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D'var Torah: Ha'azinu

Ha'azinu, a text that is composed in poetry rather than the prose that comprises the rest of Devarim, repeats and intensifies the message about the need to re-experience the Giving of the Law in order to be worthy of living in the new land, as stated in Deuteronomy 31:13 and repeated in 32:47. Again there is a repetition of Moses' predictions that the Israelites will go astray and forget God and that they will be punished; there's a reminder of why the people were chosen and their responsibilities; and there's a promise that they will be ultimately redeemed so that they may recognize their purpose.

This extended poem is, like the other extended poem in the Torah (Song of the Sea, Ex. 15:1-18) is of indefinite origin, but both are thought to be older than the text within which they are incorporated. In fact, there are three other extended poems in the historical books of the Tanakh, Joshua 12 (defeat of the 31 nations); Judges 5 ("Song of Deborah"); and 2 Samuel 22 ("Song of David"); these three poems are also considered to be quite ancient with respect to the text within which they are embedded. Whereas it's widely accepted that the Song of the Sea and the three other poems are considerably older than the text within which they are incorporated, the same is not true about the Song of Moses.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Song of Moses was included in the final version of the text that became known as Deuteronomy by the author known as the "second Deuteronomistic historian." There are many opinions about the textual details of the Song that attempt to date the poem more precisely. In terms of its phraseology, structure, and theology, there are similarities to the writings of the prophets of the eighth to fifth centuries bce. Some scholars hypothesize that it may be contemporary with, and reflect the events of, the wars of Jehoash and Jeroboam II with Assyria which occurred about 790–760 bce. Samuel Driver (of the Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Bible fame) believed the phrase, "I will rouse them to jealousy with a no-people; I will provoke them with a vile nation," (v. 21) refers to the Assyrians, who were noted for their extreme idolatrous practices and cruelty, and therefore he assigned the poem to the period of Jeremiah (ca. 600 bce). Still others consider its composition is more in keeping with the period of the exile (587–539 bce).

Ronald Bergey1 maintains that there are certain linguistic parallels with First Isaiah (700 bce). Language affinities between the poem and Isaiah 1, 5, 28, and 30 exist both in language usage and thematic structure. For example, compare these verses:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth. (Deut. 32:1)

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for God has spoken. (Isa. 1:2)

Bergey believes that these similarities appear to be too close to consider them a result of a common literary tradition, since they pervade all aspects of the respective compositions and that the Isaianic prophecies, where intertextuality has occurred, appears to have been borrowed from the Song.

The Song of Moses describes how God is provoked into punishing the people because of their apostasy, but parts of the composition use the future tense, which is uncommon in early biblical Hebrew. The final composition of the text of Deuteronomy is thought to have occurred during the early Babylonian exile, since its outlook is dissimilar to the positive outlook of the pre-exilic "historical" Deuteronomy text which looked forward to a period of peace and happiness in observing the commandments. During the period following the defeat of Judah, with a grim future facing the exiles, it is thought that the second Deuteronomist composed a text that retroactively accounted for the fall of the kingdom. However, this scenario alone does not prove the origin of the poem itself.

That the poem was actually composed by Moses is extremely unlikely if not impossible. In it, the events of the Exodus lie in the distant past. When the author speaks the words, "Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past" (32:7), he is expecting that his listeners must learn about the wilderness wanderings from their fathers and elders (they would have experienced them personally). In verses 13–19, sufficient time has passed for the land to be settled and for the people to lapse into idolatry, causing God to threaten them with disaster and national extinction (vs. 19–27). In later verses, enemies assail them (v. 30) but God intercedes and rescues them (vs. 35 ff).

The structure of the poem resembles Psalms 78, 105, and 106, and there are similarities to Hosea 5, 8, and especially 13; also see Ezekiel 16, 20, and 23. For example, compare the following passage to Deut. 32:7:

I will utter hidden things, things from of old—what we have heard and known; what our fathers have told us.... (Ps. 78:2–3)

And here is an example of parallels to the Song from Hosea 13:

Only I the Lord have been your God
Ever since the land of Egypt;
You have never known a [true] God but Me,
You have never had a helper other than Me.
I looked after you in the desert,
In a thirsty land.
When they grazed, they were sated;
When they were sated, they grew haughty;
And so they forgot Me.
You are undone, O Israel!
Where now is your king?
Let him save you!

