We come to a very difficult portion of Scripture. In fact, there is more written on this part of Genesis than on almost any other portion of Genesis. There is quite a bit of strange imagery, unusual words, and prophecy that is dark and unfamiliar to us. What does it all mean? And how does it affect us? Those are the question we will address. The main point here is the promise of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and the prosperity that Jesus will bring with Him at the second coming.
Jacob is giving us his last words, as we saw last week. He has now adopted Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons. Now, he has a word to say to every one of his sons. First, he calls his sons together around him in order that he might be able to tell them what will happen in future days. In saying this, Jacob claims a revelation from the Lord. We will see that Jacob’s predictions are right on target, and that the future history of the tribes bears out these prophecies.
The first son to receive a word is Reuben. At first, it seems like it will be a favorable blessing. After all, Jacob seems to praise him for being the first-fruit of his strength, being the first-born with the birth-right, having the most physical power and dignity. That is in verse 3. However, what happens next is that Jacob remembers 35:22; “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.” When Jacob heard of that event, he didn’t punish Reuben at the time. However, he never forgot what Reuben had tried to do. Remember that Bilhah was the maidservant of Rachel. Reuben had wanted to make sure that his mother Leah would be the favored wife of Jacob. Furthermore, he was probably challenging Jacob for the position of patriarch of the tribe. Well, as we can see here, that plan backfired seriously. Instead of retaining the position of first-born, he gets rejected. Later on, in Israel’s history, Reuben plays very little part. They are part of the tribes that were on the east side of the Jordan. No ruler for Israel ever came out of the tribe of Reuben. Eventually, Reuben is completely forgotten.
Next up is Simeon and Levi. Jacob minces no words here, either. They are mentioned together, because of their actions against the city of Shechem. Simeon and Levi were cruel and heartless. Jacob does not even want to worship with them. He says literally in verse 6, “Let no my soul come into their council.” The word “council” is something like “worship service.” Jacob cannot worship with Simeon and Levi because of their violent tendencies. So verse 7 tells us their fate: they will be divided and scattered throughout Israel. That is in fact what happened. Simeon eventually got absorbed into the tribe of Judah and ceased to be an independent tribe. The Levites were scattered all over Israel. They had various cities given to them, but not any one territory. However, God exercised grace on the tribe of Levi by making their portion to be the temple service. And so God can even turn a curse into a blessing. The curse of being scattered resulted in the blessing of leadership in worship from the Levites.
However, to Judah, who was up next, Levi’s “blessing” didn’t sound too much like a blessing. In fact, the previous three brothers sounded much more like a curse. I’m sure you can imagine that he must have been somewhat nervous in receiving a “blessing” from his father! After all, he was far from perfect. He had slept with his daughter in law, and had gone along with the plot to send Joseph down to Egypt. What made Judah so different that Jacob gives him this ringing blessing? The answer is solely God’s grace. God had worked in Judah’s life to change him, so that he even made himself into a sacrifice for Benjamin’s sake. Yes, God had worked an amazing change in Judah’s life, a change which Jacob had certainly noticed. This blessing is what is going to take up the rest of our time. It is difficult in its imagery. Let’s unpack it a bit.
First of all, Judah is shown to be a victorious lion. This is what verses 8-9 are about. The lion is the king of beasts, and so the brothers will bow down before such royalty. If one’s hand is on the neck of one’s enemies, that means that the enemy is defeated. In verse 9, a lion rises from eating his prey, and takes the remainder of it home to his lair. That is what “stooping down” or “crouching down” means. The lion in his lair with his prey: who is going to try to disturb that? Maybe people should just let sleeping lions lie.
Secondly, Judah is described as a Ruler over people, in verses 10-12. First it says that the scepter will not depart from Judah. This means that there was always a descendant of David in existence. They didn’t always rule. But there always was a scepter, even if that scepter was hidden for a time.
The scepter is always there until he comes to whom it belongs. Literally, in the original, “Until Shiloh comes.” Shiloh is a name meaning “peace.” What we have here is a prediction of Jesus Christ coming to earth. Now we must understand that the text is not saying that there will always be a ruler until Shiloh comes, and then there won’t be a ruler. Rather, the text is saying that there will always forever be a ruler in Judah, and the one who is coming is the premier example of that. In other words, the word “until” does not have any idea of cessation attached to it. When the ruler comes, the scepter will still belong to Judah.
Verses 11-12 describe the conditions of this Messiah’s rule. A person could tie his donkey to a grape vine, and not even worry about the donkey eating the grapes, since he has so many other grapevines that this one doesn’t matter. There will be so much wine available, that it can be used as detergent for laundry! His eyes will be dark from wine, and his teeth will be white, because there is much milk. In short, this describes a very prosperous time. It is a time when there is so much of everything good that what we used to think of as precious and rare is so common that it can be used for common purposes.
We see the beginning of this time of prosperity in John 2, where Jesus turns the water into wine. It is 6 barrels full of wine. These jars, by the way are huge. They hold many gallons apiece. But notice that even that miracle at the wedding doesn’t really measure up completely to what we’re talking about in Genesis. That is because Jesus did not fully complete the kingdom of God with His first visit to earth. He inaugurated the kingdom by His death and resurrection. However, He did not finish the kingdom such that the curse of the Fall would be completely reversed. We are still waiting for that when Christ comes back. What Genesis describes is in fact a reversal of the curse of the Fall. Instead of thistles, the myrtle will grow, as Isaiah 55 says. We are dealing with not just a return to the garden of Eden, but our entrance into something far better even than Eden. In Jesus Christ, we have the hope of a completely renewed and restored universe. There will be no more death, sorrow, or evil. There will be no more sin. There will be no more alcoholism, despite the fact that wine will be so amazingly plentiful.
Do you look forward to that time? It seems far off right now, doesn’t it? That’s because we have a hard time recognizing that it has already begun. As 2 Corinthians 5:7 puts it, if we are in Christ, that is proof that there is a new creation. Yes, we are part of that new creation. And it is in us that the newness is most evident right now. However, the start of the new heavens and new earth was in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
So, are we sunk down in depression? Are we aching for something, but don’t quite know what it is? Are we aching for things to be made right? Well, what we are really looking for, then, is something that we already have in seed form. God gave us the seed of the new heaven and new earth right in our very persons. The Holy Spirit is that seed. It is planted in us when God gives us faith. Do you have this faith? If it is a small as a mustard seed, still God can buoy you up with it, and accomplish amazing things in your life through it. Faith in God makes great optimists. Over in Burma, Judson was lying in a foul jail with 32 lbs. of chains on his ankles, his feet bound to a bamboo pole. A fellow prisoner said, “Dr. Judson, what about the prospect of the conversion of the heathen?”, with a sneer on his face. His instant reply was, “The prospects are just as bright as the promises of God.” Are your prospects as bright as this promise of God for a Messiah to come, and reverse evil in the world?