Sermon: Suitable Blessings

We are closing in on the end of our journey through Genesis. Next week will be the last week in Genesis, then I will be gone for a week, and then we will start through the book of Philippians, exploring Rejoicing in the midst of trial. But this morning, we are in Genesis 48 and 49. If you want to follow along in your Bibles, we will be starting in Genesis 48:1 and going all the way through the end of chapter 49. 

In our journey through Genesis, we have been seeing God’s faithfulness when life is in the pit. In our passage this morning, Jacob is dying and wants to give God’s blessing to his children before he dies. But as we will see, his blessings are not exactly what we would expect. It’s Genesis 48 and 49. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Prayer

After this Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” he summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me, and said to me, ‘I will make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’ Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt, before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are. As for the offspring born to you after them, they shall be yours. They shall be recorded under the names of their brothers with regard to their inheritance. For when I came from Paddan, Rachel, alas, died in the land of Canaan on the way, while there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 

When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “These are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, and he could not see well. So Joseph brought them near him; and he kissed them and embraced them. Israel said to Joseph, “I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also.” Then Joseph removed them from his father’s knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them near him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn. He blessed Joseph, and said, 

“The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked,

the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,

the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys;

and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac;

and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.”

When Joseph say that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; so he took his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, “Not so, father! Since this one is the firstborn, our 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. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying, 

“By you Israel will invoke blessings, saying, 

‘God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.’”

So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Then Israel said to Joseph, “I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your ancestors. I now give to you one portion more than to your brothers, the portion that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.

Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob;

listen to Israel your father.

Reuben, you are my firstborn,

my might and the first fruits of my vigor,

excelling in rank and excelling in power.

Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel

because you went up onto your father’s bed;

then you defiled it – you went up onto my couch!

Simeon and Levi are brothers;

weapons of violence are their swords.

May I never come into their council;

may I not be joined to their company – 

for in their anger they killed men,

and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.

Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,

and their wrath, for it is cruel!

I will divide them in Jacob

and scatter them in Israel.

Judah, your brothers shall praise you;

your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;

your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

Judah is a lion’s whelp;

from the prey, my son, you have gone up.

He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion,

like a lioness – who dares rouse him up?

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until tribute comes to him;

and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Binding his foal to the vine

and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,

he washes his garments in wine

and his robe in the blood of grapes;

his eyes are darker than wine,

and his teeth whiter than milk.

Zebulun shall settle at the shore of the sea;

he shall be a haven for ships,

and he border shall be at Sidon.

Isaachar is a strong donkey,

lying down between the sheepfolds;

he saw that a resting place was good,

and that the land was pleasant;

so he bowed his shoulder to the burden,

and became a slave at forced labor.

Dan shall judge his people 

as one of the tribes of Israel.

Dan shall be a snake by the roadside,

a viper along the path,

that bites the horse’s heel

so that its rider falls backward.

I wait for your salvation, O LORD.

Gad shall be raided by raiders,

but he shall raid at their heels.

Asher’s food shall be rich,

and he shall provide royal delicacies.

Naphtali is a doe let loose

that bears lovely fawns.

Joseph is a fruitful bough,

a fruitful bough by a spring;

his branches run over the wall.

The archers fiercely attacked him;

they shot at him and pressed him hard.

Yet his bow remained taut,

and his arms were made agile

by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,

by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,

by the God of your father, who will be with you,

by the Almighty who will bless you

with blessings of heaven above

blessings of the deep that lies beneath,

blessings of the breast and of the womb.

The blessings of your father are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains,

the bounties of the everlasting hills;

may they be on the head of Joseph,

on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,

in the morning devouring the prey,

and at evening dividing the spoil.”

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, blessing each one of them with a suitable blessing.

Then he charged them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors – in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, in the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site. 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 that is in it were purchased from the Hittites.” When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

What does blessing look like? Our passage this morning is full of blessings. Jacob tells of God’s blessing at Luz. Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, then his twelve sons. Blessing after blessing. Yet if we are honest, a lot of this doesn’t look much like blessing to us. Instead of a warm and fuzzy feeling, we have harsh words of judgment. Doesn’t look like blessing to us. Instead of ‘be true to yourself,’ we have painfully honest words about someone’s character. Doesn’t look like blessing to us. Instead of miracle cures and overflowing prosperity, we have strength in the midst of trials. Doesn’t quite look like blessing to us. 

Yet, throughout these two chapters, the words of Jacob are called ‘blessing’ and when the whole section is summed up in verse 28, we are told, this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, blessing each one of them with a suitable blessing. Perhaps the problem is not with the blessing, but with our understanding of what it means to be blessed. Perhaps blessing is harder and better than we might imagine. 

So what does blessing look like? 

Sometimes blessing is the gift of judgment. This judgment can be a blessing because it forces us to confront our sin. 

Jacob gives a suitable blessing to each one of his sons and those blessings include judgment. Reuben, the first born, was the oldest, the strongest, and the best. Yet, Reuben’s character is unstable. Years ago, back in Genesis 35, Reuben had slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. At the time, Jacob said nothing. But decades passed and the sin had not been dealt with and it results in judgment upon Reuben. Reuben is removed from his firstborn position among the brothers. 

Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel

because you went up onto your father’s bed;

then you defiled it – you went up onto my couch!

To our knowledge, none of the leaders in Israel’s history ever come from the line of Reuben. 

Then Jacob moves to Simeon and Levi. After Dinah was raped at Shechem, years ago in Genesis 34, Simeon and Levi agreed to let the men of Shechem join with the people of Israel as long as they were circumcised. The Shechemites agreed and while they were recovering, Simeon and Levi went in and slaughtered the whole city in retribution for what happened to Dinah. Again, this undealt with sin returns upon the brothers. 

for in their anger they killed men,

and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.

Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,

and their wrath, for it is cruel!

I will divide them in Jacob

and scatter them in Israel.

When they leave Egypt and finally enter the promised land, the lands of Simeon are divided within the land of Judah. And, as the priests of God, the Levites are given specific cities through the land of Israel, scattered among the people. The Levites later found favor in God’s sight by their courage in confronting sin. This earned them the role as priests in the house of God and shows they may have listened to what was spoken here. They turned their anger from fierce cruelty into zeal for God. 

We also see lesser judgments in the blessings of Isaachar, Dan, Gad, and Benjamin. Each statement of character is an invitation to take a hard look at themselves and their own sinful tendencies. The history of Israel bears the truth of the words of Jacob – Benjamin does devour and divide. Dan is a snake. Gad is raided frequently. Isaachar was given good land without having to struggle for it. Yet, while this should give us confidence in the reliability of God’s Word, we should not view it fatalistically. The blessings on the brothers were honest evaluations of their character, which is a form of judgment that is also a blessing. It invites us to see ourselves truly and then turn toward the LORD. 

These blessings don’t look like blessings to us. Yet, judgment can be a blessing when it forces us to confront our sins. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi – and their descendants after them – would have heard this blessing often. They would have been regularly reminded of the sins of their fathers. As hard as this might have been, it was an invitation to repentance and to walk in a different way. “No matter how old our sins may be, they catch up with us if they have not been dealt with by way of confession and forgiveness.” (Africa Bible Commentary, 82). Judgment can be a blessing when it invites us to confront our own sin. 

This makes me think of when I travelled to Germany for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I flew into Berlin and spent the day there before heading into Wittenburg the next day. I spent most of the day wandering through the city. As I made my way downtown, I passed sections of the Berlin Wall and then a massive series of what looked like stone tombs. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A memorial for the victims of the Holocaust taking up a huge square in downtown Berlin. At first, if I am honest, I felt a bit smug. Glad that this forceful memorial kept the memory of this atrocity before their eyes. Yet as I sat at the memorial, people filing past, I began to wonder what it would be like to walk past this every day. What would it do to you to be reminded day after day of the sins of your fathers? Would it crush you? Or would it deepen your repentance and drive you to walk a different way? As I sat in front of what looked like lines and lines of stone tombs, I saw how judgment could still be a blessing, when it forces us to confront our sins and walk a different way. 

We don’t know how these blessings changed Reuben and Simeon and their families. But we do see in Levi that the anger and wrath which was cursed here in Genesis, will become an instrument of passion for God by the time of the Exodus. 

Sometimes blessing is the gift of judgment. This judgment can be a blessing because it forces us to confront our sin.

However, sometimes blessing is the gift of strength. Sometimes that strength is a surprise, something we were not expecting. Like Ephraim receiving the right hand of blessing – the greater blessing – even though he is the younger of his brothers. God has a beautiful habit of surprising us in just who he chooses to bless. Yet, the strength God promises often comes in the midst of trials and hardship. We see this in Judah and Joseph. The blessings on these two sons are longer and more along the lines of what we would expect. Judah will be praised by his brothers, he will have rule and power, tribute and obedience – sounds like blessing to me. Joseph is a fruitful bough whose branches run over the wall. He will have blessing from God – from heaven, from the deep, from the breast, from the womb – sounds like blessing to me. 

Yet, when Jacob gives these blessings, he also promises trials. The blessing will be strength in the midst of these trials. Judah will have his hand on the neck of his enemies, but that means that Judah will have enemies. The blessing of God does not mean life will be easy, that there will be no struggle, that it is all sunshine and rainbows. Instead, God promises him strength in the midst of the fight. Joseph will be attacked: 

The archers fiercely attacked him;

they shot at him and pressed him hard.

Yet his bow remained taut,

and his arms were made agile

by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,

Being blessed by God doesn’t exclude being shot at, being attacked, being pressed hard. This was Joseph’s life as the blessed of God. Yet, God’s promise through Jacob was that God’s hand would strengthen his arms in the struggle. That though he is weary from the fight, his strength would not give way. 

This is the blessing of God – strength in the midst of trial. This is good news for all of us whose life does not look blessed right now. For families that are feeling empty and dry, for when the struggle never seems to end and you feel like you are just taking one arrow after another. For those of us who wake up every day wondering if our arms will finally give out under this load. The promise of God is not that there will be no trials, but that God will be with you in them. 

The archers fiercely attacked him;

they shot at him and pressed him hard.

Yet his bow remained taut,

and his arms were made agile

by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,

by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,

by the God of your father, who will be with you,

by the Almighty who will bless you

with blessings of heaven above

blessings of the deep that lies beneath,

blessings of the breast and of the womb.

I have been thinking a lot about Lauren in these last weeks and months. As I memorized and meditated on this passage, I kept coming back to what it would look like for Lauren to be blessed. Or Jim de Boer – five years in and still fighting the cancer. It isn’t likely to look like what the world counts as blessed. #blessed Instead, it might look like something harder and yet better. It might be the strength to keep your bow taut when you are pressed hard and arrows come again and again. It might look like Jacob summoning his strength in his bed to praise God. It might look less like the way of glory and more like the way of the cross, where God goes with us into suffering even as he strengthens us in it. 

Sometimes blessing is the gift of strength. In Judah and Joseph, we see God promising strength, not to avoid trials and hardship, but in the midst of them. For those of us walking in the way of Jesus this side of his return, blessing may often look like this gift. 

Lastly, as we consider just what God’s blessing looks like, we find that sometimes blessing is the gift of the promise. These blessings are invitations to confront our sins and walk in holiness, they are comfort and strength in the midst of trial, but they are also promises of the future. All the way back in Genesis, back when Israel first entered Egypt, God made a promise to Judah through the lips of his father, Jacob. 

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until tribute comes to him;

and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Binding his foal to the vine

and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,

he washes his garments in wine

and his robe in the blood of grapes;

his eyes are darker than wine,

and his teeth whiter than milk.

Centuries in Egypt left the people meditating on these words, and then centuries with no king, just judges and prophets. When Israel finally gets a king, God gives them a king like the nations – Saul the Benjaminite – a ravenous wolf of a man. But then the LORD selects a young shepherd boy from Bethlehem, a son of Judah. David is anointed king. He takes up the scepter and the ruler’s staff and God promises that a Son of David will remain on God’s throne forever – a promise echoing back here to Genesis, where the ruler’s staff will not depart from between Judah’s feet. But the failure of the sons of David to live up to their calling stirs the hope that the promise to David, the promise to Judah back here on the lips of Jacob spoke to something greater, someone greater. By the words of the prophets, the Spirit revealed that they were not waiting for just a son of David, but the Son of David. And then Zechariah picked up the imagery of Genesis 49 when he says, 

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,

    righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,

    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

a foal, a donkey’s colt, the signs of the king who is coming, the son of Judah, the son of David.

Then Jesus, a week before he would die and rise again for us and for our salvation, went to enter Jerusalem. 

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Sometimes blessing is the gift of the promise. When Jacob speaks a blessing over Judah, his words echo down the chambers of time through Zechariah until they reach their resounding crescendo in the coming of Jesus. Jacob promises Jesus. All those years ago, God had already purposed and promised to send his Son, born of Judah, for the sake of the world. The prophecy was fulfilled, the promised blessings of God did come. They came in Jesus Christ. 

What does it look like to be blessed? As we have seen this morning, the blessing of God often looks different than what the world counts as blessed. It can sometimes look like judgment that forces us to confront our sin and turn to Christ. It can sometimes look like strength in the midst of trials and hardships. And it looks like Jesus, the son of Judah, riding on a foal, on the colt of a donkey.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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