Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 1. Last. Hebrew, “future days.” It was an ancient and commendable custom, for parents to assemble their children in their last moments, to give them salutary instructions. They often also foretold to them what should happen. See Deuteronomy xxxi; Josue xxiv; 1 Kings xii; Tobias iv. 3; 1 Machabees ii. Cyrus and Socrates both believed that they had then an insight into futurity. (Calmet)
Ver. 3. My strength, &c. He calls him his strength, as being born whilst his father was in his full strength and vigour: he calls him the beginning of his sorrow, because cares and sorrows usually come on with the birth of children. — Excelling in gifts, &c., because the first-born had a title to a double portion, and to have the command over his brethren, which Ruben forfeited by his sin; being poured out as water; that is, spilt and lost. (Challoner) — In command. He ought to have succeeded to his father in authority. But Joseph entered in upon his rejection, 1 Paralipomenon v. 1. The priesthood was given to Levi’s descendants; and the regal power, partly to those of Joseph, who reigned over the ten tribes, for a long time; and partly to the posterity of Juda, who exercised dominion over all the people of Israel. (Chaldee) (Worthington)
Ver. 4. Grow thou not. This was not meant by way of a curse or imprecation; but by way of a prophecy, foretelling that the tribe of Ruben should not inherit the pre-eminences usually annexed to the first birth-right, viz., the double portion, the being prince or lord over the other brethren, and the priesthood: of which the double portion was given to Joseph, the princely office to Juda, and the priesthood to Levi. (Challoner) — Thou hast abandoned thyself to thy brutal passion; do so no more, ne adjicias. (St. Jerome, q. Heb.) Let Ruben live, and die not; let him be small in number, Deuteronomy xxxiii. 6. His tribe never became very considerable. (Calmet) — Couch. See chap xxxv. 22. Eternal infamy attends the name of Ruben. (Haydock)
Ver. 5. Brethren. Born of the same parents; similar in disposition. — Vessels; instruments. Septuagint and Chaldean, “they have completed wickedness,” as they read calu, instead of the present Hebrew cele, which is adopted by Aquila. (Calmet)
Ver. 6. Slew a man, viz., Sichem, the son of Hemor, with all his people, chap. xxxiv. Mystically and prophetically it alludes to Christ; whom their posterity, viz., the priests and the scribes, put to death. (Challoner) — A wall, Sichem, which they destroyed: or, according to the Septuagint, “they ham-strung” a bull, as the same Hebrew word signifies; both which may refer to the prince of the town, or to Joseph, (Calmet) in whose persecution these two were principally concerned. Jacob declares, he had no share in their attack upon the people of Sichem: his soul, or his glory, was not impaired by their misconduct. (Haydock)
Ver. 7. Scatter them. Levi had no division allotted to him, but only some cities among the other tribes; and Simeon had only a part of Juda’s lot, which was so small, that his descendants were forced to seek for a fresh establishment; some in Gader, others in Mount Seir. (1 Paralipomenon iv. 39; Josue xi. 2.) Simeon alone was not blessed by Moses, Deuteronomy xxxiii. (Du Hamel) — The Levites obtained a blessing, on account of their distinguished zeal; (Numbers xxv.) while Zambri rivets, as it were, the curse upon the family of Simeon. (Menochius)
Ver. 8. Praise. He alludes to his name, his martial prowess, and dominion over all his brethren; who should be all called Jews, and submit to his sway. Some explain all this of Jesus Christ; others refer the first part of the prophecy to Juda. (Haydock)
Ver. 9. A lion’s whelp, &c. This blessing of Juda foretelleth the strength of his tribe, the fertility of his inheritance, and principally that the sceptre, and legislative power, should not be utterly taken away from his race till about the time of the coming of Christ: as in effect it never was: which is a demonstration against the modern Jews, that the Messias is long since come; for the sceptre has long since been utterly taken away from Juda. (Challoner) — This none can deny. Juda is compared to a lion, which was the emblem of his royal dignity, and was borne in the standards of that tribe. — To the prey. Hebrew, “from the prey.” He proceeds from victory to victory. He couches, ready to fall upon his prey; and, retiring to the mountains, is still eager to renew the attack. (Calmet) — Read the history of David and of Solomon, who, both in peace and war, were a terror to the surrounding nations.
Ver. 10. The sceptre. Almost every word in this verse has been explained in a different manner. But all the ancient Jews agree with Christians, that it contains a prediction of the Messias, and points out the period of his coming. Whether this was verified when Herod, a foreigner, got possession of the throne, and was acknowledged by the Jews, just about the time of our Saviour’s nativity, as most of the fathers suppose; or it only took its full effect when Agrippa II lost all his power, the temple and the city were laid in ruins, and the whole nation dispersed for ever, it is not perhaps so easy to determine. In either supposition, the Messias has long since come. Jacob foretels, either that Christ would make his appearance as soon as the Jews should fall under a foreign yoke, and in this sense he was born about the 37th year of Herod the great — or he should come just before the kingdom of Juda should have an end, which took place in the 70th year of the Christian era, or about 37 years after the public appearance and death of our Saviour. The sceptre shall not depart irrevocably from the Jews; over whom the tribe of Juda had always the greatest authority in appointing the princes, when they were not selected from the tribe itself, or from his thigh; till the Messias, who has been expected so long, shall come and gather all nations into his Church. Then the designs of Providence, in watching over the Jews, being accomplished, their republic shall be dissolved, because they have shed his blood, instead of acknowledging his celestial beauty, ver. 12. The evident signs of decay in the kingdom of the Jews, were sufficient to excite the attention of all to look for the Messias; and we read, both in St. John iv. 25, in Tacitus, and Suetorius, that his appearance was fully expected about that time. The sceptre is the emblem of sovereign, though not always independent, power. Juda and his posterity were always at the head of their brethren. They marched first in the wilderness; two of the judges were of this tribe. But their chief glory began with David, whose posterity the whole nation obeyed, till Jeroboam tore away the ten tribes. Still the tribe of Benjamin and the Levites adhered to Juda. During the captivity, there were judges admitted to superintend over their brethren; and King Joakim was raised to high authority. The rulers who came into power after the return of the Jews, were either of this tribe, at least by the mother’s side, or were chosen and recognized by the tribe of Juda. Even Herod, in this sense, might be considered as a Jewish king, though a foreigner, as well as a Thracian might be counted a Roman emperor, without any diminution of the imperial authority of Rome. Perhaps indeed he was an usurper, till the nation acknowledged his authority two years after the birth of Christ. (Philo, de Temp. ii; Josephus, Antiquities xvii. 3.) “Herod was the first foreign king admitted by the Jews.” (St. Augustine, City of God xviii. 45.) If, therefore, no stranger was to be acknowledged by the nation, till He came, who was to establish a spiritual and everlasting kingdom, the moment was arrived, when the Jews submitted to Herod, and Christ had actually been born two years. — From Juda, or from that tribe; for Jacob gave peculiar blessings to each; (ver. 28,) and hence the fathers gather, that the Messias should spring from Juda. — Ruler from his thigh, lineally descended from him, or acknowledged at least by his posterity, as all the legal princes were till the coming of Christ. — Mechokek might also signify a teacher or scribe expounding the law of Moses, which subsisted for the same period; but this is more probably a farther explication of the sceptre, &c. (Calmet) — Till had ci, which words being joined together, are always taken in this sense. (Helvicus.) — Sent. Schiloach (or Ssolué) seems to have been in St. Jerome’s copy, though we now read Shiloh (or Ssole) “to whom” the authority belongs; Septuagint, “to whom all things are reserved; or till the things arrive, which are laid up for him. (Calmet) — Expectation, or congregation of nations, as Aggeus afterwards foretold, ii. 8. If we examine all the plausible explications which have been given to this verse, we shall find that they all tend to convey the same truth. “The sceptre (shebet, rod, crook, power or tribe) shall not depart (cease, be taken off) from Juda, (the tribe or the Jews) nor a leader (scribe, lawyer, or legislator) from his thigh, (between his feet, or from his banners) till He, who shall be sent, (shio, the pacific, his son, to whom it is, or the things are, reserved) arrive; and Him shall the nations expect, (and obey) to Him they shall look up (and be gathered). Whom will the Jews point out to whom all these characters agree, except our divine Lord, whom they also must one day adore? (Haydock)
Ver. 11. Foal. The nations, which had not been subjected to the yoke of the old law. — Vineyard; the house of Israel, the vineyard of the Lord of hosts, Isaias v. 7. Christ broke down the wall of separation, and made both one, Ephesians ii. 14. — His ass, or the Jews. — O my son; Juda, the Saviour king, who shall be born of thee, shall tie both Jews and Gentiles to the vine, which is himself, John xv. To the Jews he shall preach in person; but the Gentiles he shall call by his apostles, chosen out of the vineyard of the Jewish church. (Menochius) — He shall wash his robe, his flesh, and his garment, or all his disciples, in his own blood; adorning them with all graces by means of his death, which must be applied to their souls, in the holy sacraments devoutly received, and in the Mass, where his blood is offered under the appearance of wine. (Haydock) See St. Ambrose, &c. Tertullian, (against Marc. iv.) shewing that Christ fulfilled the figures of the old law, interprets the stole to mean his body, and wine his blood. (Worthington) — Jacob alludes also to fertility and abundance of vines, which should enrich the portion of Juda, particularly about Engaddi, Canticle of Canticles i. 13. (Calmet)
Ver. 12. Beautiful. The eyes and teeth contribute much to the beauty of a face. Our Saviour, rising form the dead, filled the hearts of the beholders with joy, as wine exhilarates the heart of man. (Menochius) — The spouse in the Canticle of Canticles, (ver. 12,) compares the eyes of the bridegroom to the shining reddish, or fiery ones of pigeons: chaclili, beautiful, means shining red, &c. Jesus Christ seems to allude to this prophecy of Jacob, (Matthew xxi. 43. and John x. 16,) telling the Jews, that the kingdom of God should be taken from them, and one fold should be established for all. God would then cease to distinguish the Jews by any other marks than those of his wrath. He would no longer be their king and shepherd. His sceptre, or pastoral crook, should be taken off the tribe of Juda, and it should be confounded with the rest, as it is at this day. (Calmet)
Ver. 13. Road. The territory of Zabulon was famous for good harbours, being situated between the Mediterranean and the sea of Genezareth. (Menochius) — Jacob marks out the limits to be assigned his children, 200 years before Chanaan was conquered; and Moses wrote this before they possessed a foot of land in it. The reason why Zabulon is placed before his elder brother Issachar, is not known. — Sidon: not the city, but the territory of Sidon, or Phenicia. (Calmet)
Ver. 14. Strong. Hebrew, “bony ass.” Many of Jacob’s children are compared to animals, which was customary in the eastern style. Homer compares Ajax with the ass, for his strength and patience, Iliad xii. Jacob thus indicates the laborious disposition of Issachar’s tribe, which did not delight in war. Their country was the most fruitful of all Galilee. (Calmet)
Ver. 16. Dan shall judge, &c. This was verified in Samson, who was of the tribe of Dan, and began to deliver Israel, Judges xiii. 5. But as this deliverance was but temporal and very imperfect, the holy patriarch (ver. 18,) aspires after another kind of deliverer, saying: I will look for thy salvation, O Lord. (Challoner) — Many have supposed, that Antichrist will be one of his descendants, which makes Jacob break out into this exclamation. (Haydock) — See St. Irenæus, Against Heresies v. 30, &c. Samson exercised his ingenuity in discomfiting the Philistines. But Antichrist will be far more subtle in deluding the faithful. (Menochius) — The Danites took Lais, afterwards called Cæsarea Philippi, by stratagem, Judges xviii. (Tirinus)
Ver. 19. Gad, being girded, &c. It seems to allude to the tribe of Gad; when, after they had received for their lot the land of Galaad, they marched in arms before the rest of the Israelites, to the conquest of the land of Chanaan: from whence they afterwards returned loaded with spoils. See Josue i. and xxii. (Challoner) — He alludes continually to the name of Gad, which signifies one “girded, or a troop.” See Osee vi. 8; Numbers xxxii. 17. (Calmet)
Ver. 20. Fat, delicious. This country was very luxuriant, Deuteronomy xxxiii. 24. (Menochius)
Ver. 21. A hart. Barach was of this tribe, and seemed rather timid, till he was encouraged by Debora; and his victory gave occasion to that beautiful hymn, Judges v. (Calmet)
Ver. 22. Run to and fro, &c. To behold his beauty; whilst his envious brethren turned their darts against him, &c. (Challoner) — Joseph continued increasing, in spite of the envy of his brethren, and the calumny of Putiphar’s wife, who was too much enamoured of his beauty. (Haydock)
Ver. 24. His bow rested upon the strong, &c. That is, upon God, who was his strength: who also loosed his bands, and brought him out of prison to be the pastor, that is, the feeder and ruler of Egypt; and the stone, that is, the rock and support of Israel.
Ver. 25. Blessings, &c. 1. Of rain; 2. of springs; 3. of milk, (uberum); and 4. (vulvæ) of children and cattle.
