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“He's Not a Tame Lion”

Genesis 48:1 - 49:28
Bob DeGray
November 16, 2008

Key Sentence

God can be counted on to fulfill his purposes in unpredictable ways.


I. He blesses Ephraim over Manasseh (Genesis 48;1-22)
II. He blesses Judah and Joseph over their brothers (Genesis 49:1-28)


This isn’t a visually enhanced sermon, but I do want to start with a clip. At the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy and Tumnus talk about Aslan: “He’s not tame a tame lion . . . No, but he’s good.” That’s about as helpful a description of God’s work in our lives as any I’ve heard. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said to men and women and children “well, he’s not a tame lion”. By which I mean that he is not predictable: he does things in ways we would not have guessed.

As we’ve been studying Genesis, we’ve seen God’s faithfulness - to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Joseph. But we’ve seen it expressed in surprising ways: in telling Abraham to wander, in offering Isaac as a sacrifice on the altar, providing a substitute only at the last minute. In allowing Jacob’s manipulations and deceits to lead to blessing. And in allowing the evil done to Joseph, his suffering and slavery, to be the cause of rescue and blessing for all of Jacobs children and grand-children.

Predicting the behavior of God in Scripture, before you read the books that follow is like trying to predict the winner of the Super Bowl in August, or who will be elected president in 2020. God does not draw straight lines, but his curves and arcs and zig-zags never fail to get where he wants them to go. That’s what we mean by his faithfulness. And today’s prophetic text in Genesis 48 and 49 shows us once again that God can be counted to fulfill his purpose, but always in unpredictable ways.

I. He blesses Ephraim over Manasseh (Genesis 48;1-22)

We have a very long text today, much of which we’ll only comment on briefly. We begin in Genesis 48, verse 1: Some time later Joseph was told, "Your father is ill." So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him. 2When Jacob was told, "Your son Joseph has come to you," Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed. 3Jacob 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.'

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. 6Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers. 7As 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).

We’ve already been told Jacob lived seventeen years after he moved to Egypt, dying at the age of 147. Today’s chapters occur when Joseph hears that Jacob is close to death. Sitting up in bed, Jacob remembers how God appeared to him at Luz, or Bethel, after he returned from Haran to Canaan. There God named him Israel and promised to make Jacob’s offspring a great nation and to give them Canaan. Jacob also recalls the death of his beloved wife Rachel, who died in childbirth, near Bethlehem.

Because of his love for Rachel, and for Joseph her firstborn, Jacob wants to adopt Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim, to give them an extra share in this inheritance. Verses 8 to 14 describe the formal adoption ceremony:

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." 10Now 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.

11Israel said to Joseph, "I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too." 12Then Joseph removed them from Israel's knees and bowed down with his face to the ground. 13And 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. 14But 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.

Jacob obviously knows who these young men are: he’s already mentioned their names. But this is the formal adoption ceremony so he asks whose they are, and calls them close to himself, partially because of his failing eyesight, partially because such ceremonies called for the adoptive father to place the child between his knees.

Next Joseph places them under his hands, for blessing. He puts Ephraim at Jacob’s left, and Manasseh, the firstborn, at his right. Jacob, however, chooses to switch hands, giving Ephraim the preference. Why? Well, it’s prophetic: he’s seen that once again the older will serve the younger, that God doesn’t follow rules of inheritance.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary says it well “[God] is often pleased to work differently and sometimes even unconventionally. It took Jacob a lifetime of discipline to learn that fact. So now he blesses the younger over the elder. For four consecutive generations this reversed pattern was followed: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh.”

Verses 15 to 19: 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, 16the 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."

17When 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. 18Joseph said to him, "No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head." 19But 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 be a group of nations."

Jacob is wonderfully focused on God: ‘the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who has been my shepherd all my life.’ Jacob was a skilled shepherd, and he recognizes, first in Scripture, that God is even more a skilled shepherd. He remembers when God appeared to him as an angel and wrestled with him, and rescued him and blessed him. It is this God he calls to bless Ephraim and Manasseh, and he puts them in the line of the patriarch, called by his name and Isaac’s and Abraham’s

But Joseph is not yet focused on this blessing. He’s distracted by the wrong placement of Jacob’s hands. "No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head." But Jacob knows what he’s doing; he comforts Joseph by saying Manasseh too will become a great people, just not as blessed as Ephraim.

Jacob completes the blessing in verses 20-22 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. 21Then 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."

The words ‘ridge of land’ could be transliterated ‘Shechem’, the city where Jacob had bought land; he didn’t conquer it. But when the people of Israel return from Egypt the tribe of Ephraim will get that land by lot and will have to take it by sword from the Amorites. Sometimes Biblical prophecy uses the past tense to predict the future.

This is probably a good place to introduce the map of Canaan at the time of the conquest. Only after centuries of slavery will the descendants of Jacob be rescued from Egypt. A generation later they will finally conquer the promised land under Joshua, and each tribe will recieeve it’s territory by lot. This is a map of that tribal division.

Notice that though Manasseh has larger territory, Ephraim’s is more strategic, north of Judah, territory where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had lived. In later centuries, this will become a prominent part of the northern kingdom, and Ephraim the chief tribe of that kingdom. God often addresses the northern kingdom by his name.

The point is that God works out his purposes as prophesied by Jacob, but in unexpected ways. The prominent place he gives Ephraim turns out to be the northern kingdom, which is almost always in a state of rebellion against Jacob’s God.

This isn’t what you’d expect, but God fulfills his purpose in unexpected ways. I could give many Biblical examples, but the greatest is Jesus himself, who did not come as a conquering king like his father David, but as a sacrificial lamb; not one who would war against his foes, but one who would die at the hands of his foes and pay the price of their sin. What could be more unexpectedly wonderful than God substituting himself for the sinners who had earned his wrath? Taking that wrath on himself so he could be satisfied with the payment and accept sinners by grace? Would anyone have predicted that perfect plan? No. Paul calls it a mystery, something man never would have figured out unless God had done it for all to see.

God works in unexpected ways. A contemporary example is the life of Elizabeth Elliot. The daughter of missionaries, Elizabeth Howard studied Greek at Wheaton College, where she met Jim Elliot. Both went to Ecuador to work with the Quichua Indians; They married in 1953. Jim, along with four other American missionaries, felt called to reach the violent Huaorani or Woadani Indians, called Auca Indians at the time. After initial success, they were killed by a group of Hourani on January 8, 1956.

After Jim’s death, despite her grief, Elizabeth continued to work in Ecuador. A Huaorani woman named Dayuma, and two others, taught their tribal language to Elizabeth and Rachel Saint, sister of martyr Nate Saint. In October 1958, Elizabeth, Rachel, and Elizabeth’s daughter Valerie went to live with the Huaorani. The Elliots stayed two years: Rachel Saint stayed the rest of her life. And a remarkable work of grace was seen among these formerly violent people. God fulfilled his purpose for the Huaorani through the unexpected martyrdom of five dedicated young men.

But that wasn’t the only unexpected turn in Elizabeth Elliot’s life. In 1963 she returned to the U. S. to a ministry of writing and speaking. In 1969, she married Addison Leitch, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts.

But God had an unexpected plan for that marriage also: Addison Leitch died of cancer. Again, Elizabeth kept on, trusting God, and in many ways that second bereavement launched her extensive ministry caring for and challenging women in crisis. For many years Elisabeth could be heard on a daily radio program, Gateway to Joy. She also spoke frequently and effectively around the country and around the world. She married for a third time to Lars Gren and the two are retired in Massachusetts.

II. He blesses Judah and Joseph over their brothers (Genesis 49:1-28)

God works in unexpected ways to fulfill his purposes; for Jacob, for Jesus, for Elizabeth Elliot; for you and me. The amazing thing is how creative God is when he does the unexpected. We see this in the outcomes of Jacob’s blessings of his children. Chapter 48 begins with the firstborn, Reuben. Then Jacob called for his sons and said: "Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. 2"Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel. 3"Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. 4Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it.

Notice that Jacob is knowingly doing prophecy: ‘this is what will happen in days to come.’ He’s speaking as a father but also as God’s prophet revealing God’s plan. So he says of Reuben: you are my first born, the first sign of my strength, and you excel - literally you get the excess or the double portion. But he didn’t get that double inheritance. 1st Chronicles explains: “he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father's marriage bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Joseph.” In the conquest Reuben did receive an inheritance, but it was on the far side of the Jordan, near the Dead Sea, not in the heart of Canaan as would have been expected.

Next, Simeon and Levi together: "Simeon and Levi are brothers-- their swords are weapons of violence. 6Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. 7Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” The disgraceful murderous violence of Simeon and Levi was directed against the town of Shechem over the defilement of their sister Dinah.

As a result they lose their inheritance in the land: they will be scattered and dispersed. But it interesting that Simeon wasn’t dispersed, but contained. His tribe received a number of cities in Canaan, but they were in the heart of Judah’s territory. Simeon was essentially dissipated into Judah, and is rarely mention after the book of Joshua. What about Levi? His tribe was scattered, but not dishonorably. They were made the priestly tribe of Israel. The priesthood that was so important to the life of the nation in future centuries came from this violent and dishonored parent. Amazing. Two different, unexpected, but legitimate fulfillments of this key prophecy.

Judah’s prophecy is the high point. "Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you. 9You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse him? 10The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. 11He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. 12His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.

In many of these prophecies, Jacob uses word plays on his sons names. Judah means praise, and Jacob says his brothers will praise him and his father’s sons will bow down to him. That had been true of Joseph, but not of Judah, as far as we know, during his lifetime. But Judah is a lion, a lion’s cub, a lioness. He’s the lion of this family, and Jacob means it just the way we do: he’s the king of beasts.

