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.

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