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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Except for the last six months, I have spoken the words of blessing every Sunday at the close of the worship service for nearly 30 years. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace.” I have spoken those familiar words of blessing in the homes of homebound parishioners, at the cemetery over an open grave, and in countless worship settings across Europe. When I was a young pastor I would stumble over the cadences, and inevitably weave the phrases into one. Now, the familiar words can seem almost routine, except when I am saying them in a farewell service to a congregation that I am leaving. Then I can become almost blubbery. But don’t worry. There are no plans for that to happen anytime soon. The late philosophy professor Dallas Willard defined blessing as “the projection of good into the life of another. It isn’t just words.” He added, “It’s the actual putting forth of your will for the good of another person. It always involves God, because only God is capable of bringing that.”
Blessing is an important part of faith. In the New Testament Book of Hebrews, we read, By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” Now it may seem strange that the blessing of these two grandsons would be the act of faith we are called to remember Jacob. Surely there are other events in his life that are more fantastic. But it is the story of blessing where Joseph’s and Jacob’s lives are poignantly brought together. And that is the story that we will meditate upon this morning, as we end this sermon series on the Book of Genesis.
Let us first return to the story of Joseph and the scene when he revealed his identity to his brothers. It was a joyous reunion of forgiveness and the outpouring of love. But one person was not there to experience that event and that was the 12 brothers’ father. If anyone longed to celebrate the return of a lost son, it was Jacob. Joseph ordered his brothers to travel back to Canaan, to tell their father the good news that Joseph was alive in Egypt and serving as the second in command to Pharaoh. In disbelief, Jacob accepted the good news, and then gathered his entire house of 70, and all their livestock and began their journey to Egypt. In route, Jacob stopped at Beersheba to make a sacrificial offering to God. There Jacob was reassured with God’s blessing that all would be well in his new home. Then finally, after 22 years, Jacob saw his son Joseph once again. Taking Joseph into his embrace, Jacob said, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive.” He was 130 years old and content to die, but not without first meeting the Pharaoh and offering him his blessing.
At 147 years old Jacob fell ill, and like his father Isaac, he became blind. Fearing that death was near, Joseph came to visit his father, and he brought with him his two sons. Jacob asked Joseph who was with him, and he answered, “My two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.” Jacob surprised Joseph by stating, “I’m adopting Manasseh and Ephraim as my own sons. They will receive the same inheritance as my other sons.”
Then Jacob invited the two brothers to his side to give them his blessing. In the Old Testament, the blessing of the father was sacred and holy. What the father spoke over the sons in his final days carried great weight and would affect the sons for the rest of their lives. It was not simply a spiritual gift, but it was also a monetary gift. As part of the tradition, the eldest son would receive a double portion that the father signified with his right hand. So Joseph put his firstborn, Manasseh, on Jacob’s right side and Ephraim on his left. However, Jacob crossed his arms and put his right hand on the second born, Ephraim, and his left hand on Manasseh, then he spoke the blessing over them. When Joseph saw it, he said, “No, my Father, Manasseh is my firstborn.” But Jacob responded, “I know what I’m doing. Manasseh will be great, but Ephraim will be greater. Multitudes of nations will come out of him.” When this was done, Jacob invited his other 11 sons, from Reuben to Benjamin into the room to be blessed. And so he blessed the twelve tribes of Israel, each of them with a suitable blessing. And when Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
According to scripture, before his death, Jacob requested that he be buried with his ancestors, in the cave at Machpelah, beside his wife Leah. So Joseph ordered that his father Jacob be embalmed in a manner fitting the Pharaoh himself. Chariots and a noble entourage from Pharaoh’s Court escorted Joseph and his brothers from Egypt to Canaan. It was the first time for Joseph to return since he was sold by his brothers to Ishmaelite traders. And then they returned Egypt. Joseph’s brothers, were suddenly afraid that he would punish them for their deceit, but he reassured them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” And, as always, Joseph was righteous and true to his word.
Now you may be wondering, so why would Jacob place such a high priority on blessing his grandchildren over children? Or why did the author of Book of Hebrew write, By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph.” Of course, every grandparent knows, the joy of having grandchildren often exceeds the joy of having children. As the saying goes, “If I knew how much fun grandchildren were, I would have had them first.” Indeed, the Book of Genesis might have a whole different ending if Abraham was asked by God to offer up his first grandchild. So perhaps there is more to the story.
There actually is an ancient custom which is celebrated on Friday evenings in Jewish homes before the Sabbath meal. The father of the household places his hand upon each child and offer a blessing. To the girls he says, “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. And may the Lord bless you and keep you.” And to the boys, he says, “May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh.” No doubt you are surprised. No mention of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.
For countless generations, Jewish rabbis have debated the reason for recalling the names of Joseph’s grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh in the Sabbath blessing. The view most commonly held is that Joseph’s sons were the first pair of brothers in the Bible who did not see each other as competitors. They were not like Cain and Abel who struggled to offer the fitting sacrifice to God. Nor were they like Isaac and Ishmael caught in the tension of fighting mothers. Nor were they like Jacob and Esau battling for the birthright. And they certainly were not like Joseph and his brothers. No, Ephraim and Manasseh did not struggle for power, and their relationship as a family never seemed to be the source of tension. By raising and blessing children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, faithful Jewish parents are seeking to bestow upon their children the legacy of peace and harmony. Isn’t that the best quality of life for future generations?
Another interpretation is also quite insightful. It notes that the two brothers grew up in Egypt, unlike the patriarchs who all grew up in land of Israel. In spite of living as a minority in foreign land, Joseph’s sons maintained their distinct religious identity. It is a reminder for every generation. The ability to remain faithful to God, even when it is a struggle, is a legacy of faith that we too can pass on to our children. My friends, isn’t that the blessing you want to share with your children and grandchildren? But it is work, and remember, it all begins with you.
Abraham, Isaac and Israel, each lived with God’s covenant and the promise that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that they would dwell in a land promised to them. Living in the safely and securely in the land of Goshen, the tribes of Israel, may have forgotten that promise. But “by faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.” That would be his final blessing with the assurance that God would lead them across the Jordan River to that land.
Joseph lived to the age of 110, but before he died, he made the sons of Jacob swear that when they left the land of Egypt that they would take his bones back to the promised land. The children of Israel remembered their oath, and when they left Egypt during the exodus, Moses took Joseph’s bones with him. The bones were buried at Shechem, the place Joseph had known as a youth. It stands today as a monument for Jews and Samaritans, Moslems and Christians, as a witness to a man who against all human tragedy believed that God’s blessing could and would change evil for good.
My friends, as the late philosophy professor Dallas Willard defined blessing. It is “the projection of good into the life of another.” So what blessing will you share with the next generation? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.