When Moses Placed Ephraim Before Manasseh
Placing Ephraim before Manasse
In the Torah’s account of the end of Jacob’s life, we read that Joseph, upon learning that his father is on his deathbed, brings his two sons to visit him (Gen 48:1) and that when Jacob sees them he proceeds to bless them (48:9). Although Joseph positions the elder son, Manasseh, on Jacob’s right (48:13), Jacob crosses his hands (שִׂכֵּל אֶת־יָדָיו), placing his right hand upon the head of the younger son, Ephraim (48:14). Joseph attempts to correct his father (48:18), but Jacob insists that he is acting deliberately and that Ephraim will be the greater of the two (48:19). The Torah then relates:
בראשית מח:כ וַיְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמוֹר בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְֹרָאֵל לֵאמֹר יְשִֹמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה
Gen 48:20 So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”
וַיָּשֶֹם אֶת־אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה.
and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh.
Read in its context, the concluding sentence, “and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh,” appears to be the narrator’s way of recapitulating and summarizing what has just occurred. This is the interpretation offered by some of the classical commentators, for instance Rashbam and ibn Ezra. According to this view, the verb in the clause, וַיָּשֶֹם (“he placed”), means “he mentioned” Ephraim before Manasseh.
Genesis Rabbah: Ephraim Comes before Manasseh in All Things
The midrash (see Genesis Rabbah 97:5), commenting on the concluding words of the verse, “and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh,” suggests that this seemingly superfluous repetition of what has already been said is designed to convey that in addition to blessing Ephraim and Manasseh “on that day,” Jacob also determined that from that day forward, Ephraim and his descendants would precede Manasseh and his descendants in all matters:
וַיְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא [וגו’ וַיָּשֶֹם אֶת־אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה]: כשם שקִדְּמוֹ כאן, כך קִדְּמוֹ בכל מקום.
“And he blessed them on that day [etc. “and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh]” – Just as he placed him first here, he did so everywhere.
קִדְּמוֹ בתולדות: בתחילה ‘אלה תולדות בני אפרים’ ואחר כך ‘אלה תולדות בני מנשה’;
He placed him first in the list of generations. First it says “These are the generations of the sons of Ephraim” and afterwards “these are the generations of the sons of Manasseh.” 
ביוחסין: ‘לִבְנֵי אֶפְרַיִם תּוֹלְדֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם’ [במ’ א 32] ואחר כך ‘לִבְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה תּוֹלְדֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם’ [שם 34];
In the list of descendants: “For the sons of Ephraim according to their generations and families” (Num 1:32) and afterwards “For the sons of Manasseh, according to their generations and families” (Num 1:34).
קִדְּמוֹ בנחלה: ‘זאת נחלת בני אפרים’ [יהו’ טז 8] ואחר כך ‘זאת נחלת בני מנשה’;
He placed him first in allotting the tribal territories: “This is the territory of the sons of Ephraim” (Josh 16:8) and afterwards, “This is the territory of the sons of Manasseh.”
קִדְּמוֹ בדגלים: ‘דֶּגֶל מַחֲנֵה אֶפְרַיִם’ [במ’ ב 18], ואחר כך ‘וְעָלָיו מַטֵּה מְנַשֶּׁה’ [שם 20];
He put him first when determining the tribal divisions: “the division of the camp of Ephraim” (Num 2:18) and afterwards “and alongside it the tribe of Manasseh” (Num 2:20).
קִדְּמוֹ בנשיאים: ‘בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי נָשִׂיא לִבְנֵי אֶפְרָיִם’ [במ’ ז 48], ואחר כך ‘בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי נָשִׂיא לִבְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה’ [שם 54];
He put him first among the tribal chieftains (who brought their dedicatory offerings): “On the seventh day, the chieftain from the sons of Ephraim” (Num 7:48) and afterwards “On the eighth day, the chieftain from the sons of Manasseh” (Num 7:54).
קִדְּמוֹ בשופטים: יהושע משל אפרים וגדעון משל מנשה;
He put him first among the judges: Joshua was from Ephraim and Gideon from Manasseh.
קִדְּמוֹ במלכים: ירבעם משל אפרים ויהוא משל מנשה;
He put him first among the kings: Jeroboam was from Ephraim and Jehu from Manasseh.
קִדְּמוֹ בברכה: ‘בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְֹרָאֵל לֵאמֹר יְשִֹמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה’;
He put him first in the blessing (to be invoked by future generations): “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’” (Gen 48:20).
