As we’ve already seen in previous entries, the Priestly writer had a vested interest in rewriting earlier Yahwist and Elohist covenant or blessing passages and in the case of the latter even converting them into covenantal ceremonies. This was so in the case of the Abrahamic covenant (#28), the transference of that covenant to Isaac (#40), then Jacob (#46-47), and finally Joseph’s two sons here in Genesis 48.
We also saw that there was not only a similar and repeated style and emphasis in all these Priestly covenantal passages, but identical phrases and vocabulary as well: the sole use of El Shaddai as the designation for the deity; the Priestly creation refrain “be fruitful and multiply” which only occurs in P; stress on making Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s seed into an “assembly of nations;” and accentuation of the land as “an eternal possession.” These are all features unique to the Priestly source and these covenantal passages.1 Not surprisingly we find the same style, stress, and vocabulary in Genesis 48:3-6.
But let’s look at the text as a whole first, that is as it has come down to us. We are first informed that Joseph has been summoned to the bed of Jacob who is sick, and that Joseph brings his two sons (vv. 1-2). Jacob then invokes the covenantal promises of El Shaddai, particularly stressing how Jacob’s seed are to inherit the land as an eternal possession. In light of this, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh: “They’re mine… They shall be called by their brothers’ names with regard to their inheritance” (vv. 3-6). Then there is the mention of Rachel’s death (see also #66). And then we’re told that Jacob neither knows nor recognizes who Joseph’s sons are (vv. 8-9). Strange since apparently he just adopted them! And then there is another mention of his failing heath; he was unable to see (v. 10). And finally we’re introduced to a long passage where Jacob gives the firstborn blessing to the younger son Ephraim (vv. 11-20).
The internal contradictions, tensions, or discrepancies in this narrative are: Jacob knows who Manessah and Ephraim are in vv. 3-6, but does not in the context that immediately follows; Jacob adopts the two sons and then blesses Ephraim over his elder Manasseh without any apparent acknowledgment that the two have just been adopted and are “like Reuben and Simeon.” The contradiction here, as will be suggested below, is that these two different ceremonies represent two radically different concerns, each prompted by radically different historical circumstances. Lastly, it may also be that the sick, bedridden, and blind or nearly-blind Jacob of verses 1-2 and 10 clash with the portrait of Jacob in vv 3-6 even though nothing is stated about his health here.
Now let’s take a look at the passage from the perspective of these differences between these two sets of verses: vv. 1-2 & 8-20 and vv. 3-7. When we remove the text identified as coming from the Priestly source (vv. 3-7), the remaining text presents itself as a coherent—even more coherent—unity. Here is Genesis 48:1-2 + 48:8-9 ff.
1And it was after these things, and one said to Joseph, “Here your father is sick.” And he took his two sons with him, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2And one told Jacob and said, “Here, your son Joseph is coming to you.” And Israel fortified himself and sat up on the bed. 8And Israel saw Joseph’s sons and said, “Who are these?” 9And Joseph said to his father, “They’re my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me and I’ll bless them.”
Not only does the passage read as a continuous and independent narrative, but the portrait of Jacob and its themes are consistent between verse 1-2 and verses 8-9—namely the picture of Jacob as bedridden, sick, and blind (v. 10). Also in verse 1 we are informed that Joseph brings his two sons, but Jacob does not recognize them. Verse 10 tells us that he was “unable to see” but the passage as a whole implies that Jacob had not met Joseph’s two sons, and perhaps did not even know about them until this point in the narrative. This is the Elohist’s story, which continues by describing how Jacob mistakenly blesses the younger Ephraim. Understanding these sons eponymously as representative of later Israelites tribes, the blessing of Ephraim in lieu of Manasseh represents the political circumstance of the 9th century BC Elohist writer from the north. It was Jeroboam of the tribe Ephraim who exerted supremacy in the northern kingdom and was its first king! Indeed, the Elohist blessing in Genesis 48:8-20 is a tale that legitimates the tribe of Ephraim’s rule in the north over any competing rivalries. This is how ancient stories functioned (see also Stories of the north and the south).
The Priestly writer, writing during/after the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC could care less about these ancient political rivalries. The concerns he faced, and thus the reason why he wrote, were issues associated with reassuring the Israelites in captivity that the covenantal promise made to Abraham was still valid AND included all the northern tribes (Ephraim was synonymous for the north). He includes them by presenting Jacob adopting Joseph’s sons. “They’re mine!” The issue is inclusion in the eternal promise of the land, not in some tribal rivalry of a bygone era.
In sum, the themes found in verses 1-2 and verses 8-20 are not present in verses 3-7, and vice-versa. First, the Jacob of verses 3-6 clearly knows who Manasseh and Ephraim are. This knowledge here is then contradicted in the Elohist’s “Who are these?” Second, although nothing is said of Jacob’s health in these verses, one might suppose, like it was the case in P’s rewriting of the bedridden Isaac (#46-47), that he was healthy. At any case, “sick” “in bed” and “blind” are adjectives used to describe Jacob in the verses immediately around these, but never in them! Lastly, the whole emphasis in this passage is radically different. The passage responds to the question of how the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons, became part of the covenantal promise to Jacob’s seed! How? Jacob adopts them as his, “like Reuben and Simeon.” “They shall be called by their brothers’ names with regard to their inheritance.” The whole issue for this writer was showing, and legitimating, how the inheritance of the covenantal land as promised to Jacob’s seed by El Shaddai was extended to include Joseph’s two sons. This is completely absent, and irrelevant, to the earlier Elohist of the north and the historical concerns that prompted his writing of the blessings passage.
We once again see how later writers had to “rewrite history” to respond to new issues, concerns, and questions that arose in later historical eras and which were prompted by changing historical circumstances, like exile and loss of land. In other words, “histories” or historical narratives of the ancient world often tried to make sense of the present in terms of the past: when present circumstances changed so too did the past, or at least how the past was envisioned and retold. The Bible as a composite collection of different texts written over 1,000 years preserves these competing historical narratives, on hundreds and hundreds of occasions as we shall see. This is a very minor example of the Bible’s many rewritten “histories.”
- David Carr’s work is invaluable in this respect, Reading the Fractures of Genesis.↵