THE BLESSING OF THE TWELVE TRIBES.
(1) That which shall befall you.—This dying song of Jacob has been regarded alike by Jews and Christians as a prophetic hymn spoken by the patriarch under the influence of the Holy Spirit. By many modern commentators, however, it has been placed in David’s time, and even ascribed to Nathan, partly on the ground that it is too spirited to have been the composition of one lying in the last decrepitude of old age, but chiefly because, in the description given of Judah, it is supposed to refer to the elevation of David to the royal dignity. But if it was thus written by a member of David’s court, we should reasonably expect an exact knowledge of the state of things in David’s time. For this, in fact, is the argument upon which these critics depend, that the internal evidence shows that it belongs to David’s reign. Now, so far is this from being true, that not only is the whole exceedingly general, containing scarcely more than faint and dim hopes and anticipations, but, except in the matter of Judah’s pre-eminence, there is no knowledge whatsoever of the arrangements of David’s time. Thus, for instance, there is no word about Levi’s priestly functions, and his dispersion in Israel is described as a punishment, and put upon exactly the same level as that of Simeon It is said in answer that it was David who established the priesthood, and set the Levites apart for their duties. If so, this was the very reason why Nathan, a seer of his court, should have put into Jacob’s mouth some allusion to so important an event, in order to justify so strong a proceeding as the depriving of a tribe of its lands and political importance, the seizure of towns in every other tribe for the abode of its members, and the bestowal upon them of priestly functions. If however David, by an act of despotic power, was able to effect so violent a subversion of all tribal rights, it is strange that no reference is ever made to it: and, moreover, both the Pentateuch and the Books of Joshua (Joshua 3:3; Joshua 8:33, &c), of Judges (Judges 17:9-13), and of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:13; 1 Samuel 2:27-28; 1 Samuel 6:15, &c.) must be of a date so modern as for all remembrance of David’s act to have passed away, and for the national traditions to have created for themselves a setting modelled upon a state of things that never existed, and which was contradictory to the most glorious age of the nation’s history. But national traditions precede the historical period of a people’s annals, and from the time of David careful records of all events in Judah and Israel were kept, and the history of Judah and Israel was one of the chief subjects of instruction given to the youth of the nation in the prophetic schools. But let us take another instance. At the settlement of the tribes in Canaan, it was Asher and not Zebulun to which the sea-coast upon the north fell by lot; south of Asher was the half-tribe of Manasseh, and south of this was Dan. (Comp. Judges 5:17.) Zebulun was an inland tribe, and did not “dwell at the haven of the sea.” It is unnecessary to continue this examination, but generally we may affirm that the sole argument for Jacob’s blessing having been written in historic times is the position given to Judah. Everything besides negatives this view; and we may reasonably ascribe the high rank of Judah to the fact that after the setting aside of Reuben, Simeon and Levi, he became the firstborn.
In the last days.—Heb., in the after part of days. The phrase is often opposed to “the beginning of days,” and is constantly used of the times of the Messiah. Here these “after days” apparently commence with the conquest of Canaan, but look onward to the advent of Christ.
The excellency . . . —We must here supply, “And therefore to thee as the firstborn belonged,” first, the excellency of dignity, that is, the priesthood; and secondly, the excellency of power, that is, the kingly office. As a matter of history no king, judge, or prophet is recorded as having sprung from the tribe of Reuben.
Thou shalt not excel.—That is, thou shalt not have that excellency which was thine by right of birth.
Their habitations.—This translation is universally abandoned, but there is much difference of opinion as to the real meaning of the word. The most probable explanation is that given by Jerome and Rashi, who render it swords. Apparently it is the Greek word machaera, a knife; and as neither the Hebrews nor the Canaanites were metallurgists, such articles·were imported by merchants from Ionia. Long before the days of Jacob, caravans of traders traversed the whole country, and the goods which they brought would carry with them their own foreign names. The sentence, therefore, should be translated, “weapons of violence are their knives.” The other meaning given by some competent critics, namely, compacts, if the word could be formed at all from the supposed root, would mean marriage contracts, and this gives no intelligible sense.
Unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united.—For assembly (Heb. congregation), see Genesis 28:3; Genesis 35:11. It means here their union, or confederacy. In the first clause Jacob bids his soul, his true self, not to enter their alliance; here, after the manner of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, he intensifies the meaning. For by mine honour, he signifies all that gave him dignity and worth in the sight of God and man. And this nobleness would be degraded and lost by union with men banded together for evil.
