The book of Deuteronomy is a record of Moses’ last words to the Israelite people after 40 years of ups and downs together in the desert. When the book ends, it’s not just the desert but also Moses himself whom the Israelites will leave behind.
He earned his own death sentence in Numbers 20 when, in a moment of impatience as the Israelites clamored for water, he twice struck a rock he had been directed by God merely to speak to. Because of this lack of trust in the Almighty, he is informed, he will not merit crossing into the promised land with his people. Now, with that land in sight, and with his death imminent, the Israelites will be without him as their leader for the first time since their redemption from Egypt.
It’s an especially inopportune moment to lose Moses, who has tirelessly devoted himself to instructing the Israelites how to live correctly once they enter the land and warning them of God’s wrath when, inevitably, they will diverge from that instruction. For most of Deuteronomy, indeed, Moses and the Israelites seem to be still dragging their feet, none too eager to race toward his death or their inheritance of a land they know will eventually “vomit them out” for the sins they (or their descendants) will surely commit.
We move beyond this reluctance in Deuteronomy 32—the Torah portion of Ha’azinu, read this year on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and constituting Moses’ final speech to his people before he dies and they cross into Canaan. In a song intended by him to be recited regularly and in perpetuity, Moses teaches the Israelites how to accept that their failure will have consequences, and that failure is unavoidable. After all, both he and they are only human.
This subtle shift in perspective is accomplished by means of a song in five parts (plus a prose epilogue) that examines the complicated nature of what it means to be God’s chosen people.
The opening of the song is Moses’s grand invitation to listen to his words, for he speaks in the name of God. In part two, he explains why the Israelites should listen: namely, because God, perfect and just, has chosen them as His own though they are and will continue to be false and foolish. The third part develops this theme further as God, speaking through Moses, details the terrible punishments He will inflict on the Israelites, justly, and measure-for-measure, for the accumulating misdeeds cited in the previous section. And yet, in part four, we learn that God in His perfect justice will ultimately destroy not the Israelites but instead, allowing His rage to subside, their enemies. The song closes in part five with another command, directed this time to the nations of the world: to extol the people of Israel who, even as they sin and as God punishes them, remain eternally God’s chosen people whom God will return to the land.
In the epilogue, Moses expounds the rationale behind his premonitory teaching:
Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you today, that you may command your children to keep and to do all the words of this Teaching. For this is not an empty thing for you. This is your very life, and by this thing you will lengthen your days upon the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.
In short, this is a matter of life and death—and the way to choose life, and with it the inheritance of the promised land, is to pass forward the Teaching (in Hebrew, Torah) to one’s children. That message is somewhat complicated by the words God speaks immediately afterward when, in the sole use of the imperative form of the word “die” in the Hebrew Bible, He commands Moses’ death—a death not capriciously imposed but rather just punishment for Moses’ own deviation from the word of God.
Thus will Moses, leading by example and dying for his transgressions, teach God’s message of exactly how to choose life. This teaching style makes more sense when we examine the song itself, starting from the beginning.
It starts on a note of seeming bombast as Moses commands the celestial bodies to listen up:
Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak!
Let the earth hear the words of my mouth!
My lesson will drip like rain;
My word will flow like dew,
Like storm winds on young growth,
Like raindrops on grass.
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Still standing with the Israelites in the Transjordanian desert, Moses opens with rain metaphors: like water in a dry land, he is saying, his words are literally life-sustaining. Nor is it any coincidence that, time and again, Deuteronomy has emphasized that God Himself is the source of rain, and therefore the source and sustainer of all life.
In combination with these watery metaphors, Moses also designates God as the “Rock”: a common appellation for God in the Bible, usually referring to steadfastness, sturdiness, and permanence and here perhaps also meant to remind us complicatedly of the rock from which He had Moses miraculously twice draw water for his parched people (the first time, in Exodus 17, without adverse incident). We learn of those attributes in a striking re-purposing of the creation story to match the Exodus narrative:
[God] found them in a desert land,
In a desolate, howling wasteland.
He encircled him; He watched over him;
He protected him like the pupil of his eye.
One’s immediate association here is with the desert in which the Israelites are still standing. One could also say that God found the children of Israel in the “wasteland” of Egypt, or at Sinai when He gave them His Torah. But in this verse the word used for wasteland is tohu, perhaps most familiar in the phrase from Genesis 1:2, “tohu vavohu” (unformed and void), describing the not-yet-filled state of the universe on the verge of creation. When Moses first proclaims God’s name in this poem, “For I call in the name of the Lord!” (32:3), he is referring to the God who created the universe, the God who has been around forever and will be around forever. And through all of existence, from the very beginning, God has chosen and protected the nation of Israel.
Moses then expands on the theme of protection, comparing God with a bird of prey and Israel with its chicks:
As an eagle awakens its nest,
Hovering over its fledglings,
He spreads its wings and takes it,
Carrying it on his pinions.
As the late Peter Craigie details in his commentary on Deuteronomy, eagles teach their young to fly by pushing them out of the nest. If the babies succeed, they fly. If they fail, they drop—but, mid-plummet, the parent eagle dives down to catch the falling fledgling on its wings. Just so, Israel fails and falls, but, even as total destruction impends, God swoops in and saves the chastened nation.
