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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 33

Verses 1-29

The Parting Blessing (33:1-29)

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 Jacob and Esau (Genesis 27) as well as from extrabiblical accounts from the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. Leadership in the tribe and family was conferred by these oral blessings. The dying patriarch’s words were considered to be power-laden; when uttered, the future, whose secrets they ensnared, was unconditionally determined.

We have here Moses’ alleged last will and testament. It is similar in form and content to that attributed to Jacob (Genesis 49). It now seems probable that this poetic blessing was composed in the eleventh century B.C. and written down during the period of literary activity of the days of David and Solomon in the tenth century. That it was not composed by Moses is clear from the reference to Moses in verse 4, from the allusions to the conquest of Palestine as already past (vss. 27-28) and the part taken in it by certain of the tribes (see vs. 21), and the non-mention of the tribe of Simeon (which after the period of the Judges was absorbed in Judah). Why the poem came to be attributed to Moses is unknown.

In structure the blessing falls into three parts: the introduction (vss. 2-5); the blessings (vss. 6-25); and the conclusion (vss. 26¬29). It is possible that the introduction (with certain deletions) and the conclusion formed a separate poem of approximately the same date and that the blessings were inserted into it.

The introduction presents the Lord’s glorious self-revelation to Israel in the wilderness, his giving of the Law through Moses, and his becoming king over the tribes of Israel.

The Hebrew text in this introduction has not been accurately preserved and cannot be translated precisely at many points (see the numerous footnotes in the margin of the Revised Standard Version). "Seir" is the territory of Edom, south of Canaan, and "Mount Paran" is also called "the wilderness of Paran" (Numbers 10:12). Kadesh-barnea was located in or near it. The association of Israel’s God with mountains and the description of his manifestations in the imagery of natural phenomena (the coming of the dawn, thunderstorms, fire, and the like) are frequent characteristics of Israel’s poetry (Judges 5:4-5; Psalms 18:7-15; Psalms 68:7-9; Habakkuk 3:3-15). The myriads of "holy ones" (angels) attending him seem here to be instruments of his purposes. This passage gave rise to the belief in Judaism that the Law was given through angels (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2). The word "Jeshurun" (vs. 5) is a poetical designation for Israel and means "the upright one."

The blessing of Reuben is short and modest, according well with this tribe’s undistinguished history. The introduction to it apparently has dropped out (see, for example, vss. 7, 8, 12, 13). A blessing of Simeon should now follow (as in Genesis 49:5-7), but since this tribe had been absorbed in Judah by the time of the composition of the poem, it is passed by. Judah is in trouble with an enemy (perhaps the Philistines), and the Lord’s help is besought. Levi, the bearer of the priestly office with its teaching, sacrificial, and divining functions (the "Thummim" and "Urim" were a kind of dice, carried by the chief priest in his breastpiece, and used for determining the divine will), is praised for its fidelity to the Covenant while in the wilderness. How Levi was faithful at Massah and Meribah is not said either here or in Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:2-13. Benjamin, beloved of God, is especially protected by him. The last line of verse 12 means either that God dwells in a sanctuary in the territory of Benjamin (at Nob during the reign of Saul?) or, more probably, that Benjamin tents between God’s shoulders, and thus is especially secure. Joseph (the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh), in a long and lavish blessing, is called "prince among his brothers" (vs. 16). Economic prosperity and military strength are to characterize these tribes. They obviously were flourishing at the time when the poem was composed. Zebulun and Issachar are to lead others in pure worship and are to profit from the treasures of sea and sand (maritime trade, fishing, and clam-digging operations?). Gad’s broad lands east of the Jordan, seized by a lionlike people, are described as "the best of the land" (vs. 21). Gad is commended for assisting the other tribes in the conquest of the territory west of the Jordan. Dan, Naphtali, and Asher—all settled in the area later known as Galilee—are represented as aggressive and prosperous. The references to the "foot in oil" (vs. 24) alludes to the productivity of the olive tree in this part of the country. Asher will need defensive fortifications because of its location on the northern border and will need continuing strength against the pressure of enemies.

The conclusion (vss. 26-29) emphasizes the mighty God’s speedy and persistent care of his people. This care has been manifested in the initial defeat of the inhabitants of the land, in the productivity of the soil, and in the undergirding support and protection of his people. Few verses have affected the life of man more powerfully than verse 27:

"The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms."

Almost equally beloved is the latter part of verse 25: "as your days, so shall your strength be."

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-33.html.