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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 33

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


Chapter 33 The Final Blessing of Moses On His People.

The dying words of a righteous man were in those days seen as having special significance. It was recognised that at such a time a man might receive unusual insights, and his words were indeed seen as actually affecting that future in some way. We are given no context for the blessing which is simply slipped in here as the final words of Moses.

Verse 1

Chapter 33 The Final Blessing of Moses On His People.

The dying words of a righteous man were in those days seen as having special significance. It was recognised that at such a time a man might receive unusual insights, and his words were indeed seen as actually affecting that future in some way. We are given no context for the blessing which is simply slipped in here as the final words of Moses.

Deuteronomy 33:1

And this is the blessing, with which Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.’

This poem is stated to be a blessing given by Moses, ‘the man of God’ (compare for ‘man of God’ Joshua 14:6; 1Sa 9:6 ; 1 Samuel 9:10; 1 Kings 13:1; 1Ki 13:8 ; 1 Kings 17:18, etc.), the great prophet, as a blessing on the children of Israel with his death in view (compare Jacob in Genesis 49:0 for a similar blessing on which in fact this one draws). A man's dying words were seen to be imbued with great power, and as being formative for the future, especially when that man was a prophet. And this blessing was especially significant in view of the fact that Moses knew that his death would mark a new beginning for Israel as they entered the promised land.

The basic message in his words is the revelation of the God of Sinai and the greatness of His power, ideas which both begin and end the poem, something very relevant to what Israel were about to face. Their future is caught up in the greatness of Yahweh. The mention of Sinai suggests that the poem was originally written down separately and later incorporated into Deuteronomy by Moses or his scribe as part of his benediction. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy Sinai is never mentioned, Moses always referring to Horeb, which probably indicated the wider area in which Mount Sinai was situated to include the place where the people gathered (this would be similar to his use of ‘the place’ which Yahweh would choose, rather than mentioning the actual Sanctuary). But this was poetry and required vividness and directness, and therefore Sinai is distinctly mentioned, and in the poem it is important that it is the Mountain of God.

Between these revelations of Yahweh’s glory and power at beginning and end are detailed blessings on the tribes. The detail concerning the tribes has Jacob’s last words in Genesis 49:0 very much in mind, but is varied as a result of Moses' own experiences with the tribes. As the years had gone by he had seen them for what they were, their weaknesses and their strengths, and he had in his prophetic instinct some understanding of what their future could be if they were obedient to Yahweh.

It will be clear that he had outwardly more enthusiasm for some than for others. He had observed them all over the years and knew them intimately, but he only waxes eloquent over two, Levi which is exalted because of its vital place in God's work on behalf of His people, and Joseph. But the latter is partly as a result of Genesis 49:0, where Joseph is also dealt with extensively and from which he extracts some material. However, it may also partly be because he has great hopes for them in view of their size and what Jacob promised for them.

It will be noted immediately that there is no mention of Simeon among the twelve tribes. For us that is but a technicality requiring explanation, but for the tribe of Simeon it must have been devastating. To be left out of such a blessing would have been seen as very significant. Why then were they omitted?

Note: The Non-mention of Simeon.

There can only be one of two possible explanations for the non-mention of Simeon, for it could not have been by inadvertence. The first is that there was some special reason for its omission, probably of a disciplinary kind, and the second that the tribe of Simeon had by the time the poem was written faded into insignificance.

The evidence stands firmly against the second. The evidence demonstrates that Simeon continued to appear throughout the centuries as alive and well. See for example 1 Chronicles 12:25; 1Ch 27:16 ; 2 Chronicles 15:9; 2 Chronicles 34:6. It is clear that in the tradition Simeon were seen as able to provide numerous fighting men at various times, and were seen as having numerous cities in the time of Josiah. We may choose to ignore the evidence, but it is there, and there is little actual evidence the other way. For even though in Judges 1:0 they played second fiddle to Judah, there was no suggestion that they were absorbed by them. Their separate existence was still seen as continuing.

So if the fact that Simeon is not mentioned in the blessing is not due to Simeon disappearing from history, something which in fact on the evidence did not happen, to what can it be ascribed?

One reason was undoubtedly because one tribe had to drop out in the poem in order to maintain the sacred number twelve if both Ephraim and Manasseh were to be mentioned. We note that the tribes of Israel are listed a number of times throughout Scripture and always maintained at twelve, with the result that when Ephraim and Manasseh were seen as separate tribes another had always to be omitted. In the list in Genesis 49:0 the actual twelve sons were listed, as we would expect. Here in this list Simeon is omitted. In 1 Chronicles 27:16 Asher and Gad were omitted while Simeon was reintroduced, the twelfth tribe then being the half tribe of Manasseh. In Revelation 7:0 the names of Ephraim and Dan were omitted, although Ephraim comes in as Joseph. But why should Moses select Simeon to be omitted at this time?

The probable reason is to be found in the recent behaviour of the tribe of Simeon. For the fact was that they had recently, and very severely, blotted their reputation, so much so that the omission of their name was probably intended to be an indicator to them of God’s disapproval, a warning that if they did not reform their name might be blotted out of Israel completely. It demonstrated that at this time Yahweh was not pleased with them and that nothing was expected of them, nor could they expect anything of Him, because they had openly defied Him (Numbers 25:14). The indication is thus that they were to see themselves as still under probation for that incident and that they were therefore being passed over in silence. They were being called on to purge their contempt.

Even prior to this incident Simeon had previously had a bad reputation. Like Reuben because of his behaviour with his father’s concubine, Simeon too had originally come under wrath for their behaviour, along with Levi, in the affair at Shechem which Jacob never forgot (Genesis 49:5 compare Genesis 34:0). But unlike Levi they had not done anything to redeem themselves. Rather they had made their situation worse. For at the first great test following the movement towards the promised land after the years of waiting, they were prominent in their disobedience to Yahweh. This occurred at Baal-peor (Numbers 25:0). Here Israel demonstrated something of what the future would hold by failing the first time that they came in close touch with local idolatry. As they abode in Shittim some of them began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab and ‘joined themselves with Baal-peor’ (Numbers 25:1). They became involved with the local Moabite religion and its sexual misbehaviour. The result was that all those involved, especially the chiefs, were sentenced to be put to death (Deuteronomy 33:4-5).

And there it might have ended. But worse was to follow. A prince/chieftain of the tribe of Simeon deliberately defied Yahweh and Moses, and even while the children of Israel were coming to Yahweh in mourning for their sin (Deuteronomy 33:6), he blatantly brought into the camp a Midianitish woman, seemingly with the support and encouragement of his fellow-tribesmen (‘brought to his brothers’ - Deuteronomy 33:14), and this clearly in connection with participation in idolatrous worship. It was an open act of defiance against Yahweh and against Moses in the very thing which had been condemned, and it was carried out in the very camp of Israel itself and in the sight of Yahweh.

And it was then, as before in the molten calf incident, that Levi stepped in to support Yahweh’s name, this time through the action of Phinehas, son of Eliezer, son of Aaron, who seizing a spear, followed the Simeonite prince into his tent and slew both him and the woman. Thus were Simeon and Levi divided before Yahweh, with Phinehas being praised by Yahweh for his righteous act and the prince of Simeon being dead in shame, having died for disgracing Israel. Levi were prominent in righteousness and Simeon were in deep disgrace. Levi indeed had averted the plague that Simeon had brought on Israel. This then almost certainly explains why Simeon were dropped here, in contrast with the blessing of ‘Simeon and Levi’ in Genesis 49:5, with the blessing going to Levi alone. The blackened name of Simeon could not be mentioned along with Levi’s (as it had been in Jacob’s blessing).

But that was not to say that Simeon were excluded from the confederacy altogether. We may still see the blessing of ‘the twelve tribes’ as a whole as confirmation that the whole of Israel were to receive the blessings in an overall way, and that would therefore include Simeon, but not as a separate identity. For the point was that Simeon were excluded from the distinctive features that belonged to the others. They were not named. There was nothing to say about them. One twin was exalted, the other unmentioned. It was a clear warning to both Simeon and all Israel of what their rebellion had meant and what such rebellion could mean in the future. It was a warning ‘shot across the bows’. It was a firm reminder that those who rebelled were in danger of being blotted out.

Simeon were not to see from it that they were totally rejected, that they were blotted out of Israel, but rather that they were out of favour and in need of repentance and contrition. It was a warning of what they had lost and that they needed to be careful in the future if they were to be restored to favour. It was a warning of the danger of being blotted out. They had to recognise that in order to be named in Israel they must prove themselves worthy. And the same message would go over to the whole congregation of Israel every time the song was sung. The warning would rank along with that of the death of Moses.

But the dropping out of their name then meant (and this was also possibly partly a cause as well) that a way had to be found to maintain the covenant ‘twelve’. This was achieved by including both Ephraim and Manasseh. Twelve was a number to be maintained at all costs because the number was seen as significant and sacred for the binding together of the tribes, Having twelve (or elsewhere six) in such a confederation seems to have been seen as a sacred requirement for such an alliance among the Terah and Abrahamic tribes, compare Genesis 22:20-24; Genesis 25:13-16.

Simeon and Levi were seemingly twins, and had clearly regularly worked together in mutuality in the past, and in the past when they had been blessed, they had been blessed together (Genesis 49:5). Now the deliberate dropping of Simeon’s name spoke loudly of how Levi had been restored to favour so that they were the blessed of Yahweh, while the non-mention of Simeon declared the very opposite about them. Like Moses they were not totally excluded from Yahweh’s favour, but nevertheless had to be punished for their failure at Baal-peor.

There was something else stark that stood out from the omission of their name. It was that their tie with Levi no longer stood. The incident of the molten calf, with its consequent result for Levi, may well be seen as having have broken this mutuality, with the incident of the Midianite woman confirming it. Levi could now show Simeon no special favours. They had a responsibility to Yahweh, and Simeon dropped out of the reckoning.

Thus Simeon would as a result of events recognise that they would have to seek another partner among the Leah tribes. They were no longer in close standing with Levi. Levi were, after all, no longer an ordinary tribe and working together with them would be difficult. They were now Yahweh’s possession. So Simeon may well even at this time, and possibly even earlier, have turned to their brother tribe of Judah. For the fact is that Simeon would later (Judges 1:0) very much come to be seen as working closely with Judah, possibly even developing a joint leadership of elders from both tribes, in such a way that they would both see themselves, while maintaining their distinctive identities, as coming under the same umbrella. Indeed it may be that the disgracing of the Simeonite chieftain in such a severe manner had resulted in Simeon coming under the leadership of Judah and thus not being at this time distinguished as a separate tribe for the purpose of the blessing (they had lost a good number of their top leadership - Numbers 25:4). This would explain why Simeonite cities are also listed as cities of Judah in Joshua 15:0.

However, such relationships between neighbourly elements take long periods of mutuality to build up. It would only be after Levi had been given their unique position that Simeon, feeling bereft, may well have looked for another mutual partner in the Leah sub-confederacy, during the long stay around Kadesh, and in the wilderness, finding one in Judah. It is also interesting to note that in Judges also the mention of Simeon is quietly dropped once they have been initially introduced. They appear to have in some way become seen as secondary. Their shame still hung over them.

This would then further explain why, in the book of Joshua, Judah and Simeon were seen as given a joint lot, then divided between them, as is suggested from the lists of towns allocated to each (see Joshua 19:9). This being so it may be that in this blessing Simeon could see themselves as blessed in Judah. However the Chronicler clearly demonstrates that Simeon retained their separate identity within the alliance (1 Chronicles 12:25; 1 Chronicles 27:16; 2 Chronicles 15:9; 2 Chronicles 34:6). They were never totally merged into Judah, as the narrative in Judges 1:0 also makes clear. Thus their non-mention would still have been seen as a blow. It was an indication of the way their actions at Baal-peor were seen as having diminished them.

(But we are not because of this to see Simeon and Judah as separate from the general invasion. Their campaign in fact progressed from north to south, not from south to north. While acting separately they did so as part of the general movement out of Jericho and Gilgal. Judah had been a leader among his brothers, taking over from Reuben (Genesis 43:3; Genesis 43:8) and this sense of possibly unconscious superiority had no doubt passed down as the tribe had grown. With Joseph’s obvious superiority in Egypt it was natural that Judah would for this reason tend to isolate itself and stand aloof, even while remaining a part of the loose family confederacy. They could not take kindly to being subservient. But over the years, as the position of ‘Joseph’ weakened with the change of Pharaohs, the position would become ameliorated but it would remain nevertheless, and Moses was no doubt fully aware of the tensions it produced).

(End of note.)

The poem was probably written down by Moses with a view to recitation at the annual festivals, as a reminder and assurance of Yahweh’s promises for the future. As a competent leader he would want to ensure the future for his people and give them permanent assurance of God’s coming blessings. It is possible that in the original oral ceremony held by the dying leader some indication of Simeon’s inclusion may have been given, even though they were in disgrace. But the ‘covenant blessing’ required that there be only twelve names and Simeon’s error was too recent. Thus they were deliberately omitted. But the maintenance of the number ‘twelve’ was seen as sacred and ever later maintained, and included within its umbrella all Israel. For Israel was later see as splitting into ‘ten’ and ‘two’ (1 Kings 11:31; 1 Kings 11:35; 1 Kings 12:21). We are not told how Simeon fitted in to that, but their existence was clearly seen as continuing.

Verses 2-3

Deuteronomy 33:2-3 a

‘And he said,

Yahweh came from Sinai,

And rose from Seir to them;

He shone forth from mount Paran,

And he came from the ten thousands of holiness (quodesh),

At his right hand was a fiery law for them.

Yes, he loves the peoples;’

This is a vivid description of Yahweh in His glory coming to His people on Mount Sinai. Seir is Edom in which Mount Sinai is found, Paran the rough area in which it is, so that it, or a related mountain, could be called Mount Paran (compare Habakkuk 3:3). The writer is looking back to that glorious day and giving rough directions of its whereabouts which will have been known to the people. These areas were not strictly defined. There were no maps that showed their boundaries, and place names for the same sites were many and varied as used by different peoples. But all knew that Seir and Paran referred to the wilderness to the South.

He came to His people from the multitudes of angels who formed His court, ‘ten thousands of holiness’, an indefinitely large number. And at His right hand He had a law written in fire, a heavenly Law, the law of the One Who appeared in fire, Who was like a flaming fire. And He came because of His love for His people, who were at that stage ‘peoples’ including a mixed multitude from many nations (Exodus 12:38).

For a similar description of Yahweh’s coming from Mount Seir see Judges 5:4-5; compare also Psalms 68:7-8; Habakkuk 3:3-7.

Deuteronomy 33:3 b

“All his holy ones are in your hand,

And they sat down at your feet;

Every one shall receive of your words.”

Here the ‘holy ones’ may well in this case represent His people, which He had previously called ‘a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6), who are also the holy servants of Yahweh. The change from ‘His’ to ‘your’ suggests that it is spoken to Moses. Thus Yahweh’s holy people are described as in Moses’ hand and sitting at His feet. He is their supreme authority and teacher. They would all receive his words, the words of that fiery Law that he had received from Yahweh. Moses was establishing his authority as the giver of the blessing to generations yet unborn.

Others see this as referring to the angels receiving Yahweh’s words that they might pass them on to Moses. For the Law was conveyed to him ordained of angels at the hand of a mediator (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19). ‘All His holy ones’ would then be a technical term for His angelic hosts. And the second person verbs would then be seen as addressed to either Yahweh or Moses depending on viewpoint.

Verses 4-5

Deuteronomy 33:4-5

“Moses commanded us a law,

An inheritance for the assembly of Jacob.

And he was king in Jeshurun,

When the heads of the people were gathered,

All the tribes of Israel together.”

“Moses.” There is no reason for doubting that in the light of his coming death Moses could in such a solemn writing speak of himself in the third person. This was intended to be a solemn record and he intended its happenings to be recorded and passed on down the generations in a way that they would understand clearly.

“He was king in Jeshurun.” Some see this as Moses declaring his status. He was ‘king’ in Jeshurun, and commanded them a law. This law was the inheritance of ‘the assembly of Jacob’, it was what was passed on to them from Yahweh through Moses. ‘Assembly of Jacob’ indicates either the gathered Israelite leadership, the men of Israel as a whole, or the whole people.

Jeshurun (‘the upright one’ - some say in the diminutive, although that is questionable) refers to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 32:15; Isaiah 44:2. They were gathered together with their leaders as an upright nation responding to Yahweh’s covenant, with Moses as ‘king’ over them. In this view Moses wanted future generations to recognise the full authority that he had.

Others see ‘He was king in Jeshurun’ as referring to Yahweh as King over His people, with His throne as the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh. Compare Exodus 15:18; the suzerainty treaty - Exodus 20:1-17; Numbers 23:21; Judges 8:23. The people saw themselves as a theocratic people with Yahweh ruling over them. This is possibly the preferable way of looking at it, and we would expect the idea of Yahweh as ‘coming from Sinai’ with His law, to be taken up again prior to the blessings on the tribes. It would be a way by which Moses could assure them that their future was secure. Yahweh was their everlasting King.

(There were dangers in using the title of ‘king’ (melek) of Yahweh, for the god of Ammon was called Melek (becoming with the addition of the vowels from bosheth (‘shame’) Molech) and there could have been confusion. This would explain why, although the covenant format revealed Yahweh as His people’s Overlord, the term King was generally avoided except in a context like this).

It is possible that in the reciting of the poem at covenant festivals this section was intended to be a response of the people to the narrator, which would further explain the reference to Moses in the third person. But such a theory is not necessary.

Moses then, with the prophetic instinct of a dying prophet, spoke of the future of God’s people. Something of which he said of each tribe applied to all the tribes of Israel (we can compare with this the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 which were written to seven specific churches, but were intended for all the church of Christ). Because it was necessary to maintain the number twelve, and because he intended to mention both Ephraim and Manasseh, he had to omit one tribe and he chose to omit Simeon, probably with mutual agreement as they humbly and repentantly recognised how they had failed at Baal Peor and over the Midianitish woman. But they were still included in his overall words. This omission was possibly partly because in the blessing of Jacob Simeon and Levi were included as one (they were probably twins and did everything together - compare Genesis 34:25). Here his words to Levi would not have suited Simeon apart from verse 11. Or it may have been because of a developed closeness with Judah.

The suggestion that Simeon is omitted because this was written after Simeon had disappeared as a tribe is lacking in evidence and contradicts the evidence of 1 Chronicles 12:25; 1Ch 27:16 ; 2 Chronicles 15:9; 2 Chronicles 34:6. At the division of the kingdoms there were still recognised to be twelve tribes excluding the Levites, and that puts Simeon among the ten, although not all in the ten seceded (2 Chronicles 15:9). The position was necessarily very complicated, and loyalties were tested. But it is clear that Simeon were still able to contribute soldiers at different periods, and that there were Simeonite cities in the time of Josiah

Verse 6

Deuteronomy 33:6

“Let Reuben live, and not die;

And let his men be few (literally, ‘may his men be a number’ ).”

The first to be dealt with is the firstborn Reuben. Reuben’s future was destined to be that they would wither as a nation, but would survive. As Jacob had said in his dying blessing, unstable as water he would not excel (Genesis 49:4). As Reuben had not been executed for his misdeed, the tribe were not doomed to final execution because of his having taken his father’s concubine - Genesis 35:22, (as the law now required - Leviticus 20:11), but nevertheless they would suffer a lesser penalty in that they would not be fruitful (compare Leviticus 20:20-21). They would eventually become a depleted tribe. Moses recognised the inevitable divine consequence of Reuben’s behaviour, and that the mills of God grind slowly. He may also have seen as significant that they settled by request in land which Moab and Ammon still claimed as their own (Judges 11:13), and were therefore especially vulnerable once those nations grew strong.

“May his men be a number.” This is usually seen as indicating that they would be few in number. Compare ‘men of number’ in Genesis 34:30, that is, easily counted. But it might mean ‘may they be numerous’, although the use in Genesis 34:0 is against it.

Verse 7

Deuteronomy 33:7

“And this is of Judah: and he said,

Hear, Yahweh, the voice of Judah,

And bring him in to his people.

With his hands he contended for himself;

And you will be a help against his adversaries.”

Judah would tend to be a loner but must be welcomed as part of the greater confederacy. Moses was aware of the trend for them to keep separate apart from their special relationship with Simeon, a trend already evident, and prayed that Yahweh would continue to ‘bring him in to his people’ so that they did not break away completely. As a proud tribe they did later stand almost alone, which they could do because of their great size and power, which would already have been evident at this stage. This was seemingly apparent to Moses from the beginning, for he set them in the vanguard of the advance (Numbers 2:9). They will tend to stand on their own, he declares, and will triumph with God’s help. But they would still need Yahweh’s help against their adversaries.

Jacob had already declared that Judah would bear the sceptre, (Genesis 49:10 - see Genesis 43-44 where he had already established his leadership among the sons of Jacob) and would thus be a royal tribe. But Moses says nothing of this, which is evidence of the early date of the poem. There was no kingship other than Yahweh’s on the horizon at this point in time.

The shortness of the blessing comes as something of a surprise in comparison with Genesis 49:0. This may partly be because Simeon was seen as coming under their umbrella because Simeon’s own chieftainship had been shamed at Baal-peor, with the thought that the least mentioned the better.

Verses 8-11

Deuteronomy 33:8-11

And of Levi he said,

Your Thummim and your Urim are with your godly one,

Whom you proved at Massah,

With whom you strove at the waters of Meribah;

When he comes to Simeon and Levi (compare Genesis 49:5), what he has to say specifically concerns Levi predominantly and so Simeon’s name is quietly, and in view of their error, firmly dropped. This was almost certainly deliberate in order to retain the mention of twelve tribes. When listing the tribes of Israel they were always listed as twelve and one was always dropped (because Joseph had divided into Ephraim and Manasseh), for ‘twelve’ was the essential number of the confederacy.

