Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)

GENESIS 47:28 – 48:9

What order or pattern is there in our lives? Jacob on his deathbed reflects and sees patterns in his life and in his family.

The text of Genesis helps this pattern seeking along, finding a numerical harmony in the seventeen years Joseph was in Canaan before he came to Egypt and matching it to the seventeen years Jacob has lived in Egypt before he dies. Even Jacob’s age is a pattern, being 7 X 7 X 3 years old, and thus being related to a pattern of lifespans progressing from his grandfather and father (see commentary below for details).

The pattern Jacob sees in his life involves at least four things: God appearing to him, a growing family, the land of Canaan, and an overarching theme to it all which is blessing.

When death approaches, we are going to want to find meaning and a pattern just as Jacob is doing here. Of course, we are not among the great patriarchs of the covenant. But surely, if we learn how to look, we will see God’s hand there in the days of our years, offering us meaning and purpose all along the way. The people who have come into and gone out from our lives, the moments of wonder and joy and sadness that have shaped who we are: there is a message there for us to read.

Jacob knows what his family must do after he is gone. They must return to Canaan, where God promised to bless them, and bury their father. Jacob knows there will be a great inheritance there for them. The pattern has not been without sadness, but the dying patriarch sees meaning in it. God’s promise is there in the seemingly random string of events. It has a beginning and God knows what its end will be. Jacob is just passing it along, doing his part somewhere in the middle of the pattern. As are we.

Jacob prepares for death and burial (47:28-31), Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh (48:1-9).

47:28 is thought by many scholars to be from the P source (a priest or priests writing from Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah). The verse is mathematical, concerning the duration of Jacob’s time in Egypt and the span of his life. All of the numbers are symbolic. Jacob’s time in Egypt is seventeen years, the same as Joseph’s time in Canaan. And seventeen is the sum of ten and seven. Jacob’s lifespan is 147, which is 7 X 7 X 3. Compare this to Abraham (175 = 5 X 5 X7) and Isaac (180 = 6 X 6 X 5). The pattern in their ages is clear: the last factor counts down odd numbers from 7 down to 3 and the first numbers are pairs ascending from 5 to 7.

This mathematical calculation seems odd to us by modern standards. Consider that there was quite possibly no way for anyone to know how long the patriarchs lived. The patriarchs themselves may or may not have kept track of their lifespan. Somehow, in the mind of the original audience, there was an expectation of a pattern, of a deliberateness in things like lifespans and years spend in or out of the land. It is a way of saying, “God was directing what happened behind the scenes.”

The aged Jacob senses his death is near. He calls his son to his bedside, where he makes him swear an oath using the same gesture (hand under the “thigh,” a euphemism for the genitals) that Abraham used when making his servant swear (Gen 24). Jacob wants to be buried in Canaan, the land where Adonai appeared to him and promised him blessing. The concern of Torah at this point is to emphasize that the stay of Jacob’s family in Egypt was a sojourn, not a permanent move.

When Joseph agreed, Jacob bowed at the head of his bed. Was this bowing to Joseph? To God? The unusual gesture, of such an honored elder bowing in the presence of a younger, suggests some matter of deep reverence is here. Possibly this is Jacob’s high regard for the importance of the covenant promise. The unexpected deference Jacob shows in Joseph’s presence would cement in Joseph’s mind the importance of the request.

Later, Joseph is called back to the bedside as Jacob is about to die. Jacob has several things to say, which all come together in a jumble of ideas that are difficult to group into a clear point. He recounts God passing the covenant promise to him personally in an appearance at Luz (Bethel). God promised at that time to increase the number of Jacob’s clan. He relates this to the fact that Joseph has had two sons in Egypt. Jacob intends to adopt them, probably to solidify the fact that they are members of the family and not foreigners. For inheritance purposes, Ephraim and Manasseh will be among the sons of Jacob, with Joseph’s other children belonging to their portion. He adds the story of Rachel dying in the road near Bethlehem, though it is unclear how her death relates to his other points.

