“And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.” (Genesis 49:1)
After Jacob finished pronouncing a blessing over the sons of Joseph, he called his eleven other sons to him that he might do likewise unto them. There is a marked transition between this chapter and the rest of the Old Testament; Jacob’s blessing on his sons changes the focus from the Patriarchs to the nation of Israel. Up to this point, God has been working primarily through individuals. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph — “Patriarchs”, the fathers of old. The story from Genesis 12 through the completion of the book is one concerning a single family. Now, we move outward and change the focus to a single nation. Genesis ends with 70 members of the family of Jacob, the entire nation of Israel at the time, while Exodus opens up with the number of Israelites numbering into the millions (Ex. 12:37). God will work throughout the remainder of the Old Testament through prophets, priests, judges, and kings. Yet all of these will be representatives of the nation itself (or else representatives of God to the nation, but it will be with the nation that God will deal).
Jacob starts to speak the prophetic “blessings” over his sons and starts, as was customary, with the eldest son, Reuben. “My might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power…”, Jacob begins (Gen. 49:3). It would seem for the briefest of moments that Reuben’s sins against his father were forgotten; that nothing of the blessings due him as first-born had been forfeited. As the man who believes his sins bear no consequence, Reuben must have breathed a sigh of relief as his father pronounced this wonderful benediction upon him. “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel“, Jacob continues. Reuben’s heart must have sunk as his father continued by announcing before the entire family exactly why this was so. Reuben lost his position as first-born among the sons of Jacob, and for what? The indiscretions of a single night cost him dearly, indeed (Gen. 35:22). Let us never suppose that our sins are wholly without consequence and that our own indiscretions will go unnoticed. The Lord forgives us when we confess our sins to Him, but they often carry temporal consequences in this life. Sin, when dealt with, will not cost us our position with God, but it can cost us our position in our family, our marriage, our work, and our community.
Reuben is described as “unstable as water.” As water will not bear under the load of practically any solid object; and as water will displace, bend, move, and ripple under the force of anything thrown into it, so was Reuben without a foundation of any sort. We caught a glimpse of the weakness of his character back in Gen. 37:22. Rather than take charge of the situation as he rightfully should have as eldest, Reuben attempts to convince his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit, so that he might sneak back later and rescue him. I do not wish to criticize Reuben’s actions (or rather, inactions), but it speaks volumes that he carried so little influence as the oldest brother that he was unable to insist that the brothers forgo their wickedness. The only time we really see any decisiveness at all from Reuben is when he is either following his lusts (35:22) or his fears (42:22).
Simeon And Levi
The second and third sons of Jacob do not fare any better than Reuben. No qualifying benediction is even afforded them as Jacob denounces their wanton cruelty and the rashness of their retribution. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Yet Simeon and Levi took it upon themselves to execute judgment, not only on the man who attacked their sister, but upon the entire city that he lived in (Gen. 34:25-29)! It is always man’s tendency when exacting revenge to do so without equity, for he does not possess the objectivity nor the unbiased perspective of an omniscient God. We inevitably carry things too far, responding not so much in the interest of justice, but retaliation. The words of Simeon and Levi in Gen. 34:31 demonstrate that they believed their actions were justified, but like Reuben, their sins would cost them.
“I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel“, Jacob announces on behalf of the Lord (Gen. 49:7). And so it would be for these two brothers who had joined together to carry out their wicked act of vengeance. The tribe of Simeon would find their inheritance in the land at the far southern end of Palestine, nestled at the edge of the Negev. Their land would actually be carved out from Judah’s inheritance; dry and arid, it would border against the desert wilderness (Josh. 19:9). For all intents and purposes, Simeon would be swallowed up by the larger tribe surrounding him. Levi would literally be scattered throughout the entire land, having no direct inheritance of their own (Num. 18:20). The tribe of Levi would, however, be given the honor of serving as the priests of the nation of Israel. Levi had taken it upon himself to deal with the sins of Shechem by slaying the man and his entire city, but the sons of Levi would be instructed in judging sin in God’s way.
Coming now to Jacob’s fourth son, Judah is the first of the brethren to receive a positive pronouncement from the mouth of his father. We know that Judah was in no way innocent of sin, why was God overlooking it? Why did Judah receive a blessing when he was just as guilty of sin as his older three brothers? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Judah dealt with his sin and turned from it. We saw back in Chapter 43 that Judah was a changed man after his sins against Joseph and his own daughter-in-law. Therefore, it is this fourth son of Jacob through whom the Royal lineage will arise. King David will come from the tribe of Judah, but more importantly, Jesus Christ, the King of kings will arise from the tribe of Judah. Jesus will be that “Choice Vine” (Gen. 49:11, John 15:1) to Whom Judah’s “foal” and “colt” shall be bound. Shiloh, the Giver of Peace, will hold the royal sceptre in His hand and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be.
Zebulun is destined to inherit a part of the land which stretches to the Northwest coast of Palestine, bordering with the city of Sidon of the Phoenicians. Zebulun is called a “haven of ships”; the land of this tribe will be one rooted in maritime commerce. As such, Zebulun is the more cosmopolitan of the tribes, engaging in trade with ships from various other nations. From a spiritual standpoint, Zebulun is representative of those within the Church whose own affairs closely border with those of the world. Having one foot planted firmly in the world and another in the Body of Christ, it is very often through these individuals that new “ideas” creep into the congregation, ideas which are little more than secularism dusted off and re-dressed. We must remain relevant to the world, they say, or we must present the Gospel to the world on their own level. It is always the original intention of such people to do as much exporting of ideas as importing, yet it never seems to work out that way. Once the Gospel becomes watered down and intermingled with secularism, there remains no “market” for it.
If Zebulun represents the merchant within the Church, then Issachar is the laborer. “Crouching between two burdens”, Issachar is content to do what needs to be done that he might partake of the good rest and pleasant land for which he labors. A good and faithful servant, Issachar makes no effort to make a name for himself, but remains a servant — paying “tribute” to his King.
When Genesis 49:16 states that Dan shall “judge” his people, it carries more of the meaning that he shall protect them. We call those mighty and valiant men and women from the Book of Judges “judges”, yet they were not busying themselves in the office of a magistrate, or what we think of as a judge. These were the champions of the people, men and women appointed by God to deliver the nation from its enemies. Dan shall be a “serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels…” Adders were indigenous to Palestine, yet horses would be indicative of foreign invaders, since horses were not an animal used by the Hebrews (Deut. 17:16). The picture here is of the tribe of Dan lying in wait to take out the invading enemy upon their entry into the land. Great and mighty warrior “judges” such as Samson (of the tribe of Dan) come to mind in this prophecy.
“A troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at last” (Genesis 49:19)
Perhaps no other verse in this entire chapter is more appropriate to every child of God than this. Are we not all overcome again and again, yet we possess the promise that, in the end, we shall overcome? Nevertheless, it is not we who overcome, but the One we serve has overcome already (John 16:33). Nestled in between Jacob’s pronouncement concerning Dan and this one concerning Gad is the simple, nearly parenthetical statement: “I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord.” It is not the military might of Dan which shall overcome, nor is it the power of Gad; it is the Salvation which God provides that shall cause the child of God to overcome. It is the mighty God of Jacob, from whence the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel comes (Gen. 49:24). Jesus Christ is the One Who secures the victory, not us. It is through His efforts that we have overcome, not our own.