Sibble Saturday: Swan Song (Deuteronomy 32:1–32:52)

Sorry, I’ve been on the road! I should have written this up and slotted it out to go before I set out, but I didn’t.

We are in the penultimate parsha—pretty soon we’ll get to Joshua. This one’s another short one, with פָּרָשַׁת האזינו (“Listen” portion) consisting of a mere 43 verses of poetry with 9 more of narrative.

The quick snarky summary: I’ll forget that assimilation and exile are in the future, and talk in the past tense about how the Israelites, having achieved plenty and contentment, rebelled against God and were punished for it.

The text of this section is variously called a song, or a poem, or a hymn, or otherwise described in terms which identify it as sacred verse. In the Torah text, it’s actually written in a verse-style block, and in addition it makes a greater use of what would be regarded as rhetorical devices and flowery language than is typically associated with prose. So while the actual versification might be best-described as “free”, these 43 verses unambiguously qualify as, and are read as, poetry.

It opens with an invocation of the supernatural: this isn’t quite the call to the muse of Greek or Roman verse, but rather a participatory element, calling out to the audience, exhorting heaven and earth to listen in silence. The symbolism of heaven and earth receives some metaphorical intensification by way of the description of the song’s lesson as “rain” or “dew”, which both historically and presently form a connection between heavenly water and the earth.

For two verses this song looks like a hymn of praise to God, but it takes an abrupt right-turn in verse five, where it becomes clear that God’s perfection is only being mentioned as a foil to the iniquity of the house of Israel. Ingratitude is going to be theV theme, which seems an odd conceit for a hymn, but it’s about par for the course for Deuteronomy generally, which can’t go very many verses without discussing how horrible the Israelites are.

That having been said, verses 7–14 take on a lavish tone rich with metaphors and pleasantly free of castigation in describing the background of the Israelites. The image of God as an eagle sheltering his people with his wings is particularly striking, and the enumeration of the resources and luxuries provided by the land indeed gets the point of God’s generosity across.

Despite the focus on these verses, I must confess I have no idea what specific generation(s) they are meant to be speaking about. The reference to “days of old” in a song narrated to the generation of the Exodus would presumably speak of the patriarchs, and of God’s favoring them with fortune. Verse 10 particularly would seem to refer to Abraham. However, as a song written in the Assyrian exile to the Jews of that generation, the “days of old” would have been the generations in possession of Israel, which, notably, postdate the ostensible writing of this song by Moses. While an allusion to the patriarchal story may be intentional, a Deuteronomy-era authorship could also be, primarily, the tale of the Israelite state.

You might ask why, however, other than for dodgy point-scoring purposes against the Deuteronomical revisionists, I would ascribe to these verses a specific achronological meaning when there’s a more suitable one? Well, the patriarchial idea might describe verses 7–14, but from verse 15 on the chronology runs off the rails as a retrospective, because verse 15 describes a rebellion (notably addressed in the second person to an entity called ישרון, who is thus associated with the Israeilites) against God and a worship of oother supernatural creatures. And this particular crime (detailed in the past tense), certainly does not describe an episode from the time of the patriarchs’ acquisition of wealth and plenty. It doesn’t even describe an episode from the Egyptian exile, the Exodus, or the wanderings in the Wilderness, unless you count the worship of Peor back in Numbers 25. And that wouldn’t work either, because the narrative in the story is of Israel brought down from their good fortune in consequence of their sin. And the Numbers 25 incident wasn’t consequential that way: they had been wandering in the desert, brought out of Egypt, and had yet to acquire the wealth of Canaan.

So basically the only reading of verses 15–25 is as a narrative of Israel’s exile from Canaan, which, in the primary narrative, is yet to come. This would come in the general category of “cheap-shot pseudo-prophecy” that I’ve mentioned all too much of in Deuteronomy, although one thing that strikes me as odd is that it’s presented, unlike all the other prophecies of expulsion from the land for idolworship, in the past tense. We have definitely climbed down the ladder of uncertainty as regards these prophecies. Early in Deuteronomy, the message was “if you worship other gods, you will be expelled from Canaan and made to suffer”; midway through it had become “you will worship other gods, you will be expelled from Canaan, and you will suffer”. By now the exile is so certain that it’s being presented as if it had already happened.

The actual text of the misfortunes to be piled upon the Israelites is the usual set of physical calamities: conquest, famine, drought, lightning, wild beasts, snakes, slaughter, the usual. The litany of terrors is notable mostly for an effective use of antithesis in the justification in verse 21, where Israel’s preference for a “non-God” is viewed as justification for God’s preference for a “non-people”, and their provocation with idols will be matched with provocation by conquest. Actually, those first two phrases, “בלא-אל” and “בלא-עם” are a bit tricky to translate well, since while those suffixes are “God” and “people” respectively, and the negation of the first is “things-that-are-not-Gods” (i.e. idols), the second, as an object of God’s favor, is a bit difficult to parse except by way of the parallelism to the first part.

Verses 26–33 are peculiarly humorous, providing God’s justification for not completely destroying Israel: he doesn’t want the other nations to credit themselves with the destruction, so instead, he will make the Israelites supernaturally defatigable, to impress upon the other nations his power (and, uh, his assholish capriciousness. I mean, would you want this dude on your side?). There’s also another reference to Sodom and Gomorrah as the source of all iniquity. Incidentally, the significance of Sodom and Gomorrah in Israelite thought as the standard example of sin and destruction through sin is probably worthy of inverstigation. It was certainly not regarded as so by the authors of the first four books: the account of them in Genesis is strictly quasi-historical, not metonymical, and they are absent completely from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers despite ample references to sin therein. At some time between the authorship of the pre-Deuteronomic texts and Deuteronomy, Sodom became a symbol above and beyond the simple story of its destruction.

Verses 34–43 appear to be authentically meant as prophetic, inasmuch as they describe events which not only had not occurred by the time of Moses’s song, but also hadn’t occurred by the time of the authorship of the text. These verses describe a re-emergence of Israel, reclaiming of their land, and revenge on their enemies. That’s a pretty encouraging note for the exilic community, although unless you count the modern state of Israel, it hasn’t quite panned out that way. That’s the nice thing about prophecies, though; you can always say that they’re about a later time, and I’m pretty sure the standard reading of thiese verses these days is in fact eschatological. Me, I figure they’re just a much-needed morale boost, a kind of Zionistic “It Gets Better” video.

After the end of the song, we get a few verses of narrative, which provide rather less grist for exploration. Verse 44–47 basically provide a frame for the verse, saying that the verse was read to the people with an exhortation to remember it, while verses 48–52 are really a segue into the next parsha (the last parsha!), where Moses dies. So here God is telling Moses about dying: the where (up a mountain), when (real soon now), and why (dodgy justification involving hitting a rock).

Next week: Windy bastard dies! Joshua takes over! Torah scroll runs out of paper!


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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