Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1ff

In recent weeks, we have examined various areas of Biblical Criticism, using the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 as a case for study. We have looked at:

    • Textual Criticism—Analysis of the Hebrew text, including variant readings, attempts to determine the most likely original form of the text, and how it may have been shaped during the course of copying and transmission. For the Hebrew Old Testament, the Scripture manuscripts from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) are especially important, when they differ from the Masoretic Text.
    • Form Criticism—Study of the specific form and genre of the passage, as far as it can be determined. What type of material are we dealing with, what are its characteristics, and how is it distinguished from other portions elsewhere in Scripture or in the same book? Specific issues are involved when dealing with ancient Hebrew poetic or psalm/hymn forms, as in the case of Deut 32.
    • Source Criticism—How did the passage come to be incorporated into the book as a whole? Did the writer(s) make use of an existing document or line of tradition? If so, how might it be distinguished from other material in the book?
    • Historical Criticism—Consideration of the (original) historical setting and background of the book, and how it came to be composed. A separate issue involves analysis of the historical accuracy of the material, whether dealing with specific traditions or literary (and narrative) sections. The latter is not merely a question of whether the Scripture is historically reliable (from a particular standpoint), but of how the content of a passage relates to its composition.

We shall now apply these to an examination of the Song of Moses as it has come down to us, looking at specific selected verses or lines of the poem. This will help us to see just how criticism relates to interpretation—here in the case of a famous and influential piece of ancient Hebrew poetry within an Old Testament Scripture. Broadly speaking, this sort of study may be referred to as literary criticism—analysis of the distinct literary form and structure, i.e. the book and passage of Scripture, as it has come down to us.

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. We examined this in the study on Form Criticism. It 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 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) which we examined in earlier studies. 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. 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 already saw in the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32), how natural features and phenomena were 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). 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 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 °§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.

In the next study, we will move ahead to verses 5-6, and then touch again on verses 8ff, to see how the theme of the Creator YHWH as Israel’s God is developed, being central to the very idea of the covenant (and its violation) that is at the heart of the Song. This we will do, God willing, when we meet here again next weekend.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

This week we turn to the areas of source- and historical-criticism. In the case of a passage like Deut 32:1-43 it is useful to include both of these points of reference together in our study. Source criticism deals with the sources which may have been used in the composition of the book (or passage within the book); these sources can be of various kinds, including written documents and oral tradition. Historical criticism involves: (a) the historical background/setting of the events in the book (and its composition), as well as (b) the historical accuracy or reliability of events, words, and traditions recorded in the book, in relation to its composition. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to these areas of study, which may be summarized as:

    1. Traditional-conservative, and
    2. Critical

While study and analysis of the Scriptures can be referred to as “criticism” generally, the term “critical” is also used in a more specialized sense—to a mode of criticism which tends to ignore or exclude religious and doctrinal assumptions regarding the nature and character of the Scriptures. Let us examine each of these approaches (see my earlier article for more on the terms) as they apply to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), realizing that many commentators adopt a position somewhere between these two “sides”, combining elements of each approach.

1. The traditional-conservative approach tends to take the text, as it has come down to us, at face value, along with many of the well-established traditions regarding its authorship, etc. In the case of Deuteronomy, the book is seen as coming essentially from the time of Moses, and, indeed, from Moses himself. Many commentators would accept Moses as the author of the book, allowing for a small amount of later editing; but, at the very least, the core sections of Deuteronomy are viewed as an authentic discourse (or series of discourses) given by Moses as speaker. In this regard, the historical setting for the Song of chapter 32 is established simply in 31:19-22ff:

(YHWH to Moses:) “And now you must cut [i.e. inscribe/write] for them this song and make the sons of Israel (to) learn it; you must set it in their mouth(s), for the purpose [i.e. so] that this song may be for me a witness to the sons of Israel” (v. 19)
“And (then) Moses opened (his mouth and) spoke the words of this song in(to) the ears of all the assembled (people) of Israel unto their completion [i.e. the completion of the song]” (v. 30)

Thus for many traditional-conservative readers and commentators, there is no real question regarding the source of the Song—it is an inspired poem, composed and (originally) recited by Moses himself, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy more or less as he composed it. For those who admit that Deuteronomy has been translated into a more recent form of Hebrew (see below), the Song would then preserve language closer to Moses’ own (i.e. his actual words, the ipsissima verba). The purpose of the Song is also made clear in chapter 31: it was meant to bring to mind for future generations the teaching given by Moses (in the book of Deuteronomy), in relation to the covenant established with them by God (including their covenant obligations). A poem would make this easier to commit to memory and transmit from one generation to the next. Indeed, there is evidence that the Song of Moses was part of the liturgy from ancient times, as indicated by Jewish sources such as Josephus (Antiquities 4.303), the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 31a) and Talmud (j. Meg. 3:7, 74b). It is possible that one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutq) contained no more than the Song, in which case it might suggest a special use for reciting or learning/teaching the poem.

2. The critical approach attempts to examine the text objectively, without reliance upon tradition (regarding authorship, etc) or doctrinal suppositions (regarding the inspiration of Scripture, etc). When taken in its best, or ideal, sense, this approach is most valuable as it avoids religious preconceptions which can distort the original context and meaning of Scripture. In practice, however, it carries many serious flaws, since it tends to neglect or disregard important aspects of the text—namely, the unique and divinely-inspired character of Scripture—which have been accepted by those who read and transmitted the text over thousands of years.

The critical approach does also take the text of Scripture at face value, but in a different sense. In the case of Deuteronomy, scholars note that, on the whole, the language of the book differs relatively little from, for example, the books of Kings, which were written during the monarchy, down to the end of the period (c. 7th-6th centuries B.C.). Thus, if Deuteronomy genuinely comes from the time of Moses (13th century, or even the 15th century, depending on one’s chronology), it would have been significantly modernized and translated/updated into a more recent form of Hebrew. Many critical commentators believe, however, that the book, while perhaps drawing upon traditions which may extend back to Moses, was actually composed much later—i.e. in the time reflected by the language, the period of the monarchy. The similarities in thought and wording with the historical books (esp. Kings) suggested a definite relationship of some kind (see the note on the “Deuteronomic History” below).

A traditional key was found in the notice regarding the discovery of the “Book of Instruction (Torah)” found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22:8ff; 23:24-25), which most commentators today identify with some form or version of the book of Deuteronomy. A rather skeptical (even cynical) critical explanation held that the book was composed during Josiah’s reign, in order to support his program of reform, and was then “found” in the Temple. A more honest analysis recognizes the book discovered in the Temple as an older version of Deuteronomy, or, perhaps, an ancient document which served as the source of the later book. On this basis, a moderating critical view, held in some fashion by a good number of scholars today, posits that an initial version of Deuteronomy, drawing upon the “Book of Instruction” as well as other sources, was composed in the 7th century, at a time corresponding to the reign of Josiah; the book was further edited/updated during the exile or around that time.

