Genesis chapter 48 is a chapter that mainly talks about how Jacob prepared for his approaching death- and all it began when his son Joseph was told that his father was sick…
“Some time later Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him” (Genesis 48:1).
Jacob was about 147 years old at the time that Joseph went to visit him. This meant that Joseph was probably around 50-60 years old at this time while Manasseh and Ephraim were probably about 20-30 years old. So this trip would not be unlike an adult and a few younger people on a visit with an elderly senior citizen today- and judging from his response, this visit must have been a real encouragement for Jacob…
“When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to you,’ Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed. Jacob said to Joseph, ‘God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you'” (Genesis 48:2-4).
Earlier in Genesis chapter 28, we saw how Jacob left home to go and live with his uncle Laban. During that journey, we were told, “When he reached a certain place, (Jacob) stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep” (Genesis 28:11). The reason that Jacob had to sleep outside was due to the fact that there were no such things as hotels or other similar places to stay in those days. But this was also the place where God spoke to Jacob and said…
“…I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15).
So this event clearly had a important effect on Jacob. We know this because Jacob kept a detailed memory of this encounter even at his advanced age.
Jacob clearly knew that he didn’t have much longer to live. So as a part of the preparation for his approaching death, Jacob made sure to tell Joseph about the inheritance that Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh were to receive…
“‘Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine. Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers'” (Genesis 48:5-6).
You might remember that Reuben and Simeon were the first two sons born to Jacob. But in saying, “‘…your two sons Ephraim and Manasseh were born in Egypt, but I accept them as my own'” (CEV), Jacob effectively told Joseph that his last two sons would be treated the same as his first two sons. This meant that Jacob “adopted” Ephraim and Manasseh in a sense and provided them with the same inheritance that his other sons were eligible to receive.
This was important because the Scriptures will later go on to tell us how the descendants of Jacob’s sons formed their own distinct people groups and eventually became known together as “the twelve tribes of Israel.” Jacob’s act of adopting Manasseh and Ephraim also explains why those twelve tribes are often listed in different combinations.
For example, Genesis 35:22b-26 says this about Jacob’s family…
“…Jacob had twelve sons: The sons of Leah: Reuben the firstborn of Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Leah’s maidservant Zilpah: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram.”
These verses tell us that Jacob had twelve biological sons, but if you count his adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh, that adds up to fourteen. However, the Bible always identifies Jacob’s sons as the “twelve tribes of Israel” when speaking of them historically as a group. Because of this, you’ll find that there are many different ways of listing these tribes when they are recorded together in the Scriptures.
So this act of adopting his two grandsons was very important, especially to Joseph. It meant that his sons would also receive a full share in the promises that God had made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.
When Joseph and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh learned that Jacob was gravely ill and approaching the end of his life, they went to visit with him. While they were there, Jacob told them about how God had spoken to him as a young man and how He had revealed His plans for Jacob and his descendants. Jacob also told Joseph of his decision to “adopt” Ephraim and Manasseh as his own, a decision that would allow them to receive a full share of his inheritance along with his biological sons.
As Jacob continued to speak with Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh, he went on to tell them about what was surely one of the saddest chapters of his life. You see, Jacob was about to open up and share his feelings about his beloved wife Rachel, the woman who was Joseph’s mother and the grandmother that Ephraim and Manasseh never knew…
“‘As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)'” (Genesis 48:7).
Although Jacob had been married to four different women over the course of his life, it seems that Rachel was the only woman that he ever truly loved. Jacob first met Rachel just after he arrived in her home town and quickly discovered that they both shared some common ancestry. Rachel was also a good looking girl with a beautiful figure (Genesis 29:17) and it wasn’t long before Jacob fell in love with her (Genesis 29:20). Later on we found that Jacob agreed to work for many years in order to earn the right to marry Rachel and how she eventually went on to have two sons with him. Unfortunately, Rachel died tragically at an early age while giving birth to Jacob’s final son Benjamin.
