1 Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come. 2 “Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father. 3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. 4 Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch! 5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel. 8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11 Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk. 13 “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon. 14 “Issachar is a strong donkey, crouching between the sheepfolds. 15 He saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant, so he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant at forced labor. 16 “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. 17 Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward. 18 I wait for your salvation, O Lord. 19 “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.20 “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield royal delicacies. 21 “Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.22 “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. 23 The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, 24 yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), 25 by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. 26 The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers. 27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil.” 28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. 29 Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— 32 the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.” 33 When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
Philip Roth has written an interesting story in which the family of the character Dr. Victor Zuckerman gathers around his deathbed to tell him goodbye. While other family members reminisce about good memories and joyful times together, his son Nathan, for some reason, decides to summarize the scientific theory of the “Big Bang” because he was reading about it on the plane to see his father. As he waxes eloquent on the age and expansion of the universe it occurs to him that what he has chosen to say to his father on his deathbed is inappropriate and does not fit well the scene. Dr. Zuckerman’s response, his last word, is utterly devastating.
Though Dr. Zuckerman didn’t officially expire until the next morning, it was here that he uttered his last words. Word. Barely audible, but painstakingly pronounced. “B—-rd,” he said.
He curses his son. Later, in the airport, after Nathan tried to convince himself that his father had not said the word he knew deep down he had said, Nathan is scolded by his brother, Henry.
“He did say ‘B—-rd,’ Nathan. He called you a b—-rd…You are a b—-rd. A heartless conscienceless b—-rd. What does loyalty mean to you? What does responsibility mean to you? What does self-denial mean, restraint—anything at all?…The origin of the universe! When all he was waiting to hear was ‘I love you!’ ‘Dad, I love you’—that was all that was required!”
It is a poignant and devastating scene. It asks of the reader a difficult question: what would it feel like to hear your own father use his last word to curse you? What a chilling and painful thing to contemplate!
Jacob, while not swearing, similarly pronounces hard words upon some of his boys from his deathbed. Some of them feel the sting of regret at what he has to say to them. And, insofar as our own behavior matches theirs, we too feel the regret of our own shameful actions. But that is, thank the Lord, not all! As hard as what some of what Jacob says is, there is a word of life and of hope spoken from his deathbed as well.
Let us join these twelve sons by the deathbed of their father, the great patriarch Jacob, and listen to what he has to say. We will consider his words to four of his sons in particular. In doing so, we will consider how some of these names bring a word of condemnation to us while one of these names brings a word of hope and life to us.
Some of these names condemn us.
There are three names in particular that condemn us and they are the first three names: Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. Jacob, sitting in his deathbed begins his pronouncements over these three sons with chilling words of woe because of their individual shameful deeds. And these words, chilling words, should be considered by us as well for they show us how these deeds can destroy our names.
Reuben: The Destructive Power of Lust
We begin with Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn. Jacob’s words to Reuben begin on a positive note then suddenly pivot to a stinging word of rebuke and condemnation.
3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. 4 Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!
What is Jacob talking about? He is talking about Reuben’s deplorable actions in Genesis 35 immediately after the death of Rachel.
19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)…22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.
You will perhaps remember how, in our consideration of Genesis 35, we said that Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn but the son of the lesser-wife Leah, acted with both lust and malice and harmful intent in his taking of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, unto himself. On the one hand this represents physical lust. On the other hand it represents the lust of ego and pride. By sullying Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, Reuben was rendering her taboo to his father. Furthermore, he was outright venting his rage at his father, no doubt because of his anger at his own mother, Leah, being the least-desired of Jacob’s wives. Some of you with very good memories may recall that I expressed amazement when we considered Genesis 35 that Jacob had not dealt more harshly with Reuben than he did at the time.
Now we see the truth of the matter: Jacob has harbored anger and bitterness to Reuben for his despicable and wicked behavior and has waited until this moment to vent it. Verse 4 is devastating.
4 Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!
What does “unstable as water” mean? Gordon Wenham explains.
