Leadership Is a Privilege, Not a Right

1 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” – Malachi 2:1-9 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been given the special privilege of serving God with the responsibility of overseeing the tabernacle and everything associated with it.

Then the Lord said to Aaron: “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood.

“Bring your relatives of the tribe of Levi—your ancestral tribe—to assist you and your sons as you perform the sacred duties in front of the Tabernacle of the Covenant.

“You yourselves must perform the sacred duties inside the sanctuary and at the altar. If you follow these instructions, the Lord’s anger will never again blaze against the people of Israel. I myself have chosen your fellow Levites from among the Israelites to be your special assistants. They are a gift to you, dedicated to the Lord for service in the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 18:1-2, 5-6 NLT

But at the time Malachi penned his prophetic pronouncement, the Levitical priesthood was guilty of neglecting its duties and treating its priestly responsibilities as a burden and not a blessing. The men given the responsibility of caring for God’s house found their duties to be a drudgery, not a delight. They even claimed, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord” (Malachi 1:13 NLT) and rejected God’s commands as too difficult and burdensome. In a real sense, their hearts were not in their work, and that is exactly what God has to say about their behavior.

“If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” – Malachi 2:2 ESV

God expected heartfelt obedience to His commands, and His emphasis on the condition of their hearts was meant to reveal the true nature of their problem. This wasn’t a case of simple neglect or poor planning. Their failure to follow through on their commitment wasn’t due to overwork or lack of resources. They simply didn’t have the heart for it because their hearts were far from God.

“The word ‘heart’ (leb/lebab) denotes in Hebrew what may be called the command center of a person’s life, where knowledge is collected and considered and where decisions and plans are made that determine the direction of one’s life.” – Footnote 173: H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, p. 40.

These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel but instead, they were setting a dangerous precedent for those under their care. If the restored remnant of Israel was going to survive their return to Judah and enjoy the blessings God had in store for them, it would only happen if the priests faithfully fulfilled their God-given responsibilities. But God’s priests were guilty of the very same sin that had led to Israel’s banishment from Judah in the first place.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men. – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God holds spiritual leaders to a higher standard because, as His shepherds, they are responsible for the care of His flock. They serve as His undershepherds and must give an account for the way they have nurtured those under their care. And as for the Levitical priests, they were also responsible for the sacrificial system God had decreed.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.

“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy. – Leviticus 22:2, 9 NLT

Malachi delivers God’s stinging rebuke to these heartless and faithless priests, warning them that they were about to be cursed for their infidelity.

“I will punish your descendants and splatter your faces with the manure from your festival sacrifices, and I will throw you on the manure pile.” – Malachi 2:3 NLT

“The disgusting picture is of God taking the internal waste of the sacrificial animals and smearing it on the priests’ faces. Consequently both sacrifices and priests would have to be taken outside for disposal. This play on words communicates a double curse.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God was threatening to use their defiled sacrifices to defile them. He would no longer allow them to defame His name by their failure to execute their priestly responsibilities with integrity and honor. In a sense, God was warning that He was about to clean house. He remained committed to His covenant with the tribe of Levi.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

But these particular men had forfeited their right to serve as God’s priests. And when God’s curse fell on them, they would finally understand the gravity of their sin and the sacredness of the priestly role they had once held. And God provides them with a much-needed reminder of how their forefathers had faithfully lived up to their job description, bringing God’s blessings upon the people.

“The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin. – Malachi 2:5-6 NLT

God had kept His word and restored a remnant of His disobedient people to the land of Judah. Seventy years after Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, God had sovereignly arranged for King Cyrus to issue a decree that allowed a small band of exiled to make the long journey home and begin the restoration of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the walls had been rebuilt, the gates rehung, and the temple had risen majestically from the rubble. And the priests had been given the opportunity to renew their role as the spiritual leaders of Israel, providing instruction in the law and overseeing the recently reinstituted sacrificial system. Yet, despite all the blessings God had poured out on the nation of Israel, the priests had dropped the ball.

“But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:8 NLT

It’s essential to understand the serious nature of their sin. These men had not just led poorly, they had purposefully misled and misguided the people. Their teaching of the law had been inaccurate and confusing. They were guilty of misinterpreting and misrepresenting God’s commands, causing the people to unknowingly violate the will of God. Their propensity to offer unacceptable sacrifices meant that the peoples’ sins were never really atoned for. Unlike their forefathers, these men were liars and cheats, living unrighteous lives and causing the people to follow their example. And God was unwilling to allow their devastating actions to continue any longer.

“So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.” – Malachi 2:9 NLT

According to Numbers 18:32, their penalty should have been death, but God had chosen to punish them by diminishing their stature in the eyes of the people. Their fall from God’s good grace would be painful and swift. They had been set apart by God and given the responsibility of leading and feeding His flock. But they had ended up treating both their position and God’s flock with disdain. After 70 years in exile, the people of God desperately needed solid biblical instruction, godly leadership, and a sacrificial system that provided true atonement from sin. But these men provided none of the above. They twisted God’s words, misled His flock, and defiled the very sacrifices that should have brought atonement to God’s people.

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

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

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

The Problem of Polluted Priests

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. 10 Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised. 13 But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. 14 Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” – Malachi 1:6-14 ESV

Malachi now turns his attention to the priestly leadership of Israel. These men had returned with the exiled from Babylon and, with the rebuilding of the temple, had been given the task of reinstituting the sacrificial system and the worship of Yahweh. As members of the tribe of Levi, their priestly responsibilities had been God-ordained and their role was vital to the overall well-being of the people. God had given them clear instructions regarding their job description.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

Levi was the third son born to Leah and Jacob, and he would become the father of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron. During the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan, God appointed Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

“You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. Then you shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the coat and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod. And you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.” – Exodus 29:4-9 ESV

These men had been set apart by God as mediators between Himself and the people of Israel. They were given the task of ministering in the tabernacle during their journey to Canaan and, later, in the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem. Their role was critical to maintaining the spiritual integrity of the nation, and their faithful allegiance to God was intended to establish a precedence for all the people of Israel. As the priests went, so did the people.

