We Can Do This the Hard Way

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward the mountains of Israel, and prophesy against them, and say, You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord God! Thus says the Lord God to the mountains and the hills, to the ravines and the valleys: Behold, I, even I, will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places. Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense altars shall be broken, and I will cast down your slain before your idols. And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out. And the slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

“Yet I will leave some of you alive. When you have among the nations some who escape the sword, and when you are scattered through the countries, then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations. 10 And they shall know that I am the Lord. I have not said in vain that I would do this evil to them.”

11 Thus says the Lord God: “Clap your hands and stamp your foot and say, Alas, because of all the evil abominations of the house of Israel, for they shall fall by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. 12 He who is far off shall die of pestilence, and he who is near shall fall by the sword, and he who is left and is preserved shall die of famine. Thus I will spend my fury upon them. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when their slain lie among their idols around their altars, on every high hill, on all the mountaintops, under every green tree, and under every leafy oak, wherever they offered pleasing aroma to all their idols. 14 And I will stretch out my hand against them and make the land desolate and waste, in all their dwelling places, from the wilderness to Riblah. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 6:1-14 ESV

Four separate times in 14 verses, God insists that when He is done, the rebellious people of Israel “will know that I am the Lord.” God is a relational being and He had chosen the nation of Israel to enjoy a unique relationship with Him. He had set them apart as His own prized possession with the intent of revealing to them His glory and goodness. Even all the way back in Egypt, long before Moses had delivered them from their captivity, God had promised to reveal Himself to them in powerful and highly tangible ways.

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” – Exodus 6:6-8 ESV

Their miraculous deliverance was intended to demonstrate the power, majesty, and sovereignty of God. He was greater than the Egyptians and their plethora of false gods. He was the covenant-keeping God who could be trusted to keep every promise He had made to Abraham, whose descendants would eventually escape captivity in Egypt and find themselves safely ensconced in the promised land of Canaan.

All along their journey from captivity to Canaan, God revealed Himself to His people. After miraculously delivering them across the Red Sea on dry ground and defeating the forces of Egypt, He had led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He had sustained them with manna from heaven and water from a rock. And during their four-decade-long journey through the wilderness of Sinai, He had even kept their clothes from wearing out. He had given them His law to reveal His holy expectations of them and regulate their behavior. And knowing that they would fail to keep His law perfectly, He provided them with the sacrificial system to atone for the sins they would commit so that they might be able to restore their broken relationship with Him.

God had repeatedly proven His greatness, and they should have known that He alone was the one true God. He had no equals. In His deliverance of the Israelites, He had exposed the gods of the Egyptians as frauds and nothing more than the figments of the imaginations of men. And when they began their conquest of the land of Canaan, God was with them, providing them with victories over much larger armies. The Canaanites and their gods proved to be powerless before Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And even before their conquest of the land had begun, God had warned them about adopting the religious practices of the Canaanites. They were not to emulate their pagan ways or worship their gods.

“When the Lord your God goes ahead of you and destroys the nations and you drive them out and live in their land, do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.’ You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12:29-31 NLT

But the people of Israel would fail to keep God’s commands. Over the centuries, they developed an unhealthy love affair with the false gods of the Canaanites. The kings of Israel had a track record of adopting the false gods of their enemies and adulterating their worship of Yahweh with unacceptable practices that He found deplorable.

And all along the way, God had warned His people about the dangers of their rebellious ways. He was a jealous God who would not tolerate their unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. By this time, they should have known that He alone was God. But they were still prone to seek the help and favor of any pagan god who might be able to give them a leg up on their enemies. They had become equal-opportunity idolators, willing to cozy up to any god who might provide them with an advantage or satisfy their insatiable lust for power, possessions, and pleasure. For them, Yahweh was not enough. They wanted more. And they were willing to prostitute themselves before the false gods of the Canaanites in order to satisfy what the apostle John described as “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions” (1 John 2:16 NLT).

Their blatant unfaithfulness had resulted in the Babylonian invasion of Judah. God informed the prophet, Jeremiah, that King Nebuchadnezzar had been handpicked by God to serve as His agent of judgment against His rebellious people.

“I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:9 ESV

And by the time Ezekiel penned his book, King Nebuchadnezzar had already defeated Judah and taken thousands of its citizens captive. But God was not done. The people of Judah remained unrepentant and unwilling to give up their love affair with false gods. That is why God gave Ezekiel a message for the people living back in Judah. He was to declare God’s pending judgment against the “mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 6:3). This reference most certainly included the most prominent and important mountain range in all of Israel: Mount Moriah. This mountain range included Mount Zion on which Jerusalem sat and within whose walls the temple of God was located.

But God made it clear that His holy mountain was surrounded by altars and shrines to false gods. The land of Judah was literally filled with sacred worship sights dedicated to the gods of the Canaanites, and God was not pleased.

“I am about to bring war upon you, and I will smash your pagan shrines. All your altars will be demolished, and your places of worship will be destroyed. I will kill your people in front of your idols. I will lay your corpses in front of your idols and scatter your bones around your altars. Wherever you live there will be desolation, and I will destroy your pagan shrines. Your altars will be demolished, your idols will be smashed, your places of worship will be torn down, and all the religious objects you have made will be destroyed. The place will be littered with corpses, and you will know that I alone am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 6:3-7 NLT

It’s as if God is saying, “We can do this the hard way or we can do this the easy way.” God is a relational God. He chose the people of Israel to have a relationship with Him and to get to know Him – intimately and personally. He chose to dwell among them. He gave them His law to follow. He led them, directed them, protected them, and even spoke to them. He revealed Himself to them through miracles and divine intervention. He won battles for them. He rescued and rewarded them. All so that they might know Him. But the people of Israel decided to reject this personal God for a litany of impersonal, impotent, man-made gods.

Instead of recognizing and appreciating the power and presence of Yahweh, they turned their attention and affections elsewhere. So, God decided to reveal Himself differently. They were going to get to know Him the hard way. They would experience the power of God moving in their midst, but it would bring destruction, not blessing. He was going to smash their pagan shrines, demolish their altars, and destroy the places of worship where they pursued other gods.

When all the dust had settled, they were going to know that God had been in their midst. They were going to know that He had spoken and He always does what he says He will do. They were going to know that God was powerful and deadly serious about His people living lives that were set apart and distinctive from those of the other nations.

“You people have behaved worse than your neighbors and have refused to obey my decrees and regulations. You have not even lived up to the standards of the nations around you.” – Ezekiel 5:7 NLT

One way or the other, the people of God were going to get to know their God. But they were choosing the hard way. They were making it difficult on themselves. God had wanted to reveal Himself through blessing and abundance. He had wanted to have an intimate relationship with them that was characterized by care and compassion. In His grace and mercy, He had chosen them from among all the nations, not because they deserved it, but because He wanted to reveal Himself in a special way to a very specific people. He had intended to use them to showcase His love. They were to be His living illustration to the world.

But they refused to accept His love and obey His commands. He pursued them, but they rejected Him. So now they were going to get to know God the hard way.

