Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 6

Psalm 6

The superscription to this Psalm follows the common format we have seen for most of the Davidic compositions (romz+m!). As with Psalm 4, the note here is that it is to be played on stringed instrument(s) (the presumed meaning of hn`yg]n+). There is an additional musical instruction, tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (something like “upon the eight[h]”), the meaning of which remains uncertain. Possibly it indicates something akin to a musical key or mode, or perhaps a voice range (i.e. upper/lower, cf. 1 Chron 15:21); either way, it relates to a particular performing tradition. The same direction is given for Psalm 12.

The conceptual structure of the Psalm is as a petition or prayer to YHWH; I would outline it as follows:

    • Initial address/plea to YHWH (vv. 2-4 [1-3])
    • The basis/reason for the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 5-8 [4-7])
      —Facing death: plea for rescue/deliverance (vv. 5-6)
      —The sign of his suffering: weeping/sorrow (vv. 7-8)
    • Declaration that YHWH has heard his petition (vv. 9-11 [8-10])

The Psalm generally utilizes a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout, though there are a few places where it alters or is inconsistent (mixed meter). As always, there are serious questions as to whether, or to what extent, the text as it has come down to us ought to be emended to achieve greater metrical consistency.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Here the Psalmist addresses YHWH, with these lines (3 bicola, 6 lines) forming the invocation and essential petition:

YHWH, do not judge me with your nostrils,
and do not punish me with your hot (breath)!
Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble;
even my soul is made to tremble (in fear)!
And you, YHWH—until when (will you help)?

The first and third bicola both have 3-beat (3+3) lines; the dual occurrence of the divine name (hwhy, YHWH) in the second bicolon expands the meter to 4-beat (4+4) lines, which has led some commentators to suggest that either (or both) occurrences of the name perhaps should be omitted as secondary. However, the repeated use of the divine name (including twice in the second bicolon) conveys the desperation and despair of the Psalmist, and serves as an effective poetic device. The first two bicola make use of synonymous parallelism, and expresses two different aspects of the suffering the protagonist faces, apparently in the form of some kind of serious disease. In the first couplet, where the parallelism is precise, the idea is clearly expressed that this suffering is the result of YHWH’s anger, according to the basic ancient worldview (much less common today) that disease, etc, is often brought about by divine displeasure or anger. Transposing the Hebrew word order to match our English (left-to-right):

-la^
do not
;P=a^B=
with your nostril(s)
yn]j@yk!ot
judge me
-la^
do not
;t=m*j&B^
with your hot (breath)
yn]r@S=y~t=
punish me

Both the nouns [a^ (lit. “nose, nostril”) and hm*j@ (“heat”) are common figurative ways of expressing the idea of anger. Presumably, the ancient idiom involves the image of a powerful animal (such as a bull) snorting out hot breath. The verbs jk^y` and rs^y`, here translated “judge…punish”, could also be rendered “rebuke…chasten” or “correct…discipline”, giving a much softer sense to the imagery. However, there can be no doubt of the severity involved—YHWH’s rebuke, even if it is meant to discipline or correct the Psalmist, still results in immense suffering.

There is similar parallelism in the second bicolon, the second line of which is picked up in the third bicolon—a kind of step-parallelism that leads to the climactic cry of the final line. The central bicolon of verse 3 [2], with the dual occurrence of the divine name, represents the actual petition of the Psalm, stated clearly, reinforced by synonymous parallelism:

Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble

It is interesting to see how this poetic style allows for the intensity of the thought to build. In the first line, the Psalmist refers to himself generally, with the emphatic use of the pronoun “I” (yn]a*)—”I (am) withering [ll^m=a%]”. The root lma has the basic meaning of “be(come) weak”; the phrase could also be translated “I am exhausted“. The verb lh^B*, in the passive-reflexive, has the sense of “being terrified, frightened”, i.e. trembling with fear/terror. The step parallelism in the overlap of lines 4 and 5 is clear and striking; the Psalmist’s own person (“I”) is now divided into two comprehensive components: (1) his bodily strength (<x#u#, in the plural and usually translated “bones”), and (2) his soul (vp#n#), i.e. the life within his body. So severe is the Psalmist’s suffering that even his soul (his very life) trembles along with his body.

