What does Genesis 49:17 mean?
ESV: 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.
NIV: Dan will be a snake by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse's heels so that its rider tumbles backward.
NASB: Dan shall be a serpent in the way, A horned viper in the path, That bites the horse’s heels, So that its rider falls backward.
CSB: Dan will be a snake by the road, a viper beside the path, that bites the horse's heels so that its rider falls backward.
NLT: Dan will be a snake beside the road, a poisonous viper along the path that bites the horse’s hooves so its rider is thrown off.
KJV: Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.
NKJV: Dan shall be a serpent by the way, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that its rider shall fall backward.
Verse Commentary:
Each of the tribes of Israel is descended from one of Jacob's twelve sons (Genesis 35:10–11, 23–26). His deathbed oracle about the future descendants of these sons (Genesis 49:1–2) has brought him to Dan (Genesis 49:16). Here, the small tribe of Dan is described as a snake that ambushes a horse, knocking its rider off when the horse reacts.

This statement is unclear, and heavily debated. Two interpretations are commonly put forward. One is more positive, suggesting Dan, though small, will still do its share of damage to Israel's enemies. In fact, Samson was from Dan and served as one of Israel's judges. He repeatedly defeated their enemies, the Philistines, in various battles (Judges 13—16). Also, the people of Dan attacked and defeated the town of Laish (Judges 17—18). Comparison to a waiting serpent, in that case, is a compliment about a relatively small being that is capable of great effect, thanks to skill and strategy.

It's also possible to read Jacob's description of Dan's descendants in a negative light. Snakes are often associated with sneakiness and falseness. Dan's descendants will be some of the first to delve into worshiping idols, which brought on the people the wrath of God (Judges 18:27–31).

A more obscure interpretation considers the association of Satan with the serpent in Eden (Genesis 3:1) and this passage's end-times implications (Revelation 5:5; 20:4–6). Likewise, Dan, as a tribe, is not mentioned as part of end-times Israel (Revelation 7:4–8). This leads some to suggest the "beast" of Revelation (Revelation 13:1), the Antichrist, could be from the tribe of Dan.
Verse Context:
Genesis 49:13–21 records Jacob's deathbed predictions, this time regarding six of his sons: Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali. These are relatively brief, and not entirely positive. While Jacob addresses the first four (Genesis 49:3–12) and last two (Genesis 49:22–27) of his sons in birth order, there is no obvious ranking in his comments here. As compared to other tribes, these would play lesser roles in Israel's future.
Chapter Summary:
Genesis 49 contains Jacob's dying prophetic remarks. In the form of poetry, Jacob pronounces positive and negative "blessings" about each of his 12 sons and the people who will come from them. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are each held to account for their past sins. Judah is described as a lion; the kingly line will come from his people. Joseph and his descendants are lavished with blessings. Once the oracle is completed, Jacob commands his sons to bury him with his fathers in Canaan. Then, the man God named "Israel" (Genesis 35:10–11) dies.
Chapter Context:
After a life of struggle and controversy, Jacob's family has securely settled in Egypt. Genesis 48 told of Jacob's blessing on Joseph's two oldest sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. In Genesis 49, Jacob gives both positive and negative predictions to each of his sons, in turn. Jacob then commands his sons to bury him in Canaan, then dies. The final chapter of Genesis describes the family's mourning and Joseph's death. The opening verses of Exodus race forward some 400 years, as the nation of Israel falls into harsh slavery under new Egyptian rulers (Exodus 1:8–14).
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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