The great poem at the end of the Torah addresses the disappointment we have with life, the world, with cosmic injustice. The poem addresses a specific people with a particular history — namely the children of Israel during the beginning of the Babylonian exile. The premise is that God, the Father of his children Israel, is faithful in covenant and justice and that his Jewish children are unfaithful, ruining and preventing the beautiful promise. This is the tragedy of human history (not just Jewish history). Nonetheless the song will go on to teach that God’s redemptive love will triumph, so that betrayal is not the last word.
Using the techniques of poetry — evoking emotion, making surprising reversals, evoking beauty and terror with metaphors — this Ha’azinu poem (with “ha’azinu” meaning “give ear”) explains Israel’s downfall. It justifies the ways of God, who is actually “the Rock,” flawless, morally in the right, loyal and dependable, true and good. It calls the people flawed, twisted, and indicts them for wrongly seeking recompense against God as if he had betrayed them. The poem will be specific to Israel’s history and predicament, but through it modern readers will detect some answers about Gods ways that apply to the general human condition.
Introduction of Ha’azinu, calling witnesses and declaring praise as the purpose (1-3), the main point of the song: Israel’s faithlessness and God’s faithfulness (4-6).
The purpose of this poem is to explain Israel’s downfall in light of the optimistic promises of the covenant. The poem has in mind the entire history of Israel reflected in Joshua through 2 Kings, so that the poem is actually speaking to the generation in exile. The author of the poem may be D, the author of Deuteronomy, or someone else whose poem is inserted here either by D or a later editor of the Torah.
The first line uses a verb form known as the cohortative, which some translations ignore, and could be translated, “Give ear, O heavens, so that I may speak, so that the earth will hear the words of my mouth.” Similarly, vs. 2 uses a jussive form and could be rendered, “May my teaching drop like the rain, my words come forth like the dew, like drizzle on the grass, like rainfall on herbs.” Thus, the first two lines have a permissive tone, expressing a desire. The author asks heavens to listen and conveys a wish that the reader will receive the message like the earth welcomes the rain. The effect of this rhetorical opening is to create a sense for the reader that the message which follows is something very important to the author and potentially important to the reader as well.
Vs. 3 gives a reason for the importance of the message and the strong sentiment of the author. The pathos in the author’s words is due to the topic which turns out to be no less than שֵׁם יְהוָה (shem Adonai, the name of Adonai). “Name” here means “character.” The author will be addressing Israel’s experience with the God of the covenant, an experience that has largely been about disappointment, and will explain God’s actions in order to justify them.
Vss. 4-6 explain God’s character by placing it beside an unflattering portrait of the people. God is הַצּוּר (hatzur, the Rock). The people are known by מוּמָם (mumam, their flaw) and being עִקֵּשׁ (‘iqeish, twisted). God is flawless, morally in the right, loyal and dependable, true and good. The circumstances in which Israel and Judah have found themselves are not because of any twisting in God’s ways or blemish in his character. All of the twisting and flaws belong with the people. Vs. 5 is notoriously difficult to translate due to an obscure syntax, but could be rendered, “The not-his-children caused ruin for him, their flaw, a generation twisted and crooked.”
Vs. 6 addresses the readers with a question about their attitude. “Is it against Adonai that you seek recompense, O foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father who created you, who formed you and established you?” The author is experiencing the pain and confusion of exile along with the readers. Do we blame God or ourselves, is his simple question. The rest of the poem will make the case.
Two images in this portion of the Ha’azinu poem depict God in extremely personal terms. Out of the seventy nations God delighted in the children of Israel as his “portion.” And in a waste of a howling desert, God the mother eagle picked Israel up, adopted him, and set him on the heights.
The idea of the children of Israel being God’s portion is an inheritance metaphor. As a young man enjoys looking over his inheritance and treasures it as his own, so God surveys the nations and treasures Israel as his very own. The connection is intensely personal.
The image of a mother eagle adopting an orphaned nestling found in the desert is a striking metaphor for God’s personal history with the children of Israel. The fierce love of a mother for a vulnerable child may seem unfitting as a description of the love a powerful God has for his people. The Torah and prophets depict God’s jealous love in the most emotional of terms.
Therefore, as the poem will go on to say, the impact of Israel’s betrayal and disloyalty is all the more grievous to God. From his perspective, this relationship is deeply felt, a motherly affection which the children have spurned. If the original audience of this poem found themselves in a bitter experience of exile, they are being called on to empathize with God’s hurt and pain. He is the rejected deity, the spurned mother, the father refused.
God established Israel for blessing on the earth (7-9), God and no idols rescued and raised up Israel (10-12).
In this section of the Ha’azinu poem, the author begins justifying the ways of God. The people are in exile when this poem is written. The curses of Torah have been their experience. But the author has insisted that God is the Rock, true and good in all his ways. How can this be so?
To begin the journey of showing the goodness of God, the author asks us to remember the early times, when Israel was young. Vs. 8 depicts history following plans ordained invisibly by God. The nations were assigned their places. The number of nations, according to the Torah, matches the number of Israel in those days. This is a reference to the seventy who entered Egypt with Jacob (Exodus 1:5) and the seventy nations (Genesis 10:1-32). The point the author is making is that Israel was so important to God he predestined the number of the children of Israel to match exactly the number of nations. And the children of Israel were God’s “portion,” the segment of humanity he has the closest relationship with.
Interestingly, vs. 10 describes the beginnings of God’s care for the Israelites as finding them in a “waste of a howling desert.” This image does not fit with God coming to the aid of the Israelites in Egypt, which was an irrigated land. The author is not referring literally to the landscape where Israel lived at the time, but is developing a metaphor of an eagle finding an orphaned nestling and adopting it. Vs. 12 makes explicit the reason Israel should be loyal to Adonai: no other god was there when Israel was rescued, adopted, and cared for.