Saturday Apr 22, 2023

Deuteronomy 33:1-29 - Moses Blessing Israel

Map of the Tribes of Israel


     Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ death has loomed like a shadow over the nation. The book as a whole is his farewell address, as he imparts to them all that is needed for a life of success after he dies. Moses, after having communicated the core of the law to Israel, appointed Joshua as his successor and received the Lord’s command to ascend Mount Nebo and die, is left only to offer his blessings to the nation before his graduation to heaven. Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33 reveals the heart of this great leader for God’s people, Israel. The blessings were not predictive, but rather, express Moses’ desires of what he wished for the nation. According to Eugene Merrill, “Moses’ utterances concerning the tribes were in the nature of prayerful intercession. They express what he fervently desired for his people and what he confidently expected that God would do.”[1] Of course, under the Mosaic Law, Israel’s blessing were conditional on the obedience of his people.

The Blessing Introduction

     “Now this is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the sons of Israel before his death” (Deut 33:1). This opening verse sets the tone for what follows, as it is Moses’ blessing on the nation just prior to his death. The word blessing translates the Hebrew word בְּרָכָה berakah, which means to bless or favor someone. The blessing derived from Moses revealed his wish or prayer for the future of God’s people. Of course, this was conditional, as they would receive the blessing if they would “listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I am commanding you today” (Deut 11:27). Though Moses sought their best interests, he can do no more than give them God’s directives and encourage them to walk by them, knowing the Lord’s blessings would follow if they obeyed.  

     Moses continued, saying, “The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; at His right hand there was flashing lightning for them’” (Deut 33:2). Here, God is portrayed as the Divine Warrior who goes before His people, and this is seen elsewhere in Scripture (Judg 5:4-5; Psa 68:7-8). That God shone forth (יָפַע yaphabrightness, splendor) at various times and places revealed His glory in theophanic form. The holy ones mentioned in this verse refer to angels. The reference to flashing lightning could be a manifestation of the angels as they come with the Lord and do His work. This picture of God as Divine Warrior was intended to instill confidence among His people that He was with them, and to instill fear among Israel’s enemies who sought to thwart God’s purposes among His people.

     Of the Lord, Moses said, “Indeed, He loves the people; all Your holy ones are in Your hand, and they followed in Your steps; everyone receives of Your words” (Deut 33:3). Here, Moses emphasized God’s love for His people (cf. Deut 7:7-8), which is what motivated Him to set them apart. The holy ones in this verse refer to the nation of Israel, whom God had created as special (Isa 43:1, 15), to be set apart from the other nations and to walk with Him in righteousness (Deut 7:6, 11). The text continues, saying, “Moses charged us with a law, a possession for the assembly of Jacob. 5 And He was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, the tribes of Israel together” (Deut 33:4-5). Moses had given Israel God’s law (תּוֹרָה torahlaw, instruction, direction), which was their special possession (Lev 27:34), which gave them everything they needed for a life of righteousness. And God was their king (Isa 33:22), the One who ruled over them, to provide, guide, and protect them in all things. The term Jeshurun (יְשֻׁרוּן Yeshurun) means upright one and was a nickname for Israel. Here, the word is used of how Israel was intended to be, as Moses hoped they would be, as upright to the Lord. In the NT we see where God’s people are called saints (ἅγιος hagiossacred, holy; Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:1), and the ideal Christian is one whose performance is that of his/her position in Christ (Eph 4:1; Col 1:10).

