January 5, 2017

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe



Topic #F: THE LAST DAYS OF JACOB AND OF JOSEPH. (Gen. 47:28-50:26).                    


                                                 Lesson IV.F.4: Jacob Predicts the Future of His Sons. (Gen. 49:1-28)                                             



As Jacob looked at his sons, their traits of disposition gave him the clue to their destinies as tribes.  He had closely observed those boys for many years.  He knew their histories, their strengths and weaknesses, and their characters.  Now the Holy Spirit enabled him to project the lines of their personalities into the future and predict their future as tribes.  Each tribe would expand, amplify, and inherit the dispositional traits seen in its founder.


This chapter marks the close of the patriarchal dispensation, and the commencement of the development of the family into the nation.  Jacob foresees and foretells the course of future events but especially those brought about by the character of the sons.  The accuracy of the fulfillment is remarkable when viewed in the light of what subsequently happened.  Everything we know confirms the belief that Jacob spoke by divine inspiration.  But the prophecies go far beyond the history of the nation.  They include some definite Messianic and spiritual elements (10, 18, 24, 25).  In this revelation of God lay the secret of Israel’s uniqueness and the guarantee of Israel’s blessing.


Jacob is the first of a line of Old Testament figure’s who deliver significant discourses when they are about to die.  Moses, Joshua, and Samuel do the same.  Jacob’s is distinctive for the way it (appropriately) speaks to his sons and to their descendents, the clans bearing his sons’ names.  Sometimes it speaks in the future because these are the events that are yet to happen; sometimes, in the present or past because they are already revealed in Jacob’s mind’s eye and in the experience of the clans.  Once again we can imagine the clans listening and finding that Jacob’s words answer questions they might ask.



The Narrative (Genesis 49:1-28, KJV)

1And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.

And Jacob called unto his sons

Either his sons were nearby and within ear-shot at the time of Joseph’s visit, or if at too great a distance to hear him, he sent a messenger or messengers to them with a request (command; order) for them to come to him.


and said, Gather yourselves together

He wanted them to come to him all together at the same time, so that all of them could hear what he had to say to them. That is obvious, for what he says to them afterwards was not said to them when they were alone, but when they were all gathered together before him.


that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days*

This was not just for them personally, but primarily for their descendents, from that day forward to the coming of the Messiah, who is spoken of in this prophecy. Jacob spoke of many things, some of which related to worldly things and others to spiritual things; some are blessings or prophecies of the good things coming to them, others were curses, or forecast evil, but all are predictions made by Jacob while under a spirit of prophecy. Some things happened when the tribes of Israel were placed in the land of Canaan, others in the times of the judges, and in later times;―“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1)―and some in the times of the Messiah, to whom this prophecy reaches, whose coming was in the last days*. According to all the Bible commentators I am aware of, the last days* refer here to the days of the Messiah.


*“The last days” refers to future happenings. Quite often “last” or “latter” is used for times other than the end of all things. The prophets could speak of a "day" when the Lord would act, sometimes in punishment of evil, sometimes in bringing blessing. Especially important are passages that speak of “the last day(s),” which point to the future but without being specific. In such passages it may mean “later in the present scheme of things,” that is, later in the life of a person or, more often, later in the history of the world. Jacob summoned his sons to tell them what would happen to them [more exactly, to their descendents] in “the last days.” This clearly refers to the distant future, but not to the end of the world.

2Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.

Gather yourselves together,

This is repeated to hurry them along, to draw their attention to what he was about to say, and to indicate that he had something very important to say to them, which he chose to do, when they were together.


and hear, ye sons of Jacob;

His words are to his sons as a family, although each will be treated individually.


and hearken unto Israel your father.

These words are repeated in order to draw their attention to what he was about to say, and to remind them of their family relationship; father and son. For some they represent devastating criticism and warning, for others general prophecy, and for Judah and Joseph effective prophecy in more detail. But their main emphasis is on their current life in Egypt which contradicts any suggestion that they were invented afterwards in Palestine.

3Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the excellency of power:

 Reuben, thou art my firstborn,

“Reuben,” as the first-born, had a right to a double portion of all that his father had (see Deuteronomy 21:17). Jacob now puts upon him the ornaments of the birthright, so that he and all his brethren might see what he had forfeited and the evil of his sin. As the firstborn he was his father's joy, and should have received three marks of distinction, the birthright, the priesthood, and the kingdom. [But because of his sin, we will find that the birthright is given to Joseph, the kingdom to Judah, and the priesthood to Levi.  In 1 Chronicles, we have proof that the birthright was transferred to the sons of Joseph.]


my might, and the excellency of power

These expressions imply one and the same thing, and are sufficiently explained by the word firstborn, which immediately precedes them (Deuteronomy 21:17; Psalms 78:51).


