God Meted Out Meat and Judgment

31 Then a wind from the Lord sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground. 32 And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague. 34 Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth. Numbers 11:31-35 ESV

The Israelites got what they wanted and, unexpectedly, exactly what they deserved. They had grown sick of the manna that God miraculously provided for them and began to express their craving for the more varied diet they had enjoyed back in Egypt.

“Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” – Numbers 11:4-6 ESV

This craving or deep longing (אָוָה ‘āvâ) for Egyptian cuisine had begun among “the rabble that was among them” (Numbers 11:4 ESV). This appears to be a reference to the non-Jews who had joined the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. In the book of Exodus, Moses recorded that a “rabble of non-Israelites went with them” (Exodus 12:38 ESV). This mixed multitude likely consisted of Egyptians as well as individuals who haled from other ethnic backgrounds. After having endured the ten plagues that the God of the Israelites had brought against Egypt and then witnessed the devastating deaths of all the firstborn, these people had chosen to align themselves with Moses and his powerful deity.

Many of these people were probably slaves just like the Israelites or were from the lower classes of the Egyptians. They had seen the exodus as an opportunity to escape their impoverished conditions and improve their prospects for the future. But after a year of traveling through the wilderness alongside the Israelites, they had begun to question their decision and long for their former lives back in Egypt. It seems unlikely that their prior circumstances had been quite so enjoyable as they recalled. While the Nile would have provided them easy access to fish and the fertile soil of the Nile Valley produced an abundant supply of fruits and vegetables, the lower-class status of this “rabble” would have made most of delicacies unaffordable and inaccessible.

Yet, they couldn’t stop thinking about the “good life” of Egypt. Their cravings and desires got the best of them and their growing dissatisfaction with God’s provision slowly infected the rest of the community. Before long, the people of Israel were all expressing their desire to return to Egypt.

“Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” – Numbers 11:18 ESV

At the core of their complaint was a distrust of God. They were declaring their doubt in His ability to provide for their needs. In their minds, God was incapable of providing the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they had enjoyed in Egypt. In a sense, they were suggesting that Egypt and by extension, Pharaoh, had done a better job of meeting their needs. They were demanding that God accomodate Himself to their wants and desires. He needed to get with the program and give them what they wanted: Meat with all the fixin’s.

And God agreed to give them exactly what they asked for. He informed Moses to tell the people, “the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you” (Numbers 11:18-20 ESV).

They had allowed their physical desires to get the best of them and, driven by their cravings for temporal delights, they had rejected the providential plan of God. The apostle Paul provides an apt description for this kind of materialistic-minded outlook.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

They had lost sight of the prize. Rather than patiently waiting on God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, they fixated on the apparent deprivations of the moment and refused to place their hope in the future blessings to come.

And the last five verses of chapter 11 describe how God gave them what they desired as well as what they deserved. A wind (רוּחַ rûaḥ) blew from the southeast that carried with it an abundance of quail. These migratory birds were miraculously blown off course and divinely directed to this very spot. And when they came to rest, the text states that they were as far as the eye could see, stretching as far as one day’s journey on either side of the camp.

So the people went out and caught quail all that day and throughout the night and all the next day, too. No one gathered less than fifty bushels! They spread the quail all around the camp to dry. – Numbers 11:32 NLT

It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone was able to gather as much quail as they could possible crave or desire. There were no limits imposed by God. So, driven by their greed, the people spent all day and night hoarding as much quail as they could possibly catch. And Moses records that they let their appetites get the best of them.

But while they were gorging themselves on the meat—while it was still in their mouths—the anger of the Lord blazed against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. – Numbers 11:33 NLT

The people showed no sign of awe or respect for God. They displayed no gratitude for His gracious provision. Instead, they gorged themselves on the quail. Perhaps, in their greed, they even ate the meat raw, and in doing so, violated God’s prohibition against consuming blood (Leviticus 7:26). But whatever the case, their blatant display of ingratitude and unbridled, animal-like cravings brought down the judgment of God.

It was like a feeding frenzy. The rapacious actions of the people revealed the lustful hearts of the people. They ate as if they were starving. But God had been providing for their physical needs all along the way. There had always been enough manna to meet their dietary requirements. But their gorging down of the quail had less to do with hunger than gluttony. And that fact is revealed by the name given to the place where God poured out His anger on His rebellious and rapacious people.

So that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah (which means “graves of gluttony”) because there they buried the people who had craved meat from Egypt. – Numbers 11:34 NLT

While not everyone died that day, the entire nation of Israel was guilty of forsaking God and worshiping their appetites. It’s likely that some gathered the quail and set it aside for future consumption. Rather than greedily gorging themselves, they gratefully collected what they needed, recognizing it as just another gift from God.

God knew the needs of His people. He was fully aware that food was a non-negotiable necessity for their survival. And He had provided more than enough to sustain them all along the way. But their demand for something better proved to be an affront to God’s sovereignty and providence. They were questioning His integrity and goodness. They were expressing doubt in His providential care. And they were displaying their inordinate desire for the things of this earth. Unwilling to wait for the inheritance God had in store for them, they demanded immediate gratification of their physical appetites. And God obliged them. But He also repaid them for their blatant display of ingratitude and disturbing demonstration of uncontrolled gluttony. He meted out meat and justice at the same time. He gave them what they desired and exactly what they deserved. They had enjoyed the momentary pleasure of gorging themselves on quail but, as a result, they also encountered the more permanent experience of God’s holy and righteous judgment.

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.

Unwavering Faith In An Unfailing God

14 After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

22 So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years. 23 And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. 24 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” 26 So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. – Genesis 50:14-26 ESV

Joseph and his brothers returned to Egypt after having buried their father Jacob in Canaan. It must have been difficult to leave behind the land of promise yet again. But for the time being, Egypt had become their home away from home. So, having interred their father’s body in the cave of the field at Machpelah, they made the long journey back to Egypt.

It appears that, along the way, Joseph’s brothers became apprehensive about what might happen upon their return. With their father and protector dead, perhaps Joseph would take advantage of the situation and enact his revenge for their former treatment of him. Their fear of Joseph had never really subsided, despite the many ways he had shown them love and honor. It had been Joseph who had personally subsidized their food allotment all throughout the years of the famine. He had helped arrange their resettlement in Goshen. And yet, deep down inside, his brothers still did not trust him.

Upon their return to Egypt, the brothers held a discussion on the matter and reached a consensus.

“Now Joseph will show his anger and pay us back for all the wrong we did to him,” they said. – Genesis 50:15 NLT

So, they crafted a message and had it delivered to Joseph.

“Before your father died, he instructed us to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” – Genesis 50:16-17 NLT

His brothers had never really believed that Joseph had forgiven them. And they had always feared that he would one day use his power to repay them for the crime they had committed against him. They wrongly assumed that their father’s death would provide the perfect opportunity for Joseph to seek vengeance.

At the heart of their distrust was disbelief. It wasn’t that they failed to trust Joseph, it was that they lacked trust in the promises and provision of God. Years earlier, when Joseph had revealed his identity to his brothers, he had clearly told them that their actions against him had been part of God’s sovereign plan to preserve their people.

“I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.” – Genesis 45:4-8 NLT

And yet, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that their God had been orchestrating every facet of their relationship with Joseph. By this time, they must have realized that Joseph’s dreams, which had infuriated them, had come true. They had lived to experience Joseph’s prediction that they would one day bow down to him. And despite all the ways in which God had miraculously preserved them, they couldn’t seem to believe that He would continue to do so. They saw Joseph’s power as a problem, not a God-ordained proof of divine protection.

Joseph was grieved by their message. What more could he do to prove his love for them? He longed to be restored to a right relationship with all of his brothers and he harbored no ill will toward any of them. So as he read their message, he wept bitterly. But, once again, Joseph took action, calling his brothers into his presence. He refused to allow this divisive wedge to remain between him and his brothers.

The brothers arrived at Joseph’s palace ready to throw themselves at his mercy. In fact, as soon as they entered they threw themselves at his feet, declaring, “Look, we are your slaves!” (Genesis 50:18 NLT). Preferring to face a lifetime of slavery rather than death, they begged Joseph for mercy. But what they got was another powerful reminder of the sovereignty of God.

“Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” – Genesis 50:19-21 NLT

Joseph knew what they had done. Not only that, he knew he would have been fully in his rights to seek revenge against them. He not only had the motive, but he had the power to pull it off. But that is not what Joseph wanted because it was not what God had intended. Their crime against him, while untenable and contemptible, had been part of God’s providential plan for protecting and preserving the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph fully believed in the sovereignty of God and he wanted his brothers to put aside their fears and replace them with faith in the God of their father.

For 25 chapters, Moses has chronicled the life of Jacob and his family. And now, as his history of Jacob’s lineage comes to a close, Moses reminds his readers that Yahweh can and should be trusted at all times – regardless of how dire and desperate the situation may appear. And this was a message they needed to hear. The original readers of Moses’ book had been the Israelites whom he had led out of Egypt to the edge of the promised land. Moses died before the people had ever entered the land, so this historical narrative would have been intended to provide them with impetus and encouragement as they prepared to enter the land without him. Even as Moses faced death and knew he would never enter the land of Canaan, he composed a song for his people to sing. And, in that song, he mentioned the days that Jacob had spent in Egypt.

 “For the people of Israel belong to the Lord;
    Jacob is his special possession.
He found them in a desert land,
    in an empty, howling wasteland.
He surrounded them and watched over them;
    he guarded them as he would guard his own eyes.
Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
    and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
    and carried them safely on his pinions.
The Lord alone guided them;
    they followed no foreign gods.
He let them ride over the highlands
    and feast on the crops of the fields.
He nourished them with honey from the rock
    and olive oil from the stony ground.
He fed them yogurt from the herd
    and milk from the flock,
    together with the fat of lambs.
He gave them choice rams from Bashan, and goats,
    together with the choicest wheat.
You drank the finest wine,
    made from the juice of grapes.” – Deuteronomy 32:9-14 NLT

God had cared for the descendants of Jacob for more than 400 years. He had protected them and provided for all their needs. He had multiplied them in number and miraculously transformed the 12 sons of Jacob into a vast army of more than 600,000 men by the time they left Egypt.

The story of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers is intended to be a reminder of the sovereign power of the Almighty God. His plan is never thwarted. His will is never overcome. What Joseph’s brothers had done to him had been meant for ill, but God had intended it for good.

Joseph assuaged the fears and guilt of his brothers, assuring them that he had no intentions of bringing them harm. And he lived alongside them in peace until he reached the age of 110. Joseph lived long enough to become a great-great-grandfather, witnessing three generations worth of descendants through his son, Ephraim. But with death closing in, Joseph took one last opportunity to encourage his brothers to maintain their faith in Yahweh.

“Soon I will die,” Joseph told his brothers, “but God will surely come to help you and lead you out of this land of Egypt. He will bring you back to the land he solemnly promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Genesis 50:24 NLT

Joseph never stopped believing in the promises of God. He had taken his father’s body back to Canaan because he knew that was their true home. Egypt had been nothing but a divinely ordained detour. The day would come when God would restore His people to the land He had promised to them. And Joseph believed his brothers or their descendants would live to see that day. His faith was so strong that he demanded his brothers swear an oath to take his mummified body with them when they returned to Canaan. He, like his father Jacob, had always harbored an intense desire to go home.

It’s interesting to note that the book of Genesis began with a couple who displayed their lack of faith in God by questioning His Word and disobeying His command. Rather than trusting God, they tried to become like him. But the book ends with a man of faith who never stopped believing in the promises of God. In fact, Joseph is mentioned in the great “Hall of Faith” found in the 11th chapter of Hebrews.

It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left. – Hebrews 11:22 NLT

Joseph died in Egypt, but his heart had always been in Canaan. And one day, his faith in God was proven worthy, because his body was returned to the land of promise, just as he had hoped.

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.”

The Israelites left Succoth and camped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire. – Exodus 13:18-21 NLT

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

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

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

God-Sent

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

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. 10 You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:1-15 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

God’s Will Always Wins Out

41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah. So she sent and called Jacob her younger son and said to him, “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself about you by planning to kill you. 43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice. Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran 44 and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— 45 until your brother’s anger turns away from you, and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send and bring you from there. Why should I be bereft of you both in one day?”

46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” Thus Isaac sent Jacob away. And he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother. Genesis 27:41-28:5 ESV

Rebekah got exactly what she wished for, and much more than she could have ever imagined. She had helped her favorite son swindle the blessing from his older brother. Now Jacob had it all – the birthright and the blessing – making him the legal heir to his father’s inheritance and the next in line to rule over their clan. He was destined to be a wealthy and powerful man. On top of that, with his mother’s help, he had managed to become the sole beneficiary of the covenant that God had made with his grandfather, Abraham. But what Rebekah failed to consider was the reaction of Esau. It is as if she thought he would take all of this lying down. But she was in for an unpleasant surprise.

Esau was furious, and rightfully so. In a sense, he had been cursed, and he was partly to blame. Years earlier, he had willingly sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. He had allowed his immediate physical appetites to make an impulsive decision that would have long-term ramifications. Now, his future had taken another hit because his own brother and mother had stolen the blessing that had been rightfully his as the firstborn son. He had nothing to look forward to except the prospect of living in his brother’s shadow for the rest of his life.

