(19) 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.'
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Jacob's prophecy in Genesis 48:19 foresees two major world powers, one of which - Manasseh - is a single great nation while the other - Ephraim - is "a multitude of nations." The United States of America is without doubt the greatest single nation in terms of both wealth and power that the world has ever seen. Similarly, the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, it was once said, was in its time even greater, especially in terms of its scope and control of the world politically and economically. These brother nations, bound by more than just a common language but also a common ancestry, have worked together for over two centuries to dominate world affairs.
God weaves clues to the character of these nations in His Word. One of the Bible's most consistent hints concerning peoples and nations arises from the meaning of their names. Genesis contains numerous references to the births of progenitors of nations and, interestingly, their parents' reasons for naming them as they did. Joseph's sons' births are mentioned in Genesis 41:50-52, along with their father's explanations of their names:
And to Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, whom Asenath, the daughter of Poti-Pherah priest of On, bore to him. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: "For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father's house." And the name of the second he called Ephraim: "For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction."
Thus, Manasseh means "forgetful" or "making forgetful," while Ephraim means "fruitful" or "productive." Joseph, by the way, means "He [the LORD] will add," implying blessing from God (see Genesis 30:22-24). Joseph, through Jacob's blessing of his sons, received the firstborn's portion of Israel's inheritance, and it was mainly upon Joseph that God's physical promises of wealth and power that he made to Abraham were fulfilled. God certainly added to Joseph by blessing his descendants.
The people of Ephraim have certainly been fruitful and productive, far out of proportion to their numbers and the size of their homeland. From the little isle of England, they sent ships and armies that seized and governed far-flung lands and peoples for generations. They used the resources of those lands to build a vast trade and industrial empire that is the envy of nations and would-be empires. They are a people who have lived up to their prophetic naming.
In this way, Manasseh does not disappoint either. From its founding in early colonial days, its people have tended, if not desired, to forget the past and plunge into the future. Its first colonists left Europe to put behind them both religious and governmental persecution and economic disadvantage. Leaving behind family and fatherland, they came to these shores to exorcise the old ways and to forge a new life in the wilderness of America. What had happened before and in other lands was of little concern to them; what was important was what lay ahead. What Joseph said in naming Manasseh could have been said by many of those colonists: "For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father's house."
That America was removed from Europe by a wide and often tempestuous ocean encouraged the formation and solidification of forgetfulness in our national character. By the time the colonists decided to rebel against their British overlords in London, most Americans had little interest in the goings-on in Europe to the point that, though they were just a generation or so removed from the Continent, Americans considered themselves a distinct and unique people. "American" was its own brand, having left its European origins behind.
American forgetfulness is enshrined in its founding documents, in which European forms of government are rejected and a totally new form, American republicanism, is adopted. George Washington advised America not to become involved in foreign disputes and wars, fearing that the fledgling nation would be swallowed up in the perennial game of nations in Europe. Later, ideas like the Monroe Doctrine - written by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams during President James Monroe's administration, warning other nations, particularly European ones, that America would not stand by should they attempt to interfere in the Western Hemisphere - isolated the U.S. even further. As this self-enforced isolation continued, America readily forgot the old ways and became famous for "can-do" ingenuity, inventiveness, and innovation.
But Manassite forgetfulness has a downside: It tends to repeat the same lessons because it refuses to remember what previous generations learned through rough experience. Thus, American history tends to progress in very similar cycles, in which one generation repeats the mistakes of former ones, and succeeding generations must make the best of the pieces that remain and move on. So, it appears that the American government never seems to make any progress in its various "wars": on poverty, on drugs, on crime, on illegitimacy, on terrorism, on illiteracy, etc. All of the same old programs keep being tried time and again, and we wonder why the nation's problems never get solved! As wise Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun" - and certainly not in forgetful America!
— Richard T. Ritenbaugh