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Home » Daily Readings, Psalms

Israel Was the Lord’s Portion

Submitted by on Wednesday, 12 August 2009No Comment

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The day’s responsorial psalm is taken from a text more ancient than the book of Deuteronomy itself. Deuteronomy 32 is a poetic text composed like a lawsuit discourse but ends up like a psalm that celebrates Yahweh’s intervention for his people.

The poem can be divided thus:

  • 1-2 Opening Declamation
  • 3-6 Presentation of the Case: Yahweh vs. His Children
  • What Yahweh Has Done
    • 7-9 Yahweh’s portion is His people
    • 10-12 The finding in the desert
    • 13-14 Nurtured with the best that the land can offer
  • The Complaint: Rebellious Son
    • 15-18 Jeshurun abandoned the Rock
    • 19-27 The Desired Punishment
  • The Complaint: A Foolish Son
    • 28-35 Israel is Foolish, Exchanging God for Non-Gods
    • 36-42 The Judgment
  • 43 Conclusion of the poem
  • 44-47 Continues the thread from Deuteronomy 31:30. Moses’ concluding exhortation.

The text of the responsorial psalm focuses on the opening declamation (3-4ab), the invitation to remember the past (7), the distribution of the peoples (8), and how by lot, Jacob became the inheritance of “the Lord” (9.12). One who is familiar to the story of salvation would find it strange that this narrative about the Lord’s relationship with His people would begin with the distribution of the nations. In fact, the original sense of these lines makes it appear that “the Most High” divided all the people’s of the earth into twelve areas (according to the number of the sons of Israel) and then out of the “descendants of Adam” picked Jacob to be the portion of “the Lord”. This very ancient meaning perhaps harks back to Canaanite influences where a Most High God is seen to have distributed humanity to the other lesser gods. This is confirmed by consonantal versions of the Hebrew text more ancient than the one normally used for our modern Bibles.

In the Qumran scroll of Deuteronomy, for example we find the following:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance
when he separated humankind,
he set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the children of God.
For the Lord’s portion is his people;
Jacob is the lot of His inheritance.

Note that here, it is said that the boundaries of peoples were set according to the number of “the children of God.” The “beney elohim” are lesser gods of a pantheon headed by a Supreme god. We find this exemplified in the courts of Zeus and the Olympian gods and Odin with the gods of Asgard. How “sons of God” became “sons of Israel” may have been the result of the conviction that the tribes of Israel are intended to become the point of unity of the whole world. This conviction is is reflected in the oracles about Sion becoming the place where the nations will be instructed in the Torah.

The poetic text may in its early stages still reflect the henotheism of Israel, but after the Exile when most of the scrolls of Torah — if not all — have been completed, “Most High” and “the Lord” would have been understood as one God, not two.

Deuteronomy 31:30
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
30Moses therefore spoke, in the hearing of the whole assembly of Israel, the words of this canticle, and finished it even to the end,

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