And Justice For All

In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him:

“You consider yourself a lion of the nations,
    but you are like a dragon in the seas;
you burst forth in your rivers,
    trouble the waters with your feet,
    and foul their rivers.
Thus says the Lord God:
    I will throw my net over you
    with a host of many peoples,
    and they will haul you up in my dragnet.
And I will cast you on the ground;
    on the open field I will fling you,
and will cause all the birds of the heavens to settle on you,
    and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you.
I will strew your flesh upon the mountains
    and fill the valleys with your carcass.
I will drench the land even to the mountains
    with your flowing blood,
    and the ravines will be full of you.
When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
    and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
    and the moon shall not give its light.
All the bright lights of heaven
    will I make dark over you,
    and put darkness on your land,
declares the Lord God.

“I will trouble the hearts of many peoples, when I bring your destruction among the nations, into the countries that you have not known. 10 I will make many peoples appalled at you, and the hair of their kings shall bristle with horror because of you, when I brandish my sword before them. They shall tremble every moment, every one for his own life, on the day of your downfall.

11 “For thus says the Lord God: The sword of the king of Babylon shall come upon you. 12 I will cause your multitude to fall by the swords of mighty ones, all of them most ruthless of nations.

“They shall bring to ruin the pride of Egypt,
    and all its multitude shall perish.
13 I will destroy all its beasts
    from beside many waters;
and no foot of man shall trouble them anymore,
    nor shall the hoofs of beasts trouble them.
14 Then I will make their waters clear,
    and cause their rivers to run like oil,
declares the Lord God.
15 When I make the land of Egypt desolate,
    and when the land is desolate of all that fills it,
when I strike down all who dwell in it,
    then they will know that I am the Lord.

16 This is a lamentation that shall be chanted; the daughters of the nations shall chant it; over Egypt, and over all her multitude, shall they chant it, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel 32:1-16 ESV

A little less than a year later, God gave Ezekiel another round of mournful lyrics to commemorate the “death” of Egypt. They are delivered as a memorial for Pharaoh, but are intended to recount the sad plight of the entire nation. As their regal representative, Pharaoh stood as their official proxy or substitute. He was the face of the nation and was held accountable by God for the sins of his people. God tells Ezekiel to sing this funeral dirge with Pharaoh in mind.

“Son of man, mourn for Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and give him this message…” – Ezekiel 32:2 NLT

God accuses Pharaoh of imagining himself as “a strong young lion among the nations” (Ezekiel 32:2 NLT). This imagery of the Egyptian leader as a fierce predator was memorialized in the form of the sphinx, a figure that combined the body of a lion and the head of the Pharaoh. Hophra, who was likely the Pharaoh on Egypt’s throne at this time, had his very own sphinx statue and fancied himself to be the king of the jungle. But God diminishes Hophra’s visions of grandeur by comparing him to a crocodile thrashing about in the muddy waters of the Nile.

“You think of yourself as a strong young lion among the nations,
    but you are really just a sea monster,
heaving around in your own rivers,
    stirring up mud with your feet. – Ezekiel 32:2 NLT

Egypt wasn’t the global superpower she envisioned herself to be. She was nothing more than a regional player with global aspirations that were about to come to an abrupt stop. The Babylonians were going to deal Hophra and his troops a decisive blow that would prove to be the nation’s death knell.

God makes it painfully clear that His plans for Egypt involve their complete destruction.

“The sword of the king of Babylon
    will come against you.
I will destroy your hordes with the swords of mighty warriors—
    the terror of the nations.” – Ezekiel 32:11-12 NLT

When the dust had settled, Hophra, his people, and all the other nations on earth would know that Egypt’s downfall had been the work of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Their unexpected demise was going to come as a shock to all the surrounding nations. No one expected Egypt to suffer such a devastating defeat, even at the hands of the Babylonians. As a nation, they had been around for millennium. They had proven to have staying power and the resources to maintain their status as a perennial force in the region. So, when they fell, the other kings and nations would view their demise as a bad omen.

“I will disturb many hearts when I bring news of your downfall to distant nations you have never seen. Yes, I will shock many lands, and their kings will be terrified at your fate. They will shudder in fear for their lives as I brandish my sword before them on the day of your fall. – Ezekiel 32:9-10 NLT

These less powerful nations would quickly conclude that they had no hope against the Babylonian juggernaut, and they would be right. If Egypt couldn’t hold its own against Nebuchadnezzar’s forces, no one could.

And what’s interesting to note is that the events foreshadowed these chapters do not always follow a chronological timeline. This chapter opens with the words, “In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month” (Ezekiel 32:1 ESV). But in chapter 33, Ezekiel records another message he received from God two months earlier.

In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.” – Ezekiel 33:12 ESV

In other words, by the time Ezekiel received this oracle concerning Egypt’s defeat, the walls of the city of Jerusalem had already fallen and the Babylonians had destroyed the temple. So, as Ezekiel shared the words of this funeral dirge mourning Egypt’s pending demise, his exiled Jewish audience would have already received the devastating news of Jerusalem’s destruction. Word of Egypt’s fate would have functioned as an emotional salve, helping to alleviate some of the pain they felt concerning their city and their friends and family members back in Judah.

And God wanted them to know that the pride-filled Egyptians would not escape His wrath. They too would meet an untimely end at the hands of the Babylonians. There was no guilty party who would escape God’s judgment. Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Phoenicians, Assyrians, and Egyptians would all suffer the same fate. And the common denominator would be Nebuchadnezzar.

“The sword of the king of Babylon
    will come against you. – Ezekiel 32:11 NLT

But that sword, while wielded by the Babylon king, would belong to God Almighty. Nebuchadnezzar would be acting on God’s behalf, carrying out His sovereign will and fulfilling His providential plan for the nations.

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.

Pride Goes Before the Fall

1 In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude:

“Whom are you like in your greatness?
    Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade,
    and of towering height,
    its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it;
    the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
    around the place of its planting,
sending forth its streams
    to all the trees of the field.
So it towered high
    above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
    and its branches long
    from abundant water in its shoots.
All the birds of the heavens
    made their nests in its boughs;
under its branches all the beasts of the field
    gave birth to their young,
and under its shadow
    lived all great nations.
It was beautiful in its greatness,
    in the length of its branches;
for its roots went down
    to abundant waters.
The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
    nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
neither were the plane trees
    like its branches;
no tree in the garden of God
    was its equal in beauty.
I made it beautiful
    in the mass of its branches,
and all the trees of Eden envied it,
    that were in the garden of God.

10 “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, 11 I will give it into the hand of a mighty one of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out. 12 Foreigners, the most ruthless of nations, have cut it down and left it. On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs have been broken in all the ravines of the land, and all the peoples of the earth have gone away from its shadow and left it. 13 On its fallen trunk dwell all the birds of the heavens, and on its branches are all the beasts of the field. 14 All this is in order that no trees by the waters may grow to towering height or set their tops among the clouds, and that no trees that drink water may reach up to them in height. For they are all given over to death, to the world below, among the children of man, with those who go down to the pit.

