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.
Simeon and Levi
5Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. 6O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall. 7Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
When Dinah was raped they convinced the men of Shechem to be circumcised and then they executed them all while they were too weak to defend themselves (Gen. 34:25). Jacob didn’t approve of it then, and he hasn’t changed his mind.
Now, the King James says they’ve digged down a wall, but apparently the Hebrew can also mean they've hamstrung an ox. That means they either tore down someone’s defensive wall or maybe their house, or they cut an ox’s tendons just to make him useless to a farmer for ploughing.
So, these two men, who are next in line for Reuben’s birthright, are rejected because of their vengeance, their senseless destruction, and their violent anger.
They will be scattered, but again that doesn’t mean they’re cut off from Israel. The Simeonites got land, but they had to share it with Judah (Josh. 19:1, 9) and Levi didn’t get any at all, but they got the priesthood (Dt. 18:1).
8Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. 9Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? 10The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. 11Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: 12His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.