Deuteronomy contains Moses’ last address to the people of Israel before his death. In the previous almost 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, all of the adults who came out of Egypt have passed from the scene. Now he is addressing a new generation of Israel, most of whom did not witness the miraculous deliverance from Egypt. Moses recounts all of God’s wondrous works on their behalf and finishes up by telling them of the blessings they can expect if they obey the Lord and the curses they can expect if they disobey. One of the blessings Moses lists is found in Deuteronomy 28:13: “The LORD will make you the head, not the tail.”
Since it is one of the blessings promised to the obedient Israelites, we know that being the head rather than the tail is a good thing. The context gives a fuller series of contrasts: “You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom” (Deuteronomy 28:12–13).
In contrast, Deuteronomy 28:15–68 highlights the curses that will follow disobedience of God’s law. Verses 43–44 provide an exact parallel for two of the points in verses 12–13: “The foreigners living among you will become stronger and stronger, while you become weaker and weaker. They will lend money to you, but you will not lend to them. They will be the head, and you will be the tail!” (NLT).
Today, we have a saying about “the tail wagging the dog.” In our culture, this means that something is fundamentally out of balance when an unimportant or insignificant issue is given far too much weight when making a decision. The tail should not be dictating the direction of the dog—the head should do that.
From the context of Deuteronomy 28:13, we know it is better to be the head than the tail. In the previous verse, the lender has wealth and power while the borrower is subservient. Being the head would have a similar meaning. The head is the leader, the one who decides and charts the course, while the tail just has to follow along. The head decides where to go and what to do, while the tail has no say in the matter. As the head, Israel will be the one in charge, making decisions and charting her own obedient course under God’s blessing and protection. As the tail, Israel will be at the mercy of other nations who will dictate what she does and where she goes.
God promises that, if the people of Israel remain obedient to the law, they will be a leader among nations, not a follower—they will be the head. But if they choose to turn their back on God’s law, they will be a follower, not a leader—they will be the tail. We see a fulfillment of this blessing when Israel became a world leader under the reigns of David and Solomon. The curse was fulfilled when the nation of Israel was carried away into exile.
A similar metaphor is used in Isaiah 9, where God promises to “cut off from Israel both head and tail” (verse 14). The next verse explains the metaphor: “The elders and dignitaries are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail” (verse 15). Under normal circumstances, the prophets would have been the head. It was their job to proclaim the Word of the Lord, and then the leaders of the people would make policy in accordance with what the Lord had told them—they were to follow the Lord as He revealed His will through the prophets. In Isaiah’s time it was reversed. The leaders made their own policy, and the so-called prophets—lying prophets—would simply “rubber stamp” the plans and say that the Lord was with them. The prophets had become the tail that follows. They were nothing more than “yes-men” and sycophants (cf. 1 Kings 22).
Under the Mosaic Covenant, Israel was given the conditional blessing of being the head and not the tail. As they obeyed the Lord, Israel would have victory over their enemies, have the upper hand in trade agreements, and occupy a dignified position among the nations, who would give Israel honor and esteem.