קִדְּמוֹ בבכורה ‘וַיָּשֶֹם אֶת־אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה’.
He put him first with regard to the birthright (Gen 48:20): “And he placed Ephraim before Manasseh.”
In the view of the Midrash, then, the verb וַיָּשֶֹם (“he placed”) refers to some actual act of placing, or at least determining the placement of, Joseph’s two sons and their descendants.
Rashi adopts the position taken by the midrash:
וַיָּשֶֹם אֶת אֶפְרַיִם בברכתו לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה, להקדימו בדגלים ובחנוכת הנשיאים.
“And he placed Ephraim before Manasseh” in his blessing, so as to establish his precedence with regard to the tribal divisions and the dedication offerings of the tribal chieftains.
Rashi too thus views the concluding phrase as adding additional information, namely, that by blessing Ephraim before Manasseh, not only did Jacob determine the form of the blessing for future generations, he also established Ephraim’s future precedence over Manasseh. Just like the midrash, and unlike Rashbam and ibn Ezra, Rashi interprets the word וַיָּשֶֹם (“he placed”) as indicating an additional act of positioning Joseph’s sons and their descendants.
R. Judah HeḤasid
Another medieval commentator who found the concluding phrase of this verse worthy of comment was R. Judah HeḤasid (Regensburg, d. 1217). Although R. Judah’s interpretation, which appears in his commentary on the Torah, compiled posthumously and from memory by his son, R. Moshe Zaltman, agrees with Genesis Rabbah and Rashi with regard to the meaning of the verb וַיָּשֶֹם “he placed,” his understanding of the verse differs radically from theirs:
וַיָּשֶֹם אֶת־אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה – פירש אבי: לא על יעקב נאמר כי על משה,
“And he placed Ephraim before Manasseh” (Gen 48:20) – My father believed the subject of the verb “placed” to be Moses, not Jacob:
וַיָּשֶֹם משה את אֶת־אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה, בראש דגל.
“Thus Moses placed [the tribe of] Ephraim before [the tribe of] Manasseh,” at the head of a tribal division.
Moses not Jacob
R. Judah thus asserts that the mention of Ephraim having been “placed” before Manasseh is not a reference to Jacob’s crossing of his hands or to his further promises about Ephraim’s future. Instead, the words “and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh” speak of an action performed hundreds of years later
Clearly, R. Judah too believes that the verb “to place” can only refer to a specific action and not to mere speech. He goes even further: he insists that the verb must refer to a physical act of placing one of the sons ahead of the other. Since Jacob did not do this, nor did Joseph, who merely positioned Manasseh to his father’s right and Ephraim to his left, the subject of וַיָּשֶֹם (“and he placed”) cannot be either of them.
This explains why, of all of the “placements” listed in the midrash, R. Judah chose only one: the placement of Ephraim before Manasseh in the order of the tribal divisions. Only in this instance was Ephraim physically placed before Manasseh. R. Judah could not adopt the midrashic solution in its entirety because the verb “to place” (לשים), as he understood it, is inapplicable to most of the actions that the midrash enumerates.
Aware that it may seem strange for a verse describing something Moses did in the wilderness to appear in Genesis, in the midst of the account of Joseph at his father’s bedside, R. Judah explains:
בעבור שיעקב אמר, ואָחִיו הַקָּטֹן יִגְדַּל מִמֶּנּוּ.
This is because Jacob had said, “His younger brother will be greater than he” (Gen 48:19).
That is: since Moses’ action was performed in order to fulfill what Jacob had prophesied on the same occasion, as mentioned in the preceding verse, it was appropriate for its eventual accomplishment to be mentioned immediately, albeit parenthetically, as part of the account of Jacob’s deathbed blessings.
Did Moses Determine the Order of the Tribal Divisions?
R. Judah’s assumption that Moses fixed the order of the tribal divisions in the wilderness, at his own initiative and in order to fulfill the last will and testament of Jacob, seemingly ignores the Torah’s own statement that the tribes camped and marched in compliance with explicit divine instructions, as we read in detail in Numbers 2 – underscored by the concluding verse of the chapter: “Just as the LORD had commanded Moses, so they camped according to their divisions and so they marched” (v. 34).
In fact, however, R. Judah preempted this difficulty. In his commentary on Exodus 12:51 -
וַיְהִי בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה הוֹצִיא ה’ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם.
