Yaakov's Farewell Address
Before his death, Yaakov gathered his twelve sons and described to them "what will happen to them at the end of days" ("אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים"). To what time period does this enigmatic phrase refer? Does it refer to the end of the lives of Yaakov's sons themselves, to their descendants in the period when the Israelite nation was still composed of tribes, or to Messianic times? Is Yaakov's last speech a collection of blessings or prophecies? Do his words refer to specific events and eras? The answers to these questions have implications for understanding Yaakov's words to each and every one of his sons, but they have particular importance for interpreting the contents of his address to Yehuda.
The crowning point of Yaakov's words to Yehuda is in Bereshit 49:10:
לֹא יָסוּר שֵׁבֶט מִיהוּדָה וּמְחֹקֵק מִבֵּין רַגְלָיו עַד כִּי יָבֹא שִׁילֹה וְלוֹ יִקְּהַת עַמִּים.
The scepter will not depart from Yehuda, nor the lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be the gathering of the peoples. [Note: this translation is only one of many options.]
While both the contents and context of this verse seem to indicate that Yehuda is being assigned a position of leadership, the verse defies attempts at translation, as multiple different interpretations have been suggested for almost every word in the sentence. Some of the obvious questions are:
- What are a "שֵׁבֶט" and a "מְחֹקֵק", and what leadership roles do they symbolize?
- Is "שִׁילֹה" a person, object, or place; who or what will be coming ("יָבֹא"), when, and why?
- What is the meaning of "יִקְּהַת" and who are the "עַמִּים"?
After one adds to the mix the general question of to what era Yaakov is referring, and then tries to harmonize the resulting picture with the vast periods in our history in which we have not had leaders from the tribe of Yehuda, the result is complex indeed.
In Approaches, we will examine how commentators throughout history attempted to interpret this verse, define the role(s) of Yehuda that Yaakov was foretelling, and respond to competing Christian claims.