Parashat Vayechi (and he lived)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Vayechi – “and he lived” – tells us that Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years after he left Canaan and then died in Egypt at the age of one hundred and forty-seven.

When Jacob is about to die, he calls Joseph and asks him not to bury him in Egypt but to take him back to Canaan to be buried in the tomb of Machpelah that his grandfather Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite

On his death-bed Jacob claims his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh as his own to be included in the tribes of Israel. Joseph has other children as well, but these are not named, and their inheritance is part of that of their two elder brothers.

Jacob first blesses his son Joseph, who he never expected to see again. He reminds him of God’s faithfulness to him, his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham then goes on to bless Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Joseph faces Jacob and holds Manasseh in his left hand and Ephraim in his right in order to place the firstborn Manasseh in Jacob’s right hand. However, Jacob crosses his arms in order to give Ephraim the blessing of his right hand. Joseph thinks that his father is old and a bit confused. But Jacob insists that Ephraim the younger son gets the blessing of his right hand since Ephraim will become a greater nation.

Jacob then invites all the sons to gather round and then pronounces blessings and prophesies over them regarding their future. He starts with Reuben the firstborn. Reuben had slept with Bilhah the maid of Rachel and a concubine of Jacob and mother to Dan and Naphtali. It was his sin that disgraced the family and Jacob rebukes him on his death bed. The two sons following in age are also reminded of their anger when they took revenge on the men of Shechem by slaughtering them for defiling their sister Dinah.

When he comes to Judah, however, Jacob is full of praise. Indeed “Judah” means “praise”. Judah is like a young lion, the king of all beasts. Indeed, the inheritance of a firstborn son passes to Judah since the behaviour of the first three sons had forfeited them that honour.

Blessings and prophesies about the other sons follow with a particularly beautiful and poetic passage about the tribe of Joseph. The blessing that abounded was because of Joseph’s steadfast faith during all his trials.

When Jacob had finished blessing each of his sons, he told them to take his body back to Canaan to be buried in Machpelah alongside Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. The Egyptians embalm Jacob and with a large entourage Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan to bury their father.

After the time of mourning the brothers worry that the time would come when Joseph might take his revenge, so they concoct a story that Jacob had asked before he died that Joseph forgive them. The truth was that Joseph had never even told his father the extent to which the brothers had wronged him. It was God’s plan all along to save life and they had no need for self-condemnation. Just as he did when he first revealed himself to them, Joseph spoke kindly and reassuringly to his brothers.

Joseph himself dies in Egypt aged one hundred and ten. Like his father he expresses his desire to be buried in the land of Canaan, but this does not actually happen until the Israelites enter the land under the leadership of Joshua. They carry the bones of Joseph with them through the wilderness.

Haftarat Vayechi                                                 הפטרת ויחי

The Haftarah associated with this weeks Parsha is 1 Kings 2:1 – 12. The association between the Torah and Haftarah is of succession and the passing of instructions from father to son on the father’s deathbed. In the Torah it is Jacob passing blessing and prophecy to Joseph and his brothers. Here it is David on his deathbed passing instruction to his son Solomon. He instructs Solomon to execute justice against Joab his former general, who had murdered two of David’s loyal officers.  He states that kindness should be shown to Barzillai and his family for standing by him during Absalom’s rebellion. Then he instructs that Shimei who cursed David should be accordingly punished

The most important instruction is to be found in the third verse of this chapter

“[A]nd observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go” (1 Kings 2:3 NIV)

Messianic Message 

Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul) writes

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

That could easily have been the motto of Joseph who passed through much tribulation, but the end result was that lives were saved. It’s a good story to remind ourselves of as we go through much difficulty in the privations to be endured in a Coronavirus pandemic. Businesses, livelihoods, and even mental health can be restored but lives cannot. There is a spiritual lesson here that we must endure hardship in this life. When we pass through struggles, we focus on the end not the suffering of the moment.

Strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said’. 

Acts 14:22 (NIV)

The significant part of the blessing given by Jacob to Judah has to be the promise of Judah’s sceptre

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.  (Genesis 49:10 KJV)

Shiloh is frequently translated as ‘to him who it belongs’, but it also might be connected with the word ‘Shalom’ meaning peace or ‘Shaliach’ meaning messenger or emissary. In Hebrew, Paul is referred to as a Shaliach. Both Jewish and Christian scholars generally agree that the word refers to the Messiah even though they may disagree as to who the Messiah is.

Supersessionist (replacement theology) doctrine sometime misuses this verse to argue that since the coming of Messiah the sceptre or the responsibly of being guardian of the Torahthen passed to the Church. This false teaching says that although Jewish people could be admitted (at the cost of losing their distinct identity as Jews), it was now the new relay runner who had removed  the Covenant made with the Patriarchs from the Jewish people and like a baton passed it on to the “new people of God”, the Christian Church. The people who cried out

“We have no king but Caesar,” John 19:15 NIV

had forever forfeited their right to be bearers of the Covenant which was annulled and replaced by a New one.

There any many otherwise sound and fruitful churches being blessed by God who would hold that position.

Joseph did not do that to his brothers. He did not even tell on them. Until he died Jacob had no idea what happened between the day he disappeared and the day he was reunited with his father or how he became ruler of Egypt. No conversation in that vein is ever recorded in scripture. His love for the brothers exceeded their malice towards him. It was total forgiveness.

God made a Covenant with Abraham. A Covenant is binding and not dependent on the behaviour of any one party. It is indissoluble. The lack of understanding of what a Covenant is may be a significant contributor to the decline in state of marriage in western society. If Christian churches fail to grasp the enduring Covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham, then they lose the authority to preach on the sanctity of marriage.

Has Israel and the Jewish people rebelled against and failed God? Absolutely yes. Has God in turn abandoned His people? Absolutely not.

The gathering of the people will be for all nations with Israel at the centre

“for my house will be called
    a house of prayer for all nations” Isaiah 56:7 (NIV).  

As for the sin of Israel the King James Version translates it best

And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.

Zechariah 13:6 (KJV)

This article originally appeared on the BMJA website, December 16, 2021, and reposted with permission.