Although we didn’t read much about Jacob’s reaction at the time of Rachel’s death, this conversation with Joseph and his grandsons revealed the deep pain that he felt at her passing. And even though a great amount of time had passed since Rachel’s death, Jacob clearly remembered the grief he felt over the loss of the woman he deeply loved. In fact, Jacob’s great sorrow over this experience might be more easily seen in some other translations of this passage where his words are recorded as, “‘…Rachel died beside me…'” (MKJV), and “‘…Rachel died unto me…'” (JPS).
“Long ago, as I was returning from Paddan-aram, Rachel died in the land of Canaan. We were still on the way, some distance from Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). So with great sorrow I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (Genesis 48:7 NLT).
These few sentences tell us that Jacob’s sorrow over the death of his beloved wife was so strong that he clearly remembered his feelings for her, even though decades had passed since the time of her death. However, this verse serves to remind us of more than just the deep love that Jacob had for his wife.
You see, Jacob’s experience with Rachel also helps to remind us of an important truth that is often painful to think about. That truth concerns the fact that the people we love may not always be there for us throughout this life. Just as Jacob had to deal with his sorrow over the loss of his wife, we may also have to endure the sorrow of a lost loved one after he or she has passed away.
Like Jacob, the sorrow we may feel over the loss of a loved one is something that may never completely go away, just as the sorrow of losing Rachel was something that Jacob still felt even as he was approaching the end of his life. But while Rachel’s death was something that could have left him emotionally and spiritually paralyzed, Jacob had a relationship with God, and that relationship provided him with the ability to overcome the death of the woman he deeply loved.
This is why its important for every Christian to see his or her relationships in view of eternity. Even though the people we love may change, move away, or pass from this life, the Scriptures tell us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). This means that Jesus is the unchanging anchor in an ever changing world and He is the One who will be there for us when those whom we love cannot be.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are dealing with the sorrow of a loss, remember these words of encouragement from the New Testament book of Philippians…
“Never worry about anything. But in every situation let God know what you need in prayers and requests while giving thanks. Then God’s peace, which goes beyond anything we can imagine, will guard your thoughts and emotions through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 GW).
Jacob was 147 years old at the time when the events of Genesis chapter 48 took place and his advanced age might help to explain what we read about next…
“When Israel saw the sons of Joseph, he asked, ‘Who are these?’
‘They are the sons God has given me here,’ Joseph said to his father. Then Israel said, ‘Bring them to me so I may bless them.’ Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them” (Genesis 48:8-10).
By this time, Jacob had been alive for almost a century and a half, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that he couldn’t see well anymore. Since it was likely that Jacob was staying inside a tent with little or no interior lighting, Joseph may have been with him for quite some time before Jacob recognized the presence of the others who were there with him. Those others were Jacob’s grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh and if Jacob couldn’t see them clearly, it would explain why he had to ask who they were.
But there is another possible explanation for Jacob’s question. You see, Jacob had already said, “Joseph, your two sons, who were born to you in Egypt before I came here, belong to me; Ephraim and Manasseh are just as much my sons as Reuben and Simeon” (Genesis 48:5 GNB). In saying this, Jacob expressed his official intention to “adopt” Ephraim and Manasseh and provide them with the same inheritance that his other sons would receive. So the question, “Who are these?” may have been intended to start this process of formally identifying Ephraim and Manasseh for the purpose of their adoption as legal heirs.
Although it may seem strange for Jacob to ask Joseph to identify his own sons in this way, this idea of an “official recognition” is really not so unusual. In fact, this is something that can often seen as part of many wedding ceremonies today. For example, a minister presiding over a wedding ceremony will often ask, “Who gives this woman to be wed?” That’s when the parents of the bride respond by saying, “We do.”
Why would a minister feel the need to ask this question today? Well, the reason is that this question provides an opportunity for the bride’s parents to be officially recognized during the wedding ceremony. In a similar way, Jacob may have also asked Joseph to identify his sons in order to officially recognize them for the purpose of their adoption.
For some, the Bible is just a musty old book that’s filled stories of God’s wrath and lots of punishments that start with the words “Thou shalt not.” But the truth is that the Scriptures are filled with accounts that demonstrate the great depth of human emotion- and Genesis 48:11 provides us with a good example…
“Israel said to Joseph, ‘I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too'” (Genesis 48:11).
Jacob lived for twenty years under the belief that Joseph had been torn to death by wild animals and had been convinced that he would never see Joseph again. But now Jacob had not only been reunited with his beloved son, but also his grandchildren as well. Most importantly, Jacob recognized God’s blessing in bringing his extended family back together and this led Joseph to respond with an act of deep respect and reverence…
“Then Joseph removed them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground” (Genesis 48:12).
Even though Joseph was probably about 50-60 years old at this time, he still demonstrated a tremendous amount of respect for his elderly father. This demonstration of respect is a good one for us to remember because older people are not always treated with respect and dignity in many cultures today. You see, the fast-paced society of the 21st century often measures human value in terms of what someone can do or produce. Since our capabilities gradually begin to decline as we grow older, the result is that an older person may often be devalued in today’s world.
But the value of a human being isn’t just a matter of how much he or she produces or consumes. That’s because the concept of human value is (or should be) closely related to the idea of inherent worth. While there may be many ways to measure someone’s personal worth, human standards often tend to focus on a goal (like love, pleasure, or happiness), or how closely a human life aligns with something else that’s thought to be good or desirable.
However, Christianity teaches that every human being is born with a basic level of inherent worth because Jesus sacrificed His life on our behalf. (1) This inherent worth is something that goes beyond any human standard because it originates with the God who considered humanity to be important enough to sacrifice the life of His Son.
Of course, people who don’t believe in God are sure to have some problems with this concept but that’s a whole other discussion.
“Then Joseph made his sons move away from Jacob’s knees, and Joseph bowed down in front of him with his face to the ground” (Genesis 48:12 CEV).
So Joseph showed respect for his father by bowing down with his face to the ground, an act that was recognized in that culture as a sign of great honor and reverence. Although this is not something that is practiced in many cultures today, the Bible does say that children still have a basic responsibility to treat their parents respectfully. For example, the New Testament book of Ephesians says this…
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ -which is the first commandment with a promise— ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth'” (Ephesians 6:1-3).
So these verses tell us that for a youth, listening to your parents and doing what they tell you is the right thing to do in God’s sight. The reasoning behind this principle comes next: “…this is the right thing to do because God has placed them in authority over you” (TLB). Remember that God has given parents a certain level of authority- and they must answer to Him for the way that they have used that authority.
However, we should also notice that the word “honor” is also used in these verses when talking about our parental relationships. This word “honor” carries the idea of a relationship that’s centered on things like value, dignity, and respect. The important thing to remember about this concept is that while the way we honor our parents may change as we grow older, the principle still remains the same.
For example, a younger teen can honor his or her parents by doing things like following the rules, being respectful, and taking care of the responsibilities that they are given. For an older youth or adult who isn’t subject to these same rules, it can mean showing parental respect by giving strong consideration to their advice or by helping to take care of their needs.
For Joseph, this idea of parental respect took the form of bowing to demonstrate the high regard that he had for his father. Following this, Joseph began to prepare his sons to receive his father’s blessing. But as Jacob reached out to bless Ephraim and Manasseh, something unusual happened. We’ll take a look at that unusual occurrence (and explain the meaning behind it) next.
“And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to him. But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn” (Genesis 48:13-14).
Jacob’s actions may seem a little confusing to anyone who isn’t familiar with the society of his time, so let’s get a little background information first before we continue.
In the culture of Jacob’s day, the eldest son in a family traditionally received a double portion of the family inheritance and a leadership position within the family after his father passed away. Since most people tend to be right-handed, the right hand (or right arm) was usually associated with the greatest level of skill and strength. This explains why the eldest son (the one who was to receive the greater inheritance) always received that blessing from the right hand of his father.
