Jacob’s Prophecy of the Twelve Tribes
Genesis 49. In this chapter we have the last words of Jacob, in which he speaks by the Spirit of God a prophecy of what would befall the twelve tribes in the latter day. It predicts the general character or tendency of each tribe, and also they give us a composite sketch of Israel’s history as a whole. As a general overview, we see decline and ruin of Israel in the first three, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. Then with Judah, we have the purpose and counsel of God concerning Christ. This is followed by Israel’s being scattered among the Gentiles, then brought back into the land under Gentile control, pictured in Issachar and Zebulon. Then Israel falls under Satan’s control, and becomes an antagonist of the faithful (Dan). Nevertheless, a remnant perseverses (Gad), Israel is restored in their land (Asher), and are found in liberty praising the Lord (Naphtali). Finally, we have Christ in the Millennium, first as a source of blessing to the whole world (Joseph), and then as victorious over all his enemies (Benjamin). It is one of the most complete prophetic types in all the Word of God, although sometimes the figurative language can be difficult to understand rigidly. It has its low points, but there is a bright ending, because it is all connected with our Savior Jesus Christ.
- Jacob Blesses His Sons (49:1-27)
- Blessing of Reuben (vv.3-4)
- Blessing of Simeon and Levi (vv.5-7)
- Blessing of Judah (vv.8-12)
- Blessing of Zebulun (v.13)
- Blessing of Issachar (vv.14-15)
- Blessing of Dan (vv.16-18)
- Blessing of Gad (v.19)
- Blessing of Asher (v.20)
- Blessing of Naphtali (v.21)
- Blessing of Joseph (vv.22-26)
- Blessing of Benjamin (v.27)
- Death of Jacob and Instructions Concerning His Burial (49:28-33)
Jacob Blesses His Sons (49:1-27)
1 And Jacob called his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, and I will tell you what will befall you at the end of days. 2 Assemble yourselves, and hear, ye sons of Jacob, And listen to Israel your father. vv.1-2 Here we have the clear explanation that what follows is prophetic of Israel’s future. We find also in v.28 that it has another character as well, in that there is some blessing for each. If we want the blessing we need to “hear” and “listen”. The “end of days” refers to the same things as “the completion of the age” (Matt. 24:3). It is the end of the age we are in now, which Bible students sometimes call the “Mosaic” age. The completion of the age includes the seventieth week of Daniel, and the event surrounding the return of Christ, up until the establishment of the Millennial kingdom. The “last days” will be completed when the house of the Lord is established above the mountains (Isa. 2:2).
Blessing of Reuben (vv.3-4)
3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, My might, and the firstfruits of my vigour: Excellency of dignity, and excellency of strength. 4 Impetuous as the waters, thou shalt have no pre-eminence; Because thou wentest up to thy father’s couch: Then defiledst thou it: he went up to my bed. vv.3-4 Corruption. Reuben would be characterized by a certain natural dignity and strength. Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, and would have had the firstborn’s right, but he defiled his father’s couch when he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine (Gen 35:21-26). As a result of this, Reuben would have “no pre-eminence”. Jacob also marks Reuben’s character as “unstable (impetuous) as the waters”. We see an example of this when he offered that Jacob could slay his two sons if Benjamin did not return home (Gen. 42:37-38). Reuben’s character was undependable, and this trait carried forward in the tribe of Reuben (see Judges 5:15; Num. 32:1-5). In general, this speaks of Israel’s failure in responsibility under law. In His way, we see in Reuben a type of the first man. He cannot be depended on. “The flesh” in all its strength and worldly dignity, “profits nothing” (John 6:63).
