Haazinu: The Song's Enigmatic Climax
Haazinu and Its Variants
Before Moses goes up the mountain to die, he is told to teach the people a song, Haazinu (Deut 32:1-43), presented as a record of YHWH predicting what would happen to Israel in the future. As a poem written in archaic Hebrew, Haazinu is very difficult. Its difficulty is reflected in the many textual variants of Haazinu found between the Masoretic Text (MT), the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), the Septuagint (LXX), and several Qumran fragments that preserve additional textual variants not found in any of the three standard versions.
In this piece, we will look at the final phrase of Haazinu in v. 43, the “punchline” as it were, and try to understand what it means both in the MT and in the alternative versions.
A Brief Summary of Haazinu
The first half of Haazinu is relatively straightforward: When the nations were being given their territories, YHWH chose Israel to be His people (vv. 8-9). In fact, he had found them in a wasteland and brought them to his own lush land (vv. 10-14). And yet, once the Israelites grew fat on the land, they forgot YHWH and began worshiping other gods (vv. 15-18). YHWH becomes so angry at this that he decides to abandon them (vv. 19-20). Even worse, he decides to expose them to every form of punishment and misery, from famine and pestilence, to wild beasts and enemy invaders (vv. 21-25).
Vv. 26-27 reflect a turning point: YHWH worries that if he simply allows Israel to be destroyed by their enemies, the enemies will believe it was their own might that accomplished the feat. YHWH amazes at the foolishness of this view, but still remains concerned that they will think it (vv. 28-31). YHWH then appears to reflect on the terrible punishment he has in store for the enemies who destroyed his people and speak so arrogantly about themselves and their gods (vv. 32-35).
What Happens to Israel in the End?
The rest of the song (vv. 36-43) is particularly difficult, in part because it weaves two themes together. At some points, YHWH seems to be promising, once the Israelites have been sufficiently weakened and punished, to avenge His people against their enemies (vv. 36, 41-42). Elsewhere, YHWH appears to be basking in the idea that his own people will realize, too late, that YHWH has avenged himself upon them and that the gods to whom they turned are nothing (vv. 37-40).
What is missing from the text is any promise that YHWH will save the Israelites from destruction. Many commentators have looked to the final poetic stich to shed light on this problem.
וְכִפֶּר אַדְמָתוֹ עַמּו: An Ambiguous Final Phrase (MT)
Verse 42 concludes YHWH’s speech about what terrible things he will do to his enemies, and the song ends with a summary verse (v. 43). This verse imagines non-Israelites singing YHWH’s praises because he has brought vengeance on his foes. MT ends with the phrase וְכִפֶּר אַדְמָתוֹ עַמּוֹ. This final phrase is doubly ambiguous: both the subject and the object of the verb כ.פ.ר (“atone” or “cleanse) are unclear—who exactly will be cleansing what?
In a biblical prose sentence, the subject is either implicit in the grammar of the opening verb or is referenced explicitly in the next word. In biblical poetry, whose syntax is more flexible than prose, the subject can come at the end of the phrase. Thus, we need to consider three possible subjects of the verb:
- YHWH (i.e., as the understood subject of the 3rd person singular marker)
- The land
- The people
Only once the verb’s subject is resolved is it possible to consider its likely object.
God Will Atone for his Land and His People
Many scholars, ancient and modern, assume that YHWH, who was the subject of the previous verses, is the subject here as well. Some of these further suggest that both land and people are the objects of the verb, and that YHWH is atoning for both of them. Onkeles, assuming an implicit conjunction (see bolded words, below), renders:
וִיכַפַּר עַל אַרְעֵיהּ וְעַל עַמֵּיהּ.
And he will atone for his land and for his people.
Several modern commentators and translators render the verse similarly, though they use a comma instead of a conjunction to join the two objects, rendering, “…for His land, His people.”
This translation suggests that by destroying both Israel and its enemies, God will be atoning both for the sins of His people as well as for the sinfulness that occurred on His land.
Rashi’s (1040-1105) understanding is similar. He assumes that the final word explains the next-to-last word:
וכפר אדמתו – מה הוא אדמ’, עמו, כשעמו מתנחמין ארצו מתנחמת.
And atone for his land – what is his land? His people, for when his people are consoled, the land is consoled.
This reading, however, is unlikely, even in biblical poetry.
The Land of Israel Atones for Its People’s Sins: Why We Put Earth from Israel in a Coffin
Syntactically, the final phrase could certainly be translated as: “and his land will atone for his people.” This understanding, however, has no clear meaning in context, as was already noted by ibn Ezra:
ובדרש, כי הארץ תכפר בעד עמו. גם הוא נכון בטעם, רק איננו מטעם המקום.
The midrash [translates]: “The land will atone for its people.” This is fine as far as its verbal coherence (i.e., grammatically), but it has no logical meaning in this context.
Ibn Ezra is here referring to the mystical principle that the land of Israel atones for the sins of the Israelites. Thus, based on this verse, the Rabbis claimed that dying in Israel or at least being buried in Israel were particularly important:
רבי בר קיריא ורבי לעזר הוון מטיילין באיסטרין ראו ארונות שהיו באין מחוצה לארץ לארץ. אמר רבי בר קיריא לרבי לעזר מה הועילו אילו אני קורא עליהם [ירמיה ב ז] ונחלתי שמתם לתועבה בחייכם ותבואו ותטמאו את ארצי במיתתכם. אמר ליה כיון שהן מגיעין לארץ ישראל הן נוטלין גוש עפר ומניחין על ארונן דכתיב [דברים לב מג] וכפר אדמתו עמו:
Rabbi bar Kiriya and Rabbi Liezer were walking in the thoroughfare and they saw coffins coming in from outside the land into the land. Rabbi bar Kiriya said to Rabbi Liezer: “What can this benefit them. I refer to them [with the verse (Jer 2:7)] ‘But you came and defiled My land, You made My possession abhorrent.’” [Rabbi Liezer] responded to him: “Once they come to the land of Israel, people take a chunk of dirt and put it on their coffins, for it is written (Deut 32:43): ‘and his land will atone for his people’” (j. Kilayim 9:3; cf. j.Ketubot 12).
This tradition explains why the practice still exists of placing some earth from the Land of Israel in the person’s grave, to help atone for his or her sins. That said, this syntactic interpretation is, as ibn Ezra noted, contextually unlikely.
Atonement for Spilled Israelite Blood
Israel Living on Gentile Land Will Atone
Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1893) in his commentary on the Torah called Haʿamek Davar, interprets the land not as Israel but as whatever land Jews dwell upon. He understands this verse as a warning to the gentiles:
הרי אתם יודעים כמה דם ישראל נשפך גם בכם, וכמה צרות סבלו, ואע”ג שאותם האנשים והדורות ספו תמו, מ”מ הרי האדמה לעולם עומדת, ומהראוי היה אשר לארץ לא יכופר דם ישראל ששופך בה. אבל מכל מקום יכופר אדמתו ע”י עמו שישבו בקרבם בשלוה.
You know how much Jewish blood has been spilled even among you, and how many anguishes they have suffered, and even though those generations are all gone, nevertheless, the land stands forever, and it would be only right for the land not to be cleansed of Jewish blood spilt in it. Nevertheless, the [blood spilled on their] land shall be atoned for by his nation as long as they sit among them [=gentiles] in peace.
Netziv, living before the holocaust, in a time when Jews were integrating into European society, here offers a non-peshat, but very comforting message for Jews suffering in the Diaspora. Jewish blood has been spilled throughout the world, all of which is God’s land. The principle of “blood atonement” would imply that God should punish the gentiles who spilled Israelite blood, even in the remote past. However, Netziv argues, the Jews, who are God’s people, can expiate for these crimes as long as they are permitted to live on this very same land in peace.
Israel’s Vengeance Will Atone
According to R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167),
ולפי דעתי שפירושו שהעם יכפר על האדמה… והטעם, כי ישראל יעשו נקמה בגוים, והם יכפרו על ארץ ישראל בעבור הדם ששופך בה…
In my view the meaning is that the people will atone for the land… The point is that Israel will avenge themselves on the nations, and they will thus atone for the land of Israel on behalf of the [Israelite] blood that was spilled there.
Ibn Ezra is invoking Num 35:33, which states with regard to unintentional manslaughter that the land requires blood in order to expiate for blood spilled upon it. Ibn Ezra’s choice of this verse is likely motivated by the fact that no verse other than Deuteronomy 32:43 uses the words כפר and אדמה together, but Num 35:33 uniquely uses כפר and ארץ, which is often a synonym for אדמה. The connection between land and blood stands behind the story of Cain and Abel, when God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is calling for him from the ground (Gen 4:10), as well as in the laws taught to Noah, which claim that blood spilled by a person must be punished by spilling the murderer’s blood (Gen 9:6).
God Will Atone
Rashbam also bases his understanding on Num 35:33, though he translates the verse differently, namely that “God will cleanse the land of his people’s blood”:
יקנח דם עמו מן האדמה על ידי שפיכת דם אויבים, כדכת[יב] ולארץ לא יכופר בדם אשר שופך בה כי אם בדם שפכו:
He will wipe away the blood of his people from the land through spilling the blood if their enemies, as it says (Num 35:33): “and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.”
