Genesis 49: Jacob's Final Words to His Sons

By Mary Jane Chaignot

As his life wanes, Jacob calls to his sons, and says: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” And while the poem does describe their futures, it also looks back to various incidents that have happened, incidents that will have an impact upon those futures. Scholars believe that elements of this poem are among the oldest biblical texts. The poem itself appears to be a composite of many authors. Additionally, because it is so ancient, many words are unknown. At best, scholars can only make educated guesses, which usually results in interpretative challenges. Another noteworthy aspect is that there is no mention of God directing any of his statements. Still, many scholars attribute these words to inspired prophesy.

To start, Jacob gathers all of his sons and asks them to “listen to him.” He begins with Reuben. This is his firstborn. “You are my might, excelling in honor and power.” As firstborn, he has brought great joy to Jacob. But this is tempered by his past behavior. “Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it.” He describes Reuben as unstable, reckless. Nothing in the text suggests this has been Reuben’s personality. The incident that Jacob is referring to occurs in Genesis 35:22. Rachel has just died; Reuben takes her handmaiden, Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and sleeps with her. The text says, “And Israel knew it,” but there is no further comment from Jacob.

There is, however, a bigger story in these actions. Reuben doesn’t take Bilhah because he is interested in her. True, they might have been very close in age, since Reuben is the firstborn, and she is a servant girl. Nevertheless, such an action is symbolic for taking over the reins. The event occurs after Jacob’s night of wrestling, which leaves him with a lasting limp. Perhaps he appears weakened to his sons at a time when they are about to settle in a new and unknown land. He surely isn’t the man he used to be. Reuben is younger, stronger, and ready to take over. Sleeping with his father’s concubine is one way of signaling that.

That’s why when one of David’s sons sleeps with his concubines, he does it on the rooftop so that the entire city can see. He wants everyone to know he is taking over the reins from his father. And in a very small way, that is what Reuben is trying to do too. Depending on how one calculates the dates, he could have been in his forties. Yet nothing ever comes of it. Nothing happens as a result. Neither Jacob nor Reuben ever mention it again, until now – Jacob brings it up with his last breath. And for that transgression, Reuben will lose the privileges of his birth; he is never the leader of Jacob’s family; after settling on the east side of the Jordan, his descendants are soon absorbed by other nations.

Simeon and Levi are next, and they are the only two brothers that are mentioned together, probably because of their joint actions in Shechem. (See Genesis 34) They avenge their sister by killing all the men in Shechem while they are recuperating from being circumcised. Their stories are tales of violence. Once again, Jacob says very little at the time. In the story, he is unhappy because they will be “a stink” to the surrounding people. Finally, after all these years, he says, “…in their anger they killed men…Cursed be their anger. I will gather them up and they will be scattered.” He also states that he does not wish to be in their company, which essentially ostracizes them.

Without family or honor, the tribes of Simeon and Levi quickly dissipate. At the first census in Numbers, Simeon has 59,300 members. By the end of the wilderness experience, it has fallen to 22,000 with no explanation. When the land is allocated, they are assigned various cities in the middle of Judah’s territory. Within a generation, scholars think the tribe has disappeared; it is simply absorbed into Judah. This accords with what is said here. They are scattered.

Levi, on the other hand, is never assigned land because this tribe is entrusted with the ministry for the tribes. Levites are scattered among all the cities. This becomes somewhat problematic because some scholars see their role among the tribes as an honor despite what Jacob says here. Paradoxically, this is the foremost argument for the early nature of this tradition. Here, the tribe of Levi is in disfavor with Jacob and presumably God. That will change after the exodus when they begin their sacral duties. It is worth noting, however, that their duties include protecting the sanctuary and killing anyone encroaching upon it. Additionally, because they do not own land, they are dependent upon the charity of others and never attain any wealth of their own.

Let’s move on to Judah, the fourth son. He says to Judah: “Your brothers will praise you and bow down to you.” Unlike the words of rebuke for his three older sons, Jacob has nothing but praise for Judah, using a play on words since his name means “praise.” He will be the recipient of his brothers’ acclaim. All of this is predictive of the huge role Judah will play down through the ages. David will come from the house of Judah. Later on, the whole country will be called Judah.

After establishing Judah’s prominence, Jacob describes his qualities. Using images of strength and prowess – lion, lioness, and lion cub – Jacob marks the fact that Judah will be a great warrior tribe. Even when the lion is satiated and resting, no one dares disturb him. It suggests that Judah will be a terrifying presence. But reality is slightly different. Beset by the Philistines on the west, the Amalekites to the south, and the Edomites to the east, Judah is never able to rest for long.

Jacob also says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him.” This could be a possible reference to the Davidic promise. The scepter and ruler’s staff are symbols of authority, but these people don’t even have king right now. It’s the last line that has scholars baffled. Some render the phrase “until Shiloh comes,” without a good explanation of what that might mean. In its other uses, Shiloh refers to a place. It could refer to an expansion into the northern kingdom. Others think this is a reference to the Messiah. Suffice it to say, there is no consensus.

Continuing with images of abundance and opulence, Jacob says, “Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine.” These are signs of prosperity. If one tethers his donkeys to vines, it means they have vines to spare because it is likely the animal will destroy them. Washing garments in wine and grapes could be referring to their later occupations as weavers that are adept in dyeing yarns. And finally, Judah’s eyes are dark and his teeth whiter than milk – images of beauty!

Jacob continues with Leah’s sixth son, passing over the sons of his concubines as well as Issachar. Some scholars say Zebulun is more influential than Issachar, but the fact is that neither one plays a large role in the narrative. Jacob says, “Zebulun will settle at the shore of the sea,…be a haven for ships” with a border at Sidon. However, when the land is allocated, Zebulun is not in a coastal area. In fact, the territory of Asher is between them and the sea. Scholars are open to the idea that at some point this might have been fulfilled, but there is no confirmation of this.

Jacob says, “Issachar is a raw-boned donkey lying down between the sheepfolds.” Others suggest the donkey is lying between two saddlebags. It surely makes a difference. If the word is sheepfolds, it suggests inactivity and indifference. If saddlebags, it projects an image of the good life. The “resting place is good and the land is fertile.” The last line, however, is open to interpretation. It might say, “he bowed his shoulder to the burden and became a slave at forced labor.” There is no confirmation that the tribe is ever enslaved, but some have suggested that they served the local overlords in exchange for a peaceful existence.

Next is Dan, the first son of a concubine. Jacob says, “Dan will judge his people as one of the tribes.” Upon receiving their land allocation, this tribe is unable to expel the inhabitants. Eventually, they give up, migrate north, and live independently just like the other tribes. The second part of Jacob’s words say, “Dan shall be a snake by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels.” While this might suggest that the tribe fights ruthlessly, it is more likely that they excel at a form of guerilla warfare. They occupy the northernmost territory and have to fight their own battles without the help of other tribes.

The remaining three sons of the concubines merit a single line of prophecy. “Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will raid at their heels." Gad’s territory is east of the Jordan, and they are constantly fighting with the Ammonites. A small tribe, their successes lie in their ability to move quickly versus sheer strength. To Asher, Jacob states, “His food shall be rich, and he shall provide royal delicacies.” Indeed, Asher is given the best agricultural land. Some have argued that they provide food for Canaanite royalty at the expense of their own people. But for the most part, scholars assume this tribe enjoys abundance and prosperity. “Napthali is a doe set free that bears lovely fawns.” No one really knows what that means. Scholars don’t even agree whether it is a positive or negative statement. Little is known about this tribe; the assumption is that they are able to exist peacefully among the Canaanites.

Finally, Jacob speaks to the sons of Rachel–first to Joseph, whose sons, Ephraim and Manesseh, inherit his blessing and become part of the twelve tribes of Israel. Scholars differ whether the opening lines refer to an animal or vegetable. Or Either way, Joseph is fiercely attacked – a possible reference to his brothers attacking him early on in life. Yet Joseph prevails over everything “by the hands of the Mighty One of Israel.” After acknowledging his past, Jacob looks to Joseph’s future. His ode to Joseph is the longest discourse and is comprised mostly of blessings, a word that is repeated multiple times. At the end he says, “May the blessings be on the head of Joseph, on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” Another translation states “of the elect of his brothers.” The word is nazir, a reference to his royal power.

Lastly, Jacob speaks about Benjamin. He is like a “ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at evening dividing the spoil.” This probably refers to the tribe of Benjamin becoming successful warriors and enjoying the plunder from their victories.

In the final instructions, Jacob’s sons are referred to as the twelve tribes for the first time. Then he asks to be buried back in their burial plot in the land of the Hittites. When he finishes, “he draws his feet up onto the bed, breathes his last breath, and is gathered to his people.” Jacob is 147 years old, having lived in Egypt for 17 years.