Several years ago I saw a film that made a deep impression on me. As I recall it, Malcolm Muggeridge was standing in the family cemetery pointing out the tombstones of his ancestors. The movie began with the statement by Muggeridge that he would soon be joining his predecessors in death and that his tombstone would also be found there in the cemetery. The entire film was oriented around Muggeridge’s life as he now looked back at it from that cemetery, knowing that the time of his death was not far away.
The thing that stuck in my memory about Muggeridge was his evaluation of what things were really significant in his lifetime. He said that those things which he had most desired in his youth he now perceived to be of little value when viewed from the graveyard. The things which he had most dreaded in his youth he now deeply valued because they had so enriched his life. One such item would be suffering. He once sought to avoid it at all cost but had since come to accept it as a good thing from the hand of God.
After studying Genesis 48 I have come to appreciate the wisdom of Muggeridge’s words even more in the light of the testimony of Jacob in these verses. Only 17 years earlier Jacob had described his life in the most negative terms:
The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant … (Genesis 47:9).
That was Jacob’s perspective from the palace of the Pharaoh. But now, standing in the proverbial graveyard of his ancestors and facing imminent death, Jacob’s testimony is one of deep faith and joyful gratitude for God’s faithfulness and care through all the days of his life (cf. 48:15-16).
How do we explain this change in Jacob’s attitude? His perspective has radically changed, for he now looks back upon his life, like Muggeridge, from the family plot, viewing life from the end of the path. We need not be at death’s door to view life as Jacob did here. What we must do is grasp the reasons for his changed outlook and apply them to our lives now rather than when we think we are at death’s door. Let us then look very carefully at the final events of Jacob’s life as recorded by Moses in Genesis 48.
The last days of Jacob’s earthly sojourn drew to a close. Sensing this, Joseph was summoned to his father’s side where Jacob pronounced a unique blessing upon him. The death of which Jacob had so frequently spoken and, at one time, desired was now soon to visit him. Joseph took his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, along with him to see their grandfather one final time and to bid him farewell. Gathering up his strength, Jacob sat up in bed in order to speak words of vital significance to Joseph. While Jacob’s words were reminiscent of the past, this was no muddled musing as one might expect of an aged man nearing his final hour. Instead, Jacob focused Joseph’s attention upon the two most important events of his life as an explanation for what he was about to do.
Now it came about after these things that Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is sick.” So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim with him. When it was told to Jacob, “Behold, your son Joseph has come to you,” Israel collected his strength and sat up in the bed. Then Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and He said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and numerous, and I will make you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your descendants 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. But your offspring that have been born after them shall be yours; they shall be called by the names of their brothers in their inheritance” (Genesis 48:1-6).
Twice God had appeared to Jacob at Luz (Bethel, 28:10-17; 35:9-12), and in both appearances God had blessed him, promising him that he would become a great nation and that he would possess the land of Canaan. While it was nowhere recorded that God specifically promised Jacob that the land would be an “everlasting possession” (verse 4), it was told Abram in 17:7. This was probably orally passed on through Isaac.
Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim,102 were born in the land of Egypt. As sons of Joseph their future in Egypt may have seemed very bright. Perhaps they might fill the shoes of their father, taking places of power and influence in Pharaoh’s administration. But their greatest hope lay in a land they had not yet seen, for they were destined to be a part of the “company of peoples” (verse 4) that God had promised Jacob.
Reuben, due to his sin of laying with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (35:22), would be stripped of his birthright (cf. 49:4). This privilege was conveyed upon Joseph, but in an unusual way. No doubt the normal course would have been to give the birthright to the next son, Simeon, or to the next after him, Levi, but both of these sons were guilty of the mass murder of the Shechemites (34:25ff.). It was Joseph instead who was to receive the rights of the firstborn:
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph) (I Chronicles 5:1-2).
Jacob achieved his purpose by adopting both of Joseph’s sons as his own, on a par with Reuben and Simeon (verse 5). Now each of them would receive one portion, but in so doing Joseph received a double portion:
And I give you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow (Genesis 48:22).
The effect, as noted by the chronicler, was to give the birthright to Joseph. Any other sons which might be born to Joseph (but don’t seem to have been) would receive their inheritance as though they were the sons of either Ephraim or Manasseh (verse 6).
The twin appearances of God to Jacob at Bethel (once before he departed from Canaan to seek a wife in Haran (28:10-17) and once after he returned to Canaan from Paddan-aram (35:9-15)) were even more significant in the light of the partial fulfillment of God’s promises to him in these appearances. God had promised Jacob that he would be with him to guide, protect, and provide, and that He would bring him safely back to Canaan. This God had done, in spite of the dangers he had faced and the obstacles that were in his path. Since God’s word had been fulfilled in the short-term promises, surely His more distant promises were assured also.
The primary focus of Jacob in his report to Joseph was the promise of the land of Canaan and the assurance that Jacob would become a numerous people, a company of peoples (verse 4). If God had assured Jacob of becoming a great and numerous people, then surely he was justified in adopting two more sons who would contribute to this proliferation of people.
If the justification for Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s sons is found in the promise God had made at Bethel, the reason seems to be reported in verse 7:
Now as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the Journey, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem) (Genesis 48:7).
Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob’s chosen wife. His partiality to Joseph significantly contributed to Joseph’s rejection by his brothers and his journey to Egypt (cf. 37:4). A major factor in his preference for Joseph was the fact that he was the first-born of Rachel, his bride by choice. (Leah was his wife “by chance,” Bilhah and Zilpah “by competition.”)
While Rachel was the younger of his wives, she died prematurely on the way to Ephrath (Bethlehem). By inference, had she not died so early in life she would have presented Jacob with many other sons. The adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh provided Jacob with two more sons, technically “through Rachel.” The promise of God at Bethel in combination with the preference of Jacob for Rachel provides the backdrop for the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh. In addition to this must be mentioned the faithfulness of Joseph to the God of his fathers, even while in a foreign land and in adverse circumstances. He, as the savior of his people, surely was worthy of the favor his father bestowed upon him.
Joseph’s sons had not yet been noticed by Jacob. The adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh was primarily a privilege granted to Joseph rather than an act of partiality toward his sons. Now, whether they are just noticed or they have been brought in after Joseph’s private interview with his father, Jacob seized the opportunity to pronounce a blessing upon Joseph through his two sons:
When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” So he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were so dim from age that he could not see. Then Joseph brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face, and behold, God has let me see your children as well.” Then Joseph took them from his knees, and bowed with his face to the ground. And Joseph took them both, Ephraim with his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh with his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head, crossing his hands, although Manasseh was the first-born (Genesis 48:8-14).
Just as his father Isaac had suffered the infirmity of poor eyesight in his later years (27:1), Jacob’s vision was dim with years. Of course he had seen these sons before, but they had grown up, changing greatly as all our children do. Jacob could make them out, but he was unable to specifically identify them. Joseph now presented them to Jacob, who must have drawn them between his knees as he embraced them and kissed them. Jacob, who had concluded that he would never again behold the face of his favorite son, now looks upon his grandsons. God’s goodness to him is not overlooked in this event (verse 11).
Joseph, knowing that his father was about to bless them (verse 9), drew the boys, now near the age of twenty,103 from his father in order to arrange them properly for the blessing. Manasseh, the eldest, he had at his left hand (Jacob’s right), and Ephraim was at Joseph’s right hand (Jacob’s left). This was intended so that Jacob’s right hand would rest upon Manasseh, the oldest. Israel surprised Joseph by crossing his hands and pronouncing this blessing:
And 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 to this day, The angel who has redeemed me from all evil, Bless the lads; And may my name live on in them, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; And may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Genesis 48:15-16).
