Ephraim refers to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, alternately called the house of Israel. The northern kingdom was ended by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when he carried them away in captivity in 721 bc. He brought peoples from various conquered nations to come live in Israel’s cities instead. These peoples brought their pagan religion with them, and mixed it with the worship of YHVH. They became the Samaritans of the New Testament.
The LORD calls the northern kingdom Ephraim, because Jacob, on his deathbed, split the blessing and birthright of Abraham into two parts. The birthright refers to the right of the oldest son to rule the family clan upon the death of the father. Families lived in clans. Jacob was the head of his family clan. All of his sons, their wives, and their children, lived in proximity to each other, and worked together. Each son was head of his own household, but when a decision needed to be made which affected the entire family, the head of the family clan made that decision. Or when a judgment had a to be rendered between people from two different households, the head of the family clan made that judgment.
So who received the birthright, the right to rule the family clan upon Jacob’s death? The firstborn son was Reuben, but Jacob did not confer the birthright on him because he dishonored his father (Gen 49:3-4). Simeon and Levi were next, but Jacob did not confer the birthright on them because they slaughtered the Shechemites in their wrath (Gen 49:5-7). Judah was next, and on him Jacob conferred the birthright (Gen 49:8-10).
Years before, Judah’s leadership over his brothers was already making itself known. When the brothers cast Joseph into the pit, they followed Judah’s counsel, and Reuben’s plan did not come to pass (Gen 37:18-30). When Reuben offered to be surety before Jacob for Benjamin, in taking him down to Egypt, Jacob did not consent (Gen 42:37-38), but when Judah offered to be surety before Jacob for Benjamin, Jacob did consent (Gen 43:8-14). Even the Torah acknowledges Judah, for besides Joseph, Judah’s story is the only one recorded in Torah (Gen 38).
The blessing came with the birthright. The blessing was spoken over the firstborn son by the father, and with it came a double portion of the inheritance. The double portion was intended to help the firstborn in the execution of his responsibilities. Upon the father’s death, it was his responsibility to provide for the unmarried women of the family, and the widows and orphans of the family clan if there were any. However, Jacob, although he conferred the birthright onto Judah, did not confer the blessing onto him, but onto Joseph (Gen 49:22-26); Joseph received the blessing for material provision and wealth.
Among the sons of Joseph, who were elevated in status to full sons of Jacob (Gen 48:5, Jacob conferred the double portion onto Joseph; while his other sons received a single portion of land in Israel, Joseph received a double portion of land — Ephraim’s portion and Manasseh’s portion), Ephraim received the blessing greater than Manasseh the firstborn (Gen 48:13-19). So the birthright and blessing of Abraham was divided among two brothers: Judah and Joseph (and from Joseph, Ephraim). It is these two brothers that Torah highlights from Gen 37 to the end of the book.
Scripture continues to highlight these two. They are singled out as two witnesses who witness to the truth and promises of God when the other ten witnesses counsel retreat (Num 13-14; Caleb is from Judah and Joshua is from Ephraim). Then much later, God divides the nation of Israel into two parts (1 Kin 12:24); the southern part becomes the kingdom of Judah, comprised of the tribe of Judah + Benjamin (Judah remains surety for Benjamin, even centuries later!), and the northern part becomes of the kingdom of Israel, comprised of the ten remaining tribes. The northern kingdom of Israel is often called Ephraim in the Prophets (Isa 7:17 for example), because Ephraim received the blessing while Judah received the birthright.
These are the two houses of Israel or Jacob (Isa 8:14), the house of Judah and the house of Israel (or Ephraim or Joseph), that have begun to appear more prominently in the prophets (Hos 1:6-7, 5:14, Amo 5:6, Zec 10:6). They each suffer judgment and captivity, but separately. Ephraim is carried away to Assyria, while God has prophesied of Judah that he will be carried away to Babylon.
Why does God want a division in His house? Jesus said that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mat 12:25). That is the question that we can answer tomorrow.
For further reading:
Who Is Israel? Redeemed Israel, A Primer – Batya Wootten