And thy issue, which thou begettest after them, shall be thine, and shall be called after the name of their brethren in their inheritance. – Genesis 48:6
Much is made of Joseph being Jacob’s favorite son. What rarely gets noticed is that Joseph is possible Jacob’s firstborn son conceived in love. Leah was a pretender wife. Bilhah and Zilpah were surrogate mothers. Rachel was Jacob’s wife of promise. And Joseph was Jacob’s unique son. Further, through Joseph, Jacob received the sensation of having someone who was risen from the dead.
Much commentary tells of the oldest tier, the first four sons born of Leah, disqualifying themselves through disobedience, and I don’t think that is accurate. To be sure, they established a legacy of evil, but that should not necessarily disqualify them. Jacob was a rather self-willed child himself, and could appreciate the vagaries of a son who wanted to forge his own path. Judah, who had some severe episodes of his own, was not disqualified from becoming the ancestor of Jesus.
Oldest sons are traditionally granted two benefits: The honor of becoming family patriarch when the father died, and a double share of the father’s inheritance. That is, a father of three sons would divide his estate four ways: each son getting one share, and the oldest receiving the extra share.
The office of Family Patriarch was something new to Jacob – an office that only Adam, Methuselah and Noah had ever previously held while in as early as the third generation. Adam was still alive when Methuselah was born, and there was a 66-year gap between the death of Jared, Methuselah’s last surviving ancestor, and the birth of Japheth, Noah’s firstborn son (See Genesis 10:21). Shem, Noah’s son was Family Patriarch until Jacob and Esau were age 50, and Eber (three generations after Shem, and 7 generations before Abraham) was Family Patriarch for the next 29 years after that. Jacob, at age 79 was only the fourth Family Patriarch in the line – and the first whom decision regarding subdivision actually had an impact – who was not yet a great-grandfather. It seemed a lofty task to Jacob to be so inexperienced, and yet have such a high responsibility.
That makes it all the more interesting that Jacob made a split decision. To Judah went the blessing of carrying on the name of the family, and to Joseph went the double inheritance. He accomplishes this in Genesis 48:6 with a pronouncement that when the inheritance was to be declared, both of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Mannaseh, would be reckoned as equal to the other eleven brothers.