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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 31

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 31 Moses’ Final Words.

Having made his great oration Moses was now aware that his death was rapidly approaching, and he spoke even more earnestly in the light of it. And that approaching death could only increase his pessimism about the people.

His first words were to ‘all Israel’, encouraging them to trust Yahweh (Deuteronomy 31:1-6), his next to Joshua in order to encourage him in what lay ahead (Deuteronomy 31:7-8), and then he spoke to the priests and elders for the preservation of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). But then he entered into the secret counsels of Yahweh and his message was less encouraging, at least for the medium term (Deuteronomy 31:14 onwards). From that point on he was taking the longer view about Israel, and it was not very encouraging at all, so much so that Yahweh commissioned him to write a song in preparation for it, a song of Complaint.


Verses 1-8

Chapter 31 Moses’ Final Words.

Having made his great oration Moses was now aware that his death was rapidly approaching, and he spoke even more earnestly in the light of it. And that approaching death could only increase his pessimism about the people.

His first words were to ‘all Israel’, encouraging them to trust Yahweh (Deuteronomy 31:1-6), his next to Joshua in order to encourage him in what lay ahead (Deuteronomy 31:7-8), and then he spoke to the priests and elders for the preservation of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). But then he entered into the secret counsels of Yahweh and his message was less encouraging, at least for the medium term (Deuteronomy 31:14 onwards). From that point on he was taking the longer view about Israel, and it was not very encouraging at all, so much so that Yahweh commissioned him to write a song in preparation for it, a song of Complaint.

Moses Final Words Of Encouragement To His People And Call To Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:1-8).

Moses now calls the people together again and addresses then in readiness of his death.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a And Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. And he said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day. I can no more go out and come in, and Yahweh has said to me, “You shall not go over this Jordan” ’ (Deuteronomy 31:1-2).

b Yahweh your God, He will go over before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you will dispossess them, and Joshua, he will go over before you, as Yahweh has spoken (Deuteronomy 31:3).

c And Yahweh will do to them as He did to Sihon and to Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land; whom He destroyed (Deuteronomy 31:4).

d And Yahweh will deliver them up before you

d And you shall do to them according to all the commandment which I have commanded you (Deuteronomy 31:5).

c Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid at them, for Yahweh your God, He it is who does go with you); He will not fail you, nor forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6).

b And Moses called to Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and of good courage, for you will go with this people into the land which Yahweh has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you will cause them to inherit it” (Deuteronomy 31:7).

a And Yahweh, He it is who does go before you. He will be with you, He will not fail you, nor forsake you. Fear not, nor be dismayed (Deuteronomy 31:8).

Note that in ‘a’ the bad news is that Moses cannot go over Jordan with them because Yahweh has forbidden it, and in the parallel the good news is that Yahweh Himself will go over before them. In ‘b’ Yahweh will go over before them and destroy the nations from before them, and so will Joshua. And in the parallel Joshua must be strong and courageous because Yahweh is going before them and will cause them to inherit the land. In ‘c’ Yahweh will do to the nations what He did to Sihon and Og, and in the parallel they are therefore to be strong and of good courage. In ‘d’ Yahweh will deliver them up before them, then in the parallel they are to ensure that they drive them out or slay them.

Note the two references in the second part of the chiasmus to ‘Be strong and of good courage’. We have already seen earlier that that is typical of the Pentateuch, the repetition of something vital in the second part of a chiasmus (see for example Exodus 18:21-22 a with Exodus 18:25-26 a; Numbers 18:4 with Numbers 18:7, Numbers 18:23 with Numbers 18:24; Deuteronomy 2:21 with Deuteronomy 2:22. Compare also Isaiah 2:19; Isaiah 2:21).

Deuteronomy 31:1

And Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel.’

Once again we have it stressed that we have here the words of Moses, and in fact there is really no good reason to doubt it. As we have seen all the signs point in that direction.

“And Moses went.” This is a gentle indication that this was at a different point in time to the previous chapter, stressing also deliberate purpose.

Deuteronomy 31:2

And he said to them, I am a hundred and twenty years old this day. I can no more go out and come in, and Yahweh has said to me, “You shall not go over this Jordan.” ’

He declared his old age (compare Deuteronomy 34:7). One hundred and twenty was probably a round number, possibly representing three generations of forty years. He had been ‘eighty’ when he had first approached Pharaoh (Exodus 7:7 - he had had a generation in Egypt and a generation in Midian) and Aaron had been three years older. It may be that each period of his life; his time in Egypt, his time in Moab, and his time leading the people in the wilderness, was seen in terms of ‘three generations’ expressed in terms of three forties of years. This was the way numbers were often used in those days, to convey an idea rather than a mathematical fact. Note how many of the references to age and time in Genesis end in nought or five. Thus he had lived through three generations. He may in fact have been, say, in his eighties or nineties.

