December 18, 2006

Genesis 48-50: What did he say?

Today's reading is Genesis 48-50 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's blessing of Joseph's sons (Ephraim and Manasseh); his blessing of his twelve sons; his death and burial; and Joseph's death and burial.

Today's readings present one of the first instances of sustained poetry in the Bible. (Gen. 49:2-27) In it, Jacob blesses each of his twelve children in verse form, in generally prophetic language. This passage is probably one of the most difficult passages to translate and interpret in all of Genesis.

Unfortunately, my Hebrew is no longer good enough to read the original text. I am forced, therefore, to rely on translations. The poetry is rich in wordplay and cryptic phrasings that have made it particularly difficult to translate faithfully. Though I have only referred to two or three translations to prepare this essay, there are significant differences between the texts. For example, verse 6 in the KJV says that Simeon and Levii "digged down a well," while the NIV says they "hamstrung oxen." Verse 22 in the NIV says that Joseph is a "fruitful vine," while the Jewish Study Bible says he is a "wild ass." The differences can obviously cause a great deal of confusion in the interpretation.

But even if you're reading the original Hebrew, the verses are difficult to interpret. According to the Jewish Study Bible, "Jacob's tribal sayings have long provoked disagreements among interpreters." Some of the imagery is obscure, and even where it isn't, it is sometimes difficult to determine what, exactly, the text is referring to.

Let us take a few moments, therefore, to look at some general features of this passage and whether we can tease further information from it.

The blessings begin relatively specifically. The first, about Reuben, refers to the time he slept with his father's concubine in Gen. 35:22. I mentioned this episode in a previous essay. I said then that Jacob held a grudge, and here we see its fulfilment. Jacob tells Reuben that even though he is mighty and excellent, he will never excel because of this one youthful sin. (Gen. 49:2-3)

Simeon's and Levi's blessing also brings up an old grudge. (Gen. 49:5-7) In Gen. 34, their sister Dinah had been raped, so the two men slaughtered not only the rapist but also his entire village. Jacob now brings up the episode and tells them that because of it, they will be scattered among the other tribes. The Jewish Study Bible claims that this is a reference to Simeon's absorption into Judah and Levi's redefinition as a priestly tribe without land of its own (Deut. 18:1-2).

With Judah, we begin the bridge from specific to vague. (Gen. 49:8-12) The first part, verse 8, seems quite specific: Judah will be praised by his brothers and conquer his enemies. Even verse 10, which claims he will have the sceptre and ruler's staff (NIV, "lawgiver" in KJV), seems to foreshadow that Judah will rule the other tribes of Israel. However, verse 11-12 is cryptic. It mentions that he will wash his garments in wine, that his eyes will be red with wine, and that his teeth will be white from milk. What does this mean? I have no idea. Perhaps it is a reference to wealth, perhaps to something entirely different.

The other brothers get equally cryptic blessings, though generally shorter ones. Though verse 13 says Zebulun will live by the seashore, the Jewish Study Bible notes that the boundaries of the tribe of Zebulun in Josh. 19:10-15 suggest it was an inland tribe. Dan might be a judge over Israel (verse 16), but what does it mean that he is a "serpent by the roadside" (verse 17)?

All that we could say for some of the later prophecies is that they are tremendously general. Asher will provide rich food (verse 20), Naphtali is a doe set free with beautiful fawns (verse 21), and Gad attacks his attackers (verse 19). Even Joseph's blessing is vague: he is a fruitful vine near a spring (verse 22), who is shot at by archers but remains steady (verses 23-24), and receives very plentiful blessings (verses 25-26). What does all this mean? I have no idea.

There is a principle in divination called "subjective validation," also called the "Forer effect" or the "Barnum effect." This principle generally means that people will rank vague personality descriptions as highly accurate, even though the descriptions are deliberately vague and can apply to many people. The same principle has been used in many forms of divination, with the idea that a vague enough description will fit almost anyone.

Can we say that Jacob's blessings are using a variant of the Forer effect? Can we, in other words, say that some of the blessings are so vague, we are bound to find something matching them later in the Bible, if only we look hard enough? I don't think so.

I believe that, while the blessings are vague, this is more of a literary device than a deceptive one. After all, the redactors compiling the Bible knew the later texts, they knew what was going to happen to the twelve tribes. They didn't begin writing at Genesis and only later look to see what happened in Exodus, Numbers, Judges, and Kings. When compiling Jacob's blessings, they knew what they were referring to, even if later interpreters have had trouble matching the blessing to the event.

I believe the problem is one of viewpoints, rather than one of deliberate obfuscation. Presumably, if we were living when this text was written, we would understand what a "serpent by the roadside" meant, or the meaning of a "doe set free." In short, the text is certainly trying to tell us something, even if we have no idea what it is.

Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford UP, 2004.


James said...

Hello Julie

I believe this web page: The Cross and Its Shadow [
The-Cross&Shadow.pdf] will help you out to gain some insight on the blessings of the tribes of Israel. Read this book about 30 years ago and was glad to find it on the net.

The blessing of the tribes begins with Reuben on page 120. The Lost Tribes Ephraim and Dan is explained on page 156.

Hope this helps you out.



Julie said...

Hi Jim,

I'll look into the link, thanks.