Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (Jan. 1990): 16-31

            [Copyright © 1990 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

                             digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]




                A History of Interpretation of

               Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33



                                                Joel D. Heck

                                    Associate Professor of Religion

                         Concordia University, Mequon, Wisconsin




            Controversy over Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 arose mostly

during the past century. Previously these two chapters were unani-

mously understood as the words of Jacob and Moses, respectively. To-

day that is the case only among conservative scholars.

            The rise of critical scholarship in the 19th century led to a rein-

terpretation that is accepted today by most critical scholars.1 Gene-

sis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 are thought to contain individual sayings,

written at different times and places by different authors. The say-

ings originally circulated in oral form as folk literature and were

then gathered in collections. "We may assume," write Cross and

Freedman, "that groups of blessings, ascribed to Jacob and Moses, and

perhaps others, circulated orally in the period of the Judges."2

            The first doubt that Genesis 49 was spoken by Jacob was raised in

1788 by Hasse.3 Two years later Heinrichs published the first thor-

ough investigation of this subject.4


            1 For the history of interpretation until 1965, this writer is indebted in part to H. J.

Zobel, Stammesspruch und Geschichte: Die Angaben der Stammessprache van Gen 49,

Dtn 33 und Jdc 5 uber die politischen rind kultischen Zustande im damaligen "Israel"

(Berlin: A. Topelmann, 1965), pp. 1-3.

            2 Frank M. Cross and David Noel Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry

(Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1950), p. 77, n. 1.

            3 Johann Gottfried Hasse, "Neue Uebersetzung des Abschieds-gesangs Jakobs, 1 Mos.

XLIX," Magazin fur die biblisch-orientalische Litteratur und gesammte Philologie

(1788), pp. 5-16.

            4 Johann Heinrich Heinrichs, De audore atque aetate capitis Geneseos XLIX com-



A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             17


            In the 19th century critical scholars unanimously agreed, mainly

through the work of Graf and Kohler, that both chapters were

vaticinia ex eventu, prophecies after the fact. In 1857 Graf pub-

lished his study of Deuteronomy 33,5 and Kohler's study of Genesis 49

came 10 years later.6 At that time, however, the two chapters were

considered unified compositions, each from a single author.


                                    Collections of Oracles


            After the beginning of the 20th century, the chapters came to be

considered collections of oracles that had first circulated indepen-

dently. Two early voices presaged this development. Renan men-

tioned the idea that Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 were not unified

passages.7 Land also understood Genesis 49 as a collection of oracles.8

Gressmann further developed this perception shortly after the turn

of the century. His assertions led to the interpretation of each pas-

sage in the two chapters individually.9

            Critical scholars today generally consider that there is no liter-

ary unity in the chapters, nor is there any certain historical occasion

when the sayings were collected. Pfeiffer suggests that Genesis 49

was inserted into Genesis by a redactor in the sixth or fifth century, a

decision he apparently based on the allegedly late phrase in verse 1,

"in days to come."10 Noth writes that "the Blessing of Jacob and the

Blessing of Moses probably are not part of the Pentateuchal narra-

tive but are special pieces which were inserted quite late."11 Some

scholars think that some of the sayings in their original form are


mentatio (Gottingen: I. D. G. Brose, 1790).

            5 Karl Heinrich Graf, Der Segen Mose's (Deuteronomium c. XXXIII) erklart

(Leipzig. Dyk,1857).

            6 K. Kohler, Der Segen Jakob’s mit besonderer Berucksichtigung der alten Version en

und des Midrasch historischkritisch untersucht und erklurt: Ein Beitrag zur

Geschichte des hebraischen Alterthums wie zur Geschichte der Exegese (Berlin: J.

Benzian, 1867).

            7 Ernest Renan, Histoire generale et Systeme compare des Langues Semitiques

(Paris: Imprimerie imperiale, 1855), p.112.

            8 J. P. N. Land, Disputatio de carmine Jacobi Gen. XLIX (Leiden: J. Hazenberg,


            9 Hugo Gressmann, "Die Anfange Israels (Von 2. Mose bis Richter und Ruth) uber-

setzt, erklart und mit Einleitung versehen," in Die Schriften des Altes Testaments

(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1914).

            10 Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row,

1941), p. 277.

            11 Martin Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Pren-

tice-Hall, 1972), p.185, n. 518; see also p. 18, n. 54.


18                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990


from the early period of the Judges, others as late as the time of

David or Solomon or later, but all of them are considered to be

vaticina ex eventu.

