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Calvin's Commentary on the Bible Calvin's Commentary
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These files are public domain.
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ cal/ deuteronomy-33.html. 1840-57.
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
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1.And this is the blessing. The bitterness of the Song was seasoned, (304) as it were, by this palliative, wherein Moses left a testimony with respect to God’s future and perpetual grace, as if depositing an inestimable treasure in the hands of the people. For, as God, after the deliverance of His people, and the giving of the Law, renewed the covenant which Jacob had testified of and proclaimed, so Moses was, as it were, their second father, to ratify anew its blessings, lest the memory of them should ever be lost.
In order to beget confidence in his benedictions, he commences by magnifying his vocation before he proceeds to them; for, although the word benediction is equivalent to a prayer for success, yet must it be borne in mind that Moses does not here pray in the ordinary manner, like a private person, in such a way as fathers are wont to offer supplications for their children; but that, in the spirit of prophecy, he sets forth the blessings which were to be expected from God. This, then, is the reason why he extols the dignity and glory of his office as ruler in such lofty terms, viz., that the twelve tribes of Israel may be thoroughly assured that God is the author of these blessings. For the same reason he calls himself “the man of God:” that the people may receive what he is about to say as if it. proceeded from God, whose undoubted minister he is. Nor is the circumstance of time without its weight — “before his death,” or, “in his death,” which adds to the prophecy the force of a testament.
(304) “Ceste benediction a este comme du suere,” etc.; this blessing was like sugar, etc. — Fr.
2And he said, The Lord came from, Sinai. (305) In these words he reminds them that he is setting before them, a confirmation of the covenant, which God had made with them in this Law, and that it is nothing different from it; for this connection was of exceeding efficacy in establishing the certainty of the blessings, provided only the Law was duly honored; for nothing was better adapted to confirm the grace of God than the majesty which was displayed in the promulgation of the Law. Some, as I conceive improperly, translate it, — “God comes to Sinai,” whereas Moses rather means that he came from thence, when His brightness was made manifest. By way of ornament, the same thing is repeated with respect to Seir and Paran; and, since these three words are synonymous, therefore to go forth, to rise up, and to come, also represent the same thing, viz., that manifestation of the divine glory which should have ravished into admiration the minds of all; as though he had said that his blessings were to be received with the same reverence, as that which God had procured for His Law, when His face was conspicuously displayed on Mount Sinai. The Prophet Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3) has imitated this figure, though with a different object, viz., that, the people might confidently rely upon his power, which had formerly been manifested to the fathers in visible brightness.
By “ten thousands of sanctity,” (306) I do not understand, as many do, the faithful, but the angels, by whom God was accompanied as by a royal retinue; for God also commanded the ark to be placed between the Cherubim, in order to show that the heavenly hosts were around Him. So in Isaiah, (Isaiah 6:6,) the Seraphim surround His throne; and Daniel says that he saw “ten thousand times ten thousand,” (Daniel 7:10;) thus designating an infinite multitude, as does Moses also by “ten thousand.” It is probable that both Paul and Stephen derived from this passage their statement that the Law was “ordained by Angels in the hand of a mediator,” (Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:53;) for its authority was greatly confirmed by its having so many witnesses (obsignatores.)
The Law is placed at His right hand, not only as a scepter or mark of dignity, but as His power or rule of government; for He did not merely show Himself as a king, but also made known how He would preside over them. (307) The Law is called fiery, in order to inspire terror and to enforce humility upon them all; although I am not adverse to the opinion that Moses alludes in this epithet to the outward signs of fire and flame, of which he spoke in Exodus 20:0. But, since the word
, dath, means any statute or edict, some restrict it to the prohibition that none should more closely approach the mountain. In my own mind, however, there is no doubt but that it designates all the doctrine whereby God’s dominion is maintained. דת
(305) Lat., “Went from Sinai.”
(306) A. V. ,” Ten thousands of saints. Ainsworth: “Heb., of sanctity; meaning, spirits of sanctity; which Jonathan in his Thargum expoundeth holy angels: — so we by grace in Christ are come to ten thousands of angels. Hebrews 12:22.”
(307) “Comme il vouloit presider, et estre honore de son peuple;” how He would preside, and be honored by this people. — Fr.
3.Yea, he loved the people. (308) If it be preferred to apply this to the Gentiles, the sentence must be thus resolved, “Although He loves all human beings, still His saints are honored with His peculiar favor, in that He watches over their safety;” but it is more correct to expound it as referring only to the children of Abraham, whom He calls “peoples,” because, on account of the multitude into which they had grown, in their several tribes, they might be reckoned as so many nations. And since the particle
, aph, (309) signifies prolongation of time, like adhuc in Latin, the following sense will be very satisfactory, that, Although the descendants of Abraham were divided into various races, and might therefore seem to be no longer a single family, nevertheless God still continued to regard them all with affection, and their numbers and divisions did not prevent Him from accounting them to be a single body. The sum is, that God’s favor towards them was not extinguished, either by the progress of time, or the increase of the people; but that it was constantly extended to the race of Abraham, however far or widely it might be spread. אף
It must, however, be observed, that in proof of His love, it is presently added, that they were in the hand of God. Hence we infer that, from the time that God has embraced us with His favor, He is the sure guardian of our safety; whence also arises the firm assurance of eternal life. The change of person, from the third to the second, throws no obscurity on the meaning. Since many hypocrites were mixed up with the faithful — for the Church of God has always been like a threshing-floor (310) — Moses restricts this special grace of God to those who willingly submit themselves to Him, and with pious teachableness embrace this instruction, by which sign he distinguishes between the true children of God, and those spurious or degenerate ones, who falsely assume the name. Where my translation is, “They cleaved to thy feet,” others render the words, “They were struck at thy feet,” but in my judgment constrainedly. Others extract from it a useful piece of instruction, that “they were subdued by God’s chastisements, so as to render Him obedience;” but the metaphor is rather taken from disciples, who, according to the common usage of the Hebrew language, are said to sit at their master’s feet, in order to attend more diligently. And this is confirmed by the context, for the faithful are said to have attached themselves to God’s feet, that they might receive of this words, i.e., profit by His instruction.
(308) Lat., “the peoples.”
(309) A. V., “yea.”
(310) In the Fr. this expression is thus explained, — “ou les grains de ble sont cachez sous la paille;” where the grains of wheat are hidden beneath the straw.
4Moses commanded us a law. What he had declared respecting the glory of God, and the excellency of the Law, he now applies to his own person, since it was his purpose, as I have said, to establish the authority of his own ministry. In order, therefore, to prove the certainty of his mission, he boasts that he was appointed by God to be the teacher of the people, and that not for a brief period, but throughout all ages; for by the word “inheritance,” the perpetuity of the Law is signified. He then claims for himself the royal supremacy, not because he had ruled after the manner of kings, but that the dignity of this high office might add weight to his words. He says that “the heads of the people and the tribes were gathered together,” with reference to their unhappy disorganization, which was tending to their destruction, as much as to say that, under his guidance, rind by his exertions, the state of the people was reestablished.
He begins with Reuben, the first-born, and so far removes or mitigates the ignominy of that condemnation wherewith he had been branded by his father Jacob, as only to stop short of restoring him to his place of honor. For the holy Patriarch had pronounced a severe sentence, namely, that Reuben should be “as unstable as water, and should not excel.” (Genesis 49:4.) Lest, therefore, the whole of his posterity should be discouraged, or should be rejected by the other tribes, he abates the severity of his disinheritance, as if to pardon the condemned. In short, he assigns to the family of Reuben a place among the sons of Jacob, lest despair should drive them to headlong ruin. The second clause admits of two contrary meanings. Literally it is, “Let him be small in number;” and, in fact, this tribe was not of the more numerous ones. Since, however, it occupied a middle place, and surpassed several of the others, some repeat the negative, “Let him not die, nor let him be few in number.” (311) But it appears more probable that an abatement is made from the rank to which his primogeniture entitled the family of Reuben, and thus that some remainder of dishonor was introduced into the promise of grace. And, in fact, not only the tribe of Judah, but those of Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali, surpassed it in size. Thus the qualification will be by no means inappropriate, that, although Reuben was to be reckoned among the people of God, still he should not altogether recover his dignity.
(311) A. V. , “and let not his men be few.
7.And this is the blessing of Judah. (312) Jerome has faithfully given the sense, “This is the blessing,” although it is not actually expressed.
It might at first sight appear inconsistent that some abatement should be made from the splendid and abundant blessings which had been promised to the tribe of Judah. This, however, is by no means the case; for the inviolable decree respecting the supremacy of Judah is not thus altered; but Moses merely reminds them how difficult of accomplishment it would be. Jacob had declared, as if speaking of a peaceful dominion, that his “brethren should praise” him, that his “father’s children should bow down before” him; that “the scepter should not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet,” (Genesis 49:8;) but, inasmuch as this dignity lay dormant for a long time, and it was necessary that it should contend with many tedious obstacles before it finally manifested itself, Moses consequently speaks in more limited terms. Still, he seems to have referred not merely to the earlier period, but to the various calamities whereby the kingdom of David was not only apparently diminished, but destroyed; and especially to the melancholy interruption of it which arose from the Babylonish captivity. The sum is, that the prosperity of which Jacob prophesied was not to be so conspicuous in the tribe of Judah, as that all things were to be expected to be joyous and successful, but rather that those, to whom the supreme power as well as wealth was promised, would be exposed to many evils, so that they should be reduced to extremities, and be greatly in want of the help of God. He therefore betakes himself to prayer, and by his example admonishes not that tribe only, but the others also, to implore the faithfulness of God in their overwhelming difficulties. And this lesson applies to ourselves also, in order that we may be the more aroused to prayer and supplication, the more Satan is urgent for the destruction of Christ’s kingdom. At the same time, what I have stated must be observed, namely, that the promise remains firm, since it is not in vain that Moses places all the tribes under the dominion of Judah, when he petitions that he may be brought unto his people, nor promises in vain that God will be at hand to help him, so that he may prevail against his enemies.
