One of the continuing themes we have seen in this series is the tension between Rachel and her older sister Leah. Both women were married to Jacob and they battled bitterly against one another for his affection. Though Jacob clearly loved Rachel more, she was barren and unable to bear him any children. Leah, on the other hand, sought to win Jacob’s heart by giving him 6 sons and a daughter. During their dispute, both Rachel and Leah offered their handmaidens to Jacob to birth sons on their behalf. Finally, after many years of marriage, God blessed Rachel and enabled her to conceive and give birth to a son (Genesis 30:22-24).
Joseph was the firstborn son of Rachel and the eleventh son of Jacob. The name Joseph means “He will increase”. Rachel, who’d been unfruitful for so long, gave him this name in hopes that God would increase her productivity and give her yet another son. The name also carries a more prophetic meaning. Over the course of his life, Joseph increased in prestige and power to become an influential leader in Egypt who was instrumental in the history of Israel.
While we know relatively little about his brothers, the Bible provides us with many details about Joseph’s life. He was Jacob’s favorite child and always received preferential treatment from his father. Joseph proudly wore a coat of many colors that his father had made especially for him. Whatsmore, Joseph had dreams that one day his older brothers (and even his parents) would bow down before him. For these and other reasons, Joseph’s brothers hated him and plotted to kill him. Instead, they sold him to slave traders and then lied to their father Jacob telling him that his beloved son Joseph was dead (Genesis 37).
Joseph was bound and taken to Egypt where he was purchased by an Egyptian officer named Potiphar. Joseph worked as a servant in Potiphar’s house and was quite successful. However, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of making sexual advances towards her. Potiphar believed her and was furious. He had Joseph thrown into prison (Genesis 39).
While he was incarcerated, Joseph met 2 of Pharaoh's servants who’d been thrown in jail also - the cupbearer and the baker. Both of these men had mysterious dreams. They shared them with Joseph and he accurately interpreted their dreams. Joseph predicted that the baker would be executed and that the cupbearer would be freed. The cupbearer promised that after his release he’d speak to Pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf, but he forgot to do so (Genesis 40).
After 2 more years spent in prison, Pharaoh had a dream that his magicians could not interpret. The cupbearer finally remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph was brought before Pharaoh, interpreted his dream, and was subsequently released from prison. Pharaoh was so impressed that he positioned Joseph as second in command over all of Egypt. Joseph was tasked with preparing for and then administering grain and supplies during the years of famine (Genesis 41).
When his brothers came to Egypt to purchase food, they did not immediately recognize Joseph. Eventually he revealed his identity to them. Though he could have been justifiably angry at them for what they’d done to him years before, Joseph lovingly forgave his brothers. He even secured permission from Pharaoh for his father and their entire family to move to Egypt (Genesis 42-47). Joseph’s life is an amazing testimony of how God can use bad intentions and circumstances to produce desirable and good outcomes.
As you may recall from earlier in this series, Jacob’s first born son Reuben forfeited his birthright to receive a double portion of his father’s inheritance because he’d slept with Bilhah. Before his death, Jacob transferred this honor to his beloved son Joseph (Genesis 48:2). As a result, not just 1 but rather 2 of the 12 tribes of Israel are descended from the line of Joseph. These 2 tribes are Ephraim and Manasseh. In today’s message, we will consider the tribe of Manasseh.
I. MANASSEH - THE GRANDSON OF JACOB
Manasseh was the oldest son of Joseph, and therefore Jacob was his grandfather. He was born in Egypt during Joseph’s tenure as ruler. His mother was named Asenath. The name Manasseh means “One who forgets” and was so chosen because God had made Joseph forget about all of his former difficulties (Genesis 41:51).
Nothing is known about Manasseh’s adult life, but when he was just a child his father Joseph took him and his brother to see their dying grandfather. On this occasion Jacob pronounced a blessing over both boys and adopted them as his own sons, effectively naming them as tribal patriarchs. Though Jacob foretold that Manasseh would be the lesser of the 2, still he prophesied that the descendants of Manasseh would be a great people (Genesis 48:18-19).
II. MANASSEH - THE TRIBE OF ISRAEL
For a period of 400 years in Egypt, the descendants of Jacob multiplied. When Moses first counted them all at Mt. Sinai, the fighting men of Manasseh numbered 32,200 (Numbers 1:34-35). During the years of the exodus the tribe of Manasseh increased significantly to 52,700 (Numbers 26:34).
The tribes camped in a prescribed order during the exodus. The sons of Manasseh set up on the western side of the tabernacle. They were the 8th tribe in the procession of the children of Israel (Numbers 2:20).
12 different gemstones were inset on the breastplate of the high priest. These gems represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Some believe that the agate stood for Manasseh. If so, the color of this tribe is yellowish-brown (Exodus 28:17).
Manasseh is unique among the tribes in that they received 2 separate and distinct areas of inheritance. Some of them settled outside of the Promised Land in regions east of the Sea of Galilee and the northern Jordan River (Numbers 32:33-42). These became known as “the half tribe of Manasseh”. The rest of this tribe settled in the central region of the Promised Land, which included the notable cities of Samaria, Shechem, and Shiloh (Joshua 17).
The daughters of Zelophehad (of the tribe of Manasseh) successfully lobbied Moses to secure their father’s portion of the inheritance (Numbers 27:1-11). After the land was apportioned, the Manassites were unable to drive all of the Canaanites out of their territories (Joshua 17:12-13; Judges 1:27) and had ongoing problems during the era of the judges. During these turbulent years, 3 of the judges named in the Bible were descendants of Manasseh. These were Gideon (Judges 6:14-15), Jair (Judges 10:3-5), and Jephthah (Judges 11).
When the age of the judges ended, Israel merged for a time into a single nation. But after only 120 years, it separated again into 2 kingdoms. Manasseh joined the northern kingdom, also called Israel, and Samaria became it’s capital city. The northern kingdom existed for about 200 years and fell to the Assyrians around 720 BC. The conquering Assyrians resettled the area with exiles from foreign lands. For centuries thereafter, the remaining local Jews intermarried with these foreigners and their mixed descendants became known as Samaritans.
III. THE LESSON FROM MANASSEH
The symbol for the tribe of Manasseh is a bough of grapes or a sheaf of grain. Both symbols are derived from Jacob’s blessing of Joseph. Manasseh was a large and populous tribe. Unfortunately, it was also a family divided. Some of the Manassites chose to settle east of the Jordan River in northern Gilead while others chose to occupy the central portion of Israel. This division ultimately diminished the prominence and reputation of the tribe.
As Christians today, we can can learn indirectly from the story of Manasseh that divided loyalties often lead to negative consequences. Jesus taught that a house divided could not stand (Mark 3:25). From the days of the Old Testament all the way to the present time, division among believers has remained as one of the greatest problems in the church.
Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob and he fathered 2 tribes through his sons. Manasseh became the tenth tribe of Israel. We must be careful not to confuse him with other men in the Bible also named Manasseh - such as the wicked king of Judah (2 Kings 21; 2 Chronicles 33). There are likely several lessons we can learn from the tribe of Manasseh, but a major one stresses the importance of unity and the peril of division. As we close our services today, I invite us all to put away those things which separate us from each other and to come together in one accord in the name of Jesus.