December 21: Psalm 89:10-13

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:10-13 [9-12]
Verse 10 [9]

“You are ruling over (the) rising up of the Sea;
at (the) lifting of its billows, you still them.”

In this second strophe of the hymn in vv. 6-19 (cf. the previous note on vv. 6-9), the focus on YHWH’s incomparable power over the universe (as Creator and King) shifts from the heavens to the cosmos as a whole. Here it is particularly the Sea (<y`) that is in view—and, not simply the waters of the earth (seas, lakes, rivers, etc), but also (and especially) the primeval cosmic waters that surround the world. According to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, at the beginning of Creation, there was a great mass of dark waters (Gen 1:2), in the midst of which the universe took shape, as a spherical (or hemispherical) form, like a bubble within the waters. These primeval waters continue to surround the cosmos, being held above the disc/cylinder-shaped earth by the hemispheric shell of the ‘firmament’ (Gen 1:6-8); similar waters surround the world below the earth.

In His act of creating the world, the Creator gave both light and order to the dark and chaotic waters (Gen 1:4ff). In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of God subduing the unruly waters, defeating them like a warrior in combat. Because of their dark and chaotic aspect, the primeval waters tend to be depicted as a great monster (aided by monstrous allies) which needs to be defeated by the Divine hero, in order to bring about a universe capable of sustaining life. I discuss this subject in the article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

Not infrequently, ancient Hebrew poetry draws upon this line of cosmological myth, applying to YHWH (the Creator) the militaristic imagery of a hero-warrior who defeats/subdues the primeval waters. This imagery is very much being referenced here in vv. 10-11; I mention a number of similar Old Testament poetic passages in the aforementioned article.

YHWH’s subduing of the Sea means that He has control over the waters that surround the earth, including all the waters present on/in the earth—the rain from above, the floods/springs below, and all the seas, etc, on the surface. As expressed here in verse 10, He rules (vb lv^m*) over them; and, since the waters continue to possess something of their primeval chaotic unruliness, YHWH frequently has need or occasion to tame them when they get out of line. The lifting and swelling of the sea’s great waves, so powerful and awesome to behold, are governed by God’s authority, and are “stilled” (vb jb^v*) when necessary.

There is some alliterative assonance here in v. 10, which cannot be captured in translation but can be demonstrated in transliteration:

°¹ttâ môš¢l b®g¢°û¾ hayy¹m
b®´ô° gall¹yw °attâ ¾®šabµ¢m

Verse 11 [10]

“You crushed Rahab like (one who is) slain;
with (the) arm of your strength you scattered your foes!”

YHWH’s control over the waters (v. 10) is due to his ‘defeat’ of the primeval Sea, drawing upon ancient cosmological myth (as noted above). “Rahab” (bh^r*) is one of the names in the tradition for the great Sea-monster of myth, also occurring in Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9. The same line of mythic tradition probably underlies its application to Egypt (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), blending with the naturalistic image of the mighty creatures (i.e., crocodile, hippopotamus) of the Nile to symbolize Egypt’s ancient power and prestige.

Indeed the ‘subduing of the Sea’ motif can be applied to the defeat of human enemies (i.e., enemies of Israel) by YHWH. The event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15) is a good example of this, where God uses his power over the waters to defeat the Egyptians (cf. especially the poetic account in the Song of chap. 15). The primeval Sea (and its monstrous allies) had to be “scattered” in order to create the cosmos, and also to provide the individual bodies of water on earth (and also the rain from above, etc); similarly, human enemies are scattered (vb rz~P*) when they are defeated by God.

The suffixed plural participle ;yb#y+oa means “your hostile (one)s” or “(those) hostile to you”; here, for poetic concision, it has been translated “your foes”.

Verse 12 [11]

“To you (belongs the) heavens, (and) also to you (the) earth;
(the) thriving (world) and its fullness, you have founded them.”

The first line of this next couplet states concisely what has been established in vv. 6-9 and 10-11—namely, that YHWH is Creator and Sovereign over both the heavens and the earth. The conjunctive particle [a^ (“also, indeed”) emphasizes that the earth (and its inhabitants) belong to YHWH, and is under His authority, just as much as the heavens are.

The universe as a whole (as understood within the ancient Near Eastern cosmology) is defined by the pairing “the heavens [upper half] and the earth [lower half]”; however, the inhabitable world, supportive of life, is signified here by the term lb@T@. This noun is extremely difficult to translate, as there is really no English word (or phrase) that corresponds to it. The noun lb@T@, in context, refers to the living and productive aspect of the world—the movement of things (and creatures) from one place to another, entailing growth and activity of all sorts. I have rendered this above as “thriving (world)”. YHWH’s founding (vb ds^y`) of this world, and all that is in it (“its fullness”), refers to His work as Creator (Gen 1:6-31).

