The Torah reading for this week is entitled Vayechi, meaning “And he lived”, referring to Joseph, and completes the book of B’reysheet. Last Shabbat we contemplated Jacob’s joyful reunion with his son Joseph, who for all those years he had thought to be dead. On account of the ongoing famine, Jacob and his entire family had relocated to Egypt, and settled in Goshen. Jacob was 130 years old at that time. It is now seventeen years later, and Jacob is nearing the end of his life. He summons Joseph and has him swear an oath not to bury him in Egypt, but rather in Canaan, along with his fathers. To be buried in the land of your ancestors in the ancient world was extraordinarily important. You can really appreciate, then, Abraham’s willingness, as well as Ruth’s, to follow God to a distant land and there to die and be buried.
As chapter 48 opens, Jacob is very ill. Joseph and his sons Manasseh and Ephraim come to see him. Jacob declares that Manasseh and Ephraim are to be reckoned as his sons, and reiterates God’s promise that the land of Canaan will be given to his descendants as an everlasting possession. He also promises that God will be with Joseph, and that at the appointed time our people will return to the Land of Promise. Finally, Jacob rejoices that he has been allowed to see Joseph alive again and even to see his grandchildren!
When the time comes to pronounce the blessing, Jacob does something odd, but also oddly familiar. He places his right hand on Ephraim, though Manasseh is the older one. Joseph assumes his elderly father is confused, but Jacob assures Joseph he knows exactly what he’s doing – prophesying that the younger will have greater stature than the older. This 4,000 year-old blessing is prayed by Jewish parents over their sons to this very day:
May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh!
Chapter 49 holds particular importance for those who look for the coming of Messiah! Here we read that Jacob summoned his sons, saying, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come”. As they gathered around their dying father, he assigned to each of them the role of progenitor of a tribe in Israel. Some received a blessing, others a reprimand, and some a word of prophecy. Zebulun will produce seafarers, while Dan will produce judges (complementing his name); Asher olive growers, and Benjamin warriors. Naphtali is compared to a swift doe, and Joseph to a rich fruitful vine. But the big question on everyone’s mind was: Who will be the next leader of the family? Jacob first summons Reuven, the first-born, and begins praising him, “preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power,” and you can just see Reuven thinking, “This is it – he’s going to give me the patriarchy!” But Jacob continues: uncontrolled as water, you will not have preeminence. Reuven’s sin of having lain with his father’s concubine cost him dearly. Shimon and Levi, next in line, also forfeited that premier blessing for having murdered all the men of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister by one man.
And that brings us to Yehudah – Judah, who indeed gets the blessing. Jacob declares that Judah will have power, preeminence and will rule in Israel over all the other tribes, saying, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him up? But Jacob’s word of blessing extends yet centuries down the corridors of time. He declares, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the one comes to whom it belongs (Messiah), and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”
This is a remarkable prophecy, and a vital part of the narrowing of the chosen line through which Messiah will come. But it’s also clear from this word that once Messiah came, Judah (Yehuda) was to yield sovereignty to Him. When you read about the conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious leaders of His day, what you are witnessing, simply put, is the refusal of the Yehudim, the Judeans, to relinquish that scepter to the One to whom it belongs. The subsequent history of our people, our being scattered to the ends of the Earth, our lack of peace, is explained in light of that refusal.
When Jacob concludes his blessings, he insists that his sons bury him in the cave of Machpelah where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah are buried. Then Jacob dies. Chapter 50 begins with Joseph’s weeping over his father, and making good on his promise. Joseph travels back to Canaan, along with his brothers and a huge entourage of Egyptian dignitaries on horses and in chariots accompanying them.
The Canaanites see this large caravan of Egyptians stop and mourn by the Jordan River for seven days, and name the place Abel Mizraim (“The Mourning [or meadow] of Egypt”). After sitting shiva, they continue on until they arrive at the place, and Jacob is buried.
Joseph’s brothers are suddenly frightened. Their father is gone; what if Joseph decides to take revenge? So they concoct a lie that their father, before dying, said that Joseph should forgive them. These guys haven’t changed much. But Joseph certainly has! His sufferings produced patience and forgiveness in him. Joseph assures them that he has forgiven them, and that he will continue to provide for their families (sounds a lot like Messiah, who is willing to forgive and provide for the very ones who once disowned Him). The book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph at 110 years of age, but not before he reiterates the promise that God will bring them out of Egypt and back to Canaan, and when the time comes, he instructs them to carry up his bones with them.
- What you sow, you (and your children and grandchildren) will certainly reap. Reuben, Simeon and Levi found that out the hard way. Actions have consequences; some severe, and some lasting a lifetime. Live wisely and your children will 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 was deeded in perpetuity to the descendants of Jacob. No decision or decree by any man or any government or any institution can undo what God has ordained, and to attempt to circumvent God’s revealed will is folly.
- We are meant to learn and grow through our experiences of suffering. God means it for good, and will ultimately bring all things to a perfect conclusion! Our suffering may not be pleasant, but we can learn through it. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11). Jacob ended his life well, and so did Joseph. How we end our life is infinitely more important that how we began it.
- Moses didn’t include all these details arbitrarily. The many ways in which Joseph’s actions and character foreshadow the Messiah should be carefully considered. One of the ways to recognize the true Messiah is to know what to look for. And one needs also to know where to look! Messiah would be the Lion from the tribe of Judah. I think I know Someone who met all these criteria! Would you like to know…?