As he lay dying, Jacob’s spirit rose to prophetic stature. The words he spoke to his sons were his last will and testament. Unlike the material or financial gifts associated with bequests today, Jacob’s bequests consisted of prophetic utterances and a series of blessings and curses. These had their roots in God’s earlier promise to Abraham. The inheritance involved a land, a nation and the coming of the Messiah (Genesis 12:1-3). While the promises did not involve wealth in the ordinary sense, they were the highest spiritual blessings that God would ever bestow upon a people.
Jacob’s sons represented the future tribes of Israel, so the fate of the entire nation was being spelled out in Jacob’s last words. He had a special word for each of his sons—a prophetic aspect about his future. In Genesis 49 a certain harshness bordering on sarcasm pervaded Jacob’s words. The actions of each son and their consequences were now brought into account.
To Reuben, Jacob said that his blessing as the firstborn had been forfeited because of his affair with his father’s concubine. The blessing of the inheritance had also departed from Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s second and third sons. In their case, it was judgment for their acts of violence against the Canaanite people. Jacob prophesied that Simeon and Levi would be scattered throughout Israel. This did happen to the tribe of Levi when it was set apart as the priestly tribe, its inheritance to consist of scattered cities in the territories of each of the other eleven tribes. Nevertheless, for them God turned the judgment aspect of that prophecy into a blessing. Their dispersion among the various tribes became symbolic of the fact that they had been chosen to represent the entire nation before God.
Then Jacob spoke to Judah, the fourth son of Leah. Logically, Judah did not deserve the family inheritance. The best thing he had ever done was to persuade his brothers not to kill Joseph, but to sell him into slavery instead. With a little more persuasion Judah might have convinced them to give up the whole idea, but at best, he had been only half-hearted in his attempt to save Joseph.
Judah also had family problems. His sons, who had childless marriages, would not provide properly for their sister-in-law Tamar. There was also the unsavory incident involving Tamar and Judah. Dressed as a prostitute by the roadside, Tamar enticed Judah. Later when she proved to be pregnant with his child, the whole deception was revealed and Judah recognized the bitter fact that his sons had let the family down.
Tamar had two sons, Perez and Zerah, who became the chief ancestors of the tribe of Judah. The messianic line was traced through Perez.
For Judah there was blessing, for it seems that his actions did not come under judgment. Genesis 49:8-10 records the first part of these blessings:
Judah, 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.
The first part of Judah’s blessing was that his kin would honor him in recognition of his family’s achievements:
King David and all subsequent kings came from Judah; Nahshon, head of all prophets, was the offspring of Judah; Othniel, first judge of Israel, came from Judah; the temples would be built by Judah’s descendants—Solomon and Zerubbabel (and ultimately the Messiah, Son of David, will replace the temple, according to Revelation 21:22).
The other aspects of Judah’s blessing were victory over his enemies, rulership of the nation, prosperity for Judah’s descendants, and that from his descendants Messiah would come.
Judah’s inheritance as predicted by Jacob was unexpected and unusual. It was not the typical inheritance involving money, land, livestock and family heirlooms. Rather it involved promises of things to come. If Judah were not a spiritual person he might have been disappointed with his father’s last gift.”
The greatest part of Judah’s gift or inheritance pronounced by Jacob came in the form of the tightly-worded prophecy in Genesis 49:10. Over the centuries this enigmatic passage has come under great debate:
The scepter 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.
For better understanding of this important gift it must be carefully unwrapped, phrase by phrase, so as not to miss any of its meaning and significance.
The scepter was a symbol of regency, or leadership over the nation. It was a kind of rod which showed that its holder had the right to punish. From this prophecy it appears that Judah, who was merely Jacob’s fourth son, was to be the ancestor of the dominant and ruling tribe in Israel. This did not come to pass or a period of more than 800 years. Judah became identified with the throne of Israel when David became king.
Shall not depart conveys the idea that no one would remove Judah’s scepter or Judah’s rulership over the people until a certain climax or objective had been reached.
