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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Genesis 49

Verses 1-4

Reuben. As the first-born, Reuben could have anticipated preeminence among his brothers, leadership of the tribes, priesthood within the family, and the double portion of the birthright. However, he forfeited these blessings preferring rather to give free reign to his lust (Genesis 35:22; cf. Esau). The leadership of the tribes therefore went to Judah, the priesthood to Levi eventually (cf. Exodus 32:25-29; Numbers 3:12-13), and the double portion to Joseph. Joseph was the first-born of the favored Rachel whereas Reuben was Leah’s first-born. Joseph’s priority was not due solely to Jacob’s preference, however, but to the will of God as revealed in Joseph’s dreams.

"About no other tribe do we know so little as about Reuben. . . . The tribe produced no significant man, no judge, no king, no prophet." [Note: von Rad, p. 423.]

No priest came from Reuben either. Irresolution marked the Reubenites in the time of Israel’s judges (Judges 5:15-16).

"This forfeiture is fulfilled historically in later times when the Reubenites living in Transjordan are integrated into the tribe of Gad.

"From this first oracle the teaching is clear that the behavior of one individual affects the destiny of his descendants." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 647.]

Verses 1-28

14. Jacob’s blessing of his sons 49:1-28

Having blessed Pharaoh (Genesis 47:7-10) and Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:15-20), Jacob next blessed all 12 of his sons and foretold what would become of each of them and their descendants. He disqualified Reuben, Simeon, and Levi from leadership and gave that blessing to Judah. He granted the double portion to Joseph. This chapter is the last one in Genesis that gives the destinies of the family members of Abraham’s chosen line. It contains blessings, curses, judgments, and promises, all of which are prominent in Genesis.

"These chapters, then, take the story from the first mention of Abram in Genesis 11:26 to the first mention of Israel as a people, a people blessed by God with a special blessing." [Note: Whybray, p. 4.]

The writer of Genesis called this section Jacob’s blessing (Genesis 49:28). Isaac had prophetically outlined the future of his two sons’ families (ch. 27). Earlier Noah had prophesied the future of Canaan’s descendants (Genesis 9:25-27). Likewise Jacob by divine inspiration foretold major characteristics of each of the twelve tribes that would issue from his twelve sons (Genesis 49:1). Each blessing contains at least one of these elements: 1) a synopsis of the son’s personality, 2) a hint as to his potential, and 3) a prophecy of his future.

"Jacob predicted how things would turn out for each of his sons and their descendants, should they continue to display the character they had displayed thus far." [Note: Joel D. Heck, "A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33," Bibliotheca Sacra 147:585 (January-March l990):20. See also Stigers, p. 325.]

This is the first long poem in the Bible.

"This chapter, in that it is poetry, seems to be intended to be a high point of the toledot ya’aqob (i.e., chaps. 37-50), if not the whole book of Genesis." [Note: R. E. Longacre, Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence, p. 23.]

This blessing rested on God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Each son learned how his branch of the family would benefit from and be a channel of blessing relative to the patriarchal promises. The natural character of each son and the consequences of that character would have their outcome in the future of the Israelites. The choices and consequently the characters of the patriarchs affected their descendants for generations to come, as is usually true.

"The Spirit of God revealed to the dying patriarch Israel the future history of his seed, so that he discovered in the character of his sons the future development of the tribes proceeding from them, and with prophetic clearness assigned to each of them its position and importance in the nation into which they were to expand in the promised inheritance." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:387.]

"It is fitting that the Book of Genesis, which opened with the creative power of the divine word, closes with the notion of the effective power of the inspired predictive word of the patriarch." [Note: Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p. 331.]

Jacob assumed in his blessing that his family would increase and possess the land of Canaan. This optimism reveals his faith.

"God gave His people this prophecy to bear them through the dismal barrenness of their experiences and to show them that He planned all the future. For Jacob’s family, the future lay beyond the bondage of Egypt in the land of promise. But the enjoyment of the blessings of that hope would depend on the participants’ faithfulness. So from the solemnity of his deathbed Jacob evaluated his sons one by one, and carried his evaluation forward to the future tribes." [Note: Ross, "Genesis," p. 98.]

The scope of his prophecy extends into the millennial age. God did not fulfill these prophecies completely during the lifetime of Jacob’s sons. He did not do so during Israel’s years in the land beginning with the conquest of Joshua and ending with the captivities either. Moreover, He has not done so since then.

"Jacob’s last words to his sons have become the occasion for a final statement of the book’s major theme: God’s plan to restore the lost blessing [lost in the Fall] through the offspring of Abraham.

"By framing Jacob’s last words between Genesis 49:1 and Genesis 49:28, the writer shows where his interests lie. Jacob’s words look to the future-’in days to come’-and draw on the past, viz., God’s blessing of mankind. It is within that context we are to read and understand Jacob’s words in this chapter." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," pp. 274, 275.]

Verses 5-7

Simeon and Levi. These two were brothers not only by blood but also in disposition. They were violent, wicked men (Genesis 34:25-31). Because of their wickedness they would have no independent tribal territory, but their descendants would live scattered among the other tribes. By the second census, just before the Israelites entered Canaan, the Simeonites had become the smallest tribe (Numbers 26). Moses passed over the Simeonites in his blessing of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 33). This tribe received only a few cities within the allotment of Judah rather than a separate geographical territory (Joshua 19:1-9). The Simeonites eventually lost their tribal identity and lived among the other tribes, especially Judah (cf. 1 Chronicles 4:27; 1 Chronicles 4:38-43).

The Levites also received no large land grant, but Joshua gave them several cities in which they lived among the other tribes (Joshua 21:1-42). The Levites gained a special blessing at Mt. Sinai by siding with Moses when the other Israelites apostatized (Exodus 32:26-28; Numbers 3:5-13; Numbers 18:6-32). This resulted in their becoming a tribe of priests in Israel.

Even though these first three tribes suffered punishment for their sins, Jacob’s prophecies about them were still a blessing. They retained a place in the chosen family and enjoyed the benefits of the patriarchal promises as Jacob’s heirs.

"By demoting Reuben for his turbulence and uncontrolled sex drive, Jacob saves Israel from reckless leadership. Likewise, by cursing the cruelty of Simeon and Levi, he restricts their cruel rashness from dominating." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 603.]

Verses 8-12

Judah. Judah possessed a lion-like nature. As such he became the leader of the other tribes (Genesis 43:3-10; Judges 1:1-2; Judges 3:9; Judges 20:18; etc.). Through him came David and then Messiah, "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah" (Revelation 5:5). Judah led the other tribes in the march through the wilderness (Numbers 2:1-3) and in the monarchy.

The scepter (Genesis 49:10) was and is the symbol of royal command, the right to rule. Judah was to exercise leadership among the tribes until Shiloh came at which time Shiloh would extend Judah’s rule to worldwide dominion. Judah’s leadership was not consistently preeminent in the history of Israel, however.

Shiloh (lit. the "bearer of rest") is a proper name. It refers here not to the city in Canaan of that name but to a person who would arise in the tribe of Judah and bring peace to the world, namely, Messiah (cf. Genesis 3:15; Numbers 24:17). We should probably translate it "whose it (the ruler’s staff) is" or "to whom it belongs" rather than transliterate it "Shiloh" (cf. Ezekiel 21:26-27). [Note: See Eugene H. Merrill, "Rashi, Nicholas de Lyra, and Christian Exegesis," Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975):74-75.] Another live translation option is "until tribute is brought to him." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 478. See Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, pp. 892-97, for an extended discussion of the interpretive possibilities.]

"Whichever of these interpretations is adopted, . . . all at least agree that this line is predicting the rise of the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of the Israelite empire, if not the coming of a greater David. And if the primary reference is to David, traditional Jewish and Christian exegetes would agree that like other Davidic promises it has a greater fulfillment in the Messiah." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 478.]

Because Reuben, Simeon, and Levi had disqualified themselves, Judah received the leadership of the tribes and the blessing that normally went to the first-born. This is how the leadership of the tribes and the Messianic line fell to Judah. Jacob evidently forgave Judah’s earlier sins because he repented and later sacrificed himself for Jacob’s wellbeing.

Everything after the word "until" (Genesis 49:10) describes millennial conditions.

"No Judean would tie his ass to a vine [Genesis 49:11], for it would be eaten up, of course. Anyone who can be so careless and who can wash his garments in wine, lives in paradisiacal abundance." [Note: von Rad, p. 425.]

"The sense of the imagery is that wine, the symbol of prosperity and blessing, will be so plentiful that even the choicest vines will be put to such everyday use as tethering the animals of burden and vintage wine will be as commonplace as wash water. Genesis 49:12 returns to the picture of the king of Judah. His eyes are darker than wine and his teeth whiter than milk. He is a picture of strength and power." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," p. 277.]

This prophecy is the first of many that follow in the Old Testament that associates bumper crops with the golden age of future blessing.

Verses 13-21

These verses contain Jacob’s shorter blessings on the other sons except Joseph and Benjamin, whose blessings follow these.

"True to the poetic qualities of the text, the images of the destiny of the remaining sons are, in most cases, based on a wordplay of the son’s name. The central theme uniting each image is that of prosperity." [Note: Ibid.]

Zebulun (Genesis 49:13) later obtained territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. This was a thriving commercial area, though Zebulun may never have had permanent "waterfront property." It is possible, however, that Zebulun and Issachar shared some territory (cf. Deuteronomy 33:18-19), so Zebulun could have bordered the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps the men of Zebulun worked for the Phoenicians in their maritime trade (cf. Deuteronomy 33:19). Zebulun will extend to the sea in the Millennium when its borders will reach as far as Sidon on the Mediterranean coast (cf. Ezekiel 48:1-8; Ezekiel 48:23-27). An important caravan route from Mesopotamia to Egypt passed through his territory.

Issachar (Genesis 49:14-15) would prefer an agricultural way of life and what it produced rather than political supremacy among the tribes. Lower Galilee, including the valley of Jezreel, which Issachar obtained, was a pleasant and productive farming area. [Note: See Joel D. Heck, "Issachar: Slave or Freeman? [Genesis 49:14-15]," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 29:4 (December 1986):385-96.]

Dan (Genesis 49:16-18) would be a judge in Israel. This prophecy came to reality partially during Samson’s judgeship. Dan’s victories benefited all Israel. Yet this tribe led Israel into idolatry (Judges 18) and was therefore similar to a serpent (Genesis 49:17; cf. Genesis 3:1). Jacob asked Yahweh to deliver his other descendants from Dan’s influence in the future (Genesis 49:18).

"Jacob’s heartfelt aside in 18 is enigmatic: it could arise from a father’s prayer, like Abraham’s for Ishmael (Genesis 17:18), or possibly from the sudden memory of his own treachery, long renounced, called up by the acts and the words (heel[s], 17, 19) associated with his own name." [Note: Kidner, p. 220.]

Gad (Genesis 49:19) would also be effective in battle.

Asher (Genesis 49:20) would enjoy very fruitful soil, namely, the lowlands of the Carmel (lit. vineyard) range north along the Mediterranean coast. This area contained some of the most fertile land in Canaan.

Naphtali (Genesis 49:21) evidently would enjoy the admiration and appreciation of the other tribes in a special way (cf. Judges 4, 5). Jacob could have meant that Naphtali would exchange his freedom for a more sedentary domesticated lifestyle in the land, or that he would accommodate to the Canaanites. [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 483.]

Verses 22-26

Joseph’s blessing was especially abundant. The two tribes that bore his sons’ names would see the fulfillment of it even though during his lifetime Joseph had faced much opposition. Judah received the leadership of the tribes, but Joseph obtained the double portion of the birthright (cf. 1 Chronicles 5:2).

Jacob’s names for God in this blessing are noteworthy: "the Mighty One of Jacob" (cf. Isaiah 1:24; et al.), "the Shepherd" (Genesis 48:15), and "the Stone of Israel" (cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; Deuteronomy 32:18, et al.).

"Blessing is one of the key words of Genesis . . . occurring some eighty-eight times in the book. Here in two verses [25 and 26], like the finale of a fireworks display, the root occurs six times (verb 1x, noun 5x) making a brilliant climax to the last words of Jacob. The God-given blessings of the future will far outshine those already experienced." [Note: Ibid., p. 486.]

Verse 27

Benjamin produced many warriors in Israel’s history (e.g., Ehud, Saul, Jonathan, et al.) and demonstrated a warlike character among the tribes (Judges 5:14; Judges 20:16; 1 Chronicles 8:40; ch. 12; 2 Chronicles 14:8; 2 Chronicles 17:17; et al.).

Verse 28

In his twelve sons Jacob blessed all the future tribes of Israel. [Note: See Darby, 1:80-82, for further observations concerning the fulfillment of these prophecies.] This is only the second mention of the 12 tribes in the Bible, the previous reference being in Genesis 49:16, where we read "the tribes of Israel."

