16 “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. 17 Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward. 18 I wait for your salvation, O Lord.” (Genesis 49:16–18 (ESV)
Dan’s mother was Bilhah, maid of Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen. 30:1–6). Dan’s descendants settled in Israel overlooking the Huleh Plain, in a territory actually assigned to Naphtali, Dan’s full brother (Gen. 30:7–8; 35:25; Jos 19:32–48). The two brothers are mentioned together in a number of references (e.g., Ex. 1:4).
The Tyndale Bible Dictionary explains, “Dan’s name was given to him not by Bilhah but by Rachel, who considered the child her own. Rachel had long been childless—a shame to women in ancient cultures—and she was jealous of Jacob’s other wife, Leah, who had already borne him four sons. Rachel viewed the birth of Bilhah’s son as averting her shame and as God’s vindication of her status as wife. The name Dan (“he judged”) meant that God had judged her and had vindicated her through the child’s birth (Gen. 30:6).”
In his oracle, Jacob explained that his son Dan would judge his people. The tribe intended to provide justice would in reality become like a treacherousserpent on the roadside. In the time of the Judges the first major practice of idolatry appeared in the tribe of Dan (Judges 18:30).
Moses would describe the tribe of Dan as being like a lion’s cub that leaps from Bashan (Deut. 33:22). This may have been a reference to the tribe’s northern settlement in Israel which included the forests of Bashan.
Following his oracle concerning Dan, Jacob prayed for the salvation from Yahweh. Why this interjection for deliverance by the LORD?
Dr. John Walvoord explains, “He may have been indirectly reminding his sons of their need for dependence on the Lord (if he needed it, certainly they did too). Or he may have been expressing his desire to enjoy the messianic hope, when he would be delivered from all trouble and grief (cf. “redemption” in Anna’s desires; Luke 2:38).”
Dr. R. C. Sproul writes, “Israel’s affirmation of Dan implicitly affirms the full citizenship of his other eleven sons in the future nation, even those whom Leah and Rachel did not birth. Yet Dan will also show himself to be an Israelite through his powerful judgeship. Jacob calls him a serpent (v. 17), having in mind a poisonous yellow desert snake who would hide in crevices or burrow in the sand and strike unsuspecting people or animals. Like this serpent, Dan will be small compared to his prey but far deadlier than his victim suspects. The tribe of Dan does indeed end up as one of Israel’s smaller clans; however, perhaps the most well-known of all the judges emerges from this tribe centuries after Jacob. Samson, a Danite, would rescue the Israelites from the Philistines, usually by relying on his own craftiness (Judg. 13–16).”
Though Danite tribe, the serpent, saved Israel in Samson’s day, their remaining history would not be so celebrated. The Danites would steal an idol and slaughter a quiet, unsuspecting people (Judg. 17–18). Both of these activities flagrantly violate God’s word (Judges 18:27).
Believers in Christ must be on guard that we are not like the tribe of Dan. The tribe began well and then rejected God’s will. May we press on and persevere in faith “so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). Have a God honoring day.
Soli deo Gloria!