Summary: God predicts Israel’s future through Jacob and shows His sovereignty and grace.
Jacob’s family is reunited in Egypt where they live for seventeen years, and then the time comes for Jacob to die.
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. 2Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.
Jacob calls all his sons into his room so he can tell them what will happen to them in the last days. It was the same when Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau and when Jacob blessed Ephraim and Manasseh: he reveals God’s will for his sons by faith.
The trouble with a passage like this is we can get really bogged down in the details. It’s not that aren’t important, because they are. But I’ll just tell you now that some of these prophecies are pretty vague. Some commentators have tried to find meaning in them, but I don’t like being subjective. Also, a couple of these (especially Zebulun) have some difficulties that require a lot of study and explanation. It’s enough for me that they’re true, and we’re not going to spend a lot of time on it.
Suffice it to say that what he’s about to say is a blessing that has value for the son who first heard it, for the Israelites all throughout their history, and for every son of God since. For that reason we’re not going to focus so much on what he says as we are why he said it.
This passage shows God declaring the end from the beginning; He knows what will happen with these tribes even before they become tribes. It also shows that He’s not chosen them because of their might or their morality but because of His own purpose in election. Most importantly, it’s here that we find more information about the redeemer for Adam and Eve.
So, Jacob has a blessing for each of his sons, and he starts with Leah’s first four children:
3Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: 4Unstable 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.
Being the oldest, Reuben is supposed to get the blessing and the birthright. He’s supposed to be the family priest, but because of his sin years earlier he’s been disqualified. The only thing he gets is a promise not to excel. It’s been pointed out that this is basically what happened for the Reubenites as a tribe too. There’s some debate about whether Hosea came from his line, but, other than that, there really weren’t any kings or prophets or priests from him.
That’s pretty harsh, but don’t read more into it than what’s there. Moses blesses the Reubenites in Deuteronomy 33 and he says, “Let Reuben live, and not die; and let not his men be few” (v. 6). In Revelation seven he’s listed as one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and 12,000 from his tribe are there with the Lamb. So he’s not being put out of Israel, but the man himself loses the rights of the firstborn and his descendants aren’t anything special.