In Genesis 49, Jacob calls together his 12 sons and blesses them before his death. He calls each son by name and speaks of their pasts as well as their futures. I thought it would be an interesting study to take each of these sons of Jacob and analyze their blessings, attempting to apply what is said of them by their father to our own lives.
Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son, born to his wife Leah. Leah had been forced on Jacob, and in Genesis 29:31, it specifically states that she was not loved by him. Because of this, God showed mercy to her by giving her a son, whom she named Reuben and said “It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” (Genesis 29:32). My online Bible comments that “Reuben sounds like the Hebrew for he has seen my misery ; the name means see, a son.” Later in the text, it mentions that Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, and Israel (Jacob) heard about it (Genesis 35). This extremely short verse appears as almost an afterthought in Genesis 35, but it ends up playing a huge role in the story as a whole. In chapter 49, when Jacob blesses Reuben he says “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.” This was Reuben’s blessing in its entirety – so basically, one act of indiscretion (however large it may be) lost Reuben all of his inheritance. Later, in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, it states that even though Reuben was the firstborn, because of his sin the firstborn rights were given to Joseph. Reuben could no longer even be listed first in the genealogical order. The lesson I take from this is the seriousness with which God sees sin. It’s not just some simple act of indiscretion that can be overlooked whenever we sin – because of His righteousness and holiness, justice must be served when we sin. Unfortunately for Reuben, the concept of grace was still foreign, and he had to live with the consequence.
Simeon & Levi
Simeon and Levi are Reuben’s younger brothers, born to Leah. When Simeon was born, Leah said “Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too,” and my commentary says that “Simeon probably means one who hears.” When Levi was born Leah said “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons,” and my commentary states that “Levi sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for attached.” Unfortunately for Leah, none of these 3 sons brought Jacob any closer to becoming attached to her, and Jacob didn’t particularly become attached to any of these sons either. Reuben, of course, was because he defiled his father’s marriage bed, but for Simeon and Levi, it was because of the revenge they enacted on the Shechemites when their ruler raped Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. Simeon and Levi, with the help of the rest of their brothers, attacked the Shechemites and killed every last male (Genesis 34). Because of this, Jacob said “You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.” (v. 30). Later, during the blessing, Jacob says of them “Simeon and Levi are brothers—their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” This is an interesting statement, because Jacob does not curse the sons for their actions, but he curses their anger. Let’s face it – at least part of us thinks that it’s awesome that Simeon and Levi were passionate enough to serve justice to the Shechemites, regardless of how ruthless they were. I think Jacob may have felt this way too – so, as Matthew Henry puts it, “Jacob does not curse their persons, but their lusts.” An interesting side note – Jacob states in their blessing/curse that he will scatter/disperse them. In Henry’s commentary, he mentions that this sounds like a curse, but that it in fact becomes a blessing for Levi, who’s descendants were spread throughout the tribes of Israel to serve as priests.
When Judah was born to Leah she said “This time I will praise the LORD,” and the name Judah sounds like the Hebrew word for praise (Genesis 29:35). Judah’s blessing is one of the longest, but Judah’s descendants also play the largest role in the history of the nation of Israel. It is Judah’s descendants who become the rulers of all the tribes of Israel, foretold in the blessing – “Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you…the scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his” (Genesis 49:8,10). Jacob also foretells of the coming of one of Jacob’s descendants who will be greater than all others – “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” (v. 10, emphasis added). My commentary says that this part – “to whom it belongs” – means “Or until Shiloh comes ; or until he comes to whom tribute belongs” meaning when one comes who is greater than all others. Jacob also says that Judah will “tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch” – Christ calls himself “the true vine” in John 15:1, and later Jacob calls Joseph “a fruitful vine,” (Genesis 49:22) and Joseph is seen by many as a figure who foreshadows the being of Christ.
Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, & Naphtali
Each of these sons of Jacob receives a foretelling of what their descendants will be like or live through.
- Zebulun is told he will leave by the sea and become a haven for ships. An interesting side note – one commentary I read said that when Joshua assigned the allotments of land to the tribes of Israel, Zebulun received the region of Galilee along the shore of Lake Tiberias, reaching to the Mediterranean Sea. Zebulun was also an important “haven” in another respect (other than just for ships) – after fleeing King Herod, upon returning from Egypt, Joseph and Mary, with their child Jesus, took refuge in Galilee, the land allotted to Zebulun.
- Issachar is told that he will enjoy his new land, perhaps to the point that he would live their as a slave rather in order to stay there, rather than fight for it.
- Dan is told that his tribe will provide justice for the people of Israel. The name Dan means “judge” or “he who vindicates,” but there is no history linking the person of Dan to this prophecy. Samson, the future judge of Israel, does come from this tribe, though (Judges 13).
- Gad is told that he “will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels.” (Genesis 49:19). It’s interesting to note that “Gad was one of the tribes who chose to stay on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead (along with the Reubenites, see Numbers 32), rather than cross the Jordan and be with the other tribes within the promised land. Because of this, they were isolated from the other tribes, and thus, were subject to attacks by border raiders” (see Judges 10:8, Judges 11:4, 1 Chronicles 5:18, and Jeremiah 49:1).
- Asher is told that his “food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king.” (Genesis 49:20). The tribe of Asher is later allotted an area that was prosperous and known for its wheat, olive oil, milk, and butter (all delicacies at that time).
- Naphtali is called “a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” Some believe that this is a prophecy of the fact that a later prophetess and judge – Deborah – came from the tribe of Naphtali (see Judges 4). The latter portion of Jacob’s blessing – “…that bears beautiful fawns” – is translated “he giveth goodly words,” which some believe to be a prophecy of the song of Deborah in Judges 5.
Jacob has already blessed Joseph and his 2 sons at an earlier time (see Genesis 48), so in this blessing Jacob refers mainly to Joseph’s past of perseverance and staying strong through adversity. Joseph was a blessing to all those around him – to the Egyptians and to all those around Egypt – “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall.” Joseph was imprisoned and persecuted, but he stayed strong – “with bitterness archers attacked him;
they shot at him with hostility. But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber.” It was because of God that Joseph was able to succeed – “…because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you…”
Benjamin is told that he “is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” It is thought that this prophetically refers to the tribe of Benjamin’s fierceness and courage. Historically, this is very accurate. For fierceness, note that Ehud, a judge of Israel mentioned in Judges 3, was a Benjamite. Under the guise of paying tribute, he got close to the king of Moab and plunged a sword into his fat belly. “Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.” (v. 22). Great story!!! Also, the apostle Paul was a Benjamite, and he is remembered for how he fiercely persecuted the church before his conversion (see Acts 9). For courage, note that Mordecai and Esther were Benjamites, and few stories in the Bible tell of more courage than that of these two characters (see the book of Esther)