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).

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