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Vayechi (And He Lived): Judah Becomes the Leader of Israel

Vayechi (And He Lived)
Genesis 47:28–50:26; 1 Kings 2:1–12; John 10:1–21

And Jacob lived (Vayechi Yaacov) in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.”  (Genesis 47:28)  

This week’s Torah portion, Parasha Vayechi (and he lived), is the final Shabbat reading from the book of Genesis (Bereisheet).  It is also the final Parasha of 2015.

In last week’s study, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and invited them, as well as his father, to live in Egypt in order to provide for them during the famine.  Joseph, his brothers, and his father were joyfully reunited and reconciled.

Parasha Vayechi ends the first book of the Bible with the death of Jacob as well as that of Joseph.

Torah Reading Shabbat

Reading the Torah during a Shabbat service

Jewish Longing for the Promised Land

In this Parasha, Jacob compelled Joseph to vow to carry his body back to the Land of his Fathers and bury him there.  Joseph agreed to his dying father’s request not to leave his body in Egypt.  (Genesis 47:29–30)

Although Jacob had lived the last 17 years of his life in Egypt, he never forgot the Land God had promised him by divine Covenant.

Ever since God called Abraham out of Ur, the Jewish People have not lost sight of the Promised Land given to them through Isaac and Jacob.  Even when Nebuchadnezzar took the people of Israel captive, they sat by the rivers of Babylon weeping and remembering Zion, vowing to never forget her.

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!  If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth — If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.”  (Psalm 137:5–6)

We must understand this eternal longing planted in the Jewish soul to comprehend the fierce determination of the people of Israel to remain in the Land that God promised us through our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Many maintain a strong emotional tie to the Land of Israel even while living in exile among the nations of the world.

Olim-Promised Land

British olim (immigrants) to Israel proudly display their new citizenship papers.

Jacob Blesses Ephraim and Manasseh

When Jacob became ill, Joseph brought his two sons before his father for a blessing.  Jacob asked who the two boys were and Joseph answered, “They are my sons, whom God has given me in this place.”  (Genesis 48:9)

When he saw Joseph’s sons, he thought only of the goodness of God. Israel said to Joseph, “I had not thought to see your face; but in fact, God has also shown me your offspring!”  (Genesis 48:11)

At the end of his life, Jacob praised the Lord for His exceedingly abundant goodness, despite having experienced many difficulties and trials.

God’s goodness not only met, but also exceeded his expectations.

“Glory belongs to God, whose power is at work in us.  By this power He can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  (Ephesians 3:20)

Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh; however, in a surprise move, he put his right hand on Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left on Manasseh, who was the firstborn and should have rightfully received the primary blessing.

“So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you Israel will bless, saying, “May God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh!”’  And thus he set Ephraim before Manasseh.”  (Genesis 48:20)

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, by Benjamin West

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, by Benjamin West

Even today, many Jewish fathers will bless their sons on Friday evening when families usher in the Sabbath (Shabbat), saying, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh (Ye’simchs Elohim ke’Efrayim ve’khe-Menasheh).”

But why would we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Manasseh?  What was so special about these young men?

Although they were born into the pagan, idolatrous culture in Egypt, they remained faithful to the worship of the God of Israel.

This is what we desire for our children—that despite being surrounded by a sea of questionable ethics and morality, they will grow up to be of good character, holding onto faith in the One True God, worshiping Him in spirit and in truth, keeping the Torah that has been written on the hearts of those who follow Yeshua (Jesus). 

When we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, we are exhorting them to resist the negative peer pressure and immorality of the society in which they live, and instead hold true to the values we have taught them from God’s Word.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”  (Romans 12:2)

Through his blessing, Jacob elevated these two grandsons to be on an equal level with his own sons.  Manasseh and Ephraim became leaders of their own tribes, representing the House of Joseph, receiving their own portion of land, and waving their own flags.

Father-Son-Kotel-Wall-Promised Land

Praying together: Father and son at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem

Jacob’s Prophetic Blessings over the 12 Tribes

“Jacob called his sons, and he said: ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the end of days.  Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.’”  (Genesis 49:1–2)

Jacob, of course, did not only bless his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh.  He also called all of his sons together to bless and prophesy over them on his deathbed.  All of them were blessed in that they would all enter the Promised Land and receive an inheritance there.

The blessings were carefully constructed and appropriate to the individual.  They were often based on past behavior that was projected beyond the life of these sons to their descendants.

Jewish woman and child-Jerusalem-Promised Land

Jewish woman prays at the Kotel (Wailing Wall)

When Jacob blessed his firstborn son, Reuben, he did not give him the double portion or preeminence usually reserved for firstborn sons.  Because of Reuben’s instability, the double portion was given to Joseph and preeminence was given to Judah.

He did this because Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, which revealed his lust for power over the family.  In other words, taking possession of a leader’s harem revealed an attempt to usurp his authority.  For this reason, Jacob resisted giving Reuben a position of preeminence.

When Jacob blessed Simeon and Levi, he cursed their anger for their role in the massacre on Shechem after Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped.

Though anger was a fitting response, it was not a righteous anger or indignation.  They tricked the men of Shechem into a false peace agreement and used it as a trap to kill them.

Their violence was so excessive that they even hamstrung the oxen.

Other sons were blessed with beauty and fertility (Joseph); swiftness of a deer (Naphtali); ferociousness of a wolf (Benjamin); scholarship (Issachar); military might (Gad); and so on.

Seduction of Dinah, Daughter of Leah, by James Tissot

Seduction of Dinah, Daughter of Leah, by James Tissot

Jacob Proclaims Judah the Leader of the Tribes of Israel

“Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s children shall bow down before you.”  (Genesis 49:8)

When the people of Israel came out of slavery in Egypt, Judah became God’s “holy ones”:

“When Israel came forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah became His sanctuary [kodesh], Israel His dominion [memshalah].”  (Psalm 114:1–2)

The word translated sanctuary is k’dosho (קָדְשׁוֹ), meaning holiness or holy portion.  It comes from the word kadosh (קדוש), which means holy or set apart.

An Orthodox Jewish man prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall using a siddur (Jewish prayer book). The box and black straps are tefillin (phylacteries), which are put on during morning prayer.

An Orthodox Jewish man prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall using a siddur (Jewish prayer book). The box and black straps are tefillin (phylacteries), which are put on during morning prayer.

In Judah, we see the call to holiness.  Although he showed lapses of holiness and good judgment at times, he saved Joseph’s life from his brother’s wrath after they threw him in a pit.  And, later, Judah was the only brother willing to enslave his own life in order to free his brother Benjamin.

These actions revealed character traits similar to our Messiah — the One who saves us from spiritual death and releases us from spiritual enslavement.  

When we are not sure what to be thankful for, we can praise and thank Him for these gifts of freedom.  In fact, the Hebrew word for Jew comes from Judah (Yehudah יהודה), from the root YDHyadah (ידה), which means to thank.

Leah, Jacob’s wife, used a play on words in naming her last son Judah (Yehuda), saying that now she would praise (yadah — thank) the Lord (Genesis 29:35).

And the apostle Paul said that a true Jew, inwardly, is one who praises (thanks) the Lord, whether Jewish or Gentile (Romans 2:28–29). 

Jewish siblings-Jerusalem-Promised Land

Orthodox siblings play at the Lions Fountain in Jerusalem

Jacob also likens Judah to a lion cub; therefore, the tribe of Judah is known as Gur Ariyeh (lion cub).

“Judah is a lion’s whelp [Gur Ariyeh]; from the prey, my son, you have gone up.  He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him?”  (Genesis 49:9)

Indeed, from the royal tribe of Judah came forth kings, legislators and the promised Redeemer, Messiah, the anointed King of Israel — Yeshua HaMashiach!  

As prophesied, one day, the dominion of His authority will extend to the entire world.  To Him, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Philippians 2:10).

Lion of the Tribe of Judah

A statue of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah at an American synagogue.

Jacob Prophesies the Coming of Messiah

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.” (Genesis 49:10)

The meaning of the word Shiloh as it is used in this verse has been the subject of much debate among Bible scholars.  Literally, it means that is his or he whose it is.  This word is, perhaps, also a Messianic title and has been used as a synonym for the Messiah.

Just as this verse prophesied, the Messiah did come before Rome ruined Jerusalem in AD 70 and essentially exiled Judah.  After that, the scepter departed from Judah and their sovereignty over Israel ended. 

It is interesting to note that Jacob’s prophecy — that the scepter shall not depart from Judah — contains every letter of the Hebrew alphabet except one — the letter zayin (ז), which represents the Hebrew word for weapon. 

This, perhaps, indicates that when the Messiah would come the first time, He would not come with physical weapons.  Indeed, Yeshua held the sovereign staff of God Himself, releasing spiritual oppression and setting the captives free through God’s Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh).

Torah-Jerusalem-Promised Land

Jewish men pay reverence to the Torah at the Western (Wailing) Wall.

With God’s staff in hand, Yeshua came as the suffering servant (Mashiach ben Josef). 

The Jewish leadership of Yeshua’s day, however, were looking for a scepter to be raised by a military leader who would conquer the Roman oppressors with weapons and force (Mashiach ben David).  As a result, many completely missed their Messiah.

Over time, as Christianity developed and Christians persecuted Jews in the name of the Messiah, a majority of the Jewish People came to define themselves as people who reject that Yeshua is the Messiah.

Yet there have always been Jewish Believers.  Today many Messianic Believers remain true to Jewish culture and traditions, standing strong against the pull of assimilation.

According to Rabbinic Jewish commentators in the Talmud (Oral Law), Jacob wanted to reveal the Messiah’s coming at the end of days but was prevented by the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).

“Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the end of days [ketz ha-yomin], whereupon the divine presence departed from him.”  (Talmud Pesachim 56a)

In His sovereignty, the Ruach has revealed those end days through Yeshua’s many teachings (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) and the vision of the apostle John in the book of Revelation, as well as other Bible prophecies.

Jewish women pray in the Women's Section of the Western Wall.

Jewish women pray in the Women’s Section of the Western Wall.

Further signifying Judah’s prophetic call as God’s “holy ones,” the name Judah uses all four letters of the proper name of God, YHVH (יהוה) with the addition of one Hebrew letter dalet (ד), which stands for delet or door.

Yeshua, who died in the Land of Judah on the Roman execution stake, rose again and became the door to salvation.

“I am the door.  If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”  (John 10:9)

Yeshua HaMashiach is the One His Jewish brothers will one day praise and thank.

“In this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’”  (Romans 11:26; Isaiah 59:20)

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