We have already discussed the end of Deuteronomy at some length because of the importance of the poems for the structure of the Torah and for seeing that Deuteronomy underwent a Second Edition (with a second poem and epilogue). Now we are going to examine some of the content in more detail. The first poem is a witness song against Israel set “in the latter days.” The epilogue shifts the focus back to the then-present day for application. This poem and epilogue continue to describe Israel as a new Adam and like Adam they would break the covenant and be sent into exile from the Garden (the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey). The second poem changes the tone of Deuteronomy as it is a blessing for Israel and the epilogue is part of the way the text is stiched to Joshua just as Malachi was stitched to Psalms. This is a message of blessing for those among the faithful who have experienced the curses of the covenant and casts Moses in the same role as Jacob in Genesis 49. Each poem and epilogue are making different points for different “audiences” at different points in history. The Second Edition poem and epilogue are updating the application for a new setting, one that resembles our own point in redemptive history.
The first poem is set “in the latter days” (Deut 31:29) just as other major poems in the Torah (Gen 49 and Numbers). This first poem is the witness song of the covenant-treaty. Just as all the generations of Israel saw the giving of the Ten Words at Horeb, now all the generations of Israel hear the words of this song (cf. Deut 31:30). God has said that this song that was to be written and taught to Israel and put in their mouths was to be “a witness for me [God] against the people of Israel for when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles [i.e. the curses] have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring)” (Deut 31:19-21). A warning about forgetting God when they have all the blessings was given in Deuteronomy 6 and 8 and now the witness song says that they will do it. When Moses finished writing the words of the Torah it was put next to the ark of the covenant “that it may be there for a witness against you” (31:26). The Levites were to guard it.
As you are seeing, Deuteronomy 31 is helpful to interpret what the song is doing. For example, Moses said, “Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them” (Deut 31:28). The theme of Deuteronomy 31 being that of leaving a witness against Israel and her leaders because after Moses is gone they will become even more rebellious and stubborn against YHWH. And then when the song begins we can now understand the song as calling on the heavens and the earth as witnesses: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deut 32:1).
The words that follow show how good the Torah is and how it directs us to a perfect God. This witness against Israel is a witness for God and His goodness, especially in giving them Torah.
“May my teaching drop as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
And like showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of YHWH;
Ascribe greatness to our God!
The Rock, His work is perfect,
For all His ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
Just and upright is He” (Deut 32:2-4).
This is then contrasted with the response of the people:
“They have dealt corruptly with Him;
they are no longer His children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deut 32:5).
The song then continues as a witness to the goodness of God toward Israel – how He was their father and they were His son, how they were His portion and heritage, how He had saved Israel and cared for her, guided her and provided for her.
The song does harken back to Genesis in several ways, Deut 32:10 uses the rare word from Genesis 1:2 for desert (tohu, often translated as formless). Thus it says, “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye…” (Deut 32:10). Moses is describing the creation of Israel as a second Adam situation. Adam was not created in the Garden but in the desert and then God created the Garden and placed Him in it (Gen 2:8). Even the idea of God as Israel’s father is placing them in the context of being like Adam. Adam was the son of God and now Israel is the son of God. The epilogue for this poem describes the Torah as “no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut 32:47). The Torah was their tree of life and as long as they would feed on it they would live. This is why the witness song talks about how good having the Torah is. So what the end of Deuteronomy does is to make clear that Israel is in the same place that Adam was with one major difference — Adam was created righteous but Israel needs a circumcised heart in order to keep Torah. The song notes concerning Israel, “They are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them” – this is the problem they need to understand things that are Spiritually discerned (they need the Spirit in their hearts). Because of their stubborn hearts, the song even brings up Sodom and Gomorrah, “For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah…their wine is the poison of serpents (tanninim, sea monsters) and the cruel venom of asps (cobras)” (Deut 32:32-33). Genesis 1:21 had also mentioned that God created the sea monsters or sea serpents (Hebrew: tanninim). I have discussed the monsters of the Bible in another post but they are often described as allies of Satan and Egypt was even sea-monsterfied as a tanninim named Rahab (not to be confused with the heroine in Joshua).
