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Moses Wrote Down this Song, Deuteronomy 31:22 - Which Song?





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Moses Wrote Down this Song, Deuteronomy 31:22 - Which Song?








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Moses Wrote Down this Song, Deuteronomy 31:22 - Which Song?

It seems obvious that the song referred to in God’s speech in Deuteronomy 31 is Ha’azinu, though some verses in this chapter imply that it might be the Torah itself. A redaction critical look at God’s speech suggests that neither of these was the original referent.


Moses Wrote Down this Song, Deuteronomy 31:22 - Which Song?

Moses Viewing the Promised Land,  Frederic Edwin Church, 1846. Wikimedia. With text of Deut. 31:22.

Toward the end of Deuteronomy (ch. 31), God warns Moses that after his death, Israel will sin (v. 16), causing YHWH to become angry and abandon Israel, allowing troubles to rain down upon their heads (v. 17). The Israelites will then realize that their god has abandoned them, but YHWH will maintain his distance (v. 18). At this point, YHWH surprisingly instructs Moses to teach the Israelites a poem or song before his death (v. 19), which Moses promptly writes down and teaches them:

דברים לא:כב וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 31:22 That day, Moses wrote down this song and taught it to the Israelites.

What song/poem is YHWH referring to?

Ha’azinu is the Song in the Canonized Torah

Reading the Torah as we have it, the question seems out of place: Deut 31:32 is a reference to the Ha’azinu song that appears in the following chapter (Deuteronomy 32). The poem is even introduced with,

דברים לא:ל וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה בְּאָזְנֵי כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת עַד תֻּמָּם.
Deut 31:30 Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.

Following the Ha’azinu song, we are told:

דברים לב:מד וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם הוּא וְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן.
Deut 32:44 Moses came and recited all the words of this poem in the hearing of the people, he together with Hosea son of Nun.

This identification is bolstered by a number of literary ties between YHWH’s description of the song in chapter 31 as focusing on the woes that will befall Israel in the future, and the song of Ha’azinu in chapter 32, which describes these woes. Two specific literary parallels are especially noteworthy:

  1. YHWH Hides His Face

Intro to Song, Deut 31:17, 18 And I will hide My countenance from them, Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day Ha’azinu, Deut 32:20He said: I will hide My countenance from them,
וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם, וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אַסְתִּירָה פָנַי מֵהֶם
  1. Israel Grows Fat and Rebels

Intro to Song, Deut 31:20 And they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant. Ha’azinu, Deut 32:15 So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked — you grew fat and gross and coarse — he forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of his support.
וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי. וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַ עָשָׂהוּ וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ.

In short, in chapter 31 YHWH tells Moses to teach the Israelites theHa’azinu song that describes how YHWH will destroy the Israelites and remove them from his land when they worship other gods.[1] The song is meant as a proof to the Israelites that YHWH warned them in advance what would happen.

Layers in God’s Speech

But despite these connections, and even despite the explicit statements in 31:30 and 32:44 which frame Ha’azinu as the song, certain pieces of evidence point to this connection as being late and artificial.

Purpose – Is the song a witness for God against Israel, to demonstrate that he warned the Israelites in advance (v. 19) or is it for the Israelites, to explain to them why evil has befallen them (v. 21)?

Repeated themes – God’s prediction that Israel will go astray and turn to idol worship is repeated in vv. 16, 18, and 20. So too, the claim that Israel will break the covenant is repeated in vv. 16 and 20, and the threat that God will hide his face is repeated in vv. 17 and 18. Why the repetition?

Wiederaufnahme – the speech has a resumptive repetition in vv. 17 and 21, a redactional tool to serve as a reminder of what was going on previously after veering off topic.[2] To Bible scholars this often (but not always) points to a later author adding something to the original text and then getting us back to the original theme.

The above observations point to the likelihood that the text has been redacted, and that the material between vv. 17 and the repetition in v. 21 was added to reorient the text’s focus. In this case, since the repetitions emphasize themes found in Ha’azinu, and the supplementary material is where the most significant literary ties to Ha’azinu can be found, it seems like that redactor added this material to connect the speech to the Ha’azinu song, which itself was added by this same redactor.