15 “Thus says the Lord God: On the day the cedar went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. 16 I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below. 17 They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations.

18 “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword.

“This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel 31:1-18 ESV

The Egyptians had a pride problem. They had enjoyed a long tenure as a world superpower and had grown accustomed to throwing their weight around. But their days of glory were about to come to an ignominious end. While they still considered themselves to be a major player on the global stage, God held a different opinion. He invites them to consider the Assyrians, whom He compares to “a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade, and of towering height” (Ezekiel 31:3 ESV). This well-watered “tree” thrived and grew to unimaginable heights, towering  “high above all the trees of the field” (Ezekiel 31:5 ESV).

This horticultural metaphor portrays the Assyrian empire as a towering tree that overshadows every other tree in the forest. The upstart Assyrians had asserted their influence in a major way, having expanded their domain throughout that region of the world. At one point, they had no rival and faced no threat to their hegemony. Like the Egyptians, they reveled in their military superiority and took pride in their seeming invincibility. And God took full credit for their meteoric rise to power and prominence.

“Because I made this tree so beautiful,
    and gave it such magnificent foliage,
it was the envy of all the other trees of Eden,
    the garden of God.” – Ezekiel 31:9 NLT

They could not claim responsibility for the dominating nature of their expansion. It had all been God’s doing. He had sovereignty ordained their global expansion, even ordering their invasion of Egypt and the destruction of Thebes 45 years earlier in 633 B.C. The prophet, Nahum, describes the fall of Thebes in graphic detail.

Are you any better than the city of Thebes,
    situated on the Nile River, surrounded by water?
She was protected by the river on all sides,
    walled in by water.
Ethiopia and the land of Egypt
    gave unlimited assistance.
The nations of Put and Libya
    were among her allies.
Yet Thebes fell,
    and her people were led away as captives.
Her babies were dashed to death
    against the stones of the streets.
Soldiers threw dice to get Egyptian officers as servants.
    All their leaders were bound in chains. – Nahum 3:8-10 NLT

What right did the Egyptians have to boast of their great power when they had fallen to the Assyrians? And what hope did the Egyptians have of escaping the Babylonians, the very nation that had destroyed and supplanted the Assyrians? Nebuchadnezzar’s forces had thoroughly trounced the mighty Assyrian army at Haran in 609 B.C., effectively bringing an end to the Assyrian empire.

God hates pride in all its forms. And His hatred of pride is expressed throughout the Scriptures.

Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 NLT

Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.  – Proverbs 11: 2 NLT

But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6 NIV

All throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of Israel’s arrogance and pride. He blasts them for their extreme self-importance and attitude of insufferable self-worth. God hates pride in His people, but He won’t tolerate it among the nations either. Pride is what caused Satan’s fall. Just before God cast him out of heaven, Satan’s attitude reflected his unparalleled pride and arrogance.

“For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above God’s stars. I will preside on the mountain of the gods far away in the north. I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.'” – Isaiah 14:13-14 NLT

He wanted to be like God. It was the same temptation he used on Adam and Eve in the garden.

The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 NASB

Self-reliance and independence lay at the root of pride. We begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to. We begin to believe our own press and think that we are something special. Our seeming successes only act to feed our insatiable thirst for recognition, reward, and self-advancement. We even begin to take credit for what God has done and all those things He has made it possible for us to do. You see this reflected in the words of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as he stood gazing over his royal capital from his palace balcony.

“Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.” – Daniel 4:30 NLT

At that very moment, God took away Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom as well as his sanity. And it wasn’t until he looked up and acknowledged the rule and reign of God, that his sanity returned.

In today’s reading, we see God’s anger expressed toward Egypt for her pride and arrogance. Even nations can exhibit an over-inflated sense of self-worth. And Egypt suffered from the same case of bloated ego as the Assyrians. Assyria had once been beautiful, strong, self-reliant, and the envy of the nations. But they had fallen. And so would Egypt. Both failed to recognize that their beauty and greatness were God’s doing, not their own. God had given them their lofty position, and He could remove them from it. God had already used the Babylonians to defeat the Assyrians, and now he would use the very same nation to knock the props out from under Egypt.

Humility is a rare commodity these days. Even among believers. We tend to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to. We take credit for things that are the result of God’s handiwork and not our own. We compare and contrast ourselves with others, looking for those with whom we stack up positively. We want to come out on the winning side, so we look for those with more flaws and weaknesses than we possess. We celebrate their failures and revel in our own successes. But Paul warns us, “Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us” (Romans 12:3 NLT).

Egypt’s pride was going to be its downfall. Its arrogance would bring about its demise. Because God hates pride. But He loves to extend His grace to the humble. When we refuse to lift up ourselves and, instead, give Him the credit, we receive His grace. He exalts us at the proper time and in the proper way. Peter put it this way:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. – 1 Peter 5:6 NIV

It is far better to humble ourselves than to be humbled by God. It is far healthier to let God exalt us when and how He sees fit than to attempt to preemptively promote ourselves. Because God hates pride.

And God makes sure to clarify for Ezekiel that Egypt’s fate will be just like that of Assyria. There was no reason for the Jews living in Judah or in exile in Babylon to place any hope in receiving salvation from the Egyptians because their days were numbered and their fate was sealed.

“O Egypt, to which of the trees of Eden will you compare your strength and glory? You, too, will be brought down to the depths with all these other nations. You will lie there among the outcasts who have died by the sword. This will be the fate of Pharaoh and all his hordes. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 31:18 NLT

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

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

Control Over Kings and Countries

20 In the eleventh year, in the first month, on the seventh day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 21 “Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and behold, it has not been bound up, to heal it by binding it with a bandage, so that it may become strong to wield the sword. 22 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against Pharaoh king of Egypt and will break his arms, both the strong arm and the one that was broken, and I will make the sword fall from his hand. 23 I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and disperse them through the countries. 24 And I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon and put my sword in his hand, but I will break the arms of Pharaoh, and he will groan before him like a man mortally wounded. 25 I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, but the arms of Pharaoh shall fall. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I put my sword into the hand of the king of Babylon and he stretches it out against the land of Egypt. 26 And I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and disperse them throughout the countries. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 30:20-26 ESV

Less than four months after receiving the first divine oracle concerning Egypt, Ezekiel was given another installment. The first part came in “the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month” (Ezekiel 29:1 ESV). This one arrived “in the eleventh year, in the first month, on the seventh day of the month” (Ezekiel 30:30 ESV). The New Living Translation places the date of this second oracle as “January 7, during the tenth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity” (Ezekiel 30:20 NLT). Thomas L. Constable calculated the date in question to be April 29. But both agree that it took place in the year 587 B.C.

In this oracle, God informs Ezekiel that the king of Egypt has suffered a debilitating wound that has left him incapable of wielding a sword or putting up a fight. This divinely inflicted wound, while not life-threatening, would prove to be decisive.

“Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. His arm has not been put in a cast so that it may heal. Neither has it been bound up with a splint to make it strong enough to hold a sword. – Ezekiel 30:21 NLT

Pharaoh’s arm, a symbol of his power, had been broken by God but never set, so it had healed properly. Unable to grasp a sword, Pharaoh was reduced to a state of impotence and defenselessness. As the sovereign ruler over the mighty nation of Egypt, he was reduced to a weakened and helpless state. This imagery was meant to be symbolic in nature, using the king as the representative of the kingdom. Many scholars believe this passage is a reference to Egypt’s debilitating defeat at the Battle of Carchemish.

As the Babylonians continued to assert their will in that part of the world, the Egyptians attempted to play the spoiler, clandestinely assisting nations like the Assyrians and Israelites in their efforts to oppose Nebuchadnezzar’s advances. In 612 B.C., the Assyrian capital of Nineveh had fallen to Babylonian forces. Unwilling to admit defeat, the Assyrians moved their capital to Haran. But two years later, that capital suffered the same fate. Still refusing to capitulate, the Assyrians moved their headquarters to Carchemish, some 38 miles east of Haran.

As Pharaoh Neco and his Egyptian forces made their way to Carchemish to fight alongside the Assyrians, King Josiah of Judah decided to stand in his way. This would prove to be an unwise decision on Josiah’s part, resulting in his death from wounds suffered during the battle. The story is recorded in the book of 2 Chronicles.

After Josiah had finished restoring the Temple, King Neco of Egypt led his army up from Egypt to do battle at Carchemish on the Euphrates River, and Josiah and his army marched out to fight him. But King Neco sent messengers to Josiah with this message:

“What do you want with me, king of Judah? I have no quarrel with you today! I am on my way to fight another nation, and God has told me to hurry! Do not interfere with God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”

But Josiah refused to listen to Neco, to whom God had indeed spoken, and he would not turn back. Instead, he disguised himself and led his army into battle on the plain of Megiddo. But the enemy archers hit King Josiah with their arrows and wounded him. He cried out to his men, “Take me from the battle, for I am badly wounded!”

So they lifted Josiah out of his chariot and placed him in another chariot. Then they brought him back to Jerusalem, where he died. – 2 Chronicles 35:20-24 NLT

This battle at Megiddo delayed Neco’s arrival in Carchemish. And with Josiah’s death, Neco found himself embroiled in the local politics of Judah. Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah, had ascended to the throne, but his reign only lasted three months before Neco had him imprisoned and replaced with one another of Josiah’s sons. Neco ended up pocketing a sizeable fortune in gold and silver in the form of tribute from Judah, but his eventual arrival in Carchemish proved too little, too late. Nebuchadnezzar had already defeated the Assyrians and, when the Egyptians arrived on the scene, they too were soundly routed. The battle of Carchemish brought about the end of the Assyrian Empire and reduced Egypt to a second-rate power in the region.

Now, some 25 years later, God warns that He is going to do a number of Egypt again. This time, He will break both arms, including the recently healed one.

“…this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am the enemy of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt! I will break both of his arms—the good arm along with the broken one—and I will make his sword clatter to the ground. I will scatter the Egyptians to many lands throughout the world.” – Ezekiel 30:23-23 NLT

The Egyptians had failed to learn their lesson. Despite their weakened state, they continued to try to exert their will in the region. But God wants Ezekiel to know that the Egyptian’s hope of regaining their former stature was a pipe dream. He was going to use Nebuchadnezzar to end their centuries-long role as major players on the world stage.

“…when I put my sword in the hand of Babylon’s king and he brings it against the land of Egypt, Egypt will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 30:25 NLT

God describes Egypt’s defeat as a mortal blow, not just a couple of broken arms. Without any way to defend themselves against the Babylonians, the Egyptians would suffer a devastating defeat that would render them “mortally wounded, groaning in pain” (Ezekiel 30:24 NLT).

Like the Israelites and the people of Judah, the Egyptians would find themselves scattered to the four winds. Some would end up as captives in Babylon, while others would seek refuge in foreign lands where they would live as refugees and outcasts.

I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, dispersing them throughout the earth.” – Ezekiel 30:26 NLT

Their defeat will be God’s doing, as will be their dispersion among the nations. This great and powerful nation would fall as a result of God’s sovereign, omnipotent will. Each of these nations; the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, were instruments in the hand of God. They served at His pleasure and were nothing more than bit players in the drama of His providential and irrepressible plan.

And, as always, God informs Ezekiel that. with their fall, the Egyptians will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is Lord. They will recognize that their defeat was His doing. And when they find themselves scattered to the four winds, living as helpless and hopeless exiles in foreign lands, their recognition of God’s Lordship will be confirmed.

“I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, dispersing them throughout the earth. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 30:26 NLT

As the prophet Daniel so aptly put it, God “controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings” (Daniel 2:21 NLT). Neco, Nebuchadnezzar, and even Josiah, lived their lives according to the will of God Almighty. They ruled at His discretion. Their countries flourished only as long as He deemed it necessary and critical to the accomplishment of His overarching plan. Their rise and fall was up to His sovereign will. Nothing happens on earth that is outside the providential plan of Yahweh.

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NIV

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.

Yahweh Alone is God

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy, and say, Thus says the Lord God:

“Wail, ‘Alas for the day!’
    For the day is near,
    the day of the Lord is near;
it will be a day of clouds,
    a time of doom for the nations.
A sword shall come upon Egypt,
    and anguish shall be in Cush,
when the slain fall in Egypt,
    and her wealth is carried away,
    and her foundations are torn down.

Cush, and Put, and Lud, and all Arabia, and Libya, and the people of the land that is in league, shall fall with them by the sword.

“Thus says the Lord:
Those who support Egypt shall fall,
    and her proud might shall come down;
from Migdol to Syene
    they shall fall within her by the sword,
declares the Lord God.
And they shall be desolated in the midst of desolated countries,
    and their cities shall be in the midst of cities that are laid waste.
Then they will know that I am the Lord,
    when I have set fire to Egypt,
    and all her helpers are broken.

“On that day messengers shall go out from me in ships to terrify the unsuspecting people of Cush, and anguish shall come upon them on the day of Egypt’s doom; for, behold, it comes!

10 “Thus says the Lord God:

“I will put an end to the wealth of Egypt,
    by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.
11 He and his people with him, the most ruthless of nations,
    shall be brought in to destroy the land,
and they shall draw their swords against Egypt
    and fill the land with the slain.
12 And I will dry up the Nile
    and will sell the land into the hand of evildoers;
I will bring desolation upon the land and everything in it,
    by the hand of foreigners;
I am the Lord; I have spoken.

