Famous Last Words: Jacob

The first particularly noteworthy case of famous last words in the Bible is that of Jacob. This particular case of famous last words, when taken in its entirety, takes place over more than two chapters of the Bible, and in the interests of clarity, we will take the three interactions and talk about them separately. As other people [1] have spent a great deal of time talking about the prophetic implications of these chapters, I will only examine these matters briefly. What I would like to do is point out what is said by Jacob in these three deathbed encounters and how it relates to other parts of scripture, and how Jacob’s last words can help us understand the importance of deathbed blessings, as they help us to understand the importance of fathers passing on blessings to their sons, an aspect of considerable biblical importance.

The first deathbed encounter takes place in Genesis 47:27-31, and it reads as follows: “So Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen; and they had possessions there and grew and multiplied exceedingly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the length of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years. When the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, please put your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me. Please do not bury me in Egypt, but let me lie with my fathers; you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he said, “I will do as you have said.” Then he said, “Sear to me.” And he swore to him. So Israel bowed himself on the head of the bed.”

Here we see that as Jacob approached death, he was insistent that he not be buried in Egypt, but that he be buried in the family plot of land where Abraham and Sarah had been buried in Hebron. He made Joseph swear to him in a way that mirrors the oath that Abraham had taken of his trusted servant (see Genesis 24:2) not to take for Isaac a bride from the children of Canaan but from his own relatives. Here too the concern is the same, that Egypt is not a fit and proper place for burial for Jacob, but that Jacob should be buried with his fathers in the family crypt. Joseph was so struck by the seriousness of this oath that when he was dying he made the children of Israel swear to him that they would not bury him in Egypt either. It is also noteworthy that this taking of an oath is expressed somewhat euphemistically in English, given the discomfort of talking about how in patriarchal times the custom when making an oath to one’s father or master involved putting one’s hand under the father or master’s privates, which is not a custom in our own times.

The second deathbed scene follows immediately after this one, and it is recorded in Genesis 48:1-22 as follows: “Now it came to pass after these things that Joseph was told, “Indeed, your father is sick;” and he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And Jacob was told, “Look, your son Joseph is coming to you;” and Israel strengthened himself and sat up on the bed. Then Jacob said to Joseph: “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you a fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a multitude of people, and give this land to your descendants after you as an everlasting possession.’ And now your two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine. Your offspring whom you beget after them shall be yours; they will be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. But as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died beside me in the land of Canaan, when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).” Then Israel saw Joseph’s sons, and said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me in this place.” And he said, “Please bring them to me, and I will bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. Then Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I had not thought to see your face; but in fact, God has also shown me your offspring!” So Joseph brought them from beside his knees, and he bowed down with his face to the earth. And Joseph took them both, Ephraim with his right hand towards Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh with his left hand towards Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. Then Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands knowingly, for Manasseh was the firstborn. And he blessed Joseph, and said: “God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has fed me all my life long to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads, let my name be upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” Now when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; so he took hold of his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great, but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh!” And thus he set Ephraim before Manasseh. Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am dying, but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.”

In this chapter we see a touching scene of Jacob’s care for Joseph and for his sons, remembering his love for his favorite wife who had died while giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. We see that Joseph was likely a busy man in his rule over Egypt, and so that his sons were not as familiar with their grandfather as might have been expected, and that like his father Jacob lived long enough to go blind. We also see in this passage a continuation of the themes of the reversal of societal expectations that the blessing would go primarily to the firstborn, as Jacob blesses Ephraim first, even though his “reserve blessing” for Manasseh is still a glorious one, far better than the reserve blessings that had been given to Ishmael and Esau in generations before. We also see that in blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob is very much concerned with the combination of history and prophecy, and with his own relationship with God that he wishes to be passed on to Joseph’s sons as well. The whole scene is rich in detail, and in the affection of a father for a beloved son. Let us also note, at least in passing, that the reference to land taken from the Amorites by his sword and his bow is an aspect of the blessing given to Joseph’s children, whose bow remains in strength even though the archers have shot at him. The private blessing given to Ephraim and Manasseh therefore presages the public blessing given to them shortly afterward.

The third deathbed scene takes up the entirety of Genesis 49, from verse one all the way through verse thirty-three, and reads as follows: “And Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days: Gather together and hear, you sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father. Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch. Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel. Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s children shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Binding his donkey to the vine, and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk. Zebulun shall dwell by the haven of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall adjoin Sidon. Issachar is a strong donkey, lying down between two burdens; he saw that rest was good, and that the land was pleasant; he bowed his shoulder to bear a burden, and became a band of slaves. Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider shall fall backward. I have waited for your salvation, O Lord! Gad, a troop shall tramp upon him, but he shall triumph at last. Bread from Asher shall be rich, and he shall yield royal dainties. Naphtali is a deer let loose; he uses beautiful words. Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; his branches run over the wall. The archers have bitterly grieved him, shot at him and hated him. But his bow remained in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob (From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, and by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father have excelled the blessings of my ancestors, up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills. They shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brothers. Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them; he blessed each one according to his own blessing. Then he charged them and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite as a possession for a burial place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is there were purchased from the sons of Heth.” And when Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.”

Without seeking to discuss in detail the prophetic relevance of these blessings, it is worthwhile to discuss at least a few patterns in general. For one, the sons are discussed in their birth order, and there is a clear divide between the blessing which is given to Joseph and the birthright which is given to Judah, since the oldest three sons in their own ways forfeited it through their wicked conduct. Some of the tribes are given lengthy discussions and some are given very short ones. In the case of Simeon and Levi, their scattering through Israel, though springing from the same origin in their violence and anger, ended up being very different in that Levi redeemed itself by righteous zeal, making its scattering a blessing to its brethren. The blessing mixes commentary on the past behavior of the sons (like Reuben, Simeon, and Levi) with discussions of their future both in the land of Canaan and beyond. In at least one case, that of Dan, the prophecy for this tribe makes a reference to something that is not made clear until Revelation, when it is noted that alone among the tribes Dan does not have 12,000 people sealed by God in protection, something that would not have been immediately understood by those who read or heard it first, but which became more clear once Dan had established itself as idolaters par excellance. All in all, the blessing is a vivid and richly detailed and complex prophecy, blending past, present, near future, and distant future together in a way that makes it one of the more vivid prophecies of scripture. And it was given by a dying man.

It is also telling to see what happened after his death in his fiercely divided family. First, Joseph fulfilled the oath he had made to his father by bringing Jacob to the family crypt in Hebron in a massive outpouring of grief that made an impression on those who witnessed it. Then Joseph had to calm the fears of his brothers, who thought that with their father gone and with Joseph in a position of great authority that he would avenge himself on his brothers. It seems as if the children of Israel were a little slow to recognize Joseph’s graciousness, for although Joseph does not minimize their evil plans, he recognized the hand of God, and so showed mercy to his brothers and accepted their apologies and signs of repentance. In the case of the death of Jacob, we see that the division in the family was never entirely healed, for despite the years that they had to build close ties, their rivalries and the repercussions of their actions continued to reverberate. One of the more telling aspects of Jacob’s words fits this reality as well, in that the actions made by his twelve sons were given a prophetic significance that involves thousands of years of history. It is a sobering thought to realize that one’s behavior can carry on for so long afterwards, in that our behavior sets patterns and marks a course for our progeny to follow, or to resist despite the pull of inertia and tradition.

[1] See, for example:






About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Famous Last Words: Jacob

  1. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Joseph | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Moses | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Joshua | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Sisera | Edge Induced Cohesion

  6. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Adoni-Bezek, Zebah and Zalmunna, Agag | Edge Induced Cohesion

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