The final despairing question, the outcry of the Psalmist is terse and direct, and is aimed squarely at God: “And you, YHWH—until when [yt*m*-du^]?”. Readable English requires that the line be filled out, i.e. “until when (will you help)”, “how long (must I wait)”, etc.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

As indicated in the outline above, the heart of the Psalm represents an exposition of the petition in verse 3, describing the suffering and despair of the Psalmist—i.e. the reason for his prayer, and the need for YHWH to act—from two points of view. The first involves the idea that the Psalmist, in his suffering (from disease?), is in danger of death. Above all else, death would separate him from the relationship with YHWH, who is the giver and preserver of life. This destruction of the covenant bond (through death) is emphasized in these lines:

Turn (to me), YHWH, take away my soul—
make me safe for the sake of your goodness!
For in death there is no memory of you;
in Sheol who gives out (praise) to you?

When the Psalmist asks YHWH to “take away” (vb. Jl^j*) his soul, this must understood in the sense of “pulling it away” from the point of death, or “snatching it away” from the jaws of death. The verb uv^y` in the Hiphil here expresses the other side of this deliverance—having pulled his soul away from death, YHWH is to “make it safe”, “bring it to safety”, i.e. saving/preserving it. Implicit in the expression “for the sake of your goodness” (;D#s=j^ /u^m^l=) is the idea of covenant loyalty between YHWH and His people, those who have themselves remained faithful to the covenant. In other words, it is a reminder of this bond and the responsibilities of YHWH to protect those loyal to him.

One must be cautious about reading two much into verse 6 regarding Israelite views of an afterlife (or lack thereof). However, generally in the Ancient Near East, the realm of death (i.e. where the dead reside, Job 30:23; Prov 5:5; 7:27, etc) was seen as a dark, shadowy place, and those who dwelt there had only a limited sort of existence. This is the basic idea expressed here in the Psalm. On the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol), which occurs here for the first time in the Psalter, I discuss the significance of it briefly in a supplemental article.

In the remaining two bicola (vv. 7-8), the imagery shifts to the sign of the Psalmist’s suffering, expressed in terms of weeping, crying, groaning, etc. The meter and organization of the Psalm as we have it suggests that the first two words of verse 7 represent a partial line, which, if correct as it stands, likely represents a point of transition from vv. 5-6:

I gasp (weary) with my groaning
in all (the) night my (place) of stretching swims,
with my teardrops I dissolve the frame of my (bed);
my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
it is passing (away) with all (that is) pressing me.

Leaving out the initial two words, vv. 7-8 are a pair of 3+3 bicola, using synonymous parallelism to express the Psalmist’s suffering. The first bicolon makes for a bit of colorful hyperbole—he is weeping so much that his couch/bed is drowning (and dissolving!) in the sea of tears. This idiom, of weeping upon one’s bed, is known both in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:6; Gen 43:30) and Canaanite literature of the period (Kirta I, col. 1:28-30).

The second bicolon describes the effect of this weeping/sorrow on the Psalmist’s eyes (and his entire body) using two verbs, vv^u* and qt^u*, which produce a nice alliterative effect. The former verb has the basic meaning of being worn (or wasting) away; the latter verb the idea of passing away, here in the sense of growing old, approaching death, etc. Most likely there is a conceptual parallel between the prepositional phrases su^K^m! and yr*r=ox-lk*B=. The root suk carries the basic idea of something agitating, disturbing, provoking, etc; the common root rrx similarly of something tight, pressing in, creating stress, etc. Thus the phrases “from (this) agitation” and “with all (the thing)s pressing (on) me” would both refer to the suffering and distress experienced by the Psalmist. However, it should be noted that Dahood, in his commentary (p. 38), reads the second line differently, parsing MT lk as a verbal form (“complete, finish”) and understanding yrrx in the sense of “inner (organ)s” (cf. Akkadian ƒurru, Ugaritic ƒrrt). According to this interpretation, the bicolon would exhibit a different sort of parallelism, something like:

my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
my heart [i.e. inner organ] is made old with wearying.

