Jacob, Blessing of

views updated


JACOB, BLESSING OF , a collection of poetic sayings epitomizing the traits and fortunes of the Israelite tribes, written in the guise of deathbed pronouncements by Jacob to his 12 sons (Gen. 49). "Blessing" is a misnomer since three of the tribes are in effect cursed, and others are treated with jest or satire. The sayings are cast in pseudo-prophetic form as though the patriarch foresees the destinies of his sons. In fact, most of the separate sayings appear to describe past or present tribal fortunes. The events alluded to in the sayings are highly refracted by the terse and elusive language. The Reuben saying (49:4) refers to the elder son's incest with his father's concubine (35:22), but what the event signifies in tribal terms is unknown. The Simeon-Levi saying (49:5–7) recalls the murderous attack on the Shechemites (Gen. 34), but that event is not easily connected to the wider tribal histories. The ascendancy of Judah (49:8–12) corresponds with the sudden emergence of that tribe just before the united monarchy and its political hegemony under David is almost certainly referred to in the obscure "Shiloh" passage (49:10). It is possible that the Septuagint reading of ii Samuel 20:18–19 shows the Dan of verses 16–18 to be already relocated in its northern home (cf. Judg. 17–18). The animal imagery of the sayings is varied and colorful. Judah is a rapacious lion (Gen. 49:9), Issachar a lazy or stoic ass (v. 14), Dan a cunning serpent (v. 17), Naphtali a lovely hind (v. 21), and Benjamin a ravenous wolf (v. 27). Joseph, as a fruitful bough (porat; v. 23), breaks the series of zoological metaphors. Many interpreters prefer to read "wild ass" (pere) or "bull" (parah). The metaphors are used to focus upon some single striking feature in the tribal manner of self-defense or conquest (Judah, Dan, Benjamin), or to describe the bounteous natural setting (Naphtali, Joseph), or to explain an abject socioeconomic position (Issachar). Three of the sayings employ puns on tribal names. Dan "shall judge" (yadin, v. 16), Gad "shall raid" (yagud, v. 19), and Issachar ("man of wages" or "hired laborer") is said to have "bowed his shoulders to bear, and become a slave at forced labor" (v. 15). These literary features give the impression of being popular visualizations of tribal traits and experiences. The picturesque folkloristic motives of the sayings sharply circumscribe their direct historical value.

Critics have found it impossible to view the sayings within any single clearly delimited historical horizon. The preeminence of Reuben and the secular status of Levi suggest an early period before the rise of the monarchy. The ascendancy of Judah speaks for the late 11th century b.c.e. and verse ten strongly suggests the rule of David. The language is archaic and often obscure; it reflects ancient liturgical formulations with pronounced Canaanite influence in poetic forms, idioms, and concepts. The fullest understanding of Genesis 49 requires comparison with the similar Deuteronomy 33 and the related tribal sayings and blessings of Judges 5 and Numbers 23–24, as well as with the Ugaritic mythological texts and the Egyptian Story of Sinuhe (in: Pritchard, Texts, 18–22; cos i, 77–82). The broad milieu of the sayings is the struggle of the separate tribes to hold their own in the land against enemies and to adapt to the economies peculiar to the regions of settlement. Many realistic details of military and political combat show through the poetic embellishments. Judah has prevailed over nations and receives the homage of all the tribes (Gen. 49:8). Joseph has successfully turned back an attack or repeated attacks by archers, probably from the Canaanite cities of the plains (vs. 23–26). Dan and Gad have fought guerrilla-style actions as they harass their enemies' "heels" (vs. 17, 19). Benjamin feeds on the spoils of war (v. 27; profiting by another tribe's victory?). Distinctive features of tribal economics are noted. Judah is famed for its viticulture (vs. 11–12). Asher produces choice foods and delicacies fit for kings (v. 20). Naphtali's land is highly productive (v. 21; does "hind" refer to wild game, domesticated animals, or general agricultural bounty?). Zebulun controls shipping north of Mt. Carmel or supplies the crews for Canaanite-Phoenician ships (v. 13). Joseph dwells in the richest region in the land, full of "blessings of heaven… of the deep … of the breasts and of the womb" (v. 25). All the tribes act with commendable self-assertiveness, except that Issachar is chided for exchanging freedom for the security of a life of serfdom (v. 14; or is it being half-praised for its resourcefulness in making the most of a bad situation?). All in all, the sayings of Genesis 49 seem to have arisen separately and to have been collected secondarily in the present literary context. Their lively speech argues for oral recitation. But the purpose is uncertain. Only verses 25–26 contain a blessing proper which probably was recited at an agricultural festival. Most of the sayings have the character of scornful or admiring popular or mutual assessments of the tribes. The Judah saying has in part (v. 10) the character of a dynastic pronouncement.

