Deuteronomy 33: More blessings

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Before he passes, Moses gives his final blessings to each of the twelve tribes. We saw a father on his deathbed giving blessings to his sons back in Genesis 27 when Isaac did it. Then we saw a transitional form in Genesis 49, where Jacob blessed his own sons who also happened to be the patriarchs of each of the twelve tribes. In that chapter, the blessing given to each son was both personal and meant to be understood for the tribe he represented as well. The process is complete here, where Moses offers his blessing directly to the tribal identity.

The Death of Moses, from the Jami al-Tawarikh, 1307

The Death of Muhammad, from the Jami al-Tawarikh, 1307

It’s fairly standard, starting with a with a bit about how awesome God is, then blesses each tribe in turn, and finishes up with how great God is.

But there are some interesting bits. The biggest is, of course, that Simeon is missing. The twelve tribes are: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph (with both Ephraim and Manasseh mentioned), Zebulun, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher. So what happened to Simeon?

My study Bible says: “In its present form it probably comes from the early period of the monarchy, though it may reflect slightly earlier tribal circumstances. Simeon, for example, is not mentioned, perhaps because the tribe had already disappeared” (p.259). There may be a hint of this in Jacob’s “blessing” of them, where he says of Simeon and Levi: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7).

Which brings me to Levi, who are described in the Gen. 49:5-7 blessing as being very aggressive and warlike – clearly different from the scholar/priest/teacher role they are given in Deut. 33:10. So it seems like we had two very war-like tribes who were destroyed, losing all of their land. Simeon simply vanished, while Levi carved out a new place for itself, supported by the other tribes.

If you’re reading along with a King James, you’ll notice a reference to a unicorn. There’s a brief discussion of the matter at Sansblogue that may be of interest.

Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

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At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.