Winston Churchill entitled the sixth and final volume of his personal recollections of the Second World War Triumph and Tragedy. Despite the victory of the Allies over the enemy, peace still remained elusive in a troubled world. In his last recorded words to his sons, Jacob might have expressed similar sentiments there was tragic evidence of sin within his own family, but also the triumphant promise that godliness would prevail in Judah and Joseph. In a truly epic chapter there are numerous practical truths to be gleaned and the material in this and the succeeding (and concluding) article represents an attempt to draw out some of the more obvious points.
The inspiration of the Holy Spirit and Jacobs intimate knowledge of his family combines to predict how the respective tribes would develop in the "last days" (Gen 49.1). This term embraces the whole history of Israel including the prospective period of Messianic rule (vv.10-12). However, prior to dipping into the narrative as it relates to the individual sons, there are a number of generic points to make. In the first instance, the setting for Jacobs discourse remains Egypt: while he remained bodily in a foreign land, his heart lay with God and His people. The same should mark the believer for, in light of Colossians 3.1 and Philippians 3.20, it may be sobering to calculate how much of our 24-hour day is dominated by the secular. The aged patriarch is inspired by the Spirit who does His unique work of indicating how central the Lord Jesus is to Bible prophecy (Rev 19.10). The chapter speaks of Him as Shiloh (Gen 49.10), Saviour (v.18), Shepherd and Stone (v.24), and while the significance of these terms will be considered separately, the practical application is that the Spirit-filled believer will always act as a beacon for Christ (2 Cor 4.10).
The style of the prophecy is Hebrew poetry, particularly with its vivid imagery drawn from creation (e.g. vv.9,17,21,22). Genesis is therefore remarkable not only for how it commences outlining the divine account of creation but also for its conclusion, illustrating that there is much to learn from other parts of creation. For example, the tenacious and industrious character of the wolf (Gen 49.27) provides a telling lesson for believers as they endeavour to work for God. Finally, the central focus of the narrative is naturally the sons of Jacob, with emphasis on the twin truths of unity and variability. Regarding the former, the sons may have had different mothers, but each shared in the privilege of being a child of the patriarch. In turn, Jacob gave each son a blessing (Gen 49.28) though it is interesting to observe that some received correction for their misdemeanours (e.g. the first three sons, vv.3-7) whereas others had a more direct commendation (e.g. Judah and Joseph). Believers are similarly united in their link with God (Rom 8.15) and eternity is sure to bring its individual reward (Rev 22.12). Then, concerning the variable nature of the sons, it is obvious that they differed in many aspects, not least in their prominence (Judah, for instance, enjoyed a position of importance whereas others such as Issachar have a lower profile) and personality (some were quick-tempered like Simeon and Levi, whereas others like Naphtali appear more pleasant). The local assembly is marked by its ability to unite individuals from different areas of society with varying degrees of ability. The secret, of course, lies not with the individual members but rather the unity we find in the Lord Jesus (Mt 18.20).
It is natural that Jacob starts with Reuben given that he was firstborn (Gen 29.32). He therefore represents his fathers strength (Gen 49.3) and was due the position of leadership and the associated blessing of the double portion (Deut 21.17). However, Scripture has comparatively little to say about Jacobs eldest son, for the reason adduced in Genesis 49. For Reuben, as with many, the heart of the problem was the problem of the heart! In short, his sin with Bilhah (Gen 35.22) is the reason for his rebuke and disqualification from the rights of firstborn. A number of sobering lessons emerge from the incident. We learn that God never overlooks sin. Given the nature of the record in Genesis 35.22, Reuben may have thought that he had escaped punishment, but his father here puts him right. If Jacob must exercise discipline, how much more will God (Ps 50.21). Moreover, Reuben was evidently marked by uncontrollable passions hence the appropriateness of being symbolically likened to turbulent waters (Gen 49.4). Pauls teaching in 1 Corinthians 9.24-27 represents the antithesis: the continual subjugation of the flesh is vital for Christian testimony. Though this truth is applicable to all, a primary application given Reubens position as firstborn and leader is for elders, where self control is one of the listed criteria for leadership in the local assembly (1 Tim 3.3). As is often remarked, it is hard and perhaps even impossible for the local assembly to rise higher than the standard set by its overseers.
Cruelty (Simeon and Levi)
The only sons joined in the prophecy of Genesis 49 were Simeon and Levi (vv.5-7). The fact that they were "brethren" is clear not only in their relationship but also in their temperament. Evidently men of temper and violence, they were renowned for their actions in Genesis 34 where they killed the Shechemites in response to the violation of their sister Dinah. Jacobs word of caution to himself, his family, and those who read is insightful the soul of the godly was not to enter into their counsel ("secret", Gen 49.6, translates a Hebrew word referring to close deliberations). The wise believer will rather walk in the fear of Jehovah and enjoy His secret counsel (Ps 25.14; Prov 3.32). Brothers united in cruelty were to experience dispersion (Gen 49.7): if we fail to judge ourselves God will intervene (Mt 7.1). Simeon appears to have been assimilated into Judah (Judg 1.3) and Levi dwelt in cities throughout the land (Josh 21). However, the believer has only to turn a few pages of Scripture to learn the truth that people/tribes have the capacity to change! For example, the tribe of Levi was to spawn a great leader Moses (Ex 2.1) and later would turn to God and become servants in the sanctuary (Ex 32.25-28).
The possibility of improving our walk before God is also evident with Judah who has perhaps the most dramatic change of all (Gen 37.26-27; 43.8-9; 44.18-34). The first son to receive a positive commendation from his father (Gen 49.8-12), Judah becomes the chosen line for Messiah. This not only illustrates the importance of the individual but also the main reason why he became the object of his brothers praise (v.8). With Judah emerging as the most able leader among Jacobs sons it is appropriate that the Lord Jesus, the greatest of all leaders (Heb 2.10), came via this line. With a double reference to the lion it is necessary to outline the meaning of the metaphor Judahs courage as a warrior is likened to that of a young lion (v.9) and a lioness (RV, renowned for her propensity to defend the young) for none would stir him from his position of strength. All this is a further anticipation of Messiah as outlined in Revelation 5.5. The significance of the sceptre (v.10) is that the tribe of Judah was to be kingly in character true of David and his descendants (1 Sam 16.18; Micah 5.2). Moreover, the coming of Shiloh (the context makes clear that the reference is to a person) illustrates the perpetuation of the royal rule in Christ, who came from Judah (Mt 1; Lk 3). Linked to Christ we are spiritually akin to Judah for we are also elevated to the position of royalty (1 Pet 2.9). The evidence of the enrichment, outlined in Genesis 49.11-12, indicates that with the coming rule of Shiloh the land will be blessed by rich prosperity herbivorous animals will be tied to vines and people will enjoy abundance of wine and milk (a foretaste of abundant wine stemming from Messiah is shown in John 2). Association with the Lord Jesus has undoubtedly brought the believer into abundant spiritual wealth (2 Cor 8.9).
Zebulun provides a haven for ships (v.13) a necessary covert from the storms. Geographically the tribes location was near the seashore (Josh 19.11) which may, in part, explain that materially the tribe was relatively wealthy (Deut 33.18-19). However, notwithstanding their wealth, the tribe of Zebulun is characterised as being generous givers with genuine hearts (1 Chr 12.33,40). We too ought to be cheerful givers (2 Cor 9.7). Spiritually the tribe was also privileged to experience the footsteps of the Saviour during His earthly sojourn (Mt 4.12-16).
To be continued.