Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yehi 5768/ December 22, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



A Father’s Testament to his Sons


Menahem Ben-Yashar


The Institute for the History of Jewish Bible Research and Ashkelon College


Parashat Va-Yehi concludes Genesis, the book of Creation and the patriarchs, marking the end of the patriarchal era and the transition from a family to a people.   This transition is embodied in the figure of Jacob, who of the three patriarchs was destined to build the people by siring twelve sons – the tribes; Jacob, whose additional name, Israel, embodies the kernel of the people of Israel.

In his testament, Jacob transmitted the heritage of the last generation of patriarchs to the first generation of the tribes comprising the nation.  His testament has a chiastic structure:  first comes his command to Joseph regarding burying Jacob in Canaan, then his announcement to Joseph about the future of the house of Joseph – the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh in the land of Canaan, then his prophecy to all the tribes about their future in the land of Canaan after conquering and settling the land, and lastly a reiteration of his command to bury him in Canaan; the second time, however, the command is addressed to all his sons.  We see that the first two parts of this structure are addressed to Joseph alone, and the last two, to all of the tribes.

As we mentioned, the command to bury Jacob in the ancestral crypt in Canaan initially was relayed to Joseph alone, “since it was in his power to do so” (Rashi on Gen. 47:29-31, following Genesis Rabbah 96.5).  Joseph must have applied great diplomatic skill to obtain Pharaoh’s consent to the removal of Jacob’s bones from the land of Egypt (Gen. 50:4-5).   To this end, he even relied on the oath his father made him take; indeed, it was solely for this purpose that he made him give this oath. [1]    Commanding all his sons in this regard (Gen. 49:29-32), however, was a matter of principal:   all the sons/tribes would participate in bringing Jacob’s remains to Canaan for burial in the Cave of Machpelah.   Even while enslaved in Egypt, the burial of the patriarchs and matriarchs would be a focus for their longings, hopes and aspirations.

The Road Not Taken

The mourning and funeral procession of Israel’s sons to Canaan was a sort of precedent and dress-rehearsal in anticipation of the future redemption procession of the Israelites to Canaan.   This explains the wonderment about the route taken in the funeral procession.  There are two reasonable routes to take from Egypt to Hebron:  either along the Via Maris, i.e., along the coastal plain as far as Gaza, and from there east to Hebron, or through northern Sinai, continuing through the northern Negev, via Kadesh Barnea and Beersheba, on to Hebron.   But we read that the funeral procession went through “Goren ha-Atad, which is beyond the Jordan” (Gen. 50:10). Why this long circuitous route?  There surely was a political or military factor preventing them from taking a direct route, but the Torah is telling us that Jacob paved the way for his descendants, who would later enter Canaan by the same route:  through Transjordan.

In his testament to his sons/the tribes regarding their future, when they would return from Egypt to Canaan (the inner pair of the chiastic structure) Jacob granted senior status to Joseph by first giving a special testament to him before the testament to the rest of the tribes.   The testament to Joseph fills all of chapter 48 and includes five subjects:  1) dividing the House of Joseph into two tribes; 2) giving them senior status “no less than Reuben and Simeon”; 3) mentioning Ephraim before Manasseh; 4) mentioning Rachel’s burial; 5) referring to the city of Shechem.  Aside from all this, Jacob also blessed Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:14-16).

Jacob began by mentioning G-d’s revelation to him at Luz, the same as Bethel, where He promised him:  “A nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you” (Gen. 35:11), or as Jacob put it here, “making of you a community of peoples” (Gen. 48:4). [2]   Thus Jacob could see himself as a “father of a multitude of nations” – a father who builds the nation out of the tribes, having the privilege of determining the number of tribes and their structure.  Jacob, in giving Joseph two portions of inheritance in Canaan, in a sense was giving him the status of first-born, who inherits a “double portion” (Deut. 21:17).   When Jacob said of Joseph’s two sons that they “shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon” (Gen. 48:4), it meant they would be considered as if they had been born to Jacob himself, or that the first of Joseph’s sons would be considered the first-born, as if he had been Reuben.  Perhaps that is how the author of chronicles understood it, when he wrote of Reuben, “He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel” (I Chron. 5:1).

