Genesis 49:10: Who or What Is Shiloh?

Rarely, if ever, has one word had as many possible meanings or emendations attached to it with no general agreement being reached as the word Shiloh here. The clause in the NIV rendered "until he comes to whom it belongs" is more literally "until Shiloh comes."

What did the patriarch Jacob have in mind as he spoke his blessing to his fourth son, Judah, and predicted the arrival of "Shiloh"? It is clear from a postexilic text (1 Chron 5:1-2) that Joseph and Judah shared what would have been the blessings normally inherited by the firstborn, Reuben. Joseph received the double portion, and through Judah the line of the "ruler" was to come. This helps us understand the way later generations were taught under inspiration to regard the role Judah played, but what are we to make of Jacob's understanding of the blessing he pronounced on Judah in Genesis 49?

Did Jacob intend to point to a future city where the ark of the covenant would rest until that city came to an end? Why then did Jacob speak of "his feet" and the obedience that would be his? The antecedent of the pronouns seems to be a person, not an object like the city Shiloh.

If Jacob did not intend to point to a city named Shiloh, did he have a specific person in mind? And if he did, did the name mean "Rest" or "Peace-giver?" Or are we to take the alleged Akkadian cognate word and conclude that the name means "Ruler"?

Perhaps this name is only a title meaning something like "His Peace." Or perhaps we are to accept one or another of the numerous emendations (changes in spelling of the Hebrew sh loh, all of which have particular nuances of meaning).

Most startling of all is the statement that someone from the tribe of Judah would own the obedience not just of the tribe or even of all Israel, but of all the nations. This suggests a kingship that would extend well beyond the boundaries of the ancient land of Israel.

The problem, then, is clear; the solution is more difficult. Let us note first of all that the scepter symbolizes the rule and dominion exercised by a ruler. The "ruler's staff" or "commander's staff" may be a parallel synonym to "scepter." But since its verbal root means "to inscribe" or "to cut," as in setting forth a decree, the term may refer to the concept of a lawgiver, one who proclaims the law or rules and governs on the basis of law. Given the context of Judah as the person in view, it would seem better to take "ruler's staff" as a correlative term with "scepter." It would then mean one who wields the scepter with power and authority on the basis of the decree or law given to him.

Now comes the more difficult phrase, "until Shiloh comes." The until is used not in an exclusive but in an inclusive sense. That is, the coming of Shiloh does not mark the limits of Judah's domination over the nation of Israel, for if it did it would constitute a threat and not a blessing. Instead, the idea is that the sovereignty of Judah is brought to its highest point under the arrival and rule of Shiloh.

Who or what, then, is Shiloh? It cannot refer to the place where the tabernacle would be pitched centuries later. If it did, Jacob would be prophesying about a place that was unknown at the time of prediction, and one that was rarely if ever mentioned in the literature of later years except as a symbol of judgment. This interpretation would also involve changing the verb "comes" to "comes to an end," a meaning that adds more than the text says and only raises another question: What end and why?

Martin Luther connected "Shiloh" with the Hebrew shilyah, which he translated "womb." This would suggest the son of the womb, the Messiah. John Calvin had a similar idea. He connected Shiloh with the Hebrew sh l, plus the third-person suffix, giving the meaning "his son." But Luther and Calvin failed to realize that these were two different words. Sh l does not mean "son." In modern Hebrew sh l or shil l means "embryo." The closest biblical Hebrew comes to the form Calvin was thinking of is shilyah, "afterbirth."

Others have looked for a verbal root rather than a nominal one. One connects it to shalah, "to be peaceful"--hence "rest," or perhaps "Man of Peace." Another suggests the verb shalal, "to draw out or plunder," with the pronoun "his"--hence "his drawn-out one" or "his child to be born." One other view connects the word with shalah, "to send." This would yield "until he who is sent comes."

Since the second half of the poetic line begins with "and to him" in the emphatic position, it is proper to assume that we are dealing with a coming person. Moreover, since "the obedience of the nations is his," he will be a ruler who will emanate from the line of Judah.

The rabbis were convinced that Ezekiel 21:27 (v. 32 in the Hebrew) provided the proper clue for the meaning of Shiloh. They suggested that behind this word lies shel, meaning "which," and loh, meaning "belongs to him." Thus understood, the meaning of Shiloh accords with Ezekiel 21:27, "until he comes to whom it rightfully belongs."

It was the tribe of Judah that led the march through the wilderness (Num 10:14). When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, Judah's inheritance was allotted first (Josh 15:1). Later, Judah would emerge as the leader of the tribes in a totally new way. Thus Jacob referred as much to Judah as he did to the successor who would come through his line.

The verses that follow this passage, Genesis 49:11-12, have a lush rural setting. They describe the rich blessings in store for Judah and this ruling successor, the Messiah himself. There would be great prosperity for the coming royal one, but there would also be pain and bloodshed (perhaps the references to wine and the treading of the winepress imply this struggle).

Shiloh, we conclude, is the royal Messiah who comes through the line of Judah and who will take the throne that rightfully belongs to him.