Before ascending Mount Nebo to depart this life, Moses took leave of his people, the tribes of Israel, in the blessing which is very fittingly inserted in the book of the law between the divine announcement of his approaching death and the account of the death itself, as being the last words of the departing man of God. The blessing opens with an allusion to the solemn conclusion of the covenant and giving of the law at Sinai, by which the Lord became King of Israel, to indicate at the outset the source from which all blessings must flow to Israel (Deu 33:2-5). Then follow the separate blessings upon the different tribes (vv. 6-25). And the whole concludes with an utterance of praise to the Lord, as the mighty support and refuge of His people in their conflicts with all their foes (Deu 33:26-29). This blessing was not written down by Moses himself, like the song in ch. 32, but simply pronounced in the presence of the assembled tribes. This is evident, not only from the fact that there is nothing said about its being committed to writing, but also from the heading in Deu 33:1, where the editor clearly distinguishes himself from Moses, by speaking of Moses as “the man of God,” like Caleb in Jos 14:6, and the author of the heading to the prayer of Moses in Psa 90:1. In later times, “man of God” was the title usually given to a prophet (vid., 1Sa 9:6; 1Ki 12:22; 1Ki 13:14, etc.), as a man who enjoyed direct intercourse with God, and received supernatural revelations from Him. Nevertheless, we have Moses' own words, not only in the blessings upon the several tribes (vv. 6-25), but also in the introduction and conclusion of the blessing (Deu 33:2-5 and Deu 33:26-29). The introductory words before the blessings, such as “and this for Judah” in Deu 33:7, “and to Levi he said” (Deu 33:8), and the similar formulas in Deu 33:12, Deu 33:13, Deu 33:18, Deu 33:20, Deu 33:22, Deu 33:23, and Deu 33:24, are the only additions made by the editor who inserted the blessing in the Pentateuch. The arrangement of the blessings in their present order is probably also his work. It neither accords with the respective order of the sons of Jacob, nor with the distribution of the tribes in the camp, nor with the situation of their possessions in the land of Canaan. It is true that Reuben stands first as the eldest son of Jacob; but Simeon is then passed over, and Judah, to whom the dying patriarch bequeathed the birthright which he withdrew from Reuben, stands next; and then Levi, the priestly tribe. Then follow Benjamin and Joseph, the sons of Rachel; Zebulun and Issachar, the last sons of Leah (in both cases the younger before the elder); and lastly, the tribes descended from the sons of the maids: Gad, the son of Zilpah; Dan and Naphtali, the sons of Bilhah; and finally, Asher, the second son of Zilpah. To discover the guiding principle in this arrangement, we must look to the blessings themselves, which indicate partly the position already obtained by each tribe, as a member of the whole nation, in the earthly kingdom of God, and partly the place which it was to reach and occupy in the further development of Israel in the future, not only in relation to the Lord, but also in relation to the other nations. The only exception to this is the position assigned to Reuben, who occupies the foremost place as the first-born, notwithstanding his loss of the birthright. In accordance with this principle, the first place properly belonged to the tribe of Judah, who was raised into the position of lord over his brethren, and the second to the tribe of Levi, which had been set apart to take charge of the sacred things; whilst Benjamin is associated with Levi as the “beloved of the Lord.” Then follow Joseph, as the representative of the might which Israel would manifest in conflict with the nations; Zebulun and Issachar, as the tribes which would become the channels of blessings to the nations through their wealth in earthly good; and lastly, the tribes descended from the sons of the maids, Asher being separated from his brother Gad, and placed at the end, in all probability simply because it was in the blessing promised to him that the earthly blessedness of the people of God was to receive its fullest manifestation.