The original speech begins (repeated points are in bold, Wiederaufnahme and the phrases resumed are underlined):

Worship of other gods and breaking the covenant

דברים לא:טזוַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנְּךָ שֹׁכֵב עִם אֲבֹתֶיךָ וְקָם הָעָם הַזֶּה וְזָנָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵי נֵכַר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הוּא בָא שָׁמָּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ וַעֲזָבַנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אִתּוֹ.
Deut 31:16 YHWH said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them.

Angry, God will turn away, and troubles befall Israel.

לא:יז וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת.
31:17 Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them.

People’s reaction

וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה.
And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”

At this point, when God notes that evils will befall Israel and the people will take note of God’s absence (the underlined theme), the supplement begins:

Repetition of hiding face and worshiping other gods (v. 17)

לא:יח וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.
31:18 Yet I will surely hide My countenance on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.

Song as God’s witness

דברים לא:יטוְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 31:19 And now, write (pl.)[3] down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.

Ha’azinu language

לא:כ כִּי אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָיו זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי.
31:20 When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant.

The supplement ends with a resumptive repetition, returning to the theme of evils befalling Israel:

Resumptive repetition

לא:כא וְהָיָה כִּי תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת
31:21 And it will be when the many evils and troubles befall them

This repetition returns us to where the original speech left off, and the next line connects directly to that. The people had just observed that the troubles are a sign that God is not with them, to which the Song God is about to teach Moses is a response:


וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵדכִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ…
then this poem shall answer them like a witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring…

YHWH’s warning, without the secondary material (vv.18-21a), suggests that Israel will stray, God will step away from them and they will be beset by troubles. They will realize that this is because God is not with them, and will then they will remember the song.

It would seem, then, that the purpose of the song in the original speech was not to defend God’s actions but to inspire the Israelites to return to God by reminding them of the good life they had when they were loyal to God. This encouraging message fits with the word שיר (and שירה), which always has positive connotations, as opposed to a dirge:

עמוס ח:י וְהָפַכְתִּי חַגֵּיכֶם לְאֵבֶל וְכָל־שִׁירֵיכֶם לְקִינָה…
Amos 8:10 I will turn your festivals into mourning And all your songs into dirges…

YHWH Knows People’s Devisings

Even the final half-verse (v. 21b) of God’s speech, that was part of the original text, despite its ominous sound, actually has positive connotations:

כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת יִצְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה הַיּוֹם בְּטֶרֶם אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבָּעְתִּי.
For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath.

As we can see from other places in the Bible, the fact that God knows the devisings of humans implies that God has an easier time forgiving, since he understands human nature. For example, after the flood, when Noah offers a sacrifice, and YHWH smells it, the text says:

בראשית ח:כא וַיָּרַח יְ-הוָה אֶת רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל לִבּוֹ לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו…
Gen 8:21 YHWH smelled the pleasing odor, and YHWH said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth…

In his commentary on the verse, R. Bahya ben Asher (ca. 1255-1340) notes that this same concept appears in Psalms as an explanation for why God will have mercy on us:

תהלים קג:יג כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים
רִחַם יְ-הוָה עַל יְרֵאָיו.
קג:יד כִּי הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ
זָכוּר כִּי עָפָר אֲנָחְנוּ.
Psalm 103:13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so YHWH has compassion for those who fear Him.
103:14 For He knows how our devisings;
He is mindful that we are dust.

Thus, YHWH’s point in Deuteronomy 31:21 was originally saying that since YHWH understands Israel’s nature, he is ready for what they will do and is preparing a way for reconciliation before the break even happens, reminiscent of the rabbinic saying that one should introduce the cure before the disease (הקדים רפואה למכה; b. Megillah 13b). After the destruction of Judah (or Israel), a redactor wanted to revise God’s message to refer more specifically to the nation’s destruction and their culpability, which is exemplified in the Ha’azinu poem which he added, but this is not the final redaction Deuteronomy 31 underwent.

