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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

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Commentary on Deuteronomy

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31.1–34.14 : The death of Moses and the formation of the Torah.

With the imprecation of ch 30 concluding the treaty between God and Israel, Deuteronomy now returns to Moses, the mediator of the treaty. His life is ending, and the question of succession is given a two‐fold answer, since Moses was both political and religious leader of Israel. Joshua will be his political and military successor ( 31.1–8,14–15,23; 32.44,48–52; 34.9 ) and “a book … of this law” ( 31.24 ) will instruct the nation in religion. Deuteronomy thus ends in paradox: Moses, ostensibly the book's narrator, narrates his own death (ch 34 ), and the book of the Torah, already presupposed ( 29.27 ), nevertheless provides an account of its own formation ( 31.9–13,24–29 ). The conclusion of Deuteronomy also ends the Pentateuch. In incorporating Deuteronomy into that larger work, editors with the background of the exile added per‐spectives on the function of the Torah in the people's life. Finally, the Pentateuch's literary precedent of a patriarch's death‐bed bequest and blessing (Gen 27; 48–49 ) led to the incorporation of “The Song of Moses” ( 32.1–43 ) and of “The Blessing of Moses” (ch 33 ), each of which may originally have circulated independently. The resulting text thus blends several viewpoints. Themes like the Mosaic appointment of Joshua begin, then begin again from a different perspective, and then are continued only after an apparent digression, which marks the insertion of new material.

31.1–29 : Moses makes arrangements for his death.

Publicly announcing his imminent death, Moses invests Joshua with leadership and initiates the writing of the Torah, which is to be taught regularly to the entire people. These two legacies seem independent of each other and suggest that an earlier narrative about leadership has been expanded with an account of the formation of Deuteronomy. Each tradition, furthermore, is doubled; the chapter thus contains many layers of tradition. First is a double announcement of Moses’ imminent death: v. 2 (at his own initiative, citing previous divine commandment, in which he appoints Joshua directly) and vv. 14–15 (with no reference to a previous announcement, and with divine appointment of Joshua). Second is a double tradition of transfer of leadership: Although Moses begins a public ceremony in order himself to appoint the new leader (vv. 7–8 ), a variant tradition has God commission Joshua directly (vv. 14–15,23 ). Third is a double tradition of Moses’ writing: one of “the book … of this law” (v. 24 ) and one of “this song” (v. 19 ). Each is a “witness” (vv. 21,26 ). The first tradition, which refers to Deuteronomy, was supplemented by the second in order to integrate the following “Song of Moses” ( 32.1–43 ). Fourth, in the “Song” tradition, Israel's future apostasy is already a foregone conclusion (vv. 16–22,28–29 ); in the covenant‐making tradition, there is yet hope that, by taking the law to heart, Israel might avoid catastrophe (vv. 9–13,24–27 ).

2 :

One hundred twenty years old, the Hebrew places the age first, thus immediately announcing the key issue: Moses has reached the maximum age for humans (Gen 6.3 ), making it urgent to assure continuity of leadership. I am no longer able to get about, lit. “to go out and come in,” i.e., lead the nation in military campaigns ( 28.6; Num 27.17; 1 Kings 3.7; cf. 2 Sam 11.1 ).

2–3 :

Resumes 1.37–38; 3.27–28 . The death of a key leader and the transfer of his authority mark important turning points within the larger context of the Deuteronomistic History and partially follow a common model (cf. Josh 23.2; 1 Sam 12.2; 1 Kings 2.1–2 ).

4 :

The successful military campaigns in Transjordan provide assurance in the conquest of Canaan; Moses aims to counter Israel's intimidation ( 1.27–28; Num 13–14 ).

5 :

Command, the ban ( 7.1–7; 12.29–31; 20.16–18 ).

9–13 :

The institution of a covenant ceremony to be held in the sabbatical year ( 15.1–11 ), during the festival of booths ( 16.13–15 ).

12 :

Stipulating that the Torah is taught to women, minors, and aliens, the law does not restrict the responsibility to observe the covenant to males (contrast Ex 19.15 ).

