Skipped Over

Genesis 48:17-20 (New Living Translation)
But Joseph was upset when he saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head. So Joseph lifted it to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. “No, my father,” he said. “This one is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused. “I know, my son; I know,” he replied. “Manasseh will also become a great people, but his younger brother will become even greater. And his descendants will become a multitude of nations.” So Jacob blessed the boys that day with this blessing: “The people of Israel will use your names when they give a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you as prosperous as Ephraim and Manasseh.'” In this way, Jacob put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.

Growing up in a patriarchal society like Egypt, Joseph’s eldest son Manasseh must have felt quite confident in his birthright. In the usual pattern of inheritance, the blessing would inevitably go to the eldest son.

But when Jacob and the whole extended family arrived to live with Joseph, Manasseh would no doubt have begun to worry. Because Jacob and his sons would have shared stories with Manasseh and Ephraim about Jacob’s childhood with his older brother Esau. Stories about Jacob’s mother Rebekah showing him how to trick his father Isaac into giving him the blessing due to Esau. Jacob himself may have talked about how afraid he was of Esau after that, and how he ran away and met Rachel and her sister Leah. He would have told the boys about their great-grandfather Isaac, who was also a younger son. Isaac, who also received his father’s blessing, and the eldest son, Ishmael, who did not.

Our reading today shows how confident even Joseph was that Jacob’s blessing was destined for the oldest son Manasseh. And here was the moment of truth. Joseph placed Manasseh at his grandfather’s right hand, and Manasseh bent his head to receive the blessing. But then Jacob crossed his arms– which must have been an awkward position to hold for an elderly man– and placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. Joseph tried to correct his father, who he knew didn’t see well. He assumed that Jacob was making a mistake, and wanted to correct the error before the elderly man was embarrassed. But Jacob knew what he was doing. It was Ephraim, the younger son, who would receive the blessing, not Manasseh. Then Jacob said, “The people of Israel will use your names to make blessings: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Ephraim’s name first. Manasseh’s second. That was very clear, indeed.

When have you been disappointed not to receive something that you had expected? What was that experience like for you? How did you deal with it? What happened as a result?

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