The poem presents an opinion of the merits and attributes of each of the Tribes of Israel, and so can be compared with the Blessing of Moses, which has the same theme. However, there is very little in common between the poems, except for describing one of the tribes as a judge, and another as a lion's whelp, though in the Blessing of Jacob it is Dan that is the judge and Judah the whelp, whereas in the other poem it is Gad that is the judge and Dan the whelp.
Also, unlike the Blessing of Moses, that of Jacob is not afraid to castigate some of the tribes, in particular, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. The poem appears to aim to describe why each of the tribes suffered the fate they did, and thus explains the small territory of Reuben, the firstborn, compared to Judah, as being due to Reuben's incest (abruptly mentioned at Genesis 49:3-4). Also, as Simeon's territory was completely within that of Judah, and Levi only had a few scattered cities, these fates were described as being due to their wickedness. Most of the other tribes have brief descriptions suiting their main characteristic, whether it be seafaring or beautiful princesses.
However, Judah and the Joseph tribes both receive extensive blessings, suited to their pre-eminence, Judah's as the major component of the Kingdom of Judah, and the Joseph tribes, in particular Ephraim, as the pre-eminent group in the Kingdom of Israel. In particular, Joseph is described as mighty, and thus as conquering, but Judah's authority is described as given directly by God, and consequently it suits the southern (i.e. Judah) bias of the Jahwist.
It has been held by some authorities that the text is not intact. Verses 10, 25, 26, and probably verse 18, are regarded as interpolations. Verse 10 interrupts the continuity of thought, verse 11 taking up the thread dropped in verse 8. All these verses touch upon the possession of the land of promise; whereas verse 10 refers to the future and to the submission of the people. Verses 25 and 26 bear a suspicious resemblance to Deuteronomy 33:13–16; and while the text of verses 22–24, corresponding to other very ancient songs, presents a knotty problem, verses 25 and 26 are comparatively intelligible (Edgar Innes Fripp, in "Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft," 1891, pp. 262 et seq.; Heinrich Holzinger, Commentar zur Genesis, ad loc.). The lack of connection between verse 18 and the other verses is made clear by the form of the matter: the speech concerning Dan consists of three couplets, and verse 18 seems to hobble lamely after. Moreover, the idea expressed in verse 18 is different from that of the other verses (comp. Ball, "S. B. O. T." ad loc.).
Date of composition
The difficulty of an exact determination is increased by doubt concerning the unity of the composition. The first to dispute its unity was Ernest Renan (Histoire Générale des Langues Sémitiques, p. iii.); and the conjecture that the song consists of sayings originating in different periods gains more and more credence (J. P. N. Land, Disputatio de Carmine Jacobi, 1857; Kuenen, Holzinger, and others). The great variety of forms in the song supports this theory: while the language of one part is smooth and clear, another part is obscure. The determination of the correctness of this theory involves an investigation of the age of each verse; and in several instances this can not be ascertained, since the verses indicate nothing concerning the time of their origin (see verses on Zebulun, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali). The verses on Issachar refer to the period after the struggles of Deborah (Judges 5); the verses on Dan, describing his battles in the north, where in his conflicts with the surrounding nations he maintained the old Israelitish custom of making an insidious rear attack instead of offering a bold challenge, refer to the time after Judges chapters 17 and following; and the verses on Judah (8, 11) presuppose the kingdom of Judah. The comparison of Judah to a lion's whelp seems to characterize him as a rising power. This may apply to different periods, not necessarily to the time of David.
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The verses on Joseph (22-27) allude to a defensive war, in which Joseph was successful. Since the text refers to archers, and the Arabs were excellent marksmen, August Dillmann thinks that the war was with the Arabs. But his conjecture is erroneous; for the conflicts with the Arabs were confined to the portion of Manasseh east of the Jordan, and the term "Joseph" designates the portion of the tribe of Joseph dwelling west of the Jordan. Since, moreover, the reference could not have been to the Philistines, by whom the tribe was occasionally subdued, the verse clearly alludes to the Arameans of Damascus, with whom the conflicts were of long duration, often threatening the safety of the tribe of Joseph -- that is, of the Northern Kingdom. Verse 24, however, bears no testimony of times following the glorious period of Jeroboam II; consequently the passage on Joseph points to the ninth century. Probably it was in the second half of this century, at all events before the conquests of Jeroboam, and evidently in the Southern Kingdom, that the collection of these pithy descriptions of the tribes was completed. If verses 25 and 26 are interpolations, this is the only interpretation which would also explain both the esteem felt for Judah, expressed in the passage on him, and the silence concerning the Benjamite kingdom and possibly even the Northern Kingdom.
Dillmann endeavored to arrive at the same conclusion by the supposed sequence in the enumerationof the minor tribes, proceeding from south to north. But this supposition is not tenable; for the very first tribe mentioned is the most northerly, and, furthermore, the sequence is broken by Gad. However, even if there were an exact geographical succession of tribes from south to north, it would prove nothing concerning the home of the collector of the passages, since the same order would have been natural for an Ephraimite (compare Holzinger ad loc.).
Zimmern's attempt (in "Zeit. für Assyriologie," 1892, pp. 161 et seq.) to connect Jacob's blessing with the Babylonian representation of the zodiac, specifically with the Gilgamesh epic, can not be regarded as successful. Ball has given some important and well-founded arguments against this theory (Commentary on Genesis in "S. B. O. T." pp. 114 et seq.). Zimmern himself does not assume that the poet or collector of the song was aware of the original significance of each passage.
Historically, Jacob's blessing is of the greatest value, both because it is the only source of information for certain of the tribes in ancient times, and because it is an aid in rendering the sources (for example,) more intelligible.
See, besides the commentaries on Genesis of Dillmann, Merx, Knobel, Delitzsch, Holzinger, Ball, and Gunkel:
- Ludwig Diestel, Segen Jakobs, 1853;
- Ernst Heinrich Meier, Geschichte der Poetischen Nationalliteratur, 1858;
- Kaufmann Kohler, Der Segen Jakobs, 1867;
- Augustus Newton Obbard, The Prophecy of Jacob, Cambridge 1867.