We must not forget that Jacob’s pronouncement of the blessing on Joseph’s two sons was primarily a blessing upon Joseph, as Moses reminds us in verse 15. The blessing contains the testimony of Jacob, one that is in stark contrast to his words spoken before Pharaoh:
The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning (Genesis 47:9).
First, Jacob’s God is the God of his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, the God who had made His covenant with them and kept them all the days of their lives. Second, Jacob, the shepherd (cf. 30:27ff.), recognized that God had cared for him as his Shepherd. Jacob, in effect, testified, “The Lord is my shepherd …” Third, Jacob’s God was the “Angel” (cf. 32:22-32) who had redeemed him from all evil.
How could there be such a contrast between this testimony to Joseph and that given to Pharaoh? How could Jacob say this with sincerity? Jacob’s life had been one long sequence of sorrows. He had antagonized his brother and deceived his father. He had to leave home, never again to see his mother alive. He was forced to live with an uncle who was nearly as deceptive as he and to take four wives rather than just Rachel, the one of his choice. His wives fought with each other over him, and his children hated one another. His daughter was raped; his oldest son had slept with his concubine, and Judah had slept with what appeared to be a prostitute. He was deprived of his wife and her first son; and Benjamin, the only remaining descendant of Rachel, was in serious jeopardy. Finally, a famine forced him to leave the land of promise. His life had been full of sorrow.
When Jacob testified that the Lord had been his shepherd all along, he did not deny his sufferings. But now he has come to see them in a different light. Just as Joseph had known in the midst of his sufferings that God had been with him, Jacob was assured of God’s presence in all of his sorrows. While our Shepherd “makes us lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2), He also is with us as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). Jacob has come to see that every event in his life was a part of the will of God for him and that God was guiding him and shaping him through adversity.
And God, the Angel (whom I take to be the pre-incarnate Christ), had redeemed him from all evil. Jacob has not claimed that the Angel kept him from all trouble, for that was not the case. Trouble and evil are synonymous terms, as Jacob has finally come to understand. No saint has ever been promised the absence of trouble. Evil, however, is not facing painful circumstances, but falling short from God’s purposes. God used trials and tribulation to bring Jacob to Egypt and to bring about the salvation which Joseph was sent ahead to provide. All of Jacob’s troubles were a “God-send” in order to bring about God’s purposes, even when Jacob was unaware of them and inclined to resist if he did know.
The immature Christian prays that God will withhold pain and suffering, seeing these things as evil. The mark of a mature Christian is that he can look back on his life and see that God can take the pains and pressures of life and cause them to work together for good in his life and ultimately draw one near to Himself through them. The immature shun suffering. While the mature do not seek it, they come to savor it in the light of how beautifully God uses it to bring us into intimacy with himself. When knowing God is the ultimate good, suffering is not too high a price to pay to obtain it:
… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; … (Philippians 3:10).
This God, this Shepherd, this Angel, will bless the sons of Joseph in a special way. In them, Jacob’s name (Israel) will live on. The work which God began in Abraham and Isaac and faithfully continued in Jacob, He will carry on in these men. They will grow into a great multitude in fulfillment of God’s promise.
When Joseph saw his father crossing his hands and giving the preeminence to Ephraim, he assumed it was a mistake and attempted to correct it, but he learned from his father that his action was intentional.
When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him; and he grasped his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this one is the first-born. Place your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people and he also shall be great. However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.” And he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel shall pronounce blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh!’” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh (Genesis 48:17-20).
Jacob, after all, was an old man. He tended to dwell upon the past in his conversation. His eyes were unable to make out the identity of his grandsons. Surely, Joseph reasoned, it was an accident that Jacob crossed his hands so as to give preeminence to the younger son. Perhaps he thought that Manasseh was to his left and therefore crossed his hands so as to place his right hand upon him. With a bit of impatience, then, Joseph may have tried to correct his father. It was not out of ignorance or oversight that Jacob acted. He purposed to establish the younger over the older.