The critical approach toward the Song of Moses is, understandably, a bit more complex than the traditional-conservative view. A careful examination of the language and style of the poetry has suggested a date corresponding to the early monarchy, or even the Israelite confederacy (i.e. period of the Judges), perhaps the 11th or 10th century B.C., making it, on the basis of the preserved language alone, one of the earliest portions of the Old Testament. The surviving Canaanite poetry from Ugarit (14th-13th century), along with poetic (and prosodic) elements in other early Semitic texts and inscriptions (Phoenician, Moabite, etc), allows scholars to make extensive comparisons with various segments of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. Poetry tends to preserve older and archaic elements, even when transmitted to later generations speaking/writing in a more recent form of the language, and as a result, undergoes less modernization during transmission, or when included as a source in composition.

The critical view might be summarized as follows: the Song of Moses, as we have it, could conceivably go back to the 13th century and the time of Moses, but more likely was composed in a later period (11th-10th century?), before being included as a source in the book of Deuteronomy as written in the 7th century. As a source, it is clearly distinct from the discourses which make up the core of the book; it is often thought that these chapters (4:4129:28) relate more directly to the older strata of the book (and to the “Book of Instruction”), while the introductory portions (1:1-4:40), and chapters 30-34 were added at a later point, drawn from separate lines of tradition.

Having summarized the two distinct approaches to the book of Deuteronomy (and the Song of Moses), it is easy to see the ways in which they differ, and also how both are valuable and useful for a proper study of the text. Questions and difficulties raised by the critical approach ought to be considered carefully, and not ignored or disregarded on a priori doctrinal grounds. In all of the notes and studies on this website I have tried to balance the available evidence and analyses to provide a fair and accurate picture of the issues involved for believers studying the text today. In the next session, I will try to demonstrate how the various areas of biblical criticism we have examined—text-, form-, source- and historical-criticism—relate to a careful and in-depth study of the Scripture as it has come down to us. It will not be possible here to go through every verse in detail; instead, we will focus on a number of selected verses and lines, to demonstrate how criticism relates to interpretation.

Note on the s0-called “Deuteronomic History”

In light of the discussion above on the source and historical criticism of Deuteronomy, it is worth mentioning here a common (critical) theory regarding the composition of the book. Many scholars and commentators today hold that the book of Deuteronomy, as we have it, is actually just one part of a much larger work—a great history of Israel, extending from the time of Moses to the exile. It is usually referred to as the “Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) History”, and is thought to be comprised of Deuteronomy–Judges and Samuel–Kings. The older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the work, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89.

For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

Deuteronomy 32:1-43

This week we continue the previous discussion of the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, where we looked at the passage from the standpoint of textual criticism. Now we move into other areas of analysis—form, source, and historical criticism.

Form Criticism

The “Song of Moses” is a poem, and, as poetry, represents a distinct form (and genre) in comparison with the surrounding material (forms of narrative prose, etc). It essentially follows the style and pattern of much early Hebrew poetry, as preserved in the Pentateuch and other historical books, as well as in the earlier layers of the Psalms. It also shares many features in common with ancient Near Eastern (especially Canaanite) religious poetry. The poetic texts from Ugarit (14th-13th cent. B.C.) provide a rich source for comparison with the oldest Hebrew poems in the Scriptures, of which the “Song of Moses” is a clear example.

We find here two primary features characteristic of early Hebrew poetry: (1) a bicolon format and meter with three beats (or stress units), and (2) linguistic and thematic parallelism in each line (bicolon). On the first item, even if you do not read Hebrew, you can see the 3:3 bicolon format presented clearly in modern editions of the text. The half-lines (cola) are set side by side; for example, here are the opening lines (first three verses) in Hebrew, followed by the same text in transliteration:

You should be able to see the three stress-units in each half line (colon), often visible as three words; this meter in a bicolon format is typically indicated as 3:3.

The second characteristic mentioned above is parallelism; that is, 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, see above):

    • “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”! The 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 verse 27b:

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

The formal structure/meter and parallelism, when applied consistently throughout a poem (as here in Deut 32), actually proves quite useful for commentators and textual critics, since it allows them to detect places where the text, as it has come down to us, may be confused or corrupt. A disruption in the poetic pattern can be an indication of possible corruption (see the previous discussion on verse 43). Caution is required in this area of analysis, however, since poetry is not always absolutely consistent, and a poet may, on occasion, break or bend the rules to achieve a certain effect.

For Christians who read the Scriptures largely (or entirely) in translation, there is a tendency to focus on the underlying message of text, rather than the form and style in which the message is expressed. And yet, the form and style are important, and cannot be ignored. If the inspired author and/or speaker made use of poetry, this is certainly significant, and is, in fact, fundamental to the meaning of the passage. However, many poetic elements and characteristics (in Hebrew poetry, especially) are almost impossible to preserve in an English translation, without seriously distorting the sense of the text. These features include wordplay, assonance (i.e. similar sounding words), alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme. A couple examples of alliterative wordplay are (note the bold italics):

    • V. 17a:
      yizb®hû laš¢¼îm lœ° °§lœah °§lœhîm lœ° y®¼¹±ûm
      “they sacrificed to spirits (that are) not-God(s),
      (to) Gods they did not know”
    • V. 21a:
      h¢m qin°ûnî »®lœ°-°¢l ki±¦sûnî b®ha»lêhem
      “they provoked me (to jealousy) with (what is) not-God,
      (and) provoked me (to anger) with their empty-breaths”

Many other examples could be given; an instance of end rhythm/rhyme 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. The wordplay and alliteration in vv. 17a and 21a (above) is used to make an ironic contrast, and to drive home a vital point. Moreover, the various instances of rhythm, rhyme, and assonance, etc, apart from their artistic significance, were valuable as a way to help people learn and transmit the poem. If you read Hebrew at all, I am confident that careful study of these poetic details in the text will help you learn it better as well.

Next week, we will continue on, examining the poem in terms of source- and historical-criticism. In preparation, you should study chapters 31 and 32 in context. Does anything you find in the Song of Moses surprise you in light of its place within the structure of the book? What are the key themes and how are they expressed in comparison with the rest of the (prose) narrative? Keep these things in mind as you study the text…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43

Deuteronomy 32:1-43

I have chosen the great poem in Deuteronomy 32 as a way to demonstrate Old Testament criticism involving Hebrew poetry. It is often referred to as the “Song of Moses”, while in Hebrew tradition it is known by the opening word Ha°¦zînû, “Give ear…”. As with our earlier study on Exodus 32-34, I will be examining this section according to different areas or aspects of Biblical criticism—

    • Textual criticism
    • Form criticism
    • Source criticism
    • Historical criticism

followed by a brief exegetical survey of the text as it has come down to us, according to what is typically called Literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

An important component and emphasis of textual criticism is the determination, as far as it is possible, of the most likely original form of the text. This is based on the fundamental premise that the text has experienced corruption at numerous points during the process of transmission. The word “corruption” can be misleading, suggesting a moral failing; but this is not at all what the word means in the context of the science of textual criticism. Textual corruption simply means that the original text (as authored/intended) has been altered in some way at various points (variation units). This alteration may have been intentional, or, much more frequently, occurred by accident. The alteration may be limited to particular manuscripts (or manuscript groups), or, in some instances, has been preserved in the main line of transmission of the text as it has come down to us. In the case of the Old Testament, this main line of transmission is identified as the “Masoretic Text” (MT). Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially the texts from Qumran), the oldest copies of the Hebrew text were from the 9th-10th century A.D.—many centuries after even the latest of the Scriptures were composed. The Dead Sea Scrolls have changed the textual picture considerably. While the Scripture texts from Qumran (and other sites) have confirmed the general reliability of the Masoretic Text, they have also brought up many differences, including numerous points at which the Qumran MSS agree with the Greek version (and/or the Samaritan Pentateuch) against the MT. In such instances, the readings of the Qumran copies must be given most serious consideration.

A particular problem related to Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament, is that the poetic portions often contain older or archaic language which can be difficult to recognize and interpret. This was probably as true for ancient copyists, working centuries after the poems were originally composed, as it is for scholars today. There are many points in Old Testament poetry where the text appears to be corrupt. It is often difficult to be sure, since the confusion may be the result of a genuine word, phrase or syntactical construct, which is unknown or unintelligible to us today. However, a comparison with the Greek version (Septuagint), and, more importantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls, can help to clarify some of these difficulties, and to confirm points at which the Masoretic Text may indeed be corrupt.

There are three points in the Song of Moses were there is evidence for textual corruption, and/or variant readings. Let us look briefly at each of them in turn.

Deut 32:5

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

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. As noted above, 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—

šiµ¦¾û lô b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“His sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

or, possibly:

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¢mártosan ouk autœ¡ tékna mœm¢tá
perhaps: “they sinned, children (of) blame (who are) not to me [i.e. not mine]”

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.

Deut 32:8

The Masoretic Text (MT) of these lines in verse 8 reads:

B®hanµ¢l ±Elyôn gôyim
b®ha¸rî¼ô b®nê °¹¼¹m
yaƒƒ¢» g®»¥lœ¾ ±ammîm
l®mi´par 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” (katá arithmón angélœn Theoú). This version of the text finds confirmation in one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutj):

l®mi´par 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 (see further below, on verse 43). 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).

Deut 32:43

Here is another example where the Masoretic text appears to be corrupt, in this instance due, it would seem, to a portion of the verse having dropped out. Here is the MT as it has come down to us (for the moment, I give it only in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to His opponents,
and will cover [i.e. wipe away, cleanse] His people’s land.”

Commentators have noticed the lack of poetic parallelism in the first lines, quite in contrast to the style and technique used consistently throughout the poem, and raising the possibility that the MT is incomplete. Indeed, the Greek version is more complete, and, in part, this has been confirmed by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, where v. 43 reads as follows (note the differences in italics):

“O heavens, cry out [i.e. rejoice] with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all gods [lit. Mighty Ones]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to His opponents,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will cover [i.e. wipe away, cleanse] His people’s land.”

This preserves more accurately the three-beat bicolon (3:3) strophic structure and parallelism characteristic of the rest of the poem. The Septuagint Greek is more expansive, which could indicate its secondary character. The first lines, in particular, appear to conflate (combine) the text from 4QDeutq and MT:

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

It is easy to see how the word °§lœhîm (“gods”, LXX “sons of God”), along with the line containing it, might have dropped out or been omitted during the process of transmission. It could have been misunderstood as supporting polytheism in some way (i.e. the existence of other deities), even if here the plural °§lœhîm (lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) and not pagan deities as such. The LXX wording (“sons of God”) more accurately reflects the typical Hebrew usage in the Old Testament (see Psalm 29:1, etc; but note Psalm 97:7). In favor of the Septuagint reading is the close association of the nations and the deities (or Angels), such as we saw in what is likely the original reading of verse 8 (above). Yet the Qumran text strikes me as being more precise and favorable to the ancient poetic (and religious) outlook. The call to the heavens also serves as a fitting conclusion, functioning as a parallel to the opening words of the poem (v. 1, “Give ear, O heavens…”).

I hope that this demonstrates some of the issues involved with the study of Old Testament poetry, especially in a poem as old as the Song of Moses appears to be. Textual and interpretive difficulties abound, and must not be glossed over or ignored. Continue to study and meditate on this great poem, and we will continue with our discussion next week, picking up with the remaining areas of critical analysis which need to be explored (such as form- and source-criticism). I will see you here again next week.

Saturday Series: Exodus 32-34, concluded

Exodus 32-34 (continued)

In our discussion last week on chapters 32-34 in the book of Exodus, three primary themes, or motifs, were identified in chap. 32:

    • The role of Moses as leader and representative of the people before YHWH
    • The identity of Israel as the people of YHWH, and
    • The violation and invalidation of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people

These same themes are developed in the narrative in chapters 33-34. The historical traditions, however they were incorporated into the original narrative, serve this purpose in the book as it has come down to us. As a result, certain details and peculiarities in the text, which might be analyzed variously from the standpoint of historical and source criticism (see the discussion two weeks ago), finally take on a distinctive narrative (and theological) coloring which must be examined carefully. This exegetical survey is intended to point the way toward such a study.

With the dissolution of the covenant agreement, as narrated in chap. 32, a new situation maintains, which is indicated at the beginning of chap. 33 (verses 1-6). This may be summarized as follows:

    • Israel was God’s people
    • With the invalidation of the covenant, they are no longer treated as His people; indeed, it is God’s intention to establish a new covenant, with Moses (32:10)
    • Through Moses’ intercession there is a partial restoration (vv. 11-14)

At the start of chapter 33, Israel is still not regarded as God’s people. Note the language YHWH uses in speaking to Moses in verse 1:

“Go, go up from this (place), you and the people which you brought up from the land of Egypt…”

It is Moses, not YHWH, who “brought up” the people from Egypt. This almost certainly reflects the violation of the covenant, as echoed in the wording of 32:1. In place of Moses, the people seek for a different sort of tangible indication of God’s presence—namely, the Golden calf:

“Stand (up and) make for us God(s) which will go before us; for, see, this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has come to be for him [i.e. what has happened to him]!”

This wording is repeated in the exclamation at the creation of the Golden Calf: “These are your Gods, (O) Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (v. 4). Even so, there has been a partial restoration of the covenant; certainly, YHWH will honor the agreement established with Abraham, regarding the promised Land (33:1-3a, see Gen 15). However, He will not travel or reside in the midst of the people (vv. 3b, 5), a detail which would otherwise be fundamental to the identity of Israel as His people (and He as their God). In vivid description, this announcement leads to mourning on the part of the people (vv. 4, 6). It also establishes the setting for verses 12ff, which are preceded by the (historical) tradition included here at vv. 7-11. It is important to examine briefly the way this tradition is utilized within the narrative.

A detail often neglected by commentators is that the Tent described in vv. 7-11 is set up outside the camp. While it is possible that, originally, this was a neutral indication of the tent’s location (note the wording in v. 7), in the context of the narrative, it can only mean that YHWH is forced to meet with Moses away from the people, since he can no longer reside among them due to their violation of the covenant. This serves to deepen Moses’ role as the people’s representative before God. The encounter on Sinai, which took place in the general vicinity of the people at large, now becomes an entirely private event. The same dark cloud, which indicated the presence of YHWH at the top of Mt. Sinai, now descends, in less dramatic form, to appear at the entrance of the Tent, where God would meet/speak with Moses. Even though the people could still see the tent, and the cloud, they were cut off from the event (this is true even of Joshua, though he was within the tent itself, v. 11).

In verses 12-23, following the setting established by the tradition in vv. 7-11, Moses intercedes again for the people (vv. 12-13). YHWH agrees to lead the camp in its travels, which partially mitigates his earlier refusal to dwell among the people. At the same time, the people are brought closer to God from a different direction—through Moses’ request in verse 13 that he more completely reflect the presence of YHWH for the people: “Let me know your way(s) and know You…”. This is expressed again, in even more daring form, in verse 18: “Let me see your weight [k¹bœd]!” The Hebrew word k¹»œd (db)K*), which I have rendered literally as “weight”, when used of God, more properly refers to His manifest Presence; it is customarily translated “glory” in most English versions. An example of such a Theophany is the vision accorded Moses and the elders/leaders of Israel in 24:9-11 (“they saw the God of Israel…”, v. 10). As previous discussed, this was related to the initial establishment of the covenant, just as with its re-establishment here. Moses is apparently asking for an even more direct and personal revelation by YHWH. This Presence had otherwise been covered by the dark cloud during Moses’ previous encounters.

At this point in the narrative, there is a theological transformation (and deepening) of the ancient Theophany motif (i.e. the storm cloud). YHWH promises to Moses a vision of His Presence which is not direct—i.e., not the face (p¹neh [plur. p¹nîm])—but which reveals it from behind (°¹µôr, that which follows or comes after). This entirely unique mode of revelation is characterized by four components or attributes, which really can be distilled into two aspects of a single dynamic:

    • God speaking/calling to Moses with the Name [YHWH]
    • God revealing “all (his) good(ness) [‰ôb]”
      • Showing (all of his) favor
      • Displaying (all of his) compassion

While this is referred to in terms of a vision, when the moment comes in the narrative it is described in terms of the spoken word. There can be no doubt, however, that the declaration in 34:6-7 is to be understood as the fundamental revelation of YHWH’s presence from within the dark cloud (v. 5). Even more important, from the standpoint of the narrative, is that this theological message is central to the idea of the restoration of the covenant in chapters 34ff. The Presence of God becomes transferred and accessible to the people through the ministry of Moses. Paul draws powerfully upon this idea in his famous discussion in 2 Corinthians 3; indeed, one may say that it is fundamental to a Christian understanding of the New Covenant in the person of Jesus (and the presence of the Spirit).

In Exod 34:1-9, there is a new Theophany on Sinai, but with several important differences from the previous encounter. This time Moses is to ascend entirely alone—there should be no one on or near the mountain at all (vv. 1-3). Moreover, special emphasis is given to the new set of stone tablets which were carved out by Moses (vv. 1, 4). In obedience, Moses follows this directive and encounters YHWH (vv. 4-9). The promised revelation, as noted above, is described as a spoken declaration, centered on the utterance of the Divine Name YHWH (hwhy), vv. 6-7. The encounter reaches its climax with Moses’ request that YHWH take the people again as His own. And, indeed, in verses 10-26, God responds by establishing the covenant again with Israel, after which they are once again regarded as His people (compare with v. 10). There are, however, some important points of difference with this second covenant, as expressed through details often overlooked by commentators. First, it is a covenant with Israel and with Moses (v. 27, Moses’ name is given first). This indicates the enhanced role of Moses in ministering the covenant, and in communicating God’s word and presence to the people. Second, the same basic idea is indicated by the difference in the character of the stone tablets which provide the written basis of the agreement. The first covenant was written on the tablets by the finger of God (31:18; 32:16); by contrast, the second is said specifically to be written by Moses (34:27-28). Some commentators are inclined to gloss over this apparent difference, or to attribute it simply to differences in the underlying traditions. While the latter is certainly possible, in my view it does not change the meaning of the difference in the overall narrative as we have it.

The remainder of chapter 34 further emphasizes, in vivid and dramatic fashion, the mediatorial role of Moses. The Divine Presence is marked and reflected on Moses’ own person (rays of light from his face), visibly and symbolically, as he descends from Mt. Sinai (vv. 29-30). In this glorified condition he communicates God’s instruction (Torah) to the people (vv. 31-33), a process which is repeated at regular points, at least until the Torah is complete and the communal Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) is built. Indeed, within the narrative structure and setting, this Torah (35:1-3) leads into specific instruction regarding the building of the Tent, through which the people would come to encounter YHWH. This is unquestionably meant as a parallel to the Tent “outside the camp” which only Moses would enter (34:34-35). After the great new Tent is established, God’s Presence fills it (40:34), effectively taking Moses’ place as the one who communicated the Presence to the people (v. 35). Here the Presence of YHWH would reside with Israel through all of the people’s travels (vv. 36-38).

I hope that this all-too brief survey is instructive in demonstrating how various details and points of emphasis in the text, which might otherwise be looked at (from a critical standpoint) as discrepancies or evidence of contrasting traditions, ultimately find their greatest significance in the way that they underscore and enhance the fundamental message in the narrative (as it has come down to us). This is especially important in the case of a passage such as Exodus 32-34 which is filled with so many famous traditions and details, and which also fits so precisely into the overall thematic structure of the book (particularly the second half, chapters 19-40).

Before leaving the Pentateuch, I wish to move ahead to the book of Deuteronomy, and spend a little time examining the great “Song of Moses” in chapter 32. I intend to use this particular passage as a way of introducing some of the critical and interpretive issues which are specific to the study of ancient Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. I would ask that you read through the book of Deuteronomy, at your leisure, considering its overall structure, as well as some of the themes and language used by the author (and/or the underlying traditions). How does the “Song” in chapter 32 fit within this structure? Note any particular details which stand out to you or which you find especially of interest. God willing, we will begin to explore these together…next week.

Saturday Series: Exodus 32-34, continued)

Exodus 32-34

Last week we looked at chapters 32-34 of Exodus from the standpoint of textual, source, and historical criticism, introducing some of the issues and questions which commentators face when dealing with this section of the book. These are important, and should not be ignored; however, ultimately, we must grapple with the text as it has come down to us, whenever and however it was composed, and in whatever manner the various traditions came to be incorporated. This wider view relates to the area of Biblical Criticism called literary criticism—analysis of the passage as part of a written text and literary document, examining its structure, points of emphasis, its themes, and the images and concepts which reflect the story and message with the author wishes to communicate.

In approaching Exodus 32-34 within the context of the second half of the book (chaps. 19-40), the first point to note is the way that narrative alternates with a record of legal material. The latter is more properly presented within the narrative framework as instruction (laws, regulations, precepts) which God (YHWH) gives to the people, through Moses. This is reflected in the Hebrew word (tôrâ, hr*ot) which traditionally is used to refer to this material, and which gives its name to the Pentateuch as a whole (Torah). We can see how this torah dominates the second half of the book, being recorded in four main sections, as indicated in the following outline (torah marked by asterisks):

  • Introduction: The people at Mt. Sinai—Preparation for the appearance of YHWH (chap. 19)
    —The role of Moses as intermediary between YHWH and the people (vv. 14-25)
  • Part 1: The covenant is established at Sinai (20:1-24:11)
    —The Decalogue*: YHWH speaks to the people (20:1-14)
    —Moses functions as intermediary/representative for the people (20:15-23)
    —The Book of the Covenant*: YHWH speaks to Moses (21:1-23:33)
    —Ratification of the covenant (24:1-11)
  • Part 2: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (24:12-31:18)
    —Moses ascends Sinai (24:12-18)
    —Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc (25:1-31:17)
    —The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
  • Intermediary: The covenant is abolished (chaps. 32-33)
    —Moses descends Sinai
  • Part 3: The covenant is re-established at Sinai (34:1-28)
    —Moses ascends Sinai again (34:1-9)
    —Second ‘Book of the Covenant’* (34:10-27)
    —The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
  • Intermediary: The restored covenant (34:29-35)
    —Moses descends Sinai
  • Part 4: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (chaps 35-39)
    Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc
  • Conclusion: The people at Sinai—Preparation for the presence of YHWH (chap. 40)
    —Moses’ role of leadership in preparing the Tabernacles, etc (vv. 1-33)

There is a thematic symmetry to this structure, and to the character of the Torah, as it relates to the establishment of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and his people:

    • Establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (chap. 20)
      • The “Book of the Covenant” (21:1-33)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (25:1-31:17)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Re-establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (34:1-9)
      • Second ‘Book of the Covenant’ (34:10-27)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (35:1ff)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)

The Torah itself may be summarized two ways, according to two fundamental aspects:

    1. The regulations and precepts which are to govern Israelite society, and their identity as God’s chosen people; and,
    2. As the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between God and his people; in written form (the two tablets, etc) it provides the legal basis for the agreement. Transgression of the torah represents more than violation of a law or regulation; it means the violation of the agreement itself, which entailed very specific punishment, tied to the ritual image of cutting (dismembered animals, circumcision, sacrificial offering [with blood])—the one who violates the covenant will similarly be “cut off”.

Any attempt to understand and interpret the legal material in the book of Exodus, without keeping this connection with the covenant clearly in view, will be doomed to failure. It is absolutely essential to the thematic structure and message of the book. You may wish to review our study of the covenant episodes in Genesis 15, 17, and Exodus 24, from recent weeks. Indeed, it is the idea of the covenant, or binding agreement (Heb. b§rî¾, tyr!B=), which governs the intermediate scenes in chapters 32-33—the episode of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, marking abrogation of the covenant. Let us examine briefly these chapters, along with the following chap. 34, in light of this overriding theme. Several aspects come to fore:

    • The tension involved in Moses as the leader/representative of the people
    • The identity of Israel as God’s people, which is central to the covenant
    • The violation and abrogation of the covenant, and what this entails
1. Moses as the people’s representative

Problematic from the beginning is the people’s dependence on Moses as their representative, serving as an intermediary before God. It is they who request that God speak to Moses, and no longer directly to them (20:16-18), and it is thus only Moses who ascends all the way up the mountain to the place where God’s presence is (24:12-18). This sets the stage for the Golden Calf episode (32:1). The people feared to hear God’s voice, and now they begin to fear what may have happened to their leader and representative. During the 40 days and nights when Moses is on the mountain, the people are without contact with God; implicit in this condition is that it becomes a time of testing. Indeed, this provides the psychological basis for their violation of the covenant (vv. 2ff)—they seek a tangible sign of God’s presence, which, inadvertently, it would seem, leads to idolatry and the worship of “other” gods. The Calf itself, in its historical context and background, almost certainly is to be understood as representing the seat (or throne) of God’s presence, much like the winged figures of the golden Ark. It is, however, a fine line between the creation of such images, and a perversion of true worship. This is a theme which runs through virtually the entire Old Testament, and helps to explain the centrality of the first command(s) in the Decalogue (20:3-5a, see also 34:17). It is the command in 20:4-5 which is violated initially; but the declaration in 32:3 (“These are your gods…”, also v. 8) effectively results in a violation of the first command in 20:3 as well. The words of YHWH in v. 8 reflect his anger over how quickly the agreement was violated, and with the very first words of the Torah.

2. The identity of Israel as God’s people

Verse 10 introduces the idea that God will destroy the people—death/destruction being the punishment for violating the covenant. He intends to start over with Moses, replacing Abraham and his descendants (see the covenant episodes in Gen 15 and 17, etc). Violation of the covenant essentially invalidates this identity of a people belonging to God, who submit to his authority and have established a reciprocal relationship with him. Indeed, in verse 7, God refers to them as Moses‘ people (“your people”, see above on Moses as the people’s representative), no longer referring to them as his own people (v. 9). Moses, however, intercedes for them with God (i.e. the other side of his role as intermediary), requesting that YHWH continue to regard them as His people (vv. 11ff), and this identity seems to be restored, at least in part, in verse 14. There it is stated that YHWH ‘relaxed’ himself over the “evil” (i.e. punishment, destruction) which he was going to do to “His people”. This theme, and the tension involved with it, continues into chapter 33.

3. The violation and abolishment of the Covenant

Even though God may have decided to soften the punishment against the people, the agreement established with them has been invalidated and is over. The breaking of the tablets (v. 19) makes this absolutely clear, according to ancient Near Eastern tradition and practice; e.g., see the Akkadian expression “break the tablet” (tuppam —epû). Still, it is a lesser punishment which is to be administered, in several stages:

    • The people drink water containing powder from the Golden Calf after it was burned down (v. 20). This is presumably for a ritual ordeal to identify the guilty (see the parallel in Num 5:12-31).
    • Once the guilty are identified, they are “consecrated” for destruction and are put to death (vv. 27-29)
    • Apparently, there is also a punishment inflicted on the people through disease (v. 35), though this is stated very briefly, and the exact relation to the events described in the prior verses is uncertain.

Thus, it is not the people as a whole who receive the punishment of death/destruction, but only the specific individuals who are guilty. This important religious principle, which would come up again at various points in the Old Testament, is emphasized in Moses’ second encounter with God (vv. 33-34).

The invalidation of God’s agreement (covenant) with Israel suddenly leaves the narrative at an impasse. The dramatic tension of the scene becomes even more evident in chapter 33, where all the themes from the Golden Calf episode are developed in a unique way, drawing perhaps from a separate line of tradition. I would ask that you read chapter 33 (and on into chap. 34) most carefully. We will be continuing this thematic and exegetical examination of the powerful narrative of Exod 32-34 in next week’s study. Pay attention to each detail and nuance in the text. If you are unable to read Hebrew, make use of whatever tools are at your disposal to study the actual Hebrew words and phrases used. Try to follow carefully the dialogue between Moses and YHWH. How does this relate to the preceding chapters, and to the covenant theme of the narrative? Study and meditate on these points, and I will see you again, God willing…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Exodus 32-34

Exodus 32-34

In the most recent Saturday discussion, we examined the covenant scene in Exodus 24, pointing out along the way the place of this episode in the structure of the book as a whole. The entire second half of the book, chapters 19-40, involves the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and his people at Mt. Sinai. From the standpoint of the narrative of the Pentateuch (or, at least the Tetrateuch, Genesis–Numbers), this extends to encompass the entire book of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers (up to 10:10)—all of which is set at Sinai.

Chapters 32-33 (+ 34:1-9) of the book of Exodus have a special place in this narrative structure, set between two blocks of legal material (instruction, Torah), 20:1-23:33; 25:1-31:17 and 34:10-40:15. At the same time, there have been numerous critical questions surrounding these passages, which continue to be studied and debated in earnest today. As a result, Exod 32:1-34:9 is instructive for illustrating various aspects of Old Testament criticism. I wish to survey briefly each of the following areas:

    1. Textual Criticism
    2. Source Criticism
    3. Historical Criticism
    4. Exegetical analysis of the received Text

1. Textual Criticism

Generally speaking, the text of the Pentateuch is consistent and secure, as compared with other portions of Scripture. The numerous Dead Sea manuscripts tend to confirm the later Masoretic Text (MT), with a few notable exceptions, one of which is the ‘paleo-Hebrew’ manuscript from Qumran labeled 4QpaleoExodm. This (fragementary) copy of the book of Exodus covers the material spanning from 6:25 to 37:16. The text of this manuscript differs from the MT at a number of points, where it tends to agree with the Samaritan Pentateuch (against the MT). The differences are relatively minor, but they are significant enough to allow us to regard the manuscript as representing a distinct recension, or version, of the text. It appears to be the recension which, with some adaptation, was used by the Samaritans in their version of the Pentateuch. There is a particular example from our passage (Exod 32-34):

Exodus 32:10-11

The Masoretic Text (MT), following the BHS/Westminster critical editions, reads (in translation):

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

Now, note the reading of 4QpaleoExodm, in agreement with the Samaritan text:

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And with Aharon YHWH was very angry, (enough) to destroy him, but Moshe interceded on behalf of Aharon. And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

The portion in bold italics is not present in the MT. In such an instance, we must consider whether the longer text is original or represents an addition (interpolation). In this particular case, it is unlikely that the longer text is the result of an accident (copying mistake); nor can the shorter text be explained as an obvious mistake (omission). If, on the other hand, the change was at least partly intentional, then we must consider how or why it was made. The arguments cut both ways:

    • The longer text could be explained by the fact that the shorter text, if original, does not really record any reaction by God against Aaron, nor punishment, for his specific role in the Golden Calf incident; scribes thus might have been inclined to add such a detail, whether from authentic tradition or as a pious invention.
    • Scribes may also have been inclined to minimize Aaron’s role in the sin of the Golden Calf, and to eliminate specific details which cast him in too bad a light (esp. in comparison with Moses). This would be an argument in favor of the longer text.

It is not possible to make a definite determination on these grounds (though I tend to favor the shorter text at Exod 32:10-11a). In such cases, where there is corroborating evidence from Qumran to support either the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek Version(s), against the MT, we ought to give it serious consideration in our study.

2. Source Criticism

According to the common critical analysis of the Pentateuch (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis), Exodus 32-34 is a composite, made up of at least three distinct strands (or sources):

    • The core narrative of 32:1-33:23, usually assigned to the “E” (Elohist) source
    • The appearance of YHWH to Moses (34:1a, 2-13) and a parallel version of the Ten Commandments (34:14-28 [cp. 20:1-17]), assigned to the “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) source
    • A layer of editing and additional material, referred to as the “Priestly” (P) layer or source—31:18; [34:1b]; 34:29-35ff (to the end of the book).

Interestingly, the “E” source was so labeled based on its presumed preference for the divine name Elohim over Yahweh (YHWH). However, chapters 32-33 consistently use YHWH throughout, the only exception being in 32:16. In this instance, the critical theory is more properly based on the presence of “doublet” traditions (two ascents by Moses, two sets of tablets, two versions of the Decalogue, etc), as well as historical considerations (see below). Traditional-conservative commentators, while often respectful of these analyses based on the Documentary Hypothesis, tend to accept the text at face value, as a unified composition reflected authentic historical tradition throughout. Even so, there are a number of apparent inconsistencies and peculiarities which require explanation. It is certainly possible to recognize the presence of various traditions which have been brought together in the narrative, without necessarily adopting the Documentary Hypothesis as a whole.

3. Historical Criticism

There are two aspects to what we call historical criticism: (1) analysis of the historical background of the text as we have it (including when it was authored, etc), and (2) consideration of the historicity of the events and traditions contained in the text. Both aspects have been somewhat controversial over the years, in the case of the Pentateuch, on the basis of two factors: (a) the detailed critical studies and hypotheses which indicate many different and varied traditions, and (b) the strong tradition identifying Moses as the effective author/source of the books. Students and scholars who adopt (or insist on) extreme positions regarding either of these two factors, in my view, end up distorting or neglecting important pieces of evidence related to the text. Let us briefly consider several critical approaches to Exod 32-34:

a. The blending of contrary or opposing traditions

Commentators who recognize different, distinct strands of tradition in the text, often claim that these are contrary or opposed to one another, in various ways. This may include:

    • Different wording or formulation of a tradition, such as in the two “versions” of the Decalogue—20:1-17 (usually assigned to “P”) and 34:14-28 (“J”).
    • Geographical distinctions—esp. interests of the Northern kingdom (Shechem, Bethel, Mushite priesthood), compared with those of the South (Jerusalem, the Temple, the Davidic legacy, Aaronid priesthood). The presumed source documents “E” and “J” are often thought to come from the North and South, respectively.
    • Religious and theological differences—e.g., the northern Bethel cultus vs. that of the Jerusalem (Temple), cherub-throne (the Ark) vs. bull-throne, the position of the priestly lines of Aaron and Moses, specific traditions associated with the religious centers of Gilgal, Shiloh, Shechem, etc.

As just one example, it is often though that the Golden Calf episode in chapter 32, along with Aaron’s involvement in the incident (vv. 1-5, 10-11 v.l., 21-24f), is intended as a (Northern) polemic against the religious establishment of Jeroboam (at the sites of Bethel and Dan, etc). There can be no doubt that an intentional parallel is at work. All one has to do is to consider the basic iconography (of the bull) and the words used to introduce it:

“These are your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4, cf. also verse 8)
“See, your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28)

How should this parallel be explained? There are two main possibilities:

    • The declaration in 1 Kings 12:28, and/or the golden bulls of Jeroboam’s religious establishment themselves, are meant to reflect the earlier Exodus tradition.
    • The Exodus scene of the Golden Calf reflects the later development by Jeroboam, being projected back into the time of Moses and the Exodus. At the very least, one might say that the Exodus narrative has been shaped (its wording, etc) in light of the later history.
b. The tendency to include traditions with variant details

Apparent discrepancies in detail do not necessarily mean that traditions are unreliable or inaccurate. However one views the composition of the Pentateuch, the author/editor(s) of the books as they have come down to us has included many different traditions, and narratives, which seem to result in certain inconsistencies. Consider, for example, the shifts in setting and emphasis in chapters 32-34, which do not always flow smoothly in the text:

    • The details surrounding the Golden Calf, including the fact that it seems to be understood as representing both distinct “gods” (i.e. separate from YHWH), and YHWH himself (his throne?)—32:1, 4, 5-6
    • The different expressions of God’s anger, judgment, and the punishment of the people (with multiple intercessions by Moses), without a clear sense of how they relate to each other in the course of the narrative—(these will be discussed in the last section of this study [#4]). In particular, Aaron does not seem to face any definite punishment for his role in the Golden Calf incident (see above).
    • The differing descriptions of what God says to Moses on the mountain, and how it relates to what Moses writes, and to what is written on the “two tablets” of stone—24:3-4; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1-5, 28-29, etc.
    • In this regard, there are also some interesting repetitions in the sections of legal instruction (Torah)—examine the passages closely, 25:1-31:17; 34:10-35:3ff, as well as the earlier “book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:23).
    • Certain apparent inconsistencies regarding where/how God appears to Moses, etc—chap. 19; 20:18ff; 24:1-18; 33:7ff, 17-23; 34:5ff, 29ff.

Our modern ideals of composition would perhaps require a bit more clarity, harmonizing and smoothing out details in these various episodes and traditions. The ancient author (and/or editor[s]) did not compose and shape the text in quite this way. We must consider that the apparent rough edges and inconsistencies are intentional, meant to bring out certain details and aspects of the narrative which might otherwise be overlooked.

c. The unifying structure of the narrative

A number of the discrepancies or inconsistencies mentioned above, however one chooses to judge them from the standpoint of source– and historical-criticism (see the discussion above), can be explained, in large measure, when one considers carefully the structure of the narrative as it has come down to us. In this regard, the “doublet” and repeating elements, far from being problematic, are actually vital to a proper understanding of the narrative. Consider the basic outline:

    • Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives instruction (Torah) from God, which includes material written down on two stone tablets (i.e. the covenant)—24:15-31:18
      • The people violate the covenant and Moses descends—chaps. 32-33
    • Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and (again) receives instruction (Torah) from God, including that written down on two stone tablets (the covenant)—34:1-28
      • Moses descends and the covenant with the people is re-established34:29-35:1ff

The simplicity of this outline masks a richly-detailed structure of motifs and associations, particular points of emphasis, and the like. This is part of the uniquely inspired character of the text which cannot be reduced merely to questions of historicity. The fourth (final) section of this study on Exodus 32-34 will examine the structure of the narrative in more detail, from an exegetical standpoint. This we will do next Saturday. I hope that you will join me.

Saturday Series: Exodus 24:1-11

Exodus 24:1-11

The past two weeks we have examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called “the account of the agreement” (s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb š¹µâ) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (b§rî¾) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (±ôlâ, hl*u)) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew šelem (<l#v#, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun ze»aµ, verb z¹»aµ), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diath¢¡k¢] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb µ¹zâ (hz`j*) in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). For next week, even as you think and meditate upon these covenant episodes we have studied, I would ask you to read on through the remainder of Exodus, considering how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Law, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

Blessings to you in your study…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Genesis 17

Last week, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Our study illustrated the importance of historical criticism in analyzing passages such as many in the Pentateuch which record, or refer to, historical traditions coming from an ancient religious/cultural background that is quite foreign to most of us today. This is one aspect of what we call the grammatical-historical method. The fundamental principle involved is that, in studying a passage of Scripture, one must first (and primarily) examine how it would have been understood by the author(s) and original audience of the work. As far as we are able today, at this distance removed, to determine the meaning of the words and phrases in the language of the time, and to reconstruct the historical background of the passage—this is the foundation upon which reliable interpretation must begin. If we fail to consider the original context properly, it is likely that our interpretation will misguided or seriously flawed in important ways.

Today, I wish to examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed last week, the Hebrew word b§rî¾ (tyr!B=) refers to a binding agreement, usually between two parties. They may be parity agreements (i.e. between equal parties), or agreements (treaties, etc) made with a superior; there are many examples of the latter in the surviving ancient Near Eastern texts and inscriptions from the 2nd-1st millennium, usually referred to as suzerainty treaties—that is, between a suzerain (state or ruler) and his vassal(s). Rather unique in this regard is the way that this standard agreement-type was adapted in the ancient Israelite context, to establish the relationship between God (El-Yahweh) and the people of Israel. Such an agreement, by its very nature, follows the suzerainty-treaty pattern—of a superior ruler (God) and his faithful/loyal vassals.

Genesis 17

In many ways, the covenant episode in chapter 17 parallels that in chap. 15 (discussed last week), to the point that many critical scholars view them as variant (traditional) versions of the same essential historical episode, emphasizing different aspects. According to the standard “Documentary Hypothesis” analysis, accepted by many commentators, Genesis 15 is part of the “J” (J/Yahwist) source, using the divine name YHWH (Yawheh) throughout. By contrast, chapter 17 is usually attributed to the so-called “Priestly” (“P”) strand, viewed both as a distinct source, as well as an editorial layer which incorporated earlier traditional material (from “J”, etc). The divine ‘name’ used in chap. 17 (except for the initial references in verse 1), is the plural °§lœhîm (“Mighty Ones”, i.e. “Mightiest”[?]), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. In this regard, historical criticism often blends into source criticism, which is an especially difficult (and often highly speculative) area of Biblical Criticism. Traditional-conservative commentators (along with a few critical scholars) are less willing to accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” source analysis, at least not without serious qualification. Indeed, if we read the texts here at face value, it would seem that chapters 15 and 17 occur at very different points in Abraham’s life. In Gen 17:1, it is stated that Abraham was 99 years old, whereas in Gen 15, presumably, he would have been somewhat closer to the 75 years indicated in 12:4. And, if we accept the essential historicity of the narratives, and the traditions recorded therein, then we would have to posit two distinct historical episodes.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that the nature of the agreement (or covenant) recorded in chapter 17 differs in several important ways from that in chap. 15.

First, there is different language used. Of course, this could be due to a difference in the source of the tradition itself. One need not accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” entirely in order to realize that the consistent use of “Yawheh” vs. “Elohim” suggests a different source for the tradition. This would seem to be confirmed by the use of the divine name (or epithet) Šadday (yD^v^). This is an ancient title, the meaning of which may well have been lost for later Hebrew-speakers, much as it is still uncertain for scholars today. The name occurs in the Old Testament independently (preserved in poetry, Gen 49:25; Psalm 68:14; 91:1; 30 times in the book of Job, etc), and also attached to the divine name °E~l (la@), as here (and 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod 6:3). The original meaning may have been something like “the mountainous One”, “the One of the Mountain”, etc. Deities in the ancient world were often associated, in various ways, with mountains, symbol of the numinous and as a meeting point between heaven and earth. Even before the revelation at Sinai, the Creator God El-Yahweh would have been connected with important mountains and high places. The mountain is also symbolic of height, greatness, exaltedness, etc., and this connotation was likely understood in the name. For Abraham, and the earliest Israelites, the one true God would have been called °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”; see my earlier discussion on this name). According to Exod 6:3, when El-Yahweh appeared to the Patriarchs, it was not by the name YHWH, but as El-Shaddai.

If we were to posit a tentative source-reconstruction of chapter 17, it might be as follows:

    • An ancient tradition, passed down from the time of the Patriarchs, which speaks of God (El [Shaddai]) appearing to Abraham and establishing an agreement with him
    • An editing layer (Mosaic/or post-Mosaic) which identifies the God of the Patriarchs as Yahweh (verse 1).
    • A layer of traditional editing, including normalized translation, etc, which uses the common name/title for God (Elohim) throughout, when El (not Yahweh) was used in the original tradition.

Apart from the use of divine name(s), there are other differences in language and terminology between chapters 15 and 17. For example, instead of the idiom “cut an agreement” (15:18), we have “give [i.e. make] an agreement” (17:2). There is also the repeated expression, b§rî¾ ±ôl¹m, “agreement of [i.e. lasting into] (the) distant (future)”, i.e. “eternal/everlasting agreement” (verses 7, 13, 19). The terminology describing the inheritance of the Promised Land, etc, is also distinct, compared with chapter 15.

Second, the character of the covenant agreement is not the same. While the principal themes are comparable (the promise of descendants for Abraham, the land they will inherit, etc), the form of the agreement itself differs. In Genesis 15, the agreement takes the form specifically of a grant of land to Abraham (and his descendants) as a reward for his faithful service. The binding obligation is entirely upon the superior party (God), and it is He who, symbolically, passes between the pieces, indicating that he his bound to fulfill the agreement. By contrast, in chapter 17, the agreement is binding on both parties—God and Abraham—and it is also a conditional agreement. This is summarized and stated simply in vv. 1b-2:

“Walk before me and be complete, and I will give [i.e. make] my binding-agreement between me and you…”

God’s part of the agreement, his obligation, is described in verses 4-8, entailing (1) giving descendants (a vast number) to Abraham, and (2) assigning the land which they will possess. The fundamental religious nature of this agreement is capped by the closing words, “and I will be God [Elohim] for them”.

Abraham’s part of the agreement, which is to continue on with his descendants, is narrated in vv. 9-14. It fundamentally consists of a promise to maintain the agreement, marked by the rite of circumcision.

Third, there is no sacrificial ritual associated with the covenant agreement in chapter 17. As I noted above, instead of the expression “cut an agreement” (indicating the cutting up of an animal), we have here “give/make and agreement”. However, there is still cutting involved, but of an entirely different sort. It is the rite of circumcision—to “cut off” (mûl) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (°ô¾) of the agreement, marked in the person’s flesh. However, the act of cutting does, in fact, still carry a connotation similar to the cutting up of an animal in the covenant ceremony. Recall that the underlying idea of the cutting symbolized the fate of the person who violated the agreement—i.e., “just as this animal is cut up, thus it will be for {so-and-so} if he/they were to break this agreement”. In this instance, Abraham and his descendants are to “cut off” the male foreskin, signifying their loyalty to the covenant; if they violate the covenant, they likewise will be “cut off” (verse 14).

An important observation to make here, as with many points in Old Testament tradition, is that both the covenant agreement forms, and the rite of circumcision itself, are not unique to Israel, nor were they invented and introduced in the time of Abraham. On the contrary, they follow customs and practices already established and widespread in the ancient Near East. Indeed, various forms of male circumcision are known from ancient and traditional cultures worldwide. This establishes the important principle that God, in the Scriptures, deals with his people in terms that they will understand, accommodating many of the ideas and practices established in the culture at large. In so doing, however, the traditional forms are given a new meaning and significance; and this is certainly the case with the rite of circumcision. At two key points, the Israelite ritual of circumcision may be said to be unique:

    • It is to be performed on the eighth day after birth. This differs from many traditional practices, where circumcision is related to puberty and/or pre-nuptial rites. The Israelite is marked as belonging to God, obliged to follow the covenant agreement he established, from the very time of birth. The eighth day may be connected with the traditional seven-day creation period, or, more generally, with the symbolic idea of seven as indicating completeness. Similarly, according to Exod 22:29, a first-born animal is dedicated on the eighth day after birth. This is likely tied to ancient concepts surrounding purity and sacrificial ritual (see Lev 22:27).
    • As a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham (and his descendants), circumcision fundamentally has a religious, rather than cultural, significance. Whereas in many cultures it marks rites of passage, i.e. into adulthood and one’s place within society, for Israelites, circumcision signifies their identity as a people belonging to God, i.e. God’s own people.

Thus we find two distinct covenant-models in Genesis 15 and 17, each with specific characteristics, as recorded in Scripture:

    1. The first is characterized by:
      (a) The superior party has the sole binding obligation
      (b) This takes the form of a land grant to his faithful ‘vassal’ (Abraham and his descendants)
      (c) It is accompanied by the ceremonial ritual involving the cutting-up of an animal (and passing between the pieces)
    2. The second is characterized by:
      (a) Both parties have binding obligations
      (b) It takes the form of a promise (of descendants for Abraham), and that the superior party (God) will continue to show favor, upon the condition that the vassal-party (Abraham and his descendants) fulfills its promise to uphold the covenant agreement
      (c) It is not accompanied by any ritual slaughter of animals, but involves the cutting of (human) flesh in the rite of circumcision

As you consider these different points of emphasis, turn to Exodus 24 and read the third key covenant episode recorded there. What are your thoughts regarding these distinctive covenant forms—how they are used by God, and how they are presented in the Scripture narrative? What does each episode tell you about the ancient covenant concept, and how such traditions developed within the unique matrix of Israelite religion? Think about these questions, read and study each passage (again) carefully…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Genesis 15

This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

    • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
    • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
    • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.