September 24: Deuteronomy 32:43

Deuteronomy 32:43

The final lines in verse 42 bring the great “Song of Moses” to a close. The stanza functions as a refrain, serving as the climax to the entire poem; in particular, it builds upon the preceding couplets in verses 36-42 (discussed in the previous note) with their theme of YHWH’s judgment on humankind for its wickedness and idolatry (that is, worship of deities other than YHWH). The judgment is universal and applies to all people—the surrounding nations as well as His own people Israel. In verse 41 YHWH (figuratively) swears an oath that he will bring judgment against all those who are hostile to Him; and this promise of fulfillment, with the sword He has pointed (and holds firmly), is expressed graphically in verse 42:

“I will make my arrows drunk from blood,
and my sword, it will eat up (the) flesh—
from (the) blood of (those) pierced and taken captive,
and from (the) hairy head(s) of (the) hostile (one)s!”

The precise meaning of the last line is uncertain, but, in parallel with the prior line, it would seem to refer to the decapitation of enemy warriors (and/or their chieftains). In any case, it is a rather gory scene, doubtless a bit disturbing to our modern Christian sensibilities. However, what is important to remember is that the judgment described throughout the poem refers primarily to military attack—that is, God makes use of human armies to bring judgment on other peoples. Thus, as part of the realization of such judgment, it would not be at all uncommon to find evidence of bloody bodies pierced with the sword, along with actual heads cut off; such would have been typical of warfare in the ancient world.

When we turn to verse 43, we suddenly encounter a major textual difficulty. This 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 (in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
and will wipe away [i.e. 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. The bicolon parallelism 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 there are 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 to (the one)s hostile to Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

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 Mighty Ones [i.e. gods]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land.”

The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve 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!

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ yn@B=, b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (<yh!ýa$, °§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.

It is easy to see how the word <yh!ýa$ (°§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 <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels of YHWH) 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 (cf. the earlier note on this verse). 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…”).

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed. 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)


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 (for more on this, cf. the current articles on the Covenant in the series “The People of God”). 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.

September 23: Deuteronomy 32:36-42

Deuteronomy 32:36-42

These verses continue the themes from the previous sections, blending together two aspects of YHWH’s judgment against the wickedness and idolatry of humankind: (1) His judgment against His people Israel (vv. 19-25, discussed in a prior note), and (2) the judgment against the other Nations (vv. 32-35, cf. the previous note). Both sides of the judgment are combined here. The basis, or reason for the judgment, in each instance, is given in vv. 15-18 and 26-31, respectively.

Wickedness is defined primarily in terms of idolatry—which, according the religious/theological standpoint of Deuteronomy, simply means acknowledgement and worship of any deity other than YHWH. While not stated expressly, the basic premise is that these other deities (<yh!ýa$, “mighty [one]s”) have no real existence; certainly, they do not have the power which the true Creator God (El-Yahweh) possesses. A mocking polemic against polytheism is very much present throughout the Song, though it has not yet reached the sharp level it would in the subsequent Prophetic tradition.

Verse 36

Indeed, YHWH will make judgment (for) His people,
and obtain relief Himself over His servants.

This initial couplet provides the joining point for the two aspects of the judgment noted above. It plays on a dual-sense for both verbs /yD! (“judge, make/bring judgment”) and <j^n`. The latter verb has a semantic range that is difficult to capture in English; the basic meaning is something like “find relief”, in a more literal sense being roughly comparable to the English idiom “take a deep breath”. It is often used in a transferred, figurative sense, for the resolution of a point of conflict or tension; here the judicial aspect is prominent—e.g., of a plaintiff receiving relief or satisfaction for a wrong or crime committed against him. Both verbs can be understood here in terms of YHWH’s judgment against Israel, for their blatant violations of the covenant (vv. 15-25), but also of judgment on behalf of Israel—i.e., against the other nations. Both aspects are woven through the following lines.

Verses 37-38

For He shall see, when (their) hand goes away,
and (they are at) an end, closed up and abandoned;
and He shall say, “Where (are) their ‘Mighty (One)s’,
(the) ‘Rock’ in (who)m they sought protection,
(the ones) who ‘ate’ (the) fat of their slaughterings,
(who) ‘drank’ (the) wine of their (offering)s poured out?
May they stand up and help you (now)!
Let (them) be a covering [i.e. protection] over you!”

God does bring judgment against His people; but then, when they have been defeated and are helpless, having endured the proper punishment, He finally moves to act again on their behalf. The way this judgment is framed here implies that Israel has effectively become just like the other nations, trusting in other deities rather than YHWH. They meet with a comparable fate for such ‘idolatry’; only at the brink of destruction will they come to realize their folly. This is expressed in terms of a taunt by YHWH, condemning (and mocking) His people for trusting in other deities. This taunt in verse 37ff is 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” (la@ °E~l, i.e. God) in the same sense that YHWH is. The distinction between them and YHWH is made all the more clear by use of the divine title rWx (“Rock”), which was used specifically to identify YHWH as Israel’s God (emphasizing the special covenant-bond between them) in vv. 4, 15, 18.

Verse 39

Even more pointed is the declaration in verse 39:

“See then that I—I am He
and there are no ‘Mighty Ones’ with me!
I cause death, and I give life,
I smashed, and I will heal—
and there is no one snatching from my hand!”

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

Verses 40-41

“For I lift my hand to (the) heavens,
and I say: ‘(As) I live, (in)to (the) distant (future),
if I should point my flashing sword,
and my hand take firm hold in judgment,
I will return vengeance for the (one)s hostile (to) me,
and for the (one)s hating me I will complete (it in turn)!'”

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). This announcement is framed as a formal/solemn vow or oath, using the traditional convention of raising one’s hand and uttering a binding oath formula (“As I live…”, “By my life…”). It emphasizes that YHWH will bring judgment against those who are hostile (rx^) to Him and who “hate” Him (vb an~v*). The idea of hostility/hatred toward God is simply another way of referring to the acknowledgement/worship of deities other than YHWH; but it also implies a connection between ‘idolatry’ and other sorts of wickedness and violence (cp. Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18-32).