But this chapter provides a powerful lesson for every child of God. Why do we make it so hard on ourselves? Why do we force God to reveal Himself through discipline and prove Himself to us by rebuking us? God has given us His Son. He has chosen us for a personal, intimate relationship with Him. He wants us to know Him closely and deeply. But far too often, we choose the hard way over the easy way.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Our Faithful God

27 And Balak said to Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” 28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which overlooks the desert. 29 And Balaam said to Balak, “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” 30 And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

1 When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
    the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
    who sees the vision of the Almighty,
    falling down with his eyes uncovered:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
    your encampments, O Israel!
Like palm groves that stretch afar,
    like gardens beside a river,
like aloes that the Lord has planted,
    like cedar trees beside the waters.
Water shall flow from his buckets,
    and his seed shall be in many waters;
his king shall be higher than Agag,
    and his kingdom shall be exalted.
God brings him out of Egypt
    and is for him like the horns of the wild ox;
he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
    and shall break their bones in pieces
    and pierce them through with his arrows.
He crouched, he lay down like a lion
    and like a lioness; who will rouse him up?
Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.”

10 And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times. 11 Therefore now flee to your own place. I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the Lord has held you back from honor.” 12 And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 13 ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak’? 14 And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.” Numbers 23:27-24:14 ESV

The third time is the charm, or so Balak hoped. In his relentless effort to have Balaam curse the Israelites, Balak suggested that they try their luck at a third location. He still harbored hopes that they might be able to convince Jehovah to change His mind and curse His own people. In a sense, he was attempting to treat God as he had Balaam; by trying to buy Him off. Balak seemed to believe that deities were no different than humans and were susceptible to bribes and influence peddling. He had already authorized the construction of 14 altars and the sacrifice of 56 bulls and seven rams in an attempt to sway the mind of God. And his obsession with defeating the Israelites drove him to up the ante one more time.

But on this occasion, Balaam refused to seek the will of Jehovah because he already knew what the answer would be. The seer had already determined that nothing would convince the God of Israel to do anything but bless His people. Balak’s sacrifices were an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

Rather than follow Balak to Mount Peor, Balaam headed to the wilderness, where it appears he was given a vision by God. As he lay prostrate on the ground, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see the Israelites “camping tribe by tribe” (Numbers 24:2 ESV). In the previous accounts, Balaam had stood on higher ground and seen a portion of the Israelite camp with his own eyes. But this time, he was given a vision that allowed him to see each and every one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and this Spirit-induced dream was accompanied by yet another message from God.

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor,
    the message of the man whose eyes see clearly,
the message of one who hears the words of God,
    who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who bows down with eyes wide open…” – Numbers 24:3-4 NLT

Balaam was left without any doubts regarding the countless number of Israelites camped in the plains of Moab. He was given a panoramic vision of the entire nation of Israel and was overwhelmed by what he saw.

“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob;
    how lovely are your homes, O Israel!
They spread before me like palm groves,
    like gardens by the riverside.
They are like tall trees planted by the Lord,
    like cedars beside the waters…” – Numbers 24:5-6 NLT

In his trance-like state, Balaam envisioned Israel as tall trees planted by the hand of God. They grew tall and strong beside the waters, and they were cared for by their divine gardener.

“He will pour the water out of his buckets,
and their descendants will be like abundant water;
their king will be greater than Agag,
and their kingdom will be exalted.” – Numbers 24:7 NET

As God had promised to Abraham centuries earlier, He was going to bless His people and transform them into a mighty nation.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse…” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

God had delivered them from their captivity in Egypt and had been leading them through the wilderness for the last four decades. But soon, they would no longer be wanderers in the wilderness but citizens of a mighty kingdom ruled over by a powerful king. The promised blessings of Jehovah would be fully realized and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this predetermined outcome.

“God brought them out of Egypt.
They have, as it were, the strength of a young bull;
they will devour hostile people,
and will break their bones,
and will pierce them through with arrows. – Numbers 24:8 NET

Once again, Balak was receiving far-from-pleasant news from his hired gun. Rather than pronouncing a curse on Israel, Balaam was singing the praises of their God and warning against any attempts to do them harm. None of this was what Balak wanted to hear. And to make matters worse, Balaam describes God as a hungry apex predator, waiting to attack and destroy any who would dare stand against His will. And, quoting from Jehovah’s covenant promise to Abraham, Balaam provides Balak with one final warning against trying to curse the Israelites.

“Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.” – Numbers 24:9 ESV

Israel was favored by God and there was nothing Balaam or anyone else could do to alter that fact. Their future was in the hands of Jehovah. He had great plans for them and He would see to it that the covenant promises He made to Abraham were fully fulfilled.

But Balak refused to accept Balaam’s assessment and angrily fired his disappointing diviner. He reneged on his promise of reward and sent Balaam home empty-handed.

“I called you to curse my enemies! Instead, you have blessed them three times. Now get out of here! Go back home! I promised to reward you richly, but the Lord has kept you from your reward.” – Numbers 24:10-11 NLT

But before he departed, Balaam had one more thing to say to his former employer. He reminded Balak that from the very beginning he had been open and above board about his inability to curse the Israelites. He had warned Balak that regardless of how much reward he was offered, he “would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord” (Numbers 24:13 NLT). While Balaam confessed that he could be easily bought off, Jehovah was not susceptible to bribes. The God of Israel had made promises to His people and He would faithfully fulfill them, despite anyone’s attempts to deter or dissuade Him.

As Balaam prepared to return home, he gave Balak one final series of messages that would leave the over-confident king in a state of despair and disillusionment. Not only would God never curse His own people, but He would use them to pour out curses on the nations of Canaan. This wandering band of former slaves would become a force to be reckoned with, as Jehovah carried out His promise to transform them into a mighty nation and gift them the land of Canaan as their home. God would keep every covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, including the promise of many descendants and the gift of a homeland.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

But Now…

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV

Paul was addressing a congregation that was likely comprised of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity but, because of its location in Ephesus, there was likely a much higher percentage of non-Jews in the fellowship. And at this point in his letter, Paul focuses his attention on those whom he calls “Gentiles in the flesh” (Ephesians 2:11 ESV). He is not using the term “flesh” (sarx) to refer to their sinful natures but as a designation of the physical characteristics that differentiate them from Jews. Not only did Jews and Gentiles have distinctively different physical characteristics, but Gentile men were uncircumcised. Paul even points out that Jews, who bore the sign of circumcision that had been ordained for them by God, derogatorily referred to all Gentiles as “the uncircumcision.”

Among the Jews, the rite of circumcision had been faithfully practiced ever since the day God had prescribed it to their forefather Abraham.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” – Genesis 17:9-14 ESV

For the Jews of Paul’s day, circumcision had become a point of pride because it “marked” them as God’s chosen people. They viewed circumcision as a badge of honor that separated them from the rest of the nations of the world. It was a physical “sign” of their unique status as those who had been set apart by God as His prized possession.

