Ephraim

The Sovereign Hand of God

12 Of Benjamin he said,

“The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety.
The High God surrounds him all day long,
    and dwells between his shoulders.”

13 And of Joseph he said,

“Blessed by the Lord be his land,
    with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
    and of the deep that crouches beneath,
14 with the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.
17 A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
    and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
    all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Deuteronomy 33:12-17 ESV

A quick comparison between the blessings given by Jacob to his 12 sons and those given by Moses to the 12 tribes of Israel reveal some interesting differences. For instance, Jacob referred to his youngest son, Benjamin, as a ravenous wolf who plunders his enemies at night.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    devouring his enemies in the morning
    and dividing his plunder in the evening.” – Genesis 49:27 NLT

Yet, Moses seems to refer to the tribe of Benjamin as “the beloved of the Lord.” But the words of Moses can and have been translated in two different ways. The New English Translation renders verse 12 as follows:

“Of Benjamin he said:
The beloved of the Lord will live safely by him;
he protects him all the time,
and the Lord places him on his chest.” – Deuteronomy 33:12 NET

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach.

“May the beloved of the Lord dwell in security by Him,
Who shields him all the day,
And he dwells between His shoulders.”

In these translations, the “beloved of the Lord” is clearly not a reference to Benjamin, but to somone or something else. It could be speaking of the tribe of Judah, the tribe from which the Messiah would come. Recall the words of Jacob’s blessing to his son, Judah.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.” – Genesis 49:10 NLT

The term, “the beloved of the Lord” could also be a reference to Jesus Himself. But it is seems more likely that the tribe of Judah is the focus of Moses’ words. These two tribes, Benjamin and Judah would enjoy close ties, even sharing a common border in the land of Canaan.

The first allotment of land went to the clans of the tribe of Benjamin. It lay between the territory assigned to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. – Joshua 18:11 NLT

Years later, when God split the kingdom of Israel in half, the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin would form the new southern kingdom of Judah. And the larger, more powerful tribe of Judah would provide protection for its smaller neighbor and ally. The territory alloted to Benjamin also contained the city of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of Judah, later known as the city of David, and the place where Solomon built the temple of God.

Jacob predicted that his son, Benjamin, would produce a people who were warlike and reknowned for their success in battle. But the book of Judges reveals that the Benjamites would eventually use their propensity for battle in a civil war against the other 11 tribes of Israel. It would end in their defeat at the hands of their brothers.

And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. – Judges 20:35-36 ESV

These were dark days for the tribe of Benjamin and for the people of God, with the 21st chapter of the book of Judges closing with the sobering words:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 21:25 ESV

But the first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin, a man named Saul, who would prove to be a great warrior, but a lousy king. And God would eventually reject him as king, replacing him with a man after His own heart, a man named David. And David, from the tribe of Judah, and Jonathan, the son of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, would become the closest of friends. So, we see this bound between these two tribes lived out over time. And eventually, the apostle Paul would come from the tribe of Benjamin.

“I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” – Romans 11:1 ESV

This small tribe would play a significant role in the history of Israel, for both good and bad. But God would use them to accomplish His divine will for His people and for the world. From this somewhat irrelevant tribe would come Saul, the first king of Israel. But hundreds of years later, there would come another Saul, the one known as the apostle Paul, whom God would use to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And all because Paul would have his life transformed by an encounter with Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the tribe of Judah.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Joseph. He was the son Jacob thought had been killed by wild animals, but later discovered had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, where Joseph had become a powerful ruler in the kingdom of Pharaoh. And Joseph was able to use his authority to provide protection and provision for his family when the were forced to flee from the famine taking place in Canaan. So, Jacob held a special place in his heart for Joseph, as revealed in the words of the blessing he pronounced over him.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
    a fruitful bough by a spring;
    his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him,
    shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
    his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
    (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
    by the Almighty who will bless you
    with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
    blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
    are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
    up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
    and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” – Genesis 49:22-26 ESV

Moses picks up on Jacob’s high honor of Joseph, referring to him as “him who is prince among his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:16 ESV). And when Moses speaks of Joseph, he clarifies that he is really addressing the tribes of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Eventually, the name Ephraim would become closely associated with the ten tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel. Just as Joseph was “set apart from his brothers” (Deuteronomy 49:26 ESV), Ephraim, Manasseh, and the other eight tribes would be set apart from Judah and Benjamin, dividing the once unified nation in two.

