Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Exodus. Day 2, Pharaoh Wants All The Hebrew Baby Boys Dead

The racist king of Egypt has become so paranoid of the Hebrew people that he passes a law so appalling that the ones required to carry it out refuse to obey it.

In yesterday's study we learned that the Egyptian government forced the Hebrews into slavery. The king hoped this would decrease their numbers, for forced labor took a heavy toll on the health and lifespans of ancient people. He thought they would die younger and produce fewer children. But it appears as if the opposite happened: God blessed them and caused them to multiply even more. When the king sees that these Semitic people are continuing to grow in number, his irrational fear of them causes him to implement a new plan and issue a shocking decree.

"The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 'When you are helping the Hebrew women during birth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.'" (Exodus 1:15-16) Though some versions of the Bible call these women "Hebrew midwives" it would be more accurate to render their identity in verse 15 as "midwives to the Hebrews". These two women were almost certainly Egyptian ladies, for it's difficult to imagine Pharaoh telling Hebrew women to kill baby boys of their own race.

Why were Egyptian women assisting Hebrew women in childbirth? I think until the Hebrews moved to Egypt their females in childbirth were attended only by female family members. As you'll recall, these people were few in number when they went to Egypt. Including Joseph and his sons, this family numbered seventy in all at the conclusion of Genesis. None of them worked as physicians or nurses as far as we know, so when a woman went into labor she was assisted by her own mother and perhaps another woman or two who had already been through childbirth. But in a highly developed society like Egypt there were a large number of citizens working in various fields of medicine. The Hebrew women now had access to better, safer medical care during labor and childbirth. When they went into labor they could send someone to hire an Egyptian midwife who had a great deal of experience in dealing with any complications that might arise. Pharmacists existed in ancient Egypt and I think it's likely that the Egyptian midwives were able to administer pain medications to women in labor, which would make hiring an Egyptian midwife seem even more desirable so that women were more comfortable during childbirth.

Scholars believe Shiphrah and Puah could not have been the only Egyptian midwives who worked with Hebrew women. There were far too many Hebrew women in Egypt by now for only two midwives to be able to assist them all, so scholars suggest that these two were the "head midwives" who oversaw the work of all the Egyptian midwives who were willing to go to Goshen to assist Hebrew women with their deliveries. If that's the case then the king is ordering not only these two women to smother newborn baby boys to death, but he's also ordering them to force their subordinates to do the same. I assume the mothers giving birth to the baby boys are not meant to be aware that their babies are being murdered. I think the midwives were supposed to do their dirty deeds quickly, before the mother had recovered enough to realize what's happening, and then these midwives are to say, "I'm sorry, ma'am. Your son is stillborn." Pharaoh's plot against the Hebrews is to reduce the number of males and also to reduce the people to despair. If every baby boy of theirs is stillborn, I think he wants them to conclude that the judgment of their God has fallen upon them. How else to explain why all their baby boys are born dead? Pharaoh is trying to harm them not only physically (by taking deadly action against their newborn males) but also spiritually. He wants them to give up. He wants them to become hopeless. People who are defeated emotionally and spiritually are not going to be able to mount a rebellion against him.

"The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live." (Exodus 1:17) Pharaoh failed to take something vitally important into consideration: these head midwives fear the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They fear the God whom Joseph served during his long years as governor of Egypt. They've seen how greatly God blesses and multiplies the Hebrew people who are faithful to Him. I can't say for sure whether these women worship God themselves or whether they still serve the false gods of Egypt, but I can say they don't want to get on the wrong side of a God who clearly exists and who is very powerful.

They refuse to carry out Pharaoh's orders, but due to fact that he has the authority to kill them for their disobedience, they lie about why they've been unable to obey him. "Then the king of Egypt and summoned the midwives and asked them, 'Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?' The midwives answered Pharaoh, 'The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.'" (Exodus 1:18-19) I picture these women standing in front of the king, shaking inwardly with fear of him but determined to do the right thing. They fear God more than they fear any man. So they shrug their shoulders, throw their hands up in the air, and say, "It's not our fault! Our Egyptian women are pampered and weak and aren't used to any type of hard labor. They spend many hours in childbirth before they deliver their babies. But the Hebrew women are tough. They're used to hard work. They send for us when they go into labor but before we can get there they've already had their babies and are holding them in their arms. It's too late by then for us to stealthily kill their baby boys and pretend they were born dead."

The Lord blesses the midwives for their refusal to obey the king. "So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families of their own." (Exodus 1:20-21) Midwives were usually barren married women. They had no children of their own to raise and this allowed them to work full time outside of their homes assisting women who could have children. Just imagine how difficult it was for women who longed to be mothers themselves to deliver new babies day after day. They were constantly placing newborn babies in the arms of happy new mothers while their own arms remained empty. Because Shiphrah and Puah and the women who worked under them refused to obey the king, the Lord healed their bodies. He healed whatever has prevented them from bearing children of their own. For the first time in their lives, someone is placing healthy newborn babies in their arms.

