Canticle Deut 32 : writing a tune for God’s anger?

God of wrath
An unusual Responsorial Psalm

As I’ve said before, it’s always interesting to be asked to set a new text, and the current situation has led to us being asked for tunes for different Responsorial Psalms from the usual Sunday ones.  A recent example was very unusual for a daily Mass on July 27th.   It was a Canticle,  a ‘little song’ not out of the Book of Psalms.  We have several of these, from the Magnificat (Luke 1) to familiar passages from Isaiah, Judith or Exodus.  Some of them are easy to spot, because the form is slightly different from the shape of a psalm, or because of the content.  We sang the Daniel Canticle quite recently (Pentecost and Trinity A), and I blogged about it then.  This Canticle, though, is out of Deuteronomy, which is unusual. The form is not particularly odd, although the Response has been modified, but the content is very strange. 

The Book of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch, the last book of Moses (Moses dies at the end of it). It is the second (hence deuter) giving of the Law, and it comes at the end of the long wanderings in the desert and just before the Chosen People (minus Moses, but with Joshua leading them) head into the Promised Land.  Moses sees it, but may not enter.

Moses gazing upon the Promised Land which God will not allow him to enter, even after forty years in the wilderness

It’s not one of the books that registers with most people, except for some of the passages about Moses, because it is a recap of the history (lots of battles) and a restatement of the Law, so rather dry, really.   But it is quoted many times in the New Testament, and was very important for the early Christians, especially the ones who had started out as Jews, and written its words upon their heart, as prescribed in Deut 6.6.  It is the legal reference book for Jesus, for example; the quotations he uses to see off the Devil in the wilderness (Matt 4, Luke 4) are all from Deuteronomy, as are the laws in the following chapter with the repeated ‘You have heard it said […] but I say to you…’ (Matt 5). 

God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

Paul quotes Deuteronomy often;  it is a basic part of his mental furniture as a Pharisee.  Some very familiar Scriptural phrases are from it, such as the great call  Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one….(Deut. 6.4), and Vengeance is mine, I will repay (Deut.32.35, and Hebrews 10.30). It’s often the Deuteronomy version of the commandments which sounds more familiar than the Exodus one.  This book also gives us several proverbial expressions (a dreamer of dreams,13.1, the wife of thy bosom 13.6, the apple of his eye 32.10), as well as many turns of phrase familiar to us from various psalms (passim).  The figure of God in Deuteronomy is a stern Deity, though, full of anger and vengefulness, and the words in this Canticle are terrifying (see below).

Moses retells the story so far
high points in Moses’ story

Moses takes the opportunity, in his final address to the nation, to review the story from the departure out of Egypt up to the present.  He narrates the history of the last forty years or so, restating the important parts like the Commandments, and scolding the people for their many failures to follow God’s law.  Deuteronomy is two books in one; as well as being a restating of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, it is also a hero narrative about Moses, recapping all the battles he fought and all the successes which God gave him.  It goes on to describe his death, the point where he leaves the story, although there is no sense of age or weakness overtaking him (unlike the other patriarchs, but very like a hero figure).

The long form of a contract or covenant

Not only the Commandments are repeated, all the food laws are too, and other laws about how to treat your Hebrew slaves, how the Levites should behave, divorce arrangements and so on.  There is a mixture of carrot and stick in this law-giving;  Moses relays God’s will and backs it up with threats just as much as promises, quite literally blessings and curses (standard for treaties and covenants at the time).  The form is important; the whole book is cast as a contemporary covenant or treaty, and its function is as though to reboot the covenant and start afresh in a new place as a settled nation under God’s rules.  It is a second chance for the people to agree to the bargain God wants to make with them.

The Song of Moses (which everyone was meant to learn)

The verses chosen for us to stand as the Responsorial Psalm come from a section near the end of the book, known as The Song of Moses, in which Moses describes God’s bitter disappointment and anger at his people’s disobedience and contumacy.  There are more positive sections in this long song, but overall the effect is of anger and vengeance, repeated failure and bitterness.  The beginning is Moses addressing the people, but swiftly it changes to God directly accusing and threatening them.  There are only three verses and there is no lightening of the mood.

The text of the Responsorial Psalm (OZ version)

Deut. 32:18-21. R. see v.18

(R.) You have forgotten God who gave you birth.

  1. You forget the Rock who begot you,/unmindful now of the God who fathered you. /The Lord had seen this, and in his anger /cast off his sons and his daughters. (R.)
  1. ‘I shall hide my face from them,’ he says /‘and see what becomes of them. /For they are a deceitful brood, /children with no loyalty in them. (R.)
  1. ‘They have roused me to jealousy with what is no god, /they have angered me with their beings of nothing; /I, then, will rouse them to jealousy with what is no people. /I will anger them with an empty-headed nation.’ (R.)
Vindictive anger, but better in context

I was so aghast when I read the words that I had to go back to first principles and check what this was meant to be a Response to.  I thought it must be some terrible account of the people going off after false gods or stubbornly defying God’s direct command, but it isn’t;  it is a reading out of Jeremiah 13, where God tells the prophet to go and buy a linen loincloth, wear it but don’t wash it, and then bury it.  Later God sends him back to dig it up again, but it is of course no longer usable.  Then God explains that this is how he will rot the pride and arrogance of Judah and Jerusalem.  They should be clinging to the Lord the way a loincloth clings to the body, but they have turned away.  So the Responsorial Psalm is God expressing his anger.

God's anger
God’s anger and its aftermath
The Deuteronomy Canticle as a Psalm

There are two real difficulties with this as a Psalm.  One is that most of it is God speaking in the first person, which is always tricky, but the bigger problem is the bitterness with which he speaks.  He plots to pay them back with worse than they have done to him.  This is not a loving father speaking, but someone full of rancour and anger. He uses the language of the family (sons, daughters, children), but he is not talking or behaving as a parent.  Rather, these are the words of one party to a contract who has been cheated and deceived by the other party.  Now this began to make more sense, because Deuteronomy is meant to be about the contract between God and his people (with lots of warnings about how they have continually got it wrong in the past, so they had better try to act in accordance with the contract in the future).

Not something to sing about

How do you set God’s anger to a tune?  I found this set of words very daunting.  It needed to be minor or at least modal, because the tone is so dark and minatory.  For God to talk like this about his Chosen People shows how saddened he has been by their behaviour, how distressed.  But we know that he is not closing the door on them, so I did go for modal in the end.  I wanted something simple (the words are stark and direct) but haunting, like the psalms on Good Friday or the Reproaches.  It was particularly difficult because there is no movement away from the dark mood, unlike most psalms, where although you may start ‘in the depths’, the words carry you to a place where at least there is a rock to rest your foot on.

Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora) : good parenting
Solace in the midst of woe

As it happened, the next psalm I had to work on was also a response to another reading from Jeremiah, for 22nd Sunday A.  Jeremiah complains to God about being seduced and enthralled by him, being driven to act as the Lord’s messenger and being badly treated by the people in consequence.  This time, though, the response is the lovely Psalm 62/63, one of my beloved yearning psalms.  Here the two pieces of text work together to remind us of God’s love, like the beautiful moment when Jesus says to Julian of Norwich,’My darling, in all thy woes I have ever been with thee; now seest thou my loving’.  This was a very comforting psalm to move on to, and I was grateful.  As Deuteronomy also reminds us, ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut. 33.27).

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

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