Deuteronomy 31:19-30; 32:1-43 – The Song of Moses


Deuteronomy 31:19-30; 32:1-43


Moses’ last words appear this time in the form of a song that summarizes the story of Israel’s election, apostasy, punishment, and, in the end, God’s gracious vindication.


The Song of Moses (despite the note in 31:30 and 32:1 that Moses is speaking) functions as a justification of God’s ways with Israel. The date of composition is disputed, ranging from the 11th to the sixth century, though there is consensus that it is a later addition to the text of Deuteronomy. Verse 7 speaks of the Exodus as taking place in “the days of old,” and verses 15-26 depict an Israel already in the land of Canaan, while recounting the unfaithfulness that brought them to the brink of exile. While some think it is cast in the form of a hymn because of the calls to praise that frame the song in verses 3 and 43, most continue to see, lying behind the poem, a framework known as the prophetic lawsuit (rib), in which God brings charges against Israel. Thus, the case for God’s gracious care of Israel and an accusation of Israel’s covenantal neglect is brought to the court of “heaven and earth.” For exilic readers, the destruction of Jerusalem and their subsequent deportation to Babylon are understandable consequences of Israel’s lack of faithful obedience. The argument can be outlined as follows:

A. Introduction, calling on heaven and earth to serve as witnesses (vv. 1-3)
B. History of God’s relationship to Israel (vv. 4-18)
1. Accusation: God’s faithfulness and Israel’s apostasy (vv. 4-6)
2. Recital of God’s care for Israel (vv. 7-14)
3. Indictment of Israel’s apostasy (vv. 15-18)
C. God’s decisions (vv. 19-42)
1. To punish Israel (vv. 19-25)
2. To deliver Israel and punish the enemy (vv. 26-42)
a. God’s punishment of Israel might be misunderstood by the enemy as weakness on God’s part (vv. 26-27)
b. God relents and punishes the enemy (vv. 28-42)
D. Summons for the heavenly council to praise God (v. 43)

Most important is the dramatic reversal beginning in verse 26, where God decides the punishment of Israel could be misunderstood as weakness in God (v. 27a) or, worse, victory due to the enemy’s own might (v. 27b). Therefore, God decides to punish the enemy and deliver Israel as a graphic illustration of divine sovereignty (vv. 36-42).

The traditional Easter Vigil, originally a time for baptism, selects snippets from this magnificent poem and its introduction in chapter 31 to remind those about to be baptized of the serious nature of their covenantal commitment. The first four verses of the Song urge them to experience the power of God’s word in their life and to praise God (v. 43a) for his vindication (v. 36a).