By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff (Hebrews 11:21).
From what we can tell from Scripture, Jacob was not a very nice man. He manipulated his brother, who was weak-minded and appetite driven, into trading him his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). He deceived his father into blessing him in place of Esau (Genesis 27:1-40). He put conditions on his relationship with God, saying that his devotion required the LORD’s protection and prosperity (Genesis 28:20-22). He married two sisters and had two mistresses (concubines). To make matters worse, he treated all but his favourite wife, Rachel, with contempt (Genesis:29:30-30:24). He bred the sheep of his father-in-law in a way that enabled him to prosper at Laban’s expense (Genesis 30:25-43). He fled from the house of his father-in-law without warning, taking much wealth with him (Genesis 31:17-21). He deceived his brother, Esau, a second time, saying he would return with him to Seir when all the while he had decided to continue to Shechem (Genesis 33:12-18). When his daughter, Dinah, was raped he did nothing, preferring a good standing with the Shechemites than the protection and honour of Dinah. When Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, avenged their sister, they were disciplined by Jacob: “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink ot the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites” (Genesis 34:30). Just as he showed devestating favouritism to Rachel, he elevated Rachel’s son, Joseph, before his brothers (Genesis 37:3-4). He showed this same favouritism to Joseph’s brother, Benjamin, after he thought that Joseph had been killed (Genesis 43:1-7). So, you see, Jacob, by today’s Canadian standards, was not a very nice man.
Jacob was a liar, a conniver, a polygamist, and a manipulator. He was selfish in business, tribal politics, and family matters. He showed devastating favouratism to some while ignoring the plight of others. From the biblical record, we cannot even say that was a prayerful man. All of his prayers and worship moments came at times of intense crisis. They were usually accompanied by a healthy dose of self-preservation and self-promotion. And yet, in spite of all of this, God loved him (Malachi 1:2-3, Romans 9:13). And, over and over again God mightily blessed him (Genesis 25:22-23; 28:10-17; 31:3; 31:22-24; 32:1-2; 32:22-32; 35:1, 5; 35:9-15).
This brings us back to Hebrews 11:21: By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.
The writer of Hebrews is alluding to Genesis 48:14-20. This blessing, which stands apart from the blessings that Jacob bestowed on his other eleven sons, reveals Jacob’s enduring favouratism of Joseph. By blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph received a double blessing. Moreoever, in a reinactment of his own stealthy theft of his older brother’s blessing, Jacob blessed Ephraim, the younger, in greater measure than Manasseh, the older.
Was it right to give Joseph a double blessing? Was it right to bless Ephraim more than Manasseh? In spite of these moral ambiguities, the writer of Hebrews affirms that what Jacob did, he did by faith. Perhaps more to the point, God honoured Jacob’s faith-filled blessing by ensuring that Jacob’s prophetic word to each son came to pass. Ephraim, indeed, did become a mighty nation (Northern Kingdom), just as the blessing predicted.
The writer of Hebrews also makes a point of Jacob’s worship at this moment. This is, perhaps, because it is the purest example of true worship in all of the Bible’s portrait of Jacob. Every other instance of worship is mixed with significant self-interest. Finally, however, at the end of his life, Jacob finally articulated all that God had done for him. He begins his blessings with this prayer of worship:
The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth (Genesis 48:15-16).
Finally, pure worship that recognized the fullness of God’s love and grace toward him. Uttered by faith and pleasing to God.