We are a utilitarian society. We value people based on what we value that they can “produce”. The aged and dying are considered useless, perhaps maintained if sufficient funds are available to afford the sentiment value.
The account of Jacob’s death stands in stark contrast to our valuation. What Jacob is about to dispense is considered of extreme value and considerable potency to shape events beyond his death.
You can’t read the scene of Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph without remembering the scene of Isaac blessing the sons of Rebekah. You have one blind, blessing-pregnant patriarch, two unequally born sons, and one parent who is has an idea of how it should go.
Rebekah famously connived to deceive her husband so as to dispense the greater blessing upon the younger twin. Birth canals don’t afford ties. Isaac blesses the wrong son, but by virtue of the prophesy spoken to the pregnant Rebekah it was the right son, and the story unfolded. Both sons would become nations, but one would be more special than the other, because when everyone is special, no one is special.
Here Joseph places older Manasseh where Jacob’s right hand will fall, and younger Ephraim where his left hand will fall. Blind Jacob, unlike blind Isaac, somehow knows which boy is which, or perhaps he simply knows Joseph and what Joseph will do.
Unlike Isaac’s blessing and his inability to cook up a comparable blessing for unfortunate Esau, Jacob blesses both boys at the same time with the same words, but the details are important. Jacob crosses his hands so his right hand is upon Ephraim and his left upon Manasseh.
Equal Opportunity Offender
You can’t hold a value system without deeply and implicitly believing it’s right. That’s the definition of holding a value system.
Modern westerners implicitly hold an egalitarian value system. This system was expressed in the American Declaration of Independence which asserted that “all men are created equal”.
This belief is declared to be “self-evident” which means it need not be explained or defended because everyone who thinks about it will simply embrace it as obvious. If the authors of this declaration really believed that it was so, they might have decided not to bother asserting it at all, just like they didn’t bother to define “men” or “all”. What they wanted to do was assert it in a clever and polite way that really said “if you disagree with this you’re just an idiot!”
This idea has such a grip on us we can easily ignore the actual wording of our creed even with all of the historical footnotes we attach to it. We know that the signers of the document understood “men” to mean “Landholders mostly of European Ancestry” and did not include women, Native Americans or those brought from Africa against their will.
We also blithely skim over “created” because we know that if you remove “created” and “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” the whole “rights” argument kind of falls apart.
If we were to update the translation into “all homo-sapiens are equally evolved” suddenly we cease to believe the assertion. Define “equal” in the face of Shaquille O’Neal, Brad Pit, or Usain Bolt. Our conception of evolution in fact assumes inequality and implicitly derives a degree of satisfaction, comfort and justification that given inequality all who have deserve to possess.
So when we come to this Old Testament habit of Yhwh picking and choosing we have a variety of cultural issues that we ourselves really don’t wish to address inside or outside the church.
Jacob’s context naturally had it’s own culture and it was not egalitarian. Primogeniture, or the natural rights of the priority firstborn son to inherit an enhanced birthright and blessing were sacrosanct in their world, whether that be in Canaan or Egypt.
When Joseph saw Jacob’s right hand upon Ephraim he felt his moral compass being violated. It was simply RIGHT that Manasseh would be the primary and Ephraim the secondary recipient of God’s favor incarnated in descendants, land and wealth. What Jacob was doing was WRONG!
Jacob’s answer to Joseph was absolutely perfect, spoken as someone who had wrestled with God all of his life, depending on blessing, and now at the time of his death understanding better than ever what it means to receive from this God who is wild and free “I know, my son, I know”.
The God who is Free
This God violates our moral compass when we demand that the first born have priority. This God violates our moral compass when we demand that he bless all equally. What this God most violates is our demand that he be subject to our demands.
It would have been nice if Joseph had understood this. He was not Jacob’s first born but only Rachel’s first born. Did he cling to that wispy thread to attempt to establish he claim on blessing? Shouldn’t he, who had the offending dream and pronouncement of father and brothers bowing down to him have better understood the freedom of God? Joseph here stands as one who like all of us with twisted hearts exploits blessing and converts it into achievement. Here old Jacob, the most ardent exploiter of the patriarchs finally laughingly acknowledges that what the God of his father’s gives is always gift and cannot be secured.
A Frustrating Refuge for Fearful Hearts
Whether our cultural demands center around primogeniture or equality what Jacob asserts is that there is only one safe refuge for the fearful hearted, the blessing of God. Anyone paying attention should protest that this is indeed truly disturbing. Upon what basis can this blessing be known?
Jacob’s answer for himself is highly self-referential and having read the whole book of Genesis you might not find it terribly satisfying. The basis for his claim is his life, and the nature of his claim is that “the angel” has protected me from all harm. Really? Isn’t this Jacob the drama queen speaking?
Jacob, as we have seen, fell apart at seemingly every turn. He was a mess at Bethel running from Esau on his way to Laban. He was beset by fear of Laban, only to be rescued by God. He was then afraid again of Esau, only to be rescued. Then he was afraid of the inhabitants of the land after his sons murdered the men of Shechem and kept the women, children and livestock as plunder. Then he was paralyzed with fear of losing Benjamin to the point of starving his entire family. This is our example? Isn’t it a bit revisionist Jacob?!
Jacob in this moment refuses to be useless and believes what he does to be perhaps the climax of his life. Primogeniture is a naked assertion. Egalitarianism is a naked assertion. Jacob now offers his own. Rest your heart in the blessing of this God even if what you see going on around you suggests it is a bad move.
The Dilemma of Circumstance
Now that Joseph has arrived it might be easy to verbally embrace the god of his fathers. We should note, however, he embraced this god when he was a slave, and it was that embrace that brought him consolation when the world was cruel. It would be up to Jacob’s family to not place their hearts upon the position possessed by Joseph’s blessing and shift their trust to Egypt. Remember Egypt was shaken by the famine just like everyone else and it was only through Joseph that God saved the world.
The quest of faith is always located in the absence of favorable circumstance and the walk of faith is always found in the space where we have no control.
Here on Jacob’s death bed he will be unable to guide his children forward, he must release them into the hands of his God, as if he ever truly held them.
It was the moment of Jesus’ apparent defeat, when his disciples fled and his followers despaired that he won the victory over sin and death.
The invitation is to believe, to follow, and to bind yourself to this God who blesses even when few blessings can be seen.