During a work conference a speaker had the dubious task of following a fellow participant whose unduly prolonged presentation had wearied his audience. In his introductory comments, and with a strong dose of criticism, the speaker remarked that whereas certain men say, "Lastly", and last, others say, "Finally", and finish! Jacobs conduct in Genesis 49 places him in the latter category measured to the end, he concludes the blessing to his sons. We pick up the narrative with Issachar.
Issachars strength is clear as he is likened to a strong ass (Gen 49.14), renowned for its resilience in carrying burdens. Despite this endowment, Jacob states that the tribe would accept the lowly position of servants, working for others often under harsh and ignominious conditions (consider the rendering of "tribute" in Exodus 1.11 as "taskmasters"). Though not always the case (see Judg 5.15), the tribe appeared to accept the yoke of service rather than enjoy the liberty that stemmed from more ambitious labour. While it is right to temper our secular ambitions, we should also have the capacity to treasure assembly principles while simultaneously searching for new avenues of service. A lack of vision is a real impediment to growth (Prov 29.18). For example, though we hold tenaciously to the unchanging truth of the gospel, it may be that in certain localities our evangelistic responsibilities are best served by having appropriate changes to the time, venue, and format of our assembly gospel outreach.
Dan was the first son addressed who came from a concubine (Bilhah), but his inclusion in the blessing was not in dispute (Gen 49.16-18). Indeed, the tribe would rise to be judge over the nation, as was characterised by the Danite Samson (Judg 13.2). The reference to the serpent is interesting and may not necessarily be negative. Keil and Delitzsch refer to "the very poisonous horned serpent, which is of the colour of the sand, and as it lies upon the ground, merely stretching out its feelers, inflicts a fatal wound upon any who may tread upon it unawares". In other words, the reference may highlight a degree of tribal ability particularly with regard to warfare. However, a number of factors suggest that the subtle nature of Dan and his tribe is being exposed: in Genesis any reference to serpents is particularly sombre (Gen 3.1); the tribe would be the first to introduce idolatry into the nation (Judg 18.30-31) and thoughts of Dan instinctively prompt his father to look for Messiah (Gen 49.18) as the only one who can bring victory over the arch enemy.
The tribe of Gad is the antithesis of Issachar (Gen 49.19), warrior-like in character and brave at heart. Jacob spoke of their opposition as a troop or marauding band intent on destruction the people of God are always the target of the enemy and we need to be on guard (1 Pet 5.8). In the context of battle, Gads outlook was both simple and effective as the enemy attacked ("overcome") he would do the same! Whereas there are times when it is right to flee from the enemy (1 Tim 6.9-11), the believer is also called to stand firm in the face of adversity (Eph 6.14-18). We therefore need the bravery that was characteristic of Gad. His objective in battle was to target the weak spot of the enemy "last" rendered as "heel" (JND) or "rear". This highlights the need for focus and composure in battle. Finally, what was true of Gad held for his offspring as documented in Davids list of mighty men (1 Chr 12.8-14). In the 21st Century, when the Christian faith is being challenged and assembly principles are considered by some to be "ineffective", there is a real need for courageous and Bible-aware believers.
The tribe of Asher would later occupy the north-westerly seacoast of Israel. Jacob alludes to the tribes prosperity as they would enjoy rich food and royal delicacies (Gen 49.20). In Deuteronomy 33.24, Moses reveals the abundance of oil in the area which apparently arose from a concentration of olive groves. Spiritually, the believer is also enriched (Eph 1.3), but the tribe of Asher provides a solemn warning too lack of spirituality diminishes the ability to enjoy our possessions in Christ. For example, when Elijah visited Zarephath within the original borders of Asher little oil was found (1 Kings 17.9,12)! It is all too easy to allow the passage of time and other (secular) commitments to deplete the energy we devote to our Bible study and prayer.
Naphtali is likened to a hind (Gen 49.21), speaking of the swiftness of the tribe particularly when faced with persecution. In his being "set loose" we further note the blessing for the tribe freedom. The subject of freedom from bondage is a key subject in Johns Gospel. Not only does faith in the Lord break the bondage of Satan (Jn 8.36), we also have liberty to enjoy access into rich pastures (Jn 10.9). Indeed, as John is again quick to stress, it is only our association with the Lord that breaks the shackles of sin for "if the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (Jn 8.36). Another distinctive feature of the tribe of Naphtali is that they spoke words of goodness. This is particularly evident from the life of Barak, a descendant of the tribe (Judg 4.6, 15) who participated in one of the most eloquent songs of victory in the Old Testament (Judg 5). The believer must also control the tongue (James 3.3-6) and use it for edification (Col 4.6).
Aside from Judah, Jacobs remarks on his first son from Rachel Joseph were the longest (Gen 49.22-26) and this is unsurprising given his prominence in the concluding chapters of Genesis. His description as a fruit-tree located by a well anticipates the blessed man in Psalm 1.3. The appropriateness lies in the fact that a fruit bearing tree is renowned for its width of branches. Like Joseph, believers should be known for the extent to which they bless others. The opposition Joseph endured is also referred to by his father and the terminology outlines the degree of violence he faced: "sorely grieved", "shot at", and "hated". However, the opposition was part of the divine plan to strengthen him. Without the difficulties, Josephs fruitfulness might not have been as extensive (Gen 49.24). For many believers the roadmap to heaven is fraught with problems but, as a consequence we learn more about the Lord (2 Cor 12.7-10) and bear fruit for His glory (Jn 15.1-5). Josephs salvation from his persecutors was clearly divine and thoughts of this led his father to outline some profound titles for God including Shepherd and Stone (Gen 49.24). God would both nourish and protect Joseph and we can revel in the same truth (Jn 10.11; Eph 2.20). In reward for diligent service, Joseph had the satisfaction of divine "blessings" notice the repetition of the word in Genesis 49.25-26 and not least the elevation above his brethren. As Eli learned, the Lord honours those who honour Him (1 Sam 2.30). The concluding word on Joseph indicates his sanctification (Gen 49.26), for his father employs a word, "separate", similar to that used for the Nazarite (Num 6.2). The believer is called to be distinct from those around (2 Cor 6.14-18) and for this the daily reading of Scripture is vital (Jn 17.17).
Benjamin is the final son to receive his fathers blessing (Gen 49.27). This is natural given that he was Jacobs last son and perhaps, as the baby in the family, felt that he had most to prove. However, his name highlights that he was a particularly loved son, as Jacob and Rachel bore him in old age and his father gave him the position at his right hand. As the labouring son he is likened to the devouring wolf who laboured morning and evening. The two "Sauls of Scripture", renowned for their industrious and warlike personalities (see 1 Sam 9.16 and Phil 3.5), and Ehud (Judg 3.15) stemmed from the tribe. Believers are similarly called to be active in their Christian service (2 Pet 3.14). As a good friend is always quick to say, "It is better to burn out than rust out"!
With each of his sons now taught and blessed, Jacobs thoughts turn to his death (Gen 49.28-32). There is a mixture of confidence and preparation. He knew that death was imminent and that it marked the end of his earthly sojourn and the beginning of his experiences in eternity, so he gave details concerning how (burial not cremation!) and where (Machpelah) he would be buried. Then, with his physical strength all but depleted, Jacob pulled his feet into bed, gave up his spirit and was "gathered unto his people" to enjoy life beyond the grave. Here ends the life of a great Bible character who merits our respect.