Deuteronomy 33 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Deuteronomy 33
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And this is the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.


(1) Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel.—The title man of God is here used for the first time. Its counterpart is to be found in Deuteronomy 34:5 : “Moses the servant of Jehovah died.” The more any man is a “servant to Jehovah,” the more is he a “man of Elohim” to his fellow-men. After Moses, Elijah and Elisha are more especially described by this title (“man of God “) in the Old Testament.

Blessed . . . Israel before his death.—“And if not then, when should he?” (Rashi.)

And he said, The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them.
(2)“And he said, Jehovah came from Sinai,

And dawned upon them from Seir;

He shone forth from mount Paran.

And there came from the ten thousands of holiness,

From His right hand, a fire of law [10] for them.”

[10] On this expression see an additional note at the end of the book.

The appearance of God on Sinai is described as a sunrise. His light rose from Sinai, and the tops of the hills of Seir caught its rays. The full blaze of light shone on Paran. (Comp. Psalm 1:2 : “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.”) He came with ten thousands of saints is a mere mistranslation. The preposition is “from,” not “with.” If the verb “he came,” in the fourth line, is taken to refer to God, we must translate: “He came from ten thousands of saints” (to sinful men). Rashi takes “from” to mean “part of.” “There came some of His ten thousands of saints, but not all of them.” I believe the true translation is what I have given. The law itself was “ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19). It is called “the word spoken by angels” in Hebrews 2:2. The language of Daniel 7:10—“A fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him: thousand thousands ministered unto Him”—supplies a complete parallel. The fiery law came from the ten thousands on “His right hand;” or from them, and from His right hand. This construction is by far the most simple, and agrees with what we read elsewhere.


THE original expression, eshdath or esh dath, sometimes written as one word, and sometimes as two, has created some difficulty. Esh is “fire,” and dath, if taken as a distinct word, is “law.” But dath does not appear elsewhere in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, until we meet it in the book of Esther, where it occurs frequently. It is also found in Ezra 8:36. In the Chaldee of Daniel and Ezra it occurs six times. Modern authorities assert that it is properly a Persian word. But since it is found in the Chaldee of Daniel, it was in use among the Chaldæans before the Persian empire. The word has Semitic affinities. The Hebrewsyllable thêth would have nearly the same meaning. A datum (or dictum) is the nearest equivalent that we have. There seems no reason to doubt that the word dath had obtained a place both in Chaldee and in Hebrew at the time of the Captivity. It is perfectly possible that its existence in Chaldee dates very much earlier. We must remember that Chaldee was the language of the family of Abraham before they adopted Hebrew. “A Syrian ready to perish was my father,” is the confession dictated by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:5. Syriac and Chaldee in the Old Testament are names of the same language. In the Babylonish captivity the Jews really returned to their ancestral language. It is therefore quite conceivable that Chaldæan words lingered among them until the Exodus; and this word dath, if it be a true Chaldæan word, may be an example. But, obviously, these Chaldæan reminiscences would be fewer as the years rolled on. The three Targums all take dath to be “law” in this place. The LXX. has “angels” (ἄγγελοι), instead of the combination eshdath. Possibly the word was taken as ashdoth (plural of the Chaldee ashda), meaning “rays” (of light?) and so “angels.” Comp., “He maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire;” they “ran and returned as a flash of lightning” (Psalm 104:4; Ezekiel 1:14). It is also possible that the LXX. read r instead of d in the word which they had before them, and that they arrived at the meaning “angels” through the Hebrew word shârath, “to minister.” The confusion between r and d, which are extremely alike in Hebrew, is very common. The parallels referred to in the notes on the verse show that “fiery law” will yield a good sense. The only question is whether dath, “law,” can be reasonably supposed to have occurred in the Mosaic writings. If the word were at all generally known at that period, to whatever language it properly belonged, it would hardly have escaped such a man as Moses. I think it quite possible that the common translation may be right. The Hebrew commentators accept it. The only alternative I can suggest is that of the LXX., which cannot be verified with certainty.

Yea, he loved the people; all his saints are in thy hand: and they sat down at thy feet; every one shall receive of thy words.
(3) Yea, he loved.—The connection appears to be this—

“From His right hand went a fire, a law for them (Israel).

Loving the peoples also;

(i.e., all who should hereafter become His people)

All His saints are in Thy hand:

(the hand of Him who spake on Sinai, and now “speaketh from heaven”)

And they are seated at Thy feet;

(the feet of the same heavenly Prophet. Comp. Matthew 5:1-2)

Every one shall receive of Thy words.”

Or, possibly, He, that prophet, will take of thy (i.e., of Moses’) words, We know he did so.

Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.
(4,5) “[Of] the law which Moses commanded us,

The inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,

When he (Moses) was king in Jeshurun,

In the gathering of the heads of the people,

The tribes of Israel together.”

This fourth verse, from its form, is evidently not what Moses said, but an explanatory parenthesis, inserted by the writer, who was probably Joshua. Upon “He was king in Jeshurun,” Rashi says, “The Holy One, blessed be He! the yoke of His kingdom is upon them for ever.” It may be so. “When the Lord your God was your king,” is Samuel’s description of the whole history of Israel previous to himself.

The certainty that the King of kings, the Messiah of Israel, was and is the Lawgiver and Teacher, and Keeper of all saints, and that there are none of that character who do not “sit at the feet of Jesus,” makes the real meaning of the passage perfectly plain, even though the exact grammatical relation of the clauses may be not beyond dispute.

And he was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together.
Let Reuben live, and not die; and let not his men be few.
(6) Let Reuben live, and not die.—“‘Live’ in this world.” says Rashi, “and ‘not die’ in the world to come.” That his misdeed should not be remembered (Genesis 35:22). Rashi also notices the juxtaposition of this record with the sentence, “the sons of Jacob were twelve.” Reuben was not cut off, but he was disinherited (1 Chronicles 5:1), and his father’s blessing had so much in it of disapproval, that Moses’ prayer for him was not unnecessary.

And let not his men be few.—The sentence is difficult. The LXX. insert Simeon, “let Simeon be many in number.” But there is no need for this. The most terrible destruction ever wrought in Israel by the word of Moses came on Dathan and Abiram (who were Reubenites), when “they and all that appertained to them went down alive into the pit.” We cannot say how far the tribe was diminished by this terrible visitation and the plague that followed (Numbers 16), but the fighting men of the tribe had slightly decreased in the second census (Numbers 1:21; Numbers 26:7), and only two of all the twelve tribes had a smaller force than Reuben

at this time. It seems best, therefore, to take the whole verse as applying to Reuben, and the negative in the first clause as covering the second clause also. “Let not his men be a (small) number.” The omission of Simeon may be accounted for by his coming within the inheritance of Judah, in Canaan, and enjoying the blessing and protection of that most distinguished tribe. Rashi also takes this view.

And this is the blessing of Judah: and he said, Hear, LORD, the voice of Judah, and bring him unto his people: let his hands be sufficient for him; and be thou an help to him from his enemies.
(7) And this (he said) of Judah.—The words which follow are a kingly blessing: “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him to his people.” In other words, when we think of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” “Thy kingdom come.” Rashi reminds us of the many prayers in Old Testament history which were heard from Judah’s lips. The prayers of David and Solomon; of Asa and Jehoshaphat; of Hezekiah against Sennacherib;—and, we may add, of King Manasseh, and Daniel the prophet—were all “the voice of Judah.” The last line of Old Testament history is a prayer of Judah by the mouth of Nehemiah, “Remember me, O my God, for good.” The psalms of David, again, are all “the voice of Judah.” And, best of all, every prayer of our Lord’s is “the voice of Judah” also. The remainder of the blessing is easily understood. The “hands” of Judah embrace those Hands which were “sufficient” for the salvation of mankind. “His enemies” include all, even to Death, the “last enemy,” whom God shall subdue under His feet.

And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah;
(8) And of Levi.—Next to Joseph, this tribe has the largest share in Moses’ last words, as we might naturally expect, it being his own tribe. The character of the priest is the principal subject. The blessing may be thus paraphrased: “Let thy Thummim and thy Urim (the chief high-priestly ornaments) be ever with some saintly man of thine, like him whom thou (Israel) didst tempt in Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah (Moses’ own departed brother Aaron is alluded to, for the people murmured against them both in both places), like him (Eleazar or Phinehas) who said to his father and to his mother, ‘I have not seen him,’ &c. These are the priests that shall teach Jacob thy judgments and Israel thy law.” The conduct of the tribe of Levi at Sinai is alluded to, when they stood by Moses and slew the idolaters. Who headed them on that occasion we are not told. Eleazar or Phinehas may be intended. The conduct of Phinehas (in Numbers 25) is also a case in point. As Rashi observes, “his father and his mother, his brethren and children” cannot be taken literally, because the tribe of Levi on the whole was faithful. The fathers, mothers, brethren, and children chiefly belonged to the other tribes.

Let thy Thummim and thy Urim.—See Exodus 28:30. “Thy Thummim and thy Urim” may refer to Israel, or to Levi, or to Jehovah Himself. In the last case, He must be thought to have tried Levi at Massah, and striven with Moses and Aaron at the waters of Meribah. It is not at all easy to distribute the pronouns with certainty in this speech.

If the writer of Deuteronomy was unconscious of any difference between priest and Levite, how is the mention of Urim and Thummim to be explained?

Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed thy word, and kept thy covenant.
They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law: they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar.
Bless, LORD, his substance, and accept the work of his hands: smite through the loins of them that rise against him, and of them that hate him, that they rise not again.
(11) Bless, Lord, his substance.—This petition is consistent with the enactment that Levi should have no land. But a blessing on his substance means a blessing to the whole land of Israel. Levi’s substance Was Israel’s tithe.

Accept the work of his hands.—The chief “work of his hands” was mediatorial for all Israel. The “acceptance” of this work was essential to the welfare of the whole race.

Smite through the loins of them that rise against him.—Rashi refers to the great war begun by the Asmonæans. Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, was “a priest of the sons of Joiarib from Jerusalem” (1 Maccabees 2:1). In the time of Athaliah and of Antiochus Epiphanes alike, the restorers of the worship of Jehovah, and the deliverers of the nation from a foreign yoke, were priests.

And of Benjamin he said, The beloved of the LORD shall dwell in safety by him; and the LORD shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between his shoulders.
(12) And of Benjamin.—It is generally agreed that this blessing points to the site of the place which Jehovah chose out of all the tribes of Israel, Jerusalem, in the tribe of Benjamin. The Hebrew is divided thus:—

“Unto Benjamin he said. Beloved of Jehovah!

He (Jehovah) will dwell in security upon him,

Covering him over all the day.

And between his shoulders (mountain slopes) He

hath taken up His abode.”

And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the LORD be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath,
(13) And of Joseph he said.—The remark of Rashi is especially applicable here. “Thou wilt find in the case of all the tribes, that the blessing of Moses is drawn from the fountain of the blessing of Jacob.”

As the voice of Judah, the office of Levi, and the situation of Benjamin are singled out for notice, so the land of Joseph is blessed.

The deep that coucheth beneath.—Rashi observes that “the deep ascends in vapour, and also gives moisture from below.”

And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon,
(14) And for the precious fruits.—The “increase of the sunand “precious things put forth from month to month” (or by night when the moon rules), are next alluded to.

And for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills,
And for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush: let the blessing come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the top of the head of him that was separated from his brethren.
(16) The good will of him that dwelt in the bush—is a blessing peculiar to Moses. It contains an exquisite piece of interpretation. From the fact that Jehovah revealed Himself to Moses in a flame of fire in a bush, the man of God drew the thought that He presented Himself as dwelling in it; and thus he has furnished God’s Church with this comfort for all ages, that His human temple, although it burn with fire, can never be consumed.

The last part of Deuteronomy 33:16 is taken direct from Genesis 49:26.

Separated from his brethren.—Heb., nâzîr. Is it altogether unreasonable to suppose that this particular feature in Joseph’s history, when he was “sold into Egypt,” and “separated from his brethren,” may be part of the meaning of “Nazarene” when applied to our Lord in Matthew 2:23?

His 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: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.
(17) They are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.—Rashi refers this to the ten thousands slain by Joshua, the Ephraimite leader, and the thousands slain by Gideon, who was of the tribe of Manasseh. He expounds nearly the whole of the verse in reference to Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. There is an obvious similarity in the song of the Israelitish women after the defeat of the Philistines, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” The people “pushed to the ends of the earth” are taken to be the thousands and ten thousands of conquered Canaanites and Midianites. For a similar metaphor, see 1 Kings 22:11. Otherwise the ten thousands of Ephraim and the thousands of Manasseh would be the two-horned power of Joseph. (Comp. Daniel 8:3; Daniel 8:20 for a simile of the same kind.)

And of Zebulun he said, Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out; and, Issachar, in thy tents.
(18) Zebulun . . . and Issachar were united with Judah, in the leading division of Israel in the wilderness. The warlike character of the first of these two, and the more peaceful wisdom of the second, are illustrated by Judges 5:18 and 1 Chronicles 12:32-33. (Comp Jacob’s blessing of Issachar in Genesis 49:14-15.)

They shall call the people unto the mountain; there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness: for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hid in the sand.
(19) They shall call the people unto the mountain.—Or, they shall give the mountain-call to the peoplesi.e., they shall call the tribes of Israel to Mount Moriah to offer the sacrifices of righteousness. (See 2 Chronicles 30:11; 2 Chronicles 30:18 for an illustration of this.)

And of Gad he said, Blessed be he that enlargeth Gad: he dwelleth as a lion, and teareth the arm with the crown of the head.
(20) Blessed be he that enlargeth Gad.—The mountains of Gilead shut him in.

He dwelleth as a lion.—See 1 Chronicles 12:8, for eleven Gadites, “whose faces were as the faces of lions.”

