September 24: Deuteronomy 32:43

Deuteronomy 32:43

The final lines in verse 42 bring the great “Song of Moses” to a close. The stanza functions as a refrain, serving as the climax to the entire poem; in particular, it builds upon the preceding couplets in verses 36-42 (discussed in the previous note) with their theme of YHWH’s judgment on humankind for its wickedness and idolatry (that is, worship of deities other than YHWH). The judgment is universal and applies to all people—the surrounding nations as well as His own people Israel. In verse 41 YHWH (figuratively) swears an oath that he will bring judgment against all those who are hostile to Him; and this promise of fulfillment, with the sword He has pointed (and holds firmly), is expressed graphically in verse 42:

“I will make my arrows drunk from blood,
and my sword, it will eat up (the) flesh—
from (the) blood of (those) pierced and taken captive,
and from (the) hairy head(s) of (the) hostile (one)s!”

The precise meaning of the last line is uncertain, but, in parallel with the prior line, it would seem to refer to the decapitation of enemy warriors (and/or their chieftains). In any case, it is a rather gory scene, doubtless a bit disturbing to our modern Christian sensibilities. However, what is important to remember is that the judgment described throughout the poem refers primarily to military attack—that is, God makes use of human armies to bring judgment on other peoples. Thus, as part of the realization of such judgment, it would not be at all uncommon to find evidence of bloody bodies pierced with the sword, along with actual heads cut off; such would have been typical of warfare in the ancient world.

When we turn to verse 43, we suddenly encounter a major textual difficulty. This 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 (in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
and will wipe away [i.e. 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. The bicolon parallelism 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 there are 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 to (the one)s hostile to Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

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 Mighty Ones [i.e. gods]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land.”

The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve 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!

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ yn@B=, b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (<yh!ýa$, °§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.

It is easy to see how the word <yh!ýa$ (°§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 <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels of YHWH) 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 (cf. the earlier note on this verse). 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…”).

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed. 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 (for more on this, cf. the current articles on the Covenant in the series “The People of God”). 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.

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