FINAL PROPHETIC BLESSINGS AND FINAL BURIAL CHARGE ISSUED BY JACOB UPON HIS DEATHBED
It is fitting that Jacob’s final words should communicate a legacy of blessing and of fulfillment of covenant promises to the 12 tribes of Israel. His walk with God had been quite a roller coaster of wrestling and striving with the Almighty. At times, he gave in to his natural tendency to rely on his own craftiness and scheming. While at other times he demonstrated the growing maturity of a man who had learned to walk by faith and anticipate future blessing.
Significant that some of these “blessings” were actually curses.
The emphasis is on the blessing prophecied for Joseph and for Judah – ten of the 25 verses deal with just these two major figures with Messianic implications.
Hughes: Again we must emphasize that though some of the brothers were chastised and passed over and two were given ultimate leadership, all the sons of Jacob were blessed because they all became founders of tribes that would emerge victoriously from Egypt as the children of Abraham – and from them would come the blessing.
John Sailhamer: Jacob’s last words to his sons have become the occasion for a final statement of the book’s major theme: God’s plan to restore the lost blessing through the offspring of Abraham.
I. (:1-28) FINAL PROPHETIC BLESSINGS
A. (:1-2) Summons to Hear
“Then Jacob summoned his sons and said, ‘Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what shall befall you in the days to come. Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; And listen to Israel your father.”
Parunak: the last days.—This phrase always has a prophetic sense, describing something either in the historical (Num 24:14; Deut 4:30; 31:29) or distant eschatological (Isa 2:2) time. The future in focus in this blessing reaches from the settlement in Canaan (v.13) to the coming of the Messiah (v.10) and on into the Messianic age (v. 11). He is concerned to point them beyond their temporary residence in Egypt, and to remind them that their ultimate home is elsewhere.
B. (:3-27) Specifics – Prophecies Relating to Each of the 12 Sons
1. (:3-4) Reuben Disqualified – Preeminence Removed Because of Flagrant Defilement
a. Positive – five-fold description
“Reuben, you are my first-born;
and the beginning of my strength,
Preeminent in dignity
and preeminent in power.”
Parunak: Thus Reuben might have expected three things: the birthright (as firstborn), the priesthood (as Jacob’s first fruits), and the throne (because of his dignity and power). . .
As the Jewish sages note, he lost all three benefits. The birthright went to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and the throne to Judah. Reuben warns us of the danger of trusting in privilege and position. Such position provides no immunity to judgment for sin. Reuben presumed on his privilege, and lost it.
“Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence, Because you went up to your father’s bed; Then you defiled it– he went up to my couch.”
Hughes: Jacob’s prophetic word came true. When Reuben’s descendants settled in the Transjordan, they soon disappeared from history, and no prophet or judge or king would ever come from the tribe of Reuben. Reuben’s descendants were characterized by a lack of leadership and resolve.
Deffinbaugh: I do not think Reuben’s lust was sexual as much as it was political—it was a lust for power. Reuben, like Satan, was not content with his exalted position and wanted more power, more pre-eminence (cf. Isaiah 14:12ff.; Ezekiel 28:12ff.). He therefore took Bilhah, his father’s concubine, not because of her sexual desirability, but because she was symbolic of the right to rule over the family. To possess the harem of the ruler was to usurp the authority of the ruler (cf. I Kings 2:13f.). Since “the last shall be first” (Mark 10:31) and those who serve shall rule in the kingdom of God (Mark 9:35), Reuben had to be rejected from his position of power and pre-eminence. He who would rule must surely first rule himself.
Sproul: Reuben may have an advantage according to the world, but no such benefit is present in God’s eyes. Until now, Jacob has said nothing about his eldest son’s sin with his surrogate wife Bilhah (35:22). But silence does not indicate Jacob’s ignorance, for this violation costs Reuben his place of prominence (49:4). With his sin, Reuben has shown himself to be unstable as water, slippery in his character. Unsteady in righteousness and wisdom (see also 42:37), Reuben has forfeited his rightful place as the family’s leader.
Children often inherit the sinful proclivities of their parents, and the history of the tribe of Reuben would bear this out. No prophet, judge, or king came from Reuben. Instability characterized this family, manifested in the indecisiveness of this tribe when God’s people later came under attack (Judg. 4:1–5:16). Though blessed to be counted among the Lord’s own, Reuben and his descendants nevertheless reaped consequences for their sins.
Sailhamer: The word “excel” is a play on the two statements that have preceded it: “excelling in honor” and “excelling in power” – though Reuben has excelled, he will no longer excel.
