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.

Jacob’s faith for the future—Genesis 47:28-31

The future beyond us

Sometimes God’s promises are for the future, even beyond our own lifetimes. We can trust, however, in his reliability.

Two sets of seventeen years frame Jacob’s relationship with Joseph: the Joseph narrative opens when Joseph had lived with his father for seventeen years (Gen 36:2), and Jacob lived in Egypt after being restored to Joseph for seventeen years (47:28). In that time, Joseph has gone from being a beloved son dependent on his father to being a respected figure on whom his father depends.

Jacob thus prefaces a request to his son with language that might be considered odd for a father, but not so much when we remember the great rank in society that Joseph now held: “If I find favor in your eyes” (47:29). This is the language that Jacob had once used for Esau (32:5; 33:8, 10); this language has appeared in Genesis most recently as voiced by Egypt’s people toward Joseph (47:25).

As Jacob is preparing to die at the age of 147 (47:28), he makes Joseph swear to him in the same sort of solemn way that Abraham had once made his servant swear to him. In 24:2-9, aged Abraham made his servant swear to get a wife for Isaac from Mesopotamia rather than Canaan, and not to take Isaac back there. God had brought Abraham and Isaac to the land of promise, and there was no going back. Here the aged Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan, the land where his fathers Isaac and Abraham were buried (47:29-31). Like Abraham, Jacob looks to the future, recalling God’s promise that the land of Canaan would one day belong to his descendants.

That this request is an expression of faith in God’s future promise seems clear from Joseph’s own dying request, narrated after the events following Jacob’s burial. Joseph makes his people swear to bury him in the promised land someday, when God would bring his people back to the land of promise (50:24-25). As the author of Hebrews recognizes, this was an act of faith expressing his confidence in God’s promise (Heb 11:22).

How important is this matter to Jacob? “Swear to me,” he demands, and Joseph swears to him (Gen 47:31). But this is not the first time in Genesis that Jacob demanded that someone swear to him. In his youth (well over a century earlier, by Genesis’s chronology), Jacob made Esau swear to him to give him the birthright (25:33). When Jacob sought the birthright, he was looking to the future, considering God’s promise to the household of Abraham and Isaac. Toward the end of his life, Jacob again makes someone swear, honoring the expectation of the future that God had promised.