This week we are reading Deuteronomy 32, a chapter that’s almost entirely composed of a long poem that goes by the name of its first word, הַאֲזִ֥ינוּ. (If you’re scoring at home, ha’azinu is the Hiphil imperative of אזן aleph-z-n, the same root that gives us ózen ‘ear’. So a fine translation of it would be “give ear.” According to Deuteronomy 31, Moses is to teach this poem to the Israelites. It begins this way:
Give ear, O heavens, and let me speak
Let the earth hear the sayings of my mouth
There is plenty to talk about there in terms of biblical poetry and the parallelism that’s so characteristic of it. I’ll do that one day if I ever get around to writing the book on that subject that I’ve been threatening my readers with for so long. Today I want to go on past the very poetic second verse of the poem, speaking of the words of the poem as refreshing, life-giving rain, to v. 3:
For it is the name YHWH that I proclaim —
Give glory to our God!
The Hebrew of that last phrase, v. 3b as we might refer to it for short, is הָב֥וּ גֹ֖דֶל לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ havu gódel l’eloheinu. Literally, it means “Give greatness to our God.” This is not “give” in the ordinary sense of the word — “See that greatness over on the table? Would you give some of that to God, please?” — nor is it the ordinary verb that is used in Hebrew to give someone something. That would be נתן n-t-n. This is a different verb, the standard verb for “give” in Aramaic but used only in the imperative form in Biblical Hebrew, and not for ordinary “giving.”
You know this verb havu in a slightly different form from the onetime hit parade song “Hava Nagila.” It’s a word of encouragement. To “give” gódel to God does not mean to take it off the shelf and hand it to him. It’s a bit like the expression “give it up for” so-and-so. When it’s God to whom you give this gódel, this greatness, it’s like the old song we used to sing in summer camp: “Give God the glory, glory.” What it means is to proclaim, “God, you are the most glorious!”
The question I want to ask in the context of Deuteronomy 32 is this. To whom is Moses talking? Is he talking to the Israelites? It doesn’t seem he has turned to address them yet. Is it the “people” he has just asked to listen to him, the heavens and the earth? I say people, even though the heavens and the earth are obviously not people, because if you look at Deut 31:28, in the introduction to our chapter and our song, Moses says:
Gather all the elders of your tribes … to me and let me speak these words to them and call the heavens and the earth to bear witness against them.
The heavens and the earth of our chapter, in 32:1, are being called to hear this not because they need to know it, but because they will be available as witnesses at some point in the future. When the Israelites claim not to have made any of these promises, the heavens and the earth will be able to testify, “Oh yes, you did; because we heard you do it.”
What role, then, does v. 3 have when it says, “Give greatness to our God”? Here’s what I would like to suggest.
If you’re a Bible reader or attend synagogue services, that phrase automatically and instantly suggested to you the beginning of Psalm 29:
הָב֣וּ לַֽ֭י׳הוָה בְּנֵ֣י אֵלִ֑ים הָב֥וּ לַ֝י׳הוָ֗ה כָּב֥וֹד וָעֹֽז׃
havu l’adonai b’nei elim
havu l’adonai kavod va’ōz
Give to YHWH, you godlings
Give to YHWH glory and power
That havu, of course, is exactly the same word used in Deut 32:3. Psalm 29 is probably where that little camp song came from (see also Ps 96:7–8 and 1 Chr 16:28–29). Who’s being told in Psalm 29 to give to glory and power to YHWH? It is the b’nei elim, literally “the sons of gods,” but employing ben in its metaphorical sense as a member of a group.
Just as the Bnai Brith are “members of the covenant,” the b’nei elim are divine beings, “members” of the divine council who sit around God (on Mount Zaphon, the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of Mount Olympus) waiting to be told what to do to further the divine governance of the world. In Daniel 10, we see them each in charge of a “desk” in the heavenly State Department / Foreign Ministry.
Why does this matter, and why the difference in our chapter? Jewish tradition has long recognized that (in addition to whatever secrets may have been encoded in it) “the Torah speaks in human language.” In order to express itself, the straightforward sense of Torah must sometimes accommodate itself to the way ordinary people speak and write.
That’s true not just at the level of words and sentences but also at level of genre. When the Torah has a recipe — as it does in Exod 30:23–25 — it not only tells you the ingredients but precisely how much of each to use, just as a recipe for lentil stew might do.
The genre that the book of Deuteronomy seems to be written in is that of an ancient Near Eastern treaty. There are aspects of treaty language elsewhere in the Bible too; perhaps even in Genesis 3. As the literary framework of Deuteronomy, though, a treaty makes eminent sense. Don’t forget that what we’re reading in Deuteronomy 32 is all about a covenant.
What is a covenant? A covenant is an agreement, an agreement is a treaty, and one of the things you did in treaties in the ancient Near East is to invoke the gods as witnesses to the agreement. Scholars commonly liken Deuteronomy to the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, an Assyrian king of the 7th c. BCE, shortly before “a scroll of Torah” was found in the Temple and authenticated by the prophetess Huldah (see 2 Kings 22), but we have similar examples from much earlier, even from the previous millennium and the very beginnings of Israelite civilization.
So the date is not my point here. My point is that when heaven and earth are told “Give greatness to our God” in Deut 32:3, what’s happening is that heaven and earth are being invoked instead of the gods that might have been invoked in another treaty of this form. Because, of course, YHWH is the only God that the Israelites are allowed to deal with, not the “un-gods” of v. 17. That is the whole point of this poem.
Heaven and earth are not gods; they are created beings. Anyone who doesn’t realize that can go back to the very first verse of the Bible where “God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1:1). They are so not gods that they are instructed to “give greatness” to the real god who so far outranks them.
It is precisely because we recognize the allusion to ancient Near Eastern treaty format that we recognize that heaven and earth are replacing “the gods” of other peoples’ cultures. “Giving greatness” to God might even serve as the equivalent of swearing them in so they can give testimony. Heaven and earth — created beings that are the basis of the created world — are now being invoked to bear witness that this covenant between God and the Israelites will always remain in force.
Let’s hope it does as we begin this very unusual new year.