Posted by: mattcolvin | March 3, 2013

Vengeance and Adoption in Genesis 50

Our church here in Davao just finished a four-year long series on Genesis, concluding with an hour-long exposition of Genesis 50 this morning. It was a very encouraging, upbuilding sermon, with powerful application of the example of Joseph as a type of Christ. (See our March newsletter for one instance of how the incredible example of Joseph forgiving his brothers challenges Christians today, including some who have been sinned against in terrible ways.) What follows are some questions and comments that I had after the sermon.

Joseph’s brothers, who sinned against him by presenting his clothing as false evidence to Jacob, are still not cured of their tricks: once Jacob dies, the brothers, failing to trust Joseph’s earlier assurance that he had forgiven them (Gen 45:5ff), ascribe to Jacob a fabricated deathbed wish that Joseph should not hold their sin against them. There is a pleasing symmetry here. (See Law in the Joseph Narrative 1: Custodia and Where was Reuben?, from earlier years of this blog.)

It raises the question: how much did Jacob even know about the crime of his other sons? Judah was the prime mover of that design, yet no son of Jacob is more lavishly blessed in the patriarch’s dying benedictions (Gen. 49:9-12). It seems likely that Jacob persisted in ascribing the bloodied coat of many colors to wild beasts, and Joseph’s kidnapping to happenstance.

The brothers fear that Joseph “may fully requite us (גָּמַ֖לְנוּ) all the evil which we did unto him.” (Gen. 50:15) The verb used is gamal, which makes me think of Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39. He turns out to be aptly named: “God will requite” — i.e. “And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38-39)

A final interesting observation: Genesis 50:23 says that “Joseph saw Ephraim’s children to the third generation. The children of Machir, the son of Manasseh, were also brought up on Joseph’s knees.” I would submit that this is actually a Biblical ritual of adoption: it means that Joseph adopted his great-grandchildren as sons.

There is precedent for this: two chapters earlier, Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh: “And now your two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine.” (Genesis 48:5 NKJV. And when the time comes to bless them, Joseph brings them “from beside (מעם) his knees”. Whose knees? It’s ambiguous in Hebrew, but I feel certain that the knees are Jacob’s: the two lads have just hopped down from his lap, where he had formally adopted them.


Above: Rembrandt, Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh.

If I am correct about Joseph recapitulating Jacob’s action of adopting grandchildren as heirs, it raises the question, Did he also perpetuate Jacob’s promotion of the younger over the elder, in accordance with the tradition of Abraham’s family? Unfortunately, the sons of Machir are not named here (one of them was Gilead, Numbers 26:29), so it is impossible to say. The Midrash (Numbers Rabba xiv. 19) gives him three sons.

Genesis 30:3 has Rachel proposing the same ritual in order to have Bilhah’s children count as her own: “So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.” This is not an offer to serve as Bilhah’s human birth-stool, but a plan to use her as a surrogate by adopting her children.

Likewise, in Ruth 4:16 Naomi “took the child (sc. Obed) and laid him on her lap, and became a nurse to him.” Some translations have “on her bosom”, but the word is חיק, which can mean “lap” as well, and the context, as I have discussed before, clearly calls for Obed to count as Naomi’s son and Elimelech’s heir. I would like to make a better lexicographical argument here, but my copy of HALOT is still in transit in one of the boxes we shipped in November.

Nonetheless, it seems safe to call the knees or lap the usual place where a child is ritually adopted.


  1. […] We have already commented upon recurring sacrificial themes in the stories of the patriarchs and their children. One passage that I passed over with little comment to which I now intend to return is that of the Aqedah, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac in Genesis 22. YHWH instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his first and only son by Sarah. On the brink of taking Isaac’s life, which YHWH has claimed, Abraham’s hand is stayed and he sees that a ram has been provided in Isaac’s stead for an ascension offering. The sacrifice of Isaac still occurs after a fashion, however. While Isaac’s life was redeemed by the sacrifice of the ram, he was still claimed by YHWH. While the sort of sacrifice is slightly different in Exodus, there is still a divine claiming and sacrifice of the firstborn of Israel. The sons of Abraham are claimed as YHWH’s sons in the Passover too: the sons of Israel are born on YHWH’s knees. […]

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