Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 48

In this chapter, Jacob pronounces his blessings over Ephraim and Manasseh and he favors the younger over the older to the consternation of Joseph.

This chapter begins in a different time than chapter 47, as we can see in verse 1: "Now it came about after these things that Joseph was told...."  This clearly indicates a time gap between the oath that Joseph swore in chapter 47 and the illness that takes hold of Jacob in this chapter.  However, in my mind I group it all together because it is all related to the impending death of Jacob.

Jacob gives a brief recap of his lifetime and then he "claims" Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, to be counted as his sons.  In effect what is going on here is that Jacob is ascribing to Joseph the right of the firstborn, a double portion of Jacob's inheritance.  The two children are put on Jacob's knees, which is reminiscent of Rachel bearing a son through her maid Bilhah (Genesis 30:3).  She says "Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children."  So "bearing children upon your knees" is a sort of symbolic action representing adoption, or childbearing by proxy.  And that is what Jacob is doing here, bearing Ephraim and Manasseh upon his knees and blessing them.  Although it doesn't literally say that they were put on Jacob's knees, verse 12 says that Joseph removed them from Jacob's knees, so it is strongly implied.

I'd also want to point out Jacob's prayer in verses 15-16.  17 years ago Jacob was telling Pharaoh that his life had been short and hard, and while I questioned whether he really meant it or it was expected self-abasement, it still provides a pretty interesting contrast to what Jacob says here, that God "has been my shepherd all my life to this day".  We have seen Jacob go through so much turmoil in his life, from the sudden and unexpected exile in chapter 28 and the struggles with Esau to the tragic disappearance of Joseph, whom he thought dead, to the later turmoil with Simeon held prisoner and Benjamin taken from him.  But now, at the very end of his life, he strongly confirms his faith in the Lord and the blessings he had received.

Next, Jacob blessed Ephraim over Manasseh, which is contrary to Manasseh's right as the firstborn.  That's why Joseph desires to correct his father.  Presumably Jacob wished to favor the younger Ephraim because Jacob himself was favored over his older brother Esau.  As I previous discussed at the time, favoring the younger over the older is a consistent theme in Genesis, and it has repercussions later in the bible with e.g. Jesus saying "The first shall be last and the last shall be first".  Favoring the younger over the older is a reversal of the natural order of things (as the writer would see it), since primogeniture was intrinsic to society at the time.  I want to draw a clear distinction here between the human/cultural/natural ordering and the divine/heavenly/eternal ordering, because that is the dichotomy that Jesus and the author of Genesis are emphasizing.  The reversal is intended to highlight and contrast the differing systems of life, the natural and the divine.  And I think that this is a proper and reasonable lens through which the reader can view most of the OT and the NT.  So far we have seen this in the younger favored over the older (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Manasseh, and Cain and Abel), the promised child Isaac chosen over the natural child Ishmael and Abraham's choice of the promised land Canaan over the fertile and rich but ultimately destroyed land of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And this theme will continue to recur, so I encourage my readers to be diligent in looking for new instances of it.

Joseph is bothered by Jacob's choice, most likely because Joseph didn't share Jacob's experiences of striving to overcome his older brother.  In Joseph's case, while he was not the oldest of his brothers, he was favored amongst them.  He also spent much of his life in Egypt and would possibly be much more closely aligned to the system of primogeniture which was firmed entrenched there.  Nevertheless, Jacob is his father and Jacob's word is the law of his family.

Lastly, it's interesting that the last verse says he gives Joseph a portion which he took "with my sword and  my bow", since Jacob did not conquer any of Canaan.  When you look at the Hebrew though, the word "portion" is the Hebrew "Shechem", which is the city that his sons destroyed after deceiving them into circumcising themselves.  So this is clearly a pun (and a clever one at that), because Shechem is the one part of Canaan that he did actually take with his sword and his bow (metaphorically).  I've read some really confused commentaries in the past about this verse, but it all makes sense when you learn that one word.  This last verse also confirms what I said about Joseph getting a double portion, the right of the firstborn, as a reward for his faithfulness in Egypt and saving his family through his diligence.

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