KJV Gen 49:1  And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.  Gen 49:2  Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.  Gen 49:3  Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:  Gen 49:4  Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.  Gen 49:5  Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.  Gen 49:6  O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.  Gen 49:7  Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.  Gen 49:8  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.  Gen 49:9  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?  Gen 49:10  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 49:11  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:  Gen 49:12  His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.  Gen 49:13  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.  Gen 49:14  Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens:  Gen 49:15  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.  Gen 49:16  Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.  Gen 49:17  Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.  Gen 49:18  I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.  Gen 49:19  Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.  Gen 49:20  Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.  Gen 49:21  Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.  Gen 49:22  Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall:  Gen 49:23  The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him:  Gen 49:24  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:)  Gen 49:25  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:  Gen 49:26  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.  Gen 49:27  Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.

The passage is introduced with Jacob saying he will show "what will befall" his sons "in the last days" though some translate as "in the future" and the like.

Is Jacob predicting what each tribe will be like in general or is his prediction focused on their demise?

I highlighted Reuben as a representative son for analysis. Hopefully the passage can be analyzed in such a way that it can serve to illuminate a proper hermeneutic of the rest of the sons as well.

NOTE

It might be helpful to know that the reason I ask is that I recently heard this passage expounded as describing the "character" of each of the tribes rather than particulars of their final days. I think the introduction makes it sound like it is about the end of days but I have trouble reading the predictions (or some of them) in that way.

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The question asks much, but looking at Reuben's "end" or "last days" will provide the example of each of Jacob's pronouncements.

The blessings, or "not blessings" - I hesitate to say curses - that Jacob pronounced did indeed reflect the character of his sons, and foretold their "last days" or how each tribe would develop and eventually end.

Overall, vs. 3-4 provided some explanation for why Jacob did not bless Reuben, as he otherwise would have for the firstborn. According to the rules God detailed in Deu. 21:15-17, when a man had two wives, and he loved one more than another (Rachel over Leah), and if the first born son was of the wife he loved less ("hated"), then that first born son was to receive a double portion of the blessing as a way of making amends.

This was determined because Jacob had loved Rachel, and had not loved Leah as much, or very little. So, Reuben, as first born of Leah should have received a double portion of the blessings, but Reuben had sinned against his father Jacob.

Reuben had lain with / slept with Jacob's concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22), and this is what Jacob referred to in vs. 4 -

"...For thou hast gone up thy father's bed; Then thou hast polluted: My couch he went up!" (YLT)

In this figurative reference to Reuben's fornication with his father's concubine, Jacob used the word "water", which in some of the OT figurative - and more polite - language refers to sexual outpouring.

Prov. 5:15-19 speaks of staying within the marriage bed.

"15 Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.

16 Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.

17 Let them be only thine own, and not strangers' with thee.

18 Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.

19 Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love." (KJV)

This was not just a sexual connotation, as the cistern or well was very important to the household. It represented life and well being; so the wife was equally as important.

See the various commentaries on Prov. 5:15 at Biblehub.com here

In Song of Solomon 4:12-16, the wife is compared to an enclosed spring, a sealed fountain, and a well of living waters. The imagery is of a man "watering" his own garden. David called the children / people of Israel "the fountain of Israel" in Psa. 68:26. There are many other figurative uses of "water" in scripture.

But, the context of Reuben's downfall was because of his sin against his father. And, this is how Jacob used "water" in saying that Reuben was unstable. The ASV has "boiling over as water." The ERV reads "Your passion was like a flood you couldn't control."

The imagery is of uncontrolled, unsteady, turbulent, and wild water; which is the meaning given for this word under Strong's Heb. 4325 "mayim" at Brown-Driver-Briggs 4.d - "of what is impetuous, violent, overwhelming."

Reuben's blessing was forfeited because of his loss of control, and sin against his father. The end of Reuben's tribe was that his progeny would be few. Clarke's commentary says of Reuben,

"This tribe never rose to any eminence in Israel; was not so numerous by one third as either Judah, Joseph, or Dan, when Moses took the sum of them in the wilderness, Numbers 1:21; and was among the first that were carried into captivity, 1 Chronicles 5:26." See: here

Reuben settled on the east side of Jordan, and were given the smallest of lots in the settlement of the lands. The Reubenites, along with Gad and the east half of Manasseh were among the first tribes taken into the Assyrian captivity (1 Chron. 5:24-26). No one of any prominence ever rose out of Reuben, except the wicked Dathan and Abiram who opposed Moses in the wilderness, and were punished greatly for it (Num. 16:19-32). Instead of being blessed, Reuben was diminished, or cursed.

A look at the other "end" or "last days" of the other sons' tribes should be taken separately.

Further reading:

"The Tribe of Reuben" here

"The Tribe of Reuben and Their Allotted Territory" here

  • I remember the first time I looked through binoculars. It was like "Whoa! Look how sharp and clear the neighbor's house looks!" Well, I kind of just had that with these two verses! Very nice exposition! Thank you! Clearly it is not about "events" that will befall the tribe as it is their family trait that limits then and is their eventual undoing. It becomes a philosophical question as to whether God, Reuben or the descendants themselves are the one's responsible but it begs a theodicy. Read by itself it is about their temper but in context of Jakob's intro it is also in main about their end. – Ruminator May 8 at 11:41
  • Happy are the moments of clarity, yes? – Gina May 8 at 12:54
  • Happy and rare! And often fleeting. – Ruminator May 8 at 12:56

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