"Within Jacob’s words to each of the sons (after Judah), the theme of blessing has been evident in two primary images. First, the reverse side of the blessing is stressed in the imagery of the victorious warrior. The defeat of the enemy is the prelude to the messianic peace. Second, the positive side of the blessing is stressed in the imagery of great prosperity and abundance. Behind such imagery of peace and prosperity lies the picture of the Garden of Eden-the Paradise lost. The focus of Jacob’s words has been the promise that when the one comes to whom the kingship truly belongs, there will once again be the peace and prosperity that God intended all to have in the Garden of Eden." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," pp. 278-79.]

Sailhamer also proposed that this poetic section plays a significant role in the larger structure of the Pentateuch.

"At three macrostructural junctures in the Pentateuch, the author has spliced a major poetic discourse onto the end of a large unit of narrative (Genesis 49; Numbers 24; Deuteronomy 31). A close look at the material lying between and connecting the narrative and poetic sections reveals the presence of a homogeneous composition stratum. It is most noticeably marked by the recurrence of the same terminology and narrative motifs. In each of the three segments, the central narrative figure (Jacob, Balaam, Moses) calls an audience together (imperative: Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:28) and proclaims (cohortative: Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:28) what will happen (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:29) in ’the end of days’ (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:29). . . .

"In sum, the apparent overall strategy of the author in these three segments suggests that one of the central concerns lying behind the final shape of the Pentateuch is an attempt to uncover an inherent relationship between the past and the future. That which happened to God’s people in the past portends of future events. To say it another way, the past is seen as a lesson for the future. . . .

"The narrative texts of past events are presented as pointers to future events. Past events foreshadow the future. It is not hard to see that such a hermeneutic leads to a form of narrative typology. We should, then, look for signs of such a typology in the composition of the smaller units of narrative in the Pentateuch as well as in the arrangement of the legal material." [Note: Idem, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 36-37.]

A believer’s works during this life significantly determine the extent of divine blessing that he or she and their descendants will receive in the future.

Plans to bury Jacob in Canaan 49:29-50:14

Jacob again expressed his faith in God’s promises that Canaan would be the Israelites’ homeland by requesting burial in the Cave of Machpelah near Hebron (cf. Genesis 47:29-31; Genesis 48:21-22).

"This scene concludes Jacob’s finest hour. On his deathbed-a scene extending from Genesis 47:28 to Genesis 49:32 -Jacob has assumed total and dynamic leadership of the family. Even Joseph bows down to him." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 617.]

Jacob died peacefully and was "gathered to his people" (i.e., reunited with his ancestors, implying life after death, in the place of departed spirits; cf. Genesis 25:8). Jacob was 147 when he died (Genesis 47:28). Joseph evidently had Jacob’s body preserved as a mummy (Genesis 50:2). [Note: See Davis, Paradise to . . ., pp. 302-3, or H. Vos, p. 169, for how the Egyptians prepared mummies.]

Jacob’s elaborate funeral was probably due both to the high regard in which the Egyptians held him as Joseph’s father and to the Egyptians’ love of showy funeral ceremonies (Genesis 49:7-10). [Note: See E. W. Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses, pp. 70-71.] It is the grandest state funeral recorded in the Bible, appropriate since Jacob’s story spans more than half of Genesis. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob just two days less than they normally mourned the death of a Pharaoh. [Note: Ross, "Genesis," p. 100.]

"This grand funeral procession and this exaltation of Jacob as a king by the Egyptians foreshadows Israel’s exodus from the world and gives a foretaste of the time when the nations hail a son of Jacob as King." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 618.]

The record of Jacob’s burial in the land is important to the purposes of Genesis. God had promised the land to Abraham and had given the patriarchs small portions of it. The faith of these men that God would fulfill His promises and do for their descendants all that He had promised is obvious in their view of Canaan as their homeland. They counted on the future faithfulness of God who had proved Himself faithful to them personally during their lifetimes.

15. Deaths and a promise yet to be fulfilled 49:29-50:26

Joseph received permission from Pharaoh to bury Jacob in Canaan as he had requested. He then assured his brothers of his favor in spite of how they had treated him and testified that God would fulfill His promises.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 49". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-49.html. 2012.