It caused quite a stir when it happened thousands of years ago, so it's not surprising that there's still controversy over Israel's laying his hands on the heads of his two grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim, his son Joseph's boys.
Manasseh, as the oldest, should have received the bulk of the birthright promises, according to the accepted custom of primogeniture. But Israel deliberately and determinedly placed his right hand on the younger son Ephraim and promised him the greater blessing.
"Then Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim's head, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh's head, guiding his hands knowingly, for Manasseh was the firstborn" (Genesis 48:14).
The prophecy is important even today (as our well-researched booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy shows in detail). The first verse of the next chapter shows that the 12 sons of Israel would be players on the world scene "in the last days" (Genesis 49:1).
Talking of his two grandsons, Israel said, "Let my name be named upon them" (Genesis 48:16), meaning that wherever Israel is mentioned in Bible prophecy in the context of end-time events, it is usually referring to the modern descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, not the Jews. (However, as Israel was the father of Judah as well as the grandfather of the two sons of Joseph, references to Israel do sometimes apply to all his sons and grandsons.)
"Now when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; so he took hold of his father's hand to remove it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's head. And Joseph said to his father, 'Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.'
"But his father refused and said, 'I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.' So he blessed them that day, saying, 'By you Israel will bless, saying, "May God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh!"' And thus he set Ephraim before Manasseh" (Genesis 48:17-20).
Throughout the Victorian era hundreds of thousands could see these verses being fulfilled before their very eyes. The British Empire was expanding rapidly throughout the world while the fledgling United States was expanding to the west. To many, it was clear that the British Empire was the prophesied multitude of nations and the United States was the prophesied great single nation.
But now, is it time to revise that conclusion and consider reversing their identities?
The difference between now and the Victorian era is that of role reversal. In Queen Victoria's time the major power of the world was Britain; today, it's the United States. And it's been that way for about six decades, which means that few alive today can remember when the mother country was greater than the daughter that broke away. In fact, the further away we get from the British Empire, the less people know about it, which complicates things further.
However, when we compare the British Empire at its height with the United States today, we see that in many respects the British Empire was greater.
Consider the following:
The British Empire was much bigger than the United States. At its height in the early decades of the 20th century, the Empire covered a third of the world's territory. In 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, it was 11 million square miles. It kept on expanding right up until 1933 when it was 13.9 million. This compares to the United States, which is 3.65 million square miles.
In terms of population, the British Empire was also bigger. The United States today has a population of approximately 310 million. In the last Indian census under British rule, the population of India alone was 320 million. Add to this millions in Britain, Africa, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
The British Empire also had a longer time in power. It's difficult to say exactly when Britain became the preeminent nation of the world. Some would say it was in 1759 when the British defeated the French in Quebec and the whole eastern seaboard came under the control of the English-speaking power. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, it was clear to everyone that Britain was the undisputed master of the globe—the British alone of all the European powers had held out against Napoleon and led the allies to victory.
A century of "Pax Britannica" (British peace) followed before German militarism triggered World War I in 1914. During that period, no nation came close to effectively challenging Great Britain's mastery of the seas and global economic power.
Historian James Morris described it vividly in his book Pax Britannica: "The nineteenth century had been pre-eminently Britain's century...Ever since the triumphant conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars they had seemed to be arbiters of the world's affairs, righting a balance here, dismissing a potentate there, ringing the earth with railways and submarine cables, lending money everywhere, peopling the empty places with men of the British stock, grandly revenging wrongs, converting pagans, discovering unknown lakes, setting up dynasties, emancipating slaves, winning wars, putting down mutinies, keeping Turks in their place and building bigger and faster battleships" (1968, pp. 21-22).
In terms of longevity, Britain's Empire lasted until after World War II, meaning that its global empire lasted well over two centuries. American power began after World War II and is, arguably, already on the wane.
The United States today has greater firepower than Britain had due to advances in technology, but in terms of relative power Britain was greater. This was acknowledged in 1947 when Washington first came to realize it was taking over from London as the world's policeman.
After World War II, Britain was broke. At the time, the British were faced with two major conflicts in their empire, one in India between Hindus and Muslims and the other in Palestine between Jews and Palestinians. Additionally, Britain was aiding the anticommunist forces in Greece and Turkey.
In February 1947 Britain had to ask the United States to help.
In his book Picking Up the Reins Norman Moss gives a sense of this event's impact: "It was not being asked to provide aid to Greece that was shocking. The State Department was already preparing a plan for aid. It was the fact that Britain was pulling out and preparing to hand over responsibility. After all, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had advised the previous year: 'The defeat or disintegration of the British Empire would eliminate from Eurasia the last bulwark of resistance between the US and Soviet expansion...Our present position as a world power is of necessity closely interwoven with that of Great Britain.'