From between his feet is more difficult. One interpretation is that as a king sat on his throne to pass judgment, the scepter or staff was placed between his feet. As long as the king was meting out judgments, the scepter remained in place as a visible symbol of his power.
Until Shiloh come is the most difficult segment of the whole verse. Who or what is Shiloh? In most translations of Scripture the Hebrew word is left as a proper noun, because its exact meaning is not known. One translation (The Hebrew Publishing Company) renders the phrase until he come to Shiloh, which some feel may have been an attempt by the translator to de-emphasize the messianic import of the text. While there was a city in Israel called Shiloh, it never assumed lasting significance, so we can speculate that the phrase had little to do with that city.
Omitting the tiny Hebrew letter yod from Shiloh as a possible variant, the word might be read shelo, literally “of him,” which could then interpret the phrase as “until he comes whose it is.” The basis of this interpretation comes from a passage in Ezekiel 21:27 (21:32 in the Masoretic text) which seems to echo the words of the Genesis 49 passage:
I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, and it shall be no more, until he comes whose right it is; and I will give it him.
The Shiloh phrase in that Ezekiel 21 passage reads asher lo, which translates into “which is to him.” A deep knowledge of Hebrew is not necessary to recognize the similarity between shelo and asher lo.
The question is, who is Shiloh? The rabbis have a terrific answer: He is Messiah. The ancient paraphrase, the Targum of Onkelos, says; “the Messiah, whose is the kingdom.” This is traditionally accepted in rabbinic circles. Even Rashi, the most respected and influential of all rabbinic commentators, said that Shiloh means the Messiah.
Again in Numbers 24:17 we see the idea of the Messiah coming from Judah:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near: There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And shall smite the corners of Moab…
The gathering of the people—the word yikhat, translated “gathering,” refers to an inner submission that is cheerfully rendered by all the people. The people (amim) would include the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
What does this mean? First, that the legitimate leadership of the nation Israel will fall to the tribe of Judah. Then, that the tribe of Judah will maintain visible authority until the Messiah comes. Finally, that to the Messiah will be given the willing obedience of both Jews and Gentiles.
Genesis 49:10 has been regarded as an important messianic prophecy for many centuries. Joseph Wolf, a missionary to the Jews in the early 19th century, recorded in his journals a trip from Austria to the Holy Land in which he had many interesting witnessing encounters. One discussion he recorded was his encounter with a rabbi in Gibraltar in 1812 over this very verse.
The rabbi translated it “The chastisement shall not depart from Judah…”
Wolf showed the rabbi how this was inconsistent with the text. He then asked, “Who is Shiloh?” The rabbi used gematria (a numerical system of interpretation) to show that the letters in the word Shiloh signified Moses.
It seems that the same discussions we are having today over this passage were going on almost two centuries ago.
As a Jewish believer in Yeshua, I offer my interpretation of this verse: The Messiah was to come to our people while the rulership of Judah was still visible. The last time there was any indication that Judah was a ruler ended in 70 A.D. with the destruction of the Second Temple. Since then there has been no pretense of anyone in Israel attempting to rule with the right and authority of the tribe of Judah, for the records of the genealogies have been lost. Now anyone who might come onto the scene and claim to be the Messiah would have no proof of his credentials because we lack the proper documentation.
Yeshua came at a time when the genealogies were still well kept and in order. In fact the whole reason for Yeshua’s family’s trip to Bethlehem prior to his birth was because they were from the tribe of Judah and the Davidic line, and for census and tax purposes they had to return to the city where the records were kept (Luke 2:1-5).
In Yeshua’s time the Davidic right to rule was understood, but the Romans prevented a Davidic king from acceding to the throne. King Herod and his family made a pretense of having a link to the Davidic blood line in an attempt to give more legitimacy to their rule.
Concerning the obedience of the people to Shiloh, Jews and Gentiles have willingly given Yeshua their obedience. What other Jew in history has ever had so many Gentiles give him their allegiance? Only Yeshua!!
Certainly the prophecy in Genesis 49:10 that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah has been fulfilled in Yeshua, and we are benefiting from it today.