While reading Genesis 47 today, I encountered something that might appear to be a contradiction. 

When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried” (emphasis added).

Genesis 47:29-30 (NIV)

When Israel (Jacob) was about to die, he told Joseph to put his hand under his thigh and promise that he wouldn’t bury him in Egypt. However, immediately after this, we’re given this verse.

“Swear to me,” he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff (emphasis added).

Genesis 47:31 (NIV)

How could Joseph have put his hand under his thigh if Jacob had been standing up? Was Jacob standing up, sitting down, or what? Is there a Bible contradiction in Genesis 47:31? 

The NIV has a footnote saying that, instead of leaning on the top of the staff, this verse might read, “Israel bowed down at the head of his bed.” Indeed, out of the 27 Bible translations I regularly check, only four indicate that Jacob was leaning on his staff. One of those versions is the Septuagint, the earliest translation of the Hebrew text in Greek. However, Genesis 47:31 isn’t the only place to gain insight into what happened. 

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Hebrews 11:21 (NIV)

To make matters worse (?), every version that says “bed” in Genesis 47:31 says “staff” instead for Hebrews 11:21. Which was it? Did Jacob lean on his staff or bow down at the head of the bed? Why are the translations different?

While researching this question, the best explanation I found is that the Hebrew word for bed and staff are almost identical, with the only difference being how the accent marks are placed in the word. The original text didn’t differentiate between vowels and constants. Thus, when the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, the word was translated as “staff,” so the writer of Hebrews chose to use “staff” and not bed. However, the translations we have, like the King James, came from somewhere other than the Septuagint. Instead, the King James version used the Masoretic Hebrew text for the Old Testament. The New Testament translation, however, comes from Greek, where the text used the word for staff. This is why there’s a difference between those texts that read “bed” for Genesis 47:31 and “staff” for Hebrews 11:21.

While we know why the text is written one way in some translations and another in other translations, there is no contradiction between the two because both conditions are possible. Jacob could have done both. He could have worshiped at the head of the bed while leaning on his staff. When Jacob told Joseph to put his hand under his thigh, he could have been sitting down and then stood up. 

Therefore, no contradiction exists in Genesis 47:31.