“Your Thummim and your Urim are with your godly one.” Central to the ministry of the Levites to the people of Israel was that their leader, ‘the Priest’ (the High Priest), dispensed Yahweh’s will through the Urim and Thummim. We could describe these as ‘holy lots’ through which the divine will could be discovered (see Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 28:6 and so on). ‘Your godly one’ probably refers to Aaron, although it may signify Moses. Both were of the tribe of Levi. Moses may well have been the first to use Urim and Thummim before they were passed over to Aaron on the establishment of the High Priesthood, although his intimacy with Yahweh had become such (Numbers 7:89) that there would for him be little necessity for them, except perhaps in smaller matters of judgment.

“Whom you proved at Massah, with whom you strove at the waters of Meribah.” Outwardly this would make ‘your godly one’ Moses for it was with him that they, along with the whole of Israel, strove at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7), but Aaron was already identified with Moses in the leadership as against the grumbling people (Exodus 16:2). Thus ‘your godly one’ could equally be Aaron. And in the light of the fact that the Urim and Thummim are said to be ‘with him’ (that is, with his designated successor) Aaron is probably intended.

The purpose of this description is to bring out why Aaron was separated off as ‘the Priest’ along with his sons. He alone (and presumably his family) had not been involved in rebelling against Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 33:9

“Who said of his father, and of his mother,

I have not seen him;

Nor did he acknowledge his brethren,

Nor knew he his own children.”

As Yahweh’s holy ‘Priest’ Aaron was forbidden to enjoy the usual family relationships. He was in some ways separated off from his family. When any of his family died, whether father, mother, brother, sister, son, or whoever, he was not to touch their dead bodies nor even leave the tabernacle while serving there, in the event that they were to die suddenly (Leviticus 21:11). As God’s supreme representative on behalf of Israel he had to be impervious to all family loyalty. This was proof of Aaron’s dedication and his especially holy position.

Or the picture may have been of Moses whose position meant that he had to keep separate from family loyalties.

Deuteronomy 33:10

“For they have observed your word,

And keep your covenant.

They shall teach Jacob your ordinances,

And Israel your law:

They shall put incense before you,

And whole burnt-offering on your altar.”

The ministry of all the sons of Levi, the Levites and the priests, is now described. They were to observe His word and guard His covenant, as they had already done when rallying round Moses in the case of the molten calves (Exodus 32:26-29), and as they did now by their tents surrounding the Sanctuary. They were to teach ‘Jacob’ God’s ordinances, and ‘Israel’ His law. They were to offer incense before Yahweh (a right limited of course to the unblemished priests) and whole burnt offerings on His altar. They were to be ‘divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel’ in a way that Jacob did not probably expect when he gave his blessing (Genesis 49:7)). The priests and Levites were to be very influential throughout the land in the Judges period, and while some overstepped the mark, in general they held Israel to the faith (Judges 17:11; Judges 19:1).

As far as the sanctuary was concerned the Levites as a whole were in the beginning merely transporters of the holy things, with only the priests being actually able to enter the Holy Place and pack up the holy things. So the Levites who were not of the priestly family were very much ‘carriers’. However, it seems that levitical duties did include the passing on of the law and the ordinances of Israel, and the external guardianship and general maintenance of the Sanctuary.

There is regularly in fact a problem of terminology when speaking of ‘the Levites’ as to who exactly are in mind, as the term often referred to ancestry, but also referred to special privilege. Aaron was originally ‘the Levite’ (Exodus 4:14) who would be capable of assisting Moses with his oratory. It would seem that possibly even then ‘the Levites’ were seen as having a position, even at that time, where they were noted for oratory and possibly for teaching the pre-Sinai laws and statutes of Israel. As Aaron was of the family of Levi there is no justification for seeing this privilege as going outside that family, but it would explain why they were so suitable later to be teachers of the Law. Alternatively ‘the Levite’ may in his case simply bring out that he was the tribal head.

Thus we have the possibility that when ‘the Levite’ is spoken of later the term is seen as having in mind the priestly family of Aaron the Levite. In Deuteronomy itself distinction is made between ‘the priests, the Levites’ and the other Levites in chapter 18, although it mainly deals with the levitical priests. In the light of the previous records he did not see it as necessary to explain the difference, nor limit the term.

Deuteronomy 33:11

“Bless, Yahweh, his substance,

And accept the work of his hands,

Smite through the loins of those who rise up against him,

And of those who hate him,

That they rise not again.”

In the light of this Moses calls for Yahweh’s protection on them. He asks Him to bless the substance of the tribe of Levi, their cities, their fields, and all the tithes and their part in the sacrifices, and to accept from their hands the work that they will do. For if Yahweh does not accept their work, of what use will it be? He also asks that all who rise up against them, and also those who hate them, will be smitten where it most hinders them so that they do not rise again. The Levites were to be under His special protection. This was what made sin against them so heinous. The prayer is that any who opposed them be dealt with by Yahweh, because they could not protect themselves..

Verse 12

Deuteronomy 33:12

“Of Benjamin he said,

The beloved of Yahweh shall dwell in safety by (on) him;

He covers him all the day long,

And he dwells between his shoulders (or ‘weapons’). ”

As Benjamin had been the beloved son of Jacob (Genesis 42:4), his tribe were likewise the beloved of Yahweh. He would dwell in safety near God. God would cover him all day long and sit him on His shoulders (compare Deuteronomy 1:31 where Israel are borne like a man bears his son). Like the young Benjamin in Jacob’s family he would be a great favourite.

Even indeed when Benjamin sinned deeply God caused them to be preserved in Israel (Judges 19-21) but that was not anticipated here.

So Benjamin is loved by Yahweh and safe under His protection. Dwelling between the shoulders probably means God is, as it were, carrying him on His shoulders. There is no seeming direct connection with Genesis 49:27 where their strength and durability is prominent, except in that those who are covered by Yahweh and carried on His back would certainly be strong and durable.

“Shoulders (katheph).” At Ugarit ktp is probably used signifying weapons. Thus the idea here could be of Yahweh strengthening them in battle, making them mighty men.

Verses 13-17

Deuteronomy 33:13-17

“And of Joseph he said,

Blessed of Yahweh be his land,

For the precious things of heaven, for the dew,

And for the deep that couches beneath,

And for the precious things of the fruits of the sun,

And for the precious things of the growth of the moons,

And for the chief things of the ancient mountains,

And for the precious things of the everlasting hills,

And for the precious things of the earth and its fulness,

And the good will of him who dwelt in the bush.

Let it come on the head of Joseph,

And on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brethren.

The firstling of his herd, majesty is his;

And his horns are the horns of the wild-ox:

With them he will push the peoples all of them,

Even the ends of the earth:

And they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,

And they are the thousands of Manasseh. ”

When he comes to Joseph, Moses waxes lyrical. As in the case of Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:0 Joseph is given an extended blessing, and some of the ideas are borrowed from there. But we may see that it was Jacob’s blessing which clearly inspired Moses in his prophetic utterance. See Genesis 49:25-26 for the blessings of Heaven above, the deep that couches beneath, the everlasting hills, and the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brethren. The blessing is then extended to cover Ephraim and Manasseh in order to make up the twelve tribes now that Simeon’s name is unmentionable (see introduction to this passage).

The heavy dews that fell from Heaven in the summer were a vital part of Israel’s prosperity, together with the former and latter rains, and the waters that came up from below in springs were used for drinking, for satisfying the thirst of the cattle, and for irrigation. While they were not aware of the significance of the water table as such, they knew that below the ground was plentiful water. It came up in springs, and they could dig for it and find it. These were to be the blessings of Yahweh on Joseph’s lands (as on all Israel’s lands).

They were also aware how the sun brought out both the grain and especially the fruits, and how over the periods of the moons things grew, they knew not how, for harvests were related to the different moon periods as was the whole agricultural calendar.

“The chief things of the ancient mountains.” This may have reference to the forests which grew on the mountains and provided timber for various purposes, and/or the olive trees which provided oil, or similar.

“And for the precious things of the everlasting hills, and for the precious things of the earth and its fullness.” In Genesis 49:26 the blessings ‘to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills’ had in mind Joseph’s great prosperity under God’s hand in contrast with his brothers, seen as God’s generous bestowal on him. Thus it refers to divine provision. Jacob saw his own previous blessing of Joseph as his son as having resulted in the bestowal of it all on him. Indeed ‘Joseph’ would naturally be blessed because of Joseph’s own supremacy. They would have been a wealthier and very influential tribe due to their descent. So Moses prays that such blessings will continue to fall on Joseph, although here he may well have in mind the spiritual side of Joseph’s blessings. The ‘eternal hills’ were regularly seen as a source of such divine blessing, for mountains were considered to be connected with divine things. The precious things of the earth would include cattle and agriculture, but may also have had in mind what could be dug from the earth.

“And the good will of him who dwelt in the bush, let it come on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brethren.” The good will of the One who dwelt in the bush (Exodus 3:4. The particular word for bush is used only here and in Exodus 3:0), the God of Sinai, was the explanation for all the blessing on Joseph, and Moses prays that it will continue to fall on them and on the crown of their head, for they were descended from one uniquely set apart and used by God in a way that his brothers were not. In Egypt he had been a prince among his brothers.

So this is a prayer for prosperity to come on Joseph, water from above and below, fruit produced by the sun, and the harvests moon by moon, productivity and blessing in the hills and in all the land, and above all the goodwill of the One of the Bush (Exodus 3:4). They are to be a fruitful bough (Genesis 49:22). Joseph’s separation from his brothers is a reminder of Joseph’s distinctive career.

“The firstling of his herd, majesty is his, and his horns are the horns of the wild-ox, with them he will push the peoples all of them, even the ends of the earth, and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” The firstling of the herd had the pre-eminence, the prospective place of authority, at least until defeated by another, and Joseph were like the firstling of a herd, strong and powerful. Their horns of power were like those of the wild ox. They will thus be like a triumphant wild-ox pushing back all their enemies, even as far as was necessary, for they were numerous, being made up of the ten thousands of Ephraim and the thousands of Manasseh. The source of their strength was the Mighty One of Jacob (Genesis 49:24). The greatness of Ephraim and Manasseh was already apparent.

The order is significant. We would normally in poetic parallelism expect the ‘thousands’ to come first followed by the ‘ten thousands’. But Moses accepts God’s verdict that Ephraim the younger son should come first (Genesis 48:19-20), and Ephraim was the largest. Ephraim grew so powerful that their name was often used as a synonym for Israel. But there was no hint here again of kingship or of royal power, again stressing the early date of the poem.

Verses 18-19

Deuteronomy 33:18-19

And of Zebulun he said,

Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out;

And, Issachar, in your tents.

They shall call the peoples to the mountain;

There shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness:

For they shall suck the abundance of the seas,

And the hidden treasures of the sand.

