Vayechi & 1 Kings: Deathbed Prophecies

March 3, 2021 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Vayechi | Leave a comment

There are two kinds of people whom the Hebrew Bible identifies with the word navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. These two types, I wrote in a post five years ago, are: “those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.”

You can click here to read that post: Haftarat Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible, 1531

The haftarah reading for this week is a story in the first book of Kings about the prophet Elijah staging a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal to find out whose god is the real one.  Elijah’s God wins by sending down fire to ignite the waterlogged sacrifice Elijah sets out on his altar.  The priests of Baal get no such miracle, even though they work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.

Most of the bible’s rational prophets, from Moses to Elijah to Zechariah, have an initial experience of God, and then keep on hearing from God for the rest of their lives—because God keeps on wanting them to communicate to the general population.

Abraham, in the book of Genesis, also has a number of rational conversations with God, including personal blessings, directives, and one prediction: that his descendants will be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years, then go free with great wealth.1  But unlike later prophets, Abraham does not share this prediction with anyone else.

His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob also hear God giving them personal blessings.2  Jacob also receives divine information about what will happen in the future—but not until he is on his deathbed.

I noticed this week, as I approach the end of the book I am writing on moral psychology in Genesis, that Jacob delivers prophecies in two of his three deathbed scenes.  In his first deathbed scene, Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the family plot in Canaan.  In his second deathbed scene, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim, by:

  1. declaring that they are now his (and will therefor get shares of his inheritance),
  2. symbolically hugging them to his knees, and
  3. giving them a formal blessing, with his hands resting on their heads.

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1869

His right hand is supposed to go on the head of the firstborn (Menasheh), but Jacob crosses his arms so that his right hand will be on Efrayim’s head.  This bothers Joseph.

And Joseph said to his father: “Not thus, my father, because this one is the firstborn! Put your right hand on his head.”  But his father refused to, and he said: “I know, my son, I know.  He, too, will become a people, and he, too, will be great.  However, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will be abundant enough to fill nations.”  And he blessed them that day, saying: “By you [the people of] Israel will give blessings, saying: God will make you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  And he put Efrayim before Menasheh. (Genesis 48:18-20)

The author of Genesis knows that centuries later, the tribe of Efrayim would have more people than the tribe of Menasheh, and produce the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel.  But how does Jacob know this?  Because God has given him the gift of prophecy.

In his third deathbed scene, Jacob assembles his twelve sons for the purpose of telling them “what you will encounter in the afterward of the days”.  (See my blog post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.)  First Jacob brings up his son Reuben’s past crime of incest with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and says he will no longer take precedence as the firstborn.4  This seems to be a personal consequence for Reuben, but later in the bible the tribe of Reuben is sidelined as Efrayim becomes the dominant tribe of the northern kingdom.

Jacob then gives prophecies about what will happen in the distant future to the eponymous tribes of his remaining eleven sons. Some of Jacob’s prophetic poems include predictions that come true later in the bible; for example, the tribe of Judah does provide the kings of the southern Israelite kingdom, and the tribes of Shimon and Levi do not own territories of their own.  Other prophecies apparently refer to stories that have been lost, and still mystify commentators.

When I read about how God drives some of the prophets to do their ordained work whether they wanted to or not, I think God is kind to Jacob by giving him prophecies to utter only at the end of his life.

  1. Genesis 15:13-16.  I am not counting God’s statement that Sarah would conceive (Genesis 17:16 and 18:10), since it counts as either a personal blessing or a performative utterance (God being the opener of wombs).
  2. Isaac in Gen 26:2-4 and 26:24, Jacob in a dream in Gen 28:11-16 and directly in Gen 35:9-13.
  3. Genesis 48:14.
  4. Genesis 49:3-4.

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