Gen. 48-49 - Crossed Hands and Undeserved Blessings
February 24, 2013 Speaker: Series: Genesis
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Genesis 48:1–49:27
[Text: Gen. 48-49] “Crossed Hands and Undeserved Blessings”
[Read Genesis 48–49 and Pray]
With Jacob’s death rapidly approaching, Genesis itself is drawing to a close. The people of God are safely in Egypt and, by God’s grace, will survive the famine that threatened their existence. But as Jacob’s eyes dim with age, he understands that there is still work to be done, a faithful act he needs to perform as the patriarch of the people of God. Jacob has been blessed by God his entire life. Now, as the covenant head of the people of God, he needs to pass on the blessing to the next generation.
That’s how this covenant of grace works. God gave it to Abraham and said that it was for him and for his offspring. Isaac blessed Jacob with the blessing he himself had received. So Jacob summons his strength and sits up in bed to bless his grandsons-turned-sons with the blessing of God, giving them a place within this Story that God was writing. And as he blesses each of his sons in chapter 49 his words are not mere wishful thinking; because he speaks as the head of the covenant people, the words are prophetic. Jacob speaks the very words of God, the substance of which God would bring into reality as the Story of Redemption moves forward.
We’ll talk about the importance of the blessing themselves, but this story of blessings includes some twists; the blessings don’t go where you would expect.
The blessing of the firstborn doesn’t go to the firstborn. It goes to Joseph who, in his two sons adopted by Jacob, obtains a double inheritance and the honor of the firstborn. And when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, he gives the greater blessing to Ephraim, the younger brother, by crossing his hands, passing over the firstborn and putting his right hand on the head of the younger.
And then there’s Judah in 49:8-12. Joseph and Ephraim, who seem to have the preeminence in Genesis, both will be passed over in the Story of Redemption; the line of kings – beginning with David and ending with Jesus – would come from the family of Judah, a man who once had a heart as hard (and as cold) as stone.
We don’t really know how the brothers reacted to these blessings. But we do know how Joseph reacted to his younger son getting the blessing that “should” have belonged to his firstborn. In 48:17, is says, “(w)hen Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him,” and Joseph tried to move his father’s hand to the head of his firstborn son, Manasseh.
To this point, Joseph has consistently been the most faithful follower of Yahweh and served as the rescuer of the people of God. But here Joseph wanted the blessing to come to the one who (humanly speaking) deserved it. He wanted the blessing of God to work the way he thought it should work. Instead he saw what God was doing through Jacob – and it made him unhappy.
What happens to us when blessing goes where it is least expected? It does one of two things, usually. For those who don’t get it but think they deserve it unhappiness – even frustration or anger – is the result. But for those who don’t deserve a blessing and get it anyway, it stirs a humble joy and quiet gratitude.
Have you ever seen what God was doing and it didn’t look like how things “should” be? Like Joseph, sometimes it displeases us when God doesn’t work the way He “should” (that is, the way we want Him to work). That’s the root of envy and jealousy when, in God’s providence, others get what we think we deserve (whether we actually deserve it or not doesn’t usually enter into the equation).
But there are other times, especially if we know ourselves and how undeserving we are, that we’re afraid our behavior and thought-life and words and weakness have put us beyond the reach of blessing. We assume we know how God will work because we think He is a lot like us – holding grudges, impatient, forgiving only up to a certain point – and our assumptions about God make us doubt whether there is any blessing for us, any grace for people with besetting sins or weak faith or wandering hearts.
But God, through Jacob, speaks of how He will work in this Story of Redemption. Those who deserve it (according to human standards) are passed over. And those who are unworthy – the small, the unimportant, even great sinners like Judah and you and me – are given a place in the family of God. The truth is…that’s how we really need it to be.
That’s how Ephraim and Manasseh both need it to be. Remember that these two sons of Joseph were born to Joseph in Egypt. Their Egyptian mother was the daughter of an Egyptian priest who served the gods of Egypt. Joseph himself looked and spoke like an Egyptian, served in the royal court of Pharaoh and was second in command of all of Egypt. These young men had grown up Egyptian and the text has made it clear in several places that the Egyptians loathed the Hebrew people of whom Jacob was the patriarch.
So there really was some question here about their place among Israel. Would they be identified with Egypt or Canaan? The gods of Egypt or Yahweh? The nations in darkness outside the covenant or the people of God called as lights? But just as God had once called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and claimed Abraham for Himself, Jacob claims these boys as his own sons – no longer grandsons in question but sons – to whom belonged the promises of God and the Promised Land itself. In 48:5-6, Jacob claims the two sons of Joseph and then goes on in 8-16 to formally adopt them and bless them, rejoicing that having never expected to see Joseph’s face again, he has seen Joseph’s children as well.
