This week’s parashah highlights the theme of role reversal that is found all throughout Genesis and beyond. From Yitzhak on, younger brothers in the book emerge triumphant over their siblings despite their tribulations. Yitzhak miraculously avoids his father’s knife; Yaakov flees his brother, and they make up twenty years later; and the entire Yosef story turns on his overcoming slavery and prison and being able to attain unheard-of political power, which he uses to test and then reconcile with his brothers. But the reversal of birth order does not end with Genesis. Moshe, of course, is a younger brother, and David, the great king of Israel, is the youngest of eight. So the Bible would seem to be obsessed with this theme.
Nowhere is this more straightforwardly presented than in the moving scene of the dying, blind Yaakov blessing his grandsons Efrayim and Menashe in chapter 48. The story occupies the entire chapter, while the blessing the old man gives to all of his other sons comprises only one chapter. Something significant is happening here.
This tableau was memorably painted by Rembrandt, and was particularly loved by Franz Rosenzweig, in whose home town of Kassel, Germany it resides. One can see why: the two boys in the painting look positively angelic, and the expressions on their parents’ faces are loving beyond measure. Yet Rembrandt seems to have chosen to depict the moment before the most striking part of the story, which continues as follows:
14 But Yisrael stretched out his right-hand and put it on the head of Efrayim—yet he was
and his left-hand on the head of Menashe;
he crossed his arms, although Menashe was the firstborn…
17 Yosef saw that his father had put his right hand on Efrayim’s head,
and it sat ill in his eyes,
so he laid hold of his father’s hand to turn it from Efrayim’s head to Menashe’s head.
18 Yosef said to his father:
Not so, Father, indeed, this one is the firstborn, place your hand on his head!
19 But his father refused and said:
I know, my son, I know—he too will be a people, he too will be great,
yet his younger brother will be greater than he,
and his seed will become a full-measure of nations!
20 So he blessed them on that day, saying:
By you shall Israel give-blessings, saying:
God make you like Efrayim and like Menashe!
Thus he made Efrayim go before Menashe.
Traditionally, when Jewish parents bless their sons, they use the words of v. 20: “God make you like Efrayim and like Menashe.” If we follow Rembrandt’s interpretation, this is a straightforward blessing, undoubtedly of fertility, as is suggested by v. 16: “May they [the boys] teem-like-fish to become many amid the land!” But there is another possibility. Perhaps Yaakov’s blessing is actually a blessing of reversal, a reflection of what he has experienced in his long life and what he foresees for his descendants. It is the knowledge that things don’t always turn out as we expect, which has its good side as well as the bad.
The theme of the younger son prevailing has been understood in a variety of ways down through the centuries. The historically-minded reader may well see in it a political message. Some interpreters have focused on David and his dynasty, noting that the Bible legitimizes him even though he is not of the original royal family of Sha’ul. Others feel that the theme explains why the less prosperous kingdom of Judah nevertheless outlasted the northern one of Israel, even surviving in some form to reconstitute as a people after the destruction by Babylonia. Christian interpretation of the theme has its own history, first, seeing the Catholic Church as the younger son triumphant, superseding the Jews as God’s chosen; later on, in the Reformation’s revisionist understanding, Protestantism was represented as replacing its “older brother,” Catholicism.
But these politicized readings, though compelling, are not the last word. The God of the Bible is the one who turns barrenness into fertility, lowly birth into royalty, and almost total defeat into renewal and restoration. He purposely ignores birth order, bypassing Yishmael, Esav and Yosef’s brothers in favor of the younger Yitzhak, Yaakov and Yosef, who will basically carry on the family’s mission. God thus emerges as the Great Reverser, moving beyond the natural order in order to create a nation that was consciously a latecomer to ancient history. As Hanna puts it in her post-birthing song of II Samuel 2:6-7: “YHWH brings-death and bestows-life…/ makes-poor and makes-rich, / brings low and yes, lifts up.” Viewed that way, the younger son theme resonates best with the Bible’s concept of the divine destiny of the people of Israel, the “remnant” dear to the prophets of old and to Rosenzweig in modern times. In the end, we might say that the dying Yaakov of chapter 48, though sightless, knows full well what he is doing, predicting the unpredictable and setting his descendants on the difficult but dogged road to survival as a people.