The vengeance-language in verse 41a echoes that used earlier in v. 35a (cf. the previous note). I discussed the use of the verb <l^v* there, translating it in the fundamental sense of “make whole”; here I have shifted the translation slightly, to capture the sense of reciprocal punishment, with the idea that the hostility directed toward YHWH will be turned back upon the wicked. I render the verb above as “(make) complete”, that is, to complete the hostility of the wicked by bringing upon them the proper punishment that is due.

This 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. I will discuss v. 42, along with the concluding lines of the Song (verse 43), in the next daily note.

September 22: Deuteronomy 32:32-35

Deuteronomy 32:32-35

This stanza, or section, of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) represents an early precursor of the “Day of YHWH” theme that would become so prominent in the judgment- and nation-oracles of the Prophets. The “Day of YHWH” refers to a time when God (YHWH) will bring judgment on a particular nation or people. Originally, the concept was not eschatological, but eventually it came to have that orientation—as a time, at the end of the current Age, when God would judge all the nations together. Here, this early form of the idea simply signifies, in a general sense, a divine punishment that will soon befall the various nations, for their wickedness and idolatry. If the poem earlier referred to YHWH’s judgment against His people Israel, it is affirmed now that the other peoples will also be judged, and even more severely. Even for those nations whom God made use of to punish Israel, they will be judged and punished in turn.

Many of the motifs in this section came to be traditional Judgment-motifs which would be used subsequently in prophetic oracles, and in developed eschatological/apocalyptic writings such as the book of Revelation (cf. below).

The stanza of vv. 32-35 is perhaps the clearest and most consistent poetically in the entire poem. It consists of 6 couplets (12 lines), which, with only slight variation, have a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout. Thematically, the stanza can be divided rather neatly into two parts, of 3 couplets each.

Verses 32-33 (couplets 1-3)

“Indeed, their vine (is) from (the) vine of Sodom,
and from (the cultivated) fields of ‘Amorah;
their grapes (are) grapes of (deadly) poison,
clusters of (fierce) bitterness for them;
(the) hot (venom) of serpents (is) their wine,
and (the) cruel poison of twisting (snake)s!”

The primary motif in these couplets is the grape-vine (and wine) as a symbol of judgment. The visual similarity of dark-red grape juice to blood made it an obvious figure for death and destruction—whether or not literal bloodshed was involved (Prov 4:17, etc). It came to be used as a traditional symbol for God’s judgment against humankind—cf. Psalm 75:9 [8]; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-16; Lam 4:21; Ezek 23:31-34. The harvest itself similarly came to serve as a figure for the Judgment that will occur at the end of the current Age (Matt 3:12 par; 13:36-43, etc), and the grape-harvest was an especially appropriate metaphor in this regard, evoking the image of flowing blood and a blood-stained ground (Joel 3:13). Related is the motif of the drinking-cup (a cup of wine) which could symbolize a person’s fate or destiny (Isa 65:11), especially if it involved suffering or death (Mk 10:38-39; 14:23f, 36 pars, and note the Old Testament passages cited above). The book of Revelation makes extensive (and memorable) use of all this imagery—14:8, 10, 17-20; 16:19; 17:1ff; 18:6ff.

The tradition of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) was a very specific type-pattern for God’s judgment on the nations, as well as symbolic of human wickedness in general (cf. Amos 4:11; Isa 3:9; 13:19; Jer 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Lam 4:6; Ezek 16:46ff; Zeph 2:9). The reference in Isa 1:9-10 occurs in a context similar to that of the poem here (cf. also Deut 29:23). Subsequently in Jewish and early Christian tradition, Sodom and Gomorrah continued as type-pattern for the end-time Judgment (Matt 10:15 par; 11:23-24; Luke 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:8); however, it must be noted again that, here in the poem, the focus is not eschatological.

The specific figure of poisonous wine indicates an especially harsh or painful punishment. Three different terms are used to describe this:

    • v[a]or (rôš), which would seem to refer to a particular kind of poisonous plant, and thus to the idea of “poison” generally. It is used twice, in lines 3 and 6 respectively.
    • hr*r)m= (m®rœrâ), line 4, meaning “bitterness” —i.e., the bitter taste that is characteristic of poison.
    • hm*j@ (µ¢mâ), line 5, which literally means “heat”, but in such a context indicates the burning affect of poison; the venom of a poisonous snake is specifically in mind.
Verses 34-35 (couplets 4-6)

“Is it not stored away with me,
sealed among my stored (treasure)s?
Vengeance for me and making whole,
at (the) time their foot slips (away)!
For (indeed) (the) day of affliction (is) close,
and what (is) prepared for them rushes (near)!”

If the first three couplets of this stanza describe God’s punishment on the nations under the figure of wine, the idea in the last three couplets is of the wine (that is, the judgment) ultimately being poured out. The specific image of pouring is only implied here; in other passages this is made more explicit (cf. the prophetic oracles cited above, also Rev 14:10; 16:1ff). However, we clearly have the idea that the wine (of judgment) is stored away for use (where it will be ‘poured’ out on the nations), in the treasure-rooms of YHWH’s palace. On the important motif of the opening of something stamped with a seal (here indicated by the verb <t^j*), see the visions in Revelation 5:1-8:5. The eschatological aspect of this motif is derived largely from Daniel 12:4.

The precise meaning of the verb pair <L@v!w+ <q*n` in v. 35a is difficult to capture and render in English. The root <qn fundamentally means “avenge, take revenge”, that is, for an injustice that has occurred. By doing so, a person essentially makes the situation right again; this latter aspect is indicated by the verb <l^v*, for which the basic meaning is something like “make whole“. While this sort of vengeance-concept is generally foreign to our Christian sensibilities, it is very much part of the thought-world of the ancient Near East, and occurs quite frequently in the Old Testament. The fundamental idea here is that the divine judgment (punishment) brings recompense and correction to the wickedness exhibited by humankind.

