September 15: Deuteronomy 32:10-14


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

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

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

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

Thematically we may divide the two portions as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The waw-conjunction is epexegetical, indicating the purpose or result of YHWH’s action in the first line—i.e. “and then [i.e. so that] he [i.e. Israel] would eat…”. Moreover, Israel’s position in the heights (like an eagle) makes it possible for him to feast on the fruit produced in the fertile open land (yd*v*) down below. This imagery of the richness of the land continues on through the remainder of vv. 13-14, each bicolon developing in a similar fashion, concluding with a single extra line, for effect (v. 14e). The vocabulary of verse 14 is a bit difficult at a couple of points, in what is otherwise a fine, vivid poetic description of the produce (hb*WnT=) of the land (v. 13) which the people are able to enjoy—from both flock and field:

“Curdled (milk) of cattle and (milk)fat of sheep,
(along) with (the) fatted (parts) of lambs,
and strong (ram)s, (the) sons of Bashan,
(along) with (the) fat (kernel)s inside (the) grain
and (the) blood of grape(s) you drink bubbling (red)!”

The shift from “he” to “you” makes this final line more dramatic and jarring, as also the slightly ominous allusion (“blood…red”) to the judgment theme that follows in vv. 15ff.

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

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

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

    • YHWH (the true Mighty One)
      • by Himself, separate [dd*B*]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [/ya@] with Him [oMu!]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [la@]

This contrast between YHWH and the other ‘deities’ of the surrounding nations, already emphasized in vv. 8-9 (see above), will take on even greater prominence in the remainder of the poem. This will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note (on vv. 15-18).

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