CHAPTER 2—THE LAST WORDS OF JACOB
GENESIS CHAPTER 49
by David E. West, England
In chapter 49 we have the last of the great sayings of destiny, the blessings, curses, judgments and promises, which are found throughout the Book of Genesis. This is the first of many instances in Scripture where vital themes are expressed in poetic form (vv.2-27 are written in verse) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The use of verse helps to make these pronouncements remain in the memory.
This ‘last will and testament’ of the patriarch Jacob is both a prophecy (“that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days” v.1) and a blessing (“every one according to his blessing he blessed them” v.28). Here we have a comprehensive view of what has come out, and what will yet come out, in the subsequent history of the sons of Jacob. It is not just a summary of the sons’ lives and relationships; it is also a blessing of “the tribes of Israel” v.16.
Jacob’s Blessing of All His Sons – vv.1-27
Collectively – vv.1,2
- “Gather yourselves together” v.1; “Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob” v.2.
Separately – vv.3-27
Leah’s Sons (six in total) – vv.3-15
- Reuben – vv.3,4
- Simeon and Levi – vv.5-7
- Judah – vv.8-12
- Zebulun and Issachar – vv.13-15
- Dan – vv.16-18
Zilpah’s Sons (two in total) – vv.19,20
- Gad – v.19
- Asher – v.20
Bilhah’s Other Son (two in total)
- Naphtali – v.21
Rachel’s Sons (two in total) – vv.22-27
- Joseph – vv.22-26
- Benjamin – v.27
It is immediately evident that Jacob gave most attention to Judah and Joseph; in fact, they are given as much space as all the other ten put together.
Collectively – vv.1,2
“And Jacob called unto his sons, and said.” Note that it is “Jacob”, meaning ‘heel-catcher’ or ‘contender’, the name used of the natural man, reminding us of his weakness. This was to be a family gathering, “Gather yourselves together”: they were to gather near the bed where he was sitting on the side; there is a certain note of authority in his call to them. “That I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last [or ‘latter’ R.V.] days”. Jacob speaks with an air of assurance and conviction. This verse, telling of prediction, and the use of the term “blessing” v.28, sum up the nature of this oracle. As the blessings allude to the history of the twelve heads of the nation, so there is outlined the future that awaits the tribes of Israel. The prophecy, v.1, and “blessing” v.28, extend to and embrace the days of the Messiah and His first and second advents. However, most of the blessings do not specifically deal with end times.
“Gather yourselves together.” Bearing in mind the poetic nature of the account, this expression parallels that in v.1. In repeating his injunction, Jacob makes a distinction between his telling them and their giving attention to his words: “hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father”. The name “Israel” (‘prince with God’) is used of his resignation to the will of God and is found in connection with his strength of faith and action.
Separately – vv.3-27
Reuben – vv.3,4
Reuben is the starting point; he had presumably taken his place closest to his father, on one side of the bed. Here are first stated his positive advantages:
- “thou art my firstborn”, emphasising his natural birthright
- “my might, and the beginning of my strength”: the firstborn is sometimes called in Scripture “the beginning of his [father’s] strength”: Reuben represented the primacy of Jacob’s manly strength in procreation
- “the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power”: he held the foremost place of dignity and power.
Thus we see in this verse the heaping of praise upon majestic praise concerning Reuben.
However, now we come to Reuben’s ignominious collapse: “unstable as water”. The word rendered “unstable” means, literally, ‘to flow down’, suggesting wildness, as well as weakness; it is that aspect of water so quickly becoming an undisciplined torrent which is the point of comparison.
The double use of “excellency” v.3, is cancelled by “thou shalt not excel”; he would never have anything special to contribute or leave to the benefit of his posterity. The tribe of Reuben produced no great leader in Israel, no judge, no king and no prophet. In the heroic struggle of Deborah and Barak against Sisera, the Reubenites were indecisive and gave no help, Judges chapter 5; as a tribe, they did “not excel”. “Because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it”: Reuben forfeited his pre-eminence because he boiled over with lust and sinned with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, demonstrating lack of self-control. At the time when this act of adultery and incest was carried out, it was simply passed over with the comment, “Israel heard it” Gen.35.22, but now Jacob did not hold back from condemning his firstborn. “He went up to my couch”: note the change from the second person, “thou”, to the third person, “he”; Jacob is exposing Reuben to his brethren.
Simeon and Levi – vv.5-7
“Simeon and Levi are brethren.” These were the next two eldest sons. They are described as brothers; they were literally full brothers, sons of Leah. They were probably the closest companions among all the brethren; they were ‘two of a pair’. “Instruments of cruelty [may be rendered ‘weapons of violence’] are in their habitations” (the Revised Version has “are their swords”): the suggestion is that those things which follow in v.6 were not the only examples of their violent natures.
“O my soul [or ‘heart’], come not thou into their secret”: clearly with deep emotion, Jacob dissociated himself from their motives (“secret” may be rendered ‘council’) and their actions. “Unto their assembly, mine honour be not thou united”. The name “Levi”, meaning ‘joined’, may well have suggested the unholy alliance from which Jacob himself recoiled with the words “be not … united”. “For in their anger they slew a man”: the present writer is given to understand the term “man” is a vivid singular for a plural (bear in mind the poetic nature of these verses); here we have a moral judgment upon a story told earlier without comment. Simeon and Levi had grievously offended Jacob in the episode involving the avenging of their sister, Dinah, Gen.34.25-31. These two had slain all the Shechemites because of the defiling of their sister by one of them, Shechem the son of Hamor. There may have been grounds for indignation, but they acted in the pride and violence of nature.
“And in their selfwill they digged down a wall.” The Revised Version has “and in their selfwill they houghed [hamstrung] an ox” (again, a vivid singular for a plural). Since the sin of Simeon and Levi consisted in their maltreatment of the men of Shechem, this, poetically, could refer to their butchering of strong men.
“Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel.” This is the only occasion in chapter 49 where Jacob pronounces a curse. Notice that Jacob cursed their cruel deception, but not the people of these two tribes themselves. “I will divide them in Jacob [the first occurrence as used of the whole nation], and scatter them in Israel.” It would be for their own good that they would not be allowed to band together, but rather be dispersed. Both clauses suggest a weakening by such a dispersal.
Simeon was subsequently given an inheritance “within the inheritance of the children of Judah” Josh.19.1. Some of the Simeonites were scattered and dwelt in the lands of the Edomites (“some of them … went to mount Seir”) and the Amalekites, outside of Canaan, 1Chr.4.42,43. In the days of the divided kingdom, many of the Simeonites left Israel to join Judah, 2Chr.15.9. Little is heard of the sons of Simeon after the days of King Asa. As far as Levi is concerned, his descendants never had an inheritance of their own in the land, with only forty-eight cities scattered throughout the other tribes, Josh.21.1-3,41. Thus, while Simeon disintegrated, Levi was awarded an honourable dispersion as the priestly element in Israel.
Judah – vv.8-12
In its length and eloquence, this blessing is matched only by that of Joseph, which it far outdistances in its range of prophecy.
“Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise.” Judah’s name, of course, means ‘praise’ and he would become the object of his brothers’ praise. “Thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies”: this is not so much the sequel to his being praised, but rather that which explains the reason. This graphic picture of complete victory found only partial and intermittent fulfilment when the people of Israel, led by the tribe of Judah, vanquished those who opposed their occupation of the promised land. However, we look beyond Judah himself to the One Who is “the Lion of the tribe of Juda” Rev.5.5, the promised One Who will rule the nations.
“Thy father’s children shall bow down before thee”: Judah would be the one before whom all his family would bow down. He would receive the patriarchal dominion and responsibility of the firstborn. When considered only in relation to Judah, as representing the tribe which would bear his name, Jacob’s words are full of interest, but insofar as they direct our minds to the future triumphs of Christ, they are enough to stir the heart of every believer.
This verse is essentially an allegory. Judah would become as the lion, the king of beasts. “Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up”: he would be as strong as a young lion that has overwhelmed and eaten his prey. “He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?”: he would be as secure as a mature lion, resting in his den, whom none would dare to rouse. It is interesting to note that Balaam, in his oracle on Israel, uses similar language: “He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up?” Num.24.9.
