Jacob’s Prophecies Concerning His Sons

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The final moments of Jacob’s life reveal him to be physically weak as he approached death. However, instead of focusing upon his own weakness, he was able to give a blessing to those around him. He became an instrument of the Lord’s blessings for future generations.

God promised Jacob: “I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will close your eyes” (Gen 46:4). The blessings of Abraham are in the land of Canaan, not Egypt. The result of the Egyptian bondage (Exod 1:8-14) was that the people of God dwelt in Egypt rather than in Canaan. Therefore, when he was near death, Jacob demanded a promise from his son Joseph: to bury him in Canaan. “‘Please, if I have found favor in your sight,’ he said to his son, ‘place now your hand under my thigh and deal with me in kindness and faithfulness . . . carry me out of Egypt and bury me in [my fathers’] burial place’” (Gen 47:29-30).

Joseph promised that he would not bury his father in Egypt, yet Jacob insisted, “Swear to me” (v. 31). The placing of one’s hand under another’s thigh was a way of making an oath. The same was witnessed when Abraham required an oath from his servant, who was sent to Haran to find a wife for Isaac (24:9). Jacob wanted to be certain that circumstances would not prevent Joseph from leaving Egypt, so he insisted that his son make an oath that would bind him. Later, Joseph went to Pharaoh and said, “My father made me swear” (50:5a). Thus, Pharaoh allowed Joseph to leave the country and bury his father in Canaan.

Jacob worshiped God, realizing that He would fulfill His promise through Joseph. God’s promise of the land was important to him, even though it was only (for the moment) his final resting place (1 Chron 16:13-18). Jacob called for his sons, sensing he was near death, and the twelve of them gathered around his bed. “Assemble yourselves,” said Jacob, “that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come” (Gen 49:1). He then prophesied concerning his twelve sons.

Reuben (49:3-4) was the firstborn. By virtue of his position as Jacob’s firstborn, he should have had preeminence over his brothers and the double portion of the inheritance that was given to Joseph (48:5-6, 22; 1 Chron 5:1-2). But those were taken from Reuben because of his precariousness. He lost his birthright and place of honor because he committed incest with Jacob’s concubine. One does not read of an immediate punishment at the time when the sin originally occurred (Gen 35:22). However, the sin did have progressive consequences, not only for Reuben but also for his descendants. As a result, Reuben would not have the character to lead the tribes.

Simeon and Levi were addressed next. Anger and cruelty were their legacy. As a result of their character, they would be scattered. The tribe of Simeon was eventually unified into the tribe of Judah, but the tribe of Levi was never given their own land. They were given cities to occupy, which were scattered throughout the land of Israel. Their inheritance is the tithe rather than land (Numb 18:22-23).

The most extensive prophecies given by Jacob involve Judah and Joseph. They were the two leaders among the brothers, and the sons whose tribes—Judah and Ephraim—were destined to be the dominant tribes in the Promised Land. Ephraim would be prominent in the north and would become the Northern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom fell into idolatry, and God’s judgment of their sin was exile by Assyria. Following the reign of Solomon, the Northern Kingdom had a total of 20 kings; not one of them was credited as being a godly man.

The Southern Kingdom, Judah, witnessed periods of apostasy and revival; from its 20 kings, only approximately half of them were said to have “done right before the Lord.”  Even among the half of the 20 kings, there was a serious deterioration as their reign progressed, and an apostasy from the Lord in their latter years. What is not evident is whether those men were really children of God, or if they simply did right in obeying the law of God in the first part of their reign, and then manifested their apostate character later in life. God judged the Southern Kingdom also through exile to Babylon. After the Babylonian Captivity, the Southern Kingdom returned to their land to rebuild the temple.

Judah was characterized as a lion’s cub; that is, a lioness who crouches (“who dares rouse him up?”). His was a powerful tribe. Judah would not only rule over his brothers in the days to come, but also would overcome his enemies (Gen 49:8). His military might was compared to the strength of a lion (v. 9). The preeminence that was taken from Reuben was given to his younger brother, Judah.

Genesis 49:10 (“‘The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples”) has been a difficult passage to translate. For instance, the King James Version translated the third line, “until Shiloh come.” The New American Standard translated it in the same manner. There is good reason to render the verse as the New International Version did, “until he comes to whom it belongs.” Victor P. Hamilton noted this problem of translation: “This line has provoked more difference of opinion among Hebraists than perhaps any other in the entire book of Genesis” (Genesis 18-50 [Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1995] 654). Hamilton translated it, “until he possesses that which belongs to him.” The meaning of Genesis 49:10 seems to be that the kingship will remain in Judah’s clan until the king comes who can rightfully claim it. Obviously, many interpret the rightful king to be none other than “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev 5:5). “Shiloh” can refer to a specific place, as it is elsewhere in the Old Testament (cf. Josh 18:1, 8-9; 1 Sam 1:3). In the Genesis passage, it is best to understand it as being a faint hint of the person of the Messiah. The Targum Onkelos offered the following interpretation: “until the Messiah comes, whose is the kingdom, and him shall the nations obey.”

Zebulun was promised a seaborne trade. His tribe would border the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Sidon. Issachar’s tribe would be characterized by forced labor. Instead of using his ability to work for himself, Issachar would work for food and rest among the Canaanites, which was the opposite of what the relationship should have been. Dan was to help the other tribes against their enemies. He was “a serpent in the way.” The image is of his vindication. He would be one of the smaller tribes, but would be a victorious tribe over others.

Jacob was now halfway through the prophecies concerning his sons. Having prophesied concerning Dan, the patriarch declared, “‘For Your salvation I wait, O LORD” (Gen 49:18). Obviously, his declaration was an expression that the hope of the nation did not reside in his sons; rather, hope was in the God who had borne him throughout his sojourn. The substance of Jacob’s words was that salvation certainly would not come from his sons, but from God.

Marauding bands would raid Gad, but he would “overcome at the last” (KJV). Asher would be very productive and fruitful in his labors. He would take his abundance and deliver it to the court, thus indicating that the food was more of a delicacy than common food. Naphtali would be swift in battle. His tribe would be a mountainous people. The prophecy of Naphtali’s future is one of unhindered freedom and increase. While the New American Standard translated verse 21 to read “words” in the second line, it seems preferable to render it more naturally as “fawns.”

Joseph was given the longest prophecy. There are images of fruitful vines and steady bows, drawing upon “the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), from the God of your father who helps you, and by the Almighty who blesses you” (vv. 24b-25a). “May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers” (v. 26b). The final verse acknowledged Joseph as the leader and the one who was preeminent among his brothers.

Benjamin received the twelfth blessing: he was “a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, and in the evening he divides the spoil” (v. 27). He was prophesied to have success that he would divide with others. Jacob then gave final instructions concerning his burial place. “When Jacob finished charging his sons,” Scripture records, “he drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (v. 33). He who had been blessed by God, had now finished blessing his twelve sons, who were with him at the end of his life.

All the sons of Jacob were blessed, in that they were to be a part of the nation of Israel. All of Jacob’s sons would enter the land of Canaan and have an inheritance there. According to the prophecies, some would certainly receive a greater blessing than others would. However, even those who were rebuked by Jacob were blessed. The application is obvious: One’s future is not independent of the past, but is a direct extension of it.

The quality of the blessing for Reuben, Simeon, and Levi was based upon the sins they had committed in the past. Joseph was betrayed by his brethren, yet remained faithful to his Lord (vv. 23-24). Some of the sons found their blessings related to the name they had been given at birth. For instance, Judah’s name was derived from the Hebrew root “to praise” (29:35). His brothers would praise him (49:8). Dan, whose name has the meaning “to judge” (30:6), was foretold that he would “judge his people” (v. 16). Biblical prophecy is not isolated from history, but is a direct extension of it and continues into the future.

For the twelve sons of Jacob, their character would not only affect their own future, but also the generations after them. The sons of Jacob would learn the same lesson that Jacob learned. Truly, present actions have an impact on the future. For example, Jacob’s cunning was witnessed in his two sons, Simeon and Levi. The prophecies of Jacob reminded his sons that the life they led would affect the nation for years to come. If they lived godly lives, this would be a blessing to coming generations. If they forsook God, then the nation would experience the Lord’s judgment (a pattern exemplified in the blessing and cursing of Deut 28—30).

All the prophecies of Jacob concerning his sons, were either fulfilled or will be fulfilled in the future plan of God for Israel. The prophecies of God for the nation will be fulfilled in a literal manner, just as they were given to the original recipients. To the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, the prophecies were both a warning against forsaking God, and an expression of hope in faithfulness to God. The words of warning and hope find significance only through the grace that God provided, which would keep them from sin as they sought to honor Him. The warning of sin and its consequences should compel humanity from sin to the Messiah, for it is only in Him that salvation would come. The sons of Jacob (like the patriarch himself) must declare, “‘For Your salvation I wait, O LORD.”

Midnight Call - 10/2022

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