Jacob has great faith and blesses his sons with confidence in the future that God has for them.
Joseph’s primacy, emphasized already in Gen 48, is further reinforced as Jacob blesses each of his sons in Gen 49. Such blessings were the most important gift that Jacob could pass on to them, greater than dividing the property as in a will. Some of Jacob’s sons, like Judah, will be greatly blessed, but Jacob’s headstrong, firstborn three—Reuben, Simeon and Levi—suffer for their past choices, thereby justifying Jacob’s choice of Joseph over the natural firstborn. In 49:3-4, Jacob emphasizes how Reuben would have had this status but lost it (by going up to his father’s bed, thus trying to seize the status prematurely). Jacob surely recalls that his father’s firstborn Esau lost his status in favor of Jacob.
The blessings show some parallels between Judah and Joseph, the descendants of both of whom will become major tribes in Israel. Judah’s brothers will bow to him (49:8) just as Joseph’s brothers bowed to him (42:6); Judah will also reign (49:10), just as Joseph now was vizier of Egypt. Although Jacob’s special favor rests on Joseph, Judah had shown positive leadership in the more recent part of the Joseph narrative (43:3, 8; 44:14, 16, 18; 46:28) and remains preeminent among Leah’s sons.
Lions were perceived as the most powerful of predators, and the image is here linked with Judah’s future reign (Gen 49:9-10). The phrase “lion’s cub” applied to Judah here in 49:9 applies to Dan in Deut 33:22; but Judah also appears as a full-grown lion or lioness here (like Gad in Deut 33:20). In Num 23:24; 24:9, a lion and lioness become images of a powerful people conquering prey; in antiquity, a lion was an image of strength.
Both Judah and Joseph will also prosper. That Judah can treat wine like rinse water (Gen 49:11) indicates his promised prosperity. (Growing vines and tending milk-producing goats [see 49:12] would not be difficult in the hill country of Judah.)
Yet as in Jacob’s blessings of his sons, Moses’s blessings of the tribes that almost close the final book of the Pentateuch include much prosperity for Joseph (Deut 33:13-17). Joseph will be very fruitful (Gen 49:22; cf. Ps 1:3), a fruitfulness that had already begun in his life when the Lord began exalting him (Gen 41:52: “God has made me fruitful …”). Jacob prays for the blessings of heaven and the deep and of fertility for Joseph (49:25), recalling the blessings of his ancestors (49:26), especially Isaac’s prayer of blessing from heaven and earth for Jacob (27:28). As Isaac blessed Jacob to rule his brothers (27:29), so Jacob blesses Joseph as one special among his brothers (49:26; the term means one consecrated or set apart, perhaps here for rule).
Just as Leah and Rachel gave their children meaningful names in Gen 29:32-35; 30:6-8, 11-13, 18, 20, 24; 35:18, Jacob now puns on some of their names as he blesses them before his death. Judah’s brothers will praise (yuducah) Judah (yehudah; 49:8); Dan will judge (yadin, based on the same root) his people (49:16); raiders (g’dud) will raid (y’gudenu) Gad, but he will also raid (yagud) at their heels (49:19; the verbs are from the root gdd). (Note: I am unfortunately unable to use my Hebrew font here.) Nevertheless, Jacob does not offer all possible plays on names; he does not, for example, call Asher blessed (asher; though this would simply reuse what already appears in Gen 30:13). That both Dan and Gad raid at enemies’ heels (49:17, 19) might recall Jacob’s own prevailing over another’s heel, which earned him his name (25:26).
While blessing his sons, Jacob also praises God in language often developed by his descendants. God is “the rock of Israel” (49:24), perhaps recalling the rock of God’s house in 28:22 but especially emphasizing that God is an unmoving strength and foundation (cf. e.g., 2 Sam 22:2-3, 47; Ps 18:2, 46; 31:3 and passim). “The Mighty One” (Gen 49:24) also becomes a common title for God’s strength (e.g., Josh 22:22), especially in Hebrew poetry (e.g., Ps 50:1; Isa 49:26; 60:16); so also “the shepherd” (Gen 49:24; cf. e.g., 48:15; Ps 23:1; 80:1; Isa 40:11).
All these blessings depend on the recognition that God is the source of blessing and the one who will carry out these blessings. Having lived to see God’s faithfulness, Jacob is bold in his faith for the future. We, too, should recognize God’s faithfulness in our lives, and trust his continued faithfulness in the future. Unlike Jacob here, we often do not know the details the future holds for us; but we do know that God will be with us, and we know the already-promised, ultimate outcome. Whatever our trials in the meantime, God’s faithfulness is the foundation for our hope.