The time when this judgment on a particular nation will occur is signified by the moment when their “foot slips”. This idiom refers to the experience of calamity and misfortune, following a period of strength (that is, when their feet were set firm/secure on the ground). Such misfortune (indicated by the use of the noun dya@ in the final couplet) is to be attributed to the sovereign will and action of God. The judgment comes suddenly (and unexpectedly), being, in fact, closer to the wicked/foolish nation than was ever realized (it was something already “prepared” [dyt!u*] for them). The parallelism of the final couplet captures this wonderfully, by combining the idea of the judgment being near (adj. borq*) and of rushing (i.e., hurrying, vb vWj) toward the people.

September 21: Deuteronomy 32:26-31

Deuteronomy 32:26-31

Before proceeding, here is 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 26-31 belong to this second division; vv. 19-25 (discussed in the previous note) 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 earlier note 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.

In terms of the religious and historical tradition, the emphasis is the same as we saw expressed in the Golden Calf episode, in which Moses appeals to YHWH’s reputation (i.e., the honor of His “name”), which would be tarnished if He allowed His people to perish (Exod 32:11ff; 33:13-16). The principle is well-expressed in 1 Samuel 12:22, and in a number of other traditional passages. The implication is that the nations who might dishonor YHWH, in their reaction to Israel’s fate, are especially unworthy, for the simple reason that, contrary to Israel, they acknowledge and worship lesser/false deities rather than the true God. This is the point of emphasis in verses 28-30:

“For they (are) a nation perishing (in their) purpose,
and there is no discernment in them;
would that they were wise! they would consider this,
(and) would discern what follows (for) them!”

Even so, some of these foolish nations will actually be used by YHWH to bring judgment on His people. This is one of the ironies of the Prophetic history, beginning here in the book of Deuteronomy, where the devastating military invasions which Israel will endure—and vividly documented in the ‘Deuteronomic History’ in the books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings—are clearly presented as prophecies of future events. Yet, here in the poem, they are treated as something which has already occurred, suggesting that the poem itself was composed sometime after Israel had settled in the land. This is certainly the general critical view of the matter, which would be completely tenable even if the poem is to be dated in the 11th century, for example (cf. the narratives of conquest in the book of Judges). The more traditional-conservative view preserves the true predictive nature of the poem as stemming ostensibly from the time of Moses, as the setting of the book indicates. Grammatically, the perfect (i.e. past tense) can sometimes be used in reference to future events—the so-called prophetic perfect.

In any case, the context of military defeat and conquest for Israel is clearly in view here in verse 30:

“How could one give pursuit (to) a thousand,
or a pair put a multitude to flight
if (it were) not that their Rock sold them (off),
and YHWH caused them to be shut (in bondage)?”

The traditional motif of a few routing a multitude in battle is an exaggeration meant to express the idea of an unexpected (and humiliating) defeat. It does not necessarily mean that Israel would be conquered by a numerically smaller force. Such defeat would be unexpected since, as the people of YHWH, Israel should have been under God’s protection and power; however, by violating the covenant, Israel lost that protection, and could be conquered by another nation. Moreover, such conquest itself was part of the punishment for violating the covenant, as the curse-section in Deut 28:25ff clearly shows. The surrounding nations could only conquer Israel if YHWH first “sold” them off (vb rk^m*), giving them over into the nations’ power, allowing (or causing) them to be “closed up” (vb rg~s*) in bondage.

The severity of this punishment goes beyond the actual suffering and destruction experienced by the people, for it strikes at the very heart of the idea that Israel is the chosen people of YHWH. In being conquered by ‘foolish’ nations who worship other (false) deities, there is effectively a repudiation of that identity as God’s people. Yet the repudiation is not absolute or complete—such is the prevailing message of vv. 26ff. YHWH will retain the distinction between Israel and the surrounding nations, if only for the faithful remnant who will come through the terrible punishment.

Ultimately, this distinction rests on the contrast between YHWH, the true “Mighty One” and Creator, and all the other deities worshiped by the nations. 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 of the principle:

“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) <yl!yl!P= (p®lîlîm) should be related to Akkadian palilu used as an epithet of deities (JPS:Tigay, pp. 310, 404). “Rock” (rWx, ‚ûr) of course is used as a divine name throughout the poem (cf. on verse 4), parallel with °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God).

Notes on Prayer: 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

In last week’s study, we explored the New Testament references dealing with prayer for healing (from illness or disease). It was noted, somewhat surprisingly, how rare such references are. There is only one passage (James 5:13-18) which clearly directs believers to pray for healing, and essentially promises an answer to such prayer. However, to this must be added another passage, which, it would seem, provides an example where God does not answer a request for healing or deliverance from physical affliction. This is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It is a passage that continues to be much debated, both in terms of its precise meaning and the wider implications related to prayer and the Christian life.

To begin with, we must look at 2 Cor 12:7b-10 within its overall context in the letter. It is part of the “catalog of hardships” in 11:21b-12:10, in which Paul details various sufferings he has endured as a minister of the Gospel. This, in turn, is part of a larger discussion in which he argues against certain ministers (from outside of his apostolic circle) who were exerting an undue influence on at least some in the Corinthian congregations. The particular line of argument runs through chapters 10-13, one of the harshest and most polemically tinged sections in all of Paul’s surviving letters. He compares himself with these ‘foreign’ ministers, in the hopes of restoring a damaged relationship with the Corinthians churches. Throughout the letter, Paul argues strongly that he deserves recognition as a leading minister and missionary (apostle) who played a central role in the very founding of the congregations, and in their subsequent early growth. The feeling on his part is that others have usurped his proper place in relation to the Christians of Corinth, and this is expressed, with special force and verve in chapters 10-13 where he attacks certain ‘false apostles’ (11:13) who have actively worked to undermine his relationship with the believers there.

