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"Deathbed Adoptions" (Genesis 48:1-22)

Have you ever heard of John Grisham? Most Americans have. John Grisham writes legal thrillers and is one of the most popular writers of our time. What you may not know is Grisham is a follower of Christ. One defining moment in Grisham’s spiritual journey came several years after graduating from Mississippi State University, when one of his classmates in law school told John he was terminally ill. Grisham asked him, “What do you do when you realize you are about to die?” The friend replied, “It’s real simple. You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else.”1

How do you want to die? In eternity, what type of life will you wish you had lived? Lock that thought in your mind and begin to live your life from your death backward. You will not regret examining your life, but you may live to regret an unexamined life.2 As a pastor, one of my tasks is to challenge you to think deeply and reflect on your life. Today, I want you to consider the legacy that you will leave behind.

In Genesis 48, Jacob has come to the end of his life. He has carried the torch of God’s covenant for 147 years. He has committed many sins and has not always honored God, however, Jacob is an example of a man who finishes well. In this passage, we will see that before he dies Jacob is determined to pass the torch on to those who would follow. This must be our goal as well.

Scene 1: Jacob prepares to die (48:1-2). Moses writes, “Now it came about after these things that Joseph was told, ‘Behold, your father is sick.’3 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” (48:1-2). The death of which Jacob has so frequently spoken, and even longed for at times, is knocking on his door. Thus, Joseph takes his two sons to say “goodbye.” It is likely that in the 17 years Jacob lived with Joseph in Egypt he invested in Manasseh and Ephraim. Both boys are now about 20 years old.4 So while Joseph and Jacob were separated for 22 years, Jacob has now been able to invest in his grandsons for 17 years. He likely learned the importance of pouring his life into the lives of his family members. Have you learned this same lesson?

Scene 2: Jacob adopts his grandsons (48:3-12). In 48:3-4, Jacob speaks to Joseph: “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz [the former name for Bethel] 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.’” 5 Jacob may be losing his health, but he is not losing his memory. In these verses, Jacob shares his testimony. He begins by addressing God, as “God Almighty” (El Shaddai).6 Jacob didn’t talk about the difficulties of his life (cf. 47:9); he spoke about “God Almighty” and what He had done for His servant.7 By using the name “God Almighty,” Jacob is acknowledging that only an all-powerful God could have made such far-reaching promises with the assurance that they would be fulfilled (see also 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 49:25).8

Jacob’s testimony is based on God’s promises and his experience with God. It was in Luz that Jacob dreamed of the stairway to heaven before he left from Canaan to find a wife in Haran (28:10-22). It was in Luz that Jacob built an altar to the Lord after he returned to Canaan from living with Laban (35:6-7). In both encounters, God promised to make him fruitful and give him land.9 Despite Jacob’s faithlessness, God remained faithful (2 Tim 2:13). Jacob banked on this and so can we. While we may sin and fall short of God’s desires for our lives, He remains faithful for He cannot deny Himself. This was Jacob’s testimony. This is my testimony. God has been faithful and gracious to me from the moment of salvation to today. And I know He will remain faithful to me until my death or Jesus’ return. Can you say that?

If you have a testimony about God’s faithfulness and grace in your life, you need to pass it on. One of the best things you can do is pass your story on to others…especially the story of your spiritual pilgrimage. What a blessing for your children and grandchildren to know how you came to faith. It is helpful to learn of how you have seen God’s faithfulness demonstrated in your life. So, share your stories. Take time to build a sense of history into those you love.

  • Write down your memories. Journal the history of your life. Share about your conversion, spiritual growth, and special memories.
  • Create a tape recording or video recording that chronicles your life.
  • Make it a point to convey to your children the similar experiences that you share.

Interestingly, there is a website called LastWishes.com that advertises remote-controlled, video-equipped tombstones, which can relay a message left by the grave’s inhabitant. Stories can be told and computer equipment is linked up in the tombstone to the Internet. The result is that e-mail messages, audio clips, and video clips (made before death) can still be “sent” by the deceased.10 But why do this when you can share your memories today? Begin to pass on your faith to those you love the most.

Jacob continues speaking to Joseph in 48:5-6. He says, “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.” Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons. Ephraim and Manasseh went from being Jacob’s grandsons to his number one and two sons.11 They displaced Reuben and Simeon.12 Thus, in future lists of the twelve tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh are normally included in the place of Joseph.13 Normally, the birthright would have been given to the firstborn son. But Reuben and Simeon had disqualified themselves from positions of status and leadership in Israel’s family because of their sin: Reuben due to his sin of laying with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (35:22; 49:4; 1 Chron 5:1-2) and Simeon due to his violent murder of the men of Shechem (34:25ff). In essence, Jacob adopted Ephraim and Manasseh in place of Reuben and Simeon as far as the birthright was concerned. If you look at the maps in the back of your Bible you will see a map that shows the areas given to the twelve tribes and you will notice something: There are twelve tribes but you don’t see the name of Levi (they were the priests and given land in each tribe) or Joseph, but you do see the names of Ephraim and Manasseh. In essence, Jacob is giving Joseph the double blessing that is generally reserved for the firstborn (Reuben). In the future, 48:6 states that Joseph’s other children would be incorporated into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Verse 7 gives the reason for the adoption: Jacob wants to honor the memory of his beloved wife, Rachel.14 Moses writes, “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).”15 Jacob loved Rachel. When she died a part of him died. He recognized that Rachel may have been capable of having more sons so in effect, Ephraim and Manasseh took the place of other sons that Rachel might have been expected to bear if she had continued to live.16

Verses 8-12 lay out the details of a formal adoption ceremony. Beginning in 48:8, Moses writes, “When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, ‘Who are these?’” This question is not an indication of Jacob’s blindness but the initiation of the ceremony, just as in modern-day weddings when, near the beginning, the minister may ask, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” The ceremonial response, “Her mother and I do” is also paralleled in Joseph’s ceremonial response, “‘They are my sons, whom God has given me here.’ So he said, ‘Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them’” (48:9), thus meeting Jacob’s criteria for adoption.17

The adoption process continues in 48:10: “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.” This is an incredibly moving scene. It is so important to not just skip over. In 48:9, Jacob blesses his grandsons. He then hugs and kisses them.18 There is a profound need in every boy to be touched and verbally affirmed by his father and grandfather. A father’s blessing is so crucial. Many children never hear an encouraging word from their father. Instead, they are reminded of their weaknesses and failings. They are crippled by words of criticism and rejection. Fathers and grandfathers, we must bless our children and grandchildren.

  • Identify and share the gifts of God you see in your children.
  • Give them a vision of what God can do through them. Verbally affirm them.
  • Lay your hands on their head and bless them in the Lord’s name (2 Tim 1:6).19
  • Pray out loud. There is nothing like a father who blesses in the name of the Lord.

Verse 10 says that Jacob kissed and embraced his 20-year-old grandsons. Even though it may be hard for you to offer your boys physical affection, do so nonetheless. Fathers and grandfathers, a handshake is not enough! If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, there needs to be additional expressions of affection. Don’t tell me about your upbringing or your personality; just imagine that it is the last day of your life every day. How would you treat that son or grandson?

In 48:11, Jacob said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face, and behold, God has let me see your children as well.” Jacob gives God the credit that he is able to see Joseph’s sons (48:11). He has come to acknowledge God’s providential working and grace in his life as he realized how faithful God had been to him in spite of his unfaithfulness.

Moses closes this section with these impressive words: “Then Joseph took them from his knees, and bowed with his face to the ground.” Joseph may be the second most powerful man in Egypt, but he never loses his respect for his father, and he never ceases to be gracious toward him” (48:12).20 In Gen 47:9, I suggested that the primary reason that Jacob had such a hard life was because he did not honor his father (Deut 5:16). Joseph made sure that he did not make the same mistake. May we learn from Joseph’s example and honor our father and mother, despite how they treat us.

Scene 3: Jacob blesses his grandsons (48:13-20). In 48:13-14, Moses gives us the play-by-play: “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 firstborn.” This is the first of many scriptural instances of the laying on of hands. By this symbolic act, a person transferred a spiritual power or gift to another.21 In this case Jacob symbolically transferred a blessing from himself to Joseph’s sons.22 Once uttered, blessings were irreversible (cf. Num 23:20; Rom 11:29).23

We have no way of knowing exactly why this reversal took place, or how Jacob knew to enact it.24 But remarkably, this simple act was highlighted in Heb 11:21 as Jacob’s outstanding action of faith.25 Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh also carried prophetic significance and force (48:19-20).26 Under the inspiration of God, Jacob deliberately gave Ephraim the privileged first-born blessing and predicted his preeminence. This was the fourth consecutive generation of Abraham’s descendants, in which the normal pattern of the firstborn assuming prominence over the second born was reversed: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh.

Some of us who are younger sons and daughters can draw great encouragement from this story. Many times the firstborn children are favored and children that come later are overlooked. But the Bible is full of hope for younger children. Isaac was a younger child. So was Jacob. So was Joseph. So was Moses. So was Gideon. So was David. In blessing the younger over the older, Jacob teaches us that God is no respecter of persons. He exalts those who honor Him, regardless of their background or their birth order. Very often it is through the “overlooked” people of the world that God does His greatest work.27 Do you feel overlooked or neglected? If so, please know that you’re in good company. Many of the greatest men and women of the Bible felt this way, yet God used them in mighty ways.

In 48:15-16, Jacob 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.” In his blessing, Jacob reaffirmed his great faith in the living God. Despite the self-serving acts of his youth, Jacob’s faith had matured. Jacob used the definite article with the word “God” to emphasize “the Genuine Deity” (as in Gen 6:2; 22:1; 27:28; 31:11; 46:3).28 He also calls God “my shepherd.”29 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.

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 goal, suffering is not too high a price to pay to obtain it.30 Is the Lord your shepherd? Do you look to Him for comfort? Do you realize that He’s been with you all the days of your life?

Jacob also testifies of “the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm.” The Angel of the Lord appears frequently in the OT. He appeared to Hagar when she fled from Sarai (16:7-13); He wrestled with Jacob (33:22-32; Hos 12:4); and He appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exod 3:2). This angel is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. This is further supported by the first use of the word “redeemed” in the Bible. It is significant that it occurs in conjunction with the work of the Angel of the Lord, giving further evidence that this is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Have you been “redeemed” or “delivered” (NIV) by Jesus Christ? Can you see all that He has protected you from? Are you trusting in His eternal protection and provision? If not, today, will you simply trust Jesus Christ as your Savior? He promises you eternal life as a free gift if you will only depend upon Him as your only way to God.

Something very interesting happens in 48:17-18. Moses writes, “When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him [lit., “it was evil in his eyes”]; and he grasped his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, ‘Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his head.’” After watching this blessing ceremony unfold, Joseph finally realizes what is happening and he is appalled. His father had transgressed every tradition from the Nile to the Euphrates. Joseph knew his sons intimately, and there could be no logical reason for Jacob to elevate Ephraim over Manasseh. All Manasseh’s years had been lived with the privilege and expectation of the firstborn. As Manasseh’s father, Joseph had worked to instill firstborn character and an essential sense of responsibility in his oldest boy. Thus humiliation was an underserved wound.31 In any event the deed was done. Blessings once uttered could not be undone (cf. 27:34-37).

Why does God seem to repeatedly choose the younger over the older?

    1. To highlight the election of God (Rom 9:11-12). In His sovereignty, God is absolutely free to choose some over others. As the clay, we have no right to argue with the Potter.

    2. To highlight the mercy of God (Rom 9:15-16). God’s mercy does not depend upon our works. God chooses whom He will have mercy and compassion on and to what degree.

    3. To highlight the glory of God (1 Cor 1:27-29). One of the reoccurring themes throughout Genesis is the pleasure God takes glorifying Himself. As a result, He shames the wise and strong “so that no one can boast in his presence” (NET).

In 48:19-20, Jacob refused Joseph and said, “I know, my son, I know; he also will become a people and he also will be great. However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.’ He blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you Israel will pronounce blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh!’ Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.” It had taken Jacob a lifetime of divine discipline to learn that he must only speak of the Word of God. Now he dared to trust God and believe His plans were best. He dared to do God’s will despite the wishes of his illustrious, godly son.32

Ephraim and Manasseh did become great tribes. At one time, Ephraim was used as a synonym for the kingdom of Israel. However, in the long run both tribes would fall away from God. Consequently, the tribe of Judah would take on the mantle and ascendancy. Psalm 78 describes their tragic demise (cf. 2 Kings 17).33 What a lesson for us to be diligent to persevere in our faith.

Scene 4: Jacob gifts Joseph a piece of land (48:21-22). Our passage closes in 48:21-22: “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. I give you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.’” Jacob makes an important declaration in 48:21 when he says, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you.” Many times you don’t need me as your pastor. You don’t need someone else. You need God. Many times when you think you need your spouse or a friend you’re really yearning for God. If He is with you, you have all that you need.

Jacob firmly believed God’s promise to bring his descendants back into the Promised Land (cf. 46:4). In Jacob’s prophetic promise to Joseph (48:22) is a play-on-words. The word for “portion” means ridge or shoulder (of land) and is the same as “Shechem.”34 Jacob spoke as though he had taken Shechem from the Amorites by force (48:22). Probably Jacob viewed Simeon and Levi’s slaughter of the Shechemites as his own taking of the city (34:27-29).35 Jacob gave Joseph Shechem, which he regarded as a down payment of all that God would give his descendants as they battled the Canaanites in the future.

Like Jacob, Joseph also had remarkable faith. In giving his two sons to Jacob, he was virtually consenting to their being rejected in respect to a future and position in Egypt. By identifying his sons with the despised shepherding people, Joseph sealed them off from ascendancy. It was madness from the perspective of the Nile. But like his father, Jacob, Joseph believed the word of promise—that God was building a great people who would one day return to the land of promise. Though Joseph apparently lived out his career as viceroy of Egypt, there is no record of any of his children attaining rank during the next 400 years in Egypt. Thus, by faith Joseph lived without currying the favor of Egypt.36

You and I are also exhorted to be people of faith. We are to pass the torch, leave a legacy. We can do so through two simple means: example (1 Tim 4:12) and disciple making (2 Tim 2:1-2). Will you determine today that you will live your life with that end in mind?


1 Preaching Today Citation: Elim Church, Direction (August 2003); submitted by Owen Bourgaize, Guernsey, UK.

2 It was Socrates who said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” What a profound truth!

3 This is the first reference to illness in the Bible. Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 595.

4 Manasseh (“to forget,” 41:51) and Ephraim (“to be fruitful,” 41:52) were born during the seven years of abundance, before the first year of the famine (Gen 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 was near death, the sons of Joseph must have been about 20 years old.

5 The only essential element of that theophany he does not repeat is the name change from Jacob to Israel. In this way, Jacob minimizes his role and maximizes God’s role in that event. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50: NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 628.

6 God is mentioned seven times in this chapter (Gen 48:3, 9, 11, 15 [twice], 20, 21).

7 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Authentic: Genesis 25-50 (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1997), 141.

8 Ronald F. Youngblood, The Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 274.

9 Twice God had appeared to Jacob at Luz (Gen 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” (48:4), it was told Abram in 17:7. This was probably orally passed on through Isaac.

10 Preaching Today Citation: Ted De Hass, Bedford, Iowa; sources: Rekha Shetty, “Tomb With a View,” AARP Magazine (Nov/Dec 2004), p. 14; BBC News http://news.

11 Keep in mind that Joseph’s sons are half-Egyptian. This would have been hard for a full-blooded Jew like Jacob.

12 The literal Hebrew reads, “Like Reuben and Simeon they will be to me” (Gen 48:5). John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 710.

