Christians sometimes struggle to discern whether some aspect of an Old Testament narrative is merely descriptive of a historical event in the life of the biblical character or whether it has theological meaning for us today. Such has been the case with the patriarchal blessings in Genesis 27:26–29 and 48:1–49:28. Some religious groups have perverted the meaning of these unique redemptive-historical events. For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adheres to a ritual of patriarchal blessing that is equivalent to fortune telling. Each Mormon receives a blessing from his or her bishop that “contains personal revelation and instructions from Heavenly Father.” Mormon “patriarchal blessings” are deeply legalistic and superstitious. Sadly, many Mormons have lamented making major life decisions based on the personal “blessing” they received. Unlike such self-referential and superstitious incantations, the patriarchal blessings in the book of Genesis are covenant blessings in redemptive history; therefore, they anticipate the fulfillment of the spiritual blessings in the coming of the promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ. A consideration of the New Testament’s teaching about them will help us understand their place in redemptive history.
As Isaac and Jacob came to the end of their lives, they pronounced blessings over their children. In Genesis 27:27–29, Isaac pronounced a divine blessing on Jacob with language reminiscent of the language of the blessing God proclaimed to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). Jacob, in turn, pronounced divine blessings on each of his grandsons (Gen. 48) and sons (Gen. 49:1–28). The dying blessings of Isaac and Jacob find their way into the pages of the New Testament, when the writer of Hebrews explains: “By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff” (Heb. 11:20–21). The writer of Hebrews sees in the patriarchal blessings an act of faith.
Every act of faith is built on the previous word and promises of God. Isaac and Jacob were pronouncing covenant blessings in light of the previous promises God made to Abraham. Jacob’s blessing his sons and the sons of Joseph “by faith” is particularly instructive. Here, at the end of a difficult and challenging life, Jacob continues to cling to the covenant promises of God. As John Owen explained, “Notwithstanding all the trials and conflicts which he had met withal, with the weaknesses and disconsolations of old age, he abode firm in faith.” What enabled Jacob to hold on to the promises despite the trials and tribulations he experienced throughout his life was his expectation of God’s fulfillment of the promises He gave to Abraham.
The gospel is the foundation of the patriarchal blessings. Isaac and Jacob believed the promises of God regarding the coming Redeemer and His redemptive blessings when they pronounced their blessings on their children. There would be no way to make sense of these patriarchal blessings if we detached them from the person and saving work of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Jesus pronounced the ultimate patriarchal blessing on His disciples as He went to lay down His life for His people. In his Notes on Scripture, Jonathan Edwards tied the dying blessings of Isaac and Jacob to Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to His people as He also approached His death. Edwards wrote:
Isaac’s and Jacob’s blessing their children before their death, and, as it were, making over to them their future inheritance, may probably be typical of our receiving the blessings of the Covenant of Grace from Christ, as by His last will and testament, the final [administration of the] Covenant of Grace represented as His testament. Christ in the 14th, 15th and 16th chapters of John, does as it were make His will, and conveys to His people their inheritance before His death, [in] particular the Comforter, or the Holy Spirit, which is the sum of the purchased inheritance.
Scripture teaches that Jesus has fulfilled all the covenant promises by His death and resurrection (2 Cor. 1:20). He has secured the everlasting inheritance promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; Matt. 5:5; Rom. 4:13). The Apostle Paul makes clear that believers are co-heirs with Abraham on account of the finished work of Christ (Gal. 3:8, 9, 14, 29). Jesus secured the new heavens and new earth for those who would believe in Him (Isa. 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:5). Christ purchased the Holy Spirit for His people when He hung on the cross. The Spirit is everywhere called “the promise” in the Bible (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33, 39; Gal. 3:14; Eph. 1:13; 3:6), since Christ promised to send Him to His people as the guarantee of their inheritance (Eph. 1:11–14). Accordingly, each and every true believer has been blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” in Christ (Eph. 1:3). There is no greater or more personally meaningful blessing than that which Christ has already bestowed on His people. May God give us the grace to meditate on that blessing continually and live joyfully in light of it all the days of our lives.