In previous chapters, kids have been stand-ins for various nations: Esau represented the Edomites, Mizraim represented the Egyptians, Ishmael represents the “Bedouin tribes of the southern wilderness.” But now, the sons all represent different factions within the Hebrew people, commonly known as the 12 (+1) tribes of Israel.
The setup is this: On his deathbed, Jacob/Israel brings up each of his sons and issues a description of them that is *wink wink nudge nudge* indicative of their tribe’s place in later Hebrew society.
Reuben: First-born and, therefore, stands to be the principle inheritor. However, due to a little indiscretion, loses his primacy. My study bible says that Reuben “was once a leading tribe but in early times was overcome by the Moabites.” The confusing mention of him sleeping with his step mom in Genesis 35:22 is explained here as typifying “the tribe’s moral weakness and instability.” Now, Israel found out about this little bit of incest and didn’t say anything at the time, so it must come as quite the shock to Reuben to suddenly have this thrown into his face!
Simeon and Levi: These are the two who convinced the Shechemites back in Genesis 34 to cut off their foreskins and then killed them all while they were too sore to fight back. As punishment, they won’t get a territory to themselves, but instead Jacob/Israel will “divide them” and “scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7). My study bible notes that Levi became the priestly caste, while Simeon was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah.
Judah: Up until now, Judah has generally acted as spokesman for the family whenever Jacob/Israel isn’t around. This all makes sense now as Judah is destined to be the ruling class of the Hebrews. But Jacob/Israel imposes a time limit, saying that he shall rule until his sceptre “comes to whom it belongs” (Gen. 49:10). In the King James version, this verse makes reference to a specific individual: “The sceptre 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.” (Wiki has a brief and somewhat lacking explanation of this difference.) Once Shiloh or the true owner of the sceptre comes, there will be so much plenty that “his eyes shall be red with wine” (Gen. 49:12). Note: You know you’ve had too much when your eyes turn red.
Zebulun: Zebulun gets to live by the sea (not him personally, of course, since he is in Egypt) and “become a haven for ships” (Gen. 49:13).
Issachar: Issachar is a “strong ass” (Gen. 49:14). This may well be true, but it’s not the kind of thing one says in polite company. This is apparently a comment on their willingness to “surrender political independence in subservience to the Canaanites.”
Dan: Dan will become the judiciary caste. My study bible indicates that when he is referred to as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path” (Gen. 49:17), the reference is to the “insidious warfare of a small tribe in its rise to power.” Oooh, burn.
Gad: Gad will be raided, but “he shall raid at [the raiders’] heels” (Gen. 49:19). According to my study bible (on which I feel I am over-relying in this chapter), this is a commendation for “bravery in repelling Ammonite and desert marauders.”
Asher: Asher gets “royal dainties” (Gen. 49:20), referring to the rich and high yield lands he gets (the coastal strip between Mount Carmel and Phoenicia, says my study bible).
Naphtali: Naphtali gets compared to a “hind let loose” (Gen. 49:21). This is supposed to have positive connotations.
Joseph: Joseph gets blessings heaped on him and is commended for having continued to fight (“Yet his bow remained unmoved”) even when “fiercely attacked” (Gen. 49:23-24). He gets the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gen. 49:25). We also get a little pun at the end, where Joseph is said to receive all these blessings for he was “separate from his brothers” (Gen. 49:26), which could be taken literally as his separation from them while he lived in Egypt, or metaphorically as being set apart from the common rabble.
Benjamin: The ‘blessing’ given for Benjamin is presented without commentary from my study bible, so interpret as ye will. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at even diving the spoil” (Gen. 49:27).
Once all the blessings (to the extent that they are such) are dispensed, Jacob/Israel repeats his wish to be buried at Machpelah (the family burial plot that Abraham bought in Genesis 23).
And with that, he “drew up his feet into the bed, and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33).