This reading, however, ignores both the formal parallelism of the line and the foreshadowing that would result between “the (thing)s pressing on me” and the oppressors/opponents mentioned in vv. 9ff.

Verses 9-11 [8-10]

The final 3 bicola form the conclusion to the Psalm, expressing the hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, and heal/deliver him. The meter is mixed here, but could be made more consistent, to a 3+3 and/or 4+3 format with slight emendation. The sudden reference to “trouble-makers” and “enemies” seems rather out of place in the context of vv. 2-8, but may be an indication that the apparent setting of suffering due to physical disease should not be taken too concretely, but rather as a more general symbol of suffering and distress. There is also the very strong possibility—even likelihood—that the imprecation against the wicked is meant to demonstrate and confirm the Psalmist’s righteous loyalty to YHWH (for more on this, cf. the prior study on Psalm 5).

Turn (away) from me, all (you) making trouble!
for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping—
YHWH has heard my (plea for His) favor,
YHWH (has) received my petition (to Him).
Let all (those) hostile (to) me find much disgrace and terror,
let them turn (away), finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)!

The language is difficult, and, to some extent, rather obscure. Given the metrical consistency and awkwardness, it is possible that the text is corrupt here at one or more points. In particular, the sense of the final bicolon (v. 11) is a bit unclear. Some commentators would omit the second Wbv)y@ (“let them find disgrace”) as a scribal duplication; however, in spite of the metrical tension, it gives an effective emphasis to the imprecation in these lines. The verb lhb was translated as “tremble (i.e. from fear/terror)” in vv. 3-4; here it seems better to render it in terms of the actual terror that the wicked will experience. It is possible that the verb bWv (“turn”, essentially synonymous with rWs in v. 9) in the final line could be understood as “return”, in the sense of humankind returning to the earth (i.e. the grave), as in Job 1:21; 30:23; 34:15; Eccl 3:20f; 12:7, etc (cf. Dahood, p. 39).

The final word is difficult, and may be intended to close the Psalm on a harsh and discordant note (as appropriate for the fate of the wicked). There are three different ugr roots attested in Hebrew, and the relationship between them is not entirely clear. Here ugr is usually understood as a noun (but with adverbial force) with the basic meaning “(in) a moment”, i.e. “suddenly, at once”. However, there appears to be a traditional association of ugr with death and destruction (e.g., Num 16:21; Job 21:13; 26:12; Psalm 73:19). Dahood (p. 39) goes so far as to see the noun ugr (ug^r#?) here as a synonym for the place of death itself (i.e. Sheol), based on formal parallels with Ps 9:18 [17] and 31:18 [17]:

“Let the wicked turn (away) [WbWvy`] into Sheol” [9:18]
“Let the wicked find disgrace [Wbv)y@], let them … into Sheol” [31:18]

I have tried to capture this close association between ugr and death/Sheol parenthetically in my translation above: “…finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)”.

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

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:26ff, 43

In the recent Saturday studies, we have been exploring the great poem known as the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, using it was a way to consider, and demonstrate, how principles and methods of critical analysis apply to a particular passage (here, involving ancient Hebrew poetry). Last week, I discussed verses 15-25 in some detail; today, I wish to bring this exploration of the Song of Moses to a conclusion. There will be three parts to this study:

    • a survey/summary of verses 26-42
    • an examination of verse 43, and
    • a brief consideration of the poem in relation to verses 44ff that follow

Verses 26-42

First, 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 26-42 belong to this second division; vv. 19-25 (discussed last week) 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 discussion 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. 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:

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) p®lîlîm should be related to Akkadian palilu used as an epithet of deities (JPS:Tigay, pp. 310, 404). “Rock” (‚ûr) of course is used as a divine name throughout the poem, parallel with °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God). Another example of the same sort of contrast is seen in the taunt by YHWH in verse 37ff, 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” (°¢l, i.e. God) in the same sense that YHWH is. Even more pointed is the declaration in verse 39a:

“See then that I—I am He
and there are no ‘Mighty Ones’ with me”

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

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):

I will return vengeance for the (one)s oppressing me,
and for the (one)s hating me I will complete (it in turn)

The 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.

Verse 43

With regard to the textual situation surrounding the closing lines of the poem (v. 43), I discussed that in some detail in an earlier study, and will only summarize it here. The bicolon parallelism, used consistently throughout the poem, 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 the text may be corrupt, with 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 for the (one)s oppressing Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

This would seem to be confirmed, rather decisively, I think, by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, as well as in the Greek Septuagint version. The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve the consistent parallelism of the poem (differences with MT indicated by italics):

Make a shout, O heavens, with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all (you) Mighty Ones!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to the (one)s oppressing Him.
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (°§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:

Be of a good mind [i.e. rejoice], O heavens, at once with Him,
Kiss toward [i.e. worship] Him, all (you) sons of God!
Be of a good mind [i.e. rejoice], O nations, with His people,
and let all the Messengers of God strengthen themselves in Him!

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed, which makes a fitting parallel to the opening address of the poem (v. 1). 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)

Conclusion

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. 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.

References marked “JPS:Tigay” above are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy <yrbd, commentary by Jeffrey H. Tigay (Jewish Publication Society: 1996).

* * * * * *

This concludes our study on the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Next week, I will begin exploring a particularly interesting (and difficult) passage from the letters of Paul—namely the excursus in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, long a focus for much scholarly debate regarding its origins, authorship, and purpose in 2 Corinthians. It should prove most valuable as a way of demonstrating how various critical theories and approaches to the text are vital to a sound examination and understanding of the Scriptures as we have them. I would ask that you read through the letter, paying close attention to the language Paul uses, and to the line of argument that runs through the main sections. Consider how 6:14-7:1 fits into the context of the letter. Does it seem at all out of place? Do the images and language differ noticeably from what Paul using elsewhere in the letter? Try skipping over the passage, reading from 6:13 to 7:2ff—what effect does this have of the line of thought and argument in these chapters? We will begin exploring these questions in detail here…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

As we proceed through the Song of Moses (Deut 32), 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 recent studies) 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 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 15-18

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

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!

And (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).

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. Let us first examine verses 15-18, 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 y®š¥rûn, presumably meaning something like “the straight (one)” or “the (up)right (one)”; 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 (k¹´â) is uncertain, but most likely the three verbs are more or less synonymous, referring to the idea of Israel “becoming fat“. 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” (‚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 (vb. µyl) 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 first bicolon is a clear example of synonymous parallelism, with the second line essentially re-stating the first, intensifying the image. 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]”). I have left the noun š¢d (plural š¢dîm) untranslated above; it seems to refer to deities in a general sense, akin to the word daimœn in Greek. The derivation and meaning of the last verb (´¹±ar) is also uncertain; I have tentatively followed the Septuagint translation, relating it to the Semitic root 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.

Verses 19-25

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 mika±as (“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 °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 °µr) 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.

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun dôr set parallel to b¹nîm (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated 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 h¹¸ak (“turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun 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”, °¢mûn) 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 (q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (b®lœ°, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [°¢l]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [±¹m]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [ha»lîm]”, 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). 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, 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.

I hope that the analysis above demonstrates the importance that different aspects of Biblical criticism an elucidate important details of the text, especially in the distinctive (and often difficult) area of Old Testament poetry. Next week, we will conclude this study on the Song of Moses, by looking briefly at the following lines of verses 26-42, before delving more deeply into the closing lines in verse 43.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:7-9ff

In this Saturday Series study, we continue through the great poem “the Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, as a way of demonstrating how the different areas of Biblical Criticism (discussed in previous studies) relate to an analysis and understanding of the the text as a whole. In the previous Saturday study, we looked at verses 4-6; now we proceed to verses 7-9 and lines following (down through verse 18). Verses 4-18 actually form a major section of the poem, as indicated from the earlier outline I presented:

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)

The lines of vv. 4-18 comprise a summary of Israelite history, the parameters of which raise interesting (and important) historical-critical and literary-critical questions (see further below).

Verses 7-9

From the opening theme of YHWH as the Creator and Father of Israel (and all humankind), the poem progresses to the choice of Israel as the unique people of YHWH. Here are the lines in translation:

7Remember the days of (the) distant (past),
consider the years age(s) and age(s past);
ask your father and he will put (it) before you,
your old men and they will show (it) to you.
8In the Highest’s giving (property to the) nations,
in his separating (out) the sons of man,
he set up (the) boundaries of the peoples,
according to the count of the sons of the Mightiest.
9Yet YHWH’s (own) portion is His people,
Ya’aqob His own property measured (out).

The verse numbering accurately reflects the division of this section:

    • A call to remember and repeat (through oral tradition) the account of Israel’s history (v. 7)
    • The dividing of humankind into the nations/peoples (v. 8)
    • Israel as YHWH’s own nation/people (v. 9)

Verse 7 functions as the trope that sets the poetic/rhythmic pattern (a pair of 3-beat [3+3] bicola) for the section, followed by the (narrative) trope in verse 8, and a single bicolon theological trope emphasizing the covenant with YHWH (v. 9). The exhortation in v. 7 is entirely in keeping with the traditional narrative setting in chapter 31 (discussed previously), with an emphasis on the need to transmit the (Mosaic) instruction, contained in the book of Deuteronomy, to the generations that follow. In particular, Israel is to preserve and transmit the poem of chap. 32.

In an earlier study, I examined the text-critical question in verse 8, arguing that the reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutj, and reflected in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, is more likely to be original. The idea that the number of the nations (trad. 70) was made according to the number of Israelites (“sons of Israel“, b®nê yi´r¹°¢l), has always seemed a bit odd. Even prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea manuscripts, some commentators felt that the Hebrew underlying the LXX (“sons of God”, Grk. “Messengers [i.e. Angels] of God”) would be the better reading. The MS 4QDeutj gives support to this (b®nê °§lœhîm, “sons of the Mightiest [i.e. God]”). However, it is the context of both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy which seems to provide decisive evidence in favor of this reading:

    1. A careful study of the poem reveals a contrast between YHWH (Israel’s God) and the foreign deities of the surrounding nations—this is a central theme that runs through the poem, especially in vv. 15ff. It is also a primary aspect of the Deuteronomic teaching and theology, both in the book itself, and as played out in the “Deuteronomistic History” of Samuel–Kings. Turning away from proper worship of YHWH, to the deities of the surrounding peoples, is the fundamental violation of the covenant which brings judgment to Israel.
    2. The closest parallel, in 4:19-20, indicates that the nations belong to other ‘deities’ (such as those powers seen as connected with the heavenly bodies), while Israel alone belongs to YHWH. The wording in the poem, assuming the LXX/Qumran reading to be correct, likely expresses this in a more general way. The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic/Canaanite idiom, referring to gods/deity generally, but also specifically in relation to the Creator °El (the “Mighty One”). In the subsequent development of Israelite monotheism, there was no place for any other deities, and the concept shifted to heavenly beings simply as servants or “Messengers” (i.e. angels) of YHWH (the Creator, identified with °El).