14 :

Tent of meeting, in the Yahwistic source (J), the site outside camp where God speaks to Moses, with Joshua in attendance (Ex 33.7–11 ); contrast the Priestly literature's tabernacle, located in the center of the Israelite encampment, which houses the ark of the covenant and the altar (Ex 26–27; Num 7.1–3; 18.1–7 ). So that I may commission him, the standard tradition involves direct commission by Moses at God's command ( 3.27–28; 34.9; Num 27.18–23 ).

15 :

The double reference to the pillar of cloud, located both at [or, “in”] the tent (cf. Ex 30.36; 40.34–35; Lev 16.2 ) and at the entrance to the tent (cf. Ex 33.9–10; Num 12.5 ) blends the traditions associated with each of the two tents (see v. 14n. ).

17–18 :

Our God, better, “our gods”: The people will have strayed so far from the covenant that they attribute the resulting divine punishment to other gods, leading to God's angry response.

22–23 :

The sequence of Moses wrote (v. 22 ) and … commissioned (v. 23 ) uses the same key terms as “When Moses finished writing … Moses commanded” (vv. 24–25 ). The repetition of the paired terms provided a means for editors to insert the section on the song (vv. 16–22 ).

23 :

The Lord commissioned, lit. “he commanded,” with no subject identified. NRSV has added the divine reference to clarify that the verse does not continue v. 22 , but directly resumes vv. 14–15 .

31.30–32.43 : The Song of Moses.

The Song is a late insertion that reflects upon Israel's history, probably presupposing the exile. In form it is a revised and expanded prophetic lawsuit (Isa 1; Jer 2; Mic 6; Ps 50 ) with this structure: introduction and summoning of witnesses (vv. 1–3 ); accusation (vv. 4–6 ); recital of God's loving actions (vv. 7–14 ); indictment (vv. 15–18 ); declaration of punishment (vv. 19–25 ). Yet God interrupts his own judicial sentence to recognize a risk to his honor: Other nations might conclude that Israel's God was weak should they see Israel destroyed (vv. 26–27 ). God reverses himself, cancels the punishment, and decides instead to punish Israel's enemies so as to vindicate Israel (vv. 28–42 ). The Song concludes with a call for the divine council to praise God for his actions; the call may originate from within the divine council itself (v. 43; similarly Ps 29.1 ). A prose frame links the Song to Deuteronomy, identifying Moses, otherwise unmentioned, as its speaker ( 31.30; 32.44 ).

32.2 :

Teaching, the original prophetic lawsuit has been combined with wisdom themes (Prov 1.5; 4.2; 17.21 ).

4 :

Rock, more accurately, “Mountain,” a title applied to the high god of ancient Canaan (see v. 8n. ) and to the biblical God (vv. 15,18,30–31,37; Isa 44.8; Ps 78.35 ).

6 :

Created you, when God redeemed Israel from Egypt (Ex 15.16 , correcting NRSV “acquired”).

8 :

Most High, or Elyon (text note a), is the title of El, the senior god who sat at the head of the divine council in the Ugaritic literature of ancient Canaan. The Bible applies El's title to Israel's God (Gen 14.18–22; Num 24.16; Ps 46.4; 47.2 ; esp. 78.35 , where it is parallel to Rock). Gods, the lesser gods who make up the divine council (Ps 82.1; 89.6–7 ), to each of whom Elyon here assigns a foreign nation.

9 :

The Lord's own portion, NRSV has added own in order to identify Yahweh with Elyon and avoid the impression that Yahweh is merely a member of the pantheon; see also 4.19n.

10 :

Sustained, more likely “found” (Hos 9.10 ). Overlooking the Egypt traditions, the Song here traces the beginnings of Israel to the wilderness period, romanticizing its ideal purity (similarly Hos 2.14–15; Jer 2.2–3 ; contrast Deut 9.6–7,22–27; Ezek 20 ). Apple of his eye, lit. the aperture or pupil of the eye.

11 :

Israel as God's fledgling; see Ex 19.4 .

13 :

Heights, see Ex 15.17 .

14 :

Curds, symbolic of extravagant hospitality offered to special guests (Gen 18.8; Judg 5.25 ). Bashan, in northern Transjordan, was famous for its cattle.

15 :

Jeshurun, probably meaning “upright,” is a poetic term for Israel ( 33.5,26; Isa 44.2 ).

