Deathbed Prophecies

Genesis 49

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2016

We come to a section in Genesis that is very important. It may not seem that important on the surface but this chapter contains on the great messianic prophecies in the Bible. It is Genesis 49:10. The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his (NIV).

Not only do Christians do believe that this was a reference to the coming Messiah but many Jews believed this as well. Some very famous Jewish commentators took this position, (e.g., Rashi, the medieval Jewish scholar from France). Jews quote Rashi like Christians quote Augustine or Matthew Henry.  Rashi said, “until Shiloh comes [this refers to] the King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs.”

Some of the ancient Jewish translations of Genesis into Aramaic (called Targums) took this as messianic. Some of these translations are old. One of them goes back to the second century. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathon (Section XII) “Kings shall not cease, nor rulers, from the house of Judah, nor scribes teaching the law from his seed, till the time that the King the Messiah, shall come.”

The Targum Onkelos (Section XII) says, “He who exercises dominion shall not pass away from the house of Judah, nor the scribe from his children’s children for ever, until the Messiah comes, whose is the kingdom, and unto whom shall be the obedience of the nations (or, whom the peoples shall obey).”

This view is also expressed in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud, says, “Rab said: The world was created only on David’s account. Samuel said: On Moses account; R. Johanan said: For the sake of the Messiah. What is his [the Messiah’s] name? — The School of R. Shila said: His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come” (Tractate Sanhedrin 98b).

Genesis 49, not only is a messianic prophecy, it is a prophecy of BOTH the First Coming and Second Coming of Christ. Genesis 49:10 says “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes” (First Coming) and “the obedience of the nations shall be his” (Second Coming). When Jesus returns, He will have worldwide dominion. He will receive obedience from every nation on the planet. He will return as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Jacob says that the Messiah will come, not through Joseph but THROUGH JUDAH. He has twelve sons but says that the Messiah will come through the line of Judah. That is a shock. You would have expected the Messiah to come through Joseph. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. He was the leader. He was the one with all of the power. People were bowing to him already.

He was already in politics. He worked for the Egyptian government. He was the Prime Minister of Egypt. Judah was just a shepherd. In addition, Joseph was the most spiritual of all of the brothers but Jacob predicted that the Messiah would come from the Tribe of Judah.

Judah had twelve sons. He had an eight percent chance in correctly predicting which one the Messiah would come from but that is what he does here. He said, “Your father’s sons will bow down to you” (49:8). They may be bowing down to Joseph now but in the future, people will be bowing down to one of Judah’s descendants” (49:8). Judah will take Joseph’s position in the future. God revealed things about Jesus gradually. This is something called “progressive revelation”.

First we learned that the Messiah would be a descendant of Adam and Eve. After Satan used Eve to cause the Fall, God said that he would use a descendant of Eve to crush the head of the serpent (3:15). It was the first messianic prophecy in the Bible. Later, we learned that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham. He would be a Semite. God promised to bless the whole word through Abraham’s seed. Jesus was a descendant of Abraham. He was the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1).

Now, we learn something else. The promised Messiah would be a descendant of Jacob’s son Judah. Judah offered to take Benjamin’s place when he was arrested and one of Judah’s descendants will take our place on the cross. Jesus is the lion of the tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5). That is why the genealogies in the NT of Jesus are so important. They prove that Jesus came from the tribe of Judah. Some later prophets clarified this even further.

The Messiah would not just come from Judah; he would also be a descendant of one family, the family of King David. It is not enough to be a member of the Tribe of Judah; he must be a son of David as well. God promised to build King David a dynasty (Isaiah 9:5-6; II Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89:3-5, 35-36).

Another prophet later predicted which town in Judah the Messiah would come from. It was a small and insignificant town (Bethlehem). Micah 5:2 says, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah (cf. Joshua 19:14-15), though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.

Today, many Jews do not believe that this passage is messianic.  In fact, many Jews today no longer believe in a Messiah but many of the ancient rabbinic writers did.  In fact, many believed that Micah 5:2 referred to the Messiah (so Rashi, Targum Jonathon)[1]. Jews in the first century took this to be a messianic prophecy.

When the wise men went to Herod and asked them where the Messiah would be born, Herod asked the chief priests and scribes and they told him Bethlehem and quoted this passage (Matthew 2:5-6; cf. John 7:42).

[1] “And you, O Bethlehem Ephrath, you who were too small to be numbered among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you shall come forth before Me the Messiah, to exercise dominion over Israel, he whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation.  Rashi also took it as messianic.  On that passage, he comments, “from you shall emerge for Me: the Messiah, son of David, and so Scripture says (Ps. 118:22): ‘The stone the builders had rejected became a cornerstone.’” [accessed online at].

Let’s look at this chapter. I want to begin with a little review. In the last chapter, Joseph realized that Jacob was about to die and wanted his two sons to see their grandfather before he died. In this, chapter, Jacob is the one who realizes he is about to die. He has only hours left. He dies at the end of the chapter.

Before he dies, he wants to talk to his sons one last time, so he calls them in.
The twelve sons stand around the bed of this blind, feeble, old dying patriarch. Leah’s six sons are there. The four sons of Zilpah and Bilhah are there and the two sons of Rachel are there. Jacob gives each one of the sons a blessing.

In Genesis 48, Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons. In Genesis 49, he blessed his own sons. Last week, we saw a grandfather’s blessing, as Jacob spoke a word of blessing on Ephraim and Manasseh. This week, we see a father’s blessing.

The blessings do not all go from oldest to youngest. The first four sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah) are blessed in order of birth and the last two (Joseph and Benjamin) were the last two sons to be born but the six sons in between them are not blessed in birth order. When you have that many kids and are that old, it might be hard to keep up with all of them.

Some of these words do not sound like blessings. Some of them sound more like curses than blessings. They are not all positive words of affirmation. That is what we think of when we hear the word “blessing”. Jacob has some strong language to some of these sons. Some of them received a scathing rebuke from their father. Their message was negative, not positive.

If you have a lot of kids, as I do, the one thing you know about them is how different they all are. As Jacob spoke to his sons, that is the one thing that stands out here. These boys were all different and had different futures, except for Simeon and Levi. They were two peas in a pod. They were just alike but the message to the twelve is very different.

• Some of them were praised and some were criticized.

God said to Judah, “your brothers will praise you” (49:8). Some of the other sons were rebuked, not praised. Judah received no condemnation, no curse and no rebuke, just praise. In fact, Judah means “praise”.

• Some of the tribes will rule and some will be servants.

Judah will rule. Jacob said to Judah, “your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you” (49:8). It will be militarily successful. People will bow down to this tribe. We are also told “the scepter will not depart from Judah” (49:10). The scepter was a staff used by kings. It was a symbol of royalty and power. Kings came out of Judah. Not only did kings come out of Judah, the Messiah came out of Judah.

Dan was another tribe that ruled. Dan will provide justice for his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a snake by the roadside, a viper along the path (49:16-17). Samson came from the tribe of Dan (Judges 13:2). He provided justice but Dan was also the first tribe among the twelve to practice idolatry (Judges 18). Jacob ends talking about Dan by saying, “I look for your deliverance, Lord” (49:18).

Issachar was given a different prophecy. “Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down among the sheep pens. 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” (49:14-15).

• Some of the tribes were blessed and some were cursed.

Reuben’s tribe received a curse. Jacob said to Reuben “You will NOT excel”. Other sons like Joseph were blessed.

• Some were known for their food and some were known for their fighters.

Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king” (49:20). This tribe would live in fertile farm lands near the Mediterranean Sea. Asher’s location was the agricultural breadbasket for the north (Israel). They had food fit for a king there.

Benjamin would be known for something else. There were some good fighters in the Tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder (49:27). The first king was from the Tribe of Benjamin (Saul).  Saul of Tarsus came from that tribe and he devoured Christians before he became one.

• Some of the tribes were given land and some did some were not.

Most of the tribes had land. Notice what God said to Simeon and Levi. “I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (49:7). Simeon did not have his own territory. They were part of Judah. Joshua 19:9 says “the Simeonites received their inheritance within the territory of Judah”. Levi was scattered throughout all of the tribes. Simeon was scattered within one tribe and Levi was scattered within all of the tribes.

Why This Chapter Matters

This chapter does not seem real exciting. It is something that seems to happen quite often. It is not that unusual for people on their deathbed to call family in and say some final words of goodbye and perhaps (if they are real spiritual) to pass on some important values to their kids but what Jacob does here is very different. These are NOT just blessing; they are prophecies.

These are deathbed prophecies. This prophecy comes from a sick, old, feeble blind patriarch on his deathbed. Notice how the chapter beings. Then Jacob called for his sons and said: Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come (49:1). These are the final words that come out of his mouth. When he is done talking he dies. Notice the last verse of the chapter: When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people (49:33 ESV). These are literally his last words before he died.

Jacob’s last words were a prophecy. Jacob was not just a patriarch, he was a prophet. He did not give his own words to these sons, he gave God’s Words. He spoke by divine inspiration. That is what makes this important. People die all of the time and talk to family before they die but usually do not make predictions of future events on their deathbed.

Jacob is not just telling his twelve sons how they should live. He is not giving them a final exhortation before he dies. He is not giving them some advice. Jacob explicitly says that this is a prophecy in the very first verse of the chapter. Liberals hate this chapter because they do not believe that prophecy is possible. Chapters like this are proof of the inspiration of the Bible. God is uses Jacob as His mouthpiece to predict future events.

We need to keep a few things in mind about these prophecies. They were not just prophecies of Jacob’s twelve sons but of the tribes that came from them. Now these prophecies were not fulfilled right away. Some of them were not fulfilled for hundreds of years. Judah did not have kings until seven hundred years later.
The other thing to note about this is that it is a poetic prophecy (which makes it a little hard to interpret). This chapter is all poetry. The patriarch must have been a poet. He must have liked poetry. There are all kinds of poetry in this chapter. It is one of the oldest poems in history.

When I was in school, I used to hate poetry as a kid. Then I became a Christian and found out that much of the Bible is poetry. About a third of the Bible is poetry (e.g., Job, Psalms, Proverbs). We have seen some short verses in Genesis that are poetic (2:23; 4:23-24) but this is the longest section of poetry in Genesis.

This section contains personification (49:7). It contains vivid imagery (49:11-12). It contains parallelism (49:11). It contains similes (like “unstable as water). It also contains some metaphors. Most are animal metaphors. Naphtali is a deer (49:21). Issachar is a donkey (49:14). Benjamin is a wolf (49:27). Dan is a serpent (49:17). Judah is a lion (49:9). Lions are king of the beasts (Proverbs 30:30).

Practical Applications

You may say at this point, “This is very interesting but not real practical. How does this affect me?” What is the application for today? Are there lessons for us from this chapter?

Many preachers are very creative with this chapter. They see this as different types of Christians. It sounds great but it doesn’t really work here. It doesn’t work for Reuben. Reuben committed incest with his step-mom Bilhah. That would make incestuous Christians one type of believer.

It doesn’t really work for 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 (49:5-6). These brothers were violent The Hebrew word “violence” is hamas. They were terrorists. That is what Simeon and Levi did. They massacred a whole town. That would make murderous Christians another type of believer.

These men were not Christians or believers at the time they committed some of these atrocities. Some of them may have later come to faith. This chapter does not give us eleven types of Christians but there are some applications from this chapter. What are they?

1. Our kids are different

Cain was different from Abel. One was righteous and one was wicked. Isaac was different from Ishmael. Jacob was different from Esau. Even twins are different. Jacob’s sons were very different and your kids are as well. We would love to be able to praise all of them but some are a blessing to their parents, while other kids sometimes are a disgrace to their parents. Some time it is the parents fault for not raising them properly but sometimes it is not.

2. Sin has serious consequences.

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! (49:3-4 ESV).

Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn. He was the one who was supposed to get the double portion. He was supposed to get twice as much inheritance as any of the other sons but he didn’t get it. Jacob says to Reuben, “You are the one who is preeminent in dignity and power, because you are my firstborn but you shall NOT have preeminence”. Instead, he gets a public rebuke from his father.

Reuben did not get the double portion because of his sin. It was a sexual sin and it happened forty years earlier but that sin had consequences. Reuben did NOT get the birthright. That went to Joseph. Reuben had special privileges because he was born first but Jacob said, “You will not be successful”. Firstborn children are often natural leaders (according to modern birth order theories).

Reuben was the firstborn but he did not get the kingship. No king ever came from Reuben. He did not get the priesthood. No priest ever came from Reuben. No judge came from Reuben. In fact, no prophet ever came from the Tribe of Reuben.

What is the lesson? Sin has consequences. Character matters. Reuben’s sin had consequences for him personally and for his descendants.

The whole tribe was affected by his actions. What would have happened if he did not do this? History would have changed. The Messiah might have come from Reuben, instead of Judah. As one preacher put it, “Reuben could have been a leader but he chose to be a loser”. He could have been great but Jacob said that because what he did he will not excel.

3. God shows grace to sinners.

God showed grace to Judah. The Messiah came through Judah. He did not deserve that. Judah was no saint. He visited prostitutes. He had sex with his daughter-in-law. He sold Joseph into slavery.

God showed grace to Levi. Levi was a murderer but his tribe was later responsible for the worship in Israel. The Levites were in charge of the Temple and the Tabernacle. They did not deserve that privilege but God used that tribe in spite of their past.

God even showed grace to Reuben. He could have been kicked out of the family. He could have been taken out of the will. He could have been disinherited but he wasn’t.

4. Faithfulness is rewarded by God.

Joseph not only got the birthright in the last chapter, he received blessing upon blessing in this chapter. Six times we are told he would be blessed in one way or another.

But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who BLESSES you with BLESSINGS of the skies above, BLESSINGS of the deep springs 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” (48:24-26).

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