Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.XLIX.
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 (1Samuel 2:13; 1Samuel 2:27-28; 1Samuel 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.
Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:(3) The beginning of my strength.—In Genesis 35:18, the word oni means “my sorrow,” and it is so translated here by the Vulg., Aquila, and Symmachus. But in this verse Jacob magnifies the prerogatives of the firstborn, and our version is undoubtedly right in deriving oni from a different and not uncommon word signifying strength. It occurs in Deuteronomy 21:17; Job 40:16; Psalm 78:51; Psalm 105:36, &c.
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.
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.(4) Unstable.—This translation is shown to be right by the use of the word in Judges 9:4; Zephaniah 3:4, in both which places it is translated light. Out of this sense of lightness and frivolity naturally arose the meaning which the word has in Syriac of wantonness. In Arabic it means boastful, another side of feebleness. With this sense the comparison with water well agrees; for it is its nature to seek a dull level, and while yielding to every impression to retain none. The other meaning given to it by many able critics is “boiling over like water,” a description of the unrestrained violence of Reuben’s passions.
Thou shalt not excel.—That is, thou shalt not have that excellency which was thine by right of birth.
Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.(5) Simeon and Levi are brethren.—That is, they are alike in character and disposition. Despising the feeble Reuben, they seem to have been close friends and allies, and probably tried to exercise a tyrannical authority over their younger brethren, Judah being the only one near them in age.
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.
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.(6) Their secret.—The word sôd used here is literally the little carpet, or cushion, upon which an Oriental sits. Consequently, for two persons to sit upon the same carpet marks a high degree of friendship and familiarity. It would therefore be more exactly translated alliance, or intimacy.
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.”
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.(7) Cursed . . . —Jacob condemns Simeon and Levi not because they were angry, but because they vented their anger in a perfidious and violent manner. The next sentence literally is, And their rage, for it was hard. The indignation at Joseph’s dreams, told them by him innocently, led them to an act harsh and in human (see Genesis 42:21).
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.
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.(8) Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise.—Judah had received his name, Praise, because at his birth Leah had praised Jehovah (Genesis 29:35). It is now to have another justification in the noble history of his race, which, taking the foremost place by reason of the disqualification of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, finally was destined to win freedom and empire for Israel. We have seen that “the excellency of power” ought to have belonged to Reuben; it now falls to Judah’s lot, is to be attained by exploits that shall deserve the praise of all the tribes, and is to be exercised over not only the descendants of Leah, but all Jacob’s children.
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?(9) Judah is a lion’s whelp.—We have seen that the sons of Jacob had each his signet, and that Judah’s was so large as to be worn by him attached to a cord fastened round his neck (Genesis 38:18). Probably his emblem was a lion; that of Zebulun a ship; that of Issachar an ass; that of Dan an adder, and so on. Using then his self-chosen emblem, Jacob compares him, first, to a “lion’s whelp,” full of activity and enterprise, and which, after feasting upon its prey, goes up to its mountain lair, calm and fearless in the consciousness of its strength. But as Judah is a young lion in his activity and fearlessness, so is he “a lion” full-grown and majestic in his repose, which Jacob’s words literally describe. For the “stooping down” is the bending of the limbs together before the lion couches, that is, lies down in his den.
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.
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.(10) The sceptre shall not depart from Judah.—Heb., a sceptre. The staff, adorned with carvings, and handed down from father to son, soon became the emblem of authority (see Note on Genesis 38:18). It probably indicates here tribal rather than royal rank, and means that Judah would continue, until the time indicated, to be a self-governed and legally-constituted tribe.
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.”
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:(11) Binding his foal . . . —Having declared the spiritual prerogative of Judah, the patriarch now foretells that his land would be so rich in vineyards that the traveller would tie his ass to the vine, as the tree abundant everywhere.
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.
His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.(12) His eyes shall be red with wine.—The word rendered red occurs only here, and is rendered in the Versions, bright, sparkling, and in the Vulg., beautiful. They also give the word rendered in our Version with a comparative force, which seems to be right: “His eyes shall be brighter than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.” The words do not refer to Judah’s person, but describe the prosperity of his descendants, whose temporal welfare will show itself in their bright and healthy countenances.
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.(13) Zebulun . . . —“Sea” is plural in the Heb., and is rightly so rendered in the Syriac. The territory of the tribe lay upon the inland sea of Gennesaret, but did not extend to the shore of the Mediterranean. We do not know of any literal fulfilment of the prediction, but Moses also speaks of Zebulun and Issachar as tribes that would “suck of the abundance of the seas.” It is very possible that, living in the neighbourhood of the Phœnicians, they took part in maritime pursuits; and thus the general meaning of the blessing may be that Zebulun would be a tribe, not of agriculturists, but of traders. It is also remarkable that Tyre, which was much nearer the tribe of Zebulun, and was the leading city in David’s time, is not mentioned, but only the more ancient town of Sidon.
Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens:(14) Issachar.—The description of Issachar’s lot is derived partly from the cognizance he had chosen for his signet, and partly from his personal character, He had taken for his symbol the ass—a very noble, active, spirited, and enduring animal in the East. (See Genesis 16:12, where Ishmael is compared to the wild ass, which adds to these qualities the love of freedom.) His real character was slothful, inactive, and commonplace. Jacob therefore likens him to a “strong ass;” Heb., an ass of bone, that is, one coarsely bred, as animals of high parentage have small bones. He is thus fit only to be a drudge, and with the laziness of a cart-horse lies down “between two burdens.” The word occurs again in Judges 5:16, and is there more correctly rendered sheepfolds. More exactly it means the pens in which the cattle were folded during the nights of summer; and it is in the dual form, because these pens were divided into two parts for the larger and smaller cattle. Thus Issachar, stretched at ease between his cattle-pens, gives us the idea of a tribe occupied with pastoral pursuits, and destitute of all higher aspirations.
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.(15) A servant unto tribute.—Heb., task-work. It means service paid in actual labour, such as was exacted by Solomon of the descendants of the Canaanites (1Kings 9:21, where the phrase used here is translated “a tribute of bondservice;” and 2Chronicles 8:8). In the Middle Ages this forced labour—called” service without wages in Jeremiah 22:13—was one of the wrongs most deeply felt by the peasantry, as they had to neglect their own plots of ground to labour for their seigneurs. The picture, then, is that of a race settled in a rich agricultural country, and content to endure a great deal of injustice because their condition as a whole was prosperous.
Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.(16, 17) Dan.—In passing on to the sons of the handmaids it was necessary to assure them of an independent rank among their brethren. The four tribes descended from them did always hold an inferior position, but Jacob by his words to Dan prevented their ever becoming subject states. Playing, then, upon the name Dan (a judge), he says that he shall judge his people as a distinct and separate tribe, possessed of all those rights of self-government and tribal independence which this rank implied. It seems also that Dan’s symbol was a serpent, and from this Jacob prophesies that though too weak a tribe to take the foremost place in war, yet that Dan should not be without military importance; and this was especially the case in the days of Samson. The word rendered adder is more exactly the arrow-snake, which lies in wait in the “path,” a narrow track, and springs upon its prey as it passes. A horse bitten in this way would rear and throw its rider, who would then be in the power of his assailant.
I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.(18) I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord (Jehovah).—Among the many explanations hazarded of this ejaculation the most probable is that given in the Speaker’s Commentary, that the thought of the serpent wounding his prey in the heel carried the mind of the patriarch back to the fall of man, and the promise made to Eve. And thus it is a profession of faith, naturally called out by this chain of ideas, in the advent in due time of the promised Deliverer, and of which the accomplishment had become united in thought with the name of Jehovah.
Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.(19) Gad.—The word Gad, as we have seen (Genesis 30:11), means good fortune, but Jacob connects it with the root gâdad, “to gather in troops.” Thus, then, “A troop” or “throng of plunderers shall throng upon him, but he shall throng upon their heel.” Settling upon the east of the Jordan he shall be exposed to many a sudden incursion of plunderers, but, though ever unready, he shall gather his forces and repel them, and follow with avenging energy upon their rear.
Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.(20) Asher.—The territory of this tribe, extending along the coast from Mount Carmel to Lebanon, was very productive. Zebulun, the trading tribe, could reach the sea only through their possessions.
Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.(21) Naphtali.—Gad had been described as moving slowly in war, and allowing himself to be surprised by hordes of plunderers, whom, nevertheless, as soon as he has collected his forces, he repels and pursues with vigour. Naphtali, on the contrary, is light and active, moving rapidly like “a hind let loose;” or, literally, sent forth, like the scouts or van of an army. And thus he brings back “goodly words”—Heb., words of pleasure—that is, trustworthy intelligence to guide the army in its motions. Another translation has been proposed, which has the support of the LXX.: “Naphtali is a spreading terebinth, which shoots forth goodly branches.” It retains the consonants of the Hebrew text, but gives them different vowels.
Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall:(22-26) Joseph.—The blessing of Joseph is, in many particulars, the most remarkable of them all. Jacob throughout it seems struggling with himself, and anxious to bestow more than was in his power. Joseph was his dearest son, the child of his chief and most beloved wife; he was, too, the saviour of Israel’s family, and the actual ruler of Egypt; and his father had even bestowed upon him the portion of the firstborn in giving him two tribes, and to the rest but one. Nevertheless, he cannot bestow upon him the sovereignty. In clear terms he had described Judah as the lion, whose lordly strength should give Israel victory and dominion, and the sceptre must remain his until He whose right it is to rule should come. And thus Jacob magnifies again and again, but in obscure terms, his blessing upon Joseph, which, when analyzed, amounts simply to excessive fruitfulness, with no Messianic or spiritual prerogative. Beginning with this, Jacob next dwells upon Joseph’s trials, and upon the manliness with which he had borne and overcome them; and then magnifies the blessedness of the earthly lot of his race, won for them by the personal worth of Joseph, with a description of which Jacob ends his words.
(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.
The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him:(23) The archers.—Naturally Jacob next describes the sorrows of Joseph’s youth, but in poetical terms, so as not to wound the feelings of his brethren, or rouse up thoughts of vengeance in Joseph’s own mind. Thus be compares him to a warrior, too mighty for his enemies to close with in open conflict, but whom they harass from a distance. “Hated him” would be better translated, laid snares for him, were guilty of treachery and deceit.
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:)(24) His bow abode in strength.—The word for strength is highly poetical. It means that which goes on for ever, like the flowing streams or the eternal hills. In spite of all the machinations of his enemies, the bow of Joseph remained constant and enduring in its might.
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.
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:(25) Even by the God of thy father.—In the Hebrew this follows directly upon the preceding clause: “from the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel; from the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and from the Almighty,” &c.
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.)
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.(26) The blessings of thy father.—As the passage now stands, it means that the blessings which Jacob bestows upon Joseph are greater than those which he had himself received from his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. This was scarcely the case, as the chief spiritual blessing was bestowed upon Judah, while for Joseph there was only earthly prosperity. For this reason most modern commentators adopt the reading of the Samaritan Pentateuch, supported by the Samaritan Targum and the LXX., “The blessings of thy father are mightier than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the desire (or beauty) of the everlasting hills.” Not only is the parallelism of the poetry thus preserved, but the rendering is easy and natural, while the other translation is full of difficulties, especially as to the words, “my progenitors,” and “the utmost bound.” The sense thus given to them cannot be obtained by any ordinary philological process.
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.
Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.(27) Benjamin.—With this description of their ancestor agrees the character of his race, which was the most spirited and warlike of all the tribes of Israel.
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.
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.(28) These are the twelve tribes.—As we have seen in the case of Dan, Jacob had the further object of forming his descendants into twelve separate communities, which were, like the States in America, each to be independent, and have its own tribal government. From this position Levi naturally was excluded, when selected for the priesthood, and room was thus made for the bestowal of two of these communities upon the descendants of Joseph. Only in case of war they were to combine under the chieftainship of Judah. In the Book of Judges, however, we find the tribes as separate in matters of war as of peace, and by the time of Saul the need of a closer union had been felt, and tribal independence had been found to lead only to anarchy.
And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.(33) He gathered up his feet into the bed.—This seems to indicate that the events recorded in Genesis 48, 49 all took place at the same time. In Genesis 48:2 we read that Jacob strengthened himself for this great final effort, seating himself upon the bed and placing his feet upon the ground. (See Genesis 49:12.) And now that all was over, wearied with what must have sorely exercised both his feelings and his physical powers, he gathered himself together upon the bed, and probably soon afterwards peaceably passed away to his eternal rest.