Moses pronounces a blessing on Joseph and his descendants, calling on God to provide them with “the choicest gifts of heaven above” (Deuteronomy 33:13 ESV) and:

“the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.” – Deuteronomy 33:14-16 ESV

God would continue to bless Joseph’s descendants, providing them with good land and and an abundance of blessings. But they would prove to be rebellious and spiritual unfaithful to God. They would turn their backs on God by worshiping false gods of their own making. And yet, they would enjoy great success and grow in number.

“…they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Genesis 49:17 ESV

God would bless them, in spite of them. But the day would come when God would punish them for their sins, bringing judgment upon them in the form of the Assyrian army and allowing them to be defeated and deported as slaves. God would reward the descendants of Joseph for their forefather’s faithfulness while living in Egypt. But, eventually, He would punish them for their own unfaithfulness while living in the land of promise.

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

Drunk on Success.

1 Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,
    and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!
2 Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
    like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,
    he casts down to the earth with his hand.
3 The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim
    will be trodden underfoot;
4 and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of the rich valley,
will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer:
    when someone sees it, he swallows it
    as soon as it is in his hand.

5 In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory,
    and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people,
6 and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
    and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.

7 These also reel with wine
    and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
    they are swallowed by wine,
    they stagger with strong drink,
they reel in vision,
    they stumble in giving judgment.
8 For all tables are full of filthy vomit,
    with no space left.

9 “To whom will he teach knowledge,
    and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
    those taken from the breast?
10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little.”

11 For by people of strange lips
    and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
12     to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
    give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
    yet they would not hear.
13 And the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little,
that they may go, and fall backward,
    and be broken, and snared, and taken. – Isaiah 28:1-13 ESV

Now, God turns His attention to Ephraim, referring to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim was the second son born to Joseph in Egypt. In fact, Ephraim’s mother, Asenath, was an Egyptian. Years later, when Joseph’s father, Jacob, adopted his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, intending to treat them as his own.

“And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” – Genesis 48:5 ESV

In giving his patriarchal blessing to Jacob’s two sons, he intentionally awarded Ephraim the blessing intended for the firstborn. When Joseph tried to correct what he believed was a mistake, Joseph told him: “Manasseh will also become a great people, but his younger brother will become even greater. And his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT). The tribe of Ephraim was later awarded land in Canaan, just north of the Dead Sea and would become a leading tribe of the Northern Kingdom after God split the nation in two. The city of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, was located within the territory of Ephraim.

Ephraim, representing to ten northern tribes, is called out by God for its pride and arrogance. It was located in a fertile valley at the southern tip of the Jordan River. It benefited from the frequent flooding of the river valley and enjoyed the fruits of its rich and fertile soil. God even refers to them as “the drunkards of Ephraim” – probably a reference to literal drunkenness from the wine they produced and the spiritual drunkenness that resulted from their intoxication with idolatry. The prophet, Amos, had this to say about Ephraim.

You drink wine by the bowlful
    and perfume yourselves with fragrant lotions.
    You care nothing about the ruin of your nation. – Amos 6:6 NLT

In a sense, they were drunk on their own self-importance. Amos warned them, “you who feel secure in Samaria! You are famous and popular in Israel, and people go to you for help. But go over to Calneh and see what happened there” (Amos 6:1-2 NLT). Calneh had been overrun by Shalmaneser III of Assyria in 854-846 B.C., and God was letting Israel know that the same thing was going to happen to them.

For the Lord will send a mighty army against it.
    Like a mighty hailstorm and a torrential rain,
they will burst upon it like a surging flood
    and smash it to the ground. – Isaiah 28:2 NLT

The Assyrians were poised to bring the same devastation and destruction to the Northern Kingdom that had happened in Calneh. And God doesn’t sugarcoat the news regarding Israel’s fate.

The proud city of Samaria—
    the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel—
    will be trampled beneath its enemies’ feet.
It sits at the head of a fertile valley,
    but its glorious beauty will fade like a flower.
Whoever sees it will snatch it up,
    as an early fig is quickly picked and eaten. – Isaiah 28:3-4 NLT

But God, always rich in mercy, declares that He will spare a remnant of the Northern Kingdom. Yes, He will bring judgment upon Israel in the form of the Assyrian army, but there will be a handful within rebellious Israel who recognize Him as their true source of hope and help.

He will be the pride and joy
    of the remnant of his people.
He will give a longing for justice
    to their judges.
He will give great courage
    to their warriors who stand at the gates. – Isaiah 28:5-6 NLT

But what about Judah, the Southern Kingdom? They are Isaiah’s primary target audience, and his message is intended for them. So, God reveals that He has issues with them as well. They stand guilty of the same sin of pride. They suffer from the same condition of spiritual intoxication.

Now, however, Israel is led by drunks
    who reel with wine and stagger with alcohol.
The priests and prophets stagger with alcohol
    and lose themselves in wine.
They reel when they see visions
    and stagger as they render decisions. – Isaiah 28:7 NLT

God’s indictment against the governmental and religious leaders of Israel has less to do with physical inebriation than spiritual apostasy. They are described as staggering drunks, but their real problem was spiritual confusion resulting from their steady consumption of the lies of false gods. They were incapable of making wise decisions. Their words of advice were no better than vomit from the mouth of a drunk. And they despised everything that Isaiah had to say.

“Who does the Lord think we are?” they ask.
    “Why does he speak to us like this?
Are we little children,
    just recently weaned?
He tells us everything over and over—
one line at a time,
    one line at a time,
a little here,
    and a little there!” – Isaiah 28:9-10 NLT

Isaiah’s words were simple and easy to understand, but the people of Israel rejected them. His incessant call to repentance was despised by them. His repeated warnings of God’s judgment were obnoxious to them. They were tired of Isaiah’s message. So, Isaiah let them know that the next words they would hear would be in a language they couldn’t understand.

So now God will have to speak to his people
    through foreign oppressors who speak a strange language! – Isaiah 28:

Over the centuries, God had constantly reminded His people that the land of Canaan had been intended to be a place of rest. Their relationship with Him as His chosen people was meant to be marked by peace, blessing and the joy of His presence. But their disobedience had marred their relationship with God, resulting in the split of the kingdom, constant civil unrest, rampant idolatry, and anything but peace and rest. And while God had graciously sent His messengers, the prophets, with a call to repent, the people had refused to listen. So, Isaiah lets them know that their stubborn refusal to hear and obey will result in their fall.

So the Lord will spell out his message for them again,
one line at a time,
    one line at a time,
a little here,
    and a little there,
so that they will stumble and fall.
    They will be injured, trapped, and captured. – Isaiah 28:13 NLT

And all of this was in keeping with God’s warning, delivered centuries earlier by Moses to the people of Israel. He had called them to live in obedience to God’s commands or face the inevitable consequences.

“The Lord will bring a distant nation against you from the end of the earth, and it will swoop down on you like a vulture. It is a nation whose language you do not understand, a fierce and heartless nation that shows no respect for the old and no pity for the young. Its armies will devour your livestock and crops, and you will be destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine, olive oil, calves, or lambs, and you will starve to death. They will attack your cities until all the fortified walls in your land—the walls you trusted to protect you—are knocked down. They will attack all the towns in the land the Lord your God has given you.” – Deuteronomy 28:49-52 NLT

And the fulfillment of God’s warning had come. The people of Israel and Judah, drunk on their own success and self-significance, were about to experience the hangover of a lifetime as the wrath of God fell. Their intoxication with the things of this world and the false gods of the Canaanites were going to leave them staggering and stumbling under God’s righteous wrath and just judgment.

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

Our Good God.

1 The allotment of the people of Joseph went from the Jordan by Jericho, east of the waters of Jericho, into the wilderness, going up from Jericho into the hill country to Bethel. 2 Then going from Bethel to Luz, it passes along to Ataroth, the territory of the Archites. 3 Then it goes down westward to the territory of the Japhletites, as far as the territory of Lower Beth-horon, then to Gezer, and it ends at the sea.

4 The people of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, received their inheritance.

5 The territory of the people of Ephraim by their clans was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6 and the boundary goes from there to the sea. On the north is Michmethath. Then on the east the boundary turns around toward Taanath-shiloh and passes along beyond it on the east to Janoah, 7 then it goes down from Janoah to Ataroth and to Naarah, and touches Jericho, ending at the Jordan. 8 From Tappuah the boundary goes westward to the brook Kanah and ends at the sea. Such is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Ephraim by their clans, 9 together with the towns that were set apart for the people of Ephraim within the inheritance of the Manassites, all those towns with their villages. 10 However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor.

1 Then allotment was made to the people of Manasseh, for he was the firstborn of Joseph. To Machir the firstborn of Manasseh, the father of Gilead, were allotted Gilead and Bashan, because he was a man of war. 2 And allotments were made to the rest of the people of Manasseh by their clans, Abiezer, Helek, Asriel, Shechem, Hepher, and Shemida. These were the male descendants of Manasseh the son of Joseph, by their clans.Joshua 16:1-17:2 ESV

The author now addresses the inheritance of the descendants of Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. In spite of Joseph’s ill-treatment by his brothers, God blessed Joseph, sovereignly ordaining his rise to the second highest position of power in the land. It would be Joseph who would be used by God to preserve the lives of his father and brothers when they were forced to turn to Egypt for aid when a famine struck the land of Canaan. When his brothers discovered that Joseph, who they had long considered as dead, was Pharaoh’s right-hand man, they were petrified. But Joseph had assured them that God had divinely orchestrated every event in his life for a much greater purpose.

7 “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 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.” – Genesis 45:7-8 ESV

And later on, Joseph reconfirmed to his brothers his unwavering belief that God had been behind all that had taken place, so that each and every one of Jacob’s sons would remain alive.

“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.” – Genesis 50:20 ESV

God had made a commitment to Jacob, the father of Joseph and brothers, that He would bless him and give him many descendants who would love in the land of promise. And, on his deathbed, Jacob confirmed his belief in God’s promise, choosing to bless the two sons of Joseph, born to him in Egypt. In essence, Jacob adopted his two grandson’s making them his own and promising to give them a portion of the inheritance of the land.

1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2 And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. 3 And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ 5 And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. 6 And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance.’” – Genesis 48:1-6 ESV

More than four centuries later, the 12 tribes of Israel (the sons of Jacob) were in the land promised to Jacob by God. And Joshua was in the process of dividing the land between the tribes. And in keeping with Jacob’s promise to include Ephraim and Manasseh in the inheritance, Joshua awarded a large portion of the land to the descendants of these two men.

Throughout this story, the sovereign hand of God is clearly visible. Had not God prospered Joseph in the land of Egypt, miraculously orchestrating his rise to power, the remainder of his family would have died of starvation in Canaan. God’s original covenant, made to Abraham, was seemingly jeopardized by the sinful acts of Joseph’s brothers. They had sold Joseph into slavery because they were jealous of him. They knew he was their father’s favorite son, and it didn’t help that Joseph had shared with them the content of several dreams he had experienced. In those dreams, Joseph had seen his father, mother and brothers bowing down to him. And Joseph’s disclosure of that news hadn’t won him any favors with his brothers. But the dreams were actually God-given visions of what was to come. His father, mother and brothers did eventually bow down before him, recognizing him as a powerful ruler in Egypt and the arbiter of their fate.

God had remained faithful to His covenant with Abraham. He had also kept the commitment He had made to Jacob, allowing he and his sons to find salvation from the famine in Canaan, by providing them with rest in the land of Egypt. And all of this was in fulfillment of the prophecy He had made to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

God had ordained the famine in the land. He had pre-planned Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. And He had orchestrated the 400-year period of exile in Egypt for the descendants of Jacob. Four generations of Israelites would live in the land of Egypt before God determined it was time for them to leave and inherit the land promised to Abraham. All of this was part of His divine plan. The timing was perfect. And it was all because God was willing to keep His covenant promises, in spite of the disobedience of His chosen people. The apostle Paul recognized the sovereign hand of God in his own life, and was able to see His will being accomplished through the ups and downs and the setbacks and seeming successes of life. Which is why he could write:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 ESV

The descendants of Joseph were provided with a place in the land of promise. They were given a portion of the inheritance among the brothers of Joseph who had sold him into slavery out of jealousy. What they had meant for evil, God had meant for good. What they had done in order to bring harm to their brother, God used to bring blessing to their brother’s sons and their descendants. God works all things together for good. 

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

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

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

Hope For Your Future.

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.”

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
    and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
    and your children shall come back to their own country.
I have heard Ephraim grieving,
‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined,
    like an untrained calf;
bring me back that I may be restored,
    for you are the Lord my God.
For after I had turned away, I relented,
    and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was confounded,
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is Ephraim my dear son?
    Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
    I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord.

