Jacob/Yaakov delivers his last words to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“And he lived”).
And Jacob called his sons and he said: “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you in future times.” (Genesis/Bereishit 49:1)
Jacob, also called Israel, then launches into a long poem about the fate of the twelve tribes named after his twelve sons.1 This poem resembles the poems in the books of prophets transmitting God’s warnings and plans from the divine point of view. Jacob pauses once to cry out: “I wait for your deliverance, God!”2 This interruption only makes the rest of his poem sound more like a direct divine prophecy.
When Jacob finishes his poem, the Torah says:
All these were the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them. Vayevarekh them, each with what was kevirkhato he blessed them. (Genesis 49:28)
vayevarekh (וַיְבָרֶךְ) = and he blessed. (A form of the verb beirakh, בֵּרַךְ = bless; bestow or wish on someone the achievement of something desirable. In the Torah, the achievement is most often prosperity, success in battle, or fertility.)
kevirkhato (כְּבִרְכָתוֹ) = according to his own blessing. (From the same root as beirakh.)
Immediately after this sentence about blessings Jacob gives instructions for his burial, draws his feet into the bed, and dies without mentioning any of his sons’ names again.3 So the prophecies about the twelve eponymous tribes must also be the blessings.
Except for the first three sons, this is a reasonable interpretation. Jacob blesses his fourth son (or his tribe), Judah/Yehudah, with future kingship, success in battle, and fertile vineyards.4 Zebulun, he says, will succeed in shipping, and Issachar in farming.5 He compares Dan to a snake, but at least he declares the tribe will remain part of the land of Israel.6 Gad and Benjamin/Binyamin will be successful in raiding, Asher will be wealthy, and Naftali beautiful.7 Jacob blesses Joseph/Yoseif with overall success and prosperity.8
Yet Jacob’s first three sons appear to get curses instead of blessings.
Reuven, my first-born are you,
my vigor and the first fruit of my potency,
Heedless as water, you will no longer exceed,
for you mounted your father’s bed.
That was when you desecrated it. My couch he mounted! (Genesis 49:3-4)
Jacob refers to a specific incident in Genesis. After the death of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, Reuven has intercourse with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine.9 Reuven may hope to become the family’s leader through an ancient custom by which the new ruler assumes his office by having sex with the old ruler’s concubines.10 Although Reuven is the firstborn son, and therefore normally entitled to become the head of the extended family after his father’s death, Jacob is at least 119 years old. Reuven may decide not to wait. (Jacob dies in this week’s Torah portion at age 147.)
Because of that undisciplined and defiant act, Jacob declares that Reuven is unfit for leadership.
In the biblical tradition, leadership would then pass to the next oldest son. But Jacob rules out both his second son, Shimon, and his third son, Levi.
Shimon and Levi are partners;
Weapons of violence are their wares.
Don’t let my soul be brought into their council!
Don’t let my honor be reckoned by their assembly!
For in their rage they murder a man,
and in their desire they uproot a wall.11
Accursed be their fury because it is fierce,
and their wrath because it is remorseless!
I will split them up in Jacob,
and I will scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)
Since Jacob condemns Reuven on the basis of an incident during his lifetime and reported in the bible, the reader expects him to cite another such incident as his reason for criticizing Shimon and Levi. The closest match is when the two brothers trick the rulers of Shekhem, enter the town as friends, murder the man who raped their sister Dinah, kill all the other men, destroy the town, and carry off the booty. No doubt some walls fell. (See my posts Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1 and Part 2.)
Then Jacob said to Shimon and Levi: “You made me shunned, odious among the inhabitants of the land!” (Genesis 34:30)
On his deathbed, Jacob attributes Shimon and Levi’s violence to the intensity of their anger. When he says “I will split them up in Jacob” the “I” is God, the “Jacob” is an alternate name for the territory of Israel, and the need to split them up may imply that they are more dangerous when they are together and their fiery natures combine in a conflagration of rage.
Having eliminated Reuven, Shimon, and Levi with his prophetic curses, Jacob announces that the descendants of his fourth son, Judah, will be king over other Israelites.
Looking at Jacob’s deathbed poem from the viewpoint of the history of the twelve tribes in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, only some of the predictions come true. This is normal for biblical prophecies, which are often warnings of what will happen unless certain people change their ways. In this case, the prophecy about Judah “comes true”; the second king of a united Israel is David, from the tribe of Judah, and his descendants continue to rule even after the northern kingdom secedes from the southern kingdom of Judah.
The tribe of Reuven is part of the northern kingdom, but its members live in the land east of the Dead Sea, which is sometimes ruled by the Moabites who also live there.12 The tribe of Shimon occupies an enclave within the southern desert of the Kingdom of Judah, and is “scattered” only in the sense that all desert nomads are scattered.13 The tribe of Levi consists of hereditary priests and other religious functionaries. In the book of Joshua, the Levites are assigned 48 towns in the territories allotted to the other tribes, including a few in the territory of Shimon.14 So the Levites are indeed scattered, but they are not entirely split apart from the Shimonites.
From the viewpoint of the stories in Genesis, however, Jacob’s deathbed prophecies assign appropriate consequences for the behavior of Jacob’s first three sons.
Reuven’s attempts to take leadership, both when he beds Bilhah and when he acts regarding Joseph, are undisciplined and poorly thought out. His eponymous tribe is cursed with never producing a king; but it gets the blessing of being a member tribe of the northern Kingdom of Israel, a.k.a. Samaria.
Since Shimon and Levi are the ringleaders in the disaster at Sheckhem, their tribes are cursed with being too scattered to lead their brother tribes into trouble again. Yet their scattering is also a blessing; the nomadic tribe of Shimon is protected by Judah, and the Levites become a caste of priests and clerics with authority throughout Israel.
I think Jacob’s first prophecies are indeed blessings. When people have been bad leaders, it is a blessing for them, as well as for their followers, to have their leadership removed—and for the former leaders to continue to be included in the larger community, like Reuven and Shimon.
As for Levi, it is a great blessing when people who are inflamed by intense feelings do wrong, are stripped of leadership, and then change their hearts and apply their passionate natures to positive acts for a good cause.
May we all “bless” leaders with their appropriate fates, as Jacob did. May we work to remove leadership from those who abuse it. May we accept all human beings as flawed but precious individuals. And may we be able to recognize when others have truly changed.
- Jacob’s wives name his first eleven sons in Genesis 29:31-30:24; Jacob names his twelfth son Benjamin/Binyamin in Genesis 35:18. The first mention of “twelve tribes’ in the bible is in Genesis 49:28, at the end of Jacob’s poem. Elsewhere in the Torah there are always twelve tribes, but they are not always identical with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons. Whenever Shimon or Levi is omitted from the list, then Joseph is replaced by tribes named after his own two sons (adopted by Jacob), Efrayim and Menasheh.
- Genesis 49:18.
- Genesis 49:29-33.
- Genesis 49:8-12.
- Genesis 49:13-14.
- Genesis 49:16-17.
- Genesis 49:19-21, 27.
- Genesis 49:22-26. (Jacob’s references to God as “Shaddai” and blessings from “the heavens above” echo Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:28 and 28:3.)
- Genesis 35:22.
- Absalom slept with King David’s concubines for that purpose in 2 Samuel 16:21-22.
- Another legitimate translation of the third couplet is some version of:
For in their rage they murder a man,
and in their desire they cripple an ox.
How can the last two words be translated as either “uproot a wall” or “cripple an ox”? In the Masoretic text the phrase is עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. Ikru (עִקְּרוּ) = uproot, cripple. Shor (שׁוֹר) = bull, ox, steer. The Masoretic text is based on earlier scrolls that did not use vowel pointing. Although translations generally assume the Masoretes assigned the correct vowels to the words in the bible, Robert Alter makes a case that in Genesis 49:6 a better reading of the final word is shur (שׁוּר) = wall. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 284.)
- Numbers 32:1-32, Joshua 2:1-7, 1 Chronicles 5:18-22.
- Joshua 19:1-9.
- Joshua 21:4.