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Shira Golani





The Two Blessings of the Twelve Tribes: Varying Perspectives, Similar Function



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Shira Golani





The Two Blessings of the Twelve Tribes: Varying Perspectives, Similar Function






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The Two Blessings of the Twelve Tribes: Varying Perspectives, Similar Function

The Torah frames two different poetic descriptions of the tribes as the deathbed blessings of Jacob and Moses, pivotal points in Israel's history. Nevertheless, these poems express varying perspectives on the relative importance of the tribes and were once likely independent collections.


The Two Blessings of the Twelve Tribes: Varying Perspectives, Similar Function

Twelve tribes clock, Michael Silverstone Art Gallery. Wikimedia

Before his death, Moses offers the twelve tribes of Israel each a parting saying describing the tribe and its destiny (Deut 33:1–29). The text frames this collection of epithets as a בְּרָכָה, “blessing” for all of Israel:

דברים לג:א וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַךְ מֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ
Deut 33:1 This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death.[1]

The NJPS translates the words בֵּרַךְ... אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל as “bade the Israelites farewell” which is less literal than the NRSV translation quoted above, but it conveys the recognition of Moses’ words as a farewell, a “deathbed declaration.” This mirrors another set of epithets and sayings offered by Jacob/Israel to his sons before his death (Gen 49:1–28):

בראשית מט:כח כָּל אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם.
Gen 49:28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, blessing each one of them with a suitable blessing.[2]

End of Life Speeches

The deathbed speech is a recurrent motif in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes it is from father to son(s), like Jacob, and sometimes from leader to people, like Moses. Yet as a poetic list of sayings about the twelve sons of Israel, these two texts are very similar to each other and quite different from other deathbed speeches.[3]

For example, David, like Jacob, gives a father’s deathbed speech.[4] Addressing his son and heir Solomon (1 Kgs 2:1-10), David instructs him to adhere to YHWH (vv. 2–4), and mostly to settle scores with foes (vv. 5–6, 8–9) and friend (v. 7). The message is personal, and he offers specific advice for Solomon to follow. This is quite different than Jacob’s final address, which is to all of his sons, and is about their distant future as tribes of Israel, not about their immediate personal lives.

A similar observation can be made about Joshua’s final words in Joshua 23 and 24:1–27, both of which are quite different in style and valence to Moses’ poem to the tribes in Deuteronomy 33. Joshua expresses concern about the Israelites forsaking YHWH and worshipping idols, warning them against future transgressions.[5] He does not speak about individual tribes, nor does he speak in poetry.

In short, while the final speeches of Jacob and Moses are part of a motif that extends to other biblical accounts, they are similar in style and content only to each other: a collection of poetic epithets about Israel’s (mostly) bright future addressing each tribe directly.[6] Despite these similarities, the two poems differ sharply.

The Differences

Unlike Moses’ blessings, Jacob’s “blessings” are not all positive. Jacob chastises Reuben for “going onto his father’s bed” (see Gen 35:22), and curses Simeon and Levi for their murderous behavior in Shechem (see Gen 34). In contrast to the final verse in the pericope, which refers to Jacob’s blessing of his sons, the opening verse of this poem doesn’t frame it as a blessing at all, but as a prophetic prediction:

בראשית מט:א וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶל בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים
Gen 49:1 Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come…”

Several other differences between the two poems are evident:

First, each passage lists the tribes in a different order. Genesis follows the birth order of Jacob’s sons (see Gen 29–30), while the order in Deuteronomy is harder to understand, though some scholars have suggested geographic location as a key feature (east to west among the southern tribes, then among the northern tribes, then among the maidservants’-children tribes).[7]

Second, the treatment of many of the sons/tribes varies considerably:

Reuben—In both blessings, Reuben is listed first, but he is evaluated differently in each. In Genesis, as noted above, Reuben the person is castigated, while in Deuteronomy, Moses expresses the hope that Reuben the tribe will survive, specifically referencing their small numbers.

Judah—A more extreme switch can be seen with the treatment of the tribe of Judah. In Genesis 49, Judah is given a lengthy blessing (vv. 8–12), in which he is described as a crouching lion and given the leadership over his brothers. In Deuteronomy 33, however, Judah receives a paltry one verse, whose theme is the hope that he can stand up to his adversaries

דברים לג:ז וְזֹאת לִיהוּדָה וַיֹּאמַר שְׁמַע יְ־הוָה קוֹל יְהוּדָה וְאֶל עַמּוֹ תְּבִיאֶנּוּ יָדָיו רָב לוֹ וְעֵזֶר מִצָּרָיו תִּהְיֶה.
Deut 33:7 And this he said of Judah: YHWH, give heed to Judah, and bring him to his people; strengthen his hands for him, and be a help against his adversaries.

The verse implies that Judah, like Reuben, is weak and vulnerable.

Simeon—The most obvious difference between the poems is that Simeon is altogether missing from Deuteronomy 33. This so bothered the author of Pseudo-Jonathan, a midrashic Aramaic translation from the mid to late first millennium C.E., that he snuck Simeon into the blessing of Judah:

ודא בירכתא לשיבטא דיהודה וזווג בחולקיה ובבירכתיה לשמעון אחוי...
And this is the benediction of the tribe of Judah, conjoined with the portion and benediction of his brother Simeon…[8]

This rendition is based on Simeon’s tribal allotment, which falls inside the boundaries of that of Judah. Rashi makes the same argument (ad loc.), picking up on the verse’s use of the root ש.מ.ע:

כאן רמז לשמעון מתוך ברכותיו של יהודה, ואף כשחלקו ארץ ישראל נטל שמעון מתוך גורלו של יהודה...
Here in Judah’s blessing he alluded to Simeon, and indeed, when they divided the land of Israel (amongst the tribes), Simeon took his portion from amongst Judah’s lot...[9]

It is possible that the author of the poem in Deuteronomy 33 thought of the Simeonites as a subgroup of the Judahites, though there are other possible reasons why he might be absent.

Levi—The opposite is the case with Levi, who in Genesis 49 is rebuked together with his brother Simeon (vv. 5–7). In Deuteronomy 33, Levi receives a very substantial, four-verse long blessing (vv. 8–11) in which he is praised for his loyalty to YHWH and given the priesthood.

Joseph— Both Genesis and Deuteronomy give Joseph a long blessing,[10] yet notably, only Deuteronomy mentions the two Joseph tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh (v. 17). This may be because, as noted above, Simeon is absent from the Deuteronomy 33 list, and Joseph needs to be subdivided if Moses is to bless twelve named tribes.

Benjamin—In Genesis, Benjamin appears last, following age order, and is described with violent imagery as a tearing wolf. In Deuteronomy he appears fourth, between Levi and Joseph, and is described very differently, as יְדִיד יְ־הֹוָה “the friend of YHWH” (v. 12).

Gad—Genesis gives this tribe a very brief mention, noting that he fights back against raids (v. 19), while Deuteronomy gives Gad two verses, speaking of its expanding territory and importance (vv. 20-21).

How are we to understand these differences?

Two Snapshots

The blessings in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 were likely once freestanding poems, which secondarily were inserted in the Torah in their respective places. The fact that one is presented as Jacob’s and the other as Moses’, thus separating them in time by a couple of centuries, is not sufficient to explain the many differences between the compositions, especially since both are “predictions,” i.e., written as if the speaker is telling the future. When and where these two pericopes were written is unclear, but some details point in certain directions.

Deuteronomy 33 speaks highly of the two tribes of Joseph while giving Judah a diminished status and Simeon none at all. This reflects a northern perspective. Moreover, the importance of Levi here may imply a Levitical priest as the author. In contrast, Genesis 49 speaks of Judah as the permanent ruler of the other tribes, which reflects a southern perspective, while the reference to Judah’s scepter may imply a royal scribe.

Despite these differences, the editor of the Pentateuch found these poems suitable to use as bookends, presenting each as the final words of one of Israel’s great leaders from the past.[11] Each of these “blessings” was placed by the redactor as the penultimate episode (now, chapter) of their respective books, Genesis and Deuteronomy. In other words, these poems do not merely mark the end of the life and times of Jacob and Moses respectively, but the end of an epoch.

With the death of Jacob, the ancestral period comes to a close. In the next book, Exodus, we will read about the enslavement not of Israel the family, but Israel the nation, and YHWH’s redemption of them. With the death of Moses, the wilderness wandering comes to a close, and the next book, Joshua, opens with Israel’s conquest and settlement of Canaan.

At these pivotal locations, each of these blessings presents the status achieved by the Israelites: the great family of Jacob about to become a nation and enter the enslavement and exodus period, and the wilderness generation of Moses, poised to enter the Promised Land and settle it.

Signaling the Fulfillment of God’s Blessings

The placement of the blessings also showcases the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham of a large progeny. This promise appears several times in Abraham’s stories, including in Genesis 15, the Berit bein Habetarim, “The Covenant Between the Parts,” where God says:

בראשית טו:ה ...הַבֶּט נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ.
Gen 15:5 “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”[12]

The choice to emphasize the establishment of Israel as a nation on the seam between Genesis and Exodus and between Deuteronomy and Joshua works especially well in relation to Genesis 15, which states:

בראשית טו:יג ...יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה... טו:טז וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה...
Gen 15:13 Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years… 15:16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…”

In their specific narrative locations, Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 highlight the periodization of that chapter. Genesis 49 signifies that Abraham’s descendants have become numerous enough that may begin the era of their foretold condition as strangers in Egypt, the narrative of the book of Exodus, while Deuteronomy 33 marks the period when his descendants are about to return and take possession of the Promised Land, the narrative of the book of Joshua.[13]

The redactor has inserted these two poems, each describing the relationship between the tribes from two somewhat different perspectives (representing different groups in ancient Israelite society), into the mouths of Jacob and Moses to highlight the important changes he believed Israel as a whole went through in ancient times: from a family, to a people enslaved, to a nation settled in their own land.[14]


October 7, 2020


Last Updated

September 21, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Shira Golani teaches at the Department of Biblical Studies at Gordon Academic College (Haifa) and is a visiting researcher at the Hebrew University Bible Project (Jerusalem). Her Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University. Among her articles are “Three Oppressors and Four Saviors – The Three-Four Pattern and the List of Saviors in I Sam 12,9-11,” ZAW 127 (2015), 294-303, and “Swords that are Ploughshares: Another Case of (Bilingual) Wordplay in Biblical Prophecy?,” Biblica 98.3 (2017), 425-434.