Now that the Egyptian midwives have children of their own to raise, they can no longer go out to Goshen to assist the Hebrew women in childbirth. They won't be in a position for the king to order them to commit heinous crimes. But this doesn't deter him. In tomorrow's passage he's going to give up on his plan to murder Hebrew baby boys stealthily. He's going to come right out into the open and issue a public order to throw them into the Nile River.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Exodus. Day 1, A New King Rises In Egypt

Moses opens the book of Exodus by reminding us of the number of Hebrew people who originally came to Egypt. He does this to demonstrate to us how greatly they multiplied while there.

"These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt." (Exodus 1:1-5) The Lord told Abraham that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land for 430 years. Though only seventy Hebrew persons entered Egypt, many scholars believe that it's not out of the question to assume their population may have numbered as much as two million when the Lord brings them out of Egypt four centuries later.

"Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them." (Exodus 1:6-7) Joseph lived to be 110 years old and we can assume his brothers lived a hundred or so years each. They all pass on and succeeding generations take their place. The king who promoted Joseph to second-in-command has also died and a king (or dynasty of kings) that has no regard for the Hebrews takes over the land. "Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt." (Exodus 1:8)

During our study of Genesis we discussed the possibility that Joseph worked in the employ of one of the final great Hyksos kings, perhaps Apepi I. The Hyksos were a Semitic people who invaded, conquered, and ruled over Lower Egypt for a time. Their capital was near the land of Goshen, the land Joseph requested for his family when they came to Egypt. This would explain why Joseph's own home appeared to be near his family's settlement in Goshen, for he and all the other high-ranking officials, including Pharaoh himself, would have resided in that region of Lower Egypt. The native-born Egyptian Pharaohs preferred to reign from Thebes. If the Pharaoh of Joseph's time was a Hyksos, this helps to explain why he elevated a Hebrew from a shepherding family to a position of near-equality with himself. The Hyksos were Semites who were originally migratory shepherds themselves and they would not have looked down on the Hebrews in the way a native Egyptian would have. Native Egyptians considered themselves superior to all other races and would not even eat at the same table with someone not of Egyptian heritage. If Joseph served under a Hyksos king, then when the Egyptians managed to take back full control of their land and drove the Hyksos occupiers out, we can see why this new dynasty of rulers would have also cast a suspicious eye upon another Semitic group within their borders: the Hebrews.

Why did they not expel the Hebrews from their midst? The Bible provides no explanation for this and neither does history or archaeology, at least not that I was able to find in my research. Perhaps the Hebrews were so plentiful by now that forcibly throwing them and everything they owned out of the country was too difficult a task. Or it could be that the Egyptians feared this would cause the Hebrews to band together with Egypt's enemies at the time---the Hyksos or the Hittites, for example---and come back with a great army to make war. Contrary to what this new Pharaoh seems to think in Exodus 1, the Hebrews were content to live in peace in the land of Goshen and mind their own business. They weren't interested in suddenly rising up to overthrow the Egyptians and they weren't interested in becoming soldiers-for-hire for Egypt's enemies as Pharaoh seems to be suggesting when we arrive at verses 9 and 10. But it looks as if the new administration feared they would band together with other Semitic tribes to help those tribes take Egypt from its new ruling native-born dynasty. "'Look,' he said to his people, 'the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.'" (Exodus 1:9-10)

"So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh." (Exodus 1:11) How did they enslave them? The Bible doesn't say, but it likely was easier for the Egyptian soldiers to go into Goshen and oppress them than to round them up and evict them from the country. Or perhaps something happened that caused the Hebrews to become indebted somehow to the Egyptians. During the famine of Joseph's time, for example, the Egyptian citizens themselves became indebted to the government when they ran out of money to purchase grain and had to trade their livestock, their land, and eventually themselves in exchange for food. If for some reason the Hebrews had to rely upon the Egyptian government for a season, and if their reliance placed them in debt to the government, they may have had to "work off" that debt. Or it could be that the Egyptians began levying a very heavy tax upon the Hebrews, a tax so immense that they could not continue to pay it, and that put them so deeply in debt to Egypt that the government foreclosed on them by forcing them into labor. This would have placed the Egyptian government in a position to oppress them severely once their racist fear of the Hebrews grew to such magnitude that they became irrationally fearful of an uprising.

The forced labor of the Hebrew people does nothing to decrease their long lifespans or their fertility. "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly." (Exodus 1:12-14) The Hebrews may not be free to leave, not just yet, but the Lord blesses them and increases their number during their years in slavery. When He brings them out of Egypt they will be a mighty nation large enough to take over and occupy the promised land. To the Egyptians they are sub-humans, but to the Lord they are a chosen people.

The king who originally oppressed the Hebrews may not be the king who issues a dire decree in tomorrow's passage. We don't know in what year the Egyptians first decided to oppress the Hebrews or how long the Hebrews were forced into slavery. We simply know that the entire length of their sojourn in Egypt---from the time Jacob's family arrived until the time the Lord leads them out---is 430 years. We aren't given the names of any of the kings of the book of Exodus, but the king on the throne who later refuses Moses' request to let the Hebrews go is not the king of today's passage or of tomorrow's passage. The most we will be able to do is speculate on the identity of these kings, and we will do that later on, but I didn't want to begin our study of Exodus with a lot of complicated Egyptian history or a lot of mathematics regarding the timeline of the exodus.