The word rendered here as “might” is used to signify utilizing great bodily effort to forcibly bring about something that is greatly desired: such as Paul mentions in Philippians 3:14, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”; and as did Elijah, which is described by James in James 5:17, “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”


The excellence mentioned here may refer to the excellence of dignity belonging to the priesthood; the might, to the regal government of God and power over his brethren. To that I would add, “And therefore to thee as the firstborn belongs,” first, the ‘excellence’ of dignity; and secondly, the ‘excellency’ of power, that is, the kingly office.” As a matter of history no king, judge, or prophet is recorded as having sprung from the tribe of Reuben.

4Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.

Unstable as water,

Reuben was easily drawn into sin, and suddenly he was drained of his dignity. For a brief time he enjoyed sinful pleasure, but he lost great privileges and blessings as a result. So do all addicted to sin, for they lose heaven due to vile lust, their souls for their sin. Men will partake of sin, regardless of whatever comes from it. They may do so, and for a time, hear no more about it; as Reuben did for almost forty years after his incest was committed.


thou shalt not excel; 

Reuben will have a tribe, but not a noteworthy and major one.  No judge, prophet, or prince came out of that tribe, or any famous person. Seeing that that tribe was not aiming to excel, it chose a settlement on the other side of the Jordan River. Reuben’s character is described as “unstable as water,” which became his mark of infamy. His virtue was unstable, he lacked self-control, and was controlled by his own appetites. His honor as a result was unstable, it vanished into smoke, and became like water spilt upon the ground.


because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; 

He went up wickedly to his father’s bed to commit a great sin; therefore now he is to receive the punishment he deserves; Jacob charges him with the sin for which he was disgraced―“thou wentest up to thy father's bed.” His honor is gone up like smoke, which ascended and is dispersed in the air. It was forty years ago that he became guilty of this sin, but Jacob has not forgotten, and he still held it against him, and now he openly accuses him of this vile act. Reuben's sin left an indelible mark of infamy upon his family; a wound that could not be healed without leaving a scar.


then defiledst thou it: 

He “defiled” his father’s bed by committing incest with Bilhah. He repeats the same thing he said to Reuben in the previous paragraph in a forceful and resounding manner, turning his speech and face from Reuben to his brethren. Now, he takes a position of indignation and loathing; which you must not attribute to Jacob’s passion, for he is now a dying man, and it has been forty years since the crime was committed; the Spirit of God is guiding his tongue to say this, not only and not primarily for the punishment of Reuben. Many think that Reuben had by now repented of his sin; out of terror, and a desire to caution all others, and to assure them that sin, though it may have occurred long ago, will at one time or other be severely punished.


he went up to my couch. 

The old man is still looking at and speaking to his other sons. It may be that he could not bear to look at Reuben, though he had forgiven the sin, and very probably Reuben had repented of it, and had received forgiveness from God, though in some sense vengeance was taken on this sinful act of his― “LORD our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds” (Psalm 99:8). There are various meanings given to this phrase:

  • “My bed departed from me”; that is, he departed from his bed.
  • “It ceased to be my bed.” He left it; he abstained from the bed of Bilhah upon its being defiled by Reuben.
  • “It went up”; meaning his lust ascended, and got the best of him.
  • “He went up to bed (my couch).” In those times, not only their beds might be raised higher than ours, but they were placed in a higher part of the room, and so they are said “to go up to their beds.”

5Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.

Simeon and Levi are brethren;

Not only did they spring from the same parents, but they have the same kind of disposition; head-strong, deceitful, vindictive, and cruel. They acted together because they were like-minded; the minds of both were full on evil desires and schemes. Jacob intimates that these sons of his were more closely related in their cruel disposition than they were by blood, which manifested itself in an act shocking to humanity. Next he gives some of the particulars of that infamous day.


instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.

The word “instruments” is rendered “swords” in some translations; an instrument of violence. Swords, seems most in harmony with the context, and is adopted by many of the best interpreters. According to Genesis 34:25, Simeon and Levi “took each man his sword” and slaughtered all the men of Shechem. Their swords are weapons of violence, i.e., their swords, which they should have used in defense of themselves or to protect their families, was used by them in the dishonorable and dastardly murder of innocent people; the residents of a whole town, from the foremost to the lowliest inhabitant.


The ancient versions differ widely in the meaning of the word “habitations”, and the word has been explained in various ways; such as machinations, betrothals, habitations, (Eng. version).

6O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united:


O my soul, come not thou into their secret;

By “O my soul,” he means his true self. The phrase “their secret,” as it is used here means their counsel, or their company, and is used that way in Psalm 64:2 and Jeremiah 15:17; therefore the clause “come not thou into their secret” means do not involve yourself in their secret and wicked plans. By this he signifies to all succeeding generations that that he detested that bloody venture (49:5) by these sons of his and that he did not let it pass without severe condemnation.