These statements of Jacob concerning Judah provide another instance of how initial fulfilments, limited by inevitable human failure, are forerunners of the ultimate and perfect climax in Christ Himself, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
“The sceptre shall not depart from Judah.” The sceptre, mentioned here for the first time in Scripture, is the symbol of rulership; it is a figure of speech for the one who holds it. The Hebrew word rendered “sceptre” is frequently translated “rod”, but it is nearly always associated with the exercise of authority of one kind or another. Judah indeed did become the leading tribe; once having been invested with kingly prerogatives, this royal status would never pass to another tribe. However, Judah did not actually receive the “sceptre” of leadership until the days of King David, over 640 years after Jacob’s prophecy.
“Nor a lawgiver [first mention] from between his feet.” The Revised Version replaces “lawgiver” by “ruler’s staff”, but “lawgiver” is retained in the margin; it may mean ‘one who decrees’. It is interesting to observe that in Ps.60.7 (also in Ps.108.8), where the Authorised Version reads “Judah is my lawgiver”, the Revised Version gives “Judah is my sceptre”. The expression “from between his feet” presumably means ‘from his posterity’; indeed the Septuagint reads “from his thighs”, that is, his seed.
“Until Shiloh come.” The meaning of “Shiloh” is somewhat obscure; indeed there is some lack of confidence in the translation as in the A.V.; it has been suggested that it would be better rendered ‘until he comes, to whom [it belongs]’. The Septuagint follows this rendering. The clause which follows implies that the sentence is Messianic: “unto him shall the obedience of the peoples [plural] be” R.V. The reference is to a coming King Who will rule over the nations; it must ultimately be seen as a promise of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself; this, of course, is yet future.
Every line of this verse and the following one speaks of exuberant abundance; it is the language of excess and prosperity. Judah’s portion was the vine-growing district in the south. “Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine”: vines would grow so abundantly that even asses would be tethered to them. “He washed his garments in wine; and his clothes in the blood of grapes” (the repetition is part of the poetic form): wine would be used as washing water.
“His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.” The land would be rich with milk (“a land flowing with milk and honey” Ex.3.8); this would make for strong and white teeth.
Verses 11 and 12 look on to the introduction of Millennial blessing. There will certainly be abundance of wine then (contrast John chapter 2, where the wine was deficient); it suggests fulness of Divine joy.
Zebulun and Issachar – vv.13-15
Zebulun and Issachar were Leah’s last two sons; their order is inverted here. Nothing is specifically said in the narrative portions of the Book of Genesis about the actions of these two sons.
“Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea.” It should be noted that the preposition in this verse could be rendered ‘towards’. Zebulun’s allotted land, Josh.19.10-16, did not reach the Mediterranean Sea coast; the tract actually assigned to this tribe was “up toward the sea” and “reached to the river that is before Jokneam” Josh.19.11. “And he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon”: Zebulun’s territory did not closely approach the sea port of Zidon, the main Phoenician city in the region. However, it was near enough to be enriched by maritime commerce. It should be borne in mind that this prophecy may look forward to the Millennium.
There is a later suggestion that the border of Zebulun extended to Capernaum, on the shore of Galilee: “He [the Lord Jesus] came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon, and Nephthalim … by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles” Matt.4.13,15.
“Issachar [meaning ‘hireling’] is a strong ass [or a strong-boned ass] couching down between two burdens.” The ass is viewed in Scripture as a durable and useful animal: people of rank rode upon asses. Jacob compared Issachar to an ass bowing down beneath a double burden (the Hebrew may be rendered ‘settled down between the sheepfolds’). This suits the portrait of a tribe rather too willing to trade its liberty for the material things of life. Issachar was so content to rest in pleasant pastoral surroundings that he had no will to fight for independence and became subject to the enemy’s yoke. He preferred to pay tribute to the Canaanites rather than engage in the struggle to expel them.
“And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant.” Historically, Issachar had rich lands and rich crops and he is seen resting and enjoying his situation. “And bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute [R.V. has “under taskwork”].” Eventually he would be pressed into servitude and the mere bearing of burdens for his masters.
