Redemption Comes With a Price

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year.

11 “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” – Exodus 13:1-16 ESV

As the people of Israel prepared to make their long-awaited exit from Egypt, God reminded them that their escape from death during the tenth plague was going to come with a cost. When the death angel had passed over their homes on that fateful night, their firstborn sons had been spared. They had obeyed His command and sprinkled the blood of the unblemished lambs on the doorpost and lintels of their homes and, as a result, God redeemed the firstborn males “both of man and of beast” (Exodus 13:1 ESV). But the Egyptians experienced no such deliverance from the hand of God.

…that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. – Exodus 12:29 NLT

Now, God reminded the Israelites that His sparing of their firstborns would have long-term implications.

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.” – Exodus 13:1 NLT

Like the newly inaugurated Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the dedication of the firstborn was to be a perpetual rite among the Israelites. Every spring, when God’s people found themselves surrounded by the signs of new life, they were to remember His deliverance of the firstborn and dedicate all those born into their homes over the last year.

Evidently, this dedication ceremony would not go into effect until the people of Israel reached the promised land and took possession of it. It was to be implemented once God fulfilled His end of the covenant commitment and had them safely ensconced in their new homeland.

“This is what you must do when the Lord fulfills the promise he swore to you and to your ancestors. When he gives you the land where the Canaanites now live, you must present all firstborn sons and firstborn male animals to the Lord, for they belong to him. – Exodus 13:11-12 NLT

God had redeemed them. The Hebrew word for redeem is פָּדָה (pāḏâ) and it carries the idea of paying a ransom for something or someone. This redemption came with a cost – a life for a life. God had spared the lives of the firstborn, so they now belonged to Him. But the Israelites could redeem them back – for a price.

“A firstborn donkey may be bought back from the Lord by presenting a lamb or young goat in its place. But if you do not buy it back, you must break its neck. However, you must buy back every firstborn son.” – Exodus 13:13 NLT

The firstborn among their flocks and herds were no longer theirs to use at their discretion. They belonged to God. But He provided a way for the Israelites to redeem back their firstborn animals by allowing them to offer a substitute. To redeem back a donkey, the price was a lamb or young goat. An offering was required to buy back a firstborn male animal. Until this sacrifice was made, the animal was off-limits to the Israelites and unavailable for their use. And God would later reiterate His command regarding the dedication of the firstborn.

“You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. – Exodus 22:29-30 ESV

But the terms of this agreement would later change. When the people of Israel reached Mount Sinai, Moses went to the top of the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments from God. But meanwhile, down in the valley, the people had coerced Aaron to make for them an idol in the form of a golden calf. They had grown impatient waiting on Moses to return and decided to return to their worship of the false gods of Egypt.

…they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT

Aaron caved into their demands and crafted a calf out of the gold that the Egyptians had given them before they left Egypt.

When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” – Exodus 32:4 NLT

But this blatant abandonment of Yahweh would cost them dearly. When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he “saw the calf and the dancing, and he burned with anger. He threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf they had made and burned it. Then he ground it into powder, threw it into the water, and forced the people to drink it” (Exodus 32:19-20 NLT). Then Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and called for any who remained committed to Yahweh and “all the Levites gathered around him” (Exodus 32:26 NLT).

Moses ordered the men of the tribe of Levi to take their swords and join him in cleansing the camp of all those who had joined in the decadent display of debauchery and apostasy.

“Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:27-28 NLT

As a result of their efforts, the Levites were rewarded for their service and faithfulness.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

God would eventually reward the Levites with the honor of serving Him as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle. Their role at Sinai earned them the right to become substitutes for all the firstborn males born to the rest of the tribes.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

But because there were not enough Levites to serve as substitutes for every male son among the rest of the tribes, God came up with another form of redemption.

“Take the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. And take the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me; I am the Lord. There are 273 more firstborn sons of Israel than there are Levites. To redeem these extra firstborn sons, collect five pieces of silver for each of them (each piece weighing the same as the sanctuary shekel, which equals twenty gerahs). Give the silver to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for the extra firstborn sons.” – Numbers 3:45-48 NLT

The Israelites would be required to pay five pieces of silver as a redemption price for their sons. So, even when the firstborns were no longer required to serve out their dedication to God, they were expected to pay the redemption price. Their lives belonged to God.

This dedication of the firstborn was to be an annual rite among the Hebrews. Performed alongside Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, it was intended to serve as a perpetual reminder of God’s gracious deliverance. He had provided a way of salvation so that the firstborn among the Israelites might be spared from death. And the apostle Peter would remind Christ-followers that God sent His Son as the ultimate form of redemption for rebellious mankind.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 NLT

God had redeemed the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. The sacrifice of the innocent lambs was a foreshadowing of the consummate sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God. He would be the ultimate ransom paid so that men might be set free from slavery to sin and death. Like the Levites who remained unstained by the sins of their brothers and were able to appease the wrath of God, so Christ became the sinless one who defeated sin and death by offering Himself as the sacrificial substitute.

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.

Plague Number Ten

29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!” – Exodus 12:29-32 ESV

God had warned His chosen people about the tenth and final plague that would befall the land of Egypt and, this time, Goshen would not be spared the devastating consequences of His judgment. When the death angel passed through the land, he would enact God’s divine order to take the lives of all the firstborn within the land, including those of the livestock.

I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” – Exodus 12:12 ESV

This plague would indiscriminate in its effect. There would be no protective barrier placed over the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived. Their flocks and herds would not be set apart and spared from the death angel’s dark designs. Death was coming to all the firstborns in the land of Egypt, including those of the Israelites – unless they believed God’s warning, obeyed His command, and fulfilled every part of His plan for their salvation.

“Go, pick out a lamb or young goat for each of your families, and slaughter the Passover animal. Drain the blood into a basin. Then take a bundle of hyssop branches and dip it into the blood. Brush the hyssop across the top and sides of the doorframes of your houses. And no one may go out through the door until morning. For the Lord will pass through the land to strike down the Egyptians. But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the Lord will pass over your home. He will not permit his death angel to enter your house and strike you down. – Exodus 12:21-24 NLT

These instructions make it quite clear that obedience must accompany belief. To accept the reality of the coming judgment but to do nothing to prepare for it would result in certain death. Any Israelite who refused to follow God’s detailed plan of salvation would expose all the firstborns in his home to the judgment of God. Their Hebrew heritage would not save them. Being a Jew would not immunize them from God’s wrath. The death angel would visit any and all homes where the sign of the blood was missing. Living in Goshen would not be enough. Being a descendant of Abraham would not provide built-in protection. And refusing to sacrifice their unblemished lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorpost and lintel of their home would leave any Israelite exposed to the wrath of their own righteous and just God.

And that very evening, at the stroke of midnight, the death angel passed through the land and meted out the justice of God.

…that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. – Exodus 12:29 NLT

Moses reveals that “There was not a single house where someone had not died” (Exodus 12:30 NLT). This plague was widespread and left no home unaffected by its gruesome consequences. It all happened just as God had predicted to Moses.

“All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt, from the oldest son of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the oldest son of his lowliest servant girl who grinds the flour. Even the firstborn of all the livestock will die.” – Exodus 11:5 NLT

As the Egyptians slept soundly in their beds, their firstborn sons took their last breaths and died. Sometime during the early hours of the morning, the grim reality of what had just happened became apparent. An audible sound of mourning emanated from all over the land of Egypt, including from the halls of the royal palace, where Pharaoh had awoken to find the lifeless body of his own firstborn son, the rightful heir to his kingly dynasty.

This latest plague accomplished its objective. Pharoah, distraught with grief, ordered Moses and Aaron to the royal palace, where he issued the following long-delayed order:

“Get out!” he ordered. “Leave my people—and take the rest of the Israelites with you! Go and worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you said, and be gone. Go, but bless me as you leave.” – Exodus 12:31-32 NLT

Long before Moses left Midian for Egypt, God had told him exactly what was going to happen. The Lord had given him a preview of coming attractions, including the death of Pharaoh’s own son.

“When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go. Then you will tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son. I commanded you, “Let my son go, so he can worship me.” But since you have refused, I will now kill your firstborn son!’” – Exodus 4:21-23 NLT

Now, God had Pharaoh’s full and undivided attention. The lifeless body of the heir to his throne was lying in his royal bed chamber. The most powerful man in all of Egypt had suffered a devastating and irreversible blow, and he had been powerless to do anything to prevent it.

The stage was set. The time for Israel’s departure had finally come. The ten successive plagues had primed the pump and prepared the hearts of the Egyptians to abide by God’s demand. Even the recalcitrant and headstrong Pharaoh had been broken by this latest outpouring of God’s divine judgment. This time, he demanded that Israelites leave, and as soon as possible. But before they left, he asked Moses and Aaron to pray a blessing over him.

It seems that Pharaoh wanted some kind of reward from the Israelite God for having graciously allowed His people to leave. Pharaoh wanted credit for doing what God had forced him to do. And, as the story unfolds, it will become clear that Pharaoh still expected the Israelites to return from their brief religious pilgrimage into the adjoining wilderness. After all, Moses and Aaron had always stated that their desire was to travel three days journey into the wilderness so that they might worship their God. And, as far as Pharaoh understood, that was still the case. So he boldly requested that they put in a good word for him when they worshiped their God.

But little did Pharaoh know that Moses and Aaron had no intentions of coming back. s

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.

The Firstborn

19 “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. 21 But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer. 23 Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. – Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ESV

Moses returns to a subject that he had brought up earlier: The offering of the firstborn.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:6 NLT

“But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings.” – Deuteronomy 12:17 NLT

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

But what is the offering of the firstborn and why was it so important? To understand its significance we have to look back to the book of Exodus and the final plague that God brought upon the people of Egypt.

And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died. – Exodus 12:29-30 NLT

This devastating event took place in conjunction with the establishment of the Passover. God had warned the people of Israel that He was bringing judgment upon the land of Egypt and He had mercifully provided the people of Israel with a means of avoiding His wrath. When His judgment came, it would be non-discriminatory, bringing death to the firstborn of every family living in the land of Egypt, whether Egyptian or Jew. Even the animals belonging to the Egyptians and Jews would suffer under God’s judgment…unless.

The truth was that all deserved God’s judgment. Even the Israelites had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh for the false gods of Egypt, and they stood fully condemned before God. But He provided them with a means of escaping His judgment – if they would trust His word and obey His command.

“Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. If a family is too small to eat a whole animal, let them share with another family in the neighborhood. Divide the animal according to the size of each family and how much they can eat. The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects.

 “Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” – Exodus 12:3-10 NLT

As long as the Israelites did exactly as God had commanded them to do, the firstborn of their families and flocks would be spared. The blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the doorframes of their homes, would cause the Death Angel to “pass over” them. They would be spared the judgment of God.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were preserved by God, while the Egyptians suffered tremendous loss of life. And devastated by the loss of his own son, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israelites to leave. And God commanded the people of Israel:

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared from death the firstborn among the Israelites and, therefore, considered them as belonging to Him. But later on, God would set apart the tribe of Levi as the surrogates or stand-ins for the rest of the firstborn of Israel.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

The tribe of Levi would serve in the place of all the firstborn of Israel, and from within the Levites would come the priests who served in God’s tabernacle. They would dedicate their lives to the service of the people of God.

But the firstborn of the animals would always belong to God and He required that the people of Israel dedicate them to Him through sacrifice. It was to be an act of obedience and gratitude to God for His having spared them during that fateful night when the Death Angel passed over all the homes in Egypt. As long as the firstborn lamb or bull was alive, they were to be preserved for God. The Israelites were not allowed to shear their wool for clothing. They could not use a firstborn bull to pull a plow. These animals were to be seen as the permanent possessions of God.

And all of this foreshadows another firstborn who would also be dedicated to God and destined for sacrifice. Jesus Christ is described by the apostle Paul as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV).

Elsewhere Paul writes that “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT). Jesus was the sinless lamb of God, who offered His life as a substitute for sinful mankind. He stood in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. And when we place our faith in Him, the wrath of God passes over us. His blood, sprinkled on the doorframes of our hearts, serves as a payment for our sin debt, satisfying the just and righteous wrath of God and allowing us to enjoy new life, rather than death.

And as a result of our faith in Christ, we become the firstborn, dedicated to God for His service. Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. – Romans 8:29 NLT

We belong to Him. We are His holy possession and our lives are to be dedicated to His use.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

The Levites became the firstborn of God, serving in the place of all the other Israelites whom God had deemed as His own. They sacrificed their lives in service to God on behalf of all the people of God. And the firstborn bulls, sheep, and goats were dedicated to God, reserved for His use and destined to give their lives in worship of Him.

But today, those of us who are in Christ, enjoy a relationship with God due to the substitutionary death of the firstborn, the sinless Lamb of God. And now, we find ourselves living as the Levites did, set apart by God for His glory. And Peter would have us remember that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). We belong to Him. Our lives are to be set apart unto Him. We are not our own, but we belong to God, having been bought by Him at a very high price: The death of His own sinless Son.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Not This Way!

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.” 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. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 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. 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). 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,
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.”

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. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” 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.” 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. 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. 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 48:8-22 ESV

God’s ways are not our ways. He does not operate according to and is not restricted by our human notions of fair play, social etiquette, customs or traditions. God does not have to do things the way we think they should be done. He is not afraid to offend our sense of decorum or proper procedures. His will is greater than our wishes. His divine plan is far more important than our need for maintaining the status quo.

Jacob had just told Joseph that he was going to adopt his two sons and make them his heirs. “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” (Genesis 48:5 ESV). So when Joseph brought his two sons to their grandfather to receive their official adoption and blessing, he had certain expectations about how things were going to go down. The placement of the two boys on the knees of Jacob was part of the Ancient Near Eastern adoption ceremony. Joseph was transferring his two sons to the care of Jacob and officially making them his father’s heirs. Then things got interesting and a bit off-script for Joseph. When he brought his two sons to stand before Jacob to receive their blessings, he had them positioned so that Jacob’s right hand would be on Manasseh, the first-born, and his left hand on Ephraim, the second-born. But when Jacob reached out his hands, he crossed his arms and placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on the head of Manasseh. Joseph was appalled. This was not according to protocol. It was not how things were supposed to happen. Jacob had screwed up. And Joseph was not happy.

When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him. So he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” – Genesis 48:17-18 NLT

Joseph most likely blamed his father’s gaff on old age and diminished eyesight. Verse ten tells us that Jacob’s eyes were “dim with age.” So Joseph attempted to switch his father’s hand and correct what was an obvious oversight. But Jacob refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he too will become great. In spite of this, his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT). Jacob’s crossed hands had not been the result of poor eyesight or age-induced dementia. It had been the will of God. This was yet another example of God choosing the younger over the elder.

Abraham had two sons. His firstborn was Ishmael, born to him by his wife’s handmaiden. But when Abraham asked God to fulfill His promise through Ishmael, God said:

“No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year.” – Genesis 17:19-21 NLT

When Isaac’s wife, Rachel, was pregnant with twin sons, God told her:

“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT

Esau, the eldest of the two, would serve Jacob, the younger.Even in Jacob’s own family, he had elevated Joseph ahead of all his brothers, showing him special favor. It was this favoritism that ended up causing Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. Then Jacob simply replaced Joseph with Benjamin, the son born to him in his old age.

God doesn’t explain Himself. He doesn’t provide us with an explanation of His actions. While cultural protocol called for the blessing to fall on the firstborn, God was choosing to do things differently. He had a different agenda and was using out-of-the-ordinary means to accomplish His divine will. God would have us remember: “

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Look, God is greater than we can understand. – Job 36:26 NLT

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 NLT

The ways of God may be incomprehensible at times, but they are always reliable. His methodology may leave us perplexed, but never disappointed. He may appear to be suffering from poor eyesight or early onset dementia, but in time, we will discover that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. His hands were crossed for a reason. His blessing only appeared to be off target. God knows what He is doing – all the time and in every circumstance.

We may not understand God’s ways right now, but we will in time. We may not appreciate His methods for the moment, but He will be proven right and righteous. Our sense of fair play may get offended, but He will be proven just and good. Saying, “Not this way!” to God is not only presumptuous, it’s dangerous.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

May we learn to say as Jesus did, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV).