None of the sayings is assigned to any of the major literary

sources of the Pentateuch, though Genesis 49 used to be assigned to J

because of its antiquity and Deuteronomy 33 to E. In 1898 Holzinger

was the first to reject the identification of the collector of Genesis 49

with one of the familiar literary sources.12 Noth comments about

Genesis 49, "To attribute it to J . . . cannot be proven literarily any

better than the assignment of the ‘blessing of Moses' to E. It survives

as special material."13

According to Kittel, J is still considered by some to be the collec-

tor of the sayings in Genesis 49, perhaps the one who wrote verse 2.14

Verses 1b and 28a are also generally considered to be editorial. If J

wrote verse 2, then the Yahwistic redactor wrote verses 1b and 28a,

as Gunkel suggested, when he incorporated the entire chapter into

the narrative of P.15  P ends at verse la and begins at "and this is

what," or at "blessing each one," or, according to Noth, at verse 29.16

Kittel thinks the collector is unknown, apparently since the or-

der of the tribes seems to be much older than J, and he thinks J only

inserted the chapter into its present place.17 Von Rad concurs.18

Speiser thinks of J as the collector and inserter.19 Since insertion of

the sayings into Genesis is often attributed to J, the chapter is gener-

ally considered to have taken final shape in the 10th century B.C.

Whereas Genesis 49 is commonly considered to reflect a southern

point of view and is therefore often thought to have been edited, col-

lected, and or inserted by J, Deuteronomy 33 is considered to demon-

strate a northern point of view.20 For example in Deuteronomy 33

Ephraim is the royal tribe, and in verse 7 the return of Judah is


12 H. Holzinger, Genesis, Kurzer Handkommentar (Freiburg, 1898), p. 264.

13 Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, p. 18, n. 54.

14 Hans-Joachim Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels; Genesis 49 und

Deuteronomium 33, traditionsgeschichtlich" (Berlin: Diss. theol., Kirchl.

Hochschule, 1959), pp. 1, 39.

15 Hermann Gunkel, Genesis, 5th ed. (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1922),


16 Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, p. 14.

17 Kittel, "Die Stammesspruche Israels," p. 133.

18 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), p. 421.

19 E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1964), p. 371.

20 C. J. Labuschagne, "The Tribes in the Blessing of Moses," Old Testament Studies

19 (1974): 98.


A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             19


wished for,21 though both of these conclusions have been challenged

by critical scholars.

Eissfeldt writes that Deuteronomy 33 clearly divides into two

parts: the psalmlike hymn in verses 2-5, 26-29 and the collection of

sayings in verses 1, 6-25.22 More recent critical research considers the

psalmlike framework to be of independent origin,23 though some dis-

agree and others have expressed caution.24 Kittel thinks the

Deuteronomist may have written verse 1 and the superscriptions, re-

vising many of the texts in order to express his theology.25

Some have characterized the chapter as a poem, rather than a

collection of tribal sayings,26 comparing it with a hymn of war such

as Judges 5.27 Most admit that there are many archaic grammatical

and linguistic features, giving the impression of a great age. Most

critics, however, consider that these features are deliberate throw-

backs to an earlier period.


The Context of the Chapters


Critical scholars generally consider both chapters to be unre-

lated to the surrounding chapters, a factor that suggests their later

insertion into the text. For example Brueggemann thinks there is no

evident connection between Genesis 49 and the context of 48:1-50:14,

the materials dealing with the death of Jacob. It was simply cus-

tomary to insert a blessing in the narrative at the death of a great

leader.28 Noth agrees.29 Deuteronomy 33 is said to have been in-

serted into the Book of Deuteronomy sometime in the seventh cen-


However, Labuschagne writes convincingly for taking Deuteron-

omy 31:1-33:29 as "one coherent composition on the theme: the final


21 C. Steuemagel, Deuteronomium und Josua (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht,

1900), p. 123.

22 Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harper & Row,

1965), p. 227.

23 Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels," p. 1.

24 Labuschagne, "The Tribes in the Blessing of Moses," p. 98; G. von Rad, Deuteron-

omy, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 208.

25 Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels," p. 132.

26 E.g., Labuschagne, "The Tribes in the Blessing of Moses," p. 98.

27 J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (London: In-

ter-Varsity Press, 1974), p. 305.

28 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 365.

29 Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, p. 209, n. 564.

30 Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels," p. 133.

20                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990


arrangements made by Moses before his death."31 He thinks that

Deuteronomy 33 is part of a section that deals with three themes: the

death of Moses and his succession by Joshua, the law as Moses' le-

gacy, and Deuteronomy 33 as Moses' final charge.32 Correspondingly

the record of Jacob's words at his deathbed unites Genesis 48-50.


