Light from the Sidra

Vayechi ('And he lived...')

Torah: Genesis 47:28-50:26. Haftarah: 1 Kings 2:1-12

Hey, Judah!

I’ve always been fascinated by the last words of famous people. All of us know the final recorded words of 32-year old Captain Lawrence Oates when he stepped out into an Antarctic blizzard a hundred years ago to give his companions a better chance of survival: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ And then there’s General John Sedgwick who, being warned to keep his head down in case sniper shot at him, replied, They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist. . .’. Spike Milligan allegedly uttered the immortal lines, ‘I told you I was ill,’ while Dominique Bouhours, the pedantic French grammarian, uttered, ‘I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct.’

When people know they are going to die, every word counts. They tell their family they love them, they apologise, they pray, they confess, they pass on important information or instructions. In Genesis 49, the patriarch Jacob is approaching death and he knows it. So he gathers his sons to tell them what will befall them in ‘the latter days,’ a phrase used thirteen times in the Hebrew Scriptures and each time it refers to the distant future.

According to rabbinic tradition, Jacob wanted to tell his sons when the Messiah would come but as he was about to do so, the Shekinah left him and he had to speak of less momentous matters. According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan:

Then Jacob called his sons and said to them; ‘Purify yourselves of uncleanness, and I will tell you the hidden secrets, the concealed date of the end, the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked, and what the pleasure of Paradise will be.’ The twelve sons of Israel gathered around the golden bed on which he lay. As soon as the date of the end when the King-Messiah would arrive was revealed to him, it was immediately concealed from him; and, therefore, instead (of revealing the date) he said, ‘Come and I will relate to you what will happen to you at the end of days.’

The Fragmentary Targum says Jacob’s sons ‘thought that he would reveal to them everything that is destined to come about in the final messianic period. However, after it was revealed unto him, it was concealed from him . . .’

The Targum Neofiti puts it in these words, ‘The twelve tribes gathered together and surrounded the bed of gold on which our father Jacob was lying after the end was revealed to him that the determined end of the blessing and the calculation be communicated to them. When the end was revealed to him, the mystery was hidden from him. They hoped that he would reveal to them the determined end of the redemption and the consolation. [But] when the mystery was revealed to him, it was hidden from him and when the door was opened to him, it was closed from him.’

Although the three Targumim lament that the time of Messiah was not revealed to Jacob (they don’t say why God suddenly changed his mind about revealing the time of the Messianic age), there is nevertheless a clear indication of the time of Messiah’s coming in the prophecy relating to Judah in 49:8-12.

Judah, as we have seen, is a changed man. No doubt the sight of his father’s grief following the loss of Joseph had brought about a change of heart so that when Benjamin was in danger of being taken into Egyptian servitude, he offered himself as a substitute for his kid brother. Judah’s action was typical of what the Messiah would do for Israel almost 2,000 years later, and the tribe of Judah became the royal tribe through which King Messiah would come: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the staff-of-command from between his legs until they bring him tribute [literally: ‘until Shiloh comes’]—the obedience of the peoples is his’ (Gen. 49:10. The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes, Everett Fox).

‘The sceptre shall not depart from Yehuda’: The sceptre is the symbol of kingship, and having the sceptre underlines Judah’s right to rule. Judah will remain the royal tribe in Israel.

‘Nor the staff-of-command from between his legs’: Judah will always be the ruler in Israel.

‘Until they bring him tribute’: This phrase has been understood in a number of ways by Jewish and Christian scholars. It reads in Hebrew: ‘until Shiloh come’ and some Bible versions such as the Authorised (King James) Version and the American Standard Version simply transliterate ‘Shiloh’ as a proper name.

In spite of the differing views as to the meaning of ‘Shiloh’, Jews and Christians have seen Genesis 49:10 as a prophecy of the Messiah. Fragment 4QPBless from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date back to the period of the Second Temple, has the following comment on Genesis 49:10:

A ruler shall not depart from the tribe of Judah while Israel has dominion. There will not be cut off a king in it belonging to the line of David. For the staff is the covenant of the kingship; the thousands of Israel are the feet, until the coming of the Messiah of Righteousness, the Branch of David, for him and to his seed has been given the covenant of the kingship over his people for everlasting generations.

‘The obedience of the peoples is his’: This is a statement that the Gentiles will obey the royal Messiah of Israel.

If this is a prophecy of King Messiah – and the rabbis agree that it is – and the royal rule will not depart from Judah until the Messiah comes, what does that tell us? The sceptre passed from Judah a long time ago, therefore the one to whom the sceptre belongs must have come. The prophecy says the Gentiles will obey Messiah; but it says nothing about Israel obeying him. When Jewish anti-missionaries such as Rabbi Immanuel Shochet claim that the Jewish people ‘own the patent’ on the Messiah, they ignore then clear implication of this prophecy: the Gentiles will recognise the Messiah when the Jews don’t!  

Two thousand years ago the Messiah, the King of Israel to whom the sceptre of Israel belonged, was rejected by the majority of his own people. Only a faithful but significant remnant obeyed him. And so it has remained. But billions of Gentiles claim to follow and obey the Messiah of Israel.

No messianic claimant since the time of Jesus has been able to prove his descent from the tribe of Judah through the family of David. And it is impossible for any future messianic pretender to prove his Davidic descent. No messianic wannabe, including Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, has had any significant following among non-Jews. So whatever plausible arguments are advanced against Jesus by anti-missionaries such as Rabbi Tovia Singer, if Jesus is not the Messiah, God’s promises have failed and Jewish people (and gentiles also) must die in despair. But Israel does have a King and ultimately not only will the people obey him but also the people – his people – Israel.

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