One of the arguments used in chaps. 10-13 involves the suffering and hardship Paul has endured as an apostolic missionary (11:23b ff). He ties this to the faithfulness he has shown in his ministry work, with its resultant successes and accomplishments (vv. 21b-23a, etc). Modern readers will likely find Paul’s self-effacing comments here (in vv. 21b, 23a; 12:2, 5ff) most unconvincing, and rightly so; their purpose is largely rhetorical. Paul was genuinely proud of what he had endured (and accomplished) as a minister of the Gospel, and frequently speaks of “boasting” of this in his letters. However, the thought that he expresses in 12:5-10 is also genuine. Paul was fully aware that his ministerial accomplishments were primarily the result of the power of God (and Christ) working through him.

This brings us to the illustration in 12:7b-10. In verses 1-10, he contrasts the special blessing given to him (by God), in the form of unique divine visions (vv. 1-6), with a special affliction, also given to him by God (vv. 7-10). He frames this contrast in terms of the motifs of strength and weakness (a)sqe/neia). That God gave to him an affliction, as a counter to the blessing, is stated clearly in verse 7:

“…and in the overcasting [i.e. surpassing] (nature) of the uncoverings [i.e. revelations]. Through (this), (so) that I should not lift myself (up) over (others), a sharp (stick) [sko/loy] was given to me, in the flesh, a messenger of (the) Satan, so that he should ‘strike me on the ear’, so that I should not lift myself (up) over (what is proper).”

The key expression is sko/loy th=| sarki/, a skólops in the flesh”. The relatively rare noun sko/loy (skólops) indicates an object, usually made of wood, with a rough, sharp, or jagged edge. It can refer to a pointed stake, a splinter, or the “thorn” of a plant—thus the common English rendering “thorn in the flesh”. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament, and it is equally rare in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX Num 33:55; Hos 2:8 [10]; Ezek 28:24; Sirach 43:19). In Hos 2:8 [10] and Ezek 28:24 the reference is to a thorny bush, while Num 33:55 refers to both ‘splinters’ in the eye and larger ‘thorns’ that prick the body.

Commentators have long debated just what Paul is describing through this expression. There have been three main lines of interpretation:

    • That it refers to some kind of temptation to sin, often assumed to be of a carnal/sexual nature
    • That it refers to a physical ailment
    • That it is comparable to the earlier references of persecution mentioned earlier in the passage

In my view, the first and third options are both quite unlikely, for different reasons. While some commentators may wish to shield Paul from the idea that he was seriously tempted toward (carnal) sin, preserving him as a paragon of virtue, there is no reason to think that he did not experience temptations of this sort. It is simply that here the context does not suggest anything like temptation to sin. As far as identifying the sko/loy with some form of persecution, Paul had already dealt with that aspect of his hardship/suffering (in some detail) in vv. 23b-26. Here, he is clearly referring to a special sort of affliction, unique to him, that would correspond to the special blessing he had received in his person (in the form of revelatory visions).

The best explanation is that the sko/loy refers to some kind of persistent physical ailment, perhaps involving the eyes (which would provide a clear parallel with his visions). While we cannot entirely rule out a psychological or spiritual affliction, the characterization of the sko/loy as being located “in the flesh” suggests something physiological. This is fully in accord with the idea that the ailment is a “messenger of Satan”, since, according to the worldview of the time, ailments and illnesses of all sorts were generally attributed to the activity of evil/malevolent spirits. As previously noted, the healing miracles of Jesus (and the apostles) were closely connected with exorcism miracles—both going hand in hand. Here, the “messenger” is said to “hit (him) on the ears” (vb kolafi/zw), a Greek idiom that could be used figuratively for any sort of abuse or ill-treatment. In the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 14:65, par Matt 26:67), as also by Paul in 1 Cor 4:11, it is used in the more concrete (literal) sense of striking someone with the hands (i.e. boxing, punching, slapping) upon the face or head.

Paul states that this affliction was given to him (or allowed) by God so that he would not “lift himself (up) over” (vb u(perai/romai), which I have translated literally above. Paul uses it twice in the verse, and I have filled out the idiom two different ways: “lift myself (up) over (others)” and “lift myself (up) over (what is proper)”. In popular English idiom, we might say that the affliction serves to “keep (Paul) in his place”. He criticizes the ‘false apostles’ for vaunting and elevating themselves over others, and, in his polemic, studiously avoids doing the same thing himself, even as he lists out here his many gifts and accomplishments. Along with these accomplishments, however, was this humbling affliction, serious enough that Paul would ask the Lord repeatedly to have it removed:

“About this I called the Lord alongside three (times), so that it might stand away [i.e. be removed] from me” (v. 8)

Here “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) would seem to refer to Jesus Christ, even though it was more customary to pray to God the Father, “through” Christ, or “in his name” (cf. 1:5, 20, etc). However, it would not have been unusual for early Christians to direct prayers and personal requests to Christ, especially in the case of Paul, who attested special communication with the risen Jesus (e.g., Gal 1:11-12, 16; 2:2, and here in 12:1-2ff). The verb parakale/w (“call alongside”) is not a regular verb for prayer in the New Testament, though clearly the sense here is of a prayer or petition to God (or to Christ). Apparently, Paul’s request was not answered, in the sense that the ailment was not removed; the answer that was given to him (by the Lord) is of a very different sort:

“And he said to me: ‘My favor [xa/ri$] is sufficient for you—for my power is made complete in your lack of strength [a)sqe/neia, i.e. weakness]’.” (v. 9a)

The verb a)rke/w denotes the idea of being content or satisfied with something—i.e., Paul must be content with the fact that he has this particular ailment, and that the favor of God (and Christ) continues to work through him in spite of this. Indeed, Paul’s weakness (lit. “lack of strength”) is itself a special kind of blessing, as it means that God’s own power (du/nami$) is manifest more clearly in Paul’s person, since it is not being communicated to others as a result of Paul’s own strength and ability. In its own way, this truth was a special revelation given to Paul, and communicated to all believers (in turn) through his writing. Indeed, it may be regarded as a far greater revelation than those heavenly visions vouchsafed to him earlier. Paul seems to recognize this fact, as he states in v. 9b:

“(With ut)most pleasure, then, will I rather exalt in my lack of strength [pl.], (so) that the power of (the) Anointed should set up (its) tent [i.e. dwell/rest] upon me.”

