The missing tribe in Moses' blessing
Question or Topic
In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons at the end of his life. Why, in Deuteronomy 33, when Moses blesses the tribes of Israel before his death, is Simeon not mentioned?
Scripture Deuteronomy 33:1
Answer Before attempting to address the omission of Simeon from the blessings of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, we would do well to briefly consider some of the other accounts where we find similar references to the tribes of Israel. As we survey the Old Testament for such lists of the tribes, we find that there are many. In fact, there are no less than twenty-four accounts in the Scriptures that list the twelve sons of Jacob and/or the tribes of the children of Israel, including one in the New Testament (Revelation 7:5-8). Of course, there is a quantitative difference between the twelve sons of Jacob and the tribes of the children of Israel, in that the "double portion" of Joseph's inheritance resulted in his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, both receiving allotments in the Promised Land.
What is interesting is that each and every listing of the sons of Jacob and of the tribes of Israel is at least slightly different from the others, either in the order of the names mentioned or in the specific names enumerated or not mentioned. For example, the two sons of Joseph are sometimes listed along with or instead of their father, and sometimes the tribe of Levi is included and sometimes not. The latter would be a logical omission in the case of listings that describe the various tribes' portion of their inheritance in the Promised Land. As we know, Levi, as the priestly tribe, was given certain cities within other tribes for their inheritance, but no separate allotment of land as awarded the other tribes.
Other differences can be explained by the context of the specific reference to the various tribal listings. Take for example, the tribal lists found in the book of Numbers. In some cases, they are based upon the arrangement of the encampment in the wilderness, and in other cases, the censuses of the fighting men. Again, in the latter case, there would obviously be no reference to the Levites. Bible scholars have ascribed the variations in the order and specific tribes mentioned or not to the "historical fluidity" of the nation (or the nations of Israel and Judah), where the specifics of the listing reflect circumstances at the time. In some cases, however, the reasons may not be obvious, leaving the reader to question why a particular tribe is missing from an otherwise complete list. The two principal anomalies that are brought up most often are the omission of the tribe of Simeon in the subject passage in Deuteronomy 33, and the omission of the tribes of both Dan and Ephraim in the list found in Revelation 7.
The key to explaining the missing tribe of Simeon in the final blessings of Moses is found in the first reference mentioned by the questioner - Gen. 49. The fact is that not all of the prophetic blessings of the patriarch Jacob for his twelve sons were favorable. This is certainly the case with the "blessing" of the two sons, Levi and Simeon, found in verses 5-7. They are anything but favorable and could be considered more of a cursing than a blessing. We are told that these two brethren are instruments of cruelty...for in their anger they slew a man...Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce and their wrath, for it was cruel. I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel. Jacob's pronouncement describes Simeon and Levi as having violent and vindictive dispositions which were manifested in their slaughter of the Shechemites in response to the incident with their sister Dinah (Genesis 34:25-31). Jacob then prophesied that these two sons would be scattered and dispersed in the land of Israel's inheritance.
The Hebrew word for "divide," in reference to the inheritance of Simeon and Levi in Gen. 49:7, means to "make them into lots" (or to give a portion of them to one tribe, and a portion to another). This was literally fulfilled with the Levites having no inheritance except for the cities scattered throughout different parts of the Land. And in the case of the tribe of Simeon, they were only given a small portion of land within Judah's allotment as clearly described in Joshua 19:9, Out of the portion of the children of Judah was the inheritance of the children of Simeon: for the part of the children of Judah was too much for them: therefore the children of Simeon had their inheritance within the inheritance of them. And so, they were "divided in Jacob" with what amounted to a small island surrounded by the much larger tribe of Judah. In fact, as time went on, the Simeonites found that they had too little land for their flocks. We are told in 1 Chronicles 4:39 that they went to the east side of the valley of Gedor to seek pasture for their flocks; and that the sons of Simeon smote the rest of the Amalekites that were escaped, and dwelt there unto this day (verse 43).
It is not surprising then, when at the end of Moses' life, we find no specific mention of the tribe of Simeon in his prophetic blessings of the children of Israel (at least in the KJV and most other translations). We note that some commentators have suggested that the last phrase in verse 6 of Deuteronomy 33 may actually refer to Simeon and not Reuben. They base this upon the Alexandrian copy of the Septuagint where the clause, And let not his men be few, is alternatively rendered, "Let Simeon be very numerous." However, we note that the word "not" is in italics in the Authorized Version, indicating that it is absent from the original Hebrew text and has been added. Taking this into account, the alternative rendering of Deuteronomy 33:6 could then be as follows: "Let Reuben live, and not die; but let the men of Simeon be few." This is exactly what we find to be the fate of this tribe as evidenced by a comparison of the first census taken after they came out of the land of Egypt to the one taken forty years later at the end of the wanderings in the wilderness. In the first case, Simeon was numbered at 59,300, and in the second, the tribe had dwindled down to 22,000, the smallest of all the tribes of Israel.
Suffice it to say the tribes of Simeon and Levi were treated differently than the other tribes, and that an expositional study of the various listings of sons of Jacob and the tribes of Israel would be a worthy undertaking for any Bible student. We thank the reader for this challenging question and encourage others to share their thoughts on the omission of Simeon in the subject passage, as well as the omission of Dan and Ephraim from the last tribal listing found in Revelation 7:5-8.