Studying Deuteronomy 32 3-6, 10-14, 18

This week, we’re looking more closely at some of the verses of the longer “song of Moses” or Ha’azinu [“listen in”], Deuteronomy 32:1-43. We are focusing on verses 3-6, 10-14, and 18. Probably not coincidentally, this is also the Torah portion for the coming Shabbat, which falls between Yom Kippur (October 4-5) and Sukkot (October 9-16). Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Last week we were at the beginning of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, with the story of the birth and rescue of Moses. This week, we’re almost at the end of the Israelites’ long journey, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. That is, nearing the end of Moses’ reprise of the contents of the covenant, along with his review of the events of the entire trip, for the benefit of those who hadn’t personally experienced much or any of it. Namely, the generation of Israelites born in the wilderness.

As it stands, the song – which takes up most of Deuteronomy 32 – extols the wonderful care bestowed on Israel by God, and the inexplicable ingratitude and bad behavior of Israel in the face of it. Why have a text like that at the beginning of a good thing? Maybe as a warning – don’t let this happen to you! A last-ditch effort to get the people to see things rightly, and avert catastrophe. This is the point Moses emphasizes in verses 46-47.

The narrative introduction to the poem comes earlier, in Deuteronomy 31:16-22, where God instructs Moses to write out “this song” and “teach it to the Israelites.” Thus, the words of the song Moses recites are presented as God’s words, not as Moses’ original composition.

Following the recitation of the song, Moses gets yet another announcement of his impending death from Adonai, blesses the tribes of Israel minus Simeon and Issachar, ascends Mt. Nebo, looks out over the promised land, and dies. The Israelites mourn, Joshua takes over, and the book of Deuteronomy ends with an epitaph for Moses (Deuteronomy 32:10-12).

This makes this long, poetic section of Deuteronomy 32 a vital part of the conclusion of the Torah.

The issue of the history of the text is taken up by Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh, in “Moses Wrote Down This Song, Deuteronomy 31:22 – Which Song?” This is an interesting close look at how the history of the text of Deuteronomy, thought to reflect the historical experience of the Jewish people, may play a role in the shape of the song as we have it. Yoreh offers a reconstruction of the original song – which he thinks focuses more on the goodness of the land than on its loss.

Robert Alter comments that the poem itself is clearly extremely old, perhaps from as early as the period of the Judges (so, maybe even 11th c BCE). This also makes it hard to translate, both because some of the words are obscure, and because some of the text seems to have become garbled in [long centuries of] transmission. We have the text we have.

The location for all of Deuteronomy is the plains of Moab across from the Jordan river [map here].

Ha’azinu is not in the lectionary for reading in church, so we wouldn’t know this long poem was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, take note.

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CLOSER READING: Our focus skips the first two introductory verses, which set the tone for the whole with a solemn invocation of the heavens and earth as witnesses to the entire recitation, in very formal language.

We start reading with verses 3 and 4, which extol the greatness of God. God is a Rock, maybe in the sense of an impregnable fortress. The word “rock” repeats throughout the poem, a perfect number 7 of times.

The “perfection” of God’s deeds can mean “blameless” – that is, God is perfect here specifically in the sense that people’s bad behavior is not God’s fault. Because God is entirely just, true, righteous, and upright.

[V4 might raise the perennial, but also actually pointless, question of whether God is “bound” by some standard of morality, or not. Pointless, because presumably God’s intrinsic nature is love, justice, truth, etc., such that whatever divine activity proceeds from that nature simply proceeds from and with those qualities. Imagining that there could be a split in God between externally- and internally-derived morality is an illusory projection of a specifically human problem onto the divine. This doesn’t address the problem we sometimes have of running into parts of Scripture where we think God is doing bad things, or anyhow, things of which we disapprove. It’s just to say that the way we try to deal with that problem sometimes, by wondering whether God is or isn’t “answerable to God’s own moral standard,” is a silly way to frame the problem, and doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.]

V5 is tricky. Alter translates “Did He act ruinously? No, his sons’ the fault – a perverse and twisted brood.” The two adjectives in the second line both seem to mean “twisted” or, as we might say, “screwed up.” The second one only occurs once in the Bible, here in this verse.

V6 is clearer: This is how you-all pay God back? As in “This is the thanks God gets?!”

[The verses we skip, vv7-9, include what seems to have been an original reference to God’s apportioning the earth’s peoples “according to the number of the gods.” In that context, God’s choosing Israel as God’s special portion reflects special affection for Israel. That doesn’t sit well with folks who think that the Israelites were strict monotheists from the very very beginning of their national life. Despite other evidence in the text itself that they probably weren’t. That discomfort with the historical development of religious ideas may explain why the Masoretic text now reads “according to the number of the sons of Israel,” even though that language doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But, we’re skipping those verses.]

Vv10-14 are a beautiful evocation of God’s providential care. God finds Israel in a “desert” land (“desert” translating the word usually translated “wilderness”); in line 2, literally in a “howling empty waste” – the same kind of emptiness or “void” as in Genesis 1:2.

NRSV’s “cared for” in line 3 is literally a kind of wise instruction, related to Hebrew binah, understanding, one of the mystical divine attributes. Others translate “instructed him.” Which, of course, IS a kind of care.

The image of the eagle caring for “its” or “his” nestlings is textually-grammatically masculine, but feels really maternal.

As is the nursing or suckling on rock (“this Rock, his deeds are perfect”) in v13.

V14 is all about fat, yummy food – the wheat is literally the “kidneys” of wheat, which Rashi says were kernels as big as kidneys, but which NRSV gives us as “choicest.” Really GOOD food. Also, really GOOD wine.

In v18, the “bore you” in the first line could, conceivably [pun!], be “begot you,” but not the “writhing in childbirth” of the second line. It makes more sense just to go with the explicit maternal imagery here.

Sometimes we forget just how much is actually IN the Bible. (That gets harder, though, if we actually read it.)

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Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Date palms, Tall el-Hammam, Jordan,” Deg777, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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