Having lived to see God’s extraordinary faithfulness in his own life, Jacob looks to the future with confidence in God’s promises that will be fulfilled beyond his own lifetime. Now he is ready to pass on his legacy.
In the previous scene, Jacob made Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan, in expectation of God’s promise. Now, in this next scene, Jacob is apparently on his deathbed (48:1). He responds eagerly to Joseph’s coming (48:2), ready to bless Joseph as Jacob’s father had been ready to bless his favorite son (27:2-4).
Here Jacob recounts God’s promise and call to him at Bethel (48:3-4; cf. 28:12-15), and expects that calling to be fulfilled partly in Joseph’s sons (48:5). Jacob says that Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh are now Jacob’s sons, just as his first sons Reuben and Simeon are his (48:5). He is not stealing Joseph’s sons away from him, but conferring on Joseph the right of the firstborn—the double portion. The firstborn son would normally receive twice as many shares of the inheritance as any other son; Jacob thus adopts Joseph’s two sons to give Joseph’s line the double inheritance.
Because one might well favor the son of a more loved wife over the son of the less loved wife, later Israelite law specifically prohibited giving this portion to later-born son of a favorite wife over the genuine firstborn (Deut 21:17). Rachel was clearly Jacob’s favorite wife, a favor that thus extends to her firstborn son Joseph (cf. in this context Gen 48:7). Jacob was not under later Israelite law, but how would this favoritism sound to Genesis’s audience once they knew the law?
Genesis, however, explains Jacob’s choice. It involves more than an arbitrary favoritism. Genesis elaborates how Reuben lost the birthright (Gen 35:22; 49:3-4; cf. 1 Chron 5:1); indeed, Genesis recounts the sins of Joseph’s brothers against Joseph without explicitly specifying whether Jacob learned of these sins (though cf. Gen 50:16-17).
This chapter, Genesis 48, is necessary to explain how Ephraim and Manasseh became tribes in Israel—Joseph received the double portion, so each of his first two sons was reckoned among the twelve (now thirteen) tribes of Israel. Any children born to Joseph after these two would be reckoned among these two tribes (48:6). (Lest we be concerned about how they would be divided, many peoples in antiquity, including Romans, had tribal divisions that later absorbed other members into their tribes.)
Joseph apparently had enough advance information to anticipate Jacob’s decision, and is ready to respond to his father’s question. When Jacob sees Joseph’s sons, he asks, “Who are these?” (48:8)—just as his brother Esau had once asked about Jacob’s own family (33:5). Joseph himself had been present at that incident, with his mother Rachel (33:7), but he had probably been too young to remember it (30:25). Nevertheless, he would have often heard the story, and thus responds appropriately in a way that would touch his father’s heart. When Esau asked Jacob, “Who are these who are with you?” Jacob responded, “The children with whom God has graced your servant” (33:5). Now Joseph responds in a manner similar to the way his father had once responded: “These are the sons whom God has given me here” (48:9).
Jacob now was ready to bless the sons of Joseph as his firstborn (48:9) the way that Isaac had once blessed Jacob with the blessing of the firstborn (27:27-29). (Jacob had not needed for Esau to bless him in Gen 33:5 because Jacob already had the blessing from his father.) Lest we miss the connection, Jacob’s eyes were heavy from age (48:10), just as Isaac’s had been (27:1). Isaac’s blindness had rendered him more vulnerable to deception, so that when he asked who was there (27:18, 24) Jacob had deceived him (27:19, 24). But Jacob was not completely blind, so he saw those with Jacob and asked who they were (48:8; cf. 48:11); Joseph, of course, told him the truth (48:9).
But Jacob also had spiritual insight that enabled him to know which son would be the greatest, subverting even Joseph’s own expectations (48:13-14, 17). As in the earlier cases of Jacob and Esau and of Joseph and his brothers (and in some sense Isaac and Ishmael), God subverted the expected right of the firstborn. God frequently subverts social conventions and human expectations, to which he is not beholden. He often exalts the lowly in the eyes of people and brings down the proud. This fits a pattern in Scripture of God using the weaker to show his own power, a pattern the New Testament writers find climaxing in the cross of Christ. (Jesus was, of course, a firstborn son; as a firstborn myself, I take comfort that there is nothing intrinsically bad about being firstborn!)
I will comment more about the blessing and Joseph’s dismay in the next post. Suffice it for now to say that many of us, too, have lessons learned that we can pass on to the next generation, whether they are our natural or spiritual heirs. Many of us, too, have much wisdom, spiritual insight and blessing that we can receive from those who have gone before us, and we should take advantage of that opportunity while we can.
This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. Joseph worked on behalf of both Pharaoh, his boss, and the people, selling them grain when they needed it and faithfully delivering all the profits to Pharaoh. He also exempted the Egyptian priests, following Pharaoh’s expectations. Joseph offers a positive model here. First, he is a worker with integrity, on whom his boss could depend. Second and third, he also is able to help the people in the time of need—and able to do so because he walked with God and understood what God was communicating in Pharaoh’s dreams. Fourth, God cares about feeding hungry people, and Joseph’s role as a public manager was no less important or God-led than more direct preaching ministries would be. And fifth, we see that Joseph also could work respectfully with those who held views different from himself.
Some of these points have come up before, so I will look at just a couple points here. First, what should we make of Joseph allowing the people and their land to belong to Pharaoh? Second, in multicultural and multifaith societies, we can learn from the honorable way that Joseph treats Egypt’s priests.
When Joseph bought the people’s land for Pharaoh (at their desperate request, 47:19), in practice he allowed the people to keep four-fifths of the produce, taking only one fifth for Pharaoh (47:24). Although a tenth was probably more common in that milieu (cf. 14:20; 28:22; 1 Sam 8:15, 17), Joseph had already been exacting a fifth in the time of prosperity, when it was little compared to the abundance (41:34); much of this grain might likewise be invested in their future. (Even today, most Western nations do not consider excessive a 20 percent taxation rate.)
In their own words, Joseph was to buy them and their land so that they and their land would not die (Gen 47:19); they are grateful for their lives being rescued (47:25). The taxation on their yield would not yet take effect anyway, however, since there would be no yield in the short run; Joseph instead gathered the people to the centers where food could be distributed efficiently during the remainder of the famine (47:21).
Today we might view Joseph’s accumulation of wealth for and loyalty to Pharaoh as harmful for later generations of Egyptians, but Joseph had access only to his own generation. He would not have known the long-range behavior of later Pharaohs, and we cannot control what subsequent generations do to our legacy. (Our forebears in many denominations and many nations would be horrified to see what has become of their legacy!) In fact, scholars often argue that Joseph entered Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty; a change in peoples ruling Egypt would obliterate the memory of how Joseph saved the people. Whether Joseph arrived in the Hyksos era or not, Scripture is clear that a ruler arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8). Of course, in light of Christ we would hope for better things than subjecting a nation to Pharaoh; but overall, Joseph’s contribution was probably the most positive one possible in his situation. Had he not preserved the people, there would not have been descendants to oppress.
Joseph’s respectful relationship with the priests (47:22), the daughter of one of whom he had married (41:45; 46:20), offers a noteworthy model for God’s people working in a pluralistic society that welcomes us but includes a range of religious views. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21; 3:1), in that case with perhaps even more concrete religious results! What God did for Israel ultimately convinced Moses’s already-wise father-in-law that YHWH was the greatest of gods (Exod 18:8-11). (Melchizedek, too, honored the highest God; Gen 14:18.)
Such examples are not limited to the Pentateuch. Daniel, trained in all the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4) served in a pagan court alongside pagan diviners (2:27-28; 4:7-8). Paul had friends (possibly sponsors) who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31), members of the same class that produced priests of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. Scripture is clear that believers must not compromise with idolatry (1 Cor 10:7, 14-21; Rev 2:14, 20), even under duress (Dan 3:18; cf. 1:8; 6:10). But this does not mean that we should not associate with nonbelievers who practice it (1 Cor 5:9-10). As he illustrated perhaps most eloquently in the story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, not just those who agree with us.
Part of our witness as Christians is not just what we say (important as that is), but how we perform our work and serve the people around us.
1-hour free lecture on Acts 1-2, the introductory section of Acts:
Others are better qualified than I to comment on security matters, and this is an older post, but now seems a valuable time to recount the story of two refugees’ experiences. Neither of these two constituted a security threat: they are the stories of my wife and my son.
This is the sixth free 1-hour video on the Acts of the Apostles.
1-hour free lecture
Craig was invited to speak on this at Asbury Seminary Chapel some time ago. This seems a good time (right after Martin Luther King Jr. Day) to post it (29 minutes and 59 seconds) (It’s not my picture on the front but it’s me inside during the sermon).
Session 4, addressing unity of Luke-Acts, parallel lives (relevance for Luke-Acts), etc., and miracle claims.
Continuing the theme of Acts as historiography from previous lectures. 1 hour.