Blind to All the Blessings

A merchant, in whose hands are false balances,
    he loves to oppress.
Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich;
    I have found wealth for myself;
in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.”
I am the Lord your God
    from the land of Egypt;
I will again make you dwell in tents,
    as in the days of the appointed feast.

10 I spoke to the prophets;
    it was I who multiplied visions,
    and through the prophets gave parables.
11 If there is iniquity in Gilead,
    they shall surely come to nothing:
in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls;
    their altars also are like stone heaps
    on the furrows of the field.

12 Jacob fled to the land of Aram;
    there Israel served for a wife,
    and for a wife he guarded sheep.
13 By a prophet the Lord brought Israel up from Egypt,
    and by a prophet he was guarded.
14 Ephraim has given bitter provocation;
    so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him
    and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds. – Hosea 12:7-14 ESV

Once again, Hosea seems to differentiate between the kingdom of Israel, made up of the 10 northern tribes, and the original nation of Israel that had at one time included all 12 tribes. He does so by referring to the northern kingdom by the name of its largest tribe: Ephraim. When referring to both Israel and Judah, he uses the name of Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes, whom God had renamed, Israel.

In these verses, Ephraim (the 10 northern tribes of Israel) is described as overconfident, self-righteous, and proud. They displayed all the negative characteristics of Jacob, their patriarch. The book of Genesis records the life of Jacob in great detail, leaving little to the imagination. Even before he and his twin brother, Esau, were born, God had told their mother that the relationship between her two boys would be unconventional and strained.

“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

Jacob would be the second-born son, but he would use trickery and deception to steal his older brother’s birthright. He would also deceive his father into rewarding him with the blessing of the firstborn. And none of this was necessary. God had already predicted that Jacob would be the stronger and more significant of the two. From Jacob would come the nation of Israel. And God later informed the people of Israel that He had displayed His love for them by choosing Jacob over Esau.

“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.” – Malachi 1:2-3 ESV

The apostle Paul expounded on this idea of God’s sovereign election of Jacob over Esau.

But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she [Rebekah] 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

Jacob had done nothing to deserve God’s choice of him. It had been the sovereign will of God. And because God had made this divine determination, well in advance, the nation of Israel had come into being – all according to His providential plan. Despite Jacob’s use of deception and dishonesty, God had blessed him with great wealth. After he had been forced to leave home to escape his brother’s wrath for stealing his birthright and blessing, Jacob had ended up living in Aram. While there, he married Rebekah and became a wealthy man.

Jacob became very wealthy, with large flocks of sheep and goats, female and male servants, and many camels and donkeys. – Genesis 30:43 NLT

God blessed Jacob despite his dishonesty and deceitfulness. To a certain degree, Jacob probably viewed himself as a self-made man. All that he possessed he had earned through hard work or clever manipulation. But, in reality, it had been the handiwork of God. And the northern kingdom of Israel suffered from the same problem. They too failed to understand that their affluence was attributable to God.

Israel boasts, “I am rich!
    I’ve made a fortune all by myself!
No one has caught me cheating!
    My record is spotless!” – Hosea 12:8 NLT

But God knew. He had been an eyewitness to all their sins and transgressions. He had watched them run after false gods, make alliances with pagan nations, and continually violate His commands. He had been the one who had rescued them out of their slavery in Egypt, given them the land of Canaan as their own possession, and had protected and provided for them for generations. But now, they had no need for God.

But they were about to discover that their abandonment of God would prove costly. Their rescuer and redeemer was about to become their judge.

“But I am the Lord your God,
    who rescued you from slavery in Egypt.
And I will make you live in tents again,
    as you do each year at the Festival of Shelters. – Hosea 12:9 NLT

They would soon find themselves having to vacate their palatial homes in exchange for shelters made of branches and the bows of trees. Rather than living in luxury in the land of Israel, they would become slaves living in shacks in Assyria. All because they had refused to honor God and keep their covenant commitments to Him. On either side of the Jordan River, in Gilgal and Gilead, the people had erected altars to their many false gods. There they sacrificed bulls and made offerings to their lifeless and powerless idols. They constantly flaunted their apostasy and unfaithfulness in the face of God. And while God had sent His prophets to warn them and call them to repentance, they had repeatedly refused to listen. They turned their backs on the one who had redeemed them from slavery. Now, they would find themselves returning to their former state of poverty and oppression.

Then by a prophet
    the Lord brought Jacob’s descendants out of Egypt;
and by that prophet
    they were protected.
But the people of Israel
    have bitterly provoked the Lord,
so their Lord will now sentence them to death
    in payment for their sins. – Hosea 12:13-14 NLT

These people had long forgotten their humble beginnings. Like their patriarch, Jacob, they had begun with nothing. He had fled to Aram in order to escape Esau’s plans to kill him. But while there, God had blessed him with children and great wealth. Years later, Jacob would take his family and move to Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And while living in Egypt, Jacob would find himself blessed by God yet again. Over a period of four centuries, Jacob’s descendants would grow in number. And while many of those years would be marked by slavery and subjugation, God would fulfill the promise He had made to Jacob.

“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

God had kept His word. He had made of Jacob a great nation. But that nation had rebelled against Him. Now, they would lose their right to occupy the land He had given them as their inheritance. Their apostasy would result in their expulsion from the land of Canaan. And God had warned them that this would be the inevitable outcome should they choose to disobey His commands.

“So do not defile the land and give it a reason to vomit you out, as it will vomit out the people who live there now.” – Leviticus 18:28 NLT

“You must keep all my decrees and regulations by putting them into practice; otherwise the land to which I am bringing you as your new home will vomit you out.” – Leviticus 20:22 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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Never Too Late to Return

12 Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
    and the house of Israel with deceit,
but Judah still walks with God
    and is faithful to the Holy One.

1 Ephraim feeds on the wind
    and pursues the east wind all day long;
they multiply falsehood and violence;
    they make a covenant with Assyria,
    and oil is carried to Egypt.

2 The Lord has an indictment against Judah
    and will punish Jacob according to his ways;
    he will repay him according to his deeds.
In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
    and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed;
    he wept and sought his favor.
He met God at Bethel,
    and there God spoke with us—
the Lord, the God of hosts,
    the Lord is his memorial name:
“So you, by the help of your God, return,
    hold fast to love and justice,
    and wait continually for your God.”
– Hosea 11:12-12:6 ESV

In the Hebrew Bible, verse 12 of chapter 11 is actually the first verse of chapter 12. This arrangement of the verses makes far greater sense and provides a better understanding of the point Hosea is trying to make. But Hosea seems to unnecessarily complicate matters by his use of the names Ephraim, Judah, and Jacob. It is easy to become confused when trying to decipher exactly who he is referencing by these various name designations. But because Ephraim was the largest of the 10 tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel, it would appear that he is using that name as a substitute for the more common designation of Israel. The reason seems to be that, at one time, the name Israel had been used to refer to the undivided kingdom as it stood during the reigns of King David and his son, Solomon. When the kingdom was divided at the end of Solomon’s life, Israel became the name of the northern kingdom while Judah was used to refer to the southern kingdom. This was because the tribe of Judah was the larger of the two tribes which comprised the southern kingdom – with the tribe of Benjamin being the other.

