History and Hope
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his.
Genesis 49:10 (New International Version)
The NIV text notes to this verse in Genesis indicate the translators’ uncertainty about the words “until he comes to whom it belongs.” Maybe the text means, “until the one to whom tribute belongs.” Maybe it would be best to leave the word untranslated: “until Shiloh comes.”
Some context: Genesis 49:2-27 is the prophecy of Jacob regarding his sons. Jacob, whose name had been changed to Israel, was living in Egypt and nearing death. What might be called the “poem of the tribes” predicts the future of Israel’s descendants after they leave Egypt and return to the land God promised Abraham. The poem is a kind of “history in advance.” The intended readers of this story—Jewish people living much, much later—would see in Jacob’s prophecy an accurate description of the roles of the tribes. Reuben, the poem says, though the first of Jacob’s sons, would no longer be preeminent among the tribes. Simeon and Levi would be dispersed among the tribes, not having land of their own. And so on.
Judah, of course, is the tribe of David. According to the familiar story in 1 Samuel, the Benjamite Saul was the first king of Israel. But Saul failed as king, and David was the one who effectively united the tribes and established Jerusalem as the nation’s capitol. So when Jacob’s prophecy says, “the scepter will not depart from Judah,” later readers would understand this as referring to the Davidic line of rulers.
Passages like this tempt some Bible readers to launch into debates over prophecy and historicity. Did Jacob really predict the future of Israel? Were any of the characters of Genesis, including Jacob, actual persons? Shouldn’t we read Genesis as a collection of legends?
It is a mistake to spend much energy on such questions. They distract us from grasping fundamental biblical ideas. Whether or not Jacob was an actual person who said precisely these words or only a name in the national mythology, the prophecy embodies a Jewish understanding of history. History is going some place. There are worldviews in which time is circular, an eternal repetition of seasons, lives, or epochs—as in Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return or in the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation. But the biblical view of history has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the Jewish view, the world is not the scene of endless cycles, because the God of the Bible acts in history. When God creates or redeems or makes a covenant, something new happens.
Sometimes this biblical view of history looks back. Soon after Jacob’s death, some of his sons feared that Joseph would finally take revenge on them for the way they treated him. Joseph told his brothers that they should not reproach themselves for having sold him into slavery in Egypt. Yes, they acted out of spite and cruelty, but what the brothers intended for evil God turned into good. Joseph interprets the past in the light of the God who acts in history.
Other times the biblical view looks forward. Not only has God acted in the past, he will act in the future. God will fulfill his gracious promises to his people. The difficult phrase in Genesis 49:10 speaks of the future. Jacob’s prophecy says, “the scepter will not depart from Judah … until Shiloh comes…”
Interpreters debate how these words should be translated, and their meaning is even more contested. Christians have traditionally read the verse as a messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Naturally, Jewish readers disagree. But both sides agree on the fundamental assumption, that the God of the Bible has plans for the future. That means hope is an essential element of biblical religion.
People who believe in a God who acts in history will orient their thinking toward the things God intends to do. They believe God has promised a good future. Therefore, no matter how bleak current circumstances may be, people who believe in the biblical God have grounds for hope.
Perhaps I can make my point clearer this way. Given the biblical view of history, salvation should not be understood as escape out of the world. That is a metaphor of place, where salvation means going to heaven. Unfortunately, many Christians think in these spatial terms: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.”
A temporal metaphor better fits the New Testament. In the New Testament, salvation is the coming new age. The new era begins with Jesus, so in one sense his followers already live in the new age. But Christians look forward to Jesus’ return, to the full flowering of the Kingdom of God. We live in hope.