Thursday 8 July 2010

Legacy (Genesis 48)

It is right and good to focus on the godly, upright, gracious example that is Joseph, as we have done at Rock Fellowship these past few months in our study from these concluding chapters from the book of Genesis. He is exceptional in the long line of God's chosen people - his integrity, his character, his compassion; his understanding of the guiding hand of God in his life at times of suffering and success, in moments of temptation and triumph - Joseph is stunningly different from his brothers; even his forefathers - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Yet the bible places the historical record of the life of Joseph within the a wider plan of salvation of the God of Israel; the God of Jacob. That is how we were first introduced to Joseph, back in the opening verses of chapter 32.

Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob.
(Genesis 32:1)

Today we look at chapter 48, and at first glance, it can seem so anticlimactic! All the action-packed sequences have passed. All the drama scenes have been played out. Joseph has been elevated to a position of such unbelievably great wealth, power and influence. The brothers have displayed deep, genuine repentance - Judah especially, is remarkably transformed in his commitment to his family and his father. The family is finally reconciled with Jacob reunited to his long-lost son, once though dead, but now receiving him with such love and joy. The people of God are saved from starvation, more than that, resettled in a land of abundance bestowed upon them by Pharaoh himself. All Egypt is delivered from a prolonged, perilous famine under the leadership of Joseph and God's grace shown to his faithful servant.

And yet. Jacob, now an old man, so frail in his health he is bed-ridden, reminds Joseph of a gracious God who is truly responsible for all past and present blessings; a faithful God who promises an even greater blessing and redemption; and an Almighty God who sovereignly ordains his blessings for the good of his people and the glory of his name.

1 Some time later Joseph was told, "Your father is ill." So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him. 2 When Jacob was told, "Your son Joseph has come to you," Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed.
3 Jacob said to Joseph, "God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me 4and said to me, 'I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.'

These are Jacob's last words to his beloved son. He is weak, ill and near death. But he summons all his strength for this last act of love - to bless Joseph; to bless Joseph's two sons. But first, Jacob will remind them the true source of blessing.

Notice how little Jacob has to say about himself. It is God who appeared to him all those years ago in Canaan; God who blessed him; God who promised him fruitfulness and increase in numbers. For this is the same promise God had given to Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob. The promise that God would make them into a great nation. The everlasting inheritance of a land for all their descendants.

It is this promise that Jacob now leaves behind. It is a legacy of faithfulness. Not his faithfulness, but God's.

What a way to go. To leave this world, surrounded by those you love. To know the love of God, and to know they love God as well. What a way to go.

I know this is meant to be a poignant scene. It is full of pathos and sadness. Here is a man who has lived long, suffered hard, grieved deeply, tasted bitterness. But what a difference it makes to leave this world knowing God as your God.

And what a difference it makes to those you leave behind. You get to tell remind them of the important things that are truly precious and trustworthy. God is a faithful God. Jacob testifies from his own experiences in the past and speaks into his present lives and circumstance of his son Joseph and his sons. God will be faithful to you as well. This is the same God and these are his same promises.

I just want to remind you of the last words God spoke to Jacob as he left for Egypt. God tells Jacob not to be afraid. God says, "I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph's own hand will close your eyes" (Genesis 46:4). Jacob knows he will soon die. Not just because he is old. But because here, God himself says, Jacob will die. But far from distressing Jacob, these words were meant comfort him. Joseph will be there; Jacob would see his beloved son. He would die in peace. And he would die with hope. God says to him, "I will go down ... with you. I will surely bring you back." It is this hope that Jacob leaves behind. This is why, for me personally, this is picture of such joy. Jacob knows he will get a chance to tell his family that he loves them. More importantly, he gets to tell them, God loves them.

5 "Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine. 6 Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers. 7 As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath" (that is, Bethlehem).

It is an unusual thing that Jacob does here. He essential adopts his two grandchildren as his own. Ephraim and Manasseh (note the order Jacob refers to them, this is will be important later) will no longer be regarded as Joseph's but Jacobs'. He even compares them to Reuben and Simeon, the two oldest of the brothers, emphasising that these two grand-kids will not be inferior in any way - they are fully-fledged sons, with all the rights and status due them - and Jacob will be their father.

If Joseph has any other children, they will be considered his. They, too, will have a share in the inheritance and promises of God, but under the names of their two elder brothers Ephraim and Manasseh.

Why does Jacob do this? And why only for these two grandsons? Verse 7 holds a clue; giving us some insight into Jacob's heart. For almost immediately, he reflects on the great sorrow he experienced burying his wife, Rachel - great sorrow for such great love he had for this woman. We have seen in past weeks, how this accounted for the favour and affection he lavished on Joseph and Benjamin, the two sons borne him through Rachel. At times, this favouritism over and above Jacob's other sons was unwise as it was unloving.