Prior to the literary collection of the sayings, they probably had a cultic connection in the gathering of the tribal league to worship yhwh. This is suggested by the explicitly liturgical introduction and conclusion supplied to the similar collection of sayings in Deuteronomy 33:2–5, 26–29. It is further hinted at in the "my" of Genesis 49:6 and the "I" of 49:18 where a cultic spokesman is presupposed (in contrast to the "my" of 49:3–4 and the "I" of 49:7 which refer to the deity). Several of the sayings presuppose a feeling of belonging together among the tribes at an apparently preliterary stage (49:7b, 8, 16, 26). That the content and temper of the sayings are often secular, jocular, and satirical does not speak against an intertribal cultic context but shows rather the robustness and earthiness of early Yahwism. Whether precisely those sayings were ever cultically recited together at one time is unknown, since the literary editor may have artificially combined them from more than one source. It has been argued that at least two literary stages of collection were involved, corresponding to the early and late strands of the source J. The earliest literary version of the sayings may have concentrated on explaining why the elder sons of Jacob were not the prominent tribes in the collector's time. An estimate of the relative age of the tribal sayings in the several extant collections suggests that on the average those of Judges 5 are earliest, followed by Genesis 49, Deuteronomy 33, and Numbers 23–24 in that order.

[Norman K. Gottwald]

In the Aggadah

After his sons had assembled around his bed, Jacob warned them against dissension, since union is a precondition for Israel's redemption. Jacob wanted to reveal the exact time of the advent of the Messiah to his sons, but at that moment the Shekhinah ("Divine Presence") departed from him and his knowledge of this great mystery vanished (Gen. R. 98:2). Jacob thereupon became apprehensive lest one of his children was unfit and this was the cause of the departure of the Shekhinah. His sons, sensing his fears, exclaimed, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One: Just as there is only One in thy heart, so in our heart is there only One." Jacob immediately responded: "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever" (Pes. 56a).

When Jacob rebuked his eldest, Reuben, he told him that he should have had the double heritage of his primogeniture, the priestly dignity and the royal power. However, because of his sin, the birthright was conferred upon Joseph, kingship upon Judah, and the priesthood upon Levi (Gen. R. 98:4). Simeon and Levi were next reprimanded. God fulfilled Jacob's malediction that they be dispersed in Israel by causing the Levites to be on the move requesting tithes, and the Simeonites to be wandering mendicants (Gen. R. 99:7). After he had rebuked his first three sons, the remaining ones attempted to slip away since they feared that they too would be reproached. Jacob pacified them by approaching Judah with commendatory statements, and describing the noteworthy features of the Messiah who will descend from the House of Judah (Tanḥ. Va-Yeḥi, 10).

Zebulun was blessed before his elder brother, Issachar, because Zebulun enabled Issachar to devote himself to Torah study by providing him with sustenance (Gen. R. 99:9). The fruits in Issachar's territory grew to extraordinary size due to the merits of this tribe's devotion to Torah (Gen. R. 98:12). When blessing Dan, Jacob also envisioned his descendant, Samson, and thought him to be the Messiah. However, when Jacob saw him dead, he exclaimed, "He too is dead! Then 'I wait for thy salvation, O God'" (Gen. 49:18; Gen. R. 98:14). Jacob then declared that the redemption will not be achieved by Samson the Danite, but by Elijah the Gadite, who will appear at the end of days (Gen. R. 99:11). Asher's blessing was the beauty of his women, who would be sought in marriage by kings and high priests (Gen. R. 99:12; Tanh. Va-Yehi, 13). In Naphtali's land all fruits would ripen quickly, and they would be given as presents to kings to gain royal favor for the givers (Gen. R. 99:12). Joseph's blessing exceeded those of all his brethren. He was particularly praised for resisting the constant attempts of the daughters of princes to entice him, and for trusting in God when slandered before Pharaoh by the magicians and wise men of Egypt (Gen. R. 8:18; Targ. Yer. to Gen. 49:22–26).

The blessing bestowed upon Benjamin contains the prophecy that this tribe would provide Israel with both its first and last biblical rulers, Saul and Esther. Likewise, Benjamin's heritage in the Holy Land contains two extremes: Jericho ripens its fruits earlier than any other region in Ereẓ Israel while Beth-El ripens them latest. Jacob also referred to the Temple service in Benjamin's blessing because the sanctuary was to be situated in Benjamin's territory (Gen. R. 99:3).


O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, an Introduction (1965), 67, 75, 192, 196–8, 228–9; idem, in: vts, 4 (1957), 138–47; J. Coppens, ibid., 97–115; E. Good, in: jbl, 32 (1963), 427–32; H.L. Ginsberg, in: Divrei Sifrut… N.H. Tur-Sinai (1957), 144n; A. Gunneweg, in: zaw, 76 (1964), 245–55; H.J. Kittel, Die Stammessprueche Israels (1959); J. Lindblom, in: vts, 1 (1953), 78–87; E. Sellin, in: zaw, 60 (1944), 57–67; B. Vawter, in: cbq, 17 (1955), 1–18; H.J. Zobel, Stammesspruch und Geschichte (1965 = bzaw, 95). add. bibliography: S. Gevirtz, in: jbl, 90 (1971), 87–98; idem, in: Eretz Israel, 12 (1975), 104*–112*; idem, in: huca, 46 (1977), 33–54; idem, in: zaw, 93 (1981), 21–37; idem, in: huca, 52 (1981), 93–128; idem, in: vt, 37 (1987), 154–63; N. Sarna, jps Torah Commentary Genesis (1989), 331–46.