17 :

Demons, better, “protective spirits” (also Ps 106.37 ). Not God, the language is sarcastic: “a non‐god” (see v. 21 ). To deities, better, “to gods.”

18 :

God is depicted as a woman; gave you birth refers specifically to labor pain (Isa 51.2; cf. Isa 42.14 ).

21 :

Jealous refers to the covenant's demand for exclusive loyalty to God ( 5.8; 6.15; Num 25.11 ). Accordingly, the punishment for breach of the covenant metes out precise retributive justice (see 19.19n. ). The Hebrew emphasizes the sarcasm: thus, with what is no god and what is no people, lit. “with a non‐god,” “with a non‐people.” Their idols, lit. “their vapors” or “their vanities,” even “their vapidities” (Jer 8.19; 10.15; 16.19; Eccl 1.2 ).

22 :

Sheol, the underworld (Gen 37.35; 1 Sam 2.6; Ps 139.8 ). The abode of all the dead, not a place of damnation like the later idea of hell.

23 :

Arrows, divine punishments (v. 42; Ezek 5.16; Ps 7.13; 18.14; 38.2 ).

24 :

Burning consumption, the name of the Ugaritic god of pestilence; thus better, “devoured by Plague.”

25 :

Woman, better, “young woman,” to emphasize the double merism ( 28.3–6n. ), which symbolizes the totality of the slaughter.

26–27 :

The Song here pivots from judgment of Israel to her vindication at the expense of the foreign invaders.

27 :

I feared, God has feelings and vulnerabilities (as at Gen 6.6 ).

28–33 :

God's soliloquy is interrupted by another voice, who refers to God in the third person and speaks on behalf of Israel (vv. 30–31 ).

28–29 :

The foreign nation, like Israel, has failed in wisdom, justifying God's judgment (see v. 6 ).

30 :

Ironically inverts the holy war idea ( 3.22; 20.1 ): The enemy is reproached for failing to understand that it owes its triumph over Israel to God rather than force of arms. God will thus punish Israel's conquerors to preserve his own honor (see 9.25–29; Num 14.13–16 ).

32 :

Sodom … Gomorrah, here symbolizing moral corruption more than ruinous devastation (cf. 29.23n. ).

34 :

This, the punishment of the foreign nation, which is about to be announced (vv. 35–42 ). Laid up … sealed up, the formal legal procedures for rolling and then sealing a witnessed deed or contract with wax, so that the unaltered document can subsequently be introduced into court as evidence (Isa 8.16; Jer 32.9–15 ).

35 :

Vengeance, better, “vindication,” since the idea is not revenge but justice.

36 :

Their power is gone, neither bond nor free, God will act when no one survives who can take charge or provide assistance (2 Kings 14.26; cf. 1 Kings 14.10; 21.21; 2 Kings 9.8 ).

39 :

Similar to exilic Second Isaiah (Isa 41.4; 43.10,13; 44.6; 45.6–7,22; 48.12 ).

41 :

Take, lit. “return,” in retributive justice. Thus, vengeance gives the wrong idea (see v. 35n. ). Those who hate me, treaty language that refers to disloyal action that violates the covenant; thus better translated, “those who reject me” ( 5.9 ).

43 :

The second, fourth, and fifth lines have been restored in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. With heavens and land, the verse forms a frame or inclusio to “heavens … earth” (v. 1 ), thus framing the poem and returning the focus to Israel's impending entry into the promised land. All you gods, the divine council (v. 8n.; Ps 29.1 ), probably removed from the received Heb text because of the conflict with monotheism (see vv. 8–9n. ). Avenge the blood, God as divine blood avenger (cf. 19.6 ), who removes the stain of Israel's blood from the land by requiting the aggressor for having spilled it ( 19.11–13 ). Cleanse, since the moral stain on the land can only be “wiped clean” (the word's literal meaning) with the blood of the murderer (Num 35.33–34; cf. Deut 21.8 ): here, the foreign nation. God's position is nonetheless morally ambiguous, since it was he who had sanctioned the foreign invasion as punishment for Israel's wrongdoing (vv. 19–26 ). His people, instead, referring to God: “O heavens, rejoice with him!”

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