The blessing upon Reuben. — V.1. And Jacob called unto his sons, he summoned them to his death-bed, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. In prophetic exaltation and in poetic form he sets before them what the future has in store for them, especially as to the Messianic blessings, until the end of time. V.2. Gather yourselves together and hear, ye sons of Jacob, and hearken unto Israel, your father. The solemn and impressive admonition was made in order to get their full attention. The things which would befall them according to their dispositions and natures, but above all according to the providence and will of God, are now set forth. V.3. Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Jacob speaks with deep feeling: Reuben, my first-born thou, my might and the head of my strength. He was the first-fruits of Jacob’s vigor, both spiritual and bodily. In him the dignity of the priesthood should have been united with the power of the ruler. But all this Reuben had forfeited. V.4. Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; he was like the bubbling of boiling water, rashly impulsive, and therefore he would lose the dignity and the preference of his birthright. Because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed, in lying with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, chap. 35, 22; then defiledst thou it, he desecrated what should have been sacred to him. It was a crime from which the father even now, after the lapse of so many years, turned with horror, saying, with a tinge of repulsion and bitterness; he went up to my couch.
The blessing upon Simeon and Levi. — V.5. Simeon and Levi are brethren, not only by parentage, but also in character; they also were unfit for leadership. Instruments of cruelty are in their habitations, the swords which they used in their revenge upon the Shechemites were weapons of wickedness, and Jacob does not wish to be identified with outrages of this kind. V.6. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united; the thought of being closely identified with them fills Jacob with horrified dismay. For in their anger they slew a man, their murdering of the helpless Shechemites was an infamous trick; and in their self-will they digged down a wall, rather, houghed oxen; the cattle of the people of Shechem which they had not taken with them after their raid, chap. 34, 28, they had cruelly mutilated and caused to die a slow death by cutting the sinews of the hinder feet. V.7. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; the anger in itself may have been justified at the time, but the fact that its violence sought such an outlet is beyond excuse; and their wrath, for it was cruel; they went to excess in their angry impetuosity. I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel. This prophecy was fulfilled in such a way as to make Simeon the weakest among the tribes even before the entry into Canaan, Num. 26, 14, to omit the tribe in the blessing of Moses, Deut. 33, and to give to the tribe only a few cities within the boundaries of Judah, Josh. 19, l-9; 1 Chron. 4, 27–43, while Levi also, redeemed in some measure by the heroic act of a member of the tribe, Num. 25, 11–13, received no section of Canaan for his portion, but lived in cities ceded by the other tribes. Thus a whole family, and even a whole nation, may have to bear the guilt of a few sinners whom the Lord was obliged to condemn.
The blessing upon Judah. — V.8. Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise; thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies: thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. The prophecy of the patriarch here rises to a joyful exultation, as he makes Judah the prince and ruler among his brethren and explains his name. Judah should occupy a position of power among all the children of Israel, conquer his enemies by taking hold of their necks and subduing them, in consequence of which all the tribes would recognize his sovereignty, as at the time of David. V.9. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, thou art gone up; he stooped down, he couched as a lion and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? From his youth Judah had shown that he possessed the nature, the character of a lion, as a whelp, as a young lion, as a mature lion. Having caught his prey, the lion returns to his mountain fastnesses, into his den, where a person will attack him only at the risk of his own life. The tribe of Judah, forming the vanguard during the wilderness journey, settled on the highlands and mountains of Judea, grew to be a mighty tribe, gaining strength from the many defeats of its enemies, secure in its dominion. V.10. The scepter 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. This is one of the most remarkable and inspiring Messianic promises in the entire Old Testament. The scepter is the mark of royal power, and the ruler’s staff, or the mace of the chieftain, resting between his feet as he sat upright, likewise belonged to the insignia of authority and power. The government, the princely power, was to remain in the hands of Judah, culminating finally in the reign of Shiloh, the Messiah, the Author and Source of true rest, the Prince of Peace, through whom all mankind should have peace with God by the acceptance of the justification earned by Him, Rom. 5, l. To Him the nations, His people, render obedience in faith and thus become partakers of all the blessings of His kingdom, here in time, and hereafter in eternity. V.11. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine and his clothes in the blood of grapes. This part of the prophecy refers not only to the extraordinary fertility of the country of Judah in the Land of Promise, which promised him a superabundance of the most precious products of the field, garden, and herd, but represents a type of the Messianic kingdom, the kingdom of peace, with its beauty and glory, its mercy and its blessing. In Jesus Christ, the Lion out of the tribe of Judah, all these words have been fulfilled. V.12. His eyes shall be red with wine and his teeth white with milk. In Him we have the fullness of those gifts which will bring us true happiness here and eternal salvation beyond the grave.
