This week, we come to the last Torah portion of Genesis, Vay’hi (Genesis 47:28-50, meaning “and he lived”). And I have to say, it’s one that I can’t do justice to because there’re many things in it I’ve yet to understand. Fully a third of the text is made up of prophecy from Jacob, telling his sons about what would happen to them in the latter days, and while some parts seem quite simple, I’ve never felt that I grasped the whole thing enough to really comprehend it.
… In my experience, I’ve always learned something new with different Torah portions every cycle; things that I never noticed before, or even things that I might’ve felt were beyond my ability to ever understand – suddenly one year, something will dawn on me, and bowl me over with sheer awe that God would grace me with revelation. So maybe one day, I’ll be able to read Vay’hi with more clarity and see some answers to the questions I currently have concerning its mysteries. But this year, I’m going to work at a level I’m capable of… which is to say, beginner ( :p ).
So I’m going to be focusing on examining just one intriguing little sentence at the end of Genesis 48, where Jacob says to Joseph: “I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.”
What was Jacob talking about? What did he mean? … Well, as usual, I can’t say I have the definitive answer, but here’re my thoughts based on the original text:
וַאֲנִי נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל־אַחֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי מִיַּד הָאֱמֹרִי בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי
“And I have given to you one shoulder [of land] above your brothers which I have taken from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.”
In Hebrew, the verbs “given” and “taken” are written in perfect tense, meaning Jacob is talking about actions which are supposed to have been accomplished: he has given the extra land to Joseph, which he has taken from the Amorite. … But when did this ever happen? The Bible never records an instance where Jacob acquired land from Amorites.
Well, it should be noted that when it comes to interpreting prophetic speech, there’s also such a thing as the future perfect tense. So in this case, the sentence could be rendered: Jacob will have given to Joseph the land, which he will have taken from the Amorite. And considering the context in which he spoke (“Behold, I die; but God will be with you, and bring you back unto the land of your fathers”), I believe this is the appropriate tense to use in the interpretation of Jacob’s words. Because the thing is, he hadn’t lived in Canaan for 17 years – so he couldn’t actually have divided the land among his sons and given an extra piece to Joseph as he lay dying all the way in Egypt. Moreover, he promised Joseph that God would bring him back to the land of his fathers, but Joseph also died before this happened – it was his descendants, rather, who brought his bones back to Canaan with them so he could be buried there.
So really, Jacob was telling Joseph that when his descendants returned to Canaan, they would receive an extra portion above the other tribes of Israel. … And the thing that’s interesting about this, is that the word meaning shoulder (or ridge, of land) is שְׁכֶם (shekhem), which was also the name of the city Shechem. That city later became the possession of the tribe of Manasseh, and Joseph’s bones were interred there (Joshua 24:32) – which, in turn, strikes me as significant because in Genesis 33:18-20, it says:
Then Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram; and he pitched his tent before the city. And he bought the parcel of land, where he had pitched his tent, from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money. Then he erected an altar there and called it El Elohe Israel.
Fresh from his life-changing encounter with God and deliverance from Esau, El Elohe Israel (meaning “God, the God of Israel”) was the first altar Jacob erected on his way to Bethel. Shechem would’ve held special meaning for him, therefore (notwithstanding the fact it was also the site of one of his greatest griefs – Simeon and Levi’s slaughter of the men of Shechem), so perhaps in his promise, he was bequeathing Shechem to the progeny of Joseph, as well as an extra portion of land.
Of course, Hamor was a Hivite, not an Amorite (Genesis 34:2), and Shechem was a Hivite city… but in Genesis 15:16, the Amorites were a catch-all for the various Canaanite tribes, so it’s not unlikely that this was how Jacob was using the name as well. And if you compare the general territory of the Amorites against the land that was eventually given to the tribe of Manasseh, you’ll see that not only did Hivite Shechem end up as part of Manassite land, but the Amorite kingdom of Bashan, east of the Jordan, was allotted to them as well – a portion more than all the other tribes, for Manasseh also received land west of the Jordan where Shechem was located (the following maps give an approximate idea of Canaan’s layout before and after Joshua; click to enlarge, then click once more to reach full size):
Neat, huh, how the wordplay fits with what actually happened?
But there’s one final question mark, to do with Jacob’s sword and bow. Scripture never records any kind of physical battle or military conquest on Jacob’s part, and obviously by the time he was speaking to Joseph, he was in no condition to use a sword or bow. So what did he mean when he said he was giving Joseph an extra portion, which he’d taken from the Amorite using his sword and bow?
Well, looking at the prophetic context of Jacob’s words, I think that just as he didn’t mean to say Joseph would personally enter the Promised Land and inherit the extra portion, but his descendants, so he wasn’t talking about taking land from the Amorite himself, but that it’d be accomplished through his descendants – in other words, he was promising Israel’s success in the conquering of Canaan through military means, and the division of its territories among his sons in the future. He spoke in the perfect tense because he knew through prophetic foresight that it was going to happen – their acquisition of Canaan was as good as done.
The Jewish sages also say that the sword and bow could represent wisdom and prayer/supplication, which constitute true (spiritual) strength, and are key to real victories for Israel. So there’s something else to think about. But yeah… I never really understood what Jacob was saying to Joseph before, but after looking into it, I think I have an idea now, so here it is written down in more or less orderly fashion.
Next week, we begin delving into the book of Exodus. It’s been 3 months since the cycle began and they’ve flown by; I’m happy with how the blogging’s been going so far, and to everyone who’s been dropping by and reading, thank you. You’ve made it that much more meaningful. :)
See y’all next week~