Blessing of Simeon and Levi (vv.5-7)
5 Simeon and Levi are brethren: Instruments of violence their swords. 6 My soul, come not into their council; Mine honour, be not united with their assembly; For in their anger they slew men, And in their wantonness houghed oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it was violent; And their rage, for it was cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, And scatter them in Israel. vv.5-7 Violence. If we saw corruption in Reuben, we see violence in Simeon and Levi. The notable event with these two sons of Leah is their extreme violence against the sons of Shechem in retribution for the defilement of their sister Dinah. Mention is made of the collaboration of these two brothers in the action; “their council”, “their assembly”. They were united in their anger, rage, wantonness (lack of self-control), and violence. But there is a turning with Levi later on, as we see in Ex. 32:26. In Gen. 34 Levi (along with Simeon) used his sword to defend his family’s honor, but in Exodus 32 he used the sword to defend the Lord’s honor. There was a progression with Levi, while we read of no growth with Simeon. We see these two tribes taking a different path. Later in the wilderness, Israel fell into sin in Numbers 25, and a prince of Simeon took a Midianite woman into his tent in the sight of Moses and all the congregation. It was Phinehas, of the tribe of Levi, who again stood up to defend the honor of Jehovah, and for his zeal was given an everlasting covenant of the priesthood. Notice the divergence between Levi and Simeon. In this prophecy, Jacob divides the two sons; “I will divide them in Jacob, And scatter them in Israel”. This refers first of all to the fact that neither Levi nor Simeon would have a portion as the other tribes (Simeon would be scattered in Judah, and Levi would be placed in cities), but also that Simeon and Levi would be separated from each other. Sometimes the Lord has to get us alone to work with us. Sometimes we can be carried along by the influences of others, but when separated, the Lord reveals that there is something for Him. There is nothing wrong with “the sword of the Spirit”, but it can be misused. It is a two-edged sword, because it cuts both ways. We need to use it on ourselves first (self-judgment) before we use it to defend the Lord’s honor.
Blessing of Judah (vv.8-12)
What does Judah represent? Some expositors see Reuben, Simeon, and Levi as the history of Israel in the Old Testament, and Judah as a type of Christ. But other expositors such as L.M. Grant suggest that Reuben, Simeon, and Levi give us Israel’s history up through the judges, and that Judah represents first David, then leaping forward to Christ, passing over all the time in between. Certainly we can see that David at least fits with the character of Judah, because he himself is a type of Messiah. It was David that subdued the Philistines, or put his hand on the neck of his enemies. It was David who divided the courses of the priests (Judah’s name means “praise”), architected the temple, and even wrote many of the Psalms. Personally, I can see the connection between David and Judah, but I would not strictly apply it as L.M. Grant does. The reason is that the prophecy of Reuben, Simon, and Levi appears to me to characterize the whole history of Israel, not just before David. In fact, perhaps there is a reference to the captivity in the words, “I will scatter them”, although in captivity it was outside the land. In either case, it isn’t very important; I simply do not wish to limit it unnecessarily.
8 Judah — as to thee, thy brethren will praise thee; Thy hand will be upon the neck of thine enemies; Thy father’s children will bow down to thee. v.8 Praise and Exaltation. The blessing of Judah is all positive, and this is because Judah is a type of Christ as the Messiah. It is interesting that Judah would be chosen by God to have the royal family. Why? We aren’t told, but it was God’s sovereign choice. It is interesting that Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah (the four oldest of Leah) all had committed a serious sin. Reuben with his father’s concubine, Simeon and Levi in the massacre of Shechem, and Judah who acted unrighteously toward Tamar and who also took the lead in selling Joseph. With the older three we never read about true repentance, but we certainly do with Judah. Perhaps there is some connection between his being chosen especially. The prophecy concerning Judah is that the tribe would be the royal leader in Israel. Judah was the first tribe to be directed to take their inheritance. It is interesting that the tribe of Ephraim afterward seemed to take the lead for many years, until the Lord brought Judah back to the forefront (read Psa. 78), and this was when David was chosen to be king.
9 Judah is a young lion; From the prey, my son, thou art gone up. He stoopeth, he layeth himself down as a lion, And as a lioness: who will rouse him up? v.9 Victory and dignity. Judah is presented as a lion in two ways: (1) as a young lion after a kill, and (2) as a lion laying down. As a “young lion” at the peak of its strength, we think of conquering power. Judah is pictured as a lion who has just made a kill; “from the prey, my son, thou art gone up”. It speaks of victory. And then, this is followed by the lion’s majestic rest after feeding; “He stoopeth, he layeth himself down as a lion, And as a lioness: who will rouse him up?”. This speaks of royal dignity. You don’t want to bother a lion in repose. Gog and Magog will do this, and the Lord will roar out of Zion (Joel 3:16). This is how the Lord is presented in Revelation; as the lion of the tribe of Judah. We see the Lord in two characters: as a young lion in His Davidic character as a warrior-judge, as as prone lion in His Solomonic character in calm authority. Both represent the Messiah.
