All According to Plan

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:13-18 ESV

After having spent more than three years of his life with Jesus, Matthew had come to believe in two things: The Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah and the providence of God. Over time, he had come to recognize that Jesus was the fulfillment of all that the prophets had written concerning long-awaited “anointed one” of God.

Matthew would have remembered the words of Jesus, spoken at the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after He had read the following passage from the scroll containing the writings of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
– Luke 4:18-19 ESV

Jesus had read from Isaiah 61:1-2, a text that the Jews in His audience would have known carried Messianic implications. And when He had finished, He had sat down and stated: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 ESV).

Jesus had boldly claimed to be the fulfillment of this passage. He was the anointed one of God, who possessed the Spirit of God and had been sent on a mission by God. And more than three years later, after Jesus had died and resurrected, He had suddenly appeared to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. Once they recognized Him as their risen Lord, Jesus had provided them with insight into His Messianic pedigree.

…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27 ESV

Those disciples had returned to Jerusalem, where they shared the news of Jesus’ resurrection with the rest of the disciples, including Matthew. And Luke records that Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst and said to them:.

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. – Luke 24:44-45 ESV

Matthew fully believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But he also believed that God had been working providentially in the life of Jesus from the moment of His birth to the final minutes of His life on the cross. Nothing had happened that God had not ordained and providentially orchestrated, including the arrival of the Magi and the sinister reaction of Herod to the news of the birth of Israel’s new king.

All of the events surrounding Jesus’ incarnation were planned by God from eternity past. He was not operating in a reactionary mode, responding to events as they happened or forced to alter His plans based on the whims of men. Nothing was a surprise to God. There was never a moment when He was caught off guard or found Himself having to come up with plan B.

Matthew had come to recognize that every detail concerning Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection had been providentially planned by God. Even the flight of Joseph, Mary, and their newborn son to Egypt had been part of God’s divine strategy. Matthew records that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, warning him in advance that Herod had evil intentions for their son.

“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” – Matthew 2:13 ESV

Joseph had done as the angel commanded, taking his young wife and newborn son to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of Herod. And we know from the following verses, that the threat had been real, because Herod had all the male children under the age of two murdered, in a vain attempt to eliminate any potential threat to his throne.

But Herod’s plan would fail. He would prove unsuccessful in his efforts to kill the rightful heir to David’s throne. In fact, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod would die a painful and miserable death. Even Luke records that Herod would be “eaten by worms” (Acts 12:23 ESV).

But Jesus would find refuge in Egypt, much like the people of Israel had done hundreds of years earlier. Jacob and his family had also turned to Egypt when faced with a famine in the land of Canaan. And 400 years later, God would lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and return them to the land of Canaan. And the prophet Hosea would later record the news of God’s providential rescue of His people from their captivity in Egypt.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son. – Hosea 11:1 ESV

Matthew uses this very same Old Testament passage to illustrate how Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of what happened when God had returned His “son” from Egypt. Jesus would return from a distant land “to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, (and) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

When God had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, He had done so in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. He had plans to return them to the land of Canaan, which He was going to give them as an inheritance. He had promised to give Abraham a land, a seed, and a blessing. But while the Israelites finally made it to the land and eventually occupied it, they had never fully lived up to God’s expectations for them. They had proved disobedient and unfaithful. But God was still going to bless the nations through the “seed” of Abraham. And Jesus was the fulfillment of that promise. The apostle Paul made this point perfectly clear when he wrote:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:13-16 ESV

God would once again call “the seed” of Abraham out of Egypt, but this time the blessing would come to the Gentiles. Jesus would do what the Jews had failed to do. He would live in perfect obedience to the will of God, carrying out His commands and accomplishing His will. And there was nothing Herod the Great or his son and successor, Herod Antipas, could do to thwart the plans of the sovereign God. Jesus would not only return from Egypt, but He would also survive childhood, grow to be a man, and begin His earthly ministry just as God had sovereignly ordained. All according to the divine plan and in keeping with on God’s predetermined timeline.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. – Galatians 4:4-5 ESV

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

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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God With Us

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25 ESV

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, he takes his defense of Jesus’ messiahship one step further. Not only was Jesus the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, but He was also the Son of God. Right from the very start, Matthew establishes Jesus as being divine, referring to Him by the name pronounced by the angel of God: Immanuel. And, just to make sure his readers understand the significance of that name,  Matthew provides them with its meaning: “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 ESV).

In announcing the coming birth of Jesus and declaring His name and identity, the angel reiterated the words of God recorded by the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

As with many of the prophecies found in the Old Testament, this verse from Isaiah passage had a now/not yet aspect to it. In its original historical context, this message from God was delivered by Isaiah to Ahaz, the king of Judah. It spoke of a child being born during the days of Ahaz and this birth would give evidence that the military alliance between Syria and Israel against Judah would be unsuccessful. The essence of the message was that life would go on in Judah, while the northern kingdom of Israel would suffer defeat at the hands of the Assyrians.

“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.”

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
    give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
    strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
    speak a word, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us. – Isaiah 8:6-10 ESV

Matthew picks up on this prophetic vision, recognizing its future fulfillment in Jesus. The primary focus of the message delivered by Isaiah to King Ahaz was that God would be with the people of Judah. The Assyrians would come upon the northern kingdom of Israel like a river that has overflowed its banks. They will devastate and destroy everything in their path, even making their way into the southern kingdom of Judah. But they will fail in their efforts to defeat Judah. Why? Because of the presence of God.

And Matthew, knowing that the angel of God had designated Jesus as Immanuel, “God with us,” understood that His birth signified that God had determined to dwell with His people once again. In the darkness that cloaked the land of Israel, a light was shining. The apostle John picked up on this imagery.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

And John went on to describe Jesus, the Word of God, as dwelling among the people of God. The Greek word John used is σκηνόω (skēnoō ), and it literally means “to fix one’s tabernacle.”

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:1, 14 ESV

Jesus was God in human flesh, pitching His “tent” among His people once again. But rather than a tent made of animal skins, this tabernacle would be that of a human body in which God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, would take up permanent residence. Jesus became the God-man, and rather than the Shekinah glory that hovered over the mercy seat in the tabernacle in the wilderness, Jesus would become the glory of God living and walking among men. Jesus was “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV) and “he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV).

