- (1-2) What will befall the sons of Jacob in the last days.
And Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days:
Gather together and hear, you sons of Jacob,
And listen to Israel your father.”
- Jacob called his sons: Jacob, in what amounted to his last significant act as a patriarch and as the heir to Abraham and Isaac, will here pronounce one-by-one a blessing upon each son.
- What shall befall you in the last days: Some of what follows are not so much blessings as they are prophecies regarding what God will do with these tribes in the future.
- This is the first conscious prophecy spoken by man in the Bible. There were many prophecies announced by God (such as the promise of the triumph of the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15), and other veiled prophecies by men, but this is the first knowing prophecy of the Bible.
- Jewish traditions tell us that as Jacob was about to bless his sons he was ready to tell them the “great secret concerning the end of time.” But at that moment, the glory of God visited and left just as quickly, taking all trace of the knowledge of the great mystery, so he couldn’t tell them. Again, just an interesting legend.
- You sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father: At the very beginning of the blessing, Jacob realized he was both Jacob and Israel, and his sons are sons of each. This was a place of spiritual maturity, realizing both what God made him (Israel) and what he had to battle against (Jacob).
- (3-4) Reuben: You shall not excel.
“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
My might and the beginning of my strength,
The excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.
Unstable as water, you shall not excel,
Because you went up to your father’s bed;
Then you defiled it;
He went up to my couch.”
- You are my firstborn: As the firstborn of the family Reuben had claim to the inheritance rights of the firstborn, but he forfeited it through pride (the excellency of dignity) and immorality (you defiled it).
- Reuben’s immorality with his father’s concubine Bilhah (the mother of his brothers Dan and Naphtali) is recorded in Genesis 35:22.
- Unstable as water, you shall not excel: Because of Reuben’s instability the birthright was divided. Usually the firstborn was the spiritual and social leader of the clan; but among the sons of Israel the rights of blessing, priesthood, and ruling authority were divided rather than being centralized in one.
- Though we see the great wisdom of God in decentralizing authority among the sons of Israel, Reuben paid a high price for his instability. As much as anything, God looks for stable character in those who will lead His people.
- You shall not excel: The tribe of Reuben never did excel. No prophet, no judge, or no king came from the tribe of Reuben. Reuben is an example of how the first can be last (Matthew 19:30).
- (5-7) Simeon and Levi: I will…scatter them in Israel.
“Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place.
Let not my soul enter their council;
Let not my honor be united to their assembly;
For in their anger they slew a man,
And in their self-will they hamstrung an ox.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
And scatter them in Israel.”
- Simeon and Levi are brothers: The second-born son Simeon and the third-born son Levi received the same blessing for the same evil deed. They were instruments of cruelty when they wiped out all the men of Shechem in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34:25-29).
- Jacob, perhaps in weakness, did nothing at the time except register a small, self-centered complaint (Genesis 34:30). Yet he (and the Lord) remembered this event. This illustrates the principle that the sins of our past can come back and haunt us. Even when forgiven, they may carry consequences we must face for a lifetime.
- Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce: The real problem with Simeon and Levi was their anger (in their anger they slew a man). Their anger was sin because it was rooted in self-will (in their self-will they hamstrung an ox).
- The Bible speaks of a godly anger (Be angry and do not sin, Ephesians 4:26) and an ungodly anger (Let all bitterness, wrath, anger…be put away from you, Ephesians 4:31). Often, the difference between a godly, righteous anger and an ungodly anger is self-will.
- I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel: The prophecy of dividing and scattering turned out to be a curse for Simeon. The tribe of Simeon was the weakest numerically of the 12 (Numbers 26:14) and shared an allotment of land with Judah (Joshua 19:1).
- The tribe of Simeon became small during the wilderness wanderings. They started out from Egypt being the third largest tribe (Numbers 1:23), but some 35 years later, at the second wilderness census of Israel, 63% of the tribe perished and they became the smallest tribe (Numbers 26:14).
- I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel: The prophecy of dividing and scattering became a blessing for Levi. Because of the faithfulness of this tribe during the rebellion of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-28), it was scattered as a blessing throughout the whole nation of Israel. They received no large tract of land, for the Lord was their inheritance, not land (Joshua 13:33).
- So both Simeon and Levi were scattered, but one as a blessing and the other as a curse.
- The American author Washington Irving said: “It lightens the stroke to draw near to him who handles the rod.” When we suffer from our sin, we should draw near to God and anticipate that in mercy He will turn suffering into blessing.
- (8-12) Judah: The scepter shall not depart from Judah.
“Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s children shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He bows down, he lies down as a lion;
And as a lion, who shall rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
Binding his donkey to the vine,
And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
He washed his garments in wine,
And his clothes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
And his teeth whiter than milk.”
- Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise: Judah wasn’t a completely exemplary character. He suggested a profit motive in getting rid of Joseph (Genesis 37:26). He did not deal faithfully with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38:26), and he had sex with her as a prostitute (Genesis 38:18). But he showed good character when he interceded and offered himself as a substitute for Joseph (Genesis 44:18-34). Overall, this blessing is an example of the richness of God’s grace.