13 “Thus says the Lord God:

“I will destroy the idols
    and put an end to the images in Memphis;
there shall no longer be a prince from the land of Egypt;
    so I will put fear in the land of Egypt.
14 I will make Pathros a desolation
    and will set fire to Zoan
    and will execute judgments on Thebes.
15 And I will pour out my wrath on Pelusium,
    the stronghold of Egypt,
    and cut off the multitude of Thebes.
16 And I will set fire to Egypt;
    Pelusium shall be in great agony;
Thebes shall be breached,
    and Memphis shall face enemies by day.
17 The young men of On and of Pi-beseth shall fall by the sword,
    and the women shall go into captivity.
18 At Tehaphnehes the day shall be dark,
    when I break there the yoke bars of Egypt,
and her proud might shall come to an end in her;
    she shall be covered by a cloud,
    and her daughters shall go into captivity.
19 Thus I will execute judgments on Egypt.
    Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 30:1-19 ESV

Here we have yet another oracle pronouncing Egypt’s “death” at the hands of the Babylonians. This divinely ordained prophecy describes it as “the day of Egypt’s doom” (Ezekiel 30:9 ESV), and Ezekiel is to announce that “the day of the Lord is near” (Ezekiel 30:3 ESV). The content of his message is not to be taken as conjecture or a remote possibility but as an undeniable fact. This event will be the sovereign work of God Almighty. Egypt’s doom will be God’s doing.

Four separate times, the oracle states, “Thus says the Lord God…” (vs 2, 6, 10, 13). This repetitive feature is intended to give Ezekiel’s message divine authority. These are not the words of a man but the promises of God. Yahweh is decreeing the fate of Egypt and her allies, making the outcome of the oracle a foregone conclusion. It will all take place just as God has spoken.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 ESV

This “day of the Lord” will be devastating in its impact and broad in scope. Not only will the Egyptians suffer the judgment of God, but their neighbors and allies will feel the full weight of God’s wrath.

Cush, and Put, and Lud, and all Arabia, and Libya, and the people of the land that is in league, shall fall with them by the sword. – Ezekiel 30:5 ESV

All of these nations had direct ties to Egypt through trade or conquest. They had allied themselves to the Egyptian Empire and, therefore, were considered to be complicit in Egypt’s guilt. Cush refers to the African nation of Ethiopia, which shared Egypt’s southern border. The reference to Arabia has been debated because it can mean the Arabic region but can also be translated as “the mixed multitude.” There are those who believe it refers to the various ethnic groups who settled in the region and who served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army. It may also include the Jews who had fled to Egypt in an effort to escape the Babylonian invasion.

But God announces that any nation or individual who allies themselves with Egypt in any way or for any reason will share Egypt’s fate.

“For this is what the Lord says:
All of Egypt’s allies will fall,
    and the pride of her power will end.” – Ezekiel 30:6 NLT

For many of these nations, Egypt had become their savior. As the Babylonians continued their seemingly unstoppable conquest of the known world, the Egyptians stood as a last-chance hope against Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of global domination. They were the only other superpower capable of stemming the Babylonian tide and preserving the status quo. But God warns that Egypt will prove woefully inept in its role as savior.

“…they will be slaughtered by the sword,
    says the Sovereign Lord.
Egypt will be desolate,
    surrounded by desolate nations,
and its cities will be in ruins,
    surrounded by other ruined cities…” – Ezekiel 30:6-7 NLT

God describes the slow but steady march of the Babylonian troops as they march through the cities of Egypt, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. The mighty Egyptian army will be no match for Nebuchadnezzar’s forces. Ships will sail down the Red Sea carrying news of Egypt’s fall to the people of Ethiopia, and God declares that “Great panic will come upon them on that day of Egypt’s certain destruction” (Ezekiel 30:9 NLT). The nations of the region will fall like dominoes. One after the other, their cities will be invaded, their people captured, and their hopes destroyed by God’s servant, Nebuchadnezzar. 

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
By the power of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon,
    I will destroy the hordes of Egypt.
He and his armies—the most ruthless of all—
    will be sent to demolish the land. – Ezekiel 30:10-11 NLT

God makes it clear that Nebuchadnezzar will be acting as His agent of judgment. It will be God who brings about the destruction of the nations. He will be the one who sends the Babylonians to demolish the land and its inhabitants. And God predicts a catastrophic outcome to the Babylonian invasion. Cities will be leveled, the land will be completely destroyed, and the fabled Nile will dry up. The bodies of the victims will be everywhere, polluting the land and the water. It will be a scene of cataclysmic destruction and no part of Egypt will go unscathed from God’s wrath.

Pathros, Zoan, Thebes, Pelusium, Memphis, On, Pi-beseth, and Tehaphnehes – all of these cities would suffer the same fate. From north to south, from Upper Egypt to lower Egypt, the destruction will be widespread and indiscriminate. And not only will the people of Egypt suffer, but their plethora of gods will be humiliated and exposed as frauds.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
I will smash the idols of Egypt
    and the images at Memphis. – Ezeziel 30:13 NLT

It has been estimated that the Egyptians worshiped as many as 1200 different gods, from Osiris, the god of the underworld, and his wife, Isis, to Ra the sun god. But God announces that He will smash all these false gods and have their idols removed from the land. They will provide no defense against the Babylonian advance and no hope of deflecting God’s judgment.

And even Pharaoh, the god-king, will be of no help against Nebuchadnezzar and his army. When God’s divine judgment is complete, Pharaoh’s dynasty will come to an end, and foreigners will rule over the nation for the foreseeable future. The destruction will be complete. God vows to “break the proud strength of Egypt” (Ezekiel 30:18 NLT). Its cities will fall, its leaders will be replaced, the young men will die in battle, and the women will be taken as slaves. And God assures them that, when the dust settles, they will all know that He is Lord. With their nation destroyed and their gods exposed as frauds, the people of Egypt will have to face the undeniable truth that Yahweh alone is God.

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

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

Lord of All

17 In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, declares the Lord God.

21 “On that day I will cause a horn to spring up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 29:17-21 ESV

Some 17 years later, Ezekiel received yet another oracle from God concerning Egypt, and this one came sometime around his 50th birthday. The prophet placed it immediately after the prior message to identify Babylon as the source of Egypt’s fall. King Nebuchadnezzar would be the one wielding the sword against Pharaoh and his people. The same nation that brought about the end of Judah and Tyre would sweep down on the unsuspecting citizens of Egypt, “and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste” (Ezekiel 29:9 ESV).

The amazing thing about this passage is its insistence that Nebuchadnezzar acted as an agent of God Almighty. He was an instrument in the hands of God, carrying out the divine will exactly as God had intended. Unknowingly serving as God’s instrument of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar would lay siege to Tyre for 13 long years, forcing his army to endure a lengthy and costly campaign that resulted in little benefit.

“Son of man, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon fought so hard against Tyre that the warriors’ heads were rubbed bare and their shoulders were raw and blistered. Yet Nebuchadnezzar and his army won no plunder to compensate them for all their work.” – Ezekiel 29:18 NLT

This kind of expenditure against a relatively small coastal city made no sense for a global juggernaut like Babylon. It had little to gain from pouring such much time and resources into a single campaign against a city-state that posed little threat to its empire. But Nebuchadnezzar was doing God’s bidding. He was serving as God’s agent of wrath against Tyre, and he would perform the same role against Egypt.

In fact, God makes it clear that the Egyptian campaign would be a form of payback for Nebuchadnezzar’s losses suffered at Tyre.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He will carry off its wealth, plundering everything it has so he can pay his army.” – Ezekiel 29:19 NLT

The wealth of Egypt made that of Tyre pale by comparison. Nebuchadnezzar’s plunder of the vast Egyptian empire would more than compensate for any losses he suffered in his capture of Tyre.

In ancient days, plunder was one of the primary sources of payment for a nation’s armed forces. A soldier’s base salary was relatively small but the appeal of military service was in the sense of adventure it provided and the potential windfall of booty a successful campaign might bring. The conquest of a wealthy city could result in a sizeable bonus for the average footsoldier. Part of the incentive for defeating their enemies was the right to ransack and loot at will. Victorious soldiers were free to take whatever riches they could carry off as plunder, and the cities and towns of Egypt would prove to be a boon for the Babylonian forces.

“The scant historical data indicates that Egypt and Tyre became allies under Pharaoh Hophra (Apries). The extended siege of Tyre was perhaps due to the aid Tyre received from the Egyptians. In such an act Hophra was going contrary to God’s purposes. Not only was the siege prolonged by Egyptian support, but some also surmise that Egypt’s maritime aid enabled Tyre to send away her wealth for security during the siege. When Tyre surrendered about 573 B.C. . . ., Babylonia gained almost no spoils from the long siege.” – Ralph H. Alexander, Ezekiel

God rewarded Nebuchadnezzar for services rendered. This pagan king and his army would receive ample compensation for their role in the defeat of Tyre and it would come in the form of a successful military campaign against one of the greatest nations on earth at that time: Egypt.

This stunning victory against a perennial powerhouse in the region would be directly attributable to God, and this insight was meant to bring a sense of joy and hope to the exiled people of Judah.

“I have given him the land of Egypt as a reward for his work, says the Sovereign Lord, because he was working for me when he destroyed Tyre.” – Ezekiel 29:20 NLT

As the Jewish refugees living in Babylon heard this oracle from the lips of Ezekiel, they couldn’t help but recall the long and storied history of Israel’s relationship with Egypt. Their ancestors had lived as exiles in the land of the Pharaohs for more than 400 years. In the land of the pyramids and sphinxes, the descendants of Jacob had labored as slaves, building the very edifices that made Egypt the envy of the world (Exodus 1:8-14). They had heard the stories of how the Pharaoh had ordered the enslavement of their forefathers and foremothers. They knew the chilling details concerning the royal edict that ordered the infanticide of all the male children born to the Israelites (Exodus 1:15-22). The stories of Pharoah’s repeated refusals to allow Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt would have been seared into their collective conscience. The people of Judah had no reason to love the Egyptians, so the report of their demise at the hands of the Babylonians should have come as welcome news to the exiles. Any time an oppressor nation got a taste of its own medicine was music to the ears of all those who had suffered at their hand.

And to add a further ray of hope to the exiles’ dark and difficult existence, God informs them that the day is coming when they will experience His undeserved grace and mercy as He restores them to their former glory as a nation.

“And the day will come when I will cause the ancient glory of Israel to revive, and then, Ezekiel, your words will be respected. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 29:21 NLT

God had predicted the falls of Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and now, Egypt. The nations would fall like dominoes under the divinely ordained hand of King Nebuchadnezzar. Even Judah would succumb to Babylon’s insatiable and unstoppable quest to expand its empire and secure its place as the world’s most powerful nation.

But the Babylonians wold prove to be just another pawn in God’s strategic unveiling of His sovereign will for mankind. And while Babylon would enjoy its moment in the sunlight, it would prove to be shortlived. God’s real interest was in the well-being of His chosen people, and back in chapter 28, He revealed His intentions to restore them to the land He had given them.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel will again live in their own land, the land I gave my servant Jacob. For I will gather them from the distant lands where I have scattered them. I will reveal to the nations of the world my holiness among my people. – Ezekiel 28:25 NLT

God exists outside of time. He is transcendent and all-knowing, possessing the unique ability to see past, present, and future all at the same time. Time means nothing to Him. As the eternal God, a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8). For the exiles, their stay in Babylon seemed endless and hopeless. They couldn’t see past the next morning. And all this news of Judah’s destruction just seemed to make matters worse. But God was letting them know that He had plans and was working those plans to perfection. He was in control of all things, including their future. The nations were under His rule and operated according to His sovereign will. Their rise and fall were His doing. Their victories and defeats were ordained from His throne room in heaven. And the exiles living in Judah needed to understand that their God was more powerful than their captor. Their circumstance was not a sign of God’s demise. The news of Jerusalem’s pending fall was not to be read as His abandonment of them. He was still on His throne and fully in control of all things at all times. And the day was coming when they would know that He is and will always be the Lord.

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 Folly of Misplaced Trust

1 In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him and against all Egypt; speak, and say, Thus says the Lord God:

“Behold, I am against you,
    Pharaoh king of Egypt,
the great dragon that lies
    in the midst of his streams,
that says, ‘My Nile is my own;
    I made it for myself.’
I will put hooks in your jaws,
    and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales;
and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams,
    with all the fish of your streams
    that stick to your scales.
And I will cast you out into the wilderness,
    you and all the fish of your streams;
you shall fall on the open field,
    and not be brought together or gathered.
To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens
    I give you as food.

Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the Lord.

“Because you have been a staff of reed to the house of Israel, when they grasped you with the hand, you broke and tore all their shoulders; and when they leaned on you, you broke and made all their loins to shake. Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut off from you man and beast, and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they will know that I am the Lord.

“Because you said, ‘The Nile is mine, and I made it,’ 10 therefore, behold, I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Cush. 11 No foot of man shall pass through it, and no foot of beast shall pass through it; it shall be uninhabited forty years. 12 And I will make the land of Egypt a desolation in the midst of desolated countries, and her cities shall be a desolation forty years among cities that are laid waste. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and disperse them through the countries.

13 “For thus says the Lord God: At the end of forty years I will gather the Egyptians from the peoples among whom they were scattered, 14 and I will restore the fortunes of Egypt and bring them back to the land of Pathros, the land of their origin, and there they shall be a lowly kingdom. 15 It shall be the most lowly of the kingdoms, and never again exalt itself above the nations. And I will make them so small that they will never again rule over the nations. 16 And it shall never again be the reliance of the house of Israel, recalling their iniquity, when they turn to them for aid. Then they will know that I am the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 29:1-16 ESV

God’s prophecy concerning Tyre had come to Ezekiel “In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month” (Ezekiel 26:1 ESV). Roughly a year earlier, God had given Ezekiel a message concerning Egypt. The prophet records, “In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me” (Ezekiel 29:1 ESV). For some undisclosed reason, Ezekiel received this oracle from God a year earlier than the one concerning Tyre but, in recording them, he reversed their order.

God had begun His indictment of the surrounding nations with Ammon, then moved to Moab, Edom, and Philistia. Next on His agenda was the Phoenician city of Tyre. Each of these nations and city-states was located in the vicinity of Judah. Now He moves south, turning His attention to a much larger and more formidable actor on the global stage; the nation of Egypt. In this divine oracle, God directs His attention to Pharaoh, as the royal representative of the nation. Like the “prince” of Tyre, Pharaoh struggles with a bit of a pride problem. As the head of a prosperous and powerful nation, this mere mortal had let his own self-importance get the best of him. He had begun to believe that he was responsible for his own success and even claimed to possess the supernatural powers of a god.

“I am your enemy, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt—
    you great monster, lurking in the streams of the Nile.
For you have said, ‘The Nile River is mine;
    I made it for myself.’ – Ezekiel 29:3 NLT

His attitude was similar to that of Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, who also made the mistake of miscalculating his own self-importance.

As he looked out across the city, he said, “Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.” – Daniel 4:30 NLT

Both of these men were under the self-inflicted delusion that their power and authority rivaled that of a god. They viewed themselves as superhuman and were worshiped by their people as deities in human form. God refers to Pharaoh as “the great dragon” (Ezekiel 29:3 ESV). The Hebrew word is tannîn (תַּנִּין) and it means “dragon, serpent, sea monster.” In ancient Near Eastern mythology, this sea monster represented the chaos that ruled the earth before creation. The Egyptians had attributed the destruction of this “chaos monster” to one of the earlier Pharaohs, which had resulted in the creation of the life-giving Nile.

But Yahweh, the true Creator-God, exposes Pharaoh as a fraud, accusing him of being the source of chaos, not its destroyer. He is the “great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams” (Ezekiel 29:3 ESV). Pharaoh was not a god to be worshiped but a dangerous foe to be feared and avoided at all costs; a deadly predator lurking just beneath the surface of the Nile.

At the time Ezekiel was writing his book, Egypt was considered a superpower in the region. The Egyptians had enjoyed great success in expanding their empire and had set their sights on Palestine as a natural next step in their desire for global dominion. When the Assyrians invaded the region, the Egyptians tried to play the spoiler, doing everything they could to thwart the Assyrian takeover of Palestine. When the Assyrians set their sights on the northern kingdom of Israel, King Hoshea turned to Egypt for help.

King Shalmaneser of Assyria attacked King Hoshea, so Hoshea was forced to pay heavy tribute to Assyria. But Hoshea stopped paying the annual tribute and conspired against the king of Assyria by asking King So of Egypt to help him shake free of Assyria’s power. – 2 Kings 17:3-4 NLT

But Hoshea’s reliance upon the Egyptians proved unsuccessful.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

Later, when the Assyrians moved against the southern kingdom of Judah, King Shalmaneser warned them against making alliances with the Egyptians.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – 2 Kings 18:19-21 NLT

And the prophet, Isaiah, reveals that King Shalmaneser’s suspicions were justified. King Hezekiah was intending to turn to Egypt for assistance. But God was not pleased with those plans.

“You make plans that are contrary to mine.
    You make alliances not directed by my Spirit,
    thus piling up your sins.
For without consulting me,
    you have gone down to Egypt for help.
You have put your trust in Pharaoh’s protection.
    You have tried to hide in his shade.
But by trusting Pharaoh, you will be humiliated,
    and by depending on him, you will be disgraced.
For though his power extends to Zoan
    and his officials have arrived in Hanes,
all who trust in him will be ashamed.
    He will not help you.
    Instead, he will disgrace you.” – Isaiah 30:1-5 NLT

God even uses the same imagery as King Shalmaneser when describing Egypt as an unreliable staff made of reeds. 

All the people of Egypt will know that I am the Lord,
    for to Israel you were just a staff made of reeds.
When Israel leaned on you,
    you splintered and broke
    and stabbed her in the armpit.
When she put her weight on you,
    you collapsed, and her legs gave way. – Ezekiel 29:6-7 NLT

What Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Shalmaneser all failed to understand was that their 15 minutes of fame had been the work of God. The rise to power had been His doing and not their own. But each of these men and the nations they represented had wrongly assumed that they were the masters of their fates and the arbiters of their own futures. Yet, God warns Pharaoh, “Because you said, ‘The Nile River is mine; I made it,’ I am now the enemy of both you and your river. I will make the land of Egypt a totally desolate wasteland, from Migdol to Aswan, as far south as the border of Ethiopia” (Ezekiel 29:9-10 NLT).

God was going to do to Egypt what He had done to His own people. He would judge their pride and arrogance by orchestrating their defeat at the hands of a more powerful nation. Their cities would be destroyed and their people taken captive to foreign lands. But after 40 years had passed, God would return them to their land.

“But this is what the Sovereign Lord also says: At the end of the forty years I will bring the Egyptians home again from the nations to which they have been scattered. I will restore the prosperity of Egypt and bring its people back to the land of Pathros in southern Egypt from which they came. But Egypt will remain an unimportant, minor kingdom. It will be the lowliest of all the nations, never again great enough to rise above its neighbors.– Ezekiel 29:13-15 NLT

The history of this region of the world reveals the sovereign will of God as each of these mighty nations vied for hegemony. Egypt fell to the Babylonians in 568-567 B.C., and many of its citizens were dispersed throughout the Babylonian Empire. But the Babylonians were later subsumed by the more powerful Persian Empire, and after 40 years in exile, the Egyptians were allowed to return to their land.

For the Jewish exiles listening to this oracle spoken by Ezekiel, these prophetic pronouncements would have sounded far-fetched and difficult to believe. The thought of Egypt, a perennial powerhouse in the region, falling to the upstart Babylonians was unthinkable. But God was reminding them of His unprecedented power and sovereign control over all nations. He had never intended Egypt to be their savior. The people of Judah were have placed their hope and faith in Him, regardless of what was happening to them or around them. And God makes it clear that Egypt’s fall was meant to provide a powerful lesson for the people of Judah.

“Then Israel will no longer be tempted to trust in Egypt for help. Egypt’s shattered condition will remind Israel of how sinful she was to trust Egypt in earlier days. Then Israel will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 29:16 NLT

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

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

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.

Don’t Judge by the Numbers

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “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. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers. And these are the names of the men who shall assist you. From Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; 10 from the sons of Joseph, from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud, and from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; 11 from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; 12 from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; 13 from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; 14 from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; 15 from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.” 16 These were the ones chosen from the congregation, the chiefs of their ancestral tribes, the heads of the clans of Israel. Numbers 1:1-16 ESV

The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, which contains the first five books of the Bible. According to verse 1, the author of Numbers was none other than Moses, the man whom God had chosen to deliver the nation of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Over the centuries, there have been some who have attempted to discount Moses as the author of Numbers and the rest of the books of the Pentateuch. But the Scriptures seem to consistently support the Mosaic authorship of these books sometimes referred to as the Law of Moses.

These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. – Numbers 33:2 ESV

Jesus believed Moses to be the one who recorded the content found in the Law of Moses. In one of His post-resurrection appearances to His followers, Jesus told them:

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

After first having met Jesus, Phillip declared his belief that he had met the Messiah, the one whom Moses had written about in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV

It is likely that Moses recorded the books of the Pentateuch late in his life as he prepared the people of Israel to enter into the land of Canaan, promised to them by God as their inheritance. The Pentateuch contains the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each was penned by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and contains a unique historical record of the people of Israel. Genesis covers the creation of the universe, the fall of man, the dispersal of the nations, and the eventual call of Abram, who would become the father of the Hebrew people. Genesis tells the story of their eventual captivity in Egypt, then the book of Exodus reveals how God used Moses to deliver them from slavery and lead them across the wilderness to the land of promise. The book of Leviticus continues the historical record of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, outlining how God provided His people with the Law and gave specific instructions to the tribe of Levi regarding their God-ordained role to serve as priests and caretakers of the Tabernacle.

