Once upon a time there was a land full of opportunity. It had everything one could hope for: