Commentary on Genesis 49

Last updated: December 20, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.

2″Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob,

listen to Israel your father.

3″Reuben, you are my firstborn,

my might, and the firstfruits of my strength,

preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.

4Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence,

because you went up to your father’s bed;

then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!

5″Simeon and Levi are brothers;

weapons of violence are their swords.

6Let my soul come not into their council;

O my glory, be not joined to their company.

For in their anger they killed men,

and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.

7Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,

and their wrath, for it is cruel!

I will divide them in Jacob

and scatter them in Israel.

8″Judah, your brothers shall praise you;

your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;

your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

9Judah is a lion’s cub;

from the prey, my son, you have gone up.

He stooped down; he crouched as a lion

and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?

10The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until tribute comes to him;

and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

11Binding his foal to the vine

and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,

he has washed his garments in wine

and his vesture in the blood of grapes.

12His eyes are darker than wine,

and his teeth whiter than milk.

13″Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea;

he shall become a haven for ships,

and his border shall be at Sidon.

14″Issachar is a strong donkey,

crouching between the sheepfolds.

15He saw that a resting place was good,

and that the land was pleasant,

so he bowed his shoulder to bear,

and became a servant at forced labor.

16″Dan shall judge his people

as one of the tribes of Israel.

17Dan shall be a serpent in the way,

a viper by the path,

that bites the horse’s heels

so that his rider falls backward.

18I wait for your salvation, O LORD.

19″Raiders shall raid Gad,

but he shall raid at their heels.

20″Asher’s food shall be rich,

and he shall yield royal delicacies.

21″Naphtali is a doe let loose

that bears beautiful fawns.

22″Joseph is a fruitful bough,

a fruitful bough by a spring;

his branches run over the wall.

23The archers bitterly attacked him,

shot at him, and harassed him severely,

24yet his bow remained unmoved;

his arms were made agile

by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob

(from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),

25by the God of your father who will help you,

by the Almighty who will bless you

with blessings of heaven above,

blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,

blessings of the breasts and of the womb.

26The blessings of your father

are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,

up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.

May they be on the head of Joseph,

and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.

27″Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,

in the morning devouring the prey

and at evening dividing the spoil.”

28All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. 29Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 31There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— 32the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.” 33When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.

Notes

1 Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.

[In days to come] is a phrase that only appears in prophetic contexts. In some passages it has a clearly eschatological sense (e.g., Isa 2:2; cf. NT “last days”), but elsewhere it seems to have a less technical sense, “in the distant future,” after certain other things, which the prophet has just described or hinted at, have happened (cf. Num 24:14; Deut 4:30; 31:29; cf. TDOT 1:210-12). Such a sense here would explain why Jacob looks beyond the period of Egyptian slavery and exodus to the era of settlement in Canaan.1

3-4 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!

Reuben is censured for his moral failing alluded to in 35:22. The tribe of Reuben produced no prophet, judge, or king for the Israelites, and was not a preeminent tribe.

5-7 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.

Simeon and Levi massacred the inhabitants of Shechem in Genesis 34. It is not clear what the phrase “hamstrung oxen” refers to as it would not make sense to hamstring captured oxen.

The verb used here (Piel of cqr) clearly refers to hamstringing in its other occurrences. But the larger semantic framework (i.e., other uses of the root in verb and noun forms) carries the sense of tearing up the roots. Given that the context deals with Simeon and Levi’s actions at Shechem and the fact that we know the details of this incident, it is striking that the root’s noun form is the word for infertility and barrenness. In addition, note that the word used for “bull” here (NIV “oxen”) usually refers to the draft animal. Since only a few males were needed for breeding purposes, the males used as work animals were often castrated to make them more manageable and docile. Biblical Hebrew attests no verb “to castrate,” but later Hebrew uses the verb cqr to refer generally to mutilation or to causing infertility. It may have been used this way in biblical Hebrew as well.

We therefore tentatively suggest that while ciqqeru-sor can mean “they hamstrung an ox,” it may also mean “they castrated an ox.” This in turn may be understood metaphorically, as demonstrated in Ugaritic where the equivalent word for “bull” is sometimes used metaphorically to refer to “princes.” Thus, we understand the statement to mean “they mutilated the genitals of a prince,” alluding to the Shechem incident. An alternative is to see “hamstringing oxen” as a metaphor for killing peaceful people (oxen are the opposite of the normal subjects of hamstringing, which are war-horses).2

The tribe of Simeon was scattered in villages in Judah’s territory (Joshua 19:1-9; cf. Numbers 1:23; 26:14; absence from Deuteronomy 33; 1 Chronicles 4:38-43; 2 Chronicles 15:9; 34:6). The tribe of Levi was distributed among the tribes to serve as priests (Joshua 21).

8-12 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.

The Hebrew behind the phrase translated “until tribute comes to him” is difficult to translate. First, the Hebrew conjunction translated “until” indicates a climax (26:13; 41:49; 2 Samuel 23:10; 2 Chronicles 26:15). Judah’s rule will not end when “tribute” comes to him, rather it will climax when “tribute” comes to him. Second, the ESV correctly takes the Hebrew translated “tribute” as a composite word. This allows “until tribute comes to him” to parallel “and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” This interpretation coincides with the Davidic and messianic interpretations found in early Jewish and Christian exegesis. These verses are saying that Judah will be a channel of blessing to all the nations of the earth in the future. Verses 11-12 point to the prosperity under Judah. A donkey can be tied to the choice vine because its owner is so affluent he does not care if the donkey eats from the choice vine. Wine will be so plentiful that people can use it to wash their clothes or, alternatively, their garments will become soaked when trampling the grapes. The prolific harvest will will make the man’s eyes dark and teeth white.3

13 “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.

The territory of Zebulon (Josh. 19:10-16) did not actually touch the coast of the Mediterranean, nor did it border on Sidon. But if Sidon is taken as a collective term for Phoenicia, then the statement is quite apt. The verse may suggest penetration of the Zebulonites into the Plain of Acco, most likely under the patronage of Canaanite cities in the region (Judg. 1:30). More probably, the seashore here is the seashore of Chinnereth/Galilee. The reference to Sidon does not rule this out because “the W flank of the S Galilee highland, settled by the Zebulunites, actually borders on the Phoenician territory in the Plain of Acco.”4

14-15 “Issachar is a strong donkey, crouching between the sheepfolds. He saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant, so he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant at forced labor.

The majority of commentators believe these verses state that Issachar will settle in a fertile part of the country (Joshua 19:17-24) and will become a slave. Victor P. Hamilton disagrees with the idea that the tribe of Issachar will become slaves because elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible slavery is always something imposed on a people and not something freely chosen by a people.

The majority interpretation has sufficient problems to warrant an alternative interpretation of v. 15. For one thing, nowhere does the OT comment on the subjugation of the Issacharaites to local power figures. The only possible evidence is extrabiblical (i.e., Amarna text no. 365), but even here this conclusion is only implied and possible. Moreover, when Judg. 1 lists the tribes that did not successfully drive out the local Canaanites (Manasseh, v. 27; Ephraim, v. 29; Zebulon, v. 30; Asher, v. 31; Naphtali, v. 33), some of which were contiguous with Issachar, it does not mention the tribal area of Issachar. Also, the Song of Deborah celebrates Issachar’s valued contribution in battle (Judg. 5:15). Finally, in Gen. 49, when Jacob clearly says a word of judgment on one of his sons, the reason for the father’s displeasure is explicit (Reuben, v. 4; Simeon and Levi, vv. 5-6). No such qualifying explanation is given with Issachar.

I have chosen to translate a laboring worker, a reading already reflected in LXX’s “and he became a farmer” (kai egenethe aner georgos). Thus here lemas-obed has an archaic, nontechnical meaning that in later biblical usage took on the overtones of enforced servitude and the like. In Gen. 49:15 Jacob predicts for Issachar and his descendants, strong as they are, a modus vivendi in which they do not shy away from assuming tasks of some physical magnitude.5

16-17 “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward.

What is the role and identity of “his people” in verse 16? If Dan refers to the patriarch, it goes without saying that he will provide justice for his people (i.e., his descendants). If, as is more likely, the saying refers to the tribe, then “his people” must logically refer to some group outside the tribe. An intriguing alternative is to understand “his people” as the subject of the verb rather than the object. The fact that the verb “to provide justice” is a play on the name Dan justifies this kind of statement being made. An alternative that suits the context a little better is to take the verb here as deriving from the root dnn, “to be strong,” rather than from the root dyn, “to judge.” This also resolves the obscurity of the second line comparing Dan to one of the tribes of Israel. The resulting translation is: “Dan – his people will be strong like one of the tribes of Israel.” It suggests that Dan will eventually take its proper place among the tribes.6

The unique Hebrew shefifon is probably to be identified with the horned cerastes, which buries itself in the sand, especially in the hollows made by camel’s hoofs, and feeds on rodents and scavenger birds attracted by grains and particles of food left by the Bedouin along caravan routes. It has a venom-injecting spinelike scale above each eye that kills its prey on contact, almost instantaneously. However, its poison is not powerful enough to be fatal to a camel or a horse. It will bite its heel if it crosses its path and cause the beast to rear suddenly and violently, thereby throwing its rider (cf. 3:15).7

