Intelligently reading the Bible calls for recognizing layers. I’ve been blogging through the Joseph epic. But the Joseph epic is part of Genesis. And the Joseph epic is also part of the Jacob cycle within Genesis. In fact, the way the Joseph Epic ends shows the intention of Genesis to make Joseph’s story a part of Jacob’s story.
Jacob has come down to Egypt. According to one layer of tradition, he has been there 17 years. According to other layers of tradition, he sees Joseph’s sons for the first time on his death bed. One explanation: in second tradition he came to Egypt only briefly before his death. But another explanation would be a tradition where Jacob never came to Egypt, but Joseph came to his declining father in Canaan.
This is only one example of double or triple stories embedded in Genesis 47, 48, and 50. Genesis 47:29 introduces one story of Joseph going to Jacob’s death bed. In 48:1 there begins another story where he learns that his father is terminal. 48:21 contains a part of a third story about Jacob’s death.
The blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh in 48:8-22 functions to explain why Ephraim, the younger son, was a greater tribe in later Israel than Manasseh. Genesis means for us to draw spiritual meaning from this. God’s guidance touches the lives of the faithful. God was present to Abraham and Isaac. God took care of Jacob throughout his life. God will guide and preserve Jacob’s descendants, especially those of Jacob’s most beloved son, Joseph.
If I was preaching or teaching a class in church about this, that is what I would stress. But I am also interested in history. When you have layers, it is sometimes possible to dig down to the most ancient. Think of archaeologists excavating a site. The further down they dig, the more ancient the material.
You have to take care doing this with layered stories. It is not an exact science. But in Genesis 48 there is certainly a strong candidate for the most ancient layer. In Genesis 48:21-22 Jacob says to Joseph:
“Look, I will die soon, but God will be with you (plural) and bring you (plural) back to the land of your (plural) fathers. Moreover, I have given to you (singular) rather than to your (singular) brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.”
In Hebrew the word for mountain slope or shoulder is the same as the place-name Shechem, an ancient city in Ephraim’s territory. It is on a shoulder of land between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerazim. So one probably should translate vs. 22: “Moreover, I have given to you rather than your brothers, even Shechem as your heritage, which I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and my bow.”
Now there is no story about Jacob seizing Shechem from the Amorites. In fact, we have no stories about any military exploits by Jacob. The story in Genesis 34 about Levi and Simeon massacring the Shechemites after the rape of Dinah is different. In that story Jacob disapproves of their action. But here, even after living in Egypt for 17 years (as the story now stands), Jacob somehow controls Shechem and can pass it on in his will to Joseph’s heirs.
Also, though this is a bit of a reach, it seems to me that vs. 22 implies that there was a tradition that Jacob had granted all his sons allotments of land (the book of Joshua has this happening after the conquest). Here he gives a special allotment to Ephraim, but seems to have given something to the other heirs as well.
I agree with Gerhard von Rad:
“The assumption seems to be unavoidable that a tradition is contained in these verses, which does not place the whole proceeding in Egypt but in Palestine. Evidently we have a very ancient fragment of tradition concerning Jacob’s death, which was only inserted subsequently into the context of Jacob’s experiences in Egypt because of its combination with the Joseph tradition” (Genesis: a Commentary, p. 419).
We may find more traces of this tradition in chapter 50.