October 25, 2010

Judah: The Substitute

In many ways, Jacob’s fourth son was perhaps the worst of them all. Yes, most of the others had gone along with the dastardly plot to sell their baby brother into slavery. But the sale was actually Judah’s idea (Genesis 37.26-27). He figured he could make a little money off the whole fiasco. That’s strike one against him.

And not only was Judah treacherous toward his brother, but toward his daughter-in-law, Tamar, as well. She had married into his family and her first two husbands (Judah’s two oldest sons) had died (Genesis 38.1-11), leaving her widowed. Whose job was it to take care of her in a case such as this one? Judah’s! He was supposed to provide her needs and arrange for his third son to marry her. But he didn’t do it. He sent her back to her own family and people … with no opportunity to re-marry or to have sons who would care for her when she was old. Once again, it seems Judah chose financial considerations above family loyalty. Strike two!

And then there is the rest of chapter 38 … in which Judah, after the death of his wife, got himself tangled up with a prostitute. Not exactly what you’d hope for from a patriarch in God’s chosen family. But there he was, in the prostitute’s lair, adding more and more yellow to an already dingy reputation. And, as it turns out, the prostitute was his own daughter-in-law, in disguise! If he wouldn’t give her his son for a husband, and ensure that she would have children to care for her in her old age … she would make sure of it herself. And when Judah found out what had happened, he must have been doubly ashamed. Strike three!

But aren’t we glad – for Judah’s sake, and for our own – that God does not operate on a three strike policy! That no matter how many times we blow it ... as long as we still have breath, there is yet opportunity for repentance and restoration. And Judah becomes a wonderful picture of that fact as we read into the latter chapters of Genesis!

You may recall that, after being sold into slavery, Joseph had (by God’s mercy) actually moved up the ladder in Egypt rather rapidly. In a few years, he went from being a foreign slave to being a governor in the land … responsible, during the years of great famine, for distributing food to the starving masses. Well, among those starving masses came Judah and his brothers – unaware that the ‘Egyptian’ governor before them was actually their long lost brother. And, in a bizarre twist, Joseph (it seems to me out of revenge) gave his brothers all sorts of trouble … eventually threatening to lock the youngest of them (Benjamin) in jail (ch.44). And here is where we see that, some time in the long years of regretting the way he’d handled Joseph and Tamar, Judah evidently came to repentance. His heart had changed. The man who’d been so willing to sell his little brother so long ago had been made new!

Listen to how he responded to the ‘Egyptian’ governor (44.33): “Please let your servant (namely, Judah himself) remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.” ' Take me instead of him. Let me bear the punishment in his place.' That is what Judah was now saying. He who had once sold his brother was now willing to be the substitute for his brother! He who had once made his brother a slave was no willing to become a slave for his brother. Judah had completely changed! He had, evidently, been what we would call ‘born again.’ And he is a wonderful picture of the grace that God has bestowed on so many of us. We are no longer what we once were! Not perfect, to be sure. But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God really has changed us. This is the Lord’s doing … and it should be marvelous in our eyes.

But Judah is not only a picture of us regenerated sinners, is he? Remember what he said? ‘Let me take my brother’s place. Let me be punished in his stead. Take me, and let him go free.’ Does that sound familiar? Isn’t that what Jesus, the great Messiah from the line of Judah, said to His heavenly father about the church? ‘Take Me. Punish Me. And let them go free.’ And God, our Father, mercifully, has done so for all who believe! Indeed, it was the Father's plan all along.

So thank God for Judah! And thank God for Jesus, the lion of Judah’s tribe, who became a lamb and substituted His blood for ours!