'This was a momentous change. For two centuries Britain had been the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. Now it seemed to be surrendering that role in two key countries. It is often said that Americans lack a historical sense that Europeans have, but on this occasion it was the Americans who saw the historical significance of that moment. To British ministers, battling from day to day to keep the country's head above water, this seemed to be just a temporary retrenchment in one area. None of them appeared to see any larger implications in the decision.
"The American view was put in grandiloquent terms by Joseph M. Jones, who was in the State Department at the time: 'Reading the messages, [it was] realized...that Great Britain had within the hour handed the job of world leadership, with all its burdens and all its glory, to the United States'" (2008, p. 64).
Three days later, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson confided to a friend, "'There are only two powers left...The British are finished. They are through. And the trouble is that this hits us too soon, before we are ready for it.'...As he recalled later in an interview: 'It didn't really strike home to us that the British Empire was gone, the great power of France was gone...I still looked at the map and saw that red on the thing, and...that was the British Empire'" (ibid., p. 66).
It was also Acheson who realized the limitations of American power, that the United States was not going to have the unrivaled international power role the British had had under the Pax Britannica. "Not since Rome and Carthage, he said, had there been such a polarization of power, and it was between democracy and dictatorship" (p. 68).
From the moment that the United States realized it was assuming Britain's historical role, it had a major rival, an effective restraint on its power, in the form of the Soviet Union. It wasn't until 1991 that the United States had undisputed global mastery. Ten years later, its power was to be greatly reduced in the aftermath and uncertainty of Sept. 11, with its economic power diminishing and its ability to definitively win its wars coming into question.
There are also other reasons why the British Empire and Commonwealth fulfill the prophecy about Ephraim.
Consider the political nature of the Empire compared to the United States.
The United States is a federation, one country composed of 50 states, that are all very similar to each other. The British Empire and Commonwealth was truly a multitude of nations, each one different from the others, each with its own government. The only connection between them was, and remains, the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II remains head of the Commonwealth, the successor organization to the Empire.
This unique political system is illustrated beautifully in the film A Queen Is Crowned, a documentary narrated by the late Sir Laurence Olivier, made shortly after the queen's coronation on June 2, 1953. At the time, the British Empire and Commonwealth, though in decline, was still a major political and military force.
Following the coronation, the queen left Westminster Abbey followed by the prime ministers of the independent countries of the Commonwealth. These included India and Pakistan, which had come to blows following independence in 1947, both still members of the organization. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and Ceylon were other independent countries that were present.
Of course, the British prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, was also in the parade of dignitaries that followed the monarch into the wet streets of London.
In the decade that followed, most of the colonies (ultimately ruled from London) were given independence but chose to remain in the Commonwealth. As an organization of independent countries, the Commonwealth ceased to be militarily relevant. But at the height of its power, the British Empire was truly a multitude of nations. The prime ministers of each of the independent countries within the Empire met on a regular basis to coordinate policy, especially in the area of defense.
Even today, 16 of the Commonwealth's 54 member nations still recognize Queen Elizabeth as their own head of state, principally Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Also consider investment. It was recently announced that London is once again the world's leading financial center. For over two centuries it held that role before losing it to New York after World War II.
The two-volume definitive work on British economic power is British Imperialism by P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, published in 1993. It's absolutely staggering how great London's economic power was. The British not only developed all the nations of the empire, they were also the greatest investors (and developers) of the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and the Chinese and Ottoman Empires in the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. It was a London bank that financed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Often, there's a great deal in a biblical name. Whereas Ephraim, which means "fruitful," could apply to either Britain or the United States, Manasseh, which means "causing to forget" or "forgetful," aptly describes the United States. Americans have often been described as the most forgetful nation on earth, rapidly forgetting and forgiving former enemies and routinely failing to learn the lessons of history.
Finally, it should also be pointed out that it simply doesn't work the other way around. If the United States is Ephraim, the multitude of nations, Britain could hardly be described as the great single nation that was also prophesied. Without its empire, Britain is no longer a great power.
When we examine this issue, the traditional explanation, identifying the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth as Ephraim and the United States as Manasseh, is the only one that works. The scriptures clearly show this with the wording, "He set Ephraim before Manasseh" (Genesis 48:20). British power came before American power.
Time may have diminished the full import of this, but a closer look at history establishes the truth of the Victorian understanding of the world in which they lived. WNP