17. His glory is like the firstling. Translators obscure the meaning by translating the word firstling in the nominative case. I have no doubt, however, but that he compares the glory of Joseph to the size of a very fine bullock, as if He had said, “His beauty is as of the most choice bullocks in his herds.” At least it is very consistent that the word firstling should be used for pre-eminent. He says, then, that no more magnificent or glorious bullocks should be found in the land of Joseph than the people itself would be. And to beauty he adds strength and vigor, so that they should be victorious over all their enemies.
At the end of the verse (as I have before stated,) he declares that what he had prophesied of Joseph should be common to the two families of Ephraim and Manasseh. At the same time he confirms the declaration of Jacob, whereby he had preferred Ephraim the younger to the elder. Manasseh, therefore, only reckons his thousands, but Ephraim his tell thousands, a proof of which fact God had given in the census which has been already recorded, in which the tribe of Ephraim was found to be the more numerous.
18.And of Zebulun he said. Hecompares two tribes with each other, which, although neighbors in position, were still very dissimilar; for the one being devoted to mercantile pursuits, went forth frequently in various directions; the other took more delight in quietude and repose; and this their great variety of condition is indicated, when he bids Zebulun rejoice in its expeditions, and Issachar in its domestic repose. Moses thus confirms the prophecy of Jacob, who said that Zebulun should “dwellat the haven of the sea,”so as to make voyages of traffic; whilst Issachar, as delighting more in repose, should be lazy and idle, so as to make no objections against paying tribute, in order to purchase peace. (<014913>Genesis 49:13-15.)
What follows I suppose to be added, as though Moses had said that their distant location should not prevent them from going up with the others to Jerusalem, for the purpose of performing their religious duties. For in that they were farther removed from the temple, their zeal in the legal service might have grown cold. Although, then, they dwelt in the utmost borders of the land, Moses says that they should nevertheless come to offer sacrifices to God. By the peoples some understand the other tribes, which does not appear at all consistent; and others, foreign nations, to which their commercial intercourse gave them access. My interpretation, however, is simply that, although the length of the journey should invite them to remain at home, still they should mutually exhort each other to betake themselves in large companies to the temple. The end of the verse may be the statement of a reason for this, as if it were said, that they will be more attentive to the service of God, because, being enriched by him, they will be desirous to offer Him the praise. And assuredly it is a sign of gross ingratitude, when we are not stimulated by God’s blessings to strive more earnestly to render thanks to him, in proportion as he deals more liberally with us. At the same time, Moses shows that, in consideration of their great wealth, the expenses of the journey would be by no means onerous to them; for, although their country was not very fertile, still its position was most advantageous for the acquirement of riches. Thus when it is here said, “they shall suck of the abundance of the seas,” an antithesis is to be understood between the fruits of the earth and the abundant revenues derived from merchandise. To the same effect, “the treasures hid in the sand” are spoken of. For the exposition given by some, that their treasures should be so great as that they should hide them in the sand; and by others, that the sands should there be so prolific in silver and gold; and by others, that they should collect what the sea should throw up, is poor and vapid. Whereas, therefore, others should grow rich from their lands, Moses says, by an elegant figure, that the sands of Zebulun should be filled with hidden treasures, on account of their foreign traffic.
20.And of Gad he said. In the blessing of the tribe of Gad, mention is only made of the hereditary portion, which it had obtained without casting of lots. He therefore celebrates the blessing of God, because He had accordedto the Gadites an ample dwelling-place; for the word “enlargeth” refers to the extent of their possession. But inasmuch as in that extremity of the land beyond Jordan, they were on a hostile border, he declares that they would be warlike, and hence compares them to a lion, which tears its prey sometimes from the head, and sometimes from the arm. Since, then, that position would not be so peaceful as any other region in the midst of Canaan, he declares that they should be safe and sound, through their own audacity. And although it is not a very pleasant condition to be harassed by constant wars, still, in such a disagreeable case, God’s grace was not to be despised, which made them formidable to their enemies, and of great valor, whereby they might not only repel hostile invasions, but be willing of themselves to make predatory expeditions. If any should object that license for rapine was quite unsuitable for God’s children, the solution is obvious, that reference is not here made to what was lawful, or what was desirable and praiseworthy, but that a consolation was offered them by way of protection against the incursions and annoyances of their enemies. Besides, the lust for booty is not made permissible, but praise is merely given to their courage in overcoming their enemies.
