete (it in turn)!'”

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). This announcement is framed as a formal/solemn vow or oath, using the traditional convention of raising one’s hand and uttering a binding oath formula (“As I live…”, “By my life…”). It emphasizes that YHWH will bring judgment against those who are hostile (rx^) to Him and who “hate” Him (vb an~v*). The idea of hostility/hatred toward God is simply another way of referring to the acknowledgement/worship of deities other than YHWH; but it also implies a connection between ‘idolatry’ and other sorts of wickedness and violence (cp. Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18-32).

The vengeance-language in verse 41a echoes that used earlier in v. 35a (cf. the previous note). I discussed the use of the verb <l^v* there, translating it in the fundamental sense of “make whole”; here I have shifted the translation slightly, to capture the sense of reciprocal punishment, with the idea that the hostility directed toward YHWH will be turned back upon the wicked. I render the verb above as “(make) complete”, that is, to complete the hostility of the wicked by bringing upon them the proper punishment that is due.

This 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. I will discuss v. 42, along with the concluding lines of the Song (verse 43), in the next daily note.

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