In 48:15-16, Jacob blesses Joseph (as he blesses the sons), saying,
“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.”
Jacob doesn’t bless the boys with his own blessing, as if he had something to give to them. He looks back over his life and asks the God of the Covenant, the God who has been with Jacob wherever he has gone, the angel (who would be the representation of the God) who had acted time and time again to rescue Jacob – he asks that God to bless the boys. In them, Jacob desires the promises of God to be fulfilled so that they would grow into a huge family of Yahweh worshippers and carry the covenant promises into the world.
It’s important to note that the two sons received essentially the same blessing with the same words spoken over them. But the text emphasizes that Ephraim gets the right hand of Jacob – the greater blessing – instead of his older brother. As the Story of Redemption moves forward, the tribe of Ephraim is, indeed, blessed with greater numbers and greater prominence than the tribe of Manasseh.
If you look for a reason why they would be chosen in the first place, or some explanation for Jacob’s choice of Ephraim, you won’t find it. What you will find is that this fits perfectly with the pattern that Genesis has already established – that the blessing of God falls on those whom God wills, on those to whom He is pleased to give it. The qualities or character of the boys is never mentioned but as you listen to the blessing that Jacob gives to them you hear the pleasure in his voice when he gives what has been so freely given to him. It pleased Jacob (as it pleased the LORD) to bring them into his family. No reason beyond that was needed. But this grace that was so freely given meets the boys’ deepest needs. They needed a place in the people of God and couldn’t get it for themselves. But through Jacob acting faithfully to his God, they have it.
What follows in chapter 49 is Jacob’s speech to his sons about what was to happen in their families in the days to come. He again speaks as a prophet of God here, speaking on earth “what God would ratify in heaven” (as Calvin said). What is striking in this passage is that although Jacob dies as a sojourner in Egypt, owning only a burial plot and a single field in Canaan, his trust in the promises of God leads him to assign parcels of land as if he already possessed them. He speaks of land for Zebulun by the shores of the sea; Gad as a frontier tribe who will endure raids from outsiders but raid them in return; Asher dwelling in rich farmland that would bear food fit for a king. For each of the tribes, there is the hope of a future in the Promised Land; that in and of itself is undeserved grace when we think about this group of men and their past. And although none of them would, in their lifetimes, see the land of which Jacob spoke, their descendants certainly would because God had promised it.
That promise of God is what supports Jacob in this moment and gives power to the words to his sons. In 48:3,4, we heard Jacob going back to the covenant promises that were made to him so long ago. God promised to bless Jacob and his family and to give them Canaan for an “everlasting possession.” Jacob is simply acting in faith that what God promised, God would cause to pass.
There would be fruitfulness in the family of Naphtali, fierceness and wisdom in the family of Benjamin, pleasantness and some pain in the family of Issachar. Reuben would be passed over as firstborn as justice for his bold sin of sleeping with his father’s wife. Simeon and Levi would be divided and scattered in the Promised Land because of the violence and hard-heartedness of these two brothers that was so clearly seen in chapter 34, when they cruelly murdered an entire city for one man’s wrong.
But there is grace even for Reuben and Simeon and Levi, though it is shrouded and dark in this passage. We have to remember that this is a Story, and stories progress and things that were shadows and hidden at first grow and bloom in the end. For these three older brothers, though they lose the preeminence and will be scattered among Israel, even so they still have a place in the covenant and a secure place in the Promised Land. They have not been cast out of the people of God, nor have they, by their sin, nullified the promises God made to them. And that is undeserved grace.
And God gives even more grace. Consider the tribe of Levi, a violent and wrathful man. Moses himself belonged to the tribe of Levi and he pulls no punches as he relates Jacob’s words to his great-grandfather. We hear Jacob wanting to be far from his counsel and removed from his company because of Levi’s anger and stubbornness of heart. He curses the anger and wrath of Levi and determines to scatter his family throughout Israel when they come into the Promised Land. But, ah, they will be in the Land. And in God’s beautiful grace he blesses beyond what this angry man deserves with a rich blessing.
In Numbers 18, Yahweh gives to the tribe of Levi the perpetual priesthood in Israel. To them belonged the service of the sanctuary, standing between a Holy God and His people to offer sacrifices and make atonement for sin. To them the LORD commanded all Israel to give the tithe to support them since they had no land to farm. To them “the LORD said…, ‘You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.’” (Numbers 18:20 ESV) Though they would have no land as their own, they would have the priesthood and God Himself as their inheritance! All this, though hidden in the words of Jacob, was promised to a man who deserved nothing but justice from his God.
