Passing on the Blessing of Faith
Passing on the Blessing of Faith
From our perspective as modern people, these last few chapters of Genesis might seem anticlimactic. After the drama of Joseph’s reunion with his family and their resettlement in Egypt the storyteller goes on to tell us, in great detail, about Jacob’s blessing of his sons and about his death and the death of Joseph. But if we keep in mind the purpose of Genesis and the purpose of the stories we’ve been reading, what we actually see in these chapters is the high point and the conclusion of all we’ve been studying.
Here’s why: from the beginning, Genesis tells us that God is in sovereign over his Creation; that he is “plugged in” to it, sustaining it, and directing it. And, more specifically, that he is working to bless humanity—the pinnacle of his creation, his worshippers. At our creation, God pronounced his blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Through the patriarchs, God has continued to bless his people with the promise of children and land. And as we come to the end of Chapter 47 we see how those promises are being fulfilled. God’s people are experiencing God’s blessing. Look at verse 27:
Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.
Even in Egypt, even living outside the promised land, Israel is experiencing the blessings of the covenant. And as the promises are fulfilled in part in Egypt, this partial fulfilment gives the covenant family all the more reason to believe that those promises will eventually be fulfilled fully when they one day return to Canaan. The partial fulfilment in Egypt serves as a reminder to Jacob and his sons that their time in Egypt is not an exile, nor is it an interruption of God’s promises—it’s an incubation. Think of an incubator. We use them as warm, safe places to hatch eggs or to care for babies who aren’t ready to live on their own. That’s what Egypt is for the covenant people. It’s all part of God’s larger plan.
Verse 28 brings our attention back to Jacob after the interlude of Joseph’s economic policies.
And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.
When Jacob had been introduced to Pharaoh at the time of his arrival in Egypt he was 130 years old. Jacob had been ready to make the move to Egypt so that he could see Joseph, his long-lost son, and then die. As it turns out, seventeen years have now passed, the famine is long since over, and Jacob is still alive, although aware that his end is near. Joseph has been the family’s benefactor and has become something of the de facto leader, and so Jacob calls for him.
And when the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt, but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.” He answered, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed. (Genesis 47:29-31)
Everything in these verses is about faith in God’s covenant promises. Jacob wants to be buried with his fathers back in the cave at Machpelah. That was the first piece of land in Canaan the covenant family could truly call their own. Abraham had bought it. It was his. And that little plot of land was for them a down payment on the fulfilment of God’s promise of the whole land. Despite his family being in Egypt, Jacob hadn’t given up on that promise.
Second, he entrusts the arrangements for his burial to Joseph. This might not seem important to us, but consider what it meant to Jacob. All this took place long before God gave any revelation concerning the afterlife. We would expect that Jacob’s understanding of the afterlife was similar to that of the peoples around him: after death, a person went to be with his dead family members. This depended on his being buried with them. And his well-being in the afterlife depended on future generations remembering him and visiting the family plot. Jacob is passing this duty on to Joseph. And in entrusting Joseph with his burial and well-being after death, Jacob is passing on the leadership of the covenant family to Joseph. Jacob isn’t giving up on God’s promises for his family. In fact, of all his sons, he chooses the one who has become an honorary Egyptian to carry on as leader of his very non-Egyptian family. He has faith in the covenant. This is why Jacob asks Joseph to swear an oath to him with his hand under his thigh. “Thigh” is a euphemism for genitals. This was the typical way the patriarchs took their oaths, which we’ve seen before. The covenant was all about progeny—about children and descendants—and so the oaths that involve descendants and the passing of covenant leadership from one generation to next are taken on the means of procreation. It’s for this same reason that the covenant sign, circumcision, involves the organ of procreation. Joseph pledges this oath to Jacob on the very covenant promises themselves.
And then we’re told that Israel—Jacob—bowed on his bed. The Hebrew here is difficult and obscure, but we get some help from 1 Kings 1:47, where David is described as bowing on his bed after receiving the news that his kingdom had been safely passed to Solomon. It’s a different word for “bed”, but both writers seem to have the same thing in mind. Pagans in the ancient Near East posted figurines—representations of their gods—at the head of their beds, representing divine protection. Both of these elderly men, spending their final days in bed, see God watching over them. So this action is an acknowledgement of God’s care; it’s an expression of faith, thanking God for what he has done and trusting him to fulfil his promises in the future. Consider the contrast between Israel here and Jacob as his story began. The cunning schemer who trusted only in himself for blessings, now, as he faces death, acknowledges the covenant and entrusts himself to God and his promises as his only real source of hope.
The story transitions in Chapter 48 with the words “after this”.
After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” (Genesis 48:1a)
We don’t know how much time has passed since the last scene, but Jacob is closer to death. The Hebrew word for “ill” refers to terminal illness of some kind. Jacob isn’t just old now; he’s dying.
So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty 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.’ (Genesis 48:1b-4)
We’ve seen Jacob’s faith. He trusted God would fulfil his promise to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. That’s why he felt that his burial there was so important. And he had faith that God would continue to work through his descendants. That’s why passing on covenant leadership to Joseph was so important to him. Now he shows his faith again as he calls Joseph to him for blessing. But this isn’t some king of general blessing that a father might give his son. Jacob had inherited more than land and property form his fathers; he had inherited God’s covenant of grace. And now as this heritage of faith in God’s promises was passed to him, Jacob now passes it to the next generation. Jacob’s blessing stands in stark contrast to many parents today, who work hard to ensure their children inherit land and property, but who do little to pass on their faith.
Jacob begins by taking Joseph back to that night when he had camped at Luz. He had been fleeing from his angry brother, Esau, and there with a rock for a pillow, he had dreamed of angels travelling back and forth between heaven and earth. God lowered a stairway from the heavens, came down, and established his covenant with Jacob. That night was the touchstone of Jacob’s faith; it’s what changed everything for him. And so he takes Joseph back to the night and reminds him that God’s promises are for him too.
But then Jacob does something that was probably unexpected: he adopts Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s two sons, as his own. Look at verses 5-7:
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 from 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).”
In later portions of the Old Testament you’ve no doubt seen references to the “half tribes” of Ephraim and Manasseh and wondered what that meant. This is the origin of that concept. This is why we don’t see later references to the “tribe of Joseph”. His sons became tribes in their own right. This is how Jacob honours Joseph as the saviour of his family; it’s how Jacob honours the memory of Rachel, his favourite wife; and it’s also how Jacob “demotes” his eldest sons who brought shame and disgrace on him because of their sins. There’s a reason why he says, “Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” These were his eldest sons, born of Leah. But remember what they had done. Reuben was the son who disgraced his father by sleeping with his concubine; Simeon, with his brother, Levi, had abused the covenant sign of circumcision, tricked the men of Shechem, and then slaughtered them all to the last man while they were convalescing. Jacob’s three eldest sons disqualified themselves from being the leaders of the covenant family. That honour will eventually pass on to Judah and his descendants, but here Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons to fill the places of honour left open by Reuben and Simeon. Jacob justifies this on the basis of Rachel’s premature death. She bore him only two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, and so Jacob claims Joseph’s sons as his own.
The rest of the chapter describes the adoption ceremony and the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh.
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.” Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. (Genesis 48:8-13)
We’re told that Jacob was nearly blind, but his asking, “Who are these?” probably has less to do with his poor eyesight and more to do with the ceremony or ritual of adoption. Just as the priest in the marriage ceremony asks, “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?”, as part of the adoption ceremony, Jacob asks whose children these are. And so Joseph claims them as his own, both gifts from God, and then manoeuvres them into position as Jacob stretches out his hands. Manasseh, being the eldest of the two, is places by Joseph in the position of honour, at Jacob’s right hand. Ephraim, being the younger, Joseph positions at Jacob’s left hand. But then Jacob does something unexpected.
And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). (Genesis 48:14)
Joseph positioned his sons so that the older was in the place of first honour, but as he begins to pronounce his blessing, Jacob crosses his arms and reverses the two young men.
And he blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” (Genesis 48:15-16)
As he blesses these men, Jacob invokes God three times. First he invokes the God before whom his fathers had walked. As we’ve seen, to walk before God is to live life in his presence. Jacob calls on the God in whose presence his fathers had lived. And then he invokes the God who has shepherded him through all his wanderings and sojournings. He calls on the God who met him at Luz the night before he left the promised land, the God who walked beside him throughout his exile in Paddam-aram, the God who had calmed the murderous rage of his brother, and the God who had cared for him in the midst of famine and led him to safety in Egypt. And finally, Jacob invokes God a third and final time, referring to him as the “angel who has redeemed me from all evil”. He’s thinking of the Angel of the Lord who wrestled with him on the banks of the Jabbock all those years before and who had renamed him Israel. This is the God who redeemed, who rescued him from Israel. The Hebrew word for “redeemer” is g?’?l and it’s important in Hebrew thought. Usually a “redeemer” was a close male relative who had the responsibility for bailing you out if you found yourself in debt or in slavery. It was the “redeemer’s” duty to avenge your death if you had been murdered. Jacob had first been forced to flee his home because of his brother’s murderous rage. Then he found himself virtually enslaved by his uncle. Jacob had no kinsman redeemer to bail him out. Instead, God stepped into Jacob’s life and redeemed him from both Esau and Laban. Jacob invokes this redeeming God who walks with and blesses his people as he prays that these sons of Joseph might carry on the family name and become a multitude in accordance with the covenant promises.
