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The Death-Bed Of Jacob
by [?]

I heard read the other morning, in a quiet house-chapel, a chapter which has always seemed to me one of the most perfectly beautiful things in the Bible. And as it was read, I felt, what is always a test of the highest kind of beauty, that I had never known before how perfect it was. It was the 48th chapter of Genesis, the blessing of Ephraim and Manasses. Jacob, feeble and spent, is lying in the quiet, tranquil passiveness of old age, with bygone things passing like dreams before the inner eye of the spirit–in that mood, I think, when one hardly knows where the imagined begins or the real ends. He is told that his son Joseph is coming, and he strengthens himself for an effort. Joseph enters, and, in a strain of high solemnity, Jacob speaks of the promise made long before on the stone-strewn hills of Bethel, and its fulfilment; but even so he seems to wander in his thought, the recollection of his Rachel comes over him, and he cannot forbear to speak of her: “And as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan, in the way, and when yet there was but a little way to come unto Ephrath; and I buried her there in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem.”

Could there be anything more human, more tender than that? The memory of the sad day of loss and mourning, and then the gentle, aged precision about names and places, the details that add nothing, and yet are so natural, so sweet an echo of the old tale, the symbols of the story, that stand for so much and mean so little,–“the same is Bethlehem.” Who has not heard an old man thus tracing out the particulars of some remote recollected incident, dwelling for the hundredth time on the unimportant detail, the side-issue, so needlessly anxious to avoid confusion, so bent on useless accuracy.

Then, as he wanders thus, he becomes aware of the two boys, standing in wonder and awe beside him; and even so he cannot at once piece together the facts, but asks, with a sudden curiosity, “Who are these?” Then it is explained very gently by the dear son whom he had lost, and who stands for a parable of tranquil wisdom and loyal love. The old man kisses and embraces the boys, and with a full heart says, “I had not thought to see thy face; and lo, God hath showed me also thy seed.” And at this Joseph can bear it no more, puts the boys forward, who seem to be clinging shyly to him, and bows himself down with his face to the earth, in a passion of grief and awe.

And then the old man will not bless them as intended, but gives the richer blessing to the younger; with those words which haunt the memory and sink into the heart: “The angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads.” And Joseph is moved by what he thinks to be a mistake, and would correct it, so as to give the larger blessing to his firstborn. But Jacob refuses. “I know it, my son, I know it … he also shall be great, but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he.”

And so he adds a further blessing; and even then, at that deep moment, the old man cannot refrain from one flash of pride in his old prowess, and speaks, in his closing words, of the inheritance he won from the Amorite with his sword and bow; and this is all the more human because there is no trace in the records of his ever having done anything of the kind. He seems to have been always a man of peace. And so the sweet story remains human to the very end. I care very little what the critics may have to say on the matter. They may call it legendary if they will, they may say that it is the work of an Ephraimite scribe, bent on consecrating the Ephraimite supremacy by the aid of tradition. But the incident appears to me to be of a reality, a force, a tenderness, that is above historical criticism. Whatever else may be true, there is a breathing reality in the picture of the old weak patriarch making his last conscious effort; Joseph, that wise and prudent servant, whose activities have never clouded his clear natural affections; the boys, the mute and awed actors in the scene, not made to utter any precocious phrases, and yet centring the tenderness of hope and joy upon themselves. If it is art, it is the perfection of art, which touches the very heart-strings into a passion of sweetness and wonder.

Compare this ancient story with other achievements of the human mind and soul: with Homer, with Virgil, with Shakespeare. I think they pale beside it, because with no sense of effort or construction, with all the homely air of a simple record, the perfectly natural, the perfectly pathetic, the perfectly beautiful, is here achieved. There is no painting of effects, no dwelling on accessories, no consciousness of beauty; and yet the heart is fed, the imagination touched, the spirit satisfied. For here one has set foot in the very shrine of truth and beauty, and the wise hand that wrote it has just opened the door of the heart, and stands back, claiming no reward, desiring no praise.