After he was out drinking with some mates one night, Jonothan Beninka tried to walk home along a railway track. But he fell and knocked himself out and finished up in hospital after being hit by a train. He lost an arm, a leg and some fingers. Every day he feels like crying because of the impact of his injuries on the relationship he has with his family. He can’t pick up his children like most dads. One decision changed his whole life forever.
When we look at the lives of the sons of Jacob in the Bible, we see that our choices have consequences. In particular, sinful behavior has negative consequences.
The nation of Israel was named after Jacob whose name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). Jacob had 12 sons and in those days the position of leadership of the family clan was usually passed on to the eldest son. And the eldest son’s birthright was a double portion of the inheritance (Dt. 21:17).
But we see from the Bible that the tribe of Judah (4th son) became prominent instead of the tribe of Reuben (1st son) – king David was a descendant of Judah (10th generation, 1 Chron. 2:1-15), Jerusalem the capital of Israel was located in their territory and they were the last tribe to be conquered and taken into captivity. This was unusual because Judah was the fourth oldest son of Jacob and not the firstborn.
Of Judah’s descendants, the most prominent in the Old Testament is king David and the most prominent in the New Testament is Jesus Christ. Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah (Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 23:5-6), the “son of David” (Mt. 1:1; 22:42; Lk. 1:32, 69; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16).
After the Babylonian exile, the Israelites were called “Jews”. This name is derived from the word “Judah” and was used because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah (the rest had assimilated into other nations). Also, the Jewish religion was known as “Judaism”. So Judah’s prominence is reflected by these words.
Jacob’s last words
When he was on his death bed Jacob gave a farewell message to each of his sons (Gen. 49:1-28). Beginning at the eldest and progressing to the youngest, he predicted what was in store for their descendants.
Although he is the firstborn, Reuben is told he is unstable and will not excel because he slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22, 49:4). In those days it was customary for new kings to assume the harem of their predecessors (2 Sa. 3:7; 12:8; 16:21; 1Ki. 2:22). So this was an arrogant and premature claim to the rights of the firstborn. Because of his sin of incest, Reuben lost the rights of the firstborn. His right to extra land was given to Joseph (1 Chron. 5:1-2) and his leadership right was given to Judah.
If the eldest son lost the rights of the firstborn, we would expect these rights to be transferred to the second-born son. Simeon was Israel’s second son. Israel tells Simeon and Levi (his third son) that their descendants would be scattered and dispersed within the nation of Israel. This was fulfilled when the Levites weren’t given an allocation of land like the other tribes and Simeon’s allocation was surrounded by Judah’s – the tribe of Simeon was assimilated into the tribe of Judah. (Josh. 14:4; 19:1-9). The reason given is that they were angry, cruel and violent (Gen. 49:5-7). For example, after their sister Dinah was raped by Shechem (Gen. 34:1-7), Simeon and Levi killed all the men of the city and plundered their women, children, and possessions (Gen. 34:25-30). Also, this increased the threat of the Canaanites attacking Jacob’s family.
Jacob’s greatest and longest blessings are given to Judah and Joseph (Gen. 49:8-12; 22-26). Judah is promised leadership over the other tribes, which was fulfilled by king David. Jesus Christ was also a descendant of Judah (Mt. 1:3; Lk. 3:33). Judah would be praised for victories over their enemies. Their supremacy is symbolized by the lion’s supremacy in the animal kingdom. Some of Judah’s descendants are also promised peace and prosperity (Gen. 49:11-12).
So, there are two main reasons why Judah was the most prominent tribe of Israel. First, Reuben forfeited his rights by his incest and Simeon and Levi forfeited their rights by their cruelty and violence. They were disqualified for misconduct. Judah was the next in the order of birth and that is why he received the blessing. Second, it was prophesized by Jacob before he died.
But the brother’s treatment of Joseph also offers some insight into this topic.
Treatment of Joseph
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. After Joseph dreamt that his family would bow down to him, his brothers were filled with jealousy and hatred toward him (Gen. 37:4-5, 8, 11). When Joseph was sent by his father to visit his brothers, they plotted to kill him. Judah’s leadership potential is shown when they agree to his suggestion to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him (Gen. 37:26-27). Joseph is taken to Egypt where he rises to a prominent position before there is to be a famine. During the famine, his brothers travel to Egypt seeking food.
When Joseph commanded his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt, Reuben told his father that he would put both of his sons to death if he didn’t bring Benjamin back (Gen 42:37). On the other hand, Judah said that he would guarantee Benjamin’s safety and be personally responsible for him (Gen. 43:8-9). If he didn’t bring Benjamin back, then he would bear the blame all his life. Here we see that Judah was willing to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety, whereas Reuben offered his sons to take the consequences instead.
When the brothers returned to the city because Joseph’s silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, the Bible says that “Judah and his brothers” went into Joseph’s house (Gen. 44:14NIV). And then Judah responded on behalf of the brothers when Joseph said “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 44:15-34). So Judah takes a leadership role amongst his brothers. He also offered to stay at Joseph’s in Egypt instead of Benjamin so that Benjamin could return to his father (Gen. 44:33-34). This is in accordance with his previous offer to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.
When Jacob’s family moved to Egypt during the famine, “Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen” (Gen. 46:28). So Jacob recognized Judah’s leadership role in his family.
So we see that before Jacob made his predictions, Judah took a leadership role in his family and took personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety. His conduct qualified him for this role.
Lessons for us
The choices made by Reuben disqualified him from receiving the rights of the firstborn. These rights weren’t transferred to Simeon or Levi because of the choices they made. But the rights were transferred to Judah because of how he chose to behave. So, our choices have consequences.
Reuben, Simeon and Levi experienced negative consequences because of their sinful behavior. So sinful behavior has negative consequences.
What has changed since then? We aren’t Israelites living under the law, but Christians living under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. Our eldest sons don’t inherit leadership of the family or a double portion of our wealth. Instead, humility is important and we receive spiritual rewards after death at the Judgment Seat of Christ. So, our choices do have consequences – in this life and after death.
Sin separates us from the God who empowers us. It weakens us. So our sinful behavior does have negative consequences. It can also have some lasting consequences as Jonothan Beninka found out. But when we confess and repent of our sin, our relationship with the Lord is restored (1 Jn. 1:9).
Written, July 2015
A few weeks ago a Victorian woman died when she fell down a cliff in the Blue Mountains. She had ignored the warning signs and climbed over the safety fence. The police said it was a tragic warning for people to obey warning signs. Last week a British man also fell to his death off a cliff in Sydney after climbing a fence. It’s dangerous to ignore warnings.
In this article we are looking at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
The Israelites were God’s special people who He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into Israel and Judah. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.
Zephaniah was written about 630 BC during the reign of king Josiah (Zeph. 1:1). At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia.
Josiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9) and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.
Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last prophet before the exile.
Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from these earlier prophets.
When Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness was prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
God is the central character of the book of Zephaniah. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end He shows mercy and pardons people. The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. But this is prevented by their sins. Through the judgment of “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.
The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Judah and other nations are to be judged and punished because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is to be followed by the restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance. The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).
Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.
The sins of Judah included: idolatry, syncretism (where God is worshipped through or alongside other gods), apostasy, violence, apathy, pride, love of money, oppression, rebellion, self-sufficiency, unruliness, ungodliness, greedy and corrupt leaders, lying, deceit, and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance. They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6). The sins of other nations included: pride, self-sufficiency, and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people.
This sinfulness was the reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.
Now we come to God’s response to their sins.
The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.
Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what He commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” There is deliverance for the repentant who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation. So God is merciful, He warns His people of the consequences of their behaviour. And we know that king Josiah did repent.
There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it.
Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.
Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.
First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is a time of great judgement for Judah. The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18). Everything on the ground will be devastated (1:2-3, 18). But, where will it occur? Both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7). It was a judgement of the land of Judah.
When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment occurred. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.
Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah (2:4-6, 8-11, 12, 13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7). All these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions. They have already been fulfilled.
God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all. Today we don’t see God’s justice and likewise in Zephaniah’s day he didn’t see God’s justice, but it did eventually come to all.
The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behavior so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.
Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterized by both justice (when He punishes sinners) and mercy (when He restores the repentant). God’s judgment and His deliverance is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant. So deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.
First for the Jews. Jewish believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well. God “will rejoice over you with singing” (3:17).
When will the deliverance occur (Zeph. 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph. 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? No! After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by other nations and the Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Also the Jews have not yet been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20).
Secondly, deliverance is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies: “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands” (2:11) . When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church, but it seems as though the full deliverance is yet to come.
God’s warning today
Just as God used Zephaniah to warn the Jews of his day, He uses the Bible and godly people to warn us today. Our warnings are different because we live in a different era to Zephaniah. Since Zephaniah wrote his book, Jesus came and died for our sins, the New Testament has been written and the good news of deliverance has gone out to all nations across the world. We aren’t God’s nation living in the promised land. Today, God’s people are those who have confessed their sins and chosen to follow Jesus Christ. They comprise the global church.
What is God warning us about today? As the Bible is God’s main warning sign to us, we will take some examples from Paul’s letters to various churches.
First, what did he warn unbelievers about? Paul preached about the need to repent and turn to God so we will not spend eternity in hell. We are all sinners (Rom. 3:23). Because of this we all deserve God’s punishment and God is going to judge everyone (Acts 17:31; Rom. 6:23). But forgiveness of sins and eternal life is available through Jesus (Acts 13:38; Rom. 6:23). When we confess our sins, God provides His unconditional forgiveness. So God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified.
When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). So God warns people today of a coming judgment.
Some people ignore tornado warnings in the US because they may wait until they can see or hear it coming. Or they may think the probability of it affecting them is very small. Or they aren’t paying attention. Or they don’t realize the devastation it can cause. They don’t realize how serious it is. Do we realize the importance of God’s warnings?
Second, what did Paul warn believers about? Believers are those who have repented of their sin, whose sins are forgiven and they are redeemed to worship Christ as their Lord. Christians will not be judged for our sins because Jesus paid that judgment price on the cross for us when He died in our place. But we will be judged on the basis of how faithfully we have served God since we became Christians—and be rewarded accordingly at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). God wants us to serve Him. But this is hindered by our sins. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul gives a warning from Israel’s history. He describes their sins (v.6-10) and the fact that they were punished for these (v.5). Then he makes the application to us: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor. 10:11-12).
It’s a warning to the self-confident. We can also be tempted like they were. They failed and sinned. We can also fail and sin. But a remnant repented. Let’s be a part of that remnant today.
Unconfessed sin hinders our daily fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for all our sins and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. This confession should occur regularly in a believer’s life so we can experience God’s conditional forgiveness (Mt. 6:12, 14-15; 1 Jn. 1:5-2:2).
Of course Paul gives other warnings to believers in his letters. He warned against things like false teachers, false teaching, syncretism (mixing Christianity with other ideas and ways of living), factions, divisive people, misusing wealth, immorality, legalism, liberalism, pride, and giving up the faith.
We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent. After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.
The Jews should have known about this because the Pentateuch contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. God wanted them to repent – to turn back to following Him once again.
God still warns us today. Examples like this from the Old Testament warn us that we face the choice of whether to obey or disobey the Lord. Unbelievers are warned of the need to confess and repent of their sins in order to be delivered from God’s judgment. Whereas believers need to keep confessing their sins in order to maintain their daily fellowship with the Lord.
Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? There is deliverance and salvation for the repentant who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.
So because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
Written, December 2014
According to the Bible, Abraham left polytheism to follow the God who made the universe. Abraham lived about 2,000 BC and he and his descendants were known as Hebrews (Gen. 14:13). In fact the Pentateuch was written by Moses in the Hebrew language. Isaac was Abraham’s son and Jacob his grandson. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 46:1). Since this time Israel’s descendants were known as the children of Israel or Israel or Israelites. Israel’s family moved to Egypt where his son Joseph was second in command to the Pharaoh. In Egypt the Israelites grew to 2 million people when they subsequently migrated to Canaan in the Middle East under the leadership of Moses and Joshua.
After the Israelites invaded Canaan, they were ruled by the kings Saul, David and Solomon. King David lived about 1,000 BC. After this, the kingdom was divided into two, with 10 tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel and two in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12; 2 Chronicles 10). Samaria was the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah.
The Hebrew noun “Yehudi” (“Jew” in English; Strongs #3064) is derived from the name Judah, who was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. “Yehudi” occurs 76 times in the following books of the Old Testament:
– 11 times in Jeremiah (written about 600BC), where it describes Judeans
– Twice in 2 Kings (written about 550BC), where it describes Judeans who lived about 750BC and 590BC
– Once in Zechariah (written about 520BC), where it may describe both Judeans and Israelites
– 52 times in Esther (written about 460BC), where it describes those dispersed after the Babylonian invasions and living in the Persian kingdom, including Mordecai a Benjaminite (Est. 2:5; 5:13), and
– 10 times in Nehemiah (written about 430BC), where it describes exiles who returned to Jerusalem.
A related word “Yehudain” (Strongs #3062) only occurs in the books of Daniel and Ezra (written about 530BC and 440BC). So the most robust answer to our question, “When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?” is from about 600BC.
Originally, the word referred to members of the tribe of Judah, but later it described anyone from the kingdom of Judah. This would include those from the northern kingdom of Israel who moved to Judah, including Mordecai’s ancestors. Also, as those who returned after the exile settled in Judea, they were called Jews regardless of their ancestoral tribe. In the New Testament, the words, “Hebrews”, “Israelltes”, and “Jews” are used interchangeably to describe the descendants of Jacob (Jn. 4:9; 2 Cor. 11:22). And this is the case today – the words “Hebrews”, “Israelltes”, and “Jews” are used as synonyms.
In 722 BC, Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians and the Israelites were dispersed into surrounding nations (2 Ki. 17). As they assimilated and now have no national identity, they are known as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”. However, they weren’t all lost because some remained in Israel and some moved to Judah (2 Chron. 15:9; 35:18).
In 605 BC and 598 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded Judah and in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many of the Jews were taken to exile in Babylon. When the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the Persian King Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their homelands and many returned to Judah. After the Babylonian exile, “Jew” replaced “Israelite” as the most widely-used term for these survivers. This was because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah. Also, the Jewish religion was known as Judaism.
After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. Although the terms “Hebrew” and “Israelite” continued in use into the New Testament period (Rom. 9:4; 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5), by then the term “Jew” was more commonly used. At His death, the Romans referred to Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37).
In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Despite these difficulties, the Jews maintained their identity, even in foreign lands. The need to find a homeland for Jewish refugees led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
How amazing – the Jews survived 1,900 years of exile! No other people has ever gone into exile and survived this long and returned to re-establish a national homeland. And the Jews went into exile twice! They also survived the persecutions of the the Hamans and Hitlers of this world (Est. 3:1-15). Surely this is evidence of the Bible’s inspiration, and of the existence of the God who promised to preserve the Jews, return them to their homeland, and bring them to a time of great national blessing in the last days.
In common speech, the word “Jew” is now used to refer to all of the descendants of Jacob and those who adhere to Judaism.
Written January 2013; Revised August 2015