Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ephraim & Manasseh

“By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.”     (Heb. 11:21 NASB)

When I was younger I thought it was funny whenever I heard mention of the ½ tribe of Manasseh. I always wondered why Manasseh was seemingly shortchanged. Later on I found out that the reason was that Manasseh and his brother Ephraim were not Israel’s (Jacob’s) children but were his grandchildren. As such they were not originally to participate directly in the inheritance of Jacob but were stand ins for Joseph. Before his death Jacob blessed these two grandchildren and made them direct heirs of his. As a result, those two are added to the blessing of their father Joseph and so each is really a ½ tribe of Israel participating in the double portion due to their father Joseph, but inheriting directly from Jacob himself. Although this answers the question of “how” Ephraim and Manasseh became tribes it does not answer “why” Jacob blessed these two grandchildren to begin with.

The Bible records the event in Genesis chapter 48 but nowhere is Jacob’s motivation in doing this clearly explained. There are, however, a few clues in the text that may help us to understand what is going on.

Notice that Jacob begins by recounting the appearance of God to him in Canaan and God’s promise to make him fruitful, multiply his descendants, and to give him the Promised Land as an everlasting possession.  This recollection directly precedes the blessing of the grandchildren and is clearly an important contextual indicator. Why would Jacob begin with a reminder of God’s promise before blessing these children?

There are a few observations that might be pertinent to understanding how this recollection functions in the narrative. The event Jacob is talking about happened in Genesis 35. If we look closely at the original record of this event and compare it to the retelling that Jacob gives here we notice a few differences. Whenever an account is repeated in scripture with slight differences it is often an important clue that something in particular is being emphasized (or de-emphasized). First, Jacob does not mention God’s promise that “kings will come from his own body”. Second, he adds that the land will be an “everlasting possession” which was not mentioned in the original record in chapter 35. Finally, we notice that here Jacob changes the forms of the promise from the simple imperative (be fruitful… a nation shall come…) to an emphasis on the activity of God rather than of Jacob (I will make you fruitful… I will make of you a great multitude…).

That he doesn’t mention the promise of kings is what gives us the best contextual clue. The promise of kings was to come through Judah and not through Joseph so it makes sense when addressing Joseph in preparation for the blessing of the children that he does not mention it. That highlights the fact that this section, though seemingly focused on the two boys, is still part of the broader Joseph narrative. The addition that the land was to be an everlasting possession was implied in the promise to Abraham which Jacob was made a partaker but it also emphasizes another theme from the Joseph narrative. The sovereign working of God through the lives of His people as we have seen over and over in Joseph’s story is carried over here. There is an end to which God is working and these people and events are part of that. The last change is another reinforcement of that same theme. It is God who will bring about the realization of these promises through His people. The restatement of the promises God made to Jacob in Canaan is made to show Joseph’s participation in those promises and reinforces the themes found in the Joseph narrative in general.

Immediately following (in verse 5) is the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh. Israel says to his son Joseph, “Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” Jacob is adopting these two boys as his own and is placing them on the same level as his first and second born sons Reuben and Simeon. These children were born in Egypt and yet now they become direct heirs of the promises of the covenant. The other descendents of Joseph were to be included in the inheritance through Joseph in the name of these brothers (vs. 6).

The key observation regarding this adoption is certainly the one made by the author of Hebrews. Here is Jacob pronouncing these blessings when he himself had no land to give. This is an act of faith. He retains his confidence in the promises of God to the very end and proclaims the fulfillment of promises that he knows he will not see. He is no doubt operating under the spirit of prophesy and is again echoing one of the major themes of the Joseph narrative- that God will keep His promises.

This is followed by verse 7 where Jacob recalls the death of Rachel saying “Now as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the journey, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”

It is difficult to be certain about what he intends by mentioning Rachel and her burial here. Like his recollection of the promises it is apparently an important clue as to what is happening in the blessing of these two children. Although it is hard to see how this passage fits with the rest of this narrative there does seem to be at least one potential parallel. Rachel gave Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, before they reached Bethlehem. Now Jacob is given two sons as he is about to enter Egypt. By elevating these two sons of Joseph to the status of first and second born sons Jacob is honoring not only Joseph but perhaps Rachel as well with the backdrop of the fulfillment of the promise of God.

The record of Rachel’s death in chapters 35 and 48 are essentially the same with both focusing on the geographic proximity to Bethlehem at the time of her death. At some point God will give the land He has promised and these two “sons” born in Egypt will be given a full inheritance in that promised land.
What follows is the actual blessing which has the familiar theme of the younger being blessed in place of the older. Unlike the blessing of Jacob, however, this time it is done prophetically and purposefully. We are reminded that the blessings of God come through grace rather than through natural or earthly inheritance. Why, however, is so much time is spent on the details of this blessing? The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh do become powerful, especially Ephraim (whom Jacob placed first) but the promised line comes through Judah. Why would Moses spend so much time detailing all of this when the redemptive history flows in another channel?

Although the great line of promise in Scripture comes from Judah through David and finally culminates in Christ, Joseph and his descendents are not forgotten. His position of honor extends into his line. From a structural standpoint chapter 48 appears to be the conclusion of the main Joseph narrative before shifting to the blessings of the sons of Jacob. The blessing is a counterpart to the blessing of the other “sons” in the next chapter and is an honor to Joseph. The themes that are emphasized in chapter 48 closely align with the major themes of Joseph’s story as it fits into the overall development of the promises of God throughout Genesis. The blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh are an expression of Jacob’s faith in God, the exultation of Joseph, and ultimately of God’s faithfulness to His promises. 

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