This week’s parasha is entitled Vayechi, meaning “And he lived.” It covers Genesis 47:28-50:26 and completes the first of the five books of Moses. Israel and his sons were now comfortably in Egypt, though due to the ongoing famine the Egyptians were impoverished in their own land.
It is interesting to note that Joseph spent the first 17 years of his life with his father before being sold into slavery. Now Jacob would spend the last 17 years of his life in Egypt with Joseph, who held such a place of honor, and what a wonderful seventeen years they would be!
As the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and had him swear to honor his last request. Jacob requested to be buried in the promised land of Canaan in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had purchased for Sarah when she died. Machpelah was also the place where Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were buried. Joseph swore an oath to honor his father’s request.
Chapter 48 opens as Joseph is informed that his father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. So Joseph goes to see him, taking along his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Jacob was nearing the end of his life and it was time that he announced his heir – the next head of the family, which was like taking care of one’s will.
Israel said to Joseph, “Adonai the all-sufficient one, appeared to me at Luz and said, ‘I will make you a great people and nation. Your descendants will own this land forever.’ Your two sons that were born here in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh, will be counted as my own sons.”
The untimely death of Jacob’s wife Rachel made it impossible for Jacob to have any more children by her. For that reason, Jacob now adopts Joseph’s children as his own and makes them sons of Israel; remember: Rachel was Joseph’s mother.
So these two sons of Joseph will be treated as sons of Jacob when it comes to the birthright blessing. Joseph was upset, however, when his father reversed his hands in order to put the primary blessing on Ephraim the younger one, instead of Manasseh the older. But Jacob had heard from God and knew exactly what he was doing.
And so, for the fifth time in the book of Genesis, we see a divinely-ordained reversal of the birth order. Adonai chose Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Joseph, not Reuben; and now He would choose Ephraim over Manasseh.
Jacob said to Joseph, “I have given you one portion of land above your brothers.” If we took a Bible map of the locations of the tribes in Israel, we would easily see the fulfillment of this blessing centuries later.
The birthright included a second component; namely, that the recipient would have the high honor of being an ancestor of the Messiah. This was unique to Jacob’s family lineage; no other family in the human race could have this Messianic distinction.
In the ancient world, the one to receive this birthright blessing was normally the firstborn son. In Jacob’s family that would have been Reuben. However, Scripture tells us that Reuben forfeited his claim to the birthright when he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine.
And since Reuben forfeited the birthright, it would pass to another son of Jacob. Joseph would receive this double-portion part and Judah the tribal leadership part.
Chapter 49 opens with Jacob on his deathbed. Knowing that his time was drawing near, he summoned all his sons. “My sons,” he said, “come here to me, and I will tell you what will happen to you in the future.” These would not merely be the sayings of a dying saint, but the oracles of an inspired prophet.
Reuben’s life was a sad story of sin. As the firstborn, he was in line to receive the birthright, by which came dignity, power, and strength. But his father Israel described Reuben as “unstable as water” – referring to Reuben’s uncontrolled passion.
We ourselves must exercise self-control and flee from immorality if we hope to realize our privileges.
As Jacob continued to prophesy, we find that the second and third sons, Simeon and Levi, also forfeited their blessing.
Jacob said, “Simeon and Levi are brothers– their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.” He was referring to their slaughter of all the men in Shechem in retaliation for the rape of their sister by one man. Thus the first three sons of Jacob were a bitter disappointment and shame to him.
By contrast, Judah was given praise. Jacob said, “As for you, Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hands will be on your enemies’ neck, while your brothers honor you.” He compared Judah to a lion fresh from the kill. Like a lion, king of all beasts; who would dare mess with him?
He went on to say that the scepter – leadership over the nation, would remain with Judah until the ultimate ruler would come to whom the nations would give obedience. The descendants of Judah would be ruling in Israel when Messiah comes.
Zebulun will dwell at the sea; and be a haven for ships. Moses said of Zebulun’s descendants in Deuteronomy 33, “They will take riches from the sea and treasures from the shore.”
Issachar is compared to a strong donkey couching down between two saddlebags. Issachar’s blessing suggests that his descendants would be willing to sacrifice freedom and independence in order to enjoy creature comforts.
Dan shows another disparity between calling and achievement. Dan ought to have been the tribe to provide justice (the name Dan means “judge”). Yet in the time of the Judges the first major practice of idolatry appeared in the tribe of Dan.
The descendants of Gad would be attacked by bands of raiders but he would avenge himself.
Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king.
Naphtali is a doe set free that gives birth to beautiful fawns.
Jacob describes Joseph more lavishly than any of the others brothers. He is compared to a fruitful tree, because Adonai has made him fruitful in the land of his affliction. His two sons will be like branches of a vine, beautifully covering a wall
Benjamin is compared to a ravening wolf, devouring its prey. His descendants will gain victory over their enemies and gain much spoil. This prediction alludes to the warlike character of the tribe of Benjamin, and to Israel’s first king, Saul.
After these blessings, Jacob again expressed to his twelve sons his desire to be buried in the tomb of his fathers, which Joseph had already promised by oath to perform. He then drew his feet into the bed, and took his last breath. Jacob was 130 years of age when he went down to Egypt, and 147 when he died.
Joseph instructed that his father’s body be embalmed for burial. All of Egypt mourned for Jacob for two and a half months. An escort of Egyptian officials served as an honor guard as Jacob’s body was carried back to Canaan. This would be Joseph’s first time back in his homeland in 39 years.
After Jacob’s burial, Joseph’s guilt-ridden brothers fear that he will seek retribution. Joseph reassures them that he has no such intention, especially since Adonai had brought so much good out of the situation.
Joseph and his brothers and their families continued to live in Egypt. Joseph told his brothers, “Soon I will die but Adonai will surely come to help you and lead you out of this land of Egypt. He will bring you back to the land he promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Joseph’s final request was that he also be buried in Canaan. Finally, we learn that Joseph died at 110 years of age. His request for burial in Canaan would be honored, but not for several centuries.
And so we come to the conclusion of the book of Genesis. When the book of Exodus opens, four hundred years will have passed. What lessons can we take from this parasha?
- What you sow you and your descendants will reap. Reuben, Simeon and Levi found that out the hard way. So live wisely and your children will and praise and bless you!
- God’s prophetic word is unalterable. In this parasha we learn that Messiah must come through the tribe of Judah, and we also learn that the land of Israel belongs to the descendants of Jacob. No decision or decree by any man or any government can undo what God has ordained.
- We serve the awesome Creator of heaven and earth. Let us learn with pure hearts to wait on, to trust and believe in, and to stand firm in His true will for our lives.