The blessing upon Zebulun, Issachar, and Dan. — V.13. Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon. The country later inhabited by the tribe of Zebulun fronted on two seas, on the Sea of Galilee in the east and on the Mediterranean in the west. Its northwestern boundary was to extend to Phenicia. Although the actual physical boundaries of Zebulun afterward did not include all this country, its influence extended to both seas and to Zidon by means of its commerce. V.14. Issachar is a strong ass, literally, an ass of bone, one with a very strong bony frame, couching down between two burdens; v.15. and he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute, he willingly bowed down under a heavy load and served with hard labor. The territory of Issachar was in the fruitful plain of Jezreel, a fact which imposed upon the people the double burden of agriculture and pasturage, a hard, but beautiful service. V.16. Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Although the son of a handmaid, he still shall have a full inheritance with the other sons, and, moreover, an amount of independence, which occasionally gave him the leadership, as in the days of Samson, and which caused a part of the tribe to migrate to the extreme northern boundary of Canaan and there to establish themselves. V.17. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder, a dangerous viper, in the path, that biteth the horse-heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. Although this is here not spoken in a reproachful sense, yet it characterizes the Danites, especially in their expedition against the peaceful city of Laish, Judg. 18. V.18. I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord. This is Jacob’s longing cry in the midst of his prophecy, for he asks not only the assistance of the Lord for his descendants in this prayer, but he also confesses that his own longing to see the Messiah, like that of Eve, had not been fulfilled, and he realizes, in view of the future as disclosed in his own inspired words, that it will be some time before the Messiah would come to His people. Not for the salvation of Samson, but for that of the Messiah, who should save His people from their sins, his soul was longing.
The prophecy upon Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. — V.19. Gad, a troop shall overcome him; but he shall overcome at the last. The picture is that of a person crowded by malicious hordes, who nevertheless manages not only to hold his own, but even to turn upon the masses and drive them away. The tribe of Gad, living on the eastern side of the Jordan, was harassed more or less by the desert hordes, but managed to hold its own very successfully, 1 Chron. 5, 18; 12, 8–15. V.20. Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties, shall produce pleasant foods. The fat which he would bring forth on his very fertile land in the plains toward Phenicia, would be his bread, for the country was noted for the excellence of its wheat and of its olive-oil. V.21. Naphtali is a hind let loose; he giveth goodly words. In comparing Naphtali to a gazelle, Jacob predicts that he will be both a handsome and an active warrior. The fine words probably include such poems as that sung by Deborah, Judg. 4 and 5. V.22. Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall. Here the prophetic song of Jacob rises to a solemn exultation. The descendants of Joseph would increase so rapidly in their territory that they would soon extend beyond their own boundaries into the neighboring tribes. V.23. The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him; v.24. but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob (from thence is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel). Here the powerful and victorious growth of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh is pictured, in consequence of which all enemies would be overcome. This result, however, would not come about by their own power, but through the help of the mighty God of Jacob, by virtue of the assisting hands of God, who is both the Shepherd and the Rock of Israel. V.25. Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. Rains from heaven above and sufficient water from springs and brooks to give the necessary moisture to the soil and the greatest fertility for all his herds, that is the blessing which Jacob begs from the Lord for his beloved son. V.26. 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, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren. The blessings of Jacob upon Joseph exceeded in extent and compass those of his fathers before him, rising higher than the eternal hills and surpassing them in beauty. Such a rich outward unfolding was to come upon him who excelled his brethren in dignity and power, on account of which he was separated from them by a wide gulf. V.27. Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil. There would be no end to the successful raids of this warlike tribe, such men as Ehud, Saul, and Jonathan being members of it. At the same time, however, there would be ever present that nobility which would be willing to divide the spoil with the others. V.28. All these are the twelve tribes of Israel; and this is it that their father spake unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them. Not one was omitted in the blessing, although there was a big difference in the form and in the nature of the blessings.
The death of Jacob. — V.29. And he charged them and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people, the time when his soul was to be added to those of his fathers was at hand; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron, the Hittite, v.30. in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron, the Hittite, for a possession of a burying-place. V.31. There they buried Abraham and Sarah, his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah, his wife; and there I buried Leah. V.32. The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth. Cp. chap. 23. What Jacob had charged Joseph to do in the event of his death, chap. 47, 30. 31, he here repeated to all his sons, giving them explicit directions regarding the burial-ground, lest they make any mistake about it or neglect the speedy execution of his dying wish. V.33. And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet in to the bed, for he had been sitting on his couch, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people, the expression which denotes also here the hope of a final glorious resurrection unto eternal life, a resurrection which will surely come to all that have waited for, and believed in, the salvation of the Lord.