Deuteronomy 33:2-3 – God from Everywhere


Deuteronomy 33:2-3


Not from Sinai alone, but from the corners of the world, God came to bring a fiery law. 


God comes from Sinai, rises from Seir and shines from Paran, coming from Ribebot-Kadesh (probably best understood as a place name, probably indicating “eastern Kadesh”, but maybe “myriad of Holy Ones”) to give a fiery law for them. But who is “them”? 

Historically, this verse has been interpreted two ways, that each contribute to profoundly differing theologies. The first interpretation is that just as God appeared to the Israelites at Sinai, God appeared to the Edomites on their holy mountain, Seir, and to the Ishmaelites on their holy mountain, Paran. God wants to appear to each of the peoples of the earth, to give them law. Chapter 33, verse 3 says literally, “[God] loves the peoples” or “a lover of the peoples” (The NRSV chooses a differing way here, and against better translation precedent, but thankfully, includes a footnote of a better choice). Thus, God’s character is consistent with what we will see in the prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as the New Testament – that God desires a relationship with all people. 

The second interpretation sees God appearing at Sinai, Seir, Paran, and Kadesh, just as before. But God only offers other nations what is truly the Israelites’ inheritance alone: the shining/fiery law. Tradition holds that Edomites, Ishmaelites, and others were offered the law, but they refused, and God accepted their refusal. Then the Israelites were the only nation that accepted the offer to be God’s holy community when offered the chance, though certainly the wilderness narrative is full of accounts of communal refusal to obey the Law as well. In this version, God is partial to the Israelites, and only half-heartedly offers to appear to the other communities so that they may be disciplined later for refusing a relationship with God. The rest of the poem in vv. 2-29 seems to support this vision of God’s particularity. 

How God’s people see themselves, and our ideas of how God sees us, have given rise to religious conflict throughout the centuries. Referring back to Deuteronomy’s insistence that God would bring the Israelites into the Holy Land, not because of their righteousness, but because of the wickedness of the peoples being displaced (Deuteronomy 9:1-29) is crucial. As the blessings and curses in the latter part of Deuteronomy (Chapters 27-30) indicate, the Israelites are subject to the same expulsions as others if they disobey – no matter from which mountain they saw God.