A few understand this phrase to refer to the little carpet, or cushion, upon which an Oriental sits. Consequently, for two persons to sit upon the same carpet marks a high degree of friendship and familiarity. It would, therefore, be more exactly translated alliance, or intimacy. [The first explanation seems to better fit into the context.]


unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united:

Concerning “assembly” (Heb. congregation)Moses wrote, and God Almighty doth bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, and thou hast become an assembly of peoples” (Gen, 28:3). Here it means their union, or confederacy. In the first clause Jacob bids his soul, his true self, not to enter their alliance; here, he intensifies the meaning. For by “mine honour,” he signifies all that gave him dignity and worth in the sight of God and man. And this nobleness would be degraded and lost by union with men banded together for evil.


for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.

for in their anger they slew a man;

Hamor or Shechem, together with all the males of the city; and so "man" may be put for "men", the singular for the plural, which is done frequently in the Scriptures.


“In their self-will they digged down a wall.” “Self-will” is worse than anger, and signifies that arrogant temper which leads on to unjustifiable cruelty. The last words mean, they houghed an ox, which should be understood to mean “making a breach in the walls of Shechem. The ox, in old times, was the symbol of majesty, and thus bulls are put for princes in Psalm 22:12 and 68:30.  Therefore, the meaning is, “In their anger at the wrong done to their sister they slew Hamor, prince of Shechem, along with his people; and out of willful cruelty, and without any just cause, they hamstrung the noblest of their brethren, not killing Joseph outright, but disabling him by selling him into slavery, hoping that he would die there.”


When the two parts are joined the clause reads, “for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they digged down a wall.”In other words, the bothers broke down the city wall, killed Shechem and many others, broke into their houses and plundered them.

7Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce;

It was sinful anger by its very nature, and consequently criminal and detestable; it was strong, fierce, and furious in its operation and effects, and so the curse was justifiable; but, the curse was not against them personally. We must always remember when expressing our enthusiasm, to be careful to distinguish between the sinner and the sin, for we should not love or bless the sin for the sake of the person, nor to hate or curse the person for the sake of the sin.  This curse was afterward turned into a blessing for the Levites; but the Simeonites, had it bound on, because of Zimri’s sin (Numbers 25).


and their wrath, for it was cruel;

It was applied in the cruel and barbarous slaughter of the inhabitants of Shechem; the same thing he said before, but repeated in other words to express his great loathing of their wrath and rage. Some think that these words may be considered either a prophecy or a prayer that their anger might cease―what follows is certainly a prophecy:


I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

This prediction― “I will divide them”― was fulfilled in the fact that neither of the tribes of Simeon and Levi possessed any political importance in Israel. The brothers had banded together to oppress their kindred; their descendants were powerless. But in every other respect the fulfillment was utterly diverse. In the wilderness the Simeonites dwindled from 59,300 to 22,200 men (Numbers 1:23; 26:14); and after the conquest of Canaan, were so feeble that they had only fifteen towns assigned them, scattered about in the territory of Judah. And there they melted away, being either absorbed into the tribe among whom they dwelt, or withdrawing to wander as nomads in the wilderness of Paran.


In Levi’s case the curse was changed into a blessing by the faithfulness of the tribe upon a very trying occasion (Exodus 32:26-28*); and we learn from it the great lesson that the Divine rewards and punishments, even when specified in prophecy, are nevertheless conditional upon human conduct. There is not the slightest indication in Jacob’s blessing of this difference in fulfillment, while in writing of Moses the lot of Levi is described in terms of the highest praise, and that of Simeon is passed over in humiliating silence.


*then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. (Exodus 32:26-28)

8Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee.

Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise:

The prophecy begins with his name “Judah,” signifying the praise of the Lord. His mother, Leah, gave him this name when he was born―“And she conceived again and bore a son and said, "This time I will praise the LORD. Therefore she named him Judah” (29:35). What’s more, his name also describes the warlike character of this tribe, to which, by Divine choice, was assigned the first allotment of the Promised Land, which was conquered by the pious and heroic Caleb. Since  Judah signifies praise, Jacob takes this occasion to reveal that this tribe would become so eminent and glorious, that the rest of the tribes should praise it; that is, they should acknowledge its superiority, for in its privileges it would be distinguished above all the others.


thy hand shall be in the neck* of thine enemies;

“Thine hand shall” press them down by means of his superior power, subduing them, and causing them to submit to him, and this was verified in David, who was from this tribe,―“You have also made my enemies turn their backs to me, And I destroyed those who hated me” (Psalm 18:40)―and especially in the Messiah, in a spiritual sense, who has conquered and subdued all his and his people’s enemies; sin, Satan, the world and death.


*Judah shall tread upon its enemies’ necks, as the result of victory; or they will be subject to him, as the neck of the ox is subject to his owner. The phrase is sometimes used to denote subjection (compare Jeremiah 27:12); but it is more commonly applied to war, to denote complete triumph or conquest. It was not uncommon to trample on the necks of those who were overcome in battle. (See Joshua 10:24; Ezekiel 21:2; Genesis 49:8.) The word used here means the neck, nape, the back of the neck; and the sense is to turn the back, as in flight.


thy father's children shall bow down before thee.