Next listed are the four sons of the two handmaids. They are not presented in chronological order, Naphtali appearing fourth rather than second. Nothing is specifically mentioned about any of them in the narrative of the Book of Genesis.
“Dan shall judge his people.” His name and his call were to judge. Rachel had given Dan this name at his birth, because, as she said, “God hath judged me [i.e. had taken up her cause], and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son” Gen.30.6, through her handmaid, Bilhah. “As one of the tribes of Israel”: he would be counted as a tribe, though the tribal head was the son of a concubine.
The impressive opening concerning Dan is followed by an anti-climax: “Dan shall be a serpent by the way”. This verse reveals the same gulf between calling and achievement that was the disgrace of Reuben, vv.3,4. This may allude to Dan’s introducing the idolatry which caused the nation’s fall: “And the children of Dan set up the graven image” Judg.18.30: a serpent beguiling to idolatry. As a tribe they took the lead in apostasy.
“An adder [a horned viper] in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward”: Jacob compared Dan to a venomous snake that would defeat a mounted soldier by striking at the heel of his horse, making a surprise attack on the enemy.
This verse is the turning point of the chapter. After his reference to the serpent, did Jacob think of the one whom the serpent typifies, that old serpent, the devil? If so, he would also remember the promise of the coming seed whose heel would be bruised by the serpent, but who would finally crush his head, Gen.3.15. So we hear Jacob’s outburst, “I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord”: He is looking to Jehovah Himself. This is the first mention of the word “salvation” in Scripture. This salvation for which Jacob was waiting was actually a Person, for the Hebrew word is Yeshuah, ‘Jesus’.
Gad – v.19
“Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.” The present writer is given to understand that four of the six Hebrew words in this verse consist of Gad’s name and word plays on it.
Gad chose to settle east of Jordan when Israel was going in to possess Canaan and was thus especially open to attack because his territory was unprotected. It would indeed be true that “a troop shall press upon him” R.V. However, the next clause is one of reassurance, “but he shall overcome at the last” (the Revised Version reads “but he shall press upon their heel”). Although they were exposed, they would fight valiantly; we later learn that the Gadites were well able to engage in battle: “And of the Gadites there separated themselves unto David … men of might, and men of war fit for the battle, that could handle shield and buckler, whose faces were like the faces of lions” 1Chr.12.8. We might say that Jehovah’s salvation, v.18, made him an overcomer.
Asher – v.20
“Out of Asher his bread shall be fat.” The words “out of” should be omitted; “bread”, of course, is used for all food. Asher’s lot fell on the rich north sea coast, north of Mount Carmel, all the way to Tyre and Zidon, Josh.19.24-31. Happily for Asher, whose name means ‘happy’, this tribe would have fertile agricultural land. “And he shall yield royal dainties”: this tribe would produce delicacies fit for a king. We are told that “Solomon had twelve officers over all Israel, which produced victuals for the king and his household” 1Kgs.4.7.
“Naphtali is a hind let loose.” There is clearly an emphasis upon freedom of action: Naphtali is likened to a doe that has been released from confinement; there is nothing to restrain his movements. His descendants would be known for swiftness, as warriors fleet of foot. This highland tribe was to earn a name for itself under Barak by leading Israel to break loose from a crippling bondage, Judg.4.6.
The present writer is given to understand that there is some problem with the translation of the second clause, which the Authorised Version renders “he giveth goodly words”; this does seem to be an abrupt transition from the first clause. However, taking the Authorised Version rendering, the prediction regarding “goodly [or ‘beautiful’] words” was, no doubt, fulfilled in measure by the victory song of Deborah and Barak, Judg.5.1-31.
It might be well to note in passing that all of the twelve apostles, apart from Judas Iscariot, came from the territory of Naphtali. Much of the ministry of the Lord Jesus was carried out there, Matt.4.13-16.
