Wibble Wednesday: Exeunt Omnes (Genesis 47:28–50:26)

We’re now at פָּרָשַׁת ויחי (“And he lived” portion), bringing the book of Genesis to a close, so we’ll be picking up with a completely different section of Biblical narrative next time. Taste the excitement!

The quick snarky summary: A bunch of heretofore undeveloped characters get eleventh-hour descriptions, just in time for everybody to die.


So all the actual plot of the tale of the patriarchs has, at this point, been exhausted. We got through the entire Joseph arc, and everybody’s settled well and living the comfortable life in Egypt. All that remains is for this generation to shuffle off the stage so that the next chapter can begin with an all new cast with all-new problems. While there is some interesting commentary which is easily read as an anti-exilic position (Jacob’s specific injunction not to be buried outside of Canaan), most of the chapter deals with Jacob’s actions of advanced age, which, like Isaac’s actions of advanced age, involve blessing everything willing to come within hand’s-reach.

Most of the action in this parsha only really makes sense taken in a tribal context rather than an individual context, and presumably much of the detail is tribal boosterism of one sort or another, authored by members of certain tribes to either glorify themselves or tear down the others. Given the dubious historicity of the figures involved, this goes a long way towards explaining the first round of blessings, in which Jacob bestows favor on Joseph’s sons. Now, the household as a whole, as counted in Chapter 46, includes plenty of grandsons of Jacob. But to ask why he blesses these two specifically probably misses the point: the blessing (and associated elevated standing of descendants) has to exist in the narrative because the tribes of Israel included two with the names of Ephraim and Manasseh. Or that’s how I figure it, anyways.

The blessing itself is a pretty usual exemplar of the type, promising the graciousness of the patriarchs, the guidance of God, and, of course enormous numbers of progeny. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but the incidental details make this particular substory: several verses are spent on Jacob’s deliberate decision to place the right hand (traditionally the seat of greater power) on the head of Ephraim, the younger son, which was against tradition, which he justifies with the greater merit and destiny of the Ephraimites. Since I don’t actually know much about the individual tribal history, I have no idea what this is a reference to, but I imagine that an Ephraimite might at some point have been involved with tweaking the text.

As a side note, a traditional Jewish blessing for boys is that they be “like Ephraim and Manasseh”, which might lead one to wonder how these purely incidental figures weaseled their way into a standard Jewish prayer. Well, the textual reason is Genesis 48:20, which explicitly tells us to do so, but the underlying conceit behind that bit of verse is a bit less clear. A pleasant (if almost certainly apocryphal) explanation for the choice of Ephraim and Manasseh as a model for Jewish children is that they were the first generation to remain entirely within the fold and apparently on good terms: One son of Abraham strayed from the patriarchal path, one son of Isaac strayed from the patriarchal path and hated his brother, and among the sons of Jacob there was discord as well, but Ephraim and Manasseh were (if only by omission of details) presented as brothers who got along well.

Genesis 49:21–22 solidifies Jacob’s intent to place the two Josephite tribes on an equal footing with their elders, and has a mystifying reference to Jacob conquering the land, which seems like it might have been an editorial excision, or maybe a bit of text that was supposed to refer to someone else, since Jacob was never depicted as in combat, much less with the Amroites in particular.

In Chapter 49 Jacob blesses his sons. Well, technically, he’s prophesying to them, and he isn’t promising blessings, which is good, because a lot of these range from booby prizes to out-and-out insults. This itemization of his children and their putative characteristics is actually pretty problematioc, because we still haven’t even met most of these guys. Joseph we know pretty well at this point, since he got a good chunk of narrative; likewise Judah has had a pretty sizable speaking part. Reuben’s often mentioned as having a character and opinion contrary to the others, so he’s maye the third-best-characterized of the brothers. After that we maybe get a three-way tie between Simeon and Levi, who had a walk-on role in the massacre of Shechem, and Benjamin, who is well-beloved despite not actually having actual character traits. Every other brother is basically a cipher at this point, and they mostly get one or two lines which might have had tribal significance with respect to emblems or characteristics of which they were proud. Some of them get fun Midrashic exegesis about how their emblems described their characters. But let’s go through these guys in order.

Reuben gets his first. Good ol’ Reuben, the only person to say that selling Joseph into slavery might’ve not been a good idea, although he loses some of the decency points he earned for this by whining about it every single time misfortune befalls the brothers. Jacob isn’t even going to talk about that bit, though. No, he’s gonig to castigate Reuben for that nasty little bit of incest back in 35:22, and use that as the pretext for shafting him on parental blessings. I can see why your son sleeping with his stepmother might piss you off, but it seems a bit late in the day to be bringing this up for the first time; by this point in his life he’s been nursing this resentment for more than 25 years! But he has no comforting words to say to Reuben, not even a cheery prophecy about corned beef and rye bread, which I wouldn’t have objected to.

Next up, Simeon and Levi get a twofer. Here Jacob and I are kind of in agreement, that when you look at what those two got up to, the elephant in the room is the time they went and killed all the unarmed denizens of a major city. So they, like Reuben before them, get a basically negative performance review and an explicit curse. The curse here at least has a well-known referant in the later tribal culture of Israel: the Levites had no apportioned land, so they, as described in 49:7, are indeed “scattered in Israel”.

Judah comes next. At this point, a reasonable son might back out of the room, since Jacob’s ladling on the harsh sauce on the prochecy sundae. Judah gets a pleasant surprise though. Were I in that position, I might be inclined to continue the cruelty, and point and laugh at him for that time he accidentally fucked his daughter-in-law, but fortunately for him Judah had an unusually strong tribal position, and Judahites stayed handily on top of the tribes, so the predictions here are all of glory and kingship (as the Davidic dynastic line is from Judah). There’s also extensive comparison to a lion, so I think we know this tribe’s emblem. There’s no explicit messianism here, althoguh many messianic prophecies place him in the house of Judah, so that might have been a current which was not extremely active in Jewish thoguht when this bit was written.

Now we get into the undercharacterized ones, who get pretty neutral descriptions. The Sages did their best to actually spin these bare descriptions into characters. Zebulon, we’re told, is a tribe of the seacoast, whose pride is shipping. The Midrash didn’t have much to say about this, except that their profit therefrom was used to support their neighbors the Isscharites. Apropos of which, we’re told the emblem of Isschar is the donkey, and that Isscharites are sheepherders. The exegesis claims that their labor was actually in scholarship (hence why their needed the support of the Zebulonites).

Dan’s emblem is the snake, here put in a positive light as powerful in its deviousness. The Midrashic texts claim that this is all about Samson, since presumably they couldn’t come up with anything else to say about the tribe of Dan. Gad raids and is raided, and I have no idea what this refers to: probably their geographic region and conflicts with neighboring peoples. Asher grows rich delicacies, oil and fine grain, which might have been notable exports of their region. Naphtali returns us to emblem-characterizations, as a deer. The Sages say this is because Naphtali himself was very fast, so he’s sort of a prime candidate for the Justice League of Canaan.

Joseph gets actual description since he had a character. Bits and pieces of this text show up in the first verse of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, so Genesis 49:23–25 might look a bit familiar. Now, of course after his tribulations are briefly described, Joseph gets an extensive blessing, and primacy over his brothers. You’d think Jacob would’ve learned not to do that: remember how much trouble favoritism caused last time? Benjamin gets surprisingly short shrift for a son who is apparently well-beloved, since his blessing is basically just that his emblem’s the wolf.

So, with a nice sense of dramatic timing, Jacob dies after these last blessings, and pretty much the entirety of Chapter 50 is devoted to his funerary rites: the Egyptians embalm him, which strikes me as an unusual detail since, fussy as he was about his burial place, I’d imagine Egyptian death traditions wouldn’t sit well with him, and then the whole nation mourns. It’s odd that we’re given a description of Egypt’s great lamentation for Jacob, who they don’t have any actual connection with: Joseph’s their hero, and while I ca imagine sympathy for his father, it’s a bit strange that Jacob gets these elaborate lamentations from them, whereas bonafide head of state Joseph’s death goes largely unremarked.

We are basically at the “and they all lived happily ever after” stage at this point. A very little bit of dramatic tension is raised by the idea that Joseph, free of filial obligations, might lay into his brothers a bit more, but that’s defused immediately, and we close out the book of Genesis by being told that Joseph lived to see his great-grandchildren born (this might be relevant later), and was buried in Egypt.

Anyways, that’s all for Genesis. We return to our story next week after a timeskip of indeterminate length.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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