Genesis chapter 49 describes the prophecies proclaimed by Jacob concerning his sons:
8Judah, thee shall thy brethren praise: Thy hand shall be on the neck of thine enemies; Thy father’s sons shall bow down before thee. 9Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, thou art gone up: He stooped down, he couched as a lion, And as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? 10The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh come: And unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be. 11Binding his foal unto the vine, And his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; He hath washed his garments in wine, And his vesture in the blood of grapes: 12His eyes shall be red with wine, And his teeth white with milk (ASV, 1901).
Examining this blessing verse by verse tells us a lot about this preeminent tribe.
Judah is praised
8Judah, thee shall thy brethren praise: Thy hand shall be on the neck of thine enemies; Thy father’s sons shall bow down before thee.
Israel starts his blessing to Judah with, “Judah thou, thee will thy brethren praise! thy hand in the neck of thy foes! to thee will thy father’s sons bow down!” Israel is no longer giving bleak prophecies which his sons Reuben, Simeon and Levi had received, and starts out this prophecy with the praise Judah will receive from his brethren. Interestingly, Judah’s name in Hebrew means “praise”. He had already demonstrated his superior character by not going along with his brothers to kill Joseph, and then pleading with Joseph to save Benjamin. He offered himself in place of Benjamin for surety.
Judah’s success was affirmed in other Scriptures (II Samuel 22:4; Psalm 18:40). He also gained preeminence over the other tribes. In Numbers 2:9, during the wilderness wanderings, Judah “set forth first.” In Numbers 10:14, he headed the march though the wilderness. In I Chronicles 5:2, Judah prevailed above his brethren. In Judges 1:1–2, Judah is chosen by God to go up first against the Canaanites. Judah’s tribe was loyal to the house of David at the time of the revolt of the ten tribes (1 Kings 12:20). They were commissioned by God to lead the conquest of the Promised Land (Judges 1:1–3; 4–21). The tribe of Judah gave us King David (II Samuel 2:1–11, 5:4–5).
Judah was chosen by God to be one of the four tribes closest to the Tabernacle, a privileged position, when they camped in the wilderness. Here is an image depicting this:
9Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, thou art gone up: He stooped down, he couched as a lion, And as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?
The description of Judah’s power is found in four phrases:
- A “lion’s whelp” emphasizes power, vigor, and nobility.
- “From the prey he has gone up” emphasizes his success in killing his prey.
- “Stooped down” as a crouched lion means he is ready to pounce.
- “As a lioness; who will rouse him?” means he is pictured as a strong lion, and not to be idly toyed with.
Judah is therefore pictured as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. In Numbers 24:9, Balaam uses the same illustration for Israel.
10The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh come: And unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be.
The basic meaning of this verse 10 is that Judah will not lose its tribal identity or its right to rule over the other tribes until someone comes. The exact wording of the statement varies between different Bible translations. Most versions obscure the real meaning by using the word “Shiloh” as if it were a proper name for Messiah. This word should, in fact, be taken as a possessive pronoun. Some see the Hebrew word Shiloh to be the verb schlach (שִׁילֹה) sent with a feminine possessive pronoun. Shiloh is feminine, but the verb is masculine. This produces the word sheeloach. Nouns and verbs can have gender, but not necessarily associated with the actual word. This can be translated as “unto thee who it is that is sent”. Most translators use this meaning, “whose it is,” or “whose right it is”. Therefore, Shiloh can be taken in the Hebrew text as a short form of the relative she, meaning “who,” plus the propositional lamed, meaning “to,” with the vowel character hey. “He, to whom, it is,” or “until he come (sent) whose right it is,” and, of course, this is the Messiah.
A more literal translation of the verse would read:
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes whose right it is and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be.”
Judah’s identity and right to rule cannot be lost until one comes who has full rights to the scepter, and full rights to rule. This is how the Septuagint translates the verse, as does the Syriac translation of the Bible.
This reading of the verse is further supported by comparison with a passage in Ezekiel:
25 And thou, O deadly wounded wicked one, the prince of Israel, whose day is come, in the time of the [k]iniquity of the end, 26 thus saith the Lord Jehovah: [l]Remove the mitre, and take off the crown; this shall be [m]no more the same; exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high. 27 [n]I will overturn, overturn, overturn it: this also shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him (ASV, 1901).
Ezekiel 21:25–27 is primarily concerned with the Second Coming of Messiah. Verse 25 refers to the Antichrist, the last gentile to rule over Israel. In verse 26 the turban, or mitre, is the mitre of the priest (Exodus 28:4, 37, 39; 29:6; 39:28, 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. Then the exact same phrase, “until he comes whose right it is” is used in both Genesis 49 and Ezekiel 21. Both priesthood and kingship will be overthrown “until he comes whose right it is.” 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. Both priesthood and kingship are to be removed from Israel until Messiah comes the second time, when both priesthood and kingship will be given to Him. This is the ultimate fulfillment.
Jacob said to Judah that, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah.” The “scepter” is a short, decorated staff, which only a monarch possesses. It is a clear indication of power, and indicates a right to rule. As the prophecy moves on it says, “Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,” meaning that the Messiah’s theocratic rule will not end, and He will have a theocratically administered kingdom. The judicial, or civil rule, will go until “Shiloh come.” “Shiloh” is a prophetic name for the Messiah. So, this verse means that the civil or judicial rule by Judah will continue until the Messiah comes. The theocratic rule will go on forever. The term “scepter” also refers to their tribal identity, the right to apply and enforce Mosaic Law, and to adjudicate capital offenses. It is significant that even during their seventy-year Babylonian captivity, from 606 to 537 B.C., the tribes retained their tribal identity.
Rabbinic Commentary on Verse 10
The early rabbis and Talmudic authorities understood the term “Shiloh” as referring to the Messiah although not His name. Returning to Messiah’s First Coming, we can see that this verse makes three points. Messiah has previously been declared to be a man, descended from Abraham. His descent is now limited to being a son of Judah. A second point is that Messiah is going to be a King. The scepter and the ruler’s staff indicate royalty and authority. Third, it should be seen that Messiah will have to come before the Tribe of Judah loses its identity. This establishes a clear time period for the prophecy. The records by which tribal identities were maintained and kept in the Jewish Temple. All of these records were lost with the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70. Within a few generations all the tribes of Israel, with the exception of Levi, had lost their identity. Immediately after a.d. 70 the rabbis passed laws which would preserve the identity of the priestly Tribe of Levi, but Jews from the other tribes quickly lost their identity. Since the Tribe of Judah lost its pre-eminence and identity finally in 70 a.d., it can be clearly seen that Messiah must have come some time before 70 a.d. It is not possible for Messiah to come after a.d. 70. Once it is given to the Messiah, royal power remains forever with Him; this is ultimately a reference to the Second Coming when Messiah comes to rule the earth. “And unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be” uses the word “peoples” which is plural and therefore a reference to the non-Jewish nations or gentiles. The gentiles will obey Him during His messianic rule in the millennium.
All rabbinic views on this verse always viewed it as clearly messianic. For example, the Targum Onkelos translates it as follows: “The transmission of dominion shall not cease from the house of Judah, nor the scribe from the children’s children, forever, until the Messiah comes (is sent), to whom the kingdom belongs, and whom nations shall obey.” The rabbis took this to be the source of one of the rabbinic names of the Messiah, which was Shiloh: “The Messiah is called Shiloh to indicate He will be born of a woman [and would, therefore, not be a divine being]. The amniotic sac in which the fetus is formed in the womb is called a shilyah. The Messiah’s name “Shiloh” indicates he will be born from a shilyah.Rashi said, “Until King Messiah will come whose will be the kingdom, unto him (Messiah) shall the nations seek.” The Midrash on this passage reads as follows:
Furthermore, the role Messiah will be descended from the Tribe of Judah as it says [quoting Isa. 11:10]. Thus from the Tribe of Judah were descended Solomon, who built the First Temple, and Zerubbabel, who built the Second Temple, and [from him will be descended] the royal Messiah, who will rebuild the Temple. Of the Messiah is written (quoting Psalm 89:37) … Judah is the lion’s whelp. Rabbi Hamblen and Rabbi Hanina said: This alludes to the Messiah the son of David who was descended from two tribes, his father from Judah and his mother from Dan, in connection with both of which “lion” is written [quoting Deut. 33:22] … The scepter alludes … to the Messiah, the Son of David, who will chastise the nations with a staff, as it is written [quoting Ps. 2:9] … until Shiloh comes. Thus, indicate that all nations will bring a gift to Messiah, the Son of David, as it says [quoting Isa. 18:7].
Another Midrash reads as follows: “This elludes to the royal Messiah … Obedience of the people He [the Messiah] will come and set on edge the teeth of the nations of the world.”  Yet another Midrash interprets 49:10 as: “to whom kingship belongs (Shelo) …” So the rabbinic view was clearly that this was a reference to the Messiah.
The Midrash Rabbah 97 on this passage reads as follows:
“Furthermore, the royal Messiah will be descended from the tribe of Judah as it says [quoting Isaiah 11:10]. Thus from the tribe of Judah were descended Solomon who built the first Temple and Zerubbabel who built the second Temple and from him will be descended the royal Messiah who will rebuild the Temple. Now of the Messiah it is written [quoting Psalm 89:37] …”
“… Judah is a lion’s whelp. Rabbi Hummah ben Rabbi Hannina said, ‘This alludes to the Messiah the son of David who was descended from two tribes, his father from Judah and his mother from Dan, in connection with both of which “lion” is written [quoting Deuteronomy 33:22]’ …”
“… The scepter alludes to the Messiah the son of David who will chastise the nations with a staff as it is written [quoting Psalm 2:9] …”
“… ‘until Shiloh comes’ this indicates that all nations will bring a gift to Messiah the son of David as it says [quoting Isaiah 18:7] …”
The Midrash Rabbah 98 says: “This alludes to the royal Messiah. ‘Obedience of the people,’ the Messiah will come and set on edge the teeth of the nations of the world.” The Midrash Rabbah 99, on Genesis 49:10, says “to whom kingship belongs,” again taking “Shiloh” to be a possessive pronoun. It is therefore very clear that the consistent rabbinic view of Genesis 49:10 was that it related to the Messiah.
The Scepter Departs
His earthly physical kingdom will not occur until the Millennial Kingdom. The hermeneutical concept of “repeat foreshadowing” sees it as occurring during Christ’s boyhood. It is important to realize that prophecies and other components of Old Testament Scripture can be stated without actually being completely fulfilled. Some prophecies awaiting final fulfillment are deemed as repeated foreshadowing. The prophecy regarding the Antichrist and the Abomination Desolation is foreshadowed in the intertestamental person of Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 9:27). Another illustration of foreshadowment, one that is crucial to the interpretation of prophecy, is the quotation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts chapter 2. It was made by the apostle Peter on occasion of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Peter’s speech and the quotation from Joel in Acts 2:14–21 is another example.
In 6-7 A.D., King Herod’s son and successor, Herod Archelaus, was dethroned and banished to Vienna, a city in Gaul. Archelaus was the second son of Herod the Great. The older son, Herod Antipater, was murdered by Herod the Great, along with other family members (It was quipped at the time that it was safer to be a dog in that household than a member of the family). Archelaus’ mother was a Samaritan (1/4 or less of Jewish blood) and was never accepted. After the death of Herod (4 B.C.?), Archelaus had been placed over Judea as “Entharch” by Caesar Augustus. Broadly rejected, he was removed in a.d. 6-7. He was replaced by a Roman procurator named Caponius. The legal power of the Sanhedrin was immediately restricted and the adjudication of capital cases was lost. This was normal Roman policy. This transfer of power is mentioned in the Talmud and by Josephus:
After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinus was about to succeed him, the high priest Ananius considered it a favorable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrin. He therefore caused James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning. All the wise men and strict observers of the law who were at Jerusalem expressed their disapprobation of this act… Some even went to Albinus himself, who had departed to Alexandria, to bring this breach of the law under his observation, and to inform him that Aranius (sic) had acted illegally in assembling the Sanhedrin without the Roman authority.9
This remarkable passage not only mentions Jesus and His brother James as historical figures, it also underscores that the authority of the Sanhedrin had already been passed to the Romans. When the members of the Sanhedrin found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, they covered their heads with ashes and their bodies with sackcloth. They actually thought that the Torah, the Word of God, had failed! They should have known better.
The scepter had, indeed, been removed from Judah, but Shiloh had come. While the Jews wept in the streets of Jerusalem, a young son of a carpenter was growing up in Nazareth. He would present Himself as the Meshiach Nagid, Messiah the King, on the very day which had been predicted by the angel Gabriel to Daniel five centuries earlier. In fact, every detail of His life had been foretold centuries earlier.
Judah’s strength and abundance
11Binding his foal unto the vine, And his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; He hath washed his garments in wine, And his vesture in the blood of grapes: 12His eyes shall be red with wine, And his teeth white with milk.
The prophecy continues with another illustration of the Messiah being strong. “Binding his foal unto the vine” is an illustration of Judah like a vine that so strong that if the foal moves his head, even a strong colt, the vine would not break. Normally, a colt could easily pull out the vines to which he is tied. “And his ass’s colt unto the choice vine” means that the “choice vine” is an indication of abundance, or wealth. Another Messianic aspect of this verse refers to when Messiah is presented, He will be riding on an ass. Next, the prophecy says, “He hath washed his garments in wine, And his vesture in the blood of grapes.” This is directly from Isaiah 63:1–6 and Revelation 14:17-20. It closes with, “His eyes shall be red with wine, And his teeth white with milk.” This indicates abundance. It does not indicate intoxication, just simple abundance. Jesus is “All in All.”
A summary of Jacob’s blessing upon Judah covers six points. First, Judah is to be praised, to rule, and through him Messiah will come. Second, he will have the preeminence among his brothers. Third, the brothers will acknowledge his superiority. Fourth, he will have victory over his enemies. Fifth, he will have royal authority. Sixth, the line of Judah will administer a kingdom. It should be noted from this that God already had a plan for Israel to have a king, but now it is revealed that the king was to come from the tribe of Judah. Therefore, it was not totally wrong for Israel later on to ask for a king. The sin was in the wrong motivation, and they had the timing wrong as well. The result was that the first king was of a tribe other than Judah, and they suffered for it.
Daniel E. Woodhead
 Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 97.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 99.