Its often interesting to read about the final words spoken by someone just prior to his or her death. These statements can often provide a real insight into what each person was thinking and feeling as the end of his or her life approached. For example, what do the last words of the following people tell you about their lives…
“Friends applaud, the comedy is over” (Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827).
“All my possessions for a moment of time” (Elizabeth I, Queen of England, 1533-1603).
“Why do you weep? Did you think I was immortal?” (Louis XIV, King of France, 1638-1715).
“What an account I shall have to give to God! How I should like to live otherwise than I have lived” (Phillip III, King of France, 1396-1467).
In Genesis chapter 49, we’re going to read the last recorded words of Jacob as he approached the end of his life. But his final words contained no expressions of regret or sarcasm. Instead, he chose to use his final words to gather his sons and tell them about the future.
“Then Jacob called for his sons and said: ‘Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel'” (Genesis 49:1-2).
So Jacob brought his sons together to talk about what the future held for each of them and their descendants. As we read through Jacob’s message to his sons in this chapter, we’ll also find that he will tell them about the general personality and character of the people groups that will come to follow them.
One important theme behind Jacob’s message to his sons concerns the future impact of their past decisions. In other words, Jacob will draw a clear connection between the choices that his sons made in past and the way those choices will affect their future- and the futures of those who follow.
This is especially important for us because this same idea is also true for people today. You see, everything we did yesterday has now become a part of the past. Those choices of yesterday (and the choices we make today) will then go on to help shape and influence what happens tomorrow. So the choices of yesterday and the actions that we take today will impact and affect the future of tomorrow- and Jacob’s son Reuben is a good example of this principle in action. We’ll look at what Jacob had to say to him next.
Jacob’s message to his sons began with his oldest son Reuben, and while Jacob had some encouraging words to say at the start, things quickly took a turn for the worse…
“‘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'” (Genesis 49:3-4).
In saying, “…you are my oldest son, the child of my vigorous youth. You are the head of the list in rank and in honor” (TLB), Reuben started off really well. Unfortunately, Jacob didn’t stop there because he also went on to say, “‘But you are unruly as the wild waves of the sea, and you shall be first no longer. I am demoting you, for you slept with one of my wives and thus dishonored me'” (TLB).
The first thing to notice about Jacob’s message to Reuben is that he made a clear connection between something that Reuben did and the consequence that followed from it. In other words, Jacob told Reuben that “X” was going to happen because he did “Z.” The consequence (or “X”) in this case was “….you will no longer excel.” The reason for this consequence (or “Z”) is, “…you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.”
In saying this, Jacob made use of something called a euphemism (pronounced “yoo-phe-miz-em”). A “euphemism” is an indirect way of saying something else. For example, Jacob used the words “bed” and “couch” as substitute words that indirectly referred to a sexual relationship. The modern day alternative would be to say that two people are “sleeping together” just as we read in the alternative translation above.
Jacob’s point was that this incident helped demonstrate the unstable nature of Reuben’s real character. You see, we were told that many years earlier, “…Reuben slept with Bilhah, who was one of Jacob’s other wives” (Genesis 35:22 CEV). The question is, why would Reuben do something like this?
Well, its hard to understand why this happened. Perhaps Bilhah was mad at Jacob and wanted to get back at him in some way. Maybe she felt that Jacob had not been paying enough attention to her and became so starved for affection that she slept with the only man would ever do such a thing- the first born son. Or perhaps Reuben was just simply attracted to her.
Whatever the reason, Jacob found out about it- and the consequences for Reuben were just beginning.
“…you no longer deserve the place of honor” (Genesis 49:4).
As the firstborn son, Reuben was first in line to receive a leadership position among his brothers. You see, whenever a father passed away in that culture, the oldest son was expected to assume his place of leadership within the family. In Jacob’s case, Reuben was also eligible to inherit the spiritual promises that were made to his great grandfather Abraham and passed down to his grandfather Isaac and his father Jacob.
However, the act of having sex with one of his father’s wives demonstrated a serious flaw in Reuben’s character. Because of this, the rights that should have belonged to him were taken away. In fact, the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles specifically tells us that Reuben’s rights as Jacob’s eldest son were given to Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh because “…he defiled his father’s marriage bed…” (1 Chronicles 5:1).
