Wednesday, April 24, 2019

When Our Number Is Up

“Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.”

The book of Hebrews tells us that when Jacob rallied his strength to bless Joseph’s children, it was an act of faith; and not only an act of faith, but one worthy of mention alongside Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, the crossing of the Red Sea and the fall of the walls of Jericho.

I’m not quite sure how to picture this scene, but it is the last act of a very old man who has come a very long way with God. At the beginning of chapter 48, Israel summons his strength and sits up on his deathbed to give his benediction. Probably he swings his legs down to the floor, sitting on the edge of the bed. When he finishes, at the end of chapter 49, he pulls his legs back into bed and breathes his last.

Job done. Quite the way to go, when you think about it.

The Head of the Staff

The statement in Hebrews about Jacob’s faith has both Genesis 47 and 48 in view — perhaps even Genesis 49. This is evident from the two things in which Jacob is commended: blessing Joseph’s sons and bowing in worship over the head of his staff (or upon the head of his bed), a separate, prior incident described in the last verses of chapter 47.

The staff is meaningful too. For an old man, a staff surely served a practical purpose, but it was not without spiritual significance to Jacob. It spoke to him of God’s grace and where he had come from. Jacob could say, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” After all these years, it may even have been a different stick he leaned on that day, but that’s not the point; the symbol was definitional for Jacob.

Buried in the Land of Promise

This latter act of faith, which is mentioned second in Hebrews but occurs first in Genesis, is specifically associated with Jacob’s insistence on being buried in Canaan. He makes Joseph swear to carry his body out of Egypt and bury him with his father and grandfather in the land of promise. In requiring this oath of Joseph, he is making a serious statement for his posterity about the importance of not making a permanent home for themselves in Egypt or getting too attached to its many practical benefits. Canaan is the land God has promised them, and Canaan is where they are going. Jacob takes the lead in pointing the way.

That matters, and you can see where faith comes into it. At the time, Egypt was the land of plenty and Canaan the land of starvation. But Jacob looked beyond the present day to what God had promised. Faith.

Fair enough. But what is so significant about the first commendation Jacob receives in Hebrews; the very ordinary act of passing one’s legacy on to one’s children as one departs this planet? How is that a matter of faith?

Well, a few things.

A Unique Legacy

Firstly, it was a unique legacy being passed on. In Israel’s final act, the whole of God’s covenant with Abraham and his seed and the blessings it entailed are being conveyed to those who would now bear them. The God who had appeared to Jacob at Bethel and blessed him is invoked to pass on these blessings to Joseph’s children, whom Jacob effectively adopts as his own, giving them the double portion of the firstborn forfeited by Reuben through sin.

Here Jacob declares for all to hear that God’s promises apply to subsequent generations. He reminds his family that God “has been my shepherd all my life long to this day”, and adds, “bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on,” and “let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

That’s an act of faith. Jacob, the great manipulator, can do nothing to engineer such a thing. Instead, Israel believes God will do it.

Bringing in the Gentiles

Secondly, the blessings promised to the world through Abraham’s seed are foreshadowed in Ephraim and Manasseh, who were genetically half-Egyptian, being born of Joseph’s marriage to Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest. Asenath was one of the many honors Pharaoh heaped on Joseph, and that honor was probably not optional; he gave her to Joseph in marriage. This was surely of God.

The importance of the half-Egyptian status of Joseph’s children to Gentile readers is hard to overstate, given that one of the major themes of these latter chapters of Genesis is the danger of Canaanite influence on God’s people, and the rightful sense all the patriarchs had that they and their children should abstain from intermarriage with their Canaanite neighbors. Despite best efforts on this front, another half-Canaanite did make it to Egypt in addition to Judah’s son Shelah. Simeon too had taken a Canaanite wife, as noted in chapter 46.

The Blessing of the World

But the very fact that Simeon’s son Shaul is singled out in this way suggests such blurring of the lines was uncommon. Two half-Canaanites out of seventy is not a bad ratio given the family had lived in Canaan for the best part of 33 years at that point. Shelah and Shaul eventually both produced clans, but presumably the Canaanite influence was mitigated by the sheer number of Hebrews born around them in subsequent generations.

Regardless, if we were to conclude from the stigma the patriarchs attached to Canaanite intermarriage that God is thereby tacitly endorsing racial snobbery or a sense of Hebrew genetic superiority, we would be mistaken. The proof is in this chapter, where the half-Egyptian sons of Joseph are given priority over eleven Hebrew sons of Jacob. With this gesture Jacob anticipates the blessing of the whole world through the promised seed of Abraham. It signals God’s intention to bring the Gentiles into the blessings of Abraham.

Sending that message was an act of faith, and probably not one that was greatly appreciated by Jacob’s sons. (I’m guessing Reuben in particular was unimpressed.)

Crossing the Hands

Thirdly, Israel deliberately exalts the younger Ephraim over the elder Manasseh. This is very much in violation of Hebrew custom, and against the expressed wishes of their father Joseph, but quite in keeping with Jacob’s own history.

And yet the blessing is not some perverse act of human willfulness from a scheming younger brother, but yet another act of faith. Jacob now begins to prophesy: “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.”

Prophecy is not something for which Jacob is well-known, but it is only by faith that Jacob is able to confidently make such sweeping statements about the far-flung future.

Times and Dates

But while the content and context of Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh is unique and its message profound, the act itself is perfectly ordinary: an old man using the time God has given him to impress upon his loved ones what really matters in life.

I trust it doesn’t take a deathbed moment to get Christians to share that sort of information with our families. My experience is that, unlike Jacob, few of us know exactly when our number is up.

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