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Ephraim: the Man, the Tribe, the Nation

Tracing the fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49.

The Man

Ephraim and Manasseh, though the natural sons of Joseph, were adopted by his father Jacob as his own children. This was highly significant and meaningful since full sonship granted them each a full share of the inheritance along with Jacob’s other 11 sons. It also meant that Joseph received a double share of the inheritance.[1]

Not only were Ephraim and Manasseh given full sonship, but they were distinguished from Jacob’s other 11 sons in that they were blessed first (before any of Jacob’s other children) and they were the only grandchildren to receive a blessing. Jacob again breaks the norm when he bestows the blessing of the firstborn not upon Manasseh, but instead upon the younger Ephraim.[2] This was not unheard of. In fact, for four generations now, younger brothers received the family blessing: Isaac instead of Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21), Jacob instead of Esau (Genesis 25:23), Joseph instead of Reuben (Genesis 49:3-4, 26) and now Ephraim instead of Manasseh.[3]  

“It is clear that he [Ephraim] was in mind when Jacob blessed Joseph by saying, ‘Joseph is a fruitful vine’ (v. 22). ‘Fruitful’ is a play on words on the name Ephraim itself, ‘the fruitful one’.

Paul D. Gardner

Although Joseph was displeased with his father’s actions, Jacob showed prophetic knowledge. It was to be simple historical fact that Ephraim and Manasseh together should be the most powerful component of Israel; but that of the two Ephraim would be the stronger.[4] Manasseh would be great, but Ephraim would be greater.

The Tribe

As time went on, this prophetic act became reality; and though Ephraim the man was now dead, his name lived on through his tribe of descendants which grew in both size and strength. In fact, his tribe’s leadership was already apparent by the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. In the arrangement of the Israelite camp, for example, it was Ephraim which headed up the three tribes on the west side (Numbers 2:18-24). And, when the time came, it would be an Ephraimite commander, Joshua son of Nun, who would lead his people into the conquest against Canaan, which ultimately resulted in his tribe receiving one of the largest and most favourable allocations of land (Joshua 16:5-10). Furthermore, within Ephraim’s territory was Shiloh, the religious centre where the Tabernacle was erected and where the Ark rested during Joshua’s time. Fittingly, Joshua was buried in the hilly region of Ephraim (Joshua 24:30).

But the most important and central city within the whole land of Ephraim (and Manasseh) would prove to be Shechem (which would only later be overshadowed by Samaria). Interestingly, Jacob may have hinted at this particular territory in his prophetic blessing of Joseph in Genesis 49. Jacob, here, recounts an event in which he came into possession of “the ridge of land.” In Hebrew, this word is Shechem, which is identical to the place name. So it could be that Jacob’s words were allusively suggesting that “Shechem was already in reserve, so to speak, for the newly-designated tribes.”[5] As a side note, consider that although Ephraim wasn’t specifically named in Jacob’s Genesis 49 blessing, “it is clear that he was in mind when Jacob blessed Joseph by saying, ‘Joseph is a fruitful vine’ (v. 22). ‘Fruitful’ is a play on words on the name Ephraim itself, ‘the fruitful one’.”[6]

The Nation

As history continued to progress forward so too did Ephraim’s dominance. Actually, by the time of the Judges the tribe had grown so powerful that it exercised leadership among the 10 northern tribes. In fact, “Only in the time of David does God reject the Ephraimite line due to its sinfulness and replace it with one linked to the tribe of Judah (see Ps. 78:67–71).”[7] Nevertheless, when the kingdom split Ephraim became the most powerful tribe of the north. This was headed up by an Ephraimite official named Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:26) who became king of northern Israel “and from his time onwards the centre of the political and religious life of the Northern Kingdom was in Ephraim. So much so was this the case, that the Northern Kingdom was commonly called Ephraim right up to the time of its fall and deportation under the Assyrians in 722 BC (cf. Is. 7:2, 5, 8–9, 17; Jer. 7:15; 31:9; Hos. 4:17; 5:3, 5).”[8]


Ryan Hembree | September 11, 2020 – 12:10 PM EST

[1] Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford, NIV Student Bible Notes, Highlight — Genesis 48:14-20 The Younger Brother
[2] T.D. Alexander, NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, 48:1-22 Manasseh and Ephraim
[3] NIV Quest Study Bible Notes, His younger brother will be greater than he (48:19)
[4]  F. F. Bruce, Zondervan Bible Commentary, Ephraim and Manasseh (47:27-48:22)
[5] Ibid.
[6] Paul D. Gardner, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters, Ephraim
[7] T.D. Alexander,  NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, 48:1-22 Manasseh and Ephraim
[8] Paul D. Gardner, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters, Ephraim

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