Saturday Series: 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (part 2)

This study continues our discussion last week on 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, a passage that is often regarded as an interpolation, due to: (a) the way that it apparently disrupts the flow of the letter between 6:13 and 7:2, and (b) the significant number of unusual words, expressions and concepts present in the section, many of which are rare or not otherwise found in Paul’s letters. I outlined five approaches or theories regarding the passage:

    • It is Pauline (i.e. authored by Paul) and in its proper place as part of single unified letter—whether defined as 2:14-7:4, all of 2 Corinthians, or something in between  [View #1]
    • It is non-Pauline, but used by Paul and in its proper location [View #2]
    • It is Pauline, but from a separate letter or writing, and has been inserted into its current location secondarily (i.e. an interpolation) [View #3]
    • It is non-Pauline, and an interpolation [View #4]
    • It is anti-Pauline (i.e. contrary to Paul’s own thought, in certain respects) and an interpolation [View #5]

The previous study examined 6:14-7:1 from the standpoint of textual criticism, especially noting 11 rare or unusual words which, taken together, make a serious argument against Pauline authorship. However, before this can be evaluated entirely, we must look at the passage from the standpoint of source criticism and form (or genre) criticism.

Source Criticism & Form/Genre Criticism

Source criticism primarily examines a passage in terms of whether it may be derived from a separate source (document) to be included within the larger literary work, and what the nature and characteristics of such a source might be. The high incidence of rare/unusual vocabulary increases the likelihood that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 is, in some manner, derived from a separate source. This does not necessarily preclude Pauline authorship, since many commentators believe that Paul may have adapted previously existing material, using it for his own purposes—a possibility that will be discussed in due course.

The source-critical question is especially complicated, in the case of 2 Corinthians, since a good number of commentators hold that the letter itself, as we have it, is composite—a compilation of more than one letter, i.e. genuine letters (or parts of letters) written by Paul. These theories will not be discussed here (consult any reputable critical commentary for a survey), except to mention several representative views, which would divide the letter as follows:

    • 2-document—(1) chapters 1-9, and (2) chapters 10-13; this is the simplest such theory, and is held even by a number of more traditional-conservative commentators.
    • 3-document—(1) chapters 1-8; (2) chap. 9, a letter regarding the financial collection for Jerusalem; and (3) chaps. 10-13.
    • 5-document—(1) 1:1-2:13; (2) 2:14-6:13 + 7:2-16 (some would join 7:4-16 with 1:1-2:13); (3) chap. 8 and (4) chap. 9 as separate letters (perhaps sent at the same time) regarding the collection; and (5) chaps. 10-13.

Most commentators who hold the above theories (or a variation of them) regard 6:14-7:1 as a (non-Pauline) interpolation. However, before proceeding to an examination of source-critical theories, it is necessary to consider just what kind of material we are dealing with.

Form (Genre) Criticism

Form criticism analyses the shape and structure of a passage independently, as a unit, especially in terms of the common techniques, literary devices and approaches, style of writing, etc, used by authors of the time. This relates to what is called Genre criticism, analysis of the type or kind (genre) of writing represented by a particular section or passage, often expressed according to a set of standard categories. For example, a personal letter is itself a literary genre (and form), for which there have been identified a number of sub-genres. A sermon is another kind of genre, as is poetry, etc. Quite often a literary work, including letters/epistles—especially lengthier, complex letters such as Romans and 1-2 Corinthians—contain a variety of forms and genres utilized by the author.

Let us consider specifically the form of 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; last week I provided an outline of the structure of this section:

    • Initial statement (injunction)—V. 14a
    • Poetic exposition, concluding in a Scripture citation—Vv. 14b-16
    • Catena (chain) of Scripture citations—Vv. 17-18
    • Concluding exhortation—Ch. 7:1

I noted how this gives it the character of a mini-sermon or homily. Specifically, it appears to be a homiletic treatment of a particular injunction from the Torah—the prohibition(s) against the joining together of different kinds of animals (Lev 19:19; Deut 22:10). Though neither Scripture is cited explicitly, the injunction in v. 14a clearly implies the former, applying it to the life situation of believers:

You must not come to be yoked with (those who are) different, (to one)s without trust!
M¢ gínesthe heterozygoúntes apístois

