This final portion of Genesis is chiefly concerned with Jacob’s preparations for his approaching death. These occupy three successive scenes. In the first he has Joseph, in private, swear to bury him, not in Egypt where he will die, but in the burial place of his fathers in Canaan. In the second, again in private audience with Joseph, he adopts Joseph’s sons and blesses them. Lastly, blessing his own sons in their capacity as heads of the 12 tribes of Israel, he charges them with his dying breath to bury him with his fathers in (now specifying the exact location) the cave of Machpelah, in the field that Abraham had purchased as an inalienable possession in the land of Canaan: “There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.” But there he did not bury Rachel. It is the senior wife, the unloved one, whom he will lie beside in Machpelah. Addressing all his sons together, speaking publicly on this occasion, he makes no mention of Rachel. But earlier, in the midst of his elaborate preliminaries to blessing Joseph’s sons, he comes out with it, his unassuaged grief for her surfacing in a momentary utterance from his heart’s blood: “As for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way… and I buried her there in the way of Ephrath.” Jacob has introduced his proceedings in this scene by reciting God’s promise to him at Luz. All his doings with Joseph’s sons — the adoption, the blessing, the prophecy — come under this heading. So, too, although in this case involuntarily, does his evocation of Rachel’s death — when she died, where she died, where he buried her. She died as they crossed into Canaan, on the road south from Luz. No sooner had he set up a pillar to consecrate the place where God had renewed his covenant with him than he was setting up a second pillar to mark Rachel’s grave. Evidently, the two events are intimately connected in Jacob’s unconscious.
That aside, his mind is totally occupied with the urgent business at hand.
Hearing that Joseph is coming, the old patriarch, mortally ill as he is, “strengthened himself and sat up in the bed,” all set to fulfill his well-laid plan for the benefit of his abiding favorite. Accordingly, he proceeds to adopt Joseph’s sons as his own (“Ephraim and Manasseh…are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine”), for this is his means to doubling Joseph’s due portion of the inheritance, thus bestowing upon him the right of the firstborn. Thus, too, he emphatically affirms the conspicuous preference he had shown for Joseph in his childhood. The evil consequences of his loving this son “more than all his brethren” remain concealed from him till his death.
Quite otherwise in his blessing of Joseph’s sons, his mindfulness of himself as a man redeemed from an earlier and greater evil of his past is crucial to his sacred function here as God’s prophet. Back to beginnings, to the young Jacob, the favorite of his mother, who — looking to expedite the fulfillment of the prophecy made known to her while the twins were yet in the womb — prompted him, her ready accomplice, to usurp Esau’s title to the blessing of the firstborn. Twenty years on, another blessing, this one the redemptive blessing wrung out of the anonymous adversary he wrestled with, face to face, unceasingly, all that night before he went, limping, to meet Esau. Now, here is Jacob, blind in his old age as Isaac was, blessing the younger son as the elder as Isaac did. But the likeness stops there. Isaac, distracted by the conflicting evidence of his senses (the outward sign of his inward ambivalence), blessed his younger son as the elder unwittingly. Jacob, in sharp contrast, “guiding his hands wittingly,” reverses the order of seniority of Joseph’s sons in full knowledge of what he is doing and in absolute certainty of its rightness. It is as God’s prophet, the conscious instrument of God’s sublimely ironic will, that Jacob, who had attached so much and such undue importance to the prescriptive right of the firstborn, now unhesitatingly enacts its reversal. To the uncomprehending Joseph, thinking to have his boys blessed according to rule, this looks like a dangerous error. Exasperated, he attempts to uncross the wayward hands: “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn; put thy right hand upon his head.” But this is no error. Jacob, his intractable right hand on Ephraim’s head, only asseverates what he has already stated: “I know it, my son, I know it…he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he.” The blind seer indeed knows whereof he speaks. The tribal history of Israel testifies to it.
Deidre Levinson is a teacher and writer who lives in New York City.