Prior to the coming of Jesus, the focus of God’s favor seemed to have remained upon the Jewish people. They were still considered the apple of His eye and the designated recipients of His covenant blessings. But for generations, they had lived in open rebellion to His will and in violation of His law. Even Jesus said of His fellow Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8 NLT). Yet, despite their disobedience, God remained committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. – Genesis 17:7 ESV

But with the coming of Jesus, God began to do a new thing. Jesus was born a Jew and began His public ministry by proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom to His own people. But as the apostle John records, the reception Jesus received from His fellow Jews was less than enthusiastic.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV

From the moment Jesus was born, He had been ordained by His Heavenly Father to be the “offspring” of Abraham who would fulfill God’s promise to bless the nations. Jesus had been sent to the Jews, but His message of repentance and reconciliation had always been intended for all mankind. At one point, He revealed to His Jewish disciples that His coming death would be for the benefit of all men, not just those of the circumcision.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:14-16 NLT

And Paul wanted the Gentiles in his audience to grasp the significance of their former status as uncircumcised outsiders. They had not been part of God’s chosen family. Paul reminds them that they had been “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 ESV). Their pre-salvation condition had been dire and hopeless. As Gentiles, they were separated from Christ, the Messiah of Israel. They were not beneficiaries of the covenant promises. They were considered unclean and unholy outsiders who were unworthy of the blessings that God had promised to the seed of Abraham. 

Yet, with two simple words, Paul reminds them of the marvelous transformation that had taken place in their lives.

But now…

Something incredible had taken place. They were no longer separated, alienated, estranged, hopeless, and godless. The great chasm that had once existed between them and God had been removed. They had “been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV). Even though uncircumcised, they had been welcomed into the presence of God because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, had become the Redeemer and Savior of all men. Not only had Jesus made it possible for sinful humanity to be restored to a right relationship with God, but He had arranged a way for Jews and Gentiles to live as brothers and sisters within the family of God.

For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. – Ephesians 2:14-15 NLT

For Paul, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus had eliminated the former burden of trying to keep the law as a means of attaining a right standing with God. He had come to understand that the law had never been intended by God to produce righteousness in men. In fact, in his letter to the Romans, Paul asserted that “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). 

Paul knew that, like circumcision, the law had become a point of pride among his fellow Jews. They viewed themselves as more righteous because they had been given the Mosaic Law as a guide to living. But what good was the law if it was not obeyed? What good was the rite of circumcision if it didn’t result in a set-apart life? That’s why Paul asserted that ethnicity, physical markers, and outward observance of religious rules were not the signs of righteousness. It was a changed heart.

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:25-29 NLT

With His death on the cross, Jesus reconciled Jews and Gentiles to God and to one another.

Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. – Ephesians 2:16 NLT

Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, God created “one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16 NLT). There was no longer any distinction between Jews and Gentiles. There were only those who were saved and those who were lost. The Gentiles in Paul’s audience could rejoice in the fact that they had been brought near to God through faith in Christ. And the Jews in his audience could rest in the fact that they no longer had to try and earn their right standing with God. It had been accomplished for them by Christ. And Paul sums it all up with the good news that “all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us” (Ephesians 2:17 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Learning to Recognize God’s Love

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!” – Malachi 1:2-5 ESV

Whether we can accurately determine Malachi’s identity or not is irrelevant. What is important is that the author more than lives up to his God-given title of “my messenger.” Every word he has recorded is a message from Yahweh to His covenant people, the nation of Israel. For generations, these descendants of Abraham had enjoyed a unique, one-of-a-kind relationship with God that had made them the beneficiaries of His love and blessings. God had set them apart and declared them to be His prized possession, among all the nations of the earth. When He had successfully freed them from their 400-year captivity in Egypt, God had led them to Mount Sinai, where He spoke to Moses and delivered give the following message:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

And the people had eagerly responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8 ESV). Even before God had communicated the terms of the covenant, they had agreed to keep it. They liked the idea of being God’s treasured possession, so they wholeheartedly declared their intentions to keep whatever conditions He set forth. But it was three days later that God called Moses up to the top of Mount Sinai and delivered the content of the covenant agreement to which they had already pledged their allegiance.

When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he shared with the people all that God had told him.

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” – Exodus 24:3-8 ESV

Moses revealed to the nation of Israel the Ten Commandments and all the associated laws that were intended to regulate their behavior as God’s chosen people. This God-ordained code of conduct was a non-negotiable regulatory document that would distinguish the nation of Israel from all the other nations of the earth. As long as they remained obedient to the covenant, they would be blessed. But should they choose to disobey, they would find themselves suffering severe and inescapable consequences.

But the history of the people of Israel reveals their epic failure at keeping their word. Once God had successfully planted them in Canaan, the land He had promised as their inheritance, they began to reveal their propensity for disobedience and unfaithfulness. They repeatedly violated the terms of the covenant and, despite constant warnings from God, they refused to repent and return to Him. Generation after generation carried on a dangerous love affair with the world and its many false gods, choosing the snub their noses in the face of the one true God. And eventually, God was forced to fulfill His warnings of retribution and destruction. That is why they had spent 70 years living as captives in the land of Babylon. God had warned them time and time again that He would remove them from the land of promise if they continued to violate His covenant and, in 587 B.C., the Babylonians had overrun the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken thousands of its citizens back to Babylon as slaves.

At the time Malachi wrote his message from God, a remnant of the exiles had been living back in Judah for years. The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt, the temple had been restored, and the sacrificial system had been renewed, but the people remained just as rebellious and disobedient as ever. So, through His “messenger,” God delivered a powerful reminder of His unrequited love and patience with his stubborn people.

Through Malachi, God declared the reality of His steadfast, unwavering love. Despite all they had suffered over the last 70 years, He had never fallen out of love with them. “I have always loved you,” He reminded them. And even their time in exile had been an expression of His affection because “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV).

But the people had a difficult time viewing the destruction of their city and their seven-decade-long internment in Babylon as evidence of God’s love, so they asked, “Really? How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2 NLT). From their perspective, it appeared as if God was angry with them and, even now, they suffered constant threats from their enemies and lived in a city that was little more than a shadow of its former glory. They had no king, no standing army, and little hope of ever seeing their fate reversed. As a result, they were distrustful of God, questioning His goodness and doubting His word concerning their wellbeing.

So, God reminded them of how they came to be His chosen people in the first place. He took them back to the births of Esau and Jacob, the twin boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. Malachi’s audience knew the story well. Before the boys were born, God had told Rebekah that the infants inside her womb represented two separate nations.

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

God informed Rebekah that the younger of the two boys would become the greater nation. According to tradition, the elder son should have been the recipient of the father’s inheritance and the one to bear the blessing of the firstborn. But, through a series of somewhat underhanded, but clearly God-ordained events, Jacob, the younger of the two siblings, would become the next in line to receive the inheritance that had been passed down through Abraham to Isaac. Jacob had been “loved” by God.

“When He said here that He hated Esau, He meant that He did not choose to bestow His favor on Esau to the extent that He did on Jacob (cf. Psalm 139:21). He made this choice even before they were born…” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God had chosen to break precedence and set apart Jacob rather than Esau, and it had nothing to do with either boy’s value or worthiness. In fact, the apostle Paul points out the undeserving nature of either child and explains the sovereign nature of God’s will concerning His decision.