Blessing the Tribes


     Moses’ first wish of blessing fell to Reuben, as he says, “May Reuben live and not die, nor his men be few” (Deut 33:6). Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son (Gen 29:32; 49:3). As the firstborn son, the birthright and blessing naturally fell to him. However, we know that Reuben committed a terrible sin when he had sex with his father’s concubine (Gen 35:22), and for this he was cursed by Jacob just before he died (Gen 49:4), which meant he’d forfeited his inheritance. Reuben’s descendants were judged, as they followed in the footsteps of their progenitor. Though there are always exceptions, children often model their parents values and behavior, and worldly parents tend to produce worldly children. According to Thomas Constable, “Reuben (v. 6) was the firstborn son of Jacob, but he did not enjoy greatness among the tribes because of his sin. He lost his father’s birthright and blessing. Furthermore, no great civil or military leader or prophet ever came from this tribe, as far as Scripture records.”[2]


     Next in the order of Moses’ blessings was Judah, where it reads, “And this regarding Judah; so he said, ‘Hear, O LORD, the voice of Judah, and bring him to his people. With his hands he contended for them, and may You be a help against his adversaries’” (Deut 33:7). Judah was Jacob’s fourth son (after Simeon and Levi) and was singled out for blessing, from whom would come Messiah (Gen 49:8-12). Moses asked God to help Judah, to hear his voice, and to “bring him to his people” (Deut 33:7). This phrase likely refers to the safe return of Judahites after a military campaign. According to the book of Numbers, Judah was to lead the other nations in battle, as “They shall set out first” (Num 2:9b). This meant Judah would take the lead and be in a dangerous position, militarily speaking. It’s natural that as they went into battle, they would ask to be returned safely to their people and that God would “be a help against his adversaries” (Deut 33:7b). Ultimately, through Judah would come David, and through David would come Jesus, the Messiah (Matt 1:1, 6, 16).


Concerning the tribe of Levi, Moses said:

  • Of Levi he said, “Let your Thummim and Your Urim belong to Your godly man, whom You proved at Massah, with whom You contended at the waters of Meribah; 9 who said of his father and his 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. 10 They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your law to Israel. They shall put incense before You, and whole burnt offerings on Your altar. 11 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 will not rise again.” (Deut 33:8-11)

     The tribe of Levi is mentioned here without regard to the tribe of Simeon. Previously, in the book of Genesis, Moses had recorded Jacob’s genealogy and listed Simeon and Levi together, as the second and third sons in the lineage. Of those brothers, Jacob had said, “Simeon and Levi are brothers; their swords are implements of violence” (Gen 49:5). This refers to Simeon and Levi’s exaggerated violence against the Shechemites, whose leader had raped their sister, Dinah (Gen 34:1-29). Jacob, having cursed his two sons for their violence (Gen 49:6-7a), said, “I will disperse them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen 49:7). Though Levi retained land in Israel, Simeon was incorporated into the tribe of Judah (Josh 19:1, 9). Concerning this, Eugene Merrill states, “The effect of this is evident even here in the blessing of Moses because Simeon is lacking entirely in the list, and Levi appears without reference to territory of its own. Moreover, Simeon had already become involved in idolatry at Baal Peor (cf. Num 25:6–15), a sin that brought such devastating population loss that the whole tribe eventually became assimilated into Judah.”[3]

     Though the tribe of Levi did not own land, they were blessed by Moses and became the tribe that was given to Aaron and his sons to help them in their priestly duties (Num 3:6-10; 18:1-7). The selection of the tribe of Levi came because of their faithfulness to God during the incident of the golden calf in which they stood with the Lord and Moses (Ex 32:25-29). In this way, they had been faithful to God’s covenant (Deut 33:9b). Both Moses and Aaron were from the tribe of Levi. Part of Moses’ blessing referred to the function of the high priest who was given the Urim and Thummim to wear inside a pouch on his chest and was occasionally used to discern a divine answer (Ex 28:29-30; cf. 1 Sam 28:6).[4] One of the functions of the priests was to teach God’s Word to the other tribes (Lev 10:8-11; Deut 31:9-13; 33:10; 2 Ch 17:7-9; Ezra 7:10; Mal 2:7). Another function of the priests was to offer sacrifices to the Lord, as Moses wrote, “They shall put incense before You, and whole burnt offerings on Your altar” (Deut 33:10b; cf., Leviticus chapters 4, 9, 16). Moses closed out this section on Levi, saying, “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 will not rise again” (Deut 33:11). To accept the work of Levi’s hands meant God approved of their work. And to shatter the loins of their enemies meant they would be destroyed completely without descendants.