The book of Deuteronomy might be considered a collection of sermons or messages that Moses gave to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan. He would not be joining them as they crossed over the River Jordan, so he wanted to make sure they understood the gravity of what they were about to do. He had led them for more than 40 years and was determined for them to fulfill their God-ordained occupation of the land.

The Book of Numbers essentially bridges the gap between the Israelites receiving the Law (Exodus and Leviticus) and preparing them to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy and Joshua). The title of the book is based on the two censuses taken by Moses. Chapters 1-4 record the first “numbering” of the people and chapter 26 records the second. The first 25 chapters of Numbers cover the exploits of the first generation of Israelites who successfully escaped their captivity in Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses, they eventually made their to the border of Canaan but refused to obey God’s command and cross over the Jorden to take possession of the land. Fearing the more formidable nations that occupied Canaan, they turned away and were forced to wander in the wilderness until that rebellious generation died off. The final chapters of Numbers record what happened to the next generation of Israelites. The themes of obedience, rebellion,  repentance, and blessing run through the entire book.

The book of Numbers opens up with the first generation of Israel in the second month of their second year since their escape from Egypt. Chapters 7-10 provide a recap of what happened prior to that point. But the entire book spans a period of nearly 40 years, chronicling what happened to the people of Israel from the time they refused to enter the land the first time until the second generation arrived on the shore of the Jordan River again.

We know from the book of Exodus, that during their 400-year stay in the land of Egypt, the number of Jacob’s descendants had expanded greatly. When Jacob and his family initially entered the land to escape a famine in Canaan, there had only been 70 of them (Exodus 1:5). But during their time of captivity, their numbers had increased significantly.

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

It was their vast numbers that caused Pharaoh to begin a campaign of persecution against the Israelites designed to demoralize them and diminish their numbers.

“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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:9-14 ESV

He even tried to reduce their numbers through infanticide, ordering the Hebrew midwives to execute all male babies born among the Jews.

“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” – Exodus 1:16 ESV

But these faithful women refused to obey Pharaoh’s command and the number of Israelites continue to increase. Some 430 years later, when Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, they could have been well over a million in number.

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. – Exodus 12:37 ESV

The 600,000 number would have been adult males, many of whom would have been married with children. So, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to estimate a crowd of more than a million people making their way out of Egypt and into the wilderness. Some have estimated that Israel had grown to be 2.4 million in number.

So, the book of Numbers opens up with a census, designed to determine exactly how many Israelites there were according to their tribes. But Moses was particularly interested in how many warriors he had at his disposal because they would be needed when the time came to enter the land and destroy the nations that lived there.

“From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their clans and families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war. You and Aaron must register the troops, and you will be assisted by one family leader from each tribe. – Numbers 1:2-4 NLT

One of the important points to remember is that Moses was under the impression that they were just weeks away from the conquest of the land. He had no way of knowing that the people were going to refuse to obey God’s command and take possession of the land. He was taking a census in order to determine the size of his army and to prepare his forces for the inevitable battles they would face in occupying the land of promise.

According to verse 46, the census revealed a sizeable force of 603,550 men. This number would have consisted of all males over the age of 20 and Moses must have been encouraged by the size of the army God had provided. Their future looked bright. Their success seemed to be assured. With an army of this size and God’s help, the land of Canaan was as good as conquered. Or was it?

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 Beginning, Not the End

1 Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.

And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.” So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. 10 When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. 11 When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. 12 Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, 13 for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. – Genesis 50:1-13 ESV

Jacob’s last dying wish was for his body to be taken back to Canaan and placed in the Cave of Machpelah near Hebron, the land purchased by Abraham as a burial plot for his wife, Sarah (Genesis23:10-20). That land had remained in the possession of Abraham’s descendants and became the official family burial plot, containing the bones of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and his second wife, Leah. His first wife, Rachel, had been buried near Bethlehem, not long after Jacob’s return from Mesopotamia.

Now, it was time for Jacob’s bones to be placed alongside those of his deceased family members. So, Joseph sent news to Pharaoh, informing him of his father’s passing and requesting a  leave of absence from his official administrative duties so that he might return to Canaan and bury his father. Pharaoh graciously agreed to Joseph’s request, but nearly two-and-a-half months would pass before Joseph was ready to make the long journey home.

Joseph ordered his personal physicians to prepare his father’s body for burial, using the traditional Egyptian method of embalmment, which most likely included mummification. The elaborate and laborious process of embalmment took 40 days to complete but would have properly preserved the body of Jacob for its long journey back to Canaan. And Jacob’s return trip back to the land of promise would be radically different than the one he had made 17 years earlier. On that occasion, his small entourage had consisted of only 70 family members, and he had come in fear and trembling, an insignificant Hebrew in hopes of saving his family from famine.

But this trip was marked by pomp and circumstance. In death, Jacob was treated like a king and given a royal funeral procession fitting for a Pharaoh. In fact, the people of Egypt showed their deep respect for Jacob by mourning his death for 70 days, one day less than they would have mourned the death of a Pharaoh. And when the time came to make the journey back to Canaan, Joseph and his brothers were accompanied by a host of Egyptian officials and dignitaries.

So Joseph went up to bury his father. He was accompanied by all of Pharaoh’s officials, all the senior members of Pharaoh’s household, and all the senior officers of Egypt. Joseph also took his entire household and his brothers and their households. But they left their little children and flocks and herds in the land of Goshen. A great number of chariots and charioteers accompanied Joseph. – Genesis 50:7-9 NLT

This strange scene seems to foreshadow a number of significant events in Israel’s future, and the original readers of Moses’ book would have made at least one of the connections. The audience to whom Moses addressed his historical narrative were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And, at the time they read this chronology of their own history, they were preparing to enter the land of Canaan, having been delivered by God from their 400-year captivity in Egypt. And they would have seen the similarities between their exodus from Egypt and that of Jacob’s elaborate funeral procession. In the book of Exodus, Moses recorded the day when the people of Israel walked out of Egypt as free men.

When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear to do this. He said, “God will certainly come to help you. When he does, you must take my bones with you from this place.” – Exodus 13:17-19 NLT

That too had been a funeral procession, but it had also been a celebratory occasion, as the people of Israel walked out a mighty army prepared for battle. Estimates are, that over the four centuries they had been in Egypt, they had multiplied greatly so that when they left, they were probably well over a million in number. Moses indicates that there were “six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” (Exodus 12:13 ESV). And they didn’t go alone.

A rabble of non-Israelites went with them, along with great flocks and herds of livestock. – Exodus 12:38 NLT

Not only that, but the Israelites left Egypt loaded down with great wealth, provided to them by the Egyptians, but according to the sovereign will of God Almighty.

The Lord caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the Israelites, and they gave the Israelites whatever they asked for. So they stripped the Egyptians of their wealth! – Exodus 12:36 NLT

The funeral procession of Jacob foreshadowed the exodus of the people of Israel, an event that would take place more than four centuries later.

But there is a second event foreshadowed by Jacob’s funeral that Moses’ readers would not have recognized because it had not yet happened. And that will be the future exaltation and reverent treatment that an offspring of Jacob will one day receive. Jesus, as a descendant of Jacob, will also be shown great honor and respect. But it will not be because of His passing, but it will be due to His long-awaited second coming. According to the apostle Paul, even after Jesus ascended into heaven after His death and resurrection, He was afforded great honor and glory.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 ESV

But the day is coming when Jesus will return and be afforded even greater honor as the King of kings and Lord of lords. Paul discussed this reality in his letter to the believers in Rome.

For the Scriptures say,

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bend to me,
    and every tongue will declare allegiance to God.’” – Romans 14:11 NLT

Jacob was honored in death. But Jesus will be honored in life. As a descendant of Abraham, born through the tribe of Judah (one of the sons of Jacob), Jesus fulfilled God’s promise to produce a king from Jacob’s family tree.

“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. – Genesis 35:10-11 ESV

And that King will one day rule over the New Jerusalem, God’s eternal kingdom which will descend from heaven to earth, and all the nations of the earth will honor the one true King in his never-ending kingdom.

I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. – Revelation 21:22-27 NLT

So, there is far more to Jacob’s death and funeral than meets the eye. Like the rest of the story of his life, it is a representation of God’s sovereign will and providential provision for His people. Jacob’s death was not the end, but only the beginning of great things yet to come.

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 Sovereign Switch

1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. As for me, when I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”

When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. 11 And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” 12 Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. 14 And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). 15 And he blessed Joseph and said,

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
    the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
    and 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.”

17 When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” 19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. 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.” 20 So he blessed them that day, saying,

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,
‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. 21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. 22 Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” – Genesis 48:1-22 ESV

As Moses begins to bring the book of Genesis to a close, he also narrates the closing days of Jacob’s life. As the patriarch of his family, Jacob had a responsibility to pass on his blessings to his sons, preparing the way for the future of their clan after his departure from this life. He had lived a long and was ready to pass the mantel of leadership to his 12 sons, allowing them to guide the next generation as they awaited the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to him so many years earlier.

Jacob, while 147-years-old, was far from senile. His eyes were failing but his memory was as sharp ever. He could recall with vivid detail the day when God had ordered him to leave Mesopotamia and return to Canaan. Along the way, God had appeared to him and delivered the following promise:

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

But now, Jacob and his family were living in the land of Egypt. Because of the devastating famine that had ravaged Canaan, they had been forced to seek refuge in Goshen, taking up residence in the land graciously provided to them by Pharaoh. Due to Joseph’s high rank in the Egyptian administration, they were provided with ample food to meet all their needs, even as their clan continued to grow in number.

Even during their self-imposed exile in Egypt, Jacob and his sons had been fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. And while they may not have recognized it, their small clan was slowly evolving into a great nation. When they had arrived in Egypt, they had only been 70 in number, but during the 17 years that Jacob lived in Egypt, “they were fruitful, and their population grew rapidly” (Genesis 47:27 NLT).

God was at work, blessing the offspring of Abraham just as He had promised to do. And while their detour into Egypt may have appeared to them as an unexpected glitch in God’s plan, it had part of the plan all along. While in Egypt, they were sequestered safely in the land of Goshen, protected by the hand of Pharaoh, and amply provided for by Joseph. They were safe, secure, and sovereignly provided for by God Almighty.

Yet, Jacob’s days were numbered. He would not be leaving Egypt or returning to the land of Canaan. And he would not live to see his growing clan transformed by God into a mighty nation. But, as the patriarch, he could do his part to pass on his blessings to those who would carry on after his death.

Joseph, upon hearing that his father’s health was diminishing, brought his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to pay their last respects to their grandfather. These two boys had been born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, “Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On” (Genesis 41:45 ESV). So, they were half Egyptian and half Hebrew. But Jacob was not phased by this seemingly disqualifying detail. He too had fathered sons from non-Hebrew women. And to illustrate his full acceptance of Joseph’s two sons, he announced that he was adopting them as his own. They would be given equal standing with the rest of his sons and afforded full rights as his descendants.

The scene that Moses describes is somewhat confusing and can leave the impression that Jacob was an old, doddering man who didn’t know what he was doing. As he called for Joseph to bring the two boys forward so that he might bless them, Jacob appears to mistakenly place his hands on the heads of the two boys. Moses is quite precise in his language, stating that Joseph purposefully placed his older son, Manasseh before Jacob’s right hand. It was from Jacob’s right hand that Manasseh would have received the blessing of the firstborn. But at the last second, Jacob switched his hands, placing his right hand on the head of Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim.

Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). – Genesis 48:14 ESV

Joseph was unaware of this “slight of hands,” because he had “bowed himself with his face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12 ESV). He did not notice Jacob’s subtle, yet significant change of plans until it was too late.

While the blessing that Jacob uttered seems equitable in nature, his switching of the hands gave greater precedence to the younger son. Jacob asked that God would bless both boys and make them fruitful, but he seems to have intended that Ephraim receive the blessing of the double blessing due to the firstborn.

Under the inspiration of God, Jacob deliberately gave Ephraim the privileged first-born blessing and predicted his preeminence. This was the fourth consecutive generation of Abraham’s descendants in which the normal pattern of the firstborn assuming prominence over the second born was reversed: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh. – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis

This was a deliberate action on Jacob’s part, not the feeble-minded mistake of an old man. He knew exactly what he was doing. The text does not reveal why Jacob made this decision, but it would seem that he was acting under divine inspiration. This was the will of God. This conclusion is not based on conjecture, but on the words written by the author of Hebrews. In chapter 11, the great “Hall of Faith,” Jacob is included in the long list of Old Testament saints who exhibited faith in the promises of Yahweh. And Jacob’s demonstration of faith is tied to his blessing of the two sons of Joseph.

By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. – Hebrews 11:21 ESV

The switching of his hands and the pronouncement of blessing had been an act of worship. Just had been proven true in his life, God was going to use the younger son to accomplish His will.

But when Joseph realized what was happening, he tried to intervene and correct the mistake by switching his father’s hands. Yet Jacob refused to budge. His decision had been deliberate and was final. He informed Joseph, “I know, my son; I know,…Manasseh will also become a great people, but his younger brother will become even greater. And his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT).

The die was cast. The blessings were awarded. And Ephraim would eventually be the name associated with the northern tribe of Israel after the nation was split in two. God would fulfill the blessing and make of Ephraim a great nation.

Moses makes it quite clear that this was a deliberate action on the part of Jacob.

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. – Genesis 48:20 ESV

And while Joseph was not happy with the results, it was exactly what God had intended all along. His ways are not our ways. His plans do not always align with our own. Every detail of the story was happening according to God’s divine will and the ultimate outcome of each decision would not be fully revealed or realized for centuries. But there were no mistakes in God’s sovereign agenda.

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