As his final act before he dies, Moses pronounces a blessing on (almost) each of the twelve tribes of Israel. In making this his last act, he hearkens back to the blessing Jacob – on his death bed – gave to each of his sons over four hundred years ago. Moses blesses each of the tribes in much the same way Jacob did with his sons – he tailors each blessing to the experiences and/or personality of the specific group. Moses’ intent is to send the people off with a positive word but also to remind them of God’s providence and protection that will go with them. As he has done throughout the book, Moses seeks to encourage and reassure his people before he leaves them forever.
To better understand Moses’ words, it is helpful to know how the tribes of Israel tie back to the sons of Jacob and the order in which they were born. Jacob had 12 sons (and one daughter) by four different women – his wife Leah and her maidservant Zilpah, and his second wife Rachel and her maidservant Bilhah (Gen 29:31-30:24 & 35:16-18). The reason for the four women was competition – each of his wives vied for Jacob’s attention by bearing sons, and when they had times of barrenness they offered their maidservants to him so they could claim those sons as their own (which of course led to a really unified and happy family). Leah gave birth to the first four sons; Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah bore the next two; Leah’s handmaid Zilpah then bore two of her own; Leah came back in the picture and bore two (plus a daughter); and finally, Rachel bore the last two herself. The sons’ birth order and respective birth mothers had a bearing on the future of the tribes descended from the sons.
This is illustrated in Jacob’s blessing of his sons right before his death (Gen 49). Instead of blessing them in order of how they were born, he grouped the sons by birthmother and blessed them within the groupings. The sons of Leah were first, followed by sons of the maidservants. Rachel’s sons were kept last but perhaps more because Jacob saved the best for last. Joseph and Benjamin were his favorites because they were born to Rachel.
Moses’ order of blessing is different from birth order and from Jacob’s blessing. He blesses the tribes that descend from Leah’s and Rachel’s sons first, then blesses the tribes descended from the handmaids last. Interestingly, he does not mention Simeon – second son of Leah – at all. This could be because Simeon does not have much of a tribal identity apart from Judah (its allotment in the Promised Land is the farthest south and for all intents and purposes becomes part of Judah). Moses’ order within the groupings is hard to decipher. From a birth order perspective, he blesses the first three sons of Leah – 1, 4, 3 – then the sons of Rachel – 12, 11 – then the last sons of Leah – 10, 9 – then the sons of the handmaids – 7, 5, 6, 8. Any explanation of his order is conjecture.
When the land is allotted after Joshua’s conquest, the listing of tribes that receive land is slightly different than any of the previous three. Levi does not inherit any land under the Law. Its people are scattered throughout the other tribes and live off sacrifices and offerings. The tribe of Joseph never exists as his sons – Ephraim and Manasseh – gain his place in the tribal order (see Gen 48:5 where Jacob claims the two sons of Joseph as his own and makes them part of the twelve). Thus twelve tribes gain territories in the land, but thirteen really exist.
The different listings for the birth order and the blessings and the land allotments are as follows:
Moses begins by glorifying and praising God for His protection and for coming to Israel. He says, “The Lord comes from Sinai…and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; at His right hand there was flashing lightning for them.” He references the power of God on display at Sinai –lightning and fire – and says He came to Israel there (it was also where He commissioned Moses at the burning bush – Ex 3). Sinai was where God displayed His awesome presence to the people and where He gave them His Law.
Moses then lays the baseline for all of God’s actions toward Israel – Indeed, He loves the people. The holy people are in Your hand and they followed in Your steps; everyone receives of Your words. The people belong to God and follow Him and His words. God loves His people and so shows Himself to them and gives them His words. Nothing else matters if God does not love Israel.
Verse 4 makes it sound as if someone other than Moses writes this section – perhaps after his death. The writer says, “Moses charged us with a law” – strange words for Moses to write. This is a continuation of the thought that goes before it about the people receiving the words of God at Sinai. Moses was God’s instrument to instruct the people about the Law.
He goes on to say that God is the king of Israel – He was king of Jeshurun (poetic name for Israel – means “upright one”). This makes Israel unique (Judges 8:23). They have no king other than God. There is no human representative on a throne – God alone is the head of the nation. This will be the case until the people demand a king at the end of Samuel’s rule as judge (I Sam 8).
Reuben lost his birthright because of his fornication with Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant (Gen 35:22, 48:5, 49:4). Thus his descendants are not afforded a preeminent position within the nation as otherwise would be typical. The first blessing on the tribe is that it will live and not die. The second line of verse 6 is difficult to interpret. The author either says, “but let his men be few” or “nor his men be few.” The author either wants the tribe to remain its size and not be wiped out or he is calling for the tribe to shrink as part of the curse on Reuben. It is hard to know which is correct as either could make sense.
The blessing on Judah is for success militarily. According to the camping arrangement of the tribes in Numbers 2 Judah is to set out first when the people travel. Perhaps this means that it is the tribe that also leads the nation into battle. If this is the case, the blessing that God is to bring him to his people could be a prayer to bring him back from battle victorious. This goes along with the prayer that God will be a help for Judah against his adversaries.
The Levites are the priests and the worship leaders of the nation. Thus Moses prays for godly men to rise up in the tribe (Thummim and Urim are items used to determine the will of God and reside in the breastplate of the high priest). He also refers back to the faithfulness of the Levites at Sinai after the golden calf incident. When he says, “Who said of his father and mother, ‘I did not consider them’; and he did not acknowledge his brothers, nor did he regard his own sons, for they observed Your word and kept Your covenant” – he refers to when the Levites strapped on their swords at Moses’ command and killed 3000 men who worshiped the calf (Ex 32:25-29). The Levites were faithful to God and did not spare anyone – even family members – who were unfaithful.