October 18, 2010

Levi: The Curse Broken

The book of Genesis does not tell us a great deal about Jacob’s third son. We do know that Levi was a part of the hot-headed and murderous plot to kill all the men of the village of Shechem (chapter 34). We know that he was also a part of the equally hot-headed and murderous plot to kill (and eventually sell into slavery) his brother Joseph (chapter 37). And we know that his father, because of the incident in Shechem, pronounced a curse on him – saying that his family would not be able to settle down like their kinsmen in Israel, but would be scattered about in the land with no tribal allotment in Canaan (49.5-7). And that’s about all we know. Levi (along with his brother Simeon) killed a whole village of innocent men, and plundered their goods, wives, and children; Levi plotted to kill his youngest brother, and eventually settled (with the help of eight other brothers) for selling him as a slave. And Levi was cursed with the promise of no tribal allotment in the Promised Land. That is all that Genesis has to tell us about Levi, save a few genealogical details about his descendants.

But it is as we read about Levi’s descendants that we learn, perhaps, the most valuable lesson from his poorly lived life. As we read on past Genesis, and into the book of Exodus, we discover that among the descendants of Levi was a couple named Amram and Jochabed (Exodus 2). They had two sons. Maybe you remember them – Aaron and Moses. And what became of them? Well, Moses became the greatest man in Old Testament history. And that means that, until the coming of Christ, Moses was the greatest man in all of history! He was used by God to pigeon hole the most powerful man on the planet (Pharaoh). He called down from heaven God’s curses on Egypt. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry ground. He organized the nation. He supervised the building of the tabernacle, God’s dwelling place. And he put into place the various sacrifices that pointed the people of Israel forward to the great and final “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1.29) – Jesus! And Moses, of course, wrote for us the first five books of the Bible!

And what about his older brother Aaron? Well, he became the very first Israelite priest. He – and his descendants after him – were the ones who had the privilege of teaching the Israelites God’s word, and interceding on their behalf in prayer, and offering all those sacrifices that pointed them forward to Jesus, God’s full and final Passover Lamb! And all of Moses and Aaron’s cousins (i.e., all the rest of the descendants of Levi) had the privilege of helping Aaron and his sons in all these affairs. They carried the tabernacle, and the furnishings, and helped with those sacrifices that prepared the way for Jesus.

So the encouraging part of the story of Levi is largely in the descendants who came after him! They, many of them, were men of great commitment and zeal and love for God. They were men who, like no one else in the Old Testament, got regular, daily glimpses of what we call the gospel. They were men who, like no one else in the Old Testament, prepared the way of the Lord Jesus. All of this, even though they were descended from one of the most despicable characters in Israelite history!

What an excellent reminder Levi is of that truth taught to us by the apostle Peter – namely that, by the shedding of “precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ”, men and women everywhere may be “redeemed from” the “futile way of life handed down from their forefathers” (1 Peter 1.18-19). Levi illustrates what Peter explains – we don’t have to be ruined by the sins of our parents and grandparents! The generational curses which are very real, and from which so many people suffer, are broken by the blood of Christ. Indeed, God was busy breaking them in the lives of those Levite men who were daily offering up those shadows and copies of the blood of Christ! Even the curse of having no tribal allotment in the Promised Land (Genesis 49.7) was turned into a blessing. Yes, the Levites were scattered all across the land of promise, with no place to call their own. But, dispersed as they were, the descendants of Levi (in their best days) became the salt and light of Israel, teaching God’s word to all the other tribes (Deuteronomy 33.10)!

So we who know Christ read the story of Levi (and his descendants!) and say to ourselves: ‘So what if my family was a mess. So what if my background is filled with generational curses just waiting to rear their ugly heads and destroy my fruitfulness. So what if I have some seeming handicaps because of the family or background from which I came. God can turn those curses into blessings. Or He can erase them altogether. The futile ways of life handed down by my own personal Levi’s are not decisive! I have been redeemed with precious blood – that which the Levites and the lambs foreshadowed … and which Christ shed once for all!

October 11, 2010

Simeon: Braveheart or Cruel Soul?

