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December 18, 2010

This Week’s Torah Portion: Patriarchs, Blessings, Tribes—and Mormons

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And he [Jacob] blessed them that day, saying, In thee shall Israel bless, saying, God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh: and he set Ephraim before Manasseh. – Genesis 48:20
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This week’s Torah portion or parsha, Vayechi (Gen. 47:28 – 50:26) is the most important one for Jews seeking to understand Mormons’ views of their place in covenant Israel.  Before we get to patriarchal blessings and their promises, a brief summary of the biblical narrative is necessary. As we begin reading the parsha, Jacob the patriarch – also known as Israel – calls his son Joseph to him, tells him that he is about to die, and makes him swear not to leave his body in Egypt. Mormons believe that Joseph inherited the birthright in Israel after Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn) committed a serious sexual transgression (1 Chron. 5:1-2), so it was only proper that Joseph be asked to make this promise on behalf of his brothers.

In the next chapter, Joseph and his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, visit the ailing Jacob. The aged patriarch rises from his sickbed to bless his two grandsons, but while doing so he places his right hand – the favored one for blessings – on the head of Ephraim, the youngest. Joseph is “displeased” (v. 17) and tries to place Jacob’s right hand on the head of Manasseh. Jacob refuses to do this, saying that while both men will become great nations, Ephraim will be greater than his brother (vv. 19-20). Mormons agree with Jeremiah (Jer. 31:9) that Ephraim inherited the birthright from Joseph after his death.

In chapter 49, Jacob pronounces blessings upon each of his 12 sons, then dies. Of particular interest to Mormons are the promises made to Joseph, the birthright son, who receives the longest blessing. Joseph is a “fruitful bough” (great nation) whose “branches run over the wall.” For Mormons, this has reference to the fact that some of Joseph’s descendants would be led to the ancient Americas, where their story is told in the Book of Mormon. During Joseph’s blessing, Jacob also declares that the Messiah would come through his [Jacob’s] bloodline (“from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel”). In modern revelation, Mormons are told that Joseph prophesied in chapter 50 that Moses and Aaron would be his descendants.         

Once in his lifetime, a faithful Mormon receives a blessing from a church official known as a patriarch. The blessing is recorded and sent to the recipient, for whom it is considered a personal revelation. The member is told in which tribe of Israel he will receive his spiritual blessings, and he is also given promises, blessings, and warnings that the patriarch feels inspired to give. In many cases, the person is told that he is a literal descendant of the designated tribe. However, regardless of the person’s blood lineage, he is promised the blessings associated with that tribe (and by extension the House of Israel and the Abrahamic covenant) if he leads a worthy life.  The first thing that most people do after receiving their patriarchal blessing is to read Genesis chapter 49 to learn more about their tribe’s blessing given by Jacob. Since Ephraim is the birthright tribe, we believe that his descendants have been called to lead the gathering of Israelites in the latter days. As a result, most LDS Church members have been declared to be Ephraimites, including the author of this blog.

Latter-day Saints believe that there are two gatherings of Israelites going on today: the physical gathering of Jews to Israel (and, I would add, to the United States) and the spiritual gathering of Israel led by Ephraim. The two tribes didn’t exactly get along in ancient times, but there is a growing rapprochement in modern times that is heartwarming. It is my belief and hope that blessings from patriarchs both ancient and modern will strengthen bonds between Israelites in modern times much as they did anciently. Shabbat shalom.

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