Was it cruel for Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away?—Genesis 21:14

In Genesis 21:14, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert. Yet Abraham was not sending them to die of thirst there. He gave them a skin of water (21:14); vegetation could grow in that region, and it was habitable (21:30-33; 22:19; 26:23, 33). Unfortunately, Hagar and Ishmael apparently got lost before finding water or any habitation and so ran out of water (21:14-16).

Nevertheless, Abraham had God’s promise concerning Ishmael (17:20), including at this time (21:13), and so could trust God for Ishmael as he could trust God for Isaac when offering him on Mount Moriah in the next chapter. And sure enough, the angel of the Lord again appeared to Hagar, reaffirmed the promise, and pointed her to nearby water (21:17-19). God heard Ishmael’s cries (21:17).

People often blame their own cruel choices on God. That issue merits discussion in its own right, but it is not a discussion of the message of this passage. This passage instead celebrates Abraham’s continued faith and obedience. He knew God’s voice and had witnessed God act miraculously with Sarah’s pregnancy and Isaac’s subsequent birth. This is another step of obedient faith that brought him closer to being ready to sacrifice what will then be his only son, trusting God’s faithfulness no matter what.

Abraham obeys Sarah—Genesis 21:10-12

Hagar knew that the God of Abraham and Sarah was a powerful God; she herself had met and obeyed the angel of the LORD (Gen 16:7-11). Indeed, Abraham and Sarah believed what the angel told her, for her son was named Ishmael (16:11). She also could not but recognize that Sarah’s elderly birth (21:1-5) indicated God’s action, divine favor, and the fulfillment of God’s promise. She could not, therefore, have assumed that her son would supplant Isaac’s role even though her son was born first.

There was, however, a Mesopotamian custom that complicated matters. If a slaveholder acknowledged as son one born through a slave, that son would be reckoned as son, affecting the inheritance. Yet God’s promise and plan was for Isaac to be the heir. The only way to secure that fully now, especially if Abraham and Sarah did not survive until Isaac reached maturity and secured the loyalty of their followers, would be to liberate Hagar and Ishmael and send them away. (Abraham also sent later sons away to avoid any competition with Isaac; 25:6.)

Sarah demands that Abraham protect Isaac and God’s promise, by sending Hagar and Ishmael away (21:10). Abraham loved his son Ishmael too much to have considered the idea on his own, but Ishmael was not Sarah’s son, and she was closer to her newborn Isaac. Abraham was naturally distressed about sending away his son (21:11); they had bonded for years, when Abraham expected Ishmael to be his only son and heir (17:17-18) for Ishmael’s first thirteen years (17:25).

But Abraham discovers that Sarah’s advice is not mere jealousy or rivalry, but wisdom. God instructs Abraham to “heed” Sarah’s voice (21:12); this is the same verb used for Adam wrongly heeding Eve’s voice (3:17) and Abram heeding Sarai’s voice in taking Hagar as a concubine to begin with (16:2). Heeding one’s spouse can be good or bad, depending on the content of their advice! (Think how much trouble Isaac would have saved his family had he listened to Rebekah’s word from the Lord; 25:23.) In this case, however, Sarah has spoken wisely, and God instructs Abraham to heed her. (Sarah called Abraham “my lord” [18:12], a familiar title for husbands in that era; 1 Pet 3:6. But, as Gen 21 illustrates, her valuable example of respect does not mean that godly husbands should not also heed their wives!)

God confirms her warning: the concubine’s son will not share Abraham’s line of promise or the inheritance of Sarah’s son (21:12). God would nevertheless take care of Ishmael (21:13). Next post: Was it cruel for God or Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away?—Genesis 21:14.

What did Ishmael do wrong to Isaac?—Genesis 21:9

What provoked Sarah to ask Abraham to send away Hagar and Ishmael in Gen 21:10? The text tells us only that Sarah saw Hagar’s son doing something (I leave “something” ambiguous for the moment, since the verb has a range of meaning). The term might mean “laughing,” since a few verses (and a few years) earlier Sarah has announced that everyone will laugh with her, sharing her joy (21:6).

But if the verb has anything to do with Sarah’s reaction (that is, if Sarah is not simply reacting to seeing Ishmael at the feast for Isaac’s weaning), it may suggest something more malevolent. Maybe instead of laughing with Sarah he was laughing at Isaac.

This was a feast for Isaac’s weaning; he was past the most physically dangerous period of infancy. If Isaac was weaned around age two, Ishmael would now be a young man of about sixteen. Because Paul, like most ancient Jewish interpreters, understood “play” negatively here (Gal 4:29-30), I will explore some of the negative possibilities. (I borrow this material from my forthcoming Galatians commentary, which at the time of this post is merely a rough draft, which will also incorporate my present study on this passage.)

The verb that can be translated as innocently as “play” in Genesis also has other meanings in less innocent contexts. It can mean to scorn or mock, or treat lightly; historically some interpreters have inferred this, viewing this as ridicule opposing God’s promise (so e.g., Calvin). Perhaps Ishmael showed contempt as his mother once had for Sarah (Gen 16:3); perhaps, given Sarah’s strict response in 21:10, his disdain included Isaac’s birthright (so the Reformer Rudolf Gwalther). (At least later in life, Ishmael became hostile toward many people; 16:12.)

Negatively, the verb does refer to Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12-15) laughing at God’s promise. Most negatively, Lot’s sons-in-law laughing at his warning from God, leading to their destruction (Gen 19:14). The typical Greek translation of Gen 21:9 uses the word paizô. This verb can be positive, but also applies to young men competing and dying in 2 Sam 2:14 and to the abuse of Samson in Judg 16:25. In the Pentateuch this verb appears only at Gen 26:8—Isaac caressing Rebekah—and Exod 32:6. Paul seems to interpret the latter passage sexually in 1 Cor 10:7, his only use of the Greek term.

The masculine singular piel participle of this verb, however, the form here, appears only three times in the OT, all within five chapters of this verse. One is for Lot’s sons-in-law, noted above (19:14); the other is Isaac fondling his wife (26:8). The other biblical uses, also in the piel, are these: Gen 39:14, 17, where it claims that a foreign slave “made sport” of Potiphar’s household by trying to rape his wife; Exod 32:6, where it may (as just noted) have sexual connotations; and Judg 16:25, where Samson’s Philistine captors summon him as foreign slave to “entertain” them. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that Ishmael is taunting from a position of superiority, and that possibly Genesis employs a euphemism here for some sexual innuendo.

Physical molestation is highly unlikely at a public feast (Gen 21:8). (Some scholars find a euphemism for sexual activity in Gen 9:22, possibly for voyeurism; but the writer of Genesis was also capable of being much less euphemistic, as in 19:31-36.) It is not impossible, however, that the adolescent Ishmael, still learning social propriety, could have taunted his just-weaned half-brother as sexually inferior or finally graduating from seeking his mother’s breast.

Whatever the specific action that raised the concern at this point, Sarah’s primary concern is Isaac’s line being Abraham’s heir (21:10; cf. 21:12). The next two posts will explore this concept, including the propriety of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away.

Joseph’s faith beyond his lifetime—Genesis 50:22-26

The Book of Genesis concludes with expectation for the future; expectation is part of what faith is. Faith isn’t limited to our relationship with God now. By faith we can prepare for events beyond our mortal lives; our faith can outlive us. In this case we readers know what comes of that faith because we also have Exodus and the rest of the Bible; Joseph’s expectation was rewarded in later generations. Yet for many of our own expectations—expectations concerning the Lord’s return, the triumph of justice and righteousness in the world, and so forth—we are in a situation like Joseph was at the end of his life: looking to God’s promises before they have come to pass.

Like his father Jacob, Joseph looked to God’s long-range future promise. As his father declared that he was about to die and made Joseph swear concerning his burial in the holy land (47:29-31; 48:21; 49:29-32), Joseph now makes his relatives swear to carry his bones to the promised land when God would bring them up, as he surely would (50:24-25). (“His brothers” in 50:24 does not indicate that his older brothers all outlived him; the Hebrew expression that we translate “brothers” simply means relatives.)

