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.
Though usually considered a chapter on blessing, Jacob describes his actions as “future-telling” (nagad) — what I’d call “prophecy.” Perhaps the lines are blurrier than I thought, with “blessing” as much about explaining and describing the future as influencing it.
Reuben, thou [art] my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: Unstable 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.
Reuben (R@’uwben, behold a son) gets affirmed for his excellent (yehter) status as firstborn (b@kowr), but cursed to not excel (yathar) because of his ruinous (chalal) choices and instability (pachaz). Regarding his name, he appears to have overdone the sexual aspects of masculinity but underdone the leadership part. Perhaps this is best seen by how his good intentions to save Joseph — and their family — were ultimately fruitless compared to Judah’s actions.
Simeon and Levi [are] brethren; instruments of cruelty [are in] their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall. Cursed [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.
Simeon (Shim`own, heard) and Levi (Leviy, joined to) are connected (‘ach) by their wistful names, cruelty (chamac), and their curse (‘arar). Jacob refuses to be united (yachad) them, and wants wants their descendants disunited (chalaq) with each other. Yet, that may be a form of mercy: Jacob is cursing their anger (‘aph), not them. Perhaps the dispersal (puwts) will cool their hot (`az) tempers (`ebrah), like ashes scattered on a beach.
The first three sons being disqualified, Judah appears to inherit the mantle of leadership:
Judah, 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.
Jacob has nothing but good to say about him:
Judah [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?
Plus an extraordinary prophecy:
The sceptre 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]. Binding 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: His eyes [shall be] red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.
It’d be easier to decipher if we knew what Shiloh (Sihyloh, belonging? peace?) referred to. Certainly the idea of being awash (kabac) in wine (yayin) and milk (chalab) connotes prosperity, as might the gathering (yiqqahah) of the peoples (`am). Yet the sceptre (shebet) and law (chaqaq) connote political and spiritual leadership, so its easy to see Messianic implications as well.
The sons of the concubines appear to get less dramatic blessings:
Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he [shall be] for an haven of ships; and his border [shall be] unto Zidon.
Issachar [is] a strong ass couching down between two burdens: And 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.
Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.
This is just weird. Being a judge (diyn) is surely a good thing, yet the snake (nachash) metaphor makes him appear a troublemaker. Then again, maybe he was an early exponent of the “don’t tread on me” philosophy — in contrast to his placid brother Issachar.
I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.
I don’t know what this verse means. It could be Jacob’s lament over his children, or somehow tied to Dan’s blessing.
The next three are really brief:
Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.
Out of Asher his bread [shall be] fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.
Naphtali [is] a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.
Joseph [is] a fruitful bough, [even] a fruitful bough by a well; [whose] branches run over the wall:
Joseph is blessed with fruitfulness (parah) amidst adversity:
The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot [at him], and hated him:
Because the Might (‘abiyr) of Jacob is with him:
But 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:)
[Even] 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:
Who is the source of all blessings (B@rakah), even as Joseph is the recipient of all those blessings:
The 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.
Though there’s one more for Benjamin:
Benjamin shall ravin [as] a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.
Thus ends the blessing:
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.
Interesting final comment. It seems to imply that he didn’t speak (dabar ) according to what he (Jacob) wanted, but according to the blessing they already had — which God had given them.
God, I want to be a man of blessing. But it seems like blessing is largely a matter of perceiving what You’re alreadying doing in people’s lives, and simply speaking into that. God, grant me eyes to see and ears to hear, that I may perceive Your hand of blessing at work. Grant me the wisdom and courage to speak into that, that I may help make your promised future of blessing come true. Especially for my family and myself. In Jesus name, Amen.
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