Which Is the Witness: The Song or the Torah?

In Deut 31:22, Moses writes the song and teaches it to Israel “on that day”; we expect the song to follow immediately. Instead, we encounter references to the law, the theme found earlier in the chapter, describing it as a witness, the same term used about the song in vv. 19 and 21:[4]

דברים לא:כד וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לִכְתֹּב אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר עַד תֻּמָּם. לא:כה וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם נֹשְׂאֵי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה לֵאמֹר. לא:כו לָקֹחַ אֵת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֹתוֹ מִצַּד אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהָיָה שָׁם בְּךָ לְעֵד
Deut 31:24 When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Torah to the very end, 31:25 Moses charged the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH, saying: 31:26 Take this book of Torah and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH your God, and let it remain there as a witness against you

The text here blurs the line between the song and the Torah, implying that it is not the song per se that is meant to remind the Israelites of their broken covenant with YHWH, but the Torah, which is written down by Moses and given to the Levites earlier in this chapter, and stored next to the Ark of the Covenant.[5] According to this, the Torah and the song are both witnesses;[6] both remind Israel of their rebelliousness against God, and both were delivered to the Israelites “to the very end,” as Moses says to the Levites:

Deut 31:24

Deut 31:30

When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Torah to the very end, Then Moses recited in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel the words of this song to the very end.
דברים לא:כד וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לִכְתֹּב אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר עַד תֻּמָּם.
לא:ל וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה בְּאָזְנֵי כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת עַד תֻּמָּם.

The blurring occurs again at the end of of Ha’azinu:

דברים לב:מה וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה לְדַבֵּר אֶת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל. לב:מווַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם לְכָל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
Deut 32:45 And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 32:46 he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.

Placed after Ha’azinu, this standard Deuteronomistic message connects the song to the Torah as if they are one message.

The Deuteronomistic Torah Redaction

It seems likely that this text (31:24-30, 32:45-47) is a second redaction, and that the attempt to merge the Torah with the Song is Deuteronomistic. As many source critics have long argued, the end of Deuteronomy was not originally part of Deuteronomy at all but part of other sources that were added to the end of Deuteronomy when the sources were merged to form the Pentateuch. Although my own supplementary model of the Torah’s composition differs from this Documentary approach somewhat, it does appear that the older layers of Deuteronomy 31 were once part of the earlier JE text.[7]

The second redaction reflects the Deuteronomist’s discomfort with the idea that this song, as opposed to the Torah, should serve as a warning for the future. After all, Deuteronomy contains a long set of blessings and curses in chapter 28, which are aimed at doing exactly that. Moreover, Deuteronomy repeats the idea that the Torah should endure in the mouths of all Israelites. Saying that one song in particular should do this could be perceived as threatening the Deuteronomic ideal of a Torah.

Finally, God’s command to Moses to write down the song would have seemed problematic to the Deuteronomist, who has Moses writing down the entire Torah (i.e., the core of Deuteronomy). Why would God specifically mention the writing down the song then? Eliding the song with the Torah solves this problem as well.

Traditional Commentaries

The Deuteronomistic “Torah redaction” of ch. 31-32 made the text opaque, since the exact referent of “the song” was no longer obvious. Many traditional commentaries, such as Rashi and Ramban, felt the need to identify the song as Ha’azinu explicitly, pushing against the implications of the redacted text. In contrast, the redactor’s correctly perceived by Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344), who, in his gloss on God’s command to Moses and Joshua to write down the song (Deut 31:19), writes:

כבר נתבאר אחר זה שהשירה היא דבר התורה בכללם עד תומם שנ’ ויכתוב משה את השירה ויהי ככלות משה לכתוב את דברי התורה הזאת על ספר עד תומם וזה מעיר שהשירה הזאת רצה בו כל דברי התורה בכללם וגם השירה עמהם
It is clarified after this that the this “song” refers to the words of the Torah in its entirety until the very end, as it says “and Moses wrote the song… and it was when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah on a scroll to the very end” – this makes it clear that by “this song” is meant “all the words of the Torah in its entirety” including the song.[8]

In short, the final text of Deuteronomy 31 is less clear that it at first might seem about what song was to bear witness against the Israelites in the future.

