The 12 Tribes of Israel

The old man gathered his strength and sat up on the bed with his feet on the floor. He sensed that the end was near. Looking back over a life that had its ups and downs, Jacob could certainly testify that God had been faithful to him even when he had not always followed God’s direction. Jacob could see no future for himself, but God had shown to him the future of his descendants in a most remarkable way. “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days” (Gen. 49:1). The twelve sons, born over a period of approximately twenty-three years through four different mothers, gathered reverently around the aged patriarch. What thoughts must have been running through their minds. They had heard the stories about their great-grandfather Abraham, whom God had called from Ur of the Chaldees, and who had come into the land of Canaan without even knowing exactly where he was going. Doubtless, they had heard dozens of times around numerous campfires about how Abraham’s old and barren wife, Sarah, had miraculously given birth to a son, Isaac. They must have laughed when told that Isaac, whose name meant “laughter,” was named that way because Sarah had laughed when the Lord told her she would have a son. Isaac, their grandfather, was not allowed to marry a woman of Canaan. What an exciting story it was about how a servant went and searched for a bride for Isaac among their kinsmen in Haran and returned with the beautiful Rebekah. What thoughts now filled their minds as they looked upon their aged father, who no doubt had related to them the trials and triumphs of his own sojourn on earth. Jacob, whose name meant “heel,” had tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and his blessing, only to be exiled from the land of Canaan for over twenty years due to his unwillingness to wait for God’s timing in his life.

Now they were all in Egypt — all twelve of them with their families and Jacob their father. They had been reunited with their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into Egypt years before. Now they understood that the hand of God had overruled their evil deed, for had not Joseph been promoted to vice-regent of Egypt, and was it not Joseph who now was caring for their needs while famine raged in the land of Canaan?

Such memories flooded their minds, but now was not a time to look backward, but forward. What will become of us when Jacob departs this life? Will we and our descendants stay forever in Egypt? Who will be the recipient of the birthright? Through which of us will the promised seed arrive someday? These and other questions they must have asked each other dozens of times. Now the time had arrived for the answers. Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel, your father” (Gen. 49:2).

Such is the background of one of the most fascinating yet neglected chapters in the Word of God. Genesis 49 provides for the reader a prophetic insight into the history of the Jewish people, who today trace their history back to these twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah,  Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. The accounts of these sons and the tribes that issued from them actually comprise the dramatic story of the remainder of the Bible. In Jewish tradition each tribe has a symbol and these symbols have been portrayed in synagogues, tapestries, jewelry, bookends, and in countless works of art throughout the ages. One of the most famous of these works is that remarkable creation of the French Jewish artist Marc Chagall — the beautiful windows in the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. But what story do these symbols portray? All of the symbols can be traced back to Jacob’s prophetic blessings pronounced on his sons in Genesis 49.

One of the most remarkable facts this writer has uncovered is that to his knowledge there is no full-length book that describes the biblical history of each of the twelve tribes. Perhaps this series of studies will help to fill that void.

“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is that which their father spoke unto them, and blessed them; every one, according to his blessing, he blessed them” (Gen. 49:28).

Jacob’s deathbed blessings on his sons recorded in Genesis 49:3-27 compose one of the most amazing examples of predictive prophecy in the Bible. The chapter is one of many instances of prophecies given at an earlier time that clearly had a fulfillment in later biblical history. There are two types of predictive prophecy. An unfulfilled prophecy is one that has not yet been fulfilled in history. Some examples of unfulfilled prophecies are the rule of the Antichrist (Dan. 7:23-27; Rev. 13:1-10), the Second Coming of Christ (Zech. 14:3-4; Rev. 19:11-16), and the millennial reign of Christ (Zech. 14:9; Rev. 20:1-10). Examples of fulfilled prophecies include the birth of the Messiah (Isa. 7:14; Mic. 5:2), His crucifixion (Ps. 22; Isa. 53), and His resurrection and ascension (Ps. 16, 110). Genesis 49:3-27 is an example of fulfilled prophecy. As we examine each of the prophecies regarding Jacob’s sons, we will be amazed at the prophetic accuracy of the Word of God. Furthermore, there are tremendous lessons in each of the tribe’s experiences that teach us what kind of virtues to imitate and mistakes to avoid in our own lives.

What does it mean to bless someone? How often we use this term without understanding its meaning. Basically, to bless someone means “to bestow good” on him. There are many examples in Genesis of blessings, both from God and from man. God blessed both the animals and Adam and Eve and commanded them to be fruitful (Gen. 1:22, 28). He blessed the seventh day (Gen. 2:3), Noah and his sons (Gen. 9:1), Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3), Isaac (Gen. 26:12), and Jacob (Gen. 28:3; 32:29). There are examples of human beings blessing others as well. Melchizedek blessed Abraham (Gen. 14:19). Rebekah’s family blessed her as she left (Gen. 24:60). Isaac blessed both Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27:23, 38-40).

In Genesis 49, as is so often the case, Jacob’s blessings on each son are in accordance with the character of that son. Through prophetic inspiration Jacob was given to see what character each of the tribes would display. His purpose was to show to them “that which shall befall you in the last days” (Gen. 49:1b). This phrase “the last days” appears fourteen times in the Old Testament. Sometimes this phrase clearly refers to a period of time yet future, such as Isaiah 2:2 which describes the millennial reign of King Messiah, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” However, in some instances this phrase simply means “in subsequent years.” One example of this usage is Daniel 2:28 where we are told that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream described what would happen to him in “the latter days.”

Most of the blessings on Jacob’s sons were fulfilled during the period of the judges, around five hundred years after Jacob’s death. One blessing, that on Judah, began to be fulfilled in David’s day and found its final fulfilling with the Messiah. It is because we have the entire Bible before us now that we can look back and see how this astounding series of prophecies has been fulfilled.

There is probably no more touching sight than that of an old man gathering his children around him to hear his final words. The last utterances of dying men can tell us much about them. Consider the final cry of Voltaire, the French skeptic: “I am abandoned by God and man.” Contrast that statement of despair with the words of John Wesley: “The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!”

Or, consider the poignant expression of the godly Confederate general, “Stonewall” Jackson, as he lay dying from the wounds received at Chancellorsville: “Let us pass over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees.”

How instructive it is for us to consider Jacob’s speaking of God’s abundant blessings as his hour of departure approaches. He charged his sons that he should be buried in the cave of Machpelah with his parents and grandparents. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “By faith Jacob, when he was dying . . .” (Heb. 11:21a). His faith was fervent, even though his body was frail. If anyone could have looked back with regret for mistakes made, certainly Jacob could, but God’s grace had been so abundant to him that he could only speak of His blessings.

May each of us be granted that dying grace which prevents the bitterness that so often mars the final days of old age. That grace belongs to those who not only have hope in this life but also in the life to come, because they know the Messiah who died and rose again to give eternal life and hope to all who trust Him. The final words of the Apostle Paul express that hope so clearly, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8).

Note: In succeeding issues we will consider each of the blessings on Jacob’s twelve sons, beginning with Reuben (Gen. 49:3-4).

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