Josephs two sons were born at a significant stage in his career. His marriage to Asenath was one outcome of the deprivation he had suffered; and it is helpful to observe that if he had not left his father he could never have received his Gentile bride. The fruit of this union was Manasseh and Ephraim, born during the seven years of plenty “before the years of famine”, Gen. 41. 50. Looked at typically, the picture is of Christ receiving His world-wide Church, mostly Gentile in composition, shortly before the seven years of tribulation.
Consequently, in Manasseh and Ephraim we expect to be able to spot some features characteristic of the Lord’s people in this present age, and in the meaning of these two names there is sufficient to give this. Manasseh signifies “forgetfulness”, indicating the fact that a redeemed, repentant disciple of the Lord may forget all the debt of sin that had accrued to his account; cf. Isa. 65. 16. Ephraim means “fruitful”, directing our thoughts to John 15. We should be producing fruit … more fruit … much fruit for the Master. “Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before” we are to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”, Phil. 3.13.
Not only was play put upon Ephraim’s name by his father, Gen.41.52, but God took up this thought of fruitfulness, Hos. 13. 15, and the ensign given to Joseph’s descendants was an ox (see Deut. 33. 17 r.v.) the Hebrew name for which comes from parah meaning “fruit bearing".
Jacob made no reference to his two Egyptian grandsons in his patriarchal benediction of Genesis 49. They were not, however, overlooked. They had been blessed beforehand, Gen. 48. 9, and were thus privileged ahead of their uncles! Manasseh and Ephraim were adopted by Jacob as his own sons, like Reuben and Simeon, his firstborn, Gen.48.5. Jacob’s action was clearly of divine instigation, and anticipated Deuteronomy 21. 15-17, (note the contrast of the following verses).
No type of Christ can be perfect. At the close of his praiseworthy life, Joseph fell into the error of rebuking his wise old father, Gen. 48. 18. Never did the Lord Jesus feel that He knew better than His Father.
Jacob was being directed by a hand greater than his own when he indicated that Ephraim, the younger, was to be preferred before Manasseh. As a result, on the high priest’s breastplate where the third row of jewels was devoted to Rachel’s descendants, the order was Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin. These three tribes pitched to the west of the tabernacle in the wilderness, and moved forward under Ephraim’s command. From Joseph came two full tribes, but Ephraim was always superior to the tribe of his older brother. It was in Ephraim’s territory, at Shechem, that Joseph’s bones were buried. In Revelation 7, it would seem that the tribe of Ephraim is actually called Joseph. As in other cases of the Lord’s choice, the younger was granted precedence over the older. (Compare the relative importance of spiritual fruitfulness by the saints, once the handwriting of ordinances against us has been blotted out and our sin erased from God’s record – forgotten, never to be remembered any more.
The Words of Moses. In concluding his remarks about Joseph, Moses, not unexpectedly, spoke of these tribes by name, giving the priority rightly to Ephraim.
“The ten thousands of Ephraim’, Deut. 33. 17. The word “Ephraim" is in dual form, (like chamyim, meaning “heaven”, etc.). So the chief leader of these twin tribes bore, in his name, a reminder of the double inheritance.
At Ephraim’s birth, his father confessed that God had caused him to prosper in the country of his misery. Such an expression can be carried over to the Saviour who was verily “fruitful in the land of his affliction’. The Lord sometimes uses adversity among His people to bring spiritual fruit to maturity; cf. 2 Cor. 4. 17. God never puts us in situations that are not conducive to the peaceable fruit of righteousness. So, whatever our circumstances, the fruit of the Spirit should be unfolding in each of us.
During the migration from Egypt to Canaan, the number of Ephraimites fell from 40,500 to 32,500. This tribe nevertheless acquired influential supremacy to the extent that they carried the majority of the other tribes with them when they rebelled successfully against Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam. The northern kingdom of Israel, which was formed as a result of the revolt, was often called Ephraim, Isa. 7. 2-17; Hos.9.3-16. Its first king was Jeroboam, an Ephraimite.
Ephraim, with half of Manasseh, occupied central Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, thus fulfilling Genesis 48. 16. Initially the two tribes worked together, Josh. 17. 14-18. They kept mainly to the higher hill country, later known as mount Ephraim; intimidated to some extent by the Canaanites and Philistines who lived in lowland areas such as the plain of Sharon.
Subsequently a bitter rivalry grew up between the tribes, Isa. 9. 20-21, and a boundary line was rigidly maintained. Bethel and Shiloh, where Joshua pitched the tabernacle, were both in Ephraim’s territory.
As a distinct tribe, Ephraim disappeared after the Assyrian invasion. The tribe never managed to gain the reputation that Joseph won for himself, and they well deserved their ignominious end. They will, nevertheless, have their place in the revived millennial kingdom, Ezek. 48. 5.
“The thousands of Manasseh”. At the commencement of the journey from Egypt this tribe numbered 32,200. In the ensuing forty years they increased by more than twenty thousand and continued to expand. This numerical advantage may explain why this tribe is put before Ephraim in Numbers 26. In Canaan they possessed a more extensive area of land than Ephraim in order to accommodate their larger numbers.
About half the people of Manasseh settled near the Ephraimites and farmed the verdant slopes west of Jordan. The more warlike group, described as descendants of Machir, chose the mountainous region to the north-east. Under their leader, Jair, these Manassites gained control of much of Trans-Jordan. They then well-defended the northern passes leading to the Syrian border.
The general shape of the whole territory, both sides of the Jordan, occupied by the descendants of Joseph was rather like the spread of a bull’s horns. Joseph’s ox or bull will “push down”, Ps. 44. 5, and “thrust through”, Isa. 13. 11-15. God “will shake the heavens … in the day of his fierce anger”. “But who may abide the day of his coming?” Mai. 3. 2. Then the former idolatry of Manasseh will be forgotten. Then the unproductive conflict between Ephraim and Judah will be over for ever and “precious fruits" shall be brought forth, Deut. 33. 14.