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. He would be born to an obscure Jewish couple who hailed from the nondescript town of Nazareth. But Joseph would not be the father of Jesus. No, Jesus would be conceived by the Holy Spirit, which meant that His birth would be anything but ordinary. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, had not yet consummated her marriage to him. This is clear by Joseph’s response to the news that she was pregnant.

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. – Matthew 1:19 ESV

Joseph was shocked by the news but, out of love for Mary, determined to keep the situation under wraps, doing all that he could to protect her name. But the angel of God let Joseph know that his worst fears were unfounded. Mary had not been unfaithful to him. She had been chosen by God to bear the Savior of the world.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 ESV

“Jesus” is the Latin form of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς  (Iēsous). It is the same as the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yahweh saves.”

This entire section is intended by Matthew to convey the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, but it’s also meant to support his premise that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Matthew declares that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

As we have seen, this prophecy was originally fulfilled during the days of King Ahaz. But Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is letting us know that there was another aspect of this prophecy that had long-term ramifications. God was looking far into the future and declaring that another birth would take place and another son would be born, whose arrival on the scene would signify that “God is with us.”

Matthew’s primary purpose has been to establish Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. And he has done so by presenting three powerful proofs: His fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant promises made to Abraham and David, as evidenced by the indisputable record of his genealogy, and the miraculous nature of His birth. Jesus was the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, and the Son of God. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very image of the invisible God, who came to earth in order that He might redeem a lost and dying world cloaked in the darkness of sin. And, as the apostle Paul explains, God shattered that darkness by sending His own Son as the light of His glory.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV

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

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Sovereign Hand of God

12 Of Benjamin he said,

“The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety.
The High God surrounds him all day long,
    and dwells between his shoulders.”

13 And of Joseph he said,

“Blessed by the Lord be his land,
    with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
    and of the deep that crouches beneath,
14 with the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.
17 A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
    and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
    all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” Deuteronomy 33:12-17 ESV

A quick comparison between the blessings given by Jacob to his 12 sons and those given by Moses to the 12 tribes of Israel reveal some interesting differences. For instance, Jacob referred to his youngest son, Benajamin, as a ravenous wolf who plunders his enemies at night.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    devouring his enemies in the morning
    and dividing his plunder in the evening.” – Genesis 49:27 NLT

Yet, Moses seems to refer to the tribe of Benjamin as “the beloved of the Lord.” But the words of Moses can and have been translated in two different ways. The New English Translation renders verse 12 as follows:

“Of Benjamin he said:
The beloved of the Lord will live safely by him;
he protects him all the time,
and the Lord places him on his chest.” – Deuteronomy 33:12 NET

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach.

“May the beloved of the Lord dwell in security by Him,
Who shields him all the day,
And he dwells between His shoulders.”

In these translations, the “beloved of the Lord” is clearly not a reference to Benjamin, but to somone or something else. It could be speaking of the tribe of Judah, the tribe from which the Messiah would come. Recall the words of Jacob’s blessing to his son, Judah.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.” – Genesis 49:10 NLT

The term, “the beloved of the Lord” could also be a reference to Jesus Himself. But it is seems more likely that the tribe of Judah is the focus of Moses’ words. These two tribes, Benjamin and Judah would enjoy close ties, even sharing a common border in the land of Canaan.

The first allotment of land went to the clans of the tribe of Benjamin. It lay between the territory assigned to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. – Joshua 18:11 NLT

Years later, when God split the kingdom of Israel in half, the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin would form the new southern kingdom of Judah. And the larger, more powerful tribe of Judah would provide protection for its smaller neighbor and ally. The territory alloted to Benjamin also contained the city of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of Judah, later known as the city of David, and the place where Solomon built the temple of God.

Jacob predicted that his son, Benjamin, would produce a people who were warlike and reknowned for their success in battle. But the book of Judges reveals that the Benjamites would eventually use their propensity for battle in a civil war against the other 11 tribes of Israel. It would end in their defeat at the hands of their brothers.

And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. – Judges 20:35-36 ESV

These were dark days for the tribe of Benjamin and for the people of God, with the 21st chapter of the book of Judges closing with the sobering words:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 21:25 ESV

But the first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin, a man named Saul, who would prove to be a great warrior, but a lousy king. And God would eventually reject him as king, replacing him with a man after His own heart, a man named David. And David, from the tribe of Judah, and Jonathan, the son of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, would become the closest of friends. So, we see this bound between these two tribes lived out over time. And eventually, the apostle Paul would come from the tribe of Benjamin.

“I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” – Romans 11:1 ESV

This small tribe would play a significant role in the history of Israel, for both good and bad. But God would use them to accomplish His divine will for His people and for the world. From this somewhat irrelevant tribe would come Saul, the first king of Israel. But hundreds of years later, there would come another Saul, the one known as the apostle Paul, whom God would use to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And all because Paul would have his life transformed by an encounter with Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the tribe of Judah.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Joseph. He was the son Jacob thought had been killed by wild animals, but later discovered had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, where Joseph had become a powerful ruler in the kingdom of Pharaoh. And Joseph was able to use his authority to provide protection and provision for his family when the were forced to flee from the famine taking place in Canaan. So, Jacob held a special place in his heart for Joseph, as revealed in the words of the blessing he pronounced over him.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
    a fruitful bough by a spring;
    his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him,
    shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
    his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
    (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
    by the Almighty who will bless you
    with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
    blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
    are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
    up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
    and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” – Genesis 49:22-26 ESV

Moses picks up on Jacob’s high honor of Joseph, referring to him as “him who is prince among his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:16 ESV). And when Moses speaks of Joseph, he clarifies that he is really addressing the tribes of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Eventually, the name Ephraim would become closely associated with the ten tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel. Just as Joseph was “set apart from his brothers” (Deuteronomy 49:26 ESV), Ephraim, Manasseh, and the other eight tribes would be set apart from Judah and Benjamin, dividing the once unified nation in two.

