The peril of pride in privilege or pampering: Ephraim and Manasseh

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (detail) / Benjamin West, 1766-68

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (detail) / Benjamin West, 1766-68

Perhaps nothing so starkly displays the fall more starkly than comparing the first verse in Genesis (which begins, “in the beginning”) and the last (which ends, “in a coffin in Egypt.) Unfortunately, the story gets worse from there.

Until his death, Joseph was Egypt’s prime minister and held nearly unlimited power. Lord Acton’s saying, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely” is only partly correct.

Power reveals and intensifies the level of corruption already present. Strong faith in God reduces that level substantially. If sons of godly people show themselves corrupt, it’s because they did not inherit faith.

Joseph and his sons

Joseph remained uncorrupted. Years of slavery purged his every temptation to pride. He did not yield to whatever temptation he had to take revenge on his brothers. Or at least, he contented himself with messing with their minds until the time he chose for revealing himself and forgiving them.

The Bible tells us nothing from the death of Joseph until the arrival of a new dynasty. Nothing, that is, except names in genealogies, beginning with Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh.

The new dynasty was either ignorant of Joseph or chose not to acknowledge him. At that point Pharaoh (the generic name by which all Egyptian kings are known in the Bible) decided to reduce the Hebrews to slavery.

In Genesis 48:12-22, Jacob deliberately gave the greater blessing to Ephraim, the younger. As the family grew into tribes, Joseph got the double portion. There was never a tribe of Joseph. There were instead separate tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

When Moses blessed the tribes in Deuteronomy 33:13-17 he said,

13 He said about Joseph: May his land be blessed by the Lord with the dew of heaven’s bounty and the watery depths that lie beneath;
14 with the bountiful harvest from the sun and the abundant yield of the seasons;
15 with the best products of the ancient mountains and the bounty of the eternal hills;
16 with the choice gifts of the land and everything in it; and with the favor of Him
who appeared in the burning bush. May these rest on the head of Joseph, on the crown of the prince of his brothers.
17 His firstborn bull has splendor, and horns like those of a wild ox; he gores all the peoples with them
to the ends of the earth. Such are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and such are the thousands of Manasseh. (HCSB)

To summarize as briefly as possible, Moses named Joseph as the prince among his brothers (literally true since only he had exercised rulership), blessed his land with every kind of abundance, and declared that Ephraim and Manasseh would be mighty warriors and rulers themselves.

Imagining two obscure young men

But just what kind of men were Ephraim and Manasseh? The Bible doesn’t say, but we can read between the lines and guess. Three basic observations of general patterns in Scripture stand out.

The first how often in the Old Testament calamity results from negligent fathers. I have written elsewhere about two: Eli and Jotham.

David was a wonderful king, but a lousy husband and father. Solomon may have been the wisest man in the world, but not wise enough to give his son Rehoboam any guidance on how to rule the kingdom.

I suspect that like many successful men, Joseph was too involved in his day job to be bothered with raising children. But in those days, young men were expected to take after their father.

The second pattern appears in the number of warnings the Bible contains against pride.

Joseph exercised power wisely and humbly after growing up in a nomad’s household. Ephraim and Manasseh grew up surrounded by luxury and power. They would have constantly been reminded that they were someone special simply because their daddy was prime minister.

Perhaps they, too, held high offices while their cousins remained shepherds. The temptation to self-importance must have been powerful.

Egyptian god and mummy

Egyptian god and mummy

The third pattern is the frequent failure of godly men in the Bible to pass their faith onto their children.

The temptation to worship Egyptian gods must have been even more powerful than the temptation to pride. Given the later behavior of their descendant tribes, once Joseph was in his coffin, his boys probably gave no further thought to his God.

Modern parallels

In my youth, I remember reading a description of how all the servants in the various English royal residences would stop what they were doing to bow or curtsey whenever the royal children came in sight. I wondered how the children managed not to become insufferable.

Part of the reason, it turns out, is that English royalty reigns, but it hasn’t ruled for centuries. Parliament abolished the monarch and beheaded the king during the civil war of the 17th century. In 1660, Parliament restored the monarchy and installed the executed king’s son. But in 1689, they deposed the younger son for being Catholic and called someone else to be king.

Knowing that Parliament could in principle abolish the monarchy at any time might be one of several reasons English royalty is so much more humble and down to earth than one might expect after being bowed to throughout childhood.

European monarchy, where it still exists, isn’t as big a deal as it used to be, anyway. It seems to me I read once where the king of Sweden wanted a special parking place. The prime minister declined, saying if he did a special favor for the king, he’d have to give special treatment to anyone else who asked!

Even so, it is not hard to find children who grow up with an exaggerated and unearned sense of their own importance. Who hasn’t heard stories of young people who inherit wealth simply wasting it and arrogantly expecting to be respected as if they had actually done something?

For that matter, who hasn’t seen the effects of trying to instill self-esteem in children while at the same time abolishing the kind of competitive environment that would give them the experience of genuine achievement? Negligent or absent parenting can only make a bad situation worse.

But suppose Joseph managed to raise his boys to be more humble than others in the ruling class. Suppose they grew up to be diligent, hard working, and responsible. If he indeed failed to pass on his faith in the living God, nothing else mattered.

As the largest of the northern tribes Ephraim and Manasseh exercised tremendous power and influence, just as Moses’ blessing predicted. At the division of the kingdom, an Ephraimite became king of Israel—and promptly led his people into apostasy.

The name of Ephraim became a poetic substitute for Israel in the writings of the prophets. And as such, rebellious and apostate Ephraim never returned to the Lord. Neither did any of the other tribes under his leadership.

Am I reading too much into two very obscure Bible characters? I don’t think so. After all, much the same story plays out in Scripture again and again. And in our society, too.

Images are public domain. The picture of the Egyptian god and mummy appears on several other sites. Unfortunately not one of them adequately identifies what it is, where it was found and approximately when it might have been painted.

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