There is a moving scene that appears toward the end of the book of Genesis involving the ageing and ailing patriarch Jacob, his long-lost son Joseph, and Joseph’s two children. Joseph is told that his father is ill and so he takes Manasseh and Ephraim, his two sons, to see Jacob. Jacob is lying in bed but when he is told Joseph has come to see him he musters whatever strength he has left and he sits up in bed to recount to Joseph the promises of El Shaddai given to him. (Genesis 48:1-2)
“God Almighty [El Shaddai] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ And 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. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. As for me, when I came to Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).” (48:3-7) *
There is a lot going on in this text that we must briefly touch on.
A Life Summed Up
First, Jacob begins not with some of his rather dubious deeds like the stealing of his brother’s birthright (Genesis 27) but instead with the contents of a dream. Like his son Joseph, Jacob’s journey begins with visions and dreams and in this case the dream was of a ramp leading to heaven and the LORD (Yahweh) standing on top who tells Jacob that he will give him the land upon which his head rests and will make his offspring like the dust of the earth. When Jacob awakes he sets up a pillar and renames the city he was in Bethel in lieu of its old name of Luz. Bethel is Beth-El, the house of El or the house of God. (28:10-22)
Second, in an attempt to explain why the tribes of Israel include sons of Joseph, Jacob tells Joseph that his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, would now be his two sons just as Reuben and Simeon are. This is interesting for a couple of reasons.
In the first place, the text again and again lists the sons of Joseph in reverse order. Ephraim is not the oldest; Manasseh is (41:50-52) This is one of the major themes in the book of Genesis, that the younger is preferred to the older: Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; etc. They are, in a way, literary devices to show that the nation of Israel’s struggles in the land against neighboring enemies has been a part of their existence from the get-go. (Coogan, 2014, 73)
We also see that the de facto adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh is intended to explain why the two sons Jacob mentions in his speech, Reuben and Simeon, aren’t major tribes in the land. (Knight & Levine, 2011, 280) In chapter 49, Jacob gathers his sons together so that he “may tell [them] what shall happen to [them] in the days to come” (49:1). In other words, the author is providing national Israel with an etiology. Of Reuben Jacob says,
Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, and the firstfruits of my strength,
preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.
Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence,
because you went up to your father’s bed;
then you defiled it – he went up to my couch!
Jacob is, of course, referring to Reuben’s taking and sleeping with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). For this violation, Reuben’s status as “firstborn” appears to be given to the sons of Joseph (see 1 Chronicles 5:1-2) and his preeminence removed. Over the course of time, Reuben loses its status as a distinct tribe and ends up mixed in with Judah and Gad. And when the kingdom is rent in two, the northern tribe, known commonly as Israel, is also referred to as Ephraim (see Isaiah 7:17, 11:13; Hosea 5:12; etc.). However, it must be acknowledged that Ephraim is generally not cast in a positive light in prophetic literature. One of their vices is idolatry (Hosea 5:17).
Simeon is in a similar boat. Of him and his brother Levi Jacob says,
Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their wilfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.
Here the etiology is explicit: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (v. 7). Levi was never given an allotment of territory but instead remained keepers of the tabernacle and some were dispersed throughout Israel (Numbers 18:21-24; 35:1-8; Joshua 21:1-45). Simeon’s territory ends up being an allotment of land within the tribe of Judah’s territory (Joshua 19:1-9). Simeon, then, could not attempt to expand to its neighbors territories because it had no neighbors; it was stuck in Judah.
The reason for their scattering is, per Jacob’s words, due to their “anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel” (v. 7). This anger and wrath was displayed when they tricked the rapist of their sister Dinah into circumcising himself and his men, and then, when they were in pain from their impromptu bris, Levi and Simeon killed all those involved. (Genesis 34:1-29). When Jacob discovers what they have done, he grows concerned that the surrounding inhabitants will team up against he and his small family and kill them all. (34:30) But this seems incongruous a reaction to what happened to Jacob’s daughter and their sister and so the two brothers respond, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (v. 31) The story in Genesis ends with that seemingly rhetorical question.
Reuben and Simeon are effectively replaced with Ephraim and Manasseh in territorial prowess. Reuben’s right as firstborn, by which he would received a double portion of his allotment of the inheritance, is instead given to Joseph via his sons. In the nation of Israel, a full sixth of all the tribes are from Joseph. Given that the book of Genesis was compiled centuries after the events it reports, this section gives us a fascinating glimpse into how later generations tried to explain the history of Israel by appealing to its patriarch, Jacob.
Now that Joseph’s children are no longer his own, what will his legacy be? His father tells him that “the children you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance” (v. 6) There is no indication in Genesis that Joseph had any other children so this seems problematic. As Alter notes, Joseph by this time had already been married for twenty-five years and there isn’t great warrant to translate the verb rendered as “fathered” in the ESV as a future tense verb. (Alter, 2004, 278) Regardless, what Jacob intends here is that the other children of Joseph would enjoy the inheritance of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Here we must pause. What follows next is Jacob’s story of the death of Rachel but it seems almost a non sequitur. He begins with El Shaddai’s promise to make him a great nation and then, by taking Manasseh and Ephraim as his own along with his other sons, indicates that it is through those children the promise is to be fulfilled. Why bother with the story of Rachel’s death? Without it, the narrative is whole. With it, we seem to have a hiccup.