…before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.” – Romans 9:11-13 NLT

From a human perspective, it appears as if God showed greater favor to one son while disfavoring the other. But God did not completely abandon Esau. He simply chose to make His covenant commitment to the descendants of Jacob. God eventually gave Esau the land of the hill country, located around Moun Seir in Edom. In a sense, God blessed Esau by providing him with land as an inheritance, but Esau would prove to be unfaithful and idolatrous. His descendants, the Edomites, would be a constant thorn in the side of the Israelites. And when the Babylonians invaded the region, the Edomite cities and towns were also destroyed.

And when the Edomites declared their intent to reclaim and rebuild their devastated homeland, God warned them that he would prevent them from doing so.

“They may try to rebuild, but I will demolish them again. Their country will be known as ‘The Land of Wickedness,’ and their people will be called ‘The People with Whom the Lord Is Forever Angry.’ – Malachi 1:4 NLT

The Edomites would become an illustration of the futility and hopelessness that faces all those who are not in a covenant relationship with God. The only reason the Israelites had been able to return to the land and rebuild their former capital was that God had ordained it. The decree set forth by King Cyrus of Persia that had allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem had been God’s doing. He had orchestrated it all. And, in doing so, He had proved His love for His chosen people yet again.

As the Israelites looked around them, they would soon realize that none of the neighboring nations that had fallen to the Babylonians would experience the same degree of revitalization as they had. Not even the Edomites, the descendants of Isaac, would ever rebuild their cities or reestablish their hold on the land. And this should have caused the Israelites to declare, “Truly, the Lord’s greatness reaches far beyond Israel’s borders!” (Malachi 1:5 NLT).

Both the Israelites and the Edomites were descendants of Abraham and Isaac, and both had suffered the judgment of God, having been destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century. Yet only Israel had enjoyed restoration after judgment. Despite what appeared to be their less-than-ideal circumstances, the Israelites were experiencing the love of God in the form of His covenant commitment. He had restored them just as He said He would do and He was not yet done blessing them. But, as the following verses will reveal, God did expect to see significant changes among His people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Sovereign Switch

1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. As for me, when I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”

When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. 11 And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” 12 Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. 14 And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). 15 And he blessed Joseph and said,

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
    the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
    and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
    and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

17 When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” 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. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” 20 So he blessed them that day, saying,

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,
‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. 21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. 22 Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” – Genesis 48:1-22 ESV

As Moses begins to bring the book of Genesis to a close, he also narrates the closing days of Jacob’s life. As the patriarch of his family, Jacob had a responsibility to pass on his blessings to his sons, preparing the way for the future of their clan after his departure from this life. He had lived a long and was ready to pass the mantel of leadership to his 12 sons, allowing them to guide the next generation as they awaited the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to him so many years earlier.

Jacob, while 147-years-old, was far from senile. His eyes were failing but his memory was as sharp ever. He could recall with vivid detail the day when God had ordered him to leave Mesopotamia and return to Canaan. Along the way, God had appeared to him and delivered the following promise:

“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:10-12 ESV

But now, Jacob and his family were living in the land of Egypt. Because of the devastating famine that had ravaged Canaan, they had been forced to seek refuge in Goshen, taking up residence in the land graciously provided to them by Pharaoh. Due to Joseph’s high rank in the Egyptian administration, they were provided with ample food to meet all their needs, even as their clan continued to grow in number.

Even during their self-imposed exile in Egypt, Jacob and his sons had been fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. And while they may not have recognized it, their small clan was slowly evolving into a great nation. When they had arrived in Egypt, they had only been 70 in number, but during the 17 years that Jacob lived in Egypt, “they were fruitful, and their population grew rapidly” (Genesis 47:27 NLT).

God was at work, blessing the offspring of Abraham just as He had promised to do. And while their detour into Egypt may have appeared to them as an unexpected glitch in God’s plan, it had part of the plan all along. While in Egypt, they were sequestered safely in the land of Goshen, protected by the hand of Pharaoh, and amply provided for by Joseph. They were safe, secure, and sovereignly provided for by God Almighty.

Yet, Jacob’s days were numbered. He would not be leaving Egypt or returning to the land of Canaan. And he would not live to see his growing clan transformed by God into a mighty nation. But, as the patriarch, he could do his part to pass on his blessings to those who would carry on after his death.

Joseph, upon hearing that his father’s health was diminishing, brought his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to pay their last respects to their grandfather. These two boys had been born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, “Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On” (Genesis 41:45 ESV). So, they were half Egyptian and half Hebrew. But Jacob was not phased by this seemingly disqualifying detail. He too had fathered sons from non-Hebrew women. And to illustrate his full acceptance of Joseph’s two sons, he announced that he was adopting them as his own. They would be given equal standing with the rest of his sons and afforded full rights as his descendants.

The scene that Moses describes is somewhat confusing and can leave the impression that Jacob was an old, doddering man who didn’t know what he was doing. As he called for Joseph to bring the two boys forward so that he might bless them, Jacob appears to mistakenly place his hands on the heads of the two boys. Moses is quite precise in his language, stating that Joseph purposefully placed his older son, Manasseh before Jacob’s right hand. It was from Jacob’s right hand that Manasseh would have received the blessing of the firstborn. But at the last second, Jacob switched his hands, placing his right hand on the head of Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim.

Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). – Genesis 48:14 ESV

Joseph was unaware of this “slight of hands,” because he had “bowed himself with his face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12 ESV). He did not notice Jacob’s subtle, yet significant change of plans until it was too late.

While the blessing that Jacob uttered seems equitable in nature, his switching of the hands gave greater precedence to the younger son. Jacob asked that God would bless both boys and make them fruitful, but he seems to have intended that Ephraim receive the blessing of the double blessing due to the firstborn.

Under the inspiration of God, Jacob deliberately gave Ephraim the privileged first-born blessing and predicted his preeminence. This was the fourth consecutive generation of Abraham’s descendants in which the normal pattern of the firstborn assuming prominence over the second born was reversed: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh. – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis

This was a deliberate action on Jacob’s part, not the feeble-minded mistake of an old man. He knew exactly what he was doing. The text does not reveal why Jacob made this decision, but it would seem that he was acting under divine inspiration. This was the will of God. This conclusion is not based on conjecture, but on the words written by the author of Hebrews. In chapter 11, the great “Hall of Faith,” Jacob is included in the long list of Old Testament saints who exhibited faith in the promises of Yahweh. And Jacob’s demonstration of faith is tied to his blessing of the two sons of Joseph.

By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. – Hebrews 11:21 ESV

The switching of his hands and the pronouncement of blessing had been an act of worship. Just had been proven true in his life, God was going to use the younger son to accomplish His will.

But when Joseph realized what was happening, he tried to intervene and correct the mistake by switching his father’s hands. Yet Jacob refused to budge. His decision had been deliberate and was final. He informed Joseph, “I know, my son; I know,…Manasseh will also become a great people, but his younger brother will become even greater. And his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT).

The die was cast. The blessings were awarded. And Ephraim would eventually be the name associated with the northern tribe of Israel after the nation was split in two. God would fulfill the blessing and make of Ephraim a great nation.

Moses makes it quite clear that this was a deliberate action on the part of Jacob.