Moses pronounces a blessing on Joseph and his descendants, calling on God to provide them with “the choicest gifts of heaven above” (Deuteronomy 33:13 ESV) and:

“the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.” – Deuteronomy 33:14-16 ESV

God would continue to bless Joseph’s descendants, providing them with good land and and an abundance of blessings. But they would prove to be rebellious and spiritual unfaithful to God. They would turn their backs on God by worshiping false gods of their own making. And yet, they would enjoy great success and grow in number.

“…they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Genesis 49:17 ESV

God would bless them, in spite of them. But the day would come when God would punish them for their sins, bringing judgment upon them in the form of the Assyrian army and allowing them to be defeated and deported as slaves. God would reward the descendants of Joseph for their forefather’s faithfulness while living in Egypt. But, eventually, He would punish them for their own unfaithfulness while living in the land of promise.

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

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

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

One Last Word

1 This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the people of Israel before his death. He said,

“The Lord came from Sinai
    and dawned from Seir upon us;
    he shone forth from Mount Paran;
he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,
    with flaming fire at his right hand.
Yes, he loved his people,
    all his holy ones were in his hand;
so they followed in your steps,
    receiving direction from you,
when Moses commanded us a law,
    as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun,
    when the heads of the people were gathered,
    all the tribes of Israel together.” Deuteronomy 33:1-5 ESV

For his final act as the spiritual leader of the nation of Israel, Moses chose to pronounce blessings upon the 12 tribes. In a sense, this was his official last testament. God had just informed Moses that this day would be his last. He would soon be ascending Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, on the eastern side of the Jordan, outside the land of Canaan. Once there, Moses would die, at the ripe old age of 120. The Scriptures are cloaked in mystery when it comes to the details regarding the death of Moses. But it was according to God’s plan and solely based on His timing. The mantel of leadership had been passed to Joshua. The people had been reminded of their responsibility to keep the covenant they had made with God. They had been warned of the consequences should they choose to do so. And, unfortunately, God had revealed that they would prove unfaithful and unwilling to keep His commands, eventually experiencing all the judgments He had warned them about.

But before he passed off the scene, Moses chose to pronounce blessings on the tribes of Israel. This is similar to the blessings pronounced by Isaac (Genesis 27) and Jacob (Genesis 49) on their sons as they lie on their deathbeds. Moses, as the spiritual father of the children of Israel, was communicating his last testament or will. This “blessing” was his gift to the people, his “invocation of good.” For 40 long years they had made his life miserable with their bickering, moaning, constant complaining, and stubborn refusal to remain faithful to God. Yet Moses, with a true shepherd’s heart, displays his deep love for them and his desire that they would succeed and not fail.

It’s likely that Moses modeled his blessing after that of Jacob recorded in Genesis 49. And it’s interesting to note the similarities between these two testaments or will. Genesis 47 contains the details regarding the closing days of Jacob’s life.

Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. – Genesis 47:27-28 ESV

Jacob was the father of the 12 sons from whom the 12 tribes of Israel would come. But Jacob and his sons were living in Egypt when the end of his life drew near. They had moved there to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And they had found help in the form of Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. During his time in Egypt, Joseph had been elevated by God from slave to sovereign. He had become one of the highest-ranking officials in the land, second only to the Pharaoh. In his official capacity, Joseph provided his family with land and employment as shepherds. And as the text indicates, they “were fruitful and multiplied greatly.”

But 18 years later, as Jacob lie dying, he called his 12 sons together and he blessed them. They had moved to Egypt in order to escape a famine in the land of Canaan, the land of promise. But they had stayed much longer than they had planned, and now Jacob, facing death, gave his blessing to his sons.

Moses, facing his own death, looked on all the descendants of these 12 men and determined to offer his own blessing. But now they stood on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter the land their forefather, Jacob, had been forced to leave nearly five centuries earlier. Many years had passed by and during that time, the nation of Israel had seen it all. They had experience the oppression of slavery and the joy of release from captivity. They had witnessed the miracles of the ten plagues, the spectacle of the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of their needs as they made their way to the promised land, and memorable moment when God appeared on Mount Sinai and delivered His law to them.

Jacob had blessed his sons. Now Moses was going to bless their descendants. But before he began, he provided them with a brief history lesson. He reminded them how God had repeatedly appeared to them in the wilderness. He describes the mountains of Sinai, Seir and Paran. From these lofty heights, close to God’s heavenly dwelling place, God had made Himself known to the people of Israel. It was to Mount Sinai that God had descended, accompanied by fire, smoke, thunder, and lightning. From Mount Sinai God had given His law to Moses. The Holy One had condescended and made Himself known to men. He had revealed Himself to Moses and shared His holy law with the people of Israel. He had made a binding covenant agreement with them, vowing to give them the land of Canaan, just as He had promised to Abraham.

For Moses, all of this was evidence of God’s love.

Yes, he loved his people,
    all his holy ones were in his hand;
so they followed in your steps,
    receiving direction from you. – Deuteronomy 33:3 ESV

God had loved them. He had guided them. He had protected them with His hand. And He had been their king.

“Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun,
    when the heads of the people were gathered,
    all the tribes of Israel together.” – Deuteronomy 33:5 ESV

Moses had been their leader, but God had been their King. From the day they had left Egypt to the moment they arrived on the shore of the Jordan, God had been their sovereign King and Lord. This great God, who rules in the heavens, had deemed to bring His reign to earth, designating the people of Israel as His holy nation, His royal priesthood, and His chosen possession.

This brief, but significant reminder prefaces all that Moses is about to say to the 12 tribes. As God’s leader, he spoke only by God’s authority. It was essential that the people understand that God was going to continue to be their king. Moses was going away, but God would be with them. Joshua was going to step into the role of shepherd, but God would remain their Great Shepherd. Moses could pronounce a blessing, but only God could fulfill it.

The Israelites needed to understand their complete dependence upon God. Moses was leaving them, but they had no reason to fear. God would be going before them. He would be with them. And the blessings Moses pronounced on them would be totally up to God to fulfill. Like Jacob, Moses knew that any and all blessings come from God, not men. The future of Israel was in the hands of their King and Lord.

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

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

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

The Death of a Generation.

29 After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being 110 years old. 30 And they buried him in his own inheritance at Timnath-serah, which is in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash.

31 Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.

32 As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.

33 And Eleazar the son of Aaron died, and they buried him at Gibeah, the town of Phinehas his son, which had been given him in the hill country of Ephraim. Joshua 24:29-39 ESV

Joshua lived to the ripe old age of 110. He had served Israel for many years and had led them into the promised land, but also in their efforts to conquer and possess it. Under his guidance, the Israelites had gone from a rag-tag assemblage of former slaves to a powerful force in the Middle East. They had successfully and, in most cases, miraculously defeated the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, taking over their cities, villages, pastures and fields. By the end of his tenure as Israel’s spiritual and military leader, the Israelites were well-established in the land promised to them by God many centuries earlier. But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and Joshua’s life-span reached its allotted course. He died, leaving the people of Israel without an appointed leader. Joshua had not followed the example of Moses, who had passed on the mantel of leadership to him before his own death. Perhaps Joshua assumed that each of the 12 tribes, now established in the land with their own inheritance to manage, would appoint their own leadership. After their renewal of the covenant at Shechem, each of the tribes had dispersed to their own cities and villages, and they were to have begun the final stage of God’s command to eliminate the Canaanites from the land. There were no longer going to be any joint military efforts combining the forces of all 12 tribes. Instead, each tribe would be expected to police and possess its land allotment on its own. And one of the things that will become increasingly clear as their story unfolds is that, without proper leadership, the people of Israel tended to lack follow-through.

In the opening verses of the book of Judges, which chronicles the next chapter in the story of the Israelite’s conquest of the land of Canaan, it becomes clear that the tribes are attempting to follow the example for them by Joshua. They seek the counsel of God in order to determine their next steps.

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek. – Judges 1:1-4 ESV

They begin to form some strategic alliances among themselves in order to improve their chances of success against the Canaanites. And God gave the tribes of Judah and Simeon success in their efforts. But there is a nagging pattern of incompleteness that permeates the opening chapters of Judges. They enjoyed success, but it seems that it was always marked by a failure to finish what they had started.

And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron. – Judges 1:19 ESV

Notice what this verse says: The Lord was with Judah…BUT. God was fighting alongside the people of Judah and Simeon and they had enjoyed numerous victories as a result. But the presence of chariots of iron had stopped their progress. They had come up against a superior force that had somehow stymied their efforts. But years earlier, long before the Israelites had made it into the land of Canaan, God had told them:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

Their inability to stand against an enemy with chariots and horses was due to a lack of faith on their part, not a deficiency in God’s power to deliver. And their failure to trust God would become a pattern that would repeat itself in the story of each of the tribes.

But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day. – Judges 1:21 ESV

Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. – Judges 1:27 ESV

And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. – Judges 1:28 ESV

Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them – Judges 1:29 ESV

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

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. – Judges 1:33 ESV

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

These are not just statements of military failure or incomplete conquest. They are a reflection of the state of Israel’s spiritual health. They were failing because they were no longer trusting God. They were making compromises and concessions. Allowing their enemies to remain in the land was easier than stepping out in faith and eliminating them completely as God had commanded them to do. And God reprimanded them for their lack of faith, accusing them of not only disobedience, but of failing to keep the covenant they had made with Him.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” – Judges 2:1-3 ESV

Their disobedience to God was going to be costly. They were going to learn just how difficult spiritual warfare was going to be without God’s help. And the book of Judges provides us with an important detail concerning the leadership of Joshua and its impact on the people of Israel.

…the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. – Judges 2:7 ESV

But this is followed by a sobering caveat, a all-telling addendum that will set the stage for all that comes later in the book of Judges.

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. – Judges 2:10 ESV

The final chapter of the book of Joshua chronicles the deaths of Joshua and Eleazar. It also provides details concerning the interment of Joseph’s bones, brought back from Egypt. But it really paints a bleak picture concerning the death of an entire generation. Those who had come from Egypt under the leadership of Moses had died in the wilderness because of their failure to enter the land the first time. And all those who had played a role in conquering the land under Joshua’s leadership would eventually die as well. Their days in the land would be numbered, just as Joshua’s had been. And as long as he was alive, they had served the Lord. But with his death, they began to falter and fail in their commitments to God and their capacity to trust His word. And by the time they pass off the scene, the next generation had long forgotten who God was or any of the great things He had done.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. – Judges 2:11-13 ESV

It happened just as God said it would. They had failed to do what God had commanded and, as a result, their hearts were led away from Him. The failure of a single generation to maintain their covenant faithfulness to God resulted in an entire spiritual meltdown on the part of their descendants.

The book of Psalms provides a stark reminder of just how different things should have turned out, had the people of Israel done what they had been told to do.

What we have heard and learned—
that which our ancestors have told us—
we will not hide from their descendants.
We will tell the next generation
about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts,
about his strength and the amazing things he has done. – Psalm 78:3-4 NLT

so that the next generation, children yet to be born,
might know about them.
They will grow up and tell their descendants about them.
Then they will place their confidence in God.
They will not forget the works of God,
and they will obey his commands.
Then they will not be like their ancestors,
who were a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation that was not committed
and faithful to God. – Psalm 78:6-8 NLT

But, sadly, there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

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

Son of My Right Hand.

11 The lot of the tribe of the people of Benjamin according to its clans came up, and the territory allotted to it fell between the people of Judah and the people of Joseph. 12 On the north side their boundary began at the Jordan. Then the boundary goes up to the shoulder north of Jericho, then up through the hill country westward, and it ends at the wilderness of Beth-aven. 13 From there the boundary passes along southward in the direction of Luz, to the shoulder of Luz (that is, Bethel), then the boundary goes down to Ataroth-addar, on the mountain that lies south of Lower Beth-horon. 14 Then the boundary goes in another direction, turning on the western side southward from the mountain that lies to the south, opposite Beth-horon, and it ends at Kiriath-baal (that is, Kiriath-jearim), a city belonging to the people of Judah. This forms the western side. 15 And the southern side begins at the outskirts of Kiriath-jearim. And the boundary goes from there to Ephron, to the spring of the waters of Nephtoah. 16 Then the boundary goes down to the border of the mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is at the north end of the Valley of Rephaim. And it then goes down the Valley of Hinnom, south of the shoulder of the Jebusites, and downward to En-rogel. 17 Then it bends in a northerly direction going on to En-shemesh, and from there goes to Geliloth, which is opposite the ascent of Adummim. Then it goes down to the stone of Bohan the son of Reuben, 18 and passing on to the north of the shoulder of Beth-arabah it goes down to the Arabah. 19 Then the boundary passes on to the north of the shoulder of Beth-hoglah. And the boundary ends at the northern bay of the Salt Sea, at the south end of the Jordan: this is the southern border. 20 The Jordan forms its boundary on the eastern side. This is the inheritance of the people of Benjamin, according to their clans, boundary by boundary all around.

21 Now the cities of the tribe of the people of Benjamin according to their clans were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22 Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23 Avvim, Parah, Ophrah, 24 Chephar-ammoni, Ophni, Geba—twelve cities with their villages: 25 Gibeon, Ramah, Beeroth, 26 Mizpeh, Chephirah, Mozah, 27 Rekem, Irpeel, Taralah, 28 Zela, Haeleph, Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), Gibeah and Kiriath-jearim—fourteen cities with their villages. This is the inheritance of the people of Benjamin according to its clans. Joshua 18:11-28 ESV

BenjaminCityMap

Of the 12 sons and 1 daughter born to Jacob, Benjamin was the last. His mother, Rachel, died as a result of giving birth to him, but the book of Genesis tells us that, with her last breath, she provided her son with a name.

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. – Genesis 35:16-21 ESV

Ben-oni means “son of my sorrow,” but Jacob would immediately change the name of his new son to Benjamin, which means “son of the right hand.” It seems that Jacob wanted to view this birth from a more positive perspective, in spite of the loss of his wife. The term, “right hand” is a reference to good fortune or prosperity. Benjamin became very dear to Jacob, especially when Joseph, the first son born to him by Rachel, was sold by his brothers into slavery. Thinking his son dead, Jacob turned all his attention and affection on his youngest son, Benjamin. And when famine struck the land of Canaan, his brothers were forced to go to Egypt in search of food. There they were reunited with their long-lost brother, Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery. Hiding his identity from them, Joseph, the second-most-powerful man in Egypt, demanded that his brothers return home and bring their brother Benjamin back with them. And after convincing their reluctant father to allow Benjamin to make the trip to Egypt, the brothers returned to face Joseph. Upon seeing his younger brother, Joseph was overcome with emotion.

29 And he lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” 30 Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. – Genesis 43:29-30 ESV

When Joseph returned, he invited his brothers to eat with him. But the text tells us that he showed special favor to his younger brother, Benjamin.

Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him. – Genesis 43:34 ESV

Not long after this, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers, encouraging them to take heart and letting them know that their evil treatment of him had been all part of God’s plan to provide for and protect His people. Joseph sent his brothers back to Canaan with orders to bring back their father, Jacob, along with all their families, so that they might live in the land of Egypt.

21 The sons of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey. 22 To each and all of them he gave a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes. – Genesis 45:21-22 ESV

The decision on Jacob’s part to rename Benjamin was bearing fruit. There is no way that he could have foreseen these events, but God was honoring Jacob’s faith. In spite of the loss of his wife, Jacob believed that good would come from the birth of his son, not just pain and sorrow. And Benjamin was made prosperous by a very unlikely and unexpected source: His long-lost and long-thought-dead older brother.

It is interesting to note that the tribe of Benjamin was the first tribe among the remaining seven that was awarded its allotment in the promised land. Once the tribes of Judah, Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph) had been taken care of, the lot fell to Benjamin. And their portion “fell between the people of Judah and the people of Joseph” (Joshua 18:11 ESV). There would remain a close affinity between the descendants of Benjamin and those of his older brother, Joseph. The smaller tribe of Benjamin would be surrounded by the lands occupied by the much-larger tribes of Judah and Ephraim. It would be nestled in a kind of protective cocoon, with Judah to its south and the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim to its north. The descendants of the youngest son of Jacob would find themselves the proud owners of 26 cities and their villages. Jacob’s decision to name his last son, Benjamin (son of my right hand), had been truly prophetic.

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

God Provides.

Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, had no sons, but only daughters, and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They approached Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the leaders and said, “The Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance along with our brothers.” So according to the mouth of the Lord he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father. Thus there fell to Manasseh ten portions, besides the land of Gilead and Bashan, which is on the other side of the Jordan, because the daughters of Manasseh received an inheritance along with his sons. The land of Gilead was allotted to the rest of the people of Manasseh.

The territory of Manasseh reached from Asher to Michmethath, which is east of Shechem. Then the boundary goes along southward to the inhabitants of En-tappuah. The land of Tappuah belonged to Manasseh, but the town of Tappuah on the boundary of Manasseh belonged to the people of Ephraim. Then the boundary went down to the brook Kanah. These cities, to the south of the brook, among the cities of Manasseh, belong to Ephraim. Then the boundary of Manasseh goes on the north side of the brook and ends at the sea, 10 the land to the south being Ephraim’s and that to the north being Manasseh’s, with the sea forming its boundary. On the north Asher is reached, and on the east Issachar. 11 Also in Issachar and in Asher Manasseh had Beth-shean and its villages, and Ibleam and its villages, and the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, and the inhabitants of En-dor and its villages, and the inhabitants of Taanach and its villages, and the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; the third is Naphath. 12 Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 13 Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.

14 Then the people of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, although I am a numerous people, since all along the Lord has blessed me?” 15 And Joshua said to them, “If you are a numerous people, go up by yourselves to the forest, and there clear ground for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.” 16 The people of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us. Yet all the Canaanites who dwell in the plain have chariots of iron, both those in Beth-shean and its villages and those in the Valley of Jezreel.” 17 Then Joshua said to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, “You are a numerous people and have great power. You shall not have one allotment only, 18 but the hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders. For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.” Joshua 17:3-18 ESV

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When reading the Scriptures, there will be times when certain names and events are mentioned that seem to come out of nowhere and make no sense in the context. Today’s passage is a case in point. As the author describes the allotment of the land of Canaan to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, he suddenly mentions the five daughters of Zelophehad. He even provides the names of the five women: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And it’s almost as if he expects his audience to be well acquainted with these women and their story. Seemingly, out of nowhere, these women appear, making what appears to be a very bold demand of Joshua, Eleazar the priest and the leadership of Israel.

The Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance along with our brothers. – Joshua 17:4 ESV

This is one of those situations where, if we are not familiar with the rest of the Scriptures, we will find it difficult to understand what is going on. Are these women making up their story? Have they joined forces to fabricate a lie in an attempt to deceive Joshua and finagle a portion of the land for themselves? First of all, it is important to understand the situation in which these women found themselves. They were the sole remaining heirs of their father. He had no sons. And in that culture, the inheritance passed down through the sons. So, any allotment of land would have gone to the sons of Zelophehad, not his daughters. But years earlier, these women had seen the handwriting on the wall and had understood that with their father’s eventual death, they would be left unprotected and unprovided for. And when the people finally entered the land of Canaan, they would have no right to a portion of the land. So, they had appealed to Moses, Eleazer the priest and the leadership of Israel.

1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and rule, as the Lord commanded Moses.’” Numbers 27:1-11 ESV

Their father had died in the wilderness, leaving them, in a sense, destitute. They were unmarried and without the protection and provision of a male figure in their lives, a necessary requirement in their culture. But they had been brave and bold enough to appeal their case to Moses and the leadership of Israel. And Moses had wisely taken their case to God. Their whole argument was based on the fact that their father had been a good man and his death had not been the result of sin against God. So, why should the legacy of his name fail to carry on just because he had daughters instead of sons? And God agreed with the logic behind their argument, telling Joshua, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them” (Numbers 27:7 ESV). Not only that, God used their case as a precedence for a new law concerning inheritance. From that point forward, the inheritance of any man who had no sons, was to pass on to his daughters. And if a man was childless, his inheritance was to go to his brothers. If he had no brothers, it was to go to his uncles. And if he had no uncles, his inheritance was to go to his nearest living relative. God had taken the plea of these five women and turned it into case law, providing for His people a statutory requirement concerning the issue of inheritance. 

It is important to notice that these women were the ones who came to Joshua and reminded him of the decision handed down by Moses as he had received it from God. Had they not spoken up, there is a good chance that they may have forfeited their right to a portion of the land. These woman showed extreme faith by making their initial appeal to Moses, but also in bringing their God-decreed right to their father’s inheritance before Joshua, Eleazar and the leadership of Israel. And their faith and fearlessness to stand up for their rights was rewarded with “an inheritance among the brothers of their father” (Joshua 17:4 ESV). We can only imagine that this decision was not well-received by their uncles. When Joshua apportioned part of the land to these five women, the brothers of Zelophehad lost out. Their portion of the inheritance diminished as a result of the womens’ request. But it was their God-given right to enjoy their fair-share of the inheritance and enjoy the blessings of the land promised by God. 

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is the positive side of this chapter. But then the chapter ends with a somewhat sad recounting of the descendants of Joseph, the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, coming to Joshua and complaining about the inadequacy of their allotment of land. Perhaps it was based on God’s decree to give a portion of their land to the five sisters. But whatever the case, the descendants of Joseph demanded that they were too large in number to live in the land that they had been given. But part of their problem was that they viewed portions of the land as uninhabitable. Part of it was occupied by well-armed Canaanites. The rest was forested and would require work on their part to clear and cultivate it. But Joshua challenged them to do just that. Not only that, he expected them to do what God had commanded them to do and drive out the Canaanites from the land. Yes, the land was filled with enemies and part of it was covered by forests, but it was not a case of too little land, but too little faith on the part of the people of Joseph. Trees can be cut down and Canaanites can be defeated. What God had given to them was more than enough. But the full enjoyment of their inheritance was going to require that they do their part. Joshua reminded them that they had been blessed by God and were “a numerous people and have great power” (Joshua 17:17 ESV). They saw their size as a problem, but Joshua challenged them to see it as a blessing from God. Their superior numbers would give them an advantage over their enemies, and a workforce large enough to clear the trees and cultivate the land. God had adequately provided for their needs. But they were going to have to make the most out of the gift given to them by God.

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

Our Good God.

1 The allotment of the people of Joseph went from the Jordan by Jericho, east of the waters of Jericho, into the wilderness, going up from Jericho into the hill country to Bethel. Then going from Bethel to Luz, it passes along to Ataroth, the territory of the Archites. Then it goes down westward to the territory of the Japhletites, as far as the territory of Lower Beth-horon, then to Gezer, and it ends at the sea.

The people of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, received their inheritance.

The territory of the people of Ephraim by their clans was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, and the boundary goes from there to the sea. On the north is Michmethath. Then on the east the boundary turns around toward Taanath-shiloh and passes along beyond it on the east to Janoah, then it goes down from Janoah to Ataroth and to Naarah, and touches Jericho, ending at the Jordan. From Tappuah the boundary goes westward to the brook Kanah and ends at the sea. Such is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Ephraim by their clans, together with the towns that were set apart for the people of Ephraim within the inheritance of the Manassites, all those towns with their villages. 10 However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor.

1 Then allotment was made to the people of Manasseh, for he was the firstborn of Joseph. To Machir the firstborn of Manasseh, the father of Gilead, were allotted Gilead and Bashan, because he was a man of war. And allotments were made to the rest of the people of Manasseh by their clans, Abiezer, Helek, Asriel, Shechem, Hepher, and Shemida. These were the male descendants of Manasseh the son of Joseph, by their clans.Joshua 16:1-17:2 ESV

ad503-mapjos1617.jpgThe author now addresses the inheritance of the descendants of Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. In spite of Joseph’s ill-treatment by his brothers, God blessed Joseph, sovereignly ordaining his rise to the second highest position of power in the land of Egypt. It would be Joseph who would be used by God to preserve the lives of his father and brothers when they were forced to turn to Egypt for aid when a famine struck the land of Canaan. When his brothers discovered that Joseph, who they had long considered as dead, was Pharaoh’s right-hand man, they were petrified. But Joseph had assured them that God had divinely orchestrated every event in his life for a much greater purpose.

7 “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 45:7-8 ESV

And later on, Joseph reconfirmed to his brothers his unwavering belief that God had been behind all that had taken place, so that each and every one of Jacob’s sons would remain alive.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. – Genesis 50:20 ESV

God had made a commitment to Jacob, the father of Joseph, that He would bless him and give him many descendants who would live in the land of promise. And, on his deathbed, Jacob confirmed his belief in God’s promise, choosing to bless the two sons of Joseph, born to him in Egypt. In essence, Jacob adopted his two grandsons making them his own and promising to give them a portion of the inheritance of the land.

1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance.’” – Genesis 48:1-6 ESV

More than four centuries later, the 12 tribes of Israel (the sons of Jacob) were in the land promised to Jacob by God. And Joshua was in the process of dividing the land between the tribes. And in keeping with Jacob’s promise to include Ephraim and Manasseh in the inheritance, Joshua awarded a large portion of the land to the descendants of these two men.

Throughout this story, the sovereign hand of God is clearly visible. Had not God prospered Joseph in the land of Egypt, miraculously orchestrating his rise to power, the remainder of his family would have died of starvation in Canaan. God’s original covenant, made to Abraham, was seemingly jeopardized by the sinful acts of Joseph’s brothers. They had sold Joseph into slavery because they were jealous of him. They knew he was their father’s favorite son, and it didn’t help that Joseph had shared with them the content of several dreams he had experienced. In those dreams, Joseph had seen his father, mother and brothers bowing down to him. And Joseph’s disclosure of that news hadn’t won him any favors with his brothers. But the dreams were actually God-given visions of what was to come. His father, mother and brothers did eventually bow down before him, recognizing him as a powerful ruler in Egypt and the arbiter of their fate.

God had remained faithful to His covenant with Abraham. He had also kept the commitment He had made to Jacob, allowing he and his sons to find salvation from the famine in Canaan, by providing them with rest in the land of Egypt. And all of this was in fulfillment of the prophecy He had made to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

God had ordained the famine in the land. He had pre-planned Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. And He had orchestrated the 400-year period of exile in Egypt for the descendants of Jacob. Four generations of Israelites would live in the land of Egypt before God determined it was time for them to leave and inherit the land promised to Abraham. All of this was part of His divine plan. The timing was perfect. And it was all because God was willing to keep His covenant promises, in spite of the disobedience of His chosen people. The apostle Paul recognized the sovereign hand of God in his own life, and was able to see His will being accomplished through the ups and downs and the setbacks and seeming successes of life. Which is why he could write:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 ESV

The descendants of Joseph were provided with a place in the land of promise. They were given a portion of the inheritance among the brothers of Joseph who had sold him into slavery out of jealousy. What they had meant for evil, God had meant for good. What they had done in order to bring harm to their brother, God used to bring blessing to their brother’s sons and their descendants. God works all things together for good.

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

Entering His Rest.

10 And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.’”

12 And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, 13 “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, 15 until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”

16 And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! 18 Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.” – Joshua 1:10-18 ESV

The conquest of the land of Canaan is about to begin. This day has been long in coming. It goes all the way back to the promise that God had made to Abram, when He called him out of the land of Ur.

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

Abram did as God had commanded him and was led by God to the land of Canaan.

5 When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” – Genesis 12:5-7 ESV

The book of Hebrews tells us that Abram, who later had his name changed to Abraham by God, lived in the land, but never possessed a single acre of it, except the plot where his wife was eventually buried.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. – Hebrews 11:8-9 ESV

Abraham remained a nomad, living in tents within the land of promise, but never actually possessing any of it as his own, and the author of Hebrews says he eventually “died in faith, not having received the things promised” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). Eventually, Abraham’s son, Isaac, had a son named Jacob, who had a son named Joseph. Joseph would be sold into slavery by his own brothers, out of jealousy over their father’s treatment of him as his favorite son, Joseph would end up in Egypt where, through a series of God-ordained events, he became the second-highest official in the Egyptian government. In time, a famine came to the land of Canaan, forcing Jacob, his sons, and their families to search for aid in the land of Egypt. There they were surprisingly reunited with the brother they had left for dead. But rather than seek revenge on his brothers for what they had done, Joseph assured them that it had all been part of God’s sovereign plan.

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. – Genesis 45:5-8 ESV

Jacob was reluctant to move his family to Egypt, but he received a word from God, assuring him that this was all part of His plan.

3 “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again…” – Genesis 46:3-4 ESV

Jacob and his family did relocate to Egypt and, not long after his death, Joseph reassured his brothers of God’s involvement in all that had happened, and of his own intentions to care for them as long as they lived in the land of Egypt.

19 “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” – Genesis 50:19-20 ESV

And he kept that commitment. But the presence of the people of Israel in the land of Egypt would extend far beyond the life of Joseph. They would remain in the land of Egypt for 400 years. Eventually, a new Pharaoh came to power who found the explosive growth of the descendants of Abraham to be a potential threat to national security so, he began a program of enslavement and persecution of them that would last . And even this had been a part of God’s plan. Centuries earlier, God had told Abraham that all of this would happen.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. – Genesis 15:13 ESV

But God also had a plan for their deliverance. He used Moses to free His people from their captivity and to lead them to the land He had promised to Abraham. And Moses had been successful in his emancipation of the descendants of Abraham and his 40-year-long effort to get them to the land of promise. Which brings us to this moment in time, where Joshua stands poised to take a new generation of Israelites into the long-awaited promised land. You can almost sense the fear and anticipation among the people as Joshua commands his officers to inform them of what is about to happen.

“Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” – Joshua 1:11 ESV

They had been here before. This was not the first time they had planned on entering the land of promise. More than 40 years earlier, Moses had them poised to take possession of the land, but the people had balked. When spies reported that the land was fruitful, but also occupied by apparently insurmountable armed forces, the people had refused to enter the land, even threatening to stone Moses and Aaron, and choose new leaders to guide them back to Egypt. So God, in His anger, cursed that generation, telling them that they would never enter the land.

22 …none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 ESV

And now, 40 years later, that next generation was being called to do what their predecessors had refused to do. Nothing had changed. The same formidable foes were still living in the land. There were going to be days filled with battles and the threat of death for everyone who obeyed God’s command to enter the land. But they also had the assurance that God was going to be with them. He was going to go before them. His promise of the land, given hundreds of years earlier to Moses, was going to be fulfilled.