John Sailhamer observed this as well and commented on it in his very helpful The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. He wrote,
Verse 7 has long puzzled biblical interpreters. Why the mention of Rachel at this point in the narrative and why the mention of her burial site? If we relate the verse to what precedes it, then the mention of Rachel just at this point could have been prompted by the fact that just as she bore Jacob “two sons” (44:27, Joseph and Benjamin) at a time when he was about to enter (48:7) the land, so also Joseph gave Jacob “two sons” just at the time when he was about to enter Egypt (48:5). Such symmetry suggests that Ephraim and Manasseh are seen as a replacement of Joseph and Benjamin, and thus it serves to further the sense of divine providence behind the events of Jacob’s life. (Sailhamer, 1992, 231)
This is a possibility but it forces us to ask the question on Sailhamer’s view, Why the need to replace Benjamin? It is possible that this, again, is an etiology connecting future events from Jacob’s perspective (i.e. the rape of the Levite’s concubine [see Judges 19-21]) to the tribe’s replacement on Sailhamer’s view here in Genesis 48. Though I am not fully persuaded by Sailhamer on this, I do not have an alternative explanation to offer. I will need to do some more research and perhaps blog on it at a later date.
The next episode in Jacob’s story involves Joseph’s mother Rachel. After his dream at Luz wherein El Shaddai promises to make of him a great people, Jacob fast-forwards over thirty years to the death of Rachel: “To my sorrow, Rachel died” (v. 7). He glosses over his fourteen years of labor for Rachel (see Genesis 29:1-30) and the myriad other events that took place in his long, complicated life. Jacob’s story begins with the promise of life (“I will make you fruitful and multiply you”) and ends with his beloved wife’s death (“Rachel died”).
Why does Jacob bring this up? What exactly is going on here? Alter suggests that this obviously emotional episode stems from Jacob’s recognition that he is on his way out. He has lived a long, hard life (see 47:9), he has outlived the love of his life, and perhaps he sees the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh, Rachel’s grandsons by her firstborn, as replacements for the children she never got to bear because of her untimely death. (Alter, 278) If this is the case, then we should read this text with our hearts open to feel the emotion Jacob felt. As we shall soon see, this entire episode is filled with powerful emotions.
Finishing his narrative, Jacob turns to see Joseph’s two sons.
When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” (48:8-11)
We can imagine the exchange. The aged Jacob sees two figures with Joseph but because of his poor eyesight, he does not immediately recognize them. And why should he? Before this moment he has never set his eyes on them. And upon hearing they are his grandsons, Jacob asks Joseph to bring them near to him so that he can bless them. He kisses them and then he says something that still brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it: “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also” (v. 11).
Remember, Jacob had believed that Joseph was dead for the longest time. His brothers, jealous of his status with their father, threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. And to convince Jacob that Joseph was dead, the brothers killed a goat and dipped Joseph’s robe in its blood. Upon hearing that his beloved son, the firstborn of his beloved wife Rachel, was dead, he tore his robes and mourned for days. And though his family tried to comfort him, he was too distraught. “No,” he said, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” (Genesis 37:12-35)
But people move on and so did Jacob. Perhaps he had come to terms with the notion that Joseph was gone, never to return. Perhaps he had built up walls so that no one could touch that part of him. He was not aware that he was tricked. He, the one who tricked his own father into blessing him instead of Esau his brother, tricked by his sons. Joseph was dead and there was nothing to be done about it.
Except Joseph wasn’t dead. As Joseph told his brothers years later, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:5) God himself was working to keep his promise to Jacob to make of him a great people. And he did that through the trickery of his own children. And now here at the end of his life, Jacob was getting to see Joseph again.
Quite often when atheists and even Christians read the biblical texts, they do so without recognizing that this is first and foremost literature. People told these stories to one another for a variety of reasons, yes, but they exist for us as literature. We should read them with the emotion that is on display in them; not with cold hearts looking for contradictions or doctrine. So read verse 11 with that emotion.
I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.
“I never thought I’d ever see you again,” Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph, “and here I am seeing my grandchildren!” If you can read that without feeling some warmth in your heart, I feel sorry for you. Even if you suppose that these are mere fairy tales and have very little truth to them, you can still imagine what it would be like to be a father who thinks his child is forever gone only to see him again and to see the grandchildren he has brought you at the end of your life. This is brimming with emotion.
What follows next (vss. 12-22) concerns the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh by Jacob and there are some interesting parts in their as well. But we must leave that for another time. For now, let me leave you with this to consider.
Biblical texts are messy and while many of them contain historically accurate details, by-and-large they betray any notion of inerrancy. And while we may approach them with an eye to discredit them or to derive particular doctrines from them, we should never forget that these texts are telling stories about human beings just like us. I’m all for asking the tough historical questions like “Did Jesus exist?” or “Was Abraham a real person?” But let’s not forget that people told these stories and wrote them down and people tell stories to convey human experience and human emotion. So at least, every so often, pick up the Bible and read it with an eye for the human experience.
*All biblical citations unless otherwise noted are taken from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2008).
Printed Works Cited
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. 3rd edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.
John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.