Simeon, the second son of Jacob, had a dilemma on his hands. In Genesis 34, the unthinkable had happened – his little sister, Dinah, had been raped. It came about like this …

Jacob and his ever-growing family had bought a field near the city of Shechem, and Jacob had begun to settle his family there for a season. I picture them setting up shop a bit like the Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie. Jacob had even gone so far as to erect an altar to the Lord there in the land near Shechem. So they were becoming semi-permanent in this neck of the woods. And therefore, one day young Dinah decided to go out and make friends with her new neighbors; to “visit the daughters of the land” (v.1). But, as she made her way through that neighboring town of Shechem, the young prince of that place (who was also named Shechem, either after an ancestor, or after his hometown) took a liking to her. In fact, the young man Shechem took such a liking to Dinah that he evidently cornered her in some secluded place and “lay with her by force” (v.2).

Now those words just roll off the page, for most of us, without any emotion. But just bring it into the 21st century, and place Dinah in your hometown … and giver her your last name. Imagine Dinah was your little sister, or your daughter, or your granddaughter, or your wife, or even your fellow church member. What kinds of thoughts would go through your mind? I’ll bet you might have a few moments (you men especially) where you, like Simeon (vv.18-24), wanted to emasculate the guy who did it. You might even think murderous thoughts, just like Simeon and his brother Levi (vv.25-31). I suppose that I might if something like this happened to one of my girls … or to any one of the other little girls in our church. But would it be right? Is revenge, in an instance like this one, right?

John Grisham movingly dealt with this question in his novel-turned-movie, A Time to Kill (set in Mississippi, by the way). Is it right to take justice into your own hands? Should that jury have freed Carl Lee? Our emotions often side with the dad who’s out to defend the honor of his little girl … and perhaps also with the brothers, in Genesis 34, out to defend the honor of their little sister. Our emotions side with a William Wallace who (at least in the movie) picks off the cruel English one-by-one for the way they had murdered his wife and pillaged his country.

But where do we draw the line? Well, since the law of our land does not permit honor killings and revenge motivated crimes (as much as we might sometimes understand the avenger’s motive and emotion) … we must draw the line where the law of the land draws it. But what about in our hearts? When is it right to pray, with David, that God would break our enemies’ teeth and shatter them against the rocks; and when does that kind of thinking (and potentially acting) go too far?

Well, Simeon is a good test case for us. His father was decidedly angry with his sons for what they had done (see 34.30 and 49.5-7). But why? Was he opposed to the death penalty in a case like that of his daughter’s? I doubt it. God would later implement the death penalty for cases of rape (see Deuteronomy 22.25-26).

Was he upset, more precisely, because his sons took the death penalty into their own hands? We don’t know. But there was, at the time, no civil government like we know today; no government official who might lay down the law in a case like this one. So I doubt that was Jacob’s primary qualm.

So why was Jacob so upset with his boys? Surely he was just as grieved about Dinah as his sons were … probably more so. But what he says to them, in Genesis 49.5-7 is instructive. He distances himself from their actions precisely because of their “cruelty”. It was not just that Simeon and Levi wanted justice … they wanted bloody revenge. And so they not only singled out Shechem for punishment … but his entire village. And they did not merely calmly execute their version of justice, but they deceived and humiliated the men whom they intended to kill before they actually did the killing. And then they looted the village and took captive all the widows and orphans whom they had just created.

So was Simeon a hero who honored his sister and fought to defend his family? Or was he a bloodthirsty animal, overgrown with cruelty and even greed? Was he a Braveheart, or a cruel soul? Clearly the latter. And he is, therefore, a proverb for us. Is there a place for the avenging of wrongdoing? Is there room to be angry when someone destroys or defiles another human being? Absolutely! We saw this recently in a sermon on Psalm 52. There’s not only a place for righteous anger, but a necessity. And yet we must “be angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4.26). We must not let righteous anger turn into bloodthirsty cruelty. We must not carry our desire for justice too far. And ultimately, we must allow our God to be the one to take matters into his hands. “Vengeance is Mine” says the Lord.

And thank God that, for those of us who, just as much as Shechem, deserve to die for our sins ... He has poured out that vengeance on the head of a willing scapegoat, the Lord Jesus.

