by Dr. John Conrad
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
In this day when God has promised to restore all things, putting the house of Israel back together seems as impossible as making Humpy Dumpty whole. The life of our patriarch, Jacob, provides insight into this restoration.
Genesis 35:16-26: Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor. When she was in severe labor the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for now you have another son.” It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
It came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine, and Israel heard of it. Now there were twelve sons of Jacob – the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, then Simeon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Zebulun; the sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin; and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher.
In the Torah a person’s name describes his mission. Yahweh promises Abram in Genesis 12:2-3, “And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Name in both Hebrew and English refers not only to the given name but includes the character and reputation of the man. God changed Abram’s given name to Abraham to underscore his mission as “father of a multitude.”
Yahweh’s promise to Abraham transferred to Isaac (not Ishmael) then to Jacob (not Esau) and thus to Jacob’s 12 sons. In this passage the sons are grouped according to their mother. Two sisters, Leah and Rachel, were Jacob’s wives. Jacob chose Rachel, but he was tricked by the girls’ father, Laban, into marrying Leah first. This subterfuge undermined the marriage. Leah and Rachel spent their lives as Jacob’s wives fighting a battle to win the approval of both Jacob and God. Leah had six sons which she named. Every name was not only the son’s mission but a repudiation of her sister and a calculated move to give her an advantage in the ongoing war:
• Reuben, “Look, a son.”
• Shimon, “The Lord has heard.”
• Levi, “Attached, joined or connected.” (“Now my husband will be attached to me.”)
• Judah, “Praise.” (“This time I will praise Him.”)
The Bible makes clear that these names were attempts by Leah to “show up” Rachel.
After Leah bore these four sons, Rachel demanded that Jacob “give me children or I die!” Jacob retorted, “Am I in the place of God to withhold children from your womb?” In desperation, Rachel commanded her handmaid, Bilhah, to go into her husband that she “too may have children.” Israel conceived two sons with Bilhah. Both boys are named by Rachel.
• Dan, “Judge.” (“Yahweh has vindicated me.”)
• Naphtali, “Wrestling.” (“I have struggled with my sister and overcome.”)
Rachel, not Bilhah, named the boys using the names as weapons against Leah in the continuing turf war.
When Leah saw she had quit bearing children, she forced her handmaid, Zilpah, upon Jacob. The names given by Leah continue to be adversarial:
• Gad, “Fortune.” (“How fortunate.”)
• Asher, “Happy.” (“Happy am I for women will call me happy.”)
Inflaming this sibling rivalry, Jacob confined his nightly companionship to Rachel. Leah’s young son Reuben found mandrakes and brought them to his mother Leah. Mandrakes were believed to assist in conception and pregnancy. When Rachel saw the mandrakes she was jealous and asked for some. Leah angrily replied, “Now that you have taken my husband, will you take my mandrakes as well? You can have my mandrakes if Jacob comes to sleep with me tonight.” Rachel gladly accepted this bargain, somehow not realizing that mandrakes are not what produce children. Surprise, surprise! Leah became pregnant and delivered Issachar. Leah follows with another son Zebulun.
• Issachar, “Wages or recompense.” (“God has given me my wages.”)
• Zebulun, “Dwelling.” (“Now my husband will dwell with me.”)
Finally, Rachel bore a son:
• Joseph, “He will add.” (“May Yahweh give me another son.”)
She was grateful for Joseph, but saw him as just the start of her quest to get even with Leah. This brings us to our initial passage in Genesis 35 where Rachel gave birth to Benoni, “son of my suffering.”
Oddly, the father finally intervened and changed his name to Benjamin. This is the only son that Jacob names.
• Benjamin, “son of my right hand.”
All things work together for good – but not all things are good. Polygamy is not good. It rends the heart. It shares that which cannot be shared. It destroys intimacy. Similarly, idolatry is evil. It shares the worshiper’s heart for Yahweh with another god. However, God uses Jacob’s polygamy for his purposes. Through Israel’s struggling sons he will raise up the redemptive nation of Israel. Israel’s family is a picture of reality, not perfection.
