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B'resheet/Genesis 48:21 Behold! I am dying, but G-d will be with you and will bring you back to the land of your fathers.
Ya'akov, the last of the "big three" patriarchs, is nearing the point of death. Yosef and his two sons have been fetched to hear his father's final words to them before the whole family gathers to hear the so-called 'blessings' for each son. Ya'akov has blessed his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh and then switches his attention back to Yosef, who is still - in site of all that has passed - his favourite son. The two things that Ya'akov shares with Yosef in this text - his admission and acceptance of failing health and the nearness of death, and a strong affirmation ofHaShem's presence and promise for the next generation - seem unrelated at first glance. They are, after all, not dependent upon each other in any way; Ya'akov's death doesn't affect G-d's promise to future generations and G-d's promise for them won't stop Ya'akov's physical body dying. But let's have another look at the text and see how they might work together.
Dropcap(The) text is in three phrases, each with a verb. The first phrase uses the word pair - the 1cs subject pronoun, 'I', and the ms Qal participle from the root , "to die" - to express what in English is termed the present tense: I die or I am dying. Aware that death is a singularity, many English Bibles (e.g., ESV, NASB, NIV, NJPS) choose to render this as "I am about to die". The phrase starts with the particle, , here translated 'behold' but with the sense of "Look! Pay attention!" Ya'akov wants to make sure that Yosef is listening carefully and concentrating on what he is about to say. The second phrase starts with the verb - the Qal 3ms affix form of the root , to be, with a vav-reversive to give a future tense, "and he will be" - "G-d will be with you." The third phrase also starts with a vav-reversive verb, - the Hif'il 3ms form of the root , "to turn, return", so "and he will cause you to return" - rendered "and He will bring you back".
TheRashbam sees the text as a whole, assembling and enlarging it to say, "I am about to die. And I know that after my death G-d will bring you back to the land of your fathers. After the four hundred years of which Avraham was told: 'Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years' (B'resheet 15:13, bible(NJPS))." Where might Ya'akov have got this idea from? Firstly, of course, by word of mouth, father to son, from Avraham to Yitz'khak to himself. But also directly from HaShem; Ya'akov stopped at Beer Sheva on the way down to Egypt to offer a sacrifice and received a vision during the night where Hashem told him, "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes" (46:3-4, NJPS). Leon Kass suggests that Ya'akov is worried that Yosef may be on the path to assimilation and so "expresses his wish for Yosef's return to the land and the ways of his ancestors, even though he knows that he will not live to see it and can do nothing to bring it about. He places Yosef in G-d's hands, assuring him of providential assistance in his eventual return to the Promised Land."1
One critical point in the text is that the 'you' and 'your' pronouns are plural rather than singular. Ya'akov says rather than , "with you", rather than , "you", and rather than , "your fathers". This is hidden in translation, where many may assume that Ya'akov is referring just to Yosef. The plural Hebrew forms make that unlikely, but if so then to whom is he referring? Bruce Waltke says that this includes "Yosef and both his children."2 Just three people - particularly if the period of four hundred years is in view - seems unlikely, so Walter Brueggemann broadens the scope, explaining that "the promise is not directed to all-Israel as is usual, but specifically to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh."3 But perhaps this vision is still too small. Terence Fretheim, who sees this text as "the transmission of the promise of presence and land to Yosef and his family", says that "These are promises heretofore not extended to Yosef; he in turn will transmit them to his brothers in 50:24."4 Lastly, Nahum Sarna goes for the widest interpretation, claiming that "Ya'akov speaks through Yosef to the entire people."
Avivah Zornberg takes a very different line through the text. She observes that, "when Ya'akov our father died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the affliction of the bondage with which the Egyptians began to afflict them." The people became unable to correctly see themselves and their situation even, hundreds of years later, during the Exodus in the presence of the Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire over the Tabernacle, crying our to Moshe, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food" (B'Midbar 21:5, ESV). Zornberg explains: "This is a historical-psychological observation: slavery brings with it, even in its incipient stages, a condition in which the victims are diminished in their basic ability to read and understand their own reality." Isaiah will later describe Israel in these terms, "They know not, nor do they discern, for He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand" (Isaiah 44:18, ESV). Spiritual blindness falls upon Israel so that - with a few exceptions - "Ya'akov's death brings in its wake a failure to read reality as though it constituted an intelligible text."5
Ya'akov, the father of the family, dies and in the process of becoming a nation, something is lost from the people that allows them to have that singleness of vision and clarity of identity and purpose that they did when just one family. Through Israelite history, charismatic leaders - such as Moshe, David and Elijah - sometimes bring sufficient vision, coherence and purpose so that the people can see for a season who they are and what they have been called and empowered to do. However, this easily slips away leaving, just as there is within mainstream Judaism today, various strands of our people passionately sharing a common identity but arguing over leadership, authority, praxis and sometimes even the basic existence of G-d. Despite this, as Sarna insists from the second of the major phrases in our text, "future redemption is assured because G-d wills it." Whatever is scattered will be gathered because G-d has promised, "I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel" (Ezekiel 34:13-14, ESV). G-d has spoken to all the nations of the world, wherever our people are living: "Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, 'He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock'" (Jeremiah 31:10, ESV). This is not a human movement, this will be a divine move of the Spirit and hand of G-d: "I will whistle for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them, and they shall be as many as they were before. Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember Me, and with their children they shall live and return" (Zechariah 10:8-9, ESV).
Painfully aware of his own impending mortality, Ya'akov is handing over the baton to his son, Yosef, giving him the promises of G-d that he received from his father Yitz'khak when he left the land of Canaan to seek a wife in Padan Aram: "May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Avraham" (B'resheet 28:4, NJPS). Yosef will in turn share that promise with his brothers, the fathers of all the tribes of Israel - "I am about to die. G-d will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Avraham, to Yitz'khak, and to Ya'akov" (50:24, NJPS) - and G-d will use the prophet Isaiah to speak them about the Servant of the L-rd: "It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6, NJPS). Yeshua fulfills both Isaiah's servant prophecies and Ezekiel's shepherd words when He declares, "I am the good shepherd ... And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:14,16, ESV). He will bring and is bringing His chosen people - both the ancient Jewish people and those called in Messiah from among the nations - together to be one glorious people.
Ya'akov died and the vision was lost. The prophets glimpsed it and told what they saw. Yeshua fulfilled it and is making it happen right now in these very days. "God will be with you" - Immanuel - "and will bring you back to the Land of your fathers." Can you see the vision and rejoice to see it happening in your days?
1. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2003), page 644.
2. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 601.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 365.
4. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 266.
5. - Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire(New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), page 356.
Further Study: Isaiah 60:1-5; Luke 2:29-32; Acts 13:45-49
Application: What can you see? Has Yeshua opened your eyes to see the vision of ingathering, the fields that are "white for harvest" (John 4:35) and the harvesters rejoicing as they bring in the crop that "grew and yielded a hundredfold" (Luke 8:8)? Ask the Lord of the Harvest to show you that vision and empower you to start work in the fields today!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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