“Frothy…like water” is a very difficult phrase. The noun…“froth” only occurs here; a similar noun occurs in Jer 23:32 and a participle from the same root in Judg 9:4 and Zeph 3:4. In two of these passages, it refers to false prophets inventing messages out of their own imagination, while in Judg 9:4 it refers to unscrupulous men bribed to murder. So LXX translates here “You have run riot,” “waxed insolent”; Vulgate “poured out”; Tg. Onq. “You followed your own direction.” It is clear that Reuben’s behavior is reprehensible, but the exact point of the censure “frothy” or the simile “like water” is unclear. Does water’s slipperiness suggest Reuben’s lack of principle? Or do the images of boiling up in a pot, pouring down in a torrent, and foaming up in a storm, suggest Reuben’s passion bubbling up and overflowing? “[T]he wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt” (Isa 57:20).
What an image! Reuben was “unstable as water.” His lusts boiled within him and then, in the horrendous actions of Genesis 35, they bubbled over. It reminds one of Book III of St. Augustine’s Confessions where he writes that he went to Carthage and found himself in “a boiling [or seething] cauldron of lust [or unholy loves].”
And it matters not if the lusts were for pleasure or for power or for revenge. These are all lusts! So Jacob cries out in righteous indignation to everybody in the room: “he went up to my couch!”
Take heed of Jacob’s warnings and tremble! See this and hear this: if your life is marked by the frothy waters of lust—no matter what shape those lusts might take—you will bring shame upon yourself. Jacob announced that Reuben would not have preeminence and, indeed, Reuben did not! R. Kent Hughes writes:
When Reuben’s descendants settled in the Transjordan, they soon disappeared from history, and no prophet or judge or king would ever come from the tribe of Reuben. Reuben’s descendants were characterized by a lack of leadership and resolve.
Jacob’s words to Reuben condemn us insofar as we walk Reuben’s path.
Simeon and Levi: The Destructive Power of Anger and Violence
Jacob now turns to sons numbers 2 and 3, Simeon and Levi, also the biological children of Leah. Here, though, he does not begin with a positive word. He moves rather straight to condemnation.
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
The imagery here is likewise palpable and damning: “weapons of violence are their swords…their anger…is fierce, and their wrath…it is cruel!” What is Jacob talking about here? What is he talking about is the slaughter of the Schechemites after the rape of their sister, Dinah, in Genesis 34.
25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males
Listen, and tremble again: if your life is marked by anger, conflict, strife, or even violence, you will bring down shame upon your head. You can be defined by anger. Anger is corrosive! In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the danger of anger.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
Anger makes murderers of us! This is no small thing! It’s interesting to note how often controlling or conquering anger comes up in the history of the monastic tradition. For instance, Thomas Merton passes along the following examples.
The same Abbot Agatho would say: Even if an angry man were to revive the dead, he would not be pleasing to God because of his anger.
One of the brethren questioned Abbot Isidore, the elder of Scete, saying: Why is it that the demons are so grievously afraid of you? The elder replied: From the moment I became a monk I have striven to prevent anger rising to my lips.
Anger shames us. Anger brings condemnation down upon our heads! Anger kills the one who harbors and nourishes it! In just this past week we have seen at least two shocking examples of anger and how it turns us into monsters. The first was a little boys’ football coach in Georgia who was caught on camera slapping one of his young players to the ground in a fit of rage. The next was a Hollywood star who has now had a number of women come out and speak of his abuse fits of rage.
Anger is dehumanizing. Anger destroys us. Jacob says:
6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
Hughes observes that, indeed, “both tribes were divided and scattered, and…neither of them were given a portion of the land.” It is true that the Levites became the priestly tribe, but, as priests, they were not allowed to own land.
One of these names offers us life.
Thus far this is a painfully awkward and demoralizing deathbed scene. Jacob has condemned his first three sons. Is there any light to be found here? Is there any hope? Indeed, there is. While the first three names offer us condemnation, there is one name that offers life.
Judah: The Line of Jesus
Jacob now turns to Judah.
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11 Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.
This is amazing! Judah becomes the great note of hope among the brothers. You might think it would be Joseph, given the last many chapters, but no. It is Judah. This is all the more surprising because of Judah’s scandalous behavior in Genesis 38 of visiting a prostitute who, it turned out, was Tamar in disguise, the daughter-in-law Judah had wronged. But you might remember also Judah’s humility and confession when his sin was made known.
24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.
Yes, Judah was a sinner, but Judah knew it and acknowledged it: “She is more righteous than I…”
Jacob’s words to Judah have a different tone to them, a different feel. His blessing of Judah contains many components.
- Judah will be exalted above all the other brothers.
- Judah will conquer his enemies.
- Judah will be a mighty lion.
- Judah’s line will have regal authority (i.e., “the scepter shall not depart”).
- Judah’s line will receive the obedience of the people’s.
- Judah’s line will have something to do with bloodstained garments and a donkey’s foal.
What is happening here? It is clear that Jacob’s words go well beyond Judah. He’s words take on cosmic tones, universal tones. There is something about Judah’s line that is special. There is something about Judah’s line that will change the world. Then we turn to the first words of the New Testament, to Matthew 1, and read:
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers
Do you see? Here is the line of Jesus: Abraham – Isaac – Jacob – Judah. What can this mean? Hebrews 7 tells us plainly:
14a For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah
Ah! This is amazing! Jesus will come from the line of Judah! It is from Judah’s strand in the tapestry of the story of Israel that the Savior of the world will emerge! Can this be? Is there really a connection between Judah and Jesus?
Judah’s First Connection to Jesus: The donkey’s foal
Take two of the more interesting images that Jacob employs. The first has to do with this donkey. Jacob will use an image, then the later prophet Zechariah will pick it up and apply it to the coming Messiah, then Matthew will reveal that the image was about Jesus all along! Watch these three movements:
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11a Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
Do you see? This image of a descendant of Judah and his foal and his donkey’s colt to a vine is employed by Zechariah near the end of the Old Testament to point to the coming Savior. It is then fulfilled in Matthew 21 at the triumphal entry of Jesus in Jerusalem! In other words, Jacob without knowing the name Jesus, speaks of Jesus in his words to Judah!
Judah’s Second Connection to Jesus: Stained garments and eyes
The same dynamic is at play in Jacob’s imagery of the stained garments and dark eyes. This time the words are spoken by Jacob, picked up later by Isaiah and used in reference to the coming Messiah, and then shown to be about Jesus in the book of Revelation. Watch:
11b he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.
1 Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” 2 Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? 3 “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel.”
12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.
Once again, without knowing the name Jesus, Jacob, moved by the Spirit of God, foretells His coming! Jesus will be the Savior and King whose scepter and staff will never depart! If this is not enough, the connection between Judah and Jacob is made explicitly clear in Revelation 5.
1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Jacob says these many things to Judah, speaks words to the rest of his sons, then dies.
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. 29 Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— 32 the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.” 33 When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
It is an amazing scene! Words of condemnation over the sinfulness of humanity…then words of hope because of the Savior of humanity! Words that terrify us in our lusts and ego and anger…then words that give us hope of the coming of one who will save us!
We must tremble because of the condemnation of Reuben and Simeon and Levi. But we may rejoice over the mercy of our great King and Savior, Jesus!
The Lion of Judah is greater than the devil. Mercy triumphs judgment in the coming of the Savior!
Do you see yourself in Jacob’s condemnation of his wicked sons? We all must, if we are honest. Good! But can you dare to believe that the promise of Judah—a promise of life and salvation and hope for the future—is your promise and that it has come definitively in Jesus? I do hope so, for it is so! Christ has come! The hope of the nations has come! Your Savior has come, and His name is Jesus.
 Philip Roth, Zuckerman Unbound. (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p.193,217,219.
 Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50, Volume 2 (Word Biblical Commentary) (p. 472). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
 R. Kent Hughes, Genesis. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p.550.
 Thomas Merton, The Way of the Desert (New York, NY: New Directions), p.68,30.
 R. Kent Hughes, p.551.