K:JNWTS 29/1 (May 2014): 9-13
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “extravagance”? Most of the time when I heard it growing up, it was not used to describe some good behavior. We lived like most middle class families in the 1950’s. I had a little allowance that was to carry me through the week. I could buy an occasional popsicle, comic book or fountain coke. But I could not buy just anything anytime. Even if we had been rich, there were limited things. No flat screen TV’s or smart phones.
I remember when I was very upset with my dad because he would not spend the extra dollar to get me white tennis shoes instead of the lousy two-dollar black ones I ended up with. It meant I was consigned to be a nerd—though I was probably destined to continue as a nerd even with white sneakers; changing colors would not have changed my status anyway. I suppose that is one reason why I really am amazed when I hear about extravagantly priced Air Jordans and riots and crime committed to get a pair. But then, now I am old and never have kept up with fashion so why should I now?
We have just finished the Christmas season and some people did not get all they wanted, whether it was a Red Rider BB gun or a smart phone. It is not wrong to want a few things, but we too easily get depressed when we don’t get them because our hearts are not happy with God’s provision. Greed is not about a magic number where greed automatically kicks in several thousand dollars above the median national income. If my parents saw how a lower middle class family lived today, they would think it to be extravagant.
In one major way, greed starts to kick in when God is not the center of our lives—when desiring to honor Christ is not the major goal of our lives. There is another place (other than around the Christmas tree) when we see greed on display and some shock surprises at what people end up with. Greed sometimes breaks out when it comes time to receive an inheritance.
Our text presents Jacob’s final blessings or his last will and testament for all twelve of his sons—sons who will be the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. In a TV movie, this would be the place where the surviving family members gather, the will is read and they all get surprised. Will the sons all get disinherited and the money go to a mistress or be placed in a trust fund for the support of a pet canary? As in the movie, there is an element of suspense here, but the inheritance is a promissory note concerning the future rather than immediate cash or real estate.
Jacob’s oral testament is like the opening of a will—I think “nuncupative will” is the term; but this event is also like the announcement of a verdict at a judgment seat. Jesus combines the concept of a verdict and an inheritance in Matthew 25:34: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (KJV).
Genesis 49 might seem rather remote in its value for us today. But the courtroom sort of drama of waiting to hear the inheritance verdicts for the twelve sons of Jacob gives us a seed of the future inheritance verdict Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25. There can be no more dramatic and yet real and practical verdict than the one Jesus talks about—the verdict that awaits us all at the end of history. On the surface, the verdict seems to be related to merciful conduct, but on a deeper level Jesus is relating the conduct to himself and the unity he has with his people. Let’s explore the seeds of this judgment in Genesis 49.
The blessing of Genesis 49 contain an element of forward looking predictive prophesy. This point needs to be kept in mind as we look at the blessings. The details of how these blessings or prophetic statements were fulfilled—or even how to translate them and what they mean in detail—are not always easy to determine, but the big picture is pretty clear.
The two sons or tribes who get major attention are the tribes of Judah and Joseph. They have the two longest or most extensive comments in their blessings (vv. 8-12, 22-26 respectively). Both of them are spoken of in terms that reflect a good and hopeful future. If we use the mixed image Jesus employs in Matthew 25, we would say Judah and Joseph are the two biggest sheep on the right hand and maybe Simeon and Levi are the two biggest goats on the left hand (Gen. 49:5-7). But the first born, Reuben, looks like a big goat too (Gen. 49:3-4).
We might expect Joseph to get greater attention than the other sons or tribes because in the previous chapter Jacob adopts his two sons and blesses them (Gen. 48:13-20).
But in verses 8 through 12 of Genesis 49, we encounter a surprise—Judah is given a rich blessing. We are set up to be surprised by the way in which the blessings start out. At first, it only looks like Jacob is paying back the ‘goats’ for their disloyalty. Reuben gets downgraded. An event from the past is cited to explain the downgrade. He had slept with his father’s concubine (v. 4)—probably as a play for his father’s position and supremacy as much as from any lust motive. And this power play backfires, instead of exaltation he gets lowered. All alone, this looks like a payback according to works done in Jacob’s lifetime.
Simeon and Levi get a kind of curse instead of a blessing and the past action of killing the Shechemites is the reason given (vv. 5-7; cf. Gen. 34:25-30). They get paid back for paying back the Shechemites—seemingly because their payback was over the top.
Now if you are Judah, you might start to get worried. If people are getting paid back for the things they have done during Jacob’s lifetime and for the grief that they caused father Jacob, then Judah might be in a lot of trouble. There are no good verdicts so far. If you are the other boys, you are probably getting nervous.
So we come to Judah who had the idea to sell Joseph into Egypt (Gen. 37:25-27). Well, it’s better than killing him is the lame excuse. But Reuben also provided a temporary escape from murder when he suggested putting Joseph in the pit (Gen. 37:18-24), yet that diversion from murder did not keep Reuben from being disinherited.
Look at what else was true of Judah. If we read between the lines of his earlier life, Judah seems to have left his brothers to go off alone. Judah married a Canaanite woman (Gen. 38:1-3)—clearly a break with the way Abraham, Isaac and Jacob obtained wives. Judah also engaged the sexual services of a woman he thought was a prostitute (Gen. 38:12-19). Judah did not perform his duty to his daughter in law Tamar, in providing a replacement husband. Judah is ready to show no mercy for his daughter-in-law’s sexual misdeed when he is the guilty other party.
To be sure, we see better things with Judah at the end, when he takes risks to recover Benjamin from Egypt (Gen. 43-44). He gradually takes more leadership and responsibility among the brothers. As a leader, he even offers himself as a substitute slave for Benjamin (Gen. 44:33).
There is something heroic and Christ-like in that regard. But on a balance, if ever a bad verdict seemed to be on the way, it would seem to be so for Judah. But it does not happen exactly that way. One explanation is the logic found in Romans 9. Paul provides insight on how to look at God’s working in the lives of the Old Testament patriarchal fathers. They were not chosen to be blessed by God because of their goodness or because God foresaw that they would become good people. Jacob was blessed above Esau because of God’s sovereign plan and design—even though Jacob used some trickery on the human side of things. Nothing about Ephraim made him better than Manasseh when Jacob gave him the greater blessing in chapter 48. So what will it be for Judah? Human reasoning might say, “Well maybe his good works outweighed his bad works.” That’s the way some people think you get to heaven. It’s a comparative value calculation. God does business and is looking for a profit. But this is not the way to heaven.
In the New Testament, we learn that we must receive God’s forgiveness and salvation as a free gift. That peculiar teaching of Jesus about sheep and goats and giving cups of cold water sounds like good works that earn something, but, in fact, they are deeds that are performed unselfconsciously. Lord, you say we fed you, gave you water, visited you in prison? We never remember doing any such thing. Ah, but you did it for my disciples and what you do for them, you do for me.
But then does this mean we get to heaven by feeding everyone and hoping we don’t have a bad day or run out of food when one of Jesus’ real disciples comes along? Jesus is not talking about buying our way into heaven by good works or feeding people. The unself-conscious way in which the sheep behave toward the sheep of Jesus in ministering to each other seems to speak to an instinctive way of acting that is placed in the redeemed creature.
Judah has some bad deeds in his past. On an individual level, he seems to repent later in his life when he shows concern for his father. But we know that what makes Judah special is not anything that Judah ever did. It is the person who comes from Judah that makes him special.
Jesus the sinless Son of God will come from Judah. We might wonder, why not from Joseph? Wasn’t Joseph a better person? I think he probably was. But God chooses the lesser things of this world to glorify himself. No human ancestor of Jesus Christ will ever be able to measure up to the greatness of Jesus Christ.
Both Judah and Joseph receive blessings. The blessings on Judah seem to focus on fruitfulness. Some commentators translate verse 22 to say Joseph is a wild colt. But most English translations focus on Joseph as a fruitful bough. The idea of fruitfulness is very much present at the end of verse 25 and in 48:16. This makes it look like Joseph is the one who really caries the promise of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are to be a multitude.
The blessing on Joseph describes the multitude side of God’s earlier promises. But there is something in the promise of Judah that stands out rather uniquely. Judah has the promise of royalty—the emergence of a new dimension in the promises of God. The multitude and riches of Jacob are one thing. But the royalty of Judah’s line is enhanced by four images:
Why! You don’t hitch your horse to an expensive porcelain vase because it will get broken. In the same way, you probably don’t tether your colt to a vine because it will ruin a precious plant. Such extravagant behavior is the sort of thing kings do to show off their utter indifference to the ordinary values that constraint ordinary people. Comparative values are thrown to the wind.
There was a song some years ago about the guy who flies his Lear Jet to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun. We generally look down on such extravagance. Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords lived most of his earthly life in poverty to show how different his kingdom was from the kingdoms of this world that show off their power by extravagance. But we know there was one day in which Jesus accepted the extravagance of being anointed with a perfume—perfume that would cost a Roman soldier something like a years’ wages. That extravagance was a message: he may be a different sort of King, but he is no less a King than the most powerful emperor in Rome.
His preparation for death by an extravagant anointing was because his death would be an extravagant death. Our many varied sins require an extravagant sacrifice and payment. It was the most precious life that ever was poured out for the lives of enemies who deserve to die for their sins. John 3:16 is ultimate extravagance. The extravagant life-styles we see in this world are only out of place in this world. They are a failure to follow Christ. But following Christ ends in a new extravagant world of blessing where he owns all things and shares them with his sheep.