This is not to be understood, as some have imagined, that all Judah's posterity was to be honored by their brethren [the eleven other tribes]. It is sufficient for the accomplishment of this part of the prophecy, that they all took part in honoring David―he was elected by them, and all the tribes acknowledged him as their lawful sovereign (2 Samuel 5:1-3). A very long line of kings descended from him, as did THE MESSIAH himself, whose kingdom is everlasting, to whom all knees bow (Philippians 2:10). They had within their territory the temple, the throne, and the city of David (Jerusalem); all the tribes were directed to go there to worship at all the solemn festivals (Psalms 122:4). It is in appreciation of these circumstances that the historian is to be understood, when he says, “Judah prevailed above his brethren, for out of him came the chief ruler” (1 Chronicles 5:2).

9Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

Judah is a lion's whelp:

The lion is the king of beasts, the terror of the forest when he roars; when he seizes his prey, it cannot escape; when he is finished devouring it, nobody dares to pursue him to take revenge. By this it is foretold that the tribe of Judah would become very formidable, and would not only obtain great victories but would peacefully enjoy what was obtained by those victories. Judah is not compared to a wild lion, uncontrollable and always raging; but to a lion, enjoying the satisfaction of his success, without bothering others.


from the prey, my son, thou art gone up:

Having caught and killed thy “prey,” that is, conquered thine enemies, “thou art gone up” in triumph; or “gone up” in the sense of having grown greater and higher after thy victories, which usually happens. Or he alludes to the lions, which usually dwell in mountains, as many writers observe, and come down to hunt for prey on the plains, and when they have got their prey, they go up (return) to their habitat, and so shall Judah.


he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion;

“He couched as a lion” refers to when the lion has taken the prey; he does not immediately carry it away to his den, for though he may fear the enemy might return and overtake him; but like a lion he stoops down to feed upon his prey, and then to couch or lie down to rest after he has eaten it, without the least fear of any enemy, as it is said of him in Isaiah 31:4. Judah’s conquests shall not be interrupted or followed by failures and defeats and overthrows, which frequently happens during the course of war, but he shall quietly possess his spoils, and after the bloody wars, which he will be forced to wage, he shall enjoy a sweet peace and tranquility, as did his descendants―“So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:25).


“As an old lion,” means a grown lion, not a weak and impotent lion, but one having obtained his full strength. Who shall presume or dare to disturb or provoke him? All shall fear him, and seek peace with him.


who shall rouse him up?

 Judah is like a grown lion with its full strength, or a lioness, as some choose to interpret it, and which is the fiercest, and therefore the most dangerous to wake up when it has laid down, either in its den, or with its prey in its paws. That is how dangerous it was to provoke the tribe of Judah, as its enemies would find out, especially in the times of David. All this may be applied to Christ, the lion of the tribe of Judah; the lion being the king of beasts, and the strongest among them, may denote the kingly power and authority of Christ, His great strength as the mighty God and mighty Savior, His courage in engaging with all the powers of darkness, and valor in vanquishing all His enemies; His generosity and leniency to those that stoop to Him, and His fierceness to his adversaries, for He took the prey from the mighty, and then ascended on high, leading captivity captive; where He sat down at the right hand of God to rest. Who will dare to “rouse Him up,” or be able to stand before Him when He is angry? This verse in some ancient writings of the Jews is said to be about the Messiah, the son of David.

10The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come;

Looking yet at Judah, Jacob saw the Lord.  The scepter shall not depart from Judah.  To Him [the Lord Jesus Christ] belongs the “scepter” [the rulers long staff]; He is the “Lawgiver.”


A great deal of controversy has swirled about the word “Shiloh,” which can be understood as meaning “rest” or “rest giver.” This is the name of the town where the ark rested until Samuel’s time (1 Samuel 4:1-22).  But since that site was never important in Judah’s history, there seems to be no tie to this prophecy.  An early Aramaic translation reads “until Messiah comes,” and this interpretation has held a strong place in Jewish and Christian understanding of the text.


The name “Shiloh” comes from the same route as the Hebrew “shalom”—peace!  In Jacob’s prophecy it refers not to a place but a person, and points to that true Prince of Peace into whose almighty hand the scepter of absolute and universal domination is yet to be placed.  He would come from Judah’s line.  What more could Judah have than that, for by giving him the Messianic line, Jacob gave him everything.  The natural man in Jacob would have greatly desired to bestow that sovereignty on Joseph; the spiritual man bestowed it on Judah.


and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

All the nations shall gather to Him, for that shall be the Desire of the people of all nations (Haggai 2:7). Jesus, who was lifted up from the earth shall draw all men unto Him (John 12:32), and in Him the children of God that are scattered abroad, should meet as the center of their unity (John 11:52).  In Him there is plenty of all which is nourishing and refreshing to the soul, and which maintains and shares the Divine life in it.


