2012-11-18 The Sons of Israel: Dysfunctional Family or Blessed People of God? | Genesis 49:1-28
Wow! Life can become a lot more complicated when you have a family. After Beth and I were married, -waited five years bc of schooling, -tried three years bc of infertility, -waited 9 days to see Stephen in the hospital bc of the holidays and laws, 3 more days to bring home, -then walked out the door, looked at each other and said, “We forgot the baby.” -two years later we were blessed with another baby through adoption, our son James.
Can’t choose your family
Guthrie quotes To Kill a Mockingbird in which the character Jem says, “Atticus says you can choose your friend but you sho’ cant’ choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ‘em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.” (279).
How many of you wished you could choose – or change – the family you grew up in? What would be the family traits in your new family? We’ve told our kids that we’ve done the best we could to raise them, but they’ll probably have to spend some time with a counselor along the way, just like we did. At one time when the boys were little and Beth was feeling some concern she wasn’t doing a good enough job parenting the boys, a pastor told her, “If you could provide all their needs, they wouldn’t need a Savior.”
Our story today tells us that we don’t need to change our family – because despite their failures and our own failures God is working in and through our family to give us a hopeful future as the people of God through the promised son Jesus.
The family’s failure
In our story, Jacob felt plenty of anxiety and disappointment about the development of his family. It felt for many years like a failure. His first wife, Leah, his least favorite, the one his sneaky father-in-law Laban tricked him into marrying, produced six sons and a daughter – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Isaachar, Zebulun and Dinah. Because his favorite wife, Rachel, was unable to produce children in the early years, he also had children with Rachel and Leah’s maid-servants. These were named Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Finally, Jacob had a ray of hope. Rachel became pregnant and bore a child named Joseph. (Gen 29-30) Then the Lord told him to leave his father-in- law Laban and return to the land that God had promised to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. So Jacob and his family slipped away in the night. But before he could return home for good, he had to make things right with his brother Esau. (30-31).
Fortunately, God blessed their meeting and Jacob made peace with Esau and promised to meet him later in a particular place. However, Jacob the deceiver didn’t go to the place God had told him to go, but settled instead in Shechem. While there, his daughter Dinah was raped by a local prince and her brothers Simeon and Levi took revenge by killing every male in the city and taking whatever they wanted of their possessions. Jacob was disappointed in his sons and this incident caused them to leave Shechem in shame, but it also caused Jacob to renew his vow to the Lord, to get rid of the family idols, and to move to Bethel, the place God had told him to go in the first place. At Bethel, God wrestled with Jacob and gave him a new name, Israel, meaning “God fights” and with that new name, gave Jacob hope that God was not finished with him yet. (34-35)
However, soon after, the joy departed again. Jacob and Esau’s father Isaac dies, Rachel dies in childbirth while delivering their son Benjamin, and Reuben, the oldest son, in an act of disloyalty, sleeps with Bilhah, one of his father’s concubines. So Jacob transfers the firstborn status from Reuben to Joseph and gives him a special garment to wear as a sign of his new status, bringing constant tension in the family. (35)
Later, only Jacob and Benjamin are found together in the Promised Land. Joseph, it seems, has been killed by wild animals, Judah has married a Canaanite woman, lost one of his sons to death, slept with his daughter-in-law Tamar thinking she was a prostitute and making her pregnant with twins. Jacob has sent the rest of his sons to Egypt to find grain because of the famine in his own land. (37-38)
However, hope returns briefly again when his sons discover that Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery out of envy so many years ago, has become second in command in Egypt, has forgiven them, and has invited the entire family – all 70 of them – to join him and make their home in Egypt, a virtual land of plenty. But Jacob, though he is thankful to be together with all his sons and their families once again, holds out hope that one day they will all return to live in the land of Canaan promised to his grandfather Abraham so many years ago. (46-47) But as we know they had to endure 400 years in Egypt, much of it in slavery until God delivered them with a mighty hand by means of the Passover and through the Red Sea.
Life seems to go up and down, doesn’t it. As soon as something good happens, something bad seems to happen behind it. Yet we can maintain our hope and trust in God’s ultimate deliverance through the promised Son just as they did. The good news is that, whatever failures we have suffered, those of our own making and those made by others that adversely affected us, we can have hope for a better future because of God’s promises.
That’s what we see in the final scene of our story. Hope for a dysfunctional family to become a blessed people of God through the promised Son.
The family’s future
Though Jacob felt anxiety about his family, yet he trusted in God’s promise to bless the entire world through his children….that the Messiah would come through them. In Gen 49:18, Jacob expresses his enduring faith in spite of their many setbacks when he says, “I wait for your salvation, O Lord. Jacob put his hope in the God who saves. The good news found in chapter 49 is that in spite of Jacob’s family’s past failures, God’s promises would be fulfilled in and through them. Jacob, in 49:1-2, speaks prophetically as Israel, pronouncing a blessing on each of his sons and their descendants. The days to come in verse 1 refers to the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, and beyond that to the messianic age. They would all share in the blessing; all the tribes would enter the land with Joshua, but they would not all participate equally. He foretold what would happen to each tribe as he evaluated his sons one by one, just as Noah had done earlier. Unfortunately, some of Jacob’s descendants would have to suffer the consequences of Jacob’s sons’ past actions.
Reuben, because he was the firstborn would normally have been entitled to be head of the family. However, he forfeited his standing by his immoral behavior with his father’s servant wife, Bilhah. Jacob prophesied that Reuben would fail in leadership.
Simeon and Levi, because of their angry and violent massacre of the men of Shechem to avenge the humiliation of their sister Dinah, Jacob predicts that descendants will be scattered throughout the other tribes. Thus, years later, the Levites receive 48 cities distributed throughout all the tribal areas and the Simeonites obtained land within the territory taken by Judah, preventing either tribe from dominating the rest.
Issachar’s descendants would be strong like a sturdy donkey, but would be forced to work for others. Issachar was often subjugated later by invading armies.
Dan was called to provide justice but the tribe would choose treachery, like a snake beside the road.
By contrast, Jacob’s words to Joseph and Judah are significantly more favorable. The tribe of Joseph in vv 22-26 will be granted the birth right instead his eldest brother Reuben,[i] thus Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh receive a double portion, or one sixth of the territory of Canaan. Jacob also foretold that Joseph’s descendants would be great warriors, “their hands made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel.” Thus, later Joshua (Josh 6, 8, 10, 12), Deborah (Judg 4), Gideon (Judg 6–8) and Jephthah (Judg 11:1–12:7) all victorious warriors, were descendants of Joseph.
The blessing given to Judah in vv 8-12 is remarkable. Remember, he was the one who suggested selling his brother Joseph to slave traders. He was the one who deceived their father by “dipping Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood.” He was the one who had left home years ago to live (in Adullam) many miles away from the family, whose 2 sons died “because they were so evil,” and who conceived a child with his daughter-in-law Tamar.
However, when confronted later, he acknowledged his sin. His was a life changed by the grace of God. He was the one who admitted their guilt before Joseph saying, “God has found out the guilt of your servants.” And He was the one who “pleaded with Joseph to put him into prison instead of keeping Benjamin.”
So though Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, Jacob predicts in vv 8-10 the fierce, lion-like dominance of Judah over his enemies and over his brothers, who would praise him . Although the birthright blessing went to Joseph, Judah would provide Israel’s rulers[ii]. Thus, the sons of Judah would later include kings David, Solomon, Jehoshphat and Josiah, to name a few – who would retain the scepter, the symbol of rule; and the last king would be the one to whom it belongs, the promised messiah.
Vv 11-12 envision the abundance of the Messiah’s kingdom. When the Messiah comes, the earth will once again be a paradise. Grapevines will be so abundant that they will be used for hitching posts, and wine will be as abundant as fresh water. The coming one will have eyes . . . darker than wine and teeth . . . whiter than milk: He will be vigorous and healthy, as will be the era of his rule. Jesus’ miracle of changing water into wine in John 2:1-12, his first sign, was an announcement that the Messiah had come; it was a foretaste of even better things to come.
Jacob’s descendants watched and waited for many years – four hundred years later they were delivered from slavery in Egypt. Later, many of Judah’s descendants ruled over them as kings, but they looked forward to the one to whom the scepter belonged, whose kingdom would never end.
Listen again to Matthew 1:(1-16) (abridged) The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac…the father of Jacob…the father of Judah…the father of Jesse…the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon…the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
The fulfillment of the promise
Not only did the descendants of Jacob watch and wait for the son of Judah, the messiah, to be born. The magi from the east travelled to Jerusalem and asked, Matthew 2:2 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” They were told by the chief priests and scribes of Israel, Matthew 2:5-6 “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'”
The man Simeon was also watching and waiting in the temple court (272). In Luke 2:29-32 we read, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
As Guthrie says, “Simeon understood what most Jewish people of his day did not – that the coming of Messiah was not only for Israel. The promise to Abraham was that his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” “The people of God began as a family called out of the rest of humanity, then became a nation under Moses.” But when X came, he made a way for God to accomplish his greater plan to include many Gentiles in his spiritual family by establishing a new people for God.
Thus later Paul could write to his Gentile audience in Ephesus, Ephesians 2:13 (ESV) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. And Peter could write to his Gentile audience in Asia Minor, 1 Peter 2:9-10 (ESV) ¶ But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Those of us here today are an unworthy people, no different than Adam and Eve, than Noah, Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or Jacob’s 12 sons, or Jesus’ 12 disciples… so the apostle John wrote in Revelation 5:2-4 (ESV) And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
Yet there is one who himself is worthy and by his sacrificial death and resurrection, has made us worthy. As John goes on to say, (Revelation 5:5) And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” So that one day all the redeemed might sing, Revelation 5:9-10 “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Guthrie concludes with this application, “Have you wondered if, when the truth about you is revealed, it will disqualify you from being included in the people of God? Look at the twelve sons of Jacob and later the twelve apostles. See that Jesus is populating his family, his church, with “imperfect but repentant people, flagrant but forgiven sinners.” The Lamb who was slain has made us worthy. The Lion of the tribe of Judah has invited us to reign with him over his kingdom, the Promised Land God has always intended his people to live in – the new heaven and new earth. Seeing Jesus in Genesis makes us glad to join in the song of praise around the throne, doesn’t it?” (Guthrie 275-76, revised)
Hymn, Fairest Lord Jesus
[i] The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, so that he could not be enrolled as the oldest son; 2 though Judah became strong among his brothers and a chief came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph), (1Ch 5:1-2 ESV)
[ii] He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, 68 but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves. 70 He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; 71 …to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance.(Psa 71:67-71)