Verse 13 [12]

‚a¸ôn and Yamîn, you have created them;
Tabôr and „ermôn, at your name they ring out!”

The final couplet of this strophe, emphasizing YHWH’s sovereignty over all the universe, seems to be utilizing some wordplay that cannot be captured in translation. The terms /opx* and /ymy` in line 1, in particular, likely carry a double-meaning. The noun /opx* denotes something “hidden”, but came to be used specifically, in a directional or geographic sense, for the north. In this, Hebrew tradition (and its poetry) is drawing upon Canaanite religious myth, which located the dwelling of the gods in the north, on the ‘hidden’ peak of a cosmic mountain, which had a local/symbolic manifestation in the mountain called by the name ƒpn or ƒpwn (= Heb ƒ¹¸ôn), modern Jebel el-Aqra. Thus /opx* can refer either to the north, or to a great mountain in the north.

Similarly, /ym!y` (y¹mîn) can refer to the south (lit. right-hand side); but Dahood (II, p. 314) may well be correct that here /my (ymn) also serves as a byform of /ma (°mn), referring to the Amanus mountain(s)—that is, the Alma Dag or Nur mountains. This would allow for the terms /opx* and /ym!y` to refer, alternately, to the directions of north and south, or to the great northern mountain locales of Zaphon and Amanus.

The mountain sites of Tabor and Hermon in the second line add support to the view that there are also mountain references in line 1. Tabor and Hermon are mountains in Israel—located in the northern Esdraelon plain of Galilee, and further north in the anti-Lebanon range, respectively. By contrast, Zaphon and Amanus are located in the ‘far north’, in northern Syria and southern Turkey.

However the first line is to be understood, the emphasis is (again) on YHWH as Creator. His creation of the entirety of the cosmos may be implied by the comprehensive juxtaposition of north/south. On the other hand, creation of the mountains Zaphon and Amanus, with their associations with Semitic/Canaanite mythic tradition, would fit in well with the theme from the first strophe (vv. 6-9, cf. the previous note)—of YHWH’s superiority over all other divine beings. The second line plays on this same theme, by reiterating that even the great mountains, like the heavens (and the heavenly beings), give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the specific idiom is “ring out [vb /n~r*] (praise)” to God’s name.

In the next note, we will turn to verses 14-15, which, it seems, function as something like a refrain between the second (vv. 10-13) and third (vv. 16-19) strophes.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

November 19: Colossians 1:20c

Colossians 1:20c

[di’ au)tou=] ei&te ta\ e)pi\ th=$ gh=$ ei&te ta\ e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$
“(all this is) [through him], whether the (thing)s upon the earth or the (thing)s in the heavens”

This line concludes the second stanza, and also forms the conclusion to the hymn as a whole.

The first point to address is text-critical. The initial words di’ au)tou= (“through him”) are absent from a relatively wide range of textual witnesses (B D* G 81 1739 and among the Latin, Coptic [Sahidic], Armenian, and Ethiopic versions). However, they are present in an equally wide range of witnesses (Ë46 a A C Dc 614, and portions of the Syriac and Coptic versions, etc). The external (manuscript) evidence is rather evenly divided. Internal considerations are also far from decisive. Since the same expression occurred earlier in the verse (cf. the prior note on v. 20a), it could easily have been deleted here as superfluous, or by accident (haplography); or, on the other hand, it may have been repeated as a mistake in copying (dittography). The inclusion of the words would seem to represent the more difficult or unusual reading, and so perhaps should be retained on the principle of lectio difficilior probabilior (“the more difficult reading is probable”, i.e., is more likely to be original). The Nestle-Aland critical text retains the words, but in square brackets to indicate their uncertain or disputed status; this is probably the wisest approach, and I have adopted it above.

If the words di’ au)tou= are original, their repetition from 20a must be considered emphatic (but note their place in the outline below). They give special emphasis to the fact that the transformation, even of all things in creation, is brought about by God through Jesus the Son. This cosmic aspect of the hymn is expressed in a number of ways, most notably by the repeated use of the comprehensive adjective pa=$ (“all”)—8 times in the hymn, including five instances of the objective plural ta\ pa/nta (“all [thing]s”). The pre-existent Son of God played a central role in the original creation of “all things” (the subject of the first stanza), and now the exalted Jesus plays a similar role in the new creation (second stanza).

As the second stanza makes clear, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that brings about the transformation of the cosmos. But how should this be so? The removal of the effects of sin and impurity on humankind can reasonably be derived from the significance of the sacrificial ritual in the ancient covenant setting. But how would this apply to the cosmos as a whole, without the context of a personal relationship (covenant-bond)? Here the unique theology developed by Paul provides an explanation. Three passages can be mentioned: chapters 5 and 8 of Romans, and the discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

In Romans 5 the parallel is clearly drawn between human sin and the corruption of the created order. The effect of sin is undone (or reversed) by Jesus in his role as a ‘second’ Adam. This focus is soteriological, but it expands to include an eschatological dimension in chapter 8. All of creation, personified as a human being, groans under the bondage (of sin, evil, and death) in the current Age, awaiting its liberation. And, just as believers in Christ have been freed from bondage to the power of sin, so all of the cosmos will one day be liberated. The sequence is clear: first, Jesus is raised from the dead; second, those who trust in him participate in the same life-giving power (of God’s Spirit); third, at the end of the current Age, this resurrection will be realized when believers are raised from the dead, after the pattern of Jesus; and, finally, all of creation will be ‘reborn’, in the pattern of the resurrection of Jesus the Son (and believers as the sons/children of God). The New Age will involve a “new heaven and a new earth”, just as human beings (believers) are changed in to a “new creation”. The transformation of the cosmos in terms of resurrection is an important theme of 1 Cor 15 as well (vv. 20-28, 42-56).

There is a similar corollary between humankind and the cosmos here in the Christ hymn, and could be used as a reasonably strong argument in favor of Pauline authorship of the hymn. In my view, the line of thought and imagery resembles that expressed by Paul in the passages noted above—especially Romans 5. There, in the first half of that passage (in vv. 8-11), Paul describes the effect of sin in creating hostility between humankind and God; but the death of Jesus has restored the relationship. Similarly, in the more famous second half, it is narrated how sin has corrupted the world, so that, in the current Age, sin now rules as king (v. 14). The power of sin and death is itself undone by Jesus’ death (and resurrection), transformed into a reign of righteousness and life (vv. 18-21). However, this transformation will not be realized until the end of the current Age; for the moment, it is experienced only by believers, through the presence of the Spirit.

The New Age for believers, in union with Christ, was expressed in the hymn through the head-body (‘body of Christ’) idiom of v. 18a. Then, in the second stanza proper, this central theme is expounded within the same matrix of cosmology-soteriology-eschatology we find in the Pauline passages cited above. Let us see how this may be expressed in terms of the syntax and thematic structure of the stanza:

  • “who is” —Jesus (the Son) is the one who is
    • “the beginning” —that is, of the new creation, defined as
    • “the first (one) brought forth out of the dead” —resurrection
      • “so that” —the purpose of the resurrection/creation is
        • “he should be (the one who is) first in all (thing)s” —the exaltation of Jesus
      • “(for it was) that” —what brings about his resurrection/exaltation is that
        • “in him” —in the person of Jesus the Son
          • “(God) considered it good (for) all the fullness to put down house” —the incarnation, Jesus filled with the Presence/Spirit of God
        • “through him” —through the work of Jesus
          • “(for God) to make all things different (again)” —the power to restore/transform creation
            • “unto him” —according to the pattern and goal of Jesus the Son
          • “making peace” —undoing the effect of sin, restoring the bond with God
        • “through the blood of his cross” —through his death
      • “[through him]” —all of this takes place through the person of and work of Jesus, so that
    • “the things upon and earth and the things in the heavens” —the complete transformation of the new creation

The strands of thought running through the stanza are complex and powerful. In some ways the cosmological aspect is primary—that is, both stanzas deal primarily with creation. The first stanza focuses on the first (original) creation, the second on the new creation. The resurrection of Jesus ‘restores’ him to his exalted place alongside God the Father in heaven (cp. the descent/ascent paradigm in the Philippians hymn), but it also transforms him into the life-giving Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 15:45). Through the exalted Jesus, God gives life to the new creation, even as He did in the original creation. From his exalted position, Jesus is first, ruling over all things in creation.

While these themes are not unique to Paul in early Christianity, it is his writings which gave to them their finest and definitive expression, and the splendid, ever-provocative hymn of Colossians 1:15-20—whether composed by Paul himself, or simply adapted by him—may fairly be said to represent the high point of this expression.

November 4: Colossians 1:16a

Colossians 1:16a

o%ti e)n au)tw=| e)kti/sqe ta\ pa/nta
e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$ kai\ e)pi\ th=$ gh=$
ta\ o)rata\ kai\ ta\ a)o/rata

“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s,
in the heavens and upon the earth,
the (thing)s seeable and (thing)s unseeable…”

The complex clause of verse 16 is subordinate to v. 15, and epexegetical. It further explains what it means to say that Jesus is the “likeness/image of God”, and also the “first-born” of all that has been created; indeed, it gives us the reason why it is right to speak of Jesus this way. The conjunctive particle o%ti, is explicative, with causal force—i.e., “(for it is) that…”.

