Good times and bad times at Shechem
What can we learn from history? The Bible says that it was written for our instruction (Rom. 15:4; 1 Tim. 3:16). It gives us examples to follow and examples to avoid (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). And it can give us confidence from God.
The city of Shechem was in a valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim in central Israel, 55 km (35 miles) north of Jerusalem and 11 km (7 miles) southeast of Samaria. It was strategically located on the main road through the central hill country of Palestine “(the way of the Patriarchs”, or “the Ridge route”). But it had no natural defenses and required extensive fortification. Shechem was a very ancient commercial center due to its position in the middle of vital trade routes through the region. (more…)
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
Good start, but bad finish
John Akhwari had a good start in the 1968 Olympic marathon race, but he also had a bad finish. He fell during the race and dislocated his knee but kept on going to finish last over one hour behind the winner. Likewise, the town of Bethel in Israel had a good start but a bad finish.
Bethel was 20 km (12 miles) north of Jerusalem; west of Ai (Gen. 12:8) and south of Shiloh (Jud. 21:19). It has been identified with modern Beitin (or Benin) or with el-Bireh. Bethel was on the ancient north-south ridge road that has been referred to as the Road of the Patriarchs. This road went through Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel, Jerusalem, Hebron and Beersheba.
Bethel was on the northern border of the land allocated to the tribe of Benjamin and Jerusalem was on the southern border. Bethel was assigned to the Benjamites, but they did not possess it, as the Ephraimites captured it from the Canaanites (Josh. 18:21-22; Jud. 1:22-26). So Bethel was an Ephraimite town (1 Chron. 7:28). (more…)
Why was Judah the most prominent tribe of Israel?
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). One of Christ’s titles is, “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5). This relates to Judah being promised the right to rule “until he to whom it belongs [Jesus] shall come” (Gen. 49:8-10).
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, this prominence 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
Who can we trust?
Have you ever broken a promise or made an empty promise which you have no control over? What about the promises of advertising and politics? Do we believe, disbelieve or are we uncertain about them? We don’t trust those who break their promises. So who can we trust?
A day after binge drinking, Tanya hit a brick wall. She was shaking and scared. She was lonely even though she had a partner and a 4 year old son. She felt worthless and wanted to die. She didn’t trust anyone and said, “I don’t even trust myself”. It’s a dark world when there is no trust.
In this article we are looking at Genesis chapters 12-50, where God makes many promises. But can they be trusted? We will see that because God kept His physical promises to the Israelites, we can trust His spiritual promises for us.
This passage was compiled and written by Moses 300–600 years after the events occurred. When he wrote it, Moses was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”, so he could write and keep records (Acts 7:22).
It was written because the Israelites needed to know about their origin as God’s people. It helps us understand Christianity as well.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis summarize the highlights of world history up to the time of Abraham. This history includes four crises involving Adam, Cain, the flood and Babel. At each crisis people sinned by disobeying God. They acted as if God didn’t exist. They were then punished by God, but God also gave a promise. It shows our sinfulness and God’s grace and mercy and we likened this to snakes and ladders. Only Abel, Enoch and Noah are commended for their faith in God during this period (Heb. 11:4-7).
The following book in the Bible is Exodus, which describes the first stage of the Israelites migration to Canaan in the Middle East under the leadership of Moses. The rest of the Old Testament describes their history up until the time of Christ.
How far back can you go in your family history? The Israelites kept good family history records in Old Testament times. The first four generations of their family tree were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Genesis chapters 12-50 is a narrative, a theological and historical drama of the highlights of their lives.
During the 40 years between leaving Haran and coming to Mt. Moriah, Abraham was given four great promises. He was given the promises on seven separate occasions. Sometimes he trusted God’s promises and sometimes he doubted them – he cycled between the two. This is shown on the graph which goes up when he trusted the promises and down when he doubted them. Although he struggled with doubt, his faith grew and matured. At about 115 years of age he passed the test of his faith at Mt Moriah when he was asked to sacrifice his only son. He learnt to trust God without doubting. He is a good example for us in contrast to his self-centred nephew Lot.
Isaac obeyed his father when taken to be sacrificed (Gen. 22:3-9) and when he married a family member from Haran, not a Canaanite. The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac on two occasions. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob.
Jacob married two family members from Haran, not a Canaanite. His name was changed to Israel and he had 12 sons whose descendants were the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph was one of these sons. The promises were repeated to Israel on three occasions.
After Joseph was sold by his brothers, he became a slave in Egypt. Because he followed God, he eventually became the one who administered Egypt for Pharaoh. During a severe famine, Israel’s extended family moved to Egypt. The promises were repeated to Joseph and his sons on four occasions.
So God responded to sin and rebellion at Babel by scattering people across the earth into different language groups and then giving the promises described in Genesis chapters 12-50. The promises show God’s response of grace and mercy. They show God’s blessings for His special people, the Israelites. They also illustrate spiritual truths given to the church in the New Testament (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11).
Note that God’s promises were repeated to each generation. Do we repeat God’s promises to younger generations so they can repeat them as well (Dt. 6:4-9)?
Let’s look at the four main promises
The national promise
Before he had any children, God promised Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). Then he was promised a son and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:4-5). On a dark night the unaided eye can see about 3,000 – 5,000 thousand stars. But this is probably a figure of speech because similes are also used to describe the large number of his offspring as “like the dust of the earth” and “the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 13:15; 22:17). This promise was fulfilled when Solomon ruled “over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth” (2 Chr. 1:9).
The promised son was to be named Isaac and he would have many descendants (Gen. 17:15-19). An angel said he would be born in about 12 months time, even though Sarah was 90 and past the age of child bearing (Gen. 17:17; 18:10-14). It seemed impossible, but it happened as it was promised (Gen. 21:1-7).
They were also promised that nations and kings would be amongst their descendants who would “become a great and powerful nation” (Gen. 17:6; 18:18). Jacob is told they will become a great nation in Egypt and Joseph is promised increased numbers of descendants (Gen. 46:3; 48:4). This was fulfilled because about 2 million people left Egypt in the exodus.
As Abraham’s family grew physically through his descendants even though the situation seemed impossible, Christians can grow spiritually in eternal life. When we accept Christ as Savior, we receive eternal life which is valuable now and when we get to heaven. It’s one of God’s promises in the New Testament. Eternal life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). Do we believe that or think it’s impossible?
The land promise
When Abraham obeyed God and migrated from Ur to Haran and then to Canaan, God promised to give that land to his descendants forever as an everlasting possession (Gen. 13:14-17; 17:8; 48:4). Its boundaries were from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). It seemed impossible because the land was occupied by the Canaanites. How could nomads drive out those in fortified towns? Whether this promise has been fulfilled or not is a debatable matter. It was partially fulfilled in Solomon’s kingdom, but He ruled over it as over vassal states; the Israelites didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).
In the 2011 census there were 105,000 homeless people in Australia. That’s 1 in every 200 people. They will probably never have the means to own their own home and struggle to find assisted accommodation. Their future looks dim. How can they get a home? It seems impossible.
The Israelite’s life was like that in Egypt, but God gave them a separate land to the other nations and separate laws so they could to be distinguished as a holy nation of God’s people (Ex. 19:5-6). Likewise, Christians have been given the Holy Spirit so they can live as the people of God today (1 Pt. 1:9-10). The Holy Spirit is one of God’s promises in the New Testament (Eph. 1:13). Our lives are to be “filled with the Spirit”. The land of Canaan is a picture of the Spirit-filled life that God intended for every Christian to live. Do we aspire to a Spirit-filled life or think it’s impossible?
The church is now God’s holy nation. But God hasn’t finished with Israel as a nation and these promises made to Israel don’t now apply to the church. Israel and the church are separate entities. The church age from Pentecost to the rapture is a parenthesis in God’s dealings with Israel.
The prosperity promise
God also promised, “I will bless you” (Gen. 12:2). In patriarchal times this meant wealth and prosperity (Gen. 30:29-30). This was fulfilled because Abraham’s servant said, “The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy” (Gen 24:34-35). Isaac was also wealthy (Gen. 26:12-14).
An associated promise was, “I will make your name great”. This was fulfilled as Abraham’s name is mentioned 75 times in the New Testament which was written about 2,000 years after he lived, and we are still talking about him 4,000 years after he lived!
Do you believe in get-rich-quick schemes that promise a high rate of return with little risk, and with little skill, effort, or time required by working at home? Are you aware of Nigerian money transfer requests, pyramid schemes and online dating scams? Australian Consumers Association keeps advertisers honest and Scam Watch monitors fraudulent schemes, fake merchandise, and scams; but we have a God who is always honest.
In the Old Testament this promise mainly meant physical blessings, but these are not promised in the New Testament (Eccl. 5:19; Eph. 1:3-14). Christians are promised spiritual blessings instead of the material blessings of health and wealth. So be careful when you read the Old Testament and make an application to us today, because we are under a different covenant to them.
The spiritual promise
God also promised, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). It would happen through his offspring (Gen. 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). God chose to work through one nation in the Old Testament, but His intention is to bless all nations. The nations would come to know God through Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). That’s an unusual promise. Can we believe it?
This promise was fulfilled in two ways. First, we have the Bible which is a blessing to all who read it. The Scriptures were written by Jewish prophets and apostles and their associates. These prophets and apostles were Abraham’s descendants. Second, we have Jesus Christ, who is a spiritual blessing to all who trust in Him. Peter and Paul applied this promise to Christ who was the descendant of Abraham who brought this blessing (Lk. 3:34; Acts 3:25-26; Gal. 3:8, 16). The promise also meant that Gentiles would enter into blessing (Gal. 3:8). The church is comprised of all nationalities.
Paul said this promise was fulfilled when the Gentiles were blessed spiritually with salvation and the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:8, 14). Jesus Christ is now God’s response to our sin and we can have spiritual blessings in Him (Eph. 1:3) and see the incomparable riches of God’s grace if we trust in Him (Eph. 2:7). God is rich in mercy, grace, love and power (Rom. 11:33).
What about God’s promise of eternal life in heaven instead of eternal punishment in hell for those who trust in what Jesus did for us? Do you believe, disbelieve or are you uncertain? Your future is dark when there is no trust.
The promises given to Abraham were ratified in a covenant or contract where animals are cut in half and the parties walk between them (Gen. 15:7-21). This reminds us that Jesus was sacrificed so we could experience the spiritual blessings of the new covenant. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).
When the covenant was renewed, God changed the names of Abraham and Sarah and male circumcision was given as a sign and symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11). It was a mark that they were God’s people.
Today believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). The mark of God’s people today is the power of the Holy Spirit within, which Paul calls the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:29). The heart means the soul which is comprised of the mind, emotions and will. These are to be devoted to Christ.
When the patriarchs were given these promises they had a choice to believe, disbelieve or be uncertain about them. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are commended for their faith (Heb. 11:8-12, 17-22). They believed the promises. Abraham is our spiritual father because he believed God’s promises (Rom. 4:1-25; Gal. 3:29; Heb. 2:16). The Bible says, “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to Him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6). He was saved by faith, by trusting God. His willingness to sacrifice Isaac was evidence of his faith (Jas. 2:20-24). That’s why Abraham is given in the New Testament as the greatest example of living by faith. He was the pioneer of faith. Abraham entered into a covenant of blessing with God on the basis of his faith. He is the spiritual father and model of all who come to God on the basis of faith.
These instructions and promises were given to the Israelites many years ago. If we try to apply them directly to Christians today we run into problems because we are under a different covenant and different circumstances in God’s big plan of salvation. They don’t apply physically to us today, but they do apply spiritually.
We have seen how Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph trusted the promises they were given. They lived by faith as though God was going to keep the promises. And we know that He did fulfil the promises. Likewise, God has given us many spiritual promises in the New Testament like forgiveness, eternal life, the Holy Spirit, the second coming, and hope. Let’s trust these and live by faith because He is going to fulfil them.
So, who can we trust? We can trust God; the Father, Son, and Spirit; Creator and Redeemer. Because God kept His physical promises to the Israelites many years ago, today we can trust His spiritual promises for us.
Written, March 2014