“I can no more go out and come in.” This did not signify decrepitude. To ‘go out and in’ indicated being busy with the affairs of life. But this was no longer to be possible for him because he was to be displaced. His usefulness was over. This was his constant regret. The phrase is not a contradiction of Deuteronomy 34:7. His eye was still keen, he had been able to see across the Jordan. His strength had not abated. He could still walk and move around. But there was nothing further for him to do. His purpose in life was over.

But his greatest disappointment was that he was not to be allowed to cross the Jordan. He was not to be allowed even to step into the land. It was partly because of his failure at Meribah, which had revealed a lack in his full commitment. But we may also see it as indicating that God did not want Israel’s first days and memories in the land to be ones of grief and disappointment at the death of their great leader. He wanted them to be days of encouragement. They would need such encouragement before they were finished. Thus it was far better for them to get over the death of Moses before they entered the land. Moses could only ever be a reminder of the wilderness. Joshua could then be a new beginning who would see them through the first years after their entry into the land.

Deuteronomy 31:3

Yahweh your (thy) God, he will go over before you (thee); he will destroy these nations from before you (thee), and you (thou) will dispossess them, and Joshua, he will go over before you (thee), as Yahweh has spoken.’

But lest this discourage them he pointed out that while he may die Yahweh would still be alive. He would go over before them and would destroy the nations from before them so that they would dispossess them. Like a true leader his thoughts were for his people and not for himself. And he also pointed out that Yahweh had appointed a new leader for them, even his servant Joshua. He too, like Moses, would be God’s instrument of deliverance. He would be ‘the Servant of Yahweh’ in his stead (Joshua 24:29). He too would go over, in the triumphant train of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 31:7-8).

Deuteronomy 31:4

And Yahweh will do to them as he did to Sihon and to Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land; whom he destroyed.’

And they need not therefore fear. Yahweh would destroy the nations before them as He had Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites. He had destroyed them and their lands. They had therefore no need to fear Amorites any more (contrast Deuteronomy 1:44), for now they had seen what Yahweh could do to them.

Deuteronomy 31:5

And Yahweh will deliver them up before you (ye), and you (ye) shall do to them according unto all the commandment which I have commanded you (ye).’

For Yahweh would deliver them up before them, and when He did they were to ensure that they did what He had commanded them, slay every last person, so that evil might be rooted out of the land. Had they in fact carried out this command they might have been saved for a much longer period from the cursings. But subsequently they were disobedient once the initial rest and time of blessing was past (Judges 2:7), simply because they were influenced by the people still remaining in the land, as the narrative in Judges makes clear, and that was why the cursings began to reveal themselves. When God calls on us to do something, however unpleasant, we do well to do it (but we must make sure that it is God Who is calling us to do it).

Deuteronomy 31:6

Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid at them, for Yahweh your (thy) God, he it is who does go with you (thee); he will not fail you (thee), nor forsake you (thee).’

They were therefore to be strong and of good courage. They were to carry no fear in their hearts, and they were not to be afraid of the enemy. For it was Yahweh their God who was going with them, and He would neither fail them nor forsake them. They would be able totally to rely on Him. If God was for them, who could be against them?

Here they were on the verge of the land. Ahead of them lay battle after battle. The thought that Yahweh was with them and that victory was certain in them all if they truly followed Him, would have been a huge encouragement,

We too must ever remember as we go forward in our lives Who it is Who goes with us. The thought should not only keep us from sin, but also be the assurance to us of the certainty of success if we walk with Him. If God be for us who can be against us, no matter how long the trials may go on?


Verse 7-8

Moses’ Commission to Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:7-8).

Having encouraged the people Moses then hands over the reins to Joshua ‘in the sight of all the people’.

Deuteronomy 31:7

And Moses called to Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and of good courage, for you will go with this people into the land which Yahweh has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you will cause them to inherit it.’

All the detail had no doubt already been dealt with, but this was the final commissioning ceremony as Joshua took over the reins. In front of all the people he was ‘sworn in’ (see Deuteronomy 3:28 and compare Numbers 27:21-23). All the concentration, however, was not on him but on the fact that Yahweh was with him. He could be strong and of good courage for his future victory was certain. He would go in with his people, into the land, and he would possess it, for it was the land that Yahweh had sworn to their fathers to give them. And all because Yahweh was with him.

Deuteronomy 31:8

And Yahweh, he it is who does go before you. He will be with you, he will not fail you, nor forsake you. Fear not, nor be dismayed.’

And this was because it was Yahweh Who would be going before them. He would be with them. He would not fail or forsake them. Thus he and they had no reason to be afraid or be dismayed, for all was in Yahweh’s hands. When Moses was dead Yahweh would repeat to Joshua precisely the same thing (Joshua 1:5-6), confirming his position as the new God-chosen leader and commander. Joshua was taking on no light responsibility. He was replacing Moses.

