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  • Judah Comes to Shiloh: Genesis 49:10bα, One More Time
  • Serge Frolov

The four-word phrase עד כי־יבא שילה in Gen 49:10bα is known as “the most famous crux interpretum in the entire Old Testament.”1 Over the centuries, it has been construed in multiple and diverse ways, both within the framework of broader projects and in its own right.2 With even remotely sustainable options exhausted as a result, exegetical focus has notably shifted in recent decades toward the fine-tuning of arguments pro and contra a handful of the most plausible interpretations. The latest manifestation of this trend is Richard C. Steiner’s JBL article in which he offers, among other things, new considerations in favor of the reading “until tribute comes to him [sc. to Judah]” (with שילה understood as two words, שי לה), first suggested by aggadic midrash.3 While this reading has much to commend it and Steiner’s discussion bolsters it even further, it is premature “to speak of an emerging consensus” on it because an alternative construal of the phrase, “until he [sc. Judah] comes to Shiloh,” may be even more compelling.4

What renders the case for reading Gen 49:10bα as “until tribute comes to him” exceptionally strong is that it makes good, contextually suitable sense of a difficult passage without emending the masoretic consonantal sequence or presupposing otherwise unknown grammatical, syntactic, or lexical phenomena. Yet it has at least [End Page 417] three vulnerabilities as far as orthography is concerned. First, although occasionally functions in biblical Hebrew as a masculine suffix (including two likely cases in Gen 49:11), this is not the case in conjunction with the preposition - ל: out of more than two hundred occurrences of לה in the Hebrew Bible, not even one clearly has a masculine antecedent.5 Since there are no singular feminine ante -cedents available in Gen 49:10a, the reading of שילה as שַי לֹה presupposes what within the biblical corpus would amount to abnormal spelling; significantly, the very next phrase (Gen 49:10bβ) spells the same suffix with wāw rather than . Second, the interpretation in question does not account for the breve שלה, attested in several masoretic and Samaritan manuscripts and obviously precluding the שי לה construal. Third, no Hebrew manuscripts divide שילה into two words, and there are no indications of such division in the Vorlagen of ancient translations. Steiner correctly points out that “short proclitic words are occasionally written together with the following word in the Bible,” but in such instances there are usually either marginal qere corrections or at least some variations in the manuscripts (as is the case with אילו in Eccl 4:10, cited by Steiner).6

Minor as they might be, these vulnerabilities call for other exegetical options to be considered. Almost all of them fall short of the interpretation above in terms of preserving the masoretic consonantal sequence and keeping within the boundaries of the standard grammar, syntax, and lexics of Biblical Hebrew.7 The only [End Page 418] exception is the reading “until Judah comes to Shiloh.”8 Some scholars have rejected this interpretation on the grounds that “for what reason Judah would ‘come’ to Shiloh in Ephraim and why that would be such an epochal event no one can say.”9 Indeed, Johannes Lindblom’s understanding of the comment as envisioning David’s takeover of Ephraim, the most influential of the northern tribes, is unsustainable. First, the biblical narrative insists that David did not have to go anywhere, certainly not to Shiloh, in order to extend his control beyond Judah: other tribes voluntarily came to him in Hebron, asking him to become their king (2 Sam 5:1–3; 1 Chr 11:1–3). Second, the Hebrew Bible never uses the term עמים, employed in Gen 49:10bβ, of the tribes of Israel.10 That, however, is not the case with Erhard Blum’s suggestion that Gen 49:10b alludes to actual or projected expansion of the Davidide domain in the seventh century b.c.e., most likely in the latter part of Josiah’s reign, when Assyria’s collapse temporarily created a power vacuum in Canaan, especially in the formerly Ephraimite areas that had been under direct Assyrian administration.11 Among other things, it would explain...


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