“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” (Genesis 50:20)
If a person completely unfamiliar with the Book of Genesis sat down and read the first two chapters, then skipped ahead and read the final two, they would likely have the overwhelming feeling that something had gone horribly wrong in between the two sections. Perhaps unable to put their finger directly on it, they would sense that something catastrophic had occurred in between. Genesis 1 opens with God moving upon a barren planet, filling it with life and light. Genesis 50 ends with the burial of Joseph. Genesis begins with the birth of everything and ends with the burial of the final personage covered in the narrative. In short, Genesis begins with life and ends with death.
Even the most hardened atheist must concede that there seems to be something very unnatural and even unfair about the cruel, nearly mechanical cycle of life and death. All living things die eventually, but why is this so? Why is that the human body, so resilient, so able to reproduce and revive its own cells, finally ceases all of these processes and ultimately surrenders to the cold grasp of death? How is it that everything which God created and called “good” has become otherwise?
Man has within his heart an instinct for survival, a desire to live, and an expectation for immortality. We know within our own hearts that we ought not to die, that this is not the way things were intended to be. And in reflecting on the Book of Genesis, we see that God never intended for it to be like this. Yet sin entered in; and with it, death (Rom. 5:12). This is what went horribly wrong in those chapters between the Second and Forty-ninth of Genesis: sin. We tend to blame all of our woes on external forces, but they originated within ourselves. Man has defied the Law of God and has brought death upon himself as a result.
Yet another theme is woven into the pages of Genesis, a theme that would be overlooked by the person skipping over all of those intermediate chapters. Redemption. What man has defiled, God desires to cleanse; what man has broken, God desires to fix; and what man has lost, God desires to restore. In other words: what man has thought for evil, God has meant for good. Even the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, which led to the death, both spiritual and physical, of every person who would ever live can be overcome by what God has done through Jesus Christ on man’s behalf. Evil intent darkened the hearts of Adam and Eve in that Original Sin, yet God brought something good in the Redemption made available by the Blood of Christ, the Redemption offered to all men whereby they might be saved.
And so it is with the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into slavery. What they intended for evil, God meant for good. For this single sinful act of the brothers would set into motion all of the events that would one day bring them alive into Egypt. Though by no means alleviating their responsibility for their actions, God would bring something beautiful from the ugliness that the brothers had done. Even so, we know that the brothers of Joseph repented of the wicked deed they had done and did what they could to make things right. Fearing retribution from Joseph’s hand after their father passed away, they threw themselves upon his mercy and even appealed to Jacob’s final wishes to save them. But Joseph, his eyes fixed steadfastly on the perspective of God upon the entire matter, holds no such purpose as their destruction in his mind. He deeply loved his brothers and had forgiven them. Besides this, how could he wish harm against them when what they intended for evil, God meant for good?
“And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.” (Genesis 49:1)
After Jacob finished pronouncing a blessing over the sons of Joseph, he called his eleven other sons to him that he might do likewise unto them. There is a marked transition between this chapter and the rest of the Old Testament; Jacob’s blessing on his sons changes the focus from the Patriarchs to the nation of Israel. Up to this point, God has been working primarily through individuals. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph — “Patriarchs”, the fathers of old. The story from Genesis 12 through the completion of the book is one concerning a single family. Now, we move outward and change the focus to a single nation. Genesis ends with 70 members of the family of Jacob, the entire nation of Israel at the time, while Exodus opens up with the number of Israelites numbering into the millions (Ex. 12:37). God will work throughout the remainder of the Old Testament through prophets, priests, judges, and kings. Yet all of these will be representatives of the nation itself (or else representatives of God to the nation, but it will be with the nation that God will deal).
Jacob starts to speak the prophetic “blessings” over his sons and starts, as was customary, with the eldest son, Reuben. “My might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power…”, Jacob begins (Gen. 49:3). It would seem for the briefest of moments that Reuben’s sins against his father were forgotten; that nothing of the blessings due him as first-born had been forfeited. As the man who believes his sins bear no consequence, Reuben must have breathed a sigh of relief as his father pronounced this wonderful benediction upon him. “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel“, Jacob continues. Reuben’s heart must have sunk as his father continued by announcing before the entire family exactly why this was so. Reuben lost his position as first-born among the sons of Jacob, and for what? The indiscretions of a single night cost him dearly, indeed (Gen. 35:22). Let us never suppose that our sins are wholly without consequence and that our own indiscretions will go unnoticed. The Lord forgives us when we confess our sins to Him, but they often carry temporal consequences in this life. Sin, when dealt with, will not cost us our position with God, but it can cost us our position in our family, our marriage, our work, and our community.
