Genesis 49:1-28 Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.
2 “Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father.
3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. 4 Unstable 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!
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 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.
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11 Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.
13 “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.
14 “Issachar is a strong donkey, crouching between the sheepfolds. 15 He saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant, so he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant at forced labor.
16 “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. 17 Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward. 18 I wait for your salvation, O LORD.
19 “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.
20 “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield royal delicacies.
21 “Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.
22 “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. 23 The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, 24 yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), 25 by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. 26 The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.
27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil.”
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.
This is quite a scene, isn’t it? Jacob was moments away from dying. Understanding that, he summoned his sons near to deliver his final address. Speaking to each of them he told them what they most needed (not wanted) to hear. Some of his words were kind, gentle, and optimistic—blessing in the usual sense. But some of his words were anything but that.
In this series of “blessings” there is a lot for us to see, in terms of the lives of the sons and the tribes they would represent, as well as the God over them all. The main point of the passage is that God’s faithful hand was on this family and, therefore, His covenant purposes would stand with them (often times in spite of them). The main point for us is that God’s redemption of and rule over mankind would come through this line, through a son of Judah, through Jesus of Nazareth. We’ll see a little clearer that nothing about Jesus was accidental, unplanned, or uncertain. The roots of His saving work are found here. And in both of those things (God’s covenant faithfulness to Jacob and the fullness of that faithfulness in Jesus) is the source of perfect confidence in the gospel and all the hope and freedom and worship that come with it.
JACOB BLESSES HIS SONS
In this passage there is a specific “blessing” for each of the twelve sons. And once again, from them there’s a great deal we can learn about God’s heart, plans, and expectations, these men and their offspring, and our connection to God’s saving work. For those reasons, we’ll work through each of Jacob’s blessings.
Before we get there, however, I’d like to address three important ideas presented in the opening and closing words of this passage. Jacob opened by gathering his sons and saying, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.” And Moses closed by concluding, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.”
Specifically, from these two simple verses, I’d like to point out the subtle glory of God revealed in the (1) timeline, (2) certainty, and (3) kindness of Jacob’s words.
Concerning the timeline, Jacob mentioned that his words will come true “in days to come.” On the surface it sounds as if he is simply telling his kids that these things will happen in their days to come on earth. In reality, however, certainly without even fully understanding it himself, Jacob was actually describing events that would take place over the next many centuries, both in the physical and spiritual realms.
Concerning the certainty with which Jacob spoke, he gathered his sons together “that I may tell you what shall happen”. He did not gather them together to tell them what might happen, or what could happen. What he told them was certain.
And concerning the kindness of Jacob, we might wonder how some of his words would be considered blessings. Each of his sayings is called a blessing “suitable” to the son, but on the surface, it’s hard to imagine how some of them would fall into the blessing category. In simplest terms, some were a blessing for the specific son and his offspring, while the rest were blessings for the rest of the tribes through curses for the specific son. As we’ll see, to the faithful and righteous sons, Jacob blessed them by praising their godliness and calling down God’s favor upon them. But to the disobedient and ungodly sons, Jacob condemned their wickedness and called upon God to judge them as a means of restraining their evil, in order that the rest of the tribes would be blessed. This is like the parent who blesses her obedient children by allowing them to play in freedom while keeping the trouble maker close to her side—both actions are blessings, but in different ways.
We’re right to wonder of these things, how could Jacob speak of such a wide array of events, across such a wide array of time, and with such certainty. The answer is the revelation of the subtle glory of God. In simplest terms, Jacob was able to speak as he did because God is as He is. As I mentioned in the introduction, this was God’s chosen family. Therefore, God’s perfect, eternal (Ephesians 1:4) plan of redemption would be carried out through them (Genesis 12). In other words, Jacob was able to bless and curse as He did ONLY because his all-powerful, all-wise, and all-good God revealed these things to him.
Marvel with me at the glory of God, Grace. Marvel that for millennia God’s plan remained entirely undefeated, unexceptionally unhindered, and completely good, even until the One from the line of Judah would finally come.
With that, let’s consider Jacob’s blessings for each of his sons and especially the fact that their present actions would have ripple effects into future generations.
One of the most significant aspects of Jacob’s first “blessing,” the blessing of Reuben, is its structure. It builds and builds at the beginning. “You are my firstborn [true], my might [OK, here we go], and the firstfruits of my strength [go on], preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.” Wow. What son wouldn’t want to hear that from his dad? Jacob had such high hopes for Reuben, and rightfully so it seems.
But the point of the buildup, the point of the structure of this blessing, is to help us feel Jacob’s crushing disappointment. Even though all of those things were true of Reuben, he was also “Unstable as water.” Therefore, Jacob told him, “you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it…”. “Unstable” has the sense of weakness, lawless, and ultimately wildness. Water needs something outside of itself to control it. Reuben was like that. He was a man unable to control his passions. Because of that, as we read in 35:22, Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. And down it crashes.
Jacob’s sinful choice (he shouldn’t have had concubines), led to Reuben’s sinful choice, which led to a tribe that would follow in their footsteps.
Grace, our choices have consequences—both for us and for our offspring. You cannot fall into a pit so deep that God can’t pull you out, but that does not change the fact that the things we do (or fail to do) have ripple effects that go well beyond us. Do not be paralyzed by fear, but do not take the call to holiness too lightly, for without it you will not see God (Hebrews 12:14).
What’s more, let us learn from this “blessing” that God sees and hears all. Genesis 35:22 tells us that Jacob heard of Reuben’s actions, but more significantly, so did God. Our evil deeds always have consequences because none escape the eye or judgment of God. This is sobering, but it is also a reminder of how amazing the grace of God really is. That none of our sins escape Him (even if they escape others, or even ourselves), but He forgives them all in Jesus is truly awesome!
Simeon and Levi (5-7)
Simeon and Levi are “blessed” together. Unlike Reuben, of whom Jacob had some good to say, there were no kind words for Simeon and Levi. They were thoroughly wicked. They were violent, angry, wrathful, cruel, and murderous. Jacob wanted nothing to do with them. “Oh my glory, be not joined to their company.” More significantly still, their father cursed them and called for their division and dispersion.
These brothers were right to be angry about the defilement of their sister (34). But they were wrong to take vengeance in the way they did. Once again, Jacob was not portrayed as righteous in his handling of the wickedness either (in a more passive, self-centered way), but that did not justify Simeon and Levi’s actions.
Once again, we must learn from this. Vengeance does not belong to us, but to God (Deuteronomy 32:35). And that means that we must care about and work for justice, while simultaneously enduring injustices and entrusting it all, ultimately to God. Grace, we fight for justice on earth, precisely because we know we will never finally achieve it until heaven. In other words, that justice was fully secured on the cross, only to be fully realized at our resurrection, means that there is perfect peace for us in our longing for all things to be made right.
The third “blessing,” the blessing of Judah, is the first true blessing. From beginning to end, it is only and thoroughly positive. God’s word to Jacob concerning Judah, was that Judah would receive the praise (his name means “he will be praised”) and reverence of his brothers and the submission of all, including his enemies. Judah’s tribe would be preeminent among the tribes of Israel.
Beyond even the tribes, however, Judah would be blessed. He would be a young, victorious lion; inspiring fear and awe in all. For these reasons, he would rule and be rewarded forever, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him.”
The fullest blessing of all, however, comes in the messianic allusions. It is from the tribe of Judah that Jesus would come. While Judah’s kin would know victory on earth, the Lion of Judah would know everlasting victory in heaven and earth. In Him alone would these prophesies be truly fulfilled. At His name would ever knee bow and tongue confess Him as Lord of all (Philippians 2:10-11). He would ride into victory on a donkey’s colt. He would turn water into wine before offering His own body and blood to wash clean a wayward people. He became stained to remove ours. ‘
This truly is an awesome passage describing the plan of God to save the world through Jesus, Judah’s son. And in that, once again, we are reminded to praise God for His perfect foresight, timing, redemption, and covenant fulfillment.
Jacob’s blessing of Zebulun is short and simple. We know less about the history of this tribe so there isn’t a lot to say other than that God is God over all. He is not simply the God of the spiritual or merely the God of the big things in life. Jacob’s blessing concerned the future of Zebulun’s vocation.
13 “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.
By God’s design, Zebulun and his tribe would be sea-faring men. Grace, God is the God of every aspect of our lives. There has not been, nor will there ever be one second or one event in your life too small for God to be concerned about and working in for His glory and your good.
The short, simple point of Issachar’s “blessing” is that although Issachar was strong (of will, if not body), he would choose a life of enslavement in the pursuit of ease. Again, Jacob’s words are a condemnation of his son’s preference for comfort over godliness. He preferred the ease of serving foreigners, over harder, but far more rewarding blessing of faithfulness. This is a prequel to the Israelites as a whole wishing they were back in slavery in Egypt instead of on their meatless trek to the Promised Land.
This too is a choice we all face every day. Will we do the hard work of swimming upstream toward Christ, or sit back in the lazy river, drifting toward worldliness? Jacob’s “blessing” of Issachar helps us to choose wisely.
More than likely, the significance of Dan’s blessing is another that is tied to his name and the structure of the blessing. Like Reuben’s, it starts off in an encouraging way, “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel.” This was his calling. That is what his name means (Genesis 30:6). He ought to have stood in a position of righteous judgment over his brothers, pointing them continually to covenant faithfulness. Again, then, like Reuben, Dan’s blessing begins with a significant upward trajectory.
But also like Reuben’s, it raises up only to drop with a thud. Instead of leading in righteous vindication, as v.17 says, he would end up as more of a stumbling block and a hinderance, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward.” To be a serpent or a viper in the Bible is almost always to be on the wrong side of righteousness. Dan’s calling was high, but his future included treachery.
It is especially significant that Jacob ended his words to Dan with a cry to God, “I wait for your salvation, O LORD”. His son’s choices and future breaks his heart, but Jacob knew that Dan was ultimately in the hands of God. In this is a significant message for parents of struggling kids. It may be clear to you that God has gifted your child in a significant way, but also that they are using that gifting for something other than God’s glory. Your charge is to continue to do good, as you prayerfully and hopefully wait on the salvation of God.
19 “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.
Gad’s blessing is another (lost in translation) series of word-plays on his name. In short, Gad’s lot, by God’s design, according to Jacob’s prophecy, was a life of short-term difficulty, and ultimate victory. His tribe would be raided by enemies, but he would eventually chase them down.
Grace, this is a simple reminder that while we know God’s good plans at the highest level, we never really know what God is up to in the moment. Hear this clearly: the heart of Gad’s blessing is that his hardship would be real, but temporary. And so it is for all of God’s people. Remember that. If your trust is in Jesus, whatever difficulty you are presently enduring is temporary. Knowing that doesn’t take away the pain, but it does allow you to endure it with hope, it does allow you to keep it in perspective, and it does allow you to look beyond yourself when life is hard.
Perhaps simplest and sweetest of Jacob’s blessings is the one he gave to Asher, “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield royal delicacies.” Asher and his offspring would be characterized by a life of sharing abundance with kings.
Like Asher’s blessing, Naphtali’s is simple and sweet as well. “Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.” The exact translation and meaning of the blessing are uncertain, but the overall message is: Naphtali would know freedom and gladness.
Together with Asher’s blessing, Naphtali’s serve as an important reminder: God always and only means good things for His people. Those good things come in all kinds of packages (some pleasant and comfortable and some painful and difficult), but they are always good. Asher and Naphtali’s God-given-good, like some people in our lives perhaps, would come primarily as the former (pleasant and comfortable).
It is right for us to learn to love holiness more than comfort. It is right for us to learn that true comfort only comes on the other side of true holiness. At the same time, it is right for us to learn that God never withholds comfort for its own sake. Grace, whatever measure of difficulty you are experiencing, it is not because God delights in your suffering. What’s more, whatever measure of difficulty you are experiencing, it is not your end. If you are a Christian, whether your life is currently characterized by pain or ease, your end will always be pleasure forevermore. Let us learn, then, to count the path by which God brings us there as pure joy (James 1:2), whether it be marked primarily by suffering or richness.
As we saw earlier, Judah was gradually being brought forward by God into the place of highest prominence. The Messiah would come from his line, not Joseph’s. And yet, Joseph’s blessing was still more immediately significant; and would be for some time into the future.
The language of the blessing is remarkable. It begins by speaking of Joseph’s present blessing as the result of his faithfulness to God’s promises through the severe hardship that preceded it. Similarly, it ends with the promise of future blessing, even above that of his brothers in many ways.
It is the center of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph, however, that is most significant. In it we find the real source of all the goodness that would come to God’s covenant people—God Himself. God, the Almighty, made Joseph’s arms agile through his suffering. God is the Shepherd and Rock of Israel. God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of heaven above and the earth below, would help and bless Joseph and his offspring with blessings of breast and womb.
Again, the most significant part of Joseph’s blessing is the clear and awesome way it describes the nature of the God of his blessing. And in that is yet another loud cry to you and me, Grace. God is greater than you can imagine. His ways are higher and better than you can imagine. His blessings are sweeter than you can imagine. His promises are surer than you can imagine. And His mercy and grace are more abundant than you can imagine. Look to Him. Stop looking first to yourself or your resources or strength or wisdom. Stop looking first to others. Look first to God who is your rock and strength and hope and everlasting blessing. Look to Him in Jesus and be free!
Finally, Jacob’s blessing of Benjamin is perhaps the most curious. The story of Benjamin’s life and relationship to his father to this point has been one of tenderness and fondness. Therefore, the harshness of his words is a bit jarring. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil.” It’s important to remember, then, that some of these words were primarily directed to these men in light of their own lives on earth, but others were directed to their tribes centuries later. Benjamin’s “blessing” is one pointing to the future. While he enjoyed the favor of his father, his offspring would veer into a tragically different direction (Judges 5:14; Judges 19-21; Psalm 68:27).
In that is a warning that just as present suffering doesn’t automatically mean future suffering, neither does present blessing mean future blessing. And in that is yet another reminder that our hope is always, ALWAYS grounded God, not circumstances, if it is to be secure.
Next week, as we begin the final chapter of Genesis, we’ll witness the death of Jacob. But as our Lord, Jesus reminds us in Mark 12:26-26, God is not the God of the dead, but the living. Jacob’s death was not his end. He is, right now, with the Father, counted as righteous through his faith. That offer is not only for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but for all who would hope in the salvation of their God. That offer is for all who would trust in God’s fulfillment of the promises He made to these men in Judah’s son, Jesus. Look to Him today, trust in Him today, and if you don’t know what that means, don’t leave here without asking someone.