But what is the point of comparing Dan to a horned viper? In that the other tribal sayings nearly all appear to relate to the experiences of the tribes between the settlement and the rise of the monarchy, it is natural to look for the fulfillment of Jacob’s prediction within the Book of Judges. And this is what the Targums do (e.g., Tg. Neof., “The venomous serpent . . . He is Samson bar Manoah”), as do most of the medieval Jewish commentators. Through his own strength and various tricks, Samson defeated the Philistines on various occasions (Judg 13-16). Later the small tribe of Dan migrated northwards and sacked the unsuspecting town of Laish (Judg 17-18).8

18 I wait for your salvation, O LORD.

Does the “I” mark the line as something Dan says or something Jacob says? The latter is more likely, but why is such a statement inserted here in the middle of the blessing? It should also be noted that this three-word (in Hebrew) statement contains the only reference to Yahweh in the blessing. In fact, that name for God has not been used since 39:23 and, aside from chapter 39, is not used at all in the Joseph story (though it does appear in 38:7-10). Jacob has not been shown using the name Yahweh since his prayer in 32:9.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that on either side of this verse are references to attack and that in both cases the attack targets the heels. It will be recalled from the naming of Jacob in 25:26 that the word “heel” is similar to Jacob’s name. Yet these tribes are not being attacked at the heels; they are portrayed as the one attacking the heels. This is not out of line in that Jacob was the one who grabbed onto the heel of his brother. Just as Jacob had been at a disadvantage when he took hold of his brother’s heel, so both Dan and Gad are in tenuous positions, perhaps leading Jacob to express the hope of deliverance. The verse remains entirely obscure.9

19 “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.

The saying about Gad is one long pun: four of the six Hebrew words in this verse contain the consonants gd. It predicts Gad’s frequent involvement in war, it being a frontier tribe that settled in Transjordan between modern Amman and the river Jordan (Num 32; Josh 13:24-28). But as the second line, “But he will raid [ygd] their retreat,” makes plain, they will not lack success (cf. Deut 33:20-21; Judg 11; Mesha Stone, lines 10-13, ANET, 320). Gadites were famed for their military prowess, according to 1 Chr 5:18; 12:8.10

20 “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield royal delicacies.

Asher settled on a fertile strip of land (Joshua 19:24-31; Deuteronomy 33:24-25).

21 “Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.

The meaning of this verse is obscure. Wenham suggests it might refer to the tribe of Naphtali giving up its original freedom for a later more sedentary lifestyle.11 Matthews suggests it refers to the tribe’s prosperity and its freedom to roam, for it had no delineated northern border.12

22-26 “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.

The blessing of Joseph is complex and obscure. Verse 22 of the ESV uses plant imagery to describe the prosperity of Joseph.13 However, Wenham and some other modern commentators believe the Hebrew behind the phrases “fruitful bough” and “branches” refers to “wild asses” and alludes to vigor and strength.14 Verse 23 refers to the persecution Joseph suffered throughout his career and verses 24-25 refer to Joseph’s perseverance with God’s help and his future blessings. Verse 26 recalls the blessings given to Jacob and the hope that they would be passed on to Joseph.

27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil.”

This verse probably refers to the military exploits of the tribe of Benjamin (e.g., Judges 3:15-30; 5:14; 20:15-16, 21; 1 Samuel 9:1; 2 Samuel 2:25; 1 Chronicles 8:40; 12:2).

28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.

The narrator makes it clear that these blessings are not only for Jacob’s sons but for the tribes that will come from those sons. This is the first mention of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Bible.

29-32 Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.”

This is the only place where the burial places of Rebekah and Leah is noted. Though both women provoked division within the family, Jacob will be united with them in death.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 471.

2Walton, Genesis, 713-714.

3Walton, Genesis, 715-716; Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 890-897.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 664.

5Ibid., 667-668.

6Walton, Genesis, 717.

7Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 341.

8Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 481.

9Walton, Genesis, 717.

10Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 482.

11Ibid., 483.

12Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 902.

13Ibid., 903-904.

14Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 484-485.

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3 Replies to “Commentary on Genesis 49”

  1. Thanks for these thoughts on the Hebrew of Genesis 49. It is a difficult chapter, both in terms of the Hebrew used, and also the interpretation. I believe these are generally prophetic verses, covering time from then to the latter days.

  2. What are your thoughts on ‘the one to whom tribute belongs’?

    I expected a commentary on this chapter to mention something about that.

    But thanks for your work!

    :)

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