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, Nor the lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh come, And to him will be the obedience of peoples. v.10 Royal authority. Because Israel rejected the Messiah at His first coming, the blessing of vv.10-11 was deferred to a future day, to the second coming of Christ. This is a clear statement the royal line would descend through Judah; “The scepter will not depart from Judah, Nor the lawgiver from between his feet”. The rulers of Israel, according to the purpose of God, would come from the royal line of Judah. Though the line passes through harrowing times, including captivity, it was preserved by God. This would be “Until Shiloh come, And to him will be the obedience of peoples.”. Shiloh means “great tranquility, or peace” and it comes from the same root as the name Solomon. It is a clear reference to the Messiah, as prince of peace. Not only will Israel be subject to Shiloh as the rightful king, but all peoples. This includes Gentiles. The scepter represents royal authority, and we find that Messiah’s scepter is a scepter of righteousness (Psa. 45:6).
11 He bindeth his foal to the vine, And his ass’s colt to the choice vine; He washeth his dress in wine, And his garment in the blood of grapes. 12 The eyes are red with wine, And the teeth are white with milk. vv.11-12 Humility and prosperity. At the mention of a “foal” or “ass’s colt” we cannot help but connect this with the triumphal entry of Christ, and the prophecy of Zech. 9:9. It speaks of humility. In contrast to the nations around, whose kings mounted horses, Israel’s kings were not to multiply horses (Deut. 17). The vine speaks of prosperity. This is figurative language of the richness and fullness of Messiah kingdom. Milk nourishes life. Wine sustains joy. There is so much abundance of wine that even His garments can be washed in it.
Blessing of Zebulun (v.13)
13 Zebulun will dwell at the shore of the seas; Yea, he will be at the shore of the ships, And his side toucheth upon Sidon. v.13 Commercial Success. Zebulun and Issachar depict the time of Israel’s diaspora, scattered among the nations after the rejection of Messiah. The “seas” in scripture speak of the gentiles, and ships speak of the commercial sector. We know that after the crucifixion of Christ, the Jews became markedly involved with the selling of merchandise to the gentile nations. In this way that have sought to make themselves comfortable in their dispersion. Having rejected the Prince of Peace, Israel lost their separate place in the world. It says “his side toucheth upon Sidon”; meaning that Zebulun would share a border with an idolatrous nation, and no doubt the influence would be felt there.
Blessing of Issachar (vv.14-15)
14 Issachar is a bony ass, Crouching down between two hurdles. 15 And he saw the rest that it was good, And the land that it was pleasant; And he bowed his shoulder to bear, And was a tributary servant. vv.14-15 Service. Issachar is likened to a worn out pack animal. This is what Israel has become. In order to maintain a peaceful existence (“they saw that rest was good”), the Jews have sought to make this world their place of rest, but really find themselves doubly burdened, with spiritual and temporal responsibilities. They have fallen under the influence of the gentile nations, and lost their holy, separate character. What a contrast between this worn out donkey and the “hind let loose” in v.21!
Blessing of Dan (vv.16-18)
16 Dan will judge his people, As another of the tribes of Israel. 17 Dan will be a serpent on the way, A horned snake on the path, Which biteth the horse’s heels, So that the rider falleth backwards. 18 I wait for thy salvation, O Jehovah. vv.16-18 The Serpent. Dan brings us into the tribulation. Judah was given the sole right to Judge Israel, and yet here we have Dan taking that place.1 It is a type of Antichrist, the “willful king” (Dan. 11:36), who will exalt himself, and seize that which rightful belongs to Christ. In departing from the blessed path of submission to the Word of God, the apostate nation of Israel will fall under the influence of Satan; “a serpent in the way, etc.” It will bring down judgment on the nation of Israel. Yet at this same time we hear a voice that seems out of place; “I wait for thy salvation, O Jehovah”. What is this? In one sense it is Jacob, looking down through the dark annals of Israel’s future, and looking to for the Lord’s deliverance. In another sense, it is the voice of the faithful remnant in the great tribulation, crying to the Lord for salvation. No longer looking to their own strength, but instead trusting wholly on Jehovah. The remnant will be persecuted severely by the apostate nation, under the leadership of Antichrist who is himself under Satan’s control. It is interesting that in Rev. 7, Dan is omitted from the list of tribes making up the 144,000 of the remnant. Dan was also the first of the twelve tribes to go into idolatry, as the book of Judges describes. Some have taken the combination of vv.16-17 and Revelation 7 to indicate that Antichrist will arise from the tribe of Dan, but this is only speculation.
