(Gen. 49:10) Was Jacob predicting Jesus in this passage?

CLAIM: Many Christians claim that this passage predicts the coming of the Messiah through the line of Jacob. Some critics, however, argue that the language is too unclear. Which is true?

RESPONSE: This passage has been rendered in various ways, which indicates that the Hebrew is difficult to translate:

(Gen. 49:10) The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

(Gen. 49:10 NLT) The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor.

(Gen. 49:10 NIV) The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

Let’s address a number of questions that often arise, when studying this passage:

1. What is the scepter?

The “scepter” refers to the kingly line. Kings would carry around a big scepter as a sign of their authority. Jacob tells his twelve sons that the scepter (the kingly line) will not “depart from Judah,” who was one of the twelve boys.

2. Does this passage predict the Davidic line?

If this passage refers to the Messiah, then it predicted the Davidic, messianic line hundreds of years before David ever lived. God told David that one of his descendants would rule on the throne of Israel (2 Sam. 7:11-16). David was the distant ancestor of Judah (1 Chron. 2:3-15).

3. What is “Shiloh”?

The proper translation of this Hebrew word is confusing. As you can see from the translations above, the Hebrew word shiyloh is difficult to translate. A number of possibilities have been suggested:

  1. Should it refer to a person’s name? If this is the case, then it should be literally translated as “the man of rest.”
  2. Should it refer to a place? If this is the case, then it should refer to the city of Shiloh (Josh. 18:1; Judg. 18:31; Jer. 7:12). Shiloh was a town ten miles north of Bethel.
  3. Should the word be divided into two words? If this is the case the Hebrew shai lo would mean “until tribute comes to him.” Or it could be broken up as she-lo, which should be translated “to whom it belongs.”

There are multiple reasons for supporting the third view:

First, many ancient Jewish sources understand this as a messianic prophecy. Consider several examples:

  1. The Septuagint states that this should be translated as “the one to whom it belongs.”[1]
  2. The Dead Sea Scrolls understand this to be a messianic prophecy. One excerpt states, “The sceptre [shall not] depart from the tribe of Judah . . . [Gen 49:10]. Whenever Israel rules, there shall [not] fail to be a descendant of David upon the throne. For the ruler’s staff is the covenant of kingship, [and the clans] of Israel are the divisions, until the Messiah of Righteousness comes, the Branch of David. For to him and his seed is granted the Covenant of kingship over his people for everlasting generations.”[2]
  3. The Targum Onkelos (first-century AD) understands this to be a messianic prophecy: “The transmission of dominion shall not cease from the house of Judah, nor the scribe from his children’s children, forever, until the Messiah comes, to whom the kingdom belongs, and whom nations shall obey.”[3]

Second, this passage predicts that the kingly line would come through Judah. Because David was the ancestor of Judah (1 Chron. 2:3-15), this fits this interpretation. David was a prototype of the Messiah (Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24; Jer. 23:5; 30:9). Moreover, all of the nations obey this person in this passage (“to him shall be the obedience of the peoples”), which is a messianic indicator.

Third, this same phrase (“until the coming of the one to whom it belongs”) is repeated almost verbatim in Ezekiel 21. Here, King Zedekiah is told to “take off the crown” and give it to the one “whose right it is” (Ezek. 21:26-27). Zedekiah was the last recorded king of Judah. Jesus ultimately fulfills (or will fulfill) this passage in Ezekiel, because he is the only one who has the right to wear the kingly crown. Fruchtenbaum comments,

In verse 26 the turban, or mitre, is the mitre of the priest (Exodus 28:4, 37, 39; 29:6; 29:28, 31; Leviticus 8:9, 16:4) and the crown is the royal crown. Just as Genesis 49:10 uses the royal scepter to represent the authority to rule, Ezekiel uses the royal crown to represent the same thing… It should be noted in passing that Ezekiel’s reference to the priestly mitre indicates that Messiah will be a priest as well as a king.[4]

Indeed, even skeptics agree with this final point. For instance, skeptic Chris Sandoval writes, “Actually, ‘Shiloh’ is probably just the Hebrew word for ‘to whom it belongs’: a similar grammatical construction is used in Ezekiel 21:27.”[5]

The notion of a priest-king also surfaces in the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah also describes the future Branch as a priest-king (Zech. 3:8; Zech. 6:11-13). Zechariah writes that there will be a “Servant” in the future, who will be like “Joshua” the high priest. However, he states that this priest would wear a crown and sit on a throne. Jesus, whose name was Y’shua (or Joshua), came both as a priest (to die for our sins) and as a king (to rule and reign in his return).

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995), 51-52.

[2] Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (4th ed. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic, 1995), 302. 4Q252.

[3] Tom Huckel, The Rabbinic Messiah (Philadelphia: Hananeel House, 1998), see Genesis 49:10.

[4] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Messianic Christology: A Study of Old Testament Prophecy concerning the First Coming of the Messiah (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998), 21.

[5] Chris Sandoval, The Failure of Bible Prophecy: A Skeptic’s Review of the Evidence (Canada, Trafford Publishing, 2010), 50.