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.
“He nursed him with honey from a rock.” Good comes from the unlikeliest places. Even the seemingly desolate places on earth have potential to provide a bounty of goodness. Our desire for security and abundance causes us anxiety, but we can be sustained from a supply that even seems hidden. Sometimes we look at the landscape and it appears bleak. But the world is not as barren as it appears. God’s goodness is in it, as if there were honey in the rocks.
Moses’ poem describes the habitat of a desert bird of prey, the “eagle that stirs up its nest” (vs. 11). This habitat might seem to the eye to lack resources. Yet the eagle feeds its young and they thrive. God is the eagle and the land of Israel us the semi-desert region from which he will sustain the people of Israel.
Compared to Egypt in its wealth and luxury, this harsh land seems a precarious place to make a home. In years of famine the whole land becomes a desert. But with the blessing of God, there are streams in the desert and the wilderness becomes a pool. The covenant with Israel turns the semi-arid steppe land into a paradise of vegetation and life.
It is not that you or I have a guarantee that our landscape will keep us supplied and filled. We live by the same laws of human existence, with all the uncertainty of life before us, that everyone else does. But there is a general principle that when our soul is satisfied, when we have joy and wholeness through our insight into God’s nature, we are able to see the honey in the rock. The world is a place overflowing with goodness and its supply never runs out. Even in harsh times, beauty is all around us.
God, like an eagle, brought Israel, his young, to a highland paradise (13-14), the so-called upright [Jeshurun], Israel, grew spoiled and rotten (13-18).
As a mother eagle who adopts a nestling found in a howling desert, so God brought the children of Israel up to a beautiful place and nurtured them with great care. In the mountain ridges that form the spine of the land of Canaan, eagles are a common sight.
As for the food with which God fed the Israelites, the eagle simile is set aside for a more realistic description of the produce of the land: honey, olive oil, yogurt, cheese, milk, meat, bread, and wine. Bashan (the Golan region today) is rich volcanic soil and excellent for cattle. “Finest wheat” is literally “kidneys of the wheat,” causing the rabbis to declare that in the world to come there will be grains of wheat the size of kidneys.
Jeshurun (יְשֻׁרוּן) is an ironic name. From the word straight or upright, it sounds a bit like Israel in Hebrew (Yeshurun and Yisrael). Far from upright, Israel grew spoiled, according to the prophetic poem looking ahead to the falling away of the nation from God. With such a rich land, the people forgot God and sought idols, gods who are really nothing and who did not bring them to these highlands of paradise. Perhaps the most poignant image is when Moses says, “You neglected the Rock who begot you.” Since the dominant image has been of God as a mother eagle, “begot” here suggests a mother giving birth (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary).
“For a fire has kindled in my wrath and burned down to lower Sheol.” God expresses anger with the same exaggerated intensity we do when we are betrayed. He is the spurned husband whose wife has found other lovers. He is a father whose children have abandoned him.
Vs. 21 is a carefully worded poetic expression: “They antagonized me with no-gods, vexed me with nobodies; so I will antagonize them with a nothing-people and provoke them with a fool-nation.”
Betrayal has worn God’s compassion raw. He lashes out with words of anger. But then he stops himself. “I would have cut them in pieces, wiped them out from human memory, except for the taunt of the enemy.” God has a reason for not taking ultimate vengeance. He chose Israel to begin with to show the rest of humanity how a relationship with God works. If he destroys them, what would the lesson be?
Elsewhere in the Bible we find that God’s “wrath” does not fully consume the people he wants to save. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim?” (Hosea 11:8). “The Lord will not cast off forever, but though he causes grief he will act with compassion” (Lamentations 3:21-22). “Adonai will rise up . . . to do his work [of punishment] — alien is his work!” (Isaiah 28:21). “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God . . . her time of penalty has ended” (Isaiah 40:1). “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for his own sake,” (Isaiah 43:25).
The wrath statements of God need to be seen in their full context. He communicates his emotion as one betrayed by those he loves. He feels deeply and loathes the pain caused by human greed and violence. Just like us he speaks about his anger in unrestrained hyperbole (“a fire has kindled in my wrath and burned to the lower regions of hell!”). But his compassion is greater than his vengeance. The overall message of Moses’ Ha’azinu poem (Deuteronomy 32) is not Israel’s destruction. It is about how hope will follow a long period of exile and separation. “Adonai will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (vs. 36).
God’s decision to punish Israel (19-25), punishment limited by covenant relationship (26-28).
Vss. 19-25 are about God’s decision to punish Israel (following the previous section, vss. 15-18, on Israel’s disloyalty). God is vexed and will hide his countenance, which means he will withhold favor. Being hidden, God will appear to Israel to have abandoned them.
