Israel must have looked ridiculous with his arms outstretched in front of him, crossed just below the elbow, as he placed his hands on Joshua’s children and spoke a blessing over them. Israel was a mostly blind man, aged by more than a hundred dry, harsh, Levantine summers. He was nearing the very end of his life and had endured what he thought was the death of his favorite son. In his words, he didn’t think he would see Joseph’s face again, yet he was granted the ability to see the children of Joseph.
His right arm was intentionally guided to the left, upon Ephraim’s head, while the left was guided to the right, upon Manasseh’s head. Israel knew Joseph was a straight-cut man and would do things by the book and by tradition, and present his children such that the firstborn would receive the blessing. Israel counted on this, and refused Joseph’s attempts to redirect the blessings by uncrossing his arms. Manasseh would be great, but Ephraim would be a multitude of nations.
Joseph was nothing if not predictable. Administering a country carries many different sources of obligation, and all leaders live and die by how they manage various external and internal pressures and traditions. Many years prior, his brothers loathed to see him follow them to Dothan, given how many times he had told Israel of their laziness or lack of attention to the details of their work.
The firstborn in near eastern culture was expected to be a sort of flagship for the family. But Israel knew that it had to be different for his offspring; it was different for Ishmael and Isaac, it was for Esau and Jacob, and it was different for Reuben and Judah. Joseph was technically the firstborn of his mother, but bringing Ephraim into “The tribes of Israel” meant subsuming Joseph so that the distinction between Ephraim and Manasseh could be made. For Israel, the one who carries the hopes and dreams of the family was the one who carried God’s promises, God’s interests, and God’s rulership. His lineage was to be different than the rest of the world – the elder would serve the younger.
Esau’s choice of women – he had married Hittites – was a source of continual frustration to Isaac and Rebekah. Esau was a paragon of modern manliness, being as hairy as an ox and probably as physically capable. Esau was a skilled hunter, but despised the lineage and destiny he had been given by his father. He preferred to focus on the here and now – the next hunt, a better bow, a sharper blade, the easiest and most entrapping women. He is only referred to as “Edom” after a certain point; it is fitting that this is the same set of Hebrew letters as for the word “Adam.” Adam had sacrificed the long-term reality for the short-term fantasy and everyone afterward paid for it.
Atheism is considered a fairly recent belief, but much of human history is men acting as if there is no single higher being or purpose to which they will be held accountable in time. Even the temptation of the fruit of the garden was the desire to “know good and evil,” on human terms. What we do each and every day is what we believe, whether we realize it or not.
Esau’s fault goes much deeper, however, than a mere rejection of the divine. Esau did not care about what would come after him. His birthright – the responsibility to carry the family’s destiny – meant nothing to him. All it took was one bout of extreme hunger and he would sell it for lentil soup. No wonder the western world, mostly the USA, has an obesity problem.
By the same thought pathways but with a different end result than Esau, men sell their birthright to be virile, attractive conquerors and leaders for the momentary fantasy that the minor pleasures of a soda, candy, or pastry brings. In the modern world, Men sell their birthright of access to the greatest knowledge and possibilities of accomplishment the world has yet possessed for phantom accomplishments in phantom worlds created on computer servers and the games which access them.
Those who take the serpent’s bargain will end up serving and in submission to those who come after who are willing to forego immediate gratification that does not serve the long-term goals of culture and civilization. These men who come after always rise after periods of decadence and decay. As the axiom goes, good times make weak men; weak men create hard times; hard times create strong men; strong men create good times. There is nothing new under the sun.
Men who will choose to obsess over self-development, knowledge, action, creation, and having dominion over their world will rebuild what is currently decaying underneath its surface. Obesity rates will lower as the pendulum of natural forces weeds out the weak in its long yet immutable arc. Knowledge will increase, as the prophet Daniel said. Authentic leadership and masculinity will take their place in civilization and lead to another period of good times.
Those who choose to bear the burden of Josephs – to be responsible for oneself and others, visionary, organized, strong, intelligent – will be indispensable men in the time to come ahead, and truly their sufferings are not worth the glory that will be revealed in them.