What Song Was Originally Meant in God’s Speech?

This analysis suggest that neither Ha’azinu nor D’s Torah was the original song referred to in the core speech of Deut 31, but rather each was the choice referent of a given later redactor. What then, was the original song, which was meant to remind Israel of their good times and bring them back to YHWH when they stray?

I suggest that this was the song in chapter 33. Although the core of this song is a list of blessings Moses gives each tribe, its framing consists of verses that emphasizes how God helped the Israelites become prosperous in the land and defeat their enemies. (vv. 2-5, 26-29); this emphasis is especially strong at its ending:

לג:כו אֵין כָּאֵל יְשֻׁרוּן
רֹכֵב שָׁמַיִם בְעֶזְרֶךָ
וּבְגַאֲוָתוֹ שְׁחָקִים.
לג:כז מְעֹנָה אֱלֹהֵי קֶדֶם
וּמִתַּחַת זְרֹעֹת עוֹלָם
וַיְגָרֶשׁ מִפָּנֶיךָ אוֹיֵב
וַיֹּאמֶר הַשְׁמֵד.
לג:כח וַיִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בֶּטַח
בָּדָד עֵין יַעֲקֹב
אֶל אֶרֶץ דָּגָן וְתִירוֹשׁ
אַף שָׁמָיו יַעַרְפוּ טָל.
לג:כט אַשְׁרֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
מִי כָמוֹךָ
עַם נוֹשַׁע בַּי-הוָה
מָגֵן עֶזְרֶךָ
וַאֲשֶׁר חֶרֶב גַּאֲוָתֶךָ
וְיִכָּחֲשׁוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ לָךְ
וְאַתָּה עַל בָּמוֹתֵימוֹ תִדְרֹךְ.
33:26 There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
who rides through the heavens to your help,
majestic through the skies.
33:27 He subdues the ancient gods,
shatters the forces of old;
he drove out the enemy before you,
and said, ‘Destroy!’
33:28 So Israel lives in safety,
untroubled is Jacob’s abode,
in a land of grain and wine,
where the heavens drop down dew.
33:29 Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you?
a people saved by YHWH,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
and you shall tread on their backs.

This song is optimistic, quite the opposite of Ha’azinu. Instead of describing Israel’s future sins and YHWH’s punishment of them, it describes a time when Israel lives on their land, and YHWH helped them defeat their enemies and live prosperously. The implication of such a song is that Israel’s prosperity is the natural state of affairs when they are loyal to YHWH.

This would be the type of hopeful message one might expect of an author living before the great destruction of Judah, whereas the dark visionHa’azinu fits a post-destruction context. Once Ha’azinu was added, the original song was reframed by combining it with a list of blessings for the tribes, parallel to those found in Genesis 49 from Jacob, and calling it Moses’ blessing (33:1).[9]

From Hope to Warning: From Song to Torah

Chapters 31-33 grew in two stages:

Stage 1 – In the originally pre-exilic unit, God wants the Israelites to remember that if they keep the covenant, He will make them prosper, and teaches Moses a song to this effect (the core of ch. 33).

Stage 2 – A later editor, living after the exile of Judah, recast the original song as part of Moses’ blessing, since its optimistic tone did not fit the dire times he lived in, and introduced Ha’azinu, which castigated Israel. He concomitantly revised chapter 31 to warn Israel about the terrible punishments that would befall it in “the future,” namely the destruction of Judah.

Stage 3 – Finally, a Deuteronomistic editor equated it with D’s “Torah,” which, according to Deuteronomy, has everything the Israelites need to teach them about what is expected of them and what will happen to them if they do not comply.


September 14, 2018


Last Updated

May 27, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.