September 27, 2010

Twelve Dysfunctional Men

Reuben, Simeon, Naphtali, Issachar. Those names probably don’t roll off your tongue quite as easily as Peter, James, and John. That is to say that you probably know a great deal more about the twelve apostles than you do about the twelve patriarchs (or at least the eleven not named “Joseph”). Join the club! How many of us recall why Leah named her 6th son Zebulun? And who remembers which one of Jacob’s sons was known to his father as “a strong donkey”? In fact we might well ask if anyone reading this article could even name all twelve of Jacob’s sons without some help. I’m not raising my hand!

So it occurs to me that, having once written an article apiece about each of the twelve apostles, perhaps it would be a learning exercise if I committed to write an article apiece about each of the twelve men who gave their names to the tribes of Israel – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

The fact that we know very little about them is not for lack of information. Although some of them remain in the shadows, having little recorded about them in the biblical record … others of them are painted, in the book of Genesis, in vivid (albeit often dark) colors. Just as we know far more about Peter, James, and John than we do, say, about Bartholomew … so we have far more information of Judah and Joseph than we do about Gad. But no matter. I am certain that there are God-ordained lessons to learn from each of their lives (even though I do not yet know what they all might be!). And I believe that my time (and yours) will be well spent in these studies.

So let’s just start with a general overview of the family. I’ve already reminded you that these twelve names represent the twelve sons of Jacob. And, of course, they were the great-grandchildren of that man of faith, Abraham … such that their individual families became the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

But just because these men were born into God’s chosen family did not mean that they were born saints … or even that they were born under the most saintly circumstances. You may remember (from Genesis 29) that Jacob had two wives – Rachel whom he loved, and Leah whom he, at best, tolerated (v.31). So the family was dysfunctional from the start. And when Rachel saw that she was unable to have children, while Leah had given Jacob four sons already, she became so impatient that she practically pushed her maid into Jacob’s lap so that he might have children with her, and that Rachel might raise them as her own. Then Leah, having hit a barren patch in her own reproductive history, did the same thing with her maid … so that, by the time Rachel herself was finally able to bear children, Jacob already had eight sons by three different women – two of whom were never his wives! Not exactly the picture of an Ephesians 5 kind of family! In fact, the story reads more like an episode of The Young and the Restless! And yet these were the circumstances under which the twelve founding fathers of Israel cut their teeth – watching their parents (who allegedly followed God) bicker and fuss and use Jacob’s bed as a bargaining chip.

Now what would we expect to come from such a family? Disaster, right? And there is plenty of that as we turn the pages of Genesis. The example of their parents, mixed with a heavy dose of their own sin nature, made for toxic lifestyles in the lives of these twelve boys become men.

And yet God used this family … with all its dysfunction; with all its foibles; and with all its sin. God changed hearts. God molded futures. God healed breaches and rubbed oil in old wounds. And when we finish the book of Genesis, the diseased and gnarled family tree that had been planted in Genesis 29 has become a beautiful and fruit-bearing olive tree … indeed, the very olive tree out of which a shoot named Jesus would someday spring, rescuing you and me from our dysfunction and sin.

So don’t judge too quickly, or give up too readily on those people who seem absolutely hopeless and useless in God’s kingdom. I suspect we will keep learning this lesson, over and again, as we peruse the lives of these twelve men. If God can nurse to health the family tree of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel … then He can surely renew and rehabilitate and make useful any sinner anywhere!

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