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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 33

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Critical commentators remain a mystery to this writer, despite the fact of our reading their writings for a full quarter of a century! The chapter before us contains the final blessing of Moses upon the Twelve Tribes of the Chosen People, and yet, Wade declared, apparently in all sincerity that, “This poem is quite unconnected with the context!”(F1) How amazing that any man could fail to see the “connection” between the death of a mighty world leader and the last words of the man! The Book of Deuteronomy could not have been complete without this. “In the ancient Near East the parting blessings of tribal and family heads were irrevocable last wills and testaments, as is evident from the story of Isaac’s blessing of Esau and Jacob (Genesis 27), as well as from extra-Biblical accounts from the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C.”(F2) Such final blessings by important men were treasured, honored, and considered to be power-laden documents affecting the destiny of those mentioned therein. The very fact of our having this one from Moses is proof enough of its being authentic. The proposition advanced by Wade and other critics that, “This was written during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C),”(F3) is ridiculous! If it had been written then, who would have preserved it? Can it be supposed that any of the Twelve Tribes did not know what Moses had said of them on the day of his death, and then that all of those tribes would have accepted a forgery of an “alleged last testament of Moses” in the eighth century B.C., and that they then incorporated this new and unheard of work into the archives of their sacred records? A more preposterous fairy tale than that was never invented!

Cousins complained of “the abrupt appearance”(F4) of this last will and testament at this particular point, but one wonders where else it would have been less so. As a matter of fact, Moses’ death was abrupt, and we can think of no better place for his “last will and testament” than adjacent to the account of his decease.

There is therefore no reason whatever to depart from the plain intimations of the holy text to the effect that: “As a spiritual and theocratic father to the Twelve Tribes, Moses, according to ancient Near East custom, pronounced a blessing upon them just before his death.”(F5)

Verses 1-5


“And this is the blessing wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death. And he said, Jehovah came from Sinai, And rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, And he came from the ten thousands of holy ones: At his right hand was a fiery law for them. Yea, he loveth the people; All his saints are in thy hand: And they sat down at thy feet; Every one shall receive of thy words. 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.”

This paragraph is the introduction to the main body of the blessing which extends from Deuteronomy 33:6 through Deuteronomy 33:25. “Some of the outstanding manifestations of God’s power and glory and his goodness toward Israel are reviewed here as a proper introduction to the blessings,”(F6) That Moses is called “the man of God” here, contrary to the general usage in Deuteronomy, sends the critics after their favorite adjuster, the editor, or the “redactor,” but no such person would have deviated from the usual address. Joshua might have added this as an identification of what follows when he wrote the account of Moses’ death. It is not stated here that Moses “said” these first three lines of prose. Adam Clarke gave some beautiful lines on these words: “Sinai, Seir, and Paran… These are the identical places where God manifested his glory in fiery appearances to proclaim his special providence and care over Israel.”(F7)

The use of the third person is no problem, such usages being the norm rather than the exception in the sacred writings, as for example, in Jonah. Blair even made this second person reference to Moses as his first and principle reason for denying that Moses said these things.(F8) One would think that critical scholars never heard of Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, and fully half of the Biblical writers, all of whom used the third person in references to themselves and did so extensively. Despite this, even a scholar like Dummelow, stated that, “Moses could hardly have written this himself!”(F9)

“And he was king in Jeshurun” The subject here is not Moses, but God. Craigie has a most interesting (and we believe) CORRECT explanation of what this rather difficult passage is saying:

“This is a response of the people. The Law received at Sinai was to be the constitution of the new state of Israel, which was to come into existence in the near future: the lawgiver would be the head of the new state. Hence, the people acclaim their leader, namely God (the Lawgiver): Let there be a king in Jeshurun.”(F10)

This is a most enlightening comment on a passage which has doubtless suffered some damage in its transition through history and which is variously understood. We may be certain that this passage is not a legitimate basis for assuming an eighth century date for this “last will and testament.” This, of course, is exactly the erroneous position of critical scholars. Kline also explained the mention of the glories at Sinai, Seir, and Paran, mentioned just ahead of this passage, as heralding, “The appearance of the Lord as King of Kings to proclaim his covenant in radiant, sun-rise like glory over the eastern mountains of the Sinai peninsula.”(F11)

“And he came from the ten thousands of holy ones” Several renditions of this are proposed, but the one here is as reasonable as any. This fits in perfectly with the glorious appearance of the King (God) in the preceding lines, for as Kline interpreted this place, “In attendance upon the King was a heavenly host of holy ones.”(F12) That this vast multitude of “holy ones” were the angels of God appears certain, for the N.T. repeatedly emphasizes the connection of angels in the giving of the law of Moses (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; and Hebrews 2:2).

Verse 6


“Let Reuben live and not die; Nor let his men be few.”

Despite the fact of Reuben’s being removed from the coveted position of the first-born because of his adultery with one of Jacob’s concubines (Bilhah), the blessing of God was poured out upon him in the fact that he did not perish as a result of his sin, but was allowed to continue as one of the Twelve Tribes, at times being somewhat powerful. Some versions render the second line above, “Let his men be few,” and from this many project the continued decline of Reuben, but we have seen nothing that requires our departure from the ASV.

Verse 7


“And this is the blessing of Judah: and he said, Hear, Jehovah, the voice of Judah, And bring him in unto his people. With his hands he contended for himself; And thou shalt be a help against his adversaries.”

As might have been expected, these blessings follow, generally, the same pattern as that of the blessings which Jacob pronounced upon the Twelve shortly before his death, but there were some significant differences. Here, in the case of Judah, the blessing is actually a prayer that God will fulfill the blessing that Jacob conferred upon Judah. Notice that there are absolutely no historical allusions whatever here.

Verses 8-11


“And of Levi, he said, Thy Thummin and thy Urim are with thy godly one, Whom thou didst prove at Massah, With whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; Who said of his father, and his mother, I have not seen him; Neither did he acknowledge his brethren, Nor knew he his own children; For they have observed thy word, And keep thy covenant. They shall teach Jacob thine ordinances, And Israel thy law; They shall put incense before thee, And whole burnt-offerings upon thine altar. Bless, Jehovah, his substance, And accept the work of his hands: Smite through the loins of them that rise up against him, And of them that hate him, that they rise not again.”

Here is a marked difference from the blessings pronounced by Jacob. Simeon and Levi in Jacob’s blessing were doomed to be “divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel.” In the case of Simeon, that tribe indeed diminished significantly during the wanderings, and by the time of the division of the land of Canaan, they were content with a few cities in the territory of Judah, and although the Levites were indeed “scattered” throughout Israel, there was a great and continuing honor that came to them in the holy service assigned as their portion and in the offices of the high priest and the Aaronic priests who played such an important role in the whole history of Israel. Here is also a good place to note that Simeon did not here receive a separate blessing, although, as a member of the Chosen People this whole blessing fell also upon him.

“This recovery of God’s favor by the Levites may be traced to the faithfulness of Moses and Aaron who came of this tribe and served God faithfully, also to the zeal and constancy of the tribe who defended the truth (even against their own kin) in the episodes of Exodus 32:26 and Numbers 25:11).”(F13)

Verse 12


“Of Benjamin he said, The beloved of Jehovah shall dwell in safety by him; He covereth him all the day long, And he dwelleth between his shoulders.”

Benjamin was the “apple of his father’s eye,” and the object of the most affectionate love by Jacob; and Moses here promised him that God also would continue to love and protect him.

Verses 13-17


“And of Joseph he said, Blessed of Jehovah, be his land, For the precious things of heaven, for the dew, And for the deep that coucheth 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 the fullness thereof, And the good will of him that dwelt in the bush. Let the blessings come upon the head of Joseph, And upon the crown of the head of him that 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 shall 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.”

Here Moses followed Jacob in pouring out the richest of all blessings upon Joseph, whose two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were each elevated to the status of a full tribe, thus bestowing upon Joseph the right of the first-born. Moses indeed might have thought that Joseph was to rule in Israel; and when Ephraim’s usurping of the name “Israel” and taking ten tribes away from the house of David are considered, it is clear enough that “majesty” in a sense did pertain to him (Deuteronomy 33:17). Nevertheless, Moses also confirmed the blessing of Jacob to Judah; and, in time, Judah would be the true leader of Israel. The prophecy of Moses here also confirmed the superiority of Ephraim over Manasseh, as had been done by Jacob, ascribing “ten thousands” to Ephraim and “thousands” to Manasseh.

Of special interest is, “the good will of him that dwelt in the bush” (Deuteronomy 33:16). Who but Moses would ever have thought of such a designation for God? As Dummelow pointed out, “Jehovah revealed himself in the bush as the Deliverer of Israel (Exodus 3:2; Exodus 3:6-8). The latter part of this verse is identical with Genesis 49:26).”(F14)

In Deuteronomy 33:15, the parallelism of “ancient mountains” and “everlasting hills,” found frequently in Hebrew poetry was noted by Wright who made the comment that, “The source of this is evidently Canaanite literature!”(F15) Wright did not cite any examples of this from Canaanite literature, and, although we have encountered a dozen such claims, no scholar has ever shown a single line of that alleged “Canaanite literature.” After awhile, one becomes suspicious of such “discoveries.” Frankly, we believe that if there were any such indications, someone would have favored us with some examples of it.

“Horns of the wild-ox” In the KJV, this reads, “horns of the unicorns”; from this comes the allegation that “a mythical beast” is mentioned in the Bible. Before we came up with this revised reading, “the wild-ox,” Adam Clarke pointed out that, “Of course, there are unicorns, the rhinoceros being just such a beast. He is a very large quadruped with one great horn on his nose.”(F16) Clarke also mentioned some distinguished scholars who favored such a translation.

Verses 18-19


“Of Zebulun he said, Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out; And, Isaachar, in thy tents. They shall call the peoples unto 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.”

The most remarkable feature of all these blessings is the generality of the terms in which the message is conveyed and the total lack of specifics. Such expressions as “mountain,” “seas,” and “sand,” have no specific denotation whatever. Furthermore, it is not stated that these tribes would live on the sea-coast, on the sand, or on the mountain; yet such things would “bless” them. The scholars who postulate a later time when this or that tribe lived here or there are simply reading a lot of things into these lines that are not there, nor have they ever been there. Keil has a very discerning paragraph on this feature of these blessings (a paragraph which Keil attributed in part to a prior scholar named Schultz):

“Throughout these blessings, the speaker rises to a height of ideality which it would have been impossible for any later author to reach, at some subsequent time when the confusions and divisions of later ages had actually occurred. The author (Moses) here sees nothing of those calamities from without which fell upon the nation again and again with destructive fury, nothing of the Canaanites who still remained in the land, and nothing of the hostility of the tribes one toward another; he simply sees how they work together in the most perfect harmony, each contributing his part to realize the lofty ideal of Israel. And again he grasps this ideal and the realization of it in so elementary a way, and so thoroughly from the other side, without regard to any inward transformation and glorification, that he must have lived in a time preceding the prophetic age, and before the moral conflicts had taken place… In this peculiar characteristic of the blessing of Moses, we have the strongest proof of its authenticity.(F17)

It is a stupid error, therefore, for one to suppose that he can find traces of later ages mentioned in these blessings. “There is no such thing in the whole blessing as a distinct reference to the peculiar historical circumstances of Israel that arose after Moses’ death.”(F18) Even the “majesty” ascribed to Ephraim in Deuteronomy 33:17, although surely prophetic of the glory that came to that tribe, nevertheless fails to reveal the sinful and licentious nature of Ephraim’s dominance, and the untimely end of Northern Israel, which he founded.

Verses 20-21


“And of Gad he said, Blessed be he that enlargeth Gad: He dwelleth as a lioness, And teareth the arm, yea, the crown of the head. And he provided the first part for himself, For there was the lawgiver’s portion reserved; And he came with the heads of the people; He executed the righteousness of Jehovah, And his ordinances with Israel.”

Here again, there are no specifics. It is the overall impression here that is significant; and it is very favorable. Gad’s enlargement, his importance, his strength, and his righteousness are all stressed. When Moses wrote this, Gad already possessed his part of the inheritance east of Jordan; but this was not referred to here. Kline thought that Deuteronomy 33:21 b (“He executed the righteousness of Jehovah”) was a reference to the fact that Gad joined their brethren in the conquest of Canaan, in fulfillment of their agreement when they settled east of Jordan,(F19) and, although such came to pass, it is not prophetically declared in this verse.

Verse 22


“And of Dan he said, Dan is a lion’s whelp, That leapeth forth from Bashan.”

Does this say that the tribe of Dan shall be quartered in Bashan, or that Dan shall be like a lion’s whelp from Bashan? The utter lack of specifics continues to be the salient feature of these blessings. Yet the blessing is a desirable one. Dan will not be like a dog or a pig, but like a lion!

Verse 23


“And of Naphtali he said, O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, And full with the blessing of Jehovah, Possess thou the west and the south.”

“The west and the south” may be presumably the western and southern portions of Palestine, but Palestine is not mentioned here; and, as one observer noted, `There’s not a place on earth which cannot be described as the `west’ and the `south,’ provided the appropriate point of reference is selected!” Again, the generality of the language is pervasive. Unger thought that the “possession of the `south’ here means the southern part skirting along by the sea of Chinnereth,”(F20) but such an interpretation goes dramatically beyond what is written. We think that “the west and the south” are merely an idiomatic way of designating a favorable location.

Verses 24-25


“And of Asher, he said, Blessed be Asher with children; Let him be acceptable unto his brethren, And let him dip his foot in oil. Thy bars shall be iron and brass; And as thy days, so shall thy strength be.”

Here again, we have a very favorable blessing indicating growth of the tribe, popularity with the other Israelites, domestic tranquility, and bounteous living are promised, but that about the bars of iron and brass is not clear, but ambiguous. Does it refer to the bars of Asher’s prison after the Assyrian captivity of the people, or to the wealth of mining enterprises? Thus, right to the end of the passage, we find no specifics whatever that could be used as historical check points.

Verses 26-29


“There is none like unto God, O Jeshurun, Who rideth upon the heavens for thy help, And in his excellency on the skies. The eternal God is thy dwelling place, And underneath are the everlasting arms, And he thrust out the enemy from before thee, And said, Destroy. And Israel dwelleth in safety, The fountain of Jacob alone, In a land of grain and new wine; Yes, his heavens drop down dew. Happy art thou, O Israel: Who is like unto thee, a people saved by Jehovah, The shield of thy help, And the sword of thy excellency! And thy enemies shall submit themselves unto thee; And thou shalt tread upon their high places.”

The generality of the language continues here to the very end of the chapter. Scholars who think they find a historical situation depicted here, namely, a secure Israel dwelling in the land of CANAAN, and all the enemies already driven out, are simply “finding” what is NOT in the passage at all! Blair, of course, postulated his theory of a later date for Deuteronomy on “such facts” suggested here, giving as one of his principal reasons WHY this will and testament came later than Moses, “this allusion to the conquest of Palestine as already past (Deuteronomy 33:27-28).”(F21) No! The situation here is “ideal” in every way; and Moses was here thanking God for an ideal state of affairs which never, in actually, came to pass at all. Jacob never dwelt alone in Canaan. The enemy was never driven out completely. Israel never, at any period of her history, really “dwelt safely.” Moses was here thanking God for the “potential achievement” of such a blessed state in Canaan, which God indeed had given to Israel, but which, due to their sins and failures, they never realized at all!

That the above practical interpretations of what is written here is correct is strongly indicated by the fact that Unger and many other scholars take all this as prophetic of the times of the millennium!(F22) We take these intimations of ideal conditions to be neither an indication of what happened to Israel, nor what is scheduled for some distant millennium, but as a prophecy of what was intended to happen in Canaan upon Israel’s entry, and further on in history, a prophecy of the ideal state of affairs in the New Israel of God (the church), and, although the church’s partial fulfillment of this may indeed be understood as exceeding any achievements of the old Israel, even in the case of the church it is still unrealized in any complete sense.

These special blessings upon the Twelve Tribes were spoken by Moses, “on the same day as the song in the preceding chapter,”(F23) and to the same assembly upon the same occasion. This happened just before Moses ascended mount Nebo, where he would survey the land of Canaan and then die. The blessings recorded in this chapter are in several ways a counterpart of the song in the preceding chapter. The song dealt largely, almost exclusively, with the curses and calamities that would befall Israel in their disobedience, but here in the blessings, all that is ignored. There is a presumption of their perfect obedience and a heartfelt hymn of praise to God for what a wonderful privilege he has brought to Israel. Here in contrast we have the two sides of Israel’s fortunes, the bright side, and the dark side. The tone of the song is somber, dismal, and threatening; the tone of these blessings is “serene and cheerful.”(F24)

Before concluding our comment on this chapter, there is one more quotation which we feel compelled to notice. Von Rad declared that the blessing of Moses is more religious than that of Jacob in Genesis 49, and, despite the fact that we do not understand upon what grounds Von Rad made a deduction like that, we are still reluctant to find any fault with it. However, he added, regarding the blessing of Jacob, that, “In the sayings in the Blessing of Jacob the name Yahweh did not occur at all.”(F25) Nevertheless, the name Jehovah (Yahweh) occurs in Genesis 49:18, and in Genesis 49:24-25 one finds no less than five names of God! These are The Mighty One of Jacob, The Shepherd, The Stone of Israel, The God of Thy Father, and The Almighty.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-33.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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