There is a clear and carefully constructed symmetry to this statement in v. 16, with a framework governed by prepositional expressions which relate back to the initial relative pronoun. These prepositional phrases enclose the remainder of the verse, so that we may outline the structure of vv. 15-16 as follows:

    • “who is [o%$ e)stin]…”
      • “in him [e)n au)tw=|]…”
      • “through him [di’ au)tou=]
        and unto him [ei)$ au)to/n]…”

The three expressions, utilizing three different prepositions, are: “in [e)n] him…through [di/a] him and unto [ei)$] him”. This is similar to triadic formulae with a cosmological-existential orientation in contemporary Greek philosophy (cf. the Areopagus speech by Paul, Acts 17:28). The particular triad here is comparable to that used by certain Stoic philosophers and authors, one of the most notable being Marcus Aurelius, in his Contemplations (4.23). Closer in time and religious background to our hymn is the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher-commentator Philo of Alexandria (cf. On the Cherubim 125). The entire subject has been documented in E. Norden’s classic study Agnostos Theos (1913), esp. pp. 240-50, and cf. also M. Robinson, “A Formal Analysis of Colossians,” 1:15-20, Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 76 (1957), p. 276; R. M. Grant, “Causation and ‘the Ancient World View,'” JBL 83 (1964), p. 35 (Barth/Blanke, p, 197).

Here, the three expressions are not presented as a simple triad; rather, they are divided into two parts, involving two parallel statements:

in him all (thing)s were founded…
all (thing)s have been founded through him and unto him

Both of these statements involve the verb kti/zw, related to the noun kti/si$ in v. 15. The verb has the basic meaning “found, establish, build”, and here clearly refers to the founding (i.e. creation) of the cosmos by God. The passive form of the verb is an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), with God as the implied subject—i.e., “…were founded (by God)”. The initial occurrence here is an aorist form, the second a perfect form; the aorist typically is used for an event or action which occurred in the past, while the perfect often refers to a past action or condition which continues into the present.

As previously noted, Paul uses the noun kti/si$ (and the verb kti/zw) in two ways: (1) in reference to the original creation of the universe (and human beings) by God, and (2) for the new creation, realized (presently) by believers in Christ. The new creation is patterned after the original (first) creation. When looking at the structure of the hymn as a whole, it becomes clear that the two stanzas relate to these two aspects (or stages) of God’s work of creation; moreover, the same dual-aspect is present in the intervening pair of couplets of v. 17. That the first creation is in view here in vv. 15-16 is confirmed by two other factors: (a) the aorist passive e)kti/sqh, as something done by God in the past, and (b) the substantive adjective ta\ pa/nta (“all things”), as a short-hand for the (current) created order.

Paul frequently uses the substantive plural of pa=$ (“all”), in a general and comprehensive sense (“all things”), though less frequently in a cosmological context (cf. 1 Cor 15:28; 2 Cor 5:18). Here the reference is to ‘everything in the cosmos’, especially ‘every living, intelligent being’, as the central phrases of v. 16 make clear. The first two (of the four) central phrases are:

“in the heavens and upon the earth,
the seeable (thing)s and the unseeable (thing)s”

“Heaven and earth” is a conventional shorthand for referring to the cosmos (the world/universe) as a whole, and ultimately relates back to the basic bipartate (geocentric) cosmology of the ancient Near East. Even by the mid-1st century, in the Greco-Roman world, when a somewhat more sophisticated geocentric cosmology had developed, “heaven and earth” still served as a simple shorthand for the universe. The adjective a)o/rato$ was used in v. 15, in reference to God as “unseeable”, unable to be seen by human beings; other divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) are similarly understood as ‘invisible’, unable to be seen by humans in ordinary circumstances. The adjective o(rato/$, without the privative prefix a)-, naturally represents the opposite: what is visible and can be seen normally by human beings (with their eyes). Divine/heavenly beings tend to be located in “the heavens”, while human beings are on “the earth”; thus, the two phrases are generally synonymous, and in parallel, for a comprehensive description of the cosmos—esp. the inhabitants of the cosmos.

What does it mean to say that the cosmos and its inhabitants were created “in” Jesus (e)n au)tw=|, “in him”)? The contemporary Roman philosopher Seneca provides an explanation of the (Stoic) existential-cosmological triad (cf. above), and the various prepositions used (Epistle 65.8, cf. Barth/Blanke, p. 197-8). In this context, the preposition e)n (“in”) refers to the pattern or model used (by God) in creation. The closest New Testament parallel is in the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:4): “in him was life” (e)n au)tw=| zwh\ h@n)—a parallel that would even be closer if the prior two words were included in the phrase, i.e. “that which has come to be in him was life”, but the precise reading (and punctuation) of vv. 3-4 remains in dispute. In any case, the expression “in him” in that passage is clearly related to the creation of the universe (“all things came to be”, “that which has come to be”), just as it is here in Colossians.

This will be discussed further in the next daily note, as we continue the study of v. 16.

References above marked “Barth/Blanke” are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] 34B (1994).

August 23: Exodus 15:12

Exodus 15:12

“You stretched (out) your right (hand),
(and the) earth swallowed them.”