Tomorrow an Egyptian pharaoh will sign a death sentence for all the new baby boys born to Hebrew women. But a princess of his own household will save the life of a baby boy who will become the one known as Moses: God's chosen deliverer of His people Israel.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 181, The Death Of Joseph

We conclude the book of Genesis today with the death of Joseph. It makes me sad to say goodbye to him because he's a genuinely nice guy. We know he didn't live a perfect life because no one ever has except Jesus Christ, but the Bible doesn't give us any examples of mistakes Joseph made during his life. The Bible does provide us with many examples of Joseph displaying a positive, godly attitude no matter what came his way. Because he's such a likable character, I find it difficult to say goodbye to him in our passage today, but maybe it will help if we think of it not as a goodbye but as a "so long for now". I like to think that someday, during our wonderful eternity with Christ Jesus our Lord, we can meet Joseph face to face and hear him tell us about his life in his own words.

"Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father's family." (Genesis 50:22a) Was Joseph free to leave if he wanted to leave? I think so, but Joseph is a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. He's the governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and he is not the type of man to desert his post. His wise counsel is needed at the king's palace. His godly influence is a blessing to the idolatrous land of Egypt. Who knows how many people converted to the one true God because Joseph spent the remainder of his life in Egypt, setting a godly example for his servants and co-workers to follow, giving his testimony about the Lord when interacting with officials and commoners alike? I believe Joseph stayed in Egypt because the Lord wanted him in Egypt, and Joseph is a man who does what the Lord tells him.

Sometimes we find ourselves in work environments or educational environments where the people we must associate with are unbelievers. Maybe they use a lot of curse words or mock the existence of the Lord or make fun of people who are Christians. Our first instinct is to try to find some other place to work or go to school, but we need to consider that the Lord may have purposely placed us there to be a godly influence on those around us. I'm not saying we should take a job or remain in a job where we'd have to do dishonest things or sexually immoral things; I'm just talking about ordinary workplaces where our co-workers don't share our religious beliefs. What influence might we have on those people if we just live out our faith, day after day, in their sight? We don't even have to proselytize in the workplace or give a verbal testimony about our salvation; just living a godly life in the sight of our co-workers may gradually cause them to warm up to the idea of living the Christian life. Someday one of them might come to us privately and ask us about our faith. Or they might want to know what church we attend because they are interested in visiting it one Sunday morning. Joseph was needed in Egypt because his life was like a light in the deep darkness that is false religion. I honestly have no doubts that at least one soul was saved---and perhaps many more---because he remained where the Lord wanted him. We can follow his example by blooming where we're planted, even when it seems like we're planted in the midst of people who have no respect for the Lord.

"He lived a hundred and ten years and saw the third generation of Ephraim's children. Also the children of Makir son of Manasseh were placed at birth upon Joseph's knees." (Genesis 50:22b-23) What a long and fruitful life! He's lived ninety-three years in the land of Egypt and most of those years have been good years. He's blessed to have witnessed so many generations of his family. The oldest-living person I've ever known was one of my great aunts, who I believe passed on at the age of 106. I had the opportunity to go out of state to visit her a year or two before she died, and she saw several generations of her family's descendants, and she certainly felt she'd lived a long and fruitful life. Her physical health was failing but mentally she was still very sharp. Joseph's physical health is failing but we can tell in our passage today that's he's still mentally very sharp as he says his last words to his family and gives them instructions regarding the disposition of his earthly remains.

"Then Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, 'God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.'" (Genesis 50:24-25) Are his brothers and their families not free to leave Egypt? At this time I think they are, if they wanted to. They aren't slaves under the administration for which Joseph worked. The famine is long past. Crops are growing again in their homeland of Canaan. The promised land, which the Lord said He would give them, is probably well on its way to flowing with milk and honey. We don't know exactly why the children of Israel remained in Egypt so long. Did they become comfortable and complacent in the rich land of Goshen? Did they stay simply because Joseph remained faithful to his post and they didn't want to ever again be separated from their brother? Did Joseph instruct them, by inspiration of the Lord, to remain there because he knows Egypt is the land the Lord told Abraham his descendants would dwell in for over four centuries? The Lord never named the land that would come to oppress the people of Israel, but Joseph knows by now that it's Egypt. Joseph knows it's the Lord's will for the people of Israel to spend four centuries in Egypt before it will be the right time for them to drive the pagan tribes from Canaan and take over the land. While the Lord is doing things in the hearts and lives of Israel in Egypt, He's making every effort to do things in the hearts and lives of the people of Canaan. He's giving the pagan people of Canaan four centuries to repent and turn to Him. They won't, but in His righteousness He can't deprive them of the opportunity. It will never be said of the Lord that He didn't give the idolaters of Canaan plenty of time to see the error of their ways. The Lord knows they won't listen to Him but He's too holy not to try anyway. In the final judgment none of them will be able to accuse Him of never giving them a chance to repent before uprooting them from the land and planting Israel in their place.