Reuben is described as “unstable as water.” As water will not bear under the load of practically any solid object; and as water will displace, bend, move, and ripple under the force of anything thrown into it, so was Reuben without a foundation of any sort. We caught a glimpse of the weakness of his character back in Gen. 37:22. Rather than take charge of the situation as he rightfully should have as eldest, Reuben attempts to convince his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit, so that he might sneak back later and rescue him. I do not wish to criticize Reuben’s actions (or rather, inactions), but it speaks volumes that he carried so little influence as the oldest brother that he was unable to insist that the brothers forgo their wickedness. The only time we really see any decisiveness at all from Reuben is when he is either following his lusts (35:22) or his fears (42:22).
Simeon And Levi
The second and third sons of Jacob do not fare any better than Reuben. No qualifying benediction is even afforded them as Jacob denounces their wanton cruelty and the rashness of their retribution. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Yet Simeon and Levi took it upon themselves to execute judgment, not only on the man who attacked their sister, but upon the entire city that he lived in (Gen. 34:25-29)! It is always man’s tendency when exacting revenge to do so without equity, for he does not possess the objectivity nor the unbiased perspective of an omniscient God. We inevitably carry things too far, responding not so much in the interest of justice, but retaliation. The words of Simeon and Levi in Gen. 34:31 demonstrate that they believed their actions were justified, but like Reuben, their sins would cost them.
“I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel“, Jacob announces on behalf of the Lord (Gen. 49:7). And so it would be for these two brothers who had joined together to carry out their wicked act of vengeance. The tribe of Simeon would find their inheritance in the land at the far southern end of Palestine, nestled at the edge of the Negev. Their land would actually be carved out from Judah’s inheritance; dry and arid, it would border against the desert wilderness (Josh. 19:9). For all intents and purposes, Simeon would be swallowed up by the larger tribe surrounding him. Levi would literally be scattered throughout the entire land, having no direct inheritance of their own (Num. 18:20). The tribe of Levi would, however, be given the honor of serving as the priests of the nation of Israel. Levi had taken it upon himself to deal with the sins of Shechem by slaying the man and his entire city, but the sons of Levi would be instructed in judging sin in God’s way.
Coming now to Jacob’s fourth son, Judah is the first of the brethren to receive a positive pronouncement from the mouth of his father. We know that Judah was in no way innocent of sin, why was God overlooking it? Why did Judah receive a blessing when he was just as guilty of sin as his older three brothers? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Judah dealt with his sin and turned from it. We saw back in Chapter 43 that Judah was a changed man after his sins against Joseph and his own daughter-in-law. Therefore, it is this fourth son of Jacob through whom the Royal lineage will arise. King David will come from the tribe of Judah, but more importantly, Jesus Christ, the King of kings will arise from the tribe of Judah. Jesus will be that “Choice Vine” (Gen. 49:11, John 15:1) to Whom Judah’s “foal” and “colt” shall be bound. Shiloh, the Giver of Peace, will hold the royal sceptre in His hand and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be.
Zebulun is destined to inherit a part of the land which stretches to the Northwest coast of Palestine, bordering with the city of Sidon of the Phoenicians. Zebulun is called a “haven of ships”; the land of this tribe will be one rooted in maritime commerce. As such, Zebulun is the more cosmopolitan of the tribes, engaging in trade with ships from various other nations. From a spiritual standpoint, Zebulun is representative of those within the Church whose own affairs closely border with those of the world. Having one foot planted firmly in the world and another in the Body of Christ, it is very often through these individuals that new “ideas” creep into the congregation, ideas which are little more than secularism dusted off and re-dressed. We must remain relevant to the world, they say, or we must present the Gospel to the world on their own level. It is always the original intention of such people to do as much exporting of ideas as importing, yet it never seems to work out that way. Once the Gospel becomes watered down and intermingled with secularism, there remains no “market” for it.
If Zebulun represents the merchant within the Church, then Issachar is the laborer. “Crouching between two burdens”, Issachar is content to do what needs to be done that he might partake of the good rest and pleasant land for which he labors. A good and faithful servant, Issachar makes no effort to make a name for himself, but remains a servant — paying “tribute” to his King.
When Genesis 49:16 states that Dan shall “judge” his people, it carries more of the meaning that he shall protect them. We call those mighty and valiant men and women from the Book of Judges “judges”, yet they were not busying themselves in the office of a magistrate, or what we think of as a judge. These were the champions of the people, men and women appointed by God to deliver the nation from its enemies. Dan shall be a “serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels…” Adders were indigenous to Palestine, yet horses would be indicative of foreign invaders, since horses were not an animal used by the Hebrews (Deut. 17:16). The picture here is of the tribe of Dan lying in wait to take out the invading enemy upon their entry into the land. Great and mighty warrior “judges” such as Samson (of the tribe of Dan) come to mind in this prophecy.
