This poem is showing an awareness that Paul will articulate later in the letter to the Romans that not all Israel is Israel. Even within the covenant people of God, there are people who are loyal to Yahweh and those who are disloyal to Yahweh. In this poem, the dichotomy is not Israel versus the nations, this is Israel versus Israel.
In part one (00:00-23:25), Tim and Jon dive into our final episode of an almost-year-long journey through the Torah. At this point in the story of Deuteronomy, Moses is concluding a lengthy farewell speech with several poems.
In Deuteronomy, the promised land is depicted as a new garden of Eden, and the Israelites are a new Adam and Eve with an opportunity to set right what Adam and Eve corrupted with their failure to trust Yahweh.
Moses sets up Joshua as Israel’s new leader in Deuteronomy 31, and then he writes “this torah (law)” (Deut. 31:9). Over the next several hundred years, other scribes wrote, edited, and organized Israel’s scriptures, so whatever Moses wrote was not the complete Hebrew Bible. However, he apparently wrote some kind of “proto-Torah” that is consistent with the final design of the TaNaK.
The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake me and break my covenant which I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will come upon them."
Yahweh predicts Israel’s unfaithfulness to their covenant, and he introduces a new image for judgment: hiding his face from his people. Hiding his face is the opposite of Aaron’s blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 (“May Yahweh turn his face toward you”), and it means that Yahweh will let his people do whatever they want. If they choose to forsake their covenant with him, he will remove his influence from them and let them pursue other gods and reap the consequences of their actions.
Yahweh then tells Moses to write a song that will stand as a “witness” between God and Israel when they inevitably break their covenant with him (Deut. 31:19). This song is found in Deuteronomy 32.
In part two (23:25-48:13), Tim and Jon dive into Deuteronomy 32.
They are corrupt and not his children; to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation. Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your creator, who made you and formed you?
In this poem, Moses uses language that compares Israel to a blemished sacrificial offering. He also employs Eden language: God formed Israel as he formed Adam and Eve, and like Adam and Eve, Israel is going to choose rebellion.
These verses plant the initial seed for a question that will continue to be raised throughout the poem––who are the children of God? So far in the Torah, the answer seems to be the nation of Israel. But here we see that even within Israel, there are those who act so corruptly that Yahweh does not identify them as his children.
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel [or El]. For the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.
There are several important ideas communicated in these verses. First, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts read “sons of El (God)” not “sons of Israel,” indicating that when Yahweh divided the human race after they built the Tower of Babel, he assigned various elohim (spiritual beings) to have jurisdiction over different human nations. Second, Yahweh himself claims possession of Israel––they are his inheritance. Of course, everything belongs to Yahweh. However, this poem expresses the special nature of his relationship with Israel. He delights in them like someone delights in a precious family inheritance.
In part three (48:13-01:01:53), Tim and Jon look at Deuteronomy 32’s description of what will happen to Israel when they forsake their covenant with Yahweh. The poem names circumstances that will happen to Israel, as well as things Yahweh will directly cause for them.
I will heap misfortunes on them; I will use my arrows on them. They will be wasted by famine, and consumed by plague and bitter destruction; and the teeth of beasts I will send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust.
Yahweh says he will personally send sickness and plague (symbolized by arrows), food shortages, and enemies (specifically, snakes). Overwhelmingly, Deuteronomy 32 tells us that from this point forward, every blessing and disaster that Israel receives comes directly from Yahweh. However, this is not where Yahweh’s actions in this poem end.
For Yahweh will vindicate his people and will have compassion on his servants.
Here we encounter the same question we noted earlier. If the people of Israel as a whole are not Yahweh’s people because they’ve forsaken him, who are Yahweh’s people? Who are these servants he plans to vindicate?
Paul addresses this question in Romans, and his conclusion is that even within the covenant people of God, there are those who are loyal and disloyal to Yahweh. Moses’ point here is that not every Israelite is a “true” Israelite who honors Yahweh and follows his laws. In this poem, Israel is not pitted against the nations––faithful Israelites are contrasted with unfaithful Israelites. This becomes a major theme throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the New Testament.
Deuteronomy 32 is sobering: Yahweh’s people who choose to act like snakes will meet the fate of the Genesis 3 serpent––crushed by Yahweh, depicted here as a divine warrior. However, Yahweh will have compassion for those who choose to remain faithful to him, and those people will become a remnant that will bless the nations.
In part four (01:01:53-01:19:32), Tim and Jon discuss the significance of Deuteronomy 32 within the TaNaK. This poem outlines the events that follow in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and the prophetic scrolls refer back to Deuteronomy 32 countless times.
Here, Moses becomes the archetypal prophet, who sees the end of the story and proclaims that while Israel’s idolatry will lead to death, Yahweh will bring atonement, blessing, and life to the nations. The Torah concludes with Moses’ death. Yahweh buries him, and then he sends his Spirit to fill Joshua as Israel’s new leader.
Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
The narrators of the Hebrew Bible want us to know that there was no other leader like Moses (despite Joshua’s great leadership). And with this knowledge, we can look forward with hope to a coming prophet and leader who will be even greater than Moses, the suffering servant who will die on behalf of God’s people.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.