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. – Genesis 48:20 ESV

And while Joseph was not happy with the results, it was exactly what God had intended all along. His ways are not our ways. His plans do not always align with our own. Every detail of the story was happening according to God’s divine will and the ultimate outcome of each decision would not be fully revealed or realized for centuries. But there were no mistakes in God’s sovereign agenda.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

28 He had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to show the way before him in Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen. 29 Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” 31 Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh and will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. 32 And the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of livestock, and they have brought their flocks and their herds and all that they have.’ 33 When Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ 34 you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,’ in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” 

1 So Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that they possess, have come from the land of Canaan. They are now in the land of Goshen.” And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were.” They said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen, and if you know any able men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” – Genesis 46:28-47:6 ESV

As Jacob approached the land of Egypt, he pulled a page out of his long and storied playbook. Almost as if he was reliving his long-delayed reunion with his brother, Esau (Genesis 32:3), Jacob sent Judah ahead of the caravan, with instructions to find Joseph and request his assistance in finding the land granted to them by Pharaoh. Perhaps Jacob harbored suspicions and was attempting to ensure that the entire family was not walking into a trap set for them by the Egyptians. But Judah did as his father suggested and soon returned with Joseph, riding in his royal chariot. This scene must have the aged Jacob staggering from unbelief and overwhelmed by joy. There, standing right in front of him was the son that he had long thought to be dead. It was like witnessing a miracle, a veritable resurrection.

Joseph had grown up and was not wearing the familiar multicolored robe that Jacob had given him, but even in his old age and with failing eyesight, Jacob had no problem recognizing his boy. And their reunion was an emotional affair. Both men wept as they clung to one another in joy and disbelief. Neither had ever expected to see the other again. But God had graciously made it happen.

Having been given the unexpected blessing of seeing his son again, Jacob expressed his gratitude to God by stating that his long and adventure-filled life was now complete. He had lived to witness the impossible and was now ready to be with God.

“Now I am ready to die, since I have seen your face again and know you are still alive.” – Genesis 46:30 NLT

He could now die in peace, knowing that Joseph was alive, but also that his family had been preserved from certain death had they stayed in Canaan. All of his sons were together again and his family was under the watchful eye of Joseph and the gracious protection of Pharaoh.

Jacob and his sons were primarily sheepherders. It had been while he was living in Haran with his inlaws, that Jacob had been blessed by God with great wealth in the form of herds and flocks.

Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys. – Genesis 30:43 ESV

But eventually, Jacob made the fateful decision to return home to Canaan, the land that had been promised to his father and grandfather by God.

So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. – Genesis 31:17-18 ESV

And, once Jacob returned to Canaan, his assets had continued to increase. It had been while pasturing their father’s flocks in Dothan, that the brothers of Joseph had made the decision to turn against Joseph, eventually selling him into slavery. But now, years later, these very same shepherds and their vast flocks would find employment in the most unlikely of places. Joseph informed his father and brothers that he was going to request permission from Pharaoh that they be allowed to settle in the land of Goshen with their flocks. This was an ingenious plan on the part of Joseph because he knew that the  Egyptians held shepherds in great disdain. If he could convince Pharaoh to let his family settle in the fertile land of Goshen, he knew the Egyptians would give them wide berth, avoiding them at all costs “for everyone who takes care of sheep is disgusting to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:28 NET).

Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh agreed with Joseph’s plan, decreeing that Jacob and his sons should settle in the land of Goshen. And in addition, he hired Joseph’s brothers to tend his herds and flocks as well. In other words, he guaranteed the Israelites a steady income for as long as they lived in the land.

“Now that your father and brothers have joined you here, choose any place in the entire land of Egypt for them to live. Give them the best land of Egypt. Let them live in the region of Goshen. And if any of them have special skills, put them in charge of my livestock, too.” – Genesis 47:5-6 NLT

In a sense, Jacob’s family was set for life. They had gone from facing a famine in Canaan to a land of fruitfulness where their flocks could thrive and their clan could survive. It was all almost too good to be true. But it was all in keeping with the promise that God had made to Abraham.

“I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you…” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

And this was the very same promise that God had reiterated to Jacob when he had returned to Canaan from his time in Haran.

“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:10-12 ESV

Little did Jacob know at the time that this promise would require a not-so-brief detour to the land of Egypt. But it would be in Egypt that God would greatly increase the number of Jacob’s descendants. As they made themselves at home in the land of Canaan, they found themselves unharassed by enemies and able to enjoy relative peace and prosperity in their new home.

In the book of Exodus, Moses reveals what transpired while the Israelites lived in the land of Egypt. They had entered Egypt, few in number, but they did not stay that way.

All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:5-7 ESV

God was behind this entire transition from Canaan to Egypt. It had all been for a much greater purpose than anyone realized at the time. Pharaoh had been generous and Joseph showed his gratitude by conveying a blessing on him. In keeping with the promise of God, the descendants of Abraham were proving to be a blessing to the nations. Because of Joseph, Pharaoh and his countrymen had been spared the effects of a seven-year famine. He was now more rich and powerful than he had ever been, thanks to Joseph’s ingenuity and foresight.  And God would use the once-despised, falsely accused, and unjustly imprisoned Joseph to bless the family of Israel.

So Joseph assigned the best land of Egypt—the region of Rameses—to his father and his brothers, and he settled them there, just as Pharaoh had commanded. And Joseph provided food for his father and his brothers in amounts appropriate to the number of their dependents, including the smallest children. – Genesis 47:11-12 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Like Grandfather, Like Son

1 Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. 10 If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”

11 Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds. 12 Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. 13 Take also your brother, and arise, go again to the man. 14 May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”

15 So the men took this present, and they took double the money with them, and Benjamin. They arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph.

16 When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, “Bring the men into the house, and slaughter an animal and make ready, for the men are to dine with me at noon.” 17 The man did as Joseph told him and brought the men to Joseph’s house. 18 And the men were afraid because they were brought to Joseph’s house, and they said, “It is because of the money, which was replaced in our sacks the first time, that we are brought in, so that he may assault us and fall upon us to make us servants and seize our donkeys.” – Genesis 43:1-18 ESV

Reuben and his brothers were unable to convince their father to allow them to take Benjamin back to Egypt with them. Fearing that he might lose yet another son, Jacob refused to give in to the Egyptian governor’s demands. But eventually, their supply of grain ran out and he was left with no other option but to send his sons back to Egypt to purchase additional grain. But Judah reminded him that the trip would be a waste of time if they failed to take Benjamin with them. The Egyptian governor had made it very clear that their brother Simeon would not be released unless they returned with their younger sibling. Reuben reminded his father of Zaphenath-paneah’s conditions.

“You won’t see my face again unless your brother is with you.” – Genesis 43:3 NLT

No Benjamin, no grain. It was as simple as that. And Judah informed his father that he and his brothers were unwilling to make the long and arduous trip unless Benjamin accompanied them.

Jacob expressed his frustration that they had ever mentioned Benjamin in the first place. But Judah defended their actions by explaining that they had simply answered the governor’s questions. How were they to have known that Zaphenath-paneah would require physical proof of Benjamin’s existence?  From their viewpoint, they had no other choice but to obey the governor’s demands. If they refused, they would all end up starving to death. So, after a bit of persistent cajoling from Judah, and an assurance that he would guarantee Benjamin’s safety, Jacob finally acquiesced to the plan.

