Mark David Walsh
19 December 2018
Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Today’s parashah can be informed by this thought. Jacob lived (Vayechi Yaakov) in the land of Egypt for 17 years (Gen 47.28). Why single out these 17 years from the 147 years of his life? Is this a separate chapter in his life (Eskenazi, 283)? Do these 17 years he will spend in Joseph’s care form an inclusio with the 17 years that Joseph spent in Jacob’s care (Kimḥi, in Carasik, #8141)? Nachmanides (Carasik, #8142), suggests that these 17 years are in fact the beginning of an exile that echoes the one that he is presently living through. Just as Jacob’s bones will be returned to Canaan at the end of these years of exile (Gen 50:12-13), so too does Nachmanides see an end to separation that he, and the Jewish community in exile, is living through.
Pressing forward into history, the tribe of Ephraim will become the “largest and most influential in the northern kingdom” (Eskenazi, 285). How was this the case, given that Ephraim is the younger of Joseph’s two sons and not one of Jacob’s children? First, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons (48.5 ff.). In doing so, Jacob has placed Joseph’s children into his own genealogy, as well as invoking the memory of their grandmother Rachel (48.7). This act also calls to mind the statement of the women in Ruth 4.17, who declare, “a son is born to Naomi”, when speaking of the child of Ruth and Boaz. Further, Rachel is seen as the mother of the northern tribes: “A voice is heard in Ramah/ …Rachel is weeping for her children, / refusing to be comforted” (Jer 31.14, Eskenazi, 284) and Ephraim will later come to stand for the entire northern kingdom, e.g. Isa. 28.3 (Plaut, 308).
But why does Israel preference Ephraim and not the first-born Manasseh? In an act echoing Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac to procure the birthright belonging to the first-born from Esau (Gen 25.29-34), Israel (Jacob) places his right hand on the head of the younger child and his left on that of the older (48.14). Joseph tries to redress this apparent mistake, seeing the act of his father as inappropriate (the Hebrew, yeraʿ, has connotations of evil). Once more, the younger child supplants the older, as did Isaac over Ishmael (Gen 27); Rachel over Leah (31.4); Perez over Zerah (38:27-30); Joseph over his brothers and as has already been noted, Jacob over Esau (Eskenazi, 286). Thus, Ephraim takes precedence over Manasseh.
Whilst a traditional interpretation of these passages might see them (and the blessings that follow in chapter 49) as prophetic in nature, it is quite probable that these verses represent later realities “incorporated into the life story of Jacob” (Israel). It is more than likely that these passages were written after the tribes had settled in Canaan and reflect relationships, animosities and experiences from this period of time (Plaut, 304). After all, Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards.
For Reflection and Discussion: How might this understanding of biblical composition help us understand the gospels, where texts from the Shared Scriptures are seen as prophetic, e.g. Matthew’s use of Jer 31.14 (Matt 2.18)? How also might it shed light on our own histories?
Bibliography: Carasik, Genesis, The Commentators’ Bible (Philadelphia, 2018), Eskenazi (Ed.), The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York 2008), Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (New York, 2006).
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