Joseph as Two Tribes

There seems to be another reason, however, why Joseph is considered as two tribes; this reason is intimated in Jacob’s earlier words to Joseph, prior to blessing the two sons:  “I never expected to see you again, and here G-d has let me see your children as well” (Gen. 48:11).  In other words, when Joseph disappeared from his father, his father considered him as dead, as erased from the tribes.  But now, with Joseph reappearing to Jacob – as if a revival of the dead – he appeared along with two sons that had been born to him. Therefore, those two sons were henceforth considered Jacob’s two sons:   “Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine” (Gen. 48:5).  This recognition of Joseph’s sons is tantamount to an act of adoption [3] by Jacob, adoption that is confirmed in Jacob’s direct blessing to Joseph’s children when he laid his hands on their heads like a father to a son (Gen. 48:14-19).  Perhaps this sort of adoption was to counterbalance the blot in the family background of Ephraim and Manasseh, for their mother, the daughter of a pagan priest and an Egyptian (Gen. 41:45), came from a nation characterized by illicit sexual practices, just like the Canaanites (see Lev. 18:3).

The Genesis Motif

In Joseph’s family, Jacob gave preference to Ephraim, the younger, over Manasseh, the first-born.  This motif of preferring the younger is repeated throughout Genesis in particular, and throughout the entire Bible in general.   The last instance in the biblical narrative is when David, the youngest, is chosen over all his brothers, and there an all-inclusive explanation is added:  “For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).  In this instance, and in all the other cases, the Bible tells us either directly or indirectly why the younger was preferred, whereas here, with Joseph’s sons, no reason is given and we are left to present our own hypothesis.   It stands to reason that Manasseh, the first-born, was born early in Joseph’s marriage to the Egyptian Asenath, perhaps about eight years before Joseph made himself known to his brothers and was reunited with his father’s house.  Manasseh was brought up by his Egyptian mother in an Egyptian environment, his father Joseph kept busy with managing the Egyptian economy.  However the younger brother, Ephraim, grew up after Jacob’s family had come to Egypt, and they surely influenced his upbringing.

The Fourth Patriarch

Since Joseph was recognized as the first-born of his brothers and father of two tribes, in a way he can be thought of as a fourth patriarch, and his mother Rachel ought to have been buried in the Cave of Machpelah, along with the other matriarchs.  Therefore Jacob apologized to Joseph (Gen. 48:7) and said that indeed she ought to have been buried there, but her sudden death while on the road made that impossible.

Nahmanides notes (at the end of his commentary on Gen. 49:7) that this was more than a technical explanation; Providence intended it that way as a matter of principal:  it was not befitting to bury in the patriarchal crypt a man and his two wives who were sisters, that being contrary to the laws of the Torah (Lev. 18:18).  Therefore only Leah, his first wife, was buried with Jacob, whereas Rachel was buried in a tomb of her own.  Thus, the Israelites had a patriarchal burial place where three pairs of patriarchs and matriarchs lay, and another two burial places – one of the matriarch and the other of her son:  the tomb of Rachel and the tomb of Joseph, who as we have said was like a fourth patriarch, father of the House of Joseph.

As a sort of fourth patriarch, Joseph was directly informed by Jacob of the destiny of the entire nation:   “Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘I am about to die; but G-d will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers’” (Gen. 48:21).  Before his death, Joseph would pass on this message to the rest of the brothers/tries:  “At length, Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die.  G-d will surely take notice of you [Heb. p-k-d] and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen. 50:24).  Using the same expression – p-k-d – Moses would later bring the tidings of Redemption to the Israelite elders during their bondage (Ex. 3:16), and the Israelites would have faith in the message, again using the word p-k-d (Ex. 4:31). [4]