Jacob sees Ephraim and Manasseh and, oddly, asks who they are. Sarna (JPS Commentary) suggests this is not simply a matter of Jacob’s eyesight being poor, but rather this is a formal part of the adoption ritual. It is fitting that the ritual for their adoption will subsume with a blessing from the patriarch. Blessing, which has been a consistent and central theme of Genesis, is going to round out the book here at the end just as it was announced as God’s purpose at the beginning.

GENESIS 48:10-16

Jacob the shepherd surveys his life and realizes he has been shepherded. It was easier for him than for us. On a handful of occasions, Jacob saw a manifestation of God and heard the divine voice directly. Which of us wouldn’t hope for even one appearance of God and even one message from him?

Jacob’s life has basically been narrated by God. As he was leaving Canaan in his youth, afraid, alone, and immature, God told him he would be blessed and would one day return to the land. “I will not leave you,” God said (Gen 28:15). When Jacob was languishing in Syria (Paddan-Aram), God spoke to him again (it had been more than fourteen years since the last word from God): “Return to the land of your fathers and your kin, and I will be with you” (31:3).

On his way back into the land, when he had sent all his family across and he remained alone on the far bank of the Jabbok, God appeared to him as a stranger and wrestled with him all night: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel” (32:28).

God appeared to him twice in chapter 35, sharing important words of promise once again. Then, upon hearing news that Joseph was alive, God spoke to him yet again. “Do not be afraid to go down into Egypt,” said the reassuring divine voice (46:3).

Truly Jacob could say “God has been my shepherd, all my life long, to this day” (48:15). This pattern of divine appearances in Jacob’s life is not represented in the Bible as normal or something that happens to everyone. God did not appear to any of Jacob’s sons, including Joseph.

But the Hebrew Bible nonetheless indicates that God is our shepherd too, that he is ever at our right hand, and that the world runs according to wisdom which is created by God. If we survey our lives, as Jacob did, possibly we can see the same truth he did. Are the events that have crossed our path random? Is there some wisdom behind all things? Can we see in the “laws of nature” that something more than “nature” is there? Does the very fact that we can reason about it all not make us wonder and ask how it is that human beings have this ability to learn and know and perceive hidden things? If there is a pattern, if there is meaning, if God has appeared at some times to some people in history, could it not be true that God has been our shepherd all the days of our lives too?

Jacob embraces his adopted sons (10-11), Jacob blesses the boys (12-16).

Jacob gets to see his grandchildren up close and remarks about the greatness of his blessing. He had thought Joseph dead. Now he sees not only Joseph, but also his grandsons. God, says Jacob, allowed this to happen.

Joseph brings the children near, apparently placing them on his knees. This is more than a simple grandfatherly sign of affection, but a custom in adoption rituals. We saw a hint of this in chapter 30, verse 3, when Rachel spoke of Bilhah (her handmaid) bearing children “on my knees.” Rachel meant that the children Bilhah bore would be legally considered to belong to Rachel. The knees likely symbolized physical birth, as if the children were going through birth again, and they would henceforth belong legally to the one on whose knees they were placed during the ritual (Sarna, JPS Commentary).

The place of Ephraim and Manasseh in the future tribes of Israel would be somewhat in question, given that they were born to an Egyptian mother and born outside of the land. By adopting them, Jacob insures their inclusion and importance in the future among the tribes.

The narrative goes out of the way to depict Jacob as reversing the order of the blessing, with Ephraim getting Jacob’s right hand. Ephraim will be the larger tribe, the dominant tribe which, for much of its history, will exceed even Judah in power. Jacob’s description of God, with the image of a shepherd who has led him through his own willful battle with faith, is remarkable. Jacob himself has been a shepherd, raised sons in the occupation of shepherding, and now how sees himself as the sheep before the great Shepherd. Though in his young life he struggled greatly with the faith of his fathers, Jacob is now a venerable patriarch himself, passing down faith in the Shepherd through his blessing.

