Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 49

In this chapter, Jacob gives a lengthy prophecy about the fate of his descendants.

There is a lot of complexity to this chapter, so beware, this will be a long commentary segment.

First I will give some general comments, then I will give a brief overview of Hebrew poetry, and then I will conclude by actually examining the contents of Jacob's prophecy.

The first thing to look at is cross-reference this chapter with Deuteronomy chapter 33, the Blessing of Moses.  It is structured very similarly to here, where Moses (on the eve of his death) gives his final blessing to the tribes of Israel, in poetic/prophetic form.  A fuller analysis of Deuteronomy 33 I will reserve for that chapters commentary (available here).  I strongly encourage my readers to compare and contrast these two chapters, since they are structured similarly and fulfill similar purposes.  You can also compare with 2 Samuel 23 (my commentary here), the "final words of David" and possibly some other "final words" that I'm forgetting, but I believe these three are the big ones, and really Jacob and Moses are by far more similar to each other than David is to either.

This whole pattern seems reminiscent of the modern emphasis on "famous last words" which still exists in Western culture to this day.

Next, note that while Jacob is using his sons' names, they are effectively serving as symbols for the later tribes that will be named after them.  That is, Jacob's prophecy for Reuben is not actually about Reuben himself, but about the Tribe of Reuben.  It is very interesting, then, that the actions and lives of the founders of these tribes would have so much import into their futures.  Of course, the same can be said of so many other human ventures.  Once again drawing upon the example of America, so much of our modern culture has been defined by the attitudes of the founding fathers, enshrined in the Constitution, and inherited down as the tenets of our existence, the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Jacob specifically states that this is a prophecy, when he says "what will befall you in the days to come", or literally "what will befall you in the end of the days".

Significantly, this entire prophetic segment is given in poetic form.  We have seen brief poetic segments earlier in Genesis (a few examples are Genesis 1:27, Genesis 4:23-24, Genesis 9:6-7), but this is by far the longest poetic segment in the entire book of Genesis.  The structure of Hebrew poetry is a long and complicated subject, which is far beyond the scope of my commentary here, but I will try to give a brief synopsis.  One of the most important aspects of Hebrew poetry is the placement of words into certain patterns.  One of the most common patterns is a chiasm.  This is essentially a mirrored structure like, A B B A.  Hebrew poetry also uses parallel structures where certain words recur for emphasis, or alternatively, instead of recurring words there is a conceptual parallelism.

In the examples I listed, look at Genesis 1:27.  Note the chiasm with "God created" and "image".  It says God created man in his image; in his image God created him.  This is a chiasm that emphasizes the creative act.

Next, look at Genesis 4:23-24.  There it says:
Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
Note the repetition between the first line and the third line, and the second line and the fourth line.  To wit, "Adah and Zillah, you wives of Lamech", "Listen to my voice, give heed to my speech".  This is the thematic parallelism that I'm talking about, where it repeats the same concept twice but using different words.  The other key element is that it alternates between one and the other.  This brief poem ends with another repetitive statement:
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.
 The first two lines are a conceptual repetition, and the last two lines are also a form of literary parallelism.  The difference is that in the last two lines, Lamech emphasizes his own vengeance over the vengeance of Cain, because he is avenged 77 fold, rather than Cain's 7 fold.  As I've said before, the number seven signifies completion or fullness, so 77 signifies excessive or absolute fullness.  We see this in Lamech's descriptions of his actions, where in exchange for being struck (a minor offense), he killed his assailant (a massive retaliation), showing that he indeed avenged himself much more greatly than he was wronged.

These are the most basic structures of Hebrew poetry.  The original Hebrew also typically used lots of wordplay (with similar sounding words, like the English "where", "wear", "ware") and puns, but unfortunately the vast majority of this wordplay and double entendres are lost in translation, and since I am not a Hebrew scholar, I am also largely unaware of that level of content.  I wish I were, but you can't be an expert at everything.

With all that said, we see all of these poetic patterns occurring here in Jacob's prophecy.  I'm not sure whether to call this passage poetic prophecy or prophetic poetry.  :)  I guess it's both.

Now for the main body of the text.  Jacob here gives 12 prophecies (Simeon and Levi combined, I suppose you could call it 11), and these are listed approximately in the order of the birth of his children, starting with Reuben and ending with Benjamin, his youngest, but the middle children are mixed up a bit (from Zebulun to Naphtali it is jumbled).  The ordering of names is usually one of the first things that I look at when given a list like this, and as a general rule, the Hebrews like to put names in chronological order by age, starting with the firstborn and moving down.  That is the case here, with the list of prophecies moving through the first four sons in chronological order: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.  After that it gets mixed up, and I'm not sure why.  I would guess that there's either some poetic reason which is not visible in the English translation, or just no reason at all.

Starting with Reuben, he is extolled as Jacob's strength.  Being the firstborn, he is the "first sign" of Jacob's virility in his ability to bear children, which as I've said over and over is very important in ancient Mideast culture.  The main element of Reuben's prophecy is that, due to his sleeping with Bilhah in Genesis 35, he is removed from his place of supremacy as the firstborn.  His right to a double portion of Jacob's inheritance is given to Joseph, and as we will see, this covers more than just the inheritance of his physical possessions.  The promised land is also treated as part of Jacob's inheritance, meaning that Joseph will have two portions of the promised land while every other son of Jacob gets just one.  It's astonishing to think that such a thing, which appears so brief in the much longer story, and is really mentioned just that one time out of the ~20 chapters covering the life of Jacob, would have such long-lasting impact on the shape of Israelite culture.  This is pretty much the last time it will be referred to, but the implication of Reuben's removal as the head household will affect pretty much the rest of Israelite history, and as we will see a different tribe will rise to preeminence.  Ephraim will be one of the most powerful tribes, but there is a different tribe that is even stronger...

There are two main aspects to Simeon and Levi's prophecy.  The first is Jacob's condemnation of their violence, an implicit reference to their actions against the Shechemites.  This is another one of those brief-but-impactful events in Genesis, and while Jacob was clearly angry with them at the time, you wouldn't think that he would hold it against them so many years later.  Yet, here we are.  The second aspect of Jacob's prophecy is that Simeon and Levi will be "dispersed in Israel."  This is a peculiar thing to say, but it has a specific meaning: the words "Israel" and "Jacob" are used to describe the promised land, which is the inheritance of Jacob and becomes the nation of Israel (or the sons of Israel, the two are interchangeable).  So when it says they will be dispersed, what it means is that they will not inhabit a fixed area, but will be spread across the whole land.

In order to understand this, you will need to have some idea what is about to happen in Israel's future, in about 500 years from Jacob's time.  Israel will come up from Egypt, take the promised land by force, and then settle it in "inheritances".  As I've alluded to, there are tribal inheritances, and there are also personal inheritances.  The land is divided into portions, with each tribe receiving a portion (the portions are of non-equal size, but we will see more about how the portions are divided later).  Once a tribe receives an inheritance, it is then subdivided for each of the clans and families within that tribe, so that all of the people in the tribe have a place to live and to farm.  This has a lot of consequences (not the least of which is their transition to agrarianism), and I promise I will talk about them at some point, but I won't cover those now.  These inheritances are passed down from father to son, and it is intended to become a permanent possession of each family and tribe in turn.  Since everyone takes a portion of their tribe's inheritance, all of the people of a tribe live in the same mostly-compact region.

Jacob's prophecy, then, is that Levi and Simeon will not hold a tribal inheritance.  Their people will be scattered throughout all of the tribal inheritances.  From the text, it appears that this is intended as a punishment for their "wrath, for it is cruel."  In the case of Levi, we will see later why this is, and it is explained in great detail.  However, for the case of Simeon the bible never tells us why or how Simeon is dispersed in the nations.  It is vaguely implied at a few points, but never more than that, so I'll explain now what happens to Simeon.  Their inheritance ends up being a portion engulfed by the much larger and more powerful Judah.  In the end, whether through intermarriage or other means, Simeon is essentially consumed by the tribe of Judah.

Judah is given the second most favorable prophecy, next to Joseph.  I always imagine Jacob, having discarded his three oldest sons, thinking to himself, "Judah is the oldest son I have who isn't a failure.  I'll bless him."  There's a certain irony to this given Judah's questionable actions in Genesis 38, but since none of those actions negatively affected Jacob, Jacob doesn't appear to hold it against him.  This prophecy forms a backdrop for Judah's later dominance that I alluded to above when discussing Simeon's prophecy.  The first verse of the prophecy is also a pun, since Judah's name means "praise", and Jacob says that his brothers will praise him.  Judah will eventually become the most powerful tribe of Israel and it's from Judah that we derive the word Jew, to describe sons of Israel.  It's with some irony, then, that one hears of some modern Jews who associate their descent to some tribe of Israel, like Levi or Ephraim, yet the very label of their faith names them are children of Judah.

The prophecy of Judah is a long list of blessings and statements of Judah's dominance.  A diligent reader could perhaps analyze these and look for deeper meaning, but I do not have time or space to do so here.  Perhaps the most important is in verse 10, which states that "the scepter shall not depart from Judah".  This statement is generally considered to be a prophetic prediction of King David, who is a descendant of Judah.  It is also interpreted more broadly to be a reference to the Messiah, whom Christians associate with Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the first messianic prediction we have seen since God spoke of the "seed of the woman" defeating Satan in Genesis 3.  As such, this is probably the most important prediction in Jacob's speech here, and if Genesis 49 is ever referenced by other people, most of the time they will probably reference this verse.

The first thing to understand about Zebulun's prophecy is that, like all of the prophecies here, it is speaking primarily about the tribe's future status when they return to the promised land.  Therefore the "seashore" possibly refers to the Mediterranean.  On further review, I'm more inclined to say that it refers to the Sea of Galilee.  Note that this prophecy is also possibly a pun on Zebulun's name (Zebulun roughly means "habitation" according to Strong's Hebrew Dictionary)  Historically, most modern scholars place Zebulun's territory as being approximately inbetween these two bodies of water without bordering on either of them.  So at first glance, you say this prophecy is unfulfilled.  Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for doubt in this assessment because there is very little historical documentation for how the territory of Zebulun shifted as the 12 tribes settled into the promised land.  As we will see, their initial assignment only vaguely matches where the tribes actually settled, and I don't think anyone has a clear idea how their demographics changed over the proceeding centuries.  In contemporary NT times, the area of Galilee was known in general to be the land of Zebulun and Naphtali (for instance, see Matthew 4:13 and 4:15).  The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are roughly mushed together and considered a single region.

As we move on to Issachar, the prophecies become more and more cryptic, even to me.  I've read other commentaries on this chapter, and being diligent scholars, many of these commentaries reach and reach and reach even further looking for a coherent explanation, but my suspicion is that the original meaning of this passage is now lost to us through the vagaries of time.  "Issachar finds a pleasant land and works it like a donkey."  This probably has something to do with the land Issachar settled as an inheritance and their behavior in that land, but I am not aware of any connection this has to other events in the bible at any point.

Dan's prophecy is similarly cryptic, except that it begins with another pun (the name Dan sounds like Hebrew for "judge").  However, in spite of pronouncing Dan the judge of his people, there are very few documented leaders from the tribe of Dan over the people of Israel.  The bible mentions perhaps one well-known leader from Dan in the book of Judges, and then in later history the kingship rests with Judah and the high priests are always from Levi.  The part about Dan being a "horned snake that bites the horse's heel" is similarly cryptic and there is no clear interpretation that I have ever heard.  The imagery of a serpent would refer to either sin or the devil (see Genesis 3), but why this is ascribed to Dan is perplexing.  While the tribe of Dan is known to commit various sins in later Israelite history, the same could be said for pretty much every other tribe so I have no idea why Dan would be specifically called out here.

"For Your salvation I wait, O LORD."  This is a wonderfully pious statement that doesn't have any apparent connection with the context of what is going on or the prophecies that immediately precede or follow it.  Maybe it would mean more to me if I spoke biblical Hebrew.

Gad, Asher, Naphtali: who knows?  Your guess is as good as mine, and it's not often I get to say that.  Seriously though, you can probably make something up and be as close to the truth as any explanation I've read so far.

Joseph's blessing is a fairly long one, which basically articulates that Joseph is very fruitful, has endured hardship with steadfastness, and has overcome with the help of God, the God of his fathers.  This is a good summary of Joseph's life, with questionable application to the tribes that bear his name (Ephraim and Manasseh).  Note that the form of the blessing is very closely reminiscent of the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac in Genesis 27, with the basic formula covering the richness of the sky above and the earth beneath and supremacy over his brothers.  Joseph's blessing is longer and more detailed than the one that Jacob received but the basic structure is very similar.

Ephraim and Manasseh were certainly both large and powerful tribes in Israel, and being in the far reaches of the north, they were frequently attacked by the peoples who lived in modern-day Syria.  I guess this is possibly what the prophecy is referring to.

The blessing of Benjamin is also somewhat cryptic, but can perhaps refer to Benjamin's renowned warriors.  There are several places in the bible where the warriors (and in particular the slingers) of Benjamin are ascribed with martial excellence.

When Jacob has finished speaking, he commands his children to bring his body to Canaan, showing his commitment to the promised land which is so important to the patriarchs and their later children.  And with that, the life of Jacob ends and we are almost ready for the tribal period of Israel's history, when they become more and more known as a "people" than a "person", while still maintaining a small set of distinguished leaders to be sure.

Told you this one would be long.

1 comment:

Anna Tan said...

Good stuff, Daniel.