September 17: Deuteronomy 32:19-25

Deuteronomy 32:19-25

Before proceeding in this note with an exegesis of verses 19-25, it is necessary to address the (historical) critical question mentioned in the previous note (on vv. 15-18). As we do so, it is worth keeping in mind the structure of this great poem, as I have outlined it previously:

    • 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

The bulk of the poem is made up of two sections,  each focusing on one side of the (religious) history of Israel and its covenant with YHWH. The first section (vv. 4-18, discussed in the prior notes) summarizes Israelite history through the people’s settlement in the Promised Land, together with their subsequent violation of the covenant (vv. 15-18). The second section (vv. 19-42) similarly summarizes the judgment that will come upon Israel for violating the covenant, along with its aftermath. The core of this narrative of covenant violation/punishment lies at the very center of the poem (vv. 15-25), and is likewise central, in terms of theme and theology, to the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. It also happens to be one of the most vivid and colorful portions of the text, full of many striking poetic details and devices, some of which we will be discussing below. However, when considering the post-settlement context of verses 15-18ff, we are immediately confronted by an important historical-critical issue with regard to both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy itself; even though this was touched upon in an earlier study, it is worth discussing it again briefly here.

From an historical-critical standpoint, there are three primary historical layers (or levels) that must be considered:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book, as presented in 1:1-5 and throughout, placed just before Moses’ own death and prior to the people crossing the Jordan into the Land of Promise proper. The Song of Moses is clearly set within this historical-narrative framework (see chap. 31).
    • The date of the poem, as established (as far as possible) by objective criteria and critical method, independent of the narrative framework and related traditions
    • The date of the book of Deuteronomy, i.e. its composition, which may cover multiple versions or editions of the book

For traditional-conservative commentators who accept the entire book, with little or no qualification, as representing the authentic words of Moses (and other genuine Mosaic traditions), these three layers essentially collapse into one—all of Deuteronomy, including the poem, more or less dates from the time of Moses. Critical commentators, however, tend to look at each layer on its own terms, which means considering the date and composition of the poem quite apart from its place within the Mosaic setting of the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy.

The results of such critical analysis—examination of vocabulary, poetic style and form, the imagery and religious-theological concepts used, etc—have generally pointed to a relatively early date for the poem, in the mind of most scholars. A number of features would, indeed, seem to be characteristic of the earliest poetry preserved in the Old Testament; certain parallels with the language and thought found in the narratives in the book of Judges (e.g., Judges 5:8; 10:14 etc), suggest a comparable time-frame for the poem, i.e. in the period of the Judges (11th century B.C.?). This would likely represent the latest date-range for the poem in its original form, and its old/archaic features could conceivably go back earlier, to the 12th or even 13th century.

By contrast, most critical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy as a whole to the Kingdom period. The soundest such critical theory would, I think, posit an earlier/original form of the book (10th/9th century?) which was subsequently modified under the influence of Josiah’s reforms (late 7th century), along with possible later additions as well. Thus, if we consider the three layers above, from a modern critical standpoint, a fairly reasonable dating would be:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book—presumably mid-late 13th century
    • The date of the poem—12th-11th century
    • The composition of Deuteronomy—10th-9th century, with subsequent revisions and additions (7th century and following)

Now, let us apply this critical analysis to the poem—in particular, to the post-settlement context of vv. 15-18ff. If we take the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy at face value (i.e., the time of Moses, generally prior to settlement), then these verses, along with similar portions elsewhere in the book (such as in chapter 31), reflect divine prophecy, God’s revelation (through Moses) of what will take place in the future. If, on the other hand, we were to adopt some form of the critical theory outlined above, then such passages would have to be read as representing an historical situation which had already occurred, and which has been projected back into the Mosaic setting of the book (i.e. as an ex eventu prophecy, after the fact).

Interestingly, if we accept the relatively early date of the poem itself (for which there is strong evidence on objective grounds), then we find ourselves somewhere between these two approaches—i.e. the prophecy of Israel’s violation of the covenant would have to refer to events which would, apparently, have occurred during the period of the early Israelite confederacy documented in the book of Judges. Certainly, the book of Judges records the influence of Canaanite religious-cultural influence on Israel at a number of points, and is very much part of the narrative structure of the book (see 2:1-5, 11ff). Many of the details in the book of Judges appear to be quite authentic to the period, reflecting a time when Israelite monotheism (featuring exclusive worship of YHWH) was still trying to gain a strong foothold within the larger Canaanite (polytheistic) religious environment.

This, indeed, seems to be what the Song of Moses is describing—an initial turning away, under Canaanite (and other non-Israelite) religious influence, but not yet a development of the full-fledged syncretism we find during the Kingdom period. And, while this turning away was already prefigured in several traditional episodes from the Mosaic period (e.g., the Golden Calf and Baal-peor episodes, Exod 32; Num 25), it would not be fully realized until a somewhat later time. The history of Israel in Samuel-Kings, influenced by the book of Deuteronomy in this regard, adopts a similar framework, recording history from the standpoint of whether, or to what extent, Israel and its rulers were faithful to the covenant with YHWH or violated it by worshiping deities other than YHWH.

Verses 19-25

Let us now turn to consider verses 19-25 of the poem. It may help to see these together in translation with vv. 15-18 (discussed in the previous note); here I offer a rather literal (but reasonably poetic) rendering:

15And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)—
and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

19And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—
and He said:
“I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!
They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!
For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!
I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them—
hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.
(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

As in the preceding section, the first bicolon (v. 19) sets the theme, and the remaining lines provide the exposition. Here this format is used for a dramatic narrative purpose: the expository lines represent the direct words of YHWH, introduced (in the poem as we have it) by an additional word (“and he said”) which disrupts the meter. The tension in these lines is reflected in the opening bicolon in which the matter of YHWH’s judgment on Israel is stated:

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—

I have retained the structure of the bicolon—note the apparent awkwardness in the line division, something which is glossed over (and lost) in most translations in the attempt to provide more readable English. In the Hebrew as we have it, there is an emphasis on the word su^K^m! (“from [the] provocation”) which disrupts the poetic flow and injects a discordant tone into this section of the poem, entirely keeping with the ominous subject. In the first two bicola of YHWH’s declaration (v. 20) we have his own announcement of the judgment that is described in v. 19:

I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!

The first couplet (bicolon) provides an extreme example of synthetic parallelism—the second line literally refers to the consequence and result of the first (God hiding his face), and almost reads like a taunt. The noun tyr!j&a^ (°aµ®rî¾) with suffix could also be translated “their end” (i.e., “let me see what their end [is]”); this would fit the actual syntax better, but risks losing the important idea that the terrible fate for the people follows (root rja) as a direct result of the action of YHWH hiding his face from them. In the ancient religious mindset, this image of God “hiding his face” essentially means a removal of the divine power that protects and preserves the life of humankind on earth. Divine protection was one of the primary obligations for YHWH on his side of the covenant bond; violation of the covenant means that such protection is removed.

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun roD set parallel to  <yn]B* (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated roD (dôr) according to its fundamental meaning (“circle”, i.e. circle of life), though it is usually rendered “generation” (“they are a generation of…”), but the phrase could also be translated (“thei[rs] is an Age of…”. The basic reference is to the people alive during a particular period of time, but also to their connectedness as a common people. The root Ep^h* (h¹¸ak, “turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun hk*P%h=T^ (tahp¥kâ), connotes both the idea of perversion and destruction—i.e., the people both turned away from the truth and broke the covenant bond. This was an indication of their lack of true loyalty (lit. “firmness”, /Wma@) to God and to the covenant.