By Faith.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. – Hebrews 11:4 ESV

This chapter of Hebrews opens with the familiar words, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But as 21st-Century Christians we struggle understanding exactly what the author means. Faith is a nebulous and sometimes mysterious thing to us. We say we have it, but we’re not exactly sure what it is or what it looks like. We’re not sure if it is something we have to muster up or if it is given to us by God. When we think we have it, we wonder if we have enough of it. So while we would define ourselves as a “people of faith”, we regularly wrestle with the concept. So the author of Hebrews has given us the content of chapter 11 to help us. He starts out by telling us that “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3 ESV). We weren’t there. We didn’t see it happen. So we have to take God at His word – by faith. The book of Genesis tells us how the universe was created by God, and we must believe that it happened just as it says it did. When we do, we are exhibiting faith. We are giving evidence of a “conviction of things not seen”. Faith involves trust. It requires belief. And it is based on hope. But we tend to use the word “hope” in a purely speculative sense. We say things like, “I hope I win the lottery!” or “I hope I he asks me out!” Our hope usually lacks assurance or a sense of confidence. It tends to be little more than wishful thinking. But that is not what the author of Hebrews is talking about. So he gives us further evidence of faith from the lives of the Old Testament saints.

Nineteen different times in this chapter, the author will use the phrase, “by faith”. His point seems to be that faith was both the motivator and the power behind the actions of those individuals he lists. What they did was done because of faith. Faith in something hoped for and as yet unseen. Faith is God-focused and future-oriented. It has its roots in the faithfulness of God. It gets its strength from the promises made by God. So when Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, is said to have “offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain”, faith is central to understanding the difference between his sacrifice and that of his brothers. It has less to do with the content of their individual sacrifices than the hearts of the men who made them. The question we have to ask is why either of these two sons of Adam and Eve were making sacrifices to God at all. Where did they learn to make sacrifices. We don’t see evidence of this practice in the Garden of Eden. We see no command given by God to Adam and Eve to offer up sacrifices to Him. So why were their sons doing so? If you go back to the original story in Genesis, which the author’s Jewish audience would have known well, it tells us:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. – Genesis 4:2-5 ESV

The phrase, “in the course of time” would seem to indicate that this was a regular occurrence, that the first family had established a habit of offering sacrifices to God. There is no indication that this was something that God required of them. It appears to be wholly voluntary. And each son brought an offering that was consistent with his area of expertise. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and Cain brought the fruit of the ground. One brought animals while the other brought produce. The issue does not seem to be with the quality or quantity of their offerings. It does not appear to have anything to do with the content of their offerings. The issue was their faith. Cain gave an offering of the fruit of the ground. He most likely gave grain, dates, figs, or whatever else he had grown. But keep in mind, he gave “the fruit of the ground.” He did not give God the tree from which the fruit grew. So he was assured of having more fruit to replace what he had given. It also does not say that he gave God the best of his fruit. He simply gave God a portion. And yet, of Abel it is said that he gave the “firstborn of his flock and their fat portions.” In other words, Abel gave the best and he gave them God permanently. He didn’t just offer them to God, he sacrificed them. Abel would never benefit from them. They would never breed and produce more sheep. They would not grow up and produce milk. They would never serve as food on the table for Abel’s family. He had given them to God and placed his faith in God that He would provide.

We know that Cain went on to kill his brother. Why? The author of Hebrews tells us that Abel’s offering was “commended as righteous” because he made it based on faith. The apostle John provides additional insight into what is going on. “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12 ESV). If Abel’s offering or deed was commended as righteous because of his faith, then it would seem that Cain’s deeds were deemed unrighteous by God because of his lack of faith. He was not trusting God for His future provision. He wasn’t giving God his best and trusting God to provide for his future needs. He was simply going through the motions. And when God rejected his offering, Cain became angry. God asked him, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7 ESV). What did God mean by “if you do well”? It would seem that He was talking about faith. Cain hoped for more crops. He hoped for abundant fruit. He wanted success. His concern was for future provision. But rather than trust God, he chose to trust in his own effort to supply his needs. He lacked faith in God and his offering demonstrated it. His offering required no sacrifice, no dependence upon God.

By sacrificing the lives of his firstborn flocks, Abel was putting his hope of future provision in the hands of God. There is no doubt that he wanted his flocks to grow, but by offering his firstborn to God, he was having to place his assurance in God, not his flocks. He was showing that his faith was in God, the one who created the entire universe. Abel’s faith was in the God who had created his flocks. Cain’s faith was in the fruit he had grown and his own ability to grow more. His offering was more of a statement to God of “look what I have done!” Abel’s offering was an expression of thanks to God for all He had done and a statement of faith in all that God was going to do in the future.