I translated the verb kauxa/omai in the more fundamental sense of “exalt”, though it is typically rendered as “boast”, and is part of Paul’s distinctive language of boasting. He often freely boasts/exalts in what he has accomplished as a minister of the Gospel (cf. above), but here, in light of his rhetoric and the line of argument he is using, he is much more cautious, emphasizing how he prefers to boast/exalt in his own weakness (“lack of strength”) since it brings out all the more clearly the power of Christ that is at work in him. The exact wording of the Lord’s message to him utilizes the important verb tele/w (“[make] complete”): “my power is made complete in your lack of strength”.

This may not be a welcome response for those requesting healing from God for certain physical ailments. And yet, it is important to emphasize again the relative lack of references in the New Testament regarding prayer for healing. Even in James 5:13-18, as also in 3 John 2, the emphasis is on prayer for the health and well-being of another believer, not for oneself. In one of the few instances where a believer does pray for relief from a physical ailment (apparently), here in our passage, the believer was not delivered from the suffering caused by the ailment. Even if Paul’s affliction, his sko/loy, was not dire or life-threatening, it was serious (and/or irritating) enough that he asked three times for it to be removed. It would seem that, after this, Paul ceased to ask for healing from his affliction, realizing that it served a greater purpose for him in God’s eyes. Note, for example, how Paul brings the illustration back into the wider discussion of his suffering as a minister of the Gospel, in verse 10, and the message of how all such affliction only serves to glorify the power of Christ that is at work in him (and in all faithful believers).

As we consider the wider application of this passage, in terms of prayer for healing, I would conclude with three main points:

    • There is nothing wrong with believers praying for healing or for relief from physical ailments. The overall witness of the New Testament certainly allows for it under the wider heading of requests we would make to God “in Jesus’ name”. In addition, there is the example of James 5:13-18, with the promise that prayer in Jesus’ name, made in full trust of Christ, can and will bring healing.
    • At the same time, request for physical health and healing should in no way take precedence as the focus of our prayers. Rather, giving honor to God and the work of His Kingdom—the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the Spirit—must be the primary emphasis in our prayer. This is confirmed by the Lord’s Prayer itself, and is supported by the New Testament witness at every turn.
    • It is more important, especially for those gifted as ministers or leaders in Christian communities, to pray for the healing of others, rather than for oneself. This is fully in accord with the main principles of the Gospel, and emphasizes the self-sacrifice that is essential for the faithful servant of Christ. The one faithful to the call of ministry is willing, even pleased, to serve in the midst of suffering and hardship (which includes physical ailments and illness). While one may still pray for healing and relief personally, it is more important to recognize (with Paul) the revelation expressed in 2 Cor 12:9—that Christ’s own power is made complete in our weakness.


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 1)

Psalm 31

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 3-22 [2-21]); 4QPsa (vv. 23-24 [22-23]); 4QPsq (vv. 24-25 [23-24])

This Psalm is similar in certain respects with the prior Ps 30 (discussed in the previous study), in that it involves a prayer for healing/deliverance from illness, incorporating both a lament for the suffering the Psalmist faces, and thanksgiving for the strength and deliverance YHWH shows (or will show) to him. Psalm 31 is considerably more complex in how it handles this traditional material, drawing upon a wider range of imagery and manner of expression. The meter is also highly irregular, with shifting beat and rhythm, including a number of tricola, though a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to prevail.

The overall structure of this relatively lengthy and complex Psalm is not easy to determine. I have chosen to divide it into three parts:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, help me to escape!”

The metrical irregularity of the Psalm is indicated in this opening verse, which is made up of a triad or tricolon, with a 3+2+2 meter. It is perhaps more properly read as a 2+2 couplet preceded by an initial 3-beat line in which the Psalmist invokes God. However, there is also a kind of parallelism between the first and third lines as well:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • help me to escape

The Greek version contains an additional verbal phrase (kai\ e)celou= me) at the end of the third line, making it a 3-beat line; the wording assumes something like Hebrew yn]l@yX!h^w+ (“and rescue me”), perhaps influenced by the opening of Ps 71:2 (and see in v. 3 [2] below).

In any case, there is a definite parallel between the verb hs*j* in line 1 and fl^P* in line 3. The root hsj denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc); here, as often in the Psalms, the context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond–both with the Israelite people and the king himself (as a vassal)–means that he will give protection to his faithful followers who call on him in their time of need.

Dahood (p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

Verse 3a [2a]

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

This short 3+2 couplet follows upon the third line of v. 2 [1], and example of an additional step-parallelism that is woven through the couplets in the first part of the Psalm. The idiom of “stretching/bending” (vb hf*n`) the ear, in this context, means that God will hear (and answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. The use of the adverbial phrase hr*h@m= (“quickly, swiftly, with haste”) indicates that the situation for the protagonist is urgent, or dire.

Verse 3b [2b]

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,
and (in) response to your name
you will guide me and bring me along.”

This would seem to be another 3+2+2 tricolon, metrically similar to verse 2 [1] (cf. above). Again there is an instance of step-parallelism as the first line picks up the imagery from the previous couplet. A different noun is used–ul^s# indicating a sharp or ragged rock-cliff–but the basic imagery is the same. The final two lines make up a short 2-beat couplet that introduces a different image—of guidance, like that of a shepherd for his flock. The motif of protection still applies, as YHWH brings the Psalmist safely through any danger he may face. This protection is predicated upon the Psalmist calling on YHWH, literally appealing to His name (and to Him by name) in the context of the covenant-bond. This particular theological aspect of the covenant has ancient roots, going back to at least the Moses traditions of Exodus 3-4.

Verse 5 [4]

“You will bring me out from (the) snare
that they hid to (catch) me,
for you (are) my place of strength!”

Again there is a certain step parallelism at work, picking up on the idea of God bringing the Psalmist along (vb lh^n`), carrying him through any danger; now the image is more properly of YHWH bringing him out (vb ax^y`) of a specific danger—a “trap” set for him by the wicked. The meter of this tricolon (2+2+2) is clearer and tighter than that of verse 4 [3], with a circular synthetic parallelism, the lines building upon each other and then returning back to the original theme (of YHWH as a place of strength and protection).

Verse 6 [5]

“In your hand I shall give my spirit (its) place,
(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One)!”

Verse 6 [5] may be read as a 3+3 couplet, by removing the final word to be part of the next couplet (see below), and treating la@ hwhy (“YHWH Mighty [One]”) as a tight construct expression. In point of fact, this is one of the few verses in the Old Testament that preserves the ancient identification of YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@, lit. “Mighty [One]”). There are a few other instances scattered through the Psalms (e.g., 10:12; 18:3), but only here do we have the precise compound name. In later Hebrew, when the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm) had replaced the simple la@ (and plural <yl!a@), the expression was changed to <yh!l)a$ hwhy (Gen 2:4b, et al).

The Psalmist entrusts his very life (“my spirit”) to YHWH for protection (“in your hand”); the imagery is more intimate and personal than in the prior verses. The perfect form of the verb hd^P* (“ransom”) is here perhaps best understood as a precative perfect—i.e., a prayer wish expressed in terms of something that has already happened.

The verb dq^P* is notoriously difficult to translate. It often has the basic meaning “appoint”, “set in place”, especially when in the Hiphil causative stem. I have tried to keep to this fundamental causative sense above, though an English rendering like “commit”, “entrust” is smoother and more appealing from a religious standpoint. In any case, the basic idea is of the Psalmist placing his life in God’s hands.

The final word of the verse (MT tm#a$) is problematic, as it disrupts the meter, whether one treats the word as part of the couplet in v. 6 or 7, respectively. Keeping it with v. 6 would yield the expanded line:

“(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One) of firmness”

The expression “Mighty (One) of firmness” refers to YHWH’s faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant); as the true God, He is firm and secure (i.e. trustworthy) in all that He does. It is tempting to view tm#a$ here as a secondary accretion to the text, perhaps after the compound name/title la@ hwhy had fallen out of use; in light of the strangeness of the earlier title, it might have seemed necessary to add something to the word la@ (i.e., “God of…”).

Another possibility is to treat the word tm#a$ as part of the following verse; this is the route taken by Dahood (p. 188), though to do so again expands and disrupts the meter of the couplet. In such a context, the word functions as an emphatic adverb or substantive particle (“Surely…”, “truly…”). Dahood cites similar examples in Psalm 132:11; Isa 43:9; Ezek 18:9. For the purposes of this study, I tentatively follow this line of interpretation.

Verse 7 [6]

“Surely do I hate the (one)s guarding vain (thing)s of emptiness,
while I, (it is) to YHWH (alone that) I give (my) trust!”

The contrast here is between those (i.e. the wicked) who devote themselves to ‘idols’ (that is, to deities other than YHWH), and the person who remains faithful to YHWH alone. The verb jf^B* often denotes the idea of trusting in someone or something, but it can also be used in a sense synonymous with that of hs*j* (in verse 2 [1]), “seek refuge/shelter/protection”. Thus its use here may be intended to bring out a slightly different contrast: while the wicked “guard” the empty/vain things (idols), the Psalmist himself is protected (i.e. guarded) by the true God. Gradually, throughout the Old Testament period, the monotheistic outlook of Israelite religion sharpened, to the point that it became close to an absolute monotheism—that is to say, El-YHWH is the only deity who truly exists. This was expressed, rather harshly (and through an intentional distortion), by identifying other deities purely in terms of the images used by their worshipers to represent them. As such, they could be dismissed summarily as “emptiness” (aw+v*) or “empty/vain things” (<yl!b=h^)—both of these words being used together here (for emphasis). This sort of pointed anti-polytheistic polemic occurs in the Psalms, even as it does in the writings of the Prophets.

By stating unequivocally that he hates those who do not remain faithful to YHWH alone, he is affirming ever more forcefully his own faithfulness and loyalty to God. This device occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms, and is rooted in the judicial aspects of the covenant idea; in other words, the Psalmist’s prayer takes the form of an appeal to YHWH, in which he declares his loyalty to God.

Verse 8 [7]

“I will spin and grow bright (with joy) at your goodness,
(in) that you (truly will) have seen my oppression,
(and will) have known of (the thing)s pressing (on) my soul.”

I have translated the verbs ha*r* (“see”) and ud^y` (“know”) in their fundamental sense; however, this idiom of seeing and knowing here implies that God will take care to act on the Psalmist’s behalf. Compare, for example, the same language used in Exodus 3:7ff. The divine protection is understood in terms of the all-seeing, all-knowing character of God. It is possible that the plural torx* should be read as a comprehensive or intensive (rather than numeric) plural, which would make a more precise parallel with yy]n+u*, “my oppression/affliction”, or perhaps “(the one) oppressing me”. If this wording relates directly to what follows in verses 10-11ff, then it may be a general way of referring to a disease that afflicts the Psalmist. In which case, the entire sense of danger expressed in the Psalm to this point–including the specific image of people setting a trap for the Psalmist (v. 5, see above)—likewise refers to the threat of death from illness/disease.

Verse 9 [8]

“And (so) you will not enclose me in (the) hand of (the) hostile (one),
but will make my feet to stand on a wide (open) place.”

Again, the Psalmist’s prayer here expresses trust and belief that YHWH will answer his call, and will deliver him out of danger. It is quite possible that the “(one who) is hostile” (i.e. the enemy) refers to Death itself (cf. Dahood, pp. 188-9), frequently personified in ancient Near Eastern poetry, including a number of instances in the Psalms. Certainly the pressures and oppression felt by the Psalmist (v. 8) are now expressed under a personal figure, a particular “hostile one” —an adversary or enemy. The “wide/open place” (bj*r=m#) where the Psalmist can stand is in contrast with the danger of being “closed up” within the hand of the Enemy; compare Psalm 18:18-20 [17-19].

