Have you ever been a guest in someone’s house when they are having an intense family conversation? You know, maybe they’ve invited you for dinner, and suddenly a matter comes up and suddenly they are discussing family issues among themselves, and you suddenly feel really out of place, like maybe you shouldn’t really be there? If you felt a little like that when we were reading through these chapters earlier, I wouldn’t blame you. In Genesis 48-49 we are dropped into a really intimate family moment, as Jacob the great patriarch calls his sons to his death bed and pronounces his final words to them. It’s an intimate scene. It’s a personal scene. It is a difficult scene - difficult to understand, especially for those of us coming thousands of years later, not really familiar with this family and these customs.
Yet amazingly, these chapters are specifically referenced in the New Testament as the one shining example of Jacob’s faith. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 11, we have the hall of faith, a list of highlights from the lives of Old Testament saints meant to encourage us and give us a picture of what faith is and what it does and what it looks like. And Jacob’s life, well, as we’ve seen in Jacob’s life, there haven’t been many highlights, as for much of his life he was more a man of spiritual failure, than a man of faith. Yet, this chapter is highlighted as an act of faith:
21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.
So the question before us this morning, that I would ask is, in what sense are Jacob’s last words an act and expression of faith? And secondly, to what do these last words point us to that might encourage and mature our own faith? What Are These Chapters About? What are some of the Key Themes?
The Promise Awaits: We ended last weeks message on this note: no matter how much Israel is blessed in Egypt, no matter how they increase and prosper, they are to remember the promise that awaited them in Canaan. That God had promised them a land of their own; in other words, Egypt is not Eden, it is not the promised land. This theme is highlighted in Jacob’s first words to Joseph, as Joseph brings his sons to visit their grandfather at the beginning of this chapter:
Gen. 48:3 And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’
Jacob still vividly remembers after all these years, decades and decades, exactly where he met God, and uses his last breath to testify to his son and grandchildren, of God’s faithfulness and his promise. He has seen his children grow fruitful and multiply in Egypt, as we saw stated in the last chapter, yet God’s promise to Jacob in Luz (that is Bethel) was that “this land” would be given to his offspring as “an everlasting possession”.
This theme is reiterated at the end of these chapters, in his final command to his sons after he blessed them, in his final words before breathing his last: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers … in the land of Canaan”. And so this is the first theme which demonstrates Jacob’s faith - he knows that God’s promise land awaits, and instructs his sons accordingly.
The Future of Israel: A second key theme running through these two chapters is the future of Israel - not the man, but the nation, and his sons become heads of families, and ultimately tribes of peoples confederated into a great nation. In fact, it is in this chapter that we find the first mention of the twelve tribes of Israel, in 49:28. These chapters are explicitly filled with prophecy, as Jacob gathers his sons, saying, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.” Jacob, the man whom for most of his life had used his mouth to tell lies, here presents his word as a prophet speaking by faith, words of the Spirit over the lives of his sons. Moses agrees that Jacob speaks prophetically, saying that he blessed “each with the blessing suitable to him.” And so this is the second theme which demonstrates Jacob’s faith - speaking prophetically of Israel’s future.
The Commissioning of an Inheritance: Now, we’re not going to focus on all of the words to each of the sons today - you can get a good commentary and do some study on your own, but we’ll look at what Jacob prophesies about the prominent sons, to get the main intent, which is Jacob’s commissioning of the specific inheritance the Lord had given him to pass on.
The Birthright: A double portion of material inheritance every Israelite would pass on to the first-born son. Jacob, in being granted a substantial land promise by God, the land of Canaan, is to pass on this birthright to one of his sons.
The Royal Bloodline: A particular blessing of promise passed through the line until Messiah comes to bless the nations. In addition to the land promise, Jacob had also been granted the particular blessing that God first gave to Abraham his grandfather, that from his own descendants a son would be raised up through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed, even as the son is raised up and given authority over the nations of the world.
Generally, we might expect the birthright and the bloodline to be passed on to the same son. Yet we saw even in Jacob’s life that they weren’t necessarily the same thing. Jacob, you remember, first secured the birthright from his brother Esau by manipulating him into selling it to him over a bowl of soup. He later received the blessing of the royal bloodline from his father, through an act of deceit. And so now Jacob is going to pass on the inheritance of the birthright and the royal bloodline to his sons, and he divides them, and we’ll see how that plays out in the timeline of redemption. And so here is the third theme which demonstrates Jacob’s faith: passing on the unique inheritance that the Lord has given him.
