Bible Study with Jairus – Genesis 49 (part 1)
Jacob’s Prophecies about His Twelve Sons
At first glance, Jacob’s prophecies about his twelve sons seem very mysterious (Genesis 49). They bring up many unanswered questions.
First, how does Jacob know the future of his twelve sons? Jacob’s grandfather Abraham was described as a prophet, but the Bible never calls Jacob a prophet. Yet both Isaac and Jacob can predict the future and give prophetic blessings to their sons. Their ability to prophesy is based on their intimate fellowship with God, just like Abraham’s was. Although Jacob does not have the title of prophet, his actions prove he is one.
Second, how should we understand Jacob’s prophecies about his twelve sons? The Holy Spirit has given me a series of inspirations that help me understand Jacob’s prophecies. I believe that God works persistently, like ocean waves, to accomplish his will. Like ocean waves that continually hit the rocky shoreline, over and over, until they erode the rock or knock them into the sea, God continues to work in repetitive waves. When humans resist him, like solid stone, God continues to work until his will is accomplished.
God’s purpose was to continue the lineage of Christ through Jacob’s twelve sons. When Jacob’s firstborn Reuben failed, God began to work through Simeon and Levi. When Simeon and Levi failed, God worked through Judah. And even though Judah also failed, the lineage of Christ continued through the cunning plans of Judah’s daughter-in-law. Satan’s work was to destroy people one by one, first Reuben, then Simeon, then Levi and Judah. Satan’s plan was to stop God from producing the genealogy of Christ by destroying God’s people. But God’s work never stopped. When one person failed or resisted God, God turned to the next person. Like the ocean waves, God continued to work on people, and Christ’s genealogy continued through Judah and Tamar. Tamar was the only one who was willing to be used by God to produce the genealogy of Jesus Christ.
In the same way, in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit continues to work in waves, turning sinners into sons of God, preparing us for the new heaven, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem. Although Jacob’s prophecies about the twelve sons speak about their future, their outcome reflects the different stages of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church, culminating in the New Jerusalem.
The Progress of God’s Revelation
God’s revelation in the Bible is progressive. He continues to reveal more and more of his plan, and one revelation builds on another. In the beginning, God revealed to Abraham that his descendants would be as many as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore, his descendants would possess the gates of the enemy, and all the nations of the earth would be blessed by the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 22:17–18). We do not know whether God told him the identity of this descendent who would bless all the nations of the earth. However, we know that Paul later received a revelation that names this descendent: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Paul also says, “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spiritthrough faith” (Galatians 3:14). In other words, Jesus Christ blesses not only the Jews but also the Gentiles. Through Him, we all can receive the Holy Spirit and be born again as children of God. Such revelation is progressive.
I believe that Abraham received considerable revelation and knew God’s will. In Hebrews, it says, “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (11:9-10). Jacob received the same promise from Abraham. In a dream, the Lord said to Jacob, “‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed’” (Genesis 28:13–14).
From reading the words of Paul, we know that the descendant who would bless the nations would be Christ. But the Bible does not say from which tribe Christ would be born. Even when the Gentile prophet Balaam prophesied, “A star shall come out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17), he did not mention from which tribe Christ would come. It is not until the Book of Micah later in the Old Testament that God revealed, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). This verse specifies the tribe and location where Christ would be born. This prophecy later helped the astrologers follow Christ’s star to Jerusalem at His birth. Jacob’s prophecy about Judah in Genesis 49 may point to Jesus Christ. The verse reads, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be”” (KJV, 49:10). “Shiloh” means “the one who brings peace” and this term is often interpreted as pointing to Christ. But when Jacob gave this prophecy, he may not have understood what it was referring to. Perhaps Jacob understood this vision, but his sons, especially the firstborn Reuben, did not.
