Commentary on Genesis 48

Last updated: December 17, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. 3And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4and 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.’ 5And 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. 6And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. 7As 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).”

8When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” 9Joseph 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.” 10Now 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. 11And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” 12Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13And 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. 14And 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). 15And 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,

16the 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.”

17When 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. 18And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” 19But 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.” 20So 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. 21Then 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. 22Moreover, 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.”

Notes

1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

Based on 47:28, the blessings bestowed by Jacob in chapters 48-49 must have taken place about seventeen years after Jacob’s arrival in Egypt.

3-7 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.’ 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).”

Ephraim and Manasseh are adopted as sons of Jacob. They are full recipients of the inheritance. This is why, in the future, they will be tribes of Israel, like the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Joseph’s other brothers. Genesis does not record any children of Joseph other than Ephraim and Manasseh, but if Joseph did have other children they are not elevated from grandson of Jacob to son of Jacob. Instead they are subsumed under the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

It may be that we should see some connection between Jacob’s appropriation of Joseph’s children as his own and his recall of his wife’s death. Had Rachel lived longer, she would have given birth to other children. In taking Joseph’s two children, Jacob increases (posthumously) Rachel’s offspring to four. If that is the case, then Rachel’s prayer at the birth of Joseph (“May Yahweh add another son for me,” 30:24b) has been answered with Benjamin, and again with Ephraim and Manasseh.1

8 When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?”

Two problems arise from this brief verse. The first is the apparent contradiction between When Israel saw [wayyar] Joseph’s sons and the statement in v. 10 that Jacob’s eyesight was fading so badly that he was not able to see (lo yukal lir’ot). Could he see, or could he not? The second problem is reconciling Jacob’s question to Joseph about Joseph’s sons (Who are these?) with the fact that (a) 46:5 says that Jacob knew Joseph had two boys, that he knew they were born in Egypt, that he knew their names; and (b) 45:28 claims that Jacob had by this time lived in Egypt for seventeen years. Might a grandfather live in one place for almost two decades and not recognize his grandchildren?

To respond to the first issue, I suggest that vv. 8 and 10 claim retention of some vision for Jacob. He is not totally blind. He can pick out two bodies standing by his son. But he cannot recognize them until they are standing right in front of him (the second problem). Seventeen years earlier Jacob would have had no need to ask that question. Note that in v. 11 Jacob speaks of his euphoria in “seeing” one more time Joseph’s face. So he is not completely blind.

It may also be that Jacob’s question should be understood as part of the formal prelude to the forthcoming blessing. That prelude includes formal recognition by Joseph that the young men are his sons. One thinks of the question at a baptism, “What name is given to this child?” or the question at a wedding, “Who giveth this woman to this man?” – neither of which is prompted by the ignorance of the clergyperson.2

13 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.

Joseph intends Israel’s right hand, the symbol of action and power, to rest on the head of the firstborn, Manasseh.

21-22 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.”

There are two main issues here: (1) How should we translate the Hebrew word skm (NIV, “ridge of land”; NIV margin, “portion”; LXX, “Shechem”; cf. NRSV margin: “Or mountain slope [Heb shekem, a play on the name of the town and district of Shechem]”) and the word “one” that follows it? (2) How should we explain this claimed conquest historically?

In terms of translation, I am inclined to follow De Hoop and E. A. Speiser: “And I, I give Shechem to you – O one above your brothers – which I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and my bow.” Historically, this must refer to the conquest of Shechem (or should we call it the slaughter of the Shechemites?) by Simeon and Levi. Jacob did not approve of this act and was not proud of it, but it was irreversible and undeniable. The land is therefore his to give, since it was taken in his name and by his clan. This justifies his use of the first person (“I took”). In this blessing, Joseph is given immediate clan leadership (as one over his brothers), though, as the next chapter’s blessing will indicate, Judah is destined for eventual tribal rule.3

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 630.

2Ibid., 634.

3Walton, Genesis, 712.

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