Genesis 48

Jacob blesses Joseph’s Children

Commentaries by David Brown

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Rembrandt van Rijn

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, 1656, Oil on canvas, 173 x 209 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel; Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, GK 249, bpk Bildagentur / Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister / Art Resource, NY

A Better Blessing

Commentary by David Brown

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What excites about this painting is its lack of conventionality. Protestant art, as much as Catholic, used the symbolism of Jacob’s crossed hands in this biblical episode as its interpretative key, and as such often made his gesture their central feature (as in the work of Maarten van Heemskerck in the previous century). 

Some commentators insist that Rembrandt van Rijn, while ignoring this symbolism, merely introduces the same point in a new way. Ephraim is given golden hair with a halo in contrast to Manasseh’s darker looks and hair. This could suggest that the great blessing goes to the more Caucasian-looking son and the lesser to the more Semitic-looking one. But perhaps no more is at stake here than the need to mark some differences between the two children.

More interesting in any case is Rembrandt’s introduction of Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenath. Not only does she display a typical motherly concern with what is happening; her expression almost suggests approval, and so appears in marked contrast to her husband’s reaction, as he attempts to move Jacob’s right hand back to Manasseh.

For this introduction of a maternal Asenath, there is no legitimation in the text itself—though Rembrandt was no doubt inspired by increasing stress on the family in the culture of his time as also by his own personal experience. After the death of his beloved wife, Saskia, in 1642, he had fraught relations with his mistress Geertje Dircx which ultimately led to bankruptcy in 1655 and worries about the future of his son, Titus.

But perhaps a greater influence may have been a desire to draw a contrast between this moment and an earlier blessing in the Bible’s patriarchal narrative: a blessing not by Jacob, but of him. With the help of his mother, Rebecca, who disguised his smoothness with goatskins, the young Jacob had tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that properly belonged to Isaac’s first-born son Esau.

Unlike Rebecca, Asenath is here a picture of innocence, with no connection to the animal skin that drapes round Jacob’s neck and which had been the means of the earlier deception (Genesis 27:1–38).   



Bikker, Jonathan et al. (eds). 2014. Rembrandt: The Late Works (London: The National Gallery), 259

Benjamin West

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, 1766 –68, Oil on canvas, 101.3 x 129.5 cm, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio; R. T. Miller Jr. Fund, 1961.70, Courtesy of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio

Anticipating the Cross

Commentary by David Brown

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The American artist Benjamin West was the second president of the Royal Academy in London after Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the latter half of his life, he demonstrated considerable interest in questions of religious art. Although his projects for St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a Chapel of Protestant Art for George III came to nothing, various works that reflect these intentions do survive.

An early example of such interest was this painting showing Jacob blessing Joseph's sons. As such, it clearly demonstrates the usual Christian interpretation of the scene. Early Church Fathers such as Ephrem the Syrian (c.306–73) and Ambrose (c.339–97) had seen in the crossed hands not only a sign of Christ’s future cross but also what they regarded as Christianity’s succession to the ‘older’ Israel. Artists soon followed suit, with some giving prominence to the shape of the cross in their compositions. This painting from the eighteenth century has been chosen to illustrate how long-lasting such an interpretation was. However, some artists made the point even more explicit by making Jacob stand cruciform to bless both boys, as in a fine Dutch enamel plaque from the twelfth century from the workshop of Godefroid de Huy, now in Baltimore.

Yet despite West’s inclination to continue this legacy, and impute a providential character to the episode, there are at least two problems with such an interpretation. First, Ephraim was not part of Jesus’s lineage. Matthew and Luke agree that his descent came through Joseph’s brother, Judah, who was based in the southern kingdom. And, secondly and more importantly, such an interpretation seems in any case to draw the wrong message from the cross. Not only does the presence of the two brothers speak of the possibility of a future reconciliation with the northern kingdom (where both of their tribes would be based), but also with their Egyptian past. Despite their having been born in Egypt of an Egyptian mother, Asenath (Genesis 41:45, 50–52), Jacob incorporates them fully into his family.