Ver. 26. The blessings of thy father, &c. That is, thy father’s blessings are made more prevalent and effectual in thy regard, by the additional strength they receive from his inheriting the blessings of his progenitors Abraham and Isaac. — The desire of the everlasting hills, &c. These blessings all looked forward towards Christ, called the desire of the everlasting hills, as being longed for, as it were, by the whole creation. Mystically, the patriarchs and prophets are called the everlasting hills, by reason of the eminence of their wisdom and holiness. — The Nazarite. This word signifies one separated; and agrees to Joseph, as being separated from, and more eminent than, his brethren. As the ancient Nazarites were so called from their being set aside for God, and vowed to him. (Challoner) — Nazir denotes also one chosen or crowned, and is a title of one of the chief courtiers or ministers of the Persian kings. Such was Joseph. (Calmet) — These blessings were perhaps forfeited by the misconduct of his posterity, when Jeroboam set up the worship of the golden calves; though probably many would subsist of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasses till the coming of the Messias. (Tirinus)
Ver. 27. Wolf; alluding to the wars in defence of the inhabitants of Gabaa, and those waged by Saul, Mardocheus, &c. (Menochius) (Judges xix. and xx.) St. Paul was of this tribe; and, from a fiery zealot, became an eminent apostle. (St. Augustine, &c.) (Tirinus)
Ver. 28. Proper blessings, or predictions; for Ruben received no blessing. (Haydock)
Ver. 29. To be gathered to my people. That is, I am going to die, and so to follow my ancestors that are gone before me, and to join their company in another world. (Challoner) — Jacob’s life was embittered with many afflictions, which he bore with admirable patience, and thus deserved to be considered as an excellent figure of Jesus Christ. — The man of sorrows. His faith in the promises of God, made him contemplate the land of Chanaan as his own, and parcel it out among his children. (Calmet)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
Jacob’s prophetical blessings of his twelve sons. His death.
1 And Jacob called his sons, and said to them: Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you the things that shall befall you in the last days.
2 Gather yourselves together, and hear, O ye sons of Jacob, hearken to Israel, your father:
3 Ruben, my first-born, thou art my strength, and the beginning of my sorrow; excelling in gifts, greater in command.
4 Thou art poured out as water, grow thou not; *because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed, and didst defile his couch.
5 Simeon and Levi brethren: vessels of iniquity waging war.
6 Let not my soul go into their counsel, nor my glory be in their assembly: *because in their fury they slew a man, and in their self-will they undermined a wall.
7 Cursed be their fury, because it was stubborn: and their wrath, because it was cruel:* I will divide them in Jacob, and will scatter them in Israel.
8 Juda, thee shall thy brethren praise: thy hands shall be on the necks of thy enemies; the sons of thy father shall bow down to thee.
9 *Juda is a lion’s whelp: to the prey, my son, thou art gone up: resting thou hast couched as a lion, and as a lioness, who shall rouse him?
10 *The sceptre shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till he come that is to be sent, and he shall be the expectation of nations.
11 Tying his foal to the vineyard, and his ass, O my son, to the vine. He shall wash his robe in wine, and his garment in the blood of the grape.
12 His eyes are more beautiful than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.
13 Zabulon shall dwell on the sea-shore, and in the road of ships, reaching as far as Sidon.
14 Issachar shall be a strong ass, lying down between the borders.
16 He saw rest that it was good: and the land that it was excellent: and he bowed his shoulder to carry, and became a servant under tribute.
16 Dan shall judge his people like another tribe in Israel.
17 Let Dan be a snake in the way, a serpent in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels, that his rider may fall backward.
18 I will look for thy salvation, O Lord.
19 Gad, being girded, shall fight before him: and he himself shall be girded backward.
20 Aser, his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield dainties to kings.
21 Nephthali, a hart let loose, and giving words of beauty.
22 *Joseph is a growing son, a growing son and comely to behold: the daughters run to and fro upon the wall;
23 But they that held darts, provoked him, and quarrelled with him, and envied him.
24 His bow rested upon the strong, and the bands of his arms and his hands were loosed, by the hands of the mighty one of Jacob: thence he came forth a pastor, the stone of Israel.
26 The God of thy father shall be thy helper, and the Almighty shall bless thee with the blessings of heaven above, with the blessings of the deep that lieth beneath, with the blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
26 The blessings of thy father are strengthened with the blessings of his fathers: until the desire of the everlasting hills should come: may they be upon the head of Joseph, and upon the crown of the Nazarite among his brethren.
27 Benjamin a ravenous wolf, in the morning shall eat the prey, and in the evening shall divide the spoil.
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: these things their father spoke to them, and he blessed every one with their proper blessings.
29 And he charged them, saying: I am now going to be gathered to my people: bury me with my fathers in the double cave, which is in the field of Ephron the Hethite,
30 Over-against Mambre, in the land of Chanaan,* which Abraham bought together with the field, of Ephron the Hethite, for a possession to bury in.
31 There they buried him, and Sara his wife: there was Isaac buried with Rebecca, his wife: there also Lia doth lie buried.
32 And when he had ended the commandments, wherewith he instructed his sons, he drew up his feet upon the bed, and died: and he was gathered to his people.*
4: Genesis xxxv. 22.; 1 Paralipomenon v. 1.
6: Genesis xxxiv. 25.
7: Josue xix. 1.
9: 1 Paralipomenon v. 2.
10: Matthew ii. 6.; John i. 45.
22: 1 Paralipomenon v. 1.
30: Genesis xxiii. 17.
32: Year of the World 2315, Year before Christ 1689.