17 December – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 49:2,8-10

Jacob is on his death bed and making his last statement to his family. It is the longest poem in Genesis. Today’s reading is part of what is known as the ‘Blessings of Jacob’, although they are more like prophecies than blessings. This is especially true of the section in today’s reading. And it is directed, not so much to the sons of Jacob, but more to the tribes who bore their name.

Although this passage ostensibly refers to Jacob’s immediate descendants, in fact, the final writing dates from the time of David much later, with possibly some earlier elements contained in it. Its contents really concern the time of the Judges and the Kings. It was at this later time that it would have been inserted into the Genesis narrative. Put together from pre-existing songs and sayings, it looks at the tribes of Israel in their early days in Canaan. It is put here to signify the closing of a historical period, that covered by the Book of Genesis.

Two of the tribes stand out – Judah and Joseph. Judah is seen as coming to dominate all the others until the coming of “the one who will be in charge”, a reference to the Messiah. Judah will be the one through whom the promises made to Abraham and Jacob will be fulfilled. Judah was the fourth born to Jacob’s wife Leah, and also the fourth son born to Jacob, but his three older brothers, for various reasons, lost their right to family leadership.

Judah is shown as pre-eminent over his brothers. “Your brothers shall praise you… your father’s sons [his brothers, in other words] will do you homage.” From the time of the second journey of Jacob’s sons to Joseph in Egypt, Judah acted as their spokesman. Judah, under the name of Ephraim, did in fact become the most influential of the northern tribes and would form the nucleus of the future kingdom of Israel. And, through his descendant David, he would be an ancestor of Jesus. And hence the purpose of today’s reading.

He is called a “lion’s cub” as a symbol of power, strength and courage. In later times, he is often pictured as a lion and, in Revelation (5:5), Jesus himself is called the “Lion of Judah”.

The meaning of the closing prophecy is obscure but it is often read in a Messianic sense, fulfilled first of all in David, and ultimately in Christ, the Messiah. It is to Jesus Christ that the ‘sceptre’, the ruling power ultimately belongs.

Both the First Reading and the Gospel, which contains Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, emphasise Jesus’ roots going back to the very beginnings of Israel. Jesus was a Jew through and through and linked with many of the most significant characters in Israel’s turbulent history.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Child Jesus in Bethlehem, we need to remember that the content of today’s readings is an important aspect of the Incarnation. Jesus did not just appear as an isolated human being. He came from God, but he is also is intimately and crucially linked with the history of his own people. And, because of that, so are we.

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