This is actually a fairly nice little chapter, and a welcome break from reading on and on about Joseph and God’s big plan to enslave all the Egyptians by starving them until they are desperate enough to sell their own bodies for food.
In this chapter, Jacob/Israel is ill and dying, so Joseph goes to him. Jacob/Israel tells his son that God had appeared to him at Luz and blessed him (seen in Genesis 35) and rehashes the whole God “will give you this land to your descendants after you for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 48:4) thing.Then comes the zinger: “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine” (Gen. 48:5). They’re mine, all mine!
But it’s okay, because “the offspring born to you after them shall be yours” (Gen. 48:6). You’d think he might have asked first…
Jacob/Israel tells Joseph to bring his children forward, which the latter does, and Jacob/Israel embraces the two boys. “I had not thought to see your face; and lo, God has let me see your children also” (Gen. 48:11). Even the old grump in me can’t help but to melt just a little at this scene.
Jacob/Israel begins his blessing of the two boys, but he puts his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Manasseh’s, even though Ephraim is the younger of the two! He begins his blessing, that they may “grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Gen. 48:16).
Joseph sees that his dad has his hands on the wrong boys and “he took his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head” (Gen. 48:17), but Jacob/Israel rebukes him, saying that this is the correct way for Ephraim’s posterity shall be the greater even though he is the younger brother.
Apparently, this is all a ‘just so…’ story explaining the fact that Joseph’s line “came to be divided into two tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim, each claiming full rank with the other tribes,” or so says my study bible.
The blessing takes an odd turn when Jacob/Israel says: “God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.” (Gen. 48:20). They don’t need to be as Ephraim and Manasseh, they are Ephraim and Manasseh!
Nevertheless, this has been taken up as a traditional Jewish blessing that fathers give to their children on Friday evenings.
Tamar Fox puts forward two theories about why Ephraim and Manasseh were chosen as the names recited in a blessing given to children. The first is that this is the first set of brothers who are not pitted against each other. In fact, they don’t seem to have much conflict at all. The second theory is that they are the first kids raised in a “foreign land,” and that they retain their identity as Jews. In oth cases, the blessing conveys the fathers’ wish that his children emulate Joseph’s sons.
To conclude, Jacob/Israel tells Joseph that God “will bring you again to the land of your fathers” (Gen. 48:21) which, if I’m guessing correctly, never happens. But we’ll see.
“Moreover,” continues Jacob/Israel, “I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope which I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow” (Gen. 48:22). According to my study bible, this refers to a different tradition than the one that actually made it into the Bible, in which Jacob/Israel’s sons forcibly take Shechem (its foreskins along with it) – an act that Jacob/Israel had nothing to do with.