Meanwhile, God is keeping His people Israel separate from the idolatry of Canaan. He's keeping His people Israel segregated from the idolatry of Egypt, for although Egypt was once one of the most idolatrous nations on the face of the earth, they would not intermarry with or socially interact with Hebrews. This allowed the Hebrews to maintain their own religion and their own customs in a bubble, so to speak, right in the middle of a land that had almost more false gods than a man could count. Even their oppression during later kings was a part of God's will, for when are we most likely to call out to and rely on God? Is it during prosperous times or during difficult times? It's during difficult times, isn't it? During the centuries of their oppression they had no one to call out to for help but God. Though their captivity must have seemed long, not a single cry went unheard by God. Not a single unkind act toward them went unnoticed by God. At the right time and in the right way He brought them out in a stunning display of His awesome saving power. We will be moving on into the book of Exodus tomorrow and will study His miraculous acts on behalf of His people Israel.

"So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt." (Genesis 50:26) Joseph would have merited all the royal treatment Egypt had to offer. His body did undergo the finest embalming available in his time. No doubt everyone in Egypt observed a mourning period for him, and it may even have been the seventy-two day mourning period observed for kings and for native-born Egyptian high officials. His body was probably placed in a coffin so fine that it rivaled the coffin of a king. But he was not buried in a tomb. No pyramid or ornate underground chamber ever held his remains. His body, in its coffin, was almost certainly kept in an easily accessible location in Goshen, for when the children of Israel emerge from Egypt in the exodus, they will take Joseph's body in its coffin with them.

I hold Joseph in such high esteem that I almost feel like observing a moment of silence for him here. But I don't think Joseph felt a bit sorrowful about his impending death. I think he was ready to go on and meet the Lord he so faithfully served. If anything weighs heavy on him at his death it's the knowledge that his people will be oppressed and enslaved for several centuries, and that Satan (through a wicked, racist king) will attempt to kill off the family line of the coming Savior by issuing an order for all the baby boys of the Israelites to be killed at birth. But Joseph also knows that the Lord will redeem the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and that the Lord will redeem mankind from their sins through the Promised One. Joseph's life ends peacefully, on a note of hope, with light at the end of the tunnel. He dies in faith, believing God fulfills every promise He ever makes.

Rest well, Joseph. So long....for now.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 180, Joseph's Brothers Are Afraid Of Him

Jacob is dead and Joseph and his brothers have returned to Egypt after interring his body in the cave at Machpelah. Now that their father is dead, Joseph's brothers become fearful that he will take revenge on them.

"When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, 'What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?'" (Genesis 50:15) These men have lived near their brother in Egypt for seventeen years and he hasn't laid a hand on them. Why do they suddenly become paranoid about their safety? I think they're afraid he held back only for the sake of their father. They know Joseph said he forgave them but as a rough and tumble bunch of hot-tempered men they can easily understand a man holding a grudge for a long time but not acting upon it until the right opportunity. That's the kind of people they were themselves at one time. Joseph's ten older brothers perpetrated a deception upon the men of Shechem in order to avenge the honor of their sister Dinah. They lied to the men of that city and promised to socially mingle with and intermarry with the people of Shechem if only all its males would become circumcised. After the men of the town complied with this request, Joseph's brothers waited three more days until the men were all in recovery and painfully indisposed at home before carrying out their plot to kill every man there and take everything that belonged to every man they killed. Joseph's brothers are men who once believed revenge was a dish best served cold, and they conspired together to commit first-degree murder on the men of Shechem, so it's not hard for them to imagine that Joseph might have waited seventeen years for their father to die before turning on them.

They acknowledge they deserve any punishment Joseph chooses to dish out when they say he might get them back for "all the wrongs we did to him". I think their awareness of their sin is why their fear looms so large. No one in Egypt or anywhere else would blame Joseph if he paid them back for their cruel treatment of him. They wouldn't blame him themselves. He's already shown them far more mercy than they deserve by allowing them to live peacefully in Goshen for the past seventeen years. There's nothing they can say in their defense, so they don't make a defense. All they make is a plea for mercy. "So they sent word to Joseph, saying, 'Your father left these instructions before he died: 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father." (Genesis 50:16-17a)

Did Jacob say this? In a way I doubt it since it's hard for me to imagine his sons troubling him with their fears that Joseph might turn on them after Jacob's death. On the other hand, Jacob might not have had to be told his sons were afraid of Joseph. He was a perceptive man who, by the end of his life, also appeared to have the gift of prophecy. I don't think Jacob actually thought Joseph would do them any harm, but he may have been aware that his oldest sons harbored this fear in their hearts. Jacob may have known they'd be afraid of Joseph after his death and that they'd need the reassurance of Joseph telling them once again that he has forgiven them. It's human nature to want reassurance, isn't it? Don't we sometimes have to remind ourselves that God loves us and that He's accepted our repentance and that He's forgiven us? Doesn't it comfort our hearts to read passages of Scripture where God assures us we're saved to the uttermost and that He's cast our sins behind His back and that our sins are as far removed from His sight as something at the bottom of the sea? (Hebrews 7:25, Isaiah 38:17, Micah 7:19) Joseph's older brothers need the reassurance of hearing him say, once again, that the past is going to remain in the past. He's not going to dredge up their sins and fling them in their faces. He hasn't been plotting revenge all these years, waiting for the perfect time to strike. Instead his attitude is going to be like God's. What's forgiven is forgiven.