Unfortunately, this consequence also affected Reuben’s descendants as well. While his brother Judah’s descendants went on to become great political leaders and his brother Levi’s descendants went on to become great spiritual leaders, no one special ever came from Reuben’s descendants. So this act of bad judgment went on to affect everyone who followed Reuben.
This example is important for people today because it demonstrates how our actions have real consequences. The choices we make, the things we do (or don’t do), and the words we say will all go on to become a part of the history of our lives- and those things influence others for better or worse. This is one reason why Ephesians 5:15-18 says,“Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.”
So Jacob was finished with his message to Reuben and that meant it was time to move on to Reuben’s brothers Simeon and Levi….
“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” (Genesis 49:5-7).
Notice that Jacob started this section by saying, “Simeon and Levi are brothers…” but that seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? All of Jacob’s sons were brothers, so what’s the point of saying that? Well, we’ll look at the answer to that question next.
“‘Simeon and Levi are brothers — their swords are weapons of violence'” (Genesis 49:5).
Why would Jacob feel the need to point out the fact that his sons were brothers? After all, it hardly seems necessary for a father to say that his sons are brothers, right?
Well, the idea is that Simeon and Levi were more than just biological brothers- Jacob’s message was that Simeon and Levi were the same kind of brothers. This idea is expressed a little more fully in another Biblical version were Jacob was quoted as saying, “‘Simeon and Levi are two of a kind. They are men of violence and injustice'” (TLB).
In other words, Simeon and Levi were two brothers who had something in common- they were men of violence and injustice. In fact, Jacob even went so far to say, “‘Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel'” (Genesis 49:7 KJV). So Jacob identified Simeon and Levi as angry, violent, short-tempered men, but how did he come to this conclusion about his sons? Well to answer that question, all we have to do is go back and look at something that happened earlier in Genesis chapter 34.
That chapter began by saying, “…Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land” (Genesis 34:1). Dinah would have been about 14-15 years old at the time that this event took place and the idea was that she simply left to go hang out with some female friends. However, the next verse goes on to say, “When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and violated her” (Genesis 34:2). In today’s language, we would say that Dinah was raped (or possibly date-raped) by this man named Shechem.
But after having sexually assaulted Dinah, we’re told that Shechem “…felt a strong attraction to Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, (and) fell in love with her…” (Genesis 34:3 MSG). So Shechem called his father and said to him, “’…Get me this young girl. I want to marry her’” (Genesis 34:4 NLT). Shechem’s father then went to visit with Jacob and said, “’My son Shechem is deeply in love with Dinah. Please let him marry her’” (Genesis 34:8 NCV).
But Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi had some other plans for Shechem- and we’ll see exactly what they had in mind next.
“When Jacob heard that his daughter Dinah had been defiled, his sons were in the fields with his livestock… Meanwhile, Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were shocked and furious, because Shechem had done an outrageous thing in Israel by sleeping with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done” (Genesis 34:5, 7).
After Shechem’s father asked for Jacob’s permission to allow his son to marry Dinah, Jacob’s sons decided to step in after hearing about what had happened. But Jacob’s sons also carried a hidden agenda:“The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah” (Genesis 34:13 ESV).
So how did they deceive Shechem and his father? Well, they responded by saying, “‘We could never give our sister to a man who was uncircumcised. Why, we’d be disgraced. The only condition on which we can talk business is if all your men become circumcised like us'” (Genesis 34:14-15 MSG). This tells us that Jacob’s sons used “religion” as a cover to get what they really wanted- and what they really wanted was revenge.
You see, after the male residents of Shechem’s town accepted their terms, we’re told that, “…Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left… They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the houses” (Genesis 34:25-26, 29).
At the time, Jacob responded to what his sons had done by saying, “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” (Genesis 34:30). But Simeon and Levi responded by claiming that their actions were justified because their sister had been sexually assaulted (Genesis 34:31).
Now there is no question that what Shechem did to Dinah was wrong and its clear that he deserved to punished for what he had done. But to react to what Shechem did by murdering the entire male population of a city, looting everything they could, and enslaving all the women and children was even more wrong. In this instance, the punishment was more excessive than the original crime- and just as Reuben learned earlier, Simeon and Levi’s past will go on to have a definite effect on their future.
As Jacob continued with his final message to his sons, he stopped to talk about the reckless and violent nature of two of his sons named Simeon and Levi…
“‘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'” (Genesis 49:6 ).
If we could rephrase this statement in another way, we might say that Jacob’s basic message was,“I don’t want to be associated with these kinds of guys.” Jacob’s reason for feeling this way had to do with the fact that Simeon and Levi allowed their anger to control their actions.
But Jacob’s concern went even farther than that because Simeon and Levi apparently had a habit of injuring defenseless animals for no good reason. You see, to “hamstring” an animal (as we read above) refers to crippling that animal by cutting the hamstring muscle at the back of the thigh. So these actions imply that Simeon and Levi were men who were not only violent, but recklessly cruel as well.
Because of this, Jacob said, “‘Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel'” (Genesis 49:7). This prophetic statement eventually came to pass because the descendants of Simeon went on to become the smallest numerical people group in Israel according to an Old Testament census (see Numbers chapter 26). The descendants of Levi eventually went on to form the priestly group known as the Levites. The Levites were not given any sections of land like the descendants of Jacob’s other sons were, so they were scattered and dispersed in a sense, just as Jacob said.
So just as we saw with Jacob’s oldest son Reuben, Simeon and Levi messed up their future through the actions of their past. In doing so, they help provide an important reminder for people today: the choices we made yesterday and the choices we make today will go on to help shape and influence what happens tomorrow in a negative or positive way.
That brings us to the end of of Jacob’s message to Simeon and Levi and the beginning of his message to Judah, son number four…
“‘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'” (Genesis 49:8).
It’s been said that it’s not always how someone starts in life that really counts- it’s how he or she finishes. We’ll take a look back at Judah’s life and see how he illustrated this principle next.
“Judah, you will be praised by your brothers; they will bow down to you, as you defeat your enemies” (Genesis 49:8 CEV).
So what do we know about Jacob’s fourth son Judah? Well, we know that Judah definitely made some big mistakes early in life. For instance, when Joseph’s brothers threw him into an empty water well and left him there to die, it was Judah who came up with a supposedly better idea: “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain by killing our brother? His blood would just give us a guilty conscience. Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!’ And his brothers agreed” (Genesis 37:26-27 NLT).
For Joseph’s brothers, this represented a great solution. First, it helped them to get rid of their annoying, troublemaking little brother. Next, it saved them from the guilt of leaving Joseph to die alone at the bottom of a well. Finally, the act of trading Joseph to a group of traveling merchants for cash would actually allow them to make some money off Joseph- a person they were going to kill anyway. These were all ideas that Judah came up with.
Unfortunately, this situation with Joseph was not an isolated incident. For example, Genesis chapter 38 reveals the story of how Judah also dealt deceitfully with his daughter in law. You see, Judah’s oldest son was married to a women named Tamar, but he died before they had any children. In that culture, it then became the responsibility of Judah’s second son to marry Tamar and they became husband and wife. However, God ended his life a short time after he married Tamar because he was a really bad guy.
Here’s what happened next: “Then Judah told Tamar, his daughter-in-law, not to marry again at that time, but to return to her childhood home and to her parents, and to remain a widow there until his youngest son, Shelah, was old enough to marry her. (But he didn’t really intend for Shelah to do this, for fear God would kill him, too, just as he had his two brothers.) So Tamar went home to her parents” (Genesis 38:11 TLB).
Apparently Judah’s third son was too young to get married, so Judah told Tamar to go and live with her parents until he became older. But Judah made a promise to Tamar that he apparently had no intention of keeping so he sent her away with the intention of getting on with his life and leaving her behind.
However, Judah was about to find out that Tamar was more clever than he may have thought.
Judah was faced with a decision. His oldest son died during his marriage to a woman named Tamar. His next oldest son then married his brother’s widow as was required in that culture, but then he died too. Judah’s third son was too young for marriage, so Judah instructed Tamar to return home to live with her parents until he became old enough to marry her. But that was a promise that Judah had no intention of keeping.
Tamar eventually caught on to the fact that Judah had no plan to follow through on his promise (Genesis 38:14), so she came up with an idea. She dressed herself up in the disguise of a prostitute and sat down to wait in a place where Judah was likely to notice her. Sure enough, Judah saw her as he was coming into town and decided to proposition her by saying, “‘Come now, let me sleep with you'” (Genesis 38:16). Of course, Judah had no idea that he was propositioning was his daughter-in-law, but that was all a part of Tamar’s plan.
