According to Deuteronomy 31:16-30, this poem was first given by God to Moses to teach to the people by heart. It was to serve as a "witness" warning Israel in advance and then attesting to God's justice and Israel's guilt when punishment came.
Critical scholarship considers the poem post-Mosaic since it refers to the settlement in the promised land and Israel's apostasy as past events, is addressed to the guilty generation, and describes the ultimate punishment of the enemy as imminent. Language and contents suggest that the poem was composed prior to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel ca. 721 BCE, perhaps as early as the period of the Judges (ca. 1200-1020 BCE) or shortly thereafter. It was probably composed after a particular invasion to offer an explanation and hope of deliverance. Quite likely, it was incorporated into Deuteronomy because it explained the disaster in theologically meaningful terms.
In Second Temple Times the Levites read parts of the poem in the Temple while the additional sacrificial offering (musaf) was being made on Sabbath. Nowadays it is read on the Sabbath of the penitential season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the Sephardic liturgy, it is recited during the morning service on the Ninth of Av (the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples).
Jeffrey H. Tigay
Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures
University of Pennsylvania
Y. Kaufmann, Toledot ha-'Emunah ha-Yisre'elit (4 vols., Jerusalem, 1955), 2:287-290; O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Intro-duction (New York, 1965), pp. 226f.; U. Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies (2 vols., Jerusalem, 1973-1975), vol. 1, pp. 41-46, 95-100; A. Rofe, Mavo le-Sefer Devarim (Jerusalem, 1988), Chap. 20; J. H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia, scheduled for 1996), ad loc. and Excursuses 30-31.