"When their message came to him, Joseph wept." (Genesis 50:17b) I don't know whether his brothers sent their message on paper or verbally through a messenger they sent on foot, but I like to picture Joseph sitting in the privacy of his room with the letter spread out on his lap, his hands over his face while he weeps in thankfulness that these men are not who they used to be. They acknowledge their sin. They've repented of their sin. Now the God of Jacob is their own God and they can truthfully call themselves His servants. I don't know whether God weeps with joy when we acknowledge our sins, repent of them, and accept Him as our God, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that He does.

Now Joseph either calls his brothers to his palace or else they decide to come in person to beg his forgiveness, for we find them bowing down in his presence. "His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. 'We are your slaves,' they said." (Genesis 50:18) Perhaps fearing he will have them killed, they decide to offer themselves as his slaves instead. Their minds are tortured by the knowledge of how terribly they wronged him and they're so caught up in their guilt and grief and anxiety that they can't even fathom in their minds the possibility that he doesn't want to harm them in any way. They have convinced themselves that he wishes them ill and that any minute now he'll put his plans into action.

"But Joseph said to them, 'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?'" (Genesis 50:19) If God wants to rebuke these men and discipline them in some way for their own good and for their further development of character, that's up to Him. But God hasn't chosen Joseph to be the instrument of their correction. As we discussed when these men first came to Joseph in Egypt, God is the only one who can exact revenge on behalf of His children without getting His hands dirty and soiling His character. When we exact revenge for ourselves, we always end up wallowing in the mud (spiritually speaking) along with the person who wronged us. We get down on their level. We harm our character and our testimony. But God, who is the Lawgiver and whose laws were broken by the sin, can pass judgment and punishment upon the sin without harming His holy character in any way. It's up to Him how He chooses to deal with those who sin against us. I personally believe Joseph has so utterly forgiven his brothers that he wouldn't even want to see the Lord disciplining them. I think he wants nothing but good for them. It's enough for him that they're sorry and that they've given their hearts to the Lord. What he probably wants most is for them to continue growing in their relationship with the Lord.

Joseph goes on to remind his brothers that, even though they did something very bad, God brought good out of the situation. "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.' And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them." (Genesis 50:19-21)

We can say the same thing to our human enemies and to Satan that Joseph says to his brothers: "You intended to harm me, but God used it for my good." I wouldn't be writing this Bible study if no human enemies and no spiritual enemy had ever tried to harm me. God allowed some things to enter my life a number of years back that were shocking and unexpected. I never saw them coming. In a million years, I would never have expected this particular set of circumstances to take place. I'm not going to go into further detail about it; you can just insert your own personal struggles, betrayals, shocks, and enemy attacks here. Most of us, if we're old enough, have already had the rug pulled out from under us in an unexpected and unprovoked way at least once in our lives. You probably know what I mean when I say you can be going about your business, living your daily life, and suddenly be confronted by something you never thought of in your wildest dreams. These things can either knock us down for the count or bring us to our knees before an Almighty God who is able to reverse our fortunes in the right time and in the right way. Instead of letting his circumstances knock him down for the count, Joseph sank to his knees before the God who can do all things, trusting God even though he didn't understand at the time why God allowed such heartbreak and hardship and betrayal into his life. Because Joseph let God help him be better instead of bitter, he developed a Christlike attitude toward those who harmed him. Because Joseph loved and forgave his brothers, they got a glimpse of the Lord in him, and that made them want to know the Lord for themselves.

I still don't fully understand all the reasons the Lord allowed some of the things He's allowed to happen in my life, but I can see how He's used those things to draw me closer to Him and to help me develop a relationship with Him that's made me love the holy Scriptures like I do. I can promise you I wouldn't be studying the Bible with you right now if some shocking and cruel things hadn't happened to me. I don't know where I'd be this morning or what I'd be doing, but there's no doubt in my mind I wouldn't be sitting here with God's holy word enjoying this sweet fellowship with Him and enjoying this sweet fellowship with you as we honor and worship the Lord together. I'm convinced I wouldn't love my Savior as much as I love Him if He hadn't walked through that dark valley with me and if He hadn't sustained me and if He hadn't been my refuge and strength. The promises of the Bible became real to me in a way they never were before because now they've been tested and found to be true. When He says, "My grace is sufficient for you," He means it. (2 Corinthians 12:9) When He says He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies, that's exactly what He does. (Psalm 23:5) When He says He's going to supply all our needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus, He follows through. (Philippians 4:19) When He says His plans are to prosper me and not to harm me and that He has a future and a hope stored up for me, I can take that to the bank. (Jeremiah 29:11) These promises aren't just words on a page to me anymore. These promises are tried and true. Satan intended to harm me. Some of my fellow human beings intended to harm me. And God allowed it, for a season, to bring about something good---something that can never be taken away from me.

