THE JUDGE & THE SERPENT
“Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord” (Gen. 49:16-18).
When Jacob foretold that Issachar, among other things, would be “a strong ass crouching down between two burdens” (Gen. 49:14-15), he concluded his series of prophetic blessings on the six sons of his wife Leah (see Gen. 49:1-15). The aged patriarch then turned to the four sons born to him by the two handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Bilhah was Rachel’s maid whom she “gave” to Jacob because of her own inability to conceive (Gen. 30:1-4). When a son was born to Bilhah, Rachel exclaimed, “God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan” (Gen. 30:5-6). Since modem readers often question this strange procedure, it should be kept in mind that such an action was entirely in accordance with the social customs of the day. Jacob’s grandmother, Sarah, had performed a similar deed when she gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, because she had been unable to bear children (Gen. 16:1-3). Archaeology has helped to shed light on this custom. A regulation in the famous Code of Hammurabi, an ancient legal system prevalent in the Middle East during Abraham’s time, provided for just such an eventuality. This action was not commanded by God, but He did permit it in the ongoing development of His people.
No doubt Dan, along with Gad, Asher and Naphtali (the other sons by the handmaids), grew up with feelings of inferiority since they were not the sons of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel. Perhaps this is the reason that Jacob says, “Dan shall Judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel” (Gen. 49:16). He wanted to assure these four sons that, regardless of their so-called “inferior” births, they also would be blessed as part of the tribal groups.
Jacob’s statements about Dan and his descendants involve a famous person, a familiar problem, and, finally, a fervent prayer.
A FAMOUS PERSON
The name Dan means judgment (see Gen. 30:6). Jacob’s prophecy, therefore, involves a play on words, “Dan shall judge . . .” The Hebrew expression is dan yadin. The last word is the same as the name of the late Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin.
Almost every interpreter has seen a graphic fulfillment of this prophecy in Dan’s greatest son, the famous strong man-judge Samson. Judges 13:2 informs us that Samson’s father Manoah was “of Zorah, of the family of the Danites.” The allotment of the tribe of Dan was along the southwest Mediterranean coast of the Promised Land (see map and Josh. 19:40-48). The difficult problem for the Danites was that their land was next door to the ancient enemy of Israel, the Philistines. The Danite farms and villages were constantly oppressed by this powerful people who resented this “foreign” presence so near to their own centers of life. Therefore, God raised up a deliverer who would “judge” or “avenge” his own people on the Philistines. The exploits of Samson in Judges 13-16 are famous examples of nontraditional warfare and the success of the few against the many and the small against the large. Jacob’s words in verse seventeen graphically described Samson’s tactics, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.” This language intimates that the principal parts of Dan’s conquests would be by cunning rather than by military confrontation. Matthew Henry has graphically described Samson’s final heroic deed in this way: “When he pulled the house down under the Philistines that were upon its roof (Jud. 16:29-30), he made the horse throw his rider.”
Samson’s defeats of the Philistines were short-lived, however. They continued to oppress the Danites as well as the other tribes. Jacob’s prophecy, therefore, was not exhausted in Samson. He spoke also of a sad affliction that would characterize the tribe of Dan.
A FAMILIAR PROBLEM
Jacob’s association of a “serpent” with the tribe of Dan (Gen. 49:17) was not without significance. This was not the first mention of a serpent in Genesis. One recalls the actions of the serpent in regards to the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Throughout the Scriptures this animal is a symbol of Satan. Jesus accused His Pharisee opponents of being spiritual descendants of this serpent, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44). No clearer words on this subject can be found than Revelation 12:9, “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, who deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” For this reason Jacob’s prophecy indicated that satanic influence would be dominant in Dan’s future. Does the scriptural history of this tribe reveal such a satanic influence? A brief survey of references to Dan indicates that the familiar problem of idolatry was characteristic of that tribe. The chaotic period of the judges was a time in Israel’s history when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Jud. 17:6; 21:25). No greater illustration of this moral and spiritual anarchy can be found than the sad story of the tribe of Danites in Judges 18. Evidently the men of Dan had grown weary of defending their little stretch of shore from the maraudings of the Philistines. Therefore, they sent a party of five military scouts to search out the Promised Land for a better location. The scouts travelled far north to the foot of Mount Hermon, near the border of modern-day Lebanon, and found a sleepy little town called Laish (Jud. 18:7; Leshem in Josh. 19:47). They returned and reported to their brethren that this would be an easy town to conquer and in which to relocate. Six hundred fighting men then departed for the town, but on their way they persuaded a renegade Levite in Ephraim to join them, who also brought along the graven image from the house of Micah, his former employer. The small army then smote the town of Laish, which found no help from her ally, Sidon (Jud. 18:27-28). Having renamed the town Dan, they then “. . . set up the carved image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land” (Jud. 18:30). This sad spectacle of rapacity combined with homemade idolatry indicates the inroads that the “serpent” had begun to make into this tribe. Dan became a cult center for idolatrous worship.
