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.
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.
4 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!
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
6 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.
7 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.
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.
9 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?
10 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.
11 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.
12 His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:1-12 ESV
Nearing death, Jacob called his 12 sons to him. It was time for him to share his patriarchal blessing on the young men who would carry on the legacy of his name and play vital roles in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jacob understood that his time on earth was over and it was time to pass the baton the next generation of Israelites. It would be through them that God would create a great nation that would eventually return to and fill the land of Canaan.
As Jacob gathered his sons around him, he pronounced a prophetic word concerning each of their futures. This section of Genesis is written in a poetic style, but is no less historical or reliable. In it, the words of Jacob are intended to convey future realities that will be based on the sovereign will of God as it is played out through the personalities and character qualities of each son. His 12 sons, each bearing distinctively different temperaments, will be the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Jacob, under divine inspiration, conveys to each of them the vital, yet divergent, roles they will play in the creation of the Israelite nation. No two sons is alike and the tribes that will emanate from them will end up reflecting their disparate characters.
Beginning with the oldest to the youngest, Jacob delivers a brief, yet powerful prophetic pronouncement concerning each son. And what they heard must have surprised and confused them. It is not clear whether they knew about the blessing he had given to Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph.
“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,
‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’” – Genesis 48:20 ESV
Jacob had already made the unexpected decision to adopt Joseph’s two sons, born to him by an Egyptian woman. Jacob had chosen to make his two grandsons heirs to his inheritance, placing them on equal standing with his own sons. He had declared a powerful and irrevocable blessing on both of them.
“…in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” – Genesis 48:16 ESV
And while Jacob had frustrated Joseph by purposefully awarding the blessing of the firstborn to Ephraim, the younger of his two sons, Jacob had also assured that Joseph that Manasseh would not be forgotten.
“He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” – Genesis 48:19 ESV
But now Jacob turned his attention to his own sons, speaking over them a word of blessing and prophecy.
“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.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis
It is unlikely that Jacob understood the full import of his own words. Much of what he had to say to his sons was future-oriented, stretching from the not-so-distant future all the way to the Millennial Age. Jacob did not possess the power of clairvoyance. He could not see into the future or discern with accuracy and confidence the outcome of his words, but he knew that what he was saying was divinely inspired.
Like any loving father, Jacob longed for each of his sons to be successful and to leave a lasting legacy that would positively impact the world in which they lived. So, beginning with Reuben, his firstborn, Jacob delivered a brief, but timeless prediction concerning each of their fates.
Reuben was in for a not-so-pleasant surprise. Because of his ill-fated decision to sleep with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), he would forfeit his right to the blessing of the firstborn. It must have stung Reuben deeply to hear his father pronounce, “you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife; you defiled my marriage couch” (Genesis 49:4 NLT). Like his uncle, Esau, Reuben had allowed his physical passions to rule over him and rob him of his rightful place of prominence and power among his brothers. And his decision would have long-lasting effects, determining the fate of his future descendants.
Simeon and Levi were probably also a bit surprised when they heard their father’s pronouncement over them. These two sons had brought shame to the name of Jacob by murdering all the men of Shechem for the rape of their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34). They had chosen to take matters into their own hands and, as a result, had made the Israelites “stink among all the people of this land—among all the Canaanites and Perizzites” (Genesis 34:30 NLT). Now, they were having to pay the consequences for their rash and costly action.
Yet, despite the rather negative nature of Jacob’s words concerning Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, he still declared that they would each enjoy fruitfulness and future blessings from God. Their natural role as leaders over the clan had been forfeited but not their right to enjoy status as heirs of the patriarchal blessing.
At this point, Jacob turns his attention to Judah, and it is to this son that he dedicates the greatest portion of his time and his most positive statements of praise and prophetic revelation. Among all his brothers, Judah was destined to play the most vital role of all. It must have been a rather awkward moment when Jacob declared of Judah in the hearing of all his brothers, “your brothers shall praise you…your father’s sons shall bow down before you” (Genesis 49:8 ESV). For each of the sons, this would have brought back the memories of Joseph’s dreams. And while those dreams had already been fulfilled, now they were hearing that they would have to bow before yet another brother.
And while Jacob’s words would have short-term implications, he was really speaking of events that lie in the distant future. The tribe of Judah would become a leading faction among the nation of Israel, but it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that most of these prophecies would be fulfilled.
Jacob declared that “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10 ESV), and this would eventually be fulfilled through King David and his royal line. But it would ultimately be fulfilled with the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lord, the Messiah of Israel.
All of the imagery used by Jacob points to a future fulfillment that has yet to take place. Even during the days when Moses penned these words, the people of Israel had not yet entered the land of promised, the dynasty of David had not yet come, and the prediction of Judah’s preeminence had not yet taken place. But it would. All of those things would come to pass, just as Jacob predicted. Yet, even today, the scepter has passed from the hand of Judah. There is no king in Israel. No son of David sits on the throne in Jerusalem. But the day is coming when even those prophetic words will be fulfilled.
Jacob declared some rather cryptic words concerning the future of Judah that must have left each of the brothers scratching their heads in confusion.
“He ties his foal to a grapevine,
the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.” – Genesis 49:11 NLT
None of this would have made sense to them. This imagery is nonsensical and counterintuitive. No one would tie his foal to a grapevine. To do so would end up damaging the valuable vine. And who in their right mind would wash garments in wine? The result would be far from productive or beneficial.
Yet, Jacob was predicting a future event that would result in the judgment of Israel. Though he did not know it at the time, Jacob was predicting the coming of the seed of Judah who would rule and reign over Israel. Jesus would be the Son of David who would be the foal who was tied to the vine of Israel. God would send His Son to be the relatively innocent looking and unimpressive Rabbi whose very existence would bring judgment upon the God-blessed, but rebellious vine of Israel.
And the day will come when this very same Son of David will return to earth and wash his garments in the blood (wine) of His enemies – all those who refuse to recognize Him as the Messiah and Savior sent from God, including the people of Israel. The book of Revelation describes the day when the King will return to earth a second time and “clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13 13 ESV).
And the apostle John goes on to declare that the Messiah “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:15-16 ESV).
Jacob was speaking of future events both near and distant. And God would see that each and every statement made by the dying patriarch would be fulfilled at just the right time and in perfect keeping with His divine will.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.