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

CLAIM: Christian apologists often claim that this passage predicts the coming of the Messiah through the line of Jacob. However, critics claim 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 NASB) 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, most scholars believe that this passage should be translated as “to whom it belongs.” Both the Septuagint and the Targum rendered it as “the one to whom it belongs.”[1] In addition, Norman Geisler writes,

The majority of scholars propose… [the word shylh] to mean ‘to whom it belongs.’ This proposal has the support of ancient translations, such as the Greek and Syriac versions of the OT, and others. These ancient versions, being much older than the MT, also render the phrase, ‘he to whom they belong.’[2]

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. Arnold 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.[3]

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

[2] Geisler, Norman L. ; Howe, Thomas A.: When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992. 61.

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