Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Genesis 48:17-22 Ephraim Given Preference

While his father Jacob was blessing Joseph's sons, he purposely placed his right hand upon Ephraim's (the younger son's) head instead of upon the head of Manasseh, the eldest son.  Joseph thought it was a mistake, and immediately moved to correct the situation:

"When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim's head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father's hand to move it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's head.  Joseph said to him, 'No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.'  But his father refused and said, 'I know, my son, I know.  He too will become great.  Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.'  He blessed them that day and said,

"In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
'May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.' "

So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.  (Genesis 48:17-20 NIV)
A similar thing had occurred in Jacob/Israel's own life.  Although his twin brother Esau was the firstborn, God had indicated to his mother Rebekah that the older son would serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)  This prophecy was probably the main reason why Rebekah conspired with her son Jacob to confer the blessing of the firstborn upon Jacob.  Although God had indicated that Jacob would eventually have first place in the family, Rebekah and Jacob's actions were sinful and deceptive and ended up causing a lot of heartache.  Instead, they should have waited for God to bring about His plan for Jacob's positioning in His own time.

The current situation is different, though.  There is no deception.  Apparently, God has revealed to Jacob that Ephraim will have a superior place to Manasseh, even though he was born after Manasseh.  So Jacob insists upon continuing in the manner in which he started to bless the boys.

The following quote from the NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 25:23 is concise and instructive:  "The ancient law of primogeniture...provided that, under ordinary circumstances, the younger of two sons would be subservient to the older.  God's election of the younger son highlights the fact that God's people are the product not of natural or worldly development but of his sovereign intervention in human affairs."  The note goes on to remind us that God does not intervene in an arbitrary way, but according to His perfect will.

This is a good place for this discussion to take place, for I was struggling to express the fact that, although the firstborn is usually blessed with the greater position in the family and with a greater portion of his father's worldly goods, the treasure which was being passed down in Abraham's family line was not only the usual inheritance, but a particular spiritual blessing -- the covenant which God had made with Abraham.  So while Jacob is blessing his grandsons, his language hints that through their line this covenant blessing will continue. For example, Ephraim's "descendants will become a group of nations'' (v.19).  This echoes some of God's promises to Abraham.  However, note that Manasseh will also become a people and become great.  So Manasseh is not being left out, or cheated of anything.  He, too, shares in the covenant inheritance.  It is just that God will have greater purposes for Ephraim, according to His will, and in order to accomplish His own goals.

Of course, if Ephraim is going to be preeminent over his brother, we might wonder what will become of Joseph and his eleven other brothers.  In the next verse, Genesis 48:21, Jacob comes right out and tells him plainly:  Joseph will be preeminent over his brothers:

"Then Israel said to Joseph, 'I am about to die,
but God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers.
And to you, as one who is over your brothers,
I give the ridge of land I took from the Amorites with my sword and bow.' "

Genesis 48:21-22 NIV 

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