Now, Jacob blesses both boys in Joseph’s name and he pronounces the one blessing over both of them. But in placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he’s symbolically giving a greater portion to him. And this is a problem for Joseph. Ephraim was the younger. The greater portion should—by custom—have gone to Manasseh, the older. And so Joseph protests:
When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. (Genesis 48:17-20)
There’s a reason for Jacob’s putting the younger before the older and we’ll come back to that in a minute. But first, in the final verses of the chapter we again see an expression of Jacob’s faith in God’s promises. He knows that his descendants will one day return to the land of promise.
Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” (Genesis 48:21-22)
That “mountain slope” is a reference to Shechem, the town that Simeon and Levi had put to the sword in unrighteous vengeance. Reuben, the firstborn had disqualified himself from leading the family. Simeon and Levi came next, but in their abuse of the covenant sign and their slaughter of the men of Shechem they disqualified themselves too. That left Judah to pick up the mantle of leadership. But here Jacob gives to Joseph’s descendants the land that otherwise would have belonged to Simeon and Levi—the land they had taken by violent force.
Jacob reminds us that God’s grace isn’t something we earn. In fact, Simeon and Levi “earned” the right to the city and land around Shechem when they took it by force, but that’s not how God’s kingdom works. And so, through the patriarch, God takes that claim away from them and gives it to two young men who weren’t even alive at the time their uncles had conquered that city. But the principle of grace being undeserved goes even deeper. It’s not earned or merited. It’s not taken by force. And it doesn’t come based on our position in family or society. By all rights, Manasseh should have received the greater portion of Jacob’s blessing because he was the older, but as Jacob crossed his arms and gave the greater portion to Ephraim, his younger brother, we see that he’s learned an important principle that’s been running all through Genesis. God’s election to covenant grace is rooted in his good will, not in who we are. He chose Abel over Cain. He chose Shem over Japheth. He chose Abraham over Haran. He chose Isaac over Ishmael. He chose Jacob over Esau. Circumstances were different in each case. The fact is that Abel was more righteous than Cain, but Jacob was hardly more righteous than Esau. Jacob tried to claim God’s election by lying and scheming, and yet he received it anyway. In his case, election meant a dramatic transformation in his character. We’ve seen something similar in Judah. As his brothers have forfeit their rights to lead the covenant family, God has worked in Judah’s life to transform his character for the better and to build his faith. God’s will doesn’t always make sense to us. It may often offend our sensibilities, but in the end we can trust that his will is good and that we can trust it.
The second point to which I want to draw your attention is Jacob’s authority over the blessing. This is something especially important for Christian parents. Notice how, as Jacob placed his hands on the heads of Ephraim and Manasseh, he invoked the God of the covenant and recalled his promises. These two boys were already circumcised, which mean that Joseph, as their father, had already brought them into full membership in God’s covenant. But here as Jacob reaches out to them in blessing, he’s exercising his authority as a covenant father to envelope his sons in the arms of the covenant God.
As Christian parents, do we exercise this kind of spiritual authority over our children? Certainly baptism is an essential first step. It’s not an empty symbol. When we bring our children to the font, we are including them in the covenant to which we already belong. But do we follow through? Faith is certainly a gift from God, but it seems that despite their being baptised, we too often raise our children waiting for God to do something in their lives. We raise them as if they were baby heathens rather than baby believers. We raise them as if the promises extended to them in baptism are meaningless until they’re old enough to consciously appropriate them for themselves. But that’s not what the Bible envisions for covenant families. Baptism, just like circumcision, means full membership—full inclusion—in God’s covenant promises. It’s God’s means of raising a new generation of faithful men and women. Yes, our children need to appropriate God’s promises for themselves, but our duty as parents is to ensure that our children know those promises are already theirs. Our duty as covenant parents is to ensure that our children are fully enveloped in God’s covenant. That begins as we live our own lives in full assurance—in full faith—that God will make good on what he has promised to us in Jesus Christ. As Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could take their sons back to those visions in which God had brought them into his covenant of grace, so we should take our children to the Scriptures where God extends his grace to us. And as those Old Testament saints included their children in the life of the covenant family and raised them as inheritors of God’s promises, so we should include our children in the full life of the Church and raise them in such a way that they are assured of their own kingdom inheritance. Consider this as we come to the Lord’s Table this morning. Consider this as the children come forward to receive the gracious promises of God given in the bread and in the wine. They come because we, their parents, have brought them into covenant with the Triune God through the Sacrament of Baptism. And just as Baptism is no bare symbol, the Lord’s Supper is no bare symbol either. This is the meal in which God gives us a foretaste of the kingdom inheritance that is ours in Baptism. The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is an assurance of the gracious life and future hope that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. Christian parents, as you come this morning, let the Table be a reminder too of our duty to include our own children in that life and to give them assurance of that future hope.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for your promises of grace to us. Give us the same strong confidence in your promises that you gave to Jacob, and teach us to pass your gracious promises of life and future hope in Jesus to our children, that they might grow up to raise another kingdom generation themselves. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.