I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God. – Exodus 29:44-46 ESV

But post-exile, the priests had lost sight of their God-given responsibility and were treating their role with disdain and their God with disrespect. One of their responsibilities was to teach the people God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). And they were to serve as judges over the people (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). But Malachi points out that they had failed at both. It was almost impossible for them to teach the law when they regularly violated it themselves. And how were they to judge others when they were incapable of keeping God’s commands? They had become hypocritical and, therefore, ineffective models for the people of Israel.

As their Father, God demanded to know why they refused to honor Him. In doing so, He was accusing them of violating one of the foundational requirements found in the Ten Commandments.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12 ESV

God had created them and consecrated them for His service, but they refused to treat Him with the honor and respect He deserved. They enjoyed the distinct privilege of having been set apart by God to serve Him as His sons. But they showed their Heavenly Father little reverence and awe. Not only that, they refused to treat God as their Master and Lord.

“If I am your father and master, where are the honor and respect I deserve? You have shown contempt for my name!” – Malachi 1:6 NLT

As priests, these men bore the name of God, and their actions had brought shame on His name. They were His representatives among the people and their behavior was dishonoring His reputation and diminishing the worthiness of His character. As the people viewed the godless lifestyle of the priests, they were tempted to mimic their behavior. And since the priests were cutting corners in their worship of God, the people were prone to do the same thing.

But these pious men refused to acknowledge their guilt, choosing instead to question the charges God had leveled against them.

How have we ever shown contempt for your name? – Malachi 1:6 NLT

“How have we defiled the sacrifices?” – Malachi 1:7 NLT

In a sense, they were demanding that God prove His accusations against them. In their pride and arrogance, they refused to acknowledge that they had done anything wrong. But God pulled no punches when detailing the egregious nature of their sins.

“You defile them by saying the altar of the Lord deserves no respect. When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 1:7-8 NLT

They were guilty of using their priestly office for profit. It seems that these men were sacrificing lame and injured animals as sacrifices to God, in direct violation of His law.  It seems likely that the people were bringing unblemished animals to be sacrificed but the priests were substituting those healthy animals with injured ones. In doing so, they were able to keep the healthy ones for their own consumption. By offering unacceptable sacrifices on behalf of the people, they invalidated the whole sacrificial system. No sins could be atoned for by offering up an unacceptable sacrifice. God would not and could not be appeased. God had been very specific regarding this matter.

“Give Aaron and his sons and all the Israelites these instructions, which apply both to native Israelites and to the foreigners living among you.

“If you present a gift as a burnt offering to the LORD, whether it is to fulfill a vow or is a voluntary offering, you will be accepted only if your offering is a male animal with no defects. It may be a bull, a ram, or a male goat. Do not present an animal with defects, because the LORD will not accept it on your behalf.” – Leviticus 22:18-20 NLT

God expected His priests to be holy and He demanded that the sacrifices they offered be holy as well.

“They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the Lord, gifts of food for their God.” – Leviticus 21:6 NLT

And Malachi picks up on this theme of presenting gifts of food for God by describing their blemished offerings as “contemptible food” that “defile the Lord’s table” (Malachi 1:12 NLT). They wouldn’t dare to serve the royal governor tainted meat but they had no problem offering God unacceptable sacrifices. And God displays His anger by declaring His desire to shut the doors of the temple to bring an end to their hypocrisy. It’s important to remember that the sacrificial system had just been reinstituted. It had been more than 70 years since the people had been able to have their sins atoned for, and now, they ran the risk of losing this vital opportunity once again. All because of the sins of the priesthood. 

But these men remain unrepentant, choosing instead to blame their behavior on the overwhelming nature of the entire sacrificial system. It is just too hard, they say. They find it all so wearisome and difficult to maintain. So, they treat God’s words with disdain and dismiss His commands as optional. But God will have none of it. He marvels at the sheer arrogance of these men, pointing out the mind-boggling audacity of their actions.

“Think of it! Animals that are stolen and crippled and sick are being presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” – Malachi 1:13 ESV

Their behavior is unthinkable and their gifts are unacceptable. And God pronounces a curse upon these men.

“Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” – Malachi 1:14 ESV

Their set-apart status would not protect them from the anger of God. He would judge and punish them for their actions. If they were unwilling to honor His name, God would do it Himself. Their refusal to live up to their responsibility as His priests and the peoples’ shepherds would bring down the wrath of God. Their failure to honor God by keeping His commandments would result in His just and righteous judgment of them. A returned people and a restored temple meant nothing if the priests of God refused to lead the people of God to repentance.

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

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

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

Learning to Recognize God’s Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returned But Not Restored

1 The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. – Malachi 1:1 ESV

Over the centuries, there has been much debate over the identity of the author of the book of Malachi. It would be simple to assume that the book bears the name of its author, but in Hebrew, “Malachi” is more of a title than a name. It means “my messenger.” The book itself contains no details regarding the author’s identity, providing no birthplace, ancestry, vocation, or tribal affiliation. Three of the gospel writers quote from Malachi 3:1 but do not reference Malachi by name (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).

The Targum, an ancient Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Old Testament, credited Ezra as the author of Malachi. But the Talmud, a Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, gave the honor of authorship to Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther (Esther 2:5-7). But the designation of either Ezra or Mordecai as the author of the book has garnered little validation or support over the centuries.

Another reason given for rejecting Malachi as the author of the book is the use of the Hebrew word, מַלְאָךְ (mal’āḵ), in chapter 3:1. It simply means “messenger” and seems intended as a wordplay on the title used in chapter one, verse one.

The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi (מַלְאָכִי mal’āḵî). – Malachi 1:1 ESV

While there remains no consensus as to the identity of the book’s author, there are still many biblical scholars who give the credit to an unknown man named Malachi. If he is not the author, the book of Malachi would be the first prophetic book in the Old Testament to be written anonymously, which seems highly unlikely.

But regardless of the author’s identity, the book claims to be a message from God to the people of Israel. Yet, a second problem arises when studying the book of Malachi: Its place in the timeline of Israelite history. There are no references to specific kings, historical figures, or datable events in the book, which makes it virtually impossible to establish an accurate idea of when it was written. The reader is left to determine a date based on inferences and implications garnered from the text itself. And the options that have been suggested range from as early as 538 B.C. to as late as 420 B.C.

Based on the content of the book, it is believed that Malachi, like Haggai and Zechariah, was a postexilic writing prophet. In verse 8 of chapter one, the term “governor” is actually the Persian word, peḥâ, and would seem to be a reference to the Persian king, Cyrus, who issued a decree allowing the exiled Israelites to return to the land of Judah.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:1-4 ESV

Both Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, two Hebrews who helped lead the people back to Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of the city and the temple, each bore the same Persian title of “governor.” And because Malachi references worship at the restored temple, it would appear that he wrote sometime after the date of 515 B.C., when the temple restoration was completed.

There are a great many similarities between the Malachi and the book of Nehemiah. Both men dealt with issues regarding the poor state of the priestly order, the intermarriage of Jews with outsiders, and peoples’ neglect to pay the designated tithe. This would seem to indicate that Malachi penned his book sometime during the governorship of Nehemiah, which would place its date of authorship somewhere between 445-420 B.C. According to Thomas L. Constable, “Malachi’s place at the end of the twelve Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible and modern translations argues for a late date.”

As a prophet, Malachi expresses God’s disfavor with the people of Israel, concentrating most of his emphasis on their lax and less-than-faithful practice of worship. God had graciously allowed them to return to the land of promise, just as He had said He would do, but they have proven to be far from obedient and less than appreciative in their display of reverence for Him.

It is important to consider the timeline that precedes Malachi’s book. Sometime around 537 B.C., Zerubbabel led more than 50,000 Israelites back to Jerusalem with orders from King Cyrus to rebuild the city and the temple. Haggai and Zechariah ministered to this remnant of Israelites as they went about the task of restoring the long-abandoned city that had been destroyed by the Babylonians some 70 years earlier. In 458 B.C. an additional group of about 5,000 Jews made their way from Babylon under Ezra’s leadership. The temple having been rebuilt, Ezra attempted to reinvigorate the peoples’ worship of Yahweh. Then in 444 B.C., Nehemiah led a third contingent of about 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem with the express purpose of rebuilding the walls and gates of the city.

The Israelites’ return to the promised land was anything but easy. They had been met with opposition and the work of rebuilding the devasted and long-neglected city was difficult and time-consuming. Over time they experienced success at their daunting task, having restored the temple, rebuilt the walls, and reinstituted the sacrificial system and temple worship. But their hearts were not solely dedicated to Yahweh. They were lax in their observance of the Mosaic Law and, as a result of their intermarriage with the Gentiles, they were guilty of practicing idolatry. They had allowed themselves to be become infected and influenced by the surrounding pagan cultures, which ended up diminishing their set-apart status as the chosen people of God. So, Malachi set out to address their spiritual, ethical, and moral weaknesses, in the hopes of revitalizing their worship and reinvigorating their allegiance to Yahweh.

“. . . Malachi and his contemporaries were living in an uneventful waiting period, when God seemed to have forgotten His people enduring poverty and foreign domination in the little province of Judah. . . . True the Temple had been completed, but nothing momentous had occurred to indicate that God’s presence had returned to fill it with glory, as Ezekiel had indicated would happen (Ezekial 43:4). . . . Generations were dying without receiving the promises (cf. Hebrews 11:13) and many were losing their faith.” – Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 211.

The purpose behind Malachi’s book was the same as any other Old Testament prophet: To expose the sins of the people and call them to repentance. Malachi understood that a restored temple, a reinstituted sacrificial system, and a rebuilt city were meaningless if the people refused to honor the God who had made it all possible. A reestablished kingdom was worthless if the people refused to honor Yahweh as their King and Sovereign.

For the people of Israel, return to the land and the re-establishment of their kingdom would mean nothing if they were not going to live as the children of God. He had sent them into exile 70 years earlier because of their disobedience and rebellion against Him. Now, He had returned them to the land and He expected them to repay His goodness and grace with faithfulness and an outward display of obedience. But years after arriving back in the land of promise they were just as stubbornly resistant to His laws as ever before. Their lives were marked by divorce, moral laxness, spiritual indifference, and a pervasive sense of religious apathy. In a sense, they had given up. The work of restoring Judah and Jerusalem had proven too difficult and they were ready to throw in the towel, spiritually speaking.

But Malachi would not allow them to do so. His job, as the messenger of God, was to call the people to repentance. They had a job to do. Their job to restore Judah would not be complete until they were restored to a right relationship with Yahweh. So, Malachi delivered God’s impassioned plea that they return to Him.

“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 3:6-7 NLT

And if they refused, they would face judgment yet again.

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

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

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

Count Your Blessings

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

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

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

19 “Raiders shall raid Gad,
    but he shall raid at their heels.

20 “Asher’s food shall be rich,
    and he shall yield royal delicacies.

21 “Naphtali is a doe let loose
    that bears beautiful fawns.