Rashbam understands God as the subject of כפר, “to atone.” But to make his translation work, Rashbam must both assume that “nation” refers to “the blood of his nation” translating as “and God will cleanse his land from the spilled blood of his people.”
God will Cleanse His People’s Land: The Variant Reading
The multiplicity of interpretations noted derives from the ambiguous syntactic relationship between the word אדמתו and עמו. In the SP and 4QDeutq, however, the relationship is not ambiguous at all, since both of these sources lack a pronominal suffix after אדמה, the land:
וכפר אדמת עמו
ויכפר אדמת עמו
|And He will cleanse the land of his people.||And He will cleanse the land of his people.|
Construct State (סמיכות)
In these versions, the last two words of the verse are in a construct chain (סמיכות), and should be translated as “the land of his people.” Perhaps MT could be translated similarly, as suggested by the biblical scholar and Hebrew linguist Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai (1886-1973), who argued in his Peshuto Shel Mikra (1.232), that the MT here is using the archaic form of the construct found, for example, in the phrase חיתו יער “beasts of the field” in Psalms (50:10, 104:20). If he is correct then the MT version should be understood identically to the SP.
Once the last two words are understood as a construct chain, “the land of his people” must be the object and the subject must be God. This is the understanding of the LXX as well, since it translates the phrase as, “and the LORD will cleanse the land of His people.” LXX may have had the same text as the Qumran fragment or the SP, or, if it was rendering (proto-)MT, may have used the same grammatical understanding suggested by Tur-Sinai.
Alternative Translations of Adamah
Given the likelihood that YHWH is the subject of the sentence, what does it mean that God will cleanse the adamah of his people?
The Land of His People
As many commentators noted above, the Bible makes repeated mention of the need to atone for any blood wrongfully spilled on the land, and thus the verse’s most natural understanding is that YHWH will atone for the blood of Israel spilled on the land of Israel. Nevertheless, the meaning in this context is hard to understand without making recourse to an implied reference to blood as Rashbam did above, which is a stretch. For this reason, some scholars have suggested alternative translations of the term.
The Tears of His People: A Speculative Reconstruction
H.L. Ginsberg (1903-1990), the JTS philologist who participated in most of the New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Tanakh, believed that the phrase אדמתו עמו, “the land of his people” was impossible to translate, and suggested that it is a corruption for the phrase אדמעתו עמו, “the tears of his people.” As a possible precedent, Ginsberg noted Isaiah 25:8 which describes God wiping away Israel’s tears:
…וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל פָּנִים וְחֶרְפַּת עַמּוֹ יָסִיר מֵעַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ…
…My God YHWH will wipe the tears away from all faces and will put an end to the reproach of His people over all the earth…
According to Ginzberg, אדמעתו was an alternative form of the word דמעות, with a prosthetic (i.e., helping) aleph; although Hebrew does not have a this precise form of the word, Ginsberg noted that it is found in Ugaritic, asudmʿt. This interpretation was expanded upon by Yitzhak Avishur (Olam HaTannach ad loc), who points to Amarna version of the Marriage of Nergal and Ereshkigal, (El Amarna tablet 357), which describes the god Nergal cleansing (כפר) the tears of the goddess Ereshkigal (dimtasa ikappar).
This suggestion is intriguing but hard to accept. The Bible is full of associations between blood and atonement or cleansing, as well as land and atonement or cleansing, but not tears and atonement and cleansing. Bernard Levinson, in his annotations in the Jewish Study Bible, dismisses Ginsberg’s suggestion out of hand.
The Red Blood of His People
A third approach, suggested by Tur-Sinai, is that the word אדמתו is an archaic alternative to the word דם (blood), meaning “red blood”:
והנה עובדה ידוע היא כי נקרא הדם האדום שבעורקים בארמית אדמא, ובאכדית בא על יד המלה dāmu במשמעות זו גם, בפרט בסגנון השירה: adamatu, הדם האדום, ואותה מילה היא שהייתה קיימת גם בעברית ושנשמרה כאן בלשון השירה בהקבלה אל דם. וזאת הכוונה: כי דם עבדיו יקום, ונקם ישיב לצריו, וכפר (על) אדמתו, זאת אומרת: הדם האדום, דם העורקים, של עמו.