In these verses, Hosea has God referring to the two kingdoms by the names of Ephraim and Judah. Then he adds the name of Jacob, who was the father of all the tribes. This seems to be his way of referring to the formerly combined kingdoms or the original 12 tribes. It’s important to remember that, at one time, God had changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28. From Israel would come 12 sons who would become the 12 tribes of Israel. So, it appears that these verses are addressing three different groups:

Ephraim = the northern kingdom (10 tribes)

Judah = the southern kingdom (2 tribes)

Jacob = Israel (12 tribes)

With this formula in mind, these verses begin to make sense. First, God indicts the northern kingdom (Ephraim) for its falsehood and violence. The Hebrew word he uses is mirmâ, which means “deceit” and refers to fraudulent or deceptive behavior. It is the very same word used to describe Jacob’s stealing of his brother’s blessing. Isaac informed his disgruntled son, Esau, how Jacob had tricked him into awarding him the blessing of the firstborn son.

“Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” – Genesis 27:35 ESV

The 10 northern tribes had inherited their father’s deceitful ways. Yet, Judah (the two southern tribes) are described as still walking with God. This would appear to be a relative statement. In other words, when compared with the deceitfulness and unfaithfulness of the northern tribes, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin had been saints. We know they were far from perfect because God will condemn them as well, but they had a much better track record of faithfulness than their northern neighbors. At least Judah had enjoyed the leadership and guidance of a handful of godly kings along the way. Their periods of apostasy had been broken up by brief moments of relative godliness thanks to men like Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah.

But when describing the behavior of the northern tribes, God states that they “feed on the wind” (Hosea 11:12 NLT). This seems to be a reference to something Hosea wrote earlier in his book.

“They have planted the wind
    and will harvest the whirlwind. – Hosea 8:7 ESV

This imagery is intended to picture a life of futility and fruitlessness. The reference to them pursuing the east wind further enhances the total vanity and worthlessness of their behavior. In that region of the world, the east wind was a scorching, life-sapping natural phenomena that destroyed crops and made daily existence almost impossible. Their pursuit of treaties with foreign nations would produce nothing of value. They were pursuing destruction and didn’t even realize it.

In fact, they were making alliances with Assyria, the very nation God would use to punish them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. In a sense, they were dancing with the devil. They were getting in bed with the enemy, and they would pay dearly.

They were even using the fruit of the land that God had graciously given them to pay off their many suitors. His many tangible blessings, such as olive oil, were being used to broker agreements with nations like Egypt. That had never been God’s intention. God had graciously delivered His people out of their captivity in Egypt but now they were sending their olive oil back to their former captors. They were guilty of fraternizing with their former enemy and using the bounty of God as a means to buy their protection.

But even the southern kingdom was guilty of selling out their relationship with God. They too, were covenant breakers. The NET Bible translates verse 2: “The Lord also has a covenant lawsuit against Judah.” They had violated their agreement with Him, following in the footsteps of their father and patriarch, Jacob. By referring to Jacob (Israel), God is including all 12 tribes in His divine statement of condemnation. Every single one of the tribes was guilty of violating their covenant commitments with God.

Hosea uses the well-known backstory of Jacob to describe the treachery and deceit of His people.

Even in the womb,
    Jacob struggled with his brother;
when he became a man,
    he even fought with God. – Hosea 12:3 NLT

When Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were still in their mother’s womb, God had spoken to Rebekah, and given her a vision of what was to come of her two boys.

“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.”

And when the time came to give birth, Rebekah discovered that she did indeed have twins! The first one was very red at birth and covered with thick hair like a fur coat. So they named him Esau. Then the other twin was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel. So they named him Jacob. – Genesis 25:23-26 NLT

Eventually, these two brothers would end up at odds with one another. Jacob would deceive Esau, stealing his birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. These actions would sour their relationship, forcing Jacob to leave home in order to escape his brother’s wrath. In time, God would order Jacob to return home, but this would be prefaced by a literal wrestling match between God and His prodigal son.

This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

“What is your name?” the man asked.

He replied, “Jacob.”

“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” – Genesis 32:24-28 NLT

It was at that fateful wrestling match that Jacob received his new name from God. And Hosea points out that it was on that occasion that “he wrestled with the angel and won. He wept and pleaded for a blessing from him” (Hosea 12:4 NLT). At that moment, Jacob realized that he could no longer live his life based on treachery and deceit. He needed the blessing of God. And he was willing to do battle with God until he received it. He even received an injury to his hip in the process (Genesis 32:31). Jacob was so moved by this unprecedented experience that he gave the region a name by which to memorialize what had happened to him.

Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” – Genesis 32:30 NLT

Hosea also mentions another encounter Jacob had with God years earlier. This was when Jacob was attempting to escape the wrath of his angry brother. On his way, he was given a vision and mission from God.

“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

Once again, moved by his surprising visitation from God, Jacob renamed the place Bethel, which means “house of God.” Jacob would return to this very spot years later, after his wrestling match with the angel of God. And when he arrived, he would give instructions to his family.

So Jacob told everyone in his household, “Get rid of all your pagan idols, purify yourselves, and put on clean clothing. We are now going to Bethel, where I will build an altar to the God who answered my prayers when I was in distress. He has been with me wherever I have gone.” – Genesis 35:2-3 NLT

Hosea uses the recollection of this historic event to call the descendants of Jacob back to “the Lord, the God of hosts” (Hosea 12:5 ESV). In a sense, he was echoing the words of Jacob, encouraging his household to get rid of their pagan idols, purity themselves, and put on clean clothing. They were to repent and return to God in humility.

So now, come back to your God.
    Act with love and justice,
    and always depend on him. – Hosea 12:6 NLT

It was not too late. The God who wrestled with Jacob was wrestling with them. But He also wanted to bless them. But before God could do so, they were going to have to make some significant changes.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Famine From God

1 This is what the Lord God showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me,

“The end has come upon my people Israel;
    I will never again pass by them.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
declares the Lord God.
“So many dead bodies!”
“They are thrown everywhere!”
“Silence!”

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
    and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
    that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
    that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
    and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals
    and sell the chaff of the wheat?”

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
    and everyone mourn who dwells in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
    and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?”

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
    “I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning
    and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
    and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.

11 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
    “when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
    and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
    but they shall not find it.

13 “In that day the lovely virgins and the young men
    shall faint for thirst.
14 Those who swear by the Guilt of Samaria,
    and say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’
and, ‘As the Way of Beersheba lives,’
    they shall fall, and never rise again.” Amos 8:1-14 ESV

As God continues to unveil His plans for the rebellious people of Israel, He provides Amos with another visual illustration, meant to drive home the imminent nature of the coming judgment. Amos is given a vision of a basket filled with ripe summer fruit. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a pleasant sight, but Amos knew that it was a symbol of something foreboding. It was meant to represent the last of the harvest. Once the content of the basket was consumed, there would be no more. And God makes that point painfully clear.

“The end has come upon my people Israel…” – Amos 8:2 ESV

The basket of summer fruit was meant to symbolize the current state within Israel. They were enjoying prosperity and peace. King Jeroboam II had successfully expanded the nation’s borders and the people were filled with eager anticipation of a future filled with more of the same. They expected their basket to be continually filled with the ripe fruit of material gain and financial success. They viewed themselves as somehow deserving of a never-ending supply of blessings from God – even though they had long ago abandoned Him for a host of false gods. But the vision was God’s not-so-subtle way of letting them know that there was going to be an end to all their “ripe fruit” gained through illegal and unjust means.

“In that day the singing in the temple will turn to wailing. Dead bodies will be scattered everywhere. They will be carried out of the city in silence. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Amos 8:3 NLT

And just so they wouldn’t miss the point He was trying to make, God outlines the long list of sins they had committed that were the impetus for His anger. Their basket of ripe summer fruit had been gained by improper and unjust means. They had robbed the poor and trampled down the needy. They had repeatedly taken advantage of the disadvantaged. Graft and greed were prevalent, and the ones to suffer the most were those on the lower end of the social food chain. The ubiquitous presence of dishonesty and deceit left the poorest of the land suffering the greatest injustices. They couldn’t catch a break.

But God has had enough of all their ungodly ways. He will no longer tolerate this kind of behavior among His chosen people. So, He conveys to Jonah His plan to deal with Israel once and for all.

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. – Amos 8:7 ESV

This is the second time that God has mentioned the “pride of Jacob.” And in both cases, God is referring to the nation of Israel by referring to them by the former name of their patriarch and father. Jacob was the name given to the son of Isaac and Rebekah. It meant “supplanter,” or more literally, “heel-holder.” When he and his twin brother were born, Jacob came out of the womb second, grasping the heel of his slightly older brother. This would prove to be a sign of things to come. Throughout his life, Jacob would use deceit and deception to gain an advantage over his older brother, cheating Esau out of his birthright and robbing him of the blessing of the firstborn.

Years later, God would change Jacob’s name to Israel, and from him, God would create the nation that bore his name. But when God delivered His message of judgment against them, He chose to associate them with Jacob, the supplanter and deceiver. Back in chapter six, God declared His strong displeasure with Israel’s pride and arrogance. They had managed to inherit the negative characteristics of their forefather, and God let them know that He was not pleased.

The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts:

“I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds,
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.” – Amos 6:8 ESV

God swore an oath, pledging to bring judgment upon the nation of Israel, and using the pride of Jacob as both His justification and the validation of His intentions. He would do exactly as He warned. Just as the Nile overflows its banks and floods the land, so will God’s judgment inundate the nation of Israel.

God describes a time of unexpected and inexplicable darkness. It will be like the sun setting in the middle of the day. This is most likely a metaphorical statement, describing the noonday sun being obscured by smoke from the many fires ravaging the city when the destruction finally comes upon it. There will be great mourning throughout Israel as its cities fall and its people suffer at the hands of their conquerors. It will be a day of bitterness and sorrow.

And all the destruction and devastation will result in a famine, but unlike anything they have ever experienced before.

“The time is surely coming,” says the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread or water
    but of hearing the words of the Lord. – Amos 8:11 NLT

People will stagger throughout the land, from the Sea of Galilee in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, trying to hear a word from God. But they will find that He has gone silent. The time for repentance will be over. Their opportunity to return to Him will have expired. They will hunger and thirst for a word from God but will hear nothing. The prophets will be silenced. The warnings will have ceased. And the calls to repentance will be replaced by weeping and wailing.

And God ends His vision of the basket of summer fruit by pointing out the utter futility and powerlessness of Israel’s many false gods. They will prove to be no help when the judgment of God comes upon the people of Israel.

“…those who swear by the shameful idols of Samaria—
    who take oaths in the name of the god of Dan
    and make vows in the name of the god of Beersheba—
they will all fall down,
    never to rise again.” – Amos 8:14 NLT

And we know that God kept His word. The book of 2 Kings records the day when the Assyrians entered the land of Israel and conquered the capital city of Samaria.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

And the author points out the cause behind this fateful day.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. – 2 Kings 17:7 NLT

But he reminds his readers that this entire ordeal could have been avoided if they would have listened to the words of God’s prophets.

Again and again the Lord had sent his prophets and seers to warn both Israel and Judah: “Turn from all your evil ways. Obey my commands and decrees—the entire law that I commanded your ancestors to obey, and that I gave you through my servants the prophets.”

But the Israelites would not listen. – 2 Kings 17:13-14 NLT

And, as a result, the people of Israel found their bowl of summer fruit consumed by their enemy. The famine had begun, but “not a famine of bread or water but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11 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.

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

Much Will Be Required

1 Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:

“You only have I known
    of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
    for all your iniquities.Amos 3:1-2 ESV

God has decreed his pending judgment upon Israel’s Gentile neighbors. He has called out the Syrians, Philistines, Phoenicians,  Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites for their many transgressions. But He has also leveled serious charges against the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet He seems to have reserved His harshest words for the northern kingdom of Israel.  The ten tribes that comprised the northern kingdom bore the name, Israel, which in Hebrew means “God prevails.” They were named after their patriarch, whose name God had changed from Jacob to Israel (Genesis 32:28). Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had suffered with infertility and never been able to give her husband, Isaac, any children. But one day God informed her that she would give birth to twin sons. And He added that there would be something unique about these two boys.

“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

When they were born, she named the first son, Esau, and the second one, Jacob, which means, “he deceives.” And Jacob lived up to his name, eventually managing to bargain his way into obtaining his brother’s birthright and deceiving his own father so that he might receive the blessing reserved for the firstborn son. Yet, despite all these things, the descendants of Jacob (Israel) became the chosen people of God. Through them, Yahweh would partially fulfill the promise that He had made to Abraham, hundreds of years earlier.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 NLT

God would take the descendants of Jacob and make of them a great nation, and he would do so in a particularly remarkable way. In the book of Genesis we have the account of a severe famine that struck the entire Middle East, eventually devastating the land of Canaan where Jacob lived with his sons and their families. In an effort to find grain to feed his family and flocks, Jacob sent his sons on a lengthy expedition to  Egypt because he had received news that they had grain available for purchase.

When Jacob heard that grain was available in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why are you standing around looking at one another? I have heard there is grain in Egypt. Go down there, and buy enough grain to keep us alive. Otherwise we’ll die.” – Genesis 42:1-2 NLT

Little did Jacob know that one of his sons, whom he had believed to be dead, was actually alive and well and living in Egypt. Years earlier, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. And by the sovereign and providential hand of God, he had ended up as one of the powerful rulers in all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Joseph wisely used his position and influence to create a famine-relief program that assured the Egyptians would have enough grain to survive the coming drought.  And when the famine struck, Egypt was the only nation that had a surplus of grain. As a result, “…people from all around came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph because the famine was severe throughout the world” (Genesis 41:57 NLT).

When the sons of Jacob arrived in Egypt, they soon discovered that the brother whom they had sold into slavery was the second-most-powerful ruler in Egypt. But rather than seek revenge on his brothers, Joseph offered them prime real estate in Egypt on which to feed their flocks and raise their families. In time, Jacob (Israel) was reunited with his long-lost son,  But when he entered the land of Egypt, the size of Jacob’s family was small.

The total number of Jacob’s direct descendants who went with him to Egypt, not counting his sons’ wives, was sixty-six. In addition, Joseph had two sons who were born in Egypt. So altogether, there were seventy members of Jacob’s family in the land of Egypt. – Genesis 46:26-27 NLT

Yet, some 400 years later, when the Israelites departed Egypt for Canaan, they probably numbered in the millions. They had expanded to such a degree that their very presence in the land of Egypt created fear and anxiety in the heart of Pharaoh. He saw the people of Israel as a growing threat.

“Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country. – Exodus 1:9-10 NLT

And, in an effort to demoralize the Israelites and diminish any potential threat they might pose, he began to brutally mistreat them.

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labosetting them apart as His own and declaring them to be His chosen possession and the instrument through which He would bring a blessing to the nations of the earth. – Exodus 1:11 NLT

The descendants of Jacob suffered greatly, but God heard their cries and responded to their plight. He sent Moses to be their deliverer. And eventually, Moses would orchestrate the release of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt and lead them to the land that God had promised to Abraham centuries earlier. And just prior to their entrance into the land of promise, Moses would remind them of their unique and undeserved status as God’s chosen people.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

Now, hundreds of years after conquering and occupying the land of Canaan, the descendants of Jacob are receiving a powerful word of warning from the prophet Amos. He boldly and unapologetically relays God’s dissatisfaction with His chosen people. But he prefaces it with a reminder that they had enjoyed a truly unique status among all the nations of the earth. Unlike the Syrians, Philistines, Phoenicians,  Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites, the Israelites had been allowed to have an intimate relationship with the God of the universe.

“You only have I known
    of all the families of the earth…” – Amos 3:2 ESV

And they were about to discover that the privilege of being God’s chosen people came with serious consequences. They were going to be held to a higher standard because they been allowed to have an intimate and undeserved relationship with the God of the universe.

Centuries later, Jesus would make the statement: “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (Luke 12:48 NLT). And that sentiment reflects the words of the prophet Micah.

O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

The Israelites had treated their privileged position as God’s chosen people with disdain, and now they were going to pay for it.

“…therefore I will punish you
    for all your iniquities.” – Amos 3:2 ESV

The one who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt was going to bring them down. He would no longer allow them to drag His holy name through the mud. He would no longer tolerate their rebellion and repeated refusals to repent. The people of God were going to experience the full wrath of God. And as God will make perfectly and painfully clear in the chapters ahead, He was intimately aware of every one of their sins.

“For I know the vast number of your sins
    and the depth of your rebellions.” – Amos 5:12 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.

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

Family Matters

11 Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Edom,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because he pursued his brother with the sword
    and cast off all pity,
and his anger tore perpetually,
    and he kept his wrath forever.
12 So I will send a fire upon Teman,
    and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.” Amos 1:11-12 ESV

Amos now shifts his attention from the Phoenician coastline to the nation of Edom, located at the far southeastern corner of the land of Canaan. But this will prove to be far more than just a change in geographic location. Amos’ decrees of divine judgment are beginning to narrow in on the people of God. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob, making them close relatives of the Israelites.

But these two people groups had a love-hate relationship that began hundreds of years earlier. When Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, had been unable to bear him any children, he took the matter to God, pleading with Yahweh on her behalf.

The Lord answered Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant with twins.  But the two children struggled with each other in her womb. So she went to ask the Lord about it. “Why is this happening to me?” she asked. – Genesis 25:21-22 NLT

And God graciously responded to Rebekah, informing 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).

As divine providence would have it, when the two boys were born, Esau was the first to exit the womb, making him the legal firstborn. Yet, as the story goes, the day came when Esau willingly traded his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, for a bowl of stew. Driven by his physical appetites, Jacob treated his birthright with disdain and agreed to this ridiculously lopsided arrangement.

Esau swore an oath, thereby selling all his rights as the firstborn to his brother, Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil stew. Esau ate the meal, then got up and left. He showed contempt for his rights as the firstborn. – Genesis 25:33-34 NLT

By essentially “selling” his birthright, Esau was forfeiting his rightful role as the next chief of the tribe and head of the family. At that moment, his present physical needs far outweighed any future promise of power and responsibility. And Esau would continue to live his life driven by his physical appetites. Eventually, he would disobey and disappoint his parents by choosing two wives from among the Hittites. These two women “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” (Genesis 26:35 ESV). But Esau would be in for a bitter shock of his own. Years later, as Isaac neared death, he called for Esau and made him a promise.

“Prepare my favorite dish, and bring it here for me to eat. Then I will pronounce the blessing that belongs to you, my firstborn son, before I die.” – Genesis 27:4 NLT

But Rebekah overheard this conversation and devised a plan by which Jacob would deceive his nearly blind father by disguising himself as his Esau and stealing the birthright. Their plan worked and Isaac unwittingly passed on the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob.

“From the dew of heaven
    and the richness of the earth,
may God always give you abundant harvests of grain
    and bountiful new wine.
May many nations become your servants,
    and may they bow down to you.
May you be the master over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
All who curse you will be cursed,
    and all who bless you will be blessed.” – Genesis 27:28-29 NLT

It seems unclear whether Isaac and Rebekah were aware of the stew-for-birthright trade made between the two brothers. That arrangement may have never been divulged by either Esau or Jacob. But by having sold his birthright, Esau had given up his right to inherit his father’s estate. He would not enjoy “head of household” status at the death of Isaac. Yet, despite his earlier show of contempt for his birthright, Esau still expected to receive the blessing of the firstborn. And when he found out that Jacob had tricked Isaac and stolen the blessing of the firstborn, he was furious. He demanded that Isaac bless him, but his cries were met with a disappointing response from his father.

“I have made Jacob your master and have declared that all his brothers will be his servants. I have guaranteed him an abundance of grain and wine—what is left for me to give you, my son?” – Genesis 27:37 NLT

Eventually, Isaac would pronounce a blessing on Esau, but it would far from encouraging or aspirational.

“You will live away from the richness of the earth,
    and away from the dew of the heaven above.
You will live by your sword,
    and you will serve your brother.
But when you decide to break free,
    you will shake his yoke from your neck.” – Genesis 27:39-40 NLT

It is easy to understand the animosity that Esau held for his brother, Jacob. He even thought seriously about killing him. But eventually, the wound between them was healed. Esau would later settle in the hill country of Seir or Edom (Joshua 24:4). And when the Israelites eventually made their way to the promised land, they had to pass through Edom. God warned Moses and the Israelites to treat the Edomites as brothers.

“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. – Deuteronomy 23:7 ESV

Yet, over the years, the Edomites would become a constant source of irritation for the Israelites. During the reign of King Saul, there were many battles fought between these two nations. King David would eventually subjugate them, but they remained enemies and not allies. And Amos reveals that God will not let the Edomites go unpunished for their mistreatment of their Israelite brothers.

“They chased down their relatives, the Israelites, with swords,
    showing them no mercy.
In their rage, they slashed them continually
    and were unrelenting in their anger.– Amos 1:11 NLT

While Jacob and Esau had resolved their conflict, the animosity over the birthright and the blessing appears to have remained unabated and manifested itself in the lives of their descendants. As Isaac had predicted, the Edomites ended up serving the Israelites. The descendants of Jacob became the masters of their brothers. And it was all in keeping with the promise that God had made to Isaac.

“I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 26:4 ESV

Despite the deceit employed by Jacob and Rebekah and the contempt displayed by Esau, this had all been according to the will of God. The apostle Paul comments on this matter in his letter to the Romans.

When he [Isaac] married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But 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 9:10-13 NLT

God had sovereignly chosen Jacob over Esau, and the older had ended up serving the younger. But, as always, there was resistance to the will of God. The Edomites would end up resenting the Israelites. And their ongoing efforts to make life miserable for their relatives would earn them the anger and judgment of God. Through His prophet, Amos, God decreed the nature of His divine retribution for their transgressions.

“So I will send down fire on Teman,
    and the fortresses of Bozrah will be destroyed.” – Amos 1:12 NLT

Underlying Edom’s sin was a heart of pride and arrogance. They had become full of themselves. And God delivered a stinging indictment against them through another one of His prophets.

The Lord says to Edom,
“I will cut you down to size among the nations;
    you will be greatly despised.
You have been deceived by your own pride
    because you live in a rock fortress
    and make your home high in the mountains.
‘Who can ever reach us way up here?’
    you ask boastfully.
But even if you soar as high as eagles
    and build your nest among the stars,
I will bring you crashing down,”
    says the Lord. – Obadiah 2-4 NLT

The Edomites were boastful and proud. They had become arrogant and even apostate, choosing to worship false gods rather than serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God would punish them for the many transgressions.

“Because of the violence you did
    to your close relatives in Israel,
you will be filled with shame
    and destroyed forever.
When they were invaded,
    you stood aloof, refusing to help them.
Foreign invaders carried off their wealth
    and cast lots to divide up Jerusalem,
    but you acted like one of Israel’s enemies.” – Obadiah 10-11 NLT

Despite being descendants of Isaac, the Edomites were seen by God as little more than godless foreigners. Just as Esau had sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, the Edomites had sold their birthright as children of Abraham by compromising with the pagan culture of Canaan. So, God warned them that their future would be filled with curses and not blessings.

“The day is near when I, the Lord,
    will judge all godless nations!
As you have done to Israel,
    so it will be done to you.
All your evil deeds
    will fall back on your own heads. – Obadiah 15 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.

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

The Gift of God

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” – John 4:7-15 ESV

It is interesting that John makes special note that Jesus stopped in “a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (John 4:5 ESV). This reference to Joseph has special significance because of the role he played as Israel’s “savior” hundreds of years earlier. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and he ended up in Egypt. But through a series of divinely orchestrated events, Joseph eventually became the second-highest-ranking official in all of Egypt. Years later, when a famine struck the land of Canaan, Jacob sent his remaining sons to Egypt to seek food. But what they discovered was their long-lost brother. And to their surprise, rather than use his position and power to punish them for their past treatment of him, Joseph showed them mercy and grace. He provided them with forgiveness for their sins against him as well as well-watered land for their flocks. So the Israelites, just 70 members strong at that time, settled in Egypt. And, in response to his brothers’ concern that he might seek to harm them, Joseph told them:

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” – Genesis 50:20 ESV

Jacob and Joseph would both die in Egypt. But, years later, when the sons Jacob returned to the land of Canaan, they brought the bones of Joseph and buried them in Shechem (Sychar), near the spot where Jesus had chosen to take His midday rest stop.

John mentions, almost in passing, that Jesus was weary from His journey. This rather oblique reference is intended to remind the reader that Jesus, while fully God, was also fully human. And in His humanity, Jesus experienced the same physical attributes as any other man, including hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. In this little scenario, Jesus would have looked like any other travel-worn Jew making his way through the region of Samaria. So, when the Samaritan woman appeared on the scene, she would have taken very little interest in this unknown Jewish man – until He spoke to her.

John indicates that Jesus was the first to speak, saying to the woman, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7 ESV). While this scene may appear somewhat innocuous to us, for the original readers of John’s gospel, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman would have been shocking. Here was Jesus, a Jewish male, daring to strike up a conversation with a Samaritan woman. This kind of thing wasn’t done in Israel. First of all, Jesus broke social protocol by speaking to a woman in public. And to make matters worse, the woman to whom He spoke was a lowly Samaritan. She would have been considered idolatrous and, therefore, unclean. Yet, shockingly, Jesus chose to speak to her. 

Even the woman reveals her surprise that this Jewish man would dare to address her.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” – John 4:9 ESV

Just so his audience understands the gravity of the moment, John adds an important aside: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). This entire encounter was out of bounds and unexpected. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was smack-dab in the middle of Samaria, in the middle of the day, and speaking to an unclean Samaritan woman. Not only that, but He was also asking her to serve Him water from the vessel she used to draw from the well. What Jesus was about to do would render Him ceremonially unclean and in need of purification.

But Jesus shows no concern for His own spiritual well-being. Instead, He seems focused on the plight of the woman and replies to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10 ESV). 

In a sense, Jesus was informing the woman of His true identity. He was much more than an unidentified Jewish man asking for a drink of water. He was someone who had the power and authority to offer her “the gift of God,” a source of “living water.”

Confused by Jesus’ words, the woman responded, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11 ESV). At this point in the exchange, the reader should recall the earlier conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, the highly orthodox member of the Pharisees. He too had been perplexed by the words of Jesus concerning the new birth from above and had quizzically replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV). 

Don’t miss the contrast: A well-educated Jewish Pharisee and an idolatrous Samaritan woman. Both found themselves in a conversation with Jesus, the Son of God. But their minds were stuck on a horizontal plane, and incapable of understanding the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words. The woman, well-acquainted with the task of drawing her daily water from the well, could not understand what Jesus meant by His reference to “living water.” In her mind, Jesus was offering her a source of free-flowing water, like that found in a mountain stream. It stood in stark contrast to the well water to which she was accustomed. Access to water from a stream would mean she would no longer have to go through the arduous task of drawing stagnant water from a well. But as far as she could see, Jesus had no means of providing the “the gift” of which He spoke.

The woman not only found Jesus’ words confusing, but also a bit off-putting. Who was He to denigrate the water from Jacob’s well? Was it not good enough for Him? It had served to meet the needs of Jacob, so it was good enough for her. But Jesus pointed out the limitations inherent in Jacob’s well and the water it provided.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again…” – John 4:13 ESV

Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to understand that there was a physical and a spiritual dimension to life. Being born into the family of Israel was not going to be enough to earn Nicodemus entrance into the kingdom of God. And drinking water from the well of Jacob was not going to satisfy the Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst. Both of these individuals had a need that could only be met through Jesus. He was the light of life and the source of living water.

And Jesus informed the woman that the gift He was offering her was far greater than any water she might draw from a well.

“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 ESV

At this point in the story, we know nothing about this woman, other than her status as a Samaritan. Her very presence at the well reveals her need for and dependence upon water in order to survive. But Jesus knew there was a much greater need in this woman’s life. Her thirst was far more than physical. Just as Nicodemus was going to need a different kind of birth if he wanted to enter God’s kingdom, the Samaritan woman was going to need a different kind of water if she ever wanted to have her deep spiritual thirst satisfied. But the woman’s response to Jesus reveals just how blind she was to her own neediness.

“Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” – John 4:15 ESV

She was intrigued by the thought of a source of free-flowing water. And if this unknown Jewish man could tell her where to find it, she was all ears. The thought of never having to draw water from the well again was appealing to her. But like Nicodemus, she was missing the point. She was neglecting to see her real need. Nicodemus had seen himself as fully righteous and fully deserving of entrance into God’s kingdom. But he had been wrong. Just like everyone else, he required a birth from above. And this woman was never going to satisfy her real spiritual need with water from a well. Her sins, like those of Nicodemus, were great. Yes, they may have been of a different sort, but they were sins nonetheless. And she, like Nicodemus, stood before the Son of God, condemned by her sin and in need of a Savior.

Which brings us back to the story of Joseph and his brothers. The day came when they found themselves standing in front of the brother they had sold into slavery and left for dead. They were guilty and deserving of judgment. But Joseph showed them mercy. He extended grace. He used his power and authority to reward rather than punish them.

And like the brother’s of Joseph, this unidentified woman was going to discover the joy of having her sins forgiven. Jesus was about to let her know that God “brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20 NLT). And she would be graciously and unexpectedly included among the saved.

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

Who Is A God Like You?

18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
    and passing over transgression
    for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
    because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
    he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
    into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
    and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
    from the days of old. Micah 7:18-20 ESV

It was Warren Wiersbe who wrote, “Few passages in Scripture contain so much ‘distilled theology’ as Micah 7:18-20” (Warren Wiersbe, “Micah,” The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets). And his assessment could not be more accurate. These four verses are absolutely brimming with theological insights into the character and nature of God. And this amazing thing is that they come at the end of a book that warns of God’s coming judgment against a sinful and rebellious people.

This is the same man who opened chapter 7 with the statement, “Woe is me!” He was living during a time of great turmoil and stress and having to deal with the pending fall of his nation’s capital and the utter devastation of his own people. And yet, in the midst of it all, Micah is able to praise God, the very one who was bringing judgment against Israel and Judah.

While he was sadly confident that God would fulfill His promise to punish His disobedient children, Micah was also completely convinced of God’s plans to restore them. He saw no conflict or contradiction between these two aspects of God’s divine plan for His people. They had sinned against God and deserved His discipline. God was simply doing what any human father would do who loves his children but in perfect righteousness and justice.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline,
    and don’t be upset when he corrects you.
For the Lord corrects those he loves,
    just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. – Proverbs 3:11-12 NLT

Yet Micah also knew that God was committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had made a covenant to these men, guaranteeing to make of them a great nation, and promising to provide shower their descendants with His blessings.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And 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, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

And the Lord appeared to him [Isaac] and said, …“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…” – Genesis 26:2-4 ESV

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said [to Jacob], “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. – Genesis 28:13-14 ESV

God had made a commitment to remain faithful to HIs chosen people and Micah was willing to take God at His word. He opens this prayer of praise by asking the rhetorical question: “Who is a God like you?” Micah wasn’t expecting a response from God, because he already knew the answer. This “question-as-a-statement” device is found throughout Scripture and is intended to declare the greatness and transcendence of God. Moses declared:

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
    Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
    awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? – Exodus 15:11 ESV

David wrote:

“O Lord, who is like you,
delivering the poor
    from him who is too strong for him,
    the poor and needy from him who robs him?” – Psalm 35:10 ESV

And another unknown psalmist adds:

“Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?” – Psalm 113:5-6 ESV

Micah’s own name meant, “Who is like Yahweh?” His parents had given him a name that would constantly remind him of the unique nature of his God. And Micah believed it. But the one aspect of his incomparable God that Micah focused on was His willingness to forgive. What Micah couldn’t stop thinking about that his God “pardons the guilt of the remnant, overlooking the sins of his special people” (Micah 7:18 NLT). The false gods of the pagan nations were not known for their forgiving spirits. They were harsh, vindictive, and quick to mete out judgment, and yet, the people of Israel had made a habit of worshiping these gods in place of the one true God.

The problem with false gods is that they are nothing more than the creations of men. They don’t actually exist. And because they are the creations of men’s imaginations, they are little more than humans with supernatural powers. These gods bear a striking resemblance to fallen mankind, manifesting the same capacity to display uncontrolled anger, greed, vengeance, lust, and a blatant disregard for humanity.

But Micah’s God was different. Yes, He was going to judge His people for their sins, but His judgment would be followed by compassion, love, and forgiveness.

You will not stay angry with your people forever,
    because you delight in showing unfailing love. – Micah 7:18 NLT

Micah would have been very familiar with the story of when God had descended upon Mount Sinai and had declared to Moses:

“Yahweh! The Lord!
    The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
    and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
    I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
    I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
    even children in the third and fourth generations.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT

The God of Moses was the God of Micah. And he rested in the knowledge that what God had declared to Moses hundreds of years earlier was still true because his God never changes. He never goes back on His Word. He is faithful to keep all His promises and commitments “to a thousand generations.”

And Moses declared his trust in God’s word by stating, “you will have compassion on us. You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!” (Micah 7:19 NLT). The great king, David, had written a psalm that echoed this same sentiment, declaring the unprecedented character of Yahweh.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust. – Psalm 103:9-12 ESV

And Micah placed his hope and trust in the very same God that David worshiped and adored. This prophet of God, who had spent years delivering a call of repentance to his disobedient countrymen, was placing his confidence in what he knew about Yahweh. The days ahead were filled with destruction and devastation, but Micah rested in the word of God. He was a loving, compassionate, and forgiving God. He was a covenant-keeping God.

God had promised to bless the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Micah was fully convinced that He would. God had declared that those very same people would be a blessing to the nations of the world, and Micah was confident that, one day, they would be. He rested his hopes in the character of his God. He placed his confidence in the integrity, righteousness, and holiness of Him who was like no other.

Micah began this prayer of praise with the question: Who is a God like you? And he answered his own question by declaring the unparalleled mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness of his God. There was and never will be anyone like God.

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

There Is None Like God

23 And of Naphtali he said,

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.”

24 And of Asher he said,

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil.
25 Your bars shall be iron and bronze,
    and as your days, so shall your strength be.

26 “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
    who rides through the heavens to your help,
    through the skies in his majesty.
27 The eternal God is your dwelling place,
    and underneath are the everlasting arms.
And he thrust out the enemy before you
    and said, ‘Destroy.’
28 So Israel lived in safety,
    Jacob lived alone,
in a land of grain and wine,
    whose heavens drop down dew.
29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
    a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
    and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
    and you shall tread upon their backs.” Deuteronomy 33:23-29 ESV

The last two tribes to receive the blessing of Moses are those of Naphtali and Asher. Once Israel entered Canaan and began their conquest and occupation of the land, these two tribes would eventually settle in the northern region, encompassing the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, as well as Dan, the city that would become home to one of the golden calves set up by King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel.

These two tribes would eventually find themselves living on very rich and fertile land with Asher enjoying access to the Mediterranean Sea. The tribe of Naphtali would own the entire eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, providing it with easy access to fresh water and the abundance of fish it contained. The Dan River, emanating from Mount Herman, flowed into the Jordan and on to the Sea of Galilee, providing a ready source of fresh water year-round.  So, these two tribes enjoyed fertile land and access to ample natural resources. In his blessing of them, Moses made reference to their favorable circumstances, even before the Israelites had crossed the Jordan or the land had been allotted.

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.” – Deuteronomy 33:23 ESV

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil. – Deuteronomy 33:24 ESV

This last phrase is likely a reference to olive oil, a symbol of blessing and prosperity. The land the tribe of Asher would occupy in Canaan was abundant in olive trees and this commodity would be in high demand among the other tribes, providing Asher with a lucrative market.

The blessing Jacob gave to Naphtali is a bit vague and difficult to understand.

“Naphtali is a doe let loose
    that bears beautiful fawns.”
– Genesis 49:21 ESV

Their designation as a “doe let loose” seem to convey a certain freedom they would enjoy as a tribe. And the second half of Jacob’s blessing can best be translated as “he gives beautiful words” (NET). The tribe of Naphtali would live in a large, fertile region of Canaan, and they would have a positive influence on the rest of the tribes.

But for all the abundance of their lands and the positive qualities associated with these two tribes, the book of Judges reveals that neither Naphtali or Asher were successful in driving out the inhabitants of their allotted territories.

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. – Judges 1:31-32 ESV

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. – Judges 1:33 ESV

God would bless them abundantly, but they would fail to live fully obedient to His commands. The phrase, “so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites” is meant to convey shock and surprise. They would directly violate the revealed will of God, choosing instead to compromise their convictions and maintain a relationship with their enemies that was based on convenience and concessions. The tribe of Asher was supposed to have become the new inhabitants of the land, but their refusal to eliminate the Canaanites, left them as interlopers in a land that God had provided as their inheritance.

And the author of Judges states that the tribe of Naphtali fared no better, choosing to live among the Canaanites rather than do as God said and eradicate them from the land.

The book of Judges goes on to tell the story of a future leader from the tribe of Naphtali. This man’s name was Barak, and he had been commanded by God to raise an army of 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, in order to attack the Canaanites. But he refused. Instead, he waited for Deborah, the God-appointed judge over Israel to show up and lead the army. And when Deborah got word, she sent for Barak and questioned why he had refused to obey the Lord.

“Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  – Judges 4:6-8 ESV

Deborah agreed to fight alongside Barak and his army, but she delivered some less-than-encouraging news.

“I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” – Judges 4:9 ESV

God gave them the victory that day, but it was at the hands of a woman named Jael. During the battle, Sisera, a Canaanite general fled from the scene and sought refuge in Jael’s tent. He begged her to keep watch while he rested in her tent, but instead, Jael took matters into her own hands – literally.

But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. – Judges 4:21 ESV

As with the rest of the blessings Moses gave, they reveal that God was going to use these tribes in ways they could not imagine or fully predict. Even the blessings pronounced by Jacob hundreds of years earlier would be fulfilled, but in ways that he could have never understood. These blessings say far more about the sovereignty of God than they illuminate the future of the various tribes. Both Jacob and Moses knew that God was the key to whether Israel survived or thrived.

That is why Moses closes up this section with an emphasis on God and His greatness.

“There is no one like the God of Israel.
    He rides across the heavens to help you,
    across the skies in majestic splendor.
The eternal God is your refuge,
    and his everlasting arms are under you.
He drives out the enemy before you;
    he cries out, ‘Destroy them!’” – Deuteronomy 33:26-27 NLT

All the great things Moses had to say about the tribes were meant to reflect on the goodness of God. He is the one true God who operates from His heavenly kingdom, from where He controls all the affairs of earth. He was going to help Israel by providing them with refuge and driving out the enemies before them. But as Judges 1 reveals, the tribes of Israel would doubt the word of God, refusing to do their part in the elimination of the Canaanites. And their failure to remove the pagan nations from their midst would end up diluting their effectiveness and diminishing their faithfulness.

As Moses wraps up his oration to the people of Israel, his last will and testament, he reminds them that God was their help and hope.

So Israel will live in safety,
    prosperous Jacob in security,
in a land of grain and new wine,
    while the heavens drop down dew.
How blessed you are, O Israel!
    Who else is like you, a people saved by the Lord?
He is your protecting shield
    and your triumphant sword!
Your enemies will cringe before you,
    and you will stomp on their backs!” – Deuteronomy 33:28-29 NLT

They could trust God. And, as long as they did, they would experience the blessings of God. His provision and protection, as well as their prosperity, were tied to their trust in God. As long as they stayed fully reliant upon His power and fully committed to keeping His commands, they could enjoy His favor and faithfulness. But time would reveal that each of the tribes would turn their backs on the very one who had saved them and was ready, willing, and able to bless them.

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

Faithful to the End

18 And of Zebulun he said,

“Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out,
    and Issachar, in your tents.
19 They shall call peoples to their mountain;
    there they offer right sacrifices;
for they draw from the abundance of the seas
    and the hidden treasures of the sand.”

20 And of Gad he said,

“Blessed be he who enlarges Gad!
    Gad crouches like a lion;
    he tears off arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best of the land for himself,
    for there a commander’s portion was reserved;
and he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.”

22 And of Dan he said,

“Dan is a lion’s cub
    that leaps from Bashan.” Deuteronomy 33:18-22 ESV

Zebulun and Issachar were sons of Jacob by Leah, and their allotments of land in Canaan shared a common border. So, Moses addresses these two tribes with a combined blessing.

Moses refers to Zebulun “going out” and Issachar “in your tents.” It seems that one tribe would become traders, going out in ships and returning with foreign goods and profits from their journeys. Yet the tribe of Issachar would remain in their tents, living a more agrarian and settled life.

But with their location between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, they would “draw from the abundance of the seas.” And Zebulun, in particular, would benefit greatly from its access to Sidon. They would eventually establish commercial links to the Phoenicians, and become profitable traders all along the Mediterranean coastline.

In his blessing of Zebulun, Jacob had prophesied of the tribe’s close association with the sea.

“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea;
    he shall become a haven for ships,
    and his border shall be at Sidon.” – Genesis 49:13 ESV

It is important to note that the land the tribe of Zebulun occupied would become part of region known as Galilee. And the book of Isaiah predicts that the day would come when Zebulun and its neighboring tribe, Naphtali, would experience days of darkness and despair. They, along with the other tribes of the northern kingdom, would be conquered by the Assyrians and taken into captivity. But God had good news for them.

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

Out of the land of Galilee would come the long-awaited Messiah. God would send His Son as the light of the world, piercing the darkness of sin and offering a means by which fallen mankind could be restored to a right relationship with Himself.

Concerning Issachar, Jacob had seen his son’s occupation as a laborer, working the land and, as Moses later put it, benefiting from “the hidden treasures of the sand.” But Jacob also predicted the future Issachar and his brothers would experience as slaves of the Assyrians.

“Issachar is a strong donkey,
    crouching between the sheepfolds.
He saw that a resting place was good,
    and that the land was pleasant,
so he bowed his shoulder to bear,
    and became a servant at forced labor.” – Genesis 49:14-15 ESV

When it came to his son, Gad, Jacob had little to say.

“Raiders shall raid Gad,
    but he shall raid at their heels.” – Genesis 49:19 ESV

It seems that Gad, a relatively small tribe, would find itself under constant attack by marauding bands of brigands and opportunists. We know from Judges 1, that none of the tribes were successful in removing the Canaanites from the land. So, there were always remnants of these enemies wandering throughout the land, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting villages and towns belonging to the Israelites. And because Gad as relatively small, they were an easy target. But Jacob predicted that the descendants of Gad would give as well as they took.

Moses adds another element to his blessing of the tribe of Gad, by recognizing God’s blessing of them. They were awarded “the best of the land” – a reference to the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan. Long before the people of Israel crossed the border into Canaan, the tribes of Gad, Manassah, and Reuben had requested to settle the rich pasture land lying outside the land of promise. And Moses gave them permission to do so as long as they agreed to help the remaining tribes conquer and settle the land of Canaan. They did so and were awarded the land of Gilead as their inheritance. Moses honors them for the commitment to keep their word.

“…he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.” – Deuteronomy 33:21 ESV

When Jacob blessed his son, Dan, he paints a rather disconcerting image of his future. He describes him as a judge of his people, but also as a serpent or poisonous snake.

“Dan shall judge his people
    as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan shall be a serpent in the way,
    a viper by the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that his rider falls backward.
I wait for your salvation, O Lord.” – Genesis 49:16-18 ESV

The book of Judges clarifies this rather conflicting image by telling us, “Now in those days Israel had no king. And the tribe of Dan was trying to find a place where they could settle, for they had not yet moved into the land assigned to them when the land was divided among the tribes of Israel” (Judges 18:1 NLT).

They had been alloted land in Canaan and, while it was small in size, it was very fertile. But, like all the other tribes, Dan had failed to drive out the Canaanites and so they never fully occupied the land given to them by God.

The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. – Judges 1:34 ESV

So, rather than obeying the command of God, they decided to search for other lands in which to settle. They set out five spies who came back with a report of a possible spot for resettlement.

So the five men went on to the town of Laish, where they noticed the people living carefree lives, like the Sidonians; they were peaceful and secure. The people were also wealthy because their land was very fertile. And they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. – Judges 18:7 NLT

This news prompted the Danites to send 600 men to attack Laish and take the land as their own. But on the way, they decided to steal a Levite who was serving in the household of an Israelite named Micah. We know from the text, that Micah had employed this Levite to serve as his personal priest and that Micah and his neighbors were idolatrous. When the Danites stole the young Levite, they also took the false gods Micah worshiped, which cause he and his neighbors to chase down the Danites and beg for their return.

Then, with Micah’s idols and his priest, the men of Dan came to the town of Laish, whose people were peaceful and secure. They attacked with swords and burned the town to the ground. There was no one to rescue the people, for they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. This happened in the valley near Beth-rehob.

Then the people of the tribe of Dan rebuilt the town and lived there. They renamed the town Dan after their ancestor, Israel’s son, but it had originally been called Laish. – Judges 18:27-29 NLT

Years later, God would divide the kingdom of Israel in two, creating Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The Danites would play a huge part in the eventual fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. In 1 Kings 12:25-33, we have the account of King Jeroboam who, fearing that the citizens of the northern kingdom would travel to Jerusalem in the south in order to worship God, decided to erect two altars in the north of Dan. Not only that, he erected a golden calf at each location, creating his own false gods and an entire religious system of his own design.

Interestingly enough, all Moses had to say about Dan was “Dan is a lion’s whelp,
That leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22 NLT). Bashan was located near Laish, the town that the Danites conquered and occupied. The description of Dan as a lion’s whelp or cub is intended to portray that tribe as impetuous and undisciplined. It lacks wisdom and the skills acquired by age and experience. The Danites would steal land not given to them by God. They would steal a Levite and make him their personal priest, something God never commanded. And, on top of all that, they would steal idols and set them up as their gods. Eventually, under the poor leadership of Jeroboam, they would create their own religion and erect their own altars to false gods, leading to their eventual judgment by God.

Each of these tribes, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, and Dan, had been set apart by God as His own. But they had all failed to live up to God’s standards. They had proven to be unfaithful, disbelieving, and disobedient. But even their wickedness would not keep God from displaying His faithfulness. Out of the darkness of Zebulun a great light would shine. The book of John records the arrival of this great light in the form of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 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 1:9-13 ESV

Even though darkness reigned, the light penetrated the darkness. Even though the tribes of Israel proved unfaithful, God proved Himself to be faithful to keep His word.

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

The God Behind the Blessings

“Let Reuben live, and not die,
    but let his men be few.”

And this he said of Judah:

“Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah,
    and bring him in to his people.
With your hands contend for him,
    and be a help against his adversaries.”

And of Levi he said,

“Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
he disowned his brothers
    and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O Lord, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” Deuteronomy 33:6-11 ESV

Moses begins his pronouncement of blessings on the 12 tribes with Reuben. This is in keeping with Reuben’s position as the first-born son of Jacob. And Moses seems to echo the sentiments of Jacob when he bestowed the following blessing on Reuben hundreds of years earlier:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength,
    the child of my vigorous youth.
    You are first in rank and first in power.
But you are as unruly as a flood,
    and you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife;
    you defiled my marriage couch.” – Genesis 49:3-4 NLT

Reuben had sinned against his father and against God, having slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. This was a crime punishable by death, and yet, Reuben was allowed to live. But as the words of Jacob reveal, Reuben and his descendants would pay for dearly for his sin. The Reubenites would be one of three tribes who asked for and receive land on the east side of the Jordan, choosing to settle outside the land of promise. In time, they would lose their prestige, fading in prominence and number. It is interesting to note that the tribe of Reuben produced no judges, prophets, or rulers. In spite of his sin, Reuben was allowed to live, but his descendants would never enjoy fulness of life.

Moses deviates from Jacob’s order of blessings by skipping over the tribes of Simeon and Levi and focusing on Judah. And Moses’ blessing, while shorter in length, contains some of the same thoughts as those expressed by Jacob. Both men saw Judah as the preeminent tribe among the 12. Jacob had predicted Judah’s rise to prominence, describing his son as a young lion that grabs its enemies by the neck. Jacob mentions the king’s scepter and the ruler’s staff, symbols of power and authority, and states that from this tribe will come one to whom these things rightfully belong.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

This prophetic statement concerns the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah and was a descendant of King David. The scepter and the ruler’s staff belong to Him. And in John’s vision of Jesus recorded in the book of Revelation, he describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5 ESV). Obviously, the tribe of Judah would play a significant role in God’s plan of redemption for the world. It would be through this tribe that the Savior would come. And Moses, seeming to understand the future significance of this tribe, pronounces a blessing, asking God to protect and provide for them.

The great king David would come from the tribe of Judah. And it would be he who elevated the nation of Israel to greatness, establishing them as a major political and military force in that region of the world. And after God eventually divided the kingdom of Israel in half, the southern portion would take on the name of Judah, further enhancing this tribe’s prominence among the 12.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Levi, and he has much more to say about this tribe than Jacob did. Not only that, his words concerning Levi are much more positive than those of Jacob.

“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind;
    their weapons are instruments of violence.
May I never join in their meetings;
    may I never be a party to their plans.
For in their anger they murdered men,
    and they crippled oxen just for sport.
A curse on their anger, for it is fierce;
    a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob;
    I will disperse them throughout Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7 NLT

Jacob had a reason to be upset with these two sons. They had brought shame to the house of Jacob by their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. The story is a complicated one, but involves the rape of their sister, Dinah, by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (Genesis 34:2 ESV). Rather than seeking revenge for the rape of his daughter, Jacob determined to make a treaty with the Hivites, agreeing to allow intermarriage between their two nations, in direct violation of God’s command. Jacob’s sons demanded that Jacob require the circumcision of all the males among the Hivites as part of the agreement. When the Hivites had agreed and followed through on their commitment to be circumcised, Levi and Simeon “took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25 ESV). And rather than bless them, Jacob had issued a curse, predicting their ultimate dispersal among the rest of the tribes of Israel. And little did he know, that is exactly what would happen. But not as he suspected.

The book of Exodus records a seminal event in the history of Israel. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God when he received the news from God that things were not going well back in the camp of Israel. Moses descended the mountain only to find the people of Israel reveling before the golden calf they had constructed in his absence. While he had been on Sinai receiving God’s law, the people had been in the valley worshiping a false god they had made with their own hands. After destroying the idol they had made, Moses turned his anger against the people of Israel.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 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.

Then Moses told the Levites, “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 32:26-29 NLT

The tribe of Levi stepped up and used their swords to defend the integrity of God’s name and mete out His justice and judgment against all those who had participated in the idolatry and spiritual adultery. And as a result of their efforts, the Levites were set apart for the service of the Lord. They would become the priestly order, tasked with representing the rest of the tribes before the Lord and for the care and transport of the tabernacle. And when the nation of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the Levites would not be given land as an inheritance but would be given cities scattered throughout the tribes of Israel, in fulfillment of Jacob’s words.

The Levites had used treachery and deceit to repay the Hivites for the rape of their sister, but they had been motivated by a desire to avenge her mistreatment. They had also stood opposed to the treaty their father had made with the Hivites, knowing that it was improper for them to intermarry with these uncircumcised pagans. But while their hearts had been in the right place, they had taken matters into their own hands and violated the treaty their father had made. Yet, hundreds of years later, God would redeem the Levites, raising them up and using them to serve as His agents of judgment against their own brothers and sisters.

And Moses blesses them for their role as God’s intercessors. They had been used by God to avenge His holy name and mete out His judgment against the wicked at Sinai. And they had been set apart as priests, teaching Israel God’s laws, and offering sacrifices on their behalf so that they might remain in a right standing with God. At Sinai, the Levites had shed the blood of their brothers and sisters in order to assuage the righteous anger of God. But in the tabernacle, they would spill the blood of innocent bulls and goats, pouring it out as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the sins of the people.

From the days of Jacob to the time of Moses, God was working behind the scenes,  orchestrating events in such as a way that every blessing bestowed by each man would be fulfilled. But these blessings were not the words of men. They were the Spirit-inspired will of God. Neither Moses or Jacob fully understood the full import of their words or the exact nature of their outcome. But God did. He was and is sovereign over all. And while the tribe of Reuben would settle outside the land of promise, they would assist the rest of the tribes in conquering and possessing their inheritance. And God would raise up the tribe of Judah, allowing them to produce the future Messiah, the Savior of the world. The Levites, while cursed by their father for their deceit, would be redeemed by God and used to carry His tabernacle, communicate His law, and care for the spiritual needs of 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.

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