Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 48:1-22
by Chelsey Harmon
The scene: The whole crew is in Egypt: Jacob, their patriarch, his twelve sons and all their families, servants, possessions. Jacob is at the end of his life. As is the custom, all male heirs went to his deathbed to receive their blessing. Joseph, Jacob’s long lost son, the one he believed he would never see again in this life, has brought his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, born and raised in Egypt, to Jacob’s bedside so that they can not only be blessed, but be adopted, placed into the position of sons (more than grandsons).
The rich narrative of the Hebrew Scripture includes details that make the story more complex, vivid, and interesting. Jacob is depicted as a very weak man, having to ‘summon his strength’ or ‘pull himself together’ to talk with his sons and grandsons. Anyone who has spent time with an elderly person, especially one dying, can relate to the real-life nature of such a detail. Even though Jacob falters a bit when he has to rely on himself (his eyesight is bad), in what can only be understood as the power of the Holy Spirit filling a faithful servant, there is no sign of weakness in the speech Jacob delivers about God’s goodness and plan for his family, despite their current setting.
As the time comes for the blessing to occur, Joseph positions his sons as is the way of the times: Manasseh, the older son, put at the right hand of Jacob to receive the greater blessing and his younger brother, Ephraim, at the left for his appropriate blessing. Now would be a good time to remember Jacob’s own experience with blessings. God told his mother Rebekah that her “elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25.23) So when Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, is old, on his deathbed and almost completely blind, Rebekah helps Jacob fool Isaac into believing that Jacob is Esau, causing Isaac to mistakenly give the younger son the blessing that is due to the elder.
It’s as though history has repeated itself! A blind old man has mistaken one son for the other and given honour against custom and practice. Joseph is quite upset about this and physically tries to rectify the situation before it’s too late- grabbing Jacob’s hands to position them appropriately and telling him as much in front of his grandsons.
But Jacob knows how God works. Jacob knows first-hand about God choosing to go against the cultural grain and to use “the lesser” to fulfill his promises. Though the narrative paints Jacob’s eyesight as an acceptable human excuse for the blessing mistake, it becomes a lesson for all of the story’s listeners about looking for God in all things. Joseph just assumed that his dad couldn’t see, but Jacob could see better than anyone else, he could see as God sees. There is no mistake here, no matter how much it might look like one. God’s will will be done.
Some commentators see Jacob’s act as an intentional faith lesson for Joseph and his sons. Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh are definitely more Egyptian than anyone else in their family, making them the least familiar— or entrenched— in the family’s destiny story. At what is perhaps Jacob’s final opportunity to influence, shape and direct his offspring, Jacob imparts to them the promises, beliefs, and hopes given to him and his patriarchs by God so that they will not forget that Egypt is not their home. Jacob even underscores this point by repeating his desire to be buried in the Promised Land and not Egypt. His blessing, then, includes showing them with words what their role in God’s covenant will produce: generations would look to them as examples of what it meant to be blessed by God.
As far as blessings go, the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph and his grandsons is breathtakingly meaningful. In fact, certain scholars see Jacob’s blessing, with its refrain of “The God… the God… the angel…” as the predecessor of the well-known Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6.24-26. Such a blessing, coming from a man who lived his faith, did not let go once he grasped on to God (remember his wrestling in Genesis 32), who fled from danger on more than one occasion, and who trusted God to be his closest relative and redeemer (the Hebrew sense of the word used for “rescuer” is kinsman-redeemer— the sort of rescuing depicted in Ruth), carries with it the weight of God’s glory and the power of the Holy Spirit. Notice too, that most of the blessing is about the power, presence and purpose of God: the one before whom the patriarchs walked, the one who accompanied and kept Jacob himself safe in the present, may this almighty God bless these boys and go with them so as to keep God’s promises alive!
In my tradition, we baptize infants as part of God’s covenant. In the moment directly after their baptism, I hold their face in my hands and give them the Aaronic blessing, each time using their name instead of ‘you’ to emphasize the Father’s love and care for them; it serves as a prayer that God would keep his covenant promises all their life. To me, it’s the same sort of blessing that Jacob gives to Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh because it connects the past, present and future in the life of an individual. I give to them the blessing of God, who— like Jacob with Ephraim and Manasseh— chooses to see them as his adopted child.
Baptism for Christians is also about recognizing the gift and blessings of knowing Christ and being a member of God’s family, co-heirs of God’s promises in Jesus. Galatians 3.28-29 expresses so well what it means to be an heir, adopted into God’s family: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Just as Jacob blessed his grandsons and elevated them to the place of sons so as to ensure their involvement in the promise, Christ has made us the heirs of that very same promise. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise and the one who gives us our status before the Father in heaven.
We have a connecting network in our church that we use to advertise needs for specific skills and volunteer opportunities. This isn’t a widespread network, but one that goes to a very specific demographic in our community, the retired. We call it the TLC, The Legacy Chapter. Through TLC, single parent families have been ‘adopted’ by couples to be grandparents, people have been moved into new homes and provided furnishings to help them settle in, ministries around the city have been staffed with volunteers who have the time and passion to serve. The network was formed because our church is full of people who move to our town without the regular familial connections to support them and we have a pretty evenly populated generational span, including a healthy 55+ group. As the name suggests, The Legacy Chapter is a way for people to leave a positive mark for Jesus and his love in our community. Like Jacob, wishing to leave a legacy that pointed to God and point the next generation in God’s direction, those who are part of The Legacy Chapter want to bless others and honour God.
Though we don’t really give blessings on deathbeds, following our own custom of using wills in order to impart inheritances, many people who know they are approaching death choose to write letters for their loved ones.
One modern grandfather wrote a letter he meant to have read at his funeral (though they didn’t find it until later). In the letter, he echoes some of the same sentiments of Jacob for his Egyptian grandsons. For one, he worries about the surrounding cultural influences pulling his beloved away from the things that will draw them towards God. Second, he entrusts his children and grandchildren to the care of God for the future. Finally, like Jacob, he takes a moment to express his own trust in God based on his past. Though some may find his worries a little too harsh, the spirit and the beauty of his desire to serve and point his loved ones to Christ cannot be doubted:
“While we are separated the one from the other I know God will take care of you. He is able to keep you from slipping or falling away, and bring you sinless and perfect into His glorious presence with mighty shouts of everlasting joy. In the meantime I commit each one of you to His kind care and keeping until we meet again, praying that not one of us will be missing in that great family reunion in the sky. “What a day that will be.” God has been so good to me all my life…”
Full letter available: http://gentlereformation.com/2012/11/12/the-last-letter-of-a-godly-grandfather/
-It may be interesting to use the top five regrets a palliative nurse heard from dying patients as an introduction to your sermon. The regrets were:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
Though most of the regrets the nurse heard were focused on the self— whereas Jacob’s dying wish (beyond being buried in the Promised Land) was for others to be in God’s will— they come from a shared human intuition that there is a way to live a whole life. For believers, we know that that life is only experienced when it is lived in God’s will, knowing Jesus as Saviour. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10.10)
The article is taken from the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware.
Rev. Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community Church, Nanaimo, British Columbia.