The next two couplets (bicola) show a more complex parallelism, making use of wordplay that is difficult to capture in English:

They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!

Here, again, the parallelism (of form and style) is used to convey a very specific message: the punishment for Israel matches their crime (an extension of the ancient lex talionis principle). The parallelism in this regard is exact, something which may easily be lost in English translation:

    • Verb 1 (an~q*, q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (aýB=, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [la@]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [<u*]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (su^K*, k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [B=] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [<yl!b=h^]”, a derisive term for the worship of other deities and associated ‘idolatry’
        “with a nation of fool[s]”, i.e. a foolish nation (that worships other deities)

What follows in the remaining lines (vv. 22-25) is a graphic description of the coming judgment. It begins with a powerful image of a wildfire, in a pair of bicola (4 lines) where each line builds—an example of how poetic form (here the synthetic parallelism of the bicolon format) serves to paint a visual picture (of a growing/spreading fire):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

The first couplet actually could be viewed as a kind of antithetic paralellism—i.e. from one extreme to its opposite. The first begins in the nostrils of YHWH, and reaches all the way to the deepest place under the earth (in š§°ôl, the realm of death and the dead; cf. my earlier note on the meaning and background of the term). If this shows the fire’s spread vertically, from highest above to deepest below, the second couplet shows its horizontal spread—over the entire face of the land, covering it up to the base of the mountains. In verse 23, the imagery shifts from a natural disaster (wildfire) to that of a military attack—YHWH will shoot evils (i.e. misfortune, suffering, death, etc) upon the people like arrows, and so extensive will be the judgment that God will exhaust the entire complement of arrows:

I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them

These evils/arrows are presented in verses 24-25, with a descriptive sequence that strains and twists the poetic meter and rhythm; this is again an example of how a disruption of a common poetic format can be used to make a dramatic point. First in verse 24 there is a dual image of plague/disease and attack from deadly/poisonous animals:

hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.

The removal of YHWH’s protection (“I will hide my face”, v. 20) means that the people are vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the natural world. Moreover, in the ancient religious mindset, disease and famine, etc, were often seen as the result of divine anger and punishment on humankind, and so we find the same expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament. Even when subsidiary divine (or semi-divine) beings were involved (pestilence personified, Reše¸), according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism, it was YHWH (in his anger) who is responsible for sending these evils (“I will send on them”). Along with this, Israel also can no longer rely on YHWH’s protection from human enemies, and verse 25 gives a capsule portrait of the people hiding in fear as enemy forces attack:

(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The historical narratives in both the book of Judges and the “Deuteronomic History” of Samuel–Kings are replete with numerous examples which illustrate this idea. Indeed, the primary vehicle for God’s judgment upon Israel were the various peoples around them (Moab, Aram-Syria, the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, etc), each of which could fit the description of a “non-People” or “nation of fools” in the sense that they operated from a polytheistic religious point of view, worshiping deities other than YHWH. This is fundamental to the message of the poem, and much of the book of Deuteronomy as well, as we have seen. Central to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel is the idea that they will remain loyal to Him, and will not violate the bond by turning aside to embrace the religious beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations.

September 16: Deuteronomy 32:15-18

Deuteronomy 32:15-18

If verses 10-11 essentially describe the Exodus, and verses 13-14 (cf. the previous note) Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land, then, it would seem, that what follows in vv. 15ff would refer to Israel’s conduct after the people had settled in the land. However, in terms of the setting within the book of Deuteronomy, which is presented as representing Moses’ words prior to the settlement, these lines would have to be taken as prophetic—foretelling the people’s future violation of the covenant, a violation already prefigured in the Golden Calf episode and other failures during the wilderness period. This raises again the historical-critical question regarding the date of composition, both of the poem and the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. I touch upon this question in the next daily note. Here, for the moment, it is sufficient to consider the poetic and thematic structure of these lines, which I view as another sequence of 4 bicola (vv. 15-17a), with a concluding bicolon pair (vv. 17b-18) that echoes the opening lines of this section (vv. 4-6, 7-9).

    • Statement of Israel’s rebellion, forsaking YHWH, their God and Rock (v. 15)
    • Description of the rebellion—worshiping other ‘deities’ (vv. 16-17a)
    • Concluding trope on their abandoning YHWH (vv. 17b-18)

It is possible to view this as a chiasm:

    • Israel forsakes their Mighty One (God) and Rock (v. 15)
      • Turning to worship false/foreign deities (vv. 16-17a)
    • You have forgotten your Mighty One (God) and Rock (vv. 17b-18)

Here is my translation of verses 15-18:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)—
and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

The language is rough and vivid throughout, something which is often lost in most English translations; I have tried to retain and capture this roughness (even harshness) of expression from the Hebrew. Such a mode of expression is altogether appropriate, from the standpoint of the subject matter—a description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, and the resulting judgment which YHWH will bring upon them. It is here that we turn again to form criticism and literary criticism, to see how the distinctive form and style of this poetry relates to the meaning and purpose of the text. As we examine verses 15-18, we find a sequence of 6 bicola (= 12 lines) which more or less follow the 3-beat (3+3) meter of the poem consistently, with clear use of parallelism (both synonymous and synthetic) throughout. The first bicolon is striking in the way that the address shifts suddenly from third person to second person:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)

This would be an example of a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds dramatically on the first. The people are referenced by the descriptive title /Wrv%y+ (y®š¥rûn), presumably meaning something like “the straight (one)” or “the (up)right (one)”; rv*y` (y¹š¹r, “straight, right”) was used as a characteristic of YHWH in verse 4. In context, the title is used ironically, referring to what the people of Israel should have been—straight and loyal followers of the binding agreement (covenant) with God. Instead, they “grew fat” and “kicked” (like an unruly animal); this behavior is clearly related to the people’s feeding on the richness of the land (vv. 13-14), whether understood in a literal or symbolic sense. It is this aspect upon which the second line builds, with a repetitive staccato-like sequence of three verbs, which are almost impossible to translate accurately into English—

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

literally, it would be something like: “you grew fat, you became swollen, you became full”. The precise meaning of the last verb (hc*K*, k¹´â) is uncertain, but most likely the three verbs are more or less synonymous, referring to the idea of Israel “becoming fat“. The force of the polemic here does not necessarily mean that the Israelites were especially well off (in spite of the colorful imagery in vv. 13-14), but simply that they were enjoying settled life in the land without properly acknowledging YHWH as the source of their blessing.

The shift to second person (“you”), something which occurs at several points in the poem, serves as an important reminder of the purpose of the poem, within the setting of Deuteronomy (chap. 31)—as a means of instructing all Israelites in future generations (“you”). The remaining 5 bicola (10 lines) essentially expound the first; the second and sixth (vv. 15b, 18) are similar and form an inclusio, framing the lines:

and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
…..
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

This repeats the central theme in the opening lines (vv. 4-6) of the section, that of YHWH as Creator and Father of humankind (and esp. of Israel). The title “Rock” (rWx, ‚ûr) alternates with the Divine name/title “Mighty One” (°E~l / °E_lôah). The latter bicolon (v. 18) introduces the striking motif of YHWH as mother giving birth, i.e. writhing (“twisting”, vb. lyj) in labor pains. This makes all the more cruel the people’s abandonment of YHWH, who endured such pains in giving birth to them.