But it’s important to note that two of Jacob’s sons had made solemn pledges to protect and preserve Benjamin’s life. These men had been changed by their disconcerting encounter with Zaphenath-paneah. Reuben vowed to watch over Benjamin, even putting up the lives of his two sons as collateral.

“You may kill my two sons if I don’t bring Benjamin back to you. I’ll be responsible for him, and I promise to bring him back.” – Genesis 42:37 NLT

Even Judah, the one who had suggested that they sell Joseph to the Ephraimite traders, was now willing to put his reputation and his life on the line to guarantee Benjamin’s physical well-being.

“I personally guarantee his safety. You may hold me responsible if I don’t bring him back to you. Then let me bear the blame forever.” – Genesis 43:9 NLT

It should not be overlooked that Jacob, a man who had betrayed and defrauded his own brother, had fathered 10 sons who ended up doing the same thing to one of their own. But now, years later, Jacob watched as two of these same men pledged to protect the life of their younger sibling. While he knew nothing of what they had done to sell Joseph into slavery, he must have been encouraged by the selfless and sacrificial display of love from his two older sons.

Before sending his sons on a potentially dangerous journey into a foreign land where they would face unknown obstacles, Jacob attempted to do what he could to produce a positive outcome.

“Pack your bags with the best products of this land. Take them down to the man as gifts—balm, honey, gum, aromatic resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Also take double the money that was put back in your sacks, as it was probably someone’s mistake. Then take your brother, and go back to the man.” – Genesis 43:11-13 NLT

He reached into his old bag of tricks and came up with the same ploy he had used on his brother Esau (Genesis 32:13-16). If the Egyptian governor was angry that Jacob’s sons had left without paying for the grain, he hoped to assuage that anger with gifts. He doubled the amount of money they should have paid and then threw in some additional agricultural products for good measure.

But Jacob also revealed that he was ready and willing to trust God with the outcome. He was willing to purchase favor with the Egyptian governor but if that didn’t work, he would trust in the sovereignty of God.

“May God Almighty give you mercy as you go before the man, so that he will release Simeon and let Benjamin return. But if I must lose my children, so be it.” – Genesis 43:14 NLT

Jacob had come a long way. In his statement, he reflects the same sentiments that Job expressed when he learned that he had lost all his children in a freak accident.

Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Genesis 43:20-21 ESV

While Jacob feared losing his sons, he also displays a firm belief that God was going to fulfill His covenant promises. By sending his 11 remaining sons to Egypt, he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham. No doubt, Jacob’s father Isaac had told him the story of when Abraham had taken him to Mount Moriah with the intention of following God’s command to offer his only son as a sacrifice. And now, here was Jacob willingly sending his son to Egypt, not knowing if they would ever return. But his decision was an act of faith. If God was going to fulfill His covenant promise, Jacob would need to have sons. And so, he let them go, trusting that God would find a way to allow them to return. But little did Jacob know that God had greater plans than he could ever imagine. All of his sons would eventually return, but only so they could bring their father and families back to the land of Egypt. All in keeping with God’s sovereign and unshakeable plan.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

What God Is About to Do

Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”

14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” 17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. 18 Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20 And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21 but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22 I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23 Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24 and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”

25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27 The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30 but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31 and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.” – Genesis 41:9-36 ESV

For two years, the cupbearer to Pharaoh had managed to enjoy his plush life as an official in the royal court. His brief stint in the royal prison was a long-forgotten memory. But as he enjoyed the comforts that came with his restored position as a personal advisor to Pharaoh, his former cellmate, Joseph, remained in prison, serving time for a crime he had not committed. But while Joseph was innocent, the cupbearer was guilty of having reneged on his promise to bring Joseph’s predicament to Pharaoh’s attention. It simply slipped his mind – for two long years.

But then God intervened, yet again. But this time, rather than focusing His attention on the prison where Joseph languished in relative anonymity, God invaded the royal sanctity of the royal palace and the mind of Pharaoh himself. Yahweh went straight to the top of the Egyptian corporate ladder, using the most powerful man in the land to accomplish His divine will. Pharaoh experienced a pair of dreams that seemed to contain ominous portents of future destruction, but he could find no one in his royal court to explain their meaning. This self-proclaimed deity was powerless to solve the riddle of his perplexing visions.

The failure of Pharaoh’s wise men and magicians to provide him with a meaning to the dreams must have left the entire royal court in a state of panic. After all, Pharaoh was not averse to imprisoning those who displeased him, a fact the cupbearer knew all too well. Pharaoh’s dreams had turned life in the royal court into a virtual nightmare, as everyone anxiously waited to see if his anger would cause heads would roll and the prison population to swell. And the thought of returning to prison must have jogged the cupbearer’s memory because he suddenly recalled the commitment he had made to Joseph.

Suddenly recalling Joseph’s successful interpretation of his own dream, the cupbearer realized the solution to Pharaoh’s problem might be right under his nose – in his royal prison. So, utilizing his intimate access to Pharaoh as the royal cupbearer, he decided to risk his master’s wrath and share the story of his encounter with the young Hebrew prisoner.

We told him our dreams, and he told us what each of our dreams meant. And everything happened just as he had predicted. I was restored to my position as cup-bearer, and the chief baker was executed and impaled on a pole.” – Genesis 41:12-13 NLT

This news must have thrilled Pharaoh because he immediately ordered that Joseph be released from prison and brought to the royal palace. One can only imagine what Joseph must have thought when the royal guards showed up and led him away to the palace. His mind must have reeled as he considered the meaning behind this sudden change in his circumstances. He had no way of knowing what awaited him, but perhaps he wondered whether the cupbearer had finally decided to honor his commitment. But as Joseph bathed, shaved, and put on the clean robes he had been provided, his heart must have raced as he considered what was about to happen.

Eventually, Joseph found himself standing before the most powerful man in all of Egypt. Just moments earlier, this young Hebrew boy had been a common criminal serving out his sentence in a dank prison, but now he found himself in the royal palace staring into the face of Pharaoh. All of this must have been a shock to his senses and left him wondering what God might be doing. But he soon had his answer.

Pharaoh wasted no time in revealing the reason for Joseph’s appearance in the royal court. He was there to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams. But Joseph appears to have been unphased by the seriousness of the moment or the celebrity status of his royal host. Upon discovering the nature of Pharaoh’s request, Joseph confidently replied, “It is beyond my power to do this,…But God can tell you what it means and set you at ease” (Genesis 41:16 NLT).

Joseph wasn’t star-struck and showed no signs of fear or intimidation. He comes across as someone who felt comfortable in his own skin and confident in the sovereignty of his God. A smile must have come across his face as he heard Pharaoh say, “I had a dream last night, and no one here can tell me what it means” (Genesis 41:15 NLT). He knew from personal experience that this statement was not true. Interpreting dreams was his specialty – with God’s help. So, Joseph listened intently as Pharaoh shared the content of his dreams. Then, as he had done before, Joseph responded without a moment’s hesitation or deliberation.

