The Danger With Discontentment

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” Numbers 16:1-14 ESV

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is a fascinating one, filled with plenty of twists and turns, plot changes and story lines. It is easy to read this chronicle of the lives of the people of God and wonder how they could be so slow to learn. How could they refuse to obey God after all He had done for them? Why would they continue to whine, complain, and moan about their lot in life when the God of the universe was leading them, providing for them, and revealing Himself to them day after day? But the truth is, as believers, we have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God made available to us and yet we still struggle with obedience and belief. So, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to harshly judge the Israelites.

Yet in today’s story from chapter 16 we have another occurrence of jealousy and rebellion. It seems that Korah, a grandson of Kohath, and a member of the tribe of Levi, decided that he wanted to be free to take part in the priestly responsibilities. As a Kohathite, he was part of the clan responsible for the transportation and care of all the vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle. They had been assigned that role by God.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects.” – Numbers 4:4 NLT

According to God’s instructions, the Kohathites had a very specific role to play. And in order for them to do that job, Aaron, the high priest, and his sons had to prepare all the sacred objects for transport.

“When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:5-6 NLT

Every item had to be carefully prepared according to God’s painstaking instructions. If Aaron and his sons failed to do everything just as God had commanded, it would have devastating consequences for Korah and the rest of his clan.

“The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:15 NLT

“Do not let the Kohathite clans be destroyed from among the Levites! This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:18-20 NLT

All the holy objects were to be covered with cloths to prevent the Kohathites from inadvertently touching them. And the larger items had poles inserted into the specially crafted rings that allowed them to be carried safely and securely without risk of death. It should have been considered an honor to carry these priceless objects that were essential for the worship of Yahweh. Yet, we learn that Korah was not content with the God-ordained role he and his clan had been assigned. He wanted more.

Driven by jealousy and a desire for greater prominence, he enlisted the support of others and, together, they incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 4:2 NLT). It was a coup.

Korah appealed to other men in the camp to join him in his rebellion. He stirred up men from the tribe of Reuben by getting them to see that Moses had taken away the right of the firstborn of every tribe to serve God by replacing them with the sons of Levi. His argument was that every single Israelite was holy; not just Moses, Aaron, and the Levites.

He accused Moses of exalting himself above everyone else. He and his compatriots went to Moses and said, “You have gone too far! Everyone in Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Although Korah was from the tribe of Levi, he and his clan were not allowed to serve as priests, and he found this slight to be unacceptable. He viewed their role as “moving men” to be less-than-acceptable and more than a bit demeaning.

In his defense, Korah was basing his argument on a statement given by God when the people of Israel were still in Egypt.

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

But what Korah failed to remember was that the entire nation had done irreparable damage to their holy status when they had been encamped at Mount Sinai. While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to turn their back on God and worship a newly constructed golden calf (Exodus 32). And as punishment for their sin, God had given Moses orders to execute all those who had taken part in the idolatrous festivities.

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. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

It had been the Levites who stood by Moses’ side and carried out God’s orders. As a result, Moses rewarded them for their show of faithfulness and obedience.

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

But Korah wasn’t satisfied with God’s will. He demanded that a new plan be put in place. Yet, Moses attempted to reason with his disgruntled kinsman.

“Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well?” – Numbers 16:9-10 NLT

Moses couldn’t understand why Korah considered himself and his clansmen as second-class citizens. Why was he unable to view their God-ordained role as vital and worthy of their best efforts? And Moses tried to warn them that their complaint was really with God, not himself or Aaron.

The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:11 NLT

Korah was walking on thin ice. He was venturing into uncharted waters that would not bring him to a far-from-pleasant destination. And Moses attempted to reason with Korah’s compatriots, but they refused to listen to what he had to say.

“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” – Numbers 16:12-14 NLT

The stage was set. The lines were drawn. Korah and his disenchanted companions stood their ground and refused to heed the warnings of Moses. They were done taking orders from Moses and Aaron. As far as they were concerned, it was their time to shine and they would not be satisfied until they were the ones calling the shots.

But they failed to recognize that their complaints had reached the ears of God. He had been listening to their arrogant demands and knew that their discontentment was ultimately directed at Him. And it’s interesting to note that the very people who were responsible for transporting the holy objects from the tabernacle were carrying resentment for the very one for whom the tabernacle had been constructed.

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

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

 

The Painful Price of Pride

1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.

10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. 12 Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her—please.” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” 15 So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again. 16 After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran. Numbers 12:1-16 ESV

Moses was the God-appointed leader of the nation Israel and Aaron, his brother, had been set apart by God to serve as the high priest. And even when God had agreed to provide His chosen leader with administrative assistance, God poured out His Spirit on 70 men who would serve directly under Moses. They were not to replace him or to assume they served on an equal standing with him. These men were supposed to assist Moses in his oversight of the nation, wisely administering justice and handling disputes among the people so that Moses would not become overwhelmed.

Yet, this chapter introduces a new form of leadership struggle that rose among the people and it started with those who were closest to Moses – his own family. It seems that his brother and sister took issue with a marriage arrangement he had agreed to with a Cushite woman. There is some debate as to the identity of this woman, but it would appear that she was of a foreigner of Ethiopian descent. It could be that Moses’ first wife, Zipporah, had died some time during the last year, and he then married this Ethiopian woman. But whatever the circumstances, Miriam and Aaron took issue with the marriage and used it as an excuse to question Moses’ qualifications to lead the nation.

They saw the marriage as evidence of Moses’ lack of discernment and questioned whether he was really hearing from God. In fact, they claimed to be on an equal standing with Moses when it came to divine insight.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT

Miriam was older than Moses and had been the one who helped secure his safety when Pharaoh had ordered the murder all the male babies born among the Israelites living in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-16). Miriam had arranged with the daughter of Pharaoh to have the infant, Moses, nursed by one of the Hebrew women, who just happened to be her own mother (Exodus 2:7-9). Exodus 15:20 refers to Miriam as a prophetess of God, and Micah 6:4 lists her as one of the three individuals whom God appointed to lead the nation of Israel from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.” – Micah 6:4 ESV

But in Numbers 12, Miriam attempted to convince her brother, Aaron, to join her in staging a coup against Moses. It seems rather odd that she would target Aaron for participation in this little insurrection because he was already second-in-command and served as the high priest of the people. Even before Moses had successfully led the people of Israel out of Egypt, Aaron had served as his second-hand man. God had appointed him as Moses’ mouthpiece.

