Searching for Israel (Part Two):
Blessings in Faith
by Charles Whitaker
Forerunner, May 2004
Last month, we identified the promises God made to the patriarchs as search criteria that point to modern-day Israel. This month, our quest for search criteria takes us from promise to blessing. These blessings also serve as the search criteria we seek.
The patriarchs granted these blessings in faith, as Hebrews 11:20 (speaking specifically of Isaac) attests: "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come." Isaac's blessing of Jacob is important for two related reasons:
1. God renamed Jacob to Israel. The children of Israel were literally just that, the descendents of Israel, through his twelve sons. In renaming Jacob, God identified the principal characteristic of Israel—when it is faithful to God. (See "Jacob's New Name and the Character of True Israel" on p. 16.)
2. Jacob's blessing concerns "things to come." It is prophetic, looking forward to Israel's future.
Genesis 27:28-29 records Isaac's blessing of Jacob. Isaac says,
Therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!
Notably, this blessing includes wealth and power. Israel would be served by peoples and nations, and Israel's posterity would have a preeminent place among the nations.
However, there is something else. Jacob's mother had only two sons, Jacob himself, of course, and Esau. Yet, Isaac, speaking to Jacob, uses the word "sons," plural, as if Jacob had more than one brother. In fact, God's Word says nothing of Rebekah having three or more sons. This perplexes us as much as it must have perplexed Jacob when he heard these words. Why does Isaac use the language he does?
Clearly, Isaac is speaking of Abraham's extended family. The word "brethren," which is an old form of the plural of "brother," refers to all the descendants of Abraham, those through Hagar and Keturah, as well as the descendants of Esau himself. Jacob's "mother's sons" refers to all the progeny of Rebekah, falling through Jacob himself and Esau. "The blessing here raises to the idea of universal domination" (Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, p. 177).
Therefore, the blessing points to future generations, not just to the lifetime of Jacob himself. Its thrust is for the Israel of a future time. Here, then, are important search criteria.
Jacob as Prophet
Jacob, like his father, was a prophet with insight into the nature of Israel's future. Genesis 49 records a number of prophecies concerning his sons "in the last days" (verse 1). Since these prophecies refer to these last days, we are on solid ground adding them to our list of search criteria pointing to modern-day Israel.
» Verses 2-4: Reuben, "unstable as water," would "not excel," because of his sexual depravity. Although he was the firstborn, he did not receive the birthright blessing, as we will see later on.
» Verses 5-7: Simeon and Levi, treated together, would be "divided" in Jacob, "scattered" in Israel, because of their "fierce" and "cruel" anger. (Jacob is referring to the duplicity and brutality they displayed in the slaying of the men of Shechem. See Genesis 34.)
» Verses 8-12: About Judah, Jacob asserts, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes." Judah was to remain the princely tribe indefinitely.
» Verse 13: Zebulun would "dwell by the haven of the sea" and "become a haven for ships." His descendants would be a seafaring people.
» Verses 14-15: Issachar would become a "band of slaves," bowing his shoulder to bear a burden.
» Verses 16-18: Dan would judge, though he would have to wait for his salvation. He is also described as a viper who lies in wait, biting "the horse's heels so that its rider shall fall backward." Snakes leave markings as they crawl over the ground. Everywhere Dan has traveled, he has left his name as a marker.
» Verse 19: Of Gad, Jacob simply says, "A troop shall tramp upon him, but he shall triumph at last."
» Verse 20: Jacob says that "bread from Asher shall be rich, and he shall yield royal dainties."
» Verse 21: "Naphtali is a deer let loose; he gives goodly words."
» Verses 22-26: Jacob devotes quite a few words to Joseph, "who was separate from his brothers." He will become "a fruitful bough by a well; his branches run over the wall." Although he would be "bitterly grieved" in war, his strength would be made strong "by the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob." Joseph would be blessed "up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills."
» Verse 27: Jacob calls Benjamin "a ravenous wolf."
The Blessing of Joseph's Sons
Finally, the blessings Israel (Jacob) bestowed on Joseph's two boys, Ephraim and Manasseh, generate some firm search criteria pointing to the whereabouts of Israel today, especially the part of Israel that descended from the two brothers. The account appears in Genesis 48:14-20, where Jacob
stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim's head, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh's head, guiding his hands knowingly, for Manasseh was the firstborn. And he blessed Joseph, and said: "God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has fed me all my life long to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; let my name be named upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth."
Now when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; so he took hold of his father's hand to remove it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's head. And Joseph said to his father, "Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head." But his father refused and said, "I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations." So he blessed them that day, saying, "By you Israel will bless, saying, 'May God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh!' " And thus he set Ephraim before Manasseh.
Israel did not bless his grandsons in this way simply because they were "nice boys." Rather, he had come to understand the substance of the promises God had given him, his father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham. Accordingly, he blessed the boys, as Hebrews 11:21 states, "by faith." His conviction that those promises were sure led him to bless his grandsons as he did.
It is important to understand the first part of the blessing. Israel granted none of his own sons the birthright blessing. That went to Joseph's sons instead. That is why he goes out of his way to inform Joseph, "Your two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born to you in the land of Egypt . . . are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine" (verse 5). As part of the blessing itself, he makes his wishes clear; the brothers are to bear the name of Israel: "Let my name be named upon them" (verse 16). This is important: Ephraim and Manasseh were born in Egypt (Genesis 41:50-52). Jacob wants to establish legally that they were not Egyptians, but were of the family of Abraham and therefore part of the structure of promises given by God to the patriarchs.
