Joseph took [his sons] from Israel’s knees and bowed respectfully, his face to the ground. Then Joseph took the two boys, Ephraim with his right hand setting him to Israel’s left, and Manasseh with his left hand setting him to Israel’s right, and stood them before him. But Israel crossed his arms and put his right hand on the head of Ephraim who was the younger and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, the firstborn. Then he blessed them: “The God before whom walked my fathers Abraham and Isaac, The God who has been my shepherd all my lifelong to this very day, The Angel who delivered me from every evil, Bless the boys. May my name be echoed in their lives, and the names of Abraham and Isaac, my fathers, And may they grow covering the Earth with their children.” When Joseph saw that his father had placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought he had made a mistake, so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s, saying, “That’s the wrong head, Father; the other one is the firstborn; place your right hand on his head.” But his father wouldn’t do it. He said, “I know, my son; but I know what I’m doing. He also will develop into a people, and he also will be great. But his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will enrich nations.” Then he blessed them both: Israel will use your names to give blessings: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. In that he made it explicit: he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.
For many years I have read this scripture and always thought Joseph’s behavior here a bit odd. He is going to see his sick father with his own children and then he suddenly bows to the ground and presents his children to Jacob in a formal way after they had been sitting casually on his knees.
Remember for a moment the stories of Jacob and Esau. Esau, as firstborn, had a privileged spot in his father’s house. The firstborn son was nearly always given what was called the birthright. This was the head of household status. The largest portion of the inheritance of his father was given to him and it was his responsibility to take care of his brothers and sisters and nurture them into adulthood. As such, this was the most honored position in a house and the oldest brother was the most deeply respected.
Jacob’s name means “heel.” This is because he and Esau were twins. Rebekkah noticed that while she was carrying them there was a lot of turmoil in her womb.
Isaac prayed hard to God for his wife because she was barren. God answered his prayer and Rebekah became pregnant. But the children tumbled and kicked inside her so much that she said, “If this is the way it’s going to be, why go on living?” She went to God to find out what was going on. 23 God told her, Two nations are in your womb, two peoples butting heads while still in your body. One people will overpower the other, and the older will serve the younger.
When they were born, Esau came out first and Jacob followed immediately holding on to his brother’s heel. That’s how he got his name.
His whole life, he hungered for the position of Esau, although not always honestly. Nevertheless, because of the prophesy we just read, we know that this desire came from the Lord.
As you may know, Esau came in starving from hunting one day and Jacob had made some stew. Esau asked for some. Jacob said he’d give him some in exchange for his birthright. Esau agreed saying, “what good will it do me if I starve to death.”
And Jacob makes good. Instead of just handing him some stew, he actually sits Esau down and waits on him, bringing him bread and wine as well.
Later in his life, he and his mother, Rebekkah, cook up a deception. They go before Issac, who is now blind, and tell him that it’s Esau and Issac gives Jacob the blessing to go along with the birthright.
I’ve heard many a preacher stand in the pulpit and condemn Jacob for being a deceiver. Interestingly enough, though, the scriptures never do. The scriptures all condemn Esau for thinking so little of his birthright in the first place.
Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite.
And so Jacob, under less than honorable circumstances, obtained the blessing and the birthright that the Lord had wanted him to have. He took the place of the firstborn in his father’s house.
The Tradition of the Birthright
I am an American and land has never been an issue in our country’s history, because there’s always been plenty of it. In the East, though, they came to realize that 100 acres was a nice piece of land, but if you had 10 sons, and gave them each an equal share, they each got 10 acres. Not so good. One more generation and you’re down to 1 acre a piece.
So how do you fix this problem?
They came up with the concept of the birthright. In their tradition, the firstborn would be set up to rule the house in place of his father. Each of the other sons could not be dis-inherited, but all of them had their inheritance as part of the oldest brother. All the sons had rights, but the house would be ruled by the firstborn.
But Jacob’s desire wasn’t after his father’s lands and other possessions. We know this because the first thing that happened after he stole the blessing from Esau was that he fled in fear of his life and left all of that behind. Esau ended up with his father’s possessions. Everything Jacob got, he had to earn himself from his Uncle Laban.
So what was it that Jacob wanted so desperately?
For that, we have to look at some family history.
Jacob received the birthright and blessing from his father Issac. Issac, in return, received it from his father, Abraham. So Jacob wanted the same blessing that Abraham had.
Where did Abraham get it from?
The Battle of Kings
Then this: Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim went off to war to fight Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, that is, Zoar.
The four kings captured all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, all their food and equipment, and went on their way. They captured Lot, Abram’s nephew who was living in Sodom at the time, taking everything he owned with them.
A fugitive came and reported to Abram the Hebrew. Abram was living at the Oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and Aner. They were allies of Abram. When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken prisoner, he lined up his servants, all of them born in his household – there were 318 of them – and chased after the captors all the way to Dan. Abram and his men split into small groups and attacked by night. They chased them as far as Hobah, just north of Damascus. They recovered all the plunder along with nephew Lot and his possessions, including the women and the people.
As you may remember from Sunday School, Lot was a righteous man, but had chosen to live in Sodom and Gomorrah. When four armies attacked, they captured these cities along with several others and led them off in captivity.
When Abraham learned of this, he got all 318 men in his house and went after them. Keep in mind that Abraham wasn’t a solider and that these 318 men were servants and so forth in his house. They are chasing down four armies with kitchen knives and pitchforks.
Amazingly, Abraham defeated them and wiped them out. This day, Abraham is the king of war. He has with him the kings he has allied with—the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, kings of wickedness.
But this isn’t even the best part. That happens next.
After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and his allied kings, the king of Sodom came out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh, the King’s Valley. Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine – he was priest of The High God – and blessed him: Blessed be Abram by The High God, Creator of Heaven and Earth. And blessed be The High God, who handed your enemies over to you. Abram gave him a tenth of all the recovered plunder.
Ephraim and Manasseh
And so we come to the story now of the next generation. There’s been a problem in Jacob’s house. His firstborn son, Reuben, has slept with one of Jacob’s concubines and has disgraced his father as a result. Everyone knew that Reuben had now forfeited his birthright in the same way as his uncle Esau had. So, then, who was Jacob going to choose to receive this birthright and blessing?
As he’s sitting with Joseph and his two sons, Jacob tells Joseph that he wants to make his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, equal to Reuben and Simeon, and Joseph suddenly realizes that he wants to pass on the blessing and the birthright to them.
This is the reason for the abrupt mood change. Joseph suddenly realizes something very special is about to happen. He grabs his two sons who’ve been sitting on their grandfather’s knee and sits them in front of him in the traditional way to receive the blessing—the oldest, Manasseh, on Jacob’s right and the youngest, Ephraim, on Jacob’s left.
Then Jacob does something that surprises and annoys Joseph. He crosses his arms and places his right hand on Ephraim. When Joseph tries to correct him, he says, “I know what I’m doing,” and proceeds to pass that same blessing and birthright down on to Ephraim.
God has selected Ephraim, not one of Joseph’s brother, to receive the birthright and the blessing for the house of Israel.
Many teach that the replacement for Reuben was Judah, since that became the ruling line, but the Chronicler, probably Ezra, makes it clear:
The family of Reuben the firstborn of Israel: Though Reuben was Israel’s firstborn, after he slept with his father’s concubine, a defiling act, his rights as the firstborn were passed on to the sons of Joseph son of Israel. He lost his “firstborn” place in the family tree. 2 And even though Judah became the strongest of his brothers and King David eventually came from that family, the firstborn rights stayed with Joseph.
I Chronicles 5:1-2
In place of King David, the King James says “the chief ruler” because he wasn’t just talking about David, but about the Messiah, Jesus, as well. Jesus was of David’s royal line and, as such, a descendant of the house of Judah.
And so, something amazing has happened. Instead of one of his sons, Jacob adopts Joseph’s first two sons as his own and passes the birthright down to his grandson Ephraim. This is extraordinary. This also sets the stage for thousands of years of God’s plan that leads to the present time and into our future as well.
On to Part 2.