Evangelical Christians have been very united in seeing Christ as the fulfillment of this prediction which came from Jacob’s lips.  So, they understood that this prophecy meant that in addition to the tribes of Israel the people of the world would become obedient to the One who was to come.

11Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes:

Jacob had not yet finished with his son Judah; still looking at Judah, the old patriarch saw the land, the land as it will be when Judah’s Lion [Jesus, the true vine] comes to reign.  He saw millennial blessings flowing from that. 


That’s one interpretation, but most Medieval and modern commentators agree that the land he has in view is Goshen in Egypt.  The term looks like an anachronism [symbol, representation] because Rameses is the city later built with Israelite slave labor.  Perhaps its use here is intended to foreshadow the future oppression.

12His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.

Judah found himself the ancestor of the leading clan in Israel, the one from which David and the Davidic line would come, and thus the one who will see the nation submitting to his authority and see his land astonishingly fertile [abounding in wine and milk]. Wine is the settled-on symbol for the blood of Jesus Christ, which is a drink indeed as shed for sinners, and applied in faith; and all the blessings of this Gospel are wine and milk, without money and without price, to which every thirsty soul is welcome (Isaiah 55:1). 


Little had Judah known, when he stood before that great and dreadful lord in Egypt, the unknown Joseph, and pleaded Benjamin’s cause, that such lavish praise and reward would one day be his.  At the judgment seat of Jacob nothing was forgotten, just as at the judgment seat of Christ no stand taken for Christ will go unrewarded in the Kingdom.  But as Jacob looked at Judah all he could see was Jesus.  Jacob’s faults and failings were blotted out in that glorious vision of Christ.  That is what will count at the judgment seat.


13Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.


Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea;

Zebulon was the youngest of Leah’s sons.  Genesis tells us nothing about him beyond the fact he was one of those who sold Joseph—but that was the common guilt of all in those dark, unregenerate days.  Zebulon stood at the foot of the bed next to his mighty brother Judah.  He was probably a somewhat silent, ordinary, unassuming, and anonymous person.  He had never been a very bold man like Judah or a very bad man like Reuben.  What would Jacob say to him? 


Zebulon, that is, his descendents, should have their lot upon the sea-coast, and should be merchants, and mariners, and traders at sea.  This was fulfilled when the land of Canaan was divided by lot, and the border of Zebulon went up toward the sea (Joshua 19:11).  Had they chose their lot themselves, or Joshua appointed it, we might have supposed it was done with the idea of making Jacob’s words good; but because it was done by lot, it appears that it was Divinely willed, and Jacob Divinely inspired.  If prophecy says Zebulon shall be a haven for ships, Providence will see that it happens.  God appoints the bounds of our habitation.  It is wise as well as our duty to get used to our lot, and to improve it.  If Zebulon dwells on the sea-coast, let him serve as a haven for ships.


and he shall be for an haven of ships;

So far as we know, and as most maps show, Zebulon’s land-grant in the kingdom did not reach to the Mediterranean.  It could have touched the Sea of Galilee, but such a small inland body of water, however important it might have been to Palestine, hardly exhausts the magnificence implied in Jacob’s words.  Minor fishing concessions along a lake or even profit resulting from the intersection of trade routes there seems only a minor fulfillment of what Jacob saw.


Again, there is no proof that Zebulon’s borders ever reached as far as the Mediterranean, but the prophesy certainly implies great enlargement for Zebulon and vast, continental interests, for Zidon was one of the world’s mightiest cities with maritime interests to the ends of the earth.  It was the mother of mighty Tyre, one of the greatest cities of antiquity.  The ultimate fulfillment of Jacob’s words must surely be in the Millennium.


The Millennial interpretation of Jacob’s words, however, does not exhaust their meaning.  There is a mystical interpretation that needs to be considered.  Zebulon’s tribal inheritance included Nazareth and Canaan of Galilee.  Who can think of places like that without thinking of Jesus?  Was He not frequently called simply “Jesus of Nazareth”?  It was there He spent His boyhood days, grew to full manhood, and labored as a carpenter.  In New Testament times the borders of Zebulon may have reached as far as Capernaum on the shore of Galilee.  It was in favored Zebulon that the Lord Jesus performed many of His mightiest miracles (Matthew 4:15-16).  Thus Zebulon cradled that mighty movement in history that resulted, on the Day of Pentecost, and the advent of the church—the church that soon thereafter set out to conquer the world.  Little did insignificant Zebulon realize what great high honor was being bestowed upon him that day as he stood silent and Jacob’s judgment seat.


and his border shall be unto Zidon.

This description of Zebulon would give the impression that the clan’s land was on the coast; actually it was only toward the Mediterranean, in the Jezreel plain, and on the way to Phoenicia (Sidon).  So, we do not know the exact territory assigned to Zebulon and the kingdom for sure.  We do not know, for instance, whether his borders actually touched either the Galilee or the Mediterranean, but, if they did not do so during the past kingdom age, they certainly will during the one that is to come, for Jacob saw Zebulon with coastal interests.

14Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens:

“Issachar” was also one of Leah’s sons.  The circumstances of his birth may have colored Issachar’s character, for he does not seem to have been an active and aggressive person but one quite content to take a humble place.  Yet Jacob, looking at Issachar, spoke of his strength.  “Issachar,” he said, “is a strong ass.” It was a characterization of which most would be ashamed but that many are content to assume just the same.  It was not flattering to be likened to a strong but somewhat stupid animal.  How much better to be a lion like Judah, a hind like Naphtali, a wolf like Benjamin, or even a serpent like Dan!  The very picture of a donkey is one of dumbness and of an inability to appreciate higher things.  Yet, at the same time it is a picture of usefulness and strength.


It was Issachar’s strength that was first mention by Jacob.  He was a strong man—not strong in the sense of explosive leadership but in the sense of dependability.  He was not a man easily moved, but you knew where you stood with him.  He was a plodder, but solid.

15And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.

And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant;

Jacob spoke next of his satisfaction.  Issachar would prefer the comforts of home to Glory.  He inherited a very fertile strip of land in the kingdom; it was in the north, fronting on the Jordan, a territory much coveted by raiders.  Issachar would give up his dignity and freedom so long and as he could continue to farm his fields and live comfortably.  When the book of Judges goes over the spiritual achievements of the tribes in taking hold of their possessions in Canaan, Issachar is not even mentioned (Judges 1).  The Canaanites remained strong for a long time after the Israelites arrived in Canaan; Issachar’s clan will be subordinate to them, but the advantages of the area will make them not mind too much.  The tribe was such a failure along military lines it did not deserve a place among those who at least made some effort to possess their possessions.


and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.

But Jacob saw more.  An indolent, easygoing disposition of Issachar pointed to his servitude.  “And bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.”  There was no blame, simply a lack of achievement.  But here again, the judgment seat was to produce beneficial results for in later years, in the kingdom, Issachar did amount to something after all. 


When the tribes were camped or on the march, Issachar was placed next to Zebulon and Judah at the head of them all (Numbers 10:15).  Association with the vigorous members of the kingdom was intended to inspire sluggish Issachar, and that is just what happened.  In the days of the judges, Issachar came forward to fight with Barak and even marched in the forefront to bear the brunt of the battle (Judges 5:15).  Deborah, whose name means “the bee,” stung lazy Issachar into activity at last.  Later on, Issachar gave four Kings to the northern kingdom.  But, best of all, in David’s day the men of Issachar were men who had understanding of the times, men who knew what Israel ought to do.  They took the lead in welcoming David back to the throne (1 Chronicles 12:32, 38-40).

16Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.

Next comes the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.


Dan shall judge his people,

The name “Dan” means “judge. What is said concerning Dan has reference to that tribe in general, that though Dan was one of the sons of the concubines, yet he should be a tribe governed by judges of his own as well as other tribes. Dan will be one of the small clams.  Jacob’s promises assure it that, as its name suggests, it will share in the rule of the clans as a whole (Genesis 30:6); but for all its apparent insignificance it does count.  Dan was a judge, but he was a poor one!  Instead of justice, treachery was to mark his decisions, which would affect the plaintiff like the poison of the adder (49:17).


Dan has always been understood to be the subject of the verb “judge” (or “govern”), not its object.  But Hebrew grammar makes it equally possible to read “Dan” as the object of the verb, and that would explain the otherwise obscure second clause.


as one of the tribes of Israel.

In historical fact, the tribe of Dan, far from assuming a role of leadership, was forced to migrate from south to north.  Despite its marginal existence, the Israelite people will judge or govern it as one of Israel’s tribes.

17Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.

Dan should, by skill, and strategy, and surprise, gain advantage over his enemies, like a serpent suddenly biting the heel of the soldier’s horse.  Or, it may refer to Samson, who was of that tribe, and judged Israel, that is, delivered them out of the hands of the Philistines, not like the other judges, by fighting them in the field, but by the vexations and annoyances he gave them by his own two hands. He unexpectedly buried the Philistines in the ruins of the temple of Dagon, pulling down the columns supporting the temple as the adder causes the horse to throw his rider.


The sudden lethal attack from below on the roadside is an image of the tactic of ambush in guerrilla warfare adopted against invaders by the Danite fighters.  Again, the image suggests that this tribe, unlike the others, did not enjoy the security of fortified settlements.


The next thing the old prophet saw as he looked at Dan was poison.  Dan’s inheritance in the kingdom was a rich one territorially, for it bordered on the Mediterranean and included the great sea port of Joppa.  It was a tribal territory, however, that fronted on Philistine country and one that was constantly threatened by those warlike neighbors.


The Danites, dissatisfied with their portion, migrated north.  They fell with serpent like cunning on the city of Laish and established themselves in the far north of Israel.  There, however, they had to face constant pressure from the hostile northern powers such as Syria.  And it was Dan that first introduced idolatry into Israel as tribal religious policy (Judges 18:30-31), and it was in Dan that Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves (1 Kings 12:2-30).  Many think that the Antichrist will come from the tribe of Dan.  There was poison in Dan’s cup.

18I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.

But Jacob could see something else, something better, and something worth mentioning at the judgment seat. He could see pardon. “I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD!” he exclaimed. For suddenly, peering down the future ages, taken up with coming events, as they were suggested to his mind by Dan, the old patriarch saw far, far beyond Dan and his treacheries. He saw the Lord, the covenant-keeping Jehovah, bringing salvation to his sons―even to Dan with his serpent like ways. There was grace even in the midst of judgment. At the judgment seat of Christ, too, grace will triumph, for nothing can rob God’s people of their salvation. It is worth noting too that the reference here―“I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD”―is the very first reference to salvation in the Bible. And it occurs in connection with Dan!

19Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.

Gad, a troop shall overcome him:

Gad was the first son born to Leah’s maid, and we know no more about him than we know about Dan. He too was included in Joseph’s ill report to the father along with Asher and Napthali. Looking at Gad, Jacob saw him in two lights. He saw him as vanquished. “Gad,” he said, “a troop shall overcome him.” But he also saw him as victorious, “but he shall overcome at the last.”


but he shall overcome at the last.

Gad chose his inheritance on the far side of Jordan. His territory was under constant attack from warlike, nomadic tribes, which swooped down upon his fields from the deserts. All the tribes which settled east of Jordan were vulnerable and, indeed, were the first to be carried away when Assyrian hordes came down on the fold.


The tribe of Gad was not without its notables; Jephthah, beloved Barzillai, and Elijah [that prince among the prophets], were all from the tribe of Gad. Gad could take a beating from the foe and come back in triumph. It is in that character that he was owned at the judgment seat of Jacob. He was an overcomer―a great thing to be in a day when actions are weighed.

20Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.

Asher was another one of the bond woman’s sons, like the others, a seeming no entity.  Looking at Asher, Jacob again saw two things.  He saw life’s routine rewards.  “Out of Asher his bread shall be fat,” he said.  He saw also royal riches—“and he shall yield royal dainties.” How Asher’s face must have glowed at the note of praise and reward and of promised honor in the coming kingdom.  Asher’s should be a rich tribe, replenished not only with bread for necessity, but with dainties, royal dainties, and these are exported out of Asher to other tribes, perhaps to other lands. 


Asher’s inheritance in Canaan was that amazingly fertile strip that ran along the foot of Caramel up the Mediterranean Coast past Tyre.  Asher was never strong enough to dispossess the tough and tenacious Phoenicians of Tyre, but then even Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great had trouble subduing Tyre.


Asher was to “dip his foot in oil.” Commentators are taken up with the rich oil-producing olive Groves that flourished so abundantly in Asher’s territory.  But there is more to it than that.  The great modern port of Haifa is situated in Asher’s territory today and there, at Haifa, the giant pipelines from the great Iranian Oil fields terminate.  Asher literally dips his foot in oil today.

21Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.

Naphtali is a hind let loose:

The remaining bondwoman’s son was Naphtali.  Jacob put his finger first on his son’s natural wildness.  The name signifies wrestling, and the blessing involved in it signifies prevailing; it “is a hind [female deer] let loose”; and we may consider this to be the description of the character of this tribe.  Like a deer which flies from his enemies, not like the lion who faces them.  Like the petitioner who, with godly words, craves mercy, not like the warrior who disdains to ask, or even to accept quarter.  The hind is a timid, swift, and graceful creature of the woods and fields.  In those early days, before he was regenerated with the help of Joseph, Naphtali had apparently been a wild and ungovernable young fellow, hard to tame, instilled with a passion for freedom and unrestraint.  That love for freedom was now to be put to good use, for it was a dispositional trait capable of development for better or for worse.  Barak and many of his soldiers were of this tribe.


he giveth goodly words.

Jacob saw also, in Naphtali, his notable wisdom.  “Naphtali,” he said, “giveth goodly words.” That is, he was an eloquent man, and God’s kingdom has always been able to use such.  The hind let loose was one that “gave goodly words.”  Naphtali’s swiftness of foot and eloquence of tongue was held up for praise at Jacobs’s judgment seat.  At the judgment seat of Christ may we too find that our walk and our talk can be held up for warm commendation before all.

22Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall:

Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; 

Jacob’s eye fell next on Joseph, and his own eloquence took wings.  He had much to say about that eminently godly man.  For that is what is going to count most at the coming judgment seat.  Courage, strength, and wisdom will all have their rewards, but it is Christ likeness in us that will make the very vaults of heaven ring.