“Set up road markers for yourself;
    make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities.
How long will you waver,
    O faithless daughter?
For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:
    a woman encircles a man.”  Jeremiah 31:15-22 ESV

Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is pictured as weeping for her children. She was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. This was in spite of the fact that she had been barren. And in her frustration over her barrenness, she had demanded of Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Genesis 30:1 ESV). And Jacob responded in exasperation and anger, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2 ESV). But God gave her a son and she named him Joseph, saying “God has taken away my reproach” (Genesis 30:22 ESV). But she was not satisfied. She wanted more. “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:23 ESV). And God would grant her wish. She gave birth to Benjamin some years later, but would die in childbirth. Jacob would bury her and the town of Ramah is recognized as the location of her tomb.

Rachel would become the grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons born to Joseph in Egypt. Their descendants would become two of the major tribes in northern Israel. So this imagery of Rachel weeping for her children is a metaphor for the sorrow associated with the defeat and deportation of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians. The image of a mother weeping over her lost children is a powerful one. It portrays a deep sorrow and a inconsolable sadness that nothing can assuage. But God speaks into this situation of deep despair, saying:

“Do not weep any longer,
    for I will reward you,” says the Lord.
“Your children will come back to you
    from the distant land of the enemy.” – Jeremiah 31:16 NLT

He is going to reward her. For what? In the Hebrew, the reward or wage is tied to Rachel’s work. Her weeping is seen as a form of effort being expended on behalf of her lost children. It is a picture of repentance and remorse over their fate. And God says that He is going to reward her for her efforts. And that reward will be in the form of hope in the midst of her helplessness and sorrow.

“There is hope for your future,” says the Lord.
    “Your children will come again to their own land.” – Jeremiah 31:17 NLT

A woman’s posterity was wrapped up in the lives of her children. Remember, Rachel had been barren at one time, and God had blessed her with two sons. But now, she is pictured as having lost all that was important to her: Her grandchildren and her future. But God provides assurance that her children, once lost, would be found and returned to the land.

The prophet, Hosea, paints a sad picture of how Ephraim and Manasseh ended up in Assyria.

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
    I took them up by their arms,
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness,
    with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
    and I bent down to them and fed them.

“They shall not return to the land of Egypt,
    but Assyria shall be their king,
    because they have refused to return to me.
The sword shall rage against their cities,
    consume the bars of their gates,
    and devour them because of their own counsels.
My people are bent on turning away from me,
    and though they call out to the Most High,
    he shall not raise them up at all.” – Hosea 11:3-7 ESV

But Jeremiah provides an encouraging counterpoint to Hosea’s prophecy. He records the words of God saying, “I have heard Ephraim grieving” (Jeremiah 31:18 ESV). The exiled Israelites are pictured as calling out to God in sorrow and repentance, crying, “bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God” (Jeremiah 31:18 ESV). And God responds with words of grace and mercy. “Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20 ESV).

God promises to bring Israel back to the promised land, but more importantly, back to Himself. And He tells them to mark the path they took to get to Assyria. It would be by that same path that they would return. They would be required to reverse the direction of their previous journey, illustrating their repentance and return to God.

“Set up road markers for yourself;
    make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities.” – Jeremiah 31:21 ESV

This brings to mind another mention of paths and highways mentioned earlier in the book of Jeremiah.

Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV

The people of Judah, the southern kingdom, had refused to walk the way of God. They had chosen disobedience over obedience. They had wandered from the ways of God, choosing to follow the ways of the world, pursuing false gods and seeking pleasure in those things forbidden by God. But God was going to bring them back. They would one day walk in the right direction, headed back to God rather than away from Him. He would return them to the land, but it would be their return to Yahweh that made the difference.

In verse, God shifts the imagery from that of a son to a daughter. He speaks to Israel as a faithless and adulterous daughter. Throughout the writings of the prophets, you see references to Israel’s spiritual adultery. The Hebrew word for apostasy is the same word used to describe an adulterous wife. Israel had prostituted herself with all the false gods of the lands around her. But now God calls His wandering bride back:

“Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities.
How long will you waver,
    O faithless daughter?” – Jeremiah 31:21-22 ESV

He refers to Israel as a virgin, cleansed and purified from her sins. Her adultery would be forgiven. Her spiritual defilement would be removed. And then God makes a rather enigmatic statement: “For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man” (Jeremiah 31:22 ESV). This is a difficult verse to understand and there have been a lot of different opinions over the years as to its exact meaning. But if we consider the context, it would seem that God is referring to an adulterous wife who returns to her husband. The Hebrew word that is translated as “encircles” in the ESV is cabab and it has a range of meanings, including “to turn towards, change direction, return”. It would seem that the “new thing” to which God is referring is an adulterous woman returning to her husband. That would have been a rare occurrence in those days. In fact, for a man to take back his adulterous wife would have, according to the Mosaic law, made him an adulterer as well. In the book of Hosea, we have recorded the real-life story of Hosea, whose wife committed adultery on numerous occasions. But God commanded Hosea to take her back.

And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” – Hosea 3:1 ESV

And that unlikely act of a husband taking back his adulterous wife was to be a real-life example of what God was going to do with the nation of Israel.

“For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.” – Hosea 3:4-5 ESV

Wayward Israel would return to God. The adulterous wife would return to her faithful husband. It would be out-of-the-ordinary. It would unprecedented and unheard of. It would be a new thing on the earth. God would make the impossible and improbable happen. He would provide hope for the future when there was none. He would provide restoration when condemnation seemed to be the only option. He would show forgiveness where none was warranted. He would show mercy when none was deserved. Because He is faithful and His love is everlasting.

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≠≠

Not This Way!

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

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
    the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
    and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
    and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying,

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

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” – Genesis 48:8-22 ESV

God’s ways are not our ways. He does not operate according to and is not restricted by our human notions of fair play, social etiquette, customs or traditions. God does not have to do things the way we think they should be done. He is not afraid to offend our sense of decorum or proper procedures. His will is greater than our wishes. His divine plan is far more important than our need for maintaining the status quo.

Jacob had just told Joseph that he was going to adopt his two sons and make them his heirs. “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are” (Genesis 48:5 ESV). So when Joseph brought his two sons to their grandfather to receive their official adoption and blessing, he had certain expectations about how things were going to go down. The placement of the two boys on the knees of Jacob was part of the Ancient Near Eastern adoption ceremony. Joseph was transferring his two sons to the care of Jacob and officially making them his father’s heirs. Then things got interesting and a bit off-script for Joseph. When he brought his two sons to stand before Jacob to receive their blessings, he had them positioned so that Jacob’s right hand would be on Manasseh, the first-born, and his left hand on Ephraim, the second-born. But when Jacob reached out his hands, he crossed his arms and placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on the head of Manasseh. Joseph was appalled. This was not according to protocol. It was not how things were supposed to happen. Jacob had screwed up. And Joseph was not happy.

When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him. So he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” – Genesis 48:17-18 NLT

Joseph most likely blamed his father’s gaff on old age and diminished eyesight. Verse ten tells us that Jacob’s eyes were “dim with age.” So Joseph attempted to switch his father’s hand and correct what was an obvious oversight. But Jacob refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he too will become great. In spite of this, his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT). Jacob’s crossed hands had not been the result of poor eyesight or age-induced dementia. It had been the will of God. This was yet another example of God choosing the younger over the elder.

Abraham had two sons. His firstborn was Ishmael, born to him by his wife’s handmaiden. But when Abraham asked God to fulfill His promise through Ishmael, God said:

“No—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. As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year.” – Genesis 17:19-21 NLT

When Isaac’s wife, Rachel, was pregnant with twin sons, God told her:

“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT

Esau, the eldest of the two, would serve Jacob, the younger.Even in Jacob’s own family, he had elevated Joseph ahead of all his brothers, showing him special favor. It was this favoritism that ended up causing Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. Then Jacob simply replaced Joseph with Benjamin, the son born to him in his old age.

God doesn’t explain Himself. He doesn’t provide us with an explanation of His actions. While cultural protocol called for the blessing to fall on the firstborn, God was choosing to do things differently. He had a different agenda and was using out-of-the-ordinary means to accomplish His divine will. God would have us remember: “

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Look, God is greater than we can understand. – Job 36:26 NLT

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 NLT

The ways of God may be incomprehensible at times, but they are always reliable. His methodology may leave us perplexed, but never disappointed. He may appear to be suffering from poor eyesight or early onset dementia, but in time, we will discover that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. His hands were crossed for a reason. His blessing only appeared to be off target. God knows what He is doing – all the time and in every circumstance.

We may not understand God’s ways right now, but we will in time. We may not appreciate His methods for the moment, but He will be proven right and righteous. Our sense of fair play may get offended, but He will be proven just and good. Saying, “Not this way!” to God is not only presumptuous, it’s dangerous.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you're doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

May we learn to say as Jesus did, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV).