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Saturday, May 25th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 33

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



Having completed the major addresses to the Israelites recorded to this point in Deuteronomy, Moses needed only to make a few final arrangements before Israel was ready to enter the land. The record of these events concludes the book. Chapters 31-34 constitute several appendices to the main body of Deuteronomy (cf. Judges 17-21; 2 Samuel 21-24).

"This final section of the covenant document has as its unifying theme the perpetuation of the covenant relationship. Of special importance is the subject of the royal succession, which is also prominent in the extra-biblical suzerainty treaties . . . This succession is provided for by the appointment and commissioning of Joshua as dynastic heir to Moses in the office of mediatorial representative of the Lord (ch. 31). The testamentary assignment of kingdom inheritance to the several tribes of Israel (ch. 33) reckons with the status of all God’s people as royal heirs. Included also are two other standard elements in the international treaties. One is the invocation of covenant witnesses, here represented chiefly by the Song of Witness (ch. 32). The other is the directions for the disposition of the treaty document after the ceremony (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). By way of notarizing the document, an account of the death of Moses is affixed at the end (ch. 34)." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 197.]

Verses 1-5

After a brief introduction to the blessing (Deuteronomy 33:1), Moses began by presenting God. He pictured Him as the source of all blessing in the figure of the sun rising on His people gathered at Sinai. The sun is the source of physical blessing. Seir (Deuteronomy 33:2) refers to the mountain range in Edom over which the sun would apparently rise as seen from Sinai. Paran (Deuteronomy 33:2) refers to the mountains near Kadesh Barnea that separated the Sinai wilderness from Canaan.

"The stylized or formulaic nature of such historical résumés allows them to depart from normal patterns of narration in which strict adherence to chronological and geographical sequence is expected. Thus the Lord could come from Sinai and appear from Seir and Paran at the same time, or at least without reference to actual historical movement which, of course, would necessitate the order Sinai, Paran, and Seir (cf. Numbers 10:12; Numbers 13:3; Numbers 13:26; Numbers 20:14; Numbers 21:4; Deuteronomy 1:19; Deuteronomy 2:4). The real point here in Deuteronomy 33:2 is that the Lord manifested himself gloriously to his people from his earthly dwelling places or at least his usual places of self-disclosure, namely, mountaintops." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 434.]

The "holy ones" (Deuteronomy 33:2) are probably angels. Moses described God as accompanied by His countless angelic servants as He revealed His law to Israel at Sinai. Some scholars regard Deuteronomy 33:2-5 as ". . . among the most obscure in the entire Hebrew Bible" [Note: Theodor H. Gaster, "An Ancient Eulogy on Israel: Deuteronomy 33 3-5, 26-29," Journal of Biblical Literature 66 [1947]:53). Gaster suggested they glorify Israel rather than Yahweh. Robert Gordis criticized Gaster’s treatment in "The Text and Meaning of Deuteronomy 33 27," Journal of Biblical Literature 67 (1948):69-72.]

"Though it is possible to argue that the ’king’ in Deuteronomy 33:5 is meant to be understood as the Lord, the immediate context suggests strongly that it is Moses. This is important because the next chapter, Deuteronomy 34, views Moses as a prototype of the coming prophet who was promised in Deuteronomy 18:15. Thus at the close of the Pentateuch, the two central messianic visions of the book-that of a coming king (Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:7-9) and that of a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15)-are united in the figure of Moses, the prophet-king. We should note that throughout the Pentateuch Moses also carries out the duties of priest. Thus in the figure of Moses, the Pentateuch is able to bring together the offices of prophet, priest, and king. The author is always careful to note, however, that Moses was not a priest of the house of Aaron. The Aaronic priesthood is of a different order than that pictured in the office of Moses. If we were looking for an analogy to Moses elsewhere in the Pentateuch, we need look no farther [sic further] than the figure of Melchizedek, the priest-king from Salem. Thus as Melchizedek the priest-king blessed Abraham at the beginning of the patriarchal narratives . . . (Genesis 14:19), so here Moses the priest-king blessed the Israelites at the conclusion . . . (Deuteronomy 33:29)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 477.]

The blessing of the tribes follows this introduction.

Verses 1-29

D. Moses’ blessing of the tribes ch. 33

After receiving this announcement of his death, and as one of his final official acts as Israel’s leader, Moses pronounced a prophetic blessing on the tribes of Israel (cf. Jacob’s blessing of the tribes in Genesis 49).

"In the ancient Near East, a dying father’s final blessings spoken to his sons were an irrevocable legal testament, accepted as decisive evidence in court disputes. In the case of the Biblical patriarchs, the authority and potency of their last blessings derived from the Spirit of prophecy in them, speaking in the testamentary form (cf. the cases of Isaac, Genesis 27, and Jacob, Genesis 49). As spiritual and theocratic father of the twelve tribes, Moses pronounced his blessings on them just before he ascended the mount to die (Deuteronomy 33:1), and thus his words constitute his testament." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 201. For a useful study of textual problems in this chapter and a fresh translation, see F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman, "The Blessing of Moses," Journal of Biblical Literature 67 (1948):191-210.]

Verses 6-25

The arrangement of the tribes in this blessing is unusual. Kalland provided a chart of six lists of the tribes that appear in Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, each of which contains a different order. [Note: Kalland, p. 222.] Evidently God based this list on a combination of the past and future histories of each tribe.

Reuben (Deuteronomy 33:6) was the first-born but did not enjoy greatness among the tribes because of his sin. He lost his father’s birthright and blessing.

Judah (Deuteronomy 33:7) received the position of leader among the tribes when his older brothers became ineligible.

Levi (Deuteronomy 33:8-11) received a blessing for being faithful to God at Massah and Meribah when the people complained because of lack of water.

"But these narratives [Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13] contain no reference to Levi, so that the precise meaning of the historical reference is not clear unless it be that in Moses and Aaron, leaders of the tribe of Levi, the whole tribe was on trial." [Note: Thompson, p. 310.]

The act of faithfulness to Yahweh that resulted in Levi’s being chosen as the priestly tribe occurred later. It was Levi’s standing with Moses and Aaron when the rest of the nation rebelled and worshipped the golden calf at Sinai (Exodus 32:25-29). The "godly man" (Deuteronomy 33:8) is probably Levi rather than Aaron (cf. Deuteronomy 33:9). The Levites’ special privileges and responsibilities included teaching the rest of the Israelites God’s law. They also involved burning incense before God, offering sacrifices (Deuteronomy 33:10), and discerning God’s will (Deuteronomy 33:8). "Shattering the loins" (Deuteronomy 33:11) probably refers to making one incapable of producing progeny as well as destroying one’s strength (cf. 1 Kings 12:10; Proverbs 31:17; Nahum 2:2).

Benjamin (Deuteronomy 33:12) was to enjoy God’s protection continually since God would carry this tribe on His back between His shoulders. As the warrior tribe Benjamin would enjoy God’s protection (cf. Judges 21).

Joseph (Deuteronomy 33:13-17) represented Ephraim and Manasseh. The "first-born of his ox" (Deuteronomy 33:17) probably refers to Joseph as the first-born son of Jacob, God’s servant, by Rachel. Ephraim was the stronger of Joseph’s sons who were both strong as the horns of oxen during the tribes’ conflict with Israel’s enemies.

Zebulun and Issachar (Deuteronomy 33:18-19) would become special channels of blessing to the other nations through their commercial wealth.

"While this cannot be documented as having taken place in biblical times, the promise has found startling fulfillment in the modern state of Israel, whose major port is Haifa, located in the area of ancient Zebulun." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 444.]

These tribes would experience God’s blessing as they brought riches into Israel. These tribes occupied the fertile Jezreel Valley. "In your going forth" and "in your tents" (Deuteronomy 33:18) is a merism meaning in all that you do. [Note: Driver, p. 408.]

Gad (Deuteronomy 33:20-21) possessed much area east of the Jordan that was suitable for development. Gad was a warring tribe that was very aggressive in conquering and subduing the land (Numbers 32:34-36).

Dan (Deuteronomy 33:22) settled in an area inhabited by lions (Judges 14:5) and migrated to northern Israel to an area that abounded in lions (Judges 18). [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:510.] The people of the tribe were also similar to lions in their aggressiveness and strength.

Naphtali (Deuteronomy 33:23) would enjoy the benefits of a seacoast, the Sea of Chinnereth, and a comfortable area in relation to that body of water.

". . . but by far the most abundant blessing was the fact that the Messiah spent most of his life and exercised much of his ministry there or in nearby Zebulun (cf. Matthew 4:12-17). One can scarcely imagine greater evidence of divine favor." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 446.]

Asher (Deuteronomy 33:24) would benefit from the respect of his brethren and prosperity. His territory on the Mediterranean coast would require fortifications, but God would protect him. Oil is probably a metaphor for prosperity, as elsewhere (cf. Deuteronomy 32:13; Job 29:6).

Moses did not mention the Simeonites in this blessing. Jacob had prophesied that God would scatter the Simeonites in Israel (Genesis 49:7). Simeon received no tribal allotment of land, only a few cities in Judah, when Joshua divided the Promised Land. The Simeonites became absorbed into the other tribes, especially Judah.

Verses 26-29

The blessing closes by returning to consider Israel’s God again (cf. Deuteronomy 33:2-5). Moses pictured Him as a God great enough to give the tribes all He had just promised them. [Note: For a critical study of this chapter, see I. L. Seeligmann, "A Psalm from Pre-Regal Times," Vetus Testamentum 14 (1964):75-92.] The key to Israel’s blessing was her God and her relationship to Him.

"As we might expect, here at the end of the book, Moses pictures Israel’s dwelling in the land as a reversal of the events of the early chapters of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 478.]

The Lord has fulfilled these predictions in part, but He will fulfill them completely in the future. This will occur when Israel repents and He brings her back into her land (i.e., during the Millennium).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-33.html. 2012.
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