Verse 12 is not a stanza as such, but a single (2-beat) couplet that brings the first part of the Song to a close. The terse synthetic parallelism of the couplet serves as a dramatic climax to the poetic account of the miracle at the Sea. The “right (hand)” (/ym!y`) of God was mentioned earlier in verse 6 (stanza 3), at the beginning of the poetic narration proper. As a symbol it emphasizes both YHWH’s power and the fact that victory was achieved by He alone, without reliance upon any human intermediary (or military technology). The “stretching out” (vb hf*n`) of His hand suggests the divine power in action.

YHWH, as the Creator, does not simply command human armies, but rather the forces of creation itself. The natural world responds to His command and does battle against the enemies of God (and of His people). Typically, this is understood in terms of the forces in the sky (heaven)—sun and moon, wind and storm, etc. However, here it is the earth (Jr#a#) that responds to the command of God’s outstretched hand. From the standpoint of the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the universe could be divided simply into two parts—the heaven(s) above, and the earth below. The latter includes not only the flat disc (or cylinder) of the earth itself, but all of the space below the earth as well—that is, the underworld, conceived of primarily as the realm of death and the dead. This comprehensive meaning of Jr#a# (°ereƒ, Akkadian erƒetu) is well attested, for example in the Canaanite texts from Ugarit, but also at various points in the Psalms and Old Testament poetry, etc.

While the Sea may allude to the primeval waters, the actual “Reed Sea” where the nature-miracle took place is a body of water in/on the earth. When the waters, which the great wind had piled up, fell back upon the Egyptians (cf. the previous note on stanza 4), it may fairly be said that the earth “swallowed” (vb ul^B*) them. At the same time, as they were drowned to death, they were taken down into the realm of the dead below the earth (Sheol, the underworld); thus, they were “swallowed” by the earth in a double sense.

Coming as it does after the antiphon-response of stanza 4 (verse 11), it is worth considering this couplet in light of that response. The specific point of emphasis in those lines is on how the power of YHWH (over creation), manifest in the miracle at the Sea, separates Him from the other gods worshiped by the nations. There is no sense here of an absolute monotheism, but rather the (rhetorical) question posed reflects the relative monotheism of the early Israelite period. The point is not that no other deity exists, but that YHWH is far superior to all other deities, and that He alone is the Creator. His control of the forces of nature marks Him as the Creator.

The wording of the first two lines, each of which begins with the interrogative “Who (is) like you…?” (hk*m)k* ym!), needs to be considered carefully. The first line reads:

“Who (is) like you among the Mighty (one)s, YHWH?”

The expression “mighty (one)s” is a literal translation of the plural <l!a@ > <yl!a@. It is thus a plural of the noun la@ (°¢l), “mighty (one)”, which is the common Semitic term for deity, and can be used either as a general noun or proper name/title, much like “god/God” in English. None of the “mighty ones” (i.e. gods) worshiped by the other nations can compare with YHWH, the Creator worshiped by Israel. YHWH is to be identified with °E~l, the Creator and Mighty One of ancient Semitic belief. The question in the second line essentially repeats that of the first:

“Who (is) like you, so magnificent among the Holy (ones)?”

This question goes a bit further, suggesting that only YHWH is truly deserving of worship. The passive participle of the verb rd^a* (“be great, mighty, majestic”) connotes the honor that is due to YHWH. As previously noted, the (abstract) noun vd#q) is best understood as a collective term (“holy [ones]”), parallel with “mighty ones” in the first line. It emphasizes the religious/cultic environment in which the deity is revered and worshiped. The root vdq fundamentally implies a distinction, whereby one thing (or person) is separated (or set apart) from another. A sacred space and apparatus is set up for the worship of a particular deity—but YHWH is deserving of worship far more so that any other deity worshiped by the nations.

The contrast between Israel and the nations continues into the second half of the Song, becoming one of its major themes. This will be discussed in the next note.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1ff

In recent weeks, we have examined various areas of Biblical Criticism, using the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 as a case for study. We have looked at:

    • Textual Criticism—Analysis of the Hebrew text, including variant readings, attempts to determine the most likely original form of the text, and how it may have been shaped during the course of copying and transmission. For the Hebrew Old Testament, the Scripture manuscripts from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) are especially important, when they differ from the Masoretic Text.
    • Form Criticism—Study of the specific form and genre of the passage, as far as it can be determined. What type of material are we dealing with, what are its characteristics, and how is it distinguished from other portions elsewhere in Scripture or in the same book? Specific issues are involved when dealing with ancient Hebrew poetic or psalm/hymn forms, as in the case of Deut 32.
    • Source Criticism—How did the passage come to be incorporated into the book as a whole? Did the writer(s) make use of an existing document or line of tradition? If so, how might it be distinguished from other material in the book?
    • Historical Criticism—Consideration of the (original) historical setting and background of the book, and how it came to be composed. A separate issue involves analysis of the historical accuracy of the material, whether dealing with specific traditions or literary (and narrative) sections. The latter is not merely a question of whether the Scripture is historically reliable (from a particular standpoint), but of how the content of a passage relates to its composition.

