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An Early Text for Later Messianic Conceptions: A Look at Genesis 49:8-12

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The New Testament (NT) writers constantly employed the Old Testament (OT) in their preaching about Christ. And there is good reason, of course, for they believed that all of the OT spoke to the coming of Christ, either directly or indirectly, by type, example, etc. Jesus said in Luke 24:44 that everything that was spoken about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms had to be fulfilled. This means that in some way there is reference to him as the messiah/savior/priest/king throughout the whole OT, including the Pentateuch (for this made up the “law” as Luke referred to it here). It is to the Pentateuch, and to Genesis 49:8-12 in particular, that we now turn our attention in this short paper. (This paper is one of several to follow which will attempt to show Davidic regal conceptions in the Old Testament as backdrop for the NT presentation of the Messiah.)1

Perhaps one of the most intriguing traditions found in the “Testament of Jacob,” as Genesis 49:3-27 is often referred to,2 concerns the blessing on Judah in vv. 8-12. According to Wenham this passage alone “has provoked more discussion than the whole of the rest of the chapter.”3 Questions about the precise significance of the various images (e.g., “lion’s cub,” “between his feet,” etc.), the original wording of v. 8 (cf. 1QM 12:10),4 the use (i.e., Sitz im Leben) of the tradition before its incorporation into the text, and the essential unity of the poem as a whole, are legion and it appears that no consensus is in sight on most of the issues; the passage has had, especially since the 19th century and the rise of critical scholarship, a diverse history of interpretation.5 It is not our purpose here to attempt systematic answers to all the queries arising out of this text, but instead to surface certain elements important for understanding regal hope in the Old Testament and the kinds of ideas NT writers were free to draw on and utilize in their preaching about Christ. It is the images concerning Judah which will become important for subsequent Jewish thinking about the Messiah and his kingdom for they outline in incipient form a portrait of a coming king. The focus of this study is not on the NT’s use of Gen 49:8-12, but on the text of Genesis 49 itself and the kinds of regal ideas it advances.

Date and Literary Integrity of Genesis 49:8-12

The prevailing view among critical scholars today regarding the date of the traditions reflected in the poem partly depends on one’s view of the literary integrity of the unit. For those who see the poem as essentially a collection of disparate traditions the dates range accordingly, from pre-monarchic for certain traditions to post-exilic for others. For those, on the other hand, who maintain the essential literary integrity of the unit, the date of composition ranges, based on internal considerations such as the places where the tribes are said to live (cf. Zebulon in v. 13) and the exalted emphasis on Judah vv. 8-12 and the tribe of Joseph, from some time in the period of the Judges with still later modifications in the monarchic period.6 There is, however, good evidence for an even earlier date (e.g., the lack of reference to Mosaic legislation of any kind), but on any reasonable reckoning it may be considered one of the oldest parts of the Bible.7

Regal Conceptions in Genesis 49:8-12

There are several features of the coming ruler and his rule that Genesis 49:8-12 introduces and upon which, either verbally or conceptually, later writers appear to make use. The beginning of verse 8 ühT*a hd*Why+ (“You are Judah”) with the use of the second person pronoun serves to underscore the fact that the predication to follow uniquely and singularly concerns Judah,8 that is, ultimately the tribe as a whole, and though some commentators disagree, the verses as a whole are extremely lauditory in nature.9 It is said that Judah will be praised by his brothers (v. 8a) and that they will bow down to him (v. 8c) probably because he has earned it in that he has conquered his enemies (i.e., put his hand on their necks10) and undoubtedly because, as his brothers, they will certainly benefit in Judah’s victories.11 As the tribe goes so goes the nation. This will be developed quite extensively in the covenant made with David some years later (2 Sam 7:6-16).

The idea of Judah’s strength is evidenced in the reference to him as “a lion’s cub going up (tyl!u* yn]b= [rF#m!) from the prey.” Though some have understood tyl!u* as a reference to “being reared” on prey (cf. Ezek. 19:3), “it is better to understand it of the lion’s ascent, after a raid, to his mountain fastness, where he rests in unassailable security.”12 Thus the image speaks of Judah’s power and supremacy among the tribes and over her enemies. His sovereignty is expressed in that no one dare challenge him, i.e., “rouse him.” This brings to mind the comments of the psalmist who, when speaking of God’s Davidic king, said, “Therefore you kings be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment” (Psalm 2:10-12a NIV; see also Ps 110).