“A troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at last” (Genesis 49:19)
Perhaps no other verse in this entire chapter is more appropriate to every child of God than this. Are we not all overcome again and again, yet we possess the promise that, in the end, we shall overcome? Nevertheless, it is not we who overcome, but the One we serve has overcome already (John 16:33). Nestled in between Jacob’s pronouncement concerning Dan and this one concerning Gad is the simple, nearly parenthetical statement: “I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord.” It is not the military might of Dan which shall overcome, nor is it the power of Gad; it is the Salvation which God provides that shall cause the child of God to overcome. It is the mighty God of Jacob, from whence the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel comes (Gen. 49:24). Jesus Christ is the One Who secures the victory, not us. It is through His efforts that we have overcome, not our own.
“And Israel beheld Joseph’s sons, and said, Who are these? And Joseph said unto his father, They are my sons, whom God hath given me in this place. And he said, Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.” (Genesis 48:8-9)
“By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.” (Hebrews 11:21)
Seventeen years have passed since Jacob has come to live with his sons in the land of Egypt. One matter of business remains before he dies: the blessings to be pronounced upon his sons. Before Jacob will pronounce his prophetic blessings on the twelve brothers, Joseph, hearing that his father lies sick in bed, brings his own two sons (Ephraim and Manasseh) to him that he might speak a blessing over them. In several ways, these two young men are illustrative of the Christian and his relationship to Christ.
First of all, they are born of two nations for they are both sons of Joseph (and Hebrew by him) and sons of Egypt by their mother, Asenath. Just as the Christian possesses two natures — the one fleshly, earthly; and the other spiritual, the nature we obtain when we become born again of God– these two sons of Joseph have within them that origin which speaks of this world (Egypt) and that which speaks of God (Israel). Yet they are recognized as Israelites completely, even so much that their names shall live on as the progenitors of two of the half-tribes of Israel. Much as the Christian looks toward a hope in Heaven, a place where he has never set foot, these two young men held their hope and identified their own future home as Canaan — a land upon which their own eyes had yet to fasten. Finally, Jacob, the father of Joseph, declares that these men are his own children; just as much as his own two eldest sons were. This speaks profoundly of God’s own adoption of the Christian as His own children (Eph. 1:5). As those born of Joseph become sons of his father, so are those born of Christ sons and daughters of His Father.
In the crossing of Jacob’s hands in blessing the sons of Joseph — the younger being blessed above the elder — we revisit a theme that has recurred again and again throughout Genesis. As Abel was favored by God over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, and Jacob over Esau, so is the younger Ephraim blessed above Manasseh. What a powerful reminder that God does not look upon things as man does, nor does He choose upon whom His favor shall fall based on the criteria that people do (1 Sam. 16:7). We are often reminded of this characteristic of the Lord in our own lives when He fails to bless those things in our lives that we feel He should. Those skills, talents, and “gifts” that we possess; those persons whom we feel are most appropriate to be used mightily of God are passed over in favor of those things which scarcely have drawn our attention at all. He crosses His own arms and places His hand of blessing on those things which we have placed so little value upon. “Not so, Father”, we tell Him, “for this is the firstborn.” This is the matter of most importance, Lord, this is the thing that ought to be blessed! “I know it, My son, I know it”, He calmly tells us, “But truly this other thing, this younger brother of that thing you are holding so dearly is greater than that.”
“And Jacob said unto Pharaoh, The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.” (Genesis 47:9)
Standing in the twilight of life, as the sun begins to set and the years remaining are far exceeded by those which have already elapsed, a person tends to reflect on all that they have and have not accomplished throughout their lifetime. As the time allotted to them to live upon this earth, at one time so seemingly endless and immeasurable, begins to draw to a close, there exists the unction to look back longingly — for surely the best days of life are now a memory. Oh, the stories they can tell! I had the privilege of working for a time in a nursing home and I always enjoyed hearing people at this stage of their life recount with great enthusiasm the exploits of their youth.
If anyone had such an ability to really share some stories about his own life, it was Jacob. And now he stood in the presence of none less than the Pharaoh of Egypt. What tales he might have recounted as he looked back over 130 years of life! There must have been a part of Jacob which desired to impress the King of Egypt; some part of him that welcomed the opportunity to share the exploits of his own youth. Yet he only tells Pharaoh two things: 1.) “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been”, and 2.) I accomplished nothing compared to my father and grandfather. The same hot-headed young man who had thought himself capable of outsmarting his brother and even his own father was now looking back on his life and saying, “I am not really anything compared with those who lived before me.” Jacob does not take this opportunity to play up his own importance at all, on the contrary, with great humility he moves himself quickly out of the spotlight.
“And Jacob blessed Pharaoh, and went out from before Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:10)
For a great many years of his life now, Jacob had been walking with God. He had been a broken man and had to learn to walk anew. He could now look back upon all of his life from the Lord’s perspective and, seeing it as such, left no other conclusion than what he told Pharaoh. It’s not that Jacob was not a great man, we know that he was. But Jacob is standing before Pharaoh in the capacity of God’s representative. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. It was not that this Hebrew shepherd was of such greater earthly prominence than the ruler of Egypt, it was on behalf of the Lord that he blessed him. He came before Pharaoh in the name of the Lord. There is never any room for boasting for the person who does such.
When he is blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob refers to God as the “Angel which redeemed me from all evil” (Gen. 48:16). Therein he boasts — in Christ. It is not what Jacob has accomplished that is important, it is what God has done for him and through him. Few and evil have been my days, what I have done has not amounted to much of anything. But God has redeemed me from the evil which I myself have wrought. It is what He has done that is important.
“And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had gotten in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him:” (Genesis 46:6)
We can only imagine the overwhelming excitement that filled Jacob’s soul as the news that Joseph was alive began to sink in. It had been more than twenty years since Jacob had beheld his son’s face; and by this time, any remaining inkling of hope that Joseph had been able to limp away from the supposed encounter with wild beasts had long since faded away. Jacob’s incredulity at the report of Joseph’s survival is recorded in Genesis 45:26, and it is only when he personally looks upon the finest wagons of Egypt, laden with the best of that nation’s precious commodities and parked in front of his own house, that the details of his other sons’ account begin to ring true (v. 27).
With the prospect of seeing into Joseph’s eyes once more before his own life leaves him, Jacob is filled with a motivation which energizes him beyond anything else. Joseph, his beloved Joseph, first son of the only woman he has ever truly loved, is alive! No journey is too great nor any distance too far if Joseph, alive and well, is waiting at its end. Yet one thing causes a delay in the trip; something is brought to Jacob’s mind that is of even greater import than his anticipated reunion with his son. As the caravan of Jacob and his family enters the land of Beer-sheba, he takes the time to offer sacrifices to God. “The God of his father Isaac“, Genesis 46:1 states. Perhaps it was the sight of the well which his father’s servants had dug so long ago, or maybe it was the altar itself which Isaac had erected near the spot (Gen. 26:25) that brought a great sense of God’s presence to Jacob.
Beer-sheba, the place where Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had planted a grove in honor of God Almighty after his covenant with Abimelech (Gen. 21:33); Beer-sheba, the place where God appeared to his father, Isaac, saying: “Fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Gen. 26:24). The gravity of these words must have hit home as Jacob pondered them, for he had in his company the entirety of that seed (except Joseph who was already in Egypt). And now, Jacob was marching this entire family straight into the land of Egypt. Was this the will of God or had Jacob acted impetuously? What about another time when the Lord had appeared to Isaac and told him directly to not go into Egypt during another time of famine (Gen. 26:2)? What about all of the trouble that had come upon his grandfather Abraham as a result of doing exactly what he himself was doing right now (Gen. 12:10-20)? Most importantly, what would be the fate of the seed of Jacob, this precious family of descendants for whom and through whom God had promised so much to Abraham and Isaac?
“And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation:” (Genesis 46:3)
God appeared to Jacob in a dream and reassured him of the propriety of this journey into Egypt. God Himself is never-changing, but His timing is a factor wherein we must be obedient. What was not in the will of God for those a generation or two ago might be exactly what God has in store for us (and vice-versa!). Sin is sin in all ages and is never acceptable, but as to the specific direction which God wants us to go and the exact place where He wants us to be differs from age to age and from person to person. The Apostle Paul, for instance, was forbidden by the Spirit of God to travel into certain regions during his missionary journeys which would later be opened up to future missionaries (Acts 16:6-7). It was wrong for Paul to go there, but right for others. It was not God’s will for Abraham and Isaac to journey into Egypt, but it was God’s will for Jacob and his sons.
Genesis 46:6 tells us that all of Jacob’s seed accompanied him into Egypt. Lest we suspect that this expression is merely hyperbole, verses 8 through 25 go on to gives us an exact register of the names of each and every individual who went. We may not have a manifest giving the details of all of the material possessions the family brought with them, but we do have a complete list of travelers. To us, this may amount to little more than a roll of strange-sounding, sometimes difficult to pronounce foreign names. But the fact that the Spirit of God inspired the writer of Genesis to take the time and space to list each and every name is a wonderful reminder of God’s great love for and interest in each one of us. Nobody was left behind to fend for themselves back in Canaan, they all came along on the trip to Egypt. Every last one of them. We are insured of this by the detailed list given. If such attention was given and care taken to make sure that not one of the 67 individuals of the family of Jacob was left behind in Canaan, we know that God will not leave a single one of us belonging to His family behind. For every 100 sheep belonging to the Great Shepherd, 100 will finish the journey with Him (Luke 15:4-7).