CONTEXT: Poetic passages in the narrative include finely worked phrases, archaic expressions, and clever obscurities, that are a treasure and delight to the reader and a particular challenge to the translator. Poetry arguably antedates by centuries prose narrative, and the tribal listing and characterizations here could be those of a writer at the beginning of the first millennium BCE.  Early readers/reciters/copyists may have had trouble with such material and took it upon themselves to “improve” the text with prosaic emendations and glosses.
V. 4 concludes with a verb alah, עלה, “he got up,” which seems superfluous. Repointed  as infinitive, “going up,” it fits the Hebrew meaning and meter.
            “Excess” and “excel,” v.4, render the same Hebrew root, y t r, יתר.
            V. 5, “their emblems,” m’cheroteyhem, רתיהםכמ, appears only here and thus lends itself to speculative guesses: “in their habitations” KJV, “weapons” JPS, “wares” Anchor. The difficulty was there for the ancient translators too. Targum Onkelos offers “settlements.” Septuagint reads the entire clause differently: “accomplished the injustice of their cutting off.” Vulgate has bellantia, “waging war.” For me the root n ch r, נכר, in its use as “recognize,” comes immediately to mind. You can recognize these two brothers by their emblematic side arms.
            The lion imagery of v.9, is mirrored in the Bil’am’s poetic vision. There the lion is rampant and lies down after eating its prey. (Num 23:24). Further on we have, almost word for word, the same proverb about rousing a recumbent lion. (ibid 24:9) Hebrew has at least five words for lion, see Job 4:10f.
V.10b must be one of the most contested lines of Tanach. My translation, like the KJV renders the words simply but the sense of this half verse eludes grasp. The first half declares that ruling authority will remain with Y’hudah, which sounds like a late description the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.(Cf. 2 Sam 7:12-16) Then a dependent clause, beginning with “till.” What did the author have in mind? A Genesis commentary in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1st or 2nd century BCE, sees Shiloh as the righteous descendant of David. In the Talmud Sanhedrin 98b, Shiloh is derived from a root meaning “to be a ease,” and is understood as the messiah. Shiloh is the name of a town in Ephriam, one of the locations of the Tent of Meeting shrine. (Josh 18:1) Jeremiah cites the destruction of Shiloh in warning about could happen to Y’rushalayim. (7:26) The Masoretes, the 8th century scholars who added the vowel points and the musical notations to the manuscript, also added a variant and preferred reading shilo, replacing the hey, ה, with the personal pronoun, vav, ו, allowing the reading “his,” without however, clarifying the verse.
The adage in v.12 has also long puzzled readers. Clearly it is meant as a cheerful compliment to Y’hudah, with respect to eyes and teeth, but what is it saying? The opening word, chachlili, חכלילי, seems to be an unusual 4 letter root, with no clear etymology but the context demands some condition of the eyes. For remarkable scope of conjectures consider the following. The word appears once more, in a different grammatical form, in Proverbs 23:29, describing the health and looks of a drunkard. In that context, Septuagint renders it πελειοι, “bruised, blue.” Targum: yudm’ana’on, יודמענעון, “tearing.” Vulgate: suffusio, “welling up.” KJV and Douay, “redness.” For our chapter, Septuagint renders: χαροποι, “bright eyed, blue, youthful.” Targum: y’simqun, יסמקון,“red.” Vulgate: pulchriores, “beautiful.” KJV: “red.” Furthermore, the mem, מ, prefixed to “wine” and to “milk,” can be read as “from” or the comparative, “than.” New JPS offers:  Eyes darker than wine and teeth whiter than milk. My conjecture, “brighter,” reflects tasting wine.
            “Raid,” v.19, alliterates, in Hebrew, with the name Gad: g’dud, y’gudenu, yagud.
            “Doe,” v.20, can be read, with different pointing, as “oak,” that spreads. Both Septuagint and Targum use the plant imagery, reading imrey, אמרי, in the second clause, with different pointing, as fruit. The latter word, as received, seems to mean “sayings,” but with still different pointing, can mean “fawns.” Animal imagery would be more consistent in this poem.
            The Yosef section, vs. 22-6, yields sense only with considerable emendation. This translation leans towards that of Speiser in the Anchor Genesis. Speiser’s method relies here on comparing the verses to the poetry in Deuteronomy 33, Mosheh’s blessing.

1Ya’aqov called to his sons:
Assemble and I’ll tell you what will happen to you in the latter days.
2Gather and listen, b’neyYa’aqov. Listen to Yisra’el, your father.

3R’uven, you are my first born, my strength, the beginning of my virility.
            Excess pride, excess might,
            4Reckless like water, you shan’t excel.
                        You got upon your father’s couch.
                        You, then, going up, profaned my bed.

5Shim’on and Levi, brothers. Their emblems, tools of violence.
6Let my self not enter their confidence,
My honor not join their society.
            For in their anger they killed a person,
            In their willfulness hamstrung a bull!
7Cursed be their anger that is mighty
Their fury that is flinty.                                                I shall divide them in Ya’aqov,
                                                                                                Scatter them in Yisra’el.

8Y’hudah, you! Your brothers will thank you, your hand at the neck of your enemies.
Your father’s sons will prostrate to you.
            9Young lion, Y’hudah! My son, you get up from prey.
            He squats, he lies down like a lion, like a big cat. Who would rouse him?
                        10Sceptor will not turn from Y’hudah
                        Nor staff from between his feet.
                        Till Shiloh arrives and peoples’ obedience his.
            11Hitching his ass to the vine, foals of his jenny to the good grape wood,
            He laundered his clothes in wine, his garment in grape blood.
                        12Eyes brighter than wine, teeth whiter than milk!

13Z’vulun shall dwell by the seashore.
            And be a shore for ships, reaching to Tsidon.

14Yissachar, bony donkey, lying between the saddlebags.
15He saw that resting was good and that the land was pleasant.
            So he set his shoulder to bearing and became a forced laborer.

16Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Yisrael.
            17May Dan be a snake on the way, a viper on the path,
                        That bites horse heels so that its rider falls backwards.


19Gad, a raider shall raid him but he shall raid their heel.

20Asher, his bread is rich, and he shall give a king’s delights.

21Naftali, a doe set free, who gives beautiful fawns.

 22BenPorat Yosef, son of the wild by a spring, wild asses on a terrace.
23They embitter him, they shoot at him, they bear him grudge, these arrow masters.
24But his bow shall stay steady, the wrists of his hands shall dart,
By the hands of the Might of Ya’akov,
By the Shepherd, Rock of Yisra’el.
25By your father’s God–and he shall help you;
And with Shaday–and he shall bless you:
            Blessings of the sky above, blessings of the deep that lies below,
            Blessings of breast and womb.
            26Blessings of grain ear and bud
            Blessings of eternal mountains, delight of ancient hills.
                                                Shall be for Yosef’s head,
For the crown of him set apart from his brothers.

27Binyamin, a wolf that tears.

            In the morning it eats prey and at evening it distributes plunder.
©Rabbi David L. Kline

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