Before he leaves the world, Jacob blesses his sons (Genesis 49). Similarly, Moses also blesses the tribes before he dies (Deuteronomy 33). But the two sets of blessings are very different.
Not all of Jacob’s blessings are positive. It is, perhaps for this reason that Jacob frames his final words as a vision of “what is to befall you in days to come” and not as a blessing. These words are explained by the biblical commentator known as the Abarbanel, who stated that the purpose of Jacob’s speech was:
Not meant to be a blessing, nor meant to be a reproach, nor to foretell the future… but to say whether or not they were worthy of having sovereignty and dominion.
Jacob then speaks to his sons in their birth order, beginning with Reuben and ending with Benjamin.
Reuben is chastised for lying with Bilhah, an affront to his father. Bereshit Rabbah cites a midrash stating that as the firstborn, Reuben should have received three portions: birthright, priesthood, and royalty. But after lying with Bilhah, the birthright was transferred to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and the royalty to Judah.
Simeon and Levi are joined in one blessing, chastised together for their murderous behavior in Shechem (Genesis 34). It is interesting to note that in Moses’ blessings of the tribes, Simeon is entirely left out. Here, Levi’s future priestly role is glaringly absent.
Judah is blessed as the father of the Davidic dynasty and the “scepter shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10) He is destined to be honored by his brothers “until Shiloh shall come,” which Rashi states explicitly is the future Messiah.
The explicit glory of Judah’s blessing stands in contrast to the harsh words directed at Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. It is especially glaring as Judah’s actions, urging his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and his behavior towards Tamar, do not merit such a glorious blessing.
Several of the sons are blessed with comparisons to animals; Judah to a lion’s whelp, Issachar to a strong-boned ass, Dan to a viper, Naphtali to a hind, Josef to a wild ass, and Benjamin to a ravenous wolf.
Jacob’s blessing of Zebulun is truly prophetic, predicting his portion in Israel by the sea several hundred years before the portions in Israel were allocated by lottery. Asher’s fertile portion in the land is also prophesied in Jacob’s blessing.
Jacob has already blessed Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, but he blesses Joseph nonetheless, albeit without mentioning his sons who he declared to be as his own. In Deuteronomy, Moses also blesses Ephraim and Manasseh.
As the youngest, Benjamin is blessed last by his father. Compared to a “ravenous wolf,” he is blessed that “in the evening he divides the spoil.” This may be a hint to Mordecai, from the tribe of Benjamin, who led the Jews in the bloody response to Haman, dividing the spoils after the victory.