In what way will the Lord show you good through the bad things that have happened to you? In what way might He use our current world situation to bring good out of bad? If we let Him, He'll do great things we never dreamed of, but it's up to us. We can either let ourselves go down for the count or we can get on our knees in the presence of the One who can do all things and allow Him to have His way with our hearts and lives. We can wallow in bitterness or we can let Him make us better. Joseph never imagined being betrayed by his brothers, but he also never imagined becoming second-in-command to the king of Egypt. If he'd allowed himself to become bitter, and if he hadn't submitted himself to the Lord, he never would have been Pharaoh's right-hand man. He'd have wallowed in anger and self-pity for the rest of his life and the Lord wouldn't have been able to promote him and use him to do great things.

The Lord wants to do great things in our lives. Let's let Him.

Friday, March 27, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 179, The Burial Of Jacob

Jacob has passed on and his body has undergone the forty-day embalming process in Egypt and the people of Egypt have observed a seventy-day mourning ritual for him out of respect for Joseph, their governor. Now Joseph and his brothers take their father's body back to Canaan for burial.

"When the days of mourning had passed, Joseph said to Pharaoh's court, 'If I have found favor in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh for me. Tell him, 'My father made me swear an oath and said, 'I am about to die; bury me in the tomb I dug for myself in the land of Canaan.' Now let me go up and bury my father; then I will return.'" (Genesis 50:4-5) Why doesn't Joseph speak with Pharaoh personally, face to face, since the two of them are friends and are in the habit of working together to lead the nation? Why does Joseph speak with Pharaoh's court instead of with Pharaoh himself? I tried to find out and did a lot of research but all I came up with was one commentary that suggested there may have been some type of ceremonial uncleanness connected with Joseph due to his having had contact with the dead body of his father. It could be that, in order to officiate at some type of upcoming religious ceremony, Pharaoh could not be in close proximity with anyone who had been in mourning or who had had physical contact with the remains of a dead person. Later on in the Bible, in ancient Israel, there will be procedures that must be followed whenever a person has been in contact with the dead. Certain cleansing rituals and periods of time will have to be completed before that person can go back into the temple and participate in public worship. This law probably had more to do with preventing the spread of infectious diseases than it had to do with religion, but the government and the religious system were very closely intertwined in ancient times and in many cultures a person who had just experienced a death in the family or who had handled a body for burial had to temporarily excuse themselves from pubic worship. In our current period of "social distancing", this is something we can understand.

Joseph's request is passed on to Pharaoh who approves it. "Pharaoh said, 'Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.'" (Genesis 50:6) Joseph may be second-in-command to the king, but he still needs the king's permission to leave the country, especially since he is in charge of overseeing the grain distribution. While Joseph is away someone else will have to take care of his duties and he can't just pick up and leave without consulting the king and having someone appointed to do his work while he's gone. But Pharaoh thinks so much of Joseph that he sends high-ranking Egyptian officials to accompany him to the funeral. "So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh's officials accompanied him---the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt---besides all the members of Joseph's household and his brothers and those belonging to his father's household. Only their children and their flocks and herds were left in Goshen. Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company." (Genesis 50:7-9) Jacob is receiving a burial like that of a top official of Egypt. Only the burial of someone like Joseph or Pharaoh would be more impressive.

"When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father." (Genesis 50:10) I'm not sure what it is about this particular place that makes them cry out in their grief and decide to mourn here for an entire week. It could be that the horses needed a break in this pasture land for several days. Or it could be that, since threshing floors were large circular enclosures, the threshing floor provided a good place for this company to camp and renew their strength before proceeding on. Sometimes during all the busyness of funeral preparations we don't have time to stop and really give vent to our grief, and perhaps stopping to camp gives this group an opportunity to take stock of their feelings and express their grief in a way they haven't been able to while on the move. Some versions of the Bible translate this verse as the company having just crossed or having just passed the Jordan River, and if that's the case then it could be that this passing symbolizes for them the finality of Jacob's death. Even in modern Christian culture we find people sometimes using "crossing over Jordan" as a metaphor for death---of the "crossing over" of the soul from this life on earth into eternal life with the Lord.

Jacob's funeral procession and burial are the talk of the town in Canaan. "When the Canaanites who lived there saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, 'The Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning. That is why that place near the Jordan is called Abel Mizraim." (Genesis 50:11) The name means "Mourning Of The Egyptians". As far as the Canaanites are concerned, this is an Egyptian ceremony even though the dead person is a Hebrew. Jacob's family has lived in Egypt for seventeen years now and they have probably begun to look more like Egyptians than men of Canaan. Joseph has lived in Egypt for about forty years and long ago he adopted Egyptian attire and the Egyptian custom of not wearing beards. The chariots are of Egyptian design and the horses are decked out in Egyptian harnesses and decorations. The camping tents are Egyptian and more than likely bear the nation's official colors and the seal or image of Pharaoh. The officials are native Egyptians and that is made obvious by their speech and appearance. To the shepherds of Canaan this is, for all intents and purposes, an Egyptian funeral and burial. It's impressive and astonishing---something they'll never see again in their lifetime. Though I am sure some of their Canaanite chieftains were buried with a great deal of pomp, I'm also sure none of their funerals held a candle to Jacob's. I picture the Canaanites standing at respectful attention when they see this sight or when the caravan passes by them while they graze their flocks in the fields.