We shall now apply these to an examination of the Song of Moses as it has come down to us, looking at specific selected verses or lines of the poem. This will help us to see just how criticism relates to interpretation—here in the case of a famous and influential piece of ancient Hebrew poetry within an Old Testament Scripture. Broadly speaking, this sort of study may be referred to as literary criticism—analysis of the distinct literary form and structure, i.e. the book and passage of Scripture, as it has come down to us.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to consider the thematic outline of the Song. Such an outline normally would follow the sort of study we are doing, being the result of it; however, in this instance it will help things along to include it here beforehand.

    • 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

We start with the first verse (and line) of the Song.

Deuteronomy 32:1

The Song begins with a call (by the poet) to all of creation—”the heavens and the earth”:

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

This first line (bicolon) demonstrates the parallelism, common to much ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, which runs throughout the song. We examined this in the study on Form Criticism. It is not simply a stylistic device; it also allows the poet to emphasize certain themes and ideas, giving two (or more) variations of a basic motif, the second restating or building upon the first. Here the dual-concept of the universe (creation) as consisting of the pair “heaven and earth” serves to establish the parallelism in the line. This sort of opening is actually a traditional literary (and rhetorical) device, seen in other places in the Old Testament—Isa 1:2-3; Jer 2:4ff; also Psalm 50:4; Mic 6:1ff. It draws upon ancient religious and cultural traditions, including certain conventions associated with establishment of binding agreements (covenants) and treaties, etc. In establishing such an agreement between parties, it was customary to call on deities as witnesses, as way of “hallowing” the agreement, and, in a quasi-magical manner, to bring down divine judgment if it should ever be violated by one of the parties. We see a faint vestige of this sort of practice today in our continued use of oaths in official legal proceedings and public ceremonies.

Of course, in the context of early Israelite monotheism, Yahweh was the one called upon in oaths and the like. In the case of the covenant between God (YHWH) and Israel, the typical custom (of calling upon deities as witness) could not be applied in the same way, nor was it entirely appropriate. Nothing of the sort is found in the early covenant traditions (in Gen 15, 17; Exod 24, etc) which we examined in earlier studies. However, it does appear several times in the book of Deuteronomy: 4:26; 30:19, and at 31:28, just prior to the Song. Though “heaven” and “earth” as such were viewed as deities in the ancient Near East, they are not treated this way here. Rather, they represent “all of creation”—i.e. the universe, the created order. The poet, following God’s own word, calls on heaven and earth to hear the words of the Song. According to 31:19, the Song itself serves as witness of the covenant, to which heaven and earth join, according to the traditional motif. This enhances the importance of the Song and its message. Verse 2 extends the idea of creation as witness, hearing the words of the Song, through the natural imagery of rain and dew—i.e., water from heaven, which, drawing upon sky/storm theophany, has God as its source. God’s word—that is, the inspired message of the Song—comes down from heaven to the earth.

Commentators sometimes refer to the call to heaven and earth in verse 1 (and similar passages) as part of a “covenant lawsuit” tradition, whereby one calls upon the (divine) witnesses to deliver a complaint that the binding agreement (treaty or covenant) has been violated. Such violation will result in divine judgment, often understood in military terms—attack upon the party who violated the covenant. While verse 1 almost certainly draws upon such a tradition, it must be said that there is no real sense in the Song of a legal proceeding. It is, however, present more decidedly in Isa 1:2-3ff and Jer 2:4ff, passages which were doubtless influenced by Deut 32; indeed, there are a number of rather clear parallels between Isa 1:2-31 and the Song of Moses. For examples of heaven/earth taking a more active role in the proceedings, see Mic 6:1-2; Jer 4:28; 6:19; 51:38. Natural disasters and other phenomena were typically understood as manifestations of divine judgment.

This last point is significant, and can easily be overlooked in a casual reading of vv. 1-3. By injecting a developed (later) form of monotheism into these early Scriptures, there is also a tendency to exaggerate a separation between the transcendent Creator God (YHWH) and the Creation. In early Israelite thought and expression, God and the Creation (heaven and earth) were much more closely connected than is often realized by Jews and Christians today. While not “gods” in the sense found in ancient Near Eastern religious lore, heaven and earth, along with all of the natural phenomena contained within them, obeyed YHWH and worked/acted on His behalf. As witnesses to the covenant, they also would “act” against the violators of the agreement, as indicated in the passages cited above. We already saw in the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32), how natural features and phenomena were utilized to bring judgment on the people (vv. 20, 35), presented in tandem with attack by military forces (“the sword”, vv. 25-28), and this could be repeated numerous times from similar passages in the Old Testament. Here in the Song, upon violation of the covenant, the earth itself, which was at first fruitful (vv. 13-14), would turn against the people, through the burning fire of God’s anger which consumes the earth’s produce and fertility (v. 20). Along with this, there will famine, plague, disease and attacks by wild beasts (v. 24)—all natural disasters which will strike the people, even as they will also be attacked by the sword of invading military forces (v. 25). This is all very much part of the traditional language of divine judgment in the Old Testament.