He had, however, been groomed for it from when he was a young man. He had been with Moses in the Mount (Exodus 24:13; Exodus 32:17). He had commanded the army of Israel in resisting enemy attack (Exodus 17:9). He had watched over the original Tent of Meeting where he had probably had much to do with the recording of the words of Moses (Exodus 33:11). He was constantly Moses’ right hand man (Exodus 24:13; Numbers 11:28). He had been one of the spies who searched out Canaan (Numbers 14:6; Numbers 14:30; Numbers 14:38). He had been demonstrated to be selected out for leadership (Numbers 32:28; Numbers 34:17). He had thus received plenty of training before being ‘chosen’. If we would be chosen by God we must first prepare ourselves well.


Verses 9-13

The Law Is Handed Over In Written Form And It Is Commanded That It Be Read In Its Totality To All Israel Every Seven Years (Deuteronomy 31:9-13).

Moses’ attention now turned to the priests. They primarily had the responsibility for the maintenance of the whole covenant, especially the ritual element.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bear the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, and to all the elders of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:9).

b And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before Yahweh your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing (Deuteronomy 31:10-11).

b Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your resident alien who is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear Yahweh your God, and observe to do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 31:12).

a And that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear Yahweh your God, as long as you live in the land to which you go over the Jordan to possess it (Deuteronomy 31:13).

Note that in ‘a’ Moses wrote the Instruction and handed it over officially to the priests who would teach it to, and enforce it on, the people, and in the parallel it is so that their children might hear it and learn to fear Yahweh. In ‘b’ they were to gather every seven years to hear the reading of the whole Torah at the Feast of Tabernacles, and in the parallel the people were to be assembled to hear, learn and fear Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 31:9

And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bear the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, and to all the elders of Israel.’

In the context of the book ‘this law’ would refer to the whole of Deuteronomy up to this point. God’s instruction in Deuteronomy is now firmly placed in the context of the Sanctuary. But the fact that he did this confirms that he would also have done it previously for the remainder of the Law, the whole of the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy in itself was very much incomplete as a source of Law, it had simply given various slants on it, and said very little about the ritual that would be the primary responsibility of the priests. He would have been irresponsible merely to record this popular version, and not the more detailed requirements contained elsewhere. This is confirmed in Nehemiah 8:14-15 when in the reading of the law at the feast of Tabernacles Leviticus was clearly read. Thus Moses had this written in order to put it with the other scrolls/tablets (Deuteronomy 31:26).

We are not to see the whole Law as all written down for the first time at that stage. It had taken many years to write, and to bring to completion. Moses would have recorded it and built on it. It would already have been placed ‘by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh’. But now he was about to die and so he had finalised it with this summary in Deuteronomy, and then solemnly handed it over to the religious and secular leadership. It was to be the foundation of their authority. Now that Moses would no longer be with them this would be their Bible.

It was not handed over to Joshua. While Joshua was supreme leader under Yahweh, the oversight of the people was in the joint hands of the priests and the elders, and the Law was therefore held within the Sanctuary, a seal on the covenant between Yahweh and His people.

“The priests, the sons of Levi, who bear the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh.” The priesthood had overall responsibility for the Ark and all its movements. It was under their jurisdiction. This does not mean that they had to actually carry it themselves, except when it was uncovered and going forth to war. Levites had been appointed for the task of being its bearers when it was covered (Numbers 4:4-15). But it was the priests who covered it and had overall responsibility, and who alone could carry it when it was uncovered. To have such an exalted position as this, responsibility for the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh, demonstrated their unique standing with Yahweh. They were the throne-servants who served the Lord of the whole earth.

“All the elders of Israel.” These might include in this context the princes of the tribes, the tribal heads, the judge (Deuteronomy 17:9) and wider judges, the sub-tribal heads, the leading men of the tribes, the commanders of thousands, and the wider-family heads. (Compare Deuteronomy 29:10; 2 Chronicles 5:2).

Deuteronomy 31:10-11

And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before Yahweh your (thy) God in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.’

Provision was now made for the reading of God’s Instruction every seven years during the seventh year ‘Year of Release’ at the Feast of Tabernacles. Then all Israel would appear before Him at the place which He would choose to hear the reading of ‘this law’, the whole Law, ‘before all Israel’ in their hearing. In Nehemiah it is clear that ‘the book of the law’ read at the feast of Tabernacles certainly included Leviticus (Nehemiah 8:14-15, compare Leviticus 23:34-42). This periodic reading out of a treaty was a familiar feature of many treaties as a reminder to those bound by them.

This confirms the importance of the Year of Release to Israel. Only one aspect has been mentioned in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), but it was a year of great import (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7), indeed of such importance that, when they failed to keep it, it would be divinely enforced by turning them out of the land (Leviticus 26:34-35; Leviticus 26:43). Their failure to observe it was a sign of refusal to recognise His ownership of the land, and of themselves and their time.