"So Jacob's sons did as he had commanded them. They carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father." (Genesis 50:12-14)

These twelve brothers have learned respect and maturity and cooperation over the years. They band together in peace to obey their father's wishes, burying him with the respect he deserves, getting along with each other as he'd want them to do. We don't see any resentment, backbiting, or arguing among them as we've seen in the past. There is a time for everything on this earth, as King Solomon once said, and that includes a time to heal, a time to to weep, a time to mourn, a time to embrace, a time to mend, a time to love, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) The sons of Jacob are putting all other things aside to observe such times during the death, mourning period, and burial of their father.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 178, The Death Of Jacob

Jacob knows his time to pass from this life is very near. While he still can, he makes his burial wishes known to his sons. Previously in Genesis he expressed to Joseph his desire to be buried with his parents and grandparents. Now he repeats his request with all his sons present.

"Then he gave them these instructions, "I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.'" (Genesis 49:29-32)

We don't know when Leah died. It must have been while Jacob was still living in Canaan, before he moved to Egypt, since she is not mentioned in the group that went down to Egypt with him. It's possible that she and Jacob spent many years together after the death of Rachel and that Leah and Jacob grew old together in comfortable companionship. I hope so. I hope he came to appreciate what a treasure he had in his first wife. Jacob could have requested to be taken back to Bethlehem and buried beside of Rachel. Or he could have allowed Joseph to provide him with an ornate tomb in Egypt. But instead he makes his wishes known, in today's passage. to be buried beside of Leah in his family tomb in Canaan. There's something beautiful about this, that the woman who so deeply loved Jacob but who was not his first choice is interred beside him until the day the Lord resurrects the dead. She never had him all to herself while she was living, but as his first wife and his true legal wife, the place of honor was reserved for her. The two of them are still side by side to this day.

"When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people." (Genesis 49:33) I think he must have mustered the strength to sit up on the side of the bed with his legs hanging down and his feet on the floor. Too weak to go on speaking, and having said all that needs to be said, he lies down and soon after passes from this world.

"Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him." (Genesis 50:1) What a moving scene! I believe all of Jacob's sons mourned his passing but the loss of the family patriarch appears to affect Joseph the most. Once he is able to get control of himself, Joseph takes on the responsibility of arranging his father's burial.

"Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days." (Genesis 50:2-3) Joseph has never lost the faith of his forefathers but he has lived in Egypt for about forty years now. He looks, speaks, dresses, and goes about his day just like a native Egyptian. He became acclimated to their culture a long time ago and, in everything except religion, he is very much like everyone else in Egypt. He wants the best services performed for his father that money can buy. And he has the money to afford the same services Pharaoh himself can afford, so due to his wealth and position in the land, the Egyptian physicians embalm Jacob and then the whole land observes a seventy-day mourning period for Jacob out of respect for Joseph. This is really quite impressive when you consider how superior Egyptians believed they were. It shows us just how much the Egyptians thought of Joseph that they would observe what is almost a royal mourning period (which would be seventy-two days) for a Hebrew shepherd from Canaan.

I am sure there is also a practical reason for having Jacob embalmed. The twelve brothers will have to travel a long distance with their father's body and that would be fairly unpleasant and unsanitary if he were not embalmed and placed into a coffin while still in Egypt.

It was common up until the Victorian era for people to observe a protracted period of mourning for deceased loved ones. I think we should have kept up with that practice. Mourning is essential for human beings, yet in today's times we are lucky if our jobs allows us three paid days of "bereavement leave". Those three days usually don't even afford us much time at all to be alone in our rooms to cry; those days are spent making arrangements and contacting family members and friends to advise them of the death. When we return to work the day after a funeral, we're expected to behave normally and go on with our lives. It makes people uncomfortable when they see us grieving and they prefer no to see it. If we appear to be going on with our lives and handling our losses well, it makes them feel they could also handle losses well and that they'd be able to go on with their work as if nothing has happened.

We weren't designed to compartmentalize death and grief in this way. God didn't create us to take only three days to arrange a funeral, bury a person, and cry all our tears before going on with our lives as if nothing has happened. If we were allowed to observe a more proper period of mourning, I think we'd be a lot better off mentally and emotionally, but instead we are required by our modern society to push our grief to the back of our minds for most hours of the day. No wonder so many people go years without feeling like they've fully accepted the death of a loved one! No wonder so many people are still struggling with the loss of a close relative years and years down the road. We aren't allowed enough time to process our loss and mourn it. A time of grief is a holy and reverent time. It's sacred and precious. Yet we're so often robbed of a proper period of mourning and I feel it takes a heavy toll on us.