In their self-will they digged down a wall—Self-will is worse than anger, and signifies that arrogant temper which leads on to wanton cruelty. The last words mean, they houghed an ox. The Vulgand Syriac took it as our version does, and understood it of making a breach in the walls of Shechem; but they had a different reading, shur, whereas the word in the Hebrew is shor, an ox, and it is so rendered by the LXX. The ox was in old times the symbol of majesty, and thus bulls are put for princes in Psalm 22:12; Psalm 68:30. Thus, then, the meaning is, “In their anger at the wrong done to their sister they slew Hamor, prince of Shechem, with his people; and from wanton cruelty, without any just cause for indignation, they hamstrung the noblest of their brethren, not killing Joseph outright, but disabling him by selling him into slavery, that he might there perish.”
I will divide them . . . —This prediction was equally fulfilled in the fact that neither of the tribes of Simeon and Levi possessed any political importance in Israel. The brothers had banded together to oppress their kindred; their descendants were powerless. But in every other respect the fulfilment was utterly diverse. In the wilderness the Simeonites dwindled from 59,300 to 22,200 men (Numbers 1:23; Numbers 26:14); and after the conquest of Canaan, were so feeble as to have only fifteen towns assigned them, scattered about in the territory of Judah. And there they melted away, being either absorbed into the tribe among whom they dwelt, crwithdrawing to wander as nomads in the wilderness of Paran. In Levi’s case the curse was changed into a blessing by the faithfulness of the tribe upon a very trying occasion (Exodus 32:26-28); and we learn from it the great lesson that the Divine rewards and punishments, even when specified in prophecy, are nevertheless conditional upon human conduct. Of this diversity of fulfilment there is not the slightest indication in Jacob’s blessing, while in that of Moses the lot of Levi is described in terms of the highest praise, and that of Simeon is passed over in inglorious silence.
As an old lion.—Heb., as a lioness, the female being said to be more fierce than the male, and to resent more angrily any disturbance of its rest.
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet.—Most modern critics translate ruler’s staff, but “lawgiver” has the support of all the ancient versions, the Targums paraphrasing it by scribe, and the Syriac in a similar way by expounder—i.e., of the law. Ruler’s, staffs has the parallelism in its favour, but the ancient versions must not be lightly disregarded, and, besides, everywhere else the word means law-giver (see Deuteronomy 33:21; Judges 5:14; Isaiah 33:22). “From between his feet” means, “from among his descendants.” The Targum of Onkelos renders, “from his children’s children.”
Until Shiloh come.—Many modern critics translate, “until he come to Shiloh,” but this is to be rejected, first, as being contrary to all the ancient versions; and, secondly, as turning sense into nonsense. The town of Shiloh was in the tribe of Ephraim, and we know of no way in which Judah ever went thither. The ark was for a time at Shiloh, but the place lost all importance and sank into utter obscurity after its destruction by the Philistines, long before Judah took the leading part in the commonwealth of Israel.
Shiloh.—There are several interpretations of this word, depending upon different ways of spelling it. First, Jerome, in the Vulg., translates it, “He who shall be sent.” He read, therefore, Shalu’ch. which differs from the reading in the Hebrew text by omitting the yod, and putting the guttural π for h (Heb., π) as the final letter. We have, secondly, Shiloh, the reading of the present Hebrew text. This would mean, Peaceful, or Peace-maker, and agrees with the title given to the Messiah by Isaiah (Genesis 9:6). But, thirdly, all the versions excepting the Vulg. read Sheloh. Thus, the LXX. has, “He for whom it is laid up” (or, according to other MSS., “the things laid up for him.”). With the former reading, Aquila and Symmachus agree; with the latter, Theodotion, Epiphanius, and others, showing that Sheloh was the reading in the centuries immediately after the Nativity of our Lord. The Samaritan transcript of the Hebrew text into Samaritan letters reads Sheloh, and the translation into Aramaic treats the word as a proper name, and renders, “Until Sheloh come.” Onkelos boldly paraphrases, “Until Messiah come, whose is the kingdom;” and, finally, the Syriac has, “Until he come, whose it is.” There is thus overwhelming evidence in favour of the reading Sheloh, and to this we must add that Sheloh is the reading even of several Hebrew MSS. We may, in fact, sum up the evidence by saying that the reading Shiloh, even in the Hebrew text, has only modern authority in its favour, and that all ancient authorities are in favour of Sheloh; for even Jerome omits the yod, though he changes the aspirate at the end into a guttural.
