Rabbi Pete Tobias, 13 January 2017
Final Speeches and Legacies
It’s the end of an era and the future is uncertain. As we reach the concluding chapters of the book of Genesis, Jacob says his farewells to his sons, who are all gathered around his bed.
It’s a moving scene, but of course it’s a fantasy. The historical reality is that the twelve tribes of Israel, portrayed in Genesis as being Jacob’s direct offspring, actually occupied different geographical areas in the biblical land of Canaan. They settled in their particular location at various times in a period covering centuries, and their seniority over each other has more to do with when their period of residence in the land began rather than the date of an individual’s birth. Thus Reuben was the tribe that had dwelt the longest in Canaan while, historically, the last arrival was the tribe of Benjamin, which is why he appears as the youngest. Jacob’s ‘sons’ probably never even knew each other, never mind sharing the same father.
But the story of the twelve tribes of Israel is an enduring one, and even if the lives of Reuben, Simeon, Joseph et al were separated by several hundred years, the idea of them all standing around their father’s deathbed is fitting climax to the book of Genesis. Jacob’s parting words to his sons are filled with references that are mainly lost on twenty-first century readers. Each of the tribes is given a poetic summary, often not terribly flattering, referring either to their geographical location or a particular characteristic, or both. It is interesting to note the different number of verses that Jacob uses to describe each son: Gad, Asher, Naphtali and Benjamin merit only a single verse each; Simeon and Levi are lumped together in two verses. But Judah and Joseph get five verses each. As always there is a historical reality underlying this discrepancy: the two major historical forces in the region would be descendants of the tribes of Judah and Ephraim (Ephraim being the younger son of Joseph, to whom Jacob gave precedence when blessing his grandsons). This is an anachronistic reference to the struggle between these two prominent tribal groups that will be a feature of the political history of Jacob’s descendants many centuries after the events of Genesis.
But it doesn’t matter whether we prefer the scholarly approach that provides us with some historical insight into the relative strengths of the different tribes of Israel or the almost romantic notion of Jacob’s twelve sons gathered around his deathbed. In its literary context, this scene at the end of the book of Genesis is the conclusion of the life of our most significant patriarch, whose life began twenty-four chapters earlier and whose trials and struggles lie at the heart of our Jewish identity. Jacob’s final speech and his legacy – twelve adoring sons gathered respectfully around their dying father – are a tribute to him and his experiences in the second half of the book of Genesis. Of course we know what will be the legacy of Jacob and his sons in Egypt. Future generations will be enslaved by the Egyptians in a story with which are very familiar, and which will define our Jewish task more completely than any of Jacob’s exploits.
So despite the glorious pageant of Jacob’s legacy, his achievements will be nullified by the descent into slavery and oppression at the hands of the Egyptian taskmasters. I cannot help but be struck by the fact that I am writing this on the day that President Barack Obama will deliver his final speech as he leaves the White House after eight years. It’s not for me to say what he considers to be his achievements. I cannot help wondering, however, what comes next. Jacob’s swansong is followed by a period of hardship and oppression – though it’s an ordeal from which our ancestors ultimately emerge with a new vision and renewed hope. What parallels, I wonder, might we find in the new world that follows the conclusion of Barack Obama’s presidency?
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