Of course this was not the only time when the people would hear God’s Instruction. Some part of it would be communicated at every feast. But this was to be the time when the whole Law was read out.

“The year of release.” Compare Deuteronomy 15:1; Deuteronomy 15:9 where debt was released, and Exodus 22:11 where the land was ‘released’.

Deuteronomy 31:12

Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your (thy) resident alien who is within your (thy) gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear Yahweh your God, and observe to do all the words of this law,’

For this reading of God’s Instruction all must gather, men, women, children and resident aliens so that all may learn, and fear Yahweh and observe to do all that He had said in His Instruction.

But it may be that some of the women and children could be represented by some who would stand in for them from among their number, and that recitals of the Law were also arranged in cities and towns, for the cattle could not be left for seven days without milking on their farms. ‘All Israel’ in verse 11 could mean all the adult males. They certainly had to gather at the Sanctuary. But some of the remainder could possibly gather in their cities and towns. Compare how unleavened bread had to be throughout the whole of Israel at the feast of unleavened bread (Deuteronomy 16:4) even though the males had to gather at the Sanctuary.

Deuteronomy 31:13

And that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear Yahweh your (of ye) God, as long as you (ye) live in the land to which you (ye) go over the Jordan to possess it.’

This was to be very much a renewing of the covenant with the latest members of Israel. Each seven years the latest additions to Israel would ‘know and hear and learn to fear’ Yahweh their God. And this was to go on for as long as they lived in the land which they were going over Jordan to possess. They too must learn that the land was Yahweh’s and that they held it from Him.

They would, of course, have been taught the instruction of Yahweh from babyhood. But hearing it solemnly read out at the feast would be the seal on their recognition of it as the word of Yahweh.

For the theoretical purpose for the land was that it would be an everlasting kingdom under Yahweh, a land of purity and light among the nations, a land where Yahweh and His people would be together within the covenant relationship. It was to be like a marriage. The actual practise would in fact turn out to be far different simply because of the disobedience of the people.

But in the final analysis it was preparing for a greater purpose which would be revealed in the coming Messiah, resulting in an everlasting kingdom which was beyond man’s wildest dreams.


Verses 14-23

Moses’ Final Charge From Yahweh (Deuteronomy 31:14-23).

God now called Moses and Joshua into the Tent of Meeting, and when they had entered, the cloud stood over the door of the Tent of Meeting in order to demonstrate that they were in conference, and to prevent interruption by the priests. Both Moses and Joshua as servants of Yahweh clearly had a unique right of access.

In a book where the emphasis was on the ‘place’ which Yahweh would choose where the people met, this one and only mention of the Tent of Meeting must be seen as significant. It is bringing out the difference at this point between Moses and Joshua on the one hand, and the priests and the people on the other. At this point Moses and Joshua alone went into the Tent of Meeting itself, and went behind the cloud as they had at Sinai, while the remainder stayed away. The priest could minister in the tent but Yahweh owned it. They could only enter with His permission.

And in this private interview a totally different picture was given of the situation that was being presented. In the first half of the chapter all had been confidence and assurance and certainty and encouragement. But in this second half, while the same general pattern is followed as in Deuteronomy 31:1-13, a reference being first made concerning Israel as a whole (Deuteronomy 31:16-21, contrast Deuteronomy 31:1-6), then concerning Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:23, compare Deuteronomy 31:7-8), then a giving of the Instruction to the priests, which was to include the elders (Deuteronomy 31:24-26 with Deuteronomy 31:28, compare Deuteronomy 31:9), the emphasis is totally different. It is pessimistic rather than optimistic. The first half was full of confidence and expectancy. This second half is filled with doubt and mystery. We can almost again hear the words of Moses, ‘the secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us (Israel) and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this Instruction (Deuteronomy 29:29).’ While the children of Israel had received what Yahweh had given them, His secrets were only being revealed to Moses and Joshua.

Compare for this sudden switch in mood Deuteronomy 28:1-14 with Deuteronomy 28:15-68; and Deuteronomy 29:1-21 with Deuteronomy 29:22-28, the latter leading up into the saying in Deuteronomy 29:29.

And the giving of these secrets was then followed by the giving of the book of the law to the priests and a communication to the elders (Deuteronomy 29:24-29, contrast Deuteronomy 29:9-13), while stressing to both the untrustworthiness of, and stiffnecked attitude of the people, with regard to the covenant. Among other things it was an attempt to remind them that they should not be complacent.

So in this chapter a message of hope is deliberately combined with a communication of doubt, as previously in the book. Compare Deuteronomy 4:23-31; Deuteronomy 28 all; Deuteronomy 29:1-28; Deuteronomy 30:1. Let them go forward confidently but let them beware and recognise what they were in their own hearts.

He begins Deuteronomy 31:14-29 by informing Moses that his death is approaching, and called on him to bring Joshua in with him into the Tent of Meeting. And there He informed him prophetically in no uncertain terms of what Israel’s future would be like. His emphasis was on the fact that it was a future that would result in failure. And the purpose for emphasising this was so that he and Joshua (ye) might write a song, which would be available to speak to Israel when that time of failure came. The song was as given in Deuteronomy 31:30. This was a main purpose of this secret meeting, the need to write an inspired song to meet future emergencies.

Yahweh then personally called on Joshua, and repeating Moses’ previous assurance, confirmed his appointment as the new leader, and encouraged him with the certainty of His help. At least that part of their future was secure.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a And Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, your days approach that you must die. Call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may give him a charge.” (Deuteronomy 31:14 a).

b And Moses and Joshua went, and presented themselves in the tent of meeting, and Yahweh appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood over the door of the Tent (Deuteronomy 31:14-15).

c And Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, you shall sleep with your fathers, and this people will rise up, and play the prostitute after the foreign gods of the land, to which they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16).

d “Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them (Deuteronomy 31:17 a).

e And I will hide my face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles will come upon them; so that they will say in that day, ‘Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:17).

e And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evil which they will have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods” (Deuteronomy 31:18).

d “Now therefore write you this song for yourselves, and teach you it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19).

c “For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore to their fathers, flowing with milk and honey, and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxed fat; then will they turn to other gods, and serve them, and despise me, and break my covenant” (Deuteronomy 31:20).

b “And it shall come about, when many evils and troubles are come on them, that this song will testify before them as a witness; for it will not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they frame this day, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.” So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:21-22).

a And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, “Be strong and of good courage; for you will bring the children of Israel into the land which I swore unto them: and I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23).

Note that in ‘a’ Moses is to call Joshua and they are to present themselves in the Tent of Meeting so that Joshua can be given a charge, and in the parallel he gave Joshua the charge and told him to be strong and of good courage, for he would bring the children of Israel into the land and Yahweh would be with him. In ‘b’ they went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting and Yahweh appeared in the pillar of cloud and it stood over the door of the Tent. (The cloud is the witness to the covenant and His purpose was twofold, firstly to give Joshua a charge and secondly to tell Moses to write a song which would be a witness against the failure of the people to keep the covenant). And in the parallel when trouble comes on them the song will testify against them as a witness. In ‘c’ the people will rise up and play the prostitute after foreign gods and will forsake Yahweh, and break His covenant which He has made with them, and in the parallel they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise Yahweh, and break His covenant. In ‘d’ then His anger will be kindled against them in that day, and He will forsake them, and in the parallel the song which is a charge that they have forsaken Him is to be written as a witness against the children of Israel. In ‘e’ He ‘will hide His face from them’, and many ‘evils’ and troubles will come on them and they will realise that God is not among them, and in the parallel He ‘will hide His face from them’ because of the ‘evil’ that they have wrought in turning to other gods. Note also the repetition in the first statement and the parallel of ‘in that day’.

We should notice that this is the third charge to ‘be strong and of good courage’. Compare Deuteronomy 31:6 and Deuteronomy 31:7 for the other two. It is giving ‘complete’ assurance. Furthermore the song is referred to four times in this passage, once to be written (Deuteronomy 31:19), twice to be a twofold witness against them (Deuteronomy 31:19; Deuteronomy 31:21), and once in the writing (Deuteronomy 31:22). It is central to their purpose in being there, and to the passage.

Deuteronomy 31:14

And Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, your (thy) days approach that you must die. Call Joshua, and present yourselves (ye both) in the tent of meeting, that I may give him a charge.” And Moses and Joshua went, and presented themselves in the tent of meeting.

God first confirmed that Moses must die. He must therefore make preparation. So He called on him to bring Joshua with him into the Tent of Meeting, so that He may ‘give him a charge’. Though he must die for His failure at Meribah, Moses was not rejected. He was still Yahweh’s supreme representative. The Tent was the place of the covenant, and he was safely within the covenant, as Joshua would be as well. And here he must pass on his responsibilities to his successor.

Deuteronomy 31:15

And Yahweh appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood over the door of the Tent.’

And there, alone with them in the Tent, Yahweh appeared in a pillar of cloud, the cloud by which He had led Israel in the way, when also they had not believed (Deuteronomy 1:33). It was the same cloud that had hidden Yahweh when He proclaimed the covenant (Deuteronomy 5:22), and into which Moses and Joshua had ascended previously as they went up alone and left the children of Israel behind (Exodus 24:13; Exodus 24:15). Now as then there was again a separating between them and the whole of Israel. To them were to be revealed the secret things.

We should note that the coming of the cloud was in complete contrast to the writing of the song. The cloud was the witness that He was there as the God of the covenant, that Yahweh was with them and with His people. The song would be a witness that at come stage they would break the covenant, and was in order to be ready for that day.

