Read Genesis 48
Jacob and all his family have now moved into Goshen, the best part of Egypt. God clearly allowed this move during the days when Joseph was a powerful leader in Egypt, and the Pharaoh was kindly disposed toward Joseph’s family. In the next several centuries the family of Jacob will grow into a mighty people, the nation of Israel, under the blessing of God (Gen. 47:27). But there would be no one “tribe of Joseph,” but rather, from one man Joseph there would come two separate tribes as Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons as equal to all of his other sons. At least questions come immediately to mind: 1) why does Jacob do this, and 2) why is so much Biblical text given over to recall this? What message is God giving to His people in Jacob’s words and actions?
Jacob’s speech to Joseph (48:1–7)
The chapter opens with an illness scene which is really a deathbed scene. We have been at a supposed “deathbed” before, namely, when Isaac earlier thinks that death is near (Gen. 27:1ff). When Isaac believed that he was at death’s doorstep, he wanted to pronounce his fatherly blessing as the patriarchal head of the family on his favorite son, Esau.
Joseph and his two oldest sons make their way over to his Jacob’s residence. This gives Jacob an opportunity to put his remaining energy into a speech and a blessing ceremony, both of which are significant for the future of God’s people. The things that Jacob says here will have impact down through the centuries as the nation of Israel develops and lives in the Promised Land of Canaan. Joseph and his sons must hear these words in order to understand what Jacob is about to do. But, even more importantly, we who read the story today might be able to trace how the hand of God leads His people in history and how He guides all things according to His great plan.
The first thing that Jacob recalls takes us back to his dream at Luz (renamed Bethel). When Jacob was fleeing from his brother, God appeared to him in a dream. Jacob calls God here, “God Almighty,” i.e., “El Shaddai.” Most likely this particular name for God identifies Him as a God who is strong and powerful (like the mountains), the God who can do whatever He wills to do, the God who is able to make everything in creation bend to His will and submit to His power. This was the divine name with which God identified Himself to Abraham in Genesis 17:1. In that context God spoke to Abraham about the great promise of descendants (seed) and land. Those things are the same items of interest in Genesis 28 at Luz (Bethel) in Jacob’s dream! And that gracious promise is not yet fully realized in Genesis 48. Yet Jacob wants Joseph to know about God’s revelation in a dream. After all, Joseph is not the only dreamer in redemptive-history! God spoke to many Old Testament saints by means of a dream or vision (cf. Hebr. 1:1).
God’s blessing would create a “community of peoples” from Jacob, and his descendants would receive the Promised Land as an “everlasting possession” (verse 4). That is the “old, old story” that God has put before the heart and mind of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and now Joseph and his sons. The essential message had never changed, but it got richer and fuller as time went on, even as the community of faith was growing in number and getting closer to the Promised Land. That story would reach one stage of fulfillment when the people of Israel come into the land of Canaan, but it would reach a higher level when Christ secures our entry into the new creation by His own work of salvation.
Jacob has given his son and grandsons a short history lesson. Once again we are impressed with how crucial history is in the Bible and in our faith. The center of this history lesson is God’s great faithfulness: He did not give up on Jacob. Such mercy in a relationship is carried out through the work of the Holy Spirit. Our own sanctification and perseverance in the faith is based upon God’s preservation. What a story to tell the next generations! What a legacy to leave behind as you realize that you are not going to stay in this world forever!
It is in that context that Jacob declares his intention to adopt Joseph’s sons as his very own. Joseph took “Manasseh and Ephraim” (mentioned in verse 1 in the order of their birth) along with him. But as Jacob speaks, he says that he adopts “Ephraim and Manasseh” (the new order of importance) to be sons on an equal par with the other sons of Jacob. Thus, the favorite son (Joseph) of the favorite wife (Rachel) gets divided, so to speak, in order to become two tribes! Jacob recalls the sad loss of Rachel when she had died in Canaan and was then buried near Bethlehem. But looking ahead, he elevates these two sons of Joseph to patriarchal status. Obviously, Jacob had given this some thought ahead of time.
Joseph’s sons presented to Israel (48:8–14)
Verse 10 probably explains why Jacob asks the question in verse 8, “Who are these?” His eyesight is poor. And the thoughtful reader remembers Genesis 27, when Isaac thinks he is about to die. So there are some parallels here. But there are also differences: Jacob deceived Isaac earlier in order to obtain the fatherly blessing. Isaac unknowingly pronounces the blessing on the younger son, although he thinks it is the older son, Esau. But in Genesis 48, although Jacob’s eyesight has dimmed greatly, yet he knows what he is doing when he blesses the younger son. By asking “Who are these?”, Jacob may be following good legal procedure to be certain that the proper parties are both present and identified. It is similar to when Isaac asks if it is indeed Esau who is present with him (see Gen. 27:18, 24, 32).
In his answer, Joseph identifies the boys standing with him as gifts from God. So it is! Joseph had married a daughter of an Egyptian priest. Joseph and his wife Asenath had at least two boys: Manasseh (from “to forget”?) and Ephraim (“twice fruitful”), as recorded in Genesis 41:50–52. Children are God’s gifts in order to carry on the faith once for all delivered to the saints and to carry on the divine project of filling this world with people who serve the true God aright.
To have these two young boys before him, must have given Jacob deep joy and satisfaction. He has been moved from once thinking that Joseph was dead, to now being able to bless Joseph’s sons. Who would have thought this possible?
Joseph had presented his sons according to the normal procedure so that the younger son would be on Jacob’s left side while the older boy (Manasseh) would be on Jacob’s right side, the side of the favored one. Joseph thinks, “My older son Manasseh gets the main blessing.”
Jacob blesses Joseph (48:15–16)
In blessing Joseph, Jacob has in mind both of his sons, as he says in verse 16. In reading this blessing we should listen carefully to the beautiful parallelism that is expressed about God. Jacob recalls that his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac walked before God, that God has been his shepherd all his life, and that the Angel has delivered him from all harm.
God is “my Shepherd.” It is a beautiful image, familiar to us from the well-known Psalm 23. The ancient shepherd was the one in authority over the flock of sheep, called upon to feed, to lead, and to defend the sheep in his care. Jacob confesses that this is what God has done for him throughout his entire life. Jacob was cared for in times of danger and want, but also in times of prosperity. By using the word “Angel” in parallel with God, Jacob is pointing out that God’s very Angel, His own presence was by him all his life. But when does Genesis explicitly mention an Angel with Jacob? Genesis 32 recorded the night-long wrestling match, but it mentions first a “man” and then “God.” Only Hosea 12:3–4 uses the word “Angel” to describe Jacob’s wrestling opponent. Furthermore, Jacob says that this Angel delivered (or, redeemed) him from all harm.
Jacob’s use of the word “Angel” in verse 16 is one of those places in the Old Testament that point out that the Lord Jesus Christ has been present throughout the story of redemption, directing people and events in such a way that God’s elect have been protected—fed, led, and defended. God’s people have God’s Son with them even now (cf. Matt. 28:20), in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we are kept in the love and care of our God all the days of our lives. Jacob could look back and confess that God had been a Good Shepherd to him. That same God is now going to bless Joseph’s two sons so that they would be fruitful in this world.
Ephraim moved ahead of Manasseh (48:17–20)
Joseph initially is disturbed to see his father cross his arms so that the right hand blesses Ephraim, the younger, while the left hand blesses the older son, Manasseh. Joseph even tries to correct his father. But Israel knows exactly what he is doing. “I know, my son, I know.”
Hebrews 11 says that Jacob did this “by faith.” Both tribes would be great, powerful tribes, but Ephraim would be the heart of northern Israel, “a group of nations,” while Manasseh would be a “great people.”
Israel assures Joseph of the future (48:21–22)
The two pillar promises in God’s covenant promises in Genesis have been seed (descendants) and land. The blessings pronounced have assured us of Joseph becoming two great tribes. But Joseph and his sons are still in the land of Egypt. Israel reassures Joseph that God will fulfill His own promise, made in Genesis 15 and often repeated: God will be with His children to bring them back to Canaan, the Promised Land. Even Joseph, who spends most of his life in Egypt, will have an inheritance in Canaan. Israel mentions a ridge of land (verse 22), although it is unclear what this refers to in the text earlier. Perhaps the events of Genesis 34:25–29 are in the background here, but that is not agreed upon by all scholars.
Jacob has exercised his right as the great patriarch to alter the direction of his family’s development. But he did this “by faith.” We have witnessed a growth and maturity in his faith. By grace through faith Jacob embraced the promise of God for the future, and his blessing of double portion to Joseph is one way he can express it to Joseph, to Joseph’s sons, and to us in the community of faith today. Because every promise of God is “yes” and “amen” in Christ, we can live and also die by faith in His promises.
Lesson 17: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Jacob tells his story briefly to Joseph and his sons. He draws attention to God’s promises by faith. Why was it important to repeat this story (again!) to his son and grandsons? What is the reason that the Bible gives for us to repeat such testimony about God’s deeds to our children? See Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 20ff and Psalm 78:18.
2. In Genesis 48:11 Israel tells Joseph about the amazing turn of events that God has brought about in his life. Why did God put Israel through such things? What are similar things in your life where God has worked out some (great) changes, things that you never thought possible, humanly speaking?
3. God keeps us readers always a little off balance by doing unexpected things with unlikely people. God would do the very same thing in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Show how this is true in the Person and work of Jesus Christ (e.g., where He was born, how He lived, what He possessed, etc.).
4. Read through Psalm 23 again. Trace Jacob’s life in terms of what Psalm 23 describes (times of plenty, dangers, enemies, etc.). In other words, how did the LORD actually shepherd Jacob?
5. The northern tribes were carried away, portion by portion, by the cruel Assyrians, until the fall of the city of Samaria in 722/721 BC. Read Jeremiah 31:15–20. Over a century later the prophet Jeremiah would remind us of the LORD’s heartfelt compassion for Ephraim. What did God want for Ephraim? What do we learn about our God in these statements about Ephraim?
6. “Seed and land:” the pillar promises of the Old Testament covenants. But we are now in the new covenant era. How does that now apply to the promises God gives His church today?