The book of Genesis is full of instances in which the younger was chosen over the older. Seth was chosen over Cain; Shem over Japheth; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; and now, Ephraim over Manasseh. Of course, it was not always to be so. Jacob had endeavored to choose Rachel over Leah, but Laban was not about to let this happen. In the providence of God, neither was He, for Leah was the first wife of Jacob, the mother of Judah, the head of the messianic line, and Levi, the head of the priestly line. Leah, not Rachel, was given the honor of being buried with Jacob in the cave of Machpelah (49:31).
Jacob had been wrong in choosing Rachel over Leah because he made his decision on the basis of her outward appearance, not her character. Also, his actions in that choice were not illustrative of the principle of divine election because there was a selfish motive in choosing Rachel over Leah. God’s election is without regard to the outcome so that His choice may be free:
And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac, for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger” (Romans 9:10-12).
In the choice of Ephraim above Manasseh the principle of election is clearly illustrated, for Jacob’s choice is not conditioned by selfish motives. Why, then, does Jacob set Ephraim over Manasseh? Personally, I believe that this is Jacob’s method of demonstrating his belated comprehension of and submission to the doctrine of divine selection. Jacob seemed to feel that “God helps those who help themselves,” and he had been helping himself from a very early age. He felt that God’s blessing was based upon his ability to outwit and outmaneuver others, such as his brother and Laban. He must have believed that God chose him over Esau because he could do more for God than his brother could. Now, at last, Jacob has realized that (as Paul wrote in Romans 9) God chose him over Esau simply because He purposed to work through him, not Esau. There was no earthly reason why Ephraim should be placed above Manasseh, but this is why Jacob’s actions had great meaning. While society may have concluded, for practical reasons, to assign privileges according to the order of birth, God is not bound to such conventions. God is not obliged to act “traditionally” or according to our expectations. That is the prerogative of a God who is sovereign. Jacob, at last, has come to see this and has symbolically given testimony to his grasp of the principle of divine selection.
Having given priority to Ephraim, the younger, Jacob now turns again to Joseph to give him yet another blessing before the other sons are called to his bedside:
Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your fathers. And I give you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow” (Genesis 48:21-22).
Jacob’s death is imminent, and he will not live to see the return to Canaan. Perhaps, he suggests, Joseph will (verse 20). We know that neither Joseph nor Jacob will return to the land of promise before death overtakes them. Only in a resurrected state will they experience the promises of God. As a special blessing, Joseph is given possession of a particular portion of land, that “which Jacob took with his sword and bow” (verse 22). But what piece of land is this?
The term “portion” is literally Shechem (cf. margin, NASV). Does Jacob give Shechem to Joseph? Joseph’s bones were brought up from Egypt and buried at Shechem:
Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamar the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons (Joshua 24:32).
But here, while Joseph is buried at Shechem, it is referred to as the land “which Jacob had bought,” not the land for which he had fought. Some commentators conclude that Jacob could never have claimed to have taken this land by force when he condemned his sons for their actions in killing the men of the city:
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, by making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and my men being few in number, against me and attack me and I shall be destroyed, I and my household” (Genesis 34:30).
Simeon and Levi are brothers; Their swords are implements of violence. Let my soul not enter into their council; let not my glory be united with their assembly; Because in their anger they slew men, And in their self-will they lamed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; And their wrath, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob, And scatter them in Israel (Genesis 49:5-7).
It must be said that Simeon and Levi were wrong in what they did. They sought revenge, not righteousness; they were motivated more by pride than purity. They acted deceitfully, giving the impression that they would accept the offer of Shechem and his father; but they used circumcision as a trick to physically get the advantage of the men of the city. Jacob, too, was wrong. He was wrong for moving to Shechem in the first place and for courting the Canaanites and compromising with them. He seems to be wrong for not dealing decisively with the sin that was committed.
