Deuteronomy approaches its close this week, and with it Moses, that great leader, who had been so chary of speech in his youth, gathers himself into a final rush of eloquence that is both a full-scale poem or song and a summing up of the story thus far. He delivers it to the entire congregation of Israel so that each person will know where he has been, where he is going and the perils to be met along the way. The poem also constitutes a psalm to the God of judgment and vengeance. Finally, it is a prelude to a death march, for the man who speaks it has been told to go up to Mount Nebo and to die there “and be gathered unto thy people.”
The poem stops the narrative at a decisive point, at a point of great transformation. A people who were found “in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness” are about to cross the Jordan and enter Canaan; the man who brought them there is to see that land and not enter it. In that land, these people, who had been a collection of tribes, will become a nation and establish a kingship. But never again will they have a leader who deals so directly with God. An important phase in the dialogue between God and Israel is coming to an end.
Indeed, when the song is first mentioned in the preceding chapter, when God first tells Moses to write it down, it is because God sees a time when “I will surely hide my face,” and this song will then “be a witness for me.” Text stands (?) in for divinity as, it can be argued, these books that are about to end have done for centuries.
The song or poem begins with a brief but formal invocation: “Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” It is a rhetorically balanced invocation (a syntactical repetition that is also an enlargement, so characteristic of Biblical poetry) that suggests the largeness of the message to follow, for it spans both heaven and earth. It is not a direct appeal for inspirational aid, common in epic poetry, but it does seem to suggest that unless the heavens hear, there will be no speech.
I cannot help but think that Milton had it in mind when, early on in his invocation to the Muse in “Paradise Lost” he wrote:
There is a great delicacy and lyricism to the verse following the invocation that is in sharp contrast to the lines of wrath and judgment that give the rest of the poem its basic character. The imagery is pastoral. The words of the song are likened to “the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass.” It’s an unusual verse for its lyricism and for its statement that words can be fructifying, nourishing, a bringer of life. That is a strong claim for poetry.
However, it’s not a claim for pure poetry but for a poetry rooted in belief, as the next verse makes clear. And indeed the whole body of the song that follows is a strong reminder to the people of the rock on which they stand, though even here some of the imagery is pastoral and even maternal: “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings” so God will take care of his people.
Against this imagery of protection is an imagery of overwhelming anger and destruction: “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell.” That is God speaking through Moses, the familiar God who castigates his people for going after strange gods in the past and for continuing to follow them. His people will be punished directly by him (this is spelled out graphically) and through the agency of other people, but in time, their enemies also will suffer horribly: “I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh.” And at the end, God “will be merciful unto his land and to his people.” Such is the promise of the song.
It is out of this rock of fear and belief that the poet who wrote this song of Moses was able to suck honey, as is said of Jacob (meaning Israel) early in the poem: “He made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock.”
Harvey Shapiro is a poet whose most recent books are “Poets of World War II (American Poets Project)” (The Library of America, 2003) and “How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems” (Wesleyan University Press, 2001).