The Once and Future Scepter
At the end of his life, Jacob gathered his sons together in order to give each of them his fatherly blessing. But in fact, his three oldest sons didn’t end up being blessed at all; what Jacob said to each was more in the nature of a reproach. Thus, Reuben was officially told that, although he was the oldest, he would not be getting the double portion of inheritance that was usually given to the firstborn “because you went up to your father’s bed”—a euphemism for Reuben’s sin with Bilhah (Gen 35:22). As for Simeon and Levi, they were reproved for their hot tempers; “Cursed be their anger—so fierce—and their wrath, how harsh it is! I will disperse them in [the land of] Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Gen 49:7). And so indeed it was: the tribe of Simeon was incorporated into Judah (Josh 19:9), and the Levites became virtually landless (Deut 10:9).
When Jacob next turned to his son Judah, however, his praise was unstinting. Judah’s lion-like strength and courage would make him the natural leader of Israel: “Your father’s other sons will bow down to you,” he said, indeed, “The royal scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes into Shiloh, and peoples will obey him” (Gen 49:10).
This certainly sounded like a blessing—but a rather problematic one. It was nice to think that the royal scepter would not depart from the tribe of Judah—and for a time, that was true. King David, who amalgamated Israel and Judah into a mighty empire, was indeed a Judahite, and the dynasty he established lasted for four centuries. But then the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled its citizens to Babylon. From that point on, there has been no royal scepter in Judah. Had Jacob’s prophetic gifts somehow failed him?
The second part of this verse was even more puzzling. There was no specific connection between the Davidic monarchy and the city of Shiloh—and in any case, what might that have had this to do with “peoples” obeying him?
The key to unraveling all this, according to ancient interpreters, lay with the little word ‘ad, “until.” When Jacob said that the royal scepter would not depart from Judah, he meant that it would not depart forever. In other words, the tribe of Judah would indeed be conquered by the Babylonians and the kingship would indeed depart for a time, but only until… until something else occurred.
What was that something? Interpreters understood this part of the verse to be referring to the coming of a new king, a messiah (Hebrew mashiaḥ is just a synonym for “king”). When this new monarch arises, history will at last be set aright. Judah will not only be ruled by one of its own again, but other “peoples” as well will obey this Messiah.
What did all this have to do with Shiloh? Absolutely nothing! But a slight change in pronunciation could turn Shiloh into shello, “of him” or “his.” Thus, the Aramaic translation of Onkelos renders these words, “A ruler will not depart from Judah forever… [but only] until the Messiah comes, the one to whom [shello] kingship belongs.”
Readers may notice that the word “scepter” in Onkelos’s translation has morphed into “ruler.” In fact, the word shevet was indeed sometimes understood as meaning “ruler” in biblical Hebrew; scholars have found that shevet was sometimes identified with the similar-sounding word shofet, a judge or ruler.
So, putting all this together, Jacob was indeed clear-sighted to the end. He foresaw the departure of kingship for a time, but only until a new ruler, a Messiah—to whom kingship belongs—would take the throne. Then the Messiah would rule not only over Judah, but other nations as well. And all this accorded perfectly with the words of a somewhat later figure, the prophet Balaam, who, thinking of the Messiah, had said: “A star will comes forth from Jacob, and a ‘scepter’ arise from Israel” Num 24:17).