This is the first mention in Deuteronomy of the Tent of Meeting, although there can be little doubt that it was around the Tent that Israel had gathered to hear the words of Moses, in ‘the place’ at that time chosen by Yahweh which the Tent proclaimed. But the people could not enter the Tent. It was unknown territory to them and had thus been ignored in the people’s covenant, being seen rather as ‘the place’. It is mentioned here to confirm its status as the place where Yahweh would be met with, and Yahweh manifested His presence in the Tent, by means of the familiar pillar of cloud which hovered over the door of the Tent (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 33:9-10; Numbers 12:5; Numbers 14:14) preventing access. And there He spoke first with Moses.

Deuteronomy 31:16

And Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, you shall sleep with your fathers, and this people will rise up, and play the prostitute after the foreign gods of the land, to which they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.” ’

Yahweh was under no illusions about Israel. Even though they would be given every opportunity to serve Him faithfully, their future was known to Him. He knew that once Moses ‘slept with his fathers’ they would be unfaithful and turn to the gods of the land, and would forsake Him and be unfaithful to the covenant which He had made with them. It had already happened both at Sinai and at Baal-peor. It would not happen immediately while Joshua was around, but it would certainly happen. And He now made this known to Moses so that he would, with Joshua’s help, write the song that could be a blessing to Israel in the future.

It is here made clear to us that God is sovereign over the whole future. Alone in the Tent He can reveal what that future holds, because from that future He intends to finally establish His purposes. But He makes clear that it will not be achieved easily. Outside the Tent was optimism, and entreaty and encouragement, as they looked forward to the short term, the occupation of Canaan. Inside it was the truth as things would be in the longer term. Outside men were called on to choose freely. Inside the inexorable purposes of God are unfolded, the result of the extremes of man’s sinfulness.

“Play the prostitute.” A sign of unfaithfulness and wantonness. Compare Exodus 34:15-16; Leviticus 17:7; Leviticus 20:5; Numbers 15:39; Judges 2:17; Judges 8:27; Judges 8:33; etc. It indicates reckless unfaithfulness to a marriage covenant, a covenant which was very similar to Yahweh’s covenant of love with Israel. Cult prostitution would have been well known to Israel from connections with Canaanite religion in parts of Egypt, where Baal was clearly worshipped.

“Foreign gods of the land.” The point here was that although they were worshipped in the land they were foreign to it and should not be there. For this was Yahweh’s land, separated to Him and holy.

“Break my covenant.” Compare Genesis 17:14; Leviticus 26:15; Leviticus 26:44).

Deuteronomy 31:17

Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles will come upon them; so that they will say in that day, ‘Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ ”

The result will be that His anger will be kindled against them, and He will forsake them too. He will hide His face from them and the result will be that they will be at the mercy of the nations and will be ‘devoured’. Many evils and troubles will come on them through invasion and servitude because they have deserted Him. And this will eventually waken them up and will turn their thoughts back to God. The cursings would continue to apply until they awoke a gradual stirring in their hearts.

Deuteronomy 31:18

And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evil which they will have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods.”

For in that day He would continue to hide His face from them because of all their evil doings and their unfaithfulness. Awareness of Him was not in itself enough. There must be a turning away from other gods. There must be true repentance.

Deuteronomy 31:19

Now therefore write you (ye) this song for you (ye), and teach you (thou) it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel.”

The purpose in bringing all this out is now stated. Moses as a prophet, together with Joshua (this serves to confirm that Joshua was involved in much of what Moses ‘wrote’), had to prepare a prophetic message that Israel would be able to turn to at that time, which would speak to their situation. Moses had written God’s Instruction for Israel. That was to be taught to the children that they may be a part of the covenant and know Yahweh’s will. But now, along with Joshua, he was to write a song. This song was also to be taught to the children, but it was to be of a different nature. It was in fact very much a Complaint Document, a complaint similar to a typical complaint against a vassal written by his overlord in response to a breach of treaty, examples of which are known. It is a call for their restoration having breached the treaty. Such ‘Complaint’ documents would be something that would have been well known to Moses from Egypt.

With the knowledge that Moses had of what the future held as revealed in Deuteronomy 4:23-31; Deuteronomy 28 all; Deuteronomy 29:22-29; Deuteronomy 30:1, we should not be surprised that he would consider the need to prepare for it. And the song format would be a means of doing so without being itself a disillusionment to the people.

Deuteronomy 31:20

For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore to their fathers, flowing with milk and honey, and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxed fat; then will they turn to other gods, and serve them, and despise me, and break my covenant.”

To Moses God outlined what He knew would eventually happen. Whether this was private communication to Moses, or whether Joshua was included, we are not told. Perhaps it was better for Joshua not to know to the fullest extent what was to happen. His part may simply have been to again later record the words of Moses. (He was mainly there for a different purpose).

The news was not good. Having been brought into the land in accordance with Yahweh’s oath to their fathers (it was because of this oath that He was bringing them in at all), into the land flowing with milk and honey, instead of being grateful and remaining faithful to Him for ever, they will lapse. When they have ‘eaten and filled themselves, and waxed fat; then will they turn to other gods, and serve them, and despise me, and break my covenant.’ Note the sequence. They would first fill themselves with all the good things that He had given them, and then they would turn to other gods and serve them. Having ‘milked’ Yahweh, they would then desert Him. And yet such was His goodness that He would still persevere with them.

Note the contrast here. Yahweh had sworn the oath to their forefathers, and was faithful to His promises. They had sworn to obey the covenant, but would be unfaithful to it.

Deuteronomy 31:21

And it shall come about, when many evils and troubles are come on them, that this song will testify before them as a witness; for it will not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they frame this day, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.”

As a result of their desertion many evils and troubles would come on them, and it was then that they would turn to the Song that Moses must now write, for it would be a witness to them, both of their infidelity and of God’s continual mercy. Moses need not worry. It would not be forgotten by them. Their seed would sing it continually until one day its significance dawned on them. Meanwhile Yahweh wanted Moses to know that He was perfectly aware of how these people were thinking even before He has brought them into the land. Note again the stress on ‘which I swore’. That is in fact the reason why He was still going to bring them into the land.

Deuteronomy 31:22

So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel.’

And so Moses did what Yahweh had said, and wrote the song that Yahweh had commanded, and taught it to the children of Israel. This verse is a summary verse simply put in to let us know that Moses will be obedient. Then the passage goes on with the present circumstances. It is typical of ancient literature.


Verse 23

The Charge to Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:23).

Having communicated with Moses Yahweh now spoke to Joshua, who may not have been aware of what God had said to Moses. For what God said to Joshua was no different from what Moses had said to him previously (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). He gave him the ‘charge’ which was the purpose of him being there (Deuteronomy 31:14).

Deuteronomy 31:23

And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, “Be strong and of good courage; for you will bring the children of Israel into the land which I swore unto them: and I will be with you.”

He now promised Joshua that He would be with him, and that as a result he would accomplish the task of bringing them into the land. Thus he could be strong and of good courage.


Verses 24-29

Moses Charge To The Levites (Deuteronomy 31:24-29).

Here we have repeated that Moses wrote all the words of the covenant down in a book. Twofold repetition in Scripture is always for emphasis. But he then censured them harshly. It may well be that we are to see Deuteronomy 31:9 as referring to the writing of the first papyrus scroll or tablet, which was then handed over as described, and that then his meeting with Yahweh intervened, for it is quite clear that writing the full Instruction down would take some considerable time, especially if two copies were required, one for the Overlord and one for the subjects. That would explain why when he handed over the remainder, or possibly the second copy, having written it, his approach was so different. What Yahweh had revealed to him had clearly affected him deeply.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a And it came about, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, saying (Deuteronomy 31:24-25).

b “Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of Yahweh your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26).

c “For I know your rebellion, and your stiff neck (Deuteronomy 31:27 a).

c Behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, you have been rebellious against Yahweh, and how much more after my death?” (Deuteronomy 31:27 b).

b “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” (Deuteronomy 31:28).

a “For I know that after my death you will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you, and evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 31:29).

Note that in ‘a’ the book of Instruction was written and finished and preparation made to put it beside the Ark, as a seal and guarantee of the covenant together with its blessings and cursings, and in the parallel he is aware that they will behave in such a way that they will bring on them the cursings in that book. In ‘b’ they are to take the book of Instruction and put it beside the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh that it might be a witness against them, and in the parallel heaven and earth is to be a witness against them also. In ‘c’ he knows their rebellion and obstinacy, and in the parallel he points out that he has already witnessed their rebellion and expects them to be even more rebellious when he has gone.

Deuteronomy 31:24-25

And it came about, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, saying,

When Moses had made an end of writing of ‘the words of this Instruction in a book’ so that it was completely finished, he now gave his command to ‘the Levites who bore the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh’. This may indicate the priests, for they alone could bear the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh when it was uncovered. But as the command is only to put it down beside the Ark, it may be that he was speaking to the Levites who normally bore the Ark when it was covered (Numbers 4:15), so that next time they put the Ark down they placed the book beside it before the Tent was erected around it and it was uncovered by the priests.

Deuteronomy 31:26

Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of Yahweh your (of ye) God, that it may be there for a witness against you (thee).”

His strong words bring home the impact of what he had heard in the Tent. While it was not the first time he had heard such things, hearing it in the light of his approaching death and with such solemn certainty, had brought it home to him anew. So he charges them to take the book of Yahweh’s Instruction, and put it beside the Ark. Inside the Ark were the tablets containing the original covenant. This book was to take its place beside it, possibly in the Holy of Holies, or possibly in the Holy Place next to the veil behind which would be the Ark in close proximity.

