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Moses' Blessing - Deuteronomy 33 - notes on the translation

1) Man of Elohim has the connotation of holy man and could be translated this way. When facing is strictly in the face of.

2) The indication Yahweh came from Se‘ir is repeated in Deborah's Song, Judges 5:4, where it is identified as the place from which Yahweh marched in theophany. The imagery is that of the rising sun building in intensity - zârach indicates rising / dawning, and yâpha‘ in its Hiphîyl form suggests sending out beams of light.

In the subsequent line, mêribebôth qôdesh literally indicates myriads of holiness, and interpretations differ. Most commonly it is taken as multitudes of the holy or equivalent. Another alternative is to see a place name here, ribbôth qôdesh, set in parallel to Se‘ir and Paran. I have chosen to see it as indicating that Yahweh's dwelling-place is superlatively sacrosanct.

The verse culminates in ’êshdâth, a word of uncertain meaning. Several interpretations are possible, all of which require some form of amendment:

  1. ’êsh dâth - fire of a law or a fiery law. dâth for law is otherwise known only as a late word.
  2. ’êsh lappidôth - flashing fire (see as a parallel Exodus 20:18)
  3. ’êsh yoqedeth - holy fire (see as a parallel Isaiah 65:5)
  4. ’ashêdôth - foundations/mountain slopes, a word used elsewhere in Deuteronomy, though always in a literal sense.

I have chosen the second of these, as it develops the solar theme and connects with the imagery used for Yahweh at Sinai in Exodus.

3) I have taken verse 3 as a continuation of the quotation started in verse 2, moving from the opening image of Yahweh arising in awesome form towards the repercussions on the religious leader. Mosheh is facing his own death, and is speaking now to his spiritual successors.

chôbêb, the participle form of an inferred verb châbab, is only found here. The personal name of Mosheh's brother-in-law, Chobab (chôbâb) is found in Numbers 10 and Judges 4, and a noun form chôb is found in Job 31. The meaning is inferred from related words in other Semitic languages as love/embrace/clasp to one's bosom/be set on fire.

tukkû is taken as the Pu‘al perfect 3p form of a verb tâkal, and is used only here. The meaning is inferred from context.

4) This verse seems unlikely to have been penned by Mosheh himself. Verses 4 and 5 are best taken as an interpolation, intended as an exhortation to later religious leaders to take seriously their role. Verse 4 is quite conventional in phrasing, but the later parts of verse 5 revert to unusual vocabulary, raising the possibility that an older word or phrase has been used here in a new context.

5) ’âçaph (gather or remove) is attested elsewhere, but the Hithpa‘êl form (gather themselves, here in the infinitive so rendered convocation) is only found here. shêbet is staff, but here rendered as mustering to highlight the collective gathering. See also Deborah's Song, Judges 5:14.

6) math (male/man, but typically without emphasis on gender, hence people) used here rather than children of or people of.

The naming of Re'uben begins the list of tribal blessings, which finishes with Asher in v24 (possibly 25). The list follows a broadly geographic order from south to north, but omitting Simeon. A separate study of the geographic listings of the tribes is in preparation. Most of the blessings are prefixed by the letter samekh, but that of Re'uben, despite being the first, is not. This, together with the absence of Simeon who on geographical grounds should appear near the start, suggests that some lines may have been lost here.

Scanty here is used for miçepâr, indicating numerable, ie few in number by implication.

7) Battle-shout is used here to translate qôwl. Of itself, the word can signify voice (used for any purpose above a quiet murmur, or thunder (being the voice of the heavens). However, as the rest of the verse suggests a martial context this choice has been made. Forceful here translates rab, strong. The verse as a whole has been taken to reveal the following thinking:

  1. Yehudah has a tendency to become separated from the other tribes
  2. His expressed wish, and his forceful actions at their best, move back towards unity
  3. Thus Yahweh's active blessing and assistance is called on to achieve it though defeating the enemies that cause division.


8) The last two lines here are marked by repeated sounds - çç in the first and rîyb in the second. An attempt has been made to duplicate this. Defended in the last line is more in the legal sense of defending a case, not so much the military sense.

9) As the family relationships get closer in the first series (taken to be a popular saying referring to the dedication of the Levites), the denial of special treatment becomes extravagantly stronger ... parents ... brother ... son as against look out for ... recognise ... know.

10) Sacrificial smoke (qetôwrâh) puns against Torah in the previous line.

11) Strike down future generations is strictly smite the loins, and is here taken as a curse on the posterity of the opposers. The intended recipients of the curse, those who oppose and hate him, is in the original two separate participle forms, opposers of him and haters of him.

12) With Binyamin we have the first two uses of various forms of the verb shâkhan. It is used also in v16 of the dweller in the thorn-bush, in in verse 20 of Gad, and in verse 28 of Yisra’el in general. Binyamin is also blessed with betach, safety, a condition again promised to Yisra’el in v28.

13) meged (excellence / choice things) is used only five times here and three times in Song of Songs, in each case in relation to the

produce of the natural world. Here the givers are almost personified beings rather than simple natural phenomena - skies (shâmayim), sun (shâmesh), moon (yareach, here used in the plural yerâchîym, ie months), mountains (harîym) and hills (gibe‘ôwth) and finally the land (’erets) appear as active donors rather than sources of provision. Within the Ugaritic pantheon Earth and heaven (a.r.ts w sh.m.m), sun (, moon (, and Mountains and Valleys (g.r.m w ‘.m.q.t) all appear as separate entities.


15) qedem can signify east as well as from old times. The basic meaning is in front of, interpreted either geographically or temporally.

16) çeneh, thorn-bush, occurs only here and in Exodus 3 within the Old Testament. The phrase as a whole, shôkhenîy çeneh, can be seen as preserving a relic of the older Semitic genitival case-ending -i. The more common form would be to have the construct form shôkhên.

The phrase lerô’sh yôwçêph ûleqâdeqôd nezîyr ’echâyw appears also in Genesis 49:26, preceded there by tiheyeynâ (let this be) rather than tâbôw’thâh (let this come). qâdeqôd is paralleled with rô’sh here, in Genesis 49, and in Psalms 7 and 68: in the prophetic writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah it is paralleled with pê’âh, the side of the head.

17) In most places, shôwr signifies a bull or large head of cattle in a straightforward, literal sense. However, there are three places in which the word may be read as having a greater symbolic significance. In Canaanite religious thought, El was freqently referred to as Bull, t.r in Ugaritic adapting to shôr in Hebrew. Here, Firstborn of his Bull can be suggesting that Yoseph is the recipient of special favour and a greater part of the inheritance. Psalm 106:20 speaks of the Israelites "exchanging their Glory for the image of a Bull that comsumes grass, they forgot El who saved them", with reference to the idol made below Mount Horeb. Finally (and with less certainty), Numbers 22:4 may be highlighting the same imagery, as the Moabites lament the approach of the Israelites, "this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the Bull licks up the greenery of the field". The two earlier references (Numbers and Deuteronomy) use Bull in a positive sense, picking out the idea of dominance and strength. The later Psalm reference is more derogatory, presenting Bull as a degradation of the true nature of El.


19) yânaq, suckle, is mostly used in a literal sense of nursing infants. Figurative use, as here, is limited to two specific situations:

  1. In Deuteronomy 32 and 33 of Yisrael: Yahweh caused Yisrael to suckle honey from the crags and oil from the flinted rock (32:13) and here, Yisrael will suckle the abundance of the seas and the stores treasured in the sand,
  2. Isaiah 49, 60 and 66 of Jerusalem/Tsiyon nursing her inhabitants and being nursed by royal breasts.

Thus the nursing imagery for the nation as a whole, as with other birth and infancy imagery, is restricted to the Exodus period.

20) Both Gad and Dan are compared to lions, but different words are used in each case. lâbîy’ is used for Gad, and ’areyêh for Dan. Of the two, lâbîy’ is more often used in a figurative sense to describe a quality of personality rather than action. The verb zânaq, used in the Pi‘el stem, is only found in this one place.


22) As noted above, this placement of Dan in the list, and the association of springing fom Bashan, presupposes living in the north, not the coastal plain further south.

23) yâm wedârôwm, here translated the west and the south, is interesting. yâm commonly means sea, but can also indicate the direction of the sea, hence west. dârôwm for south is used only in poetic contexts, and also as a late word. So, does the poet intend us here to understand the sea to the south, or the west and the south? If the former, then the blessing makes sense in the light of Naphtali's land apportionment to the north of the Sea of Galilee, though of course this had not been determined on the Plains of Moab, where the narrative places this blessing. However, the form of words used suggests more the parallelism of west and south.


25) This verse reads like a stock proverb, adapted for use here. barzel, here unyielding, is used for iron but also in other contexts to suggest hardness or strength. min‘âl, here binding, is only found in this one place and the meaning is inferred. The root verb, nâ‘al, bar/bolt/lock/bind is found elsewhere. db’, here taken to be strength, is only found in this one place in any form. Ugaritic d.b.a.t means strength or power and helps support this interpretation.


27) me‘ônâh - here rendered singing-place, is a word with a complex collection of ideas. mâ‘ôwn (from ‘ûn, dwell) indicates a dwelling; however another possible root is the verb ‘ânâh which has four meanings. These are:

  1. answer/respond, with related words including the nouns ‘ônâh, cohabitation and ma‘aneh, answer/response
  2. be occupied/busied with, related words including ma‘anâh, a place for working (such as a field to be ploughed)
  3. be bowed down/afflicted, related words including the noun ‘ânâw, the poor/afflicted/humble/meek
  4. sing

I have chosen to combine the last of these with dwelling-place in an attempt to capture something of the richness of the original. Other alternatives along similar lines would be trysting-place or place for lamenting.

Unwearying has been chosen to translate ‘ôwlâm, which carries the basic idea of unending duration. In the context, I have taken this to be indicating that the strength of the arms never fails.

The last imperative verb, Destroy!, could be read as Keep watch! if the final daleth was a misreading for resh (the two letters being almost the same shape): alternatively the connection could be left to the listener's imagination.