Thibble Thursday: Curtain Call (Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12)

To my shame, I’m slightly late with this one. But it’s been a busy week, full of excitement and fun!

Wow. At long last, we’ve come to the end of the Torah. It took longer than expected (I’d figured on a year), but here we are. The series isn’t ending here, though, and we’ll more into the Neviim next week, but this really is the end of an era. These final few parshot are a lot shorter, and this one, פָּרָשַׁת וזאת הברכה (“And this is the blessing” portion), is the last.

The quick snarky summary: I’ve spent the last 32 chapters verbally abusing you, so I’ll wind down by blessing you, not only collectively, but tribe-by-tribe. Except for the Simeonites. Seriously, fuck those guys. Anyways, time for me to die happily now, looking at the land you’re about to make run red with blood.

Most of this parsha — that is to say, the first and longer of its two chapters — is taken up with a tribe-by-tribe blessing of Israel. From a historical perspective, it’s hard to know quite what the origins of the tribes were and just how unified they were (although occurrences in the Book of Judges suggest that at times they were pretty fractious). Were these tribes a bunch of disunified Semitic groups which eventually coalesced into the monarchy, with all their old characters and traditions retained, as well as an individual geographic origin? Or was the nation of Israel always something of a whole, with the tribes serving as subordinate states? One aspect of the tribal system that’s extremely odd from either point of view is the existence of the Levites, a highly idiosyncratic tribe whose members collectively had a single societal role, and who were not associated with a geographic area. In fact, were I to try to explain the Levites as best I could, I’d end up concluding that the other tribes had the character of real tribes (with the attendent ethnic, cultural, and geographic variation that entails), and that the “tribe of Levi” was a later fabrication to justify the existence of a hereditary priesthood, whose members originally came from the several tribes.

But, anyways, the reason I wonder about the tribes is that, as I mentioned back in Genesis, most of the sons of Jacob, and, indeed, of the tribes springing therefrom, aren’t actually described in much detail. Judah had a significant side-story of his own, Benjamin is explicitly described as beloved and lovable, Simeon and Levi were genocidal maniacs, and Reuben was the first-born and a sex offender of some nebulous sort. Joseph gets the bulk of the narrative, and his offspring are supposed to be divided between two tribes named after his cipheric sons. Modern national subdivisions have their own specific characters: an American probably has a pretty good idea of what, say, a Vermonteer or a Kentuckian might be like, and how they’d be different from each other, and likewise with the geographic and cultural subdivisions within any nation. But even a pretty good Bible scholar couldn’t tell you how, saw, a Naftaliite and an Isccharite would differ.

Anyways, back to the point, which is: these blessings on the individual tribes are the closest we get to a feel for what they did and were known for.

The bad news is, the blessings in Deuteronomy 33 are a for the most part less detailed than those we saw way back in Genesis 49, so we’re not going to get much out of this. But let’s do our best.

First blessing: Reuben! Pretty lame one-liner about how they won’t perish and will, in fact, be numerous. Ah well, it’s still better than what Jacob gave him, which was grumbling about incest.

Next up is Judah, which is one of a very small number of tribes which end up being important, inasmuch as they’re the source of the royal lineage (and this was known to the Deuteronomists). This is acknowledged very briefly in Judah’s one-line blessing, with references to Judah achieving communion both with God and with the people: the former is a bit sewn up with the divine rights of kings, while the latter is a more obvious reference to temporal power.

Then comes Levi, and Moses has a lot to say about the Levites. That’s kind of unsurprising. I mean, they did get a whole book of the Torah named after them, and Moses loves these guys. That being said, the specific text of their blessing is a bit odd, starting with a mention of the enigmatic תמיך and אוריך, two untranslatable elements of the high priest’s breastplate which, when they’ve been mentioned elsewhere, seem to have a divinitory function. They’re an odd thing to mention first off as a sign of Levi’s favor, as they seem to be a very minor and incidental part of the priestly service. Or the two words could be meant in an abstract form here, rather than in their role as part of the high priest’s vestments, in which case the phrase could broadly be translated as “truth and light” (which is something of a stretch in the words’ apparent meaning, but that’s the context in which those two words were adopted as the motto of Yale University). As elsewhere where these two things are mentioned, their meaning is obscure, and it seems it’d have mae a lot more sense for one of the more notable and well-known aspects of the priesthood to be mentioned here.