“What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. And look! He is on his way to meet you now. He will be delighted to see you. Talk to him, and put the words in his mouth. I will be with both of you as you speak, and I will instruct you both in what to do. Aaron will be your spokesman to the people. He will be your mouthpiece, and you will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.” – Exodus 4:14-16 NLT

But Miriam and Aaron had decided that they were just as qualified as their brother to serve as the de facto leaders of Israel. After all, they too had been born into the tribe of Levi and had every right to serve in a leadership capacity. And it didn’t help that Moses was a very humble individual who had no desire for the limelight. Of his own admission, he was far from charismatic or overly eloquent.

“O Lord, I’m not very good with words. I never have been, and I’m not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled.” – Exodus 4:10 NLT

His lack of self-esteem made him an easy target for Miriam’s attacks. She believed that Moses had been a poor choice by God and the Cushite marriage agreement had proven Moses’ lack of discernment. But God disagreed with their assessment and ordered the three siblings to meet Him at the tent of meeting, located just outside the camp.

And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words…” – Numbers 12:5-6 ESV

God wanted a word with these dissatisfied siblings and, when He was done, they were going to wish they had never opened their mouths against Moses. The first thing God cleared up was His divine right to choose whomever He wanted as His leader. Miriam may have been a prophetess of God, but that did not put her on equal footing with Moses. In fact, God seems to be taking a dig at Miriam’s prophetess status when He states, “If there were prophets among you, I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams” (Numbers 12:6 NLT).

Miriam had experienced no dreams or visions from God. Her demand for equal status was a figment of her own overactive imagination and over-inflated sense of self-worth. And to make sure she understood the vast difference between His relationship with her and the one He shared with Moses, God declared:

“Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is.” – Numbers 12:7-8 NLT

That had to have hit Miriam like a brick to the forehead. God’s words stung and burst the bubble of her own sense of self-importance. And, to make matters worse, God demanded to know why she had shown no fear to criticize Moses. Who did she think she was?

Having stated His case against Miriam and Aaron, God departed from them. But He left an unsettling reminder of His displeasure. When Aaron turned to look at Miriam, he was shocked to discover that her entire body was covered with leprosy. And fearing that he was next, he called out to Moses to intervene on their behalf.

“Oh, my master! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed.” – Numbers 12:11 NLT

The sudden and unexpected sight of his sister covered with leprosy must have reminded Aaron of another day when something similar had happened to Moses. Back when God had called Moses to be the chosen deliverer of the people of Israel, He had given him a series of signs that were intended to prove to the people of Israel that Yahweh had sent him.

“Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. – Exodus 4:6-7 ESV

Now, more than a year later, Moses and Aaron were staring at their sister, Miriam, whose entire body was covered with this hideous disease. But this time, there was no quick fix. Moses desperately pleaded for her immediate healing.

O God, please heal her—please.” – Numbers 12:13 ESV

But God refused to grant his request. Instead, He graciously announced that her punishment would not match the gravity of her crime.

“If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn’t she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, and after that she may be accepted back.” – Numbers 12:14 NLT

In essence, God is declaring that Miriam had defiled herself through her actions. And while God could have left her to suffer from the hideous effects of leprosy for a lifetime, He mercifully restricted her period of suffering to only seven days. But she would be required to spend the entire time on the outskirts of the camp, suffering the indignity of the disease and the social stigmatization of ceremonial impurity. She was to be treated as unclean and unwelcome among the people of God – until God had healed her. And during the seven days of her punishment, the entire nation of Israel was forced to delay their journey to the land of promise. Everything came to a halt because Miriam had decided to question the will of God and the authority of His chosen leader. And this painful punishment from God should have served as a powerful reminder to the entire nation that no one was immune to God’s discipline against disobedience. Even the sister of Moses.

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

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

Lamps, Levites, and Leadership

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” And Aaron did so: he set up its lamps in front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses. And this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the Levites from among the people of Israel and cleanse them. Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves. Then let them take a bull from the herd and its grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and you shall take another bull from the herd for a sin offering. And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. 10 When you bring the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, 11 and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. 12 Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord to make atonement for the Levites. 13 And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the Lord.

14 “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. 15 And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. 16 For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. 17 For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, 18 and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel. 19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.”

20 Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the people of Israel to the Levites. According to all that the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites, the people of Israel did to them. 21 And the Levites purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes, and Aaron offered them as a wave offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. 22 And after that the Levites went in to do their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and his sons; as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.

23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. 25 And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. 26 They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.” Numbers 8:1-26 ESV

Chapter seven recorded the joy and generosity of the people of Israel at the dedication of the tabernacle. The entire chapter is a list of all the gifts the various tribes brought to the dedication. And Moses painstakingly records the exact nature of each tribe’s contribution, revealing that they all gave equally. This occasion was spread out over 12 days, with the various sacrifices for each tribe taking up the better part of the day on which they made their presentation. So, for almost two solid weeks, there was the giving of gifts, the burning of sacrifices, and the atonement for the sins of the people. This would have been a remarkable celebration. And it ended with Moses going into the tabernacle to meet with God, where “he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim” (Numbers 7:59 ESV).

This was a joyful celebration because God had accepted their gifts and was in their midst.  And it was followed by the dedication of the Levites. These men were the literal “stand-ins” for the people. God had chosen them to serve Him in place of the firstborn males of the people. At one point, God had commanded that all the firstborn males were to be dedicated to His service. This was due to the fact that He had spared all the firstborn Hebrew sons on the night the Death Angel passed through the land of Egypt.

But later, God chose to use the Levites as substitutes for the firstborns of Israel. The male descendants of Levi would serve in their place. So on this day, the people were commanded by God to lay their hands on the heads of the Levites, transferring the sole responsibility of serving God onto the members of this one tribe. In essence, the Levites became living sacrifices, dedicated to God’s service.

But this chapter opens with a brief, yet important command from God concerning the golden lampstand. At first glance, these verses appear out of place. They don’t seem to fit the context. But upon closer examination, they begin to make sense.

God commands Moses to have Aaron light the golden lampstand within the tabernacle. The design for this vital tabernacle fixture was given much earlier and provides important details that will help explain the inclusion of verses 1-4. God had been very specific about the lampstand’s construction.

“Make a lampstand of pure, hammered gold. Make the entire lampstand and its decorations of one piece—the base, center stem, lamp cups, buds, and petals. Make it with six branches going out from the center stem, three on each side. Each of the six branches will have three lamp cups shaped like almond blossoms, complete with buds and petals.  Craft the center stem of the lampstand with four lamp cups shaped like almond blossoms, complete with buds and petals. There will also be an almond bud beneath each pair of branches where the six branches extend from the center stem. 36 The almond buds and branches must all be of one piece with the center stem, and they must be hammered from pure gold. Then make the seven lamps for the lampstand, and set them so they reflect their light forward. – Exodus 25:31-37 NLT

Notice the emphasis on the almond buds, blossoms, and petals. There are four separate references to this particular flower. The lampstand was to resemble a budding almond tree, which was the first tree to blossom and bear fruit in the spring. So, the lampstand was to be a visual symbol of life and fruitfulness, but also of light.

With the lampstand having been lit, God then instructed Moses to set apart the Levites. An elaborate ceremony was conducted to consecrate the Levites and to remind the Israelites that this one tribe had been chosen by God to serve as their substitutes.

“Of all the people of Israel, the Levites are reserved for me. I have claimed them for myself in place of all the firstborn sons of the Israelites; I have taken the Levites as their substitutes. – Numbers 8:16 NLT

God wanted to make it perfectly clear that the Levites had been given the sole responsibility of mediating before God on behalf of the people of Israel.

“I have claimed the Levites in place of all the firstborn sons of Israel. And of all the Israelites, I have assigned the Levites to Aaron and his sons. They will serve in the Tabernacle on behalf of the Israelites and make sacrifices to purify the people so no plague will strike them when they approach the sanctuary.” – Numbers 8:18-19 NLT

As part of the ceremony of consecration, the Levites “purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes” (Numbers 8:21 NLT).

After that the Levites went into the Tabernacle to perform their duties, assisting Aaron and his sons. So they carried out all the commands that the Lord gave Moses concerning the Levites. – Numbers 8:22 NLT

The lampstand was lit, the Levites were cleansed, and their ministry in the tabernacle on behalf of the people began. But fast-forward to chapter 16 and there you will find recorded a rather dark moment in Israel’s history. It took place as they continued their journey from Egypt to Canaan and it involved a significant rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. A small group of individuals, jealous of the power wielded by Moses and his brother, decided to stage a coup. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On “incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Their argument was that Moses and Aaron were nothing special because the whole nation had been set apart by God.

“You have gone too far! The whole community of Israel has been set apart by the Lord, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of the Lord’s people?” – Numbers 16:3 NLT

Moses responded to their demand for equality and equity with a challenge.

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The Lord will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence. – Numbers 16:5 NLT

Korah and his companions were declaring themselves to be on equal standing with Moses and Aaron. They felt like they were being slighted and treated like second-class citizens. But their complaints were ill-founded and unwise. They were actually questioning the will of God. And what makes this scene so fascinating is that Korah was a Levite. In fact, Moses points out this very fact when he states, “Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the Lord. Then we will see whom the Lord chooses as his holy one. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far!” (Numbers 16:6-7 NLT).

It seems that Korah and his cohorts were dissatisfied with their God-ordained role as servants in the tabernacle. They wanted power. They were looking for something more prestigious and worthy of honor. In fact, they wanted to be priests, just like Aaron and his sons. So, Moses confronted them for the insubordination that had led them to stage an attempted insurrection.

“Now listen, you Levites! Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well? The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:8-11 NLT

But despite Moses’ words, Korah and his companions remained unrepentant. They “stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance” (Numbers 16:19 NLT).

At this point in the story, the glory of God appeared before the people and the Almighty declared His intent to destroy the entire nation for its rebellion.

“Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” – Numbers 16:21 NLT

But Moses and Aaron interceded on behalf of the people and begged God to spare them.

“O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” – Numbers 16:22 NLT

As a result, God determined to wipe out the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. – Numbers 16:32-33 NLT

But the story doesn’t end there. Even after this tragic event, the people continued to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

But the very next morning the whole community of Israel began muttering again against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the Lord’s people!” – Numbers 16:41 NLT

In response to their continued insolence and rebellion, God sent a plague that left 14,700 people dead. Had not Aaron interceded, purifying the people with incense, even more people would have died.

The next thing God commanded Moses to do was to have each tribe bring a staff with the name of their tribe inscribed on it. They were to place these staffs inside the tabernacle in front of the Ark of the Covenant. God ordained this to be a final affirmation of leadership.

“Buds will sprout on the staff belonging to the man I choose. Then I will finally put an end to the people’s murmuring and complaining against you.” – Numbers 17:5 NLT

The next day, when Moses entered the tabernacle, “he found that Aaron’s staff, representing the tribe of Levi, had sprouted, budded, blossomed, and produced ripe almonds!” (Numbers 17:8 NLT).

God had settled the debate once and for all. He had reconfirmed the priestly role of Aaron and his sons. He had dramatically reminded the Levites of their status as His servants. And He had warned all the people of their need to submit to His divine will. Everyone had a part to play. No one was to covet the role of another. There was to be no disunity or jealousy. Every priest, Levite, Nazirite, and citizen of the nation of Israel was expected to live in submission to the will of God – no questions asked, no complaints registered.

And even the Levites were informed that the length of their service would only last 25 years. Once their service was complete, they were to relinquish their duties to another. God’s will and the holiness of God’s people was to be the highest priority of all involved.

“Chapter 8 deals with two issues: lamps and Levites. Both the proper setting of the lamps and the distinction of the Levites from the community are further elements in the purification of the nation in preparation for the holy task God had prepared for her. . . . May one suggest that as the lamps were to be properly focused on the bread of the Presence, so the Levites were to have their proper stance within the community as well?” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

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

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

You Reap What You Sow

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 ESV

Back in chapter one, James encouraged his readers to seek wisdom from God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV

And he added that God is the source of all good gifts.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17 ESV

Through their relationship with Jesus Christ, the Christians to whom James wrote enjoyed access to the indwelling Spirit of God and the life-transforming truth of the gospel. According to James, a Christ follower is to be characterized by obedience to the word of God. It’s not enough to hear it; you have to live it out in everyday life.

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

And James pointed out that a person who claims to be spiritual but fails to control their tongue is practicing a hypocritical and powerless form of religion.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

James described the tongue as a powerful and virtually uncontrollable source of destruction – even within the body of Christ. With his lips, a believer can declare his faith in Christ and then turn around and spread vicious rumors about a fellow Christ-follower. Ironically, the same tongue could be used to glorify God and vilify other believers.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:9-10 NLT

Now James explains how to determine whether you are operating according to godly wisdom and displaying an understanding of God’s will and ways. It’s all in how we behave. Our outward actions reveal whether we are walking in step with the Spirit of God. The things we say and do are the most accurate barometers of our spiritual health. They provide irrefutable evidence of the condition of our hearts. That’s why James demands that Christ-followers put the wisdom of God into practice through humble obedience to His will.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. – James 3:13 NLT

The apostle Paul stressed the non-negotiable nature of the Spirit’s involvement when it comes to living a godly and honorable life.

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

And Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides us with the power to tame the tongue and produce the fruit of righteousness.