Indeed, what we see in vv. 8-9 is this contrast played out as a key theological principle: (a) the nations and their ‘deities’ (distinct from the Creator YHWH), and (b) Israel who belongs to YHWH. Note the chiasm in verse 8 when the LXX/Qumran reading is adopted:

    • The Highest (±Elyôn)
      • the nations [70]
        • separating the sons of man (ethnicity)
        • setting boundaries for the people (territory)
      • the sons (of God) [trad. 70]
    • The Mightiest (°Elœhîm)

While this is the situation for the other peoples, for Israel it is different (v. 9)—they have a direct relationship with the Creator YHWH:

    • YHWH’s (own) portion [µ¢leq]
      • Israel (“His people”) / Jacob
    • His (own) property measured out [µe»el naµ­¦lâ]

And it is this relationship that is expounded in verses 10ff.

Verses 10-14

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

    • 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 open land,
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, 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 tœhû (WhT)) 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 open land,
      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 mi¼b¹r (rB*d=m!) 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) tœhû (“formless, cf. above), (b) y®l¢l (“howling”), and (c) y®šîmœn (“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 [°îšôn] of his eye“.

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 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 (´¹d¹y) 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): “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, 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 [b¹¼¹¼]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [°ên] with Him [±immô]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [°E~l]

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 study, but it is worth considering verses 15-18, at least briefly, in this light.

Verses 15-18

If verses 10-11 essentially describe the Exodus, and verses 13-14 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 will touch upon the question further in the next study. 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)

As in verse 14e (also 15b), the sudden shift from third person (“he/they”) to second person address (“you”) is striking, and serves as a reminder of the poem’s stated purpose (within Deuteronomy) as an instruction (and warning) to future generations of Israelites. 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 ‘powers’ (that are) not Mighty,
      • (but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them”

The first bicolon has a precise synonymous parallelism, with two ways of saying that the people provoked YHWH with foreign/pagan religious behavior, described by the euphemisms “strange (thing)s” (z¹rîm) and “disgusting things” (tô±¢»œ¾). The second bicolon builds on the first, explaining the behavior 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 deities or divine powers generally, corresponding more or less with the Greek daimœn (dai/mwn). 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.

With these thoughts in mind, I would ask that you read through the remainder of the poem, examining the language and imagery, the progression of thought and expression, most carefully. In the next study, I hope to provide a survey of verses 19-42 in light of the section we have studied here (especially verses 15-18). We will focus on several verses and lines in more detail, again illustrating how a sound critical approach to Scripture helps give us a much more thorough understanding of the text as it has come down to us.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

Deuteronomy 32:1-43

This week we continue the previous discussion of the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, where we looked at the passage from the standpoint of textual criticism. Now we move into other areas of analysis—form, source, and historical criticism.

Form Criticism

The “Song of Moses” is a poem, and, as poetry, represents a distinct form (and genre) in comparison with the surrounding material (forms of narrative prose, etc). It essentially follows the style and pattern of much early Hebrew poetry, as preserved in the Pentateuch and other historical books, as well as in the earlier layers of the Psalms. It also shares many features in common with ancient Near Eastern (especially Canaanite) religious poetry. The poetic texts from Ugarit (14th-13th cent. B.C.) provide a rich source for comparison with the oldest Hebrew poems in the Scriptures, of which the “Song of Moses” is a clear example.

We find here two primary features characteristic of early Hebrew poetry: (1) a bicolon format and meter with three beats (or stress units), and (2) linguistic and thematic parallelism in each line (bicolon). On the first item, even if you do not read Hebrew, you can see the 3:3 bicolon format presented clearly in modern editions of the text. The half-lines (cola) are set side by side; for example, here are the opening lines (first three verses) in Hebrew, followed by the same text in transliteration:

You should be able to see the three stress-units in each half line (colon), often visible as three words; this meter in a bicolon format is typically indicated as 3:3.