Now at the precipice of his own impending death, Jacob reflects upon the blessings of his life centred on the call of God to Canaan. Yet it was this very journey ("Returning from Paddan...") that marked the passing of Rachel, who "died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath" (verse 7). Had Jacob hoped to have shared this great blessing of a new home with the love of his life, only to lose her along the way? Had he hoped for Rachel to be the means of fulfilling God's promise of many descendants, only to tragically see her die giving birth to his youngest son Benjamin?

The adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh then may be as much in honour of Joseph as it is of the memory of his mother Rachel.

8 When Israel saw the sons of Joseph, he asked, "Who are these?"
9 "They are the sons God has given me here," Joseph said to his father.
Then Israel said, "Bring them to me so I may bless them."
10 Now Israel's eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them.
11 Israel said to Joseph, "I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too."

This scene is evocative of the similar account of Jacob seeking his own father, Isaac's blessing. If you remember, Isaac, too was "old and his eyes were so weak that he could not longer see" (Genesis 27:1). Both men were near death. Both men wanted to impart words of blessing on their beloved offspring.

It is touching to read how affectionate Jacob is with his two grandchildren. He kisses them and embraces them (verse 10) - by themselves not unusual acts in the bible. We find Jacob embracing and kissing Esau (Genesis 33:4); Laban embraces and kisses Jacob (Genesis 29:13). But old Jacob now kisses and embraces - kissing first, then embracing second - to symbolise how he longs to hold on to his two grand-children; how joyful he is to be able to see them. He specifically calls for them to come before him to be blessed (verse 9). He praises God for this unexpected and gracious opportunity to be with them (verse 11).

Here is evidence of true understanding of grace. Rejoicing in another's blessing. Seeking another's good. Joseph recognises his children as a grace from God (verse 9). Jacob, who loves his son Joseph so much, can rejoice not just in him, but also in the things his son treasures most. God's grace to Joseph, is God's grace to Jacob. He is near death, and instead of asking for more time, complaining about hard times, he spends time with those he loves. Jacob understands grace - he (has learned to say that he) never deserved or expected blessing from God, but he received it nonetheless from a generous God, and for this he is thankful.

Now at his death-bed, he wants his last act on earth to be that of grace. He wants to bless Joseph. He leaves a legacy for Joseph's sons.

12 Then Joseph removed them from Israel's knees and bowed down with his face to the ground. 13 And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel's left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel's right hand, and brought them close to him. 14 But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim's head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh's head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.
15 Then he blessed Joseph and said, "May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm —may he bless these boys.
May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
and may they increase greatly upon the earth."

The blessing that Jacob bestows on Joseph and his descendants is the same blessing that was received by Jacob and his forefathers. It is the blessing of the God before whom Abraham and Isaac walked, and the God who has been the shepherd of Israel.

This helps us understand the significance of the blessing of Israel's name in verse 16. The two boys will perpetuate the family name. "May they be called by my name" - the descendants of Israel are thus known - as sons of Israel. They are the sons of Abraham and the sons of Isaac and the sons of Jacob - "the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac".

In the same way the Jacob received the promises given to his grandfather, Abraham, so now he blesses his grandchildren with the same heritage. "The God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm - may he bless these boys."

And yet, the following verses go on to show, this blessing is not merely Jacob's to give, but God's choice in election.

17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim's head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father's hand to move it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's head. 18 Joseph said to him, "No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head."

19 But his father refused and said, "I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations." 20 He blessed them that day and said,
"In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
'May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.' "
So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.

Joseph is upset with the order of blessings. Verse 17 is stronger than that NIV rendering; literally his elderly father's actions seemed "evil" to him. Perhaps he thinks the old man's truly got things mixed up, what with his failing eyesight and inability to recognise the older grandson. So, Joseph tries to rectify the situation. He takes hold of Jacob's right hand to remove it from Ephraim's head in order to place it on Manasseh.

But Jacob is well aware of his actions. "I know, son, I know." All this while, Jacob has referred to the two offspring of Joseph's in the peculiar order of Ephraim, then Manasseh (verse 5 previously, and later in verse 20 - cf. verse 1) - the younger, then the older.

Jacob explains that the "younger brother will be greater" than the older, though "he too will ... become great" (verse 20). The blessings come to each son individually - the "you" and "your" in verse 20 is singular. Each son receives a blessing. Ephraim is "put ahead of Manasseh". One receives a greater blessing than the other.

Yet at the same time, both receive one blessing, together. They are linked by the same blessing, the same pronouncement, receiving the same promise from the same God. "He blessed them... May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh".

Why is this important? On one hand the two children are privileged by their birth. They are heirs to the promise given to their forefathers, and they inherit the blessings of these promises by virtue of their lineage. God's faithfulness to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, continues on to the sons of Jacob.

Yet on the other hand, these promises come by the sovereign will and grace of an Almighty God. He has chosen to bless the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob not out of merit by out of grace and love.

