The patriarchal story began with the blessing of Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17, 22), Isaac (Genesis 24), and Jacob (Genesis 28). The final chapters of Genesis detail the progress of the covenant among Jacob’s descendants. In light of his age and health, Jacob was naturally concerned with the promises of God and his children.
In Genesis 48, Joseph brought Manasseh and Ephraim to Jacob for Jacob’s blessing. Jacob had enough strength to remind Joseph and his boys of what God had promised him. Jacob emphasized that lineage and land were the structural components of the blessing (Gen 48:3-4)—and he wished these blessings to be for Joseph’s sons. The blessing oracle was followed by a quasi-adoption ceremony, in which Joseph’s sons became direct heirs of their grandfather, Jacob (Gen 48:5, 8-9). The touching scene runs parallel to the instruction the author of Proverbs provides his son in Proverbs 4. In the midst of the sentimental and familial portrait of Genesis 48, the text emphasizes the theological point of the sovereignty of God over Jacob’s family. Ephraim, the younger, would be more prominent than his older brother, Manasseh (Gen 48:17-20). This parallels when Isaac was chosen over his older half-brother Ishmael (Gen 21:8-12), and Jacob was chosen over his older brother Esau (Gen 25:19-34). Jacob’s actions were congruent with the principles of election in the patriarchal family: those who were lesser become the favored and the weaker received the blessing.
On the heels of blessing the sons of Joseph, the aged and dying patriarch Jacob called in his other eleven boys and spoke prophecy and blessings upon them (Genesis 49). Jacob chastised Rueben, Simeon, and Levi for their behavior of incest and murder (Gen 49:3-7). Jacob announced favor upon Judah, whose character had been transformed from a selfish merchant to a willing substitute when Benjamin was in prison (Gen 49:8-12; see Gen 37:12-36; 44:18-34). Jacob employed metaphors of topography and geography to bless Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali (Gen 49:13-21). Jacob blessed Joseph for his endurance and faithfulness (Gen 49:22-26) and Benjamin in view of forthcoming success (Gen 49:27). After Jacob prophesied about the future of his sons in Gen 49:1-27, in Gen 49:29-33 Jacob instructed them about his burial. Jacob stated that he was to be buried in the land of Canaan in the burial ground that Abraham originally purchased for Sarah. There Abraham was buried also, and beside him, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob’s wife Leah. Joseph led his brothers to honor Jacob’s request and they went north to Canaan—accompanied by a delegation from Pharaoh—to bury Jacob in Canaan (Gen 50:1-14). As Joseph aged in Egypt, he too instructed his family that his bones should be buried in Canaan (Gen 50:22-25). Joseph was aware that the plight of his family in Egypt would not always be favorable. “When God comes to your aid, you are to carry my bones up from here” (Gen 50:25).
Jacob’s and Joseph’s burial instructions provide a window into understanding the seriousness of the land promise God made to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:1-3; 15:1-21). Their commitment to be buried in Canaan shapes the storyline of Scripture. In Acts 7, Stephen, a deacon of the Jerusalem church, preached about Jesus as the culmination of God’s revelation of Himself in the Old Testament. Stephen recalled for his audience only the highlights of God’s work in Israel’s history—and among them was the fact that even though Jacob enjoyed favor in Egypt, Canaan was home and in Canaan Jacob was buried (Acts 7:9-16). The author of Hebrews composed Hebrews 11 to motivate his audience to be faithful to what God had done in their lives. Considering the faithfulness of Old Testament saints—like Jacob when he blessed his sons and Joseph when he gave his burial instructions (Heb 11:21-22)—the recipients of the new covenant should commit themselves to God’s purposes to the very end.