Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:26ff, 43

In the recent Saturday studies, we have been exploring the great poem known as the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, using it was a way to consider, and demonstrate, how principles and methods of critical analysis apply to a particular passage (here, involving ancient Hebrew poetry). Last week, I discussed verses 15-25 in some detail; today, I wish to bring this exploration of the Song of Moses to a conclusion. There will be three parts to this study:

    • a survey/summary of verses 26-42
    • an examination of verse 43, and
    • a brief consideration of the poem in relation to verses 44ff that follow

Verses 26-42

First, a reminder of the structure of the bulk of the poem:

    • 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)

Verses 26-42 belong to this second division; vv. 19-25 (discussed last week) narrate the punishment to be brought on the people as a result of their violation of the covenant. That this punishment would be both severe and deadly is clear enough from the dramatic language and imagery used. However, it would not result in the complete destruction of the people, nor is their any hint of a future Exile. Instead, we see in verses 26ff a theme of deliverance emerge. It follows the same line of thought as in the Golden Calf narrative in Exodus 32ff—Israel will suffer a devastating punishment, ceasing to be God’s people in the way that they were under the covenant bond; at the same time, because of YHWH’s own goodness and mercy, and through the intercession of Moses, the people will not be cut off completely, but will be restored to YHWH as His people under the covenant. Just as Moses appealed to YHWH’s honor, referring to how this punishment on Israel would be perceived by the surrounding nations (Exod 33:13-16), so we find the same thought expressed emphatically in the Song; indeed, it is a theme that dominates vv. 26-42.

Central to the entire poem is the contrast between YHWH and the deities recognized by other nations; it is the same contrast that effectively separates Israel (as YHWH’s own people) from the other peoples (who ‘belong’ to other deities, see the discussion on verse 8). Because of this, YHWH (and His own honor) cannot allow the nations to triumph over Israel completely, though they may attack and inflict immense suffering and destruction on the people and land (vv. 23-25). This is expressed in the opening lines of this portion of the poem (vv. 26-27), and could (almost) be understood as reflecting a kind of personal insecurity on the part of YHWH:

I said “I shall split them to pieces,
stop (all) memory of them for man(kind)!”
were it not [i.e. except] that I feared provoking the enemy,
lest (those) oppressing them look at (this),
lest they say “Our hand is lifted high—
and YHWH did not make all this (happen)!”

The focus is on curbing the wicked/fleshly ambitions and aspirations of the surrounding nations. However, to understand the lines correctly in context, we must realize the true significance of this aspect. The success of the other nations (over Israel) might lead people everywhere to think that their deities were equal (or superior) to YHWH. Thus the rhetoric and mode of expression here is fundamentally theological. The declaration in verse 31, expressing the thought of the poet/people rather than YHWH’s own pronouncement in the prior lines, is a good example:

For not like our Rock is their ‘Rock’
nor (the one)s our enemies (trust as) guardians.

The precise meaning and syntax of the second line is uncertain, but poetic parallelism suggests that the plural noun (or participle) p®lîlîm should be related to Akkadian palilu used as an epithet of deities (JPS:Tigay, pp. 310, 404). “Rock” (‚ûr) of course is used as a divine name throughout the poem, parallel with °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God). Another example of the same sort of contrast is seen in the taunt by YHWH in verse 37ff, part of the announcement of judgment on the nations that shapes the remaining lines:

He [i.e. YHWH] will say, “Where are their ‘Mighty Ones’,
the ‘Rock’ in whom they sought protection
…?”

This expresses again the principle that the deities worshiped by the nations are not “Mighty” (°¢l, i.e. God) in the same sense that YHWH is. Even more pointed is the declaration in verse 39a:

“See then that I—I am He
and there are no ‘Mighty Ones’ with me”

While it would be a mistake to read this as a statement of absolute monotheism, it does point in that direction. Certainly it reflects the principle expressed in the first command of the Decalogue, which is central to Israelite monotheism (Exod 20:2-3; Deut 5:6-7). It is never quite stated in Deuteronomy that the deities of the surrounding nations do not exist, only that they are not comparable to YHWH and do not have anything like the same power or nature (Deut 3:24, etc). God’s ultimate judgment on the surrounding nations is essentially a condemnation of their deities, and a demonstration of their weakness compared to YHWH. Indeed, it is clear from the second bicolon (and concluding colon) in verse 39 that only YHWH truly has the power to give life and take it away (i.e. through the disasters to come in time of Judgment):

(For) I bring death and give life,
I smashed (them) and I will heal

A final thought in the poem—a warning to all people—is that YHWH’s judgment is universal, it applies both to the nations and also to His own people Israel when they violate the covenant (v. 41b, see also v. 43 below):

I will return vengeance for the (one)s oppressing me,
and for the (one)s hating me I will complete (it in turn)

The idea of reciprocity is important, and is central, indeed, to the ancient covenant idea—punishment is made according to the nature and mode of the crime, the violation being “paid back” in kind. The closing bicola of verse 42 offer a final, graphic expression of the divine Judgment.