Although Asenath is unmentioned in the passage which describes Jacob’s blessing of her sons, West witnesses to this possibility, portraying her in all her Egyptian finery as she observes what is taking place.



Meyer, Jerry D. 1975. ‘Benjamin West’s Chapel of Revealed Religion’, in Art Bulletin 57: 247–65

Marc Chagall

Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Children, from The Bible, 1931, Etching, 440 x 327 mm (sheet), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Larry Aldrich Fund, 571.1954, ©️ 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Photo: Digital Image ©️ The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Joseph’s Perplexity

Commentary by David Brown

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Marc Chagall was born in Belarus (then the Russian Empire) to Jewish parents but lived most of his life in France, where he painted, and designed stained glass for Christian as well as Jewish clients.

This particular work showing Jacob blessing Manasseh and Ephraim is part of a series he executed on biblical themes in the course of an extended visit to Palestine in the early 1930s. Its character is unusual in that most artists who have worked on the subject have chosen to make the relation between the two children and Jacob central. Here, by contrast, Chagall draws our attention first to Joseph’s reaction: his dismay as his father Jacob switches hands and gives the blessing of his right hand to the younger of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim. The older Manasseh now receives the lesser blessing from his left hand.

Inevitably, Joseph’s central positioning forces viewers to reflect on whether he really has so much to regret. After all, what in effect is taking place here is the adoption of the two boys into Jacob’s own family, whose twelve sons or tribes will eventually constitute the future Israel. Indeed, so important a role did Ephraim’s descendants play in the life of what was to become the northern kingdom that the land was often named directly after him (e.g. Isaiah 7:2–17; Jeremiah 31:9–20; Ezekiel 37:16–19). While Manasseh secured no comparable status, it was within that tribe’s territory that several of the northern capitals were situated (Shechem, Tirzah, and Samaria), with even an allusion to Shechem (‘portion’ or ‘mountain-slope’) in our present text (48:22).

So, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that, in modern Judaism, a blessing is quite often given on the sabbath evening which looks beyond any potential divisions: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’ (a quotation from 48:20). That same positive estimate was even the focus in the very first visual representation of this scene in Jewish art, in the third-century synagogue at Dura Europos. That mural has none of Joseph’s dismay, so vividly rendered here by Chagall. It is likewise with the text: we are told the two boys will alike multiply and flourish, and Joseph live to see great-grandchildren by them both (50.23).



Sonne, Isaiah. 1947.‘The Paintings of the Dura Synagogue’, in Hebrew Union College Annual 20: 255–362, esp. 349

Rembrandt van Rijn :

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, 1656 , Oil on canvas

Benjamin West :

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, 1766 –68 , Oil on canvas

Marc Chagall :

Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Children, from The Bible, 1931 , Etching

First Impressions Can Be Deceiving

Comparative commentary by David Brown

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An initial, casual reading of this episode might easily have suggested the repetition of a now familiar theme in Genesis: a reversal of fortunes through the displacement of an older by a younger brother, as with Isaac’s supplanting of Ishmael and Jacob’s own outmanoeuvring of Esau.

Here, though, there is no deception involved. Indeed, at one point the text seems to treat both brothers as one, given that they are equally adopted into the family of Jacob, the eponymous Israel who would create the future people of God (Genesis 48:20). So, rather than encouraging divisiveness on this occasion, the story can be interpreted as a spur towards inclusiveness.

But how far should this go? As our three paintings indicate, both Jewish and Christian interpretations of the text were inclined to impose limits. Marc Chagall’s reason for giving Joseph a perplexed expression may have less to do with the exchange of hands and more with the treatment of the mother and boys in subsequent rabbinic tradition. In Genesis, their mother, Asenath, is described as the daughter of an Egyptian pagan priest, with nothing said about her reception into Judaism (41:50–52). So, it looks as though the inclusiveness here is very wide indeed, though later rabbinic tradition either insisted that such a reception had occurred, or else she is stated to have been part of Jacob’s family through Dinah, his daughter through Leah. Asenath, it was suggested, was the result of the union between Dinah and the Hivite Shechem, who was eventually circumcised so that he could marry her (Genesis 34). In short, whichever route was taken, no debt to paganism was acknowledged.