…the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT

The Spirit is a God-given source of wisdom and supernatural strength, and His primary role is to guide and empower believers as they navigate the sometimes difficult path from salvation to future glorification. And Paul would have us remember that the Spirit wants to influence every area of the believer’s life – from his attitudes and actions to the words that come out of his mouth.

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. – Galatians 5:25-26 NLT

And James points out how easy it is to try and mask our lack of godliness through deceit and lies. When we fail to live in obedience to the Spirit, our lives inevitably produce a whole range of destructive deeds and Paul provides a shocking but incomplete list of them in his letter to the Galatians.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division,  envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

We’re either living in step with the Spirit of God or giving in to the desires of our own sinful natures. And it’s fairly easy to determine which path we have chosen based on the “fruit” our lives produce. That’s why James warns against attempting to cover up our godless lifestyle through lies and deceit.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. – James 3:14-15 ESV

When the wrong fruit appears in our lives, we’re tempted to cover it up by portraying ourselves as super saints and spiritual rock stars. We posture and pretend, trying to convince others of our superior spirituality. But all the while, we are living a lie. Yet we end up excusing and justifying our behavior and, in doing so, we display a form of wisdom that is anything but godly. Driven by selfish ambition and jealousy, we rationalize our behavior and promote a brand of wisdom that comes from the enemy and not God.

Jesus gave a perfect example of this self-righteous but self-deceiving kind of wisdom when He told the following parable to His disciples.

Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 NLT

The Pharisee was self-deceived. He wrongly viewed himself as spiritually superior and worthy of God’s praise. But Jesus declared him to be a self-righteous and pretentious hypocrite whose pride left him unjustified before God. He had lived this lie for so long that he eventually believed it to be true. He went home believing he was fully accepted before God, but he was wrong.

You can attempt to disguise the jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart but, in time, it always makes itself known. And James states that “wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind” (James 3:16 NLT). In other words, those two traits are never alone. They’re always accompanied by other, equally disturbing “fruit” that produce death rather than life. 

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. – James 3:17 ESV

God’s wisdom, which is available upon request, is capable of producing a host of outcomes that positively impact the life of the recipient and all those around him. It produces a desire for peace rather than jealousy and strife. In place of self-promotion, it displays a heartfelt concern for the well-being of others. It is reasonable rather than contentious and confrontational. It manifests itself in mercy toward others and produces fruit that is for their benefit. Godly wisdom allows no room for favoritism or partiality. It fosters unity and encourages an atmosphere of humility and selfless service to others.

James’ point is clear. Those who seek the wisdom of God will receive it. And when they avail themselves of it and live in obedience to it, it will produce a harvest of righteousness. The wisdom from above is fruitful but it must be cultivated by those whom God has chosen as His caretakers. If we obey His Word and live in keeping with His Spirit’s guidance, we will “plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18 NLT).

The apostle Paul reiterates this promise of fruitfulness when we choose to avail ourselves of God’s wisdom. But the choice is ours and we must make it every day of our lives.

You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:7-10 NLT

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

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

Cultivating True Community

1 Do not boast about tomorrow,
    for you do not know what a day may bring.
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
    a stranger, and not your own lips.
A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.
Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming,
    but who can stand before jealousy?
Better is open rebuke
    than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
    profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
One who is full loathes honey,
    but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.
Like a bird that strays from its nest
    is a man who strays from his home.
Oil and perfume make the heart glad,
    and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.
10 Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend,
    and do not go to your brother’s house in the day of your calamity.
Better is a neighbor who is near
    than a brother who is far away.
11 Be wise, my son, and make my heart glad,
    that I may answer him who reproaches me.
12 The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
    but the simple go on and suffer for it.
13 Take a man’s garment when he has put up security for a stranger,
    and hold it in pledge when he puts up security for an adulteress.
– Proverbs 27:1-13 ESV

Let’s face it. Relationships are messy. Living with others can be difficult at times. But there is a huge advantage to living in true biblical community. And the Proverbs have a lot to say about the impact of wisdom and foolishness on our relationships. While we can attempt to isolate ourselves from interaction with others, no one lives in a vacuum. And, whether we like it or not, we will eventually end up dealing with people from all walks of life and from every conceivable background. Even a few fools will cross our path as we navigate our way through life.

But this chapter continues to differentiate between the wise and the foolish, describing how each displays certain characteristics – some to be emulated and others to be avoided.

When it comes to relationships, a fool is self-centered, myopic, and tends to only think about himself. He lives his life with a certain level of insensitivity and never thinks about how his words and actions will impact those around him. In fact, he doesn’t even care. Because of their self-focused manner of life, fools tend to think too highly of themselves and have a distorted view of reality. That’s why the wise person should heed the following advice.

Don’t brag about tomorrow,
    since you don’t know what the day will bring

Let someone else praise you, not your own mouth—
    a stranger, not your own lips. – Proverbs 27:1-2 NLT

Instead, a man or woman of wisdom should readily accept their responsibility to care about and for those around them, and they should live accordingly.

Fools tend to leave a wake of disrupted relationships in their path. They are relationship wreckers who allow resentment, anger, and jealousy to wreak havoc on all those around them.

A stone is heavy and sand is weighty,
    but the resentment caused by a fool is even heavier.

Anger is cruel, and wrath is like a flood,
    but jealousy is even more dangerous. – Proverbs 27:3-4 NLT

Those who care about community understand that words are powerful. They know that there will be times when words of encouragement are needed, but also times when a word of warning or rebuke is necessary. In a healthy relationship, to withhold a much-deserved rebuke is as wrong as refusing to express our love verbally.

An open rebuke
    is better than hidden love!Proverbs 27:5 NLT).

While correction and criticism are never easy to receive, a true friend will care enough about us to tell us the hard truth.

Wounds from a sincere friend
    are better than many kisses from an enemy.Proverbs 27:6 NLT)

Fools make a habit of telling others what they want to hear. They use flattery to win others over but never truly mean what they say. And while a fool will butter someone up by telling them how wonderful they are, they will overlook the faults that are preventing that person from being who God wants them to be. False flattery is deadly. It puffs us up and gives us a false sense of confidence and feeds our self-righteousness. But a true friend will tell us the truth, even if it hurts.

As iron sharpens iron,
    so a friend sharpens a friend. – Proverbs 27:17 NLT

Friendships should involve some friction but it should be productive and not destructive. As we rub up against one another in our relationships there should be a certain give-and-take that allows us to push, prod, and pull each other towards increased righteousness.

But if we are honest, we have to admit that many of our relationships are shallow and dishonest. We refuse to speak the truth into one another’s lives. We openly tolerate godlessness and flatter one another with words of kindness when what we really need is a swift kick in the pants and a dose of reality.

The heartfelt counsel of a friend
    is as sweet as perfume and incense. – Proverbs 27:9 NLT

Yet, many of us are afraid to play hardball in our relationships because we fear what others may say about how we live our lives. We’re afraid that if we critique someone else’s life, it will leave the door open for them to return the favor. And, most likely, they will. But we should welcome it.

The truth is, most of us have no idea what we’re really like. We can’t see our faults and weaknesses. Our foolish friends will leave us thinking we don’t have any. But a true friend will point them out in a loving, caring way, and help us take steps to correct them. They are able to see the true condition of our hearts, something we can’t do on our own. ”

As a face is reflected in water,
    so the heart reflects the real person.Proverbs 27:19 NLT

We need one another. We need real relationships that produce real-life change. True biblical community is messy. It involves transparency, accountability, honesty, humility, patience and love. It takes work, but it is worth it. Cultivating true community has long-term, real-life benefits.

Never abandon a friend—
    either yours or your father’s.
When disaster strikes, you won’t have to ask your brother for assistance.
    It’s better to go to a neighbor than to a brother who lives far away. – Proverbs 27:10 NLT

You never know when you will need the help or counsel of a true friend. Life is full of all kinds of surprises and, in times of difficulty, you want to be surrounded by those who can step in and help. But you’ll want to make sure you’ve surrounded yourself with wise friends and not fools.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions.
    The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. – Proverbs 27:12 NLT

Prepare for the inevitable setbacks in life and maintain ongoing relationships with people who can provide wise counsel when you need it. In times of difficulty, a few friends with wisdom are of far greater value than a host of fools who lack sense. Life is too short and relationships are too important to waste your time cultivating friendships with fools.

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

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

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

From Sonship to Slavery

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.  Genesis 37:12-36 ESV

Joseph and his father had a unique relationship. While Joseph enjoyed the privileged status of being his father’s favorite son, he also appears to have served as Jacob’s personal spy, keeping tabs on the activities of his older brothers. Verse 2 reveals that “Joseph reported to his father some of the bad things his brothers were doing.” (Genesis 37:2 NLT). This doesn’t necessarily prove that Joseph was a snitch, but it does help to explain why his brothers hated him so much. They probably believed that Joseph’s royal treatment by their father was a form of compensation for his role as an informant. Joseph’s older brothers viewed him as spoiled, arrogant, and untrustworthy. He seemed to delight in telling them about his dreams, in which they were always cast as his groveling subjects. When he paraded around in the robe of many colors his father had given him, it only served to aggravate the seething envy of his brothers.

Sadly, Jacob appears to have been oblivious to the animosity he was stirring up in his own home. He doesn’t appear to recognize that his favored treatment of Joseph was driving a wedge between his 17-year-old son and his brothers that would soon reach a dangerous tipping point. Without realizing it, Jacob was fostering an atmosphere of distrust and dissension within his own home, and it was about to come back to haunt him.

Unwittingly, Jacob gave Joseph an assignment that would result in his disappearance and apparent death. He sent his young son to check up on his older brothers who were shepherding their flocks near Shechem, some 60 miles north of Hebron. Jacob owned land there, that he had bought from Hamor, the king of Shechem (Genesis 33:19). It was there that the son of Hamor had raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah and that her brothers, Simeon and Levi, had taken revenge by slaughtering all the males in Shechem. Now, years later, the sons of Jacob had returned to the scene of the crime, but rather than slaughtering and plundering, they were shepherding.

Eager to please his father, Joseph donned his multicolored robe and set off with the intention of returning with a full report of his brothers’ activities. But, unable to locate his brothers, Joseph sought the aid of a local resident and discovered his brothers had headed north to Dothan. Moses doesn’t reveal why the brothers left Shechem for Dothan, but the name “Dothan” means “two wells,” so it could be that they went there in search of water for their flocks. It just so happens that Dothan was located on a major trading route between Syria and Egypt. Perhaps the brothers intended to sell or trade some of their sheep or wool.

Moses indicates that the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance. Most likely, due to his colorful coat. And, as soon as they saw him, their anger reached a fever pitch. No longer content to simply despise Jacob, they began to plot his death.

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” – Genesis 37:19-20 ESV

They may not have understood the meaning behind the dreams or known the source of their content, but they recognized an arrogant spoiled brat when they saw one. And they had had enough of Joseph. But Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, intervened and pleaded with his brothers to spare Joseph’s life. He offered an alternative solution, suggesting that they throw Joseph in a nearby pit or cistern. Since the pit was located in the wilderness, far from prying eyes, the brothers assumed that Reuben was suggesting that they leave Joseph to die by natural causes. But his real intention was to come back later and rescue him. As the firstborn son, Reuben felt an obligation to protect his younger brother.

Having stripped Joseph of his colorful robe, they threw him into the empty cistern and sat down to enjoy a meal together. But their reverie was soon interrupted by a caravan of Ishmaelite traders. These men would have been close relatives of Reuben and his brothers because Ishmael had been the brother of their grandfather, Isaac. And, in verse 28, Moses indicates that there were also Midianites in the caravan. They were also close relatives of Jacob’s sons because Midian had been a brother to Ishmael and Isaac, having been born to Abraham through his second wife, Keturah.

So, this entire transaction was a family affair. The brothers of Joseph sold him to the brothers of Isaac, their grandfather. And it was Judah, a younger brother of Reuben, who came up with the idea of profiting off their brother rather than simply letting him die.

“What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” – Genesis 37:27 ESV

Their dislike for Joseph was so great that they all agreed to sell him as a slave in exchange for twenty shekels of silver. They literally sold out their younger brother. Unaware that this transaction had taken place, Reuben returned to find Joseph gone and he immediately felt the weight of his responsibility as the eldest son. What was he going to tell his father? How would Jacob ever get over the loss of his favorite son?

But his brothers had already come up with a plan. They took Joseph’s infamous robe and covered it with animal blood, then they concocted a story that had Joseph being killed and consumed by a wild animal. These men made a mutual pact to hide their actions from their father and deceive him into believing that his favorite son was dead. And their plan worked. When they returned to Hebron and informed their father, he was deeply distraught.

Jacob tore his clothes and dressed himself in burlap. He mourned deeply for his son for a long time. His family all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. – Genesis 37:34-35 NLT

But while Jacob mourned Joseph’s death, his missing son was actually on his way to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). No longer wearing his signature robe or enjoying his father’s favor, Joseph was transported to Egypt, where he was sold “to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard” (Genesis 37:36 NLT).

Hundreds of miles from where Jacob was living a nightmare, mourning the loss of his favorite son, God was actually paving the way for the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams. This entire scenario was part of God’s sovereign plan for the people of Israel, and He had foreshadowed it in a message He had given Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Genesis 15:13-16 NLT

God had a plan and He was bringing it about through the actions of Jacob and his sons. These men were completely unaware that their decisions were being sovereignly orchestrated by God Almighty in order to bring about His divine will. Jacob’s unwise favoring of his son had caused strife within his home, but God would use that animosity for good. Joseph would pridefully flaunt his status as the favored son and inflame the anger of his brothers. And those men would allow their jealousy and rage to treat their brother with contempt and disdain, selling him out for a few pieces of silver. But as bad as it all seemed, it was all the work of a loving, gracious, and all-knowing God, who was preparing to do something far greater than they could have ever imagined.

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

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

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

A Preview of Coming Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

14 So he went and took them and brought them to his mother, and his mother prepared delicious food, such as his father loved. 15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. 16 And the skins of the young goats she put on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17 And she put the delicious food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob.

18 So he went in to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22 So Jacob went near to Isaac his father, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands. So he blessed him. 24 He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” 25 Then he said, “Bring it near to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it near to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. Genesis 27:14-25 ESV

This story is meant to be disturbing. Yet, how easy it is to read it while completely glossing over the  blatant displays of human depravity it contains. No one in the narrative comes out looking like a hero.   In fact, Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob each stand as guilty and well-deserving of divine condemnation for their actions. And what should make this story so disconcerting and difficult to comprehend is the knowledge that none of their behavior was justified or necessary. Moses has made it clear that God had always planned for Esau to serve Jacob. Even while the two boys were still in Rebekah’s womb, God had informed her “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23 ESV).

The Almighty had a plan for these twin brothers. He had their futures completely orchestrated long before they took their first breaths. And while He provided Rebekah with no explanation as to how the older would end up serving the younger, it was not up for debate or worthy of doubt. God had a well-established track record of doing what He had promised to do.

And yet, these verses describe a scene in which the human actors seem to be operating according to worldly standards and in keeping with their own personal agendas. Isaac is using his capacity as the head of the household to satisfy his love of good food by requiring his son, Esau, to prepare him a meal in exchange for his blessing. In a sense, Isaac was requiring his son to earn the blessing that was rightfully his by birth.

Rebekah, in a blatant display of “helicopter parenting,” can’t help but interject herself into the scene in order to protect the interests of her favorite child. She was determined that Jacob should have it all and was willing to do anything to guarantee her preferred outcome. Blinded by jealousy and pride, Rebekah concocted an elaborate plan to deceive Isaac and defraud Esau. And her enthusiasm for the task must have been contagious because, after a brief display of reluctance, Jacob ending up jumping in with eager abandon.

According to his mother’s instructions, Jacob slaughtered the two goats, which she promptly prepared according to her husband’s favorite recipe. Rebekah had learned the truth to the old adage: The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

But Rebekah knew that she would have to employ further subterfuge if her plan was to be a success. And this is where the depth of her cunning and conniving comes into full view.

…she took Esau’s favorite clothes, which were there in the house, and gave them to her younger son, Jacob. She covered his arms and the smooth part of his neck with the skin of the young goats. Then she gave Jacob the delicious meal, including freshly baked bread. – Genesis 27:15-17 ESV

This woman was leaving nothing up to chance. Despite her husband’s old age and poor eyesight, she was going out of her way to ensure that her scheme went off without a hitch. And, sadly, she used her influence as a parent to convince her son to not only comply, but to carry out the dastardly plan. And he did so with enthusiastic abandon.

Disguised in his brother’s clothes and with his bare arms and neck covered in goat skin, Jacob approached his father. Carrying the food prepared by his mother, Jacob displayed his sold-out commitment to the plan and his full intention to deceive his own father. He was a willing participant in the deception and was essential to its success.

Jacob wasn’t just wearing a disguise, he was living a lie. He purposefully and deceitfully portrayed himself as his brother so that he might steal that which did not belong to him. From this point forward, Jacob found himself caught in a lie that would continue to escalate and intensify, plunging him deeper into a black hole of deception and condemnation. When asked by Isaac to identify himself, Jacob replied, “It’s Esau, your firstborn son. I’ve done as you told me. Here is the wild game. Now sit up and eat it so you can give me your blessing” (Genesis 27:19 ESV).

And when Isaac expressed surprise at how quickly Esau had returned from the hunt with a meal already prepared, Jacob was forced to think on his feet. But look closely at how he explains himself.

“Because the Lord your God granted me success. – Genesis 27:20 ESV

Not only was Jacob lying, but he was dragging God into his web of deceit. Essentially, Jacob was guilty of using God’s name in vain. The name of God was synonymous with His character. His name was representative of His holiness and greatness. Jacob was using God’s name in a flippant and disrespectful manner, and attempting to leverage its significance to Isaac in order to accomplish his unethical and immoral plan. Whether Jacob realized it or not, he was walking on thin ice. He was using the name of God to perpetrate fraud.

And the story of Jacob’s deception provides evidence to the old adage: “One lie leads to another.” Once Jacob went down this path, there was no turning back. His father expressed confusion when he heard what sounded like Jacob’s voice coming out of a body that appeared to belong to Esau. “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. And with no hesitation, Jacob replied, “I am.”

Convinced by Jacob’s lies, Isaac quickly refocused the conversation to his more pressing need: His own appetite. He was ready to eat and would not give up the blessing until he had filled up his stomach.

So Jacob took the food to his father, and Isaac ate it. He also drank the wine that Jacob served him. – Genesis 27:25 NLT

Isaac feasted while Jacob watched and waited. Moses doesn’t disclose how long it took for Isaac to satisfy his hunger, but Jacob must have died a thousand deaths as he we watched the tent door, fully expecting his brother to return at any moment. And it seems likely that Rebekah was nearby, anxiously wondering why it was taking so long.

As stated earlier, the story is meant to be disturbing, but it’s also conveys a rather comical air. It’s difficult not to picture Jacob draped in goat hair, sweating profusely, and nervously watching as his half-blind father slowly consumes a meal.

The saddest character in the whole story is Esau, who was busily hunting for game so that he might prepare the meal that would earn him his long-awaited blessing. And all the while, his own mother and brother were conspiring behind his back to deprive him of what was rightfully his. And when Esau eventually returned, meal in hand, he would experience one of the greatest disappointments of his life – at the hands of his own family members.

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

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

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

Fear Not, For God Has Heard

And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Genesis 21:8-21 ESV

The birth of Isaac brought great joy to Sarah and Abraham. But his long-awaited arrival also rekindled some bitter animosities that lay hidden in Sarah’s heart. For the last 14 years, she had been forced to put up with the presence of Ishmael, the son that Hagar, her handmaiden, had born to Abraham. Every time she saw him, she was reminded of her ill-fated plan to have Hagar serve as her surrogate, providing Abraham with the son she was incapable of providing. But his presence soon became a constant irritant to her. In fact, not long after his birth she had forced Abraham to send he and his mother away, hoping to rid herself of this unfortunate reminder of her own insufficiency. But God had other plans. He demanded that Hagar and her newborn son return to Abraham’s household. And while that prospect probably didn’t sit well with Hagar, God provided her with a powerful promise that served as ample motivation for her to obey.

The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

Hagar did return, and for the next 14 years she raised her son in Abraham’s household. But with the birth of Isaac, things would take a dramatic turn for the worse. Moses mentions Isaac’s weaning, which would have taken place some two to three years after his birth. So, when Ishmael had reached the age of 16 or 17, he suddenly found himself facing Sarah’s full wrath. It all took place at a celebratory feast in honor of Isaac’s weaning.

During this festive occasion, Sarah saw Ishmael “laughing.” While the Hebrew word can refer to mocking or coarse jesting, it was most commonly used to refer to laughter. There is nothing in the text that would suggest that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac. Since the overall atmosphere was that of a festival, it seems much more likely that Ishmael was simply enjoying himself. But the embittered Sarah took exception to his presence and found his behavior irritating and unacceptable. So, once again, she demanded that Abraham get rid of this thorn in her flesh.

“Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!” – Genesis 21:10 NLT

Sarah’s strongly worded statement speaks volumes about the state of her heart. She was a jealous and angry woman. She was vengeful and vindictive. Despite God’s incredible blessings and the miraculous gift of a son, she displayed a remarkable level of animosity and ungratefulness. While it seems quite obvious that she despised Hagar and Ishmael, her real motivation was an unwillingness to give Ishmael any hope of sharing in Isaac’s inheritance. She could care less that Ishmael was a son of Abraham and a rightful heir to the family inheritance. She was demanding that Abraham disinherit Ishmael and kick he and his mother to the curb.

Abraham’s joyful feast had suddenly turned into a disturbing family feud, and it left him troubled and torn. After all, Ishmael was his son and he had been a part of the family ever since his birth. Yet now, Abraham was facing the prospect of having to case aside one of his own children or refuse, and face the wrath of his highly volatile wife.

There had been a time when Abraham thought Ishmael would be the son through whom God would fulfill all His promises. But God had made it clear that His plan would not include Ishmael. And yet, God promised to bless Abraham’s first-born son.

“No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” – Genesis 17:19-20 NLT

And, in an effort to comfort Abraham, God reiterated this promise concerning Ishmael.

“Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.” – Genesis 21:12-13 NLT

Basically, God was informing Abraham that Sarah’s jealousy-motivated demand was all part of His grand plan. In order for God to fulfill His plans concerning Isaac, there needed to be a physical separation of the two sons. And now, some 16-17 years after his first exile from Abraham’s home, Ishmael was old enough to survive life in the outside world. And God assured Abraham that Ishmael would not only survive, but he would thrive, eventually fathering a great nation of his own.

In a disheartening case of déjà vu, Hagar suddenly found she and her son wandering in the wilderness yet again. Abraham had graciously provided them with food and water but it was not longer before those provisions ran out.

When the water was gone, she put the boy in the shade of a bush. Then she went and sat down by herself about a hundred yards away. “I don’t want to watch the boy die,” she said, as she burst into tears. – Genesis 21:15-16 NLT

Moses’ description of this heart-wrenching scene almost portrays Ishmael as a small child, but he was likely a strapping young teenager. Yet, regardless of his age, Hagar, like any loving mother, viewed her son as innocent and helpless. She knew that it was just a matter of time before she and Ishmael succumbed to the harsh conditions of the wilderness. So, she removed herself some distance and waited for the inevitable to happen. But God had other plans.

It’s interesting to note that Moses describes Hagar as lifting up her voice and weeping. Yet, in the very next verse, he states that “God heard the voice of the boy” (Genesis 21:17 ESV). Perhaps Ishmael, like his father,  had learned to call upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 13:4). But rather than speaking to Ishmael, God addressed Himself to Hagar.

“What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” – Genesis 21:17-18 ESV

God was letting Hagar know that He was watching over her son. He knew what was happening and He had a plan in place. She had no reason to worry or fear. God assured this loving mother that she could hold fast to her son because he was in the highly capable hands of his loving heavenly Father. Abraham may have disinherited Ishmael but God had not.

In the midst of her heartache and despair, just when she thought all was lost, God showed up. And the gracious and all-merciful God gave this Egyptian handmaiden a powerful promise of future blessings on her son. He would make of Ishmael a great nation. And, as God opened Hagar’s ears to hear His promise, He opened her eyes to see the miraculous presence of a well in the middle of the wilderness.

God protected and provided for Hagar and her son. They both lived to see another day. He grew to become a mighty warrior and eventually found a wife who was an Egyptian just like his mother. Ishmael would go on to father 12 sons, just like Isaac (Genesis 25:13-16). And his descendants would eventually become the Arab nations that would prove to be a constant source of conflict for the people of Israel. This was all in keeping with the promise that God had made to Abraham sometime earlier.

He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. – Genesis 17:20 ESV

And Ishmael would fulfill the promise that God had made to Hagar some 16-17 years earlier.

“This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” – Genesis 16:12 NLT

God was working His plan to perfection. And little did Sarah understand that her hatred for Hagar and Ishmael would produce a centuries-long feud between their two nations.

But all throughout this passage, we see the sovereign will of God being displayed as He accomplishes His plan and distributes His blessings as He sees fit. There is a method to God’s seeming madness. He knows exactly what He is doing and is not caught off guard or forced to change plans based on the actions of His fallen creatures. God sees. He hears. He acts. He orchestrates. And He methodically and systematically accomplishes His righteous purposes.

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

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

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

The Curse Conceived

1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Genesis 4:1-7 ESV

God had banned Adam and Eve from the garden, but He had not stripped them of their divine mandate to rule over His creation as His vice-regents.

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 2:28 NLT

Even in their fallen condition, their ability to procreate remained intact. They were still free to produce more of their kind and fill the earth. But it will soon become evident that their capacity to reproduce would result in far more than pain in childbirth for Eve. The fruit of Eve’s womb would result in a harvest of sorrow and suffering as one of the lingering and all-pervasive side effects of sin began to manifest itself. Yet, chapter four opens up on a seemingly positive note.

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain… – Genesis 4:1 ESV

The New Living Translation puts a bit less poetically.

Now Adam had sexual relations with his wife, Eve, and she became pregnant. – Genesis 4:1 NLT

The first couple began a family and gave birth to their first child, a son, whom Eve named Cain. There is an interesting and somewhat controversial debate over exactly what Eve meant when she declared the name of her son. The English Standard Version translates it as “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” But the New English Translation provides a distinctively different take:

“I have created a man just as the Lord did!” – Genesis 4:1 NET

The reason for this disparity has to do with the Hebrew words Moses used to record her statement. The English phrase “I have gotten” is one word in Hebrew – קָנִיתִי (qaniti), and it has a variety of meanings, including “to get, to acquire, or to create.” When pronounced in Hebrew, it sounds similar to Cain’s name – קַיִן (qayin). It would seem, considering the context of the creation account and Eve’s original desire to be “like God,” that she is displaying a bit of hubris over her life-giving power. In essence, she is declaring her god-like capacity to create life ex nihilo (out of nothing), just as God had done. That is what leads her to exclaim, “I have created a man just as the Lord did!”

The English Standard Version translates the Hebrew preposition, אֶת (ʾet) as “with the help of the Lord.” But it could just as easily be translated as “along with,” which would give it a more comparative meaning. In a sense, Eve is expressing that, due to her ability to create life, she bears a likeness to God. They have this one thing “in common”: The ability to create life. This interpretation of the verse makes much more sense considering the context of all that has happened thus far in the narrative, and all that will happen in the verses that follow.

Cain’s name means “possession,” and it would seem that Eve believed her son belonged to her. She had created him and, therefore, he was her possession. But it would not be long before Eve realized the folly of that assumption. Cain would grow to be a self-possessed young man who had inherited his parent’s predilection for autonomy and self-rule. He would be owned by no one, including God.

Not long after the birth of Cain, Adam and Eve welcomed a second son into the world, whom they named Abel – הֶבֶל (heḇel). In Hebrew, his name carries a somewhat ominous and foreboding character. It can be translated as “breath,” but also as “vapor” or “vanity.” It seems likely that Eve had a more positive thought in mind when she named her second child, but there is a prophetic character to her words. As will become readily evident from the context, Abel’s life will be short-lived. His “breath” will abruptly cease due to the possessive nature of his brother, Cain.

As Moses prepares his readers for what is to come, he provides them with a brief description of the two brothers.

Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. – Genesis 4:2 ESV

Moses provides no decisive chronology in the text. There is no indication as to the age of the two brothers when this event took place, but both are old enough to share in the responsibility to care for God’s creation. It’s important to note that, of the two brothers, Cain was actually doing exactly what God had originally commanded his father to do.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. – Genesis 2:15 ESV

Each brother was carrying out God’s mandate to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28 ESV). Abel had become a shepherd. Cain had become a farmer. Moses makes no attempt to compare one to the other or to give any sense of superiority to either man’s choice of occupation. They were both doing the will of God.

But at some point in time, both brothers made the decision to bring an offering to God. Nowhere in the text does it indicate that God required this of them. It simply states, “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:3-4 ESV).

Both men brought an “offering” – מִנְחָה (minḥâ). This is a rather generic term that could include any type of gift or tribute. There is nothing to suggest that God had demanded a particular type of offering. As will soon become evident, the problem lie not in the nature of the offering but in the heart of the giver. Moses points out that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:4-5 ESV). Another way to put this is that God accepted one brother and his gift while rejecting the other. Cain got snubbed by God. But why? What was the problem?

The author of Hebrews provides us with insight into what happened that day.

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

It seems that the sole differentiator between the two sacrifices was the faith of the two brothers. One exhibited faith while the other did not. But how is that displayed in the context of Genesis 4? To understand what is going on, one must take a close look at what the two brothers brought to God. The nature of their gift reveals the character of their faith.

Cain brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3 ESV). Moses doesn’t elaborate as to the nature of the “fruit,” but simply reveals that it came from the ground. It could have been some form of grain, grapes, figs, or even olives. Cain was a horticulturalist, so he brought a portion of what he had raised. But Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4 ESV). This phrase could just as easily be translated as “from the fattest of the firstborn of the flock” (NET Bible Study Notes). There is nothing to indicate that Abel offered a blood sacrifice. At this stage in man’s relationship with God, there had been no decree given that required the death of an animal as some form of atonement. These were both meant to be offerings of gratitude to God for His goodness and provision.

But what stands out is that Abel offered up the fattest of the firstborn of his flock. And when he gave these animals to God, they become the Lord’s possession. Abel was making a permanent commitment of his most prized possessions. Once given to God, they would no longer be available to Abel for food, breeding, or the manufacture of wool for clothing. He was giving up a prime source of future sustenance. In so doing, he was committing his future care to God. He would no longer have those animals as resources on which to rely. That is why the author of Hebrews described Abel’s offering as “a more acceptable sacrifice.” His gift was an outward expression of faith, displaying his determination to trust God for his future well-being. 

Yet Cain gave God a portion of his produce. In other words, he offered God some of the fruit his plants had produced. But notice that he did not give God the plants themselves. Cain did not give God his best fruit-bearing tree or most productive vine. There was no ultimate sacrifice of future fruit-bearing potential. He still had all his trees, crops, and vines. Whatever he gave up could be easily replaced with the next harvest. So, in a sense, Cain was placing his faith in his own fruit-producing capabilities. He would meet his own needs. Cain exhibited his proclivity for self-sustenance and autonomy. He was not going to give to God what he believed to be rightfully his.

So, when God rejected his offering, Cain grew hot under the collar. He literally burned with anger. This response reveals a lot about Cain’s inner disposition. He had expected God to bless him on his own terms. Yet God had rejected his self-prescribed offering. Moses doesn’t reveal how God displayed His favor for one and not the other. But it is clear that Cain knew his offering had not measured up to God’s expectations. What he failed to comprehend was that his heart was the problem. So, God asked him, “Why are you so angry?…Why do you look so dejected?” (Genesis 4:6 NLT). And then God followed up His questions with the following lesson on godly living in a fallen world.

“You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.” – Genesis 4:7 NLT

God wanted Cain to know that acceptance by God was based on faithful obedience to His will and humble reliance upon His provision. Cain needed to need God. But he desired self-reliance and self-sufficiency. He wanted to be the master of his own fate. And God warned him that the path of autonomy would never lead to self-control. It would always result in slavery to sin and captivity to the flesh. The apostle John would later explain what was at the root of Cain’s problem.

We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. – 1 John 3:12 ESV

Cain was already under the mastery of sin, and his behavior reflected the scope of his captivity. He was a man trapped and controlled by evil. And it would not be long before his anger turned more violent and deadly.

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.

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