But it is his words which reveal his thoughts, ‘as a witness against you’. It may well be that they wondered what had happened to bring about this change in him in comparison to the last time (verse 9). But the import was clear. It would be a testimony against any in Israel who sinned, and against all Israel when all Israel sinned, and against them when they sinned.

Deuteronomy 31:27

For I know your (thy) rebellion, and your (thy) stiff neck. Behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, you (ye) have been rebellious against Yahweh, and how much more after my death?”

He then told them quite bluntly that Israel whom they represented were rebellious and stiffnecked, and that his experience of them while he was still alive had convinced him that they would be even worse after his death. They were probably used to his speaking like this, possibly too used to it. They may even have agreed with him wholeheartedly, convinced that while it was not true of them it was certainly true of the others, for such is our ability to take the worst of accusations and apply it to other than ourselves.

Deuteronomy 31:28

Assemble to me all the elders of your (of ye) tribes, and your (of ye) officers, that I may speak these words in their ears, and call heaven and earth to witness against them.”

He then commanded them to gather all the elders and administrative assistants of Israel so that he could tell them the same, and so that he could call heaven and earth to witness against them. He had previously called on heaven and earth to witness his offer to Israel of life and good or death and evil (Deuteronomy 30:19). Now it was to witness as to which they would choose.

Both he and the elders were aware that he was not necessarily speaking about them. He was speaking about them as the present representatives of the people who would do this. It was a public announcement about the future. He was warning about the consequences of unfaithfulness. The elders who were under Joshua, and those of them who outlived him would in fact prove faithful. It would be after that that the rot set in (Judges 2:7)

Deuteronomy 31:29

For I know that after my death you (ye) will utterly corrupt yourselves (ye), and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you (ye) in the latter days, because you (ye) will do that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh, to provoke him to anger through the work of your (of ye) hands.”

For as a result of being with Yahweh in the Tent he now knew afresh what Israel would prove to be like. That after his death they would corrupt themselves totally by turning aside from the way which he had commanded them to take. And he warned them that in later days evil would befall them because of the evil that they would do in the sight of Yahweh, provoking Him to anger by the work of their hands, including the idols that they made. And this is the context in which he now gave out the great song that he had written under Yahweh’s guidance.

This command to Moses to write a song with the future in view is quite significant. It makes quite clear that it was God’s intention ever to meet the people’s need before it arose by raising up those who could ‘prophesy’. It makes us aware that we should therefore expect to see such continuing activity in the history of Israel.


Verse 30

Chapter 32 The Song of Moses.

Having written the Complaint Document as a song to be sung by the children of Israel until its words were fulfilled and it could be called on as a witness against them, and also be seen as a promise of hope, Moses read out the song to the people.

Analysis.

a And Moses spoke in the ears of all the assembly of Israel the words of this song, until they were finished (Deuteronomy 31:30).

b The Song of Complaint and Promise (Deuteronomy 32:1-43).

a And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people, he, and Hoshea the son of Nun, and Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel (Deuteronomy 32:44-45).

The Song of Complaint and Promise (Deuteronomy 32:1-43).

Deuteronomy 31:30

And Moses spoke in the ears of all the assembly of Israel the words of this song, until they were finished.’

As we have just previously been informed, this song was written for when Israel saw worse days, but it was read out (not sung) by Moses before all Israel so that they might begin to learn its contents. All would know that in the end they had to memorise it by heart. That was the way in which such things were done.

But the fact that it is called a song indicates that it was intended to be sung in future worship, and we have certainly no reason to doubt that that happened.

While there is material in it that could be described as ‘wisdom material’, or ‘prophetic material’, it is not of such a kind as to demand a late date. Wisdom literature was known in Egypt long before this time, and would have been known to Moses, and he was certainly a prophet. Nor is there reference to particular events, apart from what would have been in the past for Moses. There is no good reason for doubting that it is an ancient song, and in fact no good reason for doubting that Moses was its author under God.

It seems to follow to some extent the pattern of an ancient ‘lawsuit (Hebrew - rib) pattern’, a pattern which appears to date back at least to 18th century BC. This was a pattern followed by overlords when taking up a controversy against their subjects who had broken a treaty. First witnesses were called on to bear witness to his words, then the character of the Overlord was described, then the charge was made against the covenant breakers, then a series of questions were put to them, then the beneficence towards them of their Overlord was outlined, then the treacherous nature of their behaviour was described, and then finally the Overlord’s verdict was pronounced.

That is the pattern found here. Throughout the poem Yahweh as Israel’s great Overlord is seen to be the offended party. He is blameless and righteous in all His ways, while Israel are disobedient and rebellious. Their folly in rebelling against Yahweh is revealed, the judgment that will follow, in which Yahweh will make use of their enemies, is declared, but then, unlike the usual Complaint document, it finalises with a description of their vindication, not because of what they are but because of Yahweh’s gracious action. Yahweh will not allow His purposes to fail.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 31:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-31.html. 2013.

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