The Final Words of Jacob
Text: Genesis 49
Proposition: When God pictures Israel’s future it is shows a tension between the consequences of their sin and the grace that He applies for future generations.
Introduction: This morning we are going to look at the first prophecy that any man knowingly made. This is different than when God spoke about future events in passages like in Genesis 3:15. This time, for the first time, a man speaks and is aware of what he proclaims. He speaks not about probabilities but about certainties, things that will absolutely take place in the days of the distant future. Jacob is well over a 100 years of age, it’s the first time we hear him speak like this, knowingly picturing the future for each of his twelve sons. He blesses them and yet in the words of each blessing there is a depiction of what lays ahead for them. The fulfillment of these words takes place after the 430 years of slavery in Egypt, after the 40 years of being with Moses in the wilderness and after the many battles to take the land under the direction of their General named Joshua. What strikes us is that the actions and character of the twelve brothers are directly connected to the twelve tribes of Israel as they settle into the land five centuries later. How can that be, is it genetically driven, is it impossible for people to change, are the sins of the fathers visited to the children even to the third and fourth generations? (Ex.34:7) Let’s look at this amazing prophecy in Genesis 49.
I. Jacob / Israel – the Last Great Patriarch.
As the twelve sons gather about, their father begins by describing himself to them, “you sons of Jacob” and , “listen to Israel your father”. Jacob and Israel are the same person yet the name Jacob describes who he was as a deceiver and as selfish man. The name Israel describes the changed character of this man as he began to trust God, began to live by faith more than by what he could make happen. Perhaps this is his way of acknowledging his sin as their father and at the same his hope in God as the One who has changed him. Israel was the name that God gave him, when he wrestled with the angel in Gen 32:28 by the River Jabbok. The root words that make up the name Israel comes from the Hebrew word ‘sarah’ meaning ‘to contend or fight’ and the word ‘el’, meaning, ‘mighty One or God’. So the name Israel means ‘he who contends or fights with God’, a picture of what Jacob did that long night by the River Jabbok. For most of his life Jacob was a deceiver but in the latter days when he had returned to the promised land, he became a man who more and more struggled to know God and to be obedient to God. It’s a change from ‘what’s in it for me’ to ‘what does God want me to do’. These next words, essentially his dying words, the last he would ever speak to his sons, were part of that ‘what does God want me to do’. So let’s look at what God said through him that would shape the relationships of the people of Israel for the next centuries to come.
1. Reuben- the First Born who lost his inheritance.
Typically there would be a double portion going to this son, the first born son, as they would now become the patriarchal leader of the family. Remember that Jacob had married two women, Leah whom he had to marry because of her fathers treachery and Rachel who was his first love. Leah had a maid servant named Zilpah and Rachel had her own maid servant named Bilhah. It was from these four women that Jacob’s twelve sons were born. Here’s the problem, when Jacob had moved his family back into the land just south of Bethlehem, Reuben seduced and slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. He slept with the mother of his two step brothers Dan and Naphtali. Yet it was Reuben who intervened when the brothers wanted to kill Joseph, it was Reuben who years later offered the lives of his own two sons if he did not bring young Benjamin back from Egypt. It was Reuben who tried to be the big brother but failed in his integrity. As a result when Jacob blesses Reuben he says this about the future of this tribe, “Unstable as water, you shall not excel”. We know from the book of Numbers 1:20 that when Moses takes a census of the tribe of Reuben some 430 years after this blessing of Jacob, that the number of men over the age of 20 in the tribe of Reuben was 46,500. History tells us though there was a good number of people in this tribe no prophet, judge or prince arose from the genealogy of Reuben. When they came with Joshua to enter the promised land they decided to ask for that land that lay east of the Jordan River.
We know that the peoples of the tribe of Reuben fell into the idol worship that was prevalent in that land. Eventually God judged them for this and in 1 Chronicles 5:24 it describes how the Assyrians invaded this area and took the people of Reuben captive and displaced them into modern day Iraq. They literally did not excel and were unstable as water.
2. Simeon and Levi – hotheads who ended up at opposite ends.
In Genesis 29 we learn that not only was Reuben the first son of Leah, the unloved wife of Jacob, but so also were Simeon and then Levi. These were the next two oldest brothers. As Jacob blesses them he describes them as , “instruments of cruelty”. Particularly Jacob remembered their slaughtering of the men of Shechem, the way they had brought shame on the whole family because of their anger and loss of compassion and justice. The way that Jacob blesses them is that he says, “ I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel”. The ‘divide them in Jacob’ was a negative reference to what would happen to the tribe of Simeon. Over half of this tribe perished in the wanderings in the wilderness (cf Num 1:22 & Num 26:14). When they came to the promised land under Joshua their portion was the southern section of that which would belong to Judah. They became the desert dwellers in the regions near Beersheba.
The tribe of Levi, also complicit in the slaughter of the men of Shechem received the blessing of being scattered in Israel. From this tribe some 430 years later a boy named Moses was born. His older brother was named Aaron and from this line came the people who were assigned the care of the Tabernacle during it’s days in the wilderness. The tribe of Levi became the tribe from which the priests were selected and were those responsible to minister on behalf of all the tribes. As a result they received no land inheritance whatsoever but instead were sustained by being given ten percent of all that was brought as an offering to the Temple. So Simeon was divided into the allotment set for the tribe of Judah and Levi was scattered among the whole tribes of Israel as the keepers of the tabernacle and Temple.
3. Judah – who would have guessed that this would be the Royal Line.
It was Joseph who was such a type of Christ, the one used of God in such extraordinary ways, you’d think that it would be the tribe of Joseph that royalty would come from. Yet it’s the tribe of Judah that these ones have their heritage from. Though it was Judah who thought of selling Joseph into slavery, though it was Judah who slept with his daughter-in-law Tamar, thinking her to be a prostitute and giving her his ring and staff as surety yet it is Judah God chooses. Look at what Jacob says in blessing Judah. The other brothers and other tribes would look to Judah for leadership. The tribe of Judah was compared to a lions whelp or cub, she would grow up into a powerful force, a lion at rest that others would regard with respect. Then Jacob speaks even more prophetically, he says the sceptre or staff of the king shall remain between the kings feet, the place of his throne and rule until Shiloh comes. Shiloh means, ‘he whose right it is’ and was understood to be a reference to the Messiah. It was 640 years later that David became king of Israel, David was from the tribe of Judah. That tribe maintained the royal leadership of the nation through civil war and through foreign captivity right to the time when the Romans governed Palestine some 1600 years later when Jesus, from the tribe of Judah, presented himself on Palm Sunday as the Shiloh, the Messiah, the King of Kings. The strength of Christ’s kingdom is what is pictured in verses 11,12. Vines so strong you could tether a donkey to them, abundant wine a symbol of prosperity, white teeth picturing health and strength. Perhaps the clothes dipped in the bood of grapes and the eyes darker than wine hint at the sacrifice and suffering of Messiah. Judah became the known as the area of the southern tribes, the ones that remained for the most part, faithful to God.
Next week we’ll look at the remaining 9 tribes as they too are blessed and prophesied about by their father Jacob, this man called Israel.