Deu 33:1 This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the people of Israel before his death.
Deu 33:2 He said, “The LORD came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand.
Deu 33:3 Yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand; so they followed in your steps, receiving direction from you,
Deu 33:4 when Moses commanded us a law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
Deu 33:5 Thus the LORD became king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.
There is more to this reading. I do encourage all to read both chapters.
Topic Snip:Moses‘ blessing shows us that our blessings should be shaped by knowledge, not ignorance.
Now, sadly the word “bless” has become somewhat debased nowadays into a rather empty phrase of well-wishing. We say, “Bless you” when someone sneezes, and my suspicion is that most of the time we don’t really THINK what we are saying here. Even within the church, blessings are often very casual, almost habitual words of well-wishing we say to someone, or else they end up being thinly disguised pieces of advice. Perhaps these words trip off our tongue a little too easily.
Now, the Greek word for blessing, that the New Testament uses, means “a good word” – a word, that is, that does you good, not just one that sounds nice. It reminds us of the role of the spoken word in a blessing, and it connects to the teaching that Jesus is the Word of God, the ultimate Good Word. At the end of the order of service for tonight is the word “benediction” – the Latin word with the same meaning. But the Hebrew word, used in the Old Testament, has to do with kneeling in order to serve. It has the idea of enabling or empowering a person, of propelling them forward into their future. It’s an active word, one that suggests that the person doing the blessing is helping to make the future happen. The person giving the blessing is sharing in – and to an extent shaping – the future of the person receiving.
To this end, it’s important that a blessing is spoken aloud. Unlike prayers, which if we prefer can be just internal and shared only with God, a blessing needs to be spoken to or spoken over a person. Throughout the Bible, the power of the spoken word – for good and for ill – is emphasised. The words we speak are not empty noises, but are fraught, powerful, trembling with significance. In God’s economy, there are no “casual words”. From God’s voice speaking creation into the formless void, through Jesus’ cry “It is finished” on the cross, to the Spirit saying “Come” at the end of Revelation, divine words not only communicate but also enact history.
The same is true, on a lesser scale, of human words. In the Bible we find the words of good and bad people, of the devoted and the doubt-ridden, we find words spoken with care or in haste – but always the words shape the future lives of the speaker and those about him or her. The Bible records for us several cases where careless or ill-chosen words end up as a curse. Think of the judge Jepthah, who sacrificed his daughter in order to fulfil a rashly spoken vow. A poster used in the Second World War read, “Careless talk costs lives”, and in the Christian sense it is certainly true that careless words can cost Life.
Moses’ blessing shows us that our blessings should be shaped by the Holy Spirits knowledge, not ignorance. Moses had been the religious and spiritual leader of this people for many years, and this was not the first time he had blessed them. Perhaps he had used similar words before. This particular blessing is given extra weight by the knowing that these would be his last words, but I think we can be sure that these words had been building in him for considerable time. But then this is also a speculation on my part. There are large variations between each blessing, and they are personally adapted to the tribe being addressed. Benjamin is granted rest, Dan is promised action, Zebulun and Issachar will call others to them and serve them, Gad will become a leader.
Moses’ words also highlight for us that the hearer has a responsibility to receive blessing. A blessing has responsibility?; you may ask. It is not just an automatic benefit, like a sort of lucky charm. Receiving a blessing requires faith and willingness to walk into the future illuminated in front of us by Jesus and lead by the Holy Spirit. Some of the Israelite tribes that heard Moses’ words walked into their revealed future, albeit in an uncertain and faltering way. But some of the tribes did not walk into it, and their subsequent history in the land faded and withered away.
The first idea is that of a dwelling-place. Our God is a place to dwell, and the more securely we feel the warmth of that dwelling-place, the more perceptive will be our blessings. This doesn’t always have to do with how long we’ve, as it were, dwelt in God’s house, but the extent to which we feel welcomed and at home, a family member. Now, for Moses, this idea was clearly a central one, and he opens Psalm 90 with the words “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place throughout all generations” – a slightly different word but expressing a similar idea. Moses paints a picture here and elsewhere of God being vigorous in the defence of his house and his household – he rides on the clouds of the heavens to help us, he is our shield and our sword. He does not just open the door for newcomers, he goes out to find and to gather in the occupants in whom he delights.
Along with that, the word carries the idea of a working-place, especially one where growth or cultivation is due to happen, like a ploughed field. The life of God is not a static thing, but a lively, fertile place of creative activity. Whether or not any of us is at work in the conventional sense, the life of God is at work in us to heal and to bless. The ploughed field is ready for the seed to be planted and to grow. The unformed clay awaits the shaping hands of the potter.
Thirdly, the word brings the idea of suffering, of poverty, destitution, affliction. Now, there is a sense in which God is a haven from suffering – a refuge – but I do not think this is what Moses is meaning here. Nor do I think he is seeing prophetically the Christian truth that God in the person of Jesus suffered more than any other, for the sake of those he loved. No. Rather, Moses is joining together here the ideas of dwelling and suffering – our union with God necessarily involves suffering of some kind. This is inevitible for all Christians who have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Now, suffering comes to us in many different forms – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, the abuse of others, unfair treatment, self-denial from things of this world, and so on. Out of this suffering comes, if we so choose, a capacity to bless others. Now, I do not believe there is anything automatic about this, that suffering always leads to a capacity or desire to bless. In the case of Jesus it did lead to this outcome – from the cross he was able to bless the Roman soldiers, his own mother, and ultimately all those who through history would adhere to him.
But I suspect we have all noticed in other people, or indeed in ourselves, the opposite tendency. Suffering can turn us inwards in defensiveness or bitterness, or silent remoteness, just as it can turn us outwards into relationship and blessing. A life with God inevitably includes suffering in some form, but whether blessing emerges from our mouths in these circumstances is a choice that is personal and often made and repeated. Which choice are we going to make?
In summary, then, what do this reading tell us? Being able to impart blessing to other people is an important part of the Christian life. To be sure, there are many ways we can bless others by our actions, but the example we have looked at are concerned with blessing others by our words. These words have to be lead by the Holy Spirits knowledge of the person and their situation, but they also have to be open to God’s Spirit breathing inspiration into them.
If we are the one being blessed, then our reception needs to be faith-filled and active for the blessing to bear fruit. Blessings are rooted in our knowledge and experience of God’s actions and character. This character is described by Moses in a variety of ways – a place to dwell, a place of creative activity, a place where we suffer, and a singing-place. I suggest that all of us can deepen our personal experience of God in each of these ways, and in doing so allow our blessings to become more enlivened by God.