In this chapter, Jacob calls all his sons together and blesses each of them in birth order. So let’s go through them one by one.
Reuben: he’s the eldest, and thus stands to inherit. But according to a brief aside in 35:22, Reuben “went into” Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, mother of Dan and Naphtali. It’s entirely unclear whether this was rape or consensual; given the ages of the characters, it’s possible Bilhah wasn’t much more than 10-15 years older than Reuben, and as someone who believes younger men are perfectly capable of falling for older women, maybe it was love. Apparently some rabbinical sources interpreted it as Reuben getting a sort of revenge for his mother by going after the woman Rachel used to have children. They also say that Reuben immediately regretted it and made penance, as a way to reconcile the action with his later upstanding nature in regards to Joseph. Regardless, Jacob says that Reuben is as “unstable as water” (v 4) or “wild as water” in the NCT, and defiled his father’s bed with incest, and is therefore ineligible to get firstborn privileges. The Japanese also chooses to translate the word “rank” in verse 3 as “pride” or “haughtiness,” another argument for Reuben’s unworthiness.
Simeon and Levi: these two are lumped together because of their complicity in getting revenge for Dinah’s rape. Jacob gets the last word he didn’t have back in chapter 34, upbraiding them for their excessive violence and rash decision making. This is why the two tribes were later scattered in Israel.
Judah: so a lot of the preceding seems to be a justification for the tribe of Judah being the royal lineage in spite of Judah being the fourth son. What makes this interesting is that it means the birth order of the tribes was so firmly established in pre-existing narratives that the Biblical redactors couldn’t just change the story and make Judah the firstborn. Just because I’m with the consensus that puts the Pentateuch as we have it no earlier than the 6th century BC doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that it’s based on sources that are much, much older.
It’s also interesting that as Jacob airs each of his sons sins, he doesn’t bring up Judah refusing to let Tamar marry his son or his subsequent sleeping with her. Did Jacob consider this okay? Did Jacob know? Or did they let dear old dad think that Perez and Zerah were Shelah’s sons?
Zebulon: I looked up maps of where the tribe of Zebulon supposedly lived. It wasn’t by the sea. So I really don’t know why this verse says he “shall settle at the shore of the sea; he shall be a haven for ships.” (v 13)
Issachar: apparently he’s lazy and thus gets enslaved. Is this a reference to something else that will happen later? I’ll have to keep an eye out for that.
Dan: the name “Dan” means judge (30:3-4), so I guess it makes sense that he’d be described as judging people. But the comparison of him as a viper isn’t exactly positive, and apparently rabbinical accounts don’t depict him in a positive light.
Gad, Asher, and Naphtali: at one verse apiece, with really lame ideas, I think whoever came up with this chapter was really stretching for ideas. None of these tribes existed by the time they were redacting the Bible, so I don’t think they had a lot of motivation for coming up with detailed accounts of them.
Joseph: he gets heaped with praise for overcoming misfortune, giving him a ridiculous number of blessings. No mention of how badly he treated the Egyptians. It’s also odd that he’s treated with such high praise when, later on, it’s Judah that will be more important, and Joseph himself won’t get a tribe named after him (Manasseh and Ephraim get their own tribes). Also, again, none of those tribes existed any longer, unless you believe the various diaspora Jews like those in India who claim descent from him.
Benjamin: another lame verse, but I know that Benjamin shows up later on in a bad light, first in Judges and then as the tribe that produces Saul, the first and failed king. I suppose a ravenous wolf isn’t a bad analogy.
Jacob’s last wish is to be buried with his grandparents, parents, and Leah, who apparently died at some point before this; Rachel gets a big fanfare but Leah gets only a passing mention? poor Leah… But then again, Jacob buried her with his family rather than far away like Rachel and chose to be buried with her, which I guess shows he did come to care for her eventually.
The Japanese: ikioi “vigor, energy,” kigurai “pride, haughtiness” (v 3), honpou “wild, uninhibited” (v 4), bougi “plot,” kuwawaru “to join in,” tsuranaru “to stand in line” (v 6), hanahadashii “extreme, excessive” (v 7), uzukumaru “to crouch” (v 9), oushaku “royal scepter,” touchi “rule, reign” (v 10), honebuto “brawny, big-boned” (v 14), kokoroyoku “pleasant,” kagameru “to bow, to bend,” ninau “to carry on one’s shoulders, kueki “toil, hard labor” (v 15), mamushi “viper,” kakato “heel,” aomuke “lying face up on your back” (v 17), ryakudatsusha “plunderer” (v 19), bimi “delicacy,” sonaeru “to offer, dedicate” (v 20), ishigaki “stone wall” (v 22), tekii “hostility,” idaku “to harbor resentment/prejudice/grude/etc.” (v 23), subayaku “quickly,” bokusha “herdsman” (v 24), yokotawaru “to lie (in regards to location),” chibusa “breast” (v 25), masaru “to be superior, to surpass” (v 26), fusawashii “appropriate” (v 28), nedoko “bed,” soroeru “to gather” (v 33).
HOLY COW THIS TOOK FOREVER TO READ IN JAPANESE. I still have so much to learn…