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The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26 )
In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.
‘And it happened after these things that someone said to Joseph, “Behold, your father is ill.” And he took with him his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim.’
Jacob has obtained Joseph’s promise only just in time for shortly afterwards he falls ill and knows he has not long to go. The ‘someone’ may well have been despatched by him, or it may be a faithful servant appointed by Joseph to look after him and constantly update him on his condition.
“He took with him his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim.” Not only in order to see their dying grandfather but precisely in order to obtain his dying blessing for them. The dying blessing was the equivalent of a will, and was also considered to have effectiveness to determine the future, for God was to be seen as in the blessing. It was considered legally binding. A man at such a time was thought to see beyond the ordinary and mundane. Manasseh is mentioned first because he is the firstborn.
‘And someone told Jacob, “Behold your son Joseph is coming to you.” And Israel strengthened himself and sat on the bed.’
At the news of his son’s coming Jacob prepares himself for what he is about to do.
‘And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai (God Almighty) appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your seed for ever for an everlasting possession.’ And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you into Egypt, are mine, Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon shall be mine. And your issue, which you have begotten after them, shall be yours. They shall be called after the name of their brothers in the inheritance.”
The repetition of the covenant appearance is important (see Genesis 35:11-12). Jacob wants it to be clear that Joseph’s two sons, born in Egypt, are not excluded from the covenant and the promises, for the promise was given by El Shaddai, lord of the whole earth. So he now intends to adopt the two children of Joseph giving them the rights of full sons, on equality with Reuben and Simeon. (He is speaking to Joseph. He is not aware at this moment that they are standing there behind Joseph).
“And your issue (Ephraim and Manasseh) which you have begotten after them (Reuben and Simeon) shall be yours.” That is they will stand in Joseph’s place in the inheritance.
The mention of Ephraim before Manasseh is deliberate. Jacob knows what he is about to do.
“And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way, when there was still some way to come to Ephrath. And I buried her there in the way to Ephrath (the same is Bethlehem).”
His thoughts turn momentarily to himself. He is about to die but he has no regrets, for long before he had lost the one who possessed his whole heart, his beloved Rachel, Joseph’s mother, and now he will go to her. The description demonstrates how he ever kept the scene in his heart and the tenderness with which he remembered her. It is because of his great love for her, the great passion of his life, that he is now intending to adopt her two grandchildren.
‘And Israel became aware of Joseph’s sons and said, “Who are these?”
The old man is blind (Genesis 48:10) and he has only been aware of Joseph, but now he becomes aware of two others with him and asks who they are.
‘And Joseph said to his father, “They are my two sons whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them I pray to me and I will bless them.” ’
Joseph tells him that they are his two sons. His words echo Jacob’s mention of them as being born in Egypt. Then, on hearing this, Jacob calls them forward to receive adoption immediately.
“I will bless them.” Or alternately, ‘I will make them kneel.’ Some translate ‘take them on my knees’, which represents the ‘taking on the knee’, the legal rite of adoption. But as he is old and weak, and they are grown men,, he probably takes them, kneeling, between his knees. (Note how Joseph brings them from between his knees - Genesis 48:12). This was thus part of the adoption ceremony.
‘Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age so that he could not see. And he brought them near to him and he kissed them and embraced them.’
Having adopted them as full sons he now draws them to him and kisses and embraces them. The mention of his blindness is to explain the awkwardness of the whole event.
‘And Israel said to Joseph, “I had not thought to see your face, and lo, God has let me see your seed as well.”
The act of adoption fills him with gratitude to God and he cannot help expressing his feelings. Not only has he seen Joseph’s face again, something he had never expected, but he has had the joy of seeing his two sons grow up as well. He has been truly blessed.
‘And Joseph brought them out from between his knees and he bowed himself with his face to the earth.’
Joseph is filled with gratitude for what his father has done for his sons. He raises them from where they are and shows his gratitude by bowing low to his father. The great Vizier does obeisance to the old man, his father. And now is the time for them to receive his dying blessing as his sons.
‘And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand towards Israel’s left hand and Manasseh in his left hand, towards Israel’s right hand, and brought them near to him.’
Manasseh is the eldest and should receive the blessing from the right hand in acknowledgement of his seniority. The right hand was conceived as being the most powerful, as it usually is in practise. Thus Joseph guides them towards Jacob in the right positions for the blessing. But Jacob in his dying insight is aware of something that Joseph is not aware of .
‘And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly, for Manasseh was the firstborn.’
Jacob knew the position the young men would be in and deliberately crosses his hands to bless Ephraim with the right hand, indicating superior blessing.
‘And he blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who has shepherded me all my life long until this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads, and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
“He blessed Joseph.” This is no error. The two are being blessed as one and are being blessed in Joseph’s stead. His blessing is for Joseph but imparted to his two sons. What greater blessing for Joseph than for his two sons to be brought within the covenant of Yahweh, El Shaddai?
The blessing is straightforward. The young men, the sons of an Egyptian mother and born outside the promised land, are brought within the covenant, receiving the name of the patriarchs who had received that covenant on them, and are to be full sons and share in its blessings and become great peoples. So does Jacob un-Egyptianise these two young Egyptian men.
His description of God is significant. He is the One before whom his fathers walked in love and obedience, He is the one who has been with Jacob all his life and provided him with help and sustenance, He is the angel (God in His earthly presence) who has delivered him from all evil. This possibly especially refers to his struggle at Peniel when his name was changed and his life as well.
We note that Jacob in all humility does not himself claim to have walked before God in love and obedience, although others may well have said it of him. He is too aware of his failings. Thus his gratitude is in what God has done for him. It is this God, the faithful God, from Whom he beseeches blessing.
“Redeemed me.” The idea is of one who buys back someone from another. It is the first mention of the concept which would become so important. Is he thinking of his deliverance from Laban and the evil he had planned for Jacob? Is he thinking of the change in Esau who had once planned evil against him? Is he thinking of the deliverance from the evil of dire famine? Possibly all of these, but they are centred in that moment when he wrestled with God and was for ever changed. It was God Who set him free and became his Redeemer, and has thus ensured his constant deliverance from evil, including the evil of his own heart.
‘And when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim it displeased him, and he held up his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” ’
Joseph is upset. As a father he wants his sons to be treated fairly (possibly he remembers what the result was of his father’s favouritism). He is so incensed that he interrupts the blessing. Joseph’s action demonstrates how important this was all seen to be. It was a matter of precedence, which was accepted everywhere in the ancient world, that the firstborn received the primary blessing, although there were exceptions. In the Keret Legend found at Ugarit it says, ‘The youngest of them I will make firstborn’. But possibly Jacob remembers his own past. He too was the younger and yet he received the firstborn’s blessing. And something in his heart tells him that this is right here. It is in the end God Who is sovereign and will do His will.
‘And his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also will be great, however his younger brother will be greater than he and his seed will become a multitude of nations.” And he blessed them that day, saying, “In you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.’
Jacob is understanding and does not rebuke him. Then he confirms why he has acted as he has. He continues his blessing. Manasseh will become a great people, but Ephraim will be even greater and become a multitude of nations. So much so that when men speak of them in proverb they will always put Ephraim first. But both will be mentioned in the proverb, and there is no greater statement of success than to become a proverb.
That Jacob would become a company of peoples he knew from the covenant promises. That this would be through his sons he must have been aware. Thus this blessing is the natural sequel to that with the additional awareness of the extra success of Ephraim.
And both did become great peoples, but Ephraim became so great a people that all Israel was later named after them because of their superior numbers. Indeed ‘Ephraim’ could be called God’s firstborn (Jeremiah 31:9). Judges 8:2 already hints at their greatness.
“In you shall Israel bless.” We had the hint in Genesis 47:27 that the name of Israel was beginning to be applied to the tribe. This is confirmed here. The family tribe is now seen as a people.
‘And Israel said to Joseph, “Behold I die. But God will be with you and bring you again to the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.”
Jacob prophesies the future return to the land. Joseph will return in his descendants to the land of his fathers. Perhaps it was Jacob’s intention that Ephraim and Manasseh should lead the return.
“One portion (shechem) above your brothers.” This is because now Joseph’s portion is twofold in that Ephraim and Manasseh have become full sons, each entitled to their full share in the inheritance.
“Which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.” This unknown incident clearly refers to some area outside the promised land which Jacob and his tribe took by force, and which Jacob now sees as made part of that land. This, he feels, is what gives him the right to give a portion to both Ephraim and Manasseh. He has extended the promised land. It was possibly in the hill country beyond Jordan, which was seen as Amorite country (Numbers 13:29). It is possibly not without significance that that was where the half tribe of Manasseh received their portion. This is a rare example to remind us that much of the story of the patriarchs we do not know, only what was connected with covenants. We do not tend to think of Jacob as a warrior, but clearly he could be as warlike as his father Abraham.
Some have referred it to the Shechem incident but Jacob was there displeased with his sons’ actions, and Shechem was part of the promised land already.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 48". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34