The House of Jacob made one military conquest in the land of Canaan during Jacob’s lifetime:   the city of Shechem (ch. 34), and this subject concludes Jacob’s special testament to Joseph:  “And now, I assign to you one portion [Heb. shechem] [5] more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow” (Gen. 48:22).  Jacob’s sword and bow are the two fighters among his children – Simeon and Levi, who captured the city of Shechem and killed its inhabitants (Gen. 49:5), and ostensibly deserved to inherit the city which they conquered.  However, due to Jacob’s reservations about their excessive violence (Gen. 49:5-7), Shechem was taken away from then and given to Joseph.   Indeed, Shechem is centrally located in Joseph’s inheritance, between the land of the tribe of Ephraim and the land of the tribe of Manasseh; and paralleling what he said above about Rachel’s tomb, Jacob was hinting here to the parallel tomb, that of his son Joseph.   Thus it says at the end of the book of Joshua (24:32):

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites.

“And which had become” – both the city of Shechem which had been conquered as well as the piece of ground that had been purchased (Gen. 33:18-19).  So we see that both pieces of ground that were purchased by the patriarchs in Canaan served as burial places for the patriarchs:   the field of Machpelah (Gen. 23) for the three patriarchs and matriarchs, and the field next to Shechem for Joseph’s burial place.

Last Will and Testament

Jacob’s testament to the House of Joseph is followed by his testament to the entire House of Israel, tribe by tribe (49:1-28), with tidings and prophecy of the future:   “what is to befall you in days to come” (Gen. 49:1).  “In days to come” means most plainly “after the present time.”   Here, after your time in Egypt, during the first stage of settling the land of Israel, namely the period of the Judges, “Until he comes to Shiloh and the homage of peoples be his” (Gen. 49:10), i.e., until the beginning of the Davidic dynasty from the tribe of Judah.  For about half of the tribes, these were favorable prophecies, actually blessings, although less favorable prophecies were made of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Issachar.   Also the prophecies about Dan and Gad were not the most encouraging, so that in the midst of them Jacob had to pray, “I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!” (Gen. 49:18).

Jacob’s tidings to each tribe about what awaited them in the future, in the land of Canaan, serve to reinforce their assurance that they would indeed return there.   This was aside from the individual blessings that Jacob gave each of his sons, as it says in Scriptures:   “every one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Gen. 48:18) [6]; the Torah does not bother to tell us the details of these personal blessings.

As we mentioned, Jacob’s remains were brought to Canaan for burial, and there the return of his sons was awaited.   Also Joseph’s burial in Egypt was accompanied by an oath to disinter his bones and bring them to Canaan when the period of bondage would be over (Gen. 50:25-26).  In their deaths, both figures commanded their descendants life and bequeathed them tidings of redemption.


[1] According to Nahmanides’ commentary on Gen. 49:31.

[2] Isaac had given Jacob a similar blessing, “so that you become an assembly of   peoples” (Gen. 28:3), before the birth of Jacob’s sons, the tribes; hence we conclude that these promises do not relate to the period of the birth of Jacob’s children.

[3] Not actual adoption, which is not recognized by biblical law.

[4] See Exodus Rabbah 5.13.  The Israelites’ belief in the message of redemption (Ex.4:31) is related in prose, therefore there is no repetition of the verb p-k-d.

[5] Many commentators interpret the oblique Hebrew phrase, shekhem ehad al aheikhah, as meaning an extra portion over that of his brothers, and not as pertaining to the city of Shechem.   It seems to me, however, that one should read this as the Septuagint and Targum Pseudo- Jonathan did, as pertaining to Shechem.  Don Isaac Abarbanel ties this phrase to Joseph’s tomb in Shechem; the words, “with my sword and bow,” he interprets as referring to the price of one hundred kesitahs that Jacob paid for the field near Shechem, as opposed to the violence perpetrated by the real swords of Simeon and Levi to vanquish that city.

[6] See Ibn Ezra on Gen. 49:1, and following him, Radak on 49:28, who, contrary to the masoretic markings of the cantillation signs, separates the words, “and this is what their father said to them,” referring to the above prophecies, from the continuation of the verse, which is about the blessings.