Tamar responded to Judah by saying, “‘…what will you give me to sleep with you?'” Judah apparently didn’t have any money with him so he decided to ask her to give him some credit in exchange for her services. Tamar agreed to this but she also made sure to ask Judah to give her a few items that she could hold as a guarantee to ensure that Judah would honor their agreement. The items she asked for were Judah’s identification seal along with the walking staff he carried- and as we’ll see, those few articles will become very important later on.
So Judah agreed to Tamar’s offer and they slept together. Then Judah went on his way. But later on when Judah sent a friend to deliver his payment, the “prostitute” that he had been with was nowhere to be found (see Genesis 38:11-23 for the whole story). Meanwhile, Tamar had gone back to resume her life but it wasn’t long before people began to notice the result of her plan…
“About three months later word reached Judah that Tamar, his daughter-in-law, was pregnant, obviously as a result of prostitution. ‘Bring her out and burn her,’ Judah shouted” (Genesis 38:24 TLB).
This represented a real double-standard on Judah’s part. It was apparently OK for him to sleep with a prostitute but if his daughter-in-law was found to be pregnant without being married, Judah wanted to impose a death sentence on her.
So things looked pretty bad for Tamar, except for one thing- she still had a few pieces of property to return to her father-in-law before her sentence was carried out.
When his daughter in law Tamar’s pregnancy became known, Judah’s solution was simple and direct: “‘Drag her out of town and burn her to death!'” (Genesis 38:24 CEV). But Tamar had a ready response for her father in law…
“But as they were taking her out to kill her she sent this message to her father-in-law: ‘The man who owns this identification seal and walking stick is the father of my child. Do you recognize them?’ Judah admitted that they were his and said, ‘She is more in the right than I am, because I refused to keep my promise to give her to my son Shelah.’ But he did not marry her” (Genesis 38:25-26).
Judah had every intention of sending Tamar to her death but once he was presented with the evidence of his double-standard, he had to admit that Tamar was in the right and immediately reversed her death sentence.
So in looking at these examples from earlier in Judah’s life, it’s clear that he had not shown himself to be a very moral person to this point. But its also been said that it’s not always how someone starts in life that counts- what really matters is how that person finishes. For example, if we continue on with the story of Judah’s life we’ll find that he definitely finished much better than he started.
We can illustrate this change in Judah’s attitude by looking at what happened when the second most powerful leader in Egypt threatened to hold his younger brother Benjamin in custody. In that instance, Judah stepped up on behalf of his younger brother and said this…
“‘Now please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave, in place of the boy. Let him go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see [a] the grief that would overwhelm my father'” (Genesis 44:33-34 HCSB).
These few sentences tell us that Judah’s real concern wasn’t for his own personal well being- it was for his father and younger brother. He also demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice himself for his father’s benefit and let his younger brother go free. This tells us that Judah was no longer the same man that he once had been- he had now become a man who was ready to lead by example.
That change of attitude will be reflected in his father Jacob’s message to him- and we’ll take a look at that message next.
Judah was a man who had grown to become someone who was ready to lead by example- and that change of attitude was reflected in his father’s message to him…
“‘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. You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness — who dares to rouse him?'” (Genesis 49:8-9).
A lion is generally recognized as a strong, majestic animal and has a well-earned reputation as the “King Of The Beasts.” Because of this, lions have often been recognized as a symbol of royal authority and that symbolism will play a large part in Jacob’s message to Judah.
The idea behind Jacob’s message was that Judah began as a small lion cub so to speak, but he would eventually grow to become so strong and powerful that no one would ever dare to challenge him. So unlike Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, Jacob foresaw a leadership position for his son Judah- but there was more to come…
“‘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. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk'” (Genesis 49:10-13).
There’s a lot of poetic language in this portion of Jacob’s message so let’s see if we can break it down and uncover the important information behind this symbolism. We can start by looking at some of the ways that Biblical translators have handled the important information contained in these verses quoted above.