Jacob may now look back upon this incident as being prophetic of the future possession of Canaan by Israel. That land will not be purchased, but it will be taken by force. The Canaanites are to be driven out and annihilated because of their great wickedness and immorality:
Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
The right thing may have occurred at Shechem, but for the wrong reasons. Jacob might thus look upon the incident now in an entirely different light, for now purity was more important to him then a peace which is obtained at the price of iniquity. The next time the nation comes to Shechem, it will be taken by force, and so the first sacking of Shechem is a type of the last.
Life for Jacob looked considerably different from the perspective of the graveyard. Now, having been able to trace the hand of God in his life, he can see that life was not one long sequence of sorrows, but a chain of events in the sovereign plan of God to accomplish His purposes.
Sorrow and suffering were seen to be friends, not foes, as Jacob had once concluded. Previously, Jacob sought peace and prosperity as his highest goal. With such goals, acquiescence is preferable to adversity. Jacob had preferred to do nothing when his daughter was forcibly taken rather than run the risk of losing his comfort and security. Holiness was not nearly so dear to Jacob as happiness. Men will never be noted for their character when pleasure is of higher priority than purity.
But now, from the graveside, Jacob has come to realize that it was his suffering and trials which were the instruments of God to draw him to the point of submission to the will of God, to Egypt, to worship, and to spiritual intimacy.
Jacob, too, has come to appreciate the doctrine of election. He discerned at last that God had not chosen him because of what he would accomplish for Him. God did not select him because he had more potential than Esau. Jacob’s accomplishments had all been for naught. He never enjoyed the fruits of his manipulations in getting the birthright from Esau or the blessing from Isaac. He never owned the sheep of his father (so far as I can tell). He left the land of Canaan penniless and had to labor in order to pay the dowry for a wife (cf. 32:10). His prosperity came from his sojourn in Paddan-aram, and not from the peeling of poles, but from the promise of God (cf. 31:11-13). Only when Jacob was powerless and forced to leave the land of promise did he cast himself fully upon the goodness of God and not rest in his own devices. The doctrine of election, now comprehended, brought Jacob to humility and worship.
I would like to suggest that our lives will be much happier if we will come to the conclusions Jacob did, but sooner than he. If we can, like Joseph, see the hand of God in our suffering, then we can rejoice in our tribulations, knowing that God is at work maturing us and teaching us endurance (James 1:2-4). And if we can see that God has not chosen us because of our potential but to demonstrate His power, we will not engage in the fruitless efforts of Jacob:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God (I Corinthians 1:17,26-29).
Isn’t it interesting that God chose Jacob to be Israel, the patriarch. Joseph, who by far, is the most pious of the group is passed over in that no tribe is named after him. He is not the forefather of Messiah, but Judah, who had failed with his sons and who was intending to have an illicit relationship with a Canaanite prostitute, is. Neither was Joseph to be the one through whom the priesthood would be named, but Levi, the brother who had deceived the men of Shechem and slaughtered the men of that city. That, my friend, is election. And that is precisely why we should be encouraged. For God may take material as unlikely and unpromising as you and I and do great and wonderful things through us.
May our view of life, be that of Jacob in his dying moments, the view from the grave:
So teach us to number our days, That we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (II Corinthians 4:7-11).
102 In verse 5 Jacob referred to Joseph’s sons in reverse order: Ephraim and Manasseh. This foreshadows the reversal of tradition in giving the birthright to Ephraim, the younger, which will follow later. Already it is in Jacob’s mind to do so.
103 Manasseh and Ephraim were born in the seven years of plenty, before the first year of the famine (41:50). Jacob went down to Egypt somewhere around the end of the second year of the famine (45:6) and lived 17 years after he arrived (47:28). Since Jacob is near death, the sons of Joseph must be about 20 years old. They are certainly not toddlers.