Chapter 48: Joseph’s Sons Receive the Birthright; Foreshadowing the National Prominence of the House of Ephraim: The main takeaway of Genesis 48 is that the inheritance of the firstborn - the double portion of the house of Jacob - is given to Joseph. He doesn’t receive this inheritance directly, but through his son’s who are adopted as Jacob’s own. As Jacob calls Joseph and his sons near, he adopts them saying:
Gen. 48:5 And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. 6 And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance.
Notice, that the boys are adopted to the same status as Reuben and Simeon, granting a status to these Egyptian-born sons of Joseph to be among firstborn in his household. And in giving them each a single portion, Joseph is by proxy being given firstborn status. He is blessed through his sons, as it says in verse 15 - even though Jacob’s hands are on the boys heads, he blesses Joseph. Now there is kind of an irony here, as Jacob crosses his arms while blessing the boys, Joseph gets angry that the elder is bypassed by the younger (Um, Joseph your dad just bypassed 10 of your brothers to bless you, maybe now is not the time to talk about what is fair and who is supposed to get what blessing!) Yet Jacob is not playing favourites, by faith and through the Holy Spirit he is prophetically foretelling the future of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. It is foretold that Ephraim the younger, will become the more prominent brother, whose offspring will become a multitude of nations. Ephraim does indeed become the more prominent tribe. When the Israelites settle in Canaan, both Ephraim and Manasseh receive inheritance in the land of Canaan. However, after Solomon’s death in 925BC, the Kingdom of Israel is divided by civil war. Ephraim becomes the prominent tribe of the Northern Kingdom, as the tribe of Ephraim absorbs the other 10 Northern tribes. This is why the Northern Kingdom is referred to in scripture sometimes as Israel and sometimes as Ephraim, interchangeably. And so, in Genesis 48, it is Ephraim to whom the right of the firstborn is given. Interestingly, in Jeremiah 31:9, God himself says, “I am a father to Israel, Ephraim is my firstborn son.”
Chapter 49: Judah Receives the Bloodline; Foreshadowing the Spiritual Prominence of the House of Judah Having bestowed the right of the firstborn to Joseph through his sons, Jacob cals all the sons forward in Genesis 49 and prophetically pronounces blessings and curses over each of his sons. Now in regards to the blessing of the royal bloodline, the first three sons of Jacob are again passed over. Reuben, is discredited in his lust and lust for power. Jacob declares that he “shall not have preeminence” because he had slept with his Jacobs concubine in what many commentators believe to have been a challenge to his father’s authority. Interestingly, Reuben’s descendants will settle outside of the land of Canaan, and seem to fade out of national history: no prophet, judge, or king came from this tribe.
Because of their horrifically violent acts in seeking to avenge the honour of their sister, Simeon and Levi are cursed to be divided and scattered throughout the house of Israel. Simeon’s population dwindles rapidly during the time in the wilderness. The tribe only receives territory within the allotment of Judah and is very quickly is swallowed up by the larger tribe. The tribe of Levi never receives an inheritance at all in the land, but dwells among the tribes in 48 cities reserved for the priests of Israel.
Then Jacob turns to Judah, and you can almost imagine, after seeing what has been said to his first three brothers, Judah probably thought, “Oh boy. Here it comes. Dad probably knows that I was the one who sold Joseph into Egypt. Surely, he’ll remember how I abandoned the family for years, how I was exposed as a lier having first cheated my daughter-in-law and then, having shamefully impregnated her - thinking she was a prostitute, while she exposed my hypocrisy. Am I any better than my brothers? I guess I’ll have to take what’s coming.” I don’t believe Judah could have ever expected his dad’s words to him, in which we find one of the most significant prophesies of the O.T.:
Gen. 49:8 Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11 Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.
Instead of condemnation, Jacob pronounces the blessing of the royal bloodline over Judah. Verse 10 is the heart of the prophesy, pointing to the son of Judah who will come to bless the nations even as he is given authority over them.