(312) And this also of Judah.
8And of Levi he said. This qualification, or modification of the harsher sentence of Jacob was introduced not only for the sake of the tribe of Levi, but rather of the whole people. Jacob had said,
“Simeon and Levi are brethren: instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, my tongue, (313) be not thou united,”
Assuredly their descendants might have been discouraged, or at least might have been regarded contemptuously, when a patriarch, and the founder of their race, had thus abominated them. God, however, afterwards consecrated this tribe to Himself, so that their sanctity might be communicated to the other tribes; which could not be the case unless their previous opprobrium were removed.
But if any contentious person had objected to this blessing, as if Moses were too much disposed to favor his own tribe, such a suspicion could not justly be harbored against him; first, because he, who now makes such honorable mention of the tribe of Levi, was also the proclaimer of their ignominy; and on many other occasions had not spared his own family, but, whenever it was requisite, had freely inveighed against their vices; and, secondly, he now commends nothing in the Levites except the new dignity, which it had pleased God to confer upon them. On this point, indeed, he ought to have been least of all suspected, inasmuch as he had degraded his own sons, and had exalted the posterity of Aaron alone to the highest place of honor. Now, therefore, he has no other object but that the dignity of the priesthood should not be depreciated on account of the sins of men, and thus their religion itself be despised. For we all know how disposed people are to lay charges against the persons of men which may derogate from the sacredness of their office. Assuredly, if Levi had not been purged from that disgrace which he had incurred, the priesthood would have been altogether deprived of reverence; and thus God’s worship would have been very lightly esteemed. Now, however, when God sanctifies this family to himself, he, as it were, restores it entirely; and hence it is apparent that its punishment was only temporary, since Moses had no intention of retracting what the Spirit had dictated to holy Jacob. Nor does he, indeed, advance anything of himself; but the same Spirit removes the ignominy, which might have disgraced the tribe of Levi, inasmuch as it had only been imposed upon it for a time. We have already seen elsewhere that what Jacob prophesied respecting the dispersion of this family, resulted in its honor; since God posted the Levites in all directions like sentinels, that through their means purity of doctrine might be fostered amongst the whole people. They were, therefore, scattered in such a manner as that their punishment might be productive of benefit. We must, therefore, conclude, that Moses spoke not to gratify his brethren, but made honorable mention of the priesthood, lest those, whom God had chosen as this ministers, should be treated with contempt. And, doubtless, the subsequent grace of their calling should have blotted out the recollection of their previous infamy. Thus Christ, when He would restore Peter to the office of an apostle, cancels his triple denial, by thrice setting him over His sheep. (John 21:17.)
The address, which follows, must be applied to God; for some translate it improperly, “The Urim and Thummim shall be with thee,” as if Moses were addressing the tribe of Levi. In order, therefore, to avoid ambiguity, it will be well to translate it of Levi, rather than to Levi; and
, lamed, is often used in this sense. Thus, with the purpose of increasing the authenticity of the benediction, Moses addresses God Himself, as if citing Him as a witness, or referring his injunctions to God’s tribunal. ל
Although in Hebrew the words Urim and Thummim (314) are here used, which were principal parts of the sacred Ephod, I have not hesitated to translate them as common nouns: for it is unquestionable that by these symbols were denoted, the knowledge of the Law which is the only light of our souls, and integrity of life. The sum, however, is that the honor of the priesthood was deposited with Aaron, whom he calls the man of God’s clemency, or, the meek. Jerome, as usual, renders it the holy, but improperly; for (315)
, chasid, signifies mild, or humane; and this epithet is constantly applied to the children of God, in order that we may learn to imitate that Father of mercy, who “maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and the good.” חסיד
What follows, viz., that God tried him at Massah, I conceive to be added by way of exception; for I have no doubt but that Moses magnifies God’s mercy by this allusion, in that He had dignified Aaron with so great an honor, notwithstanding his having been overcome by impatience, and having fallen. Still it must be remarked that, in reference to the people, the zeal of Aaron is recorded as praiseworthy; as much as to say, that the sin of Aaron flowed from the fountain of virtue, since it was from holy indignation that he fell into the passion of impatience, when he could not endure that the people should rebel against God. Unless perhaps it be preferred to understand these words by way of apostrophe to the people, “Thou didst try, thou didst provoke him to contention, or didst quarrel with him.” But the context will run better, if we understand that God then had a controversy with Aaron; inasmuch as, although overcome by the trial, he still gave no despicable proof of his piety, and from that time forward did not cease to execute his office with sedulity.
(313) A.V., “Mine honour.” See C. on Genesis 49:0., C. Soc. Edit., vol. 2, p. 447.