In the short run, Joseph died and was buried in Egypt (50:26). Although 110 years (50:22, 26) was a very full life (Egyptians praised this longevity), humans in God’s story do not “live happily ever after” (in this life); God’s human servants share the common fate of all other mortals. Joseph, however, looked beyond the short term to God’s longer-range promises for his people.

Although English translations do not always translate the verses the same way, Joseph’s wording indicates that the promised exodus would be a scale of divine activity no less extraordinary than God enabling Sarah to bear; God would “visit” his people (50:24-25; cf. Exod 3:16; 4:31; 13:19) in a special way in God’s special time, just as he had “visited” Sarah (Gen 21:1) in enabling her to have Isaac.

Joseph trusted the promises of God that were part of his legacy, just as we must trust the biblical promises to which we are now heirs. No less than Joseph keeping the oath he had sworn to his father (50:5-6) or his relatives observing the oath they swore to Joseph (cf. 50:25), God would keep the oath he had sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to bring them into the land of promise (50:24).

Joseph’s plans for his body’s future rested on his confidence in God’s promise, and thus showed faith (Heb 11:22). When we plan our lives based on God’s call and promise, whether for ourselves or for God’s people more generally, we show faith in his promise. Genesis reminds us over and over again that God is truly worthy of our trust. In the traditional African-American Church, we have a saying: God may not come when you want Him to—but He’s always right on time.

Sin damages relationships, but forgiveness can restore them—Genesis 50:15-21

Sometimes it feels difficult to trust forgiveness if we know that we have damaged our relationship with someone.

Although Joseph’s brothers have changed, consequences of their past actions remain. Conscious of the harm that they did to Joseph, they are afraid to trust him, suspecting that he has spared them only for his father’s sake (50:15). (Their term for bearing a grudge applies earlier in Genesis to Esau’s hatred of his brother Jacob for what Jacob had done to him; 27:41. Their language of repaying evil might recall Joseph’s earlier accusation in 44:5 that they had repaid evil for good, though that accusation was fictitious. It probably simply recalls their earlier action of evil, falsely attributed in 39:9 to an animal.)

Thus they fall before his face before Joseph (50:18) again (cf. 37:9-10; 42:6; 43:26, 28), only this time fully knowing his identity. They wrongly sold him into slavery; now they offer themselves to be his slaves (50:18).

Joseph, by contrast, the narrative’s more “reliable” character, has a better approach because he considers the divine perspective: without their behavior, he would not be vizier of Egypt. Apart from their action, he could not have saved their lives and the lives of others (50:20). It was all part of God’s plan.

God’s larger purpose does not excuse their guilt—that God works through human choices does not absolve humans of responsibility—but it does make their action ultimately inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. When we are tested, it is helpful to keep our focus not on human mistreatment of us, when we cannot change it, but on what we can learn from God and how we can carry out his will in the face of such situations. (Of course this does not mean that we neglect injustice when there is something we can do about it. Joseph’s only available recourse had been to cry out [42:21], but had he been able to prevent his enslavement he surely would have done so.)

Joseph comforts them (50:21), though the same term applies to their inability to comfort Jacob after they had disposed of Joseph (37:35). Far from seeking to return harm to them, Joseph promises to continue to provide for them and their children (50:21). After all, God raised him up for the purpose of keeping many alive (50:20; cf. 45:5), certainly including them (cf. 45:7). Whereas they had wanted to kill (37:20), God raised up Joseph to preserve life (45:5; 50:20); whereas they had done harm, Joseph returns to them good for evil.

As a reliable character, Joseph’s positive role model points the way toward the one who would ultimately epitomize returning good for evil and life for death to his people and others, namely Jesus. Indeed, the Joseph narrative shows us a frequent pattern in God’s way of working through weakness and suffering before exaltation. Just as God showed his longer-range plan by proving Joseph to be alive after his father assumed him dead, so more fully God would show his longer-range plan by raising Jesus from the dead. The God of the Joseph narrative is also the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Buried in Faith—Genesis 50:1-14

The story of Jacob’s burial, like the story of him blessing his sons regarding the future, is a story of faith. The story of his faith and Joseph’s faith, initially just following God’s leading in their own lives and at God’s initiative, ends up impacting the world around them.

Jacob knows that God will bless his descendants and return them to the promised land (48:21), for God had told him so (46:4). Jacob’s desire to be buried in the promised land (49:29) is thus an act of faith in that promised future (cf. comparable faith in Heb 11:21-22). So significant is his last request that despite the already extensive period mourning for Jacob in Egypt (Gen 50:3), Joseph receives permission to ensure Jacob’s burial in the requested place (50:4-13).

Pharaoh of course grants Joseph a leave of absence to bury his father, recognizing the importance of both filial duty and the duty to which Joseph’s oath to Jacob committed Joseph (50:6). But Pharaoh, who has special regard for his trustworthy right-hand man, does more than than merely grant him permission to take off work for a funeral. Joseph had probably anticipated this, based on his special relationship with this Pharaoh. (Pharaoh regularly lavished favor on Joseph, e.g., 41:41-45; 45:17-20; 47:6-7; whether or not the same Pharaoh is in view here—the Pharaoh’s particular identity does not seem to concern the narrator or his sources—Joseph may ask indirectly [50:4] to avoid dishonorably seeming to directly request too many favors [cf. 46:33-34].)

Many of Egypt’s leaders undertook this journey as well, to honor the holy father of the land’s esteemed wise voice for God, Joseph (50:7; cf. 47:9-10). So great was their mourning for the patriarch that even the local Canaanites took notice (50:11).

Through a man who persevered in serving God through suffering, and most of all through God’s plan for him and for others, God had impacted a nation for a generation. No such impact is permanent—eventually a king arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8; some scholars associate this change with the historical transition from the Hyksos dynasty to those who overthrew it). But making a difference for even one generation makes an eternal difference for the people of that generation. Often God has used just a few people to make a huge difference—for example, consider the impact of three figures from Oxford’s Holy Club (Whitefield and the Wesley brothers) in eighteenth century England and its American colonies. Joseph’s calling didn’t look like any of our traditional ideas of ministry, but he was faithful in hearing God and doing his will. Let us each be faithful to the calling God has given us.

It is not surprising that Israel’s family left their little ones and livestock in Egypt (50:8), since in the short run they planned to return (50:14). The narrator includes this information to notify us that all the other members of the household went to honor their deceased patriarch Jacob (Gen 50:8)—but also because it provides a fitting contrast with a story to come. Generations later Moses will refuse to leave the little ones and livestock behind (Exod 10:9-11) precisely because, as is obvious to that generation’s Pharaoh, Moses does not intend to return.

That “his sons did for him as he had commanded them” (50:12) and carried his body (50:13) was of course honorable filial behavior (cf. Jacob’s obedience to his parents in 27:8; 28:6). Yet it contrasts with the disobedience shown by his sons in earlier years—even to the point of a firstborn defiling their father’s bed (35:22) and most of the others selling his favorite son into slavery (37:26-28).

This new obedience illustrates how God’s grace in a family can bring change, even when that change appears imperceptible in the short term. We may also note that most of the commanding in surrounding chapters has been done by Joseph (42:25; 44:1; 50:2, where his servants include even physicians/embalmers; cf. Pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf in 45:19; 47:11). Now, however, at the end, Joseph’s father who first instilled in Joseph the ways of God is still honored by all his sons, including the one who became Pharaoh’s vizier (Jacob’s command in 49:29, 33; 50:12).

The narrator further reminds his Israelite audience of the burial place in Canaan that Abraham had bought from a Hittite (50:13). Like Shechem (33:19), this was a foothold in the land paid for by their ancestors, footholds that belonged to them even before battles with Canaanites.

This narrative teaches us about faith, through the example of Jacob; about how God can sometimes impact entire cultures through those who live faithful to God; and how God changes families. It also reminds us that even when we do not recognize the foreshadowings in our lives, God is faithful to his long-range promises to us and to his people.

Jacob blesses his sons: some observations—Genesis 49

Jacob has great faith and blesses his sons with confidence in the future that God has for them.

Joseph’s primacy, emphasized already in Gen 48, is further reinforced as Jacob blesses each of his sons in Gen 49. Such blessings were the most important gift that Jacob could pass on to them, greater than dividing the property as in a will. Some of Jacob’s sons, like Judah, will be greatly blessed, but Jacob’s headstrong, firstborn three—Reuben, Simeon and Levi—suffer for their past choices, thereby justifying Jacob’s choice of Joseph over the natural firstborn. In 49:3-4, Jacob emphasizes how Reuben would have had this status but lost it (by going up to his father’s bed, thus trying to seize the status prematurely). Jacob surely recalls that his father’s firstborn Esau lost his status in favor of Jacob.

The blessings show some parallels between Judah and Joseph, the descendants of both of whom will become major tribes in Israel. Judah’s brothers will bow to him (49:8) just as Joseph’s brothers bowed to him (42:6); Judah will also reign (49:10), just as Joseph now was vizier of Egypt. Although Jacob’s special favor rests on Joseph, Judah had shown positive leadership in the more recent part of the Joseph narrative (43:3, 8; 44:14, 16, 18; 46:28) and remains preeminent among Leah’s sons.

Lions were perceived as the most powerful of predators, and the image is here linked with Judah’s future reign (Gen 49:9-10). The phrase “lion’s cub” applied to Judah here in 49:9 applies to Dan in Deut 33:22; but Judah also appears as a full-grown lion or lioness here (like Gad in Deut 33:20). In Num 23:24; 24:9, a lion and lioness become images of a powerful people conquering prey; in antiquity, a lion was an image of strength.

Both Judah and Joseph will also prosper. That Judah can treat wine like rinse water (Gen 49:11) indicates his promised prosperity. (Growing vines and tending milk-producing goats [see 49:12] would not be difficult in the hill country of Judah.)

Yet as in Jacob’s blessings of his sons, Moses’s blessings of the tribes that almost close the final book of the Pentateuch include much prosperity for Joseph (Deut 33:13-17). Joseph will be very fruitful (Gen 49:22; cf. Ps 1:3), a fruitfulness that had already begun in his life when the Lord began exalting him (Gen 41:52: “God has made me fruitful …”). Jacob prays for the blessings of heaven and the deep and of fertility for Joseph (49:25), recalling the blessings of his ancestors (49:26), especially Isaac’s prayer of blessing from heaven and earth for Jacob (27:28). As Isaac blessed Jacob to rule his brothers (27:29), so Jacob blesses Joseph as one special among his brothers (49:26; the term means one consecrated or set apart, perhaps here for rule).

Just as Leah and Rachel gave their children meaningful names in Gen 29:32-35; 30:6-8, 11-13, 18, 20, 24; 35:18, Jacob now puns on some of their names as he blesses them before his death. Judah’s brothers will praise (yuducah) Judah (yehudah; 49:8); Dan will judge (yadin, based on the same root) his people (49:16); raiders (g’dud) will raid (y’gudenu) Gad, but he will also raid (yagud) at their heels (49:19; the verbs are from the root gdd). (Note: I am unfortunately unable to use my Hebrew font here.) Nevertheless, Jacob does not offer all possible plays on names; he does not, for example, call Asher blessed (asher; though this would simply reuse what already appears in Gen 30:13). That both Dan and Gad raid at enemies’ heels (49:17, 19) might recall Jacob’s own prevailing over another’s heel, which earned him his name (25:26).

While blessing his sons, Jacob also praises God in language often developed by his descendants. God is “the rock of Israel” (49:24), perhaps recalling the rock of God’s house in 28:22 but especially emphasizing that God is an unmoving strength and foundation (cf. e.g., 2 Sam 22:2-3, 47; Ps 18:2, 46; 31:3 and passim). “The Mighty One” (Gen 49:24) also becomes a common title for God’s strength (e.g., Josh 22:22), especially in Hebrew poetry (e.g., Ps 50:1; Isa 49:26; 60:16); so also “the shepherd” (Gen 49:24; cf. e.g., 48:15; Ps 23:1; 80:1; Isa 40:11).

