Another lesson that Jacob’s story teaches us is that birth is not destiny. That statement may elicit a surprised “duh!” from many today. In our egalitarian society, we think that’s taken for granted. Far from it. Today, more people than ever are peddling the “birth is destiny” notion. If you’re born poor– (feel free to substitute “female,” or any other inborn characteristic) they tell us, you simply never catch up.
Now, in monarchical or feudal societies, it’s true. WHO you are trumps what you contribute, and who you are is defined by the circumstances of your birth. And that goes for monarchical or feudal societies that go under other names, where one-party rule means that whose child you are is more important than your character or talents
But in the Bible, this was never so. We may think birth was the determining factor, because of the birthright. But the Bible tells a different story. In a chapter from (SHAMELESS PLUG!) my upcoming book, Torn, Jacob’s Story, an elderly Jacob explains to his son, Joseph.
Jacob lived on, but became increasingly frail. One day Amos sent word that Jacob had fallen ill. Joseph decided that he could no longer delay, that the time had come to present his sons to Jacob for his blessing. So he set off for Goshen, taking Manasseh and Ephraim with him. They arrived just after midday.
Amos saw them coming and went into Jacob’s bed chamber. He gently touched the old man’s shoulder, and Jacob opened his eyes. “Your son Joseph is here, with his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.”
“Joseph? Here?” The old man started to rise.
“Easy, Master, easy,” said Amos.
But Jacob said, “I am not dead, yet, Amos.” Jacob sat up, and slapped his thighs. “Bring my children to me.”
Outside, Amos motioned for Joseph and his sons to enter. “How is he today?” Joseph asked.
“More difficult than usual,” Amos said, smiling. “Thinks he is young again.”
“I will try not to tire him too much,” Joseph said, and Amos gestured for him to enter the old man’s room.
“Joseph?” Jacob asked, for the years had finally begun to dim his eyes.
“Father,” Joseph said.
“I have been thinking of you,” Jacob said. “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of the Kinnahu, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’”
“You have spoken of this before, Father,” Joseph said. “Why do you mention it now?”
Jacob seemed not to have heard the question. “Now then,” he said, “your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; when El Shaddai keeps his promise, and gives to my children the land of the Kinnahu, Ephraim and Manasseh will have equal status with Reuben and Simeon; they will receive an equal share of land.”
A stunned Joseph did not know what to say. His sons would be reckoned equal with his brothers? Jacob had just announced the bestowal of a priceless gift.
But Jacob was not done. “Any children born to you after them,” he said, “will be yours; the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers.”
“This is a great gift,” Joseph said, as much to his sons and himself as to his father.
But Jacob had moved on, his dimmed eyes welling with tears. “As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of the Kinnahu while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath.” He paused, then, for the first time seemed to notice Joseph’s sons. “Now, who are these?”
“They are the sons God has given me here,” Joseph replied.
Israel said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”
So Joseph brought his sons close to Israel. And the old man kissed them and embraced them, and placed them on his knees– thus adopting them as his own. His face radiant, Israel said to Joseph, “For many years, I never expected to see your face again, and now El Shaddai has allowed me to see your children too.”
Joseph removed his sons from Israel’s knees, prostrated himself, touching his forehead to the ground. Then he took both sons, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to Israel. But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.
Joseph saw this so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head, saying “My father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
But Israel refused. “I know, my son, I know,” he said. “He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”
Then he blessed Joseph, “May El Shaddai, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm —may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth.”
Then he spoke to the Joseph’s sons. “In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
‘May Adonai Elohim make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” Thus he declared Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.
Joseph asked, “Is it not the custom that the firstborn should be given preference?”
“That is man’s reckoning,” Israel agreed.
“Is there some other reckoning?”
“Whom has El Shaddai chosen?” Israel replied.
Joseph shook his head. “I do not follow. . .”
“Was Abraham firstborn?” Israel inquired.
“You told us as children, that Haran was born first.”
“So I did. Was my father Isaac firstborn?” Joseph seemed about to confirm that statement, when Israel interjected, “Or was Ishmael born first?”
Joseph’s eyes went wide. “And your brother Esau was born before you!”
“It is so,” Israel agreed. “But El Shaddai told my mother in a dream, before our birth, that I would receive His favor. Adonai Elohim does not reckon as we do.”
Joseph thought for a moment. “It seems so– so contrary,” he said. “I am struggling to understand it.”
Israel laughed. “Struggling? I have been struggling with El Shaddai ever since I was born– born second,” he said.
No, birth is not destiny. God gives us free will, the power to think and to do. And though circumstances may pose challenges, sometimes severe ones, we also have God’s assistance to overcome these challenges.
*for more information on my upcoming book, go to Torn: Jacob’s Story