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.

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