v.3 Remember, Luz is the old name for Bethel, where God appeared twice to Jacob. His recollection here seems to be of his second encounter with the Lord at Bethel, when he returned from the Paddan Aram after twenty years away from the Promised Land.
v.4 The same promise first made to Abraham.
v.5 In other words, Jacob proceeded to adopt his grandsons, putting them on a par with his own sons such as Reuben and Simeon. The formal language, precisely legal, is noteworthy. This is a custom well documented in ANE records. What it meant was that Ephraim and Manasseh were equally Jacob’s heirs, and so ancestors of the tribes of Israel, on a par with Jacob’s own sons. As you know, from this point onward, Ephraim and Manasseh are two of the tribes of Israel, always listed in the genealogies, and there is no tribe of Joseph. It was part of Joseph’s honor that he had become two tribes.
v.6 Either Joseph had other children by his Egyptian wife of whom we have no record or provision was being made for the possibility that he might have more children. Those children would not be adopted by Jacob as his own sons. Any such children would be incorporated into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Reuben and Simeon are mentioned as the eldest sons of Jacob to emphasize that Ephraim and Manasseh are equally his sons.
v.7 We hear in Jacob’s remark the sense of anguish he felt in Rachel’s loss, even after all those years.
v.8 This seems to us a strange question, after the boys – now perhaps in their later teens – had already been introduced in v. 2 and Jacob had already referred to them in v. 5. It is likely, however, that this is a formal question, a part of the legal process of adoption.
v.11 Joseph would be given a similar blessing as we will read in 50:23, living long enough to see his great-great grandchildren.
v.12 Though Jacob had said that he would adopt and bless Joseph’s sons, Joseph humbly and deferentially requested that blessing for his sons: he was not taking such a great thing for granted.
v.13 Joseph then positioned the boys to receive the appropriate blessing: Manasseh, the elder of the two sons, would receive the blessing first so he was put under Jacob’s right hand. Throughout the Bible the right-hand side is regarded as the place of honor and blessing. Christ himself now sits at the Right Hand!
v.15 He blessed Joseph; that is, the sons of Joseph. [cf. Sarna, 328]
v.16 Only the position pointed to Ephraim being placed above his older brother, because both boys received the same blessing, a point already indicated in v. 15 by the introduction, “…he blessed Joseph…” and then more explicitly in v. 16 with “…bless the boys.”
Here “angel” is a reference to the “angel of the Lord” who is not a being subordinate to God, but God himself as he appears to men on earth, such as the man with whom Jacob wrestled through the night at the Jabbok years before.
The word “redeemed” is the verb “go’el.” The noun form is translated “kinsman-redeemer” as in the story of Ruth and Boaz. The deliverer was usually the nearest male relative, but Jacob, “who had fled from his brother into the clutches of his uncle” [Wenham, 465] had had no human rescuer; God had intervened directly on his behalf. This is the oldest evidence for the idea of God as the “redeemer” of his people.
v.17 Ironic insofar as Jacob had long years before taken advantage of his father’s poor eyesight to steal the blessing that Isaac had intended for Jacob’s older brother Esau.
v.18 Joseph imagined that Jacob’s putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head was simply a blind man’s mistake.
v.19 Ephraim later became the greatest of the northern tribes, second only to Judah among the tribes of Israel. You may remember the prophet Hosea often referring to the ten northern tribes under the single name “Ephraim.” Joshua, Moses’ successor was a descendant of Ephraim. Later, sad to say, it may have been Ephraim’s prestige and honor that kept it from looking with favor upon Judah, where the temple of the Lord was, and so made permanent the break with Judah and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms which was, eventually, to have such catastrophic consequences for the northern tribes, Ephraim included.
In any case, we have here, and twice over, the last in a long series of examples in Genesis, in which God overruled the law of primogeniture that was so sacred and so consequential in ANE culture. “The privilege of the firstborn was absolutely uncontested in the ancient orient.” [von Rad, 416] But, in Genesis, again and again that law is disobeyed; Abel was approved over Cain; Jacob was chosen over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph, the second youngest brother, and so the brother with almost the least claim, over his older brothers; Judah over the three brothers older than himself; and, now, both Ephraim and Manasseh were made equal to or greater than Reuben and Simeon and Ephraim over Manasseh. In the case of these boys, of course, it is also an instance of people being drawn into the stream of salvation from outside, as these were boys of an Egyptian mother, but now will be as fully Israelites as any other of the sons of Jacob. This consistent overruling of primogeniture is a powerful demonstration of the principle of grace, of God identifying with the weak, the despised, and the underdog. Paul identifies the same principle in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him…. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” Divine grace has made mysterious choices from the beginning.
v.20 Here, for the second time in Genesis, the name “Israel” is used of a nation or people, for the nation as it will someday be. As one commentator puts it, “The veil parts, the nation Israel appears before the breaking view of the old man.” [Procksch in von Rad, 418]
v.21 The “you” is plural. God will be with you and your descendants.
v.22 In 33:18-19 we read of Jacob buying a small plot of land near Shechem on which to pitch his tent. Shechem is spelled like “shoulder” or “slope.” But we don’t know of any such attack by Jacob. Presumably this was an event not reported elsewhere in Genesis. It was at Shechem that Joseph was later re-interred when his bones were carried up from Egypt to Canaan (Joshua 24:32). This inheritance in the Promised Land effectively made Joseph the primary heir of his father, jumping over the ten brothers older than himself.
Now the broad interest of this chapter is the same as many before it, the succession of God’s favor the transfer of the blessings of his covenant from one generation to another. The promise was first made to Abraham in Genesis 12; not simply the promise of a seed and a land, but all that was meant by fellowship with God. “I will be your God and you will be my people” which is the Bible’s shortest way of saying everything it means by salvation. As I have reminded you, in Rev. 21:3 heaven is described as the place where God will be our God and we will be his people.
But that promise made to Abraham, was then made over to Isaac. All that God had promised the father, he then promised to Abraham’s son. And, then, as we read here, at Bethel God made the same promises he had made to Isaac again to Jacob, Isaac’s son. So here is the great significance of this chapter: now, for the first time, the promise is being transmitted to the next generation without the direct intervention or revelation of God. It wasn’t God who made again the promise he had made to the patriarchs to Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob transferred the covenant inheritance himself, as a father to his son, in this case as a father to his adopted sons. The promise that Jacob recalled God having made to him at Bethel was that he would be fruitful – that is, he would have descendants – and that they would live in the land (and, remember, we said last Lord’s Day that they very well understood that the significance of the land was primarily as a sign and seal of another, far better Promised Land). And then, in verse 5 Jacob proceeded to identify Ephraim and Manasseh as two of those descendants the Lord had promised him. That is, God’s promise was about them and for them.
And, then, in vv. 15-16, in the blessing itself, Jacob asked God to be to these his adopted sons what he had been to him, a redeemer and shepherd. And from this point, this will be the way the covenant will proceed. Those fathers and mothers who are faithful to the covenant God made with his people, who live by faith and in obedience to the Lord their God, will seek as Jacob did – and as God intended for him to do – to hand on the blessing of God to their children and through them to their children’s children. And how did they do that through the ages? They did it as God told them to do it. They taught their children, as we may assume Joseph very carefully taught his two sons about their father’s God and all that God had done for him and how God had took him from a slave to the second man in Egypt.
“I will open my mouth in parables, things from of old – what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from our children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done…so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.” [Psalm 78:2-7]
Jacob was doing that very thing right here – telling the boys what the Lord had done for him, his grace and power on their grandfather’s behalf. And, while they taught their children – sitting down, lying, standing, and walking in the way – they also prayed for their children as Jacob also did here. Alexander Whyte imagines it a prayer like this:
“O Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, give us such a seed! Give us a seed right with Thee! Smite us and our house with everlasting barrenness rather than that our seed should not be right with Thee. O God, give us our children. Give us our children. A second time, and by a far better birth, give us our children to be beside us in Thy holy covenant. For it had been better we had never been born; it had been better we had never been betrothed; it had been better we had sat all our days solitary unless our children are to be right with Thee. …But thou, O God, art Thyself a Father, and thus hast in Thyself a Father’s heart. Hear us, then, for our children, O our Father…. In season and out of season; we shall not go up into our bed; we shall not give sleep to our eyes nor slumber to our eyelids till we and all our seed are right with Thee.” [Whyte, BC iii, 289-290]
That, Whyte imagines, is the prayer Jacob offered for these two boys, his grandsons and his adopted sons, the prayer that generations of God’s mothers and fathers have been praying for their sons and daughters, for their grandsons and granddaughters, and great-grandsons and great-granddaughters. And we can imagine easily enough how much emotion there was in those prayers. “The Angel who has delivered me from all harm – may he bless these boys.” And, as he said those words, he thought back to the Jabbok and his long struggle with the Lord and the limp with which he had walked ever since. Oh, that these boys may know God as I have known him and seen his blessing and his intervention and his provision and his mercy as I have seen it!
And while they taught their children and prayed for their children, they lived before their children a life that proved and recommended the covenant of God and the God of the covenant.
“Let it be the principal part of your care and labour in all your education [of your children], to make holiness appear to them the most necessary, honourable, gainful, pleasant, delightful, amiable state of life; and to keep them from apprehending it either as needless, dishonourable, hurtful or uncomfortable. Especially draw them to the love of it, by representing it as lovely.” [Baxter, Christian Directory, 428]
So wrote Richard Baxter, and so, I imagine, as an old man, Jacob bitterly wished that he had acted more faithfully in the nurture and upbringing of his sons and daughter. Jacob’s sons had not come to love God’s holiness for themselves until far later in life than should have been the case. And what sadness might have been avoided, if, for example, Dinah had loved the will of God and a godly life for herself and had not found the ways of the Shechemites so attractive. Where sin abounded grace did much more abound, but, still, Jacob must have thought, “if only I had set a better example for my children.”
I have known any number of good men and women, godly men and women, who said the same kind of thing. I remember a very godly man, an honored elder of this congregation telling me, “If only I had known then what I know now, I would have raised my children so differently.” I too have such regrets, the most painful regrets of my life.
And what of those who must labor on without all the help the Lord supplies for others, mothers raising their children without godly fathers to help them, and the like. Listen to this once again from Alexander Whyte. He is speaking about Timothy and about Paul’s wonderful remark about how Timothy’s faith lived first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.
“It was something like this. It was something not unlike one of our own Scottish households where the father is not a church member, and where the minister is so strict that he will not baptize the child to the mother. In which case, the grandmother and the mother would say to one another – ‘Very well. At any rate, we shall all the more see to it that if our child [lacks] the outward ceremony he shall have that [lack] more than made up to him in the inward substance. What he has not received in the…sprinkling with water, he shall, if we can help it, have it more than made up to him by the Holy Spirit. For we shall give God no rest till he has had far more mercy on our…child than our cruel-hearted minister has had.’ And it was so. Till the very heathenism of Timothy’s father was far better for his uncircumcised child than if that Greek father had been such a Christian father as [too many] of our fathers are.
“With such an unfeigned faith as that the two lonely women set themselves to bring up their little fatherless son in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And they succeeded….. And such … women as they were have always succeeded, and will always succeed, till the last of such women shall be called up to get her full wages from God. Such women, such mothers in Israel, as Hannah, and Elizabeth, and Mary, and Monica, and Halyburton’s mother, and Wesley’s mother…and many more. And in all those mothers it was their…faith that did it. Their…faith laid hold first on God, and then on their children. For…this kind of faith, and this kind of faith alone, takes hold of a child’s heart. You cannot feign faith before your children…. You may go on feigning faith with some success before everyone else, but not before your children.