Blessing of Gad (v.19)
19 Gad — troops will rush upon him; But he will rush upon the heel. v.19 Victory. Gad pictures the remnant in the tribulation, at first trodden down by enemies, “troops will rush upon him”, but victorious in the end; “he will rush upon the heel”.
Blessing of Asher (v.20)
20 Out of Asher, his bread shall be fat, And he will give royal dainties. v.20 Happiness. Asher means happy, and he represents the happiness of Israel when they are restored to the Lord, and blessed in their own land. The land will once again be fruitful; “his bread shall be fat, and he will give royal dainties”.
Blessing of Naphtali (v.21)
21 Naphtali is a hind let loose; He giveth goodly words. v.21 Liberty. Naphtali represent Israel in their full liberty, “a hind let loose”, praising the Lord; “He giveth goodly words”. In the Millennium, Israel will be a kingdom of priests, and the worship that is due Jehovah will be freely rendered by His redeemed people. It is interesting that Magdala is within the inheritance of Naphtali. As an application, Mary might be an example of the deer let loose, who brought the most wonderful message that man has ever heard (John 20:17). Truely, those were goodly words! See Isa. 37:31.
Blessing of Joseph (vv.22-26)
22 Joseph is a fruitful bough; A fruitful bough by a well; His branches shoot over the wall. v.23 Fruitfulness. Like Judah, Joseph is also a type of Christ. Here it is Christ as the source of universal blessing; “a fruitful bough; a fruitful bough by a well”. A bough carries fruit, and one that is by a well has a permanent source of nourishment. “He shall be like a tree planted by rivers of water, etc.” (Psa. 1:3). This is what Christ will be in the Millennium, a constant source of refreshment to Israel, and also the nations around (like the river of Ezekiel 47:9). Notice that “His branches shoot over the wall”. We might think of the wall as that which separated Jew from Gentile. Christ becomes a blessing to the whole world. We have a type of this with the well of Samaria in John 4, which was located in Joseph’s inheritance (John 4:5). Jesus acted there as a fruitful bough, reaching over the wall in grace to a sinful woman of mixed-race.
23 The archers have provoked him, And shot at, and hated him; v.23 Rejected. The history of Christ’s rejection by His people is reviewed. We can see that this goes beyond a literal application to Joseph’s rejection by his brethren.
24 But his bow abideth firm, And the arms of his hands are supple By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob. From thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel: vv.23-24 Strength. This goes beyond an application to Joseph’s place as ruler of Egypt. It is a type of Christ. His hands strengthened by God Himself (2 Kings 13:16). Christ becomes the shepherd of Israel in tender care, and the stone of Israel as her defense.
25 From the GOD of thy father, and he will help thee; And from the Almighty, and he will bless thee — With blessings of heaven from above, With blessings of the deep that lieth under, With blessings of the breast and of the womb. 26 The blessings of thy father surpass the blessings of my ancestors, Unto the bounds of the everlasting hills: They shall be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of him that was separated from his brethren. vv.25-26 Highest Blessing. The blessing that Jacob bestows on Joseph goes higher than any blessing we read of given to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob; “the blessings of thy father surpass the blessings of my ancestors”. It is the highest and widest blessing of all, and it is reserved for the one who suffered; “him that was separated from his brethren”. Abraham’s faith was tried on occasion, Isaac lived a peaceful life, Jacob was chastened, but none suffered like Joseph. He is a type of the Messiah in suffering and in glory. Joseph was not only physically separated from his brethren, but moral separated from his brethren to God like a Nazarite! Christ of course is the ultimate example of the separate Man, and there is an aspect of His glory that is connected with it (Psa. 45:7).
