Who Is the Mysterious Shiloh?

By Wayne Jackson

“The scepter 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. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he has washed his garments in wine, and his vesture in the blood of grapes: his eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk” (Genesis 49:10-12)

What is the meaning of this sacred text?

The Background

When Jacob, grandson of Abraham, was old and near death (he died at 147 years of age), he called together his sons and prophesied various details as to the fortunes and fates of the descendants of these men. Particularly significant is the oracle regarding the fate of his fourth son, Judah, as reflected in the citation above.

For many centuries it has been the conviction of both Jews and Christians that the prophetic utterance was focused upon the Hebrew Messiah. Orthodox Jews believe this Messiah has not yet arrived, but is yet in the future. Liberal Hebrews emasculate the text of any real person, viewing the “Messiah” as a mere metaphor for a time of peace destined to arrive eventually. Genuine Christians contend that the declaration is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth who lived in Palestine twenty centuries ago, who was crucified as an alleged felon, but who rose from the dead and finally ascended back to God.

Historical Testimony

First, ancient Jewish writings, as reflected in the various translations of the Hebrew Old Testament, coupled with rabbinic traditions, conveyed the idea that Genesis 49:10 had a messianic sense. For example, Alleman noted that “Shiloh is used in the Talmud [an encyclopedia of Jewish tradition] as a personal name for the Messiah” (p. 205). Hamilton observes, “There is no doubt about how the Qumran community [of the Dead Sea scrolls fame] understood Genesis 49:10” (p. 660). For example, in 4Q Patriarchal Blessings, the interpretation of the Genesis text reads:

“A ruler shall not depart from the tribe of Judah while Israel has dominion. There will not be cut off a king in it belonging to David. For the staff is the covenant of the kingship; the thousands of Israel are the feet, until the coming of the Messiah of Righteousness, the branch of David, for to him and his seed has been given the covenant of kingship over his people for everlasting generations” (see Burrows, p. 401).

Second, while there have been various meanings assigned to the term “Shiloh,” the vast majority of “Christian” expositors have vigorously contended that the Genesis text has a messianic thrust, the exceptions being the rankest of skeptical writers. Gottwald, in the notoriously liberal Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, assigns the fulfillment to David (p. 330), but, as Archer noted, “to relate this promise to David raises the formidable difficulty that the scepter did not really depart from Judah when David came; on the contrary it only began to be wielded by Judah when he assumed the throne and crown of the kingdom of Israel” (p. 108, emp. orig.).

The Text

Shiloh — As noted above, the etymology of the term “Shiloh” is ambiguous. It has been interpreted to mean “offspring,” “the one sent out,” “he to whom it [the scepter] belongs,” “rest-giver,” or “peace-bringer.” Many, however, regard “Shiloh” as a personal appellation belonging to Christ. Keil stated that while there might be “uncertainty as to the grammatical interpretation of the word,” nonetheless: “We regard Shiloh, therefore, as a title of the Messiah, in common with the entire Jewish synagogue and the whole Christian church” (p. 397).

Edersheim, himself of Jewish extraction, wrote: “[W]e state it as our deliberate conviction, that the term Shiloh can only refer to a personal designation of the Messiah, whatever the derivative meaning of the word may be” (p. 183).

Scepter Not to Depart from Judah — The term “scepter” refers to a staff (cf. the parallel, “ruler’s staff,” v. 10b); it served as the symbol of a king’s honor, authority, and right to administer justice (Jenni & Westermann, p. 469). It can also include the idea of one who “prescribes law” (Leupold, p. 1178). Judah, of course, was Jacob’s fourth son and the father of the subsequent tribe of that name. The “reign” of Judah began with David, a king who descended from the patriarch (cf. Matthew 1:3-6).

The text clearly indicates that, in some sense, Judah (i.e., the Jews) would retain their sovereignty until the arrival of the Messiah, after which, at some point, that rule would be surrendered. The historical facts are these.

The substantial sovereignty of the nation never ceased until Herod Archelaus was removed from his position. Even when Judah was subject to other powers, it sustained a degree of autonomy, and mostly was ruled by Jewish administrators. There were “governors” (e.g., Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah), “high priests” under the Ptolemies and Seleucids (Greeks), and Hasmonaean priest-kings under whom Judah was temporarily independent of other powers.

The Romans gave the Jews their own king, Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1), who was an Idumean, though Jewish in religion. Herod’s wicked son, Archelaus, “reigned” over the Hebrews until he was deposed in A.D. 6 (cf. Matthew 2:22). The Jews henceforth were governed by the Romans through a series of procurators, one of whom was Pontius Pilate. It thus is clear that by the time the Romans took direct control over the Jews, the Hebrew “ruling” power (“scepter”) was completely and permanently gone (for further study see: McClintock & Strong, p. 681). “Shiloh” (Messiah) had come! His redemptive appearance is not awaiting the future.

Balaam’s famous oracle declared “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

In Psalm 45, God, through his inspired spokesman, addresses another individual whom he calls “God.”

“Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever; a scepter of equity is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness: therefore, God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows” (vv. 6-7).

This text is quoted by the inspired writer of the book of Hebrews and applied to Christ (Hebrews 1:8-9). Clearly there is a correlation between the “scepters” of the biblical texts.

The angel Gabriel informed Mary that God would give her Son “the throne of his father David” and he would “reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). That administration began when Jesus was raised from the dead and subsequently was seated at the right hand of God following his ascension (see Acts 2:29-33; Ephesians 1:20-23). This “reign” is not some future, earthly, millennial reign, but the Lord’s present administration from heaven. This reign, in a mediatorial sense, will terminate with the return of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:24-28); in another sense, the Lord’s reign will be unending (2 Timothy 2:12; 4:18; 2 Peter 1:11; Revelation 3:21).

Obedience of the Peoples — Regarding Shiloh, the text continues, “and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be” (ASV; ESV; “gathering” KJV). The Hebrew term denotes “willing obedience” (see Proverbs 30:17 for the only other use of the term in the Old Testament). Leupold defines it as “inner submission cheerfully tendered” (p. 1180).

The term “peoples” (“nations” NIV) is significant in that it is plural. It prophesies a regime far beyond the Davidic empire. It foresees the universal reign of Christ over his kingdom, the church (cf. Genesis 28:14; Psalm 2:8; Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 5:5,9). Christ builds his kingdom through the loving obedience of his subjects, not by virtue of brutal intimidation and force, as is the case with some religions (e.g., Islam).

Graphic Symbolism — Scholars are agreed that verses 11-12 are highly symbolic (quite characteristic of Old Testament prophecy), with physical things reflecting spiritual ideas. While the general thrust of the symbolism is fairly certain, namely that of the prosperity and victory of the Messiah’s reign, there are various views relative to the meanings attached to the figures in particular.

Some suggest that the symbolism of tying one’s donkey to a choice vine indicates that the prosperity of the messianic reign is such that even the finest vine could be used as a common tethering post. Others think “washing” one’s garments in “wine” hints of the cleansing of one’s garments by the blood of Christ (cf. Revelation 7:14). The dark eyes and white teeth sometimes are interpreted as visions of strength and power. Some scholars see in the imagery also a preview of the “bloody” judgment to be inflicted upon the Messiah’s enemies at the time of the judgment (Isaiah 63:1-6; Revelation 19:11-15; see: Sailhamer, p. 277).

As we noted above, though the specific interpretation of the images may vary somewhat, the general impression of the language seems clear. Let it be stressed again, however: this is a picture of the current messianic reign of Christ in his kingdom/church, to be consummated by his glorious return and the destruction of all his foes. It is not a vision of a supposed 1,000 year reign in the future, as advocated by millennialists.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Alleman, Herbert (1948), “Genesis,” Old Testament Commentary, H.C. Alleman & E.E. Flack, eds., (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press).
  • Archer, Gleason (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Burrows, Millar (1958), More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking).
  • Edersheim, Alfred (reprint of 1890 ed.), Bible History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 1.
  • Gottwald, N.K. (1962), “Shiloh,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, G.A. Buttrick, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon), Vol. 4.
  • Hamilton, Victor (1995), The Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Jenni, Ernst & Westermann, Claus (1997), Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), Vol. 2.
  • Keil, C.F. (1980 ed.), “Genesis,” Commentary on the Old Testament, Keil & Delitzsch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 1.
  • Leupold, H.C. (1978), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. 2.
  • McClintock, John and Strong, James (1970 ed.), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. IX.
  • Sailhamer, John (1990), “Genesis,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.