How will Israel know to follow God if his Presence is withdrawn? The author has repeatedly suggested that the written Torah (his own book, Deuteronomy) is there for Israel even if the divine Presence is obscure. Furthermore, if the people as a whole follow his Torah, his Presence will draw nearer and redemption will be close at hand.
Vss. 26-28 begin a section (vss. 26-42) on God’s reasons for limiting Israel’s punishment. The reason is described in terms of God caring what Israel’s enemies might think. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, God’s ways with Israel are revelation to all people about the value of knowing God. Second, God has a covenant relationship with Israel and he does not abandon it even when Israel abandons him.
The enemy thinks it’s own strength has defeated Israel (29-30), Israel’s Rock vs. the “rock” the nations look to (31), God will punish Israel’s enemies so his Name will not be maligned (32-35), let the idols help the nations (36-38), there is no God beside Adonai (39).
If the violent nations, Babylon and its allies that laid waste to Jerusalem, were more thoughtful and perceptive about the meaning of all these events they would ask, “How did we defeat Judah so easily? How did two put ten thousand to flight?” But instead they thought their gods made them invulnerable.
There is no god but me, says Adonai. I gave Judah up. It all happened according to the words of my covenant with Israel.
Meanwhile the rulers and people of the murderous lands are like Sodom and Gomorrah, getting drunk on wine that is poison. I am storing up a vintage for them, a scarlet wine of recompense. They will drink from their own cup in due time, as do all who rely on violence.
There is no god beside me, says Deuteronomy 32. No other gods are making things happen in history. God alone acts in the world from above. Therefore, vs. 39 speaks of a kind of monotheism not delineated so clearly again until Isaiah 40. The opening clause of vs. 39 could be rendered literally, “See now that I, I am he.” In the great game of powers and dominion in history, God alone brings about decisive change.
Vs. 43 is one of the greatest examples of changes made to the text of the Bible by well-intentioned scribes who sadly were unwilling to preserve the wilder words of the ancient writers. “O nations, rejoice over his people!” says the present form of the most influential text of the Bible (the Masoretic text, the Hebrew edition transmitted by early medieval scribes in the land of Israel which is the basis of most Christian and all Jewish Bibles).
But multiple lines of evidence let us know that there once existed a more controversial text. Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy, spells out the evidence that the Masoretic scribes altered this verse, removing controversial features and replacing them with a shorter, safer reading.
A copy of Deuteronomy found among the Dead Sea Scrolls version reads, “O heavens, rejoice with him; bow to him, all divinities.” The Septuagint, also known as the LXX or Greek version, reads: “O heavens, rejoice with him; bow to him all sons of the divine.” Tigay also points to some commentary by Saadia Ga’on (who lived after the Masoretic scribes) to show that this “uncensored” ancient reading was still in existence afterward in some Hebrew texts.
In order to eliminate the troubling reference to other divinities besides the God of Israel, the Masoretic scribes changed “heavens” to “nations.” They altered “rejoice with him,” replacing it with “acclaim his people.” And they completely omitted the line about divinities (elohim) or sons of the divine (b’nei elohim).
Why did this verse bother the scribes so much? After all, other famous verses of Torah posit the existence of divinities other than Israel’s God (“Who is like you, O Adonai, among the gods?” says Exodus 15:11). Perhaps it is because Deuteronomy has chosen a different manner of expressing God’s unique divinity.
Verses like Exodus 15:11 operate with a low definition of divinity, something like “supernatural beings whose abilities transcend human potential.” But Deuteronomy operates with a higher definition in verses such as 4:35 (“Adonai, he is God; there is no other”). The definition in Deuteronomy is something like “the greater-than-whom none exists.” Perhaps the scribes felt it unfitting that one of the last and greatest sections of the Torah should go back to a low definition of deity.
But what Deuteronomy seems to be doing is not denying the existence of other divine beings. Rather the author seems to regard them as real, but lesser beings. God alone acts in history. Events in the human sphere happen according to the will of God. Even terrible wars and suffering happen under the supervision of the one and only God who made all that exists. “See now that I, I am he,” says Adonai, “there is no God beside me.”
The other so-called divinities are not like him. They are children of God also, sons of Elohim. They and the nations who worship them can only watch what God makes happen and either rejoice or rebel.
God’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies (40-42), celebration of the bond between God and Israel (43).
God raises his hand, which is a gesture of taking an oath. This is confirmed by the second half of vs. 40 since “as I live” is an oath formula. The oath God takes is to use his “flashing blade” to avenge Israel. God will slay chiefs of enemy peoples as a warrior who defeats entire nations.