The key word is the verb heterozygéœ (“join together with [something/someone] different”), one of the 11 rare/unusual words in the passage I noted last week. Almost certainly, it is drawn from the related adjective heterózygos in the Greek version (LXX) of Lev 19:19, and thus suggests that marriage and sexual intercourse (i.e. breeding of animals) is the principal association used in the application, rather than simply being under the same “yoke” (Deut 22:10). Clearly, however, the rare word heterozygéœ is fundamentally derived here from the (Greek) Old Testament. Similarly, three other rare/unusual words (all compound nouns) appear to have been introduced to express the same basic idea: (1) metoch¢¡ (“holding [something together] with [another]”), (2) sumfœ¡n¢sis (“giving voice together [i.e. agreement] with [another]”), and (3) sungkatáthesis (“setting down together with [another, i.e. in agreement]”). All three nouns essentially serve to expound/explain the idea contained in the verb heterozyg霗of being “joined together with (someone) different”.

Returning to the structure of the section, the exposition in vv. 14b-16 is unquestionably poetic, and really ought to be presented as such when the text is quoted or translated. It follows ancient and traditional conventions for Semitic (i.e. Hebrew and Aramaic) poetry, which utilizes a bicolon (couplet, 2-line) format, with consistent parallelism (i.e. the second line restates and reinforces the first). This poetic exposition in vv. 14b-16, though given in Greek (translation?), reflects this same basic pattern. There are three couplets (6 lines), concluding with a Scripture citation; to illustrate this, I give the first line of each couplet in bold:

“For what holding (is there) with [i.e. between] justice and lawlessness,
or what common (bond is there) with [i.e. between] light and darkness?
15And what voice (sounding) together (is there) of (the) Anointed (One) toward Belîal,
or what portion for (the one) trusting with (the one) without trust?
16And what setting down together (is there) for the shrine of God with images?
for you are the shrine of (the) living God, even as God said that
‘I will make (my) house among them and will walk about among (them),
and I will be their God and they will be my people.'”

As is readily apparent, the parallelism runs through all three couplets; but in the first two couplets the parallelism is specifically synonymous (i.e. second line restates the first), while in the third couplet it is synthetic (i.e. second line builds upon the first).

The Scripture citation in verse 16 leads into a chain (catena) of citations, such as we find frequently in Jewish (and Christian) writings of the period. It was a common technique, used in both preaching and teaching (and as a memory device), bringing together various Scripture passages seen as related to the subject at hand. Paul himself used this catena technique a number of times in the undisputed letters, especially in Romans (3:10-18; 9:25-29; 10:15-21; 11:8-10, 26, 34-35; 15:9-12). However, some would claim that the citation style here is foreign to Paul. The specific Scriptures cited appear to be:

Finally, we have the concluding exhortation in 7:1—a message by the preacher applying the exposition more directly to the life situation of believers. How does the form and genre of the section—a homiletic exposition using poetry and a Scripture chain (catena) device—relate to the question of source/authorship? I would make the following points:

    • The structure of the section fits that of a self-contained mini-sermon or homily, which does not obviously relate, either in language or theme, to the surrounding context. However, Paul was certainly capable of, and adept at, applying passages from the Pentateuch/Torah, in a homiletic (midrashic) fashion, to fit the circumstances of believers in Christ—see esp. the notable examples in 1 Cor 10:1-13 and Galatians 3:6-18; 4:21-31. These examples are more extensive (and obviously Pauline) than that of 2 Cor 6:14-7:1.
    • Much of the rare/unusual vocabulary is tied to author’s citations and allusions to the Old Testament Scriptures (Greek LXX), especially the verb heterozygéœ in the opening injunction (drawn from Lev 19:19), and the divine title Pantokrátœr in the citation of v. 16 (from 2 Sam 7:8ff). As noted above, three other rare compound nouns appear to have been introduced specifically to expound the verb heterozygéœ in the poetic section of vv. 14b-16. As a point of information, it may be noted that Paul does not make use of any of these particular Scriptures elsewhere in his letters.
    • The unusual vocabulary and manner of expression is also due to the poetic character of the exposition in vv. 14b-16, which continues, in part, into the Scripture chain of vv. 17-18. Paul typically does not write in poetry, and, where it does occur in his letters, it would seem to be largely due to: (1) quotation and allusion to Scriptural poetry, or (2) inclusion of pre-existing (early Christian) hymn or creedal forms. The last point may be debated, but it is the view of many commentators regarding, for example, the Christological statements in Romans 1:3-4 and Philippians 2:6-11 (see also Col 2:15-20; 1 Tim 3:16).
    • Moreover, the style of poetic, comparative expression in vv. 14b-16 is traditional, examples of which can be seen in a number of Jewish writings of the period. An interesting parallel may be seen in the deutero-canonical book of Sirach 13:2, 17ff:
      “What common (bond) does an earthen (pot) share toward a (metal) basin?” (v. 2, cp. 2 Cor 6:14c)
      “What common (bond) does a wolf share with a lamb?…” (v. 17)
      “What peace (is there for) a hyena toward a dog?…” (v. 18)
      On parallels in the Qumran texts and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, see below.

With this in mind, let us turn again to the question of 6:14-7:1 as deriving from a separate (non-Pauline) source.

Source Criticism

Considered on its own merits, what we can say about 6:14-7:1 is that it represents an early Jewish-Christian homiletic exposition of a command from the Torah. It was written/composed by someone familiar with Jewish preaching/teaching techniques and devices, and the conventions of Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) poetry. It is not entirely certain whether it was originally composed in Hebrew/Aramaic (and subsequently translated), or in Greek, the latter being more likely. Even for a native Greek speaker, the conventions of Semitic poetry could be learned through familiarity with the Greek (Septuagint) version of the Old Testament. When we come to examine the literary style and content of the section more closely, it will become even more clear that the orientation of 6:14-7:1 is fundamentally Jewish—i.e. Jewish Christian. The theme of ritual purity in the section confirms this, and is one of the aspects that makes commentators question authorship by Paul. However, in most respects, Paul, as author/composer of the section, would fit the criteria indicated above. Thus, we can consider the following source-critical theories:

    1. 6:14-7:1 represents traditional Jewish (Jewish Christian) homiletical material adapted and included by Paul in his letter (either 2 Corinthians itself or a separate letter of which it is comprised).
    2. It is from an entirely separate (Jewish Christian) document, or literary work, which has been included as part of 2 Corinthians, presumably under the (mistaken) belief that it was part of his Corinthian correspondence.
    3. It is purely Paul’s own (inspired) composition and reflects no separate ‘source’ at all.

The last theory would be the standard traditional-conservative view, one held by very few critical commentators. Given the unusual vocabulary of the passage, its self-contained poetic-homiletic character, and other Jewish-Christian points of emphasis (to be examined in the next study [cf. below]) which seem at odds, to some extent, with Paul’s thought and manner of expression in his other letters, the existence of a distinct source seems more likely. For many scholars, there are extensive parallels to be found in other Jewish writings of the period—especially certain of the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) texts, and a collection of writings known as the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”—and that 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 evinces at least as close an affinity to these as it does to the letters of Paul. This evidence will be examined in the next study, as well as in a supplemental article. In preparation, I would ask you to consider carefully the following points (and questions):

    • The motif of ritual purity that runs through the section, and which is applied to the separation of believers from non-believers. It is expressed most directly in the closing exhortation of 7:1. Does this agree with what Paul teaches, and how he communicates it, in his other letters? Why or why not?
    • This separation/purity theme is part of a strongly dualistic (Christian) worldview. To what extent does this fit Paul’s own view and manner of expression? In particular, does the use of the contrasting nouns dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness, justice”) and anomía (“lawlessness”) here accord with Paul’s thought and theology?
    • The name Belíal (here in the variant spelling Belíar) is not used anywhere else by Paul in his letters (nor anywhere in the New Testament at all), even in similar contexts where he might have had occasion to use it; but it does occur frequently in Jewish writings of the period, such as the Qumran texts and the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs” (for more on this, read my supplemental article). If 6:14-7:1 comes from Paul, how is this to be explained?

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

As we proceed through the Song of Moses (Deut 32), it is worth keeping in mind the structure of this great poem, as I have outlined it previously:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, let us apply this critical analysis to the poem—in particular, to the post-settlement context of vv. 15-18ff. If we take the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy at face value (i.e., the time of Moses, generally prior to settlement), then these verses, along with similar portions elsewhere in the book (such as in chapter 31), reflect divine prophecy, God’s revelation (through Moses) of what will take place in the future. If, on the other hand, we were to adopt some form of the critical theory outlined above, then such passages would have to be read as representing an historical situation which had already occurred, and which has been projected back into the Mosaic setting of the book (i.e. as an ex eventu prophecy, after the fact). Interestingly, if we accept the relatively early date of the poem itself (for which there is strong evidence on objective grounds), then we find ourselves somewhere between these two approaches—i.e. the prophecy of Israel’s violation of the covenant would have to refer to events which would, apparently, have occurred during the period of the early Israelite confederacy documented in the book of Judges. Certainly, the book of Judges records the influence of Canaanite religious-cultural influence on Israel at a number of points, and is part of the narrative structure of the book (see 2:1-5, 11ff). Many of the details in the book of Judges appear to be quite authentic to the period, reflecting a time when Israelite monotheism (featuring exclusive worship of YHWH) was still trying to gain a strong foothold within the larger Canaanite (polytheistic) religious environment.

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

Verses 15-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

literally, it would be something like: “you grew fat, you became swollen, you became full”. The precise meaning of the last verb (k¹´â) is uncertain, but most likely the three verbs are more or less synonymous, referring to the idea of Israel “becoming fat“. The shift to second person (“you”), something which occurs at several points in the poem, serves as an important reminder of the purpose of the poem, within the setting of Deuteronomy (chap. 31)—as a means of instructing all Israelites in future generations (“you”). The remaining 5 bicola (10 lines) essentially expound the first; the second and sixth (vv. 15b, 18) are similar and form an inclusio, framing the lines:

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

This repeats the central theme in the opening lines (vv. 4-6) of the section, that of YHWH as Creator and Father of humankind (and esp. of Israel). The title “Rock” (‚ûr) alternates with the Divine name/title “Mighty One” (°E~l / °E_lôah). The latter bicolon (v. 18) introduces the striking motif of YHWH as mother giving birth, i.e. writhing (vb. µyl) in labor pains. This makes all the more cruel the people’s abandonment of YHWH, who endured such pains in giving birth to them. In between, these six lines (3 bicola, vv. 16-17) give a summary description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, defined unmistakably in terms of worship of deities other than YHWH:

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

The first bicolon is a clear example of synonymous parallelism, with the second line essentially re-stating the first, intensifying the image. The last two bicola are more complex, emphasizing two interrelated points: (1) these other deities are lesser than YHWH and not “God” (lit. Mighty One) in the same way, and (2) they are “new” and previously unknown to Israel, presumably meaning that they reflect the local religious environment in Canaan (i.e. “from near[by]”). I have left the noun š¢d (plural š¢dîm) untranslated above; it seems to refer to deities in a general sense, akin to the word daimœn in Greek. The derivation and meaning of the last verb (´¹±ar) is also uncertain; I have tentatively followed the Septuagint translation, relating it to the Semitic root š±r (“know, perceive”), which provides a parallel to the idea of the deities as “not known” among Israelites prior to their entry into Canaan.

Verses 19-25

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

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

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

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

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

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun dôr set parallel to b¹nîm (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated dôr according to its fundamental meaning (“circle”, i.e. circle of life), though it is usually rendered “generation” (“they are a generation of…”), but the phrase could also be translated (“thei[rs] is an Age of…”. The basic reference is to the people alive during a particular period of time, but also to their connectedness as a common people. The root h¹¸ak (“turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun tahp¥kâ, connotes both the idea of perversion and destruction—i.e., the people both turned away from the truth and broke the covenant bond. This was an indication of their lack of true loyalty (lit. “firmness”, °¢mûn) to God and to the covenant.

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

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

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

    • Verb 1 (q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (b®lœ°, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [°¢l]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [±¹m]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [ha»lîm]”, a derisive term for the worship of other deities and associated ‘idolatry’
        “with a nation of fool[s]”, i.e. a foolish nation (that worships other deities)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that the analysis above demonstrates the importance that different aspects of Biblical criticism an elucidate important details of the text, especially in the distinctive (and often difficult) area of Old Testament poetry. Next week, we will conclude this study on the Song of Moses, by looking briefly at the following lines of verses 26-42, before delving more deeply into the closing lines in verse 43.

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.