Sometimes here at BCC we do requests. And a reader recently asked us if we could do a post on what patriarchal blessing lineage assignments are supposed to mean. Good question–and I don’t feel confident that I have a handle on an answer. But what I can do is frame the question somewhat and then let our readers flesh things out in the comments. So here we go:
First, a little biblical history. The nomadic tribe-based Hebrews we read about in Judges were for a short time united in a kingdom, with three successive kings: Saul, David and Solomon. Saul didn’t seem much like what we think of as a king, but progressively with David and then especially with Solomon they gained a capitol, a palace, a temple, engaged in foreign affairs, and had pretty much all the trappings of kingship. But after Solomon’s death the kingdom fractured into two: a northern kingdom called Israel, and a southern kingdom called Judah (including Jerusalem). The southern kingdom was nominally comprised of two tribes: Judah and Benjamin (which basically had been absorbed into Judah), and the northern kingdom of the remaining ten tribes. The original tribe of Levi did not receive a land inheritance (other than the levitical cities), so that its priestly members could live throughout the land, so Joseph (the dominant tribe in the north) was basically bifurcated into two representing his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to keep the tribal number at ten. The Twelve Tribes according to their inheritance of land in Palestine were as follows:
- Ephraim (son of Joseph)
- Manasseh (son of Joseph)
- Levi (no territorial allotment, except a number of cities located within the territories of the other tribes)
Eventually the northern kingdom ran afoul of the great world power at the time, Assyria. In the second half of the 8th century B.C. over a 20-year period several thousand Israelites were taken captive to Assyria and resettled there. (The entire population was not taken captive, and some escaped to the south as refugees, such as, presumably, Lehi’s ancestors.) What happened to these people? Quite honestly, they were probably just absorbed into Assyrian society (and not allowed to maintain a continuing identity and relationships as were the Jews in the later Babylonian captivity). But a passage in 2 Esdras 13 of the Apocrypha portrays them as maintaining coherence as a group:
40 Those are the ten tribes, which were carried away prisoners out of their own land in the time of Osea the king, whom Salmanasar the king of Assyria led away captive, and he carried them over the waters, and so came they into another land.
41 But they took this counsel among themselves, that they would leave the multitude of the heathen, and go forth into a further country, where never mankind dwelt,
42 That they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land.
43 And they entered into Euphrates by the narrow places of the river.
44 For the most High then shewed signs for them, and held still the flood, till they were passed over.
45 For through that country there was a great way to go, namely, of a year and a half: and the same region is called Arsareth.
46 Then dwelt they there until the latter time; and now when they shall begin to come,
47 The Highest shall stay the springs of the stream again, that they may go through: therefore sawest thou the multitude with peace.
There has been ample speculation about the fate of the Lost Ten Tribes in both Jewish and Christian sources, which exploded in the 17th century. Mormonism has its own folklore on the subject, such as folk beliefs that the Ten Tribes are living at the north pole or at the center of the earth. Exotic folk beliefs aside, most Mormons believe that the Ten Tribes still exist in some identifiable fashion, as seems to be suggested by the opening words of the 10th Article of Faith: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes. . . .”
It is a common feature of patriarchal blessings to declare the tribe from which the person receives the blessing descends. The overwhelming number of such assignments of lineage are to Ephraim, with substantial numbers being assigned to Manasseh (especially in central and south America and the Pacific Islands), and Jews are generally assigned to Judah. Historically other assignments were relatively rare, but in recent years they have been becoming more common; I believe that assignments to every one of the Twelve Tribes have been made by patriarchs.
What does the lineage assignment mean? Opinions on this subject differ widely. To some it is referring to literal genealogical ancestry; to others, adoptive ancestry; to others, it is a metaphor or symbol of inclusion within the House of Israel, while still others see the different tribes as representing different responsibilities in building the Kingdom of God in the last days. While the idea of literal ancestry was strongly held in the 19th and early 20th century, my sense is that that view is receding, because it just plain doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ll try to explain the problem with that view.
My most famous Mormon ancestor was Thomas Grover, who was my great, great, great grandfather (on my mother’s side). He was a member of the Nauvoo High Council and served for a time as a bodyguard to Joseph Smith. A few of you are extended cousins of mine and also descend from him; most of you do not descend from him. He lived recently enough in the past that that kind of genealogical distinction makes sense. And my guess is that people have just assumed you can think in the same way about the biblical patriarchs; I might be descended from one, and you from another.
But we know from modern population genetics that when we’re talking about that kind of time depth, our near-term genealogical view of things simply doesn’t work anymore. If Ephraim had descendants that survived to today, then pretty much everyone on the planet is a descendant of Ephraim (excluding some limited areas where reasonable mixing does not occur, such as say Australian aborigines). And if he did not have descendants that survived to today, well, then obviously no one alive today is a descendant of Ephraim. Saying this person descended from Ephraim and this person didn’t no longer makes any sense given our modern understanding of population dynamics. (This is why the old “one drop” rule, as we now know, was ridiculous; everyone, even Brother Brigham, has “one drop.”)
Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine if we had the knowledge to complete a massive pedigree chart going back to the time of the biblical patriarchs. How many ancestral slots would there be at that time depth? If we assume 25-year generations, then over 100 years a child would have 16 ancestral slots on the pedigree chart. (E.g., a baby born in 2000 had two parents born in 1975, four grandparents born in 1950, eight great grandparents born in 1925 and 16 great, great grandparents born in 1900.) So how many slots would there be in the year 1800? 32, right (16 +16)? No, the slots increase geometrically, not arithmetically, so the answer is 256 (16 x 16). So if the patriarchs lived circa 1900 B.C. (a total guess just for illustrative purposes), the number of pedigree chart slots at that time depth for our baby born in A.D. 2000 would be something like 16 to the 38th power (16 ^ 38) (the 38 reflects 19 centuries before Christ and 19 after). That number (using an internet exponent calculator) works out to something like 5708990770823839524233143877797980545530986496. Since that is way, way, way more than the total number of people who have ever lived on this earth, how can that be possible? The answer is common ancestry. There are that many slots at that time depth on the pedigree chart, but they’re not all unique names; the same name is probably going to appear kajillions of times on the pedigree chart. And if the 12 patriarchs all had descendants that survived until today, then each of those patriarchs is going to fill many, many slots on that pedigree chart for our hypothetical child.
In the 19th century, a lot of Mormons were fond of the notion that Joseph and our other prophets were descended from Jesus himself. Well, if Jesus had descendants that survive to today, then that would have been a true belief, but it also would have been utterly meaningless, as we would all be descendants of Jesus.
So, with that framing, what do patriarchal blessing lineage assignments mean to you?