Genesis 48:1-4 “Some time later Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him. When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to you,’ Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed. Jacob said to Joseph, ‘God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, “I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you”’.” [and so on to verse 22].

* Moses tells us that it was seventeen years after meeting with Pharaoh that a messenger came from the land of Goshen to the house where Joseph lived (which would have been close to the royal palace) to tell him that his father Jacob was very ill. Jacob wasn’t living in the luxurious surroundings enjoyed by Joseph the prime minister of Egypt. He lived with his growing family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in the pleasant land of Goshen where he lacked for nothing. Then a time came – as it will come to all of us – when the old patriarch grew weaker and weaker. He sensed the end was near and so he sent for his beloved son Joseph, and much of the brief remainder of this book of Genesis deals with the dying words of Jacob. These seventeen years have mellowed and matured Jacob. When he’d first met and spoken to Pharaoh he’d told him that his life had been a difficult one, but that is not his perspective now. He is facing immanent death and the heaven that lies after it for the people of God, and Jacob was considering the future of the family he was leaving behind. Jacob was living on the borders of eternity. Soon he would be with his father and grandfather Abraham in glory and that world of God’s blessedness was becoming increasingly real to him. God was giving him grace to die well. Money and luxury now meant little to Jacob as a dying man, but we know what a great temptation they are to Christians while they live. They have ruined many a believer.

I think of an Olympic athlete who once stood tall for Jesus Christ, refusing to take part in sports on the Lord’s Day, but when he began to experience fame and to work with media people and for the media – especially moving in that evanescent television world of flickering images and expense accounts – his Christian profession shrank and then his marriage ended. He makes no claims to be a Christian today. It could happen to any of us, and the apostle Paul had seen that in New Testament days. “Take heed you who stand lest you fall,” he cried. Let us all watch and pray, and let us be sure to die well. Let us die full of grace, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith. Let us die with a good hope through the mercy of God. Let us often think of the fleeting nature of our lives and weigh all we do in the light of death, judgment, and eternity. To Jacob the eternal world was very near, but as his anticipation for that world grew stronger, so did his concern for the people of God living on in this world, his family and friends.


I remember taking our three girls on Christmas Day 1978 to ‘Tanygraig’ and into their dying grandfather’s bedroom. They were dressed in new Christmas hats and scarves, bright-eyed with excitement. Little did they know that they were seeing my father for the last time; his face lit up with love and delight as he saw them. He was to pass away that evening. How important grandfathers are to our children. James Dobson has a book called What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, and in it there is a little essay that an eight-year-old girl wrote called “What’s a Grandmother?” Children, I am speaking to you now; I am going to read to you the ideas an eight-year old girl had about grandmothers.
“A grandmother is a lady who has no children of her own. She likes other people’s little boys and girls. A grandfather is a man grandmother. He goes for walks with the boys, and they talk about fishing and stuff like that. Grandmothers don’t have to do anything except to be there. They’re so old they shouldn’t play hard or run. It is enough if they drive us to the supermarket and have lots of 10p. and 20p. coins for the pretend horses. Or if they take us for walks they should slow down past things like pretty leaves and caterpillars. They should never say, ‘Hurry up!’ Usually grandmothers are fat, but not too fat to tie your shoelaces. They wear glasses and funny underwear. They can take out both their teeth and gums. Grandmothers don’t have to be smart, only answer questions like, ‘How come dogs chase cats?’ Grandmothers don’t talk baby talk, like visitors do, because it is so hard to understand. When they read to us, they don’t skip or mind if it is the same story all over again. Everybody should have a grandmother, especially if you don’t have television, because they are the only grown-ups who have time.”
So into Jacob’s bedroom entered his dearest son Joseph and two of his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The old man was barely conscious, but when a servant told him that Joseph and his sons were there he rallied himself and sat up in bed. He looked at Joseph and he was as clear as glass in what he thought and said if not with his physical eyes. His mind was alert and he had been thinking of God’s dealings with him in the past without any muddle. At first he seemed to be ignoring the two grandsons; probably he couldn’t see them. He looked at Joseph and he reminded him of what Joseph knew only too well, speaking firmly and clearly, saying; “God Almighty” (those were his first words) God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you’” (vv.3&4). God speaking to him was the most memorable and important event in the life of Jacob, not his taking three more wives, and his getting one up on his brother, and deceiving his father. When we Christians look back as we are dying what are our happiest memories? We’re not thinking about our sexual falls, and our dishonest business deals, and the money we are leaving behind, and how we really put some people in their place. We’re ashamed of all such things and regret them. We think of the times God came near and blessed us.

Twice God had appeared to Jacob at Luz, that is, at Bethel. On the first occasion he was on the run from Esau whom he had cheated out of his blessing, and Esau was hunting for him to kill him. God would have
been just in taking the blessing from Jacob and giving it to Esau, but it was at that time, to such a cheat, God had spoken and blessed him and assured him that he would become a great nation and that he would possess the land of Canaan. What grace, and then after many years the Lord met with Jacob once again in the same place and reconfirmed his privileged position. While it is nowhere recorded that God specifically promised Jacob that the land would be an “everlasting possession” (v.4) that fact had been told to Abram and Jacob knew of that. “Consider the grace of God to me,” father Jacob told Joseph, with Joseph’s sons quiet and listening. When Dr. Ernest Kevan sat with his father at his deathbed he said to Ernest, “The great truths of the gospel I have believed all my life. I believe them yet.” How precious the last words of our loved ones. Jacob believed in the word of the covenant God yet and affirmed his faith!


Now the old man peered at Joseph’s boys, Manasseh and Ephraim. He couldn’t see clearly; I suppose he had cataracts. “Who are these?” (v.8). “They are the sons God has given me here,” said Joseph. Immediately Jacob was roused; he must have been thinking and planning what he had to do to those grandsons. “Bring them to me so that I may bless them. Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them” (vv.9&10). Now unbeknown to Jacob all the time he had been talking about them to their father the boys had been in the room listening to what grandfather had been saying. What actually had Jacob been saying about them to their father? “Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine. Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers” (vv.5&6).
Here were two boys who’d received every advantage of being sons of one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. The one thing they understood was political power, and yet they were now hearing of their destiny; there lives and the lives of their families were not to be inexorably intertwined with Egypt for ever. There was not going to develop from them another dynasty that one day would take over the pharaohship of that mighty land. They were debarred from thinking like that by this word of God. Their destiny lay with the people living in Goshen, those contemptible herdsmen from Canaan, that “community of peoples” destined to return to live in Canaan one day. That was going to happen, even if the people had to wait 400 years for it to occur and the seed of Ephraim and Manasseh – their descendants – would be with the liberated slaves, dying in the wilderness, marching around the walled city of Jericho, fighting against the Amalekites – there their seed also would be, but not as foot soldiers. They would both be – each of them henceforth must be – one of the twelve tribes of Jacob. Jacob is upgrading them. So the sons of Joseph need not imagine that they were being downgraded. No, it was Egypt that was going to be downgraded; Pharaoh and his army was going to be being drowned in the Red Sea by Jehovah’s judgment. The children of Israel were going to inherit the earth. The names of Joseph’s sons were going to be on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem.

Other sons had had to be downgraded as unsuitable for the privileges of the first born. Reuben, due to his sin of sleeping with his auntie, Bilhah, the mother of his father Jacob’s children (Gen. 35:22), would be stripped of his birthright (Gen. 49:4). That privilege would now be conveyed to Joseph. No doubt the normal course would have been to give the birthright to the next son in line, and that was Simeon, or to the next after him and that was Levi, but both of these sons had disgraced and discredited themselves through the mass murder of the Shechemites (back in Genesis chapter 34). It was Joseph instead who was to receive the rights of the firstborn and hence his two sons were exalted. Later biblical historians understood and stated this clearly; “Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph)” (I Chronicles 5:1-2).

So Jacob achieved this purpose before he died of elevating Joseph in this unusual way, by adopting both of Joseph’s sons as his own, on a par with Reuben and Simeon (verse 5). Each son of Joseph would receive one portion, and in doing so Joseph would receive a double portion compared to his brothers: as Jacob says to Joseph at the end of the chapter; “And I give you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow” (v.22).

Then this strange reference to the death of Rachel in verse seven becomes clearer. “As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Genesis 48:7). You know that Joseph was the firstborn son of Rachel, Jacob’s chosen and beloved wife by choice. Leah was his wife “by trickery,” while Bilhah and Zilpah were his wives “by human devising.”

Jacob is reminiscing to Joseph in this seventh verse about the death of his mother, dying prematurely on the way to Ephrath (Bethlehem), but there is more here than two men talking of the woman they loved, a wife and a mother. The inference is this, that had Rachel not died so early in life she would have presented Jacob with many other sons. But now this miracle of the virtual resurrection of Joseph has burst into Jacob’s life. Joseph was not dead and in fact he reappears complete with these two sons. Jacob here says to Joseph, maybe for the hundredth time, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too” (v.11), and the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh (who were Rachel’s grandsons) provides old Jacob with two more sons, and technically “through Rachel.” By upgrading his sons Jacob rewarded Joseph – the one son who had been most faithful to the God of his fathers even while in a foreign land, knowing God’s blessing on his life even in the most adverse circumstances. Joseph, the savior of his people and the line of promise, was worthy of the favour his father bestowed upon him when he elevated his sons to the status of heads of the tribes of Israel.


This section is interjected with legal language because Jacob is performing the legal action of adoption. Here he verifies his credentials as one to whom God has spoken.

i] First, the adopter is identified by name, and it is Jacob’s covenant name ‘Israel’ that is used, and then . . .

ii] Secondly, the adoptees were formally identified through interrogation of their father:  “When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, ‘Who are these?’ Joseph said to his father, ‘They are my sons, whom God has given me -here.’ And he said, ‘Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.’ Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them” (vv.8-10).Then Jacob gives to Joseph the required formula, “your two son born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine” (v.5). Then he calls them by their names, emphasizing the intentionality in what he is doing; “Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine just as Reuben and Simeon are mine” (v.5). It is all legal and official, an ancient adoption process is taking place which has echoes elsewhere in the Bible and also in ancient Near East practices. Then there are physical acts reinforcing the oral declaration confirming who were the ones receiving this change of status. Jacob in fact put the boys on his knees and his hands on their heads to bless them.

I wonder did he think of the day when he masqueraded himself as his brother Esau, dressed in his brother’s clothes, and wearing the skin of kids on his arms to make him a hairy man like his brother? Did he think of that disgraceful day when his father with eye-sight as poor as his own set him apart with special blessings? So Jacob made the two sons come near, seating them on his knees, holding them close and kissing them – yes they were his beloved grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh. Then as the adoption ceremony ended, Joseph himself bowed down with his face to the ground. That was his legal acknowledgement that he was submitting to God’s will for his sons to become adopted by their grandfather. He was acknowledging that through his father Jacob God’s promises had come to him and his seed.

iii] Thirdly, Jacob invoked God’s blessing on Joseph: here is the closing ceremony; “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (vv. 15&16). That is Jacob’s intercession and invocation. May this glorious blessing be Joseph’s and his sons. “Bless the boys!” May they never be drawn to the gods of Egypt and come under the influence of the names of Egyptian idols. May they be unashamed to be called by the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! There seems to be a threefold pattern of the invocation here, and it anticipates the later and fuller revelation in Scripture: God is the God of his fathers; God is the Shepherd of his people; and God is the Redeemer of his people.

Then we see how Joseph had his own plans for his sons, and that he sought to stage-manage the final event so that Manasseh, the older boy, would receive the blessing of the right hand of Jacob. But Jacob openly and gloriously crossed his hands and he placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim even though he were the younger son of Joseph(v.14). “When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, ‘Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.’ But his father refused and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. 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’ ” (vv.17-19). What do we see here?

A] The spiritual authority of Jacob. He could lay hands on a person and give him spiritual authority. This is the first reference in Scripture to the laying on of hands. It is a symbol of the confidence a person has that a gift has been given by God to the recipient and in the laying of hands this is officially and publically recognized. In the case of prophets or apostles, there would be the actual power invested by God in them to transfer a spiritual gift and status to the recipient. No man today has the power to bestow the Person or gifts of the Holy Spirit to another. That is God’s grand prerogative, and in that honour none shall share. I cannot give the Holy Spirit by placing my hands on someone’s head; I cannot give gifts of the Holy Spirit by putting my hands on your head; no bishop, though he may claim to be in the apostolic succession of bishops’ hands laid on their heads, and bishops’ hands being laid on their heads, and hands having been laid on their heads, back and back and back, stretching back to Peter and the apostles – the so-called apostolic succession. What historical fallacy and theological delusion! That is not how the Holy Spirit is given. God cannot be conferred by a human touch. I have often told you I would choose death rather than have a bishop put his hands on my head to confirm that I had the Holy Spirit and was fit for the gospel ministry. It would be a denial of my entire calling and ministry. But the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament could lay hands on favoured believers and they received gifts of the Holy Spirit, like the gift to speak in a language they had not known before.

B] Jacob also exercised the right to refuse to lay hands on a man. Hebrews 11 is the great gallery of Old Testament leaders with references to the highlights of their lives, and it is this singular incident in the whole long life of Jacob that alone is selected by the apostle; “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Hebs. 11:21). This was Jacob’s outstanding act of faith, the only thing recorded in the life of Jacob in Hebrews chapter 11. Isn’t that strange? There are mysteries here. Jacob gave Ephraim the younger boy the privileged blessing of the first-born, and he predicted Ephraim would have the preeminence. This was the fourth consecutive generation of Abraham’s descendants in which the normal patt
ern of the firstborn assuming prominence over the second born had been reversed: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh.

Remember, from before the birth of Jacob, he was kicking against the normal law of the firstborn. He was pulling back Esau to become the firstborn. The elective principle of choice rather than the principle of first in the biological order was what he wanted, and here Jacob is still perpetuating that elective principle. He himself had experienced the blessings of distinguishing grace when he, as the younger brother, gained the blessing from Isaac that was customarily reserved for the firstborn. As an only child I know nothing of the pressures of sibling rivalry and haven’t observed such rivalry in my children, but perhaps some of you have, and maybe can draw great encouragement from this story. In some families the firstborn children are favoured and spoiled, and children that come later are overlooked. But the Bible is full of hope for younger children. Isaac was a younger child. So was Jacob. So was Joseph. So was Moses. So was Gideon. So was David. In blessing the younger over the older, Jacob teaches us that God is no respecter of persons. He exalts those who honour him, regardless of their background or their birth order. Men and women are born into the family of God not because of their place in the pecking order of a human family. We are born from above not of blood or the will of a human father. This is a birth that is of the Spirit who works and does as he wills. And very often it is through the ‘overlooked’ peoples or countries or small village congregations of the world that God does his greatest work. You may feel at times overlooked or neglected? Please know that you’re in good company. Many of the greatest men and women of the Bible felt this way, yet God used them in mighty ways. Love and pray for your children; it will takes years of your life, but as God has given them to you then you must give them back to him day by day. How we will all benefit from children dedicated to God, children who have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in God.

So God had made it known to old Jacob what Joseph should have known from his own experience, that the Lord has his own agenda, and that his plans don’t necessarily follow the normal flow of expected patterns or social norms. He does things his way. It is the younger son Ephraim who is chosen to be the leader, and so he became. Eventually, after the split-up of the tribes following Solomon’s death, the tribe of Ephraim was to dominate the northern kingdom of Israel, so that if a prophet prophesied about ‘Ephraim” he was in fact speaking about all of the north, all of Samaria, all ten tribes were now called ‘Ephraim.’ Just like Americans refer to England, meaning England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The dominant country has given its name to all four nations in the UK. That is what happens to Ephraim. Its name becomes the name of the northern kingdom after the split. This boy on whose head Jacob put his hand and said “May God bless this boy and may he increase greatly on the earth” became a big tribe!

Here’s the principle seen in the Bible; God’s grace is displayed in God’s choice. His ways are not our ways. The Bible reveals how God regularly overturned the traditions of his people by bypassing the inheritance rights of the natural heir. The tables are turned; Reuben and Levi are sidelined in favour of Joseph’s sons, and the leadership is handed to Judah. The Messiah is born of the line of Judah. The doctrine of election is built into the whole fabric of the Biblical narrative, so that we learn that God is both in control and has authority to act as he pleases in his world.

C] Christians still have the power to be shocked at distinguishing grace. If Joseph was shocked at what his father had done under the inspiration of God in choosing the younger, then we should not be surprised if Christians balk at the doctrine of divine election today. Joseph was aghast at his father’s action. What father Jacob had done transgressed every tradition and human legal system concerning family law from the Nile to the Euphrates. Joseph knew his sons intimately and there could be no logical or biological reason for his father to have done this, to elevate and bless younger Ephraim over older Manasseh. All Manasseh’s years had been lived with the privilege and expectation of the firstborn. As Manasseh’s father, Joseph had worked to install expectation, and character, and a sense of responsibility in his older boy, and now this humiliation of his son and himself was great – all from his own highly esteemed father on his deathbed. It was all quite irreversible. Joseph could try physically to pull his father’s right hand away from Ephraim’s head and put it on Manasseh’s, but all to no avail. The old man was surprisingly strong and this was no time for arm wrestling with Dad. The deed was done and fixed; he and his older son had to live with this undeserved humiliation. We do not know why it was done in this instance, to favour this younger boy, and elevate him. Ephraim was utterly undeserving of this honour, but we do know there are good reasons why God may bypass one and bless another:

A)It highlights the vitality and power of the electing love of God. God has the authority to do this. No one can say, “What are you doing?” As clay we have no right to argue with the Potter. None of us deserves anything from his hands, yet an uncountable multitude because of such grace are henceforth enabled to taste and see that the Lord is good.

B)It highlights the mercy of God. God’s mercy does not depend upon our works. God chooses those on whom he will have mercy and compassion. He chose to show none to rebel angels, but did display eternal and unimaginable mercy to millions of rebel sinners. He would transform each one of them into the likeness of his Son. God would freely choose to do that; he’d made up his mind.

C)It highlights the glory of God. One of the recurrent themes throughout Genesis is the pleasure God takes in glorifying himself, and as a result he shames the proud, and powerful, and worldly wise, and strong so that no one can boast in his presence to being smart enough to get glorified. It was all of grace.

D)God is concerned for our perplexity as to the way he exercises his sovereign rights. Jacob is not silent in the face of Joseph’s distress. He does not tell him to be silent. He does not mock him. He assures him that he understands his feelings. “I know, my son, I know” (v.19). It is such a tender word, the repetition is the repetition of the strongest sympathy and affection. And this same Lord speaks to us, to our hurt feelings, to every pang that rends our hearts, when our loved ones are not yet saved, through his promises in Scripture and through the preaching of his word. Sometimes a light of tenderness surprises the Christian while he sings a hymn. It is the God of Jacob who says, “I know, my child, I know how you are feeling. I know how hard it is for you at this moment.”

Then God also gives a word of assurance. “I am not cold or indifferent to those you love. It is not my will that they perish but that they come to know me as their God.” The ones passed over for leadership, like Manasseh, will still be blessed; they will prosper and become a people; “he too will become great” (v.19), but acknowledge this, that his brother will become greater. Isn’t that the case with us all as believers? There is no monotonous, monolithic greyness about the people of God. In the apostles that Jesus chose there was the mighty Peter but there were others like one named Jude about whom we know nothing save his name. Both were of the twelve, but God discriminates and so there is wonderful diversity, and originality, and uniqueness in every Christian. And from Jacob’s words let us be assured that God would have our dear ones saved. He is on our side in feeding our compassion and longing for them. Those feelings come from him. This is a constant love of God for us and ours which is the invariable of the future. We can rely on this, just as we are told of Jacob here that he blessed them both, Ephraim and Manasseh (v.20). Neither deserved his love; both received his love; it was a distinguishing love. That is the sovereignty of God.

v] Good gifts constantly come to us from God. The chapter ends with Jacob’s words to Joseph and the gift of land which none of his brothers are going to receive. “Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘I am about to die, but God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers. And to you, as one who is over your brothers, I give the ridge of land I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow’” (vv.21&22). Great men like Spurgeon and M’Cheyne and Lloyd-Jones eventually ended their ministries. Their friends and congregations were desolate. What would be the future without their preaching? No others could touch their hearts like their beloved preacher. But those Christians have to learn from what Jacob says here: “I am about to die but God will be with you.” Many times it is not me that you need as your pastor. You have survived without me many times this unusual year, and your desperate need one day will not be another man in the pulpit. But you do need God always, his presence and his blessing on your life. So often in our lives we think we miss our loved ones, we feel we need our late husband or an old wise elder now deceased, but what you are really yearning for at those times is God. And if he is with you then you have more than all you need. You find it all in him,

Jacob gave to Joseph (who’d suffered so much when once Jacob had sent the boy on an errand to his brothers) a special portion of land in Shechem. That was a down payment of all that God would give to him and give to all his descendants as they battled for the land in the future. God was theirs and so the future was theirs too as it is ours also. All things are ours because God is ours.

11th September 2011 GEOFF THOMAS

* This sermon is heavily dependent in using the fine material of Rev. Paul Thangiah on the Twelve tribes of Israel from the website