Thursday, August 26, 2010

Until Shiloh Comes

The Old Testament is full of interesting phrases, titles, and allusions. Often there can be differing opinions on precisely how some of those should be understood. One of the more interesting is the phrase found in Genesis 49:10 as Jacob is blessing his son Judah.

"The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (NASB)

The business about the scepter seems easy enough but what of this curious phrase “until Shiloh comes”. This phrase is rather important because this event, the coming of Shiloh, is connected inseparably from the promise of Judah’s rule. So what exactly does “until Shiloh comes” mean?

Most Christian commentators agree that this is a messianic prophesy pointing to Christ but there have been a number of different opinions on what precisely is meant by the phrase. Some, point out that in every other case in the Old Testament the term Shiloh refers to the name of a city and that the exact same rendering is given in 1 Samuel 4:12 where it clearly refers to a place. On this basis they insist that this phrase also has that meaning here. They argue that it should be rendered “until he comes to Shiloh”. I am told that the grammar can support such a reading but what would that mean exactly?

Various explanations have been given. Some claim Judah came to Shiloh when all the tribes gathered together there in Joshua 18 to build the tabernacle. This is seen as a potential fulfillment because the land was being apportioned at that time and so Judah is blessed then. My problem with this explanation is that the Genesis passage seems to imply a particular blessing on Judah rather than a general blessing on all of the tribes but the apportionment and tabernacle event is not particular to Judah. It also doesn’t seem to fully account for the kingship implied in the blessing. Others see this fulfillment in the removal of the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh when the tribe of Judah, in the person of David, replaced the tribe of Ephraim as the most important tribe in Israel as recorded in the books of Samuel and summarized in Psalm 78:59-72. This explanation provides a much closer link between Shiloh and royal power and seems to be an improvement. Some holding to this kind of Davidic interpretation argue that phrase can be rendered “until tribute comes to him” again seeing it as a reference to a blessing of Judah through the kingdom of David which culminates in the rule of Christ.

Others do not believe that this is a reference to the city of Shiloh and see it rather as pointing to the peace of Israel. A strong case can be made that the term Shiloh means rest or peace and if this is correct then the phrase implies that the scepter will not depart from Judah until rest or peace comes. That is to say that Judah will reign until God fulfills the promise of the “golden age”. Others who agree with the link between Shiloh and “peace” argue that the grammar indicates that it is better understood as a proper name and therefore combine the idea of Judah ruling until the promised age by correlating the arrival of that age with a distinct person, namely Christ. In this view the term would be understood roughly to mean “until the Prince of Peace” comes. This is perhaps the most common view that I am familiar with. It fits nicely from a theological perspective and it preserves neatly the messianic character of Jacob’s blessing of Judah. The thing that always bothered me about this explanation was the presence of the word “until”. Christ is of the line of Judah and so the reign of Judah actually continues with Christ. I suppose you could understand that line to end with Christ in that He is the final king but for some reason it seemed odd to me that it didn’t just say that the line of Judah would rule forever without the “until” part.

This leads me to the final possible explanation that I want to look at. It is my understanding that with slight amendments to the vowels the phrase can be interpreted to mean “Until he comes, to whom it [the scepter] belongs”. That reading maintains the integrity of the messianic promise and does not confuse the temporary earthly blessing with its eternal culmination the way the previous view seems to. Of course, we can’t just go around changing vowels because it results in an interpretation we prefer. Is there any reason to hold to this reading? According to Walter Kaiser Jr. this form is found in 38 Hebrew manuscripts as well as the rendering in the Septuagint and various other ancient texts such as the Babylonian Targum. This is apparently a well attested ancient variant from the MT Hebrew text.

If this is in fact the meaning of “until Shiloh comes” then that the scepter will not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes means simply that Judah would reign until the one to which rule, authority and judgment rightfully belong arrives. There is no need to try and find a fulfillment within the activities of the Judean kings prior to Christ or to connect it to any particular city. There is also no complication regarding why the line of Judah isn’t still ruling since the age of peace hasn’t been ushered in yet. It just means that the line of Judah would lead to the one to whom the scepter belongs. Shiloh is a title implying the authority of the messiah, the True King, the Lord Jesus Christ who is now seated in the heavenly places, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”  (Eph.1:21 ESV)

Praise God that Shiloh has come and that as Christians we rely upon no steward, no earthly king, but rather that through His grace our hope is fixed upon the very King of Kings.

1 comment:

  1. Just looking into the question of Shiloh, and the summary here seems quite good and in agreement with others I have read. I am wondering how this is accomodated in differing eschatological views. I am particularly thikig of pre-mil views where the peace doesn't really come until the second coming etc.