     Moses blessed Benjamin, the last of Jacob’s sons (Gen 49:27), saying, “Of Benjamin he said, ‘May the beloved of the LORD dwell in security by Him, Who shields him all the day, and he dwells between His shoulders” (Deut 33:12). Moses’ blessing was that Benjamin would dwell in security in the land. And God would be the One to shield him, as he dwelt “between His shoulders” (Deut 33:12b). Eugene Merrill notes, “The anthropomorphism here is suggestive of the most tender compassion and solid security at the same time. The phrase speaks not of carrying on the back but of being held close to the breast or bosom.”[5] Benjamin’s safety in battle came, not because of his military prowess, but because of His closeness to God.

Joseph (i.e., Ephraim and Manasseh)

Moving on to Joseph, Moses wrote:

  • Of Joseph he said, “Blessed of the LORD be his land, with the choice things of heaven, with the dew, and from the deep lying beneath, 14 and with the choice yield of the sun, and with the choice produce of the months. 15 And with the best things of the ancient mountains, and with the choice things of the everlasting hills, 16 and with the choice things of the earth and its fullness, and the favor of Him who dwelt in the bush. Let it come to the head of Joseph, and to the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers. 17 As the firstborn of his ox, majesty is his, and his horns are the horns of the wild ox; with them he will push the peoples, all at once, to the ends of the earth. And those are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and those are the thousands of Manasseh.” (Deut 33:13-17)

     Here, Joseph is represented by his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Deut 33:17). Living in Canaan meant relying on the weather—rain, dew, sun—to bring forth fertile crops. Moses’ wishes for Joseph—i.e., Ephraim and Manasseh—was that their land would be blessed with fertility and production of vegetation (Deut 33:13-16). Moses also asked that they be given strength whereby they might judge other nations, perhaps in battle, as the Lord’s instrument of judgment (Deut 33:17). The reference to “the ends of the earth” (Deut 33:17b), according to Merrill, “suggests an eschatological rather than historical fulfillment, a time when God’s kingdom would rise above and rule over the kingdoms of the earth (cf. 1 Sam 2:10; Psa 2:8; 59:13; 72:8; Mic 5:4).”[6]

Zebulun and Issachar

     Next, Moses blessed Zebulun and Issachar, saying, “Of Zebulun he said, ‘Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going forth, and, Issachar, in your tents. 19 They will call peoples to the mountain; there they will offer righteous sacrifices; for they will draw out the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand’” (Deut 33:18-19). Zebulun and Issachar were the sixth and fifth sons of Jacob by his wife, Leah (Gen 30:18-20), here blessed by Moses in reverse order. Jacob also blessed them in reverse order of their birth (Gen 49:13-15), These two brothers were close, and so were their descendant tribes, as their land was near to each other. Both were to rejoice; Zebulun in their “going forth” and Issachar in their “tents” (Deut 33:18). The phrase forms a merism, a figure of speech with includes all activities of life. In this way, Moses wished for their blessings to be wherever they went and in all they did. These tribes would bring blessings to Israel by offering “righteous sacrifices” that were in conformity with God’s directives, and by drawing out “the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand” (Deut 33:19). That is, their wealth was shared with their brethren, and in this way were a blessing to others.


     Moses’ blessing on Gad was, “Blessed is the One who enlarges Gad; he lies down as a lion, and tears the arm, also the crown of the head. 21 Then he provided the first part for himself, for there the ruler’s portion was reserved; and he came with the leaders of the people; he executed the justice of the LORD, and His ordinances with Israel” (Deut 33:20-21). When entering the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, all Israel proved faithful to fight, but apparently some fought harder than others and they were blessed in a special way with more land. Gad was known “as a lion” that was ferocious in battle. According to Peter Craigie, “The blessing indicates that Gad was to play an important part in the battle, and that as a result the tribe would deserve a lion’s share of the fruit of victory.”[7] The tribe of Gad (as well as Manasseh and Reuben) requested to live east of the Jordan River, and Moses granted their request, but only on the condition they would help their brothers complete the military conquest into Canaan beyond the Jordan River (Deut 3:18). They would help their fellow Israelites by leaving their wives, children, and livestock behind (Deut 3:19). After victory was obtained, they could return to their own land (Deut 3:20). We know from the book of Joshua that they were faithful to help their brothers (Josh 22:1-6).


     Moses continued, “Of Dan he said, ‘Dan is a lion’s whelp, that leaps forth from Bashan’” (Deut 33:22). As a lion’s whelp, the tribe of Dan would display timidity early on, but would become strong and eventually leap forth as a powerful lion. Jacob, when blessing Dan, used similar language, saying, “Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him up?” (Gen 49:9).


     Moses’ next blessing was for Naphtali, and “Of Naphtali he said, ‘O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full of the blessing of the LORD, take possession of the sea and the south’” (Deut 33:23). This tribe was to be satisfied with the Lord’s favor (רָצוֹן ratson – goodness, favor). The result of the Lord’s full blessing was their taking “possession of the sea and the south” (Deut 33:23b). The sea is a reference to the Sea of Galilee. Eugene Merrill notes, “The Galilee region embraced by Naphtali did indeed enjoy many temporal and material riches (cf. Josh 20:7; 2 Chr 16:4; Isa 9:1), but by far the most abundant blessing was the fact that the Messiah spent most of his life and exercised much of his ministry there or in nearby Zebulun (cf. Matt 4:12–17).”[8]


     Moses continued, saying, “Of Asher he said, ‘More blessed than sons is Asher; may he be favored by his brothers, and may he dip his foot in oil. 25 Your locks will be iron and bronze, and according to your days, so will your leisurely walk be” (Deut 33:24-25). The tribe of Asher was blessed more than others and had good relations with his brothers (i.e. was favored). To dip his foot in oil was a reference to the many olive trees of that region as well as the overall fertility of the land and its produce. The reference to locks of iron and bronze meant the tribe would dwell in safety and would enjoy the leisure of their wealth.

Conclusion to Moses’ Blessings

     Moses concludes this section, saying, “There is none like the God of Jeshurun, Who rides the heavens to your help, and through the skies in His majesty. 27 The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms; and He drove out the enemy from before you, and said, ‘Destroy!’ 28 So Israel dwells in security, the fountain of Jacob secluded, in a land of grain and new wine; His heavens also drop down dew” (Deut 33:26-28). Israel’s God is unique and there are none like Him (Isa 45:5-6). He is pictured as the Divine Warrior “Who rides the heavens to your help, and through the skies in His majesty” (Deut 33:26b). According to Earl Radmacher, “Like a soldier, the Lord is constantly on the lookout for ways to defend His people from attack. The Divine Warrior is always providing protection because He is eternal. God is a refuge or fortress for the people to flee to in times of distress (Psa 90:1; 91:9).”[9] And the eternal God would be Israel’s “dwelling place” where they would find refuge and safety “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut 33:27a). The same arms that brought them to safety would be the ones used to drive out their enemies and would “destroy” those who opposed. Because of their relationship with Yahweh and their walk with Him, Israel would dwell in safety and seclusion (Deut 33:28a), and would live in a land blessed by the Lord, “in a land of grain and new wine” where “His heavens also drop down dew” (Deut 33:28b). Concerning this section, Peter Craigie notes, “The substance of verse 26-28 expresses once again the apparent paradox of Israel’s existence. The path lying ahead was not one of peaceful existence and quiet solitude, but it was one beset on every side with danger. Yet it was within this danger and war that Israel would find its safety (v. 28), because the path of danger was the path in which the presence and help of God would be found.”[10]

     Moses closed his blessing, saying, “Blessed are you, O Israel; who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, Who is the shield of your help and the sword of your majesty! So your enemies will cringe before you, and you will tread upon their high places’” (Deut 33:29). Israel’s blessings were possible only because of their relationship with God, as He shielded them from danger and would defeat their enemies when they walked with Him in righteousness. And Israel’s enemies would cringe in fear, knowing God was with them to grant them victory as they would “tread upon their high places” (Deut 33:29b).


