Our Great God

17 Moses and Aaron took these men who had been named, 18 and on the first day of the second month, they assembled the whole congregation together, who registered themselves by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, 19 as the Lord commanded Moses. So he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.

20 The people of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: 21 those listed of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.

22 Of the people of Simeon, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, those of them who were listed, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: 23 those listed of the tribe of Simeon were 59,300.

24 Of the people of Gad, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: 25 those listed of the tribe of Gad were 45,650.

26 Of the people of Judah, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 27 those listed of the tribe of Judah were 74,600.

28 Of the people of Issachar, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 29 those listed of the tribe of Issachar were 54,400.

30 Of the people of Zebulun, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 31 those listed of the tribe of Zebulun were 57,400.

32 Of the people of Joseph, namely, of the people of Ephraim, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 33 those listed of the tribe of Ephraim were 40,500.

34 Of the people of Manasseh, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 35 those listed of the tribe of Manasseh were 32,200.

36 Of the people of Benjamin, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 37 those listed of the tribe of Benjamin were 35,400.

38 Of the people of Dan, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 39 those listed of the tribe of Dan were 62,700.

40 Of the people of Asher, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 41 those listed of the tribe of Asher were 41,500.

42 Of the people of Naphtali, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 43 those listed of the tribe of Naphtali were 53,400.

44 These are those who were listed, whom Moses and Aaron listed with the help of the chiefs of Israel, twelve men, each representing his father’s house. 45 So all those listed of the people of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war in Israel— 46 all those listed were 603,550. – Numbers 1:17-46 ESV

Twelve tribes yielded over 600,000 men of fighting age. That is a staggering number, and when you consider that it only included men who were 20-years-old and older, and does not take into account women and children, you can begin to sense the size of the Israelite community. Some scholars have estimated that, based on the size of Israel’s fighting force, the total number of Israelites could have been from one to two million. But those astounding estimates have caused concern among some scholars who question the impossibility of that many people surviving life in the unforgiving wilderness for more than 40 years. The NET Study Bible provides the following summary of their misgivings.

“There has been much discussion about the numbers in the Israelite wilderness experience. The immediate difficulty for even the casual reader is the enormous number of the population. If indeed there were 603,550 men twenty years of age and older who could fight, the total population of the exodus community counting women and children would have been well over a million, or even two million as calculated by some. This is not a figure that the Bible ever gives, but given the sizes of families the estimate would not be far off. This is a staggering number to have cross the Sea, drink from the oases, or assemble in the plain by Sinai. It is not a question of whether or not God could provide for such a number; it is rather a problem of logistics for a population of that size in that period of time. The problem is not with the text itself, but with the interpretation of the word אֶלֶף (’elef), traditionally translated “thousand.” The word certainly can be taken as “thousand,” and most often is. But in view of the problem of the large number here, some scholars have chosen one of the other meanings attested in literature for this word…” – see A. H. McNeile, Numbers, 7; J. Garstang, Joshua-Judges, 120; J. Bright, History of Israel, 144

In an attempt to come up with a more reasonable and believable number, other interpretations of the word אֶלֶף (’elef) have been utilized. And while these rather clever reinterpretations have resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of fighting men and, therefore, the total number of Israelites, they are not without their flaws. One such effort managed to reduce the total size of the Israelite army to about 18,000 men, resulting in an estimated population of 72,000 Israelites. This drastic reduction may make the total number of Israelites more acceptable and believable, but it plays fast and lose with the text.

It is clear that God commanded Moses to “take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head” (Numbers 1:2 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “head” is actually גֻּלְגֹּלֶת (gulgōleṯ), which means “skull.” Moses had been instructed to count every skull of every man in the Israelite community.

“…the count appears to have been literal, and the totals calculated accordingly, totals which match other passages in the text. If some formula is used to reduce the thousands in this army, then there is the problem of knowing what to do when a battle has only five thousand, or three thousand men. One can only conclude that on the basis of what we know the word should be left with the translation ‘thousand,’ no matter what difficulties this might suggest to the reader.” – NET Bible Study Notes

There is no accurate way of calculating the overall size of the Israelite community based on these numbers. S,o we must be careful when throwing around numbers like one or two million. We just don’t know. But at the same time, we must refrain from questioning the integrity of the text just because we find it difficult to accept the idea of an army of 603,550 men.

While we may find these numbers difficult to comprehend, the text provides no conclusive evidence to doubt their veracity. If anything, the size of Israel’s army supports the fear that drove Pharaoh to begin persecuting the people of Israel in the first place. The book of Exodus reminds us that during their stay in Egypt the descendants of Jacob had multiplied greatly.

…the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

The dramatic increase in their numbers had been significant enough to catch the attention of Pharaoh.

“Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” – Exodus 1:9-10 ESV

Exodus 13:18 states that when the Israelites left Egypt they marched out like an army arrayed for battle. They were so large that they were required to line up in regiments or groups, most likely according to the various tribes. They were a vast number of men, women, and children. They were even accompanied by non-Israelites as they made their way out of Egypt. And it’s interesting to note that the book of Exodus reports that the number of men who left Egypt was virtually the same as the number of men determined by the census.

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. – Exodus 12:37-38 ESV

Unless we can find a convincing reason to dismiss the numbers that Moses recorded, it is best to accept them as proof of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation (Genesis 15:5).