The second characteristic mentioned above is parallelism; that is, the second half line (colon) is parallel to the first, restating the idea or image, with some variation or difference in emphasis. This can be seen in an English translation of the first four bicola (vv. 1-3, see above):

    • “Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
      —and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth!
    • Let my instruction drip as rain-fall,
      —let my speech trickle down as dew-cover,
    • As showers upon the sprouting grass,
      —as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants.
    • For the name of YHWH I call (out)
      —(You) set (out) greatness for our God!”

There are different sorts of parallelism. Most common is synonymous parallelism, where the second half-line is more or less equivalent in form and meaning to the first. This properly characterizes the first three bicola above. Often the parallelism extends to each of the three elements (or stress units) in order. I indicate this by color-coding the first line and adding the Hebrew (in transliteration):

    • Give ear [ha°¦zînû], O heavens [haš¹mayim], and I will open to speak [w~°¦¼abb¢râ],
      and hear [w®¾išma±], O earth [h¹°¹reƒ], the words of my mouth [°imrê-¸î]!

The fourth bicolon above is an example of synthetic parallelism, where the second half-line builds upon the first, intensifying the thought, and, occasionally, pointing in a slightly different direction—”I call the name of YHWH”, and so you, also, must “set/give greatness to our God”! The third type of parallelism, antithetic—i.e. the second half-line making an opposite (though related) point from the first—is rather rare in the poem; an example would be verse 27b:

    • “Lest they say, ‘Our hand raised (this)’
      —and ‘It is not YHWH (who) has done all this (work)’!”

The formal structure/meter and parallelism, when applied consistently throughout a poem (as here in Deut 32), actually proves quite useful for commentators and textual critics, since it allows them to detect places where the text, as it has come down to us, may be confused or corrupt. A disruption in the poetic pattern can be an indication of possible corruption (see the previous discussion on verse 43). Caution is required in this area of analysis, however, since poetry is not always absolutely consistent, and a poet may, on occasion, break or bend the rules to achieve a certain effect.

For Christians who read the Scriptures largely (or entirely) in translation, there is a tendency to focus on the underlying message of text, rather than the form and style in which the message is expressed. And yet, the form and style are important, and cannot be ignored. If the inspired author and/or speaker made use of poetry, this is certainly significant, and is, in fact, fundamental to the meaning of the passage. However, many poetic elements and characteristics (in Hebrew poetry, especially) are almost impossible to preserve in an English translation, without seriously distorting the sense of the text. These features include wordplay, assonance (i.e. similar sounding words), alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme. A couple examples of alliterative wordplay are (note the bold italics):

    • V. 17a:
      yizb®hû laš¢¼îm lœ° °§lœah °§lœhîm lœ° y®¼¹±ûm
      “they sacrificed to spirits (that are) not-God(s),
      (to) Gods they did not know”
    • V. 21a:
      h¢m qin°ûnî »®lœ°-°¢l ki±¦sûnî b®ha»lêhem
      “they provoked me (to jealousy) with (what is) not-God,
      (and) provoked me (to anger) with their empty-breaths”

Many other examples could be given; an instance of end rhythm/rhyme can be seen in verse 2b (above):

    • ki´±îrim ±¦lê-¼eše°
      w®½ir»î»îm ±¦lê-±¢´e»
      “As showers upon the sprouting grass,
      and as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants”

All of this becomes lost in translation, but it is important to keep such things in mind, and to study these features as part of the passage, as far as it is possible for you to do so. The wordplay and alliteration in vv. 17a and 21a (above) is used to make an ironic contrast, and to drive home a vital point. Moreover, the various instances of rhythm, rhyme, and assonance, etc, apart from their artistic significance, were valuable as a way to help people learn and transmit the poem. If you read Hebrew at all, I am confident that careful study of these poetic details in the text will help you learn it better as well.

Next week, we will continue on, examining the poem in terms of source- and historical-criticism. In preparation, you should study chapters 31 and 32 in context. Does anything you find in the Song of Moses surprise you in light of its place within the structure of the book? What are the key themes and how are they expressed in comparison with the rest of the (prose) narrative? Keep these things in mind as you study the text…and I will see you next Saturday.