In the words of Inigo Montoya from the cult classic film The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Maybe that’s how you felt as you read Genesis 48-49. The headings in my Bible label these sections “Jacob Blesses Ephraim and Manasseh” and “Jacob Blesses His Sons,” but reading these chapters makes something abundantly clear–we don’t use the word “blessing” like the Bible does.
For us, a blessing is something we receive from God or maybe a short prayer before a meal. It’s something we celebrate with a hashtag when the promotion comes through or the medical report is good, but for Jacob’s sons, blessings aren’t limited to what we could consider positive occurrences.
Ephraim and Manasseh are both blessed by Jacob, but he makes it clear that Manasseh won’t be as great as his younger brother. Then come the blessings on the sons of Jacob. Reuben is described as strong, dignified, and powerful, but also unstable. Simeon and Levi are violent and angry. Judah receives a lengthy and positive blessing, Zebulun’s geographical borders are described, and Issachar is called a strong donkey who “became a servant at forced labor.” Dan will judge, which seems positive in context, but he will also be like a snake, which is never good. Gad, Asher, and Naphtali continue the mixture of blessings before Jacob pronounces the longest blessing on Joseph, acknowledging his many challenges as well as his steadfastness in them. Finally, you probably shouldn’t mess with Benjamin. He’ll fight you.
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.”Genesis 49:28, ESV
The word “blessed” cannot mean what we think it means. For us, blessings are transactional, about me getting what I want out of a situation, but for Jacob and his family, blessings are relational, about how one person or group relates to another, about how even the most difficult circumstances will not remove the promised presence of the Lord (v. 18). This is not only how the Bible talks about blessing, it’s also how we experience blessing. When things are going well, when things are going badly, and at every point in between, God is with his people, even if his presence is at times inconceivable. That is the blessing.