Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Kassel, Germany/Superstock

Dying, the patriarch Jacob feebly lays his hands on his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, whose parents Joseph and Asenath emerge from the shadows of Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting. With eyes “dim with age” (Genesis 48:10), Jacob unexpectedly offers the younger child, Ephraim, the chief blessing by placing his right hand on the boy’s golden hair. Joseph reaches out to correct his father’s hand, and to move it to Manasseh’s head, but Jacob refuses, promising that the “younger brother shall be greater” (Genesis 48:19).

On his deathbed, Jacob also adopts these two boys, promising that “Ephraim, and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon [two of Jacob’s sons]” (Genesis 48:5). Why he does this has long mystified readers of the Jacob story. With a closer look at some of Jacob’s last words, author Gordon Tucker discovers Jacob’s motive: guilt over causing the death of his beloved wife Rachel, Joseph’s mother.