In this week’s Torah portion, there is a unique biblical passage on the relationships between a grandparent and grandchildren (Genesis 48). In the biblical case, it was pretty one-sided. As myself a grandparent in a multisided relationship, I know how interesting, and how precious, that can be.
Grandpa Jacob, knowing his death is near, reenacts with a big difference his own long-ago history of reversing the fortunes of first-born and second-born sons. He had as a young man lied to his father, disguising himself as his older brother Esau in order to secure the first-born blessing for himself.
This time he calls for his son Joseph to bring his two oldest sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and “adopts” them as his own, giving them a privileged place among Joseph’s other brothers. Then he blesses them both, putting his right hand (which in conventional ritual should have rested upon the older son), upon the younger – and his left had upon the older.
When Joseph protests that he has gotten it backwards, he shrugs off the warning. We can almost hear him saying, “Who are you trying to teach about older-younger transformation? I wrote the book about it!”
But then he gives them the same blessing, aloud. No lies, no cheating, no theft. They know. And his blessing is that long long into the future, Israelite children will be blessed to be “as Ephraim and Manasseh.” And even today, almost three thousand years after the story first was told, traditional Jews bless their sons with those words.
What do the words mean? Why do they come at the end of Jacob’s life and close to the end of the Book of Genesis? What happens to the rivalry of brothers in the rest of Torah and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible)?
It seems to me that the reversal of brotherly fates is Torah’s first clumsy effort to enact social justice. Favoring the first-born son is not fair; so Torah tries to turn it around. But the result is long estrangement, until the older forgives the younger and they are able to be reconciled. Here Jacob short-circuits the long tension. The principle of social justice is upheld by his reversal of the blessing hands; the harsh price of long hostility is avoided.
Not that the rivalry itself ends; not only do many siblings in our own world find themselves at semi-war, but in the stories of King David’s family, many of David’s sons are at sword’s point. (in his biblical analysis King and Kin, Joel Rosenberg even argues that many of the tales of family struggles in the Abrahamic clan are rooted in the historical struggles among the sons of David.)
But the Book of Exodus turns the whole transformation of first-bornness in a totally new direction, indeed making the point of social justice inescapable. YHWH, the Interbreathing Spirit of the world, tells Moses (Exodus 4:22), “Israel is my first-born.” This is manifestly socially and politically not true; Egypt is richer, more powerful, bigger, older, smarter. But all this is to be overturned.
We are left with two profound questions: The grabby Heel “Jacob” who blessed his grandchildren with honesty and comradeship was the “Yisrael, Godwrestler,” who by learning to wrestle God made possible peace with his brother. Is it the bio-political People Israel that is God’s first-born, or is it the Godwrestlers of any and every people who bear the burden and the blessing? And is the goal of the blessing the triumph of second-borns over first-borns, or reconciliation – peace and love – between them?