The Twelve Tribes of Israel

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him” (Gen. 49:18).

- Genesis 49:1-28

When God renamed the patriarch Jacob and his descendants Israel, He chose the new name on account of Jacob’s striving with men and with the Lord (Gen. 32:27–28). Notably, the “striving with God,” which is part of the meaning of the word Israel, has a double meaning. First, people can strive with God through fighting on His side in the battle or through God fighting on their side. During the old covenant, there were many occasions when the Lord fought alongside Israel (Ex. 14:14). On the other hand, “striving with God” can refer to the Lord fighting against Israel and vice versa. Whenever Israel fell into sin under the old covenant, their covenant Lord fought against them, often by raising up foreign adversaries to discipline them (Lev. 26:27–33; 2 Kings 17:6–23; 2 Chron. 36:1–21).

Despite the possibility of judgment, a possibility that was actualized again and again under the old covenant, God promised a glorious final destiny for those people with whom He would struggle — Israel. This promise was delivered early on in the Lord’s repeated appearances to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen. 22:1–18; 26:1–5; 28:10–17). The fullest declaration of this promise occurred in the early years of the Almighty’s covenant with Abraham, and it is found in today’s passage.

Space prohibits a full exposition of Genesis 49, but we do note that Jacob’s blessing in the chapter looks forward to success for the people of Israel. True, some tribes do not fare as well as others (vv. 3–7); nevertheless, the great blessings on Judah and Joseph, in particular, point to greater days for the nation (vv. 8–12, 22–26). Joseph’s fruitfulness alludes to the blessing of offspring for the descendants of Israel (v. 22), one of the key parts of the Abrahamic promise (12:1–3). Judah obtains victory over its enemies and “the obedience of the peoples” (49:10), harkening back to the promise that Abraham’s offspring would rule and conquer (17:6; 22:15–18).

Judah’s reign over the nations looks to a glorious future for the King from that tribe and all those whom He represents. People the world over will obey Him, evidencing faith in the God who places the Judaic king on the throne (James 2:14–26). Israel will swell to an incalculable number as the Lord takes Gentiles according to the flesh and makes them full citizens of His people according to the heart (Rom. 11).

Coram Deo

Because we are grafted into the tree of Israel by faith when we trust in Christ alone, we can be assured that we will enjoy the future glory promised to Israel. Even when things look darkest for the church, we know that the days to come will see victory for the Lord and His people. Let us not be discouraged when we fall or see the world crumbling around us, for God has promised to exalt His people Israel on that final day.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 27:6
Luke 2:22–35

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