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Saturday Series: Mark 3:28-30; Matt 12:31-32; Luke 12:10

The Saturday Series studies this Fall will focus on passages in the New Testament illustrating how Biblical Criticism (and especially textual criticism) relates to the overall meaning of a passage—including important theological and doctrinal points. This has been discussed in earlier studies, along with a number of examples which clearly show that, contrary to the claims of some scholars and theologians, the textual differences in the manuscripts, etc, do affect considerably the meaning and interpretation of certain passages. While other areas of Biblical Criticism will be explored, it is Textual Criticism which will be foremost in these studies, since establishing the text of Scripture is necessary for any proper interpretation.

If you are unfamiliar with the tenets and principles of Textual Criticism, I strongly recommend that you consult my three-part introductory article entitled “Learning the Language”. When we speak of “textual variants” (or “variant readings”) of the New Testament, this refers to differences that exist between the surviving Greek manuscripts, translated versions (in Latin, Syriac, etc), and citations (in early Christian writings). Many of these differences are minor and insubstantial, but others are substantive and must be considered carefully if one wishes to determine what was most likely the original reading of the text. While secondary readings may be of historical and theological interest, most scholars and commentators would not wish to base their exegesis of Scripture upon them. The primary goal of textual criticism remains the establishment of the original text, insofar as this is possible.

When it comes to the Gospels, and the sayings and traditions of Jesus recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, the text-critical situation is complicated considerably. For often we are dealing, not only with differences between the manuscripts of a specific passage, but with different versions of the same (or comparable) tradition as it has been preserved in the various Gospels. Here textual criticism blends with source criticism, historical criticism, and other areas of criticism as well. When looking at a particular saying of Jesus or a related tradition, it is important to compare the different Gospel versions, in addition to any textual differences within the specific Gospel passage.

As a simple illustration, let us consider the two versions of the saying of Jesus in Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20, respectively. In Matthew, the text reads:

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

while in Luke we have:

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the finger of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

Here the text of each version is secure, with the difference, or variant, occurring between the two versions. In dealing with such inter-Gospel differences, involving the words/sayings of Jesus, traditional-conservative commentators are sometimes inclined to explain (or ‘harmonize’) them by positing either: (a) that they represent separate traditions (i.e., something similar Jesus said on separate occasions), or (b) that the two versions each give only a partial record of an originally longer saying (i.e., Jesus said both things). While I consider such explanations often to be unconvincing on the whole, here neither approach is at all possible, since:

    • The two versions clearly represent the same saying—they are virtually identical, and occur in the same location/context within the Gospel narrative.
    • The relevant difference occurs at the same syntactical/grammatical point in the saying, involving a single word, making it virtually impossible that Jesus could have said both things (at the same time).

This leaves us with just two options:

    • The variation reflects a difference in translation (into Greek) from an Aramaic original, or
    • One version more or less accurately represents the original saying/tradition, while the other has been modified in some way; this modification could be the result of:
      (a) alteration during the process of transmission of the saying, or
      (b) a change by the Gospel writer as the saying/tradition was included within the Gospel narrative

In this case, the difference does not seem to be the result of translation from an Aramaic original. The best explanation, in my view, is that the Lukan version preserves the authentic tradition, reading “in/with the finger of God” (en daktýlœ Theoú). The Matthean version has altered this to “in/with the Spirit of God” (en pneúmati Theoú), apparently for the simple purpose of explaining the idiom “finger of God” for readers who may not be familiar with its significance. In the Old Testament, the idiom “finger of God” refers to God’s active power manifest (and visible) among human beings; it is used only rarely (cf. Exod 8:19; 31:18; Deut 9:10). Among early Christians (and Jews), this would more naturally be explained by referring to God’s Spirit (pneúma). Paul makes the obvious connection between God’s finger and Spirit when discussing the Exodus 31:18 tradition, in 2 Corinthians 3:3ff. The Gospel writer may well have done the same in Matt 12:28.

Fortunately, in this instance, the difference between the two Gospel versions makes no real difference to the essential meaning of the saying. The situation is not so straightforward in Mark 3:28-29 / Matt 12:31-32 / Luke 12:10—where we find different versions of the saying (or sayings) of Jesus regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit”.

This saying is preserved within two broad lines of Gospel tradition: (1) in the Gospel of Mark (3:28-29), a version of which is also found in Matt 12:31; and (2) the material contained in Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (the so-called “Q” material). For those unfamiliar with the terminology, “Q” is shorthand for German quelle (translated roughly as “source”); in Synoptic studies, it refers to a source (for sayings and traditions of Jesus) used by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most critical scholars assume that “Q” represents a distinct source document, though it properly refers simply to that material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. A widely held critical theory, called the “Two-Document Hypothesis”, holds that Matthew and Luke made use of at least two distinct source documents—the Gospel of Mark and “Q”. Matthew 12:31-32 would tend to support this hypothesis, as it contains together both the Markan and “Q” versions of the saying.

Those two versions, while similar, are quite different in several respects, which leads to the important critical question of whether we are dealing with two distinct historical traditions, or variant forms of a single historical tradition. Traditional-conservative commentators tend to opt for the former, while critical commentators typically assume the latter. The situation is further complicated by additional differences between versions of the Markan and “Q” sayings, the possibility of variation as a result of translation from an Aramaic original, and other factors (see above).

