Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel.” –Genesis 49:1-2
Jacob’s final words to his twelve sons are recorded here in Genesis 49. Layman’s Bible Commentary notes: “Jacob’s prophecies refer to the distant future (49:1). The double exhortation to give attention to Jacob’s words stresses the importance of what he is about to say (49:2). The prophecies included here are not the spontaneous thoughts of a dying man, but the carefully prepared words of a prophetic poet.”
You may read Genesis 49:1-28 here: Bible Gateway.
Although the oldest son was supposed to receive a double inheritance, Reuben would not be granted this privilege. Jacob asserts: “Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it,” (vs. 4). Reuben’s former dishonorable ways cost him in the end (Genesis 35:21).
True to Jacob’s prophecy, Reuben’s descendants never produce a significant leader or inherit the promised land.
The next two oldest sons—Simeon and Levi—also disinherit the land due to their unfaithfulness and unwillingness to repent (vs. 5-7). Jacob characterizes these two as remaining angry: “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel,” (vs. 7).
This prophecy is fulfilled as Simeon’s tribe later inherits land scattered throughout Judah’s territory (Joshua 19:1-9; 1 Chronicles 4:28-33, 39). Although the Levites become priests, they are scattered throughout the rest of the tribal lands. Notable descendants of Levi include: Aaron, Moses, Eli and John the Baptist.
These first three tribes disqualify from their reward for unrepentant sin (Ezekiel 18:30). However, Jacob’s prophecies about them are still a blessing as they remain in the chosen family and reap God’s promises as Jacob’s heirs.
Greater Responsibility Given to the Faithful
The principle of God giving more responsibility to those who use their gifts and resources for His kingdom purposes (Luke 19:26) is seen with Jacob’s nine acceptable sons. Jacob uses poetic images along with word-plays for most of his sons’ names to describe their tribes’ destiny.
Prophecies of Jacob’s Sons Who Inherit the Land
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.” -Genesis 49:28
- Judah – His brothers will bow down to him as “his hand will be on the neck of [his] enemies,” (vs. 8). “The scepter will not depart from Judah,” (vs. 10) means God chose Judah to be the ancestor of Israel’s line of kings, including Jesus, the promised Messiah. Leadership of Judah’s descendants, however, wouldn’t come until 640 years later under King David.
- Zebulun – “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships,” (vs. 13). His promised territory would be between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee.
- Issachar – Rather than political pursuits, Issachar will settle around agriculture (vs 14-15). “When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor,” (vs.15). This suggests Issachar is capable, but lazy. Unlike lion-like Judah who subdues his enemies, Issachar submits to the Canaanites.
- Dan – His prophecy of “providing justice for his people” partially comes to light during Samson’s era (Judges 13). Dan’s victories help Israel, but his people also lead Israel into idolatry (Judges 18:30-31; 1 Kings 12:26-30). His territory later becomes known as Israel’s center of idolatry (Amos 8:14).
- Gad – His tribe becomes known as victorious fighters over every foreign army they battle (vs. 19; Jeremiah 49).
- Ashar – “Ashar’s food will be rich” (vs. 20). Some of Canaan’s most fertile ground will be given to this tribe (Deut. 33:24-25; Joshua 19:24-31).
- Naphtali – Articulate speakers and gifted literature would arise from this tribe. Deborah, who composes a song of military victory, is an example (Judges 5:1-31). Naphtali’s land, located around the Sea of Galilee, is where much of Jesus’ ministry happens (Matthew 4:15-16). Other notable descendants include Barak, and possibly Elijah.
- Joseph – “Joseph is a fruitful vine . . . .” (vs. 22). Although Judah is given leadership of the tribes, Joseph is blessed with the double portion of the birthright (1 Chronicles 5:2). The tribes from Joseph’s two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh—will see this prophecy’s fulfillment. Joseph, who faced much adversity, is credited with his “bow remaining steady, his strong arms staying limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob” (vs. 24). God enabled Joseph to draw closer to Him when trials mounted. Therefore, “let all these [blessings] rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers,” (vs.26). Notable descendants of Joseph include: Joshua, Gideon and Samuel.
- Benjamin – “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf . . . .” (vs. 27) This tribe would be known for their fierceness (Judges 19-21) who demonstrates warlike character (Judges 5:14; 20:16; 1 Chronicles 8:40; 2 Chronicles 14:8; 17:17). Notable aggressive descendants include: Ehud (Judges 3:15-23), King Saul (1 Samuel 9:1; 14:47-52), and the Apostle Paul, previously known as Saul (Acts 8:1-3).
Regardless of their faithfulness, all of Jacob’s 12 sons have a future and a blessing. However, only the faithful sons would inherit the land.
Likewise, although believers can’t earn forgiveness and salvation, our attitudes and actions matter. How we live determines our future blessings in God’s program.