[see Dt. 32:12]

[see Dt. 32:10]

[see Dt. 32:13–15]

[see Dt. 32:5]
[see Dt. 32:12]
[see Dt. 32:37–39]
(Hos. 13:4–7, 10)2

However, the treatment of the material in this poem is far more complete and powerful than any of those texts. This observation has resulted in the viewpoint that the ideas and theology of the poem are associated with periods that are considerably later than the Exodus and even post-date the early monarchy; they seem to allude to events close to the time of the fall of either the northern or southern kingdoms or even both.

What's very interesting, on reflection, is that each of the five poetic episodes of the Tanakh commemorate the conclusion of a significant event or time period. The Song of the Sea marks God's miracles surrounding the departure from Egypt; Ha'azinu, the end of the forty years in the desert; Joshua, the end of the (incomplete) conquest of Canaan; Deborah, victory over the enemies of the north thus uniting the twelve tribes; and David, his last battles that stabilized the monarchy.

The idea that these "songs" are older than the prose in which they are embedded and would be used to commemorate important historical events makes sense, since such events would have been celebrated in verse by contemporary storytellers. That this poem was widely known is not questioned: "Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people. in order that this song may be My witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring. For when I bring them into the Land... I know how this people will act even before I bring them into the Land" (Deut. 31:19–21). It is clear from the structure, assonance, and repetition of terms and themes that this poem was intended to be recited orally. In structure, the poem is essentially a psalm, with prophetic and historic inclusions. It has characteristics of a genre of Middle Eastern writings called "covenant lawsuits," where witnesses are called (vs. 1–4), an accusation is made against the offender (vs. 5–6), the suzerain's actions benefitting the offender are enumerated (vs. 7–14); the offender's offense is charged (vs. 15–18), the penalty is stated (vs. 19–35), and finally, a promise for forgiveness is extended (vs. 36ff), but this poem was apparently not meant to function as a "lawsuit" claiming that the people failed to meet God's requirements. Its main function appears to be a retrojected warning, written to explain why God seemingly appeared to abandon His chosen people.

Two sections of the poem deserve special mention. One is not apparent in the Masoretic text; it's from an earlier variant of the text that's found in the Septuagint and the Qumran scrolls, and attested to in a targum of the first century ce. In this original version of Deuteronomy, vs. 8–9 reads,

When the Most High allotted the nations
and set the divisions of man,
He fixed the boundaries of peoples
equal to the number of divine beings.
And lo, His people became Adonai's portion;
Jacob his own allotment.3

The clear meaning of this verse expresses a concept of God that is found elsewhere in the Tanakh, that other gods exist but those gods are for the other nations, but none of those other gods are permitted to Israel. This concept is called "henotheism."

There's a second verse in our portion that seems to offer a very daring accusation against God—it claims that God would experience the sentiment of fear; such an idea has no parallel anywhere else in the Tanakh.

I was prepared to destroy them,
to make their memory vanish from among mankind.
But I feared that their enemies would be provoked,
their attackers alienated,
so that they would say,
"Our superior power and not God, was what caused all this."4

Ibn Ezra tried to explain that this verse really applies to human perceptions, but his reasoning is not convincing. It seems that this verse is saying that God is, in effect, expressing apprehension and concern that humankind would reject the idea that God had brought about retribution on Israel for their misdeeds—that Moses' predictions in Exodus 32:12 and Numbers 14 would come true:

If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, "It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land ... that He slaughtered them in the wilderness." (Num. 14:15–16)

Actually, this bitter accusation fits well into the overall sense of this Deuteronomistic author, who, faced with a grim and uncertain future, felt betrayed by God's abandonment. This clearly was also the feeling of the original author of this poem.

It cannot be denied that the poet was a true artist. His theme is developed with consummate literary ability and poetic skill. The Hebrew parallel structure is unusually regular, terse, and spare, and the imagery is strong and evocative. The use of simile is unsparing; in fact, one of the best examples of poetic simile in the entire Tanakh may be found in verses 11 and 12:

As an eagle that stirs up its nest,
hovers over its young,
spread abroad its wings; takes them,
bears them upon its pinions;
Adonai alone did lead him,
And there was no alien god with him...5

Shabbat shalom v'chatimah tovah.

September 2009


1. Bergey, R. “The Song of Moses and Isaianic Prophecies: A Case of Early Intertextuality?” J. for the Study of the Old Testament, 28:1, 33–54 (2003).

2. Translation from JPS.

3. Tigay, J. JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, Jewish Publication Society, 1996, p. 303.

4. Translation based on N. Liebowitz.

5. Translation based on Soncino.

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