With that important legality out of the way, Jacob continues to bless his grandsons. He blesses Manasseh, the firstborn, with greatness; he blesses Ephraim, the younger boy, by saying that he would be still greater, not only a people but a multitude of nations (Genesis 48:16, 19).
Much to the consternation of Joseph, Jacob crosses his hands, placing his right hand on the head of the younger boy, Ephraim, and his left hand on the head of the older boy, Manasseh (verse 14). This was unusual, as the right hand, signifying the greater blessing, generally was placed on the head of the older son. Jacob refuses to realign his hands, telling the concerned Joseph that his actions were no mistake. He had "guid[ed] his hands knowingly" (verse 14) when he placed them on the boys' heads. Jacob knowingly bestows the greater blessing on the younger son, Ephraim, reserving a lesser blessing for Manasseh, the firstborn. This crossing of the hands is very important to the understanding of the whereabouts of modern-day Israel.
The promises God made the patriarchs, as well as the blessings those patriarchs bestowed in faith on their sons, describe Israel. Considered in aggregate, the promises and blessings provide a good part of the information necessary to identify Israel throughout history. However, God has provided more. Next month, focusing on the covenant God made with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, we will continue our quest.
[to be continued]
Inset: Not Yet Fulfilled
What makes the promises and the blessings so important today is the fact that they have not been finally and fully fulfilled. The writer of the book of Hebrews makes it plain that the faithful of yesteryear—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and so many others—died without receiving the promises. Hebrews 11:39-40:
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
Notice the record:
» In Genesis 17:6, God promises that kings would come from Abraham. Yet, neither Isaac nor Jacob were ever kings, nor did they even beget kings. (Genesis 41:40-44 indicates that Joseph came to great power in Egypt, but remained only second-in-command under Pharaoh.) The first king to come from Abraham's descendents was Saul (of Benjamin), who was born hundreds of years after Abraham's time.
» It is true, according to Genesis 13:2, that Abraham became "very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold." However, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph never owned any land in Canaan besides a burial plot (Genesis 23). Hebrews 11:9 describes Abraham as an alien, sojourning "in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise." Stephen says that God gave Abraham "no inheritance" in the land, "not even enough to set his foot on" (Acts 7:5).
God did not bring His promises to the patriarchs to fruition in their days. Indeed, in spite of all the promises God made to Abraham concerning land, he himself came to own only one small parcel. Reminding the sons of Heth that he was "a foreigner and a sojourner" among them, he purchased a field with a cave on it to serve as a burial place for Sarah. Later on, Ishmael and Isaac buried him there as well (Genesis 25:7-10). Isaac and his wife Rebekah, as well as Jacob and his wife, Leah, were also buried there (Genesis 49:29-32). Importantly, Abraham had to buy that land; it was not given to him as an inheritance. The patriarchs never come into possession of the land as a legal, eternal inheritance.
» The patriarchs of course witnessed some population growth in their own children and grandchildren. In fact, Joseph saw Ephraim's children to the third generation, Manasseh's to the second (Genesis 50:23). But, the patriarchs never saw their descendants measured as the sand of the seashore.
The patriarchs admitted openly that they were "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13). They "all died in faith, not having received the promises."
Inset: Jacob's New Name and the Character of True Israel
God's renaming of Jacob to Israel is so important that God's Word provides two witnesses of the event. God actually tells Jacob about his new name twice. That new name, Israel, instructs us considerably about the nature of the true Israel.
The first mention of Jacob's new name was during the all-night wrestling match recorded in Genesis 32:22-32. Near the end of the struggle, the dialogue between God and Jacob goes like this (verses 26-28). God begins,
"Let Me go, for the day breaks." But he said, "I will not let You go unless You bless me!" So He said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." And He said, "Your name shall no longer by called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed."
This is the first appearance of the word Israel in God's Word.
Jacob's request for a blessing shows that he knows with whom he is wrestling. In fact, he later names the place Peniel (or Penuel), which means, "the Face of God," for, as he explains, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (verse 30). Jacob clearly understands that God could have prevailed in the wrestling match, but that He chose not to do so. He realizes that God spared his life because He had other plans and purposes in mind. He realizes that God can empower human beings to overcome.
In Genesis 35:10, God reminds Jacob of his new name. This, the second witness to the renaming of Jacob, takes place in Bethel. God asserts, "Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name." On this same occasion, God reiterates some of His promises to Abraham (verses 11-12).
True Israelites are those who, like the patriarchs in Canaan, are persuaded that God prevails for them—provides for them—according to His purposes. This is a persuasion of faith that defines a true Israelite; it is a faith totally foreign to the rationalism of today's secularists, many of whom, sadly enough, are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In their rejection of the sovereign God, these secularists adopt the fatalistic and deterministic view that history is blindly automatic, and that what we have today (capitalism, democracy, America, al Qaida, etc.) is the result of a natural progression (or evolution, if you will) of the actions and ideas of the past.
God's people understand that such a purblind progression simply does not take place. They know that God intervenes in the affairs of men and that His plan moves inexorably from promise to prophecy to reality.