Christian interpreters long thought this to be a prophecy that dominion would remain with Judah until the coming of “Shiloh”, which they took to be a reference to Jesus.
Historically, however, this view is untenable. The dominion of Judah ceased nearly 600 years before Jesus; from 586 BCE no king of the tribe of Judah occupied the Jewish throne.
Further, how can Shiloh be Jesus? The etymology of the word is difficult, but Shiloh is certainly known as a place-name, and on its site in central Israel there is now a settlement and yeshivah.
In Jewish history Shiloh played a significant role in the tense period after the death of Solomon, when the tribe of Ephraim, in whose territory Shiloh was, led ten of the tribes in rejecting the authority of Judah.
Another possibility recalls the fact that Shiloh was the site of the tabernacle from the time of Joshua; a famous story tells that it was there that Hannah and Elkanah came to worship and their child, Samuel, served in the sanctuary. Thus the verse may be saying that as long as people come to Shiloh, Jewish worship would be safe.
The Midrash takes a different approach. It regards Shiloh as two words, shai lo, “tribute to him” (see Rashi; compare Psalm 76:12, Isa. 18:7). The JPS translation of the Torah therefore renders the verse, “the sceptre shall not depart from Judah… so that tribute shall come to him”.
The New English Bible, produced under Christian auspices in Britain, 1970, adopts this same approach and translates the verse, “…so long as tribute is brought to him”.
Unfortunately, the more insistent and fundamentalist missionary hopefuls usually know only one version of anything in the Bible, using translations that are generally unaware of the range of interpretations of the Hebrew and oblivious to the fact that much modern Christian scholarship discards the old, inaccurate, primitive approaches.
When a Jew is confronted by missionary enthusiasts, however, the best thing is not to get involved in personal debate unless one is a Biblical scholar.
The best way is surely to say, “I am at peace in Judaism, as I am sure you are at peace in your faith. Can we not live and let live, and respect every human being’s right to believe (or not believe) as their conscience dictates?”
Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.