In between, these six lines (3 bicola, vv. 16-17) give a summary description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, defined unmistakably in terms of worship of deities other than YHWH:

They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.

The poetic language in vv. 16-17a is especially difficult, and appropriately so given the subject matter; however, the form of the lines is actually quite clear, with a fine symmetry:

    • “They stirred Him (to anger) with strange (thing)s,
      • (indeed) with disgusting things they provoked Him;
    • They slaughtered to šedim (that are) not Mighty,
      • (but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them”

The first bicolon is a clear example of synonymous parallelism, with the second line essentially re-stating the first, intensifying the image. The parallelism is precise, with two ways of saying that the people provoked YHWH with foreign/pagan religious behavior, described by the euphemisms “strange (thing)s” (<yr!z`, z¹rîm) and “disgusting things” (tb)u@oT, tô±¢»œ¾).

The last two bicola are more complex, emphasizing two interrelated points: (1) these other deities are lesser than YHWH and not “God” (lit. Mighty One) in the same way, and (2) they are “new” and previously unknown to Israel, presumably meaning that they reflect the local religious environment in Canaan (i.e. “from near[by]”). These lines explain the inappropriate behavior of the people more directly. It is stated that “they slaughtered (sacrificial offerings) to š¢¼îm, the word š¢¼ (dv@) being rather difficult to translate in English. It is a basic Semitic term referring to minor deities or divine powers generally, corresponding more or less with the Greek daimœn (dai/mwn). The term, though clearly a pejorative, does not necessarily characterize the beings as evil spirits (or “demons”, in the popular sense). The derivation and meaning of the last verb (ru^c*, ´¹±ar) is also uncertain; I have tentatively followed the Septuagint translation, relating it to the Semitic root ruv (š±r, “know, perceive”), which provides a parallel to the idea of the deities as “not known” among Israelites prior to their entry into Canaan.

From the standpoint of Israelite covenantal theology, and especially the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy, worship (in any manner) of any deity besides YHWH represents a flagrant violation of the covenant. Given the common syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in ancient Near Eastern (polytheistic) religion, a blending of Canaanite religious elements with the worship of YHWH would have been quite natural, and difficult for the people of Israel to resist. This is why the point is hammered home so often in the book of Deuteronomy, as also in the “Deuteronomic History” and the messages of the Prophets. The repeated warning was necessary because of the dangers of cultural accomodation, and the tendencies in Canaanite society which could not but exert influence on the people of Israel.

September 15: Deuteronomy 32:10-14

DEUTERONOMY 10-14

A brief history of Israel is narrated in vv. 10-18, which may be divided into two sections (see the outline in the previous note):

    • 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)

Verses 10-14 is itself divided into two portions, 4 bicola each, with a YHWH-theological bicolon (v. 12, compare v. 9) in between. Here is my translation of vv. 10-12:

10He found him in (the) land out back,
and in an empty howling waste(land);
He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
watched over him like the center of His eye.
11Like an eagle stirred (to guard) his nest,
(who) hovers over the young of his (nest),
He spread out his wings and took him (in),
carried him upon the strength of his (wing)s.
12By Himself did YHWH lead him,
and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!

Thematically we may divide the two portions as follows:

    • Vv. 10-11—The finding/choosing and rescue of Israel [Exodus]
      • Image of eagle swooping down to pick up its young (v. 11)
      • The eagle flying back up to place its young in a high/safe location (v. 13)
    • VV. 13-14—The settlement of Israel in a good/fertile land

This narrative poetry works on a number of levels, as we can see by the inset imagery of the eagle’s protection of its young, with a descent/ascent motif. In addition, there are all sorts of colorful details in vv. 10-18 which could be subject to a rich historical-critical analysis. While this is beyond the scope of this study, it would be worth comparing these lines to the narrative of the Exodus and Settlement in the Pentateuch, as well as other poetic treatments of the same (or similar) historical traditions. Let us briefly examine the language used in verse 10.

In these four lines (a pair of 3+3 bicola), there is expressed the theme of YHWH finding/choosing Israel as his people. It is a poetic description, and not tied to any one historical tradition. The main motif is the desert setting (rB*d=m!, a place “out back” or hinterland, cf. below), an image which would appear repeatedly in Israelite/Jewish thought over the centuries. It is a multi-faceted (and multivalent) image; here I would highlight the following aspects and associations:

    • The idea of a formless wasteland echoes the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and, specifically, the Creation account preserved in Genesis 1. The same word WhT) (tœhû) occurs in Gen 1:2, describing the condition of the universe (“heaven and earth”) prior to the beginning of Creation proper (i.e. the ordering of the universe, in the context of Genesis 1). In the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this primeval condition is typically understood as a dark watery mass (and so also in Gen 1:2); here, however, this tœhû (emphasizing formlessness and chaos/confusion) is applied to the desolation of the desert (as a “wasteland”).
    • The allusion to creation means that, in a real sense, the people of Israel comes into existence (or is ‘born’) in the desert. This can be understood from several perspectives:
      (a) The ‘desert’ setting of Egypt and the Exodus, out of which the people truly came (as in a birth)
      (b) The religious ‘birth’ of Israel in connection with Sinai—introduction of YHWH, the meaning/significance of His name, place of His manifestation, etc (Exod 3; 19ff)
      (c) The period of labor in the wanderings throughout the Sinai desert, during which the people of Israel came to be ‘born’

Each bicolon of verse 10 illustrates a different side of this setting, from the standpoint of Israel’s relationship to YHWH:

    • Bicolon 1 (10a)—the emptiness, danger, etc. of the desert/wasteland
    • Bicolon 2 (10b)—the complete care and protection given by YHWH

It is a stark contrast—i.e. the world with and without God’s presence—and one that is enhanced by the parallelism that is characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry. This parallelism is built into the 3-beat bicolon meter and structure of the poem, and which is typical of much ancient Semitic/Canaanite poetry. In an earlier study, I demonstrated this meter/structure visually; however, let us consider verse 10 in particular. As indicated above, the verse is made up of a pair of bicola (i.e. four lines), each with three stressed syllables, or beats. There is a definite parallelism in each bicolon, with the second line (colon) parallel to the first. Here is a breakdown of the lines, with the parallelism indicated by indenting the second colon (as is commonly done in translations of poetry); the specific points of parallelism are marked by italics:

    • “He found him in (the) land out back,
      Yimƒ¹°¢¡nû b®°éreƒ mi¼b¹¡r
      • and in an empty howling waste(land);
        û»¾œ¡hû y®l¢¡l y®šimœ¡n
    • He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
      y®sœ»»énhû¡ y®bônn¢¡hû
      • watched over him like the center of His eye.
        yiƒrénhû k®°îšôn ±ênô

The parallelism in vv. 10-12 would be called synonymous—the second line essentially restating the first, but with a greater intensity or pointedness. For example, in the first line of 10a, the common word rB*d=m! (mi¼b¹r) is used; originally indicating something like “remote, far back/away (place)”, it typically refers to the open space of the desert or wilderness. However, in the second line (10b), a more graphic description of this desert region follows, utilizing all three words of the line: (a) WhT) (“formless, cf. above), (b) ll@y+ (“howling”), and (c) /m)yv!y+ (“desolate/waste [land]”). The sequence of words together gives a vivid sense of chaos and danger. Similarly, in 10c, YHWH’s action is straightforward: “He encircled him, he watched him (carefully)”, with two suffixed verb forms, creating a calm, stable rhythm, as though resolving the harshness of 10b. This is followed (in 10d) by a more intimate and personalized description: “he watched over him like the center [/ovya!] of his eye“. In English idiom we might say “like the apple of his eye”; literally it refers to the center, or “pupil” of the eye, as a way of describing the focus of one’s attention and care.