That very day the LORD freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, with their multitudes.
we read as follows:
היה [אבי] מפרש שמיד שיצאו, נמנו על ידי משה ושמו דגלים ביניהם על פי דעת עצמן עד שנה שנייה, אז שמו דגלים על פי הק’.
[My father] explained that immediately after they left [Egypt], they were counted by Moses and arranged themselves in divisions on their own – until the second year, at which time they did so according to the instructions given by the Holy One.
R. Judah’s claim that Moses arranged the tribal divisions in order to comply with Jacob’s will does not refer to Numbers 2 at all, which deals with the Israelites’ preparation for the journey from Mt. Sinai to Canaan in the second year after the Exodus, at which time God did indeed provide detailed instructions for the order of the march. Rather, it refers to Moses’ earlier arrangement of the tribes upon their departure from Egypt, taking the phrase “with their multitudes” – Hebrew עַל־צִבְאֹתָם – in Exodus 12:51 to mean “one division after another,” arranged in tribal formation, and giving Moses himself the credit for bringing this about.
Of course, the Torah does not say explicitly that Manasseh came before Ephraim in this arrangement; this is R. Judah’s own suggestion. His reading of the passage in Exodus 12 in conjunction with Genesis 48:20 enables him to conclude that when Moses organized the Israelites’ departure from Egypt “one division after another” (Exod 12:51), he made sure to place the tribe of Ephraim before the tribe of Manasseh in accordance with Jacob’s wish (Gen 48:20), and that a year later, God ratified this action (Num 2:18–21).
A Post-Mosaic Insertion Built on a Mosaic Aside
Having established that the phrase “he placed Ephraim before Manasseh” refers to Moses’ determining the configuration of the Israelite tribes as they left Egypt, R. Judah takes several even more surprising steps:
ויהושע כתבוֹ, או אנשי כנסת הגדולה. שאם תאמר משה כתבוֹ, היה לו לומר: “ואני שמתי אֶת אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה,” כמו שיש אחרי כן: “ואני נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל אַחֶיך.” ופירש אבי שמשה כתבוֹ בשנת הארבעים.
And Joshua must have written this, or the men of the Great Assembly, for if Moses had written it he would have had to formulate it “And I placed Ephraim before Manasseh,” just as in the immediately following statement (v. 22) where he says “I have given you one portion more than to your brothers,” which, my father explained, Moses wrote in the fortieth year.
In this brief passage, R. Judah asserts 1) that the parenthetical comment about Moses organizing the tribal divisions must have been written after Moses’ own time – by Joshua or even much later; 2) that v. 22 “I have given you one portion more than to your brothers” also refers to an action performed by Moses, not Jacob; and 3) that v. 22 was written by Moses at the very end of his life. How are we to account for these liberties R. Judah takes with the Torah?
Who Gave Joseph an Extra Portion?
At the end of Jacob’s words to Joseph, we read the following:
וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מֵת וְהָיָה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּכֶם וְהֵשִׁיב אֶתְכֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם. וַאֲנִי נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל אַחֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי מִיַּד הָאֱמֹרִי בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי.
Israel said to Joseph, “I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers. And now, I have given you one portion more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow.”
The most natural reading of v. 22, and the unanimous reading of all commentators before and after R. Judah HeḤasid, is that it is the direct continuation of Jacob’s words to Joseph that began in v. 21. Jacob thus informs his son of two things: that after his death God will bring him, his brothers and their descendants back to Canaan, and that he, Jacob, has assigned to Joseph – meaning the tribes of Joseph – “one portion more” of the territory of Canaan than his brothers – the rest of the tribes – are to receive. Jacob states further that this additional territory will be given to Ephraim and Manasseh from the area that he, Jacob, took from the Amorites with his sword and his bow.
Nowhere does the Torah speak of any territory of which Jacob took possession at all, much less “from the Amorites.” Interpretations both traditional and critical abound, but R. Judah HeḤasid is apparently the only commentator to solve this conundrum by disconnecting the two verses and claiming that v. 22 contains not Jacob’s words but rather those of the person who actually did wrest territories from the Amorites with his sword and his bow: Moses.“The Amorites,” in this reading, must refer to Sihon, king of the Amorites (Num 21:25, Deut 2:33-34), as the Torah records no other instance of anyone conquering territory from the Amorites. Moreover, he claims, Moses does, in fact, give this territory to the tribes of Israel, something Jacob never does.