All these blessings depend on the recognition that God is the source of blessing and the one who will carry out these blessings. Having lived to see God’s faithfulness, Jacob is bold in his faith for the future. We, too, should recognize God’s faithfulness in our lives, and trust his continued faithfulness in the future. Unlike Jacob here, we often do not know the details the future holds for us; but we do know that God will be with us, and we know the already-promised, ultimate outcome. Whatever our trials in the meantime, God’s faithfulness is the foundation for our hope.

Joseph receives the double portion—Genesis 48:22

As noted earlier, Jacob gives Joseph the double portion allotted to the firstborn son. Because the double portion meant that the first son received twice the share allotted to any other son, Jacob promises Joseph one piece of land more than his brothers (48:22).

Jacob declares that he had taken this land by his sword and bow. This description does not apply to most of Jacob’s sojourn in Canaan, most of which was peaceful. Unless he prophesies the future conquest (cf. 15:16), it apparently applies only to his sons’ unruly conquest of the town of Shechem (34:25-29). Families were viewed as a unit, and this was an action by the family of which Jacob was head and progenitor.

Although Jacob actually disapproved of his sons’ sack of Shechem and initially hurried from that region (34:30; 35:1-5; 49:5-7), this conquered town was in fact part of the future promised land. Jacob had legally bought land there (33:19) and dedicated it to God (33:20); moreover, he eventually came to view the area as safe even for his sons (37:12-14). Even when Joseph disappears after being sent there, his disappearance is (wrongly) attributed to a beast rather than to a vengeful neighbor (37:20, 33). The term sometimes translated “portion,” “ridge,” and so forth in 48:22 can also be translated “Shechem.”

That Shechem ultimately lies in the territory of Ephraim (Josh 20:7; 21:21; 1 Kgs 12:25; 1 Chron 6:67; cf. nearby Manasseh in Josh 17:7), one of Joseph’s sons (Josh 17:7), confirms the likelihood of that meaning or at least that wordplay here. Shechem went not to descendants of the sons who pillaged it (especially Simeon and Levi) but instead to descendants of Joseph, who was likely too young to have participated in that action (Gen 30:21-25; 31:41; 37:2; cf. 29:20, 27).

Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons—Genesis 48:15-16

Jacob passes on a great legacy to Joseph’s sons. He blesses them not only with a physical inheritance, a promise for the future land, but also with a spiritual legacy. His prayer evokes not only his ancestors who walked in God’s ways, but how God has been with him, Jacob, during his life.

Jacob celebrates that Abraham and Isaac “walked before” God (48:15; cf. God’s command to Abram in 17:1), and God had been Jacob’s shepherd all his life (48:15; cf. 49:24). Like sheep oblivious to some ways that their shepherd protected them, Jacob had not always been aware of God’s watchful care; for example, he had long thought Joseph dead yet God had been working in Joseph and would ultimately preserve the entire family through him. Such an illustration was natural for a shepherd such as Jacob (cf. 46:34).

God was not only a shepherd but was identified with the “angel” who redeemed Jacob from evil (48:16). Sometimes God’s angel seems to be identified with him, whether by acting on his behalf or by being a manifestation of God in angelic form (16:11, 13; 22:11-12, 15-18; 31:11-13; cf. 32:24, 30). The angel of God had been with Jacob, protecting him from Laban (31:5, 7, 11), and also protecting him from Esau (32:24-30). He recalls the protection of God who shepherded him, the angel who redeemed him, as an expression of trust in the God on whom he calls to bless also his continued line in Joseph.

We also have a heritage from previous generations of those who served God. Like us, they were imperfect, but we should be conscious of carrying on God’s important work in our own generation. Someday, we too will pass on, if the Lord tarries; may it be said of us that we “served God’s purpose” in our own generation (Acts 13:36). And may we have a vision to pass the torch on to the next generation, since God’s work is not meant to stop with us (cf. e.g., Exod 10:2; 12:26-27; Deut 6:7; 11:19; 32:46; Ps 71:18; 78:4, 6; 102:18; contrast a possible failure of Hezekiah in 2 Kgs 20:19).

Time to pass on his legacy: Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons—Genesis 48:1-11

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.