In the Hebrews 11 list of worthies, we find some with whom noteworthy acts of faith are connected to life-altering events. Noah preparing the ark, Sara in her conception, Abraham coming out of Ur and his offering up of Isaac, as well as Rahab’s saving of her family are all examples of people whose faith brought them into and through great experiences. There are some, however, who are mentioned in faith’s hall of fame as those who exercised faith at the time of their death. While we would not suggest that these lacked faith in their lives, it seems that the Spirit of God brings their deaths (11:37) and, in some cases, their dying words (11:21-22) to view as specific aspects of faith to encourage us in the running of our race (12:1).
Jacob’s dying words contain much to encourage us in the course that is set before us, as they show us a man looking back in worship on a life that proved God’s faithfulness, and looking forward with confidence in the promises of God for the future. Let us never forget that faith is not a mystical, abstract concept that allows for every superstition and optimism. Faith is actually a response to a word from God, which is an extension of confidence in the God who gives the word.
Remember the simplicity of the faith exercised by Abraham when he was justified? “And being fully persuaded that what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom 4:21). While Hebrews 11:1-3 is a declaration of faith’s character and activity, it could be said that Romans 4:21 borders more on faith’s definition. So as Jacob’s faith is now described, we cannot separate it from the promises of God he received in his lifetime.
By the insertion of the conjunction “and” in Hebrews 11:21, we know that there are two separate acts of faith being spoken of here. The first is the blessing of the sons of Joseph, and the second is the worship, leaning upon the top of his staff. Chronologically in the Genesis account, we can see that these are reversed, as chapter 47 mentions worship and chapter 48 the blessing. We also see that the name Israel is primarily connected to the events in the historical account, rather than the name Jacob used in Hebrews. While there could be moral reasons for the changes in the Hebrews account, for our purposes we will look at the practical lessons learned in each act.
While we look at the flow of the chapter, we remember that the promise made to Abraham concerning the land also became the promise to Isaac and Jacob. Verse 21 comes on the heels of Isaac’s blessing Jacob and Esau concerning things to come, which now leads to Jacob’s passing on a similar blessing to the sons of Joseph. The outstanding thing in the events of Genesis 48 is the reversal of the order in the blessing. We witness this aged man wittingly directing his hands to cross each other and put the greater blessing of the right hand on the son who was born second. We see a principle illustrated here that follows a pattern of blessing in the book of Genesis. Because firstborn implies dignity, rank and heirship, we see that the son born first does not always receive the blessing of the “firstborn.”
While Jacob may have deceived to get the blessing of the firstborn ahead of Esau, we know that it was spoken before by the Lord that “the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen 25:23), so Esau was born first but Jacob was the firstborn. We need only to go back one more generation to see that while Ishmael was born first in the house of Abraham, the Lord insisted on the heirship of Isaac when He said, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Gen 21:12).
But we come now to Israel’s own sons and see that Reuben was born first chronologically, but the coat of many pieces marked out Joseph as the heir, hence the firstborn when it comes to rank and dignity. When Israel alters the direction of his hands in Genesis 48, he is not denying natural order but enforcing a spiritual principle. The blessing of Joseph’s sons was going to be connected with the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and now in a special way would apply to their growing in number, so that the saying in Israel would become, “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” (Gen 48:20). So by blessing the sons of Joseph, Jacob was showing his confidence in God that His promise would be fulfilled, just as He had spoken to his forefathers. Can we not see the practical application in our own lives to have confidence in the promises that God has given us in His Word for our future? Even in the face of death, His promise remains.
Jacob’s “staff” (Heb 11:21) is connected with the worship of the dear man who has just been assured that he will be buried with his fathers. He took great consolation in knowing that his body would be there in Machpelah (see Gen 49:29-32) with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah and Leah, knowing that he shared the same hope as those men who also died having embraced – but not yet received – the promises (Heb 11:13). His faith in the God of the promise caused his heart to overflow in worship.
But as W.E. Vine points out, the staff is indicative of another time in Jacob’s life when he speaks of having crossed over Jordan with only his staff, but was now coming back with abundant blessing, having received mercy and truth from Jehovah even though he, Jacob, was unworthy (see Gen 32:10). The staff marked his pilgrimage as a man whose character left much to be desired and whose dealings had led him into much distress. His wrestling with Jehovah marked a change in his walk, but his pathway of hardship and trial developed in him a princely character. Surely as he looked back on his lifetime, the faithfulness of the promise-keeping God caused him to worship.
With promises from the same God of goodness and mercy, may we also be found as this man at the end of our lives, showing confidence in the future and worshipping when we consider God’s faithfulness in the past.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.