Moses’ Gift of Land to Half of Manasseh
Having concluded that Moses must be the speaker in v. 22, R. Judah proceeds as follows:
בעבור שמשה ידע שיעקב אמר, “אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ־לִי,” לכן נתתי לו, לחצי שבט המנשה, ממלכת עוג בבשן וממלכת סיחון מלך האמורי, שמשה הרגוֹ.
…[S]ince he (=Moses) knew that Jacob had said, “Ephraim and Manasseh will be the same as Reuben and Simeon to me” (Gen. 48:5). Therefore, [Moses meant]: “I have given to one-half of the tribe of Manasseh the [former] kingdoms of King Og of Bashan and King Sihon of the Amorites” – whom Moses had killed.
According to R. Judah’s novel interpretation, Jacob determined before his death that Ephraim and Manasseh would be tribes in their own right and that each of them would be eligible, when the time came, to receive a territorial allotment equal in size to that of each of tribes of their uncles. Hundreds of years later, so R. Judah contends, Moses sought to implement the will of the nation’s patriarch. In order to do this, he gave the half-tribe of Manasseh territory east of the Jordan – territory that he, Moses, had conquered from Sihon and Og, and he therefore says that this is the territory “which I wrested from the Amorites”. Since Moses also killed the Amorite King Sihon, he adds, “with my sword and my bow”.
This provides the basis for R. Judah’s explanation of the exceptional way in which Moses executed Jacob’s will.
שמן הדין היה כל מה שנטל אפרים בארץ היה לו להיות לאפרים ומנשה,
For rightfully, whatever Ephraim received in the land [of Canaan] needed to be given to Ephraim and Manasseh.
By “rightfully,” R. Judah implies that if Jacob had not ordained that Ephraim and Manasseh would each receive territory on a par with the other tribes, the two would have been considered a single tribe – the tribe of Joseph – and would have received only one territorial allotment, equal in size to those of each of the other tribes. The descendants of the two brothers would then have had to divide the territory equally. But once Jacob stipulated that Manasseh and Ephraim were to be considered tribes in their own right, Moses began to the process of implementing his will by giving Manasseh a portion of the kingdoms of Sihon and Og:
נמצא כל חלק מנשה יתר על אפרים בעבור הבכורה.
This way, the total allotment given to Manasseh was in addition to that given to Ephraim, because of the birthright.
In other words, this doubling of the territory of Joseph was a necessary result of Jacob’s decision that Joseph, rather than Reuben, was now to receive the birthright.
R. Judah further explains:
ומשה אמר: כבר התחלתי במצוה, ונתתי לחצי שבט המנשה מה שנתתי לכך מה שצויתי ליהושע ולשנים עשר החולקים את הארץ ליתן לאפרים כאחד מן השבטים ולחצי שבט המנשה כפי החלק המגיעם.
Moses then said: I have begun the performance of this command by allotting what I have already allotted to half of the tribe of Manasseh. Therefore, [in order to complete the task,] I have ordered Joshua and the twelve land-dividers to give Ephraim the same amount as every other tribe and to give [the other] half of Manasseh what he has coming to him.
According to this, Moses instructed Joshua and his entourage to complete the process he started such that the tribe of Ephraim would receive the same as each of the other tribes in Canaan, and the other half of the tribe of Manasseh, the Manassites who did not settle east of the Jordan, would only receive a partial allotment in Canaan to complement what they had already received in Transjordan. The total land grant of Manasseh would then be equal to that of the other tribes and not more.
Manasseh’s Settlement in Transjordan – Moses’ Idea
In order to explain Gen 48:22 as Moses’ words to the tribes of Joseph, spoken in the fortieth year, i.e., after the conquest of the lands of Sihon and Og, R. Judah must posit that the granting of territories from the kingdoms of Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, king of the Bashan to the half-tribe of Manasseh in order to fulfill Jacob’s will was Moses own decision. This is precisely how he views the matter.
According to the account in Num 32, the negotiation over the territory east of the Jordan was conducted with the tribes of Gad and Reuben alone. Only they are said to have had a reason to settle there (Num 32:1); they alone approach Moses to request that the land there be given to them (vv. 2-5); Moses addresses only them (vv. 6-15) and dictates his conditions (vv. 16-27) to them alone. Moses’ instructions to Eliezer, Joshua, and the heads of the tribes pertain only to Gad and Reuben (vv. 28-30) and Reuben and Gad alone give their consent to the terms stipulated (vv. 31-32). Only toward the end of this account, when the agreement is already being implemented, does the half-tribe of Manasseh suddenly appear on the scene (v. 33):
וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלַחֲצִי שֵׁבֶט מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת מַמְלֶכֶת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶת מַמְלֶכֶת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן.
Moses gave to them, to the children of Gad, and to the children of Reuben, and to half the tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of the Bashan.
The unanticipated and unexplained granting of territory east of the Jordan to members of the tribe of Manasseh, who made no such request and are not even mentioned in the story before this point, seems not to have troubled most of the commentators; very few of them weigh in on the issue. Nevertheless, this problem is without a doubt the point of departure of the entire exegetical tour de force undertaken by R. Judah. He recognized here a totality of data that came together in breathtaking harmony. When the conquered lands of Sihon and Og lay before Moses and the tribes of Gad and Reuben asked to settle there, Moses saw the perfect opportunity to fulfill Jacob’s dying wish by allotting Transjordanian territory to Manasseh as well.
Thus, in one fell swoop, R. Judah solved the most perplexing exegetical difficulty of Numbers 32 – the unexpected appearance of the descendants of Manasseh among the recipients of tribal allotments east of the Jordan – together with all of the questions that arise from Gen 48:22, “I have given you one portion more…”
The Post-Mosaic Addition
We return to R. Judah’s assertion that the words “and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh” in Gen 48:20, which he interprets as referring to an action performed by Moses, must have been written by Joshua, or perhaps the men of the Great Assembly, arguing that if Moses had written this clause he would written “and I placed Ephraim before Manasseh.”
That this suggestion aroused fury among readers scandalized by the notion that the Torah contains post-Mosaic passages is hardly surprising. At the same time, the interpretation is also extraordinary in its own right. Throughout the Torah, Moses is spoken of in the third person. Some traditional commentators took note of this fact and offered explanations, while others did not address it at all, but all accepted it with equanimity and none viewed it as a reason to doubt the attribution of the Torah’s authorship to Moses.
Based on the impression one gains from his commentary, the same is true of R. Judah HeḤasid. And yet, in this one spot, he—or perhaps his son, R. Moshe Zaltman—saw the third person reference to Moses as a problem, so much so that he felt compelled to rule out the possibility that Moses wrote this verse.
To add to the uniqueness of this case, we should recall that in all of the other places in which R. Judah HeḤasid, or another exegete, states or implies that Moses did not write certain passages, the reason is that the Torah mentions events of which Moses could not have known since they had not yet transpired, and therefore, could not have related in the past tense during his own lifetime. Nowhere but in this one verse is the problem the use of the third person narrative voice.
The explanation for this unparalleled exegetical move is to be found in v. 22, which, R. Judah believed, also features Moses as the subject, and which is written in the first person. If two verses follow one another in the same passage, both recounting Moses’ actions, one in the first person and one in the third, R. Judah – plausibly enough – deemed it impossible for Moses to have written them both. He simply had no choice but to conclude that the verse phrased in the third person was written by another author – perhaps Joshua, or the men of the Great Assembly.
R. Judah’s Unapologetic Approach to Non-Mosaic Passages
One cannot but be impressed by the natural, non-polemical, open, matter-of-fact, almost off-hand manner in which R. Judah makes this remark. He realizes that his interpretation of the passage in its entirety makes this step a necessity, and so he takes it, attaching to it no special importance, acknowledging no doctrinal peril and sensing no need to mask it in ambiguity or veil it in secrecy.
This contrasts sharply, for instance, with Abraham ibn Ezra who, when making similar suggestions, formulated them in vague allusion and ambiguous riddle, to be appreciated only by those in the know. Apparently, for R. Judah and for those to whom his commentary was intended, if the text can best be explained on the assumption that certain verses are later additions – by Joshua or even the men of the Great Assembly – this is of no great consequence.
R. Judah was able to avail himself of this option utterly unapologetically because he was of the opinion, shared by many of his contemporaries in twelfth-century Ashkenaz, that the canonical Torah is a text finalized, and bequeathed to posterity, by the men of the Great Assembly. R. Judah and his disciples never assumed otherwise. They therefore did not see this idea as controversial or revolutionary in any sense, and perceived in it no threat or heresy.
Perhaps we can see here a kind of initial harbinger of biblical criticism. Still, R. Judah’s approach does not diverge from the realm of purely traditional exegesis. His is an innocent approach based on that of the Talmudic Sages, an exegetical method whose followers did not view as daring at all.
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January 12, 2017
July 5, 2020
Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz is the Avraham Mordechai Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at Hebrew University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (1988) from Hebrew University. Schwartz writes and lectures on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
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