It is also especially significant in light of the primary theme which runs through the Song: the contrast between YHWH as Israel’s God, and the foreign deities which the people came to worship, thereby violating the covenant. This will be discussed in our study on subsequent verses in the Song, but it is important to note how the theme is established here in the opening. We have seen how the call to heaven and earth draws upon ancient Near Eastern tradition whereby the gods were called upon as witnesses to a covenant or treaty. Thus there is here an implicit reference to the religious distinction, from the Israelite standpoint, between the one true Creator God (El-YHWH) and all of the other deities recognized by the surrounding nations. In early Israelite monotheism, this distinction was not as sharp as it would later become. The “sons of God” had not yet been reduced to “angels”, and could refer to various sorts of divine and/or heavenly beings. In the context of the traditional language of verse 1, heaven and earth are obedient servants of YHWH, and their natural activities (rainfall, etc) parallel God’s own word being spoken (v. 2). This unifying sense of purpose is emphasized by the declaration which follows in verse 3:

“For the name of YHWH I call out—
Give greatness to our God [Elohim]!”

Note again the parallelism here, where the second half-line builds upon the first (an example, I would say, of synthetic parallelism). The poet calls out “the name of YHWH”, a way of acknowledging that Yahweh is his God, and that he is serving a prophetic, oracular role in making Him known (His word and will) to the people. In the second half-line, the poet calls upon the people to respond in kind, acknowledging and declaring “the greatness of our God”. The word translated “God” is the plural noun °§lœhîm, which, when applied to the Creator El-Yahweh, is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural, meaning something like “Mightiest (One)”. When used as a true plural, of course, it would refer to other “Mighty Ones”—deities or divine beings, such as those worshiped by the surrounding nations. The Song plays heavily upon this dual meaning and use of the word.

In the next study, we will move ahead to verses 5-6, and then touch again on verses 8ff, to see how the theme of the Creator YHWH as Israel’s God is developed, being central to the very idea of the covenant (and its violation) that is at the heart of the Song. This we will do, God willing, when we meet here again next weekend.

March 8: Matthew 6:10b

Matthew 6:10b

In the previous notes, we examined the first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, which are the same in both Luke and Matthew. In the Lukan version, these two petitions form a clear and definite pair—syntactically, thematically, and conceptually. In Matthew’s version of the Prayer, however, there is a third petition not found in (what must be regarded as) the original text of Luke:

genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou
w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$
gen¢th¢tœ to thel¢ma sou
hœs en ouranœ kai epi g¢s
“May your will come to be—
as in heaven (so) also upon (the) earth”

NOTE: The majority of witness here in Luke include this petition, including important uncials such as A C D W D Q. However, it is missing from a diverse range of witnesses, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 B L f1 1342 etc), a fact that is nearly impossible to explain if the longer text in Luke were original. Almost certainly the longer text is secondary, representing the kind of harmonization between Gospels that we find frequently in the manuscript tradition.

The inclusion/addition of this line gives a different structure and rhythm to the Prayer. Some commentators who regard the shorter Lukan version as representing the (original) historical tradition (or, at least closer to it) consider the line to be an addition by the Gospel writer, perhaps drawn from early liturgical tradition. However one judges its status at the historical level, the petition in Matt 6:10b is vital to the Prayer as it appears in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. This point must be discussed.

In an earlier note, I mentioned how the expression “(our) Father the (One) in the heavens” in the Matthean invocation is distinctive of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. It is part of a dualistic contrast that runs through the Sermon—between (a) the religious behavior of the majority of people on earth, and (b) the behavior of Jesus’ followers which should reflect the character of God the Father in heaven. It is just this contrast which underlies the expression in verse 10b.

As in the first petition, we have here a 3rd person (aorist) passive imperative (“it must [be]…”) rendered as an exhortative request (“may/let it [be]…”). The Greek verb used is gi/nomai (“come to be, become”)—”May it come to be…”. Five of the seven occurrences of this imperative are in the Gospel of Matthew (also 8:13; 9:29; 15:28; 26:42), the other two are in citations from Scripture (LXX); thus, it reflects a distinctive Matthean vocabulary.