21.And he provided the first part for himself.f322Others translate it not badly, the first-fruits. Jerome’s rendering, pre-eminence (principatum,)however, is quite out of the question. The word beginning (principium,) however, is very suitable, for Moses thus signifies that the Gadites were beforehand in seeking a dwelling-place for themselves; for before possession of the land was accorded to the people, they asked for the kingdom of Sihon for themselves. It is afterwards added, in what way they were provident in choosing their abode, namely, because God suggested to them that Moses was at liberty to assign this portion to them. For it is called the “portionof the lawgiver,” as being that respecting which Moses might lawfully decide, since he appropriated it to the Gadites, not by hazard, nor otherwise than by God’s command. It is called the hidden portion, f323 as not having been included by God in His promise. The sum is, that although God’s will was not yet revealed, with respect to this addition to the land, still they obtained it through His secret liberality. And Moses desires flint his decision with regard to the Gadites remaining on this side Jordan should be thus confirmed, since disputes might have otherwise arisen, inasmuch as God’s promise had assigned the boundaries of the whole people on the opposite bank. Theirs is a poor exposition who explain it that Moses was buried there; and those also violently wrest the words, who understand by “thelawgiver” the chiefs of the Amorites, and render the words “hidden portion,” the ceiled palaces;f324nor would they have been thus extravagant in their notions, if the natural meaning which I have given had occurred to them.
The other clause of the verse is added by way of qualification; for Moses shows that this advantageous provision was made for the children of Gad, on condition that they should accompany the other tribes, and not return home until the land of Canaan was at peace, and their enemies subdued. And we have already seen that, when they sought for themselves this location outside the land, in the kingdom of the Amorites, they were severely rebuked by Moses, until they promised that they would share the war with their brethren until its conclusion. This is what Moses means by “executingthe justice of God, and his judgments with Israel;” not only because it was but just that they should share the war with their brethren, and assist them in obtaining possession of the land, but because God ordained that His just vengeance should be executed upon those heathen and wicked nations by the whole of Israel, and had chosen all the tribes generally to be the ministers of His judgment; as it is said, in <19E907>Psalm 149:7, 8, 9, that they were charged “to execute vengeance upon the heathen, . . to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written;” for it was no common honor to be appointed to be, as it were, the judges of the ungodly, so as to destroy them all, and thus to purify the land.
22. And of Dan he said. He foretells that the tribe of Dan, like that of Gad, should be warlike, not so much from voluntary disposition, as from necessity; for their love of war was not to be deemed praiseworthy, inasmuch as it is altogether contrary to humanity; but because the unscrupulousness of the enemies, by which that tribe was infested, compelled them to take up arms. He compares it to a lion impetuously leaping from Mount Bashan; and the particle of comparison must be understood here, for Mount Bashan was not situated in the territory of this tribe. But Moses means to say that they should be as ready for the combat as a lion, which, after it has issued from its den into the open plains, makes an attack upon every one that it meets.
23.And of Naphtali he said. He predicts that God would deal bountifully towards these two tribes; for to the first a fertile district would be allotted towards “the west and the south.” What he declares respecting the tribe of Asher is not free from ambiguity; for he is said to be blessed, µynbm, mibanim, i.e.,either with children, or above children. If we prefer the former meaning, his prolificness (polutekni>a)is celebrated, as though it were said, Asher shall be blessed with a numerous progeny. There may, however, be a comparison between this tribe and the others; and this might justly be made to its advantage, because it had a very fertile district allotted to it, and abounding in wheat of the best quality, as the blessing of Jacob testifies,
“Out of Asher shall bread be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.” (<014920>Genesis 49:20.)
He adds that “Asher shall be acceptableto his brethren;” from whence we gather that his tribe should be of a placid disposition: and afterwards figuratively celebrates the abundance of his oil, and iron, and brass. For to “dip his foot in oil,” is as much as to say that he should collect an abundant supply of oil; and that “his shoes should be iron and brass,” is nothing more than that he should tread upon a soil full of these metals. It is to be readily inferred from hence, as from preceding passages, that the blessings, which are now mentioned, are not so much wishes or prayers, as prophecies; since without the spirit of prophecy Moses could never have divined what, or what sort of, territory was to be bestowed on the several tribes.