Jacob understands this. He was the younger of two sons, yet he received God's blessing by grace over his older brother Esau. Such was the case with Isaac and Ishmael. And here with Ephraim and Manasseh. The blessing of the younger over the elder; the choice of the weak over the strong; the lowly over the proud - emphasises the grace of the one who blesses over the merit of the recipient of that blessing. It reminds us that God is both faithful and generous in fulfilling his promises given us in his word.

In the New Testament, we find these remarkable words from the apostle Paul:

For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.
(Romans 9:6b-8)

Paul is emphasising promise over parentage. Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, and not all of them are Abraham's children - meaning heirs of the promise given by God to Abraham. He is just stating the obvious. Ishmael didn't receive the blessing, Isaac did. Here he quotes Genesis 21:12 - "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."

Paul anticipates that not everyone will agree with him on this point. So he writes,

14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy.

Why is this a big deal? You see, the bible records these promises not simply as given to a few individuals who lived a few thousands of years ago. The New Testament looks to the promises of God given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as the foundation of the salvation of the world - our salvation, today. These are the promises that find their fulfilment in Jesus, and all who trust in him for redemption from judgement, reconciliation to God the Father and the everlasting inheritance of eternal life in the age to come.

It is a promise that comes to us not based on "desire or effort, but on God's mercy". God was fully justified in choosing sinners to receive his free grace given us through the death of Jesus, that we might receive the full inheritance as sons in his kingdom.

But just before we explore the full implications for us, Jacob has a few concluding words we still have to deal with.

21 Then Israel said to Joseph, "I am about to die, but God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers. 22And to you, as one who is over your brothers, I give the ridge of land I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow."

Jacob closes with the words of the promise. It is the promise of the land. And yet in so many ways, it seems like an unfulfilled promise. Here is this old man talking about this great piece of property God has promised, which he travelled so far to get to, costing him his beloved wife; only to speak of it now from afar in the land of Egypt.

Jacob even bestows the small bit of the land he does own to Joseph. But the manner by which he obtained it is suspect - he "took (it) from the Amorites with (his) sword and (his) bow". The Hebrew for "ridge of land" actually sounds like the word for "Shechem". You may remember the events of Chapter 34 which we looked at a few months back. It was taken with the sword, all right - Simeon and Levi had massacred the entire population of Shechem in one blood-thirsty act of revenge.

Yet Jacob will remind them of this land, for it was the centre of God's promise to him, and now it forms the basis of God's blessing unto his children. "God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers."

In a sense, you could read these verses and see frustration or disillusionment. But I think chapter 48 doesn't give us a picture of a bitter, complaining, old man dumping his disappointments on a new generation of believers. Far from it. We find a Jacob who is grateful for his past and hopeful of the future. He marvels at God's grace in his life. He recounts God's mercies to his children that they too might share in the same promises. And in a strange yet amazing way, he senses the reality of their fulfilment. I think that's why he leaves the land to Joseph. He knows it will happen. It's a small part of it, but it's a part of something much, much greater and more glorious; and he feels so much anticipation and joy and privilege that he is able to leave this wonderful legacy behind.

The New Testament in describing Jacob, and indeed all the patriarchs beginning with Abraham right up to David, Samuel and the prophets, puts it like this in the book of Hebrews:

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
(Hebrews 11:39-40)

In speaking about them, the bible is speaking to us. God had planned something better for us! It is only with us that all of them - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - would be made perfect. The reason Jacob passed on those promises so long ago, was so that we might receive them in full. The reason the bible commends the faith of these patriarchs in Genesis, is so that we might have something even better. It is so that we might have Jesus. It's Jesus.

I wonder if you think about your death. How you would spend your last days? What would you say to those you love the most? What would you want to leave behind - your mark, your contribution - not in a proud way, I know you're not like that - but in a loving way, for their good - you're thinking for their sakes.

So many of us will think of money, and that's not wrong. We plan for the well-being of those we leave behind, we make sure they are cared for - if you're a husband, you make provisions for your wife and kids. A will. An insurance plan. All that is responsible, it's loving, it's right.

If you are a Christian, you have something more. Something better.

Today we read of an old man who leaves behind a promise. It is a promise based on the revealed word of God - that through this chosen family line, God would one day bless all nations and all peoples. It is a promise that finds its fulfilment in the cross of Christ. It is the promise of forgiveness of sins to all who place their trust in the death of Jesus.

That's the gospel. It's the knowledge that Jesus brings all the promises of God to pass through his death on the cross. If you trust him, you receive him. That's what Hebrews means by being "made perfect". Christians aren't looking forward to a place, or a reward, or a status. They are looking forward to Jesus. To be with him. To be made like him. To be perfected. This is the "better" thing God had planned for us.

The gospel is Christ - we receive Christ as our inheritance. At the same time, we are God's possession - by being included in Christ.

If you are a Christian, you have a living legacy. You have Jesus. And the most precious thing you can share in your life, and in your death, is the knowledge that all who receive Christ as their treasure, as their inheritance and their reward; themselves become the God's treasure in Christ.

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.
(Ephesians 1:13-14)