Stupid Etiological Interlude: Genesis 48

Joseph hears that his father (who is back to being called “Jacob” after a few chapters of “Israel) is sick. He takes his sons to go visit the old man before he croaks. When he gets there, Jacob tells Joseph the “it’s not new, but it’s new to you” story about God appearing to him and telling him that Canaan is his land and that they will have lots of babies there. Every dying father for the last half-dozen generations has bragged about this covenant from God. Conveniently, God never constrained himself to any timetable for fulfilling his side of the covenant, so everyone just assumes it was meant for the next generation. It reminds me of another unfulfilled promise that keeps getting passed further and further down the line, you know, the one about that Jesus guy coming back to Earth…
Jacob’s deathbed blessing takes the weird turn then, as he channels Yoda and lays claim to Joseph’s children:

`And now, thy two sons, who are born to thee in the land of Egypt, before my coming unto thee to Egypt, mine they [are]; Ephraim and Manasseh, as Reuben and Simeon they are mine;

I read the “mine, they are” part in Yoda’s voice. You should too. I wasn’t immediately clear on why the dying old man would start stealing children he has only barely met, so I sought Kugel’s take on the story, from How to Read the Bible. He concludes that it is:

a mid-course correction in Israel’s list of tribes. The idea that there were precisely twelve tribes seems to have become, at an early stage, a fixity; it could not be changed. But reality changed. At one point Levi was apparently a tribe like any other, and it may well have had its own tribal land. Later, however, this tribe became essentially landless; the Levites became a scattered people of priests and other religious functionaries. Simeon, too, appears to have disappeared. So what was to become of the number twelve? To compensate for at least one of these absences, the territory elsewhere attributed to a single ancestor figure, Joseph–a territory that included the lands called “Ephraim” and “Manasseh”–was counted as two territories, each with its own ancestor figures.

So, basically, that weirdness has etiological roots, like much of the weirdness we have encountered so far. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I look for in my foundational religious books: falsities inserted retroactively to explain the political landscape of some tribesman a couple thousand years ago.

This is followed by another chunk of repetitive etiological weirdness. Jacob (who is now back to being called Israel) wants to bless Joseph’s children, and places his right hand on the younger son Ephraim and his left hand on the older son Manasseh. Joseph assumes this is a mistake due to the old man’s blindness and tries to correct him, but Jacob holds fast, saying:

`I have known, my son, I have known; he also becometh a people, and he also is great, and yet, his young brother is greater than he, and his seed is the fulness of the nations;’

You don’t have to look too hard to see that that is metaphorical; it helps that the story makes absolutely no fucking sense on a superficial narrative level. Five seconds earlier Jacob didn’t know who these children were, and now he magically knows their future life trajectory. He’s been imbued with those mystical powers dying old men get in the Bible to prophesy things that have already happened by the time the story was actually written. It’s just getting annoying now how hard they’re trying to sell the vaticinium ex eventu. Their insistence on having contemporary affairs tied to ancient roots also creates a confusing, divergent theology. We are supposed to believe that Jehovah is the only supernatural being, and He is in control of the Israelites’ fate, but then he disappears for chapters on end while superstitious, pagan notions take over and the story is driven by supernaturally prescient old men and sages that can discern the future from dreams.

The chapter ends on an anticlimactic note, with the old man ailing but still alive, just throwing around blessings and abducting children indiscriminately.

Candy in my van, I have.

Candy in my van, I have.


1 And it cometh to pass, after these things, that [one] saith to Joseph, `Lo, thy father is sick;’ and he taketh his two sons with him, Manasseh and Ephraim.

And [one] declareth to Jacob, and saith, `Lo, thy son Joseph is coming unto thee;’ and Israel doth strengthen himself, and sit upon the bed.

And Jacob saith unto Joseph, `God Almighty hath appeared unto me, in Luz, in the land of Canaan, and blesseth me,

and saith unto me, Lo, I am making thee fruitful, and have multiplied thee, and given thee for an assembly of peoples, and given this land to thy seed after thee, a possession age-during.

`And now, thy two sons, who are born to thee in the land of Egypt, before my coming unto thee to Egypt, mine they [are]; Ephraim and Manasseh, as Reuben and Simeon they are mine;

and thy family which thou hast begotten after them are thine; by the name of their brethren they are called in their inheritance.

`And I — in my coming in from Padan-[Aram] Rachel hath died by me in the land of Canaan, in the way, while yet a kibrath of land to enter Ephrata, and I bury her there in the way of Ephrata, which [is] Bethlehem.’

And Israel seeth the sons of Joseph, and saith, `Who [are] these?’

and Joseph saith unto his father, `They [are] my sons, whom God hath given to me in this [place];’ and he saith, `Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I bless them.’

10 And the eyes of Israel have been heavy from age, he is unable to see; and he bringeth them nigh unto him, and he kisseth them, and cleaveth to them;

11 and Israel saith unto Joseph, `To see thy face I had not thought, and lo, God hath shewed me also thy seed.’

12 And Joseph bringeth them out from between his knees, and boweth himself on his face to the earth;

13 and Joseph taketh them both, Ephraim in his right hand towards Israel’s left, and Manasseh in his left towards Israel’s right, and bringeth [them] nigh to him.

14 And Israel putteth out his right hand, and placeth [it] upon the head of Ephraim, who [is] the younger, and his left hand upon the head of Manasseh; he hath guided his hands wisely, for Manasseh [is] the first-born.

15 And he blesseth Joseph, and saith, `God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked habitually: God who is feeding me from my being unto this day:

16 the Messenger who is redeeming me from all evil doth bless the youths, and my name is called upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and they increase into a multitude in the midst of the land.’

17 And Joseph seeth that his father setteth his right hand on the head of Ephraim, and it is wrong in his eyes, and he supporteth the hand of his father to turn it aside from off the head of Ephraim to the head of Manasseh;

18 and Joseph saith unto his father, `Not so, my father, for this [is] the first-born; set thy right hand on his head.’

19 And his father refuseth, and saith, `I have known, my son, I have known; he also becometh a people, and he also is great, and yet, his young brother is greater than he, and his seed is the fulness of the nations;’

20 and he blesseth them in that day, saying, `By thee doth Israel bless, saying, God set thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh;’ and he setteth Ephraim before Manasseh.

21 And Israel saith unto Joseph, `Lo, I am dying, and God hath been with you, and hath brought you back unto the land of your fathers;

22 and I — I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I have taken out of the hand of the Amorite by my sword and by my bow.’


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