As Jacob's life was drawing to a close, he called together his twelve sons. He provides one of the most important prophecies of Scripture. As recorded in Genesis 49, the patriarch tells his sons what would befall them (or more specifically, what would happen to their descendants) as history progressed.
Each son is called out and provided with a series of benedictions and/or maledictions. These sons would be the progenitors of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. What follows in the rest of the chapter is a forecast of each tribe's future, as it would be played out over the course of history.
Jacob's prediction concerning Judah becomes one of the great Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and one of its most sophisticated:
'The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.'- Genesis 49:10
Jewish literature down through the ages has identified 'Shiloh' as a Messianic term. Whether it is the Targums, the Talmud or the Midrash, they all associate 'Shiloh' as a title for the Messiah.
If this is correct, and we believe it is, then Genesis 49: 10 may be the first prophecy in Scripture to provide a clue as to when the Messiah would come. There's another way to order the words in this verse and yet keep its meaning fully intact. Upon doing so, a startling truth is revealed:
'Once Shiloh (i.e., the Messiah) comes, then the scepter and the giving of laws will depart from Judah…'
What is meant by the 'scepter'? What is it an idiom for, and what is it meant to convey?
A study of the ancient world, whether it is Egypt or the great Mesopotamian states, reveals that the scepter was meant to symbolize power.
One type of scepter prominent in Egypt was the 'Heqa' scepter, also called the 'crook.' Basically this was a cane with a hooked handle. The Egyptians were fond of plating these scepters or staffs with gold and then reinforcing them with blue copper bands. Artisans would often depict Egyptian pharaohs holding the crook as well as another type of scepter called the 'flail'.
(Sources: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/reg.htm, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/crooksandflails.htm)
The scepter was a baton or staff meant to symbolize a ruler's authority even over life and death for his subjects.
The superpowers that followed Egypt (such as Assyria, Babylon and even Persia) also utilized the scepter as a symbol. They retained its connotation that the holder thereof had authority over life and death. You see this in the Bible when Queen Esther goes to visit the Persian King Ahasuerus:
'(Esther said,) 'All the king's officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life…' - Esther 4:11
In short, the scepter was an implement held by a ruler that symbolized their power over life and death.
Likewise, Jewish thought associated the scepter with the right to adjudicate capital offenses (or what is called in Latin the 'jus gladii' - i.e., 'the right of the sword'). Rabbinical teaching held that the scepter embodied Judah's tribal identity and ability to apply and enforce the Mosaic Law upon its people. This included the right to administer capital punishment.
Throughout Old Testament history from the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai until the first century BC, the Jews retained this authority over their own citizenry. Even during the 70-year captivity in Babylon, the Jews retained their own judges and sets of rules. The Book of Ezra testifies that Judah still had rulers and princes over them who were from their own number (e.g., Ezra 1: 5, 8).
The Jews would see only limited freedom for the next five centuries. Yet, through this entire time they retained the right to administer the Mosaic Law and adjudicate capital offenses (http://weeklyreflectionsofchrist.blogspot.com/2009/12/scepter-shall-not-depart-from-judah-nor.html).
Enter Herod Archelaus. Born in 23 BC to King Herod the Great, he was educated in Rome along with his brothers Antipas and Philip. Upon the death of his father in 4 BC, Caesar Augustus named Archelaus as ethnarch (i.e., 'national leader' rather than king) of Samaria, Judea and Idumea (http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/herod_archelaus.htm).
To say that Archelaus did a poor job of ruling would be an understatement. Time and again there were revolts and rebellions that left thousands dead. Things got so bad under Archelaus that unlikely partners in the Jews and Samaritans in unison requested that Rome depose him.
Finally, in 6 AD, Rome had enough and removed Archelaus from power. He was banished to Gaul (modern day France). Because of the problems experienced with the Jews and their leadership, Rome made one more move. They established Judea as a province of the Roman Empire.
Within a year, Caponius was named Procurator of Judea and assumed control of the province. With his ascension, judicial power was removed from the Jewish Sanhedrin. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus records the event:
'But in the tenth year of Archelaus' government, both his brethren, and the principal men of Judea and Samaria, not being able to bear his barbarous and tyrannical usage of them, accused him … Caesar, upon hearing what certain accusers had to say… both banished him, and appointed Vienna, a city of Gaul, to be the place of his habitation, and took his money away from him…Caponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent…to have the supreme power over the Jews' (Josephus, Antiquities, Book 17; chapter 13 verse 2 and Book 18; chapter 1 verse 1).
Josephus' choice of words is telling. To say that the governor was given the 'supreme power over the Jews' was to acknowledge a dramatic shift. The Jewish people and its Sanhedrin leadership had lost the ability to adjudicate capital cases.
When this event took place in 6 or 7 AD, the Jews were horrified! Rabbinical teaching saw this as the scepter having departed. This quote from the Talmud bears out the significance of this change in Jewish thought:
'Woe unto us for the scepter has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come!' (Babylonian Talmud, chapter 4, folio 37).
They thought God had failed to keep His promise. What they didn't know was that a young carpenter's boy was alive and well in Galilee. Indeed, 'Shiloh' had come!