And as they prepared to cross the Jordan River, Moses called upon the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, to assist them in their conquest of the land. At their own requests, they had all been given land on the opposite side of the Jordan, but they had agreed to fight alongside their brothers and sisters in order to ensure that all the land of Canaan was eventually possessed by the descendants of Abraham, just as God had said. And they assured Joshua of their commitment to keep their word.

16 “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!” – Joshua 1:16 ESV

What is interesting to note is that this event signals the day on which the people of Israel were to enter their rest. As they stood on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the land, they were doing so as an army. And yet, the minute they crossed over that river they would be entering not only the land of Canaan, but the rest that God had promised them. The very rest their ancestors had rejected.

“…don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
    when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
    even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
10 So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
    They refuse to do what I tell them.’
11 So in my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’” – Hebrews 3:8-11 ESV

Entering into God’s place of rest was not a guarantee of a trouble-free life. It was not to be a picture of ease and comfort. The land was not going to be taken without a fight. The days ahead would be filled with battles and loss of life. But they had ceased from wandering. They were no longer going to have to wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled. They would be in the land and resting in the presence and power of God Almighty. And the book of Joshua will close with a reminder that God would remain with them throughout the entirety of their conquest of the land, providing them with victory after victory and slowly solidifying their possession of the land.

43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. – Joshua 21:43-45 ESV

The author of Hebrews reminds us that the previous generation of Israel died in the wilderness, and it was “because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest” (Hebrews 3:19 NLT). And he warns us, as believers, to not repeat the mistakes of those stubborn Israelites who refused to place their faith and trust in God.

12 Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. 13 You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. 14 For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:12-14 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.

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

The Wondrous Ways of God.

And Stephen said:

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” – Acts 7:2-16 ESV

What is Stephen doing? Why in the world would this Hellenistic Jew take so much time explaining the history of Israel to the high priest and other religious leaders of Israel? Doesn’t it appear a bit condescending on Stephen’s part? It is essential that we keep in mind the accusation that was leveled against Stephen. He is responding to the charge of blasphemy – against God and Moses. This was a serious charge that could easily result in his death, so it was important that he explain himself and prove that he was innocent of any and all charges against him. What appears to be an unnecessary lecture on Israelite history was actually Stephen’s rebuttal. He is showing that, even as a Hellenistic Jew, he was fully steeped in the history of Israel but, more importantly, he was intimately familiar with the God of Israel.

Stephen begins his defense by describing God as the “God of glory” – a direct reference to Psalm 29:2.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

Seven times in this very short Psalm, King David refers to “the voice of the Lord.” He states that the voice of the Lord is powerful, full of majesty, flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and causes the wild animals to give birth. For Stephen, the issue is the glory of God as revealed through the voice of God. He speaks. He calls. He commands. And Stephen reminds his listeners about God’s call of Abraham. He appeared to Abraham and said, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you” (Acts 7:3 ESV). God had spoken and given very specific directions to their great patriarch. He had directed Abraham to leave Ur and to relocate his family to the land of promise – the land of Canaan. This land would become the Holy Land, the homeland of the Israelites and a possession that brought them great pride. But Stephen reminds them that Abraham, the one to whom the land was promised, never owned an inch of it during his lifetime. Instead, the promise was to be fulfilled to his descendants. 

“But God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land. God did promise, however, that eventually the whole land would belong to Abraham and his descendants—even though he had no children yet. – Acts 7:5 NLT

But before that could happen, the descendants of Abraham would be forced to live “in a foreign land, where they would be oppressed as slaves for 400 years” (Acts 7:6 NLT). It’s vital that we understand what Stephen is doing here. He is portraying the God of Israel as one who speaks, and when He does speak, His words are often difficult to understand and His ways are beyond our ability to comprehend. Why would God have commanded Abraham to leave Ur, promised him land, but never have given him possession of the land? Why would He have chosen Abraham to be the father of a great nation, when God knew full well that Abraham’s wife was barren? And when Sarah finally did conceive and the descendants of Abraham began to increase, why did God ordain their slavery in the land of Egypt for 400 years? And why had God sealed His covenant with Abraham by requiring the circumcision of every male member of his household? As we will see, this was a sign of the promise. It was a permanent reminder that God would do what He had said He would do. The sign of circumcision was a mark of ownership. Abraham’s descendants belonged to God.

In this speech, Stephen touches on some of the most critical junctures in Israelite history, pointing out the difficult to comprehend ways of God. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his own brothers. But God had a purpose behind those actions. It was Joseph who would rise to power, becoming the second highest official in the land of Egypt. He would be placed by God in a position of power and prominence, fully prepared to respond to the needs of his family when they arrived in Egypt looking to escape the famine in the land of promise. And when Jacob, his remaining sons, and their families arrived in Egypt, they were only 75 in number. Not exactly a great multitude. And Stephen points out that Jacob died and was buried in the land of Egypt. He had left his homeland in a state of devastation, due to a famine. He had given up his possession in the promised land to live in a foreign land. But it had all been part of God’s grand plan for the people of Israel. And Stephen points out that Jacob’s bones eventually made it back to Canaan, and were buried in a tomb that had been originally purchased by Abraham, many years earlier – the only plot of land he ever owned in Canaan.

Even for the Israelites in Stephen’s audience, who would have known this story well, it was a reminder of just how remarkable their nation’s legacy really was. It would have been easy for them to forget how they had arrived at where they were. Their establishment as a nation had not been easy. And had it not been for the sovereign hand of God, they would not have existed at all. From the call of Abraham to the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, it had all been part of God’s plan for the people of Israel. And there was more to come. God had not been done. They were not to remain in Egypt. God had plans to get them back to the land of promise. And Stephen will next retell the story of the deliverance of Israel at the hands of Moses – another man, chosen by God, to play a part in the establishment of the nation of Israel, the people of God.

And perhaps you can begin to see where Stephen is going with all this. On the one hand, he is clearly proving His love and respect for God. He is anything, but blasphemous. But even more importantly, Stephen is pointing out that Yahweh was and still is a promise-making, promise-keeping God. Yes, they were now in the land of Canaan, and the Jews took great pride in their promised possession of that land. But for Stephen, there was more. There was an ever greater portion of the promise that they were missing. The land was an inheritance, but not the inheritance. God had something far greater in store for them than just a portion in the land of promise. He had Jesus, the promised Messiah and Savior of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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

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