Vs. 43 is the conclusion of the entire song of Moses. It is one of the most interesting verses in the Torah because of the variant readings in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint (along with 32:8). It is quite possible, even likely, that at a late date, the Masoretic family of texts (from which we get our Hebrew Bibles in use today) changed vs. 43. The reading in the Dead Sea scrolls begins: “O heavens, rejoice with him; bow to him, all divinities.” In the Septuagint: “O heavens, rejoice with him; bow to him all sons of the divine.” The Masoretic text changes heavens to nations, “rejoice with him” to “acclaim his people,” and omits the line about divinities (elohim) or sons of the divine (b’nei elohim).
Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) suggests that the Masoretic scribes were troubled by the idea that God shared rule over the nations with angelic princes (an idea affirmed in Daniel anyway). The idea also could be taken to imply that it is proper for nations to worship other gods besides Adonai. Tigay cites many other sources, even as late as Saadia Ga’on in the eleventh century, as evidence that the reading with “heavens” and “divinities” continued to exist in some texts of Deuteronomy. Vs. 43 helps us understand that our text is not perfect, that some limited amount of scribal interference has affected the text of our Bibles.
“You must die on this mountain you are ascending.” For what did Moses’ life end so tragically?
The story is told in Numbers 20:7-12 and referred to multiple times in Deuteronomy. The incident of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water in the desert led to a final and harsh penalty. Theories abound regarding the crime of Moses. Jacob Milgrom in his Numbers commentary (in the JPS series) lists eleven of them.
It is important to note that Moses’ offensive act comes in a succession of rebellions of the people and even those who should be leaders (namely, the Levites in the Korah rebellion). Milgrom’s opinion, from among the eleven proposed theories, is that Moses spoke as if he were doing the miracle with God. Milgrom explains that God’s power has been aiding Israel in many ways and that Moses has been involved in the display of God’s power. God would tell Moses to speak, to raise his staff, or to make some other visible or audible sign that the miracle would commence. The purpose of involving Moses was to show the people that what was about to happen was according to the word of Adonai and was in fact a miracle (as opposed to a natural event).
But in the ancient world people believed in magic, that gods and even humans could manipulate the elements with ritual acts or combinations of words. Moses began to believe, so the theory goes, that his actions were necessary to the divine miracles — that he and God were doing them together. So Moses said in Numbers 20:10, “Shall WE bring water from this rock for you?”
This is more than a minor falsehood. The idea of human magical participation in divine supernatural acts goes against the very goal of God’s raising up a new generation in Israel to enter the land with utter faith in his blessing. God is training a people to exit the worldview of idols and magic and to be enlightened to understand transcendence and the complete authority of the One God in the world. God does not yet expect a pure monotheism from the people, but he is teaching it to them.
Moses is supposed to have a higher understanding, but to God’s utter disappointment, even he, Moses, has failed to rise above the limitations of the ancient belief system. God’s decree against Moses is a lesson for him and for others. The severity of the penalty speaks to us about the importance of the error. If the falsehood of the magical worldview bothers God that much, what do we learn from it? The story speaks to us about the unique transcendence of God and the total impotence of all other powers. There is no force, magical or otherwise, to which God is subject. The pains and tragedies of this life seem to be supreme, unconquerable. Is evil absolute or is God?
Moses recites Ha’azinu and exhorts Israel to follow Torah (44-47), God lets Moses see the land from Nebo, where he will die (48-52).
The author places the poem in the fictitious setting of Moses’ time, as if Moses sang it to the Israelites on the edge of the land. In reality this poem has been written as an explanation, in terms of the covenant with God, of the circumstances in which the people found themselves just after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
It is not a “trifling thing” (דָבָר רֵק davar reiq, “empty word”), Moses assures them, but the Torah is “your life.” Once again, as Deuteronomy incessantly declares, keeping the terms of the covenant and living by them is the way for the children of Israel to experience supernaturally long and easy life in a utopian land.
But in this fictitious setting, the author chooses to immediately bring Moses into focus as soon as his narrative job is done. “On that very day,” says the author, God instructed Moses to climb Mt. Nebo and accept his death.
The frustration and sadness of Moses’ life is poignant. Human life is often failure and not success. Moses is an example of missed potential. Though he did much good, at the end of his life, he missed the goal, paying a large price for his failure of character in one particular incident.
Furthermore, the Moses depicted by Deuteronomy knows in advance that Israel will not follow the Torah and will come into exile and gloom. History is full of such sadness and missed glory. So Moses life ends with a bitter consolation, as he sees the land but cannot enter it, giving up his life on the edge of the bountiful land.