I have been struggling recently with the biblical account of Jacob’s last testament to his sons and their descendents, found in Genesis 49:1-27. I am hardly the first. As many commentators have already noted, this is one of the most obscure passages in the Pentateuch. The Hebrew is difficult and at times almost unintelligible; the text keeps mixing metaphors; and the word-plays that it makes on the names of Jacob’s sons seem to be in tension with the derivations of the names given earlier in Genesis. The testament is also nakedly political. Most of the tribes are lightly brushed aside in a verse, and the two tribes that receive extended blessings are Judah and Joseph, the tribes that not coincidentally at all are associated respectively with the southern and northern kingdoms, formed after the death of Solomon in the tenth century. The “blessings” of Reuven, Simon, and Levi – the three oldest brothers – are hardly blessings, and seem intended to malign them in order to set the stage for Judah’s ascendency. That is, as the fourth son, Judah would gain power only because his three older brothers forfeited their right to it due to their bad behavior.
What is a plausible historical context for such a text? What is particularly peculiar to me is the dual blessing of Judah and Joseph. The blessing of Judah clearly assumes that the tribe of Judah holds supreme power; I cannot see how it can be dated prior to the fall of the northern kingdom (Israel) to Assyria in 722 BCE. Yet the blessing of Joseph assumes that his tribe – Israel – has withstood attacks and is flourishing. It is hard to imagine how a scribe writing in Judah/Jerusalem after 722 BCE could have written this. How can we make sense these two blessings appearing together?
Here’s my preliminary solution, following, to some extent, John Skinner’s suggestions in his volume in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (pp. 507-25). The bulk of this testament, including the blessing of Joseph, was produced in Israel (the northern kingdom) prior to 722 BCE. After Israel’s fall, it was part of the literature that exiled scribes brought to Jerusalem. Some time later, being revised by a scribe in Judah, the testament was updated to include the strong statement about Judah’s leadership. By that time Israel was no threat, so Joseph’s blessing was left unchanged.
If this solution works, then we have here an excellent example of the ways in which the scribes of Judah revised the texts that they received from their brethren from the north.