A sceptre is a long staff with an ornamental head and other decorations used to represent royal authority. Judah is promised a sceptre, a ruler's staff. Meaning what? Meaning God chose to give Judah rule and authority and kingdom. God chose Judah as the leader of the twelve tribes of Israel. Even though the sons of Jacob end up bowing before Joseph in Egypt, God's promise is that in the end the sceptre of rule and authority will be given to Judah. Not merely Judah, but Judah’s descendants - this is likely the allusion to “between your feet”, being a euphemism for Judah’s lineage - the royal bloodline. Until when? the ESV translates it: “until tribute comes to him”. This is a difficult line to translate as at least four major interpretations have been suggested, which you can see in various English translations. However, no matter which translation is favoured, all at least agree that this line is predicting the rise of the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of the Israelite empire, and in the context of the book of Genesis, the promised Ruler/Messiah who is to come and restore the blessings of Eden by crushing the serpent and blessing the nations.
And so, in these chapters, as an expression of faith in the promises of God, understanding that Egypt is not Eden, not the promised land, and foretelling the future of his sons who will become confederated tribes of a great nation, Jacob bestows his inheritance - the birthright of the firstborn to Joseph through Ephraim and the bloodline of the royal blessing through Judah.
And as I showed you before, these two tribes become the two most prominent tribes of Israel, in fact, as we have seen, almost 1000 years after Jacob gives this prophesy, Israel is divided into North and South and all the tribes will fall into either the house of Ephraim (the Birthright) or the House of Judah (the Bloodline). In other words, Genesis 48-49 set the stage for basically the next 1000 years of the history of Israel.
And even more, because I want to show you an amazing passage in the book of Ezekiel. For the birthright and the bloodline will not remain separated forever, but they will be joined back together someday:
Ezek. 37:15 The word of the LORD came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ 17 And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. 18 And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. 20 When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, 21 then say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. 22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. 23 They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
When will this be? How will the two be united?
Ezek. 37:24 “My servant David [notice that Ezekiel is prophesying after King David had been long dead - so he is speaking of a son of David, the Messiah. He is talking about Jesus!] shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. 25 They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. 27 My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”
What is divided will one day be reunited. Joseph and Judah will one day both be shepherded by Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is the true son of the birthright, the greater Joseph. Like Joseph:
Jesus was also favoured by the Father
Jesus was also robed in glory
Jesus was also despised by his brothers
Jesus was also conspired against
Jesus was also made the form of a servant, living in great humility among the godless
Jesus was also falsely accused
Jesus was also unjustly tried
Jesus was also thrown into a pit and supposed to be abandoned to Sheol
Jesus was also raise out of the pit by the will of the King
Jesus was also seated at the right hand of the King
Jesus has also brought blessing to all nations
Jesus is the true heir of the royal bloodline, the son of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. The son of Judah, and the hey of King David. He not only is the greater Joseph, he is also he greater Judah [whereas the entire life of Joseph seems to point toward the Messiah, one episode in Judah’s life stands out], for just as Judah offered to stand in for his condemned brother for the sake of His Father’s love, so also Jesus, for the sake of his own Heavenly Father’s love offers to stand in for us who are condemned in our sins, that we might be saved. And the promise of Ezekiel rings true: Through Jesus, God says, “I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
I hope you can see now how Jacob’s last words are an act and expression of faith. Now, in these last few minutes, to what do these last words point us to that might encourage and mature our own faith?
I think we can be encouraged by the faith of a dying man. Jacob was by no means a perfect man. For most of his life he wasn’t even a good man. This is truly a picture of God’s grace in the life of a long-lost sinner. Blessing his family, pointing his children to faith in the promise even with his last breaths. Do not wait until your last breath.
I think we can marvel at the promise/plan of God, raising up these two sons to prefigure and point to the fulfillment of His plan in Jesus. Genesis always confused me - if Judah is the son, why the focus on Joseph, who so obviously is presented as a saviour figure. Studying these chapters brought me to a greater nuanced and balanced understanding of the plan of God.
I think these chapters should really get us excited the next week is the start of advent, the Christmas season. They point to Jesus and his incarnation, who comes with salvation in his hand. He is the lion of the tribe of Judah, the son of David, the saviour of the world.