So in keeping with this tradition, Joseph placed Manasseh, his older son near his father’s right hand and Ephraim, his younger son on his father’s left to receive his blessing. But even though Jacob couldn’t see very well, he still had a good idea of God’s spiritual direction for Joseph and his family- and that led him to reverse the usual practice and place his right hand upon the younger son. Of course, Jacob was well aware that this was not the first time that something like this had happened. In fact, Jacob had personally experienced this himself when God chose to place the greater blessing upon him instead of his older brother Esau.
So with that, Jacob went on to pronounce his blessing…
“Then he blessed Joseph and said, ‘May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm — may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth'” (Genesis 48:15-16).
Even though Joseph had a God-given ability to understand the meaning of dreams, he still had some trouble in understanding the spiritual meaning behind his father’s actions- and that led to a little misunderstanding between Joseph and his father that we’ll look at next.
What was Joseph thinking as his father began to offer his greatest blessing to his youngest son? Well, it was probably something like, “This must be a mistake- Dad is messing everything up. I better fix this before he gives the eldest son’s blessing to the youngest son.”
And with that, Joseph launched into action…
“When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to him, ‘No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head'” (Genesis 48:17-18).
But even though Jacob may have been old and physically weak, he still knew exactly what he was doing…
“But his father refused and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations'” (Genesis 48:19).
So Jacob encouraged Joseph not to worry because he had everything under control- and the historical record shows that his explanation to Joseph turned out to be correct. For example, one source tells us, “This was fulfilled in Israel’s history. Both tribes were blessed, but Ephraim was greater as a tribe, even to the point where the name “Ephraim” was used to refer to the whole northern nation of Israel (see examples in Isaiah 7:8, 7:17, and 11:13)” (1)
Now before we continue, we should also look at this blessing from Ephraim and Manasseh’s point of view. Remember that their father Joseph served as the second most powerful government official in the strongest nation on earth at the time. This meant that Ephraim and Manasseh could have chosen to live a high-society life in Egypt if they really wanted to.
But instead of pursuing an easy lifestyle in Egypt, they each chose to accept Jacob’s adoption and help form what would later come to be known as the nation of Israel. In other words, they willingly gave up the privileges of Egyptian culture in order to follow God’s destiny for their lives.
Now you will probably never have the opportunity to help build a nation of people like Ephraim and Manasseh did, but you are faced with similar decisions in large and small ways each day- and we’ll look at the potential impact of those choices (and how they might affect you) next.
(1) Guzik, Dave Enduring Word Commentary On Genesis http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/0148.htm
“It’s true that Manasseh’s family will someday become a great nation. But Ephraim will be even greater than Manasseh, because his descendants will become many great nations” (Genesis 48:19b CEV).
Joseph’s leadership position in the Egyptian government was second only to Pharaoh, and that meant that his sons Ephraim and Manasseh were members of one of the most politically powerful families of that generation. As sons of the second most powerful leader in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh had access to the best clothes, the best schools, and all the good things that their father’s position had to offer. But they willingly chose to set aside those privileges to follow God’s destiny and help build the nation that had been promised to their grandfather Jacob.
Like Ephraim and Manasseh, people today are also faced with similar choices in many different ways. For instance, are you willing to do what’s right before God even when no one else seems to notice or care? Are you willing to honor God in your relationships when everyone else thinks you’re foolish for doing so? Are you willing to do something that you believe God is leading you to do even when it would be easier to do something else? Remember that Ephraim and Manasseh were willing to trade their upper-class lifestyles to follow God’s will for their lives- and God honored them with a place in the foundation of the nation that He was building.
“He blessed them that day and said, ‘In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.
Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘I am about to die, but God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers. And to you, as one who is over your brothers, I give the ridge of land I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow'” (Genesis 48:20-22).
Its clear that Jacob held no terror, fear, anxiety, or dread at the thought of dying; he simply told Joseph, “…my death is near; but God will be with you…” (BBE). For Jacob, there were no worries about what he might experience after death because he knew and trusted the God who had control over his life. His experience reminds us that while our families, friends, or loved ones may leave us, God will never leave us. He will always be there for us, just as He was there for Jacob and Joseph so many years ago.