1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2 And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. 3 And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ 5 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. 6 And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. 7 As for me, when I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”
8 When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” 9 Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. 11 And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” 12 Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. 14 And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). 15 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 long to this day,
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
17 When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” 19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” 20 So he blessed them that day, saying,
“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,
‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”
Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. 21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. 22 Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” – Genesis 48:1-22 ESV
As Moses begins to bring the book of Genesis to a close, he also narrates the closing days of Jacob’s life. As the patriarch of his family, Jacob had a responsibility to pass on his blessings to his sons, preparing the way for the future of their clan after his departure from this life. He had lived a long and was ready to pass the mantel of leadership to his 12 sons, allowing them to guide the next generation as they awaited the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to him so many years earlier.
Jacob, while 147-years-old, was far from senile. His eyes were failing but his memory was as sharp ever. He could recall with vivid detail the day when God had ordered him to leave Mesopotamia and return to Canaan. Along the way, God had appeared to him and delivered the following promise:
“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:10-12 ESV
But now, Jacob and his family were living in the land of Egypt. Because of the devastating famine that had ravaged Canaan, they had been forced to seek refuge in Goshen, taking up residence in the land graciously provided to them by Pharaoh. Due to Joseph’s high rank in the Egyptian administration, they were provided with ample food to meet all their needs, even as their clan continued to grow in number.
Even during their self-imposed exile in Egypt, Jacob and his sons had been fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. And while they may not have recognized it, their small clan was slowly evolving into a great nation. When they had arrived in Egypt, they had only been 70 in number, but during the 17 years that Jacob lived in Egypt, “they were fruitful, and their population grew rapidly” (Genesis 47:27 NLT).
God was at work, blessing the offspring of Abraham just as He had promised to do. And while their detour into Egypt may have appeared to them as an unexpected glitch in God’s plan, it had part of the plan all along. While in Egypt, they were sequestered safely in the land of Goshen, protected by the hand of Pharaoh, and amply provided for by Joseph. They were safe, secure, and sovereignly provided for by God Almighty.
Yet, Jacob’s days were numbered. He would not be leaving Egypt or returning to the land of Canaan. And he would not live to see his growing clan transformed by God into a mighty nation. But, as the patriarch, he could do his part to pass on his blessings to those who would carry on after his death.
Joseph, upon hearing that his father’s health was diminishing, brought his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to pay their last respects to their grandfather. These two boys had been born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, “Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On” (Genesis 41:45 ESV). So, they were half Egyptian and half Hebrew. But Jacob was not phased by this seemingly disqualifying detail. He too had fathered sons from non-Hebrew women. And to illustrate his full acceptance of Joseph’s two sons, he announced that he was adopting them as his own. They would be given equal standing with the rest of his sons and afforded full rights as his descendants.
The scene that Moses describes is somewhat confusing and can leave the impression that Jacob was an old, doddering man who didn’t know what he was doing. As he called for Joseph to bring the two boys forward so that he might bless them, Jacob appears to mistakenly place his hands on the heads of the two boys. Moses is quite precise in his language, stating that Joseph purposefully placed his older son, Manasseh before Jacob’s right hand. It was from Jacob’s right hand that Manasseh would have received the blessing of the firstborn. But at the last second, Jacob switched his hands, placing his right hand on the head of Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim.
Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). – Genesis 48:14 ESV
Joseph was unaware of this “slight of hands,” because he had “bowed himself with his face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12 ESV). He did not notice Jacob’s subtle, yet significant change of plans until it was too late.
While the blessing that Jacob uttered seems equitable in nature, his switching of the hands gave greater precedence to the younger son. Jacob asked that God would bless both boys and make them fruitful, but he seems to have intended that Ephraim receive the blessing of the double blessing due to the firstborn.
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. – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis
This was a deliberate action on Jacob’s part, not the feeble-minded mistake of an old man. He knew exactly what he was doing. The text does not reveal why Jacob made this decision, but it would seem that he was acting under divine inspiration. This was the will of God. This conclusion is not based on conjecture, but on the words written by the author of Hebrews. In chapter 11, the great “Hall of Faith,” Jacob is included in the long list of Old Testament saints who exhibited faith in the promises of Yahweh. And Jacob’s demonstration of faith is tied to his blessing of the two sons of Joseph.
By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. – Hebrews 11:21 ESV
The switching of his hands and the pronouncement of blessing had been an act of worship. Just had been proven true in his life, God was going to use the younger son to accomplish His will.
But when Joseph realized what was happening, he tried to intervene and correct the mistake by switching his father’s hands. Yet Jacob refused to budge. His decision had been deliberate and was final. He informed Joseph, “I know, my son; I know,…Manasseh will also become a great people, but his younger brother will become even greater. And his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT).
The die was cast. The blessings were awarded. And Ephraim would eventually be the name associated with the northern tribe of Israel after the nation was split in two. God would fulfill the blessing and make of Ephraim a great nation.
Moses makes it quite clear that this was a deliberate action on the part of Jacob.
Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. – Genesis 48:20 ESV
And while Joseph was not happy with the results, it was exactly what God had intended all along. His ways are not our ways. His plans do not always align with our own. Every detail of the story was happening according to God’s divine will and the ultimate outcome of each decision would not be fully revealed or realized for centuries. But there were no mistakes in God’s sovereign agenda.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.