With so much to say to Joseph, Jacob focused his thoughts in four areas. First he extolled his fruitfulness (49: 22).  “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall.” Jacob had just given Joseph A double portion in Israel by adding Ephraim and Manasseh to the tribes.  He now foresaw how fruitful that addition would be.  After the second census in the wilderness those two tribes taken together were by far the most populous in Israel.  Joseph was a fruitful bough.


whose branches run over the wall:

The blessing of Joseph is very full. He is Compared to a fruitful bough, or young tree; God made him fruitful in the land of his affliction.  What Jacob says of him, is historical as well as prophetical.

23The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him:

Then Jacob made mention of his foes.  The hostility of Joseph’s brethren was a faint picture, a mere type, of the larger hostilities Ephraim and Manasseh would have to face in the world.  It was Ephraim who gave the tribes their Joshua, the great military leader who wrested Canaan from the massed might of the foe.  Thus it was Joseph who conquered the foe.


Though he now lives at ease, and in all honor, Jacob reminds him of the difficulties he had formerly struggled through.  He had many enemies, here called archers, bearing skillful to do mischief, masters of the art of persecution; they hated him; they shot are poisonous darts at him.  His brethren in his father’s house mocked and stripped him threatened him sold him and thought they had caused the death of him

24But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel:)

Next, Jacob reviewed his faith.  By the vigor of his faith Joseph had triumphed in his adversities and testing and had been made so strong that there was not a man his equal in all of Egypt.  It was faith that had carried him through. That personal truth gave rise to prophetic truth.  Jacob could see in Joseph a type of the promised Messiah.  He would be both a Shepherd (that relates to His first coming), and a stone (that relates to his second coming).  The dying Jacob dimly grasps the truth of the two Comings of Christ as they were typified in the personal history of his own beloved son.


25Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb:

26The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.


Words seem to fail Jacob in seeking to describe all the blessings he would see in Joseph.  The word “blessing” simply came to his lips and there it stayed—one blessing after another poured out of his mouth as, looking at Joseph, he describes his fullness.  He blessed him with the blessing of heaven above and of the deep that lieth under; he blessed him with sufficiency, with security, and with sovereignty.  “The blessings of thy father,” he cried, “have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors [predecessors].” I have been blessed above Abraham and Isaac; you will be blessed above me!  “Blessings” he cried as he warmed to his work.  “Blessings unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.”


Jacob’s words leaped far beyond tribal blessings into total blessing.  That was Joseph’s reward at the judgment seat of Jacob—a blessing that reached out and beyond all intervening kingdom ages to the furthest reaches of eternity.  And it was Christ likeness in Joseph that opened up that floodtide of blessing—that and that alone.

27Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.

Benjamin was the son of Jacob’s old age, born in the same hour that Rachel died, and the son of his right hand.  As he looked at Benjamin he underlined his character.  “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf.” The wolf, the largest member of the canine family, often weighs as much as a hundred pounds and is a powerful predator.  It was in that character that Jacob saw Benjamin.  Benjamin would become a warrior tribe.


The territory allotted to Benjamin was small [only about 400 square miles] but rugged and placed in a most strategic position for the defense of the whole land. His holdings were often under attack from invading powers.  But Benjamin had the character for that.  It would have been a great mistake to give to an Issachar what belonged to a Benjamin—a wolf, not an ass, was required to hold the terrain that would later contain Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.


Two illustrious Benjamites are found in Scripture—both Saul’s, one in the Old Testament, the other in the New.  In the morning Saul, the son of Kish, leaped to the throne to become Israel’s first king; in the evening Saul of Tarsus seized the reins of the church and became the greatest of all apostles, with a message that hammered at the very gates of Rome.

28All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.

The review of this family was over, and Jacob prepared for death.  Before finally crossing over Jordon, however, he had three last things to accomplish.  We have his last words.  “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” The thought is that, in blessing his sons, he was blessing the tribes that would spring from them.  Jacob had no doubt that the promise of a great seed, made to Abraham and confirmed to Isaac, was now being fulfilled in his sons.  Already in Goshen the family was “multiplying exceedingly” (47:27).  Thus prophetically, in his very last words, Jacob made mention for the first time in Scripture of “the 12 tribes of Israel.


Jacob blessed every one according to the blessings God intended to bestow upon them at a future time.  Though Reuben, Simeon, and Levi had come under their fathers displeasure, yet he is said to have “blessed them; every one according to his blessing”; for none of them were rejected as Esau was.


Summing Up


One and all the sons had now stood before Jacob as he opened the books and rendered accounts.  The judgment had been searching but fair, and, above all, it had been private—the world had been shut out from that bedchamber.  It had been incisive and to the point, too.  Jacob had seized the most prominent dispositional trait of each son; he had weighed the highlights of each one’s history, and he had seen the whole person, the whole tribe, and the very mountain peaks of unborn time.  The judgment-seat experience had been painful for some, pleasant for others, but the verdict had been perfect in each case.  Not a voice was raised in protest; each individual knew he had been fairly dealt with, and that the judge had been without bias.  As the men trooped out of the room to face their respective futures in the coming kingdom, they could not help but see that they had reaped in the coming kingdom; they could not help but see that they had reaped just what they had sown.


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