What nobody in this story seems to recognize is the hand of God working behind the scenes to accomplish His divine will. They seemed to believe that they were operating as fully autonomous free agents without any responsibility to answer to God for their actions. At no point does anyone seek God’s input or approval for their decisions. Driven by their emotions and depending upon their own wisdom, each decision they make only seems to make matter worse. And yet, Moses would have his readers understand that this soap-opera-like story is actually an illustration of how God’s sovereignty and man’s autonomy interact in daily life. Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob, and Esau are each making independent decisions, but the ultimate outcome is in the hands of Almighty God. According to Scripture, the will of God cannot be thwarted by the plans of men.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. – Proverbs 19:21 ESV

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. – Proverbs 16:9 ESV

A man’s steps are from the LORD, so how can anyone understand his own way? – Proverbs 20:24 BSB

Angered over his most recent loss, Esau made plans to murder his brother. Frightened over the news that Jacob’s life was in danger, Rebekah made plans to protect him. Distraught over the prospect of Jacob marrying a Hittite woman, Isaac made plans to send him to Haran. Everyone was making plans for the future, but no one realized that it was God who was establishing their steps. This was all according to His divine will.

But these people were not operating like mindless automatons, helplessly and unwilling fulfilling God’s relentless will. No, they were each doing exactly what they wanted to do. God was not forcing or coercing them against their wills. But He was sovereignly and providentially orchestrating the outcome of their decisions. What they meant for evil, God would use for good. Esau’s evil intentions to kill his brother would be used by God to send Jacob away from the smothering influence of his mother. Rebekah’s manipulative attempt to promote the prospects of her favorite son would actually result in his blessing by God.

Yet, while God was turning their evil into good, He would still hold them accountable for their actions. They would each suffer the consequences for the decisions they made without God’s input or blessing. In a sense, God was going to redeem their unrighteous behavior in order to produce a fully righteous outcome.

Rebekah seems to have been caught off guard by Esau’s over-the-top reaction to his loss. So, when she caught wind that he planned to kill Jacob, she was forced to come up with yet another plan to protect her favorite son. She immediately called Jacob and shared with him her latest and greatest idea.

“Look, your brother Esau is planning to get revenge by killing you. Now then, my son, do what I say. Run away immediately to my brother Laban in Haran. Live with him for a little while until your brother’s rage subsides. Stay there until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you did to him. Then I’ll send someone to bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” – Genesis 27:42-45 NET

She realized her relationship with Esau was dead in the water. There was no way she was going to mitigate the damage she had done. So, the best thing she could do was keep Esau from murdering Jacob. It’s obvious that she took Esau’s threat seriously because she was willing to send Jacob away. And she was able to convince the somewhat oblivious Isaac to agree to her plan by portraying it as a quest to find Jacob a bride. Neither she nor Isaac had been thrilled by Esau’s decision to marry two Hittite women (Genesis 26:34). In fact, Moses states that these marriages “caused Isaac and Rebekah great anxiety” (Genesis 26:35 NET). 

So, Rebekah convinced Isaac to send Jacob back to her hometown of Haran so that he might search for a bride from among her brother’s family. This plan pleased Isaac because that had been how his father had found Rebekah for him. So, Isaac agreed to send Jacob back to Haran so that he might find a wife. But neither Isaac nor Rebekah had any idea just how long this separation was going to last. She seemed to believe that, with Jacob out of the way, Esau’s anger would quickly subside. So, she assured Jacob that his exile in Haran would only be “for a little while” (Genesis 27:44 NET).

Once again, Esau is going to find himself as the odd-man-out. He would wake up one day to find that his plans for killing his brother had been thwarted by his conniving mother, and his father, Isaac, had been complicit in the whole affair.

In rather short order, Jacob found himself on his way to Mesopotamia with instructions to find a wife among his grandfather’s relatives.

“You must not marry any of these Canaanite women. Instead, go at once to Paddan-aram, to the house of your grandfather Bethuel, and marry one of your uncle Laban’s daughters.” – Genesis 28:1-2 NLT

Isaac views this trip in a totally positive light, believing that his son will return with a bride who will help Jacob fulfill the conditions contained in the divine covenant. He even reiterates the terms of the covenant, putting them in the form of a blessing.

“May God Almighty bless you and give you many children. And may your descendants multiply and become many nations! May God pass on to you and your descendants the blessings he promised to Abraham. May you own this land where you are now living as a foreigner, for God gave this land to Abraham.” – Genesis 28:3-4 NLT

Rebekah must have smiled as she heard these words. It was all she had ever wanted for Jacob. But Esau must have fumed as he stood back and watched his younger brother ride away with his birthright, his blessing, and his father’s best wishes for a prosperous future.

Isaac, Rebekah, and Esau stood and watched as Jacob and his caravan rode off into the distance. And little did they know that 20 years would pass before they saw him again. There are those who believe that Rebekah never saw Jacob again. The timing of her death is not mentioned in Scripture, but neither is her reunion with Jacob. It seems that her plan to promote her younger son over his brother had worked, but it came at a great cost. The boy she loved so dearly would be taken from her and she would never live to meet his wife or see the birth of her grandchildren. Her days would be marked by pain and regret, as she was forced to consider the cost of her actions. It’s likely that her relationship with Esau was beyond repair. In her misguided effort to protect the one thing she loved more than anything else in the world, she had actually ended up losing it. But God was working behind the scenes and He had great plans for Jacob. The days ahead would be difficult. The next two decades would be filled with pain and sorrow. And Jacob, the deceiver, would find himself getting an unexpected and unpleasant dose of his own medicine – all for his own good and God’s glory.

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

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

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

A Smooth Operator

29 Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring. 30 As soon as he saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of Rebekah his sister, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man. And behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. 31 He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” 32 So the man came to the house and unharnessed the camels, and gave straw and fodder to the camels, and there was water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. 33 Then food was set before him to eat. But he said, “I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.” He said, “Speak on.”

34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great. He has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male servants and female servants, camels and donkeys. 36 And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old, and to him he has given all that he has. 37 My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell, 38 but you shall go to my father’s house and to my clan and take a wife for my son.’ 39 I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’ 40 But he said to me, ‘The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way. You shall take a wife for my son from my clan and from my father’s house. 41 Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my clan. And if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’

42 “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, 43 behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44 and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also,” let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’

45 “Before I had finished speaking in my heart, behold, Rebekah came out with her water jar on her shoulder, and she went down to the spring and drew water. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46 She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder and said, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels drink also.’ So I drank, and she gave the camels drink also. 47 Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her arms. 48 Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son.’ 49 Now then, if you are going to show steadfast love and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.”

50 Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. 51 Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” Genesis 24:29-51 ESV

In this section of chapter 24, Moses introduces yet another character who will play a major role in the unfolding plot surrounding Abraham and his descendants. After his “chance” encounter with the young woman at the well, Abraham’s servant accepted her gracious offer of food and lodging. It seems that Rebekah had hurried home to tell her family about what had happened and to help them to prepare for their unexpected guest. But the servant remained at the well with his retinue of ten camels.

Out of breath and filled with excitement, Rebekah shared the details of her conversation with the stranger and showed off her new jewelry.  When her brother Laban saw the expensive gifts his sister had received from this stranger, he decided to roll out the red carpet.

…he rushed out to the spring, where the man was still standing beside his camels. Laban said to him, “Come and stay with us, you who are blessed by the Lord! Why are you standing here outside the town when I have a room all ready for you and a place prepared for the camels?” – Genesis 24:30-31 NLT

Laban went out of his way to extend hospitality to their guest, unloading the man’s camels and providing them with food and water. He even supplied the camel drivers with clean water to wash their feet. He was the consummate host, even ordering a meal to be served for his famished guests. But the servant refused to eat until he had declared the purpose for his visit.

At this point, Moses provides a retelling of the events that took place at the well, but through the eyes of Abraham’s servant. First, he disclosed his relationship with Abraham, their long-departed relative. And then he gave them a Cliff Notes recap of Abraham’s life since leaving Haran. But he prefaces the whole historical narrative surrounding Abraham’s life by accentuating his tremendous wealth. He wanted his hosts to know that Abraham had become a very wealthy man. This information was intended to soften up Rebekah’s father and brothers and make them more amenable to the proposal he was about to make.

He revealed some of the details surrounding Isaac’s birth and then emphasized how Abraham had made Isaac the sole heir of all his possessions. In other words, Isaac was also a wealthy man. But this wealthy, unmarried son of Abraham was in need of a wife. And the servant revealed that his presence in Haran was due to an oath he had sworn to his master. He had vowed not to return home until he had found a suitable wife for Isaac. And then the servant disclosed Abraham’s addendum to the oath.

“…you must find a wife for my son from among my relatives, from my father’s family. Then you will have fulfilled your obligation. But if you go to my relatives and they refuse to let her go with you, you will be free from my oath.” – Genesis 24:40-41 NLT

By this time, Rebekah’s father and brothers had put two and two together. They understood the purpose behind this man’s mission and knew exactly what he was about to ask them. But the servant was far from done. He continued to describe the divine nature of his meeting with Rebekah. He wanted his audience to know that this entire sequence of events had been ordained by Yahweh, the God of Abraham. He even revealed his own shock at discovering Rebekah’s identity. She wasn’t some random stranger fetching water from the well. No, she was the daughter of Abraham’s nephew and the granddaughter of his brother, Nahor.

This faithful servant of Abraham proved to be a deft negotiator. He did a masterful job preparing Rebekah’s family for the ask. By the time he finished describing this divinely orchestrated encounter at the well, it would be virtually impossible for Rebekah’s father to say no to the request he was about to make. He flatly declared, “the Lord, the God of my master, Abraham…led me straight to my master’s niece to be his son’s wife” (Genesis 24:48 NLT). But to further enhance his prospects of success, the servant placed all the pressure on Bethuel and Laban by insisting that they make the final call.

“So tell me—will you or won’t you show unfailing love and faithfulness to my master? Please tell me yes or no, and then I’ll know what to do next.” – Genesis 24:49 NLT

What was Bethuel supposed to do? If he said no, it would appear as if he was opposing the will of God. So, having heard the details of the servant’s story, Bethuel and Laban gave their wholehearted consent.

“The Lord has obviously brought you here, so there is nothing we can say. Here is Rebekah; take her and go. Yes, let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.” – Genesis 24:50-51 NLT

And just like that, the oath was fulfilled, and the son of Abraham had a wife. God had miraculously intervened yet again, paving the way for His promise to make of Abraham a great nation to become a reality.

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 Wonderful Ways of God

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor. And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water. Genesis 24:1-11 ESV

With the death of Sarah, Abraham found himself an elderly widower attempting to raise his 37-year-old unmarried son. At least 137-years-old himself, Abraham would have recognized that he faced yet another challenge in his long and storied life. While God had given him a son through whom all the divine promises would be fulfilled, there was still a need for Isaac to find a mate. God’s promise to produce a great nation through Abraham would come to a screeching halt if Isaac failed to marry and bear the next generation of descendants.

Sarah’s death marked the end of Abraham’s role in producing that great nation. He would father no more sons. But he knew that God was far from finished when it came to fulfilling His promises, and he remembered the words God spoke concerning Isaac more than 37 years earlier.

“Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant.” – Genesis 17:19 NLT

So, he prepared to pass the mantle of leadership and responsibility to Isaac. And because Abraham viewed himself as an alien and a stranger in the land of Canaan, he determined to find a bride for his son from among his own people living back in Mesopotamia. But, unlike so many other episodes from the life of Abraham, this one is not an example of Abraham operating solo and trying to make things happen on his own. He is simply playing the role of the loving father and attempting to ensure that his son finds the right kind of wife. Yet, in all his decisions concerning the matter, one can sense that Abraham recognized the sovereign will of God. After 137 years of life, he had come to trust that God would providentially operate behind the scenes and ensure that Isaac found just the woman through whom all His promises would be fulfilled.

Chapter 24 is the longest of all the chapters in the book of Genesis, and it is a love story. But it is less about the love that develops between Isaac and Rebekah than it is about the love of God for Abraham and his descendants. Moses opens the chapter by stating that “the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things” (Genesis 24:1 ESV). He had given Abraham a faithful and loving wife. He had showered him with great riches and abundant flocks and herds. For more than 60 years, God had protected and provided for Abraham as he wandered through the countryside of Canaan. And now, He would guide the steps of Abraham’s servant as he made the long journey back to Mesopotamia. This entire chapter is meant to remind Abraham’s future descendants, the people of Israel, of God’s love for them. The details contained in this story provide insights into their very existence. Had these events not taken place, just as God ordained them, there would be no nation of Israel.

But it all began with Abraham’s decision to send his servant back to his homeland of Mesopotamia. And Abraham forced his servant to swear a binding oath.

“…swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” – Genesis 24:3-4 ESV

As part of the oath, the servant was required to place his hand under Abraham’s thigh. This rather strange gesture was probably meant to signify that the oath was all about the continuation of Abraham’s line. But placing his hand near Abraham’s genitals, the servant would be making an intimate and binding commitment to the future of his master’s house.

But before taking this solemn oath, Abraham’s servant expressed his reservations. He questioned what he was to do if the woman he found refused to return with him to Canaan. This was a legitimate concern because most residents of Mesopotamia would have viewed Canaan as an unsophisticated backwater occupied by unruly and unfriendly nations. Abraham had tasked this man with a formidable task and he wanted to know what he was supposed to do when the women he approached turned him down. Was there an option involving the return of Isaac to Mesopotamia? But Abraham flatly rejected any notion of Isaac leaving Canaan.

See to it that you do not take my son back there. – Genesis 24:6 ESV

Abraham understood that this trip and the task of finding a bride for Isaac could take a very long time, and there was a high likelihood that he would not live long enough to attend his son’s wedding or see the birth of his first grandson. So, Abraham made sure his servant knew the terms of his assignment and the reason for its uncompromising rigidity.

For the Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and my native land, solemnly promised to give this land to my descendants. He will send his angel ahead of you, and he will see to it that you find a wife there for my son. If she is unwilling to come back with you, then you are free from this oath of mine. But under no circumstances are you to take my son there.” – Genesis 24:7-8 NLT

This statement reveals Abraham’s unwavering faith in God’s promise. He recalled the day that God commanded him to leave Mesopotamia and relocate his family to Canaan. If God had done it once, He could do it again. And Abraham assured his servant that Yahweh would prepare the path before him. He even declared that God would guide the servant to just the right woman. And, if that God-ordained woman should refuse to accompany the servant to Canaan, the binding nature of the oath would be automatically rescinded.

Abraham was letting his servant know that this trip was going to have God’s hands all over it. Yes, his task appeared daunting and even dangerous. It’s likely that this servant was a foreigner, just like Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. Perhaps he was too was an Egyptian. And he was being asked to make a long journey through hostile territory and somehow convince a Mesopotamian father to give the hand of his daughter to a man he had never met – who just happened to live in Canaan. But Abraham was assuring his reluctant servant that God was in full control. So, the servant swore the oath and prepared to make the journey to Mesopotamia.

Moses provides no timeline for the trip. One minute, the servant is standing in the presence of Abraham somewhere near Hebron, and then he suddenly appears by a well outside of Nahor. The journey itself, while obviously long and arduous, was unimportant. It was the destination that mattered. Abraham had sent his servant to the region of Haran, the place where he had been living when God had called him. These names are significant because they reflect the family members of Abraham.

Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. – Genesis 11:27-29 ESV

This area of Mesopotamia had become the home of Abraham’s extended family. His brothers, Haran and Nahor, had settled and raised their families there. Of course, Haran had died, forcing Abraham to take on Haran’s son, Lot, as his ward. But Nahor had remained in Mesopotamia where he eventually married his late brother’s daughter, Milcah. And she would bear Nahor a son named Bethuel, who would father a daughter named Rebekah. So, all the while Abraham had been living in the land of Canaan, God had been working behind the scenes to prepare the woman who would become the future bride of the long-awaited son of the promise.

Little did Abraham’s servant know that his path had been sovereignly directed to the very well where he would meet the very woman whose very life God had ordained years earlier.

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 Mysterious Ways of God

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” Genesis 16:5-10 ESV

The story of Sarai’s decision to give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram as a surrogate birth mother for their future inheritance, brings an old hymn comes to mind. The events surrounding her clever solution to her own barrenness problem seem to be headed in a decidedly troubled direction. And yet, as this timeless song so aptly states, God was in full control of the entire situation.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

William Cowper, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way” – 1774

Every detail recorded in this story seems to be taking place outside of God’s preordained will. Nowhere in the narrative does Sarai receive orders from God instructing her to implement His “Plan B.” And yet, as William Cowper so elegantly put it, God was treasuring up His bright designs and working His sovereign will.

From Sarai’s perspective, things had gone terribly wrong. Her bright idea had produced some decidedly dark outcomes. What should have been a joyous occasion, had turned into a toxic scene filled with jealousy, envy, and deep resentment. Sarai had given Hagar to Abram so that she might bear the offspring he was so desperately seeking. But when her wish came true and Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child, she began to have a case of buyer’s remorse. Sarai’s lowly maidservant suddenly found herself in the envious position of serving as the future mother of Abram’s long-awaited son. She considered herself to be the “chosen” vessel through whom God would fulfill His promise to produce from Abram a great nation.  And she flaunted her newfound celebrity status in Sarai’s despondent face.

Sarai suddenly found herself in a dramatically diminished role. She was still Abram’s wife, but she was damaged goods – unable to conceive and, therefore, of little value. But rather than blame herself for this unpleasant predicament, she lashed out at Abram.

“This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!” – Genesis 16:5 NLT

She admits that the idea had been hers, but she demanded that Abram take responsibility for the unfortunate outcome. After all, he was the one who got Hagar pregnant. But Sarai seems to be suffering from a severe case of selective memory. It was she who gave Abram both the idea and the permission to impregnate Hagar.

“Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Her plan had worked to perfection. Abram had faithfully (and, most likely, with great eagerness) followed her instructions and accomplished his assignment. He had successfully gotten Hagar pregnant but, in doing so, he had inadvertently made Sarai mad.

Sarai portrayed herself as the innocent victim, even suggesting that God would not hold her culpable or blameworthy for this disastrous situation. Fueling her unbridled anger and resentment was the arrogant attitude exhibited by Hagar. Moses identifies this newly elevated servant an Egyptian. It is most likely that Hagar had become a part of Abram’s family when, 10 years earlier, he had taken his family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land of Canaan. Upon his departure from Egypt, Abram had been rewarded by Pharaoh with great wealth.

Pharaoh gave Abram many gifts because of her—sheep, goats, cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 NLT

Hagar had probably been among the many male and female servants who accompanied Abram back to the land of Canaan. And, at some point, she had been elevated to her position as Sarai’s personal maidservant, which eventually led to her selection as the surrogate birth mother for her mistress.

It is fascinating to consider the intricate and interconnected plot lines that permeate the story of Abram’s life. Early on, even before God called Abram and commanded him to move to Canaan, Abram’s father had already decided to uproot his family from Ur and relocate them to the very same spot. It was while they were temporarily residing in Haran, that God shared His plan and promise to Abram.

Later on, Abram made a decision to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking food and shelter in Egypt. Little did he know at the time that the famine had been God’s doing. Once in Egypt, Abram feared the Egyptians would kill him in order to gain access to his attractive wife. So, he concocted a misguided plan to save his own skin declaring Sarai to be his sister. This resulted in Pharaoh confiscating Sarai as his own personal property and placing her in his harem. But paid a handsome bride price to Sarai’s “brother.” Abram ended up a much wealthier man despite his deceit and deception. And God graciously rescued Sarai from her captivity, returning her to Abram, and sending the two of them back to Canaan.

God had been working behind the scenes “in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” All along, God had been working His sovereign will – despite Abram’s selfish and self-centered actions. And the same thing was true for Sarai’s misguided attempt to do God a favor by implementing her own plan to fulfill His long-delayed promise.

Both Sarai and Abram were oblivious to what God was going. She was mad and blamed Abram. Abram simply shrugged his shoulders and told her to do what she thought best.

“Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” – Genesis 16:6 NLT

He wasn’t about to come between his disgruntled wife and her pregnant maidservant. In fact, he wanted no part of what he considered to be a no-win situation. Abram displays a disappointing lack of leadership and integrity throughout this ordeal. He had been willing to “go into” Hagar, but now he refused to stand up for her. He was abandoning his responsibilities as a husband and a father. He placed Hagar at the mercy of his disgruntled and vengeful wife.  And Moses makes it clear that Sarai wasted no time inacting her revenge.

Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away. – Genesis 16:6 NLT

But as before, God’s sovereign, all-knowing will reveals itself again. Hagar fled into the desert to escape the wrath of her mistress but, while there, she encounters the mercy of gracious God. Moses indicates that “The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur” (Genesis 16:7 NLT). This does not mean the angel had been sent on a search-and-rescue mission from God, hoping to find this missing pregnant woman. God knew Hagar’s exact whereabouts, and that is right where the angel found her.

The angel asked Hagar two questions that were designed to elicit the rationale behind her flight. The angel already knew the answers but he wanted Hagar to consider the absurdity of her decision to seek refuge in the wilderness. She was an abandoned and unprotected pregnant woman attempting to fend for herself in the most inhospitable of places. She was hopeless and helpless. Or so she thought. In her mind, she had gone from the prized position as the mother of Abram’s offspring to a social pariah preparing to give birth to a bastard child in the middle of nowhere. Yet, God had news for Hagar.

When Hagar acknowledged that she was running from the wrath of Sarai, the angel gave her the surprising and somewhat disconcerting instructions to return. And then he added a shocking addendum to his command.

“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

This was the angel of the Lord speaking on behalf of His Master. He was delivering to Hagar the very same God-guaranteed promise that Abram and Sarai had received. This transplanted and recently abandoned Egyptian slave girl had just received a promise from God that she would be the mother of a great nation. Abram and Sarai had condemned she and her yet-born son to a certain death, but God had chosen to reward her with progeny and a fruitful posterity.

God even assured Hagar that she could safely return to her mistresses’ side and fear no repercussions. He would go with her and protect her. At this point, Hagar has no idea what God has in store. The prospect of returning to the unfriendly and potentially hostile atmosphere of Abram’s household must have frightened her. Would she be welcomed with open arms or clenched fists? Upon his birth, would her son be accepted or rejected? She had no way of knowing how God would fulfill the promise He made, but as the following verses will make clear, she eventually took God at His word and obeyed.

Despite Sarai’s plotting and scheming and Abram’s spineless leadership, Hagar had a future, because God had a plan – a plan even included her.

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 Flawed Hope of Self-Salvation

11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.  Genesis 12:11-20 ESV

Due to a severe famine in the land of Canaan, Abram was forced to seek refuge in Egypt. But upon his arrival, Abram immediately began to second guess the wisdom of his decision. He was far from home and way out of his comfort zone. Find himself in unfamiliar surroundings yet again. Abram quickly recognized that his new neighbors looked and sounded nothing like him. And his reaction to these uncomfortable circumstances reveals a great deal about Abram’s current mindset.

Even before arriving in the land, Abram began to develop a plan for dealing with what he believed would be a far-from-friendly welcome. Just as he was about to cross the border into Egypt, he came up with a strategy for dealing with what he expected would be a culture of questionable morals.

he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.” – Genesis 12:11-12 ESV

Abram feared that his wife’s stunning beauty would make her an object of desire to the Egyptians. And he feared that once they discovered that Sarai was his wife, one of them would simply kill him so he could have her as his own. In ancient cultures, women were often seen as little more than the personal property of their husbands. It was usually considered illegal to take a man’s wife. But if the husband were to die “unexpectedly,” then she would become available for purchase.

So, fearing the worst, Abram orders Sarai to tell anyone who asks that she is his sister.

“Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” – Genesis 12:13 ESV

Notice Abram’s self-obsessed outlook. He can’t stop talking about the need to protect his personal well-being. He wanted things to “go well” for him, but he shows little concern for how his little ruse might impact the life of Sarai. And as soon as they crossed the border into Egypt, Abram’s worst fears were realized.

When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. – Genesis 12:14-15 ESV

Now, to be fair, when Abram commanded Sarai to say that she was his sister, it was technically true. According to Genesis 20:12, Sarai was Abram’s half-sister because they shared the same father but different mothers. And Abram would use this convenient half-truth as a clever means of self-protection when dealing with those of less scrupulous character. But little did Abram know that his plan would backfire in such a dramatic fashion. Pharaoh himself developed an eye for the lively Sarai and had her taken into his house. And, strangely enough, Abram actually benefited from his self-centered strategy.

And for her sake he [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 ESV

Believing Abram to be Sarai’s older brother and official guardian, Pharaoh offered Abram what was essentially a bride price for having taken Sarai into his harem. She became Pharoah’s property and Abram was reward for it. All along, it had been Abram’s hope that things would “go well” for him, and now it had. He had benefited greatly from Sarai’s compromising situation.

But, as has been the case all along in the book of Genesis, God was operating in the background, unseen by Abram, Sarai, or Pharaoh. But it wasn’t long before He made His presence known.

…the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. – Genesis 12:17 ESV

This leader of the nation of Egypt had used his great power and wealth to purchase another trophy for his harem. And Abram had experienced a sizeable boost to his financial net-worth. But both of these men were in for a shock. Pharaoh suddenly found  his royal house facing a series of devastating plagues. Unknowingly, he had taken the bride of Abram and enslaved her as one of his servants. She had gone from being the wife of Abram to just one of the many concubines in Pharaoh’s royal harem.

Once again, the original Jewish audience to whom Moses wrote this book would have sat up and taken notice upon hearing this story from the lives of Abram and Sarai. They would have immediately seen the parallels between the enslavement of Sarai and that of their ancestors. Years later, 70 descendants of Abram would seek refuge in the land of Egypt, attempting to escape a famine in the land. They would enter Egypt as the “bride” of Yahweh. But in time, they would become the personal slaves of Pharaoh. And God would bring upon Pharaoh and his royal house a series of ten plagues, each designed to force the release of His people. The prophet Isaiah would later remind the nation of Israel of their unique status as God’s bride.

For your Maker is your husband,
    the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
    the God of the whole earth he is called. – Isaiah 54:5 ESV

So, there are tremendous similarities between the story found in Genesis 12 and that of the Israelites recorded in the book of Exodus. Unlike his successor, the Pharaoh in Abram’s day proved to be teachable and ready to rectify the grave mistake he has made.

So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” – Genesis 12:18-19 ESV

Pharaoh, suffering under the judgment of God, was ready to repent and make restitution. Rather than punishing Abram for his deceitfulness and the pain he had brought upon the royal house, Pharaoh released Sarai, and sent Abram on his way with his wife restored and his newly acquired wealth intact.

You would think that Abram learned a valuable lesson from this potentially devastating encounter with Pharaoh. But, amazingly, he would live to lie another day. Just a few chapters later, Moses records yet another incident where Abram pulled this highly flawed strategy out of his bag of tricks. Despite its highly questionable efficacy, Abram would utilize this same plan  years later when dealing with Abimelech, the king of Gerar. He seems to have learned nothing from his former attempt at self-preservation.

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. – Genesis 20:2 ESV

As before, God intervened and delivered a terrifying message to Abimelech in a dream.

“Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” – Genesis 20:3 ESV

Fearful for his life, Abimelech declared his innocence to God and was told to return Sarai to Abraham. Essentially, God told the petrified king, “No harm done.” He had sovereignly protected Abimelech from doing anything to Sarai. But when the king confronted Abram and demanded to know why he had done such a thing, Abram was quick to justify his actions and explain his warped rationale.

“Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” – Genesis 20:12-13 ESV

And like the earlier story, Abram walks away blessed rather than chastened by God.

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him.  And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you. – Genesis 20:14-15 ESV

God was not rewarding Abram for his deception and dishonesty. Nor was He condoning Abram’s methods. He was simply fulfilling the promise He had made to bless Abram (Genesis 12:2). And he was slowly teaching His stubborn servant a much-needed lesson about divine sovereignty and providential care. Even Abram’s ill-fated attempts to act as his own god could not jeopardize God’s plans or prevent God’s promise from being fulfilled. This was so much bigger than Abram. He was simply a conduit through whom God would bring a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And God was not going to allow Abram to derail the divine plan for mankind’s redemption.

Mankind’s constant attempts at self-salvation will always fall short. But God’s promise of future blessing will never fail to come to fruition.

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.

You Can Doubt God, But Never Discount Him

1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 2 Peter 3:1-7 ESV

Peter feared that the “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1 ESV) of the false teachers would take their toll on those who were spiritually immature. He even declared that these men “entice unsteady souls” (2 Peter 2:14 ESV) and lead them down a path of destruction. Driven by greed and the need for power and influence, these false teachers will say anything that might entrap the weak-willed and spiritually vulnerable.

With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception. – 2 Peter 2:18 NLT

Peter seems to indicate that the ones most susceptible to these attacks will be the newly saved. They lack the spiritual maturity and strength to withstand the assaults on their faith that will come in the form of deceptively alluring lies. And, as a result, they will find themselves being lured back into their old ways of life, marked by slavery to sin rather than freedom in Christ.

when people escape from the wickedness of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then get tangled up and enslaved by sin again, they are worse off than before. – 2 Peter 2:20 NLT

Peter used two old and probably well-known proverbs to describe such people.

“The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” – 2 Peter 2:22 ESV

These two visual metaphors were meant to be vivid reminders of the unacceptable nature of spiritual apostasy. Peter wanted his readers to be appalled at the thought of falling away from the faith. He compared it to a dog eating its own vomit – a thoroughly disgusting image that was meant to illustrate just how unacceptable it was for a believer to become enslaved by sin again.

The author of Hebrews describes how difficult it can be for a fallen believer to return once again to faith. It is not impossible, but it is highly improbable.

For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened—those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come— and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame. – Hebrews 6:4-6 NLT

Peter and James are not suggesting that believers who are enticed to return to their old sinful ways have lost their salvation. But they are clearly stating that it is possible for an immature Christ-follower to be lured back into their pre-conversion state of slavery to sin. The potential for “backsliding” was an ever-present reality for every follower of Christ, and this is why the apostles so strongly promoted the need for ongoing sanctification.

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. – Colossians 3:5-10 NLT

Failure to put off the old and put on the new would eventually result in spiritual regression, not spiritual transformation. It would be like a cleanly washed sow returning to the mud and the mire. Unaccustomed to the value of cleanliness, a pig will return to its old familiar and comfortable habits. It’s only natural. And the same thing is true of a believer who fails to supplement his faith with moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, patient endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5-7).

There is no place for complacency in the life of a believer. The Christian life is not intended to be static or stagnant. Growth is expected and intended as a sign of spiritual health and well-being. The presence of the Holy Spirit within the life of a believer is intended to result in heart transformation that produces behavior modification. But the believer who fails to make progress will eventually regress. The constant presence of their old sin nature will lead them to return to the “vomit” of their former life. And though cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, they will find themselves covered in the muck and mire of sin once again.

All of this is why Peter makes such a big deal out of the false teachers. He knows they will find a ready and willing audience, and he also knows that some within the congregations to whom he was writing would follow the way of the dog and the pig. So, as he opens up the next section of his letter, he reminds his readers that this is the second time he has had to write them. In his former letter, he spent a great deal of time teaching them about the difference between their current suffering and their future inheritance. He knew that they were undergoing difficult trials because of their faith in Christ. But he also knew that they could live with great expectation because they had “a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay” (1 Peter1:4 NLT).

Peter had wanted them to know that, despite all that was happening to them in this life, they could rejoice because God had something incredible in store for them in the next life.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

And Peter had told them that the prophets of written about this coming salvation, even though they couldn’t fully comprehend its meaning or significance.

They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward. – 1 Peter 1:11 NLT

But their inability to understand the scope of God’s promises did nothing to invalidate the reliability of God’s word. Those men had written under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, declaring the truth concerning God’s redemptive plan – a plan that included the glorious inheritance to which Peter had referred in his first letter. That’s why Peter wrote in his second letter: “I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2 NLT). He was taking them back to those promises penned by the prophets and then declared by him and his fellow apostles. Peter and his companions had come to understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah and that there was far more to His kingship than a temporal reign in the city of David. Jesus had come to do something far more spectacular than return Israel to power and prominence. He had come to redeem fallen mankind and to one day restore all creation to its former glory. 

And yet, there were false teachers who were questioning the truth of God’s Word as proclaimed by the prophets and contradicting the teachings the apostles had received from Christ Himself. Peter continued to warn that “in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires” (2 Peter 3:3 NLT). And he provided a specific example of how they will question the writings of the prophets and the words of the apostles. They will say:

“What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.” – 2 Peter 3:4 NLT

Notice the subtlety of their line of questioning. The apostles had been teaching that the writings of the Old Testament prophets had clearly proclaimed the second coming of Jesus. But these false teachers were arguing that everything remained just as it was when those men had penned their words. Nothing had changed. Jesus had not returned and, by inference, they were suggesting that He never would. The false teachers were propagating a form of deism. They believed that God existed but that He did not involve Himself in the daily affairs of man. In their estimation, Jesus had been nothing more than a godly man whose good life could be emulated. But He had not been God in human flesh who sacrificed His life for sinful mankind.

In essence, the false teachers were accusing the apostles of lying and twisting the words of the prophets. They were suggesting that Peter and his companions had fabricated the whole God-in-human-flesh idea and had made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection. These arrogant men were denying the teachings of the apostles but, more than that, they were calling into question the veracity of God’s Word. Peter boldly declares:

They deliberately forget that God made the heavens long ago by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water. Then he used the water to destroy the ancient world with a mighty flood. – 2 Peter 3:5-6 NLT

Whether they believed it or not, God had intervened in the affairs of the world before, and He would do so again. While the false teachers would go on questioning divine intervention and future judgment, it did nothing to alter the reality of either one – a point that Peter made perfectly clear.

by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. – 2 Peter 3:7 NLT

Just because they had not yet witnessed the second coming of Jesus did not mean it was a figment of the apostles’ imaginations. It was easy for them to point out that Jesus had not yet returned. But Peter attempted to keep their focus on the promises of God. If God said it, He could be trusted to do it. It didn’t matter whether these men believed God or not. God was not hindered by their lack of faith. He was in no way hampered by their doubts about His sovereignty and providential power. God had judged the world before and He would do so again. And, according to Peter, the false teachers were “being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed” (2 Peter 3:7 NLT).

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

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

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

The Oil of Gladness

1 Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me; what have you in the house?” And she said, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not too few. Then go in and shut the door behind yourself and your sons and pour into all these vessels. And when one is full, set it aside.” So she went from him and shut the door behind herself and her sons. And as she poured they brought the vessels to her. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not another.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your sons can live on the rest.” 2 Kings 4:1-7 ESV

The author has made the corporate nature of Israel’s sin abundantly clear. While he has focused most of his attention on the men who ruled over the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, he has also exposed the pervasive nature of the unfaithfulness and apostasy that had infected the entire nation. As the kings of Israel continued to stubbornly pursue and promote the worship of false gods, the people followed their example. Yet, despite the ubiquitous presence of idolatry, there was a remnant of those who chose to remain faithful to Yahweh. These faithful few found themselves constantly tempted to compromise their convictions and cave into the pressure to conform. And on those occasions when God was forced to pour out His divine judgment upon the nation, these same individuals suffered alongside their rebellious neighbors.

Yet the author provides an occasional glimpse into the lives of these spiritual holdouts, and when he does, they shine like stars in the darkness of Israel’s apostasy and rebellion. These somewhat rare sightings of the faithful few also provide a powerful reminder of God’s mercy and love. He knows His flock and is well aware of those who still worship Him as God. Not only that, He is fully cognizant of their circumstances and always ready to care for them in their time of need.

Chapter four opens up with one such story, and it follows close on the heels of the account of Israel’s miraculous victory over the Moabites. God had graciously rescued the forces of Jehoram and Jehoshaphat after they had run out of water in the wilderness of Edom. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had intervened on their behalf, refreshing them with water and then rewarding them with a decisive, yet undeserved, victory over the Moabites.

The prophet Elisha had played a crucial role in this memorable affair, delivering the good news of God’s rescue from pending death and His victory over the enemies of Israel. And when the prophet returned home, he found himself facing yet another crisis, one that was much smaller in scale but just as serious in nature. He was approached by the wife of a fellow prophet. Her husband had recently died, leaving her and her two young boys with no source of income. The creditors were already knocking at the door, demanding payment of her husband’s debts. If she failed to settle her accounts in full, her boys would become indentured servants, paying off the debt through years of forced labor.

This was a common practice in those days, even among the Israelites. Those who were unable to pay off their debts could become servants to their creditor, working off their indebtedness through labor. But God had provided regulations concerning these transactions.

“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him. – Exodus 21:2-3 NLT

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee. At that time he and his children will no longer be obligated to you, and they will return to their clans and go back to the land originally allotted to their ancestors. The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves. Show your fear of God by not treating them harshly. – Leviticus 25:39-43 NLT

This widow found herself in a difficult situation, facing the potential loss of her two young sons, so she appealed to Elisha. We are given no insight into what she was expecting the prophet to do for her. Was she hoping he would intercede with her creditors and beg them for mercy? Did she think the prophet would pay off her debt? Even Elisha questioned her expectations.

“What shall I do for you? Tell me; what have you in the house?” – 2 Kings 4:2 ESV

To the widow, this question must have sounded like a request for payment. She heard the prophet asking what she had to offer in return for his help, so she sadly reported, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil” (2 Kings 4:2 ESV). Her circumstances were dire. She had nothing to offer the prophet and no way of paying off her debt. From her perspective, everything was hopeless and her prospects for deliverance were bleak. Even if her sons became indentured servants, it would be years before their labor would pay off the debt and, in the meantime, she would be left alone and with no means of financial support. It couldn’t get any worse.

But Elisha saw things from a different perspective. He had just witnessed His God bring water to a desert and rescue the army of an apostate, unbelieving king. And he fully trusted that God could and would rescue this helpless widow in her time of need. So, Elisha instructed her to gather as many jars, containers, pots, and pans as she could find. She was even to borrow them from her neighbors. He wanted her to be aggressive in her efforts, instructing her to find “not too few” of these empty vessels. When she was done, she and her boys were to close the door to their house and then begin the process of pouring the oil from the jar into the various jugs and jars they had gathered.

So she did as she was told. Her sons kept bringing jars to her, and she filled one after another. Soon every container was full to the brim! – 2 Kings 4:5-6 NLT

At no point did the widow question Elisha’s instructions. Despite how strange his orders may have seemed, she and her boys faithfully did as they had been told. And a miracle took place – right before their eyes. The oil in the jar somehow replenished itself and did not run out until the last jar had been filled. Imagine the excitement of those young boys as they brought jar after jar to their mother and watched as she carefully filled them with the seemingly never-ending supply of oil. Soon, their entire house was filled with jars brimming with oil. And when the supply of jars finally ran out, so did the oil. But not before God had miraculously filled every last vessel.

When the woman informed Elisha what had happened, he showed no sign of surprise, but simply told her to take the oil and sell it. She was to use the proceeds to settle her debt. But God didn’t just bring her indebtedness to zero. He gave her a surplus. Once the oil had been sold, she and her sons would have more than enough money to take care of their needs for a long time to come.

This unnamed woman represents the remnant of the faithful who lived all throughout the nation of Israel at that time. In the midst of all the apostasy and unfaithfulness, there were those who longed to have their needs met by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had refused to bow the knee to Baal and Asherah. They had resisted the temptation to compromise their convictions. In her time of need, this woman did not call on the false gods of Israel. She sought out the prophet of Yahweh, and she asked for his help. She had no idea what to expect, but she knew that her only hope of rescue would be found by throwing herself at the mercy of the one true God. And He delivered. While Israel had proved to be unfaithful to God, He continued to exhibit His covenant faithfulness to them – in big and small ways. And this story provides a glimpse into the merciful nature of God and His care and concern for those who are “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. – Deuteronomy 10:17-18 NLT

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

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

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