Southcottians and Shiloh: Genesis 49:10 and the Morphology of a Messianic Hope

Jonathan P Downing

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This article examines how a prophetic religious tradition can exploit the gaps of indeterminacy within a biblical text, in order to develop new readings in response to changing circumstances. Using Brennan Breed’s ideas about biblical texts as “objectiles,” which are prone to change throughout their life, this article traces the interpretation of Genesis 49:10 in the history of a modern prophetic movement. The article proceeds to examine how members of the so-called Southcottian visitation – a British prophetic movement started in the early nineteenth century by the self-proclaimed prophet Joanna Southcott – have used this text to shape their identity and beliefs. By examining how Southcottian prophets of different generations have handled this text – ranging from Southcott herself to a female-led organisation called the Panacea Society established in the early twentieth century – we can see how prophetic readers have used their authority to guide interpretation of the text, and have shaped how it ought to be read within their respective communities. The article shows how Southcottian readers generate a range of different readings of Genesis 49:10, exploring a series of alternative identities and genders for “Shiloh,” and developing new reading strategies for ascertaining the meaning of the term. The article concludes by reflecting on how the text is affected by the Southcottians’ treatment, and how prophetic readers can exert their authority to even change the text itself. Examining how such idiosyncratic readers receive – and change – biblical texts is an important area for investigation by reception-historians keen to understand what texts can do when handled by their diverse readers. Looking at the reception of biblical texts within heterodox religious traditions also raises methodological challenges: it underscores how readings within a religious tradition are processual, develop over time, and can be generated through private, archival correspondence as well as in published media.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-81
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of the Bible and its Reception
Issue number1
Early online date27 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - May 2016


  • Genesis
  • Shiloh
  • Southcottianism
  • Brennan Breed
  • Messianism
  • Prophetic communities
  • Revelation


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