The family was torn by preference; Rachel over Leah, Joseph above his brothers. Israel’s wives were consumed by contrasting desires springing from specific deficits and blinding them to everything else in life. Leah ached for the love of her husband, Jacob. Rachel yearned for a son. In their single minded quest to achieve their goals they destroyed the relationships in their lives and objectified all the people that were important to them. The sisters permanently alienated each other. Their handmaids lost their humanity and became pawns just like the sons. Jacob stopped being a husband--he became the herd sire. All became weapons to use against each other. This internal warfare became so fierce that Reuben, the firstborn son of Leah and Jacob, slept with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, in an incredible display of hatred, revenge, and repudiation directed at his father, his aunt, and the mother of Dan and Naphtali. This violation cost him his birthright. When, in a future chapter, the brothers, led by Judah, sold Joseph into slavery, it demonstrated a terrible reality. The fault lines drawn in the family, based upon the identity of each son’s mother, had opened wide enough to induce murder.
The reconciliation of Joseph to his brothers only became possible when they realized they all had one father. When Judah offered himself as a slave to Joseph to avert the damage that losing Benjamin would cause Israel, Joseph is undone. Judah’s evident love for Jacob and for Benjamin removed the last shred of his resistance to reconciliation.
Genesis 44:30-45:1 “Now, therefore, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us, since his life is bound up in the lad’s life, when he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die. Thus your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow. “For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.’ “Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.
“For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me – for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my father?”
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried, “Have everyone go out from me.” So there was no man with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
The history of Israel, both Ephraim and Judah, reeks of battle lines drawn over the identity of our “mothers” – our cultures, our churches, our fellowships. The apostle Paul consented to the death of Stephen, a fellow Jew, because of Stephen’s faith in Yeshua. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and rival Christians died at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church during the Inquisition. The Crusaders invited the Jewish population of Jerusalem to the Great Synagogue promising them safety and then burned it to the ground with everyone in it. When Cromwell conquered Ireland he was responsible for the destruction of possibly one fourth of the entire population because he was on a crusade against the hated Roman Catholic heretics. Hitler successfully recruited Christians in Germany to assist in his final solution against the Jews because of the deep collective memory of German Christians distrusting and hating all things coming from the “mother of the synagogue.”
Also we can see in the names of our denominations and fellowships the continuing trend of the battle launched by Leah and Rachel. For example, man created The Roman Catholic (Universal) Church (i.e. “the only church”) and The Orthodox Church (i.e. “the one with good teaching, so you know what this says about the rest.”) Furthermore, each Orthodox group is delineated by its geographical origin; Greek, Russian, Armenian, etc. Anabaptists are against baptism, that is, infant baptism, so take that Catholics. Baptists are not only opposed to infant baptism, but against sprinkling. Then, if you are a Berean Baptist, you diligently search out the scripture to show what is true (i.e. “sorry about your Mickey Mouse group.”) And the beat goes on.
Furthermore, research into the histories and roots of these different groups may reveal idolatry and other grievous sins--enough to declare them heretics and outside the Abrahamic inheritance. For instance, we forget that those who see themselves as Ephraim have Rachel as their mother. Sadly, Rachel hid stolen idols from her husband and from her father (Genesis 31:19).
Benjamin, the only son named by his father, became the instrument for bringing together Israel’s 12 sons. Truly, he was a “son of trouble or suffering” whose birth caused his mother Rachel’s death. But Israel’s prophetic gift correctly identified him as the “son of my right hand.”
Our Father reconciled us to himself by sending Yeshua, a son of Judah and David. Yeshua’s death and resurrection gave us the ultimate good deal. For accepting his death on our behalf, he, who knew no sin, takes our sin and grants us the righteousness of God. There is no bargain in history approaching this one.
However, we mustn’t forget this statement: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through the Messiah and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in the Messiah reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
This good deal hinges on one fact; Yahweh chooses not to count our sins against us. Joseph’s touching scene – where he breaks down weeping and calls his brothers to him – only happens when all the participants stop counting past hurts. They love their mothers, but they lay down the historical pain and mistreatment and choose to be defined by their one father. For Joseph and Judah to be joined together each had to forgive the sins of their mothers and forget the angry past of retribution and revenge. Similarly today, Judah and Ephraim will come together by acknowledging Malachi 2:10’s question; “Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us?” This reconciliation seems impossible, but through our God all things are possible.
Printed in the MIA Herald, December 2010.