For example, if you’re reading a translation such as the New Century Version (NCV), New King James Version (NKJV), or God’s Word (GW) version of the Scriptures, you’ll find that Genesis 49:10 includes the phrase “until Shiloh comes.” Other Biblical versions translate this portion of Scripture in a way that’s similar to the New International Version (NIV) seen above by rendering it as, “until he comes to whom it belongs.”
This word “Shiloh” can be used as another designation for the words Savior or Messiah, and it ultimately refers to a descendant of Judah who will come to bring peace to the world. We’ll talk more about this portion of Jacob’s message (and how it was fulfilled) next.
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes, whom all people shall obey” (Genesis 49:10 TLB).
The word “Shiloh” is a word that means “tranquil” (1) or “peaceful” (2) and has generally been understood as a reference to God’s promised Messiah. A “scepter” was a type of staff that was held by a king and symbolized his authority to rule. So the message underlying Jacob’s poetic language was that a future king or ruler would emerge from among Judah’s descendants.
This prophetic statement was partially fulfilled more than 600 years later by King David. The complete fulfillment then followed about 1000 years after that through the birth of Jesus, a man whose human genealogy began with Judah and continued on through King David.
So with that, Jacob moved on to continue this conversation with a message to his son Zebulun…
“‘Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon'” (Genesis 49:13).
We don’t know very much about Zebulun, although it seems that his descendants settled in the land area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. In fact, Matthew 4:13 tells us that Jesus lived for a time in the area of Capernaum which was located “…by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali” (NKJV).
The next portion of Jacob’s message was directed towards his son Issachar. Here’s what Jacob had to say about him…
“‘Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down between two saddlebags. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor'” (Genesis 49:14-15).
Like Zebulun, there’s not a lot of information available concerning Issachar. The idea behind this message seems to be that Issachar’s descendants would be strong, but kind of lazy. It also appears that Issachar’s descendants would go on to inherit a good place to live but eventually lose it to someone else. So it seems that Issachar’s children would go on to become the kind of people who were willing to trade their freedom in exchange for material things.
Following this message to Issachar, Jacob quickly moved on to another of his sons named Dan…
“‘Dan will provide justice for his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider tumbles backward'” (Genesis 49:16-17).
These references to Jacob’s son Dan are a little difficult to interpret, but we’ll look at some possible ways to understand these statements next.
(1) “Shiloh” OT:7886 New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary
(2) “Shiloh” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
“Dan will judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. He will be a snake by the road, a viper beside the path, that bites the horses’ heels so that its rider falls backwards” (Genesis 49:16-17 HCSB).
These images can be difficult to understand and interpret, but we’ll look at some possible ways to think through this message from Jacob to his son Dan.
First, there is the reference to Dan’s descendants and their role as judges. It’s interesting to note that Dan’s name means “judge” and the Old Testament book of Judges identifies Samson, one of Israel’s most famous judges, as one of Dan’s descendants (see Judges 13:2-24). Unfortunately, the book of Judges also tells us how the people of Dan went on to abandon the God of the Scriptures in order to worship carved statues (see Judges 18:29-31).
Later on, the Old Testament book of the prophet Amos tells us,“Those who swear by the idols of Samaria, who say, ‘By the god of Dan’ or ‘By the god of Beersheba’—those people will fall and not rise again” (Amos 8:14). So it seems that Dan’s descendants went on to do something good in providing justice for the people of Israel but they also did something extremely wrong- they rejected God by getting involved with idolatry and causing others to fall. This may explain what Jacob meant when he said, “‘(Dan) shall be a serpent in the path that bites the horses’ heels, so that the rider falls off'” (TLB).
So Jacob was moving right along in this conversation with his sons- but then he suddenly stopped to say this…
“‘I look for your deliverance, O Lord'” (Genesis 49:18).
Why would Jacob stop right in the middle of speaking to his sons to make a statement like that? Well, it may be that Jacob wanted to acknowledge his dependence on God because he realized that the time of his death was rapidly approaching. If so, we’ll see at the end of this chapter that he was right.
But first, Jacob had something to say to his son Gad…
“‘Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels'” (Genesis 49:19).