“I believe we should take eleph in census contexts as thousands until further investigation clearly indicates that we should interpret it differently.” – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

During their 400 years of captivity in Egypt, God had been blessing and preparing His people for the future conquest of the land of Canaan. He had multiplied them greatly and transformed them from an army of slaves into a military force made up of freemen who were heirs to the land of promise. The numbers should stagger us. The miraculous nature of Israel’s transformation is meant to amaze us. For more than four centuries, God had protected and provided for them. He had multiplied them. And when the time was right, He had delivered them. Now, He was ready to use their vast numbers to conquer the land of Canaan. And just before his death, Moses reminded the people of Israel that their God would go before them when they entered the land.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. – Deuteronomy 28:7 ESV

Their future victories would be the result of God’s greatness and glory, not the size of their army. They were not to place their confidence in the might of their military. They were to trust in the unfathomable greatness of God. The words God later spoke to the prophet Zechariah sum up the attitude the Israelites were to have regarding the results of the census.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” – Zechariah 4:6 ESV

Whether their army numbered 60,000 or 600,000, any victory they hoped to have would come from the Lord. He was the Lord of Heavens Armies and their only hope of future success.

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

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

The Sun of Righteousness Will Rise

1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:1-6 ESV

God has just informed the small remnant of the faithful whose names are written in the scroll of remembrance that they will be spared from future judgment.

“On the day when I act in judgment, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares an obedient child. – Malachi 3:17 NLT

Now He provides greater details concerning that coming day of judgment from which they will be so graciously spared. He describes it as a burning oven in which “the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all” (Malachi 4:1 ESV). But the remnant of the righteous will be spared.

Jesus also provided His disciples with a graphic depiction of this coming day of judgment and left no doubt as to the final fate of the unrighteous.

“…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46 ESV

And that is exactly what God communicates to the faithful few living in Malachi’s day.

“But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. On the day when I act, you will tread upon the wicked as if they were dust under your feet,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 4:2-3 NLT

Centuries later, the apostle John would provide further insight into this great day of judgment, placing it on its proper place along the divine redemptive timeline so that we can better understand the future nature of its fulfillment.

And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15 NLT

According to John, this coming day of judgment will take place after the second coming of Christ and at the end of His 1,000-year reign as the King of kings and Lord of lords. After His return to earth, Jesus will set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will sit on the throne of David. This Millennial (1,000-year) Kingdom will be marked by peace and perfect righteousness as the Son of God reigns over the entire earth. One of the unique features of Christ’s earthly kingdom is that it will be inhabited by believers and unbelievers just as the world is today. But it will be devoid of any influence from Satan because he will have been defeated and imprisoned.

He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while. – Revelation 20:2-3 NLT

With the great deceiver safely locked away, he will be unable to tempt the ungodly or attack the righteous. His influence on the world will be eliminated. During this remarkable period of time, the people on earth will be allowed to live under the leadership of a perfectly righteous ruler whose kingdom will be marked by justice and equity. For the first time in human history, mankind will experience what it is like to live under the righteous rule of God Himself. But at the end of Christ’s earthly reign, Satan will be released from his confinement and allowed to peddle his evil influence once again, and the outcome will be both predictable and unfortunate.

When the thousand years come to an end, Satan will be let out of his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations—called Gog and Magog—in every corner of the earth. He will gather them together for battle—a mighty army, as numberless as sand along the seashore. And I saw them as they went up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded God’s people and the beloved city. But fire from heaven came down on the attacking armies and consumed them. – Revelation 20:7-9 NLT

Those millions of unbelieving people who will be given the opportunity to live under the righteous reign of Christ will turn their backs on Him once again, choosing instead to align themselves with the enemy. This will include all the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles living on the earth at the time. And in the vision he was given of this apocalyptic event, John describes seeing fire coming down from heaven and consuming all those who join Satan in his last futile attempt to dethrone and replace God. And, as a result of his failed rebellion, Satan will meet his final fate.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10 NLT

And at at that point, the final judgment will take place. Every human being who has ever lived will appear before the throne of God and give an account for all that they have done. But absent from this judgment will be all those who make up the church, the body of Christ. They will have been raptured long before the seven years of Tribulation and the 1,000-year reign of Christ. But everyone else, including all unbelievers, the Old Testament saints, those who come to faith during the Tribulation, and anyone who places their faith in Christ during His millennial reign, will stand before God to be judged.

In his vision, John “saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12 NLT). That will be the time when the righteous remnant living in Malachi’s day will find themselves standing before Yahweh. But God assures them that they have nothing to fear because “you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2 ESV). They will be spared the fate of their wicked neighbors, which will be eternal separation from God. In fact, God declared assures them that “you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet” (Malachi 4:3 ESV). 

The tables will be turned. In Malachi’s day, the righteous were being trampled down by the wicked. The faithful found themselves few in number and overwhelmed by the pervasive presence of unrighteous rulers, priests, and fellow citizens who mocked and minimized their faith in God. But God will one day restore justice to the earth and reverse the fortunes of His faithful followers. But in the meantime, God pleads with His people to remain faithful.

“Remember to obey the Law of Moses, my servant—all the decrees and regulations that I gave him on Mount Sinai for all Israel. – Malachi 4:4 NLT

They were not to give up or give in. Instead, they were to place their faith in the faithfulness of God. He will one day avenge and reward them. Their faithfulness will be worth it all.

Malachi, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, closes his book with a promise regarding the coming of Elijah, the great prophet of Israel who never faced death, but was removed from the earth by God (2 Kings 2). God states that it was necessary for His prophet to return “before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 ESV). In other words, long before the final day of judgment takes place, there would be a reappearance of Elijah. But Luke records in his gospel that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy. An angel appeared to Zechariah the priest, informing him that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear him a son. And this son would play a vital role in God’s redemptive plan for mankind.

“…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:16-17 ESV

John would later deny that he was Elijah (John 1:21-23). It seems that his role as Elijah was dependent upon whether the people of Israel would listen to his words and accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. When John the Baptist declared of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV), he expected the Jews to believe his words and accept Jesus as their Messiah. But they refused to do so. And later, Jesus would later report that John had simply been repeating the same message as the prophets and law had declared.

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” – Matthew 11:13-14 ESV

If they would have listened to his message and accepted Jesus as their Messiah, John would have been the Elijah they had anticipated. And they would have enjoyed the blessings associated with Elijah’s message. But sadly, during Jesus’ day, the hearts of the fathers were not turned to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. Instead, they demanded the crucifixion of the one who had come to save them. But God is not done with Israel. His redemptive plan still includes a rescue of a remnant of His chosen people. And it’s interesting to note that the book of Malachi closes out the Old Testament but the New Testament opens with the gospel of Matthew, which begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1 ESV). Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, and His coming to earth began the next phase of God’s grand redemptive plan for Israel and the world.

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.

 

Compromise and the Loss of Conviction

10 Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? 11 Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts!

13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” – Malachi 2:10-17 ESV

As verses 1-9 revealed, Israel had a leadership problem. Its priests were not living up to their role as the nation’s God-appointed shepherds. They were defiling the sacrificial system by offering unacceptable animals and, therefore, robbing the people of the atonement for sin they so desperately needed. On top of that, they had neglected their God-given responsibility to accurately teach the Mosaic Law to the people. They had twisted God’s words and taken liberties with God’s law, causing the people to stumble because of their deceptive instruction.

Through their immoral and unethical behavior, these unreliable leaders had caused irreparable damage to the nation. And now, Malachi turns his attention to the remnant of Israel who had returned to the land of promise but who were not living up to the covenant commitments God had established for them. In these verses, Malachi becomes the spokesperson, addressing his fellow citizens as brothers and sisters.

Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God? Then why do we betray each other, violating the covenant of our ancestors? – Malachi 2:10 NLT

Malachi was the prophet or messenger of God but, evidently, he was also a member of the tribe of Judah and part of the local community there in Jerusalem. He had a right to address his fellow citizens and remind them of their covenant commitment to God and one another. What he had witnessed taking place in the capital city was shocking and unacceptable to him. The people of Israel were not only turning away from God, but they were turning on one another. And he sums up their actions in one verse.

Judah has been unfaithful, and a detestable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. The men of Judah have defiled the Lord’s beloved sanctuary by marrying women who worship idols. – Malachi 2:11 NLT

They were guilty of idolatry and adultery, and both sins were examples of unfaithfulness. Centuries earlier, when the people of Israel were preparing to enter the land of Canaan for the first time, God had warned them about intermarrying with the nations that occupied the land.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. – Deuteronomy 7:1-4 NLT

But the people of Israel had failed to honor God’s ban on intermarriage. Almost as soon as they entered the land, they began to give their sons and daughters in marriage to the pagan nations that occupied Canaan. They had hoped that these marriage alliances would lead to peace with their enemies but instead, their actions led to a mingling of their religions and a growing compromise of their allegiance to Yahweh. And now, centuries later, the people were back in the land and still attempting to win over their enemies by intermarrying with them. But these marriages of convenience resulted in spiritual compromise and led to further unfaithfulness on the part of the people of Israel.

Evidently, Israelite men were committing adultery by abandoning their Hebrew wives and marrying foreign women. In doing so, they were willingly breaking the marriage vows they had made before God, and Malachi calls them out for it.

…you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. – Malachi 2:14 NLT

Through it all, their wives had remained faithful and unwilling to give up on their marriage. But these faithless men had been driven by their desires, not the will of God. And then they wondered why God was not accepting their offerings or answering their prayers. They had broken their marriage vows and violated God’s commands but still expected His blessings.

You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure. You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” – Malachi 2:13-14 NLT

They were guilty of double unfaithfulness. Not only had they left their wives for foreign women and taken on the false religions of their new spouses, but they were attempting to worship Yahweh and idols at the same time. They dared to enter His temple and present offerings as if they were faithful followers who loved and adored Him alone.

This was a serious problem during the days of Malachi. Ezra, one of his contemporaries and a leader of the nation of Israel after their return to Canaan, had been informed just how blatant and widespread this problem was.

“Many of the people of Israel, and even some of the priests and Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the other peoples living in the land. They have taken up the detestable practices of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. For the men of Israel have married women from these people and have taken them as wives for their sons. So the holy race has become polluted by these mixed marriages. Worse yet, the leaders and officials have led the way in this outrage.” – Ezra 9:1-2 NLT

Don’t miss that last line. It would appear that even the priests of Israel were guilty of this crime against God. They were leading the way in adultery and even idolatry. And yet, Ezra had recognized the extent of the problem and the need for the people to repent.

“Now we are being punished because of our wickedness and our great guilt. But we have actually been punished far less than we deserve, for you, our God, have allowed some of us to survive as a remnant. But even so, we are again breaking your commands and intermarrying with people who do these detestable things. Won’t your anger be enough to destroy us, so that even this little remnant no longer survives? O Lord, God of Israel, you are just. We come before you in our guilt as nothing but an escaped remnant, though in such a condition none of us can stand in your presence.” – Ezra 9:13-15 NLT

But evidently, the people had not joined Ezra in his call for repentance. This led Malachi to point out the ongoing problem of adultery and idolatry that still plagued the land of Judah. Everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes. They were living according to their own passions and pleasures and refusing to obey the commands of God. That led Malachi to remind them of their covenant commitment and God’s non-negotiable requirements regarding marriage and divorce.

Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. – Malachi 2:15-16 NLT

The actions of the people of Israel stand in stark contrast to the faithfulness of God as displayed in His unwavering commitment to their wellbeing. Despite all they had done to betray and abuse His love, He had remained committed to His covenant promises. Yes, He had punished them for their sins against Him, but He had also shown them undeserved mercy and grace by returning them to the land of promise so that they could restore their relationship with Him and display their renewed commitment to Him. But this was how they had repaid Him for His love.

In verse 17, Malachi gets to the heart of the matter. Not only were the people displaying unfaithfulness to one another and to God, but they were justifying their actions as good.

You have wearied him by saying that all who do evil are good in the Lord’s sight, and he is pleased with them. – Malachi 2:17 NLT

God was angered by their blatant displays of unfaithfulness but also by their self-righteous justification of their behavior. They were actually trying to claim that their behavior was in keeping with God’s will. Through some inexplicable leap of logic, they had convinced themselves that God was pleased with their actions. Because they had not experienced any direct consequences for their sins, they assumed that God must have approved of their behavior. But Malachi assured them that God was “wearied” by their in-your-face display of disobedience and disrespect.

Their moral compromises had led to a loss of conviction. They were no longer able to discern right from wrong. And since God seemed to have remained silent about their behavior, they regarded his silence as approval. In doing so, they questioned the very nature of God’s justice. To a certain degree, the people had begun to question the very presence of God. While they had successfully returned to the land and completed the building of the walls, the construction of the temple, and the repopulating of the city of Jerusalem, they were having a difficult time seeing the hand of God. From their perspective, there had been no supernatural display of His glory. Their return to the land had required a lot of hard work and they had little to show for all their efforts. They still had no king, no army, and found themselves surrounded by nations much larger and more powerful than themselves. So, they had taken matters into their own hands by intermarrying with their enemies and accomodating themselves to their worship of their false gods. And, since God had not struck them down, they assumed their decisions had His blessings. But they were about to discover just how wrong their assumptions really were.

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.

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.

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.

 

The Test of a Lifetime

1 Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.

As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.’”

When he overtook them, he spoke to them these words. They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing! Behold, the money that we found in the mouths of our sacks we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also will be my lord’s servants.” 10 He said, “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.” 11 Then each man quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each man opened his sack. 12 And he searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 Then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.

14 When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell before him to the ground. 15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” 16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” 17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.” – Genesis 44:1-17 ESV

After a wonderful evening of feasting on fine food in the governor’s palace, the 11 brothers of Joseph prepared to return home to Canaan. Their trip had gone far better than they could have ever imagined. They had rescued Simeon from captivity, settled the matter of the missing grain payment, received a large financial gift from the governor, feasted in his home, and were now returning with full sacks of grain. On top of that, Judah was able to keep his promise to their father that he would bring back Benjamin unharmed.

But as they were busy making preparations to leave, Joseph was devising a scheme that would dramatically alter their plans. He was still testing his brothers’ hearts to see if they had really changed or if they were the same self-serving siblings who had sold him into slavery all those years ago.

Joseph’s strategy was aimed at exposing their loyalty to Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob. Joseph must have assumed that, in his absence, Benjamin would have become the natural heir to the coveted position of the favored son. And Joseph appears anxious to discover whether his brothers still suffered from the same jealousy and resentment that had driven them to consider taking his life.

As he had done before, Joseph instructed his steward to put money in the bag of each of the brothers. Then he took an expensive silver drinking goblet and told the steward to place it in the bag of the youngest son, Benjamin. The faithful steward did as he was instructed and the brothers loaded their donkeys and set off on their journey home. Their spirits must have been high as they set off, but the upbeat mood would quickly change when they saw a contingent of men rapidly approaching. Panic must have set in when the brothers saw that it was the governor’s steward accompanied by what was likely a group of armed men from Joseph’s private security force. This carefully designed ruse was meant to scare and intimidate the brothers, and the words spoken by the steward must have struck fear into the hearts of Reuben and his siblings. Joseph had given his steward very specific instructions.

“Chase after them and stop them. When you catch up with them, ask them, ‘Why have you repaid my kindness with such evil? Why have you stolen my master’s silver cup, which he uses to predict the future? What a wicked thing you have done!’” – Genesis 44:4-5 NLT

The brothers were indignant that the governor would accuse them of stealing. They professed their innocence and, in a moment of rashness, made an unwise vow to demonstrate their sincerity.

“If you find his cup with any one of us, let that man die. And all the rest of us, my lord, will be your slaves.” – Genesis 44:9 NLT

Moses doesn’t reveal which brother made this costly guarantee, but it was likely either Reuben or Judah. They appear to have been the two who acted as spokesmen for the group. But whoever made the statement would quickly live to regret it because when the steward ordered a search of their belongings, the silver cup was discovered in Benjamin’s grain sack. According to Joseph’s detailed instructions, the steward began the search with the oldest brother. Reuben’s stomach must have dropped when he saw the money sitting in the mouth of his sack. It was all happening again. And as the steward worked his way down the line, the same scene took place. Each brother’s sack was found to contain the money they had paid for the grain.

But it was Benjamin’s sack that held the most shocking revelation: The very silver cup the brothers had vehemently denied having taken. This was when the real test began. The brothers had been so confident of their innocence that they had pledged to put to death the one among them who had stolen the cup. In addition, they vowed to offer themselves as slaves to the governor. But the governor’s steward had wisely countered, stating, “only the one who stole the cup will be my slave. The rest of you may go free” (Genesis 44:10 NLT).

This condition put the brothers in a very awkward position. Now that the cup had been found in Benjamin’s possession, would they abandon him in order to save their own lives? The steward had clearly stated that only the guilty party would be held accountable. They would be free to leave and return to their father in Canaan, with their grain and the money that was found in their bags. That would have been quite a tempting offer.

But rather than abandon Benjamin, the brothers demonstrated their anguish over Benjamin’s fate by tearing their robes and weeping. There was no way they were going to return home without their brother. They dreaded the thought of having to tell their father, yet again, that he had lost another son. So, they packed up their donkeys and returned with the steward to the governor’s house.

When they arrived, they found the indignant governor waiting for them, and he demanded an explanation for their actions.

“What have you done?” Joseph demanded. “Don’t you know that a man like me can predict the future?” – Genesis 44:15 NLT

Joseph and his steward had agreed to bestow on the silver cup a special significance by claiming it was used by the governor to divine the future. It is unlikely that Joseph practiced divination. After all, it was God who had given Joseph the ability to interpret dreams, not a silver goblet. But by deeming the cup to have supernatural qualities, they had increased its value. The brothers were guilty of having stolen something of religious significance, which made the crime all the more scandalous.

But Judah continued to declare their innocence, begging the governor to show them mercy.

“Oh, my lord, what can we say to you? How can we explain this? How can we prove our innocence? God is punishing us for our sins. My lord, we have all returned to be your slaves—all of us, not just our brother who had your cup in his sack.” – Genesis 44:16 NLT

Not only had they returned, but they were willing to offer themselves as slaves. He and his brothers were pledging their lives as payment for Benjamin’s guilt. It had been Judah who had convinced Jacob to let Benjamin return to Egypt with them, even taking full responsibility for his well-being. He had vowed to bring him back safe and sound, and now he was indicating that he and his brothers would rather be slaves in Egypt than abandon their brother.

But the governor refused Judah’s offer, commanding the men to return to their father. Only the brother in whose sack the goblet was found would remain in Egypt as a slave. The rest were free to go. Once again, Joseph was testing the faithfulness and integrity of his brothers. Were they sincere or was their offer to join their brother as slaves a disingenuous ploy to win their brother’s freedom? Joseph was determined to find out. So, he had Benjamin arrested and gave the remaining brothers his final and rather disconcerting instructions: “as for you, go up in peace to your father” (Genesis 44:17 ESV).

Would they do it? Could they do it? Joseph’s reference to “peace” was meant to test his brothers. The Hebrew word is שָׁלוֹם (šālôm), and while it can mean “a state of tranquility and contentment,” it can also refer to “wholeness” or “completeness.” If they left, they would be returning without one of their own. There would be one of them missing. But could they go back to Jacob in “peace” knowing that they were “incomplete?” That was what Joseph aimed to find out.

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 Tables Are Turned

15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” 16 Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. 18 Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” 19 Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) 25 And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” 26 Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) 30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.  Genesis 29:15-30 ESV

Jacob had found his bride-to-be, and as he shared the purpose of his quest with Laban, he must have divulged his intention to marry Rachel. But Laban appears to have been reluctant to hand over his daughter to this newcomer, despite the fact that Jacob was his own nephew. So, to buy time, he convinced Jacob to stay with him, a delay that soon extended to a solid month. During that time, Jacob must have made himself useful, and it seems likely that he offered to help with the flocks because Rachel was a shepherdess. What better way to get to win the affections of his future wife than by serving alongside her as she performed her daily duties.

At the end of the month, Laban decided to offer Jacob some form of compensation for his services. In other words, he attempted to make Jacob a permanent employee. And when he asked Jacob what his salary should be, the young man asked for the right to marry his youngest daughter, Rachel. Jacob was so infatuated with her that he agreed to a seven-year labor contract in order to earn the right to marry her. It seems odd, given the fact that Jacob had come in search of a bride, that he had brought no gifts or money to offer as a bride price.

When Abraham’s servant had gone in search of a bride for Isaac, he had carried gifts for the bride and her family. When he met Rebekah, he had given her “a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels” (Genesis 24:22 ESV). And when the servant eventually met Rebekah’s family, he had presented additional gifts.

And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. – Genesis 24:53 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that the brother referred to in this passage was Laban. He too had been received expensive gifts from Abraham’s servant and these items had been intended to serve as a bride price for Rebekah.

But when Jacob showed up in Haran and shared his desire to marry one of Laban’s daughters, no gifts were given or exchanged. A month later, there had still been no bride price offered by Jacob. So, in order to win the right to marry Laban’s daughter, he offered to spend seven years as Laban’s indentured servant.

All of this begs the question: Had Isaac failed to give Jacob any gifts to present? Or had Jacob squandered them along the way? Perhaps Jacob had decided to keep the treasures for himself in order to fund what he knew would be an extended stay in Mesopotamia. After all, his mother had told him to not return until she sent word that it was safe to do so.

“Get ready and flee to my brother, Laban, in Haran. Stay there with him until your brother cools off. When he calms down and forgets what you have done to him, I will send for you to come back.” – Genesis 27:43-45 NLT

Whatever the case, Jacob was committed to a lengthy stay in Haran. And it seems that Laban was once again hoping for some kind of profitable exchange between himself and the grandson of Abraham. His overly enthusiastic welcome of Jacob would suggest that Laban was expecting another big payday. As head of the house, he stood to gain a substantial bride price for allowing Jacob to wed Rebekah. And, since no gifts had forthcoming, Laban decided to accept Jacob’s terms. But this is where the story gets interesting.

Moses points out that the deceit-prone Jacob actually kept his word.

Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. – Genesis 29:20 ESV

His love for Rachel overpowered any desire he may have had to cut corners or skirt the rules. But his decision to do things the right way would actually end up costing him.

When his seven-year commitment had been fulfilled, Jacob demanded that Laban keep his end of the bargain.

“I have fulfilled my agreement,” Jacob said to Laban. “Now give me my wife so I can sleep with her.” – Genesis 29:21 NLT

You can almost sense Jacob’s impatience as he rather crassly demands the right to consummate his marriage to Rachel. This almost leaves the impression that Jacob and Rachel had been betrothed the entire seven years, and everyone would have known that Laban had agreed to the arrangement. So, this makes what Laban does next especially evil.

Having agreed to the betrothal and marriage, Laban decided to take advantage of Jacob’s unbridled enthusiasm in order to accomplish another pressing matter. It seems that Leah, Rachel’s older sister, remained unmarried. The text states that “Leah’s eyes were weak” (Genesis 29:17 ESV). The Hebrew word is רַךְ (raḵ) and it can be translated as “tender,” “delicate,” or “weak.” Given the fact that Leah’s eyes are being compared to Rachel’s outward beauty (Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance), it would appear that Leah suffered from some kind of eye condition. Perhaps she was partially blind or had some other ocular ailment.

But as a father, Laban would have felt a special responsibility to find a suitable husband for his firstborn daughter. The day would come when he could no longer care for her, so it was essential that he provide her with a man to provide for and protect her after he was gone. This led Laban to do the unthinkable.

After throwing a feast for the newlyweds and, most likely, after ensuring that Jacob was highly inebriated, Laban snuck Leah into the bridal tent in place of Rachel. This time, the firstborn pretended to be the youngest. In the same way that Rebekah helped Jacob to deceive Isaac, Laban assisted Leah in her deception of Jacob. Overcome by the effects of the alcohol and due to the darkness of the tent, Jacob never realized that he had slept with the wrong woman – until the sun came up.

in the morning, behold, it was Leah! – Genesis 29:25 ESV

What a shock that must have been. And it’s amazing to consider that Leah went along with it all. She willingly participated in the deception, not seeming to consider how her actions would impact her own sister. And the righteous indignation of Jacob, while justified, is still somewhat comical.

“What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me? Genesis 29:25 ESV

How hypocritical these words sound coming from the mouth of Jacob. The deceiver has just been deceived and he can’t believe it. How dare someone take advantage of him? But Jacob had it coming.

In response to Jacob’s anger, Laban provided a rather lame explanation having to do with local social customs. It was not proper to marry off the younger daughter ahead of her older sister. But this excuse doesn’t explain why Laban failed to disclose this rather important detail before he had made the agreement with Jacob. He had withheld it on purpose, having already decided to use Jacob’s love for Rachel as the pretext for marrying off his less-attractive daughter. In a sense, Laban killed two birds with one stone. And then he had the audacity to suggest that Jacob’s seven years of service would be counted as payment for his marriage to Leah. Another seven-year contract would be required if Jacob wanted Rachel as well.

One can only imagine the look on Jacob’s face as he heard these words come out of Laban’s mouth. He must have been beside himself with rage and frustration. But he was not in a position to declare his rights or negotiate a better deal. If he wanted Rachel, he was going to have to swallow his pride and agree to Laban’s less-than-generous terms. And that’s exactly what he did. After a week of honoring his conjugal responsibilities to Leah, Jacob was allowed to marry Rachel as well. But he would spend the next seven years of his life paying off his debt. Suddenly, his one-month stay in Haran had turned into 14 years of forced labor.  The man who had cheated his own brother out of his birthright and blessing had been taken to the cleaners by his future father-in-law.

But as has become evident all throughout this story, God was operating behind the scene on this occasion as well. Despite the despicable actions of Laban, God had a purpose behind Jacob’s unplanned marriage to Leah. Due to her physical infirmity, she was the unwanted daughter whom no man desired for a wife. But it would be through Leah that the family tree of Jesus would come. This weak-eyed, undesirable woman would become the one through whom God’s plan for the Messiah of Israel would be fulfilled. Jacob loved Rachel. But God had a special love for Leah that would produce the greatest expression of divine affection the world has ever seen.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 NLT

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

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

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

It Never Pays to Bargain With God

Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.