And he provided the first part for himself, because there, in a portion of the lawgiver, was he seated; and he came with the heads of the people, he executed the justice of the LORD, and his judgments with Israel.
(21) The first part.—The first territory conquered by Moses was distributed between Reuben and Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh.

A portion of the lawgiver is interpreted by Rashi as the field of the “burial-place” of the lawgiver. But this can hardly have been in the mind of Moses.

He came with the heads of the people.—The Gadites with their companion tribes passed over Jordan to the conquest of Canaan by Moses’ order.

And of Dan he said, Dan is a lion's whelp: he shall leap from Bashan.
(22) Dan is a lion’s whelp.—Jacob compared him to a serpent and an adder. The lion of the tribe of Dan is not like the lion of the tribe of Judah.

He shall leap from Bashan.—The taking of Laish is probably referred to. It was a sudden, treacherous surprise, like the spring of a lion on his prey (Judges 18:27-28). The “hill of Bashan” is opposed to God’s hill in Psalm 68:15. The “king of Bashan” are reproved (Amos 4:1). The “bulls of Bashan” represent the enemies of Christ in Psalm 22:12.

O Naphtali . . . possess thou the west (literally, the sea) and the south.—This is not easy to interpret literally. The only sea in Naphtali’s inheritance was the Sea of Galilee. If we look on to the days when that sea becomes famous in Holy Scripture, we find our Saviour dwelling in “the land of Zeoulun and the land of Naphtali,” and through his Galilean followers possessing the west and the south, taking the “nations for his inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for His possession.”

And of Naphtali he said, O Naphtali, satisfied with favour, and full with the blessing of the LORD: possess thou the west and the south.
And of Asher he said, Let Asher be blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brethren, and let him dip his foot in oil.
(24) Let Asher be blessed with children.—It can be translated “more blessed than all sons.” Rashi quotes an old saying, “You will not find among all the tribes one so blest with children as Asher, and I cannot say why.”

Let him be acceptable to his brethren, and . . . dip his foot in oil.—The fertility of Asher’s inheritance is probably alluded to. There is no tribe of which so little is recorded in history. The happiest lives are sometimes the least eventful.

Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be.
(25) Thy shoes shall be iron and brass.—Perhaps we should rather read, thy bars shall be iron and brass. The word here rendered “shoes” in the Authorised Version does not occur elsewhere. The nearest word to it means “locks” or “fastenings.” It is also uncertain whether the whole sentence belongs to the blessing of Asher, or to all Israel. It seems most likely that, as Asher’s territory was at the northern end of Palestine, close to the pass by which the most formidable invaders must enter in, an assurance is here given that the frontier of Israel should be safe. “Iron” and “brass” are mentioned together in connection with gates and bars in Psalm 107:16; Isaiah 45:2. But they are not usually connected with “shoes” in the Old Testament.

And as thy days, so shall thy strength be.—The word for “strength” does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, but the Targums and the LXX., and other authorities, seem to agree in its interpretation, and the form of the word points to this meaning, “strength,” so that there is little doubt as to its correctness. But the meaning of the clause is variously given by Jewish authorities. “Thy strength in old ago shall be as the strength of thy youth;” or, “As thou spendest thy days (in doing the will of the Holy One or not), so shall thy strength be.”

There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky.
(26) There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun.Their rock is not as our Rock. For Jeshurun, see note on Deuteronomy 32:15.

The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them.
(27) The eternal God is thy refuge.—The word “thy” is not represented in the original. Mâ’ônah, the word for refuge, differs very slightly from the “refuge” of Psalm 90:1, “Lord, thou hast been our refuge in generation and generation,” which are also the words of Moses. The same word is used of the “habitation of Jehovah” in heaven (Deuteronomy 26:15). Perhaps we ought to connect this clause with what pre cedes, and render the passage thus:—

There is none like the God of Jeshurun,

Riding on the heavens for thy help,

And in His Majesty on the sky—

The dwelling of the eternal Jehovah (above thee)

And underneath, the everlasting arms!

And He will expel before thee (every) enemy,

And will say (to thee), Destroy them.”

Israel then shall dwell in safety alone: the fountain of Jacob shall be upon a land of corn and wine; also his heavens shall drop down dew.
(28) Israel then shall dwell in safetyi.e., in confidence and security. “In His days (the days of Messiah) Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely” (Jeremiah 23:6), but not until they learn to rest upon “the everlasting arms.”

Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the LORD, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places.
(29) Thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee.—See Psalm 66:3 : “Through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves (i.e., lie) unto thee.” The idea is, that the enemies of the conqueror will hasten to throw themselves at his feet, protesting that they were always his friends. (Compare Shimei’s repentance on the occasion of David’s return to Jerusalem, 2 Samuel 19:18.)

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