The Edge of Death
by Derek Thomas
All of us who are adults have had the temptation to pat a child on the head and say something appropriate. When Jacob had spent seventeen years in Egypt with his family and the time of his death drew near (Gen. 47:29), he made his son, Joseph, swear to him that he would ensure that he would not be buried in Egypt, but in his own burial plot back home in Canaan — a piece of land bought by Abraham (50:13). Then, as news of his death came to Joseph, he took his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to visit their grandfather one last time — to receive a blessing, in the form of a ceremonial pat on the head.
I have vivid memories of just such an occasion when my own grandfather was dying of cancer and I was “summoned” to appear before him. I was told he had something to say to me. I entered his bedroom and sat in his presence for several minutes. He exhorted me to write and presented me with a green (Parker) fountain pen. I was seven years old, and the memory of it is as clear as though it had been yesterday. Two days later, he was dead.
The final meeting of Jacob, Joseph, and the two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, is an extraordinarily moving story both for the sense of family occasion that it represents as well as a more theologically significant reason in the act of blessing that Jacob now performs.
Manasseh and Ephraim were two sons born (in that order) to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On (Heliopolis) (Gen. 41:45; 46:20). As part-Egyptian, questions may have arisen as to their status within the covenant family. Jacob’s desire that his father bless the two boys bore greater significance, therefore, than might otherwise be thought. In blessing the two boys, Jacob is signaling his acceptance of them as his own: “your two sons…are mine” (48:5). This made them heads of the half-tribes that thereafter were numbered among the tribes of Israel. The preamble to his blessing of the boys records how Jacob saw his action as covenantal and redemptive, recalling how God had appeared to him at Luz in Canaan and promised him that he would be fruitful: “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” (v. 4).
There are covenantal issues of great importance here. God had given to Abraham a promise of worldwide proportions (11:31–12:5, 15:7). He had journeyed under the umbrella of a promise that he would be a universal blessing (12:2–3) and possess the land of Canaan (15:7). In due course the promise had passed to Isaac (17:19–21), then to Jacob (27:27–29; 28:13–15). There had been a promise of land to dwell in — a promise that now looked eclipsed. And now the “blessed family” is in Egypt and facing (from a human point of view) an uncertain future. But Jacob has not forgotten the covenant or the promises it made to him and his family! However dark the current scenario may be, God was going to be true to His word. The blessing promised to the world would come through this family lineage. Joseph’s sons were Israelites, not Egyptians! This was a covenant renewal ceremony that must have brought great joy to Joseph’s heart.
Jacob did another unexpected thing in blessing the two boys. He crossed his hands! Instead of giving his right hand to the firstborn, Manasseh, he gave it to Ephraim instead. Joseph tried to correct his father, but Jacob said he had done it intentionally. The seed of Manasseh would be great, but the seed of Ephraim would be greater.
The descendants of Ephraim would eventually become the dominant tribe in the northern kingdom of Israel, so much so that his name would be used synonymously with Israel (Isa. 7:2; Ezek. 37:16). When, at a crucial time in Kadesh-Barnea, the twelve spies returned from viewing the Promised Land, it was the spy from Ephraim, Joshua, who stood with Caleb of Judah in maintaining that the Lord could give victory over the tall Canaanites (Num. 13:30ff.; 14:6ff.). Joshua thus became Moses’ successor and Israel’s leader. Later, Shiloh, where the tabernacle was placed, was within Ephraim’s boundaries (Josh. 18:1).
Out of Jacob’s long life, this is one of the events the writer of Hebrews chooses to highlight as a demonstration of his faith: “By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph” (Heb. 11:21). What must have looked to those who witnessed it as a forlorn attempt of a senile old man, was, in point of fact, a reaffirmation of his trust in God’s word of promise to him and his fathers. Through this line, the Messiah will come. In this family, the redemptive purposes of God would find their fulfillment. No matter how dark it may seem to be, the light of God’s word of promise shines brightly and cannot be extinguished. In the increasing darkness of Egypt (and things would get darker than they were currently) God’s word would be their guide and stay. His word “cannot be broken” (John 10:35).