Two hundred years later, when Jeroboam rebelled against Rehoboam and split the kingdom into northern and southern divisions, he officially promoted idolatry as a means of preventing pilgrimages south to Jerusalem. “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin; for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan” (1 Ki. 12:28-30). Two hundred years later, even following an outward reformation under Jehu, idolatry still reigned in Dan. “Howbeit, from the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel, and that were in Dan” (2 Ki. 10:29).
The Lord’s estimation of Dan and his idolatry can be seen in the increasingly minor attention paid to the tribe in scriptural history. In the twenty different listings of the tribes, Dan is generally far down and often is the last of all in the list. Consider, for example, the order of marching in the wilderness, “And the standard of the camp of the children of Dan set forward, which was the rear guard of all the camps throughout their hosts; and over its host was Ahiezer, the son of Ammishaddai” (Num. 10:25). Dan was the last of the tribes to receive their inheritance in the Promised Land (Josh. 19:47-49). Most striking is the total omission of Dan from the extensive tribal genealogies of 1 Chronicles 2-10! These scriptural facts should be kept in mind when facing the often-asked question of why Dan is omitted in the 144,000 Jews who are sealed in the Tribulation Period (Rev. 7:4-8). Evidently this is due to the familiar problem of idolatry which plagued this tribe in their history.
Two more facts should be noted in passing. Firstly, the idea that the Antichrist will arise from this tribe is without scriptural warrant. Since the Antichrist originates from the ten-nation confederacy of Gentile nations (Dan. 2, 7; Rev. 13, 17), he will most likely be a Gentile and not a Jew (he will be an “anti-Messiah” and not a “false Messiah”). Secondly, Dan does receive a tribal inheritance in the Millennial Kingdom (Ezek. 48:1-2).
A FERVENT PRAYER
Jacob closed his prophecy by turning his attention from Dan to the Lord himself, “I have waited, for thy salvation, O Lord” (Gen. 49:18). Although this fervent prayer seems at first to be unrelated to the context, a closer examination reveals how appropriate it really is. After pondering the varied fortunes of Dan with the tribe’s propensity toward idolatry, Jacob expressed his longing for God’s ultimate act of deliverance from all spiritual ills – salvation. Perhaps his reference to the “serpent” and the “heel” reminded him of the original promise of a deliverer in Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.”
Genesis 49:18 is the first of 78 occurrences of the word salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures. This word always refers to God’s deliverance or salvation of His people through supernatural means (one exception: 1 Sam. 14:45). The Hebrew word is yeshua. The word is especially prominent in the Psalms and in Isaiah. Consider Isaiah 12:2-3, “Behold, God is my salvation [yeshua], I will trust, and not be afraid; for the Lord, even the Lord, is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore, with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation [yeshua].” Sometimes the Lord becomes so identified with the salvation He provides that the word becomes synonymous with His Messiah, the One who is salvation personified. “And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will also give thee for a light to the nations, that thou mayest be my salvation [Yeshua] unto the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). This is particularly clear in Isaiah 62:11, “Behold, the Lord hath proclaimed unto the end of the earth: Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation [Yeshua] cometh; behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.”
Thus, Jacob was praying for more than just an impersonal deliverance; he was expressing his longing for a personal deliverer – Him whose name is Yeshua! That this is in accord with Jewish tradition is evident from the Jerusalem Targum, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Bible, and its paraphrased rendering of this verse, “My soul waiteth not for the deliverance of Gideon, for it was only temporal; nor for that deliverance of Samson, for it was transient; but for the redemption by the Messiah, Son of David, which in thy word thou has promised to send to thy people, Israel; for this, Thy Salvation [Yeshua], my soul waiteth.”
That Jacob’s prayer of longing was finally answered is clear from the angel’s word to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus [Yeshua in Hebrew]; for he shall save his people from their sins.” That others recognized in this child the fulfillment of Israel’s longing for salvation is evident from the prayer of the aged Simeon when he held the young child, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation [Yeshua in Hebrew], Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people, Israel” (Lk. 2:29-32).
It is no accident that the child born in fulfillment of many Hebrew prophecies would be given the name Yeshua. He provided salvation, the deliverance from the greatest captivity, that of sin’s bondage. To everyone who places their faith in His person and work, real and lasting yeshua, or salvation, is given.