The Sons of Israel

by Lois Tverberg

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
– Genesis 49:10

I used to struggle with why we have the stories we do in Genesis – about the sons of Jacob destroying the city of Shechem, or Reuben sleeping with his father’s servant girl. My expectation was that the Bible was a book of simple moral stories to teach me how to live.

Sons of Israel

Actually, the Bible has a completely different purpose. It is actually an epic tale about God choosing a family to become his holy nation, through whom he would send one to redeem the whole world. The goal of the stories is to trace God’s blessing throughout the generations, and understand who is chosen to carry it on to the next generation. Of Abraham’s sons, Isaac received it rather than Ishmael. Of Isaac’s sons, Jacob received it rather than Esau. It was God’s choice each time, and it was usually the less likely person that he chose.

Many stories are told about the twelve sons of Jacob, because each would become head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Interestingly, once again God made an unlikely choice. The very firstborn of the family was Reuben, but he was disqualified because he dishonored his father by sleeping with Bilhah (Gen 35:22, Gen. 49:3). Simeon and Levi are next in line, but they were both disqualified because they destroyed the city of Shechem (Gen. 34:25, Gen. 49:5-7). That is probably why that ugly story is included.

Jacob had his own idea of who should be heir, and he chose Joseph, the first born son of the wife that he loved. That was the source of jealousy and conflict in the family. It was why Jacob gave Joseph the special coat, and why Joseph’s dreams that his family would bow down to him made his brothers so furious. When Jacob was old he gave Joseph the inheritance of the first-born – a double portion of the estate. He did this by adopting Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manassah as sons of his own, so that they would become two of the tribes of Israel.

Looking ahead into the future, it’s interesting to see which tribe God ultimately chose to carry on the greatest blessing. He used Joseph to save his family, so he blessed him in one sense. But actually, the ultimate blessing went to Judah, the fourth-born son of Leah, the unloved wife, who became the instrument of God’s redemptive plan. He was the one who would ultimately give rise to Christ. Jacob proclaimed it in an obviously messianic passage, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs, and the obedience of the nations is his.” (Genesis 49:10) This was fulfilled when Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, arrived on earth!


Photo: Herrad von Landsberg

Reaping What You Sow

Jacob Wrestles Angel

by Lois Tverberg

So Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning.’
– Genesis 47:9

Many people struggle with the idea that God would work out his plans to establish a nation through the deceitful actions of Jacob. Jacob used a weak moment to barter his brother Esau’s birthright away from him, and he deceived his father into giving him his brother’s blessing. Did God bless his unethical behavior?

Interestingly, his life story shows that his scheming often came back to haunt him. It is most obvious in one case – he used his father’s blindness to substitute himself for his brother, to steal his blessing; but he also was deceived by “blindness” too when on his wedding night, Leah was substituted for her sister Rachel. This is called “measure for measure” by the rabbis – that because he used blindness to deceive, God let him be deceived in the same way.

Jacob Wrestles AngelThroughout Jacob’s life, we see that although God is fulfilling his promise to him to give him a family, Jacob does not have the peace that his father and grandfather did. He had to leave his home for fear that his angry brother would kill him and work many years for his crafty uncle. He lost his beloved wife Rachel at a young age and believed that he had lost his favorite son Joseph for many years too. Even Jacob’s suffering over Joseph was brought on by his sons’ terrible jealousy because of his obvious favoritism toward Joseph.

While Abraham “died at a good, ripe age, old and contented” (Gen. 25:8), and Isaac also died at “a ripe old age” (Gen. 35:29), that is not said about Jacob. Instead, Jacob told Pharoah that the years of his life had been “few and unpleasant” (Gen. 47:9). From the time that he deceived his father until the end of his days, his life had been full of trials, many of them brought on himself.

We can learn a lesson through this – that God is faithful and merciful to us who are under his blessing, but he usually refrains from sparing us from the earthly consequences of our sins. We should live wisely knowing that although we are under God’s forgiveness, how we act toward others will have a large impact on the way our lives play out.


*This article was based on an essay in “Understanding Genesis”, by Nahum Sarna, Shocken Books 1966, p. 183.

Photocred: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/dore/