Old Jacob was approaching death. He therefore gathered his sons in order to announce publicly his spiritual bequests. But Genesis 49 is much more than an advance reading of a will. Rich in poetry, it is a great chapter for looking backwards and forwards. For a start, it is a review of the pathway of some of Jacob's sons, assessing their conduct and its consequences. We are reminded of the failure of Reuben the firstborn, who went up "to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it" (Gen 49.4). Immorality is roundly condemned. There follows a candid appraisal of the belligerent Simeon and Levi, whose actions are recorded without comment in chapter 34. "Instruments of violence their swords … in their anger they slew men … Cursed be their anger, for it was violent; and their rage, for it was cruel!' (Gen 49.5-7, JND¹). The dangers of unbridled rage are spelt out in the plainest terms. It is no wonder that the New Testament warns "let not the sun go down upon your wrath" (Eph 4.26), for it is never good to brood on things which incense us. Reuben, Simeon and Levi are negative role models who, in their father's verdict, come under the government of God. The one lost his firstborn status, the others would be scattered throughout the nation. Sin has a price tag.
Then again, Jacob's introductory words signal a prophetic revelation: "Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days" (Gen 49.1). As Keil² says,
The Spirit of God revealed to the dying patriarch Israel the future history of his seed, so that he discerned in the characters of his sons the future development of the tribes proceeding from them, and with prophetic clearness assigned to each of them its position and importance in the nation into which they were to expand in the promised inheritance. Thus he predicted … what would happen … "at the end of the days".
But there's still more. On occasion, Jacob peers beyond national prospects to glimpse the coming of his ultimate descendant – the true Israelite who would fulfil all God's purposes. Judah's tribe was guaranteed preservation specifically because "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be" (Gen 49.10). The Messiah was to be the ultimate king, the Shiloh (meaning, perhaps, 'peace-maker' or 'he to whom it belongs') who would become His people's unique gathering-centre, a promise yet to be fulfilled in Israel's end-times restoration, even though it is today foreshadowed as local assemblies gather to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jacob's blessing then has a fourfold significance. It evaluates historical individuals; it foretells national development; it heralds the coming of Messiah; and it offers models of behaviour. This can perhaps best be seen in the extended section devoted to Joseph (Gen 49.22-26).
First we note Joseph's Fruitfulness: "Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall" (v 22). The horticultural imagery anticipates the blessed man of the Psalms and Jeremiah. The former is likened to "a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season" (Ps 1.3), while the latter is "a tree … that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit" (Jer 17.8). The first man takes a deliberate stand apart from evil; the second places his confidence and hope "in the Lord" (Jer 17.7). Both were outstanding features of Joseph. In Jacob's picture language, he enjoys a source of supply (the well) and thrives so abundantly that his branches overrun the surrounding wall. Well and wall together suggest a Middle Eastern vineyard. The idea is beautifully elaborated in Psalm 80:
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock … Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river (Ps 80.1, 8-11).
The metaphors of flock and vine combine to illustrate Joseph's God-given success. Physically, his sons (Ephraim and Manasseh) would eventually constitute one sixth of the nation, but spiritually his consistent lifestyle of faithfulness honoured God. In him we see aspects of the Spirit's fruit that all believers should cultivate, especially the graces of "longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness" (Gal 5.22-23).
Second, we observe Joseph's Steadfastness:
The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob … Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty (vv 23-24).
Those who are evidently fruitful for God often find themselves the objects of human resentment. The military imagery testifies to the hostility Joseph experienced in both home and workplace (at the hands of his brothers and Mrs Potiphar), while his preservation is clearly presented as a gracious act of divine empowerment. Like an expert archery instructor, God stands behind Joseph bringing extra strength to his youthful arms as he strains to bend the war bow. Though he was sorely afflicted he did not abandon his hope in God's promises. May we be equally "stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord" (1 Cor 15.58).
Third, we are left in no doubt as to Joseph's Blessedness:
… the Almighty … shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph (vv 25-26).
Jacob may be the mouthpiece, but God is the benefactor. As we might expect, the language primarily emphasises the earthly sphere of Israel's national benefits ("the deep … breasts … womb … everlasting hills"), but the "blessings of heaven above" make us think of the Christian's distinctive privilege ("blessed … with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph 1.3)). Everything we have springs from God and is safeguarded for us in Christ.
Finally, we are reminded of Joseph's Separateness: "set apart [the same word is translated 'Nazarite' in Numbers 6.2] from his brothers" (v 26, ESV³). Jacob mentions both Joseph's victimisation and his virtue: "shot at" (as a result of envious hatred) and "separate" (in his personal conduct). We have only to compare Genesis 38 and 39 to observe the startling moral distance between Joseph and his older brother Judah. But this is far more than ancient history. God's call to believers is unchanging, "come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you" (2 Cor 6.17). Like Joseph, we are meant to be radically different from the world around.
And yet the brightest gem of all is hidden in the middle. Don't miss the brief but sparkling prophetic parenthesis "… (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel)" (Gen 49.24), anticipating Messiah as Israel's great Shepherd and Stone, titles underlining His tender care (Ps 23.1) and solid strength (Ps 118.22). This prediction of Messiah's glorious dignity is balanced by the preview of His character (fruitful, steadfast, blessed, separate) so winsomely illustrated in the life of Joseph. Judah may have been selected as Christ's physical progenitor (Gen 49.8-12) – and that, let us note, was all of grace, for Judah personally was little better than Reuben – but Joseph stands out as His moral portrait.
¹ J N Darby, The Holy Scriptures - A New Translation from the Original Languages.
² Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament: Vol 1: The Pentateuch, reprinted Hendrickson, 1996, p 249.
³ English Standard Version.