Verse 43

With regard to the textual situation surrounding the closing lines of the poem (v. 43), I discussed that in some detail in an earlier study, and will only summarize it here. The bicolon parallelism, used consistently throughout the poem, is largely missing from v. 43, which, in the Masoretic Text, consists of 2 bicola (4 lines). Yet there is parallelism overlapping in the second and third cola, suggesting that the text may be corrupt, with perhaps two lines missing (just prior and after):

Make a shout (then), (you) nations, (for) His people,
{missing line?}
For He will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants,
and return vengeance for the (one)s oppressing Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

This would seem to be confirmed, rather decisively, I think, by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, as well as in the Greek Septuagint version. The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve the consistent parallelism of the poem (differences with MT indicated by italics):

Make a shout, O heavens, with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all (you) Mighty Ones!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to the (one)s oppressing Him.
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (°§lœhîm). The reading of the Septuagint for the first bicolon actually appears to be a conflation of two variant Hebrew versions, one corresponding to a text like 4QDeutq, and the other a precursor of the MT—resulting in four lines:

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

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed, which makes a fitting parallel to the opening address of the poem (v. 1). In the MT, and the second part of the conflate Septuagint text, it is the nations, who ‘belong’ to those divine beings, who are being addressed. In terms of the overall message of the poem, both aspects go hand in hand. However, if we adopt the text of 4QDeutq, with its emphasis on the relationship of YHWH to the other ‘deities’ (an aspect that is mitigated in the MT), then the coda of verse 43 actually functions effectively as a kind of summary of the entire poem:

    • Bicolon 1: Address to the heavens and divine/heavenly beings
      • Parallel to the opening address (vv. 1-3) and first section(s) of the poem, which establish the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the other nations (vv. 4-9ff)
    • Bicolon 2: Promise to pay back the suffering inflicted upon Israel (by other peoples) during the time of judgment
      • Parallel to the central sections focusing on Israel’s violation of the covenant, judgment upon them, and subsequent restoration (vv. 15-25ff)
    • Bicolon 3: The declaration of universal judgment on those who reject YHWH, with a promise of restoration/vindication for Israel
      • Parallel to the closing sections of the poem (vv. 26-42, esp. verses 36-42)

Conclusion

Finally, it is worth noting the relationship of the poem to the narration that follows in verses 44-47ff. It picks up the Deuteronomic narrative from where it left off (at the end of chapter 31), continuing with the same line of thought. The purpose (and importance) of the poem is re-stated, setting it in context with the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The “all these words” and “this Instruction” refer to everything recorded in the book of Deuteronomy—all of Moses’ discourses to the people, together with the poem of chapter 32—all of which is aimed at exhorting the people to be loyal to the covenant with YHWH, adhering to the terms of the covenant, outlined in the Instruction (tôrâ, Torah):

“…You should charge your sons [i.e. children] to watch [i.e. take care] to do all the words [i.e. everything as it is stated] in this Instruction.”

According to the ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural mindset, abiding by the terms of the covenant was of the utmost importance. Violation of them was thought to result (potentially) in terrible consequences, including death and destruction, suffering and disease, etc—the judgment of God (or the divine powers) released upon those who break the agreement. This is expressed most clearly in the vivid and graphic language of the poem (see above), but also in the closing words of the narrative here:

“For (indeed) it is not an empty word for you—it (is) your (very) life! and by this word you will lengthen (your) days upon the land which you are crossing over the Yarden {Jordan} there to possess.”

That is to say, if the people of Israel (and their descendants) will adhere faithfully to the Instruction, the terms of the covenant, then they will live long and secure in their Promised Land.

References marked “JPS:Tigay” above are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy <yrbd, commentary by Jeffrey H. Tigay (Jewish Publication Society: 1996).

* * * * * *

This concludes our study on the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Next week, I will begin exploring a particularly interesting (and difficult) passage from the letters of Paul—namely the excursus in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, long a focus for much scholarly debate regarding its origins, authorship, and purpose in 2 Corinthians. It should prove most valuable as a way of demonstrating how various critical theories and approaches to the text are vital to a sound examination and understanding of the Scriptures as we have them. I would ask that you read through the letter, paying close attention to the language Paul uses, and to the line of argument that runs through the main sections. Consider how 6:14-7:1 fits into the context of the letter. Does it seem at all out of place? Do the images and language differ noticeably from what Paul using elsewhere in the letter? Try skipping over the passage, reading from 6:13 to 7:2ff—what effect does this have of the line of thought and argument in these chapters? We will begin exploring these questions in detail here…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:7-9ff

