Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Genesis 49: Jacob "Blesses" His Sons

Esau embraces his brother Jacob while Jacob's wives and young sons watch their unexpected rendez-vous.

Were the Twelve Tribes of Israel evenly distributed among the twelve signs of the Zodiac? Lore outside of the Bible suggests that Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, may have interacted with or even lived near the Chaldeans for a period of time. The Chaldeans were said to be a small tribe known for ancient astrological wisdom. Theoretically, Abraham and his immediate descendents could have had some exposure to Chaldean methods, and at least one chapter in Genesis gives clear hints of this(although the evidence is fragmentary).

The title is significant. Jacob isn’t “blessing” his sons so much as prophesying the future of their descendents, but prophesy was often described as “blessing” when an important Biblical figure like Jacob engaged in it. Some of Jacob’s “blessings” are downright negative and seem more like judgments or curses. More than half the “blessings” strongly suggest that Jacob used astrological archetypes to describe his sons and, in some cases, their descendents. Some of the blessings are ambiguous, however, and a couple of them don’t seem to have much to do with a recognizable western astrology. But taken together, his “blessings” form one of the most enigmatic and intriguing chapters in the Book of Genesis.

Even more irony is attached to the title when one considers that a younger Jacob wrestled earlier with the Angel and would not give up until the Angel had given Jacob his blessing. The back story is that Jacob had treated his brother Esau in a wretched manner, and was now afraid of him, so he needed the Angel’s blessing. When it becomes his own turn to confer blessings upon his sons as an old man, Jacob appears to forget that some of his sons may also feel a strong need for his blessing.

(Interestingly, there is a parallel tradition of double-tongued “blessings” in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was said to have offered the blessings of Paradise to many of his key associates before major battles, and they knew that this meant Muhammad had already accurately anticipated their imminent death and martyrdom.)

Jacob calls his sons to him, saying. “Gather around so that I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” He starts with his oldest son, Reuben.

Unfortunately, Jacob is still furious with him because Reuben intruded on his sexual privacy, and his “blessing” turns into a curse which focuses sorely on an incident that occurred many years before.

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the water(indecisive), you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it. –Gen 49:3

There is a very slight suggestion of an Aries/Libra polarity in this description. As I see it, “the first sign of my strength” points to Aries, and “turbulent as the water” suggests Libran indecisiveness. It is not much to go on, and it doesn’t associate Reuben with a specific zodiac sign.

However, when viewed alongside descriptions of his other sons that do seem to delineate particular signs, this verse does seem to possess an astrological core. It is almost as if Jacob is trying to figure out where Reuben’s nativity lies in the zodiac, as he pronounces his “best guess”.

Jacob curses his next two sons, Simon and Levi, in no uncertain terms. Simeon and Levi were the children of Leah, and they killed all the males of Shechem, because their sister Dinah had unmarried sex with a man known only as “Shechem” after falling in love with him. Their revenge was totally outside the bounds of what was considered normal in this culture, and the impression is that Simeon and Levi were sociopaths.

Their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger…cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel. I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel. -Gen 49:5

In the verse above, note that Jacob describes his territory by his own name “Jacob” and also by the name “Israel”. Joseph’s name was changed to Israel when he wrestled with the divine visitor at Peniel.

In this painting by Paul Gauguin, Jacob wrestles the angel while pretty girls watch.

There is little obvious astrology in this verse, but to some observers, there is still a “shadow” of Gemini lurking beneath Jacob’s depiction. He describes them as brothers (sharing the traits of brutality, anger, and cruelty). He doesn’t do this for any of his other sons, even though four of them were full brothers of this pair. Modern astrologers have also described Gemini as capable of great cruelty. Once again, this isn’t much to go on. Here, the reader who seeks a one-on-one association between the sons and the zodiac signs is deconstructing some very slim clues.

We do know that the people of Levi were not included among the tribes given land allotments following the conquest of Canaan. Moses designated the Levites apart for priestly duty as belonging to the Lord (Nu 3:1-4, 49). Joshua awarded them 48 towns scattered throughout Israel (Jos 21: 1-45)

Jacob’s blessings are mostly short and to the point. He gives only two of his sons a somewhat lengthier blessing, Judah and Joseph, both of whom are fire signs and natural leaders. With Judah’s blessing, the reader doesn’t have to “stretch” very far to see that Jacob is talking about a Leo.

You are a lion’s cub, O Judah, you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness – who dares to rouse him? -Gen 49:9

Jacob describes his lion son as a predator, and also at rest. In modern astrology, Leo is described by the core attributes of the Sun, which both rises and sets. The rising sun is said to be active and life-giving, while the setting sun is thought to recuperate its energy “offstage” in preparation for a time when it will once again hopefully be the center of attention (see Endnote). The lion and the sun share this quality of vibrant activity alternating with quiet withdrawal.

The next line in this verse simultaneously describes Judah and his descendents, and is widely considered to be one of the most controversial statements in the entire Old Testament.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff, until Shiloh comes, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. -Gen 49:10

The scepter and the ruler’s staff are the symbols of kingship. Jesus will be descended from the lineage of Judah, and this is what all Christians are intended to recall when they read this prediction of Jacob’s.

Shiloh is a shadowy figure in the Old Testament, and there is probably good reason for this. Shiloh as a place-name is described several times in later books of the Old Testament. As with other place-names in the Old Testament, the name is often intended to refer to both a place and a person.

There is more than one translation of this verse, since the Old Testament available to us today has been transcribed across many languages.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, unto whom tribute belongs. -Gen 49:10

So who was Shiloh? Was it Jesus, the distant descendant of Judah? Or could Joseph have been predicting a later prophet and law-giver to whom the Jews would (and did) actually have to pay tribute to, in other words, the prophet Muhammed? Shiloh is not synonymous with the territory that the Prophet Muhammad emerges from. Nor was Muhammad descended from Judah, but rather from his great-uncle, Ishmael. Nevertheless, the parsing of this spare description about the nearly invisible and forgotten Shiloh has given rise to more speculation in modern times than any of Jacob’s other blessings.

Zebulon is described very suggestively as a water sign in a single line of verse.

Zebulon will live by the seashore, and become a haven for ships. -Gen 49:13

Pisces is clearly symbolized by the sea and ships, but Alan Oken leans toward the association with Cancer because Jacob’s use of the word “haven” also describes a nurturing man who protects his descendents. (Jacob blesses his sons as an old man, and it is presumed that all of his sons were adults who very likely had sons of their own.) Moon-ruled Cancer is also associated with the sea, and the descendents of Zebulon were close enough to the Mediterranean to “feast on the abundance of the seas”. Dt 33:19

Jacob bluntly tells poor Issachar that his descendents will end up as slaves because he is so lazy!

Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down between two saddlebags. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor. -Gen49:14-15

Issachar was probably born under a Saturn-ruled sign (sigh), but the description of his brother Naphtali fits Capricorn more closely. The more critical Jacob is of his sons, the less obvious is any evidence of his astrological judgment regarding them. In my opinion, Issachar is anybody’s guess…

Jacob sums up his son Dan with praise, but the two verses suggest two different signs (Could Dan’s nativity have been on the cusp?)

Dan will provide justice for his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Gen 49:16

In the line above, Dan personifies the highest manifestation of justice-loving Libra. If I had to bet, I’d wager that Jacob is telling us Dan’s sign in the first verse. Yet the following verse has strong Scorpio overtones.

Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horses heels, so that its rider tumbles backwards. -Gen 49:17

The verse above is a prediction for a celebrated hero destined to be born in Dan’s lineage. Samson, from the tribe of Dan, would single-handedly keep the Philistines at bay. Simultaneously, the serpent imagery is strongly suggestive of Scorpio, although another one of Jacob’s sons will fit the Scorpio archetype more closely, as we shall see.

Alan Oken is spot-on about Jacob’s description of Gad as a Scorpio. Oken points out that when Gad was born, Leah cried out, “A troop cometh”. (Mars was the classical ruler of Scorpio.) When Jacob was an old man, he said of Gad:

“A troop shall overcome him; but he shall overcome at the last.” Gen 49:19 (An allusion to the great recuperative powers of this sign, usually associated with the modern ruler, Pluto.)

There couldn’t be a more generous description of Virgo, and we suspect that Jacob must have really cherished his son Asher.

Asher’s bread will be fat; he will provide delicacies fit for a king. Gen49:20

Jacob’s praise of Naphtali comes down to us in at least two very different versions. The first translation is one that I associate strongly with Capricorn, being one myself.

Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth good words.” -Gen 49:21

(In other words, Capricorn can be fucking nuts and not especially chaste, but he may make a good writer.)
Naphtali depicted as a goat in The Tribe of Naphtali, from the Twelve Maquettes of Stained Glass Windows for Jerusalem (1964) by Marc Chagall.

Think of Capricorn, and one thinks of the Greek god Pan. Pan had a body with a lower half like a goat, plus he was wild and erotic, like a “hind let loose”. Capricorn is also known for its dry, understated humor, and Jacob expresses this idea with understated praise, “he giveth good words”.

Overtones of Saturn are admittedly more characteristic of Jacob’s description of his slave son, Iccashar. Capricorn is not an easy zodiac sign to live under. Yet with Naphtali, we see the fun-loving, sly-tongued reaction to living under all these Saturnine obstacles.

A very different translation of this brief verse is more enigmatic:

Naphtali is a graceful doe that gives birth to beautiful fawns. -Gen49:21

In this interpretation, Jacob appears more focused on predicting a handsome tribe of descendents for Naphtali. Interestingly, there is a Vedic asterism called Mrigashira that is symbolized by a deer, and those born under this cluster of stars are also said to be very clever with words. There is no evidence that Jacob would have had any knowledge of Vedic astrology, even from sources of lore outside the Bible, but I did find it fascinating that Jacob’s carefully chosen words of praise could possibly be interpreted in a Vedic context.

Jacob’s son Joseph became prime minister and lawgiver to the Egyptian pharaoh.
This is James Patterson's painting of Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors.

Jacob gives Joseph one of the lengthier blessings, and as with most of his other ones, it combines astrological imagery with a prediction for Joseph’s descendents.

Joseph is a fruitful bough (bow) by a well, whose branches run over the wall (an allusion to the limitless expanse of the Sagittarian mind). The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the mighty God. -Gen 49:22-24

The bow as a symbol of the Sagittarian archer is pretty hard to miss. Joseph is also “fruitful” and his “branches run over the wall” – his numerous descendents are everywhere in Israel. Joseph is described as king-like, a strong bow “made strong by the mighty God”, which fits the Sagittarian archetype very well.

The final blessing for Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, is more than a little intriging. The blessing is ominous, and does not use an image from recognizable western astrology.

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder. -Gen 49:27

What is known about Benjamin is that his mother Rachel died soon after giving birth, and knowing that she would die of his delivery, she gave him the name “Benoni”, which means “son of my sorrow”.

When Jacob predicts the future of his lineage as an old man, he is referring to a series of horrible incidents involving his descendents (the Benjamites). Most of them were slaughtered by the Israelites after an incident where they were responsible for raping a Levite’s concubine to death in Judges 19. In retaliation, the Israelites (mostly descendents of Judah) kill almost all of the Benjamite men, women, and children, with the exception of an unspecified number of men and four hundred young girls who had never slept with a man. These girls were given to the remaining Benjamite men, so that the tribe could be “reseeded”.

Apparently, there are still not enough women left to propagate a new tribe, and it is decided that the remaining Benjamite survivors must have heirs, so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out. The Israelites couldn’t give them their own daughters as wives because they had already taken an oath to the Lord to abstain from doing so. So they instructed the Benjamites to hide in the vineyards of Shiloh, and seize the girls who came out to join in the dancing.

Western astrology doesn’t speak to this image, but the wolf seems cursed, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to call him demonic. For some reason, it brought to mind the demon-like qualities of Vedic Rahu, who is said to be a forest-dweller, among other attributes. The day that I wrote this article, I was looking over my notes on Norse runes. The tradition of Norse runes extends far back into the past, although it is impossible to know if it was ever contemporary with the events of the Old Testament. Nonetheless, I was more than a little surprised to find this Norwegian rune fragment for Fehu (note the linguistic similarity with Rahu).

Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen;
the wolf lives in the forest.

Oken, Alan. Alan Oken’s Complete Astrology: The Classic Guide to Modern Astrology, Nicolas Hays, Inc., 2006. (Much of this book was originally published as three separate titles in the 1970’s.)

Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Inner Traditions; Revised edition, 2006. Originally published 1983. (The new edition of this classic title was approved by the author in 2005 before his death at the age of ninety-six.)

The blessings are quoted from various translations of the Bible. Some of these versions are far more amenable to astrological interpretation than others.

1 For an excellent article on Leo in its alternating phases of activity and withdrawn repose, see “The Offstage Leo” by Moll Frothingham in the Dec 2009/Jan 2010 issue of TMA.


  1. Great article :-)
    There is a great deal written on this subject in Hebrew. I hope to find the time to quote Hebrew sources in my blog:

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I offer this relationship of the 12 sons and the 12 sun signs: Reuben is Libra, Simeon is Scorpio, Levi is Sagittarius, Judah is Capricorn, Dan is Aquarius, Gad is Aires, Ascher is Taurus, Zebulun is Cancer, Benjamin is Leo, Joseph is Virgo, Naphtali is Gemini, Issachar is Pisces. That fits the ordering of the sons except switching Issachar and Naphtali to match the traits of Pisces and Gemini and switching Benjamin and Joseph. Of particular value is pointing to Aquarius to be our judges rather than astrology's choosing Libra. Really, those born in mid-winter have an inner sense of justice we could usefully employ to improve our legal system. I have been studying birthday traits for 50 years in terms of the seasons, realizing birthday amounts to the fundamental mathematical dimension, phase, starting point, with regard to the annual sinusoidal cycle of daily levels of arriving solar energy levels in our Temperate Zone environment that newly born humans have evolved to respond to with systematic differences in neural networking patterns as explained at joefriendly dot org.