Now the fact is known that the blood of the arteries is referred to in Aramaic as adma, and in Akkadian, the term adamatu, “red blood,” is used in parallel to the (more standard) word dāmu, especially in poetry. This word used to exist in Hebrew and it has been preserved here in the poetry as a parallel to the word dam. This is the point: “for His servants’ blood will He avenge, and vengeance turn back on His foes, and atone (for) the blood of his people,” meaning to express, the red blood, the arterial blood, of his people.
This reading, though conjectural, is very attractive since it works so well with the parallelism of the rest of the verse, as Tur-Sinai notes. But it is uncertain, since this usage is otherwise unattested in the biblical corpus.
A Promise of Restoration?
Whether Haazinu is promising that God will cleanse the land or the blood (or even the tears) of his people, how does this verse function as a conclusion to the broader Haazinu poem?
Many commentators assume that the final part of the song is positive, and is meant to express God’s reconciliation with Israel. R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent) understood the verse as a promise that in the distant future, the people and the land would both be cleansed, and thus Israel would be able to resettle the land and return to its previous relationship with God.
וכפר אדמתו – מכל חט[א] ועון עמו – אדמתו הוא עמו, שיכפר על עמו, ולכך אדמה מכופרת, כיון שהעם מכופר, כמו: למה נמות לעיניך גם אנחנו גם אדמתינו. כי כשהעם מת – האדמה מתה, וכשהעם מכופר ומטוהר – האדמה מטוהרת ומכופרת. וזה יהיה לימות המשיח.
And his land will atone – from all sins and iniquities of his people – the land is equivalent to his people, for it atones for his people, that is why the land is atoned for, since the nation is atoned for. This is analogous to [the plea of the Egyptians to Joseph] (Gen 47:19): “Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land.” For when the nation dies the land dies, and when the people are atoned for and purified the land is purified and atoned for. This is a reference to the days of the messiah.
Aside from the messianic claim—messianism is never evident in Deuteronomy, indeed in the entire Torah—Bechor Shor’s reading fits with other parts of Deuteronomy, such as the promise in Deut 30:1-10 that Israel will be returned to their land after their harsh punishment and exile and their relationship with YHWH reestablished (but without a messianic figure!). But is that what Haazinu is envisioning? I don’t think so.
The Angry Promise of an Empty Land
Haazinu never says anything about YHWH reestablishing his relationship with the Israelites. The most positive statements YHWH makes is that he will not destroy the Israelites utterly (v. 26), and that they will remain in a weakened and pitiful state (v. 36). But the reasons Haazinu gives for YHWH allowing even a small part of Israel to survive the slaughter belie the attempt to describe this final verse as a reconciliation.
First, YHWH does not want the gentiles to think he is powerless, which would be implied if they defeated the Israelites utterly; YHWH does have his reputation to consider.
Second, YHWH wants to watch the Israelites come to terms with the sad truth that the other gods they worshiped were nothing and that in the process of their abandoning YHWH for these worthless deities, the Israelites lost their relationship with their real patron deity (vv. 37-38). But this is not meant to convey the opening act of reconciliation between Israel and YHWH, but is a description of YHWH’s schadenfreude. In short, Haazinu offers no promise of a future reconciliation between YHWH and Israel.
Envisioning a break Between YHWH and Israel
The suggestion that Haazinu ends with a permanent break between YHWH and Israel may seem surprising, but it fits with what many scholars have suggested about the meaning of Deuteronomy in its earlier form (Dtr1). For example, Marc Brettler, in his TABS essay, “Is Israel’s Repentance a Foregone Conclusion?”, notes that the curses in Deut 28 do not envision Israel’s return from exile. Instead, once Israel was sufficiently sinful, God would throw them out of his land permanently. He notes that only in Deut 30:1-10 do we see this concept, and that this section is likely a later supplement (part of Dtr2 or later).
Unlike Deut 28, Haazinu does not describe exile. Nevertheless, it does describe total military defeat and wholesale destruction (vv. 21-25). The only thing YHWH promises to do for Israel is to avenge their blood by slaughtering their enemies, but even this is not done wholly for Israel’s sake, but to demonstrate to the foolish conquerors that YHWH is all-powerful.
Nevertheless, the final phrase of the poem may imply a light at the end of the tunnel. Once YHWH has punished his rebellious people with conquest and destruction, and then punished the gentile nations who inflicted the damage, the slate is effectively wiped clean. The Israelites have been punished and YHWH has cleansed their blood (or cleansed the land of their blood) through his vengeance on the gentiles.
At this point, it is unclear what will happen with the remnant of Israel on the land. The enemies are gone and, ostensibly, they can rebuild. But can they reestablish a relationship with YHWH? The song never says they can, but it never says they cannot either. The slate is clean and the future is anyone’s guess.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
October 13, 2016
October 2, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics: