Center for Tanakh Based Studies:
By: William Jackson
In Genesis 49 Jacob gives a deathbed omen to each of his twelve sons. These were not only blessings and curses, they were predictions as to the directions these men, who would later become tribes, would travel. Some of Jacob’s predictions are calculations based off past actions and some are insights into the future. Later, the Torah does hold some of these prophecies and some are still to take place. Jacob gives us a wonderful road map that shows us, the Torah student, where the brothers came from and where the tribes will be going. Interestingly, over four centuries later, Moses gives confirmation of these prophecies in Deuteronomy 33, spurring more premonitions. In order of birth, we have listed the brother’s prophecies and fulfillment.
- Re’uven (Tribe of Ruben)
Usually the mantle of leadership goes to the eldest son. As the book “Fatherless” tells us “Within Ancient Near East culture, the term “firstborn” anoints the oldest son with the assignment of special privileges and responsibilities. He was second to his father and had authority over his younger siblings.”1 Yes, Jacob confirms that Ruben is his first born (Genesis 49:3). Yet, as we see again and again in Torah, one can loss the benefits of their birthrights. Ruben is no different. Almost 50 years before this blessing Ruben sleeps with his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). His ability to be distracted by self-indulgence and lack of loyalty would be shortcomings that would get in the way of his ability to lead. Therefore, Dad says he is as “unstable as water” (Genesis 49:4) and takes away his authority to command. Validating this instability are two notable characters from Ruben’s linage. They are Dathan and Abiram, which were cited for their rebellion against Moses in Numbers 16. There is no wonder later when Moses acknowledges this tribe in his blessing, that the only thing he really says about them is that their numbers are small (Deuteronomy 33:6). Consistent with Ruben’s character his tribe would later, in the 12th century BCE, decline to take part in the war against Sisera (Judges 5).
2. Shim‘on (Tribe of Simeon)
Did you ever know two people that when they got them together they were up to no good? That is Simeon and Levi. About 50 years before Jacob’s deathbed blessings, in Shechem, these two men massacred a whole village over a Prince raping their sister, Dinah. Granted, older brothers standing up for their sister is a good thing, but their methods of vengeance were both devious and extreme (Genesis 34). Jacob acknowledges this as he confirms that Simeon and his brother are violent men (Genesis 49:5). So as a good parent, in Genesis 49:7, he encourages their separation. Thus, their tribes will be scattered. Simeon was drastically marginalized by this curse. Four centuries later during the second census of Moses, the tribe of Simeon was considered the smallest and weakest of all the tribes (Numbers 26:14). Likewise, it was omitted from Moses blessing before entering the promised land (Deuteronomy 33:8). As well, the Book of Judges locates its territory inside the boundaries of the Tribe of Judah. Thus, it was scattered.
- Levi (Tribe of Levi)
Did you ever hear someone say, “”If only he used his talents for good, instead of evil.”? Well, Levi was this guy and would get his chance to use his talents for good. Yes, Levi and Simeon were toxic together, as Jacob knew (Genesis 34:25, 49:5). Therefore, as a good Dad, he separated his boys in his blessing. Simeon would suffer for this by being minimized. Conversely, Levi would excel. As we know, Moses is probably the most noteworthy member of this tribe. Of course, we have his brother Aaron and his family, the first priest of the Israel designated by God (Exodus 28:1–4). This would mark the Levites as being Israel’s priests. The Levites took this responsibility seriously. Within the year of Aaron being made the head priest, they would be required to summons their well-known passion. In the wilderness they would kill 3,000 Israelites who were falsely worshipping other gods (Exodus 32:26–29). From this “golden café” incident Moses said of his tribe, the Levites, “You have consecrated yourselves today to Adonai, because every one of you has been against his own son and against his own kinsman, in order to bring a blessing on yourselves today.” (Exodus 32:29). As Israel’s priestly tribe they resided in the cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 4:43 and Joshua 20:7-8), which as Jacob predicted, kept them scattered. Other great men belonging to this tribe are the prophets Ezekiel, Habakkuk and Zechariah. Samuel was latter adopted by this tribe.
- Y’hudah (Tribe of Judah)
Even though he was only the fourth oldest, he took the foreground with his brother and distinguished himself in dealing with Joseph during the famine. Likewise, as evidence that Judah is a stand-up guy, we have the story of Tamar in Genesis 38. Because of these testimonies of his leadership, Jacob likens him symbolically to a lion. In addition, Jacob says that the scepter will not pass from this tribe until he comes to whom [obedience] belongs (Genesis 49:10). In Deuteronomy 33:13-16 Moses gives extensive praise and blessings to this tribe before entering the promised land. It is no wonder the linage of this tribe has born people like King David, King Solomon, Naomi, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezra.
5. Dan (Tribe of Dan)
Jacob said this tribe would judge its people (Genesis 49:15) and be called a viper on the road (Genesis 49:17). True, this tribe would provide many of the key judges in the book of Judges, with Samson being the most famous of that era. Likewise, Samson, and his unconventional ways of handling a situation, could be considered that “viper on the road”.
- Naftali (Tribe of Naftali)
Jacob says that this son is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns (Genesis 29:21). This certainly is not a very masculine image. Later, in Moses’ blessing of the “Naphtali is abounding with the favor of the Lord and is full of his blessing; he will inherit southward to the lake” (Deuteronomy 33:23). Over 30 years after Moses’ blessing we find in Joshua 19:32–39, that Naphtali’s land was in northern Israel, bordering Asher’s territory, and the Sea of Kinnereth. Later, the controversial warrior Barak belong to this tribe. Barak was commanded by God to lead an Army of Israelites against their Canaanite enemy (Judges 4:6–9). Barak insisted that Deborah the prophetess accompany him, which ended up giving her all the credit for the victory (Judges 4:17–22). Maybe this fulfills Jacob’s tender image of Naftali.
7. Gad (Tribe of Gad)
As Jacob so apply puts it. Gad means troop, i.e. soldier (Genesis 49:19). These were very committed warriors making sure their families were protected and denying themselves property until victory was won (Numbers 32:16-19). Moses praises their tenacity in battle and willingness to fight for God (Deuteronomy 33:20-21). It is fitting that the prophet Elijah was from this tribe. Elijah, a determined prophet of God. He came straight at the Canaanite deity Baal, defending the worship of God. Additionally, God performed other significant miracles through Elijah, including resurrection, bringing fire down from the sky, and entering Heaven alive “by a whirlwind”. Elijah, like Gad, was very intense.
- Asher (Tribe of Asher)
Jacob says that Asher will provide food for the King (Genesis 49:20), in addition Moses says that he will wash his feet in oil (Deuteronomy 33:24). On the surface this is a confusing picture, but both imply richness and wealth. As we will find out some of Canaan’s most fertile ground will be given to this tribe (Joshua 19:24-31).
- Yissakhar (Tribe of Issachar)
Jacob compares Issachar to a strong donkey because they submit to forced labor (Genesis 49:14-15). Some feel that this image of Issachar depicts an agrarian people (farmers). To validate this point, we see the land of Issachar described in Joshua 19:17-23. It included the plain of Esdraelon, which was and still is the richest portion. Not much is known about this tribe, but in their linage, are great prophets like Elisha. Who consequently was found by Elijah “plowing with twelve yokes of oxen in front of him” (1 Kings 19:19). This would testify to agricultural demeanor of these people. Additionally, we have the prophet Hosea, who was made to be stubborn (like a donkey) in a relationship with a questionable woman. This was an enology put on by God to depict how God feels about being in a relationship with those who constantly turn away from him to sin. Although Issachar, as a people, are common and unappealing, there is something in their personality we can all relate to.
- Z’vulun (Tribe of Zebulun)
Jacob says this tribe will settle by the seashore and will be a harbor for ships (Genesis 49:13). Moses’ blessing on the tribe was that Zebulun would prosper in their overseas dealings with nations (Deuteronomy 33:18-19). To validate this Zebulun land’s eastern border was the Sea of Galilee and the western border being the Mediterranean Sea (Joshua 19:10-16).
- Yosef (House of Joseph)
Understandably, Jacob would call this son a “fruitful plant” (Genesis 49:22). Joseph not only provided protection and good land for Israel in Egypt but, both his sons would be blessed as tribes. Thus, Joseph is not usually listed as a tribe. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, his sons, are listed in his place giving Joseph a double portion.
- Binyamin (Tribe of Benjamin)
Jacob says about Benjamin “…(he) is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, in the evening still dividing the spoil” (Genesis 49:27). We have several testimonies of Benjamin’s warlike nature recorded in the Tanakh (Judges 20:15–16; 1 Chronicles 8:40, 12:2; 2 Chronicles 14:8, 17:17). However, the image of Benjamin is not only that of a warrior, it has a darker tone talking about “devouring prey” and dividing spoils”. This is captured in the Book of Judges which recounts Benjamin’s rape of a concubine belonging to the tribe of Levite. This resulted in a battle at Gibeah (Judges 19–20). With a complex personality, it is only fitting that Benjamin should have a complex family line with people like King Saul, Jeremiah and Esther in his linage.
13. Manasseh (Tribe of Manasseh)
Made up the house of Joseph.
Manasseh and his brother Ephraim were not Jacob’s sons, but were his grandsons. Thus, they are missing from the deathbed blessing in Genesis 49. However, Jacob did speak to these two boys at his deathbed before his sons arrival in Genesis 48. Interestingly, at this meeting, although Manasseh was the eldest, Jacob denies him the blessing as the eldest son, giving it to Ephraim (Genesis 48). This seems to be a recollection of when Jacob had taken the eldest birthright from Esau 70 years earlier. Also at his deathbed, he claimed that these two boys were now his (Genesis 48:5). This seems a bit awkward for Joseph but, it would allow these boys to grow into tribes and possess the land in Canaan. Interestingly, about 400 years later we have one of Manasseh’s greatest granddaughter, Zelophehad, beseeching Moses for ownership of property because she had no male heirs. Moses, after consulting with God, developed rules designed to keep property within a family (Numbers 27:1–11). It is interestingly how Manasseh, at the beginning, would be denied his blessing, but he would spawn a people that would protect the rights for those not blessed.
Additionally, after entering the promised land, we sometimes hear the tribe of Manasseh referred to as the “half-tribe” of Manasseh. This is due to some of the tribe deciding to reside east of the River Jordan (Numbers 32:33; Joshua 13: 29–31) outside the allotted boundary. Also, the tribe of Manasseh has mixed reviews. During the time of Joshua, they refused to clear the land of “the Perizzites and Rephaites” (Joshua 17:12-18). Yet, 200 year later a warrior from this tribe by the name of Gideon would give them a lasting reputation. As we know, God would have Gideon reduce his force from 32,000 to 300 worthy fighters (Judges 6-8). With this elite force God would have Gideon defeat a superior enemy. With these reduced numbers, no one could doubt God’s intervention.
- Ephraim (Tribe of Ephraim)
As we discussed when talking about Manasseh, when Jacob gives his blessing to his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, he chose to bless the younger Ephraim first, despite Joseph’s protests. Thus, Jacob observed that Ephraim would be greater than Manasseh (Genesis 48:5–21). Ephraim, along with Manasseh, made up the house of Joseph. These brothers had a lot of similarities. Both sibling tribes neglected to clear foreign enemies from their land (Exodus 23:23–25; Judges 1:29; Joshua 16:10). In addition, both tribes have mixed reviews when referring to their reputations. First, we see Ephraim turning away from God by doing wicked (Isaiah 28:1–3), and then we also find the tribe recognizing the need to repent and obey the prophet Oded’s instructions (2 Chronicles 28:12). This tribe has given us so many excellent people like Joshua, Deborah the Prophetess and Huldah (Female Prophetess mentioned in 2 King 22)
As we can determine from Jacob’s sons and later tribes, none are perfect, and all have flaws. In short, they are just like us. We see many who have lost their blessings due to their sinful natures and others, despite their shortcomings, redeeming themselves. In many cases, the brother’s weaknesses have become strengths and in some cases strength have become weaknesses. Yet, at Jacob’s deathbed, regardless of their diversities, these men came together. Regrettably, over a millennium after these blessings the tribes will be lost to each other through the Assyrian captivity2 of 740 BCE. Yet, to context this, it was the travesty of a famine that brought Jacob’s family together. So, we need to remember that we have troubles that are prophesized in our own future3. These troubles will start our “end-times” and will mark the time for God to bring the tribes together once again (Jeremiah 23:3, 31:7-8; 32:37, Isaiah 11:11-12, 16).
Please join us on Sabbath. We will be giving you a 20-question quiz testing your knowledge on Jacob’s sons and the tribes.
- Birdsong-Saunders, Mary Ann, Fatherless: Broken to Whole Hope Through Prayer, West Bow Press, 2016, Chapter 3
- Umberto Cassuto and Elia Samuele Artom, The Books of Kings and Chronicles modern view, (1981)
- Jackson, William J. “End Times Prophecy.” Center for Tanakh Based Studies. January 17, 2017. Accessed December 28, 2017. https://center-for-tanakh-based-studies.com/2017/01/17/end-times-prophecy/.