Matthew contains both the Markan and “Q” forms, joined together at 12:31-32, while Luke has only the “Q” saying (12:10). Let us compare the Markan saying as it is found in Mk 3:28-29 and Matt 12:31, respectively:

“Amen, I relate to you that all (thing)s will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and the insults, as many (thing)s as they may give insult—but whoever would give insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not hold release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age, but is holding on (himself) a sin of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal sin].” (Mk 3:28-29)
“Through this I relate to you (that) all (kind)s of sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but an insult of [i.e. against] the Spirit will not be released.” (Matt 12:31)

What of the “Q” form of the saying? Here are the Matthean and Lukan versions:

“And whoever would speak a word against the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but whoever would speak against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age, and not in the coming Age.” (Matt 12:32)
“And every (one) who shall utter a word unto [i.e. against] the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.” (Luke 12:10)

The general warning about speaking “against the holy Spirit” is the same in the Markan and “Q” saying-forms, but the setting of the contrast differs considerably. In the Markan version, the contrast is with sins and “insults” committed by human beings generally, while the “Q” version refers to any sort of insult against the “Son of Man”, which, in the Gospel and early Christian context would seem to mean speaking against Jesus. In this regard, the “Q” version is more problematic and creates certain difficulties for interpretation not found in the Markan version, where the point of contrast is more obvious and straightforward.

It is worth exploring these differences in more detail, which we will do in next week’s study. A proper interpretation requires that we consider the textual, historical, and source critical issues raised by these differences. How did the two forms/versions of the saying come to be preserved? Do they ultimately stem from the same historical tradition or separate traditions? If deriving from two main lines of Gospel tradition (Markan and “Q”), how did the respective authors of Matthew and Luke choose to deal with this material? Finally, and most important from a theological and doctrinal standpoint: how are we to explain the reference to the “Son of Man” in the “Q” version, and what exactly is the significance of insulting (or speaking against) the Holy Spirit, in particular, which demands such total condemnation and punishment? We will attempt to address these questions in our study next week.

September 17: Deuteronomy 32:19-25

Deuteronomy 32:19-25

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

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)

      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)

      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 19-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 16: Deuteronomy 32:15-18

Deuteronomy 32:15-18

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

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

It is possible to view this as a chiasm:

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

Here is my translation of verses 15-18:

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

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

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

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

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 5)

Exodus 32-34 (continued)

In our discussion in Part 4 of this article, on chapters 32-34 in the book of Exodus, three primary themes, or motifs, were identified in chap. 32:

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

These same themes are developed in the narrative in chapters 33-34. The historical traditions, however they were incorporated into the original narrative, serve this purpose in the book as it has come down to us. As a result, certain details and peculiarities in the text, which might be analyzed variously from the standpoint of historical and source criticism (see again the discussion in Part 4), finally take on a distinctive narrative (and theological) coloring which must be examined carefully. This exegetical survey is intended to point the way toward such a study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In verses 12-23, following the setting established by the tradition in vv. 7-11, Moses intercedes again for the people (vv. 12-13). YHWH agrees to lead the camp in its travels, which partially mitigates his earlier refusal to dwell among the people. At the same time, the people are brought closer to God from a different direction—through Moses’ request in verse 13 that he more completely reflect the presence of YHWH for the people: “Let me know your way(s) and know You…”. This is expressed again, in even more daring form, in verse 18: “Let me see your weight [db)K*]!” The Hebrew word db)K* (k¹»œd), which I have rendered literally as “weight” (i.e. “worth, value”), is often used in the more abstract, figurative sense of “honor”, especially the honor one ought to show to God. When used of God, the term can also refer to His manifest Presence; it is customarily translated “glory” in most English versions. An example of such a Theophany is the vision accorded Moses and the elders/leaders of Israel in 24:9-11 (“they saw the God of Israel…”, v. 10). As previous discussed, this was related to the initial establishment of the covenant, just as with its re-establishment here. Moses is apparently asking for an even more direct and personal revelation by YHWH. This Presence had otherwise been covered by the dark cloud during Moses’ previous encounters. What is most significant, in context, is that YHWH does not appear to the people this time, but only to Moses—the theophany is given to him alone.

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

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

While this is referred to in terms of a vision, when the moment comes in the narrative it is described in terms of the spoken word. There can be no doubt, however, that the declaration in 34:6-7 is to be understood as the fundamental revelation of YHWH’s presence from within the dark cloud (v. 5). Even more important, from the standpoint of the narrative, is that this theological message is central to the idea of the restoration of the covenant in chapters 34ff. The Presence of God becomes transferred and accessible to the people through the ministry of Moses.

In Exod 34:1-9, there is a new Theophany on Sinai, but with several important differences from the previous encounter. This time Moses is to ascend entirely alone—there should be no one on or near the mountain at all (vv. 1-3). Moreover, special emphasis is given to the new set of stone tablets which were carved out by Moses (vv. 1, 4). In obedience, Moses follows this directive and encounters YHWH (vv. 4-9). The promised revelation, as noted above, is described as a spoken declaration, centered on the utterance of the Divine Name YHWH (hwhy), vv. 6-7. The encounter reaches its climax with Moses’ request that YHWH take the people again as His own. And, indeed, in verses 10-26, God responds by establishing the covenant again with Israel, after which they are once again regarded as His people (compare with v. 10). There are, however, some important points of difference with this second covenant, as expressed through details often overlooked by commentators.

    • First, it is a covenant with Israel and with Moses (v. 27, Moses’ name is given first). This indicates the enhanced role of Moses in ministering the covenant, and in communicating God’s word and presence to the people.
    • Second, the same basic idea is indicated by the difference in the character of the stone tablets which provide the written basis of the agreement. The first covenant was written on the tablets by the finger of God (31:18; 32:16); by contrast, the second is said specifically to be written by Moses (34:27-28). Some commentators are inclined to gloss over this apparent difference, or to attribute it simply to differences in the underlying traditions. While the latter is certainly possible, in my view it does not change the meaning of the difference in the overall narrative as we have it.

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

Paul recognizes the significance of Moses’ role as mediator of the Sinai covenant, and how the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel was experienced (by the people) only through the presence of God reflected in the person of Moses. He draws upon this very point in a most powerful way in 2 Corinthians 3, using the ancient tradition to establish a contrast between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant (of the Spirit) for believers in Christ. The contrast was fundamental to the early Christian understanding of the identity of believers as the people of God. Which is not to say that there were not serious disputes regarding the role of the Torah (and the old covenant) in this new religious identity, as Paul’s own letters testify. I have discussed the subject at great length in the series The Law and the New Testament (cf. especially the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”), and will do so again later on in this current series.