22 “Joseph is a fruitful bough,
    a fruitful bough by a spring;
    his branches run over the wall.
23 The archers bitterly attacked him,
    shot at him, and harassed him severely,
24 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),
25 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.
26 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.

27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    in the morning devouring the prey
    and at evening dividing the spoil.”

28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. 29 Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— 32 the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.” 33 When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people. – Genesis 49:13-33 ESV

Having blessed Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Jacob now turned his attention to his remaining eight sons. He continued to work his way through the list moving from oldest to youngest, and providing each son with a specific and personalized blessing. When compared with the blessing Jacob spoke over Judah, these pronouncements appear not only much shorter in length but less impressive in terms of significance. It is not until Jacob reaches his two last sons, Joseph and Benjamin, that his blessings become, once again, lengthier and richer in detail.

It is interesting to note that Zebulun is told that his people will be associated with the sea. Yet, the region they eventually inherited in Canaan would leave them land-locked and far from either the Mediterranean or the Sea of Galilee. But the location of this land put them in touch with Phoenician traders and prove to be a lucrative trade route from the coast to the interior of the country. There is some speculation that Jacob’s prophecy extends all the way to the Millennial Kingdom, when Zebulun’s borders will extend all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

The descendants of Issachar would inherit a rich and fertile land just below the Sea of Galilee, leading them to become farmers and sheepherders. An agrarian lifestyle would supplant any aspirations to play a political role in the future of the people of Israel. It seems that the Issacharites would even become willing to enslave themselves to the Canaanites in order to enjoy material prosperity and peace.

The Danites would prove to be a tribe of mighty warriors but they would fail to remove the Canaanites from the land given to them by God as an inheritance.

As for the tribe of Dan, the Amorites forced them back into the hill country and would not let them come down into the plains. – Judges 1:34 NLT

Like a deadly viper, the Danites would bring disaster upon the people of Israel, leading them into idolatry (Judges 18). But from this tribe would come Samson, one of the most renowned and controversial judges in all of Israel.

Next comes Gad. His name in Hebrew means “good fortune,” but it sounds similar to the Hebrew word gûḏ, which means “overcome.” From their location on the eastern borders of Israel, the Gadites would experience constant attacks from their enemies, but they would prove to be fierce raiders who successfully stood their ground.

The descendants of Asher would inherit some of the most fertile land in all of Canaan, located along the Mediterranean coast. From this location they would produce food fit for a king’s table.

It is difficult to understand the exact meaning of Jacob’s prophecy concerning Naphtali. The language of this verse is complicated and its interpretation remains illusive. Scholars have long debated the meaning of this passage and there remains no consensus as to what Jacob was trying to convey. But history reveals that within the land awarded to the tribe of Naphtali, King Jeroboam would eventually set up a golden idol in the city of Dan (1 Kings 12:29-30).

The lengthiest blessing in this section is reserved for Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob who had once been considered dead but was found to be alive and well in Egypt. Jacob had already adopted Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, and the descendants of these two boys would inherit a large section of land in the very heart of Canaan.

Jacob referred to Joseph as “him who was set apart from his brothers” (Genesis 49:26 ESV), a phrase that seems to carry a double meaning. Joseph had been literally “set apart” by his brothers when they sold him into slavery. But God had set him apart by preordaining his role as the savior of his people. While Joseph had been “bitterly attacked” and severely harassed, God had blessed him greatly. And Jacob prayed that God would continue to bless his favored son.

“…may the Almighty bless you
with the blessings of the heavens above,
    and blessings of the watery depths below,
    and blessings of the breasts and womb.” – Genesis 49:25 NLT

Jacob was fully aware that God’s hand had been on his son, Joseph. Had not Joseph been sold into slavery, he would never have become the second-highest-ranking ruler in all the land of Egypt. And had that not happened, Jacob’s family would have died out in Canaan, the victims of the devastating famine that God had brought upon the land. It was because of Joseph that the promises of God concerning Israel would be fulfilled and Jacob was eternally grateful.

Finally, from the tribe of Benjamin would come a host of mighty warriors. This smallest of all the tribes would have a lasting impact on the safety and security of the entire nation of Israel. Yet, the book of Judges reveal that this fierce tribe would fail to follow the command of God by eliminating the Canaanites from their allotted land.

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

Jacob left no son out. He knew that each of them would have a vital role to play in the future well-being of his descendants. Some would prove more important and vital to the cause than others. But for the promise of God to be fulfilled, each of Jacob’s 12 sons would have to work together to ensure the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

As the patriarch of the family, Jacob knew that God was not yet done. The Almighty had much more in store for Jacob’s descendants and it would take place in the land of Canaan, in keeping with His promises. That is why Jacob closed out his blessings to his sons by reiterating his wish to have his body taken back to Canaan for burial. While he would never live to see the promised land again, he was convinced that his people would one day return and he was determined to have his bones interred alongside his wife, Rachel.

Even when facing the prospect of death, Jacob was hopeful and faithful. He was fully convinced that God would accomplish all that He had promised and that the legacy of Abraham would be kept alive through his sons and grandsons. Egypt had been a detour and not a final destination. The people of Israel would one day return to the land of Israel because God was not yet done.

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

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

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

Future Blessings

Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.

“Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob,
    listen to Israel your father.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
    my might, and the firstfruits of my strength,
    preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.
Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence,
    because you went up to your father’s bed;
    then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!

“Simeon and Levi are brothers;
    weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
    O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
    and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
    and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
    and scatter them in Israel.

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
    your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
    your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
    from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
    and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
    and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
11 Binding his foal to the vine
    and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
    and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth whiter than milk.– Genesis 49:1-12 ESV

Nearing death, Jacob called his 12 sons to him. It was time for him to share his patriarchal blessing on the young men who would carry on the legacy of his name and play vital roles in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jacob understood that his time on earth was over and it was time to pass the baton the next generation of Israelites. It would be through them that God would create a great nation that would eventually return to and fill the land of Canaan.

As Jacob gathered his sons around him, he pronounced a prophetic word concerning each of their futures. This section of Genesis is written in a poetic style, but is no less historical or reliable. In it, the words of Jacob are intended to convey future realities that will be based on the sovereign will of God as it is played out through the personalities and character qualities of each son. His 12 sons, each bearing distinctively different temperaments, will be the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Jacob, under divine inspiration, conveys to each of them the vital, yet divergent, roles they will play in the creation of the Israelite nation. No two sons is alike and the tribes that will emanate from them will end up reflecting their disparate characters.

Beginning with the oldest to the youngest, Jacob delivers a brief, yet powerful prophetic pronouncement concerning each son. And what they heard must have surprised and confused them. It is not clear whether they knew about the blessing he had given to Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph.

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,
‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’” – Genesis 48:20 ESV

Jacob had already made the unexpected decision to adopt Joseph’s two sons, born to him by an Egyptian woman. Jacob had chosen to make his two grandsons heirs to his inheritance, placing them on equal standing with his own sons. He had declared a powerful and irrevocable blessing on both of them.

“…in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” – Genesis 48:16 ESV

And while Jacob had frustrated Joseph by purposefully awarding the blessing of the firstborn to Ephraim, the younger of his two sons, Jacob had also assured that Joseph that Manasseh would not be forgotten.

“He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” – Genesis 48:19 ESV

But now Jacob turned his attention to his own sons, speaking over them a word of blessing and prophecy.

“Each son learned how his branch of the family would benefit from and be a channel of blessing relative to the patriarchal promises. The natural character of each son and the consequences of that character would have their outcome in the future of the Israelites. The choices and consequently the characters of the patriarchs affected their descendants for generations to come, as is usually true.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis

It is unlikely that Jacob understood the full import of his own words. Much of what he had to say to his sons was future-oriented, stretching from the not-so-distant future all the way to the Millennial Age. Jacob did not possess the power of clairvoyance. He could not see into the future or discern with accuracy and confidence the outcome of his words, but he knew that what he was saying was divinely inspired.

Like any loving father, Jacob longed for each of his sons to be successful and to leave a lasting legacy that would positively impact the world in which they lived. So, beginning with Reuben, his firstborn, Jacob delivered a brief, but timeless prediction concerning each of their fates.

Reuben was in for a not-so-pleasant surprise. Because of his ill-fated decision to sleep with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), he would forfeit his right to the blessing of the firstborn. It must have stung Reuben deeply to hear his father pronounce, “you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife; you defiled my marriage couch” (Genesis 49:4 NLT). Like his uncle, Esau, Reuben had allowed his physical passions to rule over him and rob him of his rightful place of prominence and power among his brothers. And his decision would have long-lasting effects, determining the fate of his future descendants.

Simeon and Levi were probably also a bit surprised when they heard their father’s pronouncement over them. These two sons had brought shame to the name of Jacob by murdering all the men of Shechem for the rape of their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34). They had chosen to take matters into their own hands and, as a result, had made the Israelites “stink among all the people of this land—among all the Canaanites and Perizzites” (Genesis 34:30 NLT). Now, they were having to pay the consequences for their rash and costly action.

Yet, despite the rather negative nature of Jacob’s words concerning Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, he still declared that they would each enjoy fruitfulness and future blessings from God. Their natural role as leaders over the clan had been forfeited but not their right to enjoy status as heirs of the patriarchal blessing.

At this point, Jacob turns his attention to Judah, and it is to this son that he dedicates the greatest portion of his time and his most positive statements of praise and prophetic revelation. Among all his brothers, Judah was destined to play the most vital role of all. It must have been a rather awkward moment when Jacob declared of Judah in the hearing of all his brothers, “your brothers shall praise youyour father’s sons shall bow down before you” (Genesis 49:8 ESV). For each of the sons, this would have brought back the memories of Joseph’s dreams. And while those dreams had already been fulfilled, now they were hearing that they would have to bow before yet another brother.

And while Jacob’s words would have short-term implications, he was really speaking of events that lie in the distant future. The tribe of Judah would become a leading faction among the nation of Israel, but it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that most of these prophecies would be fulfilled.

Jacob declared that “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10 ESV), and this would eventually be fulfilled through King David and his royal line. But it would ultimately be fulfilled with the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lord, the Messiah of Israel.

All of the imagery used by Jacob points to a future fulfillment that has yet to take place. Even during the days when Moses penned these words, the people of Israel had not yet entered the land of promised, the dynasty of David had not yet come, and the prediction of Judah’s preeminence had not yet taken place. But it would. All of those things would come to pass, just as Jacob predicted. Yet, even today, the scepter has passed from the hand of Judah. There is no king in Israel. No son of David sits on the throne in Jerusalem. But the day is coming when even those prophetic words will be fulfilled.

Jacob declared some rather cryptic words concerning the future of Judah that must have left each of the brothers scratching their heads in confusion.

“He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.” – Genesis 49:11 NLT

None of this would have made sense to them. This imagery is nonsensical and counterintuitive. No one would tie his foal to a grapevine. To do so would end up damaging the valuable vine. And who in their right mind would wash garments in wine? The result would be far from productive or beneficial.

Yet, Jacob was predicting a future event that would result in the judgment of Israel. Though he did not know it at the time, Jacob was predicting the coming of the seed of Judah who would rule and reign over Israel. Jesus would be the Son of David who would be the foal who was tied to the vine of Israel. God would send His Son to be the relatively innocent looking and unimpressive Rabbi whose very existence would bring judgment upon the God-blessed, but rebellious vine of Israel.

And the day will come when this very same Son of David will return to earth and wash his garments in the blood (wine) of His enemies – all those who refuse to recognize Him as the Messiah and Savior sent from God, including the people of Israel. The book of Revelation describes the day when the King will return to earth a second time and “clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13 13 ESV).

And the apostle John goes on to declare that the Messiah “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:15-16 ESV).

Jacob was speaking of future events both near and distant. And God would see that each and every statement made by the dying patriarch would be fulfilled at just the right time and in perfect keeping with His divine will.

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

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

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

Blessed to Be a Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Is Much When God Is In It

1 So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “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, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

Then Jacob set out from Beersheba. The sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They also took their livestock and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters. All his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.

Now these are the names of the descendants of Israel, who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons. Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and the sons of Reuben: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi. 10 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman. 11 The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. 12 The sons of Judah: Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez, and Zerah (but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan); and the sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul. 13 The sons of Issachar: Tola, Puvah, Yob, and Shimron. 14 The sons of Zebulun: Sered, Elon, and Jahleel. 15 These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, together with his daughter Dinah; altogether his sons and his daughters numbered thirty-three.

16 The sons of Gad: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli. 17 The sons of Asher: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, Beriah, with Serah their sister. And the sons of Beriah: Heber and Malchiel. 18 These are the sons of Zilpah, whom Laban gave to Leah his daughter; and these she bore to Jacob—sixteen persons.

19 The sons of Rachel, Jacob’s wife: Joseph and Benjamin. 20 And to Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera the priest of On, bore to him. 21 And the sons of Benjamin: Bela, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard. 22 These are the sons of Rachel, who were born to Jacob—fourteen persons in all.

23 The son of Dan: Hushim. 24 The sons of Naphtali: Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer, and Shillem. 25 These are the sons of Bilhah, whom Laban gave to Rachel his daughter, and these she bore to Jacob—seven persons in all.

26 All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own descendants, not including Jacob’s sons’ wives, were sixty-six persons in all. 27 And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two. All the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy. – Genesis 46:1-27 ESV

As Jacob and his family began their journey from Canaan to Egypt, it must have been a bitter-sweet moment for this aging patriarch. While he must have been ecstatic at the thought of seeing his long-lost son, Joseph, it could not have been easy for him to leave behind the land that had been promised by God to his father and grandfather. The land of Canaan was supposed to be his inheritance and that of his children. But it had been devastated by a famine and was no longer capable of sustaining Jacob’s growing family. He really had no other choice but to leave Canaan behind and accept Pharaoh’s generous, yet unexpected, offer. So, motivated by the promise of good land and the prospect of being reunited with Joseph, Jacob and his family set out.

But Jacob made one last stop before crossing the southern border of Canaan and entering the wilderness of the Negev. He instructed his son to lead the caravan to Beersheba, a region that held special significance to Jacob and his family. It was there that Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, had purchased a well from Abimelech, for the prices of seven yew lambs. The name Beersheba means “well of seven,” and it was there that “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree…and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33 ESV).

Years later, Isaac, Jacob’s father, would return to Beersheba and receive a vision from God, telling him, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Genesis 26:24 ESV). And Isaac “built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 26:25 ESV).

Jacob returned to this familiar spot, likely in the hopes of receiving a word from God that might confirm his relocation to Egypt. Jacob was understandably reluctant to leave the land that God had promised to give him as an inheritance. What would happen in his absence? Would they ever return? Would the promise every be fulfilled? This was a watershed moment for Jacob and he sought assurances from God. And God did not disappoint.

After offering sacrifices to God on one of the altars that his grandfather or father had constructed, Jacob went to sleep. And during his sleep, God visited him in a dream and delivered a much-needed word of assurance.

“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, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 46:3-4 ESV

Jacob had the permission he had been seeking. God had sensed Jacob’s reticence and provided him with divine permission to relocated his family to Egypt. And not only did Jacob have permission to go, he was given the assurance of God’s presence as he did so. Then God upped the ante by reconfirming his promise to turn the clan of Jacob into a mighty nation. This was familiar refrain that had been heard for three generations but had yet to happen. God had told Abraham:

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.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV

And God had informed Abraham how this transformation would take place.

“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. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

Even when Abraham was 99-years-old and still fatherless, God had reconfirmed his promise to make of him a great nation.

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” – Genesis 17:6 ESV

And as Abraham anxiously waited for a son, God continued to reiterate His promise.

“Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” – Genesis 18:18 ESV

Now, years later, Jacob and his family were on their way to the very land where God had said the offspring of Abraham would “sojourn.” This trip had been God-ordained and had been part of the divine plan all along, just as Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and the famine had been.

Having received confirmation from God, Jacob and his family continued their journey. And Moses uses verses 8-25 to give a detailed description of all the “sons” of Jacob. This list contains all the male descendants who had been born to Jacob while he lived in the land of Canaan. And while the list seems lengthy, it all adds up to a far-from-impressive number.

All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own descendants, not including Jacob’s sons’ wives, were sixty-six persons in all. – Genesis 46:26 ESV

Riding in the wagons that Pharaoh had provided and eating the provisions he had sent, this little ragtag band of Israelites made their way to Egypt. They were small in number and facing an uncertain future in a foreign land where they would be in the minority and little more than aliens. But that had always been their lot. At no time in Canaan had Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob enjoyed the benefit of overwhelming numbers or superior strength. They had always been outsiders, living in a land that was occupied by others. They owned little land, occupied no cities, and garnered little respect. And now they were moving to a country where nothing was familiar and there hopes of inheriting the land of Canaan was a quickly fading memory.

Even if you add in Joseph, his wife, and two sons, the total number of Jacob’s family was a mere 70 individuals. But God was not phased by this seemingly insignificant and insufficient head count. As the creation account revealed, God is fully capable of creating something from nothing. And the entrance of 70 people into the land of Canaan was about to prove true the words of the old hymn, “Little Is Much When God Is In It.”

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

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

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

God-Sent

1 Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 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. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. 10 You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:1-15 ESV

This chapter contains one of the most powerful illustrations of God’s sovereignty of God to be found in all the Scriptures. The story of Joseph’s life, when viewed from a human perspective, is one of tragedy and betrayal, coupled with moments of good fortune followed by bad luck. Joseph is portrayed as a young man who becomes the innocent victim of his brothers’ jealousy and hatred. The youngest of 12 sons, Joseph had been the apple of his father’s eye and was elevated to a position of honor among his brothers. But his favored status and penchant for sharing dreams that appeared to further enhance his superior status made him a social pariah among his older siblings. Their anger for him grew so intense, that they began to plot his death. But rather than simply snuffing Joseph out, they decided to cash in by selling him as a slave to Ishmaelite traders.

These callous and hate-filled men took their brother’s multicolored robe, ripped it in pieces, and then led their father to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. They showed no remorse or regret for their actions. And, in time, they went on with their lives, erasing any memory of Joseph from their minds.

But while Joseph had been abandoned by his brothers, he was not forsaken by God. His entire life is an ongoing illustration of God’s sovereign and providential care. Though he ended up being sold as a slave to a wealthy and influential Egyptian, Joseph’s fate was God-ordained, a point Moses makes quite clear.

The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did as he served in the home of his Egyptian master. Potiphar noticed this and realized that the Lord was with Joseph, giving him success in everything he did. – Genesis 39:2-3 NLT

Yet, it didn’t take long before Joseph’s good fortune took a dramatically dark turn. Having spurned the sexual advances of his master’s wife, Joseph was wrongly accused of rape and thrown into prison. But even in that grim and unexpected environment, God protected and prospered Joseph.

But the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love. And the Lord made Joseph a favorite with the prison warden. 22 Before long, the warden put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners and over everything that happened in the prison. 23 The warden had no more worries, because Joseph took care of everything. The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed. – Genesis 39:21-23 NLT

From the pit to the palace to the prison, Joseph enjoyed the providential protection of God. And along the way, God revealed Himself to Joseph by giving him the ability to interpret dreams. This special skill proved quite useful, allowing Joseph to make connections with two fellow prisoners, one of whom would play an important role in Joseph’s release from prison.

But two years would pass before Joseph received an order to appear in Pharaoh’s court. He was ushered into the royal palace and into the throne room where he was asked to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh. This was yet another divinely-ordained moment in which the sovereign will of God was clearly at play. Pharaoh’s dreams had not been arbitrary or coincidental. They had been a part of God’s carefully orchestrated plan.

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

And Joseph had recognized that the dreams and their meanings had been the handiwork of God.

“As for having two similar dreams, it means that these events have been decreed by God, and he will soon make them happen. – Genesis 41:32 NLT

And they did happen. But not before Joseph was installed as the second-most-powerful man in all of Egypt. He was given authority to prepare the nation for the seven years of famine that God had ordained. And Joseph’s new position allowed him to implement a strategy to gather enough grain during the seven years of plenty so that the nation of Egypt could successfully survive the coming famine. And when the famine came, its impact was felt far beyond the borders of Egypt, all the way into Canaan, where Jacob and his sons still lived.

It had been the famine that forced Jacob to send his sons to Egypt in search of food. And it was in Egypt that his sons encountered their long-lost but unrecognizable brother. And the last few chapters have revealed the story of their dramatic and often tension-filled reunion.

But as Joseph stood looking down on his brothers and heard Judah share his heartfelt desire to serve as Benjamin’s substitute, he couldn’t hold back his emotions any longer. He fled from the room and, having regained his composure, returned to reveal his true identity. But, more than that, Joseph was ready to let his brothers know the true nature of all the events surrounding his life. And what he had to share left them staring back in shock and awe. The Egyptian governor was actually their brother.

This news must have stunned the brothers and increased the level of their anxiety and fear. Now, not only were they accused of stealing the governor’s silver goblet, the governor was actually the boy they had sold into slavery. Things were going from bad to worse. Their minds were racing as they considered the full import of this shocking news. If the governor truly was their long-lost brother, he might use his royal power to pay his brothers back for their crime against him. But Joseph’s unexpected announcement left them staring back in silence.

…his brothers were speechless! They were stunned to realize that Joseph was standing there in front of them. – Genesis 45:3 NLT

But sensing their fear and trepidation, Joseph invited them to draw closer, then attempted to assuage their growing anxiety.

“I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives.” – Genesis 45:4-5 NLT

Joseph reveals a strong understanding of the concept of divine sovereignty. He had fully grasped the significance of all the events surrounding his life and determined them to be the work of God. Yes, they had made the decision to sell him as a slave, but it had been preordained by God. Joseph was fully convinced that it had been God who sent him to Egypt, not his brothers. They had simply been tools in the sovereign hands of God. This does not dissolve them of guilt or responsibility. Each of them had participated in the crime against their brother willfully and deliberately. God had not forced them to do so. But He had used their envy-fueled actions to accomplish His divine will. And the most ironic part of it all is that God would use their act of selfishness to bring about their ultimate preservation. Joseph repeatedly stressed this point.

“It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives.” – Genesis 45:5 NLT

“God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. – Genesis 45: NLT

The famine was only into its second year and Joseph knew that things were going to get far worse. So, he begged his brothers to return to Canaan with an invitation for Jacob to join him in the land of Egypt. They were to tell their father all that had happened and deliver the good news that his favorite son was alive and well. The son whom Jacob had given up as dead, God had elevated to a place of power and prominence.