And then there’s Judah. Judah’s story in Genesis is the one that encourages me the most, I think. In chapters 37-38 he is cold-hearted in suggesting that they sell Joseph to the slave-traders; rebellious in abandoning the people of God for a season; blind as he blames Tamar for the death of his evil sons; selfish as he keeps his last son from her; lustful as he sleeps with Tamar thinking her to be a prostitute; a fool as he gives things of immense value as collateral for a goat; and cruel in his willingness to burn her alive for the very sin he excused in himself.
What did Judah deserve from his father? Nothing but scorn. From God? Nothing but divine wrath. But grace has been at work in Judah. God has worked conviction of sin in his heart, bringing him in chapter 44 to the point where he willingly accepts what know he deserves – punishment for sin in a lifetime of slavery. And yet that was very turning point of his life. Repentance led to life; confession of what he deserved led to an outpouring of grace from his brother, his father and, ultimately, from the God who loves to bless those who do not deserve it.
The essence of this blessing God gives to Judah through his father is that although the inheritance of the firstborn would go to Joseph through his two sons, the preeminence and the royal right to rule the people of God would belong to the family of Judah.
All this comes to Judah – to Judah – because of the covenant of grace God had established out of His mere good pleasure. No worth of Judah is counted as deserving it. His actions could not earn it and his sin could not stop it from coming. But by the grace of God, from Judah would come kings of the people of God; David the King and great David’s greater Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s the same way for us in the Gospel since Judah’s offspring, Jesus, the Lion of Judah, has come. In him, the fullness of the blessing of Judah was finally realized and the promises of the covenant have come to us Gentiles, as promised here in seed form in v. 10.
Who would have ever expected Judah to be the source of the Messiah? How could Judah have ever deserved such grace and blessing to be counted in the line of the Redeemer of all things? His way into these covenant blessings is the same as ours. The way in is undeserved grace.
Like Ephraim and Manasseh, you and I were lost as a people outside the covenant, living in darkness with no hope until we were adopted into the family of God. Like Judah, we deserved nothing but justice and wrath because of our sin. But when God sent Jesus, He (as we confessed earlier in the service) “devised a means for (our) redemption through (His) Son who gave his life for (us).” On the cross of Jesus, the justice of God was satisfied as Jesus took upon his own shoulders the punishment for Judah’s coldness and rebellion and blindness and selfishness and lust and foolishness and cruelty, along with my coldness and rebellion and blindness and selfishness and lust and foolishness and cruelty – and yours, too.
And then, in an act of greater grace, He gives to us undeserving sinners a place in His family and gives us the blessing of forgiveness and righteousness and wholeness and peace. And it all comes to us as we simply direct our faith toward Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
And because it is all undeserved grace, your good deeds cannot earn it and your sin cannot stop it from coming.
If you are human, then you probably still have some questions. “But how does this grace come? Why did it come to Judah and Ephraim but not to Esau or Cain? If we are all undeserving, then why would God choose one and not another?” A friend put it this way, “It’s hard to be human when we don’t want to be human. And that difficulty goes straight back to the Fall, when Adam said that he didn’t want to entrust himself to a loving and good God. He wanted to be God and have the answers and determine reality for himself.” I freely confess that I do not have an answer for you beyond this; it pleases God to show grace to those who don’t deserve it. His Word tells me that even thought it humbles me when I’m confronted with my sin, I have every reason to hope because Jesus saves sinners.
That’s how the Apostle Paul thought about this and that’s how he urges us to think about this blessing that has come to undeserving people like us. You heard in the Scripture reading (from Philippians 3) that if, humanly speaking, anyone deserved the blessing of God, Paul did. But he counts all human measures of worth as nothing because what he really needed – what we really needed – was the righteousness of God. It has been freely given to us in Christ Jesus and it depends on faith, not on works.
If you – like Joseph for a moment – don’t like this, if you would rather things work as they “should,” then your problem is with the gracious character of God. Would you really rather Him deal with us as we deserve?
But if you are like me and you sometimes fear and think, “God would never choose me. He should never show me grace. I’ve done too much, said too much, thought too much; I don’t deserve it.” Then know now, remember now that that is actually what He loves to do. And the response He expects from us is this: before He calls for obedience, before He calls for us to be living sacrifices, He calls us to see and savor and revel and enjoy the grace He has given in Christ – to see and savor Jesus himself. And in that enjoyment of God in Christ, you will bring glory to the Father, who loves showing grace to undeserving sinners like us.
[Pray – Father of mercies, your steadfast love endures forever. When David saw your grace he urged the people of God to “…taste and see that the LORD is good!” saying, “Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!”(Psalm 34:8) May we remember our unworthiness but may we always see and taste the goodness of the Gospel of Jesus; believing that grace has been shown to us for the sake of him who died and rose from the dead. And may that sure hope bear us up when we stumble, comfort us when we doubt, drive us into new obedience from love, and lead us to our home with you in the age to come.]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:24-26 ESV)
 From The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers.