The Word Made Fresh
1So, Jacob called his sons together. He said “Gather around your father Jacob. I want to tell you what will happen in the days ahead. 2Listen now to Israel your father:
3“Reuben, you are my firstborn, the fruit of my strength and the vigor of my youth when I was strong and powerful. 4But you will not excel because you defiled your father’s bed!
5“To Simeon and Levi, brothers of violence: 6spare me your wishes; I refuse to approve of your plans because you killed people in anger, and hamstrung oxen for fun. 7I curse your anger and your revenge because it is cruel beyond defending. Therefore, I will separate you in Jacob and scatter you in Israel.
8“Judah, you will be praised by your brothers. You will have the upper hand over your enemies. The sons of your father will look up to you. 9You are like a young lion roaring over its prey. Like a lion or a lioness, he crouches and pounces. Who would dare challenge him? 10Judah will remain in charge and he will not be deposed until his destiny is fulfilled and all the nations obey him. 11He will tether his mount to the vine, his colt to the greenest branch. His clothes will be washed in wine: his robes in the blood of grapes. 12His eyes will be darker than wine: his teeth will be whiter than milk.
13“Zebulun will settle on the seashore. He will build a seaport for ships, and his border will stretch to Sidon.
14“Issachar is a strong beast of burden resting between settlements. 15He will be content there in a pleasant land. He will be a burden bearer and submit to forced labor.
16“Dan will be a judge among the tribes of Israel. 17Like a snake by the road or a serpent by the pathway he will strike the horse’s heels and make its rider fall off.
18“I long for your deliverance, LORD.
19“Gad will be attacked by raiders but will strike at their heels.
20“Asher will be a provider, preparing rich entrees fit for a king.
21“Naphtali is like a doe set free and birthing beautiful fawns.
22“Joseph is a prolific vine growing beside a spring, his branches climbing over a wall. 23Archers attacked him furiously, 24but his bow was sturdy, and his arms were steadied by the strong hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, the Shepherd and Rock of Israel. 25Your father’s God will be with you. The Almighty one will reward you from heaven above and the depths below and blessings from the breast and from the womb. 26These wishes bestowed by your father are greater than the bounties of the ancient mountains and hills. May they be granted to Joseph and rest on him who was distinguished above his brothers.
27“Benjamin is like a hungry wolf, devouring his prey in the morning and sharing the remains in the evening.”
28These are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is the future their father declared for them, giving each one what he deserved. 29Then he told them, “I am about to join my ancestors. Bury me with them in the cave that belonged to Ephron the Hittite, 30at the end of the field at Machpelah, near Mamre in the land of Canaan. It is the field Abraham bought from Ephron to use as a family burial site. 31That is where Abraham and Sarah are buried. That is where Isaac and Rebekah are buried. And there is where I buried Leah, 32in the cave in the field that was purchased from the Hittites.”
33When Jacob finished these words to his sons, he drew his feet up into his bed, exhaled his last breath, and was joined to his people.
1-2: Jacob gathers his sons to tell them what he thinks of them:
3-4: Reuben’s lot will not ultimately be favorable: he defiled his father’s bed by having sex with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (35:22). Jacob also seems to blame Reuben for letting Joseph be sold into slavery even though Reuben was the one who tried to save Joseph (see Genesis 37:19-22); we notice that Jacob did not trust him with Benjamin’s life later (42:37-38). The tribe of Reuben will be given land on the east side of the Jordan River when they return to Canaan and will be overrun by the Assyrians when the northern kingdom of Israel begins to weaken.
5-7: Simeon and Levi are handled together. They are violent men and Jacob curses their violence (see 34:25). After the Exodus when they settle the land they will be divided. Simeon initially received a grant of land within Judah, but long before the Exile the tribe seems to have faded away. Levi will be separated out from the other tribes and serve as priests and temple workers.
8-12: Judah is praised, and a bright future is foreseen. Of course, King David will be from the tribe of Judah, and the nation of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem will survive longer than the nation of Israel with its capital at Samaria. For Christians it should also be noted that the family tree of Jesus is traced back through Judah (Matthew 1:1-16).
13: Zebulun later settles beside the Sea of Galilee, (see Matthew 4:13). There is no record in the Bible that they had territory at Sidon on the Mediterranean Sea (see Joshua 19:10-16 for their original allotment of land).
14-15: Issachar is pictured as a hard-working bumpkin. That tribe will be settled in the hill country in the north, good pastureland and good farming land. They will be eventually exiled by the Assyrians.
16-17: Dan is seen as providing justice, but that fate is not supported by later stories in the Bible, either.
18: About halfway through, Jacob catches his breath.
19: He sees a violent future for Gad.
20: These verses probably reflect some aspect of each tribe later in their history, but again there is nothing in the Bible about Asher providing “royal delicacies”.
21: The tribe of Naphtali will eventually settle beside Zebulun in Galilee alongside the Sea of Galilee.
22-26: Joseph’s treatment is as long as Judah’s. Joseph (later divided into Ephraim and Manasseh) will be the primary tribe in the north when the land of Canaan is settled, and indeed the northern kingdom of Israel will often be referred to as Ephraim.
27: Benjamin is called “a ravenous wolf”, but it’s hard to see how later history supports such a description. Esther’s uncle Mordecai is of the tribe of Benjamin (Esther 2:5); and the apostle Paul will trace his ancestry to the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1)
28: The previous verses are said to be a blessing for each of the twelve “tribes” of Israel, but some of them don’t sound like blessings.
29-33: Jacob asks to be buried at Hebron beside Leah (and Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah) instead of in Bethlehem beside Rachel. Then he breathes his last.
All of us have dreams for our children and grandchildren. It is probably wise to simply enable them to pursue their own futures, making sure we teach them how to live in obedience to God and in God’s favor.