Resolving Fraternal Rivalry: Manasseh and Ephraim

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17

A repeated theme throughout Genesis is the relationship of brothers – of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph in relationship to his eleven brothers. In this week’s portion, I want to pay attention to a far less well-known pair of brothers, Manasseh and Ephraim, the two sons of Joseph. The meaning and significance of these two brothers (and eventually these two tribes) are of enormous significance.

This week’s portion of the text deals with the reunion of Joseph with his brothers. It begins with one dreamer, the Pharaoh, encountering another, Joseph. Only Joseph both has dreams and interprets them. Pharaoh’s dreams are interpreted as a message from God to the King. Joseph may interpret the dream, but it is God who sends the message via the dream of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. How could God adumbrate the future for a non-Hebrew Pharaoh but not deliver what he promised to Joseph, and about which Joseph had his own dreams?

However, Joseph does get power and wealth. From a slave and a prisoner, he becomes effectively the Prime Minister of Egypt. The Pharaoh makes Joseph the chief vizier. He also arranges a marriage for him with the daughter, Asenath, of the priest of On, Potipherah. (Potiphara means “belonging to the sun.) It is the height of irony that it was Potipherah’s wife that tried to seduce Joseph and when he did not succumb, had him thrown into prison on false accusations. Then Joseph’s wife eventually turned out to be the daughter of his false accuser.

Asenath delivers two sons. Manasseh (“God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”) is the first born. Joseph through Manasseh is constantly reminded that he has the luck of the Irish, that he is a Hebrew who left behind his memories and his heritage and, in spite of that, ended up powerful and wealthy. The second son was called Ephraim (“God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”)

What an irony again! God had promised Joseph’s forefathers that he would, along with his brothers, inherit the rich and abundant land of Canaan and have many progeny, but it is from the land into which he was sold into slavery, this other land, Egypt, where he was rewarded with power and wealth. His homeland and family seemed at first to have been left in the dustbin of history. Yet it was in this land, initially viewed as the land of his affliction because he was enslaved and then imprisoned, where he would have his progeny. Did the land of his affliction have another meaning not yet revealed to him, in fact, never revealed to him during his lifetime?

How many Friday nights did I put my hands on the heads of my two youngest sons and incant, “May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh”? (Yisimcha Eh-lokim k’Ephraim v’chi’Menashe) I did not do it because I wanted the older of the two to become an adult who forgot his heritage when he became prosperous or the youngest because I wanted him to suffer when he grew up. Nor did I do it as the Chabadniks declare because these were examples of boys born to a convert and brought up with all the temptations of Egypt and of power and wealth, but who stuck with the Israelites, with the Jewish people. Jacob blessed them (“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon”) and adopted both as his own two sons and the head of an additional two tribes. I did cross my hands and put my right hand on the head of my very youngest and the left on the head of his older brother, as instructed, for the second will exceed the first.

When Jacob was about to pass away, he called Joseph to his bedside and asked to bless his two sons. Jacob told Joseph that these two boys, his grandsons, are like sons to him. Thus, unlike all of Jacob’s other grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim became two independent tribes — on par with their uncles, Jacob’s other sons.

The scene then shifted back to that very same homeland which had receded so deeply in Joseph’s memory. His father, Jacob, sent his ten brothers to purchase rations in Egypt when the famine took hold in the second seven-year cycle. Then Joseph’s early dream was realized. His brothers came before him and bowed low with their faces to the ground beseeching the vizier, whom they never recognized as their brother as he stood before them totally out of context in the dress of a noble rather than that of a shepherd.

Joseph recognized his brothers. And he spoke harshly to them, questioning them closely about their purpose and their origins. He accused them of being spies. Why spies? Was this an adumbration of the return to Canaan 400 years later at the end of the 40-year trek across the Sinai when the heads of each of the tribes (the Meraglim) were sent by Moses to spy out the land? (Numbers 13-14) The brothers protested the accusation and claimed their innocence and honesty. Thrice more, ignoring their protests, Joseph accuses them of being spies to find a land wasted in contrast to land of milk and honey that the spies of Moses would discover.

Joseph sets up a condition. As a proof of their honesty, they had to go home, fetch their youngest brother and return with him. Simeon was taken as hostage to ensure their return. Joseph did two other things. He wept when they could not see him as he overheard them speaking in Hebrew and blaming themselves for the trouble they were in because of how they had treated Joseph. It is a tale of irony built upon irony.

He also filled their sacks not only with grain, but with the monies they had come with to purchase the grain and provisions for the trip. Why would he treat suspected spies this way, except to entrap them, they thought when they returned home? They told Jacob the story. Jacob (Israel) berated them. He had lost Joseph. He had lost Simeon. Was he now to lose Benjamin? Reuben once again stepped up to the plate and told his father that he could kill his own two sons if he did not return with both Simeon and Benjamin.