13 The tribe of Levi became a priestly tribe and therefore did not inherit land in Canaan, bringing the number of landed tribes to twelve (Num 26:1-51; Josh 15:1-19:51). Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 162. The Levites were given no inheritance in the Promised Land but lived in 48 cities scattered throughout Israel (Num 18:20; Deut 18:2; Josh 13:33; 14:4; 21:1ff); and Simeon was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah (Judg 19:1-9). In this way, God punished Levi and Simeon for their anger and violence at Shechem (Genesis 34).

14 Allen P. Ross, Creation & Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988 [2002 ed.]), 693.

15 Sailhamer writes, “Verse 7 has long puzzled biblical interpreters. Why the mention of Rachel at this point in the narrative, and why the mention of her burial site? If we relate the verse to what precedes, then the mention of Rachel here could be prompted by the fact that just as she had borne Jacob ‘two sons’ (44:27, Joseph and Benjamin) at a time when he was about to enter (48:7) the land, so also Joseph gave Jacob ‘two sons’ (48:5) just at the time when he was about to enter Egypt. Such symmetry suggests that Ephraim and Manasseh are seen as replacements of Joseph and Benjamin, which serves to further the sense of divine providence behind the events of Jacob’s life. Furthermore, Jacob’s recollection (48:7) is virtually verbatim to that of the account of Rachel’s death in 35:16-19. In both passages the stress is laid on the site of ‘Ephrath,’ which the writer identifies in both passages as Bethlehem. As in the earlier cases of the concern for the burial of the patriarchs in the Promised Land, Jacob’s mention of Rachel’s burial is tied to the promise that the land would be an ‘eternal possession’ of the seed of Abraham. Rachel’s burial place, like that of Abraham and Sarah’s and Jacob’s own impending burial site (47:29-30), serves as a reminder of the faithfulness of God to his covenant promise.” John H. Sailhamer, Genesis: EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), Electronic ed.

16 Youngblood, The Book of Genesis, 275.

17 Walton, Genesis, 634; R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 543; Waltke, Genesis, 597.

18 Like Jacob, Jesus took children in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them (Mark 10:16).

19 See also Bob Hallman, “Passing The Torch” (Genesis 48:1-22): http://www3.calvarychapel.com/kauai/teachings/genesis.html.

20 Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50, 635.

21 This rite was part of the ceremony of dedicating a person or group to an office (Num 27:18, 23; Deut 34:9; Matt 19:13; Acts 6:6; 8:17; etc.), offering sacrifices, and the healings Jesus Christ and the apostles performed.

22 Every parent understands that a blessing on the children is a blessing on the parent. Walton, Genesis, 711.

23 Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis ( http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/genesis.pdfhttp://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/genesis.pdf, 2005), 266.

24 Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50, 636.

25 Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis, 162.

26 We can see this blessing in the process of fulfillment during the judges period when Ephraim had grown very large and influential. The combined tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh increased from 72,700 in the second year after the Exodus (Num 1:32-35) to 85,200 40 years later (Num 26:28-37). By contrast the tribes of Reuben and Simeon decreased from 105,800 to 65,930 during the same period. Constable, Notes on Genesis, 267.

27 Ray Pritchard, “How a Good Man Dies” (Genesis 48-50): http://www.calvarymemorial.com/sermons/SMdisplay.asp?id=337.

28 Earl Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen, H. Wayne House, eds. New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Nelson, 1999), 81.

29 This is the first mention in the Bible of God as a shepherd to His people. The Bible frequently refers to the Lord as our Shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1). “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11). Peter tells us that God is the “Shepherd and Guardian of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25).

30 Robert Deffinbaugh, Genesis: From Paradise to Patriarchs. Lesson 48: A View from the Graveyard (Genesis 48:1-22): www.bible.orgwww.bible.org, 1997, 4.

31 Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing, 544.

32 Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing, 545; Ross, Creation & Blessing, 693.

33 Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing, 545.

34 Shechem lay in Manasseh’s territory. The Israelites later buried Joseph at Shechem (Josh. 24:32). In Jesus’ day people spoke of Shechem (near Sychar) as what Jacob had given to Joseph (John 4:5).

35 Waltke, Genesis, 601; Walton, Genesis, 712.

36 Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing, 546-47.