Mixed-Race Kids, the Church, and the Blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim

 

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Genesis has long been at the center of Jewish and Christian reflection on what it means to be the people of God.  In the Christian tradition, much has been written about God’s declaration that he made man and woman in his image such that all people deserve to be treated with the dignity.  The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Rome and Galatia, forever solidified the importance of the Abrahamic narrative to Christian self-understanding. The story of Joseph, with its stirring saga of family betrayal and God’s faithfulness, has been fodder for many Sunday school lessons and countless sermons.

But attention wanes, and by the time we get to the end of Genesis, which recounts the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim we are no longer concerned with the Patriarchs and their progeny.  We are ready for the Exodus. This is a mistake. I want to suggest that the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh vies for the title of the most neglected story in Genesis and that it has a word to speak to us today because it reveals God’s longing for a multi-colored kingdom.

So now a little bible study. In Gen 48, we encounter Jacob as an old man near death. Joseph, upon hearing that his father has taken ill, rushes to see him bringing along his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. These sons are important because they are of mixed race.  Their mother is Egyptian (Gen 41:50–51), and their father is clearly an Israelite.  When Jacob sees these mixed-race boys, he says:

God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples [עמים] (Gen 48:3–4).

The word for peoples can be misleading. Depending on the context, the word that Jacob uses [עמים] can refer to ethnic groups. A clearer translation of Gen 48:4 for modern ears might read, “I  am going to make you a community of ethnicities or ethnic groups.” Therefore, when Jacob sees Joseph’s half-African sons, he sees their ethnicity as a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  These half-African sons, for Jacob, show that God always had in mind the creation of a multi-ethnic family.

It gets better.  Genesis 48:3–4 recounts God’s appearance to Jacob in Gen 35:9–13.  Genesis 35:9–13 looks back to God’s original appearance to Abraham and his promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations and the source of blessing for the world.  Therefore, we have at the end of the book of Genesis a reaffirmation of God’s plan to create one people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Jacob, recognizing these children as the manifestation of God’s plan for his people, adopts them:

And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are (Gen 48:5).

Ephraim and Manasseh of Egypt made into Israelite tribes. Many things follow from this.  Israel, as a people, were never one biologically “pure” ethnicity. We make much of the inclusion of Rahab or the mixed multitude that went up out of Egypt (Ex 12:38) into Israel, but I have read very little reflection about the fact that the heads of two of the twelve tribes were of mixed parentage.  African blood, at the beginning of the narrative, flows into Israel.

The implications for the church should be clear.  We must adopt the posture of Jacob and remember that we are most ourselves when we are welcoming in the nations into the one people of God. The multi-colored church is not some optional extra for those called to such things, like the inclusion of Ephraim and Manasseh, it is a manifestation in our flesh of the gospel. There is one king and one kingdom.

It is something of a tragedy, then, when mixed-race families struggle to find churches where both cultures are honored and welcomed. It is disheartening when folks have to go outside the local church to find diverse friends and relationships. I live in a city that is roughly half black and half white, but I have searched in vain for a church that embodies the diversity of the city in which I dwell. This should not be. If I may speak plainly about my own tradition: Episcopal and Anglican churches are often the worst. I often find myself having to decide whether I want the Eucharist and the liturgy or multi-ethnicity?

As the church, we are most truly ourselves when we understand that the racial purity advocated by the alt right cannot claim the bible for its inspiration. There is no master race or culture. The only royal blood was shed on the cross so that all who believe might share in his kingship.  If this is true, then our churches ought not give the impression by the cultures that we norm that one is better and others are added on where space allows.

It also means that certain forms of black nationalism that claim that all white people are our enemy are simply mirroring the sickness of our oppressors.[1]

We shall be reconciled you and I and in that reconciliation, rooted in justice, we will point beyond ourselves to the one who created all things. This is hard and slow work, but it is gospel work.

 

[1] This is not a criticism of forms of Black empowerment that call upon the black community to invest in the community and use its resources to better the lives of black folk. It is also not a criticism of the celebration of black culture in response to a society that neglects our achievements.

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3 thoughts on “Mixed-Race Kids, the Church, and the Blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim

  1. I so agree with you! I grew up in southern Alabama in an early “mega-church” that was 99% white. I had spent part of my childhood on an army base in Japan, so I had gotten used to everything (and everyone) being multi-ethnic, so I was always deeply bothered by the racial split among churches in my city. Then, I went to college in New Orleans and saw more of the same. Later, after getting married, I moved to Cincinnati and, for the first time, I belonged to a church that was split about half and half between African Americans and whites. I felt like I was finally breathing fresh air for the first time. Now, I’m back in the south–SW Florida–and back to racially divided churches. It makes my heart so sad. I find joy, though, in leading a kids ministry on Sunday nights in a diverse neighborhood–Hispanic, white and black children in almost equal proportions come together to play with each other and to learn about God together. I wish ALL churches looked like that!

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  2. Esau, I am so thankful I came across your writing. I’m a new member in the Anglican church, and the lack of multi-ethnicity and people of color in the ACNA bothers me the most when, for me, so much else comes together in the Anglican tradition that I truly value like liturgy, church calendar, sacraments. There are some good things starting to happen in our parish in building relationships across racial and cultural lines but I long for so much more. Hope you’ll be making it to Provincial Assembly!

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