Application: Reflect on how sin can destroy the greatest potential we can imagine; sin is never worth it
2-3. (:5-7) Simeon and Levi – Cursed for Their Violent, Rebellious Anger
“Simeon and Levi are brothers; Their swords are implements of violence. Let my soul not enter into their council; Let not my glory be united with their assembly; Because in their anger they slew men, And in their self-will they lamed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; And their wrath, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob, And scatter them in Israel.”
Parunak: “Self-will” – It is an attitude that arrogates to itself the divine right of bringing judgment on others, apart from a legitimate delegation of that responsibility. In the case of Simeon and Levi, the proper channel for that delegation should have been through the father of the clan, Jacob. He should have decided how to respond to the affront to his family. They went around the legitimate chain of command and gave vent to their own violent lust, and for this they are condemned.
Sproul: The references to violence and killing in Genesis 49:5–6 recall their perversion of the sign and seal of circumcision to exact revenge upon the Shechemites for violating their sister Dinah (chap. 34). No direct commentary on the immorality of this event has been voiced yet, though many contextual clues have indicated that God was displeased. The blessing on Simeon and Levi removes any ambiguity about their deeds. Their wanton slaughter of an entire city was wrong, and their families will feel the consequences.
All of Jacob’s sons are brothers, but he calls Simeon and Levi “brothers” explicitly since the sword binds them together in ways they are not bound to their other brothers (49:5). The Hebrew term for violence here tells us an abhorrent ruthlessness motivated their behavior. Simeon and Levi even hamstrung Shechem’s oxen needlessly (v. 6), injuring innocent animals and ruining them as beasts of burden. On account of their sin, the brothers will be scattered in the Promised Land without permanent inheritance rights (v. 7).
Hughes: The tribe of Simeon virtually disappeared after the time of the conquest of the promised land. And when the tribe of Levi was given the responsibility of the priesthood, its people were therefore disallowed from having their own territory.
Application: Holiness is necessary to divine fellowship. (J. Ligon Duncan)
4. (:8-12) Judah – Exalted to Position of Dominant Leadership
Parunak: Jacob’s blessing on Judah has four parts. The first and third emphasize his position as ruler (thus inheriting the position of prince that Reuben forfeited), while the second and fourth emphasize the nature of his rule (security and prosperity).
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Your hand shall be on the neck of
your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.”
“Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He
couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?”
cf. Messianic title: “Lion of Judah” — (Num. 24:9; Micah 5:8; Ezekiel 19:1-7)
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from
between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of
Clear Messianic prophecy
“He ties his foal to the vine, And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine; He
washes his garments in wine, And his robes in the blood of grapes. His
eyes are dull from wine, And his teeth white from milk.”
Hughes: There will be such an abundance of grapes that the Messiah will tether his donkey to a choice grape vine with no concern as to his donkey’s helping itself to the vintage. There will be such a surplus of wine that people will not worry about using it to wash clothes. . . The poetic imagery Jacob used to describe Messiah’s reign was evocative of extravagant abundance and joy – with grape-laden vines used as hitching posts and clothing washed in win – images appropriated in Jesus’ first miracle when he changed the water into wine at Cana in Galilee.
Cf. Messianic imagery – Is. 63:1-6; Rev. 19:11-15
5. (:13) Zebulun – Tribe of Sea Merchants
“Zebulun shall dwell at the seashore; And he shall be a haven for ships, And his flank shall be toward Sidon.”
Hub for international trade
MacArthur: Although Zebulun’s territory did not border the Mediterranean nor the Sea of Galilee, the tribe was situated to benefit from the important trade route, the Via Maris, traversed by sea traders moving through her territory.
6. (:14) Issachar – Subservient Role Because of Compromising Love of Comfort
“Issachar is a strong donkey, Lying down between the sheepfolds. When he saw that a resting place was good And that the land was pleasant, He bowed his shoulder to bear burdens, And became a slave at forced labor.”
7. (:16-17) Dan – Shrewd Judge and Warrior
“Dan shall judge his people, As one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, A horned snake in the path, That bites the horse’s heels, So that his rider falls backward.”
Sproul: Jacob calls him a serpent (v. 17), having in mind a poisonous yellow desert snake who would hide in crevices or burrow in the sand and strike unsuspecting people or animals. Like this serpent, Dan will be small compared to his prey but far deadlier than his victim suspects. The tribe of Dan does indeed end up as one of Israel’s smaller clans; however, perhaps the most well-known of all the judges emerges from this tribe centuries after Jacob. Samson, a Danite, would rescue the Israelites from the Philistines, usually by relying on his own craftiness (Judg. 13–16).