The Biblical book of 1 Chronicles tells us that Gad’s descendants would later prove themselves to be strong military leaders along with Israel’s King David (see 1 Chronicles 12:14). The Scripture also identifies Gad’s descendants as “…brave soldiers–fierce as lions and quick as gazelles. They were always prepared to fight with shields and spears” (1 Chronicles 12:14 CEV). So this prophetic statement from Jacob regarding his son proved to be accurate once again.
Jacob had completed most of this final message to his sons and now it was time to speak with his four remaining sons about what the future held for their descendants. This next portion of Jacob’s message was directed towards his son Asher…
“‘Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king” (Genesis 49:20).
So while Judah’s descendants went on to become political leaders and Gad’s descendants went on to become military leaders, it appears that Asher’s descendants eventually went on to become the culinary artists and executive chefs for the nation of Israel.
Jacob’s son Naphtali was next…
“‘Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns'” (Genesis 49:21).
As we’ve already seen, Jacob used a lot of poetic language in speaking to his sons about their futures and his message to Naphtali is another good example. So what’s the meaning behind the symbolism used by Jacob in this passage? Well, one source says, “the meaning of the prophecy seems to be that the tribe of Naphtali would be located in a territory so fertile and peaceable, that, feeding on the richest pasture, he would spread out…” (1) Another commentator tells us, “Naphtali’s land was in a key portion near the Sea of Galilee, the region where Jesus did much of His teaching and ministry.” (2)
So it appears that the idea behind this symbolic language was that Naphtali’s descendants would eventually settle in a spacious land area (“…a doe set free”) and enjoy a good, productive life there.
The next son to receive a a prophetic message about the future was Jacob’s son Joseph- and as you might expect, Jacob had much to say to him…
“‘Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall. With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, 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 with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb.
Your father’s blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers'” (Genesis 49:22-26).
Jacob used a number of metaphors in this portion of his message and we’ll look some ways to unlock the meaning behind these figures of speech next.
(1) A Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible Robert Jamieson, Andrew Robert Fausset
(2) Commentary on Genesis David Guzik
Jacob used many different metaphors in speaking to his son Joseph about what the future held for his descendants. So what’s a “metaphor?” Well, a metaphor is defined as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison.” (1) In other words, a metaphor uses one thing to represent something else.
So why would Jacob speak in this manner instead of just coming out and saying what he meant? Well, these figures of speech help provide us with a fuller. richer understanding of what Jacob intended to say than if he were to use plain, boring, straightforward language.
For example, Jacob began by saying, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall” (Genesis 49:22). We can understand the meaning of this word picture to reflect the fact that Joseph and his descendants would go on to lead vigorous, productive lives- just like a vine that is strong and healthy enough to grow up and over a wall.
Next, Jacob said, “With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel…” (Genesis 49:23-24). Since Jacob was speaking in metaphors to Joseph, we know that these archers were actually representative of something else. In this instance, the archers would represent people like Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife. They were the people who took shots at Joseph during his life, so to speak.
But Joseph was not taken down by these attacks because “‘…of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you…'” (Genesis 49:25a). So even though Joseph endured the attacks of those who were against him, God was able to sustain him through it.
“‘May these blessings rest on the head of Joseph, on the crown of the prince among his brothers'” (Genesis 49:26b GW).
Later on we’ll find how God answered this blessing in the lives of those who followed Joseph. For instance, there was Joshua, the man that God chose to lead the people of Israel back into the land that Jacob left on his journey into Egypt. Then there were others like Deborah, Gideon, and Jephthah and you can read the Biblical accounts of their heroic lives in the Old Testament book of Judges.
(1) “metaphor” The Free Dictionary
“‘Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder'” (Genesis 49:27).
Jacob’s last words to Benjamin turned out to be something of a preview because some of his descendants went on to become dangerous and violent people. For example, the Scriptures tell us about a descendant of Benjamin named Ehud who once stabbed a king named Eglon to death in Judges chapter 3 (Judges 3:15-26).
Then there was a king named Saul. Benjamin was one of Saul’s ancestors (1 Samuel 9:21) and the Scriptures tell us that he tried to hunt down and kill another man named David, the same man who had earlier killed the giant Goliath in battle. David’s heroism on the battlefield made him very famous and Saul was determined to kill him because he realized that David was a threat to his position as king (see 1 Samuel 18:7-8).
Later on in the New Testament period, the Scriptures give us the account of another man named Saul, a man who is better known to us today as Paul the Apostle. He was a descendant of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5) and before he became a Christian, he traveled from house to house in an attempt to find Christians and throw them in jail (Acts 8:3).
So these images of a wolf, it’s prey, and plunder all helped to serve as a prediction and a warning to Benjamin’s descendants about their future. This idea was also reinforced by what we read next…
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him” (Genesis 49:28).
These final words help remind us that the past can often serve to indicate what the future may hold. You see, this message held something unique for each of Jacob’s sons- something that was appropriate for each of them on an individual basis. In a sense, this message became a mirror that reflected each son’s personality and the influence of his character on his choices.
Although we are separated from the events of this chapter by thousands of years, what was true then is still true for us today- the actions of our past will influence the present and the future that is still to come. Remember that Jacob’s message to his sons held something that was appropriate for each of them. The question is, what message would be appropriate for you today?
Following his final message to his sons, Jacob finished with a few last-minute directions…
“Then he gave them these instructions: ‘I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites'” (Genesis 49:29-32).
It’s clear that these burial instructions meant something important to Jacob, but why? After all, the Machpelah burial site was hundreds of miles away. Wouldn’t it have been easier and less costly for Jacob to be buried somewhere in Egypt?
Well to answer that question, we need to go back to a conversation that Jacob had with his son Joseph that was recorded for us in Genesis chapter 47. That portion of Scripture says this…
“When Jacob knew he did not have long to live, he called in Joseph and said, ‘If you really love me, you must make a solemn promise not to bury me in Egypt. Instead, bury me in the place where my ancestors are buried.’
‘I will do what you have asked,’ Joseph answered. ‘Will you give me your word?’ Jacob asked. ‘Yes, I will,’ Joseph promised…” (Gen 47:29-31a CEV).
Jacob place of burial was important to him because he realized that Egypt (the place where he was living) was not his real home. His real home was back in the land that God had promised to give to his ancestors, to him, and to his descendants.
This request becomes more impressive when we remember that Jacob’s son Joseph was a high-ranking government official in the nation of Egypt. This meant that Joseph could have arranged for Jacob to be honored with a state funeral and a burial place in one of Egypt’s most elaborate tombs. But Jacob chose instead to be buried in a cave in a far-off land.
For Jacob, Machpelah represented more than just a burial site- it represented an expression of faith. You see, Jacob (also known as Israel) knew that he really didn’t belong in Egypt- and he knew that “Israel” had to return to Israel. This final request would permit Jacob to rest in peace in the land that God had promised to give to his grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and to him.
“‘Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah facing Mamre in the land of Canaan, the field Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial plot'” (Genesis 49:29a MSG).
There’s a good reason to explain why Jacob gave his sons such specific directions. One person explains that reason like this: “A very precise description of the cave, the field, and its location was given so that no mistakes would be made. In that day, contracts were most often (if not always) verbal… and so this ‘deed’ must be passed on from one generation to the next.” (1)
So with that, the final verse of Genesis 49 tells us,“When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 49:33).
In reading about Jacob’s death in this passage, its interesting to see the way the Scriptures describe his passing. You see, this verse could have simply recorded the fact that Jacob died but we’re told instead that Jacob was “gathered to his people.”
Before we close out this chapter, lets think for a moment about what that phrase implies and what it might mean for someone living in the 21st century. For example, who are “your people” today? Who are the people that you interact with the most? Who are your online friends or the people that you spend time with in real life? Those people (along with your family in many cases), could probably be considered as “your people” today.
So why is this important? Well, everyone will eventually pass away, just as Jacob did. When that time comes, a genuine Christian will want to join (or “be gathered to”) those others who honored God with their lives. This would include those people who respected God and were honest, just, and fair. It would consist of those who made sure to honor God in their thought lives. It would include those who dealt with others as they wanted to be dealt with. Do “your people” have these qualities today?
When the time comes that you are gathered to your people, do you want to join those who honored God or those who were liars, thieves, lazy people, or those who took advantage of others? Do you want to join those who had respect for God or those who were phony, hypocritical, or only interested in money? Remember, a person who loves God wants to be gathered to others who love God and lived in a way that showed respect for Him.
So who are your people today? And who would you be gathered to if you took your last breath tomorrow?