   The Purpose of the Chapters




In the traditional view, the opening verse of Genesis 49 states

Jacob's purpose: "so that I may tell you what will befall you in the

days to come." However, Westermann claims with insufficient war-

rant that this statement can refer only to verses 10-12 and possibly

verse 26b and that the opening verse reflects the understanding of an

editor at some later time.33 Kittel states that the sayings, other

than verses 10-12, refer to events of the past or present and that the

sayings are therefore vaticinia ex eventu, not prophecy.34

The traditional view is represented by Stigers, who calls the

chapter a treatise on the future lives of the tribes as an outgrowth of

the present character of each son. The animal comparison is well

suited as a predictive device, based on the character of the individ-

ual son. Jacob predicted how things would turn out for each of his

sons and their descendants, should they continue to display the

character they had displayed thus far.35 Leupold concurs, calling

the chapter a "purely ideal portraiture of the peculiarities of the

different tribes." In addition, however, the sayings predict various

aspects of the occupation of Canaan in general terms.36 Keil and

Delitzsch speak of two factors--the character of the sons and the

land of Canaan--tying the latter to God's promise to Abraham,

Isaac, and Jacob. The element of blessing is noted in the closing verse,

in which Moses wrote, "This is what their father said to them when

he blessed them. He blessed them, everyone with the blessing ap-


31 Labuschagne, "The Tribes in the Blessing of Moses," p. 97.

32 C. J. Labuschagne, "The Song of Moses: Its Framework and Structure," De Fructu

Oris Sui, ed. I. H. Eybers et al. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), pp. 91-92.

33 Claus Westermann, Genesis, 3 vols. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1974),


34 Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels," p. 115.

35 Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publish-

ing House, 1976), p. 325.

36 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House;

1942), 2:1164.



A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             21


propriate to him."37 In view of the presence of Jacob and the many

references in Genesis 49 to the land of Canaan, this chapter is best

seen as both prophecy and blessing to sustain Israel's faith during

the years in Egypt.

The major objection to viewing the chapter as a blessing is the

mild rebuke in verses 14-15 and the two severe rebukes in verses 3-4

and 5-7. Praise and rebuke are said to alternate randomly, because

the independent sayings were gathered together into no particular

order. This objection leads many to prefer another title for the chap-

ter, "The Testament of Jacob," rather than "The Blessing of Jacob"

(and correspondingly, "The Testament of Moses," for Deut. 33).38

However, while most think of Genesis 49:14-15 as a mild rebuke,

that view has been challenged, most recently by this author.39 Gene-

sis 49 can be seen as arranged by the speaker to set forth two initial

rebukes, one of Reuben and one of Simeon and Levi, followed by words

of praise for the rest of the sons.

Westermann thinks that the rebukes are the result of the later

editing of the chapter, which resulted in prophetic language of

judgment being incorporated into verses 3-4 and 5-7, as well as pious

marginal additions at verses 6ab and 18. This language would have

the purpose of rejecting dependence on man's strength and recognizing

that help comes from Yahweh alone.40 Kittel agrees, seeing the

chapter as a section that fits the priestly theology of salvation. It

was incorporated here to show that the history of Yahweh with His

people was the history of the salvation of Israel.41

While Genesis 49 itself does not speak of the sojourn in Egypt, its

placement at this point in the story of Israel has a significant pur-

pose. Kittel calls the Joseph history the connecting link between two

themes, the promise to the patriarchs and the Exodus from Egypt.42

He correctly feels that the chapter bridges the gap between the 12

sons and the 12 tribes. It answers the question, How did the tribes

come from the sons?43 Westermann agrees but says that the purpose


37 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, 3 vols., Commentary on the Old Tes-

tament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), 1:389.

38 Robert Davidson, Genesis 12-50, Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cam-

bridge University Press, 1979), p. 301.

39 Joel D. Heck, "Issachar: Slave or Freeman? (Gen 49:14-15)," Journal of the Evan-

gelical Theological Society 29 (1986): 385-96.

40 Westermann, Genesis, p. 278.

41 Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels," p. 115.

42 Ibid., p. 120.

43 Ibid., p. 125.

22                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990


of Genesis 49 in the narrative is also political. The chapter is de-

signed to present the tribes as unified from ancient times, not some

loosely connected amphictyony. The sayings were inserted into the

narrative at the time when the tribes were organizing themselves

into a united nation, and the chapter was collected in order to sub-

stantiate that organization.44 Or, as Brueggemann writes, the chap-

ter "intends to be political propaganda to advance some tribal claims

at the expense of others,"45 thereby unifying the tribes under certain


In short, critical scholars see the purpose as encouraging trust in

Yahweh at an important juncture in Israel's history by praising some

tribes and blaming others. This, they feel, was politically moti-

vated, since Israel needed to become unified by worship of Yahweh.



Westermann describes Genesis 49 as profane, while he thinks

that Deuteronomy 33 is strongly theologized, which points to the

conversion of the latter chapter into a cultic function.46 The more re-

ligious tone of Deuteronomy 33 is reflected in the prayer language

and the use of the name of Yahweh.47 It also affects critical views of

the purpose of the chapter, particularly those views that speak of

cultic use of the chapter and political motivation for the chapter.

All scholars hear the religious tone of Deuteronomy 33, but they dis-

agree as to its significance.

The purpose of the chapter is well expressed by Driver: "The

aim. . . was to rally the nation anew around the banner of the Mosaic

institutions, and to awaken in it a fresh and vivid consciousness of

the happiness implied in its being Jehovah's people."48

Similarly, Labuschagne calls the chapter a hymn celebrating

God's guidance surrounding a collection of sayings about the tribes,

stating the position of the tribes in the land Yahweh gave them.49

The guidance of God in the past (vv. 2-5) and His kingship in the

present (vv. 5, 26-29) are certainly celebrated in this chapter, a fact

that speaks for a later cultic use.

Since Deuteronomy 33, according to most critics, contains both


44 Westermann, Genesis, pp. 277-78.

45 Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 365.

46 Westermann, Genesis, pp. 250-51.

47 Von Rad, Deuteronomy, p. 208.

48 S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, 3d ed., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh:

T. & T. Clark, 1902), pp. 388-89.

49 Labuschagne, "The Tribes in the Blessing of Moses," p. 98.


A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 23


praise and blame, and since Genesis 49 differs from Deuteronomy 33

as to who is praised and blamed, some critics see both chapters as po-

litically motivated. Genesis 49 seeks to advance Judah by praising

him, while Deuteronomy 33 seeks to advance the Joseph tribes by

praising them.50

However, all the blessings in this chapter are positive, in part

because none of the rebukes present in Genesis 49 have a counterpart

in Deuteronomy 33. While the oracle about Reuben and the absence

of any mention of Simeon are considered by some to be rebukes, that

view is not shared by all. Kittel correctly sees the chapter as a tran-

sition from Deuteronomy to Joshua, because the Book of Joshua tells

the story of the conquest of the 12 tribes.51

According to the traditional view, Deuteronomy 33 is cast in a

style reminiscent of the final words of Jacob because Moses is now the

leader of Israel and a patriarchal figure. Deuteronomy 33 is a final

attempt to impress on Israel the importance of seeking Yahweh's

guidance and depending on His strength, as Israel prepares to conquer

Canaan. The chapter is cast like Genesis 49 in order to connect the

present circumstances with the promise to Jacob of a land. God has

kept His promise.

Deuteronomy 33 is entirely a blessing, an expressed wish for suc-

cess and prosperity, with a possible predictive element only in verse

19, a verse that is textually problematic. The animal comparisons

(vv. 17, 20, 22) express the character of three tribes very positively,

suggesting that the tribes continue to develop the characteristics of

those animals.52


The Sitz im Leben of the Chapters



The setting, or Sitz im Leben, in which the sayings in Genesis 49

and Deuteronomy 33 arose has been a matter of much debate.

Jeremias was the first to suggest an original association with the

signs of the zodiac,53 and Zimmern was its staunchest defender.54

However, Cross and Freedman convincingly rejected this theory:

Zimmern's speculations about the different tribes and their zodiacal

associations are ingenious but entirely unacceptable. It is quite certain


50 E.g., ibid., and Steuemagel, Deuteronomium und Josua, p. 123.

51 Kittel, "Die Stammesspruche Israels," pp. 131-33.

52 Keil and Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, p. 493.

53 Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients, 2d ed. (Leipzig:

J. C. Hinrichs, 1906), pp. 395-400.

54 H. Zimmem, "Der Jakobssegen und der Tierkreis," Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 7


24                    Bibliotheca Sacra I January-March 1990


that the zodiac did not appear in developed form until the Persian pe-

riod. Even if a few of the elements which were later incorporated into

the zodiacal system were known in earlier times, none of the parallels

between the signs of the zodiac and the designations of the tribes is at

all convincing.55

Gunneweg claims that word plays and animal comparisons un-

derlie most of the tribal sayings of Genesis 49 and many of the say-

ings in Deuteronomy 33.56 He concludes that the Sitz im Leben of

both chapters is the celebration of the theophany of Yahweh by the

amphictyony. Deuteronomy 33:2-5, 26-29 describes the theophany of

Yahweh at Sinai, and the tribes described themselves just as Yah-

weh did at Sinai. The chapters are human reflections of the God

who revealed Himself at Sinai.57 The correctness of Gunneweg's hy-

pothesis depends in part on the amphictyonic hypothesis, a view not-

accepted by many scholars, but a discussion of those issues is outside

the scope of this article.

