As Jacob (Israel) nears the end of his life, he gathers his sons together to give them their individualized blessings. The information passed on from Israel to his sons is once more prophetic, providing clues on what each son will do or how they will fare in the expanse of their lives.
In the larger context though, the important theme here is the full meanings of the blessings of these sons. When Jews are referred to as “the nation of Israel” or “the children of Israel”, it is in reference to the children of Jacob as we have come to know them. And the blessings that we have here can be interpreted as blessings not only for the individual sons, but also as prophecy for the 12 tribes that will come from the sons (including Ephraim and Manasseh, which received their blessings in chapter 48). The words of blessing given to each son are hints of the future for each tribe.
Although Issachar was born before Zebulun (Genesis 30), Zebulun is mentioned before Issachar in Israel’s spoken blessings. Naphtali is also out of order here as Genesis 30 has him being born after Dan where here in Genesis 49, Naphtali is listed after Asher. These are the only inconsistencies in the order of the sons’ receiving blessings from Israel, and they are likely insignificant.
Here is a summary of the blessings for each son:
- Reuben: At first Reuben is praised for being firstborn, but his mistake of bedding his father’s concubine Bilhah has ruined his propensity for success.
- Simeon and Levi: You may recall how Simeon and Levi led the charge of retribution after their sister Dinah was taken against her will in Genesis 34. Because of their cruelty (which should preferably have been righteous anger), these two brothers will not be given specific lands, but rather their dwelling places will be scattered.
- Judah: Judah’s blessing is glowing because it is the tribe that will bring Christ. The glory of the triumphant lion vanquishing his enemies is parallel to Jesus’ defeat of Satan from the cross. The description of Judah including praise and eventual success helps us to understand the coming glory of Jesus.
- Zebulun: His blessings will be among the northern coastlands of Phonecia.
- Isaachar: Issachar’s legacy will be one of slavery.
- Dan: Dan will have a legacy of those who will serve as judges.
- Gad: Although Gad will encounter much difficulty, victory will be had in the end.
- Asher: Asher’s legacy is hopeful and pleasant.
- Naphtali: Naphtali’s legacy is also a very good one.
- Joseph: Joseph’s great strength of character, his great faith and his abilities to excel and succeed take center stage in his blessings. Only Judah’s blessings can rival the ones that Joseph receives. Israel praises Joseph as the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. He is one who provides great blessings for his people with the help of God.
- Benjamin: Benjamin’s blessing has an ominous ring to it, but at least it does not portend evil or negative connotations for Benjamin and his family.
In the final verses of this chapter, Israel’s death is recorded. Like his forefathers, he desires to be buried with his family that preceded him. It is comforting to us in a familial way that Israel remembers how Abraham came to be in possession of the cave where he wants to be buried. It reminds us of memories that we have of our own families and in a small way we can relate.
At the final summary of Israel’s life, we can forgive the mistakes that he made early on and come to see the full picture of the heritage of faith and godliness that he leaves with his sons. Of course, it is not up to us to forgive him, but we can also identify the peaks and valleys of our own spiritual journey when we look at the whole of Israel’s life.