- Jewish tradition says after Judah heard what Jacob had to say to Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, he was afraid because of the evil he did.
- You are he whom your brothers shall praise…as a lion…the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet…to Him shall be the obedience of the people: Each of these refer to the ruling position Judah will have among his brethren. He inherited the leadership aspect of the firstborn’s inheritance. This leadership position among his brothers meant that the eventual kings of Israel would come from Judah and that the Messiah – God’s ultimate leader – would eventually come from the tribe of Judah.
- In Revelation 5:5, Jesus is called the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
- “The firstborn normally had two rights. First, he became the leader of the family, the new patriarch. Second, he was entitled to a double share of the inheritance, receiving twice as much as any of the other brothers.” (Boice)
- Until Shiloh comes: The leadership prophecy took some 640 years to fulfill in part with the reign of David, first of Judah’s dynasty of kings. The prophecy took some 1600 years to completely fulfill in Jesus. Jesus is referred to as Shiloh, the name meaning, He whose right it is and a title anciently understood to speak of the Messiah.
- From David until the Herods, a prince of Judah was head over Israel (even Daniel in captivity). The promise was that Israel would keep this scepter until Shiloh comes. Even under their foreign masters during this period, Israel had a limited right to self-rule, until a.d. 7. At that time, under Herod and the Romans, their right to capital punishment – a small but remaining element of their self-governance – was taken away.
- At the time, the rabbis considered it a disaster of unfulfilled Scripture. Seemingly, the last vestige of the scepter had passed from Judah, and they did not see the Messiah. Reportedly, rabbis walked the streets of Jerusalem and said, “Woe unto us, for the scepter has been taken away from Judah, and Shiloh has not come.” Yet God’s word had not been broken.
iii. Certainly, Jesus was alive then. Perhaps this was the very year He was 12 years old and discussed God’s Word in the temple with the scholars of His day. Perhaps He impressed them with His understanding of this very issue.
- Binding his donkey to the vine: This blessing also contained a description of Judah’s material abundance (the vine…the choice vine). Judah’s land was great wine-growing country.
- (13) Zebulun: A haven for ships.
“Zebulun shall dwell by the haven of the sea;
He shall become a haven for ships,
And his border shall adjoin Sidon.”
- Zebulun: Jacob now skipped the birth order, moving to the tenth-born and ninth-born sons, but keeping his focus on the sons born of Leah.
- The tribe of Zebulun was noted for its faithfulness to David, supplying the largest number of soldiers to David’s army of any single tribe: Of Zebulun there were fifty thousand who went out to battle, expert in war with all weapons of war, stouthearted men who could keep ranks (1 Chronicles 12:33).
- He shall become a haven for ships: The tribe of Zebulun seems to have settled the piece of land sitting between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Literally, shall dwell by the haven of the sea can be translated looking towards the sea. Zebulun did look to the sea, both to the east and west.
- (14-15) Issachar: A strong donkey.
“Issachar is a strong donkey,
Lying down between two burdens;
He saw that rest was good,
And that the land was pleasant;
He bowed his shoulder to bear a burden,
And became a band of slaves.”
- Issachar is a strong donkey: Issachar was a large tribe – third in size according to the Numbers 26 census.
- And became a band of slaves: Because of their size and abundance, they were often targets of oppressive foreign armies who put them into servitude. Thus, they became a band of slaves.
- “The meaning seems to be that Issachar was strong, but docile and lazy. He would enjoy the good land assigned him but would not strive for it. Therefore, eventually he would be pressed into servitude and the mere bearing of burdens for his masters.” (Leupold)
- (16-18) Dan: A serpent by the way.
“Dan shall judge his people
As one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan shall be a serpent by the way,
A viper by the path,
That bites the horse’s heels
So that its rider shall fall backward.
I have waited for your salvation, O Lord!”
- Dan shall judge his people: The tribe of Dan did judge his people. They supplied one of the most prominent of the Judges, Samson (Judges 13:2).
- Dan shall be a serpent by the way: Dan was a troublesome tribe. They introduced idolatry into Israel (Judges 18:30). Jeroboam set up one of his idolatrous golden calves in Dan (1 Kings 12:26-30) and later Dan became a center of idol worship in Israel (Amos 8:14).
- Some think the serpent by the way refers to the idea that the Antichrist would come from the tribe of Dan (based on Daniel 11:37 and Jeremiah 8:16).
- Dan is left out of the listing of tribes regarding the 144,000 in Revelation 7:5-8. But Dan is the first tribe listed in Ezekiel’s millennial roll call of the tribes (Ezekiel 48). This is a remarkable sign of God’s redemption.
- I have waited for your salvation, O Lord: The Hebrew word for salvation is “yeshuwah.” At this point in the prophecy, when Jacob was near death, he called out for God’s salvation. Knowingly or not, Jacob called out for Jesus.
