Dan the Serpent
“Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward” (Gen. 49:16–17).- Genesis 49:16–17
Reporters covering the details of a gruesome crime typically interview the perpetrator’s family and childhood friends. Frequently, you will find these people saying things like, “He was such a good boy, I never thought he would do this,” or, “He started his life off so well, I don’t know what went wrong.” As we will see, many of these same things could also be said about the tribe of Dan.
Jacob blesses Dan in today’s passage, the first time in Genesis 49 that he blesses a son by a concubine instead of one of his wives (see Gen. 30:1–6). Because of his mother’s identity, it was possible that Dan’s offspring would not be regarded as a full part of Israel, and this seems to be the reason behind Jacob’s special designation of him as “one of the tribes of Israel” (49:16). Matthew Henry comments: “Dan shall be incorporated by as good a charter as any of the other tribes.”
Israel’s affirmation of Dan implicitly affirms the full citizenship of his other eleven sons in the future nation, even those whom Leah and Rachel did not birth. Yet Dan will also show himself to be an Israelite through his powerful judgeship. Jacob calls him a serpent (v. 17), having in mind a poisonous yellow desert snake who would hide in crevices or burrow in the sand and strike unsuspecting people or animals. Like this serpent, Dan will be small compared to his prey but far deadlier than his victim suspects. The tribe of Dan does indeed end up as one of Israel’s smaller clans; however, perhaps the most well-known of all the judges emerges from this tribe centuries after Jacob. Samson, a Danite, would rescue the Israelites from the Philistines, usually by relying on his own craftiness (Judg. 13–16).
Though Dan the serpent saved Israel in Samson’s day, his remaining history would not be so celebrated. Later on, the Danites craftily steal an idol and slaughter a quiet, unsuspecting people (Judg. 17–18). Both of these activities flagrantly violate God’s will, as the note on Judges 18:27 in The Reformation Study Bible tells us.
We too must beware lest, like the Danites, we start out well and then reject God’s will. Let us press on and persevere in faith “so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).
Hebrews 12:1–2 says the Christian life is a marathon. Even though all with true faith are justified in God’s sight and are secure in their salvation from the moment they first trust Jesus, believers are not those who “make a decision for Christ” and then live a life indistinguishable from the world around them. Those with true faith persevere until the end, and only those who persevere until the end have true faith. Press on today and obey the Lord.
Passages for Further Study
1 Kings 12:25–33