Blessing of Benjamin (v.27)
27 Benjamin — as a wolf will he tear to pieces; In the morning he will devour the prey, And in the evening he will divide the booty. v.27 Final Victory. Benjamin represents Christ conquering His enemies, and reigning in the Millennium. Ultimately, Christ is victorious over all His enemies; “as a wolf will he tear to pieces, etc.”. We see in the blessing of Benjamin the two characters of Christ at His second coming. First, “in the morning”, Christ will come in His Davidic character, as a warrior judge, “he will devour the prey”. But then, after the enemies are put down, Christ will set up His kingdom here in the earth, and this is His Solomonic character, as a peaceful ruler. Then Christ will reign in righteousness, and all of His co-heirs will share the spoils; “and in the evening he will divide the booty”. There is also a thought of Benjamin representing Israel as beloved of the Lord, and which Christ will use to accomplish the final destruction of the enemies. Israel will share in the spoils! See also Isa. 53:12.
|Sons of Leah: Israel’s History to the Present Day|
|Reuben||a son||The failure of Israel under law to bring forth fruit for God.|
|Israel in their infidelity, cruelty to the prophets, and idolatry. They broke down the wall of separation from the nations. Scattered into captivity.|
|Judah||praise||The royal line maintained through the sovereignty of God.|
|Zebulun||dwelling||Israel among the nations, involved in commerce.|
|Issachar||reward||Israel brought back into the land, under the dominion of the Gentiles.|
|Sons of the Concubines: Israel’s Latter Days|
|Dan||judged||The apostate leaders under Satan’s control persecute the faithful remnant.|
|Gad||a troop||The remnant trodden down by enemies, but victorious in the end.|
|Asher||happy||Israel restored to the Lord and happy in their own land.|
|Naphtali||wrestling||The Israel in their full liberty, praising the Lord.|
|Sons of Rachel: Christ Exalted and Blessed in the Millennium|
|Joseph||increase||Christ, rejected by his brethren, becomes the source of universal blessing.|
|Benjamin||royal strength||Christ, reigning in the Millennium, has victory over all His enemies.|
Death of Jacob and Instructions Concerning His Burial (49:28-33)
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them; and he blessed them: every one according to his blessing he blessed them. v.28 A blessing. At the beginning of the chapter, we find that Jacob told his sons “what will befall you at the end of days”. But here we find that there is something in this chapter that is a blessing to each son; “every one according to his blessing he blessed them”. We might wonder, how is vv.5-7 a blessing for Simeon and Levi? As another has suggested, “the honest exposure of their sin is in itself a blessing if they would simply accept it in a spirit of self-judgment.”2 Note that Moses gave the tribes a further blessing in Deuteronomy 33. The difference seems to be that in Genesis the blessing is more prophetic, and it is connected with or foreshadowed by the actions of the particular son of Jacob, while in Deuteronomy it has more to do with the portion of the tribes upon entering Canaan, what the tribes could have been if they had obeyed the Word of God, but though they fell short it in history, it will be fulfilled in the Millennium.
29 And he charged them, and said to them, I am gathered to my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is opposite to Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought of Ephron the Hittite along with the field for a possession of a sepulchre. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; and there I buried Leah. 32 The purchase of the field, and of the cave that is in it, was from the children of Heth. 33 And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered to his peoples. vv.29-33 Concerning his burial. After he finished with the blessing, Jacob gave instructions concerning his burial. Jacob wanted to be buried in the place of his inheritance; it is a mark of faith. In a coming day, the Lord will reward that faith (Dan. 12:13). Those of faith always buried their dead. Burial, more than cremation, tends to have the resurrection of the body in view. It is notable that Jacob did not want to be buried with Rachel, but with Leah. Even though Rachel was his favorite wife, there was something acting on Jacob’s heart that was stronger. It was faith! Jacob seemed to have a sense that he ought to be laid to rest with the family of faith, associating himself with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca. At last Jacob died, a stranger in Egypt. He takes his feet off the earth, onto that ladder so to speak, no longer afraid of being in the presence of God. Jacob’s last action was one of faith; “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. … But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:13-16). He was “gathered to his people”… what people? Those of faith. With Jacob’s passing the focus shifts from individual faithfulness to a collective testimony (the “children of Israel”).