The traditional rendering “may your will be done” is somewhat misleading, since there is no actual mention of doing God’s will; rather, the request is that God would see to it that His will comes to pass on earth. This touches upon the complex philosophical/theological question of the will of God. If God is sovereign and all-powerful, then by its very nature His will always comes to pass in all things. At the same time, there is clear and abundant evidence that all things on earth do not always (or often) conform to the declared will (or wish) of God; in particular, human beings typically do not act according to His will. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not address this philosophical dimension directly, but the very point of his teaching throughout is centered on the idea that human beings must (choose to) live and act in a way that conforms with God’s own nature and character (including His will). Thus, there is implicit in this request the concept of doing (or fulfilling) the will of God the Father.

As mentioned above, this continues the contrast of heaven and earth which runs through the Sermon (cf. the previous notes). God’s will is done in heaven, but it is often not done by people on earth. Again, the will (qe/lhma) here refers to something which God has declared for people—i.e., his word or instruction (Torah) which reveals his intention for humankind, to act and think in a way that corresponds with his own character and example. This is unquestionably how qe/lhma is used in most of the occurrences in the Gospel, in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. Most notable in this regard is the Synoptic saying in Mark 3:35 (par Matt 12:50, the Lukan form is rather different):

“Whoever would do the will of God, this (one) is my brother and sister and mother.”
i.e. Jesus’ true family consists of his followers who do the will of God; Matt 12:50 reflects the distinctive Matthean wording:
“For whoever would do the will of my Father the (One) in the heavens, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Three other occurrences of qe/lhma in Matthew express the same basic idea (7:21; 18:14; 21:31); the first of these is also from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone saying to me ‘Lord, Lord…’ will come into the kingdom of the heavens, but (only) the (one) doing the will of my Father the (One) in the heavens.” (Matt 7:21)

Also noteworthy is the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32 par), which draws upon a similar dualistic contrast: those who do the will of God the Father (i.e. followers of Jesus) and those who do not (i.e. conventional/false religious behavior). In many ways, the closest parallel to the petition in Matt 6:10b is found in Jesus’ prayer in the garden at the beginning of his Passion. In Mark, this (Synoptic) saying reads:

“Abba, Father, all (thing)s are possible for you: (please) carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me! But (yet), not what I wish [qe/lw], but what you (wish).” (Mk 14:36)

In Matthew’s version of this scene, this saying is preserved, generally following the Markan phrasing (Matt 26:39); however, words from the second session of prayer are also included which match more closely the petition in the Lord’s Prayer (the words in italics are identical):

“My Father, if it is not possible (for) this (cup) to go along (from me) if I do not drink (it), may your will come to be [genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou] .” (v. 42)

It would appear that the Gospel writer, noting the similarity to the petition in 6:10b, shaped this particular tradition to match it. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Luke records essentially the same saying by Jesus, but with different wording:

“Father, if you wish, carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me! (But all the) more—may not my will, but yours, come to be.” (Lk 22:42)

The best explanation for this apparent blending of details is that Matt 26:42 represents a “Q” tradition which Matthew and Luke have each combined with the Synoptic saying (Mk 14:36) in different ways. The Gospel of John, though drawing upon an entirely separate line of tradition, also records numerous statements by Jesus describing how he, as Son, does the will (qe/lhma) of the Father—Jn 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40. The one who follows Jesus likewise does the Father’s will even as he himself does (Jn 7:17; 9:31).

Thus there is a well-established basis in the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Matthew, for the idea that Jesus’ disciples (believers) are to obey the will of God the Father, as expressed especially in the teaching and example of Jesus (the Son). This is the central principle in the Sermon on the Mount. By this faithful obedience of the disciple, God’s will is done on earth, even as it is done in heaven—i.e reflecting the nature and character of the Father who is in the heavens. Somewhat surprisingly, the petition in 6:10b uses the singular (ou)rano/$) instead of the plural (ou)ranoi/). Most likely, this simply reflects the fact there is little difference in meaning between singular and plural forms of this noun in Greek. The singular in 6:26 refers to the (physical) skies, as probably also in 5:18, while v. 34 may have the primitive (cosmological) meaning of the vault of heaven; however, in 6:20 it refers to the realm or domain of God, much as the use of the plural does elsewhere in the Sermon. The traditional pairing of heaven and earth may explain the specific use of the singular here (cf. in 5:18, etc).

As noted above, the third petition contains and envelops the first two. As the disciples of Jesus follow him faithfully, the will of God is fulfilled on earth—a foreshadowing or beginning of the eschatological moment when the declared will of God comes to pass and is realized for all on earth, when his Kingdom is established truly over all humankind, and people everywhere treat Him with sanctity and honor.

For parallels to Matt 6:10b in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, cf. Psalm 103:21; 135:6, and especially 1 Macc 3:60 (“as the will might be in heaven, so shall it be done”). In Rabbinic literature, note b. Ber. 17a, 29b; t. Ber. 3.7; Pirke Abot 2.4; Abot R. Nathan (B) 32. For these and other references, cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 392-6.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.