Genesis 48: Jacob Blesses Joseph's Sons

By Mary Jane Chaignot

There have been several references to Jacob’s impending death. As his condition deteriorates, Joseph is told that his father is ill. There is no indication how this message is sent, but perhaps one of the brothers takes it upon himself to let Joseph know. It is noteworthy that he is “told this information.” This is verification that Joseph is not living with them in Goshen. Word has to get out to him because he’s not there with them. Upon hearing this news, Joseph goes to Goshen and takes along his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to see Jacob. They are born to Joseph and his wife, Asenath, during the years of plenty, before the start of the famine. Their exact ages are unknown. Some scholars estimate them to be 10-12 years old, but if this is truly at the end of Jacob’s life, they could easily be in their early twenties since Jacob lives in Egypt for about 17 years before his brothers came.

When Jacob is told that Joseph has come, he rallies and sits up in bed. This apparently takes some effort on his part. He immediately begins to tell Joseph about the promises God has made to him at Luz in the land of Canaan. Luz is the original name for Bethel. Great moments have happened to Jacob at this place. This is where, on the way back from Haran, God reiterates that Jacob's name is changed to Israel. God also repeats his promises, “I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.”

The promise of descendants seems to have worked out quite well, but do they actually own any land? Technically, the only place they own is the grave in Machpelah – the gravesite of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah. We know that that grave site has been officially purchased. To scholars’ knowledge, however, there have been no other land transactions. And right now they have abandoned the land of promise, though this is meant to be temporary. By default, however, once someone leaves the land, someone else can occupy it. This becomes a huge issue during the time of Joshua when every inch of that land will be acquired through battle. At best then, the second half of the promise about land seems to still be waiting for fulfillment.

Nonetheless, Jacob continues, “Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are.” Jacob reverses their birth order, perhaps in a sign of things to come. This clearly is adoption language. He elevates his grandsons to full and equal sons. He compares them to his first two children – Reuben and Simeon – by saying that they will be his, just like Reuben and Simeon are his. They are all equal now. Neither Joseph nor his sons comment on this development.

Jacob tells Joseph, “As for the offspring born to you after them, they shall be yours. They shall be recorded under the names of their brothers with regard to their inheritance.” Though there is no record of Joseph and Asanath having more children, there is no reason to doubt that they did.

Jacob, then, digresses into the story of Rachel. Scholars struggle to understand why he speaks of her at this point, but the simplest explanation might be that he just wanted Joseph to know how his mother died. He says, “…when I came from Paddan, Rachel, alas, died in the land of Canaan on the way, while there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath.”

Jeremiah will refer to this event during the time of exile. Perhaps there was a marker of some kind along the road, or more likely, the story was so well known that everyone simply knew where she was buried. Despite his affection for Rachel, she is not buried next to Jacob at the grave site at Machpelah. Given all the effort that they will make to provide Jacob with a proper burial there, one wonders why no one made a similar effort for Rachel.

Up to this point, all of Jacob’s words have been directed towards Joseph even though his sons are with him. Suddenly, Jacob sees them and asks, “Who are these?” Joseph replies, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” Both men give credit to God for their good fortune in having sons.

Like his father before him, Jacob’s eyes are failing. He asks Joseph, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Joseph brings them in really close. This is almost more than Jacob can handle. He never expected he would ever see Joseph again, and here he is looking into the faces of Joseph’s sons. He is the only patriarch up to this point who has contact with his grandchildren. But seeing Joseph’s sons is totally unexpected.

This is another clue that they have not been with their grandfather up to this point. It is an indication how much distance there is between Joseph’s Egyptian ways and the Israelites. They do not seem to have had much interaction. They have not been intermingling. Joseph is a benefactor to his family, but he is not hanging out with them.

Jacob kisses and embraces the lads. The text then states that Joseph “removes them from his father’s knees.” Again, this might suggest that they are little boys, but if this is truly the end of Jacob’s life, they are nearing or in their twenties. Joseph takes both of them and bows with his “face to the earth” in a sign of respect for his father. Recall the dream Joseph has where everyone bows to him (See Genesis 37). At that time Jacob chastises him and asks whether he would have to bow before his son. There is no record of him doing so, but now Joseph bows before him.

Joseph arranges his sons before Jacob in the order of their birth: using his right hand, he puts Ephraim on Jacob’s left, and with his left hand puts Manasseh on Jacob’s right. He expects that Jacob will give them a blessing and the more prestigious blessing will be bestowed upon the eldest son. Jacob does bless them, but in so doing he crosses his hands, so that his right hand is upon Ephraim, the younger son, and his left upon Manasseh. Once again the law of primogeniture is ignored. No explanation is given for the last minute switch, but Ephraim’s precedence will be well established among future generations.

Jacob then pronounces his blessing. Going back three generations and highlighting the obedience of his forefathers, he says, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked….” When it comes to himself, he turns things around and says, “…the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all harm.…” Jacob’s experience has been different. He has been the recipient of God’s help and protection throughout the many trials of his life. This is the God he invokes to “bless the boys.” In this sense, Jacob is passing on the blessings given to him and his forefathers to his grandsons. The result of this blessing is that “his name will be perpetuated and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.” In other words, through them his name and heritage will live on.

Scholars cannot help noting the significance of all this. The firstborn always gets a double portion. And in a deep way, Jacob has now given Joseph a double portion through his sons. So in a sense what he has done is to elevate Joseph to that firstborn status in a very formal way. Joseph, of course, has a very esteemed position in Pharaoh’s court. What could Jacob actually give him? It’s highly doubtful that Joseph would ever want for something. So Jacob blesses him through his sons.

Joseph, however, thinks Jacob is making an inadvertent mistake: “You’re doing it wrong. Manasseh is on your right.” Jacob says that he already knows that. So the big blessing from the right hand is going to Ephraim, the younger son. But isn’t that completely consistent with what we already know about this issue of primogeniture? For whatever reason among the Israelites, the elder never gets the blessing. Like so many other times, Jacob very specifically gives the blessing to Ephraim, the younger son. And then he puts his left hand on Manasseh. He basically repeats the blessings that he’s received from God.

When Joseph argues with him, telling him to put his right hand on Manasseh, Jacob says that Manasseh will be the ruler of a nation, but that the younger brother will become greater than he. And it will be the descendants of the younger brother who will become a group of nations. What is interesting is that in the book of Joshua when the land is allotted, Ephraim will be a huge tribe. Manasseh will split – half on the east side of the River Jordan and half on the west. Obviously, it won’t take long before Manasseh on the east will be absorbed by other nations. That will leave half a tribe. In a symbolic and a literal way, the tribe of Manasseh will never get to its full potential.

Joseph finally accepts his father’s wishes and puts Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Jacob then blesses them directly. Going forward, when people want to use a blessing formula, they will say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Again, Ephraim is named ahead of Manasseh.

In conclusion Jacob announces that he is about to die and tells Joseph again that God will be with them and will take them back to the land of their fathers. He reminds Joseph never to think that they will stay in Egypt forever. Egypt is not the land of their fathers. They are to be in Egypt on a temporary basis. But, in reality, they will stay there for over 400 years, and 400 years just doesn’t seem that temporary. It does raise the question why they didn’t all leave after the famine ended in seven years. Maybe the bottom line is that things were going pretty well for them by that time. They were given everything they needed. They had settled in; no one wanted to leave.

Nonetheless, Joseph is not to think this arrangement is permanent. Jacob then gives some land to Joseph. This will become his “additional portion.” Supposedly, this is land he has taken from the Amorites. Scholars don’t know of this incident. The one option is the fiasco at Shechem, but it is unlikely Jacob would be bestowing land that was ill-gotten. Regardless, it concludes the visit by not only giving the younger grandson preference over his older brother, but also by giving Joseph preference over his older brothers. The legacy continues.