From Judah will come the great king of Israel: David. And his kingship will lead in time to the messiah. Did you know Jesus was in Genesis? That’s Jacob’s implication: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” This blind old man is looking forward 800 and 1800 years and in some way seeing Judah and David and Jesus as one connected blessing. You could have guessed David; a great king to rule all the tribes of Israel; ‘your brothers will bow down to you.’

But he says of Jesus: “the obedience of the nations is his” and his reign will be one of abundance. Jesus is the unexpected fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus, the one to whom David’s reign ultimately points, achieves God’s purpose not by power but by humility and self sacrifice. He is the lion of the Tribe of Judah, based on this prophecy, but when you look at him, as John did in chapter 5 of Revelation, you see a Lamb who was slain, God’s unique fulfillment.

Jacob moves quickly through his remaining sons: “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon.” The tribe of Zebulun didn’t receive an allotment along the coast, though it’s possible they had an avenue to the sea along the Kishon River. The unexpectedness here is that the prophecy was not as literally fulfilled as we would expect.

Issachar, on the other hand, received an allotment between two of the most mountainous regions in Canaan, near Mt. Moriah. So Jacob’s words make geographical sense: “Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down between two saddlebags. 15When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor.

Verse 16: "Dan will provide justice for his people as one of the tribes of Israel. 17Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse's heels so that its rider tumbles backward. This is another tribe that shows a disparity between calling and achievement. Dan was to provide justice; his name means ‘judge’, but the tribe chose treachery, like a snake by the roadside. In the time of the Judges the first major practice of idolatry appeared in the tribe of Dan.

At this point Jacob interjects a request for deliverance. He may have been indirectly reminding his sons of their need for dependence on the Lord.Or he may have been expressing his desire to enjoy the messianic hope he’s seeing in his own prophecies.

Verse 19: “Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels.” Three of the six words in the Hebrew are a play on Gad’s name, which means ‘attack’. As one of the tribes on the east side of the Jordan: invaders would pass through Gad’s territory: the tribe could then counter-attack from behind.

Verse 20: "Asher's food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king. This tribe, settling along the fertile northern coast of Canaan, would have every opportunity to provide rich food for the rest of the country.

Verse 21: "Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” The historical reference for this is not clear, but the Scriptural allusion to a doe is particularly appropriate to the forests and hills where the tribe of Naphtali received it’s allotment.

Joseph, of course, receives the most extended blessing: “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall. 23With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. 24But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,

25because of your father's God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb. 26Your father's blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers.”

Some of this is a retelling of Joseph’s history: he was attacked by his brothers, but he stayed faithful because of God, who Jacob again calls the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. Jacob also predicts that blessing will be poured out on Joseph in abundance. Because of the adoption of his sons, no individual allotment was made to Joseph: his name doesn’t appear on the map of Israel. But Ephraim and Manasseh receive Jacob’s blessing, especially Ephraim who is given the historic heart of Canaan.

Finally, there is Benjamin, verse 27: "Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder." This blessing describes a tribe that is violent in spirit. Later, in Canaan, we will find the Benjamites to be war-like and violent, as was their most renowned son, Saul the first King of Israel.

Verse 28: “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him. God is revealing his purposes for these sons. He gives pretty clear prophecies through Jacob.

But he fulfills them in unexpected ways: Levi is dispersed, to become the priesthood; Ephraim becomes great, as the unfaithful northern kingdom. And Judah becomes the lion tribe, the tribe of King David, but when the one comes to whom the scepter is due, he doesn’t take it, but offers himself as the sacrifice.

We can count on God to accomplish his purposes in unpredictable ways. Even the story of Jim and Elizabeth Elliot has a further unpredictable outcome. Many of you have seen this in the movie “End of the Spear.” Rachel Saint, Nate Saint’s sister went and ministered to the Woadani tribe, with crucial help from Dayuma, who had become a strong Christian. Rachel was often visited by her nephew. But Steve Saint struggled with bitterness of his father’s death, and the movie recounts the events over the course of years that led to true reconciliation with his father’s killers, especially Mincaye, the man who almost certainly killed his father.

He says “It reminds me of the part in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe after Aslan is killed. Susan and Lucy are totally despondent. They think, like I thought, that the world is done, everything is dark, everything that was good has turned bad. They can't see how could any good come from this, until all of a sudden Aslan comes back to life. It's the same in this movie, when little Stevie - using the very words I used as a boy - tells Aunt Rachel, "It didn't work. God doesn't care. My Dad is gone. There's no hope." But she says, "Let's not judge that too quickly."

But like Narnia, when an innocent, willing victim is killed, as my father and the others were, death begins working backwards. When I saw that in the Narnia movie, I said, "That's it! It's the same message!" Narnia is about vertical reconciliation, and End of the Spear is horizontal reconciliation. But both stories show what can happen when the mystery is revealed - God giving his own Son so we can be reconciled.”

The unexpected outcome that God has been working on all along is reconciliation. We can count on the lion of the tribe of Judah to fulfill his purposes in unexpected ways.