“Both of Pharaoh’s dreams mean the same thing. God is telling Pharaoh in advance what he is about to do. – Genesis 41:25 NLT

Joseph didn’t stop to consider the content of his message or the status of his audience. He simply shared the meaning that God had given him. Pharaoh’s two dreams had one interpretation that led to a single conclusion: Things were about to get difficult in the land of Egypt. Joseph informed Pharaoh and his court that God had decreed a seven-year period of plenty to be followed by a second seven years of devastating drought. There was going to be a catastrophic loss of livestock and grain in the land of Egypt that would lead to starvation and loss of life.

You can almost hear the gasps from the dignitaries in the room as Joseph shares this less-than-encouraging news. While Pharaoh had probably assumed that the negative nature of his dreams was not a harbinger of good things to come, it’s likely that this interpretation was not what he had been expecting. And, to make matters worse, Joseph explained that the two dreams with one interpretation were a sign that “these events have been decreed by God, and he will soon make them happen” (Genesis 41:32 NLT).

It’s important to remember that the Egyptians had a pantheon of gods they worshiped and Yahweh was not among them. So, when Joseph referred to אֱלֹהִים (‘ĕlōhîm), this was not a deity with whom they were particularly familiar. This Hebrew term for God was a somewhat generic word that could be used to refer to judges, rulers, or gods in general. But, for Joseph, it was a reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was informing Pharaoh that the one true God was about to bring enact His sovereign will over the nation of Egypt, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop Him. 

But Joseph inform Pharaoh that there was a way to prepare for the inevitable. While there was nothing he could do to thwart God’s will, he could take steps to prevent the complete annihilation of his people. It seems obvious that, along with the interpretation, God had given Joseph the step-by-step plans he shared with Pharaoh. And Joseph faithfully conveyed the details of God’s sovereign strategy for Egypt’s survival, warning Pharaoh to follow them to the letter, “Otherwise this famine will destroy the land” (Genesis 41:36 NLT).

But what Joseph didn’t know was that he would be the one to make it all happen. God had chosen him to be the “intelligent and wise man” (Genesis 41:33 NLT), whom Pharaoh would place in charge of the entire land of Egypt. Joseph was not just the messenger, but he was also to be the deliverer. Little did he know that he was about to move from the prison to the palace, from the role of a lowly servant to the position of a sovereign ruler over all the land of Egypt. And it was all part of God’s preordained plan. The sovereign God of the universe was about to do something that neither Pharaoh nor Joseph could have ever imagined.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Preview of Coming Attractions

1 Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.

These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind. Genesis 37:1-11 ESV

After providing a brief of Esau’s life and lineage, Moses shifts the focus back to Jacob. But rather than provide a similar genealogical treatment of Jacob’s life, Moses chose to narrow down his narrative to the life of one particular descendant of Jacob – his 11th son, Joseph. The story shifts from the clan of Esau living in the region of Edom to the family of Jacob living in Canaan, the land of promise. Jacob had returned to Hebron, where he was raising his 12 sons and one daughter. This was familiar territory to Jacob because it was at Hebron that his grandfather, Abraham, had settled after parting ways with Lot (Genesis 13:18). It was while he was living in Hebron that Abraham received a message from God.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:15-17 NLT

It was in Hebron that Abraham purchased land from the Hittites to serve as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. And years later, Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael would bury him alongside Sarah in the same cave on the very same land.

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite. This was the field Abraham had purchased from the Hittites and where he had buried his wife Sarah. After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who settled near Beer-lahai-roi in the Negev. – Genesis 25:9-11 NLT

When Isaac died at the ripe old age of 180, his sons, Esau and Jacob, buried him in Hebron as well.

So Jacob returned to his father, Isaac, in Mamre, which is near Kiriath-arba (now called Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had both lived as foreigners. Isaac lived for 180 years. Then he breathed his last and died at a ripe old age, joining his ancestors in death. And his sons, Esau and Jacob, buried him. – Genesis 35:27-29 NLT

The cave of Machpelah near Hebron had become the family burial plot, so it made sense for Jacob, the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, to settle his family in the same vicinity. Geographically, Hebron was located dead center in what would eventually become the nation of Israel. It was from that vantage point that God gave Abraham a panoramic view of the surrounding territory that would one day become the inheritance of his descendants.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

And, years later, when Jacob was on his way from Hebron to Mesopotamia to escape the anger of his brother, God visited him in a dream and delivered virtually the same message He had given to Abraham.

“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

Jacob had returned to Hebron where he now ruled as the patriarch of the family. Yet Moses does not make Jacob the hero of his story. Instead, he turns the reader’s attention to Joseph, one of the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons. But Joseph was somewhat unique in that he was the first son to be born to Rachel who, for years, had suffered from barrenness. And while Leah, her sister and the second wife of Jacob, had given him six sons, Rachel remained without a child. Until God had intervened.

Then God remembered Rachel’s plight and answered her prayers by enabling her to have children. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has removed my disgrace,” she said. And she named him Joseph – Genesis 30:22-24 NLT

And Moses indicates that Joseph enjoyed a certain degree of parental approval that his siblings found objectionable.

Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. – Genesis 37:3 NLT

And to make matters worse, Jacob exhibited his favoritism for Joseph by giving him a fancy robe, which further incited his brothers against him. By the time Joseph was 17-years-old, he was the apple of his father’s eyes and the bane of his brothers’ existence. He was both loved and despised. And Joseph seemed to have enjoyed his favored status. He appears to have become his father’s eyes and ears, watching his older siblings and ratting them out if they did anything wrong.

Joseph reported to his father some of the bad things his brothers were doing. – Genesis 37:2 NLT

Not exactly the best way to win friends and influence enemies. So, between the blatant favoritism and the tattle-telling, Joseph developed a less-than-favorable relationship with his 10 older brothers.

his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him. – Genesis 37:4 NLT

And it wouldn’t be long before their anger turned into action. They would soon learn that their brother was more than just an informant and a teacher’s pet. He was an arrogant, boastful dreamer. This runt of the litter was having literal dreams of greatness filled with delusions of grandeur, and it infuriated them. It would be one thing to write this all off as the behavior of an innocent child, but Joseph was 17-years-old. He should have known better. But there seems to be a degree of pride in this young man. What else would explain his eagerness to tell his older brothers about his dreams? He must have known that his brothers disliked him, and surely he knew that the content of his dreams was not going to be received well.

when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. – Genesis 37:5 NLT

And it’s easy to understand why. His dream had used symbolic imagery of bundles of wheat displaying anthropomorphic characteristics. But his brothers had not missed the point. Their younger brother was clearly attempting to portray himself as their better, and they were furious.

“So you think you will be our king, do you? Do you actually think you will reign over us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dreams and the way he talked about them. – Genesis 37:8 NLT

Perhaps it was just a case of naiveté. Maybe Joseph didn’t really know what he was doing and was sharing his dream with his brothers in the hopes that they might help him decipher its meaning. But that seems unlikely. As will become clear as the story unfolds, Joseph was far from an empty-headed dreamer. He was a very smart and resourceful young man. He had to be aware of his brothers’ hatred for him. And, in seeing their response to his first dream, he would have known that their jealousy of him and hatred for him was at an all-time high. But that didn’t stop him from sharing the content of a second dream.

Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT

Just reading that sentence makes me cringe in disbelief. What would possess Joseph to share this dream with his brothers? I think he knew exactly what it meant and he was eager to share it with his “eleven” brothers. And, not only that, he wanted his father and mother to hear the content of his dream as well.

It’s important to note that these dreams were not like those his father had experienced. There were no sightings of angelic beings or words of instruction from God. It would have been obvious to Moses and his original audience that these dreams were divinely ordained. But there is no indication that Jacob or his sons received them this way. In fact, Jacob was very familiar with dreams as mediums through which God spoke, but he did not view Joseph’s dream in that light.

…his father scolded him. “What kind of dream is that?” he asked. “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow to the ground before you?” – Genesis 37:10 NLT

But we know the rest of the story. Joseph was being given a glimpse into the future fate of Israel. None of them understood the ramifications of Joseph’s dream, but God was clearly conveying His plan to elevate Joseph to a place of prominence and primacy. This favorite son of Jacob would soon find himself basking in the favor of Pharaoh. What none of the characters in the story understood was that they were about to take an unexpected detour. Their journey to possess the promised land was about to take them to a place they never could have imagined. And it was all part of God’s preordained and perfectly formulated plan.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Leaving the Past Behind

17 So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18 He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. 19 Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee. 21 He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.

22 When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, 23 he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead. 24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

25 And Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen pitched tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29 It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?” 31 Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. Genesis 31:17-32 ESV

Having convinced his two wives that it was in their best interest to leave their father’s household and return with him to Canaan, Jacob loaded his family on camels and surreptitiously snuck out of Haran. Due to the large size of his herds and flocks, and the number of servants he possessed, it would have been quite a challenge for Jacob to leave without being noticed. Yet Moses indicates that it took Laban three days before he realized that Jacob had departed.

It appears that Laban had been busy sheering sheep, but when he returned home he discovered that he was missing far more than just his daughters and grandsons. Someone had stolen one of his household gods. This would seem to indicate that Laban was not a Yahweh worshiper.

Moses uses a clever play on words when he describes Rachel’s crime and Jacob’s actions. He writes that Rachel “stole” Laban’s household god. The Hebrew word is גָּנַב (gānaḇ) and it can mean “to steal” or “to steal away, as by stealth.” That is why he uses the same word to describe Jacob’s deception of Laban. It could be translated, “Jacob stole the heart from Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing” (Genesis 31:20 TLV).

Jacob took what was near and dear to Laban, his daughters, and grandsons. But it seems that Laban was more upset about his missing idol. Angered by this injustice, Laban formed a posse and set out to rescue his stolen god.

…he gathered a group of his relatives and set out in hot pursuit. He caught up with Jacob seven days later in the hill country of Gilead. – Genesis 31:23 NLT

But before he could begin his journey, Laban had a surprise visit from the one true God, Yahweh. While Laban’s idol was mute and had proven to be incapable of protecting himself from Rachel’s greedy hands, the God of Jacob was quite vocal and very clear in his warning to Laban.

“Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” – Genesis 31:24 ESV

God knew Laban’s heart and was fully aware that he intended to do Jacob harm. But essentially, God warned Laban not to touch Jacob. More importantly, Laban was not to threaten Jacob or pronounce a curse on him. But this didn’t keep Laban from speaking his mind when he finally caught up to Jacob. He confronted his son-in-law, demanding to know why he had chosen to slip away in secret.

“You’ve deceived me and carried away my daughters as if they were captives of war!  Why did you run away secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me so I could send you off with a celebration complete with singing, tambourines, and harps?  You didn’t even allow me to kiss my daughters and my grandchildren goodbye. You have acted foolishly!” – Genesis 31:26-28 NET

Laban used the same word, גָּנַב (gānaḇ), to describe Jacob’s actions. By stealing away in the dead of night with his father-in-law’s daughter and grandchildren, Jacob had effectively “stolen” Laban’s heart. According to Laban, Jacob had deliberately and maliciously deceived him and, in so doing, had broken his heart.

It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Laban because he has proven himself to be just as untrustworthy and manipulative. This is a man who had deliberately taken advantage of Jacob on multiple occasions. But now that he was on the receiving end of the deception, he didn’t like it. And he let Jacob know that the only thing preventing him from getting even was the warning he had received from Yahweh. If Jacob’s God had not stepped in, Laban would be meting out vigilante justice.

But the real motivation behind Laban’s anger was not his heart for his family, but his passion for his false god. The confiscation of his household idol had been the deal-breaker. And Laban clearly believed that Jacob was the guilty party.

“I can understand your feeling that you must go, and your intense longing for your father’s home. But why have you stolen my gods?” – Genesis 31:30 NLT

But Jacob declared his innocence. He admitted that his secretive departure had been because he had feared what would happen if Laban discovered his plans to return to Canaan. Jacob knew his father-in-law well and assumed that he would do anything to prevent his daughters and grandchildren from leaving. But as far as the missing idol was concerned, Jacob knew nothing about it. And he challenged Laban to instigate a search to see if anyone had the idol in their possession. If the missing idol was found, Jacob agreed to have the guilty party executed. But little did he know that he was sentencing his own wife to death.

This entire scene provides a fitting summary of this portion of Jacob’s life. For nearly 20 years, he has lived with his uncle, Laban. During that time he had found the wife he had set out to find and had also ended up with an unexpected second wife and two concubines. The two decades had been filled with deceit and trickery as the various parties manipulated and defrauded one another in an effort to get their own ways. No one in this story comes out as squeaky clean and free from blame. They each bear responsibility for their particular sins and stand before God as guilty and deserving of His judgment.

But despite all the subterfuge and selfish scheming, God has been at work. And as Jacob faces off with Laban in the hill country of Gilead, God is preparing to end this phase of Jacob’s life of exile. He is on his way back to Canaan, the land that God had promised to give to his grandfather, Abraham. It is his divinely ordained inheritance. The days of exile are over. It is time to go home, but God wants Jacob to leave behind everything associated with his stay in Haran. From this point forward, Jacob will be expected to separate himself from his father-in-law and his false gods. He will be required to leave behind his dependence upon trickery and deceit to get ahead. From this point forward, God will be leading Jacob back to Canaan and into a deeper and fully sold-out relationship with Him. This current crisis will come to an end. But the days ahead will not be easy. Leaving behind his old ways will prove to be far more difficult for Jacob than leaving Haran. But God is preparing Jacob for another exile that will last far longer than his stay in Mesopotamia. And it will be in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth.” – Genesis 14:13-14 NLT

Jacob was returning to Canaan with 11 sons. And one of those sons, Joseph, would play an integral part in the fulfillment of God’s promise. What Jacob did not realize was that his entire life was to be a foreshadowing of the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob had fled to a foreign land to escape certain death, so too the people of Israel would flee to Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And like Jacob, their forefather, the people of Israel would find themselves living as little more than captives in their new homeland. But God would eventually redeem them, just as He was doing for Jacob. He would faithfully fulfill His covenant commitment and return His exiled sons and daughters to the land of promise.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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