71. Genesis 47:27 – 49:28

III. D.  continued

5. Epilogue

a) Israel Adopts Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 47:27 – 48:22)

The central story of Genesis is done now, but there are a few details and loose ends to tie up. The Victorian novelists frequently inserted a chapter at the ends of their books to summarize what happened to the main characters after the main story was done. The last few chapters of Genesis are similar to that kind of epilogue. There were also some details that the sequels the revelation would pick up on that needed to be put in place.

So Israel lived seventeen more years after moving to Egypt; we therefore date his death in about the year 1851 b.c. still within the reign of Senusret III. Before his death there were two events that shaped the context of the events in the next volume of the revelation. First Israel adopted Joseph’s two oldest sons as his own. That Manasseh and Ephraim were not Joseph’s only sons is indicated in 48:6, but any other sons are never mentioned by name as sons of Joseph; they were absorbed into the genealogies of Manasseh or of Ephraim. It is not clear when the adoption happened.  In 48:12 when Joseph presented Manasseh and Ephraim to Israel, he “removed them from his knees”. If this phrase is taken at face value, then Israel adopted them shortly after he moved to Egypt, when the two boys were under ten years old. This makes sense of the fact that he only brought his two eldest; the other sons were likely quite young and he didn’t want to burden his father in his illness.

There is another possible interpretation however.  The account of the adoption in chapter 48 follows the legal form for adoptions documented from Ugarit a few centuries after this time. Ugarit was to the north of Canaan, not far from Haran and the homeland of Abraham, so it is reasonable that legal forms might be similar. It may be that “removed them from his knees” was legal terminology for the transfer of parental authority. Verse 47:29 suggests that Israel had several periods of illness before he died, and that it was not the first of these at which he adopted Manasseh and Ephraim. If this was near his death, then Manasseh and Ephraim may have been in their mid-twenties. If the adoption did occur later when the two sons were adults, it may have been arranged between Joseph and Israel, so that Joseph knew what was happening. There would have been little financial gain in the adoption since Joseph’s heirs would certainly have had advantages the other brothers’ children wouldn’t have. The advantage to them of adoption by Israel was status within their own people. Very clearly it was important to Joseph that his children be raised in his own heritage and not in the Egyptian heritage.

Israel began by telling Joseph of his last vision just before coming to Egypt, that God had appeared to him again and had repeated the promise concerning the land of Canaan. It was important to him to emphasize that they were not to stay in Egypt, that it was important not to get too settled there, that they must remember that they were destined for another land, the very thing Joseph had probably been thinking himself.  It is interesting how much the land of Canaan had come to mean to them since they actually owned very little of it: the cave at Hebron and the lands around Shechem. The cave would somehow be remembered as theirs over the centuries of their slavery, but apparently the city of Shechem was abandoned. Canaanites lived there but no one rebuilt the city until the people of Israel took the land. It was to become part of the inheritance of Manasseh.

Israel was going blind just as Isaac had and so he did not recognize Manasseh and Ephraim. But that he asked who they were may not be an indication of his blindness; he knew who they were, but he asked the question as part of the formal legal procedure. Joseph brought them forward for the blessing so that the older son would be in front of Israel’s right hand and the younger in front of his left, but Israel crossed his hands. This would confer the blessings of the first born on the younger of the two, though the words he said were directed equally at them both. Joseph assumed it was a mistake and tried to correct him. It upset him to disregard the birth order even though the history of his family should have made him a bit more flexible on that issue. But Israel was not merely making the mistake of the blind; he knew what he was doing. By crossing his hands, placing his right hand on the younger, he prophesied that Ephraim’s descendants would be greater than Manasseh’s.

The way Israel talked about God in the blessing (48:15,16) is worth considering. Here is the first use of the shepherd as a metaphor for God. The metaphor was sometimes used in Mesopotamia to talk about the king, but it was not used to describe the gods. It is difficult to over-emphasize how incredible this metaphor was. What other religion in the ancient world could have applied that metaphor to their gods? The gods of the ancients were typically either savages or beasts or humanoid monsters or fools; at the best a few gods and goddesses were benign enough to be considered decently human, enough to gain some gratitude and worship from human admirers. But the metaphor of God the Shepherd would not easily have arisen in any other context  but Israel. It was one of the points of His history with Abraham, Isaac, Israel, and Joseph to bring this metaphor to birth.

And isn’t it entirely appropriate as a metaphor? Hadn’t God Most High behaved exactly like a shepherd with His little flock of people? First He made them into shepherds themselves so they would be able to abstract the ideal of a shepherd from their own experience. Then He guided them around the land to places they could live safely, protected them from all dangers, and made sure they had room and nourishment enough to grow. God had been working for generations to create this metaphor in Israel and had finally brought it forth; this is revelation.

And note how offensive this metaphor would have been to the Egyptians, who despised shepherds. It is the routine through the whole revelation that God presents Himself in the most humiliating terms, and especially terms that would make Him scorned in the Gentile world. From shepherd to crucified criminal, He has not changed His approach. The humility of God would be a stumbling block to the Egyptians, as it would be to nation after nation since then. The revelation inspired within Israel on his deathbed would only further repel the Egyptians from the Covenant, of course, if they heard of it. But isn’t this the typical manner in which people are excluded from the Covenant? Isn’t it always because they are either repulsed or bored by the kind of God they find there? People are excluded from the Covenant, not because God judges them, but because they judge God.

Israel also referred to God as an angel, an angel who had redeemed him from evil. The evil he was thinking about could have been many things: Esau’s anger, Laban’s guile, the famine, the conflicts with his children, Shechem. Probably he was not thinking of what we would call sin, but by this time he would have recognized his own failures as a father and as a man; sinfulness before God did not play a significant part in their thinking until after Moses. As for calling God an angel, the concept of “angel” was still not clearly defined. Whether an angel was God Himself or some other creature that He was using as a messenger was a question that had not even been thought of.

In 48:22 Israel used a play on words: the word for “portion” (or “mountain slope” in the ESV) sounds like the name “Shechem”. Israel used the word for “portion” to refer obliquely to Shechem as land which he “took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow”, not quite a fair description of a massacre by deceit, but it still may be what he meant. Before the massacre, when he had just arrived in the land, Jacob had purchased some land outside of the city of Shechem for which he had paid one hundred coins (see 33:19), and future generations would understand Israel’s remark to mean that he was giving all of that land to Joseph (see Joshua 24:32). The future city of Shechem would be on the boundary between the inheritance of Manasseh and that of Ephraim.

b) Israel Blesses His Children (Genesis 49:1-28)

After the adoption, Israel summoned all of his children together to give each of them his last word. In Israel’s mind, he was prophesying, but sometimes his last words to particular sons are not at all like what we would call prophecies. Sometimes, as in the case of Reuben, the last word was more in the nature of a rebuke. Sometimes the last word appears to be simply a word-play based on the individual’s name. For the most part, these blessings/prophesies are difficult to interpret. Many of them seem to require some inside knowledge into the events of the centuries to come. Some of them seem to refer mainly to the geographic regions where their descendants would settle. However some words are clearly prophecies, particularly the one concerning Judah, and are just clear enough to be interesting. We have already looked at the words he spoke to the four oldest children of Leah, to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, so we will now just consider what he said to the other eight.

Israel blessed the last two sons of Leah in reverse order, the sixth and then the fifth; there doesn’t seem to be any significance in this rearrangement. Whatever the blessing on Zebulun meant, it does not refer to the location of the future inheritance of his tribe; their territory would be between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea, but would not include a coast and would not be near to Sidon. How we are to take this blessing is not at all clear, but it lacks the prophetic character of the word he had just spoken to Judah. Nor does the Bible specifically endorse it as an authentic prophecy.  However it is evident that this blessing was actually spoken and recorded before Israel entered the Promised Land; otherwise someone might have been tempted to “fix it up”, as it were. It is a clear encouragement to trust the integrity of the text that we have. The tribe of Issachar was predicted to become a people who would inherit a good and pleasant land and would prefer maintaining their comfort rather than their liberty. The metaphor for such a tribe could be fittingly chosen as the donkey which lives in some comfort but is really a slave. Again this lacks the prophetic character of the word to Judah.

Moving on to the children of the maidservants, the blessing on Dan, the oldest son of Bilhah, is intriguing for its imagery. As a tribe, they were to perform the role of the judge, and here Israel was playing on the meaning of the name Dan. This could be partially fulfilled in the person of Samson, but it really seems to be meant more broadly than that. It is interesting that the image used for this tribe that would judge Israel was the serpent. One might think that the serpent would always be a metaphor for evil but it is not so in this case. In this instance, the serpent was the metaphor of choice because of its ability to overcome what is much greater than it is: it frightens the horse and the rider so that they fall over backwards, and it accomplishes this without any actual fighting, by inspiring fear. Dan was to be a tribe that would be like that snake. Again, it is not clear how this blessing worked out in practice, except that it provides a good picture of  Samson.

For the blessing on Gad, the older son of Zilpah, whose name means “with fortune”, Israel used a pun, a similar sounding word that means “to press” or “to raid”. The future for Gad’s tribe would have more to do with conflict than good luck or possessions, but in their conflicts they would give as good as they got. The younger son of Zilpah was Asher, which means “with my happiness”. This time Israel ignored the meaning of the name entirely. Instead he predicted “fat bread” for Asher’s tribe, meaning a fertile soil that would provide the best of food in abundance. Asher did receive some of the best land in Israel, and Solomon would trade some of their produce to Hiram, the king of Tyre. There does not seem to be any larger meaning than this.

The blessing on Naphthali, the younger son of Bilhah, is entirely obscure. I can’t even guess as to its meaning, either its immediate meaning or any long term prophetic meaning it might have. This is a prophecy for the scholars, but so far as I know no one has much clue concerning it. The message contained in the words is a very personal one, and it may be that no one besides Naphthali, or his descendants, ever knew what it meant.

Israel waxed eloquent when it came to Joseph, his favorite son; some things never change and Israel’s clear preference for Joseph was one of the constant marks of his later life. He pronounced every blessing on him that he could, from the heavens to the depths, of fertility, of the surrounding hills, from above, below, all around, the past, and the future. Joseph’s two sons did produce two of the largest tribes; the two tribes together would dominate the northern kingdom. Ephraim was so important that the tribe became virtually synonymous with the northern kingdom of Israel, as Israel had suggested in 48:16. When he referred to Joseph as “distinguished among his brothers”, it was not just his current position as ruler over the land of Egypt that he had in mind, but a future distinction as well.

The words pronounced on Benjamin are very warlike, and one is immediately reminded of Saul, the first of the kings of Israel. The wolf seems like a very appropriate metaphor for Saul, who hunted David like prey, but whether there is more to its meaning than this is unknown. It is true with these blessings, and with other words of the future prophets and poets of Israel, that much of the wording was poetic in meaning, and included metaphors and images that are unfamiliar to us. They probably cannot be completely understood by us however much we study them. 49:28 says that Israel gave to each son a blessing that was appropriate to him. So those who were not to go on and play a central role as Israel’s history unfolded were given a somewhat “generic” blessing, and those like Judah and Joseph who were to go on and play important roles were given substantial prophecies. But the truth is we know too little of their subsequent history and lives, and the appropriateness of Israel’s words is lost on us.


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