Commentators vary as to the latter words; for some render the word abd, daba, old age, or, grief, as if there were a transposition of the letters, f325 and thus restrict the meaning of the word “days” to youth; but others more correctly suppose, that Asher was to be strong and vigorous through the whole course of his life. Since, therefore, years gradually debilitate men, Moses promises to the posterity of Asher that their rigor should be retained to the very end of life.
26.There is none like unto the God. Moses proceeds from the parts to the whole, and now comes to speak of the whole body, which consisted of the twelve families. All that he says tends to the same end, viz., that the people of Israel were happy as being taken by God under this faithful guardianship: for nothing is more to be desired with regard to our best interests, than that our welfare should be intrusted to the hand of God. But, since this inestimable blessing of being protected by the care of God is often but lightly prized, Moses exclaims in admiration, that there is none to be compared to the God of Israel. We know that all nations had their tutelary gods or patrons, and foolishly gloried in their respective idols; although they often found from experience, that whatever confidence they placed in them was vain and frivolous. Moses, therefore, separates from this imaginary multitude of false gods the God of Israel, like whom, he says, none can be anywhere found. He also extols His power, because He rides gloriously on the heavens and clouds, which is tantamount to all high things being subject to His dominion. But, whereas it would be of little profit to reflect on his infinite power except; in its connection with ourselves, Moses expressly reminds us that God is not strong for Himself, but in order that He may help His people.
27.The eternal God is thy refuge. This is just as if he had said that the Israelites were protected from above by the help of God, and also based, as it were, upon Him. The beginning of the prayer corresponds with that other in <199001>Psalm 90:1, “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.” The sum is, that although the Israelites might be exposed to many injuries, still there was secure repose for them under the shadow of God’s wings; and assuredly unless the hand of God had been like a roof to protect them, they would have perished a thousand times over. But, inasmuch as it would not be sufficient for our heads to be in safety, the other point is also added, viz., that God’s arms should be stretched forth to sustain them from beneath. He calls them “everlasting,” because the security of the pious, who rely upon God, is never shaken: it is, therefore, just as though he represented God to be at the same time the foundation, and the roof, of their abode. Others translate it less correctly, “Thou shalt live under the arms of the Everlasting;”for an elegant distinction is drawn, f326 which, however, tends to the same point, when God it called µdq, kedem, and His arms µl[, gnolam, the first of which words has reference to the past, whilst in the other there is allusion to the future; as if he had said of God, that He was from the beginning, and that His power would endure unto the end.
He adduces experimental evidence of the above statements, inasmuch as God had f327 miraculously destroyed the enemies of His people; at the same time he specifies the manner in which this was done, viz., that He had said, Destroy, or blot out, or dissipate. And by this word he signifies that, although God had made use of the agency of the Israelites, still He only was the conqueror; since the Israelites prevailed not except at His bidding, and by His will.
28.Israel then shall dwell in safety alone.f328The beginning of the verse is by no means obscure, for Moses promises in it to the elect people what all have naturally a great desire for, viz., peace or tranquillity; for he is said to dwell confidently alone, who: fears no danger, whom no care harasses, and who needs no garrison, or defense. This, indeed, God never vouchsafed altogether to the Israelites, that they should inhabit their land in security and without the fear of enemies, inasmuch as their ingratitude did not allow of it; and therefore the prophets, in enumerating the blessings of Christ’s kingdom, declarethat every one should “dwell beneathhis own vine, and his own fig-tree.”
For “the fountain of Jacob,” some have the word eye,f329and suppose it to be used metaphorically for his vision; as though it were said, that the quiet and peaceful habitation referred to was to be expected by the people from the vision of their father Jacob. Others, however, more correctly read the words “fountain of Jacob,” in apposition (with Israel,) inasmuch as all the tribes derived their origin from that one father. In this way the “fountain” will not be only the actual source; but the rivulet, or stream, which flows down from it.
In conclusion, Moses promises that the very sky of the Holy Land should be propitious, and benignant.