10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” Genesis 28:6-22 ESV

After Jacob had left to seek a wife from among his mother’s family in Mesopotamia, his brother Esau decided to try and win back his parent’s favor by marrying a woman from among his own clan. Esau already had two Hittite wives, but he knew that these marriages had been a huge disappointment to his mother and father. So, when he had heard Isaac warn Jacob not to take a wife from among the Canaanites, Esau determined to make amends with his parents by marrying one of his cousins. Her name was Mahalath and she was the daughter of Ishmael, the elder son of Abraham. While Esau had been angered by his parent’s complicity in Jacob’s stealing of his blessing, he also desired their favor. Having lost his birthright and his blessing, he was desperate to win them over. But he failed to consider the fact that God had divinely ordained the separation of Ishmael’s clan from that of Isaac’s. The Ishmaelites were not destined to share in the covenant promise made to Abraham. So, Esau’s marriage to Mahalath would do little to improve his relationship with his parents or to enhance his future prospects. Yet, during his brother’s 20-year absence, Esau would build a life for himself in Canaan, raising a family and attempting to maintain a civil relationship with his mother and father.

Meanwhile, Jacob continued his long and arduous journey to Haran. But some 58 miles into his trip, he was forced to stop for the night, and it would prove to be anything but a restful evening. As he drifted off to sleep, he had a vivid and somewhat disturbing dream. He envisioned a giant flight of steps reaching from heaven to earth, and on that massive stairway, there was a host of angels ascending and descending. But Jacob’s eye was drawn to the top of the stairway, where he caught a glimpse of Yahweh, the Lord. And, considering all that Jacob had just done to deceive his father and defraud his brother, this vision of the Almighty must have struck fear into his heart. Was God going to repay him for having stolen his brother’s blessing? Was this going to be some kind of well-deserved payback for his treachery and deceit? But before Jacob could formulate any words to speak to God, he was presented with an unexpected announcement.

“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. – Genesis 28:13-14 NLT

The symbolism contained in this dream is powerful and significant. As Jacob lay in the darkness, separated from his family and facing an uncertain future, a host of angelic beings were moving back and forth between heaven and earth. These messengers of God represent His divine oversight and influence over all that happens on earth. Their movement between the two realms was meant to symbolize His sovereign control over the affairs of this world. They were His celestial agents, carrying out His wishes and accomplishing His divine will among men.

While Jacob and his mother had been busily conspiring to deceive Isaac and defraud Esau, God’s will had been carried out. There was a constant movement taking place between heaven and earth, as God’s messengers carried out His orders and implemented His sovereign plans among men. But Jacob and Rebekah had been oblivious to this invisible activity taking place in the unseen realms. They had mistakenly thought that they were in control of their futures and fate. But now, Jacob was receiving a divine wake-up call, informing him that all his trickery and deceit had been unnecessary. There had been no need for Jacob to barter for the birthright or to steal the blessing of the firstborn. God had always intended for the covenant promise to be his. It had not been his cleverly conceived plan to fool Isaac that had earned him the right to his father’s inheritance. It had been the sovereign will of God.

From among all the men who lived on the earth, God had chosen Abraham. And He had given this undeserving Chaldean a promise to bless him beyond his wildest dream.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great,
so that you will exemplify divine blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
so that all the families of the earth may receive blessing through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

And then, God had chosen Abraham’s son, Isaac, to be the conduit through whom this blessing would flow. God had sovereignly passed by Ishmael, the firstborn. And now, God was announcing that it had always been His plan to choose Jacob over Esau. The covenant promise would flow to him and through him. God was going to use this flawed vessel as the conduit through which He would accomplish His redemptive plan for mankind. And, not only that, God informed Jacob that he would enjoy divine protection all during his extended journey.

“What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:15 NLT

What Jacob didn’t know was that his trip was going to take much longer than he anticipated. Two decades would pass before he was able to return to Beersheba and, during that time, Jacob would experience both the blessings and the discipline of God. He would eventually find the wife for which he was searching. But, more importantly, he would discover the power and sovereignty of God. The next 20 years of his life would be filled with joy and sorrow, success and failure, hope and heartache. But his roller-coaster existence would also be marked by the constant assurance that God was with him, operating behind the scenes and orchestrating every aspect of his life. God had promised Jacob that he would remain with him to the end.

The impact this dream had on Jacob can be seen in his response when he awoke.

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” – Genesis 28:16 NLT

Jacob could have spoken those words back in Beersheba as well because God had always been with him. He just hadn’t realized it. This divine encounter left Jacob shaken and sobered.

“What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!” – Genesis 28:17 NLT

Out of reverence for God, Jacob took the stone upon which his head had rested while he dreamed and he turned it into a sacred pillar. He named the place Bethel which means “house of God.” What’s fascinating is that this is the very same spot where, years earlier, Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had erected an altar to God.

Then he moved from there to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshiped the Lord. – Genesis 12:8 NLT

Like his grandfather before him, Jacob worshiped Yahweh. But, in keeping with his bargaining nature, Jacob attempted to strike a deal with God.

“If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God. And this memorial pillar I have set up will become a place for worshiping God, and I will present to God a tenth of everything he gives me.” – Genesis 28:20-22 NLT

Rather than rejoice in the fact that God had just promised to bless and not punish him, Jacob arrogantly attempted to bargain with the Almighty. He placed conditions on his continued worship of God. Despite the fact that God had promised to fulfill every aspect of the promise He had made, Jacob wanted guarantees. This undeserving grandson of Abraham tried to arm wrestle Yahweh by threatening to hold his worship if his conditions were not met. Suffice it to say, Jacob had a lot to learn about God.

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

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

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

A New Chapter Begins

1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, 10 the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife. 11 After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

12 These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham. 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. 16 These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. 17 (These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen. Genesis 25:1-18 ESV

The 25th chapter marks the midway point in the book of Genesis. And while the chapter designations came long after the book was written, the details recorded in this section of Moses’ chronicle serve as a turning point in the narrative. For the last 14 chapters, Abraham has served as the story’s central character. Since the moment God called him out of Haran and disclosed the terms of the covenant, Abraham has been the protagonist and the promised progenitor of God’s grand plan. It would be through Abraham that God would fulfill His covenant promise to establish a great nation. And yet, here at the midway point of the Genesis account, Abraham is old and quite wealthy, but he has only one son. It would be a gross understatement to say that Abraham’s quiver was full. And even that one son is 37-year-old, newly married, and currently childless. Where is this great nation that God had promised?

But 24 chapters remain, and God is far from done. It is as if God is turning a page in the storyline and beginning something new. Isaac has found and married his bride – with the help of God. Sarah has died and, as these verses reveal, Abraham is not long for this world. He has reached the ripe old age of 175 and yet, Moses describes him in terms that belie his elderly status. He may not be a spring chicken, but he is far from a doddering old man. When Sarah had died, Abraham had been 137 years old. And while he mourned the loss of his wife, he eventually married a woman named Keturah. Up to this point in the story, Abraham had fathered only two children, Ishmael and Isaac. But his marriage to Keturah would result in the births of six additional children.

This insight into Abraham’s procreative capabilities seems intended to underscore the unique nature of Isaac’s birth. Abraham had always been capable of fathering children. He had no trouble in impregnating his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar. And even as he neared the latter days of his life, he proved to be fully capable of producing descendants. But the text makes it clear that children were not to be heirs of the promise. After providing the identities of Abraham’s latest offspring, Moses states:

All these were the children of Keturah. Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. – Genesis 25:5 ESV

These children were not destined to be part of the “great nation” that God had promised to produce from Abraham and Sarah. God had even told Abraham that Ishmael, the son born to him by Hagar, was not to be an heir of the covenant.

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” – Genesis 17:20-21 ESV

It is important to remember that Sarah always resented the presence of Ishmael. Even though his very existence had been the result of her bright idea to have Hagar bear a son for Abraham, Sarah despised this son of a slave woman (Galatians 4:22-23). And the day had come, after the birth of Isaac, that she demanded that Ishmael be disinherited.

“Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” – Genesis 21:10 ESV

While Abraham found his wife’s anger to be unjust and disturbing, God encouraged him to give in to her demands.

“Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” – Genesis 21:12-13 ESV

And, just like always, God kept His word. Moses records that Abraham sent away each of the sons born to his concubine, Keturah. He provided them with gifts, but they would not share in the inheritance of Isaac. They suffered the same fate as that of Ishmael. They were cast out but they were far from forgotten by God. Notice how Moses records the children born to Ishmael. Why would he bother to add that seemingly unimportant detail?

These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. – Genesis 25:12-15 ESV

These names mean nothing to us. And yet, their very mention is designed to prove the integrity of God’s word. Remember what God had said to Sarah: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 17:20 ESV).

Now, look closely at the list of obscure and difficult-to-pronounce names recorded in verses 12-15 of Genesis 25. There were twelves sons born to Ishmael. In spite of Sarah’s ill-treatment of this young man, God had chosen to keep His word and bless him. He would make of Ishmael a great nation. The whole point seems to be that Abraham had always been fully capable of procreating and producing a long line of descendants. Ishmael had been prolific and produced 12 sons. In the same way, the six sons born to Keturah would go on to produce many offspring. But only the descendants of Isaac would become the nation through whom the other nations of the earth would be blessed. Only the line of Isaac would produce a chosen people, set apart by God, and destined to become the conduit through which He would pour out His divine blessing on humanity.

God fulfilled His promise and made Ishmael the father of “12 princes.” It is interesting to note the correlation between these 12 “tribes” and the 12 tribes that would eventually come through the line of Isaac. Moses indicates that Ishmael’s descendants “settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen” (Genesis 25:18 ESV). The Ishmaelites eventually settled in the region of Arabia, southeast of Canaan, and would have a less-than-ideal relationship with their distant relatives, the Israelites. But God had kept His word. He had faithfully fulfilled His promise.

And with the fate of Ishmael’s descendants established, Moses records that, at the age of 175, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8 ESV). The life of Abraham came to an end. But the fulfillment of God’s promises had only just begun. The story is far from over. And verse 19 will begin a new chapter in God’s grand redemptive plan as Moses records the births of Esau and Jacob. But this story will contain many familiar features and themes. Yet another woman will find herself cursed by barrenness. There will be seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between siblings. Glaring examples of jealousy, anger, deceit, and disobedience will fill the storyline. But through it all, God will be operating behind the scenes, orchestrating His sovereign plan to fulfill the covenant he made with Abraham. Yahweh is fully committed to His promise to bless the nations. 

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