(314) C.’s criticism will be better understood here by giving his version in English:
Deuteronomy 33:8., “But to Levi he said, Thy perfections and splendours were to Thy merciful man, whom Thou didst try in Massah, and madest him to contend at the waters of Meribah.”
(315) A. V. , “Holy one.” It cannot be reasonably said that this word is not used for holy, as well as for merciful. —W.
9.Who said unto his father and his mother. In the person of Aaron an example is set before all the Levites for their imitation. And, first, he is said to have renounced his own flesh and blood, in order that he might be more disencumbered for obeying God; and in fact it is necessary that all the pastors of the Church should put off their earthly affections, which would otherwise often keep them back from devoting themselves entirely to God. Aaron, then, is said to have bid farewell to all his family, that he might be at liberty to lay himself out for God. Christ now requires the same thing of His disciples, that sons should forget their fathers, and fathers their sons, and husbands their wives, lest anything should retard their course, and prevent them from earnestly advancing through life and death to the end to which they are called. (Matthew 10:37.)
Moses afterwards, by using the plural number, embraces the whole Levitical order; and hence we may infer that what had preceded is not to be confined in its application to a single individual. But when he says that they “guarded(custodisse) the word of God, and kept his covenant,” he does not refer to mere ordinary obedience, but to the peculiar care of preserving that which was intrusted to their charge. It is true that in like manner all believers are said to keep the Law, when they zealously devote themselves to live a holy life; but special allusion is here made to the office of teaching. The Levites, therefore, are called guardians of the Law, and keepers of it, as being
, since with them was deposited the treasure of Divine instruction, as is more clearly set forth in the next verse, “They shall teach Jacob, etc.” If any should prefer that this observing of the Law should be understood of their life and habits, as though it were said, that the Levites should surpass others in the examples they gave, I do not contend the point, though it seems to me that the second clause is explanatory, and that it more familiarly sets forth what was spoken with some little obscurity, pointing out the way in which the Law is to be observed, viz., by their being the teachers and masters of the people. We must, however, remark the method they are to adopt in teaching; for they are not permitted to introduce their own inventions, or to frame a rule of life out of their own heads; but they are commanded to seek in the Law itself what they are to teach, and to interpret it honestly and faithfully. And this condition was inserted in order that whosoever should desire to be successors in the honor should be mindful of their vocation, and faithfully devote themselves to the office of teaching. Thus, when in a corrupt state of the Church, priests, who had nothing of this sort about them, paraded their mere empty title; their silly vaunt is refuted by Malachi: φύλακες
“My covenant (he says) was with Levi of life and peace;.... for the law of truth was in his mouth, and the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth, but ye have corrupted my covenant,” (Malachi 2:5.)
Let us learn, then, from this passage, that whosoever claims for himself the primacy in the Church must be repudiated, unless he manifests himself to be a faithful teacher.
The third part of the priest’s office follows, viz., that he should apply himself to the performance of the religious services; for God had disencumbered them from the labors of agriculture and other earthly business, that they might be more entirely at liberty for the duties of teaching and sacrifice; and, although this latter might appear to be but an humble occupation, still, if we regard it aright, it was no common honor that they should be mediators and intercessors for the reconciliation of the people to God; for even the very least of the Levites had something to do with making atonement.
Under the words “incense and whole burnt-sacrifice,” the entire legal service is comprehended; and the incense is said to be put before the nose of God; (316) because the odor of this offering was grateful, and, as it were, sweet-smelling to Him, as we have elsewhere seen.
(316) Margin, A. V., “Heb. at thy nose.”
11.Bless, Lord, his substance. This supplication appears to have been intended tacitly to provide against the poverty which awaited the Levites, if God had not supplied them with food from some other source besides the produce of the soil; for they were deprived of a share in the general inheritance, and God alone was their property. Lest, therefore, their condition should be painful to them, Moses offers them consolation, and bids them expect from God abundance for their support, whilst he promises that His blessing shall stand them in stead of the most redundant produce; as it is said in Psalms 132:15, “I will abundantly bless her provision, and satisfy her priests (317) with bread.”
What follows, that “the work of his hands may be acceptable to God,” may be either explained generally of the labor which is bestowed for the purpose of obtaining food, or of the service and ministry of the tabernacle; but, inasmuch as God engaged the Levites in sacred occupations, it seems indirectly to promise them that such exercises would be no less profitable to them than as if they were altogether occupied in the pursuit of gain. It was allowable for the rest to employ their industry for the advancement of their domestic interests, whilst the Levites, in order properly to perform their duties, were obliged to neglect their private affairs. Lest, then, they should be afraid of destitution, Moses reminds them that they might expect from God an earthly reward also for their spiritual labors.