Moses – from the tribe of Levi himself – blesses them for their faithfulness and prays specifically for their future success. “O Lord, bless his substance, and accept the work of his hands; shatter the loins of those who rise up against him, and those who hate him, so that they may not rise again.”
[The prayer for God to bless his substance – what he has, what he produces – and to accept the work of his hands is a wonderful prayer. It is what every follower of God wants for his life. “Bless what I have for Your purposes and accept my work and be pleased with what I do.”]
Moses calls Benjamin beloved of the Lord – perhaps a reference to how much Jacob loved him – and asks that God keep him secure. He says Benjamin dwells between His shoulders – a word picture suggesting a father carrying his son on his back.
Joseph – Ephraim/Manasseh (13-17)
Moses calls for a blessing on the land of these tribes. He prays for agricultural blessing and bountiful production. He says in verse 16 that the choice things of the earth and its fullness will bless them along with the favor of Him who dwelt in the bush (a reference to God who appeared in the burning bush).
The second half of the blessing on Joseph refers to his place as leader among his brothers when they were in Egypt and how that will translate to the tribes’ place in Israel. Ephraim and Manasseh will be powerful militarily in the nation and Ephraim especially will play a prominent role throughout Israel’s history. Note that Moses refers to the ten thousands of Ephraim and the thousands of Manasseh. Jacob blessed Ephraim ahead of Manasseh even though Manasseh was Joseph’s firstborn (Gen 48:8-22). Thus Ephraim will eventually dominate the ten tribes of the north to the point that the northern kingdom will sometimes be called Ephraim (Hosea 9:3-17).
Moses blesses these two tribes in their everyday affairs. He calls on God to make them rejoice in your going forth and in your tents. This is a poetic description of going about normal daily tasks.
He says they will call people to worship on the mountain. This is hard to understand since worship is to be in the place God designates (12:5). It could be a reference to Mount Tabor which stands at the juncture of the lands of Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali in the Promised Land.
It is also strange that Moses calls for them to enjoy the abundance of the seas and the hidden treasures of the sand since their land allotment does not include any coastline on either the Mediterranean or the Sea of Galilee. Interestingly, Jacob refers to Zebulun as dwelling at the seashore and being a haven for ships in his blessing (Gen 49:13). Perhaps the tribes migrate from their original allotments and eventually make their living from the sea.
Gad is known as a warlike tribe. Moses refers to this when he says, “He lies down as a lion, and tears the arm, also the crown of the head.” In I Chron 12:8-15, a description of Gadites who join David when he is in exile from Saul reads, “These sons of Gad were captains of the army; he who was least was equal to a hundred and the greatest to a thousand.”
Gad chose the first land conquered for itself. The tribe chose to live in the land taken from Sihon and Og – the kings defeated in Moab (east of Jordan) right before the events in Deuteronomy. This is what Moses references when he says, “Then he provided the first part for himself.” He goes on to say that Gad came with the leaders of the people; he executed the justice of the Lord, and His ordinances with Israel. This seems to allude to Gad fulfilling God’s command that Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh cross the Jordan and fight with the other tribes until the land is fully conquered.
This is another blessing that seems to be about military might. Dan is like a lion cub that leaps out in ambush on its prey. The reference to Bashan could be a reference to when Dan eventually migrates north from its original allotment in the middle of the nation. Bashan lies to the north of much of Israel and the Danites eventually move north after not being able to peaceably settle their land between Ephraim and Judah (Judges 17-18).
Naphtali’s allotment in Canaan will surround half of the Sea of Galilee on the west. Thus Moses says it will take possession of the sea and the south. Moses says the tribe will be satisfied with favor and full of the blessing of the Lord. God will approve of Naphtali and it will enjoy His favor.
Moses calls for blessing and favor above his brothers for Asher. He says they will reside securely behind locks made of iron and bronze and be strong throughout their long lives.
Just so no one forgets the point of this blessing poem, Moses ends with the same message he began with. Everything is about God. There is none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides the heavens to your help, and through the skies in His majesty. He again reminds them that God came to them – they did not have to find Him. God protects them and fights for them so they dwell in security. He will continue to protect and provide for them in the Promised Land – the fountain of Jacob secluded, in a land of grain and new wine; His heavens also drop down dew.
What makes Israel special is their unique relationship with God. They are a great people because God saved them and watches over them. Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, who is the shield of your help, and the sword of your majesty! No other nation can claim this. God’s actions on their behalf set them apart. This is similar to what Moses said in 4:7 and 4:32 – “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the Lord our God whenever we call on Him?” “Or has a god tried to go to take for himself a nation from within another nation by trials, by signs and wonders and by war and by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm and by great terrors, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?”
Moses ends with more encouragement and reassurance for the people – So your enemies will cringe before you, and you shall tread upon their high places. These are the best words a people about to begin a long series of battles can hear. God goes before them and will fight for them and their enemies will not be able to stand.
Moses begins and ends with the same thought. God came to the people and they are special because He chose them. God redeemed them and continues to go before them. They are not alone and God will ensure their security. While Moses’ specific blessings of the tribes are sometimes hard to understand, his overall theme is not. It is all about God and as long as the people realize this they will dwell securely and prosperously in the land.
There is none like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to your help,
And through the skies in His majesty.
The eternal God is a dwelling place,
And underneath are the everlasting arms.
Indeed, He loves His people.