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).
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:
- 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.
- 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 
- 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.
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),
- 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]
- 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.
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.