Sheloh literally means, Whose it is, and is an Aramaic form, such as that in Genesis 6:3, where we have observed that these Aramaisms are a proof either of extreme antiquity, or of a very late date. We find another in Judges 5:7, in the song of Deborah, confessedly a very ancient composition; and the form is quite in its place here in the elevated phraseology of this blessing, and in the mouth of Jacob, who had lived so long in a land where an Aramaic dialect was spoken.
Finally, Ezekiel, Ezekiel 21:27 (Heb., 32), quotes Jacob’s words, using however the Hebrew idiom, “Until he come, whose is the right.” And St. Paul (Galatians 3:19) refers to it in the words, “Until the seed come to whom it is promised,” where the latter words seem to be a free rendering of the phrase in the LXX., “for whom it is laid up.”
The passage has always been regarded as Messianic, not merely by Christians, but by the Jews, all whose ancient writers, including the Talmud, explain the name Shiloh, or Sheloh, of the Messiah. But the Targum of Onkelos would of itself be a sufficient proof, as we have there not the opinions or knowledge of one man, but the traditional explanation of the Pentateuch, handed down orally from the time of Ezra, and committed to writing probably in the first century of the Christian era. The objection has, indeed, been made in modern times that the patriarchs had no Messianic expectations. With those who believe in prophecy such an objection can have no weight; but independently of this, the promise made to Abraham, and solemnly confirmed to Jacob, that in his seed all the kindreds of the earth should be blessed, was pre-eminently Messianic: as was also the name Jehovah; for that name was the embodiment of the promise made to Eve, and beginning with her cry of hope that she had gotten the Coming One, had become by the time of Enoch the symbol of the expectation of mankind that God would appear on earth in human nature to save them.
Unto him shall the gathering of the people be.—The word used here is rare, and the translation “gathering” was a guess of Rashi. Really it means obedience, as is proved by the one other place where it occurs (Proverbs 30:17). For “people” the Heb. has peoples. Not Israel only, “the people,” but all nations are to obey Him “whose is the kingdom.” This is the rendering of Onkelos, “and him shall the peoples obey;” and of the Samaritan Version, “and at his hand shall the peoples be led.” The LXX., Syriac, and Vulg. agree in rendering, “and he shall be the expectation of the nations.”
Choice vine is, literally, the vine of Sorek, a kind much valued, as bearing a purple berry, small but luscious, and destitute of stones. The abundance of grapes is next hyperbolically described as so great that their juice would be used like water for the commonest purposes.
Blood of grapes especially refers to the juice of the red kinds, which were more valued in the East than white.
(22) A fruitful bough.—Literally the words are, “Son of a fruitful tree is Joseph; son of a fruitful tree by a fountain: the daughters spread over the wall.” That is, Joseph is like a fruitful tree planted near a fountain of living water, and of which the branches, or suckers, springing from it overtop the wall built round the spring for its protection. This fruitfulness of Joseph was shown by the vast number of his descendants.
Were made strong.—The Hebrew word is difficult, but more probably means, were pliant, supple, such as the arms of an archer ought to be.
From thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel.—The Jewish commentators understand “from thence” of Joseph, who had become the ruler and protector of Israel. But “from thence” answers in the parallelism to from the hands of. Fully it would be, from thence where dwells the Shepherd, &c, that is,—Joseph’s triumph came from God, who is the Shepherd (or Ruler) and the Rock of Israel.
Blessings of heaven above are the rains and dew; those of “the deep” beneath are lakes, rivers, and springs; and those of “the breasts and womb” mean an abundant offspring both of men and cattle. (For the opposite curse see Hosea 9:14.)
Him that was separate from his brethren.—This scarcely gives the force of the verb, which means, set apart, consecrated. Hence the Vulg. renders “Nazarite,” the Hebrew word being nezir. The Syriac and Samaritan Targum translate, “him that is the crown of his brethren;” and the LXX., “him who was the leader of his brethren.” Many see in this an allusion to the sovereignty over the ten tribes being finally attained to by Ephraim, but probably the meaning is that Joseph was the noblest and highest in rank among Jacob’s children.
It would be interesting to compare the notices of the several tribes in the subsequent history with Jacob’s blessing of their progenitors, and with that also given by Moses. The fathers, moreover, found in the words of the patriarch faint foreshadowings of the spiritual truths of Christianity. But such discussions exceed the limits of a commentary, and it has seemed best to give only the primary explanation of Jacob’s words, in accordance, as far as possible, with the standpoint of the patriarch himself.