The corruption of Israel’s heart is primarily described in terms of the worship of idols.
And Israel “sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
To gods they had never known,
To new gods that had come recently,
Whom your fathers had never dreaded”
Here is where the idea of false gods as demons and not gods comes from — this will be something that you will find throughout Scripture from Deuteronomy forward. Thus, for example, another name for Satan in the New Testament is Baalzebul (not popularly spelled that way today), which was one of the Baal gods. The point that the text is making is the same one as the Exodus event but stated even more strongly, not only is He defeating those false gods with the plagues but showing that they are not gods in the first place.
This leads God to say, “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deut 32:21). Paul would cite this last quote to show the gospel going to the Gentiles in order to make Israel jealous so that some of Israel might be saved (Romans 10:19). Indeed, Moses is speaking of what would happen “in the latter days.”
It is important to know that Jesus was the second Adam who fed on the Torah as His tree of life. Jesus passed the test that Adam and Israel had failed as the son of God. And yet the curses of the covenant fell on Jesus in our place.
But now let us turn to the first epilogue in Deuteronomy 32:44-52. The epilogue returns to the then-present-day to provide a lasting application. This was what the epilogues had done before. For example, the very first epilogue in Genesis after the poem about woman, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23) begins, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). The epilogues generally have that kind of application function or describe the lasting implications of the book. Likewise, here in Deuteronomy 32 the text tells us that Moses taught the song to Israel and says, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law [Torah] for it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deut 32:46-47). As we have said, the Torah was life to them – it was their tree of life (to continue the new creation theme). If they broke the stipulations then they would be driven into exile from the land.
So we have moved from the witness song setting of “in the latter days” back to the then-present-day for application and lasting implications. And the application simply put is that they should keep Torah. But the lasting implications of this book and the witness song begin with the death of Moses. The text says, “That very day” (the “today” as opposed to “in the latter days”) YHWH spoke to Moses, ‘Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel” (Deut 32:48-52). The death of Moses is certainly the most significant lasting implication of the book.
After the witness song against Israel and the epilogue is a new poem in Deuteronomy 33– a blessing by Moses for the people of Israel “before his death.” The introduction implies that this was written down after his death. This poem is more cryptic than the witness song and resembles many of the earlier blessings (Gen 49 and those in Numbers) and it generally follows the format of the blessing of Genesis 49.
After the short blessing of life for Reuben though the curse of his men being few (Deut 33:6), we then hear a verse on Judah, and then 4 verses on Levi, one on Benjamin, 5 on Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh), then essentially one each for Zebulun and Issachar, 2 for Gad, one for Dan, one for Naphtali, and 2 for Asher. This equals 12 by leaving out Simeon. Simeon would be one of the first tribes to disappear because it would be absorbed into Judah, thus turning its Gen 49 curse “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” into a blessing. Levi was under the same curse and that was turned into a blessing by making them the priests of Israel. What is unexpected in the number of verses given to each of the tribes is the emphasis on Levi. This is different than the other blessing/curse poems in the Torah. Levi is singled out because the text tells us, “they observed your word and kept your covenant” (Deut 33:9c). And their primary task is described as to “teach Jacob your rules and Israel your Torah” (Deut 33:10a). This is consistent with the internal trajectory of Deuteronomy and builds upon the fact that Deut 31 had said that Levi was to guard the Torah. But this emphasis on teaching Torah is mentioned here in order to stress the shift to wisdom teachers that would come with the end of prophecy.
The other thing that is perhaps somewhat surprising is that Judah only gets one verse. However, the opening and closing of the poetic blessing are really also about the king who will come from Judah.
The opening and closing lines of the poem are doing something similar and mention similar things. For example, “Thus YHWH became king in Jeshurun” (Deut 33:5) and “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,” (Deut 33:26). Jeshurun is a poetic name for Israel meaning “upright one.” We have seen it before only in the witness song (Deut 32:15) and it also appears in Isaiah 44:2. The ESV supplies “the LORD” in Deut 33:5, which is not in the Hebrew. It is possible (even preferable) that the “he” to be supplied is Moses. Sailhamer argues this because Moses is a type of the king (Deut 33) and prophet to come (Deut 34) and he is a priest throughout Deuteronomy without being of the priesthood of Aaron. Thus the king that is foreseen will unite the tribes the way that Moses did (Deut 33:5,7) and with God’s help will usher in peace and safety and plenty (Deut 33:28), blessing and salvation (Deut 33:29).
Sailhamer also notes that there is a reversal of the curse putting Adam and Eve out of the Garden mentioned here by use of vocabulary at the end of this poetic blessing. That is, God drove Adam and Eve out of the “good land” and stationed cherubim to guard it and now he will drive the enemy out of the good land and station Israel there. This has a totally different purpose than the Adam allusions in the witness song — in fact, it serves the opposite purpose. Adding Deut 33 changes the tone of the whole book in that before Deuteronomy ended with the the witness song against Israel that was decidedly negative in outlook but now it will end with a positive blessing. This best fits a setting after the exile is in full swing and they need to hear words of comfort.
Then the epilogue of Deuteronomy 34 makes it clear that Israel was still waiting for the prophet greater than Moses. We have discussed this before, for now let me note the following:
1. Moses did not die of old age at 120, as “his eye was undimmed and his vigor unabated” when he died (Deut 34:7). He died as punishment.
2. Then Joshua is painted as a wisdom teacher, “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him” (Deut 34:9).
Compare then the presentation of Joshua in Joshua 1 where he is again described as a wisdom teacher and scholar (similar to Deuteronomy’s description of Israel’s future king):
“[Be] careful to do according to all the Torah that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to to the left, that you may have good success [footnote: act wisely] wherever you go. This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8).
Adding Deuteronomy 34 and these verses into Joshua 1, which are never elaborated in the rest of the book, allows us to read all of the Prophets (of which Joshua is the first book) as wisdom teaching for our careful study. The whole of the Old Testament Scriptures are stiched together to emphasize this point. To see this we need to know the Hebrew order of the books, which is unfortunately not adhered to in English Bibles. In the Hebrew order of the books of Scripture there are three sections: Torah (Gen-Deut), Prophets (Joshua-Book of the 12), and the Writings (Psalms-Chronicles).
Thus it is no surprise that the transition from the Torah to Prophets and Prophets to Writings are similar. Just as Deuteronomy ends reflecting on how the prophet greater than Moses has not yet come, Malachi ends reflecting on how the prophet Elijah will return before the coming of that Prophet. And just as Joshua 1 describes Joshua a wisdom teacher in the ways we just saw, Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the man who…delight[s] in the Torah of YHWH and on His Torah he meditates day and night…in all that he does, he prospers.” The reason for this shape of the canon is to insist on personal study of the written Torah. This was how one was to live during the time without prophets (“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses” (Deut 34:10). “Remember the Torah of my servant Moses, the statutes and the rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal 4:4). And the meditate on Torah day and night language of Joshua 1 and Psalms 1 are all fitting ways to apply these things to a new setting (after the end of prophecy a few hundred years before John the Baptist (i.e. Elijah’s return) came on the scene.
I have written on the shape of the Scriptures in other places, see my canon commentary, but I bring it up here to emphasize the point that Deuteronomy 34 is giving us the application and lasting implications of the book for a new setting — one after the cessation of prophecy — and when you no longer have prophets to tell you the will of God you are to discover His will by simply studying Scripture.
So again, we have the original poem (a witness song) and epiloogue and then an additional Second Edition poem and epilogue. The witness song is set “in the latter days” and the epilogue shifts the focus back to the then-present day for application. In these, Israel is a new Adam. The second poem and epilogue update the application and lasting implications to a new setting at a new point in redemptive history after the new Adam has been kicked out of the new Garden. It is worth noting that the new application (study Scripture under a wisdom teacher full of the Spirit) is analogous to the previous one (“take to heart all the words…of this Torah”) just as sermons should do for the text today.