Moses, Blessing of

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Deuteronomy 33 is presented as Moses' blessing of the tribes of Israel shortly before his death, and it is traditionally considered a prophecy of future conditions. The critical view, however, is not that the poem is actually Mosaic, for it describes Israel after the conquest, when the tribes had settled in Canaan. It is of uncertain date. It has been dated on orthographic grounds to the 11th century b.c.e., although it may have been written down in the tenth century (Cross and Freedman). This dating also fits the political and social conditions described: Judah was oppressed by the Philistines, and Reuben, suffering from Ammonite encroachment, had practically disappeared; Simeon had vanished as an ethnic entity, and Dan had already moved north. Others date the poem later. Driver places it either shortly after the reign of Jeroboam I or in the middle of the reign of Jeroboam II. The poem is probably of northern origin, for Judah is portrayed as weak and separated from his brothers, while Joseph, who has the longest and most lavish blessing, is called nezir ʾeḥaw – the "prince" or "distinguished one" of his brothers. The poem is divided into two parts: the framework and the body. The framework consists of: (a) the exordium (verses 2–5) telling how God appeared from Sinai, gave Israel a law through Moses, and established himself as king in their midst (possibly verse 5 tells of the foundation of human kingship in Israel), and (b) the hymnic conclusion (verses 26–29) lauding God's glory and might, and celebrating Israel's happiness, prosperity, and security under God's protection.

The body (verses 6–25) consists of 11 eulogistic sayings characterizing the tribes or praying for their well-being (Simeon is not mentioned). The sayings themselves may be older than the song. Each blessing after the first is introduced by the narrator, e.g., "And of Levi he said …" (8). The ordering principle is a combination of the age of the eponyms and the importance of the tribes. In general the poem describes Israel in its ideal condition: a tribal league with God alone as king, settled in their land and flourishing (except for Judah and Reuben) under the protection of God and the theocratic guidance of Levi. The atmosphere is one of peace and security. The language of the poem is extremely difficult because of its antiquity and epigrammatic style, and the text apparently contains many corruptions, so that much of the interpretation is necessarily problematic.


Commentaries on Deuteronomy; T.H. Gaster, in: jbl, 66 (1947), 53–62; F.M. Cross and D.N. Freedman, ibid., 67 (1948), 191–210.

[Michael V. Fox]