Deuteronomy 33: A Final Poetic Blessing

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

1 This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death. 2 He said:
The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones; at his right, a host of his own.
3 Indeed, O favorite among peoples, all his holy ones were in your charge;
they marched at your heels, accepted direction from you.
 4 Moses charged us with the law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
 5 There arose a king in Jeshurun, when the leaders of the people assembled– the united tribes of Israel.

Now the final words that Moses speaks in Deuteronomy come out as a blessing. For the first time Moses is given the title the man of God, although he will be referred to as the man of God in retrospect as will other prophets. In contrast to the words of the previous song that are to witness against the people when they become unfaithful the blessing on eleven of the tribes (for reasons unknown Simeon is omitted) is much like a father blessing their children. In a sense Moses has been the parent for a generation of Israel that lived as wanderers with Moses as their primary leader and now like Jacob blessing his sons in Genesis 49.

The blessing begins once again with a lyrical retelling of the beginning of the encounter between Moses and God when Moses is called at Sinai. The poetry is not interested in retelling history but instead of reveling in the power of the God of Israel. In mysterious language that probably refers to The LORD as the greatest among the gods (rather than later monotheistic thought which talks about the LORD as the only God) the people are lifted up as the ones chosen by this God among all the nations. Using Jeshurun, a pet name for Israel, the confederation of tribes was brought together under one king (presumably referring to the LORD rather than a later Davidic king). Here the diversity of the tribes is celebrated within their unity and specific aspects are lifted up for blessing.

 6 May Reuben live, and not die out, even though his numbers are few.
 

The blessings are given beginning with the oldest but do not strictly follow any birth order, with Simeon omitted as stated above, but rather seem to be grouped by the mothers of the children. Reuben was the firstborn of Israel but fell from favor after he slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (and mother of Dan and Naphtali). Here in the narrative Reuben’s tribe is already few in numbers. Even though Reuben’s tribe is already in possession of their land they also form the border with the Moabites and will endure struggle in future generations. Here this short blessing only asks for his perseverance.

 7 And this he said of Judah: O LORD, give heed to Judah, and bring him to his people;
strengthen his hands for him, and be a help against his adversaries.

One of the more surprising blessings for its brevity goes to Judah. Judah will be the line that David and the Davidic kings come out of and will also become one of the largest and most powerful tribes. In contrast in Genesis 49 he receives a much longer blessing.  The blessing is simple: that the tribe of Judah would be heard, strengthened and helped in conflict.

8 And of Levi he said: Give to Levi your Thummim, and your Urim to your loyal one,
whom you tested at Massah, with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah;
9 who said of his father and mother, “I regard them not”;
he ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children.
For they observed your word, and kept your covenant.
10 They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law;
they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O LORD, his substance, and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries, of those that hate him, so that they do not rise again.

If the blessings were simply birth order Levi would come prior to Judah, yet Levi receives a much larger and more developed blessing, which also reflects the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the role of the Levites. The Urim and Thummim are the stones to be placed in the breastplate of the high priest, first mentioned in Exodus 28: 31 which are to be used as a manner of casting lots and discerning God’s will.  The ignoring of kin probably refers to the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32, where the sons of Levi rally to Moses and kill the people who are running wild through the camp. This is the defining part of the tribe’s story where they are set apart to serve the LORD. As we have seen throughout Deuteronomy, with Moses no longer there to be the teacher of the law now that duty will fall to the Levites.

 12 Of Benjamin he said: The beloved of the LORD rests in safety—
the High God surrounds him all day long—
the beloved rests between his shoulders.

Benjamin’s blessing while short reflects a closeness of the LORD with the title of beloved of the LORD. The parental image of the God of Israel allowing the youngest child to rest in safety between the LORD’s shoulders is a peaceful one.
 
13 And of Joseph he said: Blessed by the LORD be his land,
with the choice gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that lies beneath;
14 with the choice fruits of the sun, and the rich yield of the months;
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains, and the abundance of the everlasting hills;
16 with the choice gifts of the earth and its fullness, and the favor of the one who dwells on Sinai.
 Let these come on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers.
 17 A firstborn bull– majesty is his! His horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he gores the peoples, driving them to the ends of the earth;
such are the myriads of Ephraim, such the thousands of Manasseh.

Joseph also receives a longer and fuller blessing, like Levi. Although the tribes of Joseph are larger and are frequently referred to by the names of his sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. The blessing called upon the half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (or the tribe of Joseph) are for abundance and strength. The image of the bull that gores and the illustration of the size (myriads and thousands) probably reflect the size of the host that Manasseh and Ephraim would contribute to the upcoming battles due to the size of their people.

 18 And of Zebulun he said: Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out; and Issachar, in your tents.
 19 They call peoples to the mountain; there they offer the right sacrifices;
for they suck the affluence of the seas and the hidden treasures of the sand.

Zebulun and Issachar share a blessing. Their blessing is for wealth. They will share territory next to one another and here they share a common blessing in their going out and tents.

 20 And of Gad he said: Blessed be the enlargement of Gad! Gad lives like a lion;
he tears at arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best for himself, for there a commander’s allotment was reserved;
he came at the head of the people, he executed the justice of the LORD, and his ordinances for Israel.

A simile is used to compare Gad to a lion. Gad seems to be lifted up as a dangerous enemy and one who chooses the best spoils of war. As a leader he is also lifted up as an executor of the justice of the LORD and the LORD’s ordinances.

 22 And of Dan he said: Dan is a lion’s whelp that leaps forth from Bashan.

Here the metaphorical image of a lion’s cub extends to Dan. Dangerous and violent, but perhaps not as dangerous as Gad.

 23 And of Naphtali he said: O Naphtali, sated with favor, full of the blessing of the LORD, possess the west and the south.

Naphtali is blessed with the full blessing of the LORD. The blessing of the LORD is linked to the land they will possess which is consistent with the understanding of land in Deuteronomy.

 24 And of Asher he said: Most blessed of sons be Asher; may he be the favorite of his brothers, and may he dip his foot in oil.
 25 Your bars are iron and bronze; and as your days, so is your strength.

Finally, the blessing for Asher where his position as a favorite among the tribes is combined with a blessing upon his strength metaphorically referred to as iron and bronze.

 26 There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help,
majestic through the skies.
 27 He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old;
he drove out the enemy before you, and said, “Destroy!”
 28 So Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode in a land of grain and wine,
where the heavens drop down dew.
 29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
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.

The blessing concludes with a final bit of poetic reference to the strength of the LORD using the imagery of the divine warrior. Again this is poetic imagery that comes from a world where the LORD is the greatest among the pantheon of the gods of the nations and is able to conquer these other gods (and by extension their people). The LORD is sword and shield, a common image of the Psalms, and Israel will stand victorious over the other peoples because of the strength of their LORD.

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