I am always looking for something I had not considered before.
As an interim pastor, I have often talked about the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua. It fits the theme of a transition of leadership from a resigned or retired pastor to new, often younger leadership in a congregation. An interim pastor is often there to ease the way into such a transition. So Deuteronomy 31 is familiar territory.
But in Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen L. Cook finds more in chapter 31. He says that in the chapter Moses really has three successors.
First, of course, there is Joshua. From the Elohist account, Deuteronomy takes over the notion of Joshua as Moses’ understudy (see Exodus 17:14). There is a building progression in the transition to Joshua in chapter 31. First, Joshua is offstage (v. 3). Then Joshua appears for Moses’s blessing, still in a subordinate position (7-8). In vss. 14-15 God calls them both before him so that he can directly commission Joshua. And by v. 23 Moses is offstage as God inaugurates Joshua as the leader to bring Israel into the land across the Jordan from Moab.
Second, in 31:9-13 and 24-27 Moses makes a different preparation for his death. He provides Israel with the written Torah. So there is a sense in which scripture is the successor to Moses. We see this transition happening as the Levites are commanded to archive the scroll and to see that it gets periodically read to the assembly (vs. 11).
“Amazing! Deuteronomy narrates its own future canonization (28:58, 61; 29:27; 30:10; 31:9,11-13, 24, 26), just as its principal speaker and protagonist, Moses, narrates his own death and burial (ch. 34)!”
Deuteronomy 31:24 ff. seems to be from the exilic edition as Moses anticipates the future stubbornness and rebellion of Israel. After his death things will continue to go wrong until evil or disaster befalls Israel (v. 29). So Moses writes in tears, not only because of his own impending death, but because he forsees Israel betraying God and suffering for it.
Finally, there is another successor to Moses, the song of Moses that will take up chapter 32. In 31:19-22 we read that in times of prosperity Israel will be chastened by the witness against it that the Song of Moses contains. Actually, Cook says the Song is meant for the people of exilic times and the dark days they face. It is a prophetic poem and reinforces the prophetic role of Moses in Deuteronomy.
Chapter 32 is an old poem. Its core goes back at least to the ninth century BCE. It has much in common with the Psalms of Asaph. Although its final editors saw it as reproof to the exilic generation, the poem reminds us of the kind of prophetic oracle that took the form of a lawsuit against Israel for breach of contract (Psalm 50, Hosea 4:1-6, Micah 6:1-5, etc.). The poem understands itself to have a constructive purpose as “instruction”.
I was interested in how Cook would deal with 32:6-9 which seems to contain pre-monotheistic language. The main value of Cook’s The Social Origins of Biblical Yahwism is that it challenged the notion that Israel’s religion is an evolutionary development from paganism. Yet these verses are part of the opposite argument–that in 32:8 “the Most High” was the top god among many gods of a polytheistic religion.
Cook admits that the song “shockingly” draws upon such imagery. There is indeed an undigested piece of polytheistic myth here. But it has been co-opted and put to good theological use. He thinks those scholars who see the “Most High” as just one god among many are too hasty in coming to that conclusion. In Deuteronomy God and the Most High are one and the same.
He calls Psalm 78 the sister song to the Song of Moses and points to Psalm 78:35:
Then they remembered that God was their rock, And the Most High God their Redeemer (NKJV).
So I guess the point is that co-opting pagan mythology (think John Milton) is not the same as evolving your own theology from it.