October 8, 2010

Counting Down the Days

Operation World, perhaps the third most used book in my library (behind my Bible and corresponding concordance), releases it's new edition in just a few days! I can't wait. What's inside?
  • Maps
  • Political info
  • Economic, social, and people group statistics
  • Religious temperature gauging
  • And gospel-oriented prayer requests ...
... for every country under the sun! Plus information on hundreds of mission boards, a window onto the persecuted church, and so on. Pre-order at Amazon. Check out OW's book release website. Or follow them @operationworld.

October 5, 2010

Reuben: A Mixed Bag

We begin our look at the twelve dysfunctional sons of Jacob (and patriarchs of Israel) with Reuben, the first born … given by God as a special blessing to an unloved mother (Genesis 29.31). Such a blessing was this little boy that Leah named him ‘look, a son’ (the literal Hebrew meaning of the name Reuben, see v. 32). She was so happy, so thankful for her little baby boy that she selected a name for him that would reflect her joy and surprise! And given that joy; and given the fact that Reuben was a direct gift from God, we might expect that his life story would be one of heroism, and dignity, and continual blessing to those around him.

But what we actually find, as we read on through Genesis, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Reuben is the only one of Jacob’s sons who came out of the fiasco with Joseph with his reputation not totally ruined. You’ll remember that the ten oldest sons of Jacob were quite jealous of their little brother, Joseph. And understandably (though not excusably) so! Jacob clearly favored this little one above all his brothers (37.3). And, in a fit of jealousy, Joseph’s brother determined to kill him (37.18). “But Reuben heard of this and rescued him out of their hands and said, ‘Let us not take his life’. Reuben further said to them, ‘Shed no blood. Throw him into the pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay hands on him’ – that he might rescue him out of their hands and restore him to his father” (37.21-22).

In this instance, Reuben was the voice of reason, and potentially could have been the hero. And when his intervention failed, and his brothers sold Joseph as a slave behind Reuben’s back, he was heartbroken (37.29-30) … tearing his garments and crying out in agony. So here we have Reuben the dignified, brave, caring older brother.

But when we read on in chapter 37 (vv.31 and following), we discover that Jacob’s sons hatched a clever cover-up scheme to hide what they had done with Jacob. They forged a lie, complete with a bloody coat as exhibit A, to convince their dad that Joseph had been killed by wild animals (and to cover up their own shameful aggression and sin). And it would appear that, at this point, formerly brave and upright Reuben lost his nerve. Even if he did not devise the plan himself, he clearly went along with it … and prevented any opportunity of his father setting out for Egypt to buy his son back out of slavery. Add to that the fact that Reuben, in chapter 35.22, had had an affair with his father’s housemaid-turned-live-in-lover (who was also the mother of two of his little brothers) and we have an entirely different picture of Reuben.

So I say that Reuben is a mixed bag – capable of wonderful compassion and loyalty; but also capable of great weakness and even treachery. Sound like anyone you’ve seen in the mirror lately? Yes, sad to say … Reuben’s life story reads much like each of our own. All of us are mixed bags, spiritually … are we not? Created in the image of God, we have great capacities for noble and loving behavior. But fallen in the image of Adam, we are all steeped in a history of broken promises, by-passed opportunities, unthinkable disloyalties, selfish ambitions, and actions we’d just as soon forget. Even in spite of our great, God-given capacities for good, “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10).

And so, when we look in the mirror and see Reuben staring us back in the face … we’re thankful that, just over Reuben’s shoulder (and stemming from his own dysfunctional family tree) stands One who is not a mixed bag; One who was “tempted in all things as we are” (Hebrews 4.15) – tempted, like Reuben, to lose his nerve and eschew courage and loyalty in favor of self-preservation (Luke 23.41-44); tempted, like Reuben, to usurp His Father (Matthew 4.8-10) – “yet without sin”! And because Jesus is “without sin”, He could, at the cross, stand in the gap for so many Reuben’s, laying down His life for their weakness and treachery; laying down His life for your weakness and treachery. So … have you looked in the mirror yet today? And can you, by faith, see Jesus standing over your shoulder – far fairer and purer than you could ever be, and willing to forgive your every failure? Have you entrusted the mixed bag of your life into His nail-pierced hands?