Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Putting the Second Before the First - Genesis 48:17-20

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him; and he grasped his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head.  And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this one is the first-born.  Place your right hand on his head.”  But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people and he also shall be great.  However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.”  And he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel shall pronounce blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh!’”  Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.

In the verses before these, Joseph has been watching his father Jacob bless Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh (the eldest) and Ephraim (the youngest).  In the process of the blessing, Jacob intentionally crosses his arms prior to laying his hands on their respective heads, so that the youngest gets blessed with his grandfather’s right hand, a form reserved traditionally for the eldest.  This section of Scripture relates Joseph’s reaction to the situation and Jacob’s firm response.

Clearly, the text says Joseph was ‘displeased’ with what Jacob was doing and he tried to stop him by grasping his hand and protesting verbally and harshly, it appears.  How often do we get ‘displeased’ with what our senior parents are trying to do?  How do we react?  Can we distinguish between times that involve decisions that will hurt them and those that they are adamant about but we object to because they are not to our liking?  There is a difference between an elder trying to cross the busy intersection on a red light and that same elder insisting on making the black sheep of the family her will’s executor.  The first action will harm her badly; the second may not be to our liking.  And so it was with Joseph.

Jacob still had it all together mentally and he refused his son’s instructions to uncross his hands.  He told Joseph he knew exactly what he was doing and that he intended it that way.  But he went beyond that.  Jacob was sensitive to both Joseph’s concern for Manasseh as well as his son’s concern for tradition.  And so, he made sure that Joseph understood that Manasseh would also “become a people” – a phrase of considerable significance in this case, as we shall see later.  Manasseh himself would become “great”.  But, his younger brother, Ephraim would be greater than Manasseh and his “people” would later represent a “multitude of nations”.  But here’s the interesting thing: all the tribes of Israel, all of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’s descendants would recognize both of them as blessed and wish that blessing of God’s on their own children.  What a legacy for Manasseh and Ephraim.  Yet, we cannot forget that for some reason still to be determined as we follow this story, Jacob placed the younger Ephraim before Manasseh.  It is important to note here that Jacob was not acting in error, or trying to be funny, or out of partiality for one over the other.  He was making them both ‘great’ but one was to be ‘greater’ based on Jacob’s sense of what Matthew Henry calls “a spirit of prophecy” and something that was “in compliance with the divine counsels”.

The lesson for us, especially those of us in ministry, is to realize as Henry continues, that, “God, in bestowing his blessings upon his people, gives more to some than to others, more gifts, graces, and comforts, and more of the good things of this life.  He often gives most to those that are least likely.  He chooses the weak things of the world; raises the poor out of the dust.  Grace observes not the order of nature, nor does God prefer those whom we think fittest to be preferred, but as it pleases him. It is observable how often God, by the distinguishing favors of his covenant, advanced the younger above the elder, Abel above Cain, Shem above Japheth, Abraham above Nahor and Haran, Isaac above Ishmael, Jacob above Esau; Judah and Joseph were preferred before Reuben. . . .”

God, through Jacob, was “choosing” the “firstborn” to be other than he who was physically born first.  David Guzik suggests that this shows that the idea of a “firstborn” in Scripture can often refer to a position of ‘pre-eminence’ rather than the one first out of the womb.  This concept comes into play again later in Scripture with reference to both David and Jesus.

As children of God, you and I have sufficient ‘eminence’ by that very fact.  We must allow God to use us for His glory in whatever role He has for us to play.  We must allow Him to choose those upon which He wants to impart special blessings, realizing that through them we too may be blessed.  Think of some mighty missionaries over the centuries that went to tribes unknown or as yet unreached with the Gospel.  Think of the great preachers of the last few centuries.  Think of Christians that God placed in the realms of government for the sake of His plan and our blessing.  And we must remember that because God has people like that, He loves you and me just as much, knowing the plans He has for us in accordance with the abilities He has granted each of us.  You and I are part of His Team, no matter what our role.

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