My personal belief is that God did not have a precise plan for which tribe Jesus would come from. Although God promised Abraham and Jacob that Christ would come from their descendants, God may not have ordained the exact tribe Jesus would come from. Reuben was the firstborn son, and I believe God gave him the opportunity to carry on Christ’s lineage. But he failed, and he lost his birthright and the blessing of being the Messiah’s ancestor. In destroying Reuben, Satan must have thought that the line of the Messiah would be destroyed as well.
However, God’s work cannot be stopped. Reuben failed, and both Simeon and Levi failed by falling into Satan’s temptation. Finally, Judah failed as well. But Tamar fulfilled God’s will. Satan’s destructions came in waves, but God’s work also came in waves, and God’s will was ultimately accomplished. If we, as individuals, are willing to actively cooperate with God’s work, we will become like Tamar, Christ’s life will be manifested in our lives. But if we obey our enemy instead of God, we will be like Reuben. He not only lost God’s blessings, but also hindered God’s work.
Let me repeat this again. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi all had the opportunity to be used by God to produce the genealogy of Jesus Christ. But their failure made them lose this blessing. Judah also sinned and fell into lust, and he would have lost this blessing too if it were not for Tamar. Her perseverance and faith changed everything.
The Failure of Reuben
What is the reason for Reuben’s failure? First, he did not receive God’s revelation. He did not see the vision that Jacob saw. Just as a child growing up in a pastor’s family does not automatically receive the same calling as his parents or experience the same spiritual experience as they do, Reuben did not hear the voice of God as Jacob did. Jacob had learned to know God and understand his will through many hardships and many revelations along the way. He had learned not to take his birthright lightly like his brother Esau did. But Reuben was different. He did not long for God like Jacob did. If we long for God, He will reveal His will to us. Jesus says, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21). God did not show himself to Reuben because Reuben did not love God nor long for Him.
God did care about Reuben; he never said he hated him like he hated Esau (Malachi 1:2–3). Jacob blessed Reuben with words of respect: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power” (Genesis 49:3). He obviously expected that Reuben would be honored. Yet he also said of Reuben, “Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch” (49:4). The lust of the flesh caused Reuben to sin and lose the blessings of God and his father. But the root of the problem was that Reuben had no desire for God.
The Deeper Reason for Reuben’s Failure
In Genesis 35, we learn that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, when Jacob was grieving the death of his favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob loved Rachel dearly, and Jacob must have been deeply sad at this time. In the midst of such emotion, Reuben slept with Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah and threw Jacob into even deeper depression. Why would Reuben do such a terrible thing? In addition to being “unstable as water”, there may have been a more profound reason: Reuben’s animosity toward Rachel and even toward his father. As the eldest son, Reuben must have noticed the way his father treated his mother Leah, as well as the rivalry between Leah and Rachel. When Rachel was unable to bear children, she gave Jacob her handmaid as a concubine. The handmaid gave birth to Dan, whose name means “to do justice,” and Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” (30:6). When Bilhah gave birth to a second son, Naphtali, Rachel said, “‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.’ So she called his name Naphtali” (30:8). “Naphtali” means “my wrestling.”
Later, the Bible records a story that further illuminates Reuben’s attitude toward Rachel. Reuben went out to the field to look for mandrakes, a fertility drug. Rachel wanted some, but Leah refused to give her any. Finally, Rachel agreed to let Jacob sleep with Leah in exchange for some mandrakes. Perhaps Jacob had not slept with Leah for a long time. Leah was neglected, and her sons may have been, as well. This may have negatively impacted Reuben. I personally speculate that Reuben’s lust and hatred were used by Satan to deceive him, in order to prevent the continuation of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.
Reuben’s failure should teach us a profound lesson. We must never harbor hatred toward anyone. We must forgive people as Christ commanded so that we will not be used by Satan to hinder God’s work. If we do, we will miss out on God’s blessing to us. Reuben was a spiritually blind man. He saw no visions, he did not love God, and he did not receive spiritual manifestations. As a result, he did not become the ancestor of Christ.
