Jacob’s last words—for better and for worse
Blessings and curses ahead1 Jacob sent a message to his sons:
“Come. I’m calling a family meeting.
I’m going to tell you what will happen to you in the days ahead.
Listen closely to Israel your father.
Curses for Reuben, Simeon, Levi3
Reuben, you are my oldest son.
You represent my strength,
as the first child of my vigorous youth.
You have been number one in dignity and in power.
You’re number one no more.
You went into your father’s bed.
You defiled it when you fell onto that mattress.
5 Simeon and Levi are identical twins in spirit
—two of a kind.
They use their swords to attack instead of defend.
6 May I never ask for their advice.
May my name never be associated with anything they do.
They murdered men in anger. They crippled oxen for fun.
7 I have nothing but curses for their anger,
which is vicious and cruel.
I will scatter them among the people of Jacob,
throughout the land of Israel.
Judah gets a big thumbs up8
Judah, your brothers will sing your praises.
You will overpower your enemies and ring their necks.
The rest of your father’s sons are going to bow to you.
He has eaten his prey.
Now he crouches—a lion prepared to pounce.
Who would dare provoke him?
10 The king’s scepter will never leave Judah.
That royal rod will never leave his sight.
Not until the one comes who deserves it.
When he comes, the people will obey him.
11 He will tie his donkey’s colt to a vine.
Yes, he will tie that young donkey to the perfect vine.
He will wash his clothes in wine.
Yes, he will wash his robe in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth are whiter than milk.
13 Zebulun will settle along the seashore.
His land will be a harbor for ships.
Sidon will become his neighbor along his border.
14 Issachar is a strong donkey
resting between his saddlebags.
15 He knows a good place to settle down when he sees it.
When it comes time to work the land,
he’ll put all his energy into it and work it like a slave.
16 Dan will see to it that his people get justice,
just as other tribes will do.
17 Dan will be a snake beside the road
—a poisonous, horned viper on the trail.
He will bite at the heels of huge horses,
which will buck the riders off and into the dirt.
18 I will wait for you, LORD, to save us.
19 Gad will be attacked by raiders.
But as the raiders leave,
Gad will counterattack.
20 Asher will enjoy gourmet food.
He will serve delicacies to kings and queens.
21 Naphtali is free as a deer.
His fawns will be beautiful.
Nothing but praise for Joseph22
Joseph is a branch full of fruit
—a fruitful branch by spring water.
His branches grow up and over the wall.
They shot at him and chased him.
24 But his bow didn’t fail him.
Nor did his arms, which were made strong
by the power of the Mighty One of Jacob,
known as the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.
25 May your father’s God help you.
May the All-powerful shower you with blessings.
May they come from the sky.
May they come from the earth and the sea.
And may they include blessings of children
from the womb, nursed at the breast.
26 May these blessings I’m giving you as your father
be even better than the joy found on the highest mountains
or the rich harvest found on the hillsides.
May these blessings rest like a crown on the head of Joseph,
the most distinguished man among his many brothers.
27 Benjamin is a hungry wolf.
Like a wolf that eats its prey in the morning
and saves the rest for night,
Benjamin overpowers his enemies
and takes whatever he wants from them.”
Founders of the 12 tribes of Israel28 These 12 men became the founding fathers of Israel’s 12 tribes. And this was what their father said to them when he told them goodbye. He tailored each blessing and each message to each son as he thought best.
29 Then he gave them these final instructions. “I’m about to go be with my ancestors. Bury me with my fathers in the cave that you will find in the field of Ephron the Hittite. 30 You will find this cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan. Abraham bought that field as a burial site from Ephron the Hittite. 31 This is where Abraham is buried with his wife Sarah. It’s also where Isaac is buried with his wives Rebekah and Leah. 32 The field and the cave in that field were purchased from the Hittites.”
33 When Jacob was done talking, he pulled his feet up into the bed, took his last breath, and went to be with his ancestors who died before him.
Jacob’s new name, given by God (Genesis 32:28).
Israel and Palestinian territories.
When Jacob believes he is about to die, he calls in his 12 sons to give them the traditional deathbed blessing. But what he has to say to them sounds like more than a blessing. How would you describe or categorize what Jacob says to his sons?
Four of Jacob’s 12 sons get in trouble because of sex problems. Reuben sleeps with his stepmother. Simeon and Levi murder the men of a village to retaliate for the village prince raping their sister, Dinah. Judah has twins with his daughter-in-law. Why so much trouble with sex? Pick an answer that you think is valid.
- They didn’t have TV or video games.
- The sex drive has always been strong—and dangerous when not controlled.
- Men treated women as an asset—another possession, like livestock. Women didn’t have the same rights as men.
- All men are jerks some of the time. Some men are jerks most of the time. A few men are jerks all of the time.
Reuben lost his privileges as the oldest son in the family. He would not get to lead the extended family after Jacob died. Reuben’s descendants settled on what is now Jordan’s side of the Jordan River. They got assimilated among the other tribes or into Arab cultures apparently without producing a single prophet, king, or heroic judge. Do you think Reuben got what he deserved?
Jacob was particularly harsh on Simeon and Levi, brothers who orchestrated the slaughter in the village of Shechem. Yet the descendants of Levi became Israel’s worship leaders. How can we justify that?
Levi’s tribe of priests and worship assistants got no tribal territory. The Levites do get to manage 48 Levitical cities scattered throughout the country. The plan was to scatter the priests around, even though the worship center and the only approved temple would end up in Jerusalem. Why do you think they set it up that way?
Judah gets the lion’s share of Jacob’s praise. In fact, Jacob says “Judah is a young lion” (49:9). Some Bible experts say they see several references to Jesus in what Jacob says to Judah. Jesus was born into the tribe of Judah. What do you see in Jacob’s blessing to Judah that you think might lead some Bible experts to see Jesus there?
New Testament writers say Jesus descended from the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1:3). How can we defend the fact that the father of the tribe from which Jesus descended had twins with his daughter-in-law? We can save for a later discussion the fact that Jesus also had a hooker in the family tree: Rahab, along with an adulteress: Bathsheba (Matthew 1:5, 6).
Some of Jacob’s blessings sound like prophecies. Yet some students of the Bible say they wonder if an editor, centuries later, knew a little about the history of each of the tribes and inserted some of that history into the story. What would you have to say about that?
Of all the dozen blessings Jacob gave to his sons, which one do you find especially interesting or curious?
The Genesis writer said that when Jacob finally died, he “went to be with his ancestors who died before him” (49:33). Does this sound to you like the Genesis writer had any idea that Jacob might be alive in the afterlife?
LIFE APPLICATION. Some of the things Jacob said to his sons from his deathbed are things some would say he should have said to them privately many years earlier. Why do you think we sometimes keep painful feelings inside of us, festering, growing, and hurting all the more, before we eventually unleash those hard feelings at a most inopportune and unhelpful time? Such as at a family gathering on a holiday, or while testifying in court, or on a Sunday school class retreat?
LIFE APPLICATION. Some people have thought about what they want to say to their loved ones before they die. Some have written letters that they keep in a safe place. Some have even recorded videos. If you had to call in your family and say goodbye, what is something you think you might say to one of them? And if someone called you to say goodbye to you, what would you want to hear them say?