September 23, 2007

Deuteronomy 32-34: A picture is worth a thousand words

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 32-34 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the Song of Moses, Moses' blessings of the tribes, and Moses' death.

The "Song of Moses," which God commands in Deut. 31 and is actually written out in Deut. 32, is among the most beautiful passages of the Bible to date. The themes in the song are nothing new; in fact, they seem positively worn-out by this point in Deuteronomy. The Song talks about God choosing Israel over the other nations and tending to it, how Israel chose to corrupt itself and rebel against God, about the destruction that will result from this corruption, and about the eventual return to God and revenge against the Israelites' enemies. As I said, we've seen all these themes before, many times. What is different here is the sheer beauty of the imagery and language used to express it.

While I highly encourage all my readers to find a good translation and read the passage themselves, I will highlight a few of my favourite verses, all from the KJV:

Deut. 32:11-12, about God's nurturing the Israelites: "(11) As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: (12) So the LORD alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him."

Deut. 32:22, about God's anger against the corruption of the Israelites: "(22) For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains."

Deut. 32:31-33, about the enemies of Israel: "(31) For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges. (32) For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: (33) Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps."

Deut. 32:42-43, about God's vengeance against Israel's enemies: "(41) If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgement; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me. (42) I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy."

Okay, it might not be appropriate bedtime stories for the children, but you can't deny the power of some of that imagery: arrows drunk with blood, setting fire to the foundations of the mountains... it stirs the mind to imagination. There is, incidentally, some beautiful, non-warlike imagery from earlier in the chapter as well, for those who think that the entire poem is a litany of destruction.

The imagery is, of course, at least partly the point of the whole thing. Ancient writers knew what modern science is beginning to prove: people remember stories and vivid pictures better than they remember abstract concepts. It's the difference between saying "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image..." (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8) and reading that the punishment for creating the Golden Calf was that the Israelites needed to drink the ground-up golden powder of their idol, the Levites killed 3000 calf-worshippers, and the entire population was stricken with plague (Ex. 32-34). The latter story is far more memorable than the former command.

As I said, the rest of Deuteronomy has repeated the poem's themes many times. Some of these repetitions (Deut. 28, for example) were, in fact, quite vivid and dramatic. But this chapter brings the whole theme together in one piece of sustained, evocative poetry. It is short enough that it can be recited easily at gatherings, perhaps five or six minutes, but yet it contains all the themes of the 34-chapter book.

Even today, as a modern reader spoiled by some of the most splendid fantasy writing of the last two hundred years and jaded by the modern action-movie monolith, I can see read this chapter and say, "wow." Considering that it was written nearly three thousand years ago, that's no mean feat.

One of the reasons the imagery is so powerful is its grounding in the world. Nature imagery, in particular, pervades this piece: rain and fire, mountains and earth, serpent and eagle. Even as an urban reader who has never seen an eagle (or, for that matter, many serpents) outside of a zoo, and who has only been to capital-M mountains twice in my life, this imagery resonates with me. It is the experience of my ancestors, and indeed the ancestors of every living human being today. Similarly, while no one today wages war with swords and arrows, the thought of "glittering swords" and "arrows drunk with blood" evoke a visceral response in many people, no matter how urbane.

The poem ends with one final "hoorah," leaving the audience on a high note: "Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people." (Deut. 32:43) As a storyteller, the ending is crucial to the story; no matter how good the rest of the piece, the audience will leave dissatisfied if the ending flops. Even when the Israelites are in Diaspora, they can recite this poem and leave feeling bloodlust and energy, knowing that they will be avenged... someday.

In short, if you're only going to read one chapter in Deuteronomy, this one is probably a safe bet: it'll sum up the themes of the latter half of the book, and you'll be able to picture some evocative imagery while you're at it.

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