On comparing the blessing of Moses with that of Jacob, we should expect at the very outset, that if the blessings of these two men of God have really been preserved to us, and they are not later inventions, their contents would be essentially the same, so that the blessing of Moses would contain simply a confirmation of that of the dying patriarch, and would be founded upon it in various ways. This is most conspicuous in the blessing upon Joseph; but there are also several other blessings in which it is unmistakeable, although Moses' blessing is not surpassed in independence and originality by that of Jacob, either in its figures, its similes, or its thoughts. But the resemblance goes much deeper. It is manifest, for example, in the fact, that in the case of several of the tribes, Moses, like Jacob, does nothing more than expound their names, and on the ground of the peculiar characters expressed in the names, foretell to the tribes themselves their peculiar calling and future development within the covenant nation. Consequently we have nowhere any special predictions, but simply prophetic glances at the future, depicted in a purely ideal manner, whilst in the case of most of the tribes the utter want of precise information concerning their future history prevents us from showing in what way they were fulfilled. The difference in the times at which the two blessings were uttered is also very apparent. The existing circumstances from which Moses surveyed the future history of the tribes of Israel in the light of divine revelation, were greatly altered from the time when Jacob blessed the heads of the twelve tribes before his death, in the persons of his twelve sons. These tribes had now grown into a numerous people, with which the Lord had established the covenant that He had made with the patriarchs. The curse of dispersion in Israel, which the patriarch had pronounced upon Simeon and Levi (Gen 49:5-7), had been changed into a blessing so far as Levi was concerned. The tribe of Levi had been entrusted with the “light and right” of the Lord, had been called to be the teacher of the rights and law of God in Israel, because it had preserved the covenant of the Lord, after the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai, even though it involved the denial of flesh and blood. Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh had already received their inheritance, and the other tribes were to take possession of Canaan immediately. These circumstances formed the starting-point for the blessings of Moses, not only in the case of Levi and Gad, where they are expressly mentioned, but in that of the other tribes also, where they do not stand prominently forward, because for the most part Moses simply repeats the leading features of their future development in their promised inheritance, as already indicated in the blessing of Jacob, and “thus bore his testimony to the patriarch who anticipated him, that the spirit of his prophecy was truth” (Ziegler, p. 159).
In this peculiar characteristic of the blessing of Moses, we have the strongest proof of its authenticity, particularly in the fact that there is not the slightest trace of the historical circumstances of the nation at large and the separate tribes which were peculiar to the post-Mosaic times. The little ground that there is for the assertion which Knobel repeats, that the blessing betrays a closer acquaintance with the post-Mosaic times, such as Moses himself could not possibly have possessed, is sufficiently evident from the totally different expositions which have been given by the different commentators of the saying concerning Judah in Deu 33:7, which is adduced in proof of this. Whilst Knobel finds the desire expressed in this verse on behalf of Judah, that David, who had fled from Saul, might return, obtain possession of the government, and raise his tribe into the royal tribe, Graf imagines that it expresses the longing of the kingdom of Judah for reunion with that of Israel; and Hoffmann and Maurer even trace an allusion to the inhabitants of Judea who were led into captivity along with Jehoiachin: one assumption being just as arbitrary and as much opposed to the text as the other. - All the objections brought against the genuineness of this blessing are founded upon an oversight or denial of its prophetic character, and upon untenable interpretations of particular expressions abstracted from it. Not only is there no such thing in the whole blessing as a distinct reference to the peculiar historical circumstances of Israel which arose after Moses' death, but there are some points in the picture which Moses has drawn of the tribes that it is impossible to recognise in these circumstances. Even Knobel from his naturalistic stand-point is obliged to admit, that no traces can be found in the song of any allusion to the calamities which fell upon the nation in the Syrian, Assyrian, and Chaldaean periods. And hitherto it has proved equally impossible to point out any distinct allusion to the circumstances of the nation in the period of the judges. On the contrary, as Schultz observes, the speaker rises throughout to a height of ideality which it would have been no longer possible for any sacred author to reach, when the confusions and divisions of a later age had actually taken place. He sees nothing of the calamities from without, which fell upon the nations again and again with destructive fury, nothing of the Canaanites who still remained in the midst of the Israelites, and nothing of the hostility of the different tribes towards one another; he simply sees how they work together in the most perfect harmony, each contributing his part to realize the lofty ideal of Israel. And again he grasps this ideal and the realization of it in so elementary a way, and so thoroughly from the outer side, without regard to any inward transformation and glorification, that he must have lived in a time preceding the prophetic age, and before the moral conflicts had taken place.