Zebulun and Issachar could rejoice in their expansion (their going out) and in their oneness in alliance and brotherhood (‘in your tents’, compare Genesis 9:27). They would be a godly people and encourage their brethren to worship Yahweh. Or ‘the peoples’ may signify visiting traders. The mountain on which they would at this stage offer sacrifices of righteousness (and therefore sacrifices offered in the way that Yahweh had laid down) would be the mountain on which the Central Sanctuary would be based and where Yahweh would be worshipped. It was assumed that its establishment would be connected with a mountain, as it was in Deuteronomy 27:0. Or ‘the mountain’ may signify “the mountain of Yahweh’s inheritance” (Exodus 15:17), that is, the whole of Israel’s possession. And they would rejoice in this way because of their abounding prosperity, through trade by both sea (the abundance of the seas) and land (the hidden treasures of the sand, trade through the desert or the hidden harvests of the seashore), which would explain the multitude of their thanksgiving and freewill offerings. (Compare here Genesis 49:13).

Zebulun was closely connected with ships in Genesis 49:13. It seems probable that in Egypt they had taken great interest in maritime affairs, and Moses knows of their interest and confirms that it will continue. In the event their portion was not on the coast, but their interest may well have continued through trade, and an interest in seafaring. The hidden treasures of the sand may refer to the ‘harvests’ that could be reaped on the seashore of sand, shellfish, and so on, which others may have taken no interest in but which Zebulun were prepared to harvest. (A people can be landlocked and yet be interested in the sea).

Zebulun and Issachar would later be connected with Galilee (Nazareth was in Zebulun) from whence would come the Saviour of the world who would offer the greatest sacrifice of righteousness of all time. He especially, with His followers who were mainly from that area, would call men to the mountain of God as described in Isaiah 2:1-4.

Verse 20

Deuteronomy 33:20

And of Gad he said,

Blessed be he who enlarges Gad:

He dwells as a lioness,

And tears the arm, yes, the crown of the head.

And he provides the first part for himself,

For there was the commander’s (or ‘lawgiver’s) portion reserved;

And he came at the heads of the people;

He executed the righteousness of Yahweh,

And his ordinances with Israel.

God will enlarge Gad and prosper them. They will be a triumphant predator, seizing the arms of the enemy, and tearing their heads, as a lion seizes its prey. By their prominence in leadership they will be looking first after their own interests, and then after the interests of all the tribes, and will be prominent in the confederacy. They will always be among the leaders, and will have a concern for the carrying out of the righteousness of Yahweh, and the bringing about of His ordinances. Compare Genesis 49:19 where Gad also reveals his strength.

It is clear that by this time these traits were especially noticeable in the tribe of Gad. All the tribes would have altered through the years, years firstly of prosperity and then of oppression. Some would have made more use of the first, and may have responded better to the second. Some would even be in parts of the Delta possibly not so much affected by the oppression. Moses would by this time have gathered much about the futures of these tribes from what he had observed about them and their leadership.

There may also be reference to Gad’s part in the future conquest, ‘coming at the heads of the peoples’ as befitted a warrior tribe, having themselves already first settled in Transjordan with Moses’ blessing. Gad was chosen to replace Levi, combining with the Leah tribes in having a major protective position in the advance through the wilderness (Numbers 1:24; Numbers 2:14-15).

The historical presence of Gad in Transjordan is confirmed on the Moabite Stone where Gad is mentioned by Mesha, the king of Moab.

Verse 22

Deuteronomy 33:22

And of Dan he said,

Dan is a lion’s whelp,

Who leaps forth from Bashan (or ‘from the viper’).

Moses finds little inspiration in some of the tribes and cannot arouse any prophetic enthusiasm about them. In Jacob’s blessing Dan was the snake. Here he is to leap forth from the snake like a young lion. This may mean that the Danites will develop more strength, transforming from snake to young lion, or it may suggest that while having some strength like a young lion, they will shy away from ‘snakes’.

The ancient word bashan may well be parallel with the word btn at Ugarit where it meant a snake. Or the thought may simply be that the lions of Bashan were seen as particularly dangerous (these being the only ones they had encountered since reaching the land). Compare Song of Solomon 4:8 for abundance of lion’s dens there.

Dan did not leap forth from Bashan against Laish, they went from the lowlands under the Philistines. Dan is never connected with Bashan in any way. It is just possible that they may have travelled through parts connected with Bashan to reach Laish but they may equally have gone through Naphtali if they wanted to surprise Laish. Compare Genesis 49:17 where Dan will ever be tricky but fearful.

Verse 23

Deuteronomy 33:23

And of Naphtali he said,

O Naphtali, satisfied (satiated) with favour,

And full with the blessing of Yahweh,

Possess you the west (or ‘the sea’ - yam) and the south (or ‘the south wind’).

Naphtali is to be blessed, satiated with Yahweh’s favour and blessing. Naphtali would later be famous for its olives. They are to possess ‘the west and the south’, or equally possibly ‘the sea and the south wind’ (the same words covered both). Naphtali would in fact be situated in the extreme North of Israel. But we would not expect Moses to refer to specific areas, for he has not done so previously. We should therefore read as ‘the sea and the south wind’. ‘The sea’ would naturally bring to mind at this stage the Mediterranean. The thought is probably of two sources of trouble and distress, the troubled sea (Isaiah 57:20) and the tempestuous south wind (Isaiah 21:1). Naphtali would rise above them both.

“The sea (yam).” The sea was mainly looked on in Israel as an enemy, as ‘Yam’ was the enemy of Baal. Thus it could represent trouble and distress. The ‘south wind’ was seen as tempestuous (Isaiah 21:1; Zechariah 9:14), especially from the viewpoint of where Moses would be at this time. To possess them would indicate rising above trouble and conquering it.

As it happened Naphtali settled around the lake of Galilee, but that is probably a coincidence. They would then, of course, be able to harvest ‘the sea’.

So Naphtali will prosper through God’s help and will have their share in the possessions to come. The directions are general rather than specific, and may simply indicate prosperity in agriculture and trade, or by tribal expansion. Their expansion may result from their diplomacy, their ‘goodly words’ (Genesis 49:21).

Verses 24-25

Deuteronomy 33:24-25

And of Asher he said,

Blessed be Asher with children (or ‘above the children’);

Let him be acceptable to his brethren (or ‘the favoured among his brethren’),

And let him dip his foot in oil.

Your bars shall be iron and bronze,

And as your days, so shall your strength be.

Asher is the last to be mentioned. Asher means ‘blessed’. The Hebrew may be a request that he be blessed above his brethren, that is mightily blessed in accordance with his name. Then ‘the favoured among his brethren’ would imply the same thing.

“Dipping his foot in oil” would indicate great blessing in olive oil production, and ‘bars of iron and bronze’ would indicate the strength of his fortifications.

Others see it as meaning that Moses prays that they will be blessed with children, blessed with the support of their brethren, blessed in olive growing (dipping their feet in oil), blessed in security (bars of iron and bronze), and blessed with good health. Their prosperity is similar to that described in Genesis 49:20.

Except when manipulated to fit a theory all the blessings, apart from that of Levi, are general, even more so than in Genesis 49:0, and some, (and Joseph’s very much so), have Genesis 49:0 in mind. We must in fact remember that the promises were dependent on obedience, and that that was mainly lacking. But the overall idea is of the blessing that His people would receive in the land of promise, and the spread of blessings would in the end belong to all. It is significant that there is no suggestion of a Canaanite presence. The assumption is of a land completely possessed and at rest.

Verse 26

Deuteronomy 33:26

There is none like to God, O Jeshurun,

Who rides on the heavens for your help,

And in his excellency on the skies.

Israel is now assured that that what Moses has spoken of will be theirs, for there is no god like their God. He is king in Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 33:5), and now He is their God. He is supreme and alone in majesty. He rules them from above and can come to their help from there at any time. For this compare Psalms 68:33-34 where a similar idea is expressed. See also Psalms 104:3; Isa 19:1 ; 2 Samuel 22:10-11; Psalms 18:9-10. He rides the Heavens in order to come to their aid, and is supreme in the skies.

Baal, a prominent god both in Canaan and in Baal worship in Egypt, was described as ‘the rider of the clouds’, and Moses wants it to be quite clear that the clouds are in fact part of Yahweh’s sphere. It is rather He Who rides the clouds.

Verse 27

Deuteronomy 33:27

The eternal God is a dwelling-place,

And underneath are the everlasting arms.

And he thrust out the enemy from before you,

And said, Destroy.

But He does not just ride above them as their Deliverer, as the eternal God He is also a dwelling place for them, and His everlasting arms are upholding them. Thus, as He has for them in the past, He will thrust forth the enemy from them and then say to them, ‘Destroy’, because their enemies are in flight. God will defeat their enemies but Israel have to play their part, and thus recognise the judgment of God on sin. Notice the stress on eternal and everlasting, compare verse 15. Their God has no limits.

Verse 28

Deuteronomy 33:28

And Israel dwells in safety,

The fountain of Jacob alone,

In a land of grain and new wine;

Yes, his heavens drop down dew.

Because of this Israel, once they had driven out their enemies and are alone in the land, will dwell in safety and prosperity, having reached the land of grain and new wine, whose heavens drop down dew (which helps to produce the grain and new wine). Note the assumption of aloneness. Moses indicates his expectation that they will be obedient and thus will have turned out the Canaanites (possibly with his tongue in his cheek).

“The fountain of Jacob.” That which springs forth from Jacob.

Verse 29

Deuteronomy 33:29

Happy are you, O Israel:

Who is like to you, a people saved by Yahweh?

The shield of your help,

And the sword of your excellency!

And your enemies will submit themselves to you,

And you will tread on their high places.

He finishes his poem in confidence. What a happy position Israel are in, for they are unique among nations, they have been delivered by Yahweh. He is to them a shield and a sword, a shield to help and protect them and with which to thrust back the enemy, and a sword to fight on their behalf so that they might be triumphant. Thus will their enemies submit to them and their high places be trodden down.

“High places.” These were the places on which the Canaanites worshipped their gods and called for help against the invaders, known to Israel from their knowledge of Baalism in Egypt. They were the evidence that the land belonged to Baal and Asherah. Their treading down will demonstrate that those ‘nothings’ have been defeated, and will expel them, destroy them and render them inoperative.

But ‘high places’ (bamoth) may possibly be translated ‘backs’ based on Ugaritic ‘bmt’, and would then signify complete victory.


We have not tried to demonstrate the blessing in a chiastic pattern but there are reasons for thinking that it is so. Thus both near the beginning and towards the end are mentions of Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 33:5 and Deuteronomy 33:26). The blessing begins with Yahweh on Mount Sinai and closes with mention of ‘high places’ (Deuteronomy 33:29 b). Yahweh comes forth as a deliverer and at the end his people delight in their deliverance (Deuteronomy 33:29 a). The first five verses indicate that Yahweh has come to bless His people and the last four verses indicate that He will do so. And in between are given the blessings on the individual tribes.

(End of note.)

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/deuteronomy-33.html. 2013.
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