Jacob reaches the end of his life. The man whose years have been few and unpleasant but also loaded with God’s mercy dies in the presence of his family. His last two acts are to bless Joseph’s sons and to prophesy about each of his own. The last days of Jacob show that though he started his life as a schemer and deceiver, he ends as a thankful man appreciative of all that God’s done for him. Thus Jacob’s life serves as an example of how God through trials and over time can change any us from someone useful only to ourselves into someone thankful and useful for His kingdom.
Sometime after Joseph promised to bury Jacob in Israel, Jacob reaches a point where he’s close to the end. The message reaches Joseph – who apparently doesn’t live with the family in Goshen – that his father is near death. Accordingly, he comes to Jacob’s bedside and brings his two sons born to him in Egypt (41:50-51) – Manasseh and Ephraim.
Jacob’s condition is such that it takes effort to sit up in bed. When Joseph comes into his room, Jacob rallies enough to sit up and talk to him.
Jacob recounts for Joseph the blessing God gave to him in Bethel – that his descendants will be numerous and they will inherit Canaan as their home. With that in mind, he wants to take Joseph’s sons and claim them as his own. He doesn’t want them to be his grandsons a generation removed. He wants them to gain a possession in the land just as his twelve sons will. Not only that, he wants them to effectively replace his two oldest sons – Reuben and Simeon. In so doing he gives the birthright to Joseph plus gives him an additional inheritance in the land. Joseph won’t be just one tribe among twelve – he’ll be two. With this pronouncement Jacob doesn’t disinherit Reuben and Simeon; he just moves them down. And he particularly moves Reuben aside and assigns the birthright that was his to Joseph.
Jacob doesn’t explain himself here, but we know that Reuben loses the birthright because of his actions with Bilhah – Jacob’s concubine (35:22 – see also I Chron 5:1-2). Jacob will later make this official when he prophesies about Reuben and tells him directly that he no longer has the birthright. It’s interesting that by doing this Jacob becomes responsible for two older brothers losing their birthright during his life as a result of their short-sighted actions – Esau and Reuben.
Notice that Jacob calls Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. He says their names in reverse birth-order. He doesn’t do this accidentally (more on this later).
He finishes his comments by referring to Rachel’s death. This at first seems very random. What does Rachel’s death have to do with Joseph’s sons and their standing in the family? What he could mean is that he’s not only making the boys his sons, he’s making them Rachel’s sons too. Rachel only had two sons – Joseph and Benjamin. By adopting Joseph’s sons Jacob now officially gives two more sons to her. Thus she’s responsible for four sons – only two fewer than Leah.
Jacob tells Joseph that if he has any more sons they will be his. Jacob only wants to claim Ephraim and Manasseh. Thus Jacob now has fourteen sons – and Joseph is preeminent among them.
Verse 8 says that Jacob sees the sons of Joseph with him. Verse 10 says that his eyes are so dim from age that he can’t see. This seems contradictory, but probably means that he can see somewhat – enough to know that Joseph isn’t alone – but not enough to distinguish features and know who’s with him. Since the sons have been around for Jacob’s entire seventeen years in Egypt, he obviously has seen them before now.
Joseph brings his sons close to Jacob so he can embrace them. Jacob wonders aloud at how God has blessed him with not only seeing Joseph’s face again but the faces of his sons too. Joseph then takes his sons back from Jacob’s bed and bows to his father. In Joseph’s position this is certainly not something he has to do to any man on earth other than Pharaoh. It is a sign of the deep respect he has for his father that he does it.
Verse 12 says Joseph takes his sons from Jacob’s knees. This is hard to understand since Ephraim and Manasseh are now probably around 20+ years old (they were born before the famine and the famine started roughly 19 years ago). Perhaps it is just a way of saying they sat beside him on the bed at his knees.
Joseph takes the boys and officially presents them to Jacob for his blessing. He puts Manasseh – the oldest – on his left so that Manasseh will be on Jacob’s right. He does the opposite with Ephraim. His intention is for his father’s right hand to rest on Manasseh and his left to rest on Ephraim.
Jacob – who can’t see but apparently anticipates what Joseph does – crosses his hands so his right hand rests on Ephraim and his left on Manasseh. He then blesses them. Note that he pronounces the same blessing on both of them. The only difference is the placement of his hands. This isn’t a case of giving a better blessing to one son over the other – like it was with Isaac and Jacob and Esau.
He blesses them by calling on the God of Abraham and Isaac and the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day. He calls on the angel who has redeemed me from all evil. He shows that he knows his blessed position. He is the descendant and heir of God’s covenant with his forefathers. He has benefitted from God’s faithfulness to Abraham. God has never forsaken him or deserted him. And the angel of God – perhaps unknowingly a reference to Christ – has redeemed him from the evil of his life. God has always been with him to bless him and protect him and guide his steps. He has done more than his share of evil, but God mercifully stayed with him every day in every land and through every event.
Notice how he describes the lives of Abraham and Isaac versus how he describes himself. He says they walked before God. For himself, he says that God has been his shepherd. He doesn’t say he walked before God like his fathers did. He simply says that God led him.
Jacob is on his deathbed and he knows that everything he is he is by God’s grace. He spent many years scheming and taking advantage of others who weren’t as shrewd or as driven. And yet God was faithful. And as an old man full of years, he appreciates it more than anything else. He’s a mature man full of God and ready to face Him. He’s led an incredible life but he’s not impressed by anything he’s done. He looks back and just sees God. This is what it’s like to finish well. This is the Old Testament version of Paul’s final words – The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen (II Tim 4:18).
When Joseph sees what his father does with his hands, he protests. He assumes Jacob has accidentally placed his hands on the wrong son and so he tries to change it. But Jacob tells him he knows what he’s doing and it’s intentional. Ephraim – the younger – will be greater than Manasseh – the older. He says of Manasseh, “However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.” There is nothing in the text explaining how he knows this or what makes him say this. We know from Israel’s history that it comes true – Ephraim becomes a mightier tribe than Manasseh. But we don’t know why he blesses this way other than it continues what was true of Esau and himself (and – to a lesser extent – Isaac and Ishmael).
Jacob ends by giving another blessing to Joseph. He tells him that he’ll have an additional inheritance in the land over his brothers. He will inherit the property he acquired from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and bow. This is apparently a reference to the area around Shechem that Jacob purchased from the sons of Hamor when he returned from Laban’s house (33:18-20). Jacob’s gift will be realized when Joshua and the Israelites bury Joseph there over 470 years from now after conquering the land (Josh 24:32).
The part of Jacob’s promise that’s hard to understand is his claim to have acquired the land with my sword and bow. The text in Chapter 33 says he purchased it. It is the same land that Simeon and Levi plundered after the massacre of Shechem (34:25-29), but it would seem odd for Jacob to proudly reference what he loathed at the time (and will condemn when he talks about those two sons). Ultimately, it’s a mystery and perhaps refers to an event not recorded in Genesis.
After blessing Joseph and his sons, Jacob calls the rest of his sons to him. He says he wants to tell them what shall befall you in the days to come. The author will describe this as a blessing on the sons (vs 28), but it’s really a prophecy about each of them and their descendants. Since part of what he says will be negative, the word ‘blessing’ could confuse his intent.
His first words are about Reuben. He doesn’t say much, but he tells him he won’t have the birthright. Jacob doesn’t say it now belongs to Joseph (although Reuben could probably guess who gets it), he simply says Reuben forfeited it when he slept with Bilhah. You shall not have preeminence because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it – he went up to my couch. Reuben may not be surprised by his loss of status, but to have this be his father’s last words to him presumably has to hurt.
Likewise, Simeon and Levi don’t get a lot of positive thoughts about their future. Jacob refers to their violence around the Dinah and Shechem incident and says he doesn’t want his soul to enter into their council. He curses their anger and says they will be dispersed in Jacob and scattered in Israel (just like with Reuben, imagine hearing these words as the last thing your father says to you on his deathbed). This will come true in that the tribe of Levi won’t be given an inheritance in the Promised Land. Its dispersal won’t be punishment, it will be as a result of the Levites’ role as keepers of the temple and the cities of refuge (Josh 21). Simeon will be given an inheritance only from the excess of the tribe of Judah (Josh 19:1-9). The tribe of Simeon will be surrounded by Judah and perhaps wholly absorbed by it as it’s not mentioned in the ‘Blessing of Moses’ in Deut 33.
Jacob’s words about Simeon and Levi give greater clarity to how the land will still be divided among twelve tribes even with the addition of Ephraim and Manasseh. The twelve tribes who gain an inheritance will be all of the sons of Jacob except for Levi and Joseph. Levi – as already mentioned – will gain the cities of refuge only. Joseph will be represented by his sons – Ephraim and Manasseh. Thus the twelve tribes who divide the land are Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh.
Jacob says more about Judah than any son other than Joseph. The most important thing he says is that the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet. This is clearly a reference to the Messiah. The Messiah will come from the tribe of Judah, which means that Judah truly gets the most incredible blessing of any of the brothers. We have made this point before, but isn’t it interesting that the blessing of Abraham will be fulfilled through the descendants of the fourth son of Leah instead of through any of the sons of Rachel? Joseph gains the birthright, but the ultimate preeminence belongs to Judah. God had compassion on Leah and gave her sons because she was unloved. Perhaps His greatest compassion was to make her the mother of the Messianic line?
For some reason, Jacob blesses Zebulun – the sixth son of Leah – before he blesses Issachar – the fifth. No reason is given for this. Neither prophecy is fully understood apart from what it says about the geography of where the tribes will settle.
Dan is next and he’s the first son of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid. Dan’s prophecy ends with a somewhat random statement of praise by Jacob – “For Your salvation I wait, O Lord.” It’s hard to know why he says this at this point, but perhaps since he prophecies danger for Dan’s descendants he exclaims that he depends on God for safety.
The next prophecy is for Gad – the first son of Zilpah, Leah’s maid. He’s followed by Asher – the second son of Zilpah. After Asher is Naphtali, the second son of Bilhah.
Jacob says the most about Joseph. He seems to refer to Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and how God has blessed and helped him. He says nothing negative and actually says Joseph has been blessed more than Jacob or any of his forefathers – an amazing statement.
Benjamin is last – the youngest son. Even though Benjamin is the beloved second son of Rachel, Jacob says very little about him. He seems to predict that the tribe of Benjamin will be filled with warriors; something that’s borne out in Israel’s history.
When Jacob finishes his blessings he instructs his sons to take his body back to Canaan and bury him where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah are buried – in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah that Abraham purchased so long ago. It’s also where Jacob buried Leah (interesting that he’ll be buried with Leah instead of Rachel, isn’t it?). He already has Joseph’s word that this will happen, but he wants to make the rest of his sons aware of his wishes too.
The text says that after he instructs them, he lies back on his bed and dies. It seems that this happens immediately after he’s done talking. If so, it’s a remarkable scene. He gives a long monologue – in poetic form(!) – that addresses each son and then instructs them about his burial, all when he’s so feeble that he’s minutes from death. It could be that the author simplifies or compresses this account, but even so it seems that God gives Jacob both the words (he’s able to speak in poetic form because it’s the Spirit who speaks through him) and the strength for a last charge to his sons, then takes him home when it’s all done.
Thus the second biggest character of Genesis dies. He was the first patriarch with more than one son of promise. He was the first to see the beginning of a great nation. He’s the one for whom the people will be named. And he’s the man whose move to Egypt affects the next 400+ years of history and sets in motion God’s great redemption. He passes away and with him the book of Genesis effectively ends. Jacob started his life feuding with his brother in the womb – he ends it 147 years later surrounded by his twelve sons secure in the knowledge that God will fulfill everything He promised.