The third point appears to be purposely introduced, that “God would smite through or transfix their enemies,” because pious teachers are very much exposed to envy, and ill-will, and persecution; for the complaint which is made by Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 15:10,) that he was “a man of strife,” is applicable to all the prophets and ministers of God; since the world can hardly bear its affections to be slain by the spiritual sword of God’s word, and hence many contentions arise. Besides, Satan, in order to render their: doctrine contemptible, does not cease to harass them by whatever means he can, and to arm his bands to war against them; so that the pastors of the Church have need of God’s special aid. This point, then, is peculiarly worthy of observation that, although many adversaries always threaten God’s servants, besiege them, provoke them to conflict, in a word, are always plotting their destruction, still God’s succor will be at hand, whereby they may be rendered invincible; as it was said to Jeremiah,
“They shall fight against thee,
but they shall not prevail against thee.” (Jeremiah 1:19.)
The words I have translated “lest they rise again,” others render “lest they rise against them;” and, although I do not reject this, still it seems to be less appropriate; for Moses did not wish to exempt the Levites from the annoyances of combat, but only to promise them victory, inasmuch as God would overwhelm and destroy their enemies. (318)
(317) A. V. , “poor.” C.’s memory seems here to have failed him, and to have imported the word “priests” from the following verse.
(318) Addition in Fr. , ”voire en sorte qu’ils demeurerent couchez tous plats;” that is to say, in such sort as they should remain altogether east down.
12.And of Benjamin he said. It is probable that Moses alludes to the inheritance which fell to the lot of the children of Benjamin; for the part of Jerusalem in which the temple stood was contained in it. Since, therefore, God assigned them a dwelling-place, in which He in a manner protected them, and cherished them beneath His wings, they are not without reason called His beloved, for this was no ordinary pledge of His love To “dwell upon God,” (319) and “between his shoulders,” is equivalent to reposing upon Him; a similitude taken from fathers who carry their children whilst yet they are small and tender. Others extract a different meaning, viz., that God would dwell upon the shoulders of Benjamin; but this is very unnatural. (320)
(319) A. V. , “by God.”
(320) It is, nevertheless, the exposition of the great majority of commentators, who suppose that by shoulders are figuratively meant mountains, or coasts.
13.And of Joseph he said. Moses repeats some portions of the blessing of Jacob; nor with respect to any other tribe does he approach so closely to the words of the Patriarch. And, although the family of Joseph was already divided into two tribes or nations, still he begins by the head itself, and at the conclusion declares that what had been given to their fathers pertains to Ephraim and Manasseh. First, he celebrates the exceeding fertility of the land, in which the descendants of Joseph were to dwell; and then ratifies his testimony by the authority of God. He promises them, then, that their land shall be fertile, from the best treasures of heaven; for
, meged, signifies whatever is best and most precious. I do not, therefore, approve of their translation, who render it fruits, although I know not whether Moses speaks of the excellency of the climate, or commends the beneficence of God; the latter, however, accords best with the context, in which he makes mention of the external means of fertility, viz., the dew, and the deep, by which word I understand the depth of the soil itself. In the next verse I admit that by the word מגד , meged, the choicest fruits are indicated, but without any change of its meaning. Others render it delicacies: others sweet fruits, on account of the peculiar excellency of the fruits. But I do not see why some translate the word מגד , geresh, “influence.” It literally means thrusting out; and is used metaphorically for the fruit, which arises and breaks forth from the earth. But it is not very clear to me what fruits he speaks of respectively as “of the sun, and the moon;” for I cannot tell whether there are any grounds for assigning, as some do, to the sun the produce which springs from seed and the vintage; and to the moon, cucumbers and gourds; nor do I attempt to decide whether their idea is more correct who suppose the latter to be flowers or fruits which appear every month. גרש
15.And for the chief things of the ancient mountains. In these words he shows that no part of the land would be barren. We know that the tops of mountains are generally and uncultivated, or at any rate bear nothing but trees that have no fruit. But Moses affirms that even there also there shall be the richest produce, for which reason, at least in my opinion, he calls the mountains ancient, and the hills lasting, as if being very highly renowned; for their antiquity is not praised, as if they were created before the rest of the world, but these mountains are honorably distinguished as the first-born, because God’s blessing eminently rests upon them. Thus in the blessing of Jacob it is said, “unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills,” as much as to say, that no corner of these most celebrated mountains should be devoid of fertility. (Genesis 49:26.)
In the next verse he extends generally to the whole land what he had said of the mountains.
Those are wide of the meaning of Moses, who translate what follows: “On account of the good-will of the dweller in the bush the blessing shall come;” and his rendering is altogether barbarous who gives it, “On account of the piety,” etc. My opinion is that the word
, retzon, is in the nominative case; for it is quite in accordance with the context that the “favor of God would come upon the head of Joseph;” for, after Moses had magnified His bounty, he now points out its source or cause, viz., that this extraordinary fertility was the result of God’s gratuitous favor. The words of Jacob, “by the God of thy father,” and “by the Almighty,” exactly correspond with these; where also I have explained why Joseph was called a Nazarene among his brethren. (321) רצון
God is called “the dweller in the bush” by periphrasis, with reference to the vision which was presented to Moses on Mount Sinai; for God then appeared a second time as the Redeemer and Father of His people; after having made His covenant with Abraham and Jacob. And this serves by way of confirmation; as if it were said, that the same God who had formerly blessed Joseph by the mouth of His servant Jacob, now repeated the same prophecy, in order to give fuller assurance of its truth.
(321) A. V. , “Separated from his brethren. ” See on Genesis 49:26, C. Soc. Edit., vol. 2, p. 470.
17His glory is like the firstling. Translators obscure the meaning by translating the word firstling in the nominative case. I have no doubt, however, but that he compares the glory of Joseph to the size of a very fine bullock, as if He had said, “His beauty is as of the most choice bullocks in his herds.” At least it is very consistent that the word firstling should be used for pre-eminent. He says, then, that no more magnificent or glorious bullocks should be found in the land of Joseph than the people itself would be. And to beauty he adds strength and vigor, so that they should be victorious over all their enemies.
At the end of the verse (as I have before stated,) he declares that what he had prophesied of Joseph should be common to the two families of Ephraim and Manasseh. At the same time he confirms the declaration of Jacob, whereby he had preferred Ephraim the younger to the elder. Manasseh, therefore, only reckons his thousands, but Ephraim his tell thousands, a proof of which fact God had given in the census which has been already recorded, in which the tribe of Ephraim was found to be the more numerous.
18.And of Zebulun he said. He compares two tribes with each other, which, although neighbors in position, were still very dissimilar; for the one being devoted to mercantile pursuits, went forth frequently in various directions; the other took more delight in quietude and repose; and this their great variety of condition is indicated, when he bids Zebulun rejoice in its expeditions, and Issachar in its domestic repose. Moses thus confirms the prophecy of Jacob, who said that Zebulun should “dwell at the haven of the sea,” so as to make voyages of traffic; whilst Issachar, as delighting more in repose, should be lazy and idle, so as to make no objections against paying tribute, in order to purchase peace. (Genesis 49:13.)
What follows I suppose to be added, as though Moses had said that their distant location should not prevent them from going up with the others to Jerusalem, for the purpose of performing their religious duties. For in that they were farther removed from the temple, their zeal in the legal service might have grown cold. Although, then, they dwelt in the utmost borders of the land, Moses says that they should nevertheless come to offer sacrifices to God. By the peoples some understand the other tribes, which does not appear at all consistent; and others, foreign nations, to which their commercial intercourse gave them access. My interpretation, however, is simply that, although the length of the journey should invite them to remain at home, still they should mutually exhort each other to betake themselves in large companies to the temple. The end of the verse may be the statement of a reason for this, as if it were said, that they will be more attentive to the service of God, because, being enriched by him, they will be desirous to offer Him the praise. And assuredly it is a sign of gross ingratitude, when we are not stimulated by God’s blessings to strive more earnestly to render thanks to him, in proportion as he deals more liberally with us. At the same time, Moses shows that, in consideration of their great wealth, the expenses of the journey would be by no means onerous to them; for, although their country was not very fertile, still its position was most advantageous for the acquirement of riches. Thus when it is here said, “they shall suck of the abundance of the seas,” an antithesis is to be understood between the fruits of the earth and the abundant revenues derived from merchandise. To the same effect, “the treasures hid in the sand” are spoken of. For the exposition given by some, that their treasures should be so great as that they should hide them in the sand; and by others, that the sands should there be so prolific in silver and gold; and by others, that they should collect what the sea should throw up, is poor and vapid. Whereas, therefore, others should grow rich from their lands, Moses says, by an elegant figure, that the sands of Zebulun should be filled with hidden treasures, on account of their foreign traffic.
20.And of Gad he said. In the blessing of the tribe of Gad, mention is only made of the hereditary portion, which it had obtained without casting of lots. He therefore celebrates the blessing of God, because He had accorded to the Gadites an ample dwelling-place; for the word “enlargeth” refers to the extent of their possession. But inasmuch as in that extremity of the land beyond Jordan, they were on a hostile border, he declares that they would be warlike, and hence compares them to a lion, which tears its prey sometimes from the head, and sometimes from the arm. Since, then, that position would not be so peaceful as any other region in the midst of Canaan, he declares that they should be safe and sound, through their own audacity. And although it is not a very pleasant condition to be harassed by constant wars, still, in such a disagreeable case, God’s grace was not to be despised, which made them formidable to their enemies, and of great valor, whereby they might not only repel hostile invasions, but be willing of themselves to make predatory expeditions. If any should object that license for rapine was quite unsuitable for God’s children, the solution is obvious, that reference is not here made to what was lawful, or what was desirable and praiseworthy, but that a consolation was offered them by way of protection against the incursions and annoyances of their enemies. Besides, the lust for booty is not made permissible, but praise is merely given to their courage in overcoming their enemies.
21.And he provided the first part for himself. (322) Others translate it not badly, the first-fruits. Jerome’s rendering, pre-eminence (principatum,) however, is quite out of the question. The word beginning (principium, ) however, is very suitable, for Moses thus signifies that the Gadites were beforehand in seeking a dwelling-place for themselves; for before possession of the land was accorded to the people, they asked for the kingdom of Sihon for themselves. It is afterwards added, in what way they were provident in choosing their abode, namely, because God suggested to them that Moses was at liberty to assign this portion to them. For it is called the “portion of the lawgiver,” as being that respecting which Moses might lawfully decide, since he appropriated it to the Gadites, not by hazard, nor otherwise than by God’s command. It is called the hidden portion, (323) as not having been included by God in His promise. The sum is, that although God’s will was not yet revealed, with respect to this addition to the land, still they obtained it through His secret liberality. And Moses desires flint his decision with regard to the Gadites remaining on this side Jordan should be thus confirmed, since disputes might have otherwise arisen, inasmuch as God’s promise had assigned the boundaries of the whole people on the opposite bank. Theirs is a poor exposition who explain it that Moses was buried there; and those also violently wrest the words, who understand by “the lawgiver” the chiefs of the Amorites, and render the words “hidden portion,” the ceiled palaces; (324) nor would they have been thus extravagant in their notions, if the natural meaning which I have given had occurred to them.
The other clause of the verse is added by way of qualification; for Moses shows that this advantageous provision was made for the children of Gad, on condition that they should accompany the other tribes, and not return home until the land of Canaan was at peace, and their enemies subdued. And we have already seen that, when they sought for themselves this location outside the land, in the kingdom of the Amorites, they were severely rebuked by Moses, until they promised that they would share the war with their brethren until its conclusion. This is what Moses means by “executing the justice of God, and his judgments with Israel;” not only because it was but just that they should share the war with their brethren, and assist them in obtaining possession of the land, but because God ordained that His just vengeance should be executed upon those heathen and wicked nations by the whole of Israel, and had chosen all the tribes generally to be the ministers of His judgment; as it is said, in Psalms 149:7, that they were charged “to execute vengeance upon the heathen, to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written;” for it was no common honor to be appointed to be, as it were, the judges of the ungodly, so as to destroy them all, and thus to purify the land.
(322) Lat., “And he saw the beginning (principium) for himself,” etc. Heb.
(323) A. V. , “seated;” marg., “Heb. ceiled.” See next note.
. Part. pahul, ספון , to bide. S. M., (“Pro legislatore) abscondendo.” C. learnt from the notes of S. M. that Rabbi Salomon expounds this clause, “He saw that in that land the legislator, Moses, would be buried,” and that Aben-Ezra had interpreted ספן , great, and סהוקק , a house with a dome-like roof, and had then paraphrased the clause, as meaning, “there is the place suitable for the great and noble, who dwell in palaces.” — W ספון
22.And of Dan he said. He foretells that the tribe of Dan, like that of Gad, should be warlike, not so much from voluntary disposition, as from necessity; for their love of war was not to be deemed praiseworthy, inasmuch as it is altogether contrary to humanity; but because the unscrupulousness of the enemies, by which that tribe was infested, compelled them to take up arms. He compares it to a lion impetuously leaping from Mount Bashan; and the particle of comparison must be understood here, for Mount Bashan was not situated in the territory of this tribe. But Moses means to say that they should be as ready for the combat as a lion, which, after it has issued from its den into the open plains, makes an attack upon every one that it meets.
23.And of Naphtali he said. He predicts that God would deal bountifully towards these two tribes; for to the first a fertile district would be allotted towards “the west and the south.” What he declares respecting the tribe of Asher is not free from ambiguity; for he is said to be blessed,
, mibanim, i.e., either with children, or above children. If we prefer the former meaning, his prolificness ( מבנים ) is celebrated, as though it were said, Asher shall be blessed with a numerous progeny. There may, however, be a comparison between this tribe and the others; and this might justly be made to its advantage, because it had a very fertile district allotted to it, and abounding in wheat of the best quality, as the blessing of Jacob testifies, πολυτεκνία
“Out of Asher shall bread be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.” (Genesis 49:20.)
He adds that “Asher shall be acceptable to his brethren;” from whence we gather that his tribe should be of a placid disposition: and afterwards figuratively celebrates the abundance of his oil, and iron, and brass. For to “dip his foot in oil,” is as much as to say that he should collect an abundant supply of oil; and that “his shoes should be iron and brass,” is nothing more than that he should tread upon a soil full of these metals. It is to be readily inferred from hence, as from preceding passages, that the blessings, which are now mentioned, are not so much wishes or prayers, as prophecies; since without the spirit of prophecy Moses could never have divined what, or what sort of, territory was to be bestowed on the several tribes.