In this Saturday Series study, we continue through the great poem “the Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, as a way of demonstrating how the different areas of Biblical Criticism (discussed in previous studies) relate to an analysis and understanding of the the text as a whole. In the previous Saturday study, we looked at verses 4-6; now we proceed to verses 7-9 and lines following (down through verse 18). Verses 4-18 actually form a major section of the poem, as indicated from the earlier outline I presented:

1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)

4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
—The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
—His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
—His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
—His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

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

Verses 7-9

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

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

The verse numbering accurately reflects the division of this section:

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

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

In an earlier study, I examined the text-critical question in verse 8, arguing that the reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutj, and reflected in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, is more likely to be original. The idea that the number of the nations (trad. 70) was made according to the number of Israelites (“sons of Israel“, b®nê yi´r¹°¢l), has always seemed a bit odd. Even prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea manuscripts, some commentators felt that the Hebrew underlying the LXX (“sons of God”, Grk. “Messengers [i.e. Angels] of God”) would be the better reading. The MS 4QDeutj gives support to this (b®nê °§lœhîm, “sons of the Mightiest [i.e. God]”). However, it is the context of both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy which seems to provide decisive evidence in favor of this reading:

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

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

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

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

    • YHWH’s (own) portion [µ¢leq]
      • Israel (“His people”) / Jacob
    • His (own) property measured out [µe»el naµ­¦lâ]

And it is this relationship that is expounded in verses 10ff.

Verses 10-14

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

    • His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
    • His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

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

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

Thematically we may divide the two portions as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The waw-conjunction is epexegetical, indicating the purpose or result of YHWH’s action in the first line—i.e. “and then [i.e. so that] he [i.e. Israel] would eat…”. Moreover, Israel’s position in the heights (like an eagle) makes it possible for him to feast on the fruit produced in the fertile open land (´¹d¹y) down below. This imagery of the richness of the land continues on through the remainder of vv. 13-14, each bicolon developing in a similar fashion, concluding with a single extra line, for effect (v. 14e): “and the blood of grape(s) you drink, bubbling (red)!”. The shift from “he” to “you” makes this final line more dramatic and jarring, as also the slightly ominous allusion (“blood…red”) to the judgment theme that follows in vv. 15ff.

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

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

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

    • YHWH (the true Mighty One)
      • by Himself, separate [b¹¼¹¼]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [°ên] with Him [±immô]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [°E~l]

This contrast between YHWH and the other ‘deities’ of the surrounding nations, already emphasized in vv. 8-9 (see above), will take on even greater prominence in the remainder of the poem. This will be discussed in more detail in the next study, but it is worth considering verses 15-18, at least briefly, in this light.

Verses 15-18

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

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

It is possible to view this as a chiasm:

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

As in verse 14e (also 15b), the sudden shift from third person (“he/they”) to second person address (“you”) is striking, and serves as a reminder of the poem’s stated purpose (within Deuteronomy) as an instruction (and warning) to future generations of Israelites. The poetic language in vv. 16-17a is especially difficult, and appropriately so given the subject matter; however, the form of the lines is actually quite clear, with a fine symmetry:

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

The first bicolon has a precise synonymous parallelism, with two ways of saying that the people provoked YHWH with foreign/pagan religious behavior, described by the euphemisms “strange (thing)s” (z¹rîm) and “disgusting things” (tô±¢»œ¾). The second bicolon builds on the first, explaining the behavior more directly. It is stated that “they slaughtered (sacrificial offerings) to š¢¼îm“, the word š¢¼ (dv@) being rather difficult to translate in English. It is a basic Semitic term referring to deities or divine powers generally, corresponding more or less with the Greek daimœn (dai/mwn). From the standpoint of Israelite covenantal theology, and especially the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy, worship (in any manner) of any deity besides YHWH represents a flagrant violation of the covenant. Given the common syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in ancient Near Eastern (polytheistic) religion, a blending of Canaanite religious elements with the worship of YHWH would have been quite natural, and difficult for the people of Israel to resist. This is why the point is hammered home so often in the book of Deuteronomy, as also in the “Deuteronomic History” and the messages of the Prophets. The repeated warning was necessary because of the dangers of cultural accomodation, and the tendencies in Canaanite society which could not but exert influence on the people of Israel.

With these thoughts in mind, I would ask that you read through the remainder of the poem, examining the language and imagery, the progression of thought and expression, most carefully. In the next study, I hope to provide a survey of verses 19-42 in light of the section we have studied here (especially verses 15-18). We will focus on several verses and lines in more detail, again illustrating how a sound critical approach to Scripture helps give us a much more thorough understanding of the text as it has come down to us.

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.