Animal comparisons and word plays are key ingredients in Gene-

sis 49, whereas Deuteronomy 33 displays no word plays (unless some

doubtful conjectures are accepted) and only three animal compar-

isons. Westermann's view that word plays and animal comparisons

are evidence of antiquity would suggest the priority in time of Gene-

sis 49 and the appropriateness of the traditional view of the setting

of the chapter.58

In Genesis 49 there are wordplays in verses 3-4 (preeminent, not

be preeminent), 8 (Judah, praise, hand), 13 (probably a play on the

root of "Zebulun"), 14-15 (Issachar, man who works), 16 (Dan, judge),

19 (raiders, raid, "the Raider," raid), 20 (probable: Asher, "the

Happy One"), 21 (very unlikely: Akkadian saparru, "goat"), 22 (un-

likely: Ephrath, trAPo, "fruit-tree"). Gunneweg suggests some unlikely

word plays in Deuteronomy 33 at verses 7 (Judah, hand), 12 (Benja-

min, between), 18 (Zebulun, tents, houses; based on an emendation),

and 24 (Asher, "the Happy One," only possible wordplay).59

Genesis 49 has animal comparisons in verses 9 (lion), 14-15 (don-

key), 17 (snake), 21 (doe), 22 (young calf), and 27 (wolf). In Deuteron-

omy 33, there are animal comparisons in verses 17 (bull), 20 (lion),

and 22 (lion's cub). All the animal comparisons convey positive


(1892): 161-72.

55 Cross and Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, pp. 81-82, n. 26.

56 A. H. J. Gunneweg, "Ober den Sitz im Leben der sog. Stammesspruche," Zeitschrift

fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 76 (1964): 245-55.

57 Ibid., p. 254.

58 Westermann, Genesis, p. 276.

59 Gunneweg, "Uber der Sitz im Leben der sog. Stammesspruche," pp. 249-50.


A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             25


ideas, though most critical scholars do not agree. The sometimes dif-

ficult translation of the text affects a writer's views of wordplays

and animal comparisons. Those listed here are generally accepted.



Lindblom contends that Genesis 49:8-12 is the center of the col-

lection and explains the Sitz im Leben of all the sayings. The setting

is the time when David lived in Hebron, king of Judah but not over

all Israel.60

However, Kittel thinks verses 8-12 are not easily thought of as

the center of the chapter. He suggests that the comparisons in Gene-

sis 49 are born in battle. Tribes are praised or rebuked on the basis of

their participation with the other tribes in battle. He relies on the

Song of Deborah in Judges 5 for this interpretation, since that chap-

ter clearly has a battle as its Sitz im Leben.61

Many other writers find the setting in some event associated

with the confederacy of the tribes.62 Westermann holds this view,

rejecting Kittel's thesis as too specific. He thinks the sayings arose

on many occasions, when the representatives of the tribes came to-

gether for a variety of purposes. The sayings arose individually or

in groups and served the purpose of praising or blaming the various

tribes. He considers the number 12 an independent element that arose

when Israel was becoming unified. The number was intended to be a

testimony to that unity.63 This view, as well as the views of Cross

and Freedman, Gunneweg, Kittel, Zobel, and others, is based in part

on the amphictyonic hypothesis, a view not shared by all.

Gevirtz's reading of the Blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49:5-7) is repre-

sentative of the recent interpretations that understand the oracles in

this way:

The persona of Jacob's "Blessing," the dying pater familias, Jacob-Is-

rael, represents a latter-day idealization of a pre-Judaean confedera-

tion of Israelite tribes now at the point of its final dissolution in the

reign of Jeroboam I. Characterizing Simeon and Levi as perishing

birds of prey, he dissociates himself from them, censures their actions,

and condemns them to dispersion.64


60 Johannes Lindblom, "The Political Background of the Shiloh Oracle," Congress

Volume, Copenhagen, 1953, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 1 (Leiden: E. J.

Brill, 1953), pp. 78-87.

61 Kittel, "Die Stammesspriiche Israels," pp. 76-77, 111.

62 E.g, Cross and Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, p. 69; Gunneweg,

"Uber der Sitz im Leben der sog. Stammesspruche," p. 26.

63 Westermann, Genesis, pp. 251-52.

64 Stanley Gevirtz, "Simeon and Levi in 'The Blessing of Jacob' (Gen. 49:5-7)," He-

brew Union College Annual 52 (1981): 93-128.