Joseph – vv.22-26
To Joseph, his favourite son, Jacob pronounced a blessing comparable only to that of Judah. This blessing is a story, mainly of fruitfulness, but also of struggle and victory. “Joseph is a fruitful bough [lit. ‘a son of fruitfulness’], even a fruitful bough by a well [or fountain, spring]”. Another translation gives “Joseph is a fruitful vine”. A well is constructed with the express purpose of storing accumulating water to be drawn upon as occasion demands. However, a spring or fountain occurs naturally
and flows with a continuous supply of fresh water. This would suggest that Joseph was spiritually nourished because his faith was rooted in God.
“Whose branches [lit. ‘daughters’] run over the wall”: this predicts that the tribe of Joseph (actually, the two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph) would be strong and numerous.
The thought now moves from the present, from what might be termed the summer of Joseph’s days, back to the stresses of the past. “The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated [‘‘persecuted’’ R.V.] him.” Here we have a change of metaphor: Jacob now makes reference to the opposition Joseph had to encounter, first from his own brethren and then from his early experiences in the land of Egypt.
We do well to note that later we read of those who “are not grieved for the affliction [or ‘breach’] of Joseph” Amos 6.6. Those who plotted against him are likened to archers, and the various forms of their oppression like arrows which bowmen aim at those whom they oppose.
“But his bow abode in strength.” Joseph was well able to withstand the attacks; he would be steadfast under pressure; he did not yield. His bow was effective. This description not only applied directly to Joseph himself and to his triumph over the enmity of his brethren, but it was also prophetic of the experience of Joseph’s descendants.
“And the arms of his hands were made strong [not ‘were strong’]”: his hands were strengthened and thus firm and steady, “by the mighty God [One] of Jacob”. Jacob, who had himself been strengthened, acknowledged the mighty (strong) God to be “the God of Jacob”. The term “mighty One” is used of God as the champion of His cause. “(From thence is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel).” “From thence” that is, from God: Jacob now grasped the concept of God sending the Messiah to be the shepherd of His people; this is the first time this title is used of the Messiah. Jacob follows one metaphor with another: “The Stone of Israel”. The coming One of Whom he had spoken would be the foundation upon which would surely rest the purposes of God for the nation of Israel.
“Even by the God [El] of thy father, who shall help thee, and by the Almighty [Shaddai].” Joseph’s God was the same God as the God of Jacob. “Who shall bless thee with the blessings of heaven above”: the blessings of rain from the heavens; “blessings of the deep that lieth under”: water flowing through the pores of the ground beneath his feet; “blessings of the breasts, and of the womb”: the wombs of the females of the tribe would be fertile and the breasts would have milk to feed the offspring born; there would be numerous, healthy progeny.
“The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting [ancient] hills.” It should be borne in mind that the hills bounding the fertile fields of Ephraim and Manasseh actually dated back to the great flood. Jacob himself had received greater blessings than his own forebears, with a large number of sons and with fruitful lands to the very boundaries marked by the surrounding ancient hills. The patriarch predicts that all of the blessings he had received would be continued in Joseph and the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
He was the one “separate from [set apart, Hebrew nazir, later used for “Nazarite”] his brethren”: he was not involved in their wrong-doing and, later, he would be living far from them, and thus marked out for special distinction and service. These prophecies were fulfilled in the later histories of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, especially the former.
Benjamin – v.27
“Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf.” Jacob presents Benjamin as ‘the fierce one’. “In the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” He would be fully capable of hunting to support his family; his night’s hunting would provide a morning feast which would last until evening.
This was both a promise and a warning. The tribe of Benjamin would be bold and strong, successful in warfare. In the Book of Judges, the Benjamites distinguished themselves on two occasions. Ehud killed Eglon, king of Moab, Judges chapter 3; in a later grievous quarrel with the rest of Israel, the tribe proved to be very competent warriors, Judges chapter 20. However, the tribe might become cruel and voracious (wolf-like); their exploits were marked here and there by a ferocity beyond the accepted level.
These were indeed ‘the last words of Jacob’ for “when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people” v.33. He “died in faith” Heb.11.13. He ended his days well, as a worshipper, “and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff” Heb.11.21. The Hebrew text renders this, ‘he bowed himself upon the bed’s head’.