It is an oft-repeated cycle, although at any particular stage in the downward trajectory it may be difficult to believe that circumstances could change for the better. The key is to develop a sense of history, and Moses informs the Israelites how to do just that:
Remember the days of old.
Understand the years of generation upon generation!
Ask your father and he will tell you,
Your elders and they will inform you.
This knowledge—that both Jewish suffering and Jewish prospering are part of a cycle in which God, the Israelites, and the land of Israel are linked—is especially important given the dire prophecy of Israel’s future behavior that follows:
But Yeshrun [Israel] grew fat and kicked.
You grew fat; you grew gross; you grew coarse.
He forsook the God who made him;
He made a fool of the Rock of his salvation.
They incensed Him with foreign worship.
They angered Him with abominations.
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
Deities they did not know,
New ones who came recently,
Whom your forefathers did not know.
The Rock who begot you, you forgot!
You forgot the God who delivered you.
Unlike God the Rock, who has chosen and steadfastly stuck to Israel, Israel is described as animal-like, kicking like a stubborn mule: untrustworthy, forgetful, even traitorous. If Moses has opened his song by declaring the knowledge of God and the proclamation of His glory to be the source of life, here, spurning God’s gifts, Israel rejects the source of life itself. To worship other gods is to break the Teaching codified by Moses, the commandments he has twice climbed a very large mountain to fetch down.
When Israel breaks its side of the covenant, its treaty with God, God becomes a supreme agent of ruin. Reversing creation, He vows to destroy the land and its produce, to turn the animals into weapons of vengeance, and to use other nations to destroy His own cherished nation:
For a fire has flared in My wrath
And burned to the bottom of Sheol.
It has consumed the land and its produce,
And it has burned through the foundations of mountains.
I will consume them with evils.
I will use up My arrows on them.
Drained by famine, deprived of food by fiery plague and bitter pestilence—
The teeth of beasts I will send upon them,
Along with the venom of creepers in the dust.
From outside the sword will bereave,
In rooms within—terror,
For the young man and for the young woman,
The baby and the aged.
Moses has already told us, and the Israelites, that the “I” destroying the world in this passage is “a faithful God, never unjust. Righteous and upright is He.” So this horrible fate is Israel’s just deserts for their abandonment of Him. As Moses has accepted that his own transgression in the desert requires his death before entering Canaan, so these punishments must be accepted and internalized as the necessary consequences of Israel’s sins.
The process unfolds on several levels. The sin of following foreign gods does not currently apply to those whom Moses is here addressing. They are the remnant that has survived the culling of sinners during the years of wandering in the wilderness. Those now standing before Moses are the good kids: “And you who have clung to the Lord your God are all of you alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:4). But once they enter Canaan, having lost Moses as their leader, they will have plenty of opportunity to adopt the shiny new Canaanite gods and set the cycle of sin and punishment into motion once again.
But suppose they don’t. Suppose they become fathers and elders bent on guiding future generations in the need to follow this Teaching and thus avoid the consequences of divergence from it. Then, armed with this worldview, they will be able to explain why exile and destruction await those who have earned punishment, and they will thereby enable sinners to recognize themselves as sinners once the punishment begins. At that point, Moses reports, as the sinners acknowledge the misdeeds for which they are suffering the consequences, God will accept them back into His fold. He will do so both for their own sake and in order not to let the enemies of Israel think that they have vanquished Him:
I had said that I would shatter them to pieces,
That I would eradicate their remembrance from humankind,
Were it not for the settling of the enemies’ anger.
Lest their troublers misunderstand,
Lest they say, “Our own hand has prevailed”
And not that the Lord has done all this.
But those are not the only reasons: rather, controlling His wrath, God need destroy only to the point where the message becomes clear:
For the Lord will judge His people
And on account of His servants He will calm himself.
When He sees that their strength is gone,
Nothing left of it, whether bound or free.
The cycle concludes with God’s people, having been appropriately and effectively chastened, returning to Him and His teaching. Moses then closes with his invitation to the nations to join him in praise of God’s people, thus completing an arc that goes from his personal proclamation of God’s glory at the song’s opening to a call for the universal acknowledgement of God’s active role in history on behalf of His chosen ones:
Sing out praise, O nations, for His people!
For the blood of His servants He will avenge,
And He will return vengeance to His troublers,
And atone for his land, for His people.
Having interpreted God’s plans as just and praiseworthy, exactly as God Himself is just and praiseworthy, Moses then sends the Israelites into the future that God has described and himself to the top of Mount Nebo to die.
Moses and the Israelite people’s acceptance of their burden, including its all-but-certain prospect of sin, punishment, and return, is expressed through the song’s assuming the viewpoint not of the individual prophet Moses but of the nation and its God. Moses might die, a future generation might be expelled from the land, but God’s choice of the people and its land will endure forever. So long as each generation remembers God’s covenant with previous generations and imparts its substance to the next, transgression and punishment, though inevitable, become no more than elements of a cycle.
Thus armed to view themselves as an eternal nation, the Israelites have been readied to cross over into a strange but familiar new land.