Genesis 49 is like a walk into the National Portrait Gallery to view 11 masterpieces from the hand of an old master called Israel. Despite failing eyesight, his spiritual vision is unabated, and he paints detailed portraits that honestly capture the true character of his 12 sons in verse 1 but draw our eyes way into the future blessings of 12 tribes in verse 28. We are left gazing at a large panorama of the subsequent history of this mighty nation “after these days.” Israel has been called “God’s timepiece,” and the moral character of each tribe portrays the historic failure of Israel and is also a timely reminder of the failure of natural man. Therefore, we can apply the unchanging principles found in Genesis 49 to the character of any believer or Christian family today. The central theme of all Scripture is Christ, and the glimpses of His glory in these portraits are truly inspired!
A similar gallery exists in Deuteronomy 33 where Moses anticipates the tribes entering the land under the law and government of God; but Jacob’s blessings are more prophetic, outlining a historical perspective up to Israel’s restoration under the Messiah.
As Genesis begins with God’s blessing upon two people to be fruitful and multiply, it ends with God’s blessing upon 12 people that they, too, may be fruitful and multiply. Jacob begins with Reuben.
Reuben (“behold, a son”) – The Failure of the Firstborn
Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, and with this came privilege but also tremendous expectation. Reuben was his “might and strength,” and was a blessing from God upon a childless parent. But as we look closer, we see a weak and sinful man who had an illicit relationship with Bilhah, casting a dark shadow over the portrait. Reuben certainly didn’t excel in dignity or power, for no judge, king or prophet came from this tribe. This unstable trait surfaced as they entered the promised land, for it was Reuben who promoted the “stay on the other side” campaign; but when the Assyrians attacked, the Reubenites were carried away first (1Ch 5:26).
So Israel was God’s son – the firstborn of the people of God, with all the privileges of receiving the promises and oracles of God, yet how unstable. Reubenite character marked the nation time and again, until one day a crowd was swayed and they cried out at their Messiah, “Crucify Him!”
We must learn that the privileges of sonship come with responsibility before God. May we “excel.”
Simeon (“hearing”) and Levi (“joined”) – The Brethren Framed by Cruelty
Simeon and Levi are pictured together as “brethren,” but any hope of beauty in the portrait ends here. The picture is framed with the words “instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.” It looks back to their deception and slaughter of the men of Shechem as revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. This made Jacob’s name dirt in the eyes of the Canaanites. Their inheritance was divided and Simeon was given an inheritance out of Judah (Jdg 1). Levi never had his own inheritance, but when the Levites took a stand on “the Lord’s side” in Exodus 32, God blessed them with responsibility in priestly service.
Israel’s sword is still sharp today and its military capability is leaps ahead of regional competition, often manifest in “revenge attacks” on Palestinian territory rather than dependence on Jehovah.
May God preserve us from Simeon-Levi character. Our sword should never be used in cruelty. The spirit of Simeon-Levi will always divide and destroy. May we be like the Simeon of Luke 2 who was “just and devout” (v25).
Judah (“praise”) – The Future is Bright
Judah means “praise.” Praise God for a bright future despite the failure and cruelty of the past. It would be hundreds of years after this prophecy that Judah would take the leadership of the nation, like the lion who is king of beasts, overwhelming his enemies, and make a seemingly untouchable nation into a united kingdom under David and Solomon. But the reference to Shiloh (v10) takes us to “a greater than Solomon,” for in the blessing of Judah we have the advent of the Messiah.
From one of the twins conceived through his reckless sin with Tamar, the royal line would continue and be preserved all the way to Christ, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit. Praise God! While Joseph received the double inheritance of the firstborn, Judah would be granted the dominion of the firstborn, and so the scepter, a symbol of rulership, went to Judah.
Shiloh was a town in Israel where the tabernacle was for a period, but clearly Jacob refers here to a person – “He” to whom the gathering (Heb. “obedience”) of the people will be. This is a beautiful picture of the ascended Christ as King, spoken of in Revelation 5 as “the lion of the tribe of Judah,” and in Hebrews 1 as He whose kingdom is ruled with a scepter of righteousness.
Israel is often pictured as a vine, but the choice vine (v11) suggests its election by God as a people from whom would descend the Messiah, Who spoke of Himself as “the true vine.” Garments speak of character, and the washing in wine may be a reference to “the joy” that was set before Him who endured the cross (Heb 12:2).
Daniel was from the tribe of Judah, and through him came further prophecies that allow us to see the exact time when the scepter did actually pass from Judah and Shiloh did come – “Messiah the Prince.” Truly, “he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God” (Psa 40:3 KJV).
Zebulun (“habitation” or “dwelling”) – A Faulty Border
The portrait of Zebulun is of a quiet man, maybe too quiet, for he neither protested against the ill treatment of Joseph nor drove out the Canaanites. The traits found in this man would surface in the nation that crucified Christ and, as a result, was scattered across the world. Israel’s borders were vital to their separation and safety, but they would face Sidon, the home of Baal worship. In Judges 1:30, Zebulun didn’t drive out the inhabitants of Kitron and allowed the Canaanites to dwell among them. They were a haven for the wrong kind of ships! Yet it was in Capernaum on the sea coast in the borders of Zebulun that the Lord dwelt, and the people which sat in darkness saw great light! (Mat 4:16).
The safe dwelling place of the believer today is the assembly, but we must remember not to remove the ancient landmark (border), for our borders are what keep us separate.
Issachar (“he brings wages”) – Their Forced Labour
Issachar is painted as “a strong ass couching down.” Issachar means “he will bring a reward.” The ass was known for its ability to carry heavy goods. In 1 Chronicles 7:5, the brethren among all the families of Issachar were “valiant men of might.” They were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do. But we are told that Issachar bowed to pressure and became a servant under tribute (Gen 49:15). So it is that Israel, burdened in Egypt, was required to pay tribute, and in Esther’s day, king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land (Est 10:1).
We must be careful that we don’t end up under the dominion of the world or the flesh.
Dan (“judging”) – The False Hope
Dan is little mentioned in the book of Genesis, and the traits of this tribe manifest serpent character. Meaning “to judge,” it is in the book of Judges that we see the deceitful character of Dan amplified. Samson was a judge in the camp of Dan and exemplified the blindness of the nation. In 1 Kings 12, Jeroboam set up an idol in Dan for the people to worship rather than go down to Jerusalem.
No mention is made of Dan in the 144,000 of Revelation 7. Judah is mentioned first, pointing to Christ, and Dan is most likely omitted due to their idolatry (Deu 29:18-21), thus pointing to Antichrist who will reign over (judge) Israel with the support of Satan himself and the head of the revived Roman empire. Israel will look and wait for a true deliverer and their prayer will be answered.
The turning point in the chapter is verse 18. This prayer brings us into a better light as the fortunes of Israel take on brighter colours. May we, too, know the power of this prayer, “I have waited on thy salvation, O Lord.”
Gad (“a troop”) – The Final Assault
Gad, with Reuben, would settle in the trans-Jordan area and be asked by Moses, “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here?” But the troop would overcome them (v19). So it was that the nation was overcome by the Syrians and Chaldees and taken into captivity; but that is nothing compared to the power of Antichrist who will overcome them in a future day (Rev 11:7) But the blessing in this promise is “he shall overcome at the last.”
Paul writes, “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:26). Revelation 17:14 says, “the Lamb shall overcome them, ”for He is Lord of lords and King of kings. May God help us to be “overcomers.”
Asher (“blessed”) – The Fatness of the Land
Some say Asher was lost as a tribe in captivity but that is from the false “British Israel theory.” In Luke 2 we see a prophetess named Anna from the tribe of Asher who wouldn’t depart from the temple. What a “royal dainty” Anna was; yet this goes further to the reign of the King of kings for she waited on “the redemption of Jerusalem.” In that day they will pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” and will enjoy the fatness of the land when the Kingdom will be “on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Let us “taste and see that the Lord is good,” and feed on the “royal dainties” Christ has prepared for us.
Naphtali (“wrestling”) – The Freedom of the Nation
The smallest of the portraits is one of the most beautiful as we look at a nation now “let loose,” like a deer bounding across the land with something beautiful to say – who “giveth goodly (Heb. ‘beauty’ or ‘elegance’) words.”
During the time of Jacob’s trouble, the words of these sons had to be proved by Joseph – “so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die” (Gen 42:20 KJV). Words indicate character, and in Naphtali we see the restored character of the nation after divine intervention when they will be able to take upon their lips the words of Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”(KJV)
Deborah was from the tribe of Naphtali and sang “good words,” but the words of David’s song beautifully capture the prophecy concerning Naphtali: “He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon my high places” (Psa 18:33 KJV).
Our words should be goodly words if we know what it is to be set free and have our tongues loosed by the power of redemption.
Joseph (“he shall add”) – The Fruitfulness of the Branch
When Jacob came to Joseph, having blessed Ephraim and Manasseh, there must have been both a smile and a tear in his eye as he remembered the day when that beloved son left the father’s house with a treasured coat, only to be rejected. But what glory followed! Note that only Joseph and Judah are addressed in the second person. And for good reason!
Fruit abounded in the life of Joseph just like our heavenly Joseph. Elizabeth would say of Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luk 1:42), yet Jesus would say, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (Joh 12:24 KJV). The well (Gen 49:22) or fountain is Christ who waters the roots. He died and rose again, and so the nation will one day be a fruitful branch because it is rooted in Christ, who is described as “the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel” (v24). Joseph was a good shepherd but he turned out to be “a great shepherd” after his rejection when he looked after the flocks of his brethren in Egypt.
Notice the title “Mighty God of Jacob.” Joseph never saw God but he lived for God. He set his affection on things above; his blessings are heavenly, from the All-Sufficient One – El-Shaddai. We know both the God of Jacob for our help and El-Shaddai in our blessing from above. This painting looks into the future, too, with “everlasting hills” (v26) in the background. The double portion of Joseph would be his eternally, for in Ezekiel 47:13 the borders of the land in the millennial age are given and Joseph shall have two portions.
May we know how to maintain separation from the world of Egypt – in it but not of it.
Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) – The Favour of the Son
We began with the failure of the firstborn son but we end with the son of my right hand. Benjamin is described as a wolf devouring prey and dividing the spoil. This is the glorious triumph of Israel over her enemies – victorious “in Joseph,” no longer a servant but ripping apart anyone that stands in the way. Christ will reign until He hath put all enemies under His feet.
Thank God we, too, have the victory in Christ, and “at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”