Saturday, January 05, 2008

Deuteronomy 33

Deuteronomy 33: Moses’ last words


This chapter records Moses’ last public speech, before his death. (He may very well have said something else, after, to Joshua or to the LORD, but it’s not recorded in Deuteronomy.) It’s mostly a series of blessings and/or prophecies that Moses gives to the tribes of Israel.

But first, as with any good speech, a prologue:

This is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death. He said:
  “The LORD came from Sinai
  and dawned over them from Seir;
  he shone forth from Mount Paran.
  He came with myriads of holy ones
  from the south, from his mountain slopes.

Surely it is you who love the people;
  all the holy ones are in your hand.
  At your feet they all bow down,
  and from you receive instruction,

the law that Moses gave us,
  the possession of the assembly of Jacob.

He was king over Jeshurun
  when the leaders of the people assembled,
  along with the tribes of Israel.

(verses 1–5)

Aside from the fact that Moses refers to himself in the third person—indicating to me that he is speaking on behalf of the LORD, and not just on his own behalf—notice also that the prologue is more about God than about the Israelites. As well it should be—any blessings they’re getting will come from Him anyway.

This taken care of, Moses says something to each of the tribes, which he addresses as if they were individual men, instead of groups of people. I’ll follow his example, and do the same:
  • Reuben: Not much, for Reuben. Moses just asks the LORD to let him live and not die, and not to let his men be few—which, to me, means that Moses was asking the LORD to bless the tribe of Reuben with lots of children.
  • Judah: Moses says that Judah defends his causes with his own hands, and asks the LORD to be his help against his foes. Moses also asks the LORD to “bring him to his people” (verse 7), and I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.
  • Levi: To Levi, Moses says a number of things:
    • First, Moses says that Levi’s Thummim and Urim belong to “the man you favored” (verse 8)—the one that Levi tested at Massah and contended with at the waters of Meribah. I think this means that Moses is reminding the Levites that the Thummim and Urim are used to get answers from the LORD; they’re not just dice, that give random outcomes.
    • Moses reminds them that they chose the LORD, over their own fellow Israelites, back in Exodus 32, when the people had been worshipping the golden calf.
    • Moses reminds the LORD—and the Levites—that the Levites are responsible for teaching His precepts and laws to Israel, and for presenting offerings and incense.
    • Finally, Moses asks the LORD to bless the works of Levi’s hands, and to be pleased with the works of his hands. (Which seems redundant to me—if the LORD has blessed the works of Levi’s hands, then of course He will be pleased with the works of his hands—but in a way, it makes sense. It’s related to the question of why you would pray to the LORD at all, when He’s already in control of everything, and knows what He is going to do. (Which John Piper has covered before.) Moses also asks the LORD to “smite the loins” (verse 11) of anyone who rises up against Levi.
  • Benjamin: I’ll just quote this one, because it’s so tender:

    About Benjamin he said:
      “Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him,
      for he shields him all day long,
      and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders.”

    (verse 12)

  • Joseph: Interestingly, Joseph gets a mention, instead of the two half tribes from Joseph’s sons. Moses has a few things to say to the tribe of Joseph, whom he calls “the prince among his brothers” (verse 16):
    • First, he spends a few verses asking the LORD to bless his land.
    • Moses then compares Joseph to a bull, in his majesty.
  • Zebulun and Issachar: Interestingly, Moses lumps these two tribes together. He tells Zebulun to rejoice in his “going out,” and Issachar in his tents (verse 18). Then he says some things that I don’t understand:

    “They will summon peoples to the mountain
      and there offer sacrifices of righteousness;
      they will feast on the abundance of the seas,
      on the treasures hidden in the sand.”

    (verse 19)

    I assume this means that these tribes will be fishermen, although I’m not sure about the “treasures hidden in the sand” part.
  • Gad: Moses compares Gad to a lion, enlarging God’s domain. Gad chose the best land for himself, but Moses doesn’t seem to hold this against Gad, since he “carried out the LORD’s righteous will, and his judgments concerning Israel” (verse 21).
  • Dan: Moses doesn’t say much about Dan, except that he is a lion’s cub, “springing out of Bashan” (verse 22). I don’t know what this means; it might be a reference to an earlier episode in the Israelites’ history. Perhaps the Danites played a large role in the defeat of Og, king of Bashan? (See Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 3.)
  • Naphtali: Moses indicates that Naphtali is “abounding with the favor of the LORD,” and indicates that the tribe will inherit the land “southward to the lake” (verse 23).
  • Asher: Moses says that Asher is “most blessed of sons” (verse 24), and expresses wishes for him to be favoured by his brothers, and to bathe his feet in oil. This sounds, to me, like a wish for Asher to live a life of luxury, but then in the next verse Moses also says that Asher’s strength will equal his days, which, to me, indicates that people in the tribe of Asher will not grow old and feeble, but will remain healthy and productive to the ends of their lives.
Moses then sums up the speech:

“There is no one like the God of Jeshurun,
  who rides on the heavens to help you
  and on the clouds in his majesty.

The eternal God is your refuge,
  and underneath are the everlasting arms.
  He will drive out your enemy before you,
  saying, ‘Destroy him!’

So Israel will live in safety alone;
  Jacob’s spring is secure
  in a land of grain and new wine,
  where the heavens drop dew.

Blessed are you, O Israel!
  Who is like you,
a people saved by the LORD?
  He is your shield and helper
  and your glorious sword.
  Your enemies will cower before you,
  and you will trample down their high places.”

(verses 26–29)

Actually, some of this might be part of Moses’ blessing to Asher. I don’t think so, which is why I included it here, but it’s possible.


One thing that I still don’t understand about the Old Testament is the concept of pronouncing “blessings” on people. When Moses blesses each of the tribes in this chapter, is he giving prophecies? Except that he says things like “let Reuben live and not die”—when he says “let,” it sounds more like a wish than a prophecy.

I’m also not sure why God continues to lump all of the members of a tribe together, as if they were one man.

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