In vv. 13-14, the parallelism shifts to what is commonly referred to as synthetic parallelism—whereby the second line builds on the first, developing the thought in a more complex way. Consider, for example, the first bicolon (two lines) in verse 13:

    • “He made him sit upon the heights of the earth,
      • and he would eat (the) produce of the (fertile) land.”

The waw-conjunction is epexegetical, indicating the purpose or result of YHWH’s action in the first line—i.e. “and then [i.e. so that] he [i.e. Israel] would eat…”. Moreover, Israel’s position in the heights (like an eagle) makes it possible for him to feast on the fruit produced in the fertile open land (yd*v*) down below. This imagery of the richness of the land continues on through the remainder of vv. 13-14, each bicolon developing in a similar fashion, concluding with a single extra line, for effect (v. 14e). The vocabulary of verse 14 is a bit difficult at a couple of points, in what is otherwise a fine, vivid poetic description of the produce (hb*WnT=) of the land (v. 13) which the people are able to enjoy—from both flock and field:

“Curdled (milk) of cattle and (milk)fat of sheep,
(along) with (the) fatted (parts) of lambs,
and strong (ram)s, (the) sons of Bashan,
(along) with (the) fat (kernel)s inside (the) grain
and (the) blood of grape(s) you drink bubbling (red)!”

The shift from “he” to “you” makes this final line more dramatic and jarring, as also the slightly ominous allusion (“blood…red”) to the judgment theme that follows in vv. 15ff.

In the middle of the four tropes of vv. 10-14, dividing the two sections precisely, is a middle trope (v. 12), a single bicolon, that is decidedly theological, and perfectly placed at the center of the poetic narrative. It is especially important, in that it looks back upon the opening portions of the poem, and ahead to the key (dualistic) themes that dominate the remainder. It is worth examining v. 12 briefly:

    • By Himself did YHWH lead him,
      YHWH b¹¼¹¼ yanµenû
      • and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!
        w®°ên ±immô °¢l n¢k¹r

This parallelism could be called both synonymous and antithetic—the second line essentially restates the first, but also makes the opposite point, i.e. it was YHWH and not any other foreign ‘God’. Conceptually, this can be illustrated by way of chiasm:

    • YHWH (the true Mighty One)
      • by Himself, separate [dd*B*]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [/ya@] with Him [oMu!]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [la@]

This contrast between YHWH and the other ‘deities’ of the surrounding nations, already emphasized in vv. 8-9 (see above), will take on even greater prominence in the remainder of the poem. This will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note (on vv. 15-18).

September 14: Deuteronomy 32:7-9

In the previous note, we looked at verses 4-6 of the “Song of Moses”; now we proceed to verses 7-9 and lines following (down through verse 18). Verses 4-18 actually form a major section of the poem, as indicated from the earlier outline I presented:

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)

The lines of vv. 4-18 comprise a summary of Israelite history, the parameters of which raise interesting (and important) historical-critical and literary-critical questions, which shall be discussed.

Verses 7-9

From the opening theme of YHWH as the Creator and Father of Israel (and all humankind), the poem progresses to the choice of Israel as the unique people of YHWH. Here are the lines in translation:

7Remember the days of (the) distant (past),
consider the years age(s) and age(s past);
ask your father and he will put (it) before you,
your old men and they will show (it) to you.
8In the Highest’s giving property (to the) nations,
in his separating (out) the sons of man,
he set up (the) boundaries of the peoples,
according to the count of the sons of the Mightiest.
9Yet YHWH’s (own) portion is His people,
Ya’aqob His own property measured (out).

The verse numbering accurately reflects the division of this section:

    • A call to remember and repeat (through oral tradition) the account of Israel’s history (v. 7)
    • The dividing of humankind into the nations/peoples (v. 8)
    • Israel as YHWH’s own nation/people (v. 9)

Verse 7 functions as the trope that sets the poetic/rhythmic pattern (a pair of 3-beat [3+3] bicola) for the section, followed by the (narrative) trope in verse 8, and a single bicolon theological trope emphasizing the covenant with YHWH (v. 9). The exhortation in v. 7 is entirely in keeping with the traditional narrative setting in chapter 31 (discussed previously), with an emphasis on the need to transmit the (Mosaic) instruction, contained in the book of Deuteronomy, to the generations that follow. In particular, Israel is to preserve and transmit the poem of chap. 32.

There is a major text-critical issue in verse 8; the Masoretic Text (MT) of the lines reads:

<y]oG /oyl=u# lh@n+h^B=
<d*a* yn@B= odyr!p=h^B=
<yM!u^ týb%G+ bX@y~
la@r*c=y] yn@B= rP^s=m!l=
B®hanµ¢l ±Elyôn gôyim
b®ha¸rî¼ô b®nê °¹¼¹m
yaƒƒ¢» g®»¥lœ¾ ±ammîm
l®mispar b®nê Yi´r¹°¢l

“In the Most High’s giving posessions (to) the nations,
in His breaking apart [i.e. separating] the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples,
to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of Israel.”

The last line has always struck commentators as a bit peculiar. Since the context overall suggests the dispersal of the nations (following the traditions in Genesis 10-11), occurring long before Israel was a people, establishment of the traditional number of nations (seventy, according to Gen 10) in terms of the number of Israel’s descendants (Exod 1:1-5; Deut 10:22, etc) seems somewhat out of place. Many commentators were drawn to the alternate reading in the Greek version (Septuagint, LXX), which, instead of “according to the sons of Israel”, reads “according to the Messengers of God” (kata/ a)riqmo/n a)gge/lwn qeou=, katá arithmón angélœn Theoú). This version of the text finds confirmation in one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutj):


<yh!ýa$ yn@B= rP^s=m!l=
l®mispar b®nê °E_lœhîm

“…(according) to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of God”

The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic term for divine beings—”gods” generally, in Canaanite religion. Within the context of Israelite monotheism, this idea was modified so as to refer to heavenly beings, i.e. Angels (“Messengers”), who are not to be worshiped as gods. A traditional number of seventy such beings goes all the way back to ancient Canaanite religious lore, and was preserved in Israelite and Jewish writings. This variant reading would seem to be confirmed again by the context of verse 8 within the Song. An important theme throughout, as we shall see, is the need for Israel to serve and worship only Yahweh, and not to follow after the other nations, who worship other ‘deities’ (such as represented by the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies). While the other nations may have been allotted to various heavenly beings, Israel is God’s own portion (v. 9).

Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (4:19-20) we find similar language to 32:8-9, which suggests again that the reading of 4QDeutj may be original. Indeed, a tradition reflecting this reading is preserved in Jewish writings, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the “Sayings of Rabbi Eliezer” (chap. 24). The Targum makes reference to “the seventy angels, princes of the nations”, in the context of the the Tower of Babel episode and the dispersal of the nations. For a good discussion, see J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary (1996), pp. 514-5 (Excursus 31).

Based on this evidence, then, it would seem that the reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutj, and reflected in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, is more likely to be original. Along with many modern commentators, I would thus (with considerable confidence) emend the text from “sons of Israel” (la@r*c=y] yn@B=) to “sons of the Mightiest [i.e. God]” (<yh!ýa$ yn@B=). Even beyond the relative strength of this textual variant, there are internal factors—the context of both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy, as noted above—which provides decisive evidence in favor of this reading:

    1. A careful study of the poem reveals a contrast between YHWH (Israel’s God) and the foreign deities of the surrounding nations. This is a central theme that runs through the poem, especially in vv. 15ff. It is also a primary aspect of the Deuteronomic teaching and theology, both in the book itself, and as played out in the “Deuteronomistic History” of Samuel–Kings. Turning away from proper worship of YHWH, to the deities of the surrounding peoples, is the fundamental violation of the covenant which brings judgment to Israel.
    2. The closest parallel, in 4:19-20, indicates that the nations belong to other ‘deities’ (such as those powers seen as connected with the heavenly bodies), while Israel alone belongs to YHWH. The wording in the poem, assuming the LXX/Qumran reading to be correct, likely expresses this in a more general way. The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic/Canaanite idiom, referring to gods/deity generally, but also specifically in relation to the Creator °El (the “Mighty One”). In the subsequent development of Israelite monotheism, there was no place for any other deities, and the concept shifted to heavenly beings simply as servants or “Messengers” (i.e. angels) of YHWH (the Creator, identified with °El).

Indeed, what we see in vv. 8-9 is this contrast played out as a key theological principle: (a) the nations and their ‘deities’ (distinct from the Creator YHWH), and (b) Israel who belongs to YHWH. Note the chiasm in verse 8 when the LXX/Qumran reading is adopted:

    • The Highest (±Elyôn)
      • the nations [70]
        • separating the sons of man (ethnicity)
        • setting boundaries for the people (territory)
      • the sons (of God) [trad. 70]
    • The Mightiest (°Elœhîm)

While this is the situation for the other peoples, for Israel it is different (v. 9)—they have a direct relationship with the Creator YHWH:

    • YHWH’s (own) portion [ql#j@]
      • Israel (“His people”) / Jacob
    • His (own) property measured out [hl*j&n~ lebej]

And it is this relationship that is expounded in verses 10ff, which we will examine in the next daily note.

Note on the Text of Isaiah 38:15-17

The text of Isaiah 38:15-17

(notes related to the Saturday Series study on Isaiah 38-39)

The Masoretic text of verse 15 reads (in translation):

“What shall I speak?
He has said to me, and has done (it)
I shall walk about[?] all my years,
upon [i.e. because of] (the) bitterness of my soul.”

The reading of the Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) differs at several points, and many scholars would adopt these, in order to make better sense of the lines. In the first two lines, best treated as a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2), the Isaiah Scroll apparently has “and I said to my(self)”, instead of “and he said to me”. This would yield the following triplet, which I translate as:

“What shall I speak?
(so) I say to my(self),
(for) He has done (it)!”

It has the advantage of bringing out more clearly the emphatic position of the pronoun “He” (referring to YHWH) in the third line of the triplet. In the final two lines (the couplet) of verse 15, there is a difference in the verb form. The MT has hdda, vocalized as a reflexive imperfect form of the root hd*D*, “walk about (slowly)”; while 1QIsaa has hdwda, which may be a form of the separate root ddn (“move away, wander [off]”). In addition, some commentators (e.g., Blenkinsopp, Roberts) regard MT yt^onv= (“my years“) as a corruption (or mispointing) of yt!n`v@ (or yt!onv=), “my sleep“. If correct, then the first line of the couplet would be translated something like “I wander (restless in) all my sleep(ing)”. Roberts, however (p. 482), suggests that the verb form is better parsed as a third person feminine ‘Ithpael form, a sign of early Aramaic influence; the verb would thus agree with “my sleep”, and result in an even clearer line: “all my sleep went away (from me)”. If we adopt this interpretation, along with the emendations noted above, the verse as a whole would read:

“What shall I speak?
(so) I say to my(self),
(for) He has done (it)!
All my sleep went away
upon (this) bitterness of my soul.”

The situation in verse 16 is also difficult. The MT reads (in translation):

“My Lord, upon them [m.] they will live,
and for all in them [f.] (the) life of my spirit,
and (so) you will make me firm and bring me life.”

This appears quite unintelligible, and may be a sign that our received text is corrupt. The readings of the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 1QIsab differ somewhat, but provide little clarity on the matter. Any attempt at emendation would thus be highly speculative. The pronoun suffixes in the first and second lines are especially confusing: to whom or what do they refer? is the shift from masculine to feminine correct (1QIsaa has masculine in both instances)?

To begin with, one must recognize the possibility that here the plural verb form “they will live” may refer to the word <yY]j^, an abstract (or intensive) plural (of yj^) meaning “life”. Proper English syntax would require a singular verb, “it will live”. Along with this, it is possible to render the pronominal suffixes (“them”) in the sense of “these (things)”; yet one may prefer to read the second plural suffix as also agreeing with the plural form <yY]j^ (“life”), a point that we must, admittedly, extract from the ambiguity of the poetic wordplay. Thus, without emendation, we could plausibly translate the first two lines as:

“My Lord, against these (things) it may (yet) live,
and for all (that is) in it, (the) life of my spirit

In this context, the imperfect forms of the final line would best be understood in a jussive sense, reflecting the prayer/petition of the poet:

“and (so) may you make me firm and bring life to me (again)!”

While not entirely convincing, perhaps, this explanation does have the advantage of requiring little or no emendation to the text.

There are fewer difficulties with verse 17:

“See, (it was) for wholeness (that it was) so very bitter to me,
and you held my soul back from (the) destroying corruption,
for you have thrown down behind your back all of my sins.”

If verse 16 continues the poet’s prayer, verse 17 seems to reflect its answer; at the very least, he anticipates his healing and deliverance from the life-threatening illness. Possibly the perfect verb forms could be read as precative perfects, i.e., expressing a wish in terms of something that has already occurred. This could be translated as follows:

“See, (may it be) for wholeness (that there was) such bitter(ness) for me!
May you hold my soul back from (the) destroying corruption,
(and) may (it be) that you throw down behind your back all of my sins!”

As a text-critical matter, I read doam= (“very, exceeding[ly]”) for the second rm^ (“bitter[ness]”) in the first line, along with 1QIsaa. More questionable is Roberts’ suggestion (pp. 482-3) that the verb Ec^j* (“hold back”) be read in place of the similar sounding qv^j* (“attach, cling to [i.e. with love/desire]”); there is really no textual support for this emendation, but it seems to fit the sense of the verse much better, and so I tentatively adopt the suggestion.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

September 10: Deuteronomy 32:4-6

In the previous note, we looked at the opening verses (vv. 1-3) of Deuteronomy 32 (the “Song of Moses”). Today we will proceed to the next section of the poem (vv. 4-18), based on the following outline which I am using in this study:

    • 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

The first portion (vv. 4-6) establishes the principal theme of the Creator God (YHWH) as the Father of the people Israel.

Deuteronomy 32:4-6

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>,
a circle (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 (tyr!B=, ‘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 in the prior note. 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 rWx (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 (lu^P) pl., root lu^P*) are complete (<ym!T*)—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 (<ym!T*) 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” (wyk*r*D=-l*K) are “justice”. Here, the noun fP*v=m! 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 hn*Wma$ (°§mûnâ), parallel to the noun fP*v=m! (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 (/ya@) deviation (lw#u*)”; 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”, aWh) is characterized by two fundamental attributes:
      (i) qyd!x^ (ƒadîq), often translated “faithful”, but, in the context of the covenant-setting, perhaps better understood as “true”, “loyal”; it is parallel with the noun hn`Wma$ in the prior half-line.
      (ii) rv*y` (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 (see below). 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 tj^v* (“[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 of the people. The Hebrew term (Heb. roD) fundamentally means “circle, cycle”, but is frequently used in the sense of a “life-cycle” (i.e. life-span), or period of time in which a particular generation of people lives. In the second half-line of verse 5, this generation is characterized as: “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 (lb*n`) and wise (<k*j*) 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:

    • hn`q*—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.
    • hc*u*—a common verb indicating basic action or work, “make, do”.
    • A causative form of a primitive /k (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.

Textual Note on Deut 32:5

The first line (colon) in verse 5 appears to make very little sense as it has come down to us:

<m*Wm wn`B* aý ol tj@v!
Šiµ¢¾ lô lœ° b¹n¹w mûm¹m
literally: “he made ruin to/for him his sons their blemish”

If you go to this verse in your English Bible, you will likely see a footnote indicating that the Hebrew is obscure or uncertain. Unfortunately, this is frequently the case in Old Testament poetry. There are hundreds of verses or lines where we simply do not know for certain what the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text (MT) means, or how to translate and interpret it, or whether the apparent confusion is the result of textual corruption. The Rabbis noted the difficult syntax of this verse and sought variously to explain the MT, without any emendation. For example, Nahmanides explains it along the lines of: “their blemish caused them [i.e. the Israelites] to act corruptly toward Him” so that, as a result, “they are not His sons”.

Many critical commentators believe that the verse, as it has come down to us, is corrupt. One suggestion (cf. J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary [1996], p. 301) is that originally the line read something like—

/m%a@ wn`B* ol Wtj&v!
šiµ¦¾û lô b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“His sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

or, possibly:

/m%a@ wn`B*-aý Wtj&v!
šiµ¦¾û lœ°-b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“(the ones who are) not-His-sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

Admittedly, this would make a better fit with the second half of the line, but it remains quite speculative.

The Greek version (Septuagint, LXX) is somewhat confusing as well:

h(ma/rtosan ou)k au)tw=| te/kna mwmhta/
h¢mártosan ouk autœ¡ tékna mœm¢tá
perhaps: “they sinned, children (of) blame (who are) not to him [i.e. not his]”

Unfortunately, verse 5 is not present among the manuscript fragments of Deuteronomy preserved at Qumran, so there is no help from that side in elucidating the Hebrew syntax. One must always be cautious in emending the text that has come down to us (i.e. the Masoretic text), especially when there is no clear manuscript support for such emendation. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to accept the MT blindly, ignoring places where the received text is difficult or unintelligible. Here textual criticism reaches it finest, and most challenging, point.

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.

September 3: Leviticus 20:7, 26

For a better idea of what the declaration in Leviticus 19:2 (discussed in the previous note) entails, in the context of the Levitical “Holiness Code” (chapters 17-26, especially chaps. 19-22), it will be helpful to look at several instances where the principle of 19:2 is restated. One of these comes in 20:7:

Leviticus 20:7

“And you shall make yourselves holy, and (so) you shall be holy—for I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One) [i.e. God].”

As previously noted, the regulations in chapter 19 seem to parallel the commands of the Decalogue, and thus function as a kind of exposition on the Ten Commandments. For example, the command against making/worship of images (#2, v. 4), maintaining sacredness of the Sabbath (#4, v. 3b), showing honor to one’s parents (#5, v. 3a), the prohibitions against stealing (#8, vv. 11a, 13, 15) and false oaths (#3, v. 12), as well as a general declaration on YHWH as the (only) God the people are to acknowledge (#1, v. 36). These regulations/requirements are woven around the central command for the people to be set apart as holy to God (v. 2).

Similarly in chapter 20, we have a number of laws and requirements built around the declaration in verse 7, which clarifies to some extent what was meant by the injunction “you shall be holy” (Wyh=T! <yv!d)q=), which might better be rendered as “you shall be (one)s set apart (as holy to me)”. The same phrase occurs in 20:7, but following a reflexive form of the verb vd^q*; the sequence reads as follows:

“and you shall make yourselves holy [<T#v=D!q^t=h!], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q= <t#yy]h=]”

The second verb follows as a result of the first, as indicated by the emphases (in italics), repeated from the translation above:

“and you shall make yourselves holy, and (so) you shall be holy”

The process of “making oneself holy” is explained in verse 8:

“And you shall guard my inscribed (decree)s, and you shall do them—I (am) YHWH, (the One) establishing you as holy.”

By careful preservation and fulfillment of all that YHWH has decreed for them (through the words spoken to Moses)—that is, the regulations/requirements of the Torah—the people “make themselves holy”. However, this merely fulfills what has already been established by YHWH Himself, by way of the binding agreement (the covenant bond, cf. below). He has declared that Israel is a people set apart as holy, belonging entirely to Him; and now, the people must act this out in practice, on a daily basis. Paul states much the same thing for believers in Christ, though realized through the power and presence of the Spirit, rather than observance of the Torah regulations:

“If we live by the Spirit, we must walk in line by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25)

The type pattern for this, in the old covenant, involved the Instruction (Torah) recorded in writings of the Pentateuch, such as the “Holiness Code” of Lev 17-26. We cannot properly understand the dynamic of the new covenant, as described in the New Testament, without understanding its precursors in the old covenant. The regulations in chapter 20, which surround the declaration in verse 7, are of two kinds: (a) Religious—prohibition against worshiping any deities other than YHWH (vv. 1-6); and (b) Ethical—prohibition against adultery and other aberrant sexual behavior (vv. 9-21). The regulations regarding ritual purity (and dietary/hygiene laws) earlier in chapter 11 were similarly followed by a summary declaration on holiness equivalent to that in 20:7:

“For I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One) [i.e. God], and you shall make yourselves holy, and (so) you shall be holy, for I (am) holy…” (11:44)

The additional declaration of God’s own holiness is parallel to primary statement in 19:2, and helps us to understand the idea that He “establishes” the people “as holy” (vb vdq in the Piel stem). Israel’s holiness, their status as a people set apart as holy to YHWH, is rooted in (and depends upon) His own character and nature as the true God and Creator of all. This is given further explanation in another declaration later on in chapter 20:

“And you shall be holy (one)s to me, for I, YHWH, (am) holy, and I have separated [vb ld^B*] you from the peoples, to be(long) to me.” (v. 26)

It is possible to outline this statement as a chiasm:

    • “you shall be [vb hyh] holy to me [yl!]
      • I am holy (I am YHWH, the Creator and true God)
      • I set you apart as holy, separate from all other peoples
    • “(you are) to be [vb hyh] (i.e. belong) to me [yl!]

The idea that the Israelites were set apart, separate from all other nations, as a people belonging to YHWH (and thus holy), is central to the early tradition regarding the religious and cultural identity of Israel. A good example of this is found in the opening section of the Sinai covenant narrative in Exodus 19ff, the key statement of identity coming in verses 5-6:

“And now, if hearing, you shall hear [i.e. if you shall truly hear] my voice, and (if) you shall guard my binding (agreement with you), then you shall be for me a (prized) possession from [i.e. out of] all the peoples. For all the earth (belongs) to me, and (yet) you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This will be discussed further in Part 3 of the article on “Israel as God’s People” (in the series “The People of God”).

 

September 2: Leviticus 19:2

Leviticus 19:2

“You shall be holy (one)s, for I, YHWH your Mighty (One), (am) holy”
<k#yh@ýa$ hwhy yn]a& wodq* yK! Wyh=T! <yv!d)q=

This declaration in Leviticus 19:2 is one of the fundamental religious statements in the Old Testament, and a defining statement of religious identity for the people of Israel. Indeed, it defines, in certain respects, what it means to be the people of God, and so is very much worth examining as part of a study on the theme of the “people of God” (cf. Part 3 [upcoming] of the current article in this study).

The statement in verse 2 comes at the beginning of an important chapter (ch. 19) that is part of the so-called “Holiness Code” (Levitcus 17-26), a corpus of laws and regulations specifically dealing with religious and ceremonial matters. The holiness theme is especially prominent in chapters 19-22, with the declaration here in verse 2 essentially being repeated (or restated) in 20:7, 26; 21:6, 8. It has been noted by commentators (cf. Levine, pp. 124-5) that the regulations in chapter 19 parallel in certain ways the commandments of the Decalogue (Exod 20:1-17). Indeed, it may serve to illustrate something of how the ‘Ten Commandments’ were understood as functioning, in practice, in early Israelite society. For more on the place of the Decalogue (and the Sinai covenant scene in Exod 19-24) in connection with the theme Israel as the “people of God”, cf. Part 3 [upcoming] of the aforementioned article.

Let us look at each key word or term in Leviticus 19:2, as it occurs in order:

rB@D^ (“you must speak”)—This imperative follows precisely the narrative introduction in verse 1: “And YHWH spoke [vb rbd] to Moshe, saying…”. Moses was a ayb!n`—that is, a spokesperson for YHWH (cf. Num 11:17ff; 12:6-8; Deut 18:15ff; 34:10)—indeed, in the early Israelite period, he was the great spokesperson (i.e. prophet) who would serve as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. Just as YHWH speaks to Moses, so he is to speak to the people, repeating precisely the words and things that God expresses to him.

td^u&-lK* (“all [the] appointed [gathering] of”)—The noun hd*u@ is a common term referring to an appointed meeting or gathering (of people). That is to say, it signifies a time when all of the people are gathered together; but it can also refer, in a more abstract sense, to the people as a whole, collectively. However, the sense of a group being gathered or assembled, at a particular time and place, remains primary. It is at such a time, when the all the people are assembled (whether entire, or through represetatives), that Moses is to deliver this word of YHWH to them.

la@r*c=y]-yn@B= (“[the] sons of Yisrael”)—that is to say, Israelites, the people of Israel. As an expression of religious (and cultural) identity, it is not only an ethnic term, but, as the instructions regarding the Passover make clear (cf. Exod 12:43-49), it would apply also to any who would join with Israel, taking on themselves the covenant sign of circumcision, as a mark that they too belong to the community of God’s people. As I discuss at length in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (especially those articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”), this conceptual framework was of immense importance for the questions and debates regarding religious identity among the earliest Christians. Paul maintained the conceptual framework—i.e., that Gentile believers in Christ become part of the people of God (Israelite/Jewish believers)—but without any requirement of circumcision (or any other regulation in the Torah).

<yv!d)q= (“holy [one]s”)—This is the first word of the actual message Moses is to deliver to the people of Israel (“You shall say to them…”). It thus in emphatic position, indicating the importance of the idea, expressed through the adjective vodq*, in plural form as it is applied to all the people. The fundamental meaning of the root vdq is to “separate” or “set apart”, “make distinct”. From the earliest evidence in Akkadian and Canaanite (Ugaritic), it was used primarily in a religious or cultic sense—i.e., of something being separated or set apart (as sacred). It also regularly connotes the idea of “cleanness, purity”, but this has as much to with the process of setting something apart as it does any intrinsic attribute of the thing itself. Virtually everything in the religious or cultic sphere is “holy” in this basic sense, and the idea is universal, common to all religions, and is scarcely unique to Israelite religion or the Old Testament.

It was common, of course, to set apart certain places for worship and reverence, as well as specific times, objects, and so forth. Once consecrated for use in this way, associated with deity and the divine power, presence, etc, the thing set apart no longer was part of the ordinary sphere of life and existence. Particular persons could also be set apart and consecrated as “belonging” to the deity—i.e., priests and others involved in the ritual/cultic apparatus—however, the idea of the entire people being thought of as “holy” in this way is most unusual, and appears to be unique to Israelite religion.

Wyh=T! (“you shall be”)—Though the verb is in second position, we would tend to translate it first; when doing so, it is important to remember that the adjective is emphasized: “You shall be holy“. Translating the plural more precisely, and in light of the denotation of the adjective (cf. above), we might also render the phrase as “You shall be (one)s set apart [i.e. holy] (to God)”. Imperfect verb forms (as here) occasionally have the force of an imperative, depending on the context and syntax. The imperatival (or jussive) sense of the phrase is more or less captured through the emphatic modal “shall” in English: “You shall be…” (= you must be, you are to be). The verb hy`h* is the common verb of being/becoming, and could also be translated here as “you shall come to be”, “you shall become”. It is a command for the people of Israel to be holy—that is, to set themselves apart as something sacred and dedicated to God.

yK! (“for”)—This conjunctive particle provides the reason (i.e. “for, because”) why the people are to be/become holy. It also has a certain comparative force here—i.e. the holiness of the people is to mirror the holiness of YHWH (cf. below).

vodq* (“holy”)—Again the adjective vodq* is in emphatic position in the phrase (preceding the subject). The first occurrence (in the plural) applied to the people, this second occurrence (in the singular) applies to YHWH. However, the basic sense of the adjective must be regarded as the same in both instances.

hwhy yn]a& (“I, YHWH”)—YHWH is stating this of Himself, i.e., that He is holy. This may be understood in two ways:

    1. As an attribute or characteristic of YHWH. This can further be understood in terms of “power”, “purity”, or simply the “otherness” of deity—something transcendent, which, of its very nature, must be regarded as distinct and apart from humankind (and the rest of creation).
    2. As reflecting how human being ought to treat and regard Him—i.e., with honor, reverence, and worship, setting apart an entire realm of space and time that is devoted to interacting with Him.

Both aspects are entirely valid and reflect the proper meaning of the adjective in its context here. A substantive use of vodq* (“[the] Holy [One]”) does occur in the Old Testament, but is somewhat rarer that one might think, occurring most frequently in the book of Isaiah (30 times, Isa 1:4 et al). Despite its use in the later Prophets (Jer 50:29; Ezek 39:7) it is, in fact, a most ancient name/title, which, as might be expected, was preserved almost exclusively in early poetry, before being picked up by the prophetic writings of the 7th/6th century. Of its preservation in poetry, we might note Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; 2 Kings 19:22; cf. also Job 6:10; Prov 9:10. Only rarely is the title used of human beings (Num 16:7; Psalm 16:10; 106:16).

<k#yh@ýa$ (“your Mighty [One]”)—or, more properly, “your Mightiest (One)”. On the assumed meaning of <yh!ýa$, when applied to God, as an intensive plural, cf. the earlier article on the name Elohim. The importance of designating YHWH as the “Mighty One” (i.e. God) of Israel is twofold:

    • It builds upon the tendency, in the early period, of explicitly identifying YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@), by which name (primarily) He was worshiped by the ancestors of Israel (cf. Exodus 6:2-3ff, and throughout the early traditions in Genesis).
    • It emphasizes the fundamental covenant principle that El-Yahweh is Israel’s God, and the only deity whom they are to acknowledge or worship. Recognition of any other deity represents a violation of the terms of the covenant, in the most basic (and blatant) way.

For more on both of these points, cf. the articles on the names El and Yahweh, as well as the recent notes on Exodus 3:13-15. These themes will be discussed further in the next daily note, as we look at Leviticus 20:7, 26, with its declarations similar to that of 19:2, in light of the comparable statement in Exodus 19:6.

References marked “Levine” above are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus arqyw, commentary by Baruch A. Levine (Jewish Publication Society: 1989).

September 1: Exodus 4:24-26

Exodus 4:24-26

In the recent article on “Israel as God’s People” (Part 2) we looked briefly at the tradition recorded in Exodus 4:24-26; given the enigmatic nature of this short narrative, it is worth examining in a bit more detail. The brevity of the narrative is largely the reason for the confusion surrounding it. Most likely, at the time of its inclusion in the book of Exodus, it represented a tradition that would have been much more familiar to the audience (and better understood), and so could be presented in an abbreviated form requiring no further explanation. This, however, is no longer the case for readers today. There is immediate ambiguity and confusion in the opening statement of the narrative:

“And it came to be on the way, in the place of lodging (for the night), (that) YHWH encountered him and sought to cause him death [i.e. kill him].” (v. 24)

The “him” of this statement is ambiguous, and it is not at all clear to whom the pronominal suffix refers. Since Moses was the subject throughout chapters 3 and 4 (up to this point), it would be natural to assume that he is being referred to here as well, and that it was Moses that YHWH sought to kill. However, the context of the narrative itself (that is, what follows in vv. 25-26) indicates that it was not Moses, but rather his son, who was in danger of death. Indeed, Moses is not mentioned in the narrative at all.

Adding to our confusion is the fact that no reason is given for YHWH wishing to kill Moses’ child. Perhaps this was explained more clearly in earlier (and longer) versions of the story. However, in some ways, there was no need for any explanation. At the historical level, the threat to the child need not have meant anything more than that he had been struck by a sudden and life-threatening illness. According to the thought-world of the ancient Near East, such illness, as might afflict a young and vulnerable child, was regarded as the action of a deity (or semi-divine being); and, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, ultimately these threats to life could only originate from YHWH Himself, and were under His control.

At the same time, there is a deeper significance, when the episode is considered in terms of the thematic and literary structure of the wider Exodus narrative. The threat to Moses’ son, for example, mirrors the threat to his own life, when he was an infant (2:1-10). At that time, according to the Exodus account, the Pharaoh sought to curb the Israelite (Hebrew) population by putting the newborn/infant males (i.e., their sons) to death (1:15-22). Again, Moses’ life was threatened following the incident in 2:11ff; in verse 15 the text states that Pharaoh sought to slay Moses, using the same verb (vq^B*) as here in 4:24. The wording is perhaps even closer in 4:19, where the phrase is “the men seeking to bring death to your soul”.

Even more important is the motif of the firstborn son, and the threat to its life. In 4:22-23, God declares that the people of Israel, collectively (and symbolically), are His firstborn son; I discuss the Old Testament background for the idea of Israel as God’s “son”, along with the importance of the firstborn (as consecrated to God, belonging to Him), in Part 2 of the aforementioned article. The threat to Israel (God’s “firstborn”), already prefigured in chapters 1-2, takes on greater prominence as a theme in the Plague-narrative cycle, where the situation is reversed, and YHWH threatens the life of the firstborn of Egypt, while the Israelites themselves are protected.

This brings us to the remainder of the narrative in 4:25-26. In response to the threat (from YHWH) to her son, Moses’ wife Zipporah takes an urgent action, performing circumcision on him (i.e., cutting off the foreskin of the child’s genital). Again, the exact reason why this was done is unclear, in terms of the original tradition (and how it is recorded here), and when considered at the historical level. According to (subsequent) Israelite tradition, a male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day of life (Lev 12:3, etc); however, in earlier times, and perhaps among the Midianites, this may not have been the established practice, and so the child had simply not yet been circumcised at the time of this incident. In light of the sudden (and unexpected) danger to the child’s life, Zipporah may have been driven to perform circumcision in the hopes of averting his death.

The magical quality attributed to the blood in ancient times, and even so among the Israelites (and reflected to varying degrees in the Torah rituals), doubtless would have played a role in this thinking. The action described in vv. 25-26 may reflect details of ritual now lost to us. In addition to the circumcision itself, two specific details are recorded:

    • Zipporah “touches” (vb ug~n`) the child’s “feet” with it— “it” presumably being the detached foreskin, with the emphasis perhaps being on the blood of the foreskin. In Hebrew idiom, “feet” can be used as a euphemism for the male genitals (e.g., Judg 3:24, etc).
    • After YHWH ‘releases’ the child—i.e., when the life-threatening illness or condition subsides—Zipporah makes the declaration:
      “A µ¹t¹n of blood for (the) cutting off (of the foreskin)!”

The meaning and force of the declaration in verse 26 is most obscure. The root meaning of /tj itself is unclear; as it occurs in the Old Testament, the noun /t*j* (µ¹t¹n) and its related forms typically refer to a relative of the wife (or bride) and her family. It can also refer specifically to a man (i.e. groom) who marries into the bride’s family. Perhaps the implication of the declaration is that the relationship between the two families—of Moses (Israel) and Zipporah (Midian)—is more firmly established now through the circumcision of the child. There is also the linguistic indication that the root µtn (or a separate root with the same consonants) also denotes the idea of protection, as is attested in Akkadian and later in Arabic (cf. Sarna, p. 26). This meaning would be appropriate, both in the immediate context of this episode, and in the wider setting of the Exodus narrative. Along these lines, perhaps the meaning of the declaration is something like, “the blood of the circumcision was protection for him”.

However we may determine the significance of the original tradition (and much of that is simply lost to us today), its place in the Exodus narrative has given the episode a new meaning and importance. As I have previously noted, the juxtaposition of the firstborn-circumcision motifs, in 4:21-26, represent a theme that frames and binds the entire narrative of 4:19-13:16:

    • Israel as God’s firstborn son (4:22-23)
      • Circumcision of Moses’ firstborn, which protects him from death (4:24-26)
        • The Plague-narrative—death of the Egyptian firstborn, and freedom for Israel
      • Circumcision as the mark of belonging to Israel, God’s firstborn (12:43-49)
    • Consecration of the firstborn as belonging to God (13:1, 11-15)

These motifs, as they appear in seminal form in 4:21-26, highlight two central themes: (1) belonging to the community of the people of God (the “firstborn” of YHWH), and (2) the protection this brings (from death, etc). While the firstborn of Egypt are killed (by YHWH) on the night of Passover, the firstborn of Israel are protected, and the Israelites (i.e., those who are circumcised) themselves given freedom/release from bondage. There is every reason to think that, at the historical level, the threat of death coming from YHWH simply refers to the occurrence of illness or disease (plague), over which God has ultimate control, and which can be “sent”, personified as a divine being or “messenger”, to afflict a population.

References above marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).