49:1Then Jacob called for his sons and said: "Gather round so that I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. 2Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel.
3"Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. 4Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it.
5"Simeon and Levi are brothers--their swords are weapons of violence. 6Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. 7Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.
8"Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you. 9You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse him? 10The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. 11He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. 12His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.
13"Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend towards Sidon.
14"Issachar is a scrawny donkey lying down between two saddlebags. 15When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor.
16"Dan will provide justice for his people as one of the tribes of Israel. 17Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse's heels so that its rider tumbles backwards.
18"I look for your deliverance, O LORD.
19"Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels.
20"Asher's food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king.
21"Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.
22"Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall. 23With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. 24But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed supple, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, 25because of your father's God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb. 26Your father's blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers.
27"Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder."
In the previous section, Jacob gave blessings and prophecies concerning his adopted sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. In this chapter, he prophesies concerning his twelve natural sons. When he addresses his sons, Jacob speaks about the past and its relationship to what will happen in the future to the tribes that will descend from the sons. "[A]n important principle in the divine administration is thus brought out. It is that of transmitted character;--and, within certain limits, transmitted destiny too. What his sons were, and what they did, must tell powerfully, for weal or for woe, on what the tribes that spring from them are to enjoy or suffer." And so, to have a solid, upright, moral character is very important, especially if you have children. They watch you; they learn; and whether you desire it or not, your character is transmitted to them, and thus, your behavior will greatly affect their lives.
As we mentioned in the previous issue, the prophecies of Jacob about his sons, and the tribes that will descend from them, are amazingly accurate. They testify that God, the giver of these prophecies to Jacob, truly knows the end from the beginning. The accurate prophecies of the Bible are perhaps the greatest testimony to the truth of the existence of God. God Himself tells us that it is His prophetic word that distinguishes Him from false gods: "Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please" (Isa. 46:9-10). Let's look at the prophecies that Jacob gives concerning each of his sons:
Reuben: "You are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it" (vss. 3-4). As firstborn, Reuben should have received the birthright, which included a double portion of his father's inheritance, as well as the position of leadership in the family. And though, in his youth Reuben "excell[ed] in honor" and "excell[ed] in power", later he sinned greatly against his father by sleeping his father's concubine Bilhah (see Gen. 35:22). Bilhah was the mother of two of Jacob's sons (and Reuben's step-brothers) Dan and Naphtali. So, Reuben was (for all intents and purposes) sleeping with his step-mother. For this, Jacob removed the birthright from Reuben: "Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it" (vs. 4). As we have mentioned, the birthright was taken from Reuben and split between Joseph and Judah: Joseph received the double portion of the inheritance, and Judah (as we shall see later in this chapter) received the right of leadership in the family. Interestingly, the statement "you will no longer excel" applied not only to the birthright, but also (prophetically) to the subsequent history of the tribe of Reuben. No judge, no king, and no prophet in the Bible came from the tribe of Reuben. Also, rather than entering the promised land with the other tribes and choose land there, the tribe of Reuben chose to stay on the east side of the Jordan (see Numbers 32:5ff).
Simeon and Levi: "Simeon and Levi are brothers--their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel" (vss. 5-7). Jacob has nothing good to say about Simeon and Levi. It seems that they were violent and cruel all their lives. We saw some of this in the episode concerning Dinah, when they took revenge upon the whole town of Shechem, by killing every man in the town, because their sister Dinah had been seduced (see Gen. 34:25ff). Also, many commentators think that Simeon was the ringleader in the persecution of Joseph, since Joseph chose Simeon to remain in prison while his brothers returned to Canaan to bring Benjamin to Egypt (see Gen. 42:24). The punishment for their cruelty is that they will be "scattered in Jacob" and "dispersed in Israel". This accurate prophecy was fulfilled for both the tribe of Simeon and the tribe of Levi, but in a different way for each tribe. The tribe of Simeon was allotted land within the territory of the tribe of Judah (see Josh. 19:1ff), so they were "scattered in Jacob" in this way. The tribe of Levi was not given its own territory. Instead, the Levites became the priests for the Israelites, and so they were given towns within the territories of each of the other tribes (see Joshua 21). In this way, they were "dispersed in Israel". By the grace of God, this punishment of Levi the person, actually became a blessing for Levi the tribe, as that tribe was given the privilege of being the priests of God. Blessing is often the result of the chastisement of God's gracious discipline.
Judah: "Your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you. You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk" (vss. 8-12). As we see in this prophecy, Judah received the leadership portion of the birthright: "Your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you." So Judah, the son whose name means "praise", would receive praise. Actually, this prophecy suggests that Judah would receive far more than the birthright privilege of leading the family. Jacob's prophecy looked ahead to the kingship of the tribe of Judah, and then, ultimately, to the Kingship and Lordship of the Lion of the tribe of Judah (see Rev. 5:5). Later, the kings of Israel (excluding Saul) would be from the tribe of Judah. The prophecy, "your brothers will praise you", was partially fulfilled by King David and his successors. However, the kings of Judah were not, by and large, worthy of praise. This prophecy primarily, and ultimately, pertains to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The latter portion of the prophecy certainly could only apply to Jesus: "The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his" (vs. 10). None of the kings of Israel had the "obedience of the nations", but Jesus does (partially now), and Jesus will (completely later). This prophecy about the "scepter" not departing from Judah "until he comes to whom it belongs" has been interpreted, even by early Jewish commentators, as saying that Judah will have the right to enforce the Mosaic law upon its people until the time the Messiah comes. Even through the Babylonian captivity, Judah maintained its leadership of the Hebrews (see Ezra 1:5,8). However, in 7 A.D., a Roman procurator named Caponius was set up to oversee Israel. He restricted the rights of the Sanhedrin to administer justice. In other words, in 7 A.D., "the scepter" departed from Judah. The reaction to this by the Jews was recorded in the Talmud: "When the members of the Sanhedrin found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, a general consternation took possession of them: they covered their heads with ashes, and their bodies with sackcloth, exclaiming, `Woe unto us for the scepter has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come.'" What they did not realize was that the Messiah had indeed come. Jesus was at that very moment living in Nazareth as a young man. The amazing fulfillment of this prophecy given by Jacob many thousands of years before the fulfillment is proof that God is in control of all that goes on. God knows the end from the beginning, and He is working everything to His purpose.
The rest of the prophecy seems to be referring to the second coming of the Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ: "He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk" (vss. 11-12). This is similar to others prophecies in the Bible describing the wrath of God that will come in the end times: "Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendour, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? `It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.' Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress? `I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing'" (Isa. 63:1-3); and also "He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God" (Rev. 19:13).
Zebulun: "Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend towards Sidon" (vs. 13). This prophecy was fulfilled in the allotment of land that the tribe of Zebulun received, which bordered the sea of Galilee. Thus, the ports of Zebulun were a "haven" for the boats from the sometimes fierce storms that would blow on the sea of Galilee. But Zebulun was also an important "haven" in another respect: after fleeing King Herod, upon returning from Egypt, Joseph and Mary, with their child Jesus, took refuge in Galilee, which was in the territory allotted originally to Zebulun.
Issachar: "Issachar is a scrawny donkey lying down between two saddlebags. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor" (vss. 14-15). The land allotted to Issachar, as this prophecy predicts, was a "pleasant" land. The prophecy seems to indicate that Issachar, seeing how pleasant the land is, and not wanting to be removed from it, would be willing to "submit to forced labor", rather than fight for the land. We may find a subtle indication of the fulfillment of this prophecy in Judges 1, where the battles of some of the tribes are described, as the tribes tried to supplant the Canaanites and take possession of the land God had given them. In Judges 1:27-36, the battles of (among others) Zebulun, Manasseh and Asher are mentioned. However, there is nothing mentioned here about Issachar, even though the territory of Zebulun, Manasseh and Asher surround the territory of Issachar. It is quite possible that the tribe of Issachar "submitted to forced labor" instead of battle for the land.
(We will conclude this study of the prophecies concerning Jacob's sons in the next issue.)