And as it was with Lois and Eunice so it has been with so many other godly women. When Charles Spurgeon was asked how he accounted for the influence God had given him in the world, he replied, “My mother, and the truth of my message.” [In I. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage, 238n] And so now the same calling is ours. Even you who are young and unmarried should think of this. Your life is before you. Marriage and family are still in your future. But it is by no means too soon to commit yourself to handing on your faith to your children, and to develop such a faith in yourself and such a walk with God that your children will not be able to imagine not having the same faith and the same walk themselves. That has always been how multitudes of the very finest Christians come to be so. They caught the love of God and of his Word and of serving his kingdom from their parents. They caught it because God has always promised to bless that faithfulness on the part of parents to the salvation and spiritual life of their children. “I will be a God to you and to your children after you.” “I have chosen Abraham so that he will direct his children…after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he promised him.”
And in those two statements in Genesis 17 and 18 you have the entire history and dignity and responsibility and accountability and hope and prospect of the Christian family. And there also you have the largest part of the explanation of the growth of the kingdom of God throughout all the world and the coming to pass of the community that now forms the heritage of Jacob.
Soon it will be Thanksgiving and we will be thinking of the Plymouth pilgrims and their dangerous voyage to settle in the new world. We will hear people say that they came to the new world seeking freedom, in their case religious freedom. But they didn’t, of course. They already had that freedom in Holland where they had been living for some time. To a great degree they came to the new world for the sake of their children. They were worried about what the Dutch culture was doing to their children and to the spiritual prospects of their children. As their governor William Bradford put it, they made that risky voyage and endured those terrible hardships, the hunger, the cold, the loss of life, “in order to preserve to their children a life of the soul.” [In R. McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving, 187] Would you mothers and fathers, leave all behind and cross an ocean to an uncertain future for the sake of the souls of your children. I’m happy to believe that many of you would do that gladly!
I think I have told some of you the story of Ann Hamilton, who lived in Scotland from approximately 1750 to 1800. Ann was known in her village as a particularly devout Christian. The story of her deathbed has been handed down in her family from generation to generation. It was a deathbed very much like Jacob’s. Her loved ones had noticed that as she lay dying her countenance had changed from the peacefulness that was so characteristic of her to anxiety. They asked what was wrong. She finally was able to answer, and as she did, her face brightened immediately. “Children,” she said, “I have it. He has given me the promise.” And she quoted Isaiah 59:21:
“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.
She was claiming the promise of God, his covenant, for her children and descendants, just as Jacob did here. It is a family history with special meaning for me because among her fifth- generation descendants were Bill Armes, my pastor in St. Louis when I was growing up, and Jack Armes, a pioneer missionary in Kenya for whom we prayed at family devotions for many years; a man who went to a place where there were no Christians and left it years later a place with thousands of Christians. Among the sixth generation are some I studied with at Covenant College, several of them now MTW missionaries or PCA pastors. One strayed from the faith, only to be convicted upon hearing the story of Ann Hamilton’s deathbed. Today he is a Christian minister. There were, at least several years ago, some sixty-one grandchildren in the seventh generation of that family, all being raised to love and serve the Lord. What an extraordinary power there is in the deathbed blessing of a faithful Christian patriarch or matriarch, such as Jacob here. It is a sacred thing to do on your deathbed – commit your children to the covenant of God and the blessing of God – as Jacob did and Ann Hamilton did and countless other believers have done through the ages. But it is still better to do that on one’s deathbed after one has already all one’s life long committed his or her children to the Lord of the covenant and brought them up to love and serve the Lord of the covenant.
Let your children be among the multitude of Christian children who, in their adulthood will look back and realize what an astonishing gift God gave to them in placing them in their Christian family with their Christian parents. Horatius Bonar, one of the great Christians of the English- speaking world of the 19th century, who was also an accomplished poet, told the Lord in verse how much he owed to his parents:
I thank Thee for a holy ancestry;
I bless Thee for a godly parentage;
For seeds of truth and light and purity,
Sown in this heart from childhood’s earliest age.
Pray and believe and work to be sure your grateful children will think to say a similar thing to God. We are living in a revolutionary age. It is required by every revolution that children be alienated from their parents. Not our children; never our children!