GENESIS: AN OVERVIEW
“So he blessed them that day, saying, By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
This week we finish reading the book of Genesis. It is a powerful book containing so many important themes. But there is one theme that runs through the entire book from beginning to end – sibling rivalry, the struggle between brothers (and in one case, sisters). One can learn a deep lesson in pursuing this topic through the entire book.
At the beginning of Genesis, we have the first brothers ever born – Cain and Abel. As we know, in a fit of jealousy Cain kills his brother Abel. He asks the question that is echoed throughout the book, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the implied answer to this rhetorical question is yes, he is his brother’s keeper. But it will take an entire book before this becomes the norm.
There is trouble between Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael together with his mother Hagar is exiled from Abraham’s household. They will only come together once more to bury their father. How often do I perform a funeral which finally brings siblings back together after years of estrangement. According to both Jewish and Muslim tradition, Isaac was one of the fathers of the Jewish people and Ishmael was the father of the Arab nation. Just as they came together to bury their father, perhaps Jews and Arabs can begin to come together in peace.
The next generation, twins Jacob and Esau, already begin fighting in the womb. Esau seeks to murder Jacob for stealing his birthright and his blessing. In the end the brothers do hug, although they will never be close. According to Jewish tradition, Jacob was one of the fathers of the Jewish people. Esau became Edom who became Rome, and eventually the Christian nation. Today we are finally seeing some reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Many Christians receive my weekly message. After centuries of enmity, Jews and Christians are coming together in peace.
We also read about the rivalry between the two sisters Rachel and Leah, both married to Jacob. Rachel was the beloved wife who could not have children, while Leah was the fertile wife who sought her husband’s love. This theme of two wives, one loved and one hated, will come up frequently in the Bible. Throughout Genesis the two sisters approach one another with a mixture of love and jealousy.
In the end there is the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers. In their jealousy the brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Finally in last week’s portion, they hug and find reconciliation. Forgiveness and the rebuilding of relationships are the central themes. That brings us to the two brothers introduced in this week’s portion – Ephraim and Menashe. They are the two sons of Joseph adopted by their grandfather Jacob to become two of the tribes.
It is customary for Jewish parents to bless their sons every Friday evening with the words from this week’s portion, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (Jewish parents also bless their daughters with the words “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) Why Ephraim and Menashe? There is an ancient tradition that in the book of Genesis, they are the first brothers who truly respected each other and got along their entire lives. They are the culmination of the theme of Genesis, we are to be our brother’s keeper.
The prophet Malachi famously said, “Have we not one father? Did one God not create us all” (Malachi 2:10). If we have one father, then all of us are brothers and sisters. All of us, every human being, needs to see every other human beings as a sibling. We need to be each other’s keeper. That is the goal of Genesis. One might say that this is the goal of all the world’s great faiths.