Jacob's Prophetic Blessings (Part 1)
"And Jacob called his sons and said, 'Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days" (Gen. 49:1). This chapter is composed of a series of prophetic blessings from Israel to his sons, as 49:28 indicates - "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them; he blessed each one according to his own blessing." Admittedly, some of the things spoken are more curse than they are blessing, but based on the content of these words and what we read later in the Scriptures, we know these words were divinely given. Some of Jacob's words here pertain to events that had already taken place, but other words look to the future (even to the days of the Messiah). The latter words will make more sense as the history of the Israelites unfolds in the Old Testament, including the distribution of the Promised Land to the various tribes. All of the blessings are included below, with some comments interspersed.

"Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it--he went up to my couch" (Gen. 49:3,4). Reuben was the firstborn in time but not in position (cf. I Chr. 5:1,2). Not only did he sleep with one of his father's concubines (cf. Gen. 35:22), but he was unwilling to take a strong enough lead against his younger brothers (cf. 37:22). He also foolishly suggested killing his own sons if he failed to bring back Benjamin safely (cf. 42:37)! Other unstable men, like Dathan and Abiram, came from Reuben's tribe (cf. Num. 16:1ff; Jud. 5:15,16).

"Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. 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" (Gen. 49:5-7). Jacob, referring to the incident with Dinah in Genesis 34, curses their anger, not them. They were cruel and would be divided one from another. One day the priests of Levi would be scattered throughout the Israelite cities, and Simeon's territory would be included with Judah's (cf. Josh. 13:33; 19:1,9).

Although the first three sons had greatly displeased their father, the fourth had not. Judah, consequently, is blessed in a unique way.

"Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father's children shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Binding his donkey to the vine, and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk" (Gen. 49:8-12).

Judah shall be a victorious warrior. His brethren will obey him as a ruler (e.g., David - cf. II Sam. 5:1-5). Judah will be wealthy and will lead until Shiloh (Christ) comes, and then the people will submit to Him in obedience. A scepter implies the capacity to govern and rule. There are some who do not believe there is a Messianic import here, but I believe the evidence is convincing. We will continue studying these prophetic blessings in our next lesson.