Jacob had sent them back with double the money they had found in their sacks. But when they told this to Joseph, he replied, “All is well with you; do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father (my italics) must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.” (43:23)

When the brothers presented themselves for the unexpected and surprising invitation to lunch and prostrated themselves before Joseph in obeisance as his dream foretold, Joseph asked after their (his) father’s health which they assured him was fine. Then he spotted his younger brother, Benjamin, and was overwhelmed. He had to flee to another room where he could weep in private. There we have it. Joseph, the eldest and first-born of Rachel, is a sentimentalist, a bleeding heart, a man of great compassion towards his brothers even though they had sold him into slavery. He forgave them and insisted that it was not they who sold him into slavery, but God, for it was part of God’s plan that he precede them in Egypt and lay the ground for the survival of the Israelites through tough times.

As it were, times would eventually become much tougher. The Hebrews as a whole would be made slaves in Egypt and suffer from great affliction. And a probable cause, or at least a very plausible one, was that they blamed a Hebrew for reducing them from freeholding farmers to serfs when he took their land for the pharaoh in return for providing them with rations to survive the famine.

There is another twist. Normally, the second-born is the peacemaker, the conciliator, but in this case, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. His older brother, Joseph had disappeared. He was by birth a second-born, but by personality a first-born, but with all the characteristics doubled for he grew up like an only son and his half-brothers were more like uncles to him. His father who doted on him was elderly. He, in effect, brought himself up. It should be no surprise that the character of first-borns was so powerful in him.

First-borns are fighter pilots. First-borns are natural warriors. Disproportionately, they are born military leaders. In contrast, though he was naturally a second born, Benjamin had none of the traits of someone who avoided confrontation and one who learns the Machiavellian methods of the calculating political leader in favour of direct action. In Jewish society, the first-borns are given to God so that the second-borns can rule through compromise and negotiation rather than might is right. Benjamin, though born of Rachel second, had the traits in spades of a first-born. (For a much more detailed analysis of the difference between first- and second-borns in both social psychology and in the Tanach, see my 27 May 2017 blog on the subject in WordPress.)

It should then be no surprise that when Jacob blesses Benjamin, he says, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” (49:27). It should be no surprise that, although the tribe of Benjamin was the smallest in numbers, it had the reputation as the fiercest; the Benjamites served as the shock troops of the Israeli military. It should be no surprise that Ehud, a Judge and also an assassin (as well, a left-handed one), led the defeat of the Moabites. Yet it is the tribe of Ephraim in its jealousy of Judah that is blamed for splitting off the northern Kingdom from Judah in the south. However, the ultraorthodox Ephraimites resisted the modernizing reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. They were like the father of Ephraim, Joseph, haughty and self-righteous as well as sentimental and generous.

Queen Esther, who risked her life to save the Jewish people, was a Benjamite. So was King Saul, the great military leader, who ended his final days, his twilight years, his evening as it were, focused on dividing the plunder rather than on defending his people against their enemies. The Benjamites themselves proved that when the sun went down, their true wolfish character emerged and they gang-raped and murdered a Levite concubine, earning the wrath of all the other tribes who united to almost totally destroy the tribe of Benjamin in spite of its military ferocity. Ferocity unbound can lead to depravity and must be contained.

What about Joseph? He was the first-born of Rachel, but unlike almost any other typical first-born. A dreamer rather than a hunter, an aesthete rather than an outdoorsman, a preening and very proud competitor of his older half-brothers, he rose to the top of the political heap trough skill, cunning and calculation. But at heart, he was a sentimentalist. And when he had two sons not only by a non-Hebrew, but one who worshipped pagan gods, Joseph had to adopt them so they became heads of tribes themselves.

Since the Levites were not a self-contained tribe at all, Manassah and Ephraim became the eleventh and twelfth tribes of the Israelites. Manassah occupied the largest part of the Northern Kingdom on both sides of the Jordan River, the part conquered by the Assyrians and taken away as slaves until Manasseh was restored as a vassal king of Assyria. The tribe of Ephraim along with that of Benjamin lived in the crosshairs between the Norther Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Eventually the tribe to the south of Menassah, though initially smaller and blessed with fewer resources, became the larger, more powerful and wealthier one.

Further, when Jacob blessed them both and at the same time, thereby avoided the error of his own father, he crossed his arms and blessed Ephraim, the second-born, with his right hand. (This is why the worshippers in the Church of the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons – believe that they are descendants of or were adopted into the lost trine of Ephraim; Iranian Jews and the Telugu Jews of India, the Bene Ephraim, make the same claim.) Joseph blessed the other son, the elder one, with his left-hand. The older would in the end serve the younger.  And thus, the Hebrews were bequeathed a concept of political leadership that rewarded calculation, cunning and compromise over confrontation and conflict. The professional soldier was always to be in service to the civilian leader.

Evidently, not all the time. But the message of Jacob passed onto his heirs is that the Jews have to have both, have be governed by a marriage of skills of governance and military prowess, with the former in command of the latter. Though equal, the second-born shall rule over the first.

The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel: “May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” [my italics] They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.

“May God make you like Manasseh and Ephraim.”

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