Yet, the alternative pattern repeats itself in the subsequent story of Moses, who marries in succession two pagan wives: first, the Midianite Zipporah (Exodus 2:16–22) and then a Cushite or Ethiopian (Numbers 12:1–9). Given the open character of Chagall’s Judaism, it is not impossible that he is using the puzzlement on Joseph’s face to reflect on the narrow limits of the subsequent tradition.

Christianity, though, fares no better. Throughout most of Christian history, the Hebrew scriptures have been treated as ‘but a shadow’ or ‘imperfect type’ of the ‘more substantial’ reality that was to come. And that is what we see even as late as the eighteenth century in Benjamin West’s painting, in which the cross-shaped form of the blessing seems to point to a new and later dispensation in Christ, which will come about at the expense of one brother. Even so, West does not hesitate to modify that tradition, in bringing into his version of the scene the unmentioned mother who is provided with all her Egyptian finery.

Rembrandt van Rijn, like West, includes the mother but undermines any traditional Christian expectations that the chief significance of the event is an anticipation of the cross. Manasseh is portrayed as content, for his brother’s sake, at what is happening. Ephraim is to enjoy the greater future blessing, but it is not one of which he is to be deprived. Given Rembrandt’s friendships with Jews of Amsterdam, it is not unlikely that this is why we find here an interpretation equally acceptable to Jew or Christian. The Hebrew scriptures are enabled to speak richly in their own right.

For some, though, the story will remain profoundly unsatisfactory whatever is done with it in art, inasmuch the basic notion on which it is built is seen as a perversion, a basic difference between blessings with the right hand and with the left. The assumption of the superiority of the right hand has undoubtedly led to much cruelty in forcing left-handed children to use their right hand, with one hand often tied behind the back. That is why it is important to note that the contrast in Scripture was only ever symbolic at most. While images of the right hand of God immediately come to mind, it should be noted that there are also plenty of passages where due weight is given to the virtues of a left hand. For example, it was seen as an advantage in battle (e.g. Judges 3:15–30; 1 Chronicles 12:2), while to follow God’s will was to ‘turn neither to the right nor to the left’ (e.g. Deuteronomy 5:32; Joshua 1:7; 2 Kings 22:2).

Here too, then, we have a neat illustration of first judgements not necessarily being the best.

Next exhibition: Exodus 2:1–10

Genesis 48

Revised Standard Version

48 After this Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill”; so he took with him his two sons, Manasʹseh and Eʹphraim. 2And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you”; then Israel summoned his strength, and sat up in bed. 3And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful, and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your descendants after you for an everlasting possession.’ 5And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Eʹphraim and Manasʹseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. 6And the offspring born to you after them shall be yours; they shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. 7For when I came from Paddan, Rachel to my sorrow died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”

8 When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” 9Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, I pray you, that I may bless them.” 10Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him; and he kissed them and embraced them. 11And Israel said to Joseph, “I had not thought to see your face; and lo, God has let me see your children also.” 12Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13And Joseph took them both, Eʹphraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasʹseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. 14And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it upon the head of Eʹphraim, who was the younger, and his left hand upon the head of Manasʹseh, crossing his hands, for Manasʹseh was the first-born. 15And he blessed Joseph, and said,

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,

the God who has led me all my life long to this day,

16the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads;

and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;

and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

17 When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand upon the head of Eʹphraim, it displeased him; and he took his father’s hand, to remove it from Eʹphraim’s head to Manasʹseh’s head. 18And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father; for this one is the first-born; put your right hand upon his head.” 19But his father refused, and said, “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.” 20So he blessed them that day, saying,

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,

‘God make you as Eʹphraim and as Manasʹseh’ ”;

and thus he put Eʹphraim before Manasʹseh. 21Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you, and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. 22Moreover I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope which I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.”