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The Blessing of Moses is the name sometimes given to a poem that appears in Deuteronomy 33:2-27. The poem presents an opinion of the merits and attributes of each of the Tribes of Israel, and so can be compared with the Blessing of Jacob, which has the same theme. However, there is very little in common between the poems, except for describing one of the tribes as a judge, and another as a 'lion's whelp', though in the Blessing of Moses it is Gad that is the judge and Dan the whelp, whereas in the other poem it is Dan that is the judge and Judah the whelp. Also, unlike the Blessing of Jacob, that of Moses is positive towards all the mentioned tribes.
According to the modern documentary hypothesis the poem was an originally separate text, that was inserted by the Deuteronomist into the second edition (of two) of the text which became Deuteronomy (i.e. was an addition in 'Dtr2').
The poem notably does not describe Simeon, which may provide a date for the composition of the poem, as Simeon are believed to have gradually lost their tribal identity, since its traditional territory was wholly within that of Judah. The poem also only mentions each tribe briefly, except for the tribes of Joseph and Levi, which may indicate both that the poem originated within the Levite priesthood, within the territory of the Joseph tribes, or more generally the northern kingdom of Israel where Ephraim, part of the Joseph tribe, was the most prominent.
It is difficult to establish the connection of the blessing of Moses with that of Jacob. Most authorities maintain that the former depended directly upon the latter; and their chief argument is based on the passage on Joseph, part of which is contained also in Jacob's blessing. But there can hardly be a doubt that the passage on Joseph in Jacob's blessing was amplified from the material contained in the blessing of Moses. Otherwise a similar argument might be based upon the same arrangement in each blessing of the tribes of Zebulun and Issachar, and upon other points of agreement which, however, indicate a similarity of the matter rather than any direct connection. At all events, there are striking differences between the two blessings.
The blessing of Moses, like Jacob's blessing, contains only a few benedictions, most of the verses describing the condition of the tribes at the time of the author. Like the text of Jacob's blessing, the text of these verses is not intact: the beginning (verses 2 and 3) has suffered much mutilation; and even with the help of the versions it is impossible to fill the gap. Perhaps the introduction and the conclusion were not written by the author of the blessing itself. Steuernagel, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, points out that the transition from verse 5 to verse 6 and from verse 25 to verse 26 is very abrupt, and that the contents of the introduction and the conclusion are of an entirely different nature from that of the other verses. Verses 26 et seq. seem to connect with verse 5; and the assumption is natural that the benedictory verses were later insertions. Verses 9 and 10 presumably were also the work of a later author.
Probable Date of Origin
However that may be, it is certain that the blessing of Moses is of later date than the kernel of Jacob's blessing. While in the latter Simeon and Levi (compare Genesis 34) are censured on account of their sin and are threatened with dispersion in Israel (Gen. 44:5-7), the blessing of Moses does not mention Simeon at all; and in it Levi appears as the tribe of priests, although not yet assured of the sacerdotal office, nor respected for holding it. Rather he meets with persecutions, and these probably from the persons who dispute his right to the priesthood (Deuteronomy 33:8ff). While in Jacob's blessing Reuben is threatened with the loss of his birthright, the wish is expressed in the other blessing: "May Reuben live, and not die; and may not his men be few." This is a clear indication that Reuben before this time had sunk into a state of absolute insignificance. And while again the passage on Joseph in the one designates a period in which this tribe successfully defended itself against its enemies, the corresponding passage in the other (Gen. 49:22ff) points to a time when Ephraim maintained his power undiminished and defeated his enemies on all sides: "His [Joseph's] glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth" (Deut. 33:17). This verse certainly refers to a later time than the Syrian wars under Ahab. It more probably refers to the time of Jeroboam II, who was more successful than any of his predecessors in defeating Israel's enemies. It is likely that the passage on Gad alludes to the same period, in which this tribe successfully withstood the Syrians.
August Dillmann's statement (in his Commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy, p. 415) that the blessing of Judah points to the period immediately after the separation of the two kingdoms is hardly correct. He bases his opinion on the fact that the praise of Levi and Benjamin, together with what is said about Judah and Joseph, could apply only to this period. Steuernagel suggests that the allusion might be to the victory of the Edomites (II Kings 14:7), which perhaps put a stop to the distress caused Judah by Edom. Perhaps, also, the allusion might be to the situation described in II Kings 12:18ff. At all events, without stretching a point, such passages as those on Benjamin and Levi may be assumed to refer to the beginning of the eighth century BC, and the passage on Joseph hardly presupposes the period of Jeroboam I. Hence Reuss (Geschichte der Heiligen Schriften des Alten Testaments, p. 213), Cornill ("Einleitung in das Alte Testament," p. 72), and others are justified in considering the blessing of Moses to have originated in the eighth century BC. In any case, none of the verses indicates the authorship of Moses; this tradition is not implied in any feature of the blessing itself, and is merely referred to in the introductory and closing verses (31:30, 32:44a), which are intended to furnish a setting to the poem and to establish the connection between its various sections.
- R. H. Graf, Der Segen Moses, 1857;
- C. J. Ball, "The Blessing of Moses", Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archeology, 1896, pp. 118-137;
- A. Van der Flier, Deuteronomium, 1895, p. 33;
- A. Kamphausen, Das Lied Moses;
- Klostermann, Das Lied Moses und das Deuteronomium, in Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 1871-1872 (a series of articles).