Papal Address on Mosaic Canticle in Deuteronomy

At General Audience

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 19, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Moses´ canticle to the love of God, expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy. The address was in Italian.

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1. «Then Moses recited the words of this song from beginning to end, for the whole assembly of Israel to hear» (Deuteronomy 31:30). This is how the canticle we have just heard begins, which has been taken from the last pages of the Book of Deuteronomy, specifically from Chapter 32. The liturgy of lauds has taken the first 12 verses from it, recognizing in them a joyful hymn to the Lord who lovingly protects and cares for his people amid the day´s dangers and difficulties. The analysis of the canticle revealed that it is an ancient text, but later than Moses, which was put on his lips, to give it a solemn character. This liturgical canticle is placed at the very origins of the history of the people of Israel. On that prayerful page there is no lack of references and links to some Psalms or to the message of prophets: Hence, it was a moving and intense expression of the faith of Israel.

2. Moses´ canticle is longer than the passage included in the liturgy of the lauds, which, in fact, is only the prelude. Some scholars thought they identified in the composition a literary gender that is technically defined with the Hebrew word «rîb,» namely «quarrel,» «court litigation.» The image of God present in the Bible is not at all that of a dark being, an anonymous and brute energy, an incomprehensible fact. Instead, he is a person who feels, acts and reacts, loves and condemns, participates in the life of his creatures and is not indifferent to their actions. So, in our case, the Lord convokes a sort of trial, in the presence of witnesses, denounces the crimes of the accused people, exacts a punishment, but lets his verdict be permeated by infinite mercy. Let us now follow the traces of this event, even if only reflecting on the verses proposed by the liturgy.

3. First of all he mentions the cosmic spectator-witnesses: «Give ear, O heavens … let the earth hearken …» (Deuteronomy 32:1). In this symbolic trial Moses acts almost as a public prosecutor. His word is effective and fruitful, like the prophetic word, expression of the divine word. Note the significant flow of the images that define it: They are signs taken from nature like rain, dew, showers, drizzle and the spraying of water that makes the earth green and covers it with grain stalks (see verse 2).

The voice of Moses, prophet and interpreter of the divine word, announces the imminent appearance on the scene of the great judge, the Lord, whose most holy name he pronounces, exalting one of his many attributes. In fact, the Lord is called the Rock (verse 4), a title that is studded throughout our Canticle (see verses 15,18,30,31,37), an image that exalts God´s stable and endless fidelity, very different from the instability and infidelity of the people. The topic is developed with a series of affirmations on divine justice: «how faultless are his deeds, how right all his ways! A faithful God, without deceit, how just and upright he is!» (verse 4).

4. After the solemn presentation of the supreme Judge, who is also the injured party, the objective of the cantor is directed to the accused. In order to describe this, he takes recourse to an effective representation of God as father (see verse 6). His creatures, so loved, are called his children, but unfortunately, they are «degenerate children» (see verse 5). In fact, we know that already in the Old Testament there is an idea of God as a solicitous father in his meetings with his children who often disappoint him (Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 8:5; Psalm 102[103]:13; Sirach 51:10; Isaiah 1:2; 63:16; Hosea 11:1-4). Because of this, the denunciation is not cold but impassioned: «Is the Lord to be thus repaid by you, O stupid and foolish people? Has he not made you and established you?» (Deuteronomy 32:6). Indeed, rebelling against an implacable sovereign is very different from revolting against a loving father.

In order to render concrete the gravity of the accusation and thus elicit a conversion that flows from the sincerity of the heart, Moses appeals to the memory: «Think back on the days of old, reflect on the years of age upon age» (verse 7). In fact, biblical faith is a «memorial,» namely, a rediscovering of God´s eternal action spread over time; it is to make present and effective that salvation that the Lord has given and continues to offer man. Hence, the great sin of infidelity coincides with «forgetfulness,» which cancels the memory of the divine presence in us and in history.

5. The fundamental event that must not be forgotten is that of the crossing of the desert after the flight from Egypt, major topic of Deuteronomy and of the entire Pentateuch. So the terrible and dramatic journey in the Sinai desert is evoked, «a wasteland of howling desert» (see verse 10), as described with an image of strong emotional impact. However, there God bends over his people with amazing tenderness and gentleness. The paternal symbol is intertwined with an allusion to the maternal symbol of the eagle: «He shielded them and cared for them, guarding them as the apple of his eye. As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood,/ So he spread his wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions» (verses 10-11). Then the way in the desert steppe is transformed into a quiet and serene journey, because of the protective mantle of divine love.

The canticle also refers to Sinai, where Israel became the Lord´s ally, his «portion» and «hereditary share,» namely, the most precious reality (see verse 9; Exodus 19:5). Thus Moses´ canticle becomes a collective examination of conscience, so that in the end the response to the divine benefits will no longer be sin but fidelity.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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[At the end was this English-language discourse]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today´s Canticle is a joyous hymn to the Lord, who cares for his people and protects them in peril and difficulty. The Canticle can be read as Moses calling on the elements of the universe — the heavens and the earth — to testify to God´s unfailing love.

The Canticle is a lively expression of Israel´s faith in God who is always «just and right,» even when his fidelity is met with indifference. For us today it can become an examination of conscience to see if we respond with love to God´s enduring goodness towards us.

I extend a warm welcome to the various groups present: in particular to the staff members of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and to the Sisters taking part in the Program for Formators organized by the International Union of Superiors General. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Sweden, Japan, and the United States, I invoke the abundant blessings of Almighty God.

[original text in English; distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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