The Blessing of Judah

ADOTS Morning Prayer:  Friday, 19 February 2021

Fr. John A. Roop

The Blessing of Judah:  A Meditation on Genesis 49

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Not so very long ago we read the account of Isaac blessing Jacob (ref Gen 27), which was really the account of Jacob and Rebekah conspiring to steal — from an old, blind man — the blessing of the firstborn that Isaac intended for Esau.  Esau’s response on learning of Jacob’s trickery and his own loss, is one of the most heart-rending passages in Scripture:

Genesis 27:34–38 (ESV): 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. 

Earlier, Esau had been pretty cavalier about selling his birthright, but here there is genuine anguish in his heart and voice over losing the blessing.  Why?  Because the people of Abraham understood that blessings are not mere words; they are speech acts, words that have the power to accomplish what they communicate.  Think of God speaking creation into being — “Let there be light,” and there was light.” — and you get the idea; speech-acts creates reality.  Of course, only God’s words are intrinsically speech-acts, for God alone has the power to speak reality.  But, God calls others to participate with him in this creative act.  When a priest pronounces an absolution, for example, the penitent is forgiven, not by some inherent power of the priest, but simply because God has promised to act in and through the words of the priest to create a new reality.  When a priest speaks the Words of Institution over bread and wine, they become, for the people of God, the gifts of God, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus:  not by magic nor by the power of the priest, but by God’s promise to honor the words of the priest and create a new reality.

Do you begin to see why Esau was so anguished?  His father’s words mattered and the blessing was now lost to him.  There was no possible take-back.  There was no do-over.  When those words of blessing were spoken, reality was created.  The word of the patriarch was the word of God:  God speaking through the patriarch to reveal his plan, to create reality.  Words matter, especially words of blessing.

With this background, we come to our appointed reading, Genesis 49.  This text is a bit ironic.  Jacob, who stole the patriarchal blessing, is now the patriarch bestowing the blessing on his sons.  He clearly understands what he is about to do as speech-act; listen:

Genesis 49:1–2 (ESV): Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come. 

 2  “Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father. 

These aren’t just words; they are either prophesy or creative act or both.  Either way, to adapt a phrase from Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments:  So let it be spoken, so let it be done.

Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, might expect the preeminent blessing; it was fitting in that culture.  But, no:  Reuben was as unstable as water.  He had disgraced his father by sleeping with one of Jacob’s wives, in what was a disordered love, an overwhelming lust, or a family power-grab.  No matter which, he had forfeited the preeminent blessing.

Next in line are the brothers Simeon and Levi.  In a cold, vengeful rage they had conspired to murder an entire city full of men for the sin of one of them.  You don’t turn your back on this angry and violent pair; you don’t join their company.  Best to separate them, to keep them far away from one another.  So, in his blessing, Jacob scatters them.  When land is finally apportioned, Simeon is isolated in the far south of the land and Levi receives no territory of his own at all; he is scattered throughout the land.

And that brings Jacob, and us, to Judah.  We might not expect much here either; like his brothers, Judah was far from squeaky-clean.  The whole, sordid Judah-Tamar affair — and I use the word “affair” intentionally — is found in Genesis 38.  Judah deals disgracefully with his daughter-in-law Tamar, hires her as a prostitute, and threatens to burn her to death when her pregnancy — with his own child — is revealed.  To his credit, he does finally acknowledge his sin against her and her comparative righteousness in the matter.

So, Jacob’s blessing of Judah comes as a bit of a surprise.  Here are some excerpts:

Genesis 49:8 (ESV): 8  Judah, your brothers shall praise you; 

your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; 

your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 

Genesis 49:10 (ESV): 10  The scepter shall not depart from Judah, 

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, 

  until tribute comes to him; 

and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 

Genesis 49:11 (ESV): 11  Binding his foal to the vine 

and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, 

  he has washed his garments in wine 

and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 

Let’s look at three particulars.  First, Judah will be preeminent among his brother, his tribe over theirs.  Second, Judah will rule, not just in Israel, but over the peoples.  And, third, all this is connected in some unspecified way with garments stained, at least symbolically, with blood.  You see where this is going.  From the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

Matthew 1:1–3 (ESV): 1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac [and Ishmael, for that matter — but that doesn’t matter for our story], and Isaac the father of Jacob [and Esau, for that matter — but that doesn’t matter for our story], and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers [but they don’t matter for our story], 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron….

And so it goes, all the way to Obed and Jesse and David, all of the tribe of Judah:  to David, the great king, who makes Judah preeminent among his brothers, who elevates his tribe over theirs.  To David who receives from God the promise of an everlasting kingdom over which his son and Lord will reign for ever, and to whom all the nations of the world will bring tribute.

And the genealogy of Judah continues from David to Solomon to Rehoboam.  Generations later it continues with Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, and finally “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1:16b).

This is where it’s been heading all along, from an old man giving his sons their blessings to God giving the world his blessing.  This is the reality that Jacob spoke into being — through the foreknowledge and power of God — all those years ago.  This is what God saw in Judah — what God saw clearly, what Jacob glimpsed in shadow, and what we could not see at all.

And there is more to come; Jacob’s blessing of Judah has not played out fully even yet.  But we see it afar, in a vision, at the end of all things, when the final chapter of history, written on God’s scroll and sealed with seven seals, is unveiled.  John writes:

Revelation 5:2–5 (ESV):  3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 

There he is, at the end of all things:  Judah and his offspring — the Lion of the tribe of Judah, preeminent among his brothers, a lion that looks different than what we expect.

Revelation 5:6 (ESV): 6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain….

The Lion of the tribe of Judah is the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world, a lamb whose garments are washed not in the blood of grapes as Jacob saw in shadow, but in his own saving blood.

And at the revealing of the Lamb a great song breaks out in heaven, sung by living creature and elders and angels and myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of voices — every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea:

Revelation 5:9–10 (ESV): “Worthy are you to take the scroll 

and to open its seals, 

  for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God 

from every tribe and language and people and nation, 

 10  and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, 

and they shall reign on the earth.” 

Revelation 5:12 (ESV): “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, 

  to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might 

  and honor and glory and blessing!” 

Revelation 5:13 (ESV): “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb 

  be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 

What started in Jacob’s blessing of Judah has led us here at last:  to the Lion of the tribe of Judah, to the Lamb who was slain and who has redeemed a people with his blood, to an everlasting kingdom of priests from every tribe and language and people and nation, to Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing now and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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