26                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990


According to the traditional view, the Sitz im Leben is the last

days of the patriarch Jacob, when he called his sons to himself to

tell them what would happen to them in the future. This view pre-

sents the fewest difficulties.



Much of what has been written under "Preliminary Observa-

tions" and in regard to the Sitz im Leben of Genesis 49, is also true of

the critical view of Deuteronomy 33. The setting of Deuteronomy 33

is some event associated with the confederacy of the tribes, most

likely an event in which the unity of the tribes needed to be stressed,

probably an event that is cultic in nature and occurring in the seventh

century (the alleged critical date of the writing of Deuteronomy).

However, Craigie proposes a traditional setting for the chapter.

He writes, "It may well have been recited or sung at some special

ceremony bringing to a close the renewal of the covenant in Moab; the

tribes, gathered together for the solemn renewal of the covenant,

each in turn received their blessing."65 The strong militaristic

thread throughout the chapter points to the time before the entry

into Canaan. Craigie says the chapter may have been used later in

the worship of Israel, causing some scholars to posit a Sitz im Leben

in Israel's cultic life. He calls that view a failure to distinguish be-

tween an original and a secondary Sitz im Leben.66 Again the Sitz im

Leben is simply that which the text portrays. The 12 tribes of Israel

were ready to cross the Jordan to begin the conquest of Canaan, and

Moses spoke these blessings to strengthen them for the effort.


Treatment of Individual Oracles

Gressmann's writings, which led to the individual treatment of

the oracles, have been mentioned earlier. Among the first attempts

to treat the sayings individually were those of Alt, Taubler, and

Lindblom. Alt dealt with the saying in Genesis 49:14-15.67 Taubler

wrote in regard to Genesis 49:13 and Deuteronomy 33:18-19; and Gene-

sis 49:16-20, 27 and Deuteronomy 33:22.68 Lindblom directed his at-

tention to Genesis 49:8-12.69


65 Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary

on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), p. 391.

66 Peter C. Craigie, "The Conquest and Early Hebrew Poetry," Tyndale Bulletin 20

(1969): 82.

67 Albrecht Alt, "Neues uber Palastina aus dem Archiv Amenophis IV," Palastina-

jahrbuch 20 (1924): 34-41.

68 Eugen Israel Taubler, "Die Spruch-Verse uber Sebulon," Monatsschrift fur

Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 83 (1939): 9-46.

69 Lindblom, "The Political Background of the Shiloh Oracle," pp. 78-87.

A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             27


One of the reasons for individual treatment is the assertion that

the sayings arose independently, since the sayings refer to events

that were widely separated in time. For the traditional view the

variable range presents no problem, since the chapters are predic-

tions and blessings.

Beginning in 1922 scholars noticed that some of the sayings dif-

fered from the others. Eissfeldt stated that the sayings on Reuben

(Gen. 49:3-4) and on Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:5-7) were not actually

tribal sayings.70 Scharbert argued similarly,71 and von Rad likewise

recognized the difference between some of the verses.72 Eissfeldt

wrote, "It must have been a favourite device for the individual

tribes to characterise one another with short sayings, normally

linked with their names; and they may well also have described

themselves in a similar manner."73

Kittel agreed that the texts circulated individually at first, be-

fore being gathered into collections. He also wrote of the existence of

a genre that could be called "tribal sayings." Kittel's history-of-

traditions study showed that the form of certain verses in Genesis 49

and Deuteronomy 33 did not fit the genre "tribal sayings." They

were rather to be characterized as "prophetic sayings," offering

blessings and curses reminiscent of the later prophetic style.74

As a result, Genesis 49:3-4, 5-7, 8, and 25-26 were not to be counted

among the "tribal sayings," nor are most of the verses in Deuteron-

omy 33. Kittel built on the work of Gunkel, who had written earlier

of the mysterious manner of expression in Genesis 49, in that some

names are not mentioned, some facts are left out, and some phrases

are general.75 He thought this was a characteristic of the oldest

prophetic style.

Kittel calls the tribal saying the basic element, or genre, in the

two chapters. Tribal sayings are short and precise statements with

no traces of editorial reworking. They require no framework for their

understanding and exhibit "typical modes of speech" with a certain

timelessness. They consist of pure animal comparisons (Gen. 49:9, 21,


70 Otto Eissfeldt, Hexateuch-Synopse (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1922), pp. 22-30.

71 Josef Scharbert, Solidaritat in Segen und Fluch im Alten Testament und in seiner

Umwelt, Vol. 1: Vaterfluch und Vatersegen (Bonn: P. Hanstein, 1958).

72 Gerhard von Rad, Das erste Buch Mose: Genesis, 5th ed. (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck

und Ruprecht, 1958), p. 421.

73 Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, p. 67; also see Cross and Freedman,

Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, p. 77, n. 1.

74 Kittel, "Die Stammesspruche Israels," pp. 91-95; also see Westermann, Genesis, p.


75 Gunkel, Genesis, p. 476.


28                    Bibliotheca Sacra I January-March 1990


27; Deut. 33:22), extended animal comparisons (Gen. 49:14-15, 17),

and animal comparisons that are part of a fuller saying (Gen. 49:22;

Deut. 33:17a, 20). They also include typical descriptions (Gen. 49:13,

20; Deut. 33:6, 23), situation-bound descriptions (Gen. 49:19), and de-

scriptions that are part of a fuller saying (Gen. 49:3, 5, 23; Deut.


Kittel's form critical investigation of the tribal sayings led him

to conclude that there were various stages in the transmission of the

sayings, each of which is reflected in various forms which the say-

ings take. Some of the sayings are composite units (Gen. 49:8-12;

Deut. 33:8-11), while other sayings, the shorter ones, are complete

units (Gen. 49:21; Deut. 33:22). The composite units reflect a later

stage in the development of the oracles.77

However, there is no certain reason why Moses could not have

spoken each saying as it now stands.


Judges 5

In 1941 Grether published a study claiming that part of the Song

of Deborah (Judg. 5:14-18) belonged to the genre of "tribal sayings."78

This study opened the door to a consideration of all three chapters

together. The joint doctoral dissertation of Cross and Freedman was

one such study.79

Later, Zobel built on Grether's work by investigating Genesis 49,

Deuteronomy 33, and Judges 5 together, to determine what they say

about the historical circumstances of the time. The work of Kittel

had distinguished between "typical speech patterns" and "descrip-

tions tied to a situation." Zobel used this distinction to glean histor-

ical information from the three chapters.

He concluded that the traditional ideas of the Exodus-Sinai-

Conquest are unhistorical and that there were various peaceful im-

migrations of individual tribes. He dated the collection of the say-

ings in the time of the Judges, around 1400-1000 B.C. Zobel was the

first to study all three chapters together in this manner.80 While

his conclusions about the historical information in the chapters be-

tray his critical presuppositions, his early end for the dating of the

sayings sounds Mosaic (something he himself would reject, however).


76 Kittel, "Die Stammesspruche Israels," pp. 66-75.

77 Ibid., pp. 79-105.

78 Oskar Grether, Das Deboralied: Eine metrische Rekonstruktion (Gutersloh: C.

Bertelsmann, 1941) pp. 54-55.

79 Cross and Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry.

80 Zobel, Stammesspruch und Geschichte.


A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             29


The Impact of Ugarit

The discovery of Ugarit in 1928 and the subsequent deciphering

of the Ugaritic language laid the foundation for studies that have

taken a fresh look at the Hebrew language and the poetry of the Old

Testament. Cross and Freedman's dissertation was a study of Genesis

49; Deuteronomy 33; Judges 5; and 2 Samuel 22 (=Ps. 18), with special

consideration of the early stages of Hebrew orthography and meter.

Their study reflected acquaintance with Ugaritic.

Scholars who noted additional parallels with Ugaritic litera-

ture began to publish their findings. From 1953 on, Dahood had a

major impact on the study of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33.81 A

major study by Vawter appeared shortly thereafter,82 and a study by

Coppens appeared the following year.83

Recently the writings of many scholars, most notably Craigie,

have made an impact in this area, particularly in the study of

Deuteronomy 33.84 The commentary of Kidner on Genesis is a some-

what earlier counterpart to Craigie's study of Deuteronomy.85

The parallels in Ugaritic literature have pushed the origins of

Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 back at least to the period of the

Judges and are certainly compatible with Jacoban and Mosaic author-

ship.86 While it is possible to read too much into such parallels,87

there can be no doubt that study of Ugaritic literature has helped


81 Mitchell Dahood, "The Divine Name 'Eli in the Psalms," Theological Studies 14

(1953): 452-57; see also "MKRTYHM in Genesis 49,6a," Biblica 36 (1955): 229; and "Is

'Eben Yisra’el a Divine Title? (Gn 49, 24)," Biblica 40 (1959): 1002-7.

82 Bruce Vawter, "The Canaanite Background of Gen. 49," Catholic Biblical Quar-

terly 17 (1955): 1-18.

83 J. Coppens, "La benediction de Jacob," Volume du Congres, Strasbourg, 1956, Sup-

plements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 4 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1957), pp. 97-115.

84 Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy; also see idem, "The Conquest and Early He-

brew Poetry," and idem, "The Song of Deborah and the Epic of Tukulti-Ninurta," Jour-

nal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969): 253-65; and idem, "Three Ugaritic Notes on the

Song of Deborah," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 2 (1976): 33-49. See this

writer's "The Missing Sanctuary of Deut. 33:12," Journal of Biblical Literature 103

(1984): 523-29, as a further example of the effect of Ugaritic studies on the understand-

ing of the biblical text.

85 Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity Press, 1967).

86 The parallels between the Old Testament and Ugaritic literature have been

drawn together in Loren R. Fisher, ed., Ras Shamra Parallels: The Texts from Ugarit

and the Hebrew Bible, 3 vols. (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1972-81).

87 J. C. De Moor and P. van der Lugt, "The Spectre of Pan-Ugaritism," Beitrage zur

Orientalistik 31 (1974): 3-26.


30                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990


support the traditional view of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 and

that Mosiac authorship of both chapters is still defensible.

The dissertation of Cross and Freedman is a watershed in the

study of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 for another reason. Their

work built on Albright's study of the date of the oracles of Balaam.

In that study Albright drew conclusions on the basis of orthographic

and linguistic criteria.88 Cross and Freedman concluded that Genesis

49 and Deuteronomy 33 were approximately the same age. "In each

are preserved materials which antedate the eleventh century in all

probability, and may be considerably older. But the Blessings as a

whole reached completed form toward the end of the period of the


Some years later Albright proposed a scheme for dating 14 an-

cient Hebrew poems in the Old Testament.90 The poems were dated

in order, or sequence, so this approach is called sequence dating. Us-

ing certain stylistic phenomena as criteria and basing the chronology

on Ugaritic poetry, Albright proposed a chronology that placed the

Song of Miriam (Exod. 15) in the early 13th century and Psalm 29 in

the 5th century as the earliest and latest of the poems, respectively.

In this scheme, Genesis 49 was dated in the late 11th century, and

Deuteronomy 33 was dated in the mid-11th century.91

Freedman built on Albright's sequence dating by using the crite-

rion of divine names and epithets. Freedman confirmed the results of

Albright's study with some adjustments.92 Like Albright, he placed

Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 in the 11th century, but he considered

Deuteronomy 33 the later poem.93

As a relative chronology, the system is a helpful addition to the

study of these chapters. However, the most that can be said for it is

that it provides a relative chronology and a terminus ad quem for

the dating of the chapters, the time of the Judges. It does not pro-

vide a terminus a quo. One may agree with the general sequence in

which Albright and Freedman place the poems without agreeing

with the precise dates. One must accept their conclusions with cau-


88 William F. Albright, "The Oracles of Balaam," Journal of Biblical Literature 63

(1944): 207-33.

89 Cross and Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, pp. 6-7.

90 William F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY: Dou-

bleday & Co., 1968), pp. 1-28, 42-54.

91 Albright, cited in David Noel Freedman, "Divine Names and Titles in Early Po-

etry," Magnalia Dei: The .Mighty Acts of God, ed. Frank M. Cross, W. E. Lemke, and 

P. D. Miller, Jr. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976), pp. 55-56.

92 Ibid., pp. 56-57.

93 Ibid., p. 96.


A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33             31


tion, however, for it is possible that there was considerable scribal

updating of the text over the centuries, much like the manner in

which the New King James updates the language of the King James

Version, thereby resulting in later orthographic and linguistic char-

acteristics. Even evidence of a later orthography, therefore, does not

rule out the traditional dating of the two chapters. On the other

hand the appearance of archaisms in a text does not prove that a

particular verse is ancient, since archaic features might be deliber-

ately used by writers to convey the idea of antiquity. This renders

many conclusions tentative.

However, archaisms that were misunderstood by later genera-

tions of readers, such as the presence of the divine name in Deuteron-

omy 33:12, are most likely genuine and therefore cannot be so easily

explained away.94




There continue to be two major streams of interpretation, the

traditional and the critical, with the latter predominating and

with each position largely rejecting the other. Among critical

scholars, those who follow the Albright-Bright-Wright reconstruc-

tion of Israelite history are in the minority. Those who follow the

Noth-Alt-von Rad reconstruction of Israelite history with its amph-

ictyonic hypothesis reflect the dominant interpretation of Genesis 49

and Deuteronomy 33.

The text of both chapters, however, is certainly compatible

with the traditional reading of their contents as the blessings, or

last testaments, of Jacob and Moses.



94 See Heck, "The Missing Sanctuary of Deut. 33:12," for evidence that the divine

name 'Eli, "the Exalted One," passed out of use among the Israelites shortly after the

Conquest, because it was also in use among the Canaanites. The Israelites did not want

the worship of Yahweh to be confused with the worship of pagan gods.




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