The Tribe of Levi is also praised in verses 8 and 9 for their fealty to God in times of strife, being so zealous as to deny their own families to defer to God’s commandments. The specific incidents of the water riots at Meriba and Massah (which may have been the same place) are cited, although the Levites aren’t mentioned by name in either of the narratives this might be a reference to, in Exodus 17 or in Numbers 20; certainly neither of these narratives suggest the Levites removed themselves from the general outcry. Y’know where the Levites are mentioned? Numbers 16:7, back when the upstart Levite temple servitor Korach attempted to usurp the duties of the priestly elite. So Moses’s praise for the faithfulness of the Levites seems kind of misplaced, inasmuch as one of the few mentions of the activities of the Levites as a group (as opposed to the activities specifically of the inner circle of Moses’s family) involves them rebelling.

After this evidence-unsupported praise of Levi’s character come a few standard blessings promising success, divine favor, and strength in battle. You know, the usual.

Benjamin gets a peculiar blessing about the beloved of God residing in his midst; that’s almost certainly a reference to the fact (known to the Deuteronomists, so we’re again into faux-prophecy) that the city of Jerusalem (and thus the Temple and the monarchy, both beloved of God and of the authoritarian authors of this blessing) would be in the Benjaminite territory.

Joseph is blessed next, which is a bit peculiar seeing as how Joseph doesn’t even have a tribe, but rather is associated with two tribes, Mannasseh and Ephraim. Joseph gets five verses of praise, which seems a bit excessive considering how little importance would end up attaching to the Josephite tribes, and they’re basically enumerations of the extraordinary wealth in both natural resources and livestock with which Joseph shall be blessed, as well as a rather backhanded promise of population growth (backhanded because Ephraim apparently gets myriads while Manasseh only gets thousands).

By now we’re running out of tribes about which Moses has much to say, so the others get quick, sloppy blessings. Zebulon and Isschar get a single blessing to share about how they should be happy, and wealthy, and leaders of men. Gad gets likened to a lioness, and then Dan to a lion, which I suppose presages strength in battle. Naphtali, uh, lives in the south? No, really, that’s all he gets. And Asher has a lot of oil and metal, and thus lives a live of luxury.

Notably, that’s only eleven of Jacob’s sons. Oops! Moses said nothing at all about Simeon. Why? Search me. I figure he just forgot. If I were a Simeonite I’d be kind of pissed, althouh I could console myself with the thought that Moses had some totally awesome things to say about us and midway through his speech figured he’d already read them and accidentally left them out completely. Unlike the Naphtaliites, who apparently Moses felt obliged to praise but couldn’t come up with anything to actually say about them.

The end of the blessing is the usual praise of God and his protection of Israel, and another assurance that this place they’re going is totally awesome and safe. It’s not nearly as interesting as the tribe-by-tribe element of the blessing, although interestingly, he calls the nation ישרון again in the process of telling them how rich and happy they’re going to be, which seems unwise, as it might remind them of how the last time he called them that, it was in the context of explaining how their wealth and complacency would lead them to abandon God and get fucked over bigtime.

On to Chapter 34, the very last chapter of the Torah. There’s a little bit of narrative, which is basically Moses ascending Mount Nevo dying, and the rest is purely eulogistic, speaking of Moses’s advanced age, his great wonders and unsurpassed prophecy, and how he is survived by his protégé Joshua.

‘Course, the story doesn’t end here. It’s definitely a dramatic high note where one plausibly could stop reading, but the Deuteronomists meant it to segue smoothly into the Book of Joshua, which is where we’re going next.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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