The Lord Jesus Christ wept by the tomb of His friend Lazarus because it's the human thing to do. He felt intense grief and sorrow. He felt the intense grief and sorrow of the mourners around Him. Though He knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, still He felt all the things the human heart is created to feel when a loved one dies. He shows us there's nothing wrong with crying out in our sorrow. He shows us that it's okay to not be okay in the days following the death of a loved one. It ought to be acceptable in our society, even though we might have to be back at work, to admit we're not feeling okay and to be treated with extra compassion and care for a while. And we need to cut our co-workers and friends and family members a whole lot of slack when they don't immediately bounce back from a loss and go about their lives within a short time after experiencing the death of a loved one. Does witnessing grief make us uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes it does because we don't know what to do or say. That's because there isn't anything we can do or say to make things all better. But we can do what Joseph and his brothers and all of Egypt do in today's passage: we can band together in support of each other. Just letting someone know we are here for them and that we care about them goes a long way in helping them not to feel so alone. That's what the people of Egypt do for seventy days following Jacob's death. If those pagan people who normally wouldn't socialize with shepherds were willing to be there and show their concern for Jacob's family, surely we have no excuse for not showing the same care and compassion for our fellow man.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In The Beginning. Day 177, Jacob Prophesies About His Sons, Part Three

Jacob finishes pronouncing prophecies regarding the future of his sons and their tribes.

"Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels." (Genesis 49:19) Gad's tribe was mighty in battle in the Old Testament when they were oppressed by foreign armies. They fought not only for their own people and lands, but for the other tribes of Israel as well.

"Asher's food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king." (Genesis 49:20) Asher's territory in the promised land lay along the Mediterranean coast. It was a luxurious land of plenty, supplying kings and wealthy men with expensive goods.

"Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns." (Genesis 49:21) The land given to the tribe of Naphtali was near the Sea of Galilee where the Lord Jesus so often walked and taught the truth of God's word. The prophet Isaiah foresaw a blessed time in the future for Naphtali and the region of Galilee, stating that in the past this region had been humbled but that the Lord would bestow honor upon it, "In the past He humbled Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the nations." (Isaiah 9:1) This "honor" is having the Lord Himself in Galilee. The freedom mentioned in verse 21 may refer to the freedom of travel that was possible while the Roman Empire held control of Judea during the time of Jesus. There was no other time in history, previous to Roman rule, when Jesus would have been able to travel so freely, for Rome ruled with an iron fist and enforced the peace in their territories. They had the best roads of the ancient world and at no other time prior to their rule could a person travel so extensively with such little fear of attack by robbers.

"Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall." (Genesis 49:22) Joseph was once a slave and later a prisoner in a dungeon, but he could not be held by either of these circumstances because it was the Lord's will for him to be free---to "climb over a wall". I'm reminded of Psalm 1:3 where the author speaks of the fruitfulness of the one who loves and trusts the Lord: "That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither---whatever they do prospers."

"With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. But 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, because of your father's God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you, with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb. Your 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." (Genesis 49:23-26) The bitter archers with their bows and arrows represent the ten older brothers of Joseph who hated and betrayed him. But in spite of all that happened to him, Joseph remained steady: steady in faith, steady in love, steady in the service of the Lord. And the Lord remained faithful to him, a thing for which we see Jacob giving Him praise in these verses. As David will later say in Psalm 18:25 regarding the Lord's faithfulness, "To the faithful You show Yourself faithful." Joseph was faithful to the Lord; the Lord was faithful to him.

"Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder." (Genesis 49:27) Jacob's son Benjamin has been treated like the spoiled and helpless baby of the family. His father and brothers behave toward him as if he is small and frail and must be protected at all times. It's surprising to see his tribe symbolized by a "ravenous wolf". But his tribe will be very warlike and will have the reputation of being skilled swordsmen. They will sometimes fight for the wrong causes, but they will do so with all their hearts. They don't hold back and they don't pull any punches even when they should. But in the end they will "divide the plunder" like the one who has won victory in battle. Scholars are not certain what this means but I think we have to look at it in the context of victory in the Lord. In Old Testament times the dividing of the plunder was a celebratory event that took place back in the camp in the evening after a battle had been won. A conquering army took all the goods of the defeated army and divided these goods among themselves in a party-like atmosphere back in their own camp. I think the victory described in verse 27 refers to the victory the Lord won---the victory in which we share---and the plunder that is ours through Him. Everything that really matters is ours through Him and we will own all these blessings eternally.

"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." (Genesis 49:28) Jacob pronounced these blessings upon inspiration of the Lord. Based on the condition of each man's heart, based on each man's abilities and actions, and based on the behavior of each man's descendants, the Lord chose for them what was best. He does the same for you and me. He sends opportunities our way based on His will for our lives. He puts us in the right places where our circumstances suit who we are. Are our circumstances always pleasant? No, and the circumstances of the people of the Bible weren't always pleasant either. But even our hardships are carefully selected for us by the Lord to train us and develop our strength of character. We are enduring difficult circumstances right now in this world, but do you know what would be even worse than enduring these troubling and uncertain times? Coming out of them exactly the way we went into them. If we learn nothing about the Lord during these times, and if our character isn't improved by our circumstances, and if our faith isn't stronger, then what has been accomplished? The Lord, for whatever reason, has chosen our generation to experience what we're currently experiencing. And although we may not understand His ways of thinking, we mustn't let that keep us from being changed for the better in these times.

Our troubles can either break us or make us into stronger and more faithful servants of God. The choice is ours.