GENESIS 48:17-22

Blessing has been the greatest theme in Genesis, from the creation account in the first chapter to the final two chapters in which Jacob has a blessing for all of his sons. In various appearances, God has promised to each of the patriarchs repeatedly to bless them.

What is blessing? It relates to the outcome of our lives. Are we fruitful? Do we have a good place to lay our head? Do we attain some measure of security and abundance in life?

What does it mean to seek blessing from God? Some may believe that if we simply ask God for blessing we will have pleasant outcomes in life. Since most people of faith who have asked for such blessing have instead found that this life is filled with lack, disappointment, the occasional catastrophe, and a general inability to attain satisfaction, many rationalizing explanations have been tried. Didn’t pray consistently enough. Didn’t believe potently enough. We were blessed in our trials and just couldn’t see it. Etc.

In the Hebrew Bible, wisdom writers explore many possibilities, conventional and unconventional. Some wisdom sages were convinced that a combination of straight living and wise choices inevitably leads to prosperity. Such is the theme in many of the sayings in Proverbs. But Ecclesiastes and Job explore the fact that exceptions are the rule. There is no formula for prosperity and blessing. Nothing can guarantee it.

“So I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly,” said the Teacher (Eccl 2:13). “I have uttered what I did not understand,” repented Job (42:3).

Why do we utter blessings when we know there is no guarantee? If we cannot wrest a good outcome from God by the power of our faith or the poetry or even emotion behind our words, what are we doing?

We are cursing the darkness, together with God. We are refusing to accept vanity. We are declaring that desires do have a perfect fulfillment. There is a future and a hope always, as long as God is there. Who knows what difference our blessing might make? In the same way, do don’t know if our skill, wisdom, talents, or hard work will bring a good outcome. But we do know without these things, the outcome is almost guaranteed in the other direction.

Joseph objects to Jacob crossing the blessings (17-18), Jacob foretells the greatness of Ephraim (19), Ephraim and Manasseh as a blessing (20), Jacob meets with Joseph before dying to confer a gift (21-22).

The theme of reversal of older and younger is of course the story of Jacob himself, who supplanted Esau. The cultural law that the oldest son gets the largest share of the family inheritance is referred to by scholars as primogeniture. Jacob reversed that cultural law by taking advantage of his ravished, tired brother Esau in a moment of weakness. Now he reverses it again, passing the larger share to Ephraim. Perhaps this is something that tradition passed down as an event that truly occurred or perhaps this story arose in later days, when the half tribe of Ephraim had become the largest and most powerful among the Israelites.

Nonetheless, Manasseh will become a successful tribe too. The modern Sabbath custom of blessing boys in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh continues from this passage.

Jacob announces that his death is coming soon and confers a gift to Joseph. The problem is understanding the meaning of the gift which is called sh’chem achad. Traditional interpretation has taken it to mean “one greater portion” given to Joseph over his brothers. The idea that Joseph received the birthright (double portion) is affirmed in 1 Chronicles 5:2. Yet, the words sh’chem achad don’t carry this meaning. Most likely this is a reference to the city of Shechem (though the meaning of achad is unclear and it is grammatically in the wrong form). Joseph ends up being buried in Shechem (Jos 24:32). Sarna lists evidence that Shechem may have been conquered in pre-Mosaic times. Jacob’s strange statement that he wrested it from the Amorites with sword and bow does not refer to any story recorded in the Bible, but perhaps this was part of Shechem’s known history. Shechem would become a major city in Manasseh. So though unusual, it seems the meaning of the verse is that Jacob conferred upon Joseph’s son Manasseh the destiny of dwelling in Shechem.

GENESIS 49:1-18

Jacob’s blessings are a commentary on tribal history, with often obscure references to the destinies of tribes. No doubt the original readers saw details here whose meanings elude us today. Still, we pick up clearly that Judah will be dominant among the tribes and rulers will come from him.

Many scholars, including Richard Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible?) think that this poem was passed down to us via the author of the J source of the Torah. J’s text was written before the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria in 722 BCE.

And the astute reader will observe that the poem says nothing about Joseph’s tribes being decimated by Assyria. Yet this is surely one of the greatest events in the history of those tribes.

The only reasonable conclusion is that these words are not prophecies or foretellings of the future. They are commentary on the condition of the tribes in the time of J.

Why put words in the mouth of Jacob? Why imagine in a story that Jacob spoke words about the destinies of his sons and the tribes that would come from them? Perhaps there was a tradition, based on recollections of Jacob’s life, that he did speak about his sons’ future. But Jacob’s words were not preserved. J is providing what he imagines Jacob might have said.

Whether this is what happened or not, the point is that Israel’s history is connected back to the days of the patriarchs. It is a view of history in which each generation is born into a story that is already unfolding. Some parts of the past are affecting the present and future. We did not get where we are randomly, but inherited part of the story of our lives from those who came before us.

Vs. 18 interrupts the story, perhaps because of the sadness of Dan’s story in particular (especially the story of Samson). Jacob’s prayer, which interrupts the tribal discourse, summarizes the view of Torah about all this history: לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּיתִי יְהוָה lishuat’cha qiviti Adonai, “For your salvation I wait, Adonai.”

Jacob’s last words to tell what is to come (1), Reuben (2-4), Simeon and Levi (5-7), Judah (8-12), Zebulun (13), Issachar (14-15), Dan (16-17), a prayer of Jacob interrupts the poem (18).

Sarna (JPS Commentary) calls Jacob’s blessing a combination of three genres: (1) the deathbed blessing (27:27; 28:1-4, 39), (2) the farewell address such as Joshua’s (Jos 23); (3) the tribal poem (Deut 33; Jud 5). Jacob’s final words mix blessings with woes, make geographical points, comment on historical matters, and mix the past and the future from Jacob’s point of view.

The medieval Jewish commentators noted the many historical references that were future to Jacob and considered them prophecy. Modern critical scholars often consider them later additions (that the writer put words into Jacob’s mouth as a way of commenting on the destinies of the tribes). Both prophecy and later additions are possible. We can recognize in Torah that there are additions from later than the time of Moses and so we would not be surprised to find some here.

The order of the tribes is unique in this poem and is based on the mothers: Leah’s six sons, Bilhah, Zilpah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and then Rachel’s two sons. Special issues in this section include the curious absence of any reference to Levi as the priestly tribe. Judah’s predominance does not begin in history until the time of the monarchy, but is prominent in the poem.

Genesis 49:10 has messianic implications though its exact translation is obscure and much has been written about it. 49:10 in the Hebrew text we have received says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes.” Almost everyone thinks the Hebrew text has been slightly corrupted in transmission and possible emendations should be considered. One option is translation below, which assumes a minor change and renders it, “. . . so that tribute shall come to him.” A third option is: “. . . until it comes to whom it belongs” (also a minor change in the Hebrew and related to Ezekiel 21:27).

Zebulun is described as doing commerce by sea, though their territory in Joshua is landlocked. Sarna thinks this and similar references refer to interaction with the Philistines, a seafaring people. Jacob’s interrupting prayer in vs. 18 could be a cry resulting from seeing the future of Dan and the sad story of Samson.

GENESIS 49:19-26

Vs. 26 is enigmatic and beautiful. A slight emendation in the Hebrew text helps the verse make more sense. The text as we have it could be translated:

The blessings of your father are mightier than the blessings of my parents,
extending to the desires of the everlasting hills.
May they belong to Joseph’s head,
to the brow of the one distinguished among his brothers.

Jacob is speaking to Joseph. What does he mean that the blessings of Joseph’s father are greater than those of Jacob’s parents? Possibly the verse might make sense if Jacob was speaking to Ephraim, in which case he might mean that Joseph’s success overshadows that of Isaac and Abraham. But the address is to Joseph, not Ephraim, and continues to be an address to Joseph at the end of the verse.

But if a slight error entered into the text, a slight change in the word translated “my parents” above would change the meaning to “mountains.” If הורי was a mistake and the text read הררי then the verse would be translated:

The blessings of your father are mightier than
the blessings of the mountains of [ ],
extending to the desires of the everlasting hills.
May they belong to Joseph’s head,
to the brow of the one distinguished among his brothers.

In this suggested version a word has dropped out after mountains, probably a word in parallel with “everlasting.”

Jacob is speaking about his own blessings and wishing them on Joseph. Since Jacob is dying, he is thinking about the life beyond this one. He sees his life with God as a continual progression from blessing to blessing and is convinced that more blessings are to come. His idea of the life beyond is a beautiful one involving a pleasant landscape (“everlasting hills”) and a joyful outcome (“desires”).

God grants the desires of the righteous, we read in Psalms and Proverbs. Jeremiah 50:19 seems to refer back to Genesis 49: “I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead” (ESV). We can only imagine what it would be like living in an existence where God grants our desires. The world to come is an idea of something we long for in this life and can never attain. But God can attain it.

Gad (19), Asher (20), Naphtali (21), Joseph (22-26).

Many elements in these poetic lines refer to incidents during the time of the Judges. Gad resided east of the Jordan (in the Transjordan) and warred on and off with Ammonites, Moabites, and Arameans. Asher lived north of Carmel (modern Haifa) on the coast and perhaps prospered by association with the nearby Phoenicians. Naphtali is the tribe of Barak, the general who served under Deborah. Rashi found that the “good words” of Naphtali refers to the rejoicing and the song of Deborah which praise God.

Joseph’s testament is longer, as is Judah’s. In tribal strength, Ephraim (one of the two Joseph tribes) will dominate the northern tribes of Israel as Judah dominates the south. The image of a wild ass is likely a wordplay on Ephraimite (Sarna, JPS Commentary), and emphasizes independence. But the real power in Ephraim will be the covenant relationship with the Mighty One, a Shepherd to Ephraim. And the blessings of Jacob to Joseph are more than the blessings of earlier generations, even enduring to everlasting hills. That is to say, Jacob senses, with little specific revelation from God about details, that the relationship of God with Ephraim (who stands for the northern ten tribes) extends beyond this world to the next.

GENESIS 49:27 – 50:20

Human evil is real. It stems from motives we’d be ashamed to admit. Our feelings were hurt and we lashed out. Our needs were not met so we took from someone else. We needed something to make us feel good, so we took what we wanted. Our sense of self-importance was suffering, so we oppressed someone else. Multiply these psychological maladies by millions of people. Know that they are also the motives of the powerful, those who govern and those who can raise armies of violence. Human history is filled with the repeating pattern of small-minded people taking out their emotional and psychological deficiencies on the masses.

In the Joseph story, sibling rivalry led to a heinous crime. There is no prettier way to see what motivated Joseph’s descent into Egypt. Could something as trifling as jealousy between family members be worth causing anyone to experience captivity and near fatal loneliness?

If the most trivial and banal human instincts lead to death and suffering, what hope is there? We will never, we might think, rid ourselves as a human race of piddling motivations leading to contemptible crimes.

The author of Genesis (in this case, the E source, a priest from the northern kingdom) sees God at work in history to transform petty human acts into a good outcome. “You reckoned it to me for evil,” said Joseph, “but God reckoned it for good, in order to do as it is on this day, keeping alive many people.”

What if God can do two things: transform our corrupted history into something beautiful and enlighten us out from our wretched state of being?In the case of Joseph and his brothers, hunger wiped out all pretensions and pettiness. When faced with the consequences of their action, the brothers changed. And the one who had been put in a bad position was specifically elevated through his experience, not in spite of it.

This story illustrates the possible. How should it shape our view of things yet to come?

Benjamin (27), Jacob’s last instructions and death (49:28-33), mourning and burial (50:1-15), the brothers and Joseph (16-20).

The last tribe, Jacob’s youngest son, gets that last word in Jacob’s poem. If we expected it to be sentimental, since Benjamin is his beloved, we do not find that here. Rather, the description is true to the character of the tribe of Benjamin in the early history of Israel in the land (especially the days of the Judges). Benjamin will be a warlike tribe, a wolf tearing his prey in the morning. In the book of Judges, Benjamin is almost obliterated by the other tribes because of their violence (see Judges 20). Sarna (JPS Commentary) notes that their territory, being between Judah and Ephraim, was a common staging area for war.

Jacob instructs his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah near Hebron. We learn that he had buried Leah there (whereas Rachel was buried near Bethlehem). Joseph has Jacob embalmed or mummified as a powerful Egyptian lord would be. Jacob’s burial is cause for a major occasion in the royal house of Egypt. Once again the theme of Genesis 12, the mutual blessing between Abraham’s clan and the nations, shows up in a powerful way in the Joseph story. Jacob the humble patriarch receives a funeral fit for a king, blessed by the nations.

The brothers worry after Jacob’s death that Joseph will at last seek vengeance. “Am I in the place of God?” Joseph asks. In other words, is it up to Joseph to make justice happen for wrongs done in this world? No, Joseph sees God’s purpose as something different. The brothers sought his harm through jealousy, but that very thing, the evil which they intended, God turned around and made good from it: “You reckoned it to me for evil, but God reckoned it for good.” The specific good Joseph sees which resulted from it all is simple: “to keep alive many people.”

GENESIS 50:21-26

Being a close reader of the text, Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna picks up on subtle hints in the last six verses of Genesis that things were already not well for Israel during Joseph’s lifetime. Exodus will soon tell us there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. Maybe the trouble started while Joseph was still alive. But the hope Joseph expresses for his family is that “God will take notice of you.”

“I will sustain you,” Joseph promises his family. He does not say, “Pharaoh will sustain you.” Perhaps from the beginning Joseph knew his influence and power were temporary. Fortunes are so fleeting in this world.

Joseph lived a long life and saw grandchildren and many blessings. When he sensed his death approaching, he gathered family around him and said, “God will surely take notice of you” (וֵאלֹהִים פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֶתְכֶם v’Elohim paqōd yifqōd ‘etchem). Another way to translate this sentence could be, “God will surely visit you.” Joseph saw something coming in the future, an incident involving God’s appearance. That can only mean in Joseph’s present time, he was feeling the absence of God as was the rest of his extended family.

If we are honest about our own lives, that is the position we are in. We believe God will surely visit us. But at this present time, he is quiet, hidden.

The Exodus event will be the fulfillment of Joseph’s words. God will visit one particular Israelite, another one he has placed in a unique position, Moses. And through Moses (as well as Aaron), God will speak and lead. He will speak about a covenant and he will lead them on a journey to a promised land where the patriarchs once lived.

God will surely visit Israel in Egypt, but it will be a long time of silence first. We can certainly relate to that.

Joseph’s promise to sustain his family in Egypt (21), Joseph’s long life and the blessing of grandchildren (22-23), Joseph announces his death and foretells God’s visitation on the children of Israel (24-25), Joseph’s death (26).

Sarna (JPS Commentary) finds hints that Israel’s situation in Egypt was already deteriorating before Joseph died. Joseph’s assurance of sustenance in vs 21 and his repeated statement that “God will take notice of you” (or “visit you”) in vss. 24-25, suggest possibly that Israel already felt the weight of being in a foreign land and the need for redemption.

Further, why did Joseph not request burial in the land immediately? His request that they should do this at the future time when God will visit them and brings them into the land suggests that the people of Israel were unable to make the journey in Joseph’s later days.

Strangely, there is no notice of the land mourning or of any great ceremony at Joseph’s death. Perhaps this is all literary foreshadowing of the coming enslavement. The book of Genesis ends with a note that the next step in the promise is vital, that the people of Abraham would inherit the land promised to Abraham.