Though some have found the transition to the metaphor of a scepter (fb#v@) and ruler’s staff (qq@{jm=13 [v. 10]) a difficult one, it need not be if the general underlying principal of leadership and dominance be seen to be carried through in this second image. There are many difficult phrases to translate and deal with here, but the overall thrust is clear enough. The point of the image is that Judah will continue to rule14 until hylv (Shiloh) comes and the obedience of the nations is his [i.e., hlyv]. Thus the rule of Judah as crystallized in hlyv is here envisioned by Jacob as extending beyond the borders of Israel to include the entire world, though perhaps not in a completely absolute sense. The fact that the nations of the earth shall benefit (i.e., on the idea of a beneficial rule see comments on v. 11, 12) is in keeping with the author’s view of God’s covenant promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “in you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” But we must return now to take a closer look at the enigmatic hylv.

There are four prominent interpretations of Genesis 49:10b which will be briefly cited here.15 First, the text may be translated as “until he comes to Shiloh.”16 The point, then, would be that a Judean ruler will come to control Shiloh which is understood to refer to a sacred sanctuary in Ephraim. A significant problem with this view is that here the writing of hlyv is plene, but the place name is written defectively, hlv. Second, the LXX (and other versions) read “until he comes whose it is.” The point of the statement, then, is that rulership (i.e., the scepter and the rod) will not depart from Judah until one comes to whom the right to rule belongs. Third, Westermann17 and von Rad18 suggest that hlyv was originally hlvm and, therefore, referred to a Davidic ruler or messianic figure. Fourth, several commentators suggest that the Hebrew need only be repointed as h{l yv^ ab*y| “until tribute is brought to him” to make good sense. As Wenham argues, this “solution has the advantage of requiring no consonantal changes and makes a nice parallel with the following clause.”19 The most important point for our consideration, however, is not the precise referent for the term alyv but the fact that on any reasonable reading of the passage, a future ruler is envisaged and that he may well go beyond just a political figure, but indeed may be characterized as an escahtological20 regal triumphant figure.21 As Gunkel points out, the mention of olw+ clearly indicates that a person is in view here.22

The images in verse 11 have undergone no little discussion, but while there are differences of opinion on specific points the overall meaning is fairly straightforward. Here the promised ruler of the preceding verse is seen to tether his donkey to a vine, wash his clothes in wine, and his appearance speaks of beauty and health.23 The lavish language describes a time when there will be extravagent blessing symbolized by the abundance of wine and milk. The image “is a common biblical figure of divine favor and prosperity.”24 The connection of an ideal earth with a coming ruler was made at several points in later writers (cf. e.g. Isa 11:1-9; Ezek 34:23-31; Amos 9:11-15; Ps 72:16). There may also be another inference to be drawn from the grape imagery which could have implications for later writers. Hamilton explains:

It is clear that wine is not exactly the same as grape’s blood. The first refers to the finished product. The second refers to the crushing of the grapes. May we have here a pastoral image, but within which there is the intimation of violence? May there be both a laundering of wine and a laundering of blood? To his own this one will bring joy and fullness; to those who reject him he brings terror.25


In summary, then, Genesis 49:8-12, while containing many exegetical difficulties, nonetheless provides a well of very early regal conceptions which later writers were free to draw from, use (cf. Pss 45, 72, 89, 110, 132; Hos 3:5; Amos 9:11-15; Is 9:6-7; 11:1ff, etc.), and adapt according to the profile of the regal/eschatological figure they wished to sketch.26 The passage, then, is a prophecy of David and the Davidic kingdom. It envisions a regal figure who will come from the tribe of Judah. Both Judah’s brothers and many others will benefit as a result of his rule. He will exhibit strength and defeat his foes with none to overthrow him. The scope of his rule includes not only the tribes of Israel, but also the nations. In connection with his coming there will be tremendous blessing and divine favor. In light of vv. 11-12 it is highly likely that later writers would not have viewed the prophecy as in any real final sense fulfilled at the time of David, but that more could be anticipated at a future time. This, of course, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who as a descendant of David and the line of Judah is the only One who exhausts the regal language employed in the text. The Lord will ultimately defeat all his enemies (Rev 19) and there will be a time of great worldwide blessing to Israel and the nations through him (Rom 11:25-32; Rev 20:4-6). Certain aspects of the kingdom have been inaugurated at the king’s first coming and the consummation awaits his return. For example, we have the Spirit now, but we will be completely glorified when he returns (cf. e.g., Acts 3:19-22 and 13:16-41) and Israel will be restored to the kingdom at that time (Rom 11:25-32). The next paper in this series will focus on the “star” imagery of Numbers 24:17-19 where these regal hopes are further elaborated upon.

1 There is an ongoing discussion among scholars as to the precise date for the development of the “messianic” idea in Israel. The present author is not arguing that this text as originally given has all the messianic intent of later texts, but only that with its exalted regal language it is ripe fodder for later writers to nourish their messianic hopes on. After we have looked at several texts throughout the OT and the intertestamental period, we will then examine the NT to see where and how these ideas are utilized.

2 See E. A. Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 370.

3 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2, ed. John D. W. Watts (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1994), 2: 475. See also Andr Caquot, “La parole sur Juda dans le testament lyrique de Jacob,” Semitica 26 (1976): 5, who says, “Sans tre la plus obscure des onze paroles que Gense 49 prte Jacob, la sentence du patriarche concernant son fils Juda est l’une des plus discutes.”

4 For the argument, on the basis of parallels with 1QM 12:10, that this line was originally a couplet, see S. Gevirtz, “Adumbrations of Dan in Jacob’s Blessing on Judah,” ZAW 93 (1981): 23-24.

5 For a history of the interpretation of Genesis 49:10 and its relation to Deuteronomy 33 see J. D. Heck, “A History of Interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33,” BSac 147 (1990): 16-31. He says that “there continue to be two major streams of interpretation, the traditional and the critical, with the latter predominating and with each position largely rejecting the other. Among critical scholars, those who follow the Albright-Bright-Wright reconstruction of Israelite history are in the minority. Those who follow the Noth-Alt-von Rad reconstruction of Israelite history with its amphictyonic hypothesis reflect the dominant interpretation of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33.”

6 See for example, Hermann Gunkel, Genesis, Mercer Library of Biblical Studies, trans., Mark E. Biddle (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 452, who says, “The sayings of Gen 49 belong to various eras. The saying concerning Judah clearly presupposes that Judah rules the other tribes. The context of the song shows how Judah acquired the birthright. This points to the time of David or Solomon.” Gunkel’s statement rests on the premise that the poem was not a unified composition, but instead a collection of divergent traditions, and a vaticinium ex eventu approach to prophetic material. The latter premise remains to be argued by those in theology and philosophy (and one which the present author strongly rejects as necessary), but the former has been critiqued by several scholars. See e.g. Von Horst Seebass, “Die Stmmesprüche Gen 49 3-27,” ZAW 96 (1984): 333-50; Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols., trans., Sophia Taylor (n.p.: T & T Clark, 1888; reprint Minneapolis, MN: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1978), 2:366, reacts to the idea that the poem as a whole belongs in the period of the Davidic monarchy, or in the period of the Judges, but insists that it goes back to Jacob himself and that “testamentary words of a prophetic character might be expected from the departing ancestor of the chosen people.”

7 See Gleason Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 155, 56 for arguments against dating that rests on the so-called J editor at the time of the united monarchy and later.

8 The contrast between Judah and the other tribes, including Joseph (though he is accorded much in the blessing as well; vv. 22-26) is apparent from even a cursory glance at the poem as a whole (cf. Reuben, vv. 3-4, who will no longer excel; Simeon and Levi, vv. 5-6 whose unrighteous and uncontrollable anger is cursed; Issachar, vv. 14-15 will submit to forced labor, etc.).

9 The expression “your brothers will praise you” (;yj#a^ ;Wdoy) invovles assonance and a word-play (i.e., pun) between ;Wdoy and hd*Why+. The fact that Judah is praised is important for indicating the positive nature of the blessing, for on only three other ocassions are people said to be praised in the OT: Job 40:14; Pss 45:18[17], 49:19[18]. But cf. Edwin M. Good, “The Blessing on Judah in Genesis 49: 8-12,” JBL (1963):427-32, who argues that the blessing only appears to be laudatory and messianic, but is underneath built on irony and results in a scathing indictment on the tribe for Judah’s dealings with Tamar in chapter 38. At certain points Calum M. Carmichael, “Some Sayings in Genesis 49,” JBL (1969): 435-444, follows Good, but disagrees with inferring from the “staff” something about the conception of the twins; he does not see the same connections to chapter 38 on the basis of fbv since in 38:18 the term is hfm. According to Carmichael, the connection, if it exists at all, is only by a “loose association of ideas.” He also disagrees with Good’s interpretation of the ass and vine imagery. But we must reject this approach outrightly because it 1) is extremely subtle [Carmichael admits as much, p. 438] and at certain points quite strained; and 2) rests on the dubious reading of verse 8 as judgmental. See Wenham, Genesis, 475; Hamilton, Genesis, 2:657.

10 Usually it is the foot that the victor puts on the neck of the downed foe, but here it is the hand—a fact which has led to attempts at emendation. See e.g., Anderson, “Orthography in Repetitive Parallelism,” JBL 89 (1970): 344. The occurrence of the phrase, however, at Qumran, i.e., 1QM 12:11, should quell the need for such hypothetical reconstructions: 1QM 12:11 says: “…Set Thy hand upon the neck of Thine enemies and Thy foot upon the heap of the slain” (italics mine)! See A. Dupont-Sommer, The Essene Writings from Qumran, ed. Geza Vermes (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), 187.

11 That there is indeed a causal relationship between the praising and the fact that Judah has subdued his enemies is evidenced by the causative hiphil form of W;doy in the first line of the blessing.

12 John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, The International Critical Commentary, ed. S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C. A. Briggs, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1930), 519.

13 The two terms fb#v@ and qq@{jm= are interchangeable in that they both represent political authority and leadership. So Claus Westermann, Genesis 37-50, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1982), 230. See also B. Margulis, “Gen. XLIX/DEUT.XXXIII 2-3: A New Look at Old Problems,” VT 19 (1969):203.

14 The phrase “between his feet” is not a euphemism for the male sexual organ, but shows the mace or ruler’s staff placed in a position of authority; it is from this position of authority and leadership that the staff will not depart. See ANEP no. 463; Hamilton, Genesis, 2:658, n. 26.

15 Other solutions involve emendations to the consonantal text or unlikely etymologies. See Margulis, “Gen. XLIX/DEUT.XXXIII 2-3,” 203, who proposes yv^ <a!B> a{by` for the MT. See also L. Sabotka, “Noch Einmal Gen 49:10 Bib 51 (1970): 225-29, who understands the Hebrew preposition du to refer to a “throne.” Westermann, Genesis 37-50, 3:231, suggests (along with several other commentators) alyv be explained on the basis of an Akkadian loanword @l% “ruler.” These solutions are precocious and tenuous at best.

16 In this reading the h in hlyv is directive.

17 Westermann, Genesis 37-50, 3:231.

18 G. von Rad, Genesis, 425, 26. He says that the one to come, in light of verses 11 and 12 “is almost a Dionysiac figure” which is probably saying too much about this person.

19 Wenham, Genesis, 478.

20 By the term eschatological here we refer to the time envisioned in vv. 11-12 wherein there is an abundance of divine blessing concomitant with the arrival of the regal figure.

21 Cf. Gunkel, Genesis, 456.

22 Gunkel, Genesis, 456.

23 Gunkel, Genesis, 458.

24 Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis ty?arb, The JPS Torah Commentary, gen. ed. Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia/New York/Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 337.

25 Hamilton, Genesis, 662.

26 We will deal with those passages as we move through the survey.

Related Topics: Christology, Prophecy/Revelation