- (19) Gad: He shall triumph at last.
“Gad, a troop shall tramp upon him,
But he shall triumph at last.”
- Gad: The tribe of Gad supplied many fine troops for David (1 Chronicles 12:14).
- A troop shall tramp upon him: In the days of Jeremiah (among other times) foreign armies oppressed Gad (Jeremiah 49:1).
- (20) Asher: He shall yield royal dainties.
“Bread from Asher shall be rich,
And he shall yield royal dainties.”
- Bread from Asher shall be rich: In Deuteronomy 33:24, Moses again took up this prophecy regarding Asher: Asher is most blessed of sons; let him be favored by his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.
- He shall yield royal dainties: Apparently, the land eventually occupied by Asher was good enough to bring not only necessities, but also luxuries.
- (21) Naphtali: He gives goodly words.
“Naphtali is a deer let loose;
He uses beautiful words.”
- Naphtali: Naphtali’s land was in a key portion near the Sea of Galilee, the region where Jesus did much of His teaching and ministry.
- Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4:12-16).
- He uses beautiful words: Because so much of the ministry of Jesus took place in the region of Naphtali, this was fittingly said of him.
- (22-26) Joseph: A fruitful bough.
“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
A fruitful bough by a well;
His branches run over the wall.
The archers have bitterly grieved him,
Shot at him and hated him.
But his bow remained in strength,
And the arms of his hands were made strong
By the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob
(From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
By the God of your father who will help you,
And by the Almighty who will bless you
With blessings of heaven above,
Blessings of the deep that lies beneath,
Blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
Have excelled the blessings of my ancestors,
Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills.
They shall be on the head of Joseph,
And on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brothers.”
- Joseph is a fruitful bough: This was both a description of Joseph’s life and a personal blessing concerning his descendants. In a sense, Joseph’s tribes were already blessed when his sons received their blessing in Genesis 48.
- The archers have bitterly grieved him: Though Joseph was shot at and hated, he was still a fruitful bough. This was because the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob. The idea is that God’s hands were on Joseph’s hands, giving him strength and skill to work the bow expertly. God was there, even when Joseph did not know it.
- The Almighty who will bless you: Joseph was certainly blessed in his posterity. His tribes were some of the most populous. In this sense, he received the materialblessing, the double portion aspect of the inheritance of the firstborn.
- The blessings of your father have excelled the blessings of my ancestors: Jacob could say this because he was, for much of his life, a scoundrel. Now at the end of his days, he saw just how good God was to him. He was forgiven much and loved much (Luke 7:47).
- The Mighty God of Jacob: In his words about Joseph, Jacob listed five great titles for God. These titles show that Jacob did come to an understanding of who God is.
- The Mighty God of Jacob
- The Shepherd
- The Stone of Israel
- The God of your father
- The Almighty
- This is much better than when Jacob referred to God as the God of Abraham or the Fear of his father Isaac (Genesis 31:53). Now he knows who God is for himself.
- (27) Benjamin: a ravenous wolf.
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
In the morning he shall devour the prey,
And at night he shall divide the spoil.”
- Benjamin is a ravenous wolf: This was the tribe with a reputation for fierceness.
- He shall devour the prey: To see the great extent of this, look at Ehud (Judges 3:15-23), Saul (1 Samuel 9:1, 14:47-52), and Paul (Acts 8:1-3). The cruelty of the tribe in general is seen in Judges 19 and 20.
- (28) Jacob concludes his blessing of the sons.
All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them; he blessed each one according to his own blessing.
- And he blessed them: Some of the things mentioned regarding these tribes may seem a bit cloudy, but only because we may not know exactly their fulfillment until the age to come.
- Each one according to his own blessing: Each son and each tribe that would come from them had their own calling and destiny. Yet the remarkable promise remained – that they each would survive and grow into significant tribes, without one perishing during the centuries to come in Egypt.
- Jacob’s death.
- (29-32) Jacob makes his sons promise to bury him in Canaan.
Then he charged them and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite as a possession for a burial place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is there were purchased from the sons of Heth.”
- I am to be gathered to my people: Jacob was confident that his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham lived on, and that he would be gathered to them.
- Bury me with my fathers: Though Jacob was now in Egypt, he knew he was not an Egyptian. He was a son of the promise, an heir of God’s covenant with Abraham, and he asked to be buried in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by covenant.
- In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah: Egypt was filled with magnificent tombs, and because of the respect Jacob had he could have been buried like a Pharaoh. But he wanted to be buried in an obscure cave in Canaan, because Canaan was the land of promise.
- (33) The death of Jacob.
And when Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.
- Breathed his last: This ends the life of the last of the great patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet the work and plan of God did not end. It continued through men and generations to come.
- And was gathered to his people: There are said to be three basic attitudes towards death. Among the ancient Greeks, they held to what can be called the death-acceptingview. Our modern world is sold out to a death-denying approach. The Biblical approach is the death-defying attitude