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BaptistWay: Joseph living in the middle

 

• The BaptistWay lesson for July 28 focuses on Genesis 47:27–48:2, 8-19; 49:33–50:6.

 

One of the most painful and heartbreaking times in my life was when I took care of my mother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer. We got the word at the end of May, and I went to stay with her in Albuquerque while my husband and the kids (ages 5 and 7 at the time) stayed in Texas. She died July 2. It was the longest month I ever experienced—separated from my children and husband and watching my mom suffer and fight to the bitter end. I’ve never really recovered from that experience. I don’t think anyone really does.

But many of us face similar situations. We have aging parents who become more and more dependent on us, and we also may have young or teenage children who rely on us at the same time. We are the rope in a tug-of-war of needs, being pulled in two directions. And sometimes, we snap.

Joseph in a tug-of-war

In this week’s lesson, we find Joseph in his own tug-of-war. Jacob, his beloved father, is near the point of death and depends on Joseph in his old age. Why none of the other brothers provided assistance is a mystery. But perhaps as in the earlier stories, Jacob simply preferred Joseph and expected him to carry out his end-of-life requests. In addition to his father, Joseph had two young sons, born in Egypt to an Egyptian mother. He was concerned for their future and wanted to make sure Jacob accepted them before his death.

Jacob called Joseph to his sick bed in Genesis 47 to get Joseph to swear an oath. In Abraham-like fashion (Genesis 24:2), he commanded Joseph to place his hand under his “thigh” as he swore the oath (47:29). As uncomfortable as it may be for us, interpreters all indicate that “thigh” here is a reference to genitals. For the oath-taker to place his hand under the genitals of the oath-maker was symbolic of the seriousness of the oath.

In this case, Jacob wanted absolute assurance he would be buried in the land of his forefathers and not in Egypt. This was an end-of-life issue, and, since he could not ensure his wishes would be carried out after his death, he made Joseph swear a most solemn oath prior to his death (vv. 29-31).

In chapter 48, Joseph learned his father was ill (v. 1). Fearing the worst, Joseph took his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim to his father, presumably so Jacob could bless them. As children born outside of Canaan to an Egyptian mother, Joseph’s two sons may not have been viewed as legitimate descendants of Jacob.

Unconventional response

 

So, Jacob did something unconventional: He adopted them as his own sons, giving them the same status as his two firstborn sons, Reuben and Simeon (vv. 2-5). In this way, Manasseh and Ephraim became the forefathers of two tribes in Israel, and they essentially replaced Joseph in the tribal lists.

Then Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons in a private blessing ceremony (all the sons/tribes would be blessed in chapter 49). Joseph brought the boys to Jacob, whose eyes had grown dim (vv. 8-10). So, Joseph very carefully placed Manasseh, the older son, at Jacob’s right hand so he would receive the greater blessing. But Jacob, just as he did in his youth, pulled off a coup.

Crossing his hands so that his right hand rested on Ephraim’s head and his left on Manasseh’s, Jacob bestowed the greater blessing on the younger son (vv. 13-16). Although Joseph was incensed, Jacob rebuked him and reiterated the pre-eminence of Ephraim (vv. 17-20). This act follows the long tradition in Genesis of an elder son being supplanted by the younger (Cain supplanted by Seth; Ishmael supplanted by Isaac; Esau supplanted by Jacob; and Manasseh supplanted by Ephraim).

Burial of Jacob

After Jacob blessed all his sons, he died, and Joseph took charge of the burial arrangements (49:33—50:1). He insisted upon having Jacob embalmed according to Egyptian practice. After the procedure was complete and the 70-day period of mourning was over, Joseph received permission from the pharaoh to take his father’s body back to Canaan and bury it in the cave at Machpelah, thereby fulfilling his solemn oath (50:2-6).

Like many of us, Joseph was caught between two worlds—his past and his present. He found himself responsible for taking care of his aging father, even though he had many siblings who could have—and should have—assisted him. He also had his own family to protect.

Considering his family’s volatile history, Joseph knew securing Manasseh and Ephraim’s future was a priority. Interestingly, like many families, after Jacob’s death, old divisions resurfaced. Joseph’s brothers were certain, now that Jacob was gone, Joseph would seek vengeance upon them. But Joseph rose to the occasion and instead reiterated his forgiveness (vv. 15-21).

Living in the in-between

Living life in the in-between is difficult and stressful. It can bring out the worst in families. Middle-aged adults have all the stresses of normal life, especially if they have children. But they often have the additional stress of aging parents. Financial decisions, housing arrangements, elder care and dealing with siblings can make for a divisive and tumultuous road. How can the church help in the midst of such real difficulties? What services might we provide for adults who are facing the stresses of raising families and taking care of aging parents?

During my mom’s illness and after her death, I had no resources to help me. No one was there to explain how I could keep myself emotionally healthy while being my mom’s caregiver. No one was there to guide me through the stress of packing up the family home and getting it ready to sell. No one was there to discuss Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for caregivers. No one was there to help me with grief management.

These are the sorts of things we, as the church, should be ready to offer people who face these crises. As the older generation ages and dies, end-of-life ministries are an absolute necessity. Can we rise to the occasion?

 

 
 
 
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