Genesis 48

With Jacob back in the storyline the character is given center stage in this chapter. Joseph is told that his father is ill and goes to visit him along with his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. As the reader knows these children bear the names of two tribes of Israel, and this is of course not only knowledge that we who today have the complete Tanakh are aware of, but also would have been part of the lives of the historical hearers and, to a lesser degree, readers of Genesis at the time it was entering its final form with the editors and redactors of the Priestly layer of the book. In the current section, indeed, scholars think that verses three through seven might be an interpretative insert by those last textual workers of the so-called P source. This makes much sense for two reasons: Firstly the portion is a neat explanation of why the two eponymous juveniles who were Jacob’s grandsons and not sons should be included in the namesake tribal units made up supposedly of Jacob’s direct progeny (Jacob is made to state that he adopts them as the children of himself and Rachel, and to stipulate that any further issue Joseph and Asenath might have (or Joseph and another I suppose, but anyway no additional offspring are ever listed for us) will be associated with his name and not Jacob’s; in the process of this he calls both boys by name and predicts great futures for them); and secondly because it returns the focus to the land of Israel (the land that would come to be the nation state of Israel) with which the chapter also ends when Jacob has Joseph promise to return his body to be buried in the ancestral grave in Canaan after he has passed away. There might also be a hinting here that the exogamous marriage of Joseph needed to be “repaired”, and especially given the standing of the linked tribes at the period of Genesis’ finishing touches that might have seemed socio-historically necessary. Such would be troubling from an ethical standpoint (as if those born of mixed marriages were somehow “less”), but it would not be outside of the thinking of many ancient cultures and even some modern ones. Nevertheless, purely with regard to the reading experience, if we accept this analysis then I think we might engage the chapter without those verses, and if so I find that as a narrative it reads much more smoothly. Framing the insert (if such it is) are verses two and eight:

48.2: “When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ Israel [/Jacob] summoned his strength and sat up in bed.”
48.8: “Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel [/Jacob] asked, ‘Who are these?’”

We have noticed far too much craftsmanship within Genesis to think that someone would have written it in such a way that Joseph arrives to Jacob’s room with his sons, Jacob calls those same sons by their names and adopts them as his own, and then asks who they are; if, however, we jump from verse two to eight then everything flows quite well. Thereafter in verse nine Joseph informs Jacob who the lads are and Jacob summons them towards himself to bless them. This yields another interesting point to the portion. His eyes are reported to be “dim with age” (verse ten, recalling the same description of Isaac in 27.1: only there this feature allows Jacob to practice his deception and win the first born’s blessing, while here Jacob again is the one who winks and wins (as it were)), and so Joseph assumes that Jacob is mistaken when he crosses his arms in order to place his right hand on the head of the younger (Ephraim; which tribe became the most important in the Northern Kingdom) and his left on the head of the elder (Manasseh; which tribe was geographically large (straddling the Jordan River) but not as influential). Jacob flatly tells Joseph that he knows what he is doing, and that it is the junior who will become greater than the senior (another connection here, this time with the relationship between Jacob and his older brother Esau), with the ending of verse twenty summarizing it: “Thus he [Jacob] put Ephraim before Manasseh.” Once more the theme of reversal of the natural order is placed into our tale, and once more the reader is curious how it will all turn out, whether or not what has been foretold will come to pass (and what a surprise it would be if the writers did not follow up on their own plot leads!). In this too, I think, we can understand the hands of the editors as tying up loose ends and preparing the way to transition into the following book of the Torah. This — like other treasures of our received traditions — is literature of exquisite quality, lending itself to increasing multiplicities the more it is studied.

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