Reuben did not sleep with his own mother’s handmaid, Zilpah, but with Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah. Zilpah may have seemed like family to Reuben because she was Leah’s handmaid. Bilhah may also have been neglected by Jacob, because he loved only Rachel. The emotions caused by this neglect and jealousy may have been used by Satan to lure them into sin, so they would miss out on the blessing of the birthright. They were disqualified from carrying on the genealogy of Christ. What an ignorant person Reuben was! What a blessing he missed out on!
All Sinners Are Like Reuben
Jacob’s prophecies about the twelve sons represent not only the twelve waves of God’s work in the Old Testament but also the twelve waves of God’s work in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, God’s work was to choose Israel from among the nations, make them a kingdom of priests as a witness to all nations; and create the lineage of Jesus Christ, who would be a blessing to all nations.
We are all sinners like Reuben until we are saved. One preacher has said that if you could go back in time and identify every ancestor in your genealogy, it probably wouldn’t take many generations to find someone who committed adultery. God has revealed to me through a series of dreams that I am a descendant of Jews who came to China in ancient times. In one of these dreams, God said to me through my deceased grandmother that among her ancestors, there was a Jewish woman who committed adultery with a Chinese man and gave birth to one of our ancestors. I was born of sexual immorality, and we are all born of sexual immorality, as David says in the Psalms, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Some hypothesize that David’s mother may have been a concubine of his father Jesse, or that his mother was a prostitute. They speculate this because David, as the youngest brother, was not favored by his older brothers. If they had been born of the same father and mother, the older brothers likely would have adored their youngest brother. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that David’s great-grandmother Rahab was indeed a prostitute who became the ancestor of Jesus Christ by choosing to follow God. Tamar also did unethical things and deceived her father-in-law Judah. But when Judah found out about it, he said that Tamar was more righteous than he was because he had refused to follow God’s command to give his youngest son to Tamar as a husband so that she might have descendants (Genesis 38:26). In short, we are all sinners, but our greatest sin is forsaking God. Tamar longed to be in the lineage of the Messiah, so her firstborn son was blessed by God to become the ancestor of Christ.
It is no accident that Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah all failed. This was the result of Satan’s attacks as he battled with God over mankind’s future. Satan wanted to prevent the birth of Jesus Christ, but God wanted to bring Jesus Christ into the world through Jacob’s descendants to be a blessing to all nations. The ultimate cause of sin and failure is not only lust and hatred, but ignorance of God’s will. If we see this, we will begin to understand the true meaning of Jacob’s prophecies about his twelve sons. In other words, many people who were in Christ’s lineage still sinned in some way. Rahab sinned, Tamar sinned, and David sinned. Yet they all became the ancestors of Christ. What was the difference? Why were they included in Christ’s ancestry? Because they repented, loved God, longed for God, and knew God’s will. A person who does not know God’s will rejects God’s blessings, which leads them to commit the greatest sin: betraying and forsaking God. If we don’t know God’s will and He is not showing himself to us, it is because we do not love Him nor desire His appearance.
From Sinners to Salvation to Being Built into the New Jerusalem
As the firstborn, Reuben was a sinner who had lost God’s blessing. Benjamin, as the youngest son, received the following blessing: “The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). Although this is Moses’ prophecy about Benjamin, it reveals that Benjamin’s future would be blessed by God. Jerusalem and God’s temple are both located in the territory of Benjamin. Jerusalem later became the city of the great kings, the city of the temple, and the place where God was present. Benjamin foreshadowed the victory of Jesus Christ, who was the ultimate Temple where God would dwell among men. The name Benjamin means, “son of the right hand,” and this reminds us that we who believe in Him will be built together into a holy temple. We will be stones in the New Jerusalem as we participate in the victorious experience of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
The blessings given to the middle ten sons also represent the different stages of renewal and transformation on the way to being built into a dwelling place of God. In another study, we will examine each one of these prophecies in detail and discover the profound spiritual meaning they contain.