Commentators vary as to the latter words; for some render the word
, daba, old age, or, grief, as if there were a transposition of the letters, (325) and thus restrict the meaning of the word “days” to youth; but others more correctly suppose, that Asher was to be strong and vigorous through the whole course of his life. Since, therefore, years gradually debilitate men, Moses promises to the posterity of Asher that their rigor should be retained to the very end of life. דבא
, a word whose root does not occur in Hebrew. The LXX. , and the Chaldee paraphrast, and the Syriac, are unanimous in rendering it strength; but the V. has old age, and those critics, who maintain this to be its meaning, are driven to suppose that it is formed irregularly from דבא — W דאב
26.There is none like unto the God. Moses proceeds from the parts to the whole, and now comes to speak of the whole body, which consisted of the twelve families. All that he says tends to the same end, viz., that the people of Israel were happy as being taken by God under this faithful guardianship: for nothing is more to be desired with regard to our best interests, than that our welfare should be intrusted to the hand of God. But, since this inestimable blessing of being protected by the care of God is often but lightly prized, Moses exclaims in admiration, that there is none to be compared to the God of Israel. We know that all nations had their tutelary gods or patrons, and foolishly gloried in their respective idols; although they often found from experience, that whatever confidence they placed in them was vain and frivolous. Moses, therefore, separates from this imaginary multitude of false gods the God of Israel, like whom, he says, none can be anywhere found. He also extols His power, because He rides gloriously on the heavens and clouds, which is tantamount to all high things being subject to His dominion. But, whereas it would be of little profit to reflect on his infinite power except; in its connection with ourselves, Moses expressly reminds us that God is not strong for Himself, but in order that He may help His people.
27.The eternal God is thy refuge. This is just as if he had said that the Israelites were protected from above by the help of God, and also based, as it were, upon Him. The beginning of the prayer corresponds with that other in Psalms 90:1, “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.” The sum is, that although the Israelites might be exposed to many injuries, still there was secure repose for them under the shadow of God’s wings; and assuredly unless the hand of God had been like a roof to protect them, they would have perished a thousand times over. But, inasmuch as it would not be sufficient for our heads to be in safety, the other point is also added, viz., that God’s arms should be stretched forth to sustain them from beneath. He calls them “everlasting,” because the security of the pious, who rely upon God, is never shaken: it is, therefore, just as though he represented God to be at the same time the foundation, and the roof, of their abode. Others translate it less correctly, “Thou shalt live under the arms of the Everlasting;”for an elegant distinction is drawn, (326) which, however, tends to the same point, when God it called
, kedem, and His arms קדם , gnolam, the first of which words has reference to the past, whilst in the other there is allusion to the future; as if he had said of God, that He was from the beginning, and that His power would endure unto the end. עלם
He adduces experimental evidence of the above statements, inasmuch as God had (327) miraculously destroyed the enemies of His people; at the same time he specifies the manner in which this was done, viz., that He had said, Destroy, or blot out, or dissipate. And by this word he signifies that, although God had made use of the agency of the Israelites, still He only was the conqueror; since the Israelites prevailed not except at His bidding, and by His will.
(326) This sentence is omitted in the Latin edition of 1563 though given in substance in the French of 1564.
(327) It will be seen that C. translates the verbs here in the past tense; A. V. in the future: “he shall thrust out, etc.”
28.Israel then shall dwell in safety alone. (328) The beginning of the verse is by no means obscure, for Moses promises in it to the elect people what all have naturally a great desire for, viz., peace or tranquillity; for he is said to dwell confidentlyalone, who: fears no danger, whom no care harasses, and who needs no garrison, or defense. This, indeed, God never vouchsafed altogether to the Israelites, that they should inhabit their land in security and without the fear of enemies, inasmuch as their ingratitude did not allow of it; and therefore the prophets, in enumerating the blessings of Christ’s kingdom, declare that every one should “dwell beneath his own vine, and his own fig-tree.”
For “thefountain of Jacob,” some have the word eye, (329) and suppose it to be used metaphorically for his vision; as though it were said, that the quiet and peaceful habitation referred to was to be expected by the people from the vision of their father Jacob. Others, however, more correctly read the words “fountain of Jacob,” in apposition (with Israel,) inasmuch as all the tribes derived their origin from that one father. In this way the “fountain” will not be only the actual source; but the rivulet, or stream, which flows down from it.
In conclusion, Moses promises that the very sky of the Holy Land should be propitious, and benignant.
(328) Lat. , “Israel hath dwelt,” etc.
. A spring, or an eye (from its weeping.) The V. with S.M. have taken it to mean an eye here. Luther, Diodati, and A.V. a fountain. C. saw in the notes of S.M. that Kimchi and the Chaldee paraphrast had taken the word literally to be the eye, and, by metaphor, the vision of Jacob. — W עין
29Happy art thou, O Israel. He again exclaims that happy is the people, whose salvation is in God; and surely this is the only true happiness; for unless we ascend to the first cause of Salvation, all salvations, so to speak, are but transitory. And, since God had honored the Israelites alone with this privilege, their condition is here distinguished from the common lot of the whole human race. By the words shield and sword is meant a perfect defense, as much as to say, that no part of their armor was to be sought elsewhere.