At the round, ripe age of sixty, I am becoming a grandfather
What is my calling, in this new role of grandfather? Is a grandfather a mere garnish on the dinner-plate of life? Or is he intended by God to make a difference in the life of his grandchild?
Jacob, the patriarch I have such a hard time liking, is remembered in the Hebrews 11 hall of fame for two things, and the first one is: “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons.” One of his greatest acts of faith was to give a grandfatherly blessing.
Genesis 48 tells this story. Jacob, in Egypt under the provision of his son Joseph who is now the grand vizier of that superpower nation, feels that the end is near, and calls for his son Joseph. Joseph brings his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, and a sometimes surprising, sometimes touching dialogue ensues.
One point where I empathize fully with the aged patriarch is when he says to Joseph, “I never thought I’d see you again—and now here I am seeing your sons.” Jacob’s other sons had faked Joseph’s death and sold Joseph into slavery. For years the old man thought his beloved son was dead. The theme of separation from children is close to my heart, since each of my children, on graduation from high school, moved to the other side of the world. And now that continental divide is going to be echoed, not with independent adults, but with the world’s most adorable infant.
There is a moment, poetic when seen in the broader story of Jacob’s life, when we are told that Jacob’s vision has deteriorated, and that he deliberately grants to the second son the blessing of the firstborn. I call it poetic because, like the chorus of a decades-long song, it replays, with one great change, a scene from Jacob’s youth. Years earlier, when Jacob’s father could no longer see, Jacob deceived him. The result was that Jacob, the second-born, stole the blessing belonging to his older brother. The great difference is that, this time around, Jacob himself, the blessing-giver, initiates the surprising reversal, and “puts Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.”
One thing that most Americans might find off-putting is Jacob’s statement to his son, “From now on, your sons will be counted as mine.” Since Jacob knows he is on his deathbed, he is not muscling-in on childrearing or anything of the kind. Rather, he is rewriting the future. Because of this decision, the elevation of the two grandsons to the status of Jacob’s sons, when the tribes of Israel divided up the Promised Land, Ephraim and Manasseh’s clans were given allotments just like their uncles’ clans. Furthermore, over time, “Ephraim” came to be a way of referring to the northern kingdom of Israel—the ten northern tribes.
It seems to me that the application of this moment to my grandparenting might be something like this: I say to my grandson, who cannot yet understand me, “I consecrate myself as a contributor to your life and a stakeholder in it. By God’s grace, I intend to invest in you, elevate you and expand your horizons as much as I can.” Jacob’s words for this, in his blessing on the boys, are these: “May they increase greatly on the earth.”
The other thing that strikes me in this scene with Jacob is this: He extends to his grandchildren the story of God’s grace in his own life. He wants his two grandsons to hear how God blessed their grandfather, and he wants to say to them: Now you are part of this. He says, “God Almighty appeared to me… in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers… and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’”
Jacob wants to place his grandsons in a story bigger than they are. He says:
“May the God before whom my fathers
Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
all my life to this day,
the Angel who has delivered me from all harm
—may he bless these boys.”
He is sending a life-shaping message: 250 years before you were born, God started something incredible, and he is going to continue it through you.
One of the most important blessings I can shed on the life of this little man is to give him a sense of his place in a story bigger than he is.
In these ways, imitating the aged patriarch at his best, I pray, “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, make me a grandblessing.”