“For Thy salvation I wait, O LORD.”
Sailhamer: Breaking in, as it does, on the increasingly terse poetic images, this expression of hope in the Lord’s deliverance provides the much-needed clue to the meaning of Jacob’s words. In the individual and future destiny of the sons is embodied the hope of all Israel. That hope is of a future prosperity for the nation and future victory over their enemies. At the center of that hope is the king from the tribe of Judah.
8. (:19) Gad – Warrior Tribe
“As for Gad, raiders shall raid him, But he shall raid at their heels.’
J. Ligon Duncan: And then, in verse 19, the particular pronouncement upon Gad is given. He was to settle in the Transjordan where he would be the victim of border raids. But we are told that he would overcome even in that adversity and he would raid those who raid him, and would succeed.
9. (:20) Asher – Gourmet Delights
“As for Asher, his food shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties.”
10. (:21) Naphtali – Beautiful Oratory
“Naphtali is a doe let loose, He gives beautiful words.”
MacArthur: Deer-like speed and agility marked Naphtali’s military prowess. The song of Deborah and Barak, who hailed from Naphtali (Jdg 4:6), is representative of his eloquent words (Jdg 5).
11. (:22-26) Joseph – Emblem of Fruitfulness
“Joseph is a fruitful bough, A fruitful bough by a spring; Its branches run over a wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, And shot at him and harassed him; But his bow remained firm, And his arms were agile, From the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), From the God of your father who helps you, And by the Almighty who blesses 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 surpassed the blessings of my ancestors Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; May they be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers.”
Hughes: The metaphor is evocative of a well-watered tree that is so healthy and fruit-laden that its branches hang low over garden walls, offering its fruit to all who pass by. Certainly this is what Joseph had been for his family and the surrounding world during the famine. (cf. Is. 4:2)
The blessings of the future far outstrip those already experienced. We have been blessed, and we do indeed have every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus right now in the heavenly places. But the consummation of the blessing will go beyond this – because it is God’s intent to bless you eternally.
Sproul: Joseph’s blessing includes all spheres of life, focusing especially on the fertility of agriculture from the underground springs of water and fertility in child-bearing (Gen. 49:25). Here again is an echo of God’s original blessing on Adam and Eve for them to be fruitful and multiply (1:26–31). They failed to conform to the Lord’s revealed will, but Joseph’s faithful offspring, which by extension includes all righteous believers, will succeed and inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).
12: (:27) Benjamin – Ravenous Wolf
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he devours the prey, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
Sproul: Benjamin went on to succeed and father many godly individuals. Ehud, a Benjaminite judge, rescued Israel from Moab (Judg. 3:12–30). Jonathan hailed from the tribe of Benjamin, and, unlike his father Saul, he loved David (1 Sam. 9:1–2; 14:49; 18:1–5). Esther, who saved her people from extinction during Persian rule, and her cousin Mordecai also counted Benjamin as a forefather (Est. 2:5–7). Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, was a Benjaminite as well (Rom. 11:1). Though they had sinful ancestors like the rest of us, all of these persons finally chose righteousness over evil.
C. (:28) Summary
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them. He blessed them, every one with the blessing appropriate to him.”
II. (:29-32) FINAL BURIAL CHARGE
“Then he charged them and said to them, ‘I am about 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 along with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site. There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and there I buried Leah — the field and the cave that is in it, purchased from the sons of Heth.’”
(:33) EPILOG – DEATH OF JACOB
“When Jacob finished charging his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.”
J. Ligon Duncan: Moses is saying that God ordains and that in His ordination, He rules and overrules the evil of men and He turns that evil to His own purposes as part of His decree. Because His providence is kind and purposeful; purposeful for blessings for His people. And the whole prophecy that is told in this chapter, and we have only had a chance to rush through it to see some of the things that it says, this whole prophecy serves to confirm the certainty of God’s covenant promises because of His providence. . .
The covenant promises frame our lives at both ends and they provide the substance of our trust and obedience. God calls us to trust those promises, not to trust anything that comes along, but to trust the promises. He calls us to obey His word, not to obey anything that comes along, but to obey His word. And so the covenant promises not only frame the beginning and the ending of our lives, but they provide for us the substance, they guide us into what it means to trust and obey the Lord all the way. And Jacob gives us a wonderful example of trusting those promises to the very end. Jacob is absolutely confident that God is going to be faithful and bring His people out of the land of Egypt and into that land of promise.