“God has made me master over all the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 45:9 NLT

Joseph had gone from wearing a multicolored robe to the garments of a king. He had been elevated from the status of the favorite son of Jacob to the favored officer in Pharaoh’s court. All according to the sovereign will of God. And Joseph was convinced that he was the key to the survival of the house of Jacob, which is why he ordered his brothers to return home and bring the entire clan of Jacob back to Egypt.

“Go tell my father of my honored position here in Egypt. Describe for him everything you have seen, and then bring my father here quickly.” – Genesis 45:13 NLT

God had sent Joseph ahead to prepare the way. Now, Joseph sent for Jacob in order to preserve a nation – all according to God’s plan.

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

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

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

 

Greater Love Has No Man

18 Then Judah went up to him and said, “Oh, my lord, please let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19 My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father, or a brother?’ 20 And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’ 21 Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23 Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall not see my face again.’

24 “When we went back to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26 we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother goes with us, then we will go down. For we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27 Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28 One left me, and I said, “Surely he has been torn to pieces,” and I have never seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

30 “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32 For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ 33 Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” – Genesis 44:18-34 ESV

The Egyptian governor has accused Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob, of having stolen a valuable silver goblet. As his punishment, the boy will be forced to remain in Egypt as a slave while his 10 brothers return home to Canaan. Of course, the entire affair had been the brainchild of Joseph, who had ordered that the goblet be placed in Benjamin’s belongings before the brothers started their journey home. In a sense, Joseph had framed his own brother for the crime so that he might determine the true condition of his brothers’ hearts. He had absolved them of any guilt and given them the option of returning to Canaan without Benjamin. Now, it was time to see what his brothers would do. Had they changed? Or, in order to save their own skins, would they abandon Benjamin to a life of slavery just as they had done to him?

Judah was the first to speak up. He approached the Egyptian governor and begged him to reconsider. Judah explained that Benjamin was the youngest son of their father, Jacob, and that boy was near and dear to the old man’s heart. When they had returned the first time and informed Jacob that the governor demanded that they bring Benjamin back to Egypt, Jacob had become distressed at the thought of losing another son. Judah explained, in a rather abbreviated form, that their father had lost another son and had never really gotten over the pain of his sudden and unexpected disappearance.

What makes this dialogue so ironic is that the one to whom it was directed was already very familiar with the details of the story. Joseph knew exactly what Judah was including and all that he was leaving out. Understandably so, Judah expressed no ownership for the “disappearance” of Joseph. He shared nothing about the role he and his brothers played in selling their younger brother to Ishmaelite traders. To do so would have been an acknowledgment that they were all untrustworthy men. So, Judah sanitized the story, emphasizing the tragic loss of their brother while never divulging their involvement in it. He also failed to share how they deceived their own father, allowing him to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

All Judah chose to share was the devastating impact the governor’s decree had on their father. Not only had they returned without Simeon, but they had been forced to tell their aging father that he would never see Simeon again unless Benjamin returned to Egypt with them. And Jacob had found this news to be more than he could bear.

“As you know, my wife had two sons, and one of them went away and never returned. Doubtless he was torn to pieces by some wild animal. I have never seen him since. Now if you take his brother away from me, and any harm comes to him, you will send this grieving, white-haired man to his grave.” – Genesis 44:27-29 NLT

Judah was pulling at the governor’s heartstrings. He was desperately attempting to appeal to Zaphenath-paneah’s emotions, hoping that this powerful Egyptian ruler might empathize with their plight and rescind his order.

But the next words to come out of Judah’s mouth revealed to Joseph that his brother was serious about saving Benjamin’s life. Judah painted a gut-wrenching image of their elderly and grief-stricken father waiting anxiously back in Canaan. But he also expressed his willingness to offer his own life as a substitute for Benjamin’s. Judah told the governor how he had assured his father that he would take personal responsibility for the boy.

“My lord, I guaranteed to my father that I would take care of the boy. I told him, ‘If I don’t bring him back to you, I will bear the blame forever.’” – Genesis 44:32 NLT

And this is where Judah reveals the true nature of his heart. This very same man who had come up with the idea of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelite slave traders offered to trade his life for that of Benjamin.

“So please, my lord, let me stay here as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I return to my father if the boy is not with me? I couldn’t bear to see the anguish this would cause my father!” – Genesis 44:33-34 NLT

Judah was willing to forfeit his own freedom so that his younger brother could be set free and return to their father. Judah was not the same callous individual who had allowed jealousy and envy to cloud his thinking and drive him to betray his own brother. All those years ago, Judah had shown no love for Joseph and he had exhibited no remorse for causing his father so much pain. But Judah was not that same man. He had grown up and was now willing to stand up and do the right thing. Judah’s sacrificial and selfless offer reflects the kind of love described and demonstrated by Jesus.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13 ESV

Judah was making a huge sacrifice. He had a family back home that was dependent upon his return. But he was willing to jeopardize his own wife and children in order to honor his father and protect the life of his brother. Judah was offering to redeem the life of Benjamin by substituting his life as payment for Benjamin’s debt. He would pay the penalty on behalf of Benjamin, allowing the boy to return to the embrace of his father. And it’s important to note that Jesus would come through the line of Judah. And years later, Jacob would bestow on Judah a very special blessing that would have future ramifications.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
    and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. – Genesis 49:10 ESV

“Jacob will crown Judah with kingship because he demonstrates that he has become fit to rule according to God’s ideal of kingship that the king serves the people, not vice versa. Judah is transformed from one who sells his brother as a slave to one who is willing to be the slave for his brother. With that offer he exemplifies Israel’s ideal kingship.” – Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary

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

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

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