Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 33

In this chapter, Moses issues his final prophetic blessing over the tribes of Israel.

I left myself a note like a year ago that when I finally got to this chapter, to remark on the similarity between Moses's oracle and Jacob's oracle from Gen 49.  Crazy as it may sound, it has been over a year since I finished Genesis and I am still (just barely) in the Pentateuch.  Hopefully it's faster for you all to read these things than it takes me to write them.

Anyway, I think it would be instructive to compare the prophecies here and in Gen 49.  In Gen 49, Jacob prefaced his remarks by saying that he will "tell you what will befall you in the days to come", while here Moses simply says that he "blessed the sons of Israel before his death".  While I think these two chapters are structurally similar, I do think they have differences focuses, as highlighted by the prefaces.  The blessing of Jacob really is more of a prophecy about the future and as a result, it is more cryptic and allusive.

One example of this is Naphtali's prophecy in Gen 49:21, which states "Naphtali is a doe let loose, He gives beautiful words."  I mean really, what does THAT mean?  I honestly have no idea.  While it is possible some cultural context has been lost here, it just seems like Jacob is making a lot of these strange allusions to things that his ancient readers may or may not have understood, but modern readers like myself certainly don't understand.

On the other hand, the blessing of Moses seems a lot more straightforward.  Even though it contains a few analogies like calling Dan a "lion's whelp" (v. 22), a lion is a fairly common biblical symbol of strength, while a "doe let loose" is... I don't even know what that's supposed to be.  I guess a "doe let loose" would be a metaphor for freedom and swiftness, but it is not a common biblical trope.  It's also unclear to me why it would apply to Naphtali.  I think a lot of modern commentators can (and do) speculate on what it means, we don't really know.  It's all just... hypotheses.

Both here and Gen 49 contain a fairly extensive blessing for Joseph (the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim) because of Joseph's role in rescuing Jacob and his family from the seven year famine in Canaan.  It is also notable that Moses gives the "ten thousands" to Ephraim, who is the younger, giving him supremacy over his "brother" Manasseh.  If you recall back to Gen 48, Jacob blessed Ephraim over his older brother Manasseh, and Joseph complained about it.  Here, Moses is reaffirming that blessing of the younger over the elder.

Neither here nor Gen 49 listed the tribes in birth order.  Gen 49 listed the first four tribes in birth order, but in this chapter Moses only blesses Reuben first before jumping to Judah, then back to Levi, etc.  Even more strangely, this chapter doesn't list Simeon as a separate tribe at all.  Moses blesses 12 tribes by including both Levi and Ephraim and Manasseh.

Moses's omission of Simeon is another indicator that Simeon is rapidly falling into obscurity after some unrecorded disaster wiped out most of the tribe's population between the first and second censuses of the wilderness (Num 1 and Num 26 respectively).  After plummeting from 60 thousand members to 20 thousand, the tribe is so inconsequential that Moses doesn't even mention them when blessing the tribes of Israel.

A few other minor notes: Moses lists Issachar and Zebulun together in v. 18.  In the future these two tribes are closely related politically and geographically in the region of Galilee.  While Jacob refers to the future kingdom of Judah, Moses does not.  Moses also includes a much longer blessing for Levi.  To an extent this makes sense because Moses is himself a Levite, so it's understandable that he would have a more Levitical influence than Jacob.

Other than that, Moses's blessings for the other tribes seem relatively formulaic and I don't think there's much worth commenting on.  He promises them success and victory in various ways, sometimes also alluding to their future location as a tribe (e.g. v. 23 where Naphtali "take[s] possession of the sea and the south", or v. 22 where Dan "leaps forth from Bashan").

As I said in my introduction to Deuteronomy, this book is very forward-looking because it all occurs on the threshold of the promised land, on the eve of their invasion.  Just as their victories over Sihon and Og provide a military backdrop for their success, and just as the law provides a religious justification for their success, this chapter gives them the patriarchal blessing as they proceed into the unknown and take on the nations greater and mightier than themselves.

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