     Moses, the man of God, blessed the sons of Israel before his death. He spoke about the Lord’s love for His people and called for them to obey His law (Deut 33:1-5). Moses also made specific blessings for each tribe of Israel (Deut 33:6-25). And in conclusion, praised the greatness of God and how He protected Israel from their enemies and would allow them to dwell in safety (Deut 33:26-28). Moses ended his blessing by declaring the blessedness of the people of Israel, who were saved by the Lord and would tread upon their enemies Deut 33:29).

Present Application

     As Moses’ death approached, his great concern was for the success of Israel in the days after his departure. The Lord had worked through Moses to liberate the people from Egyptian slavery, to guide them for forty years in the wilderness, and to educate them in the law of the Lord that they might walk with Him and know success (Deut 11:26-28; 28:1-2; 30:15-16). But God revealed to Moses that after his death the nation would turn away from Yahweh and pursue idols (Deut 31:16; cf., Judg 2:11-12; 2 Ki 18:11-12). Though this news saddened Moses, it did not hinder his efforts to guide them into righteousness, giving them what they needed for success—the Word of God.

     Likewise, we see something similar in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. Paul had taught in Ephesus for several years (Acts 19:10; 20:31), and as his ministry was nearing an end, he called for the elders of the church to come to him (Acts 20:17). He reminded them about his faithfulness to serve the Lord and to teach them the Word of God (Acts 20:18-21), and that he was about to leave for Jerusalem where he would suffer persecution (Acts 20:22-24). He told the elders of the church they would no longer see him (Acts 20:25), which was upsetting news. He also told them he was innocent of harming anyone (Acts 20:26), and that he had been faithful to declare to them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Afterwards, Paul gave them heavy news, saying, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Knowing this, Paul instructed them to “be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears” (Acts 20:31). Paul was leaving, but he was not leaving them emptyhanded, as he said, “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Though Paul was leaving, God and His Word remained, and that was sufficient for a life of success. The church at Ephesus did well after Paul’s departure, and he gave thanks for their faith and love (Eph 1:15-16). However, the generation that followed did not continue in their love, as Jesus said of them, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev 2:4). This shows that the faith of one generation does not automatically continue into the next, as each generation must choose for themselves whether they will learn and live God’s Word.

     As Christian leaders (whether pastors, parents, or teachers), we bear special responsibility for our own spiritual growth which comes by studying God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2), learning from gifted teachers (Eph 4:11-14), and applying His Word by faith (2 Cor 5:7; Heb 10:38; Jam 1:22), which leads to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1). Furthermore, we seek to communicate His Word to others who will listen (Mark 16:15; Matt 28:19-20; Eph 6:4; 2 Tim 4:2; cf., Ezra 7:10). Once we’ve fulfilled our duty to the Lord, we then entrust our loved ones to Him, knowing that the Lord and His Word provides a fortress of truth and love that will protect their souls as they advance to spiritual maturity. Our desires and prayers for our loved ones are that they will “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18) and learn to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10).

Dr. Steven R. Cook


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 431–432.

[2] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Dt 33:6.

[3] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, 438.

[4] Only a descendant of Aaron could serve as the high priest (Ex 28:1; 40:13-15), and the non-Aaronic priests came from the tribe of Levi (Deut 17:18; 18:1; 24:8; 27:9). All priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. The priesthood consisted of men who could not have any physical defects (Lev 21:17-23), and restricted to the age of twenty-five to fifty (Num 8:24-25).

[5] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, 440.

[6] Ibid., 442–443.

[7] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 400.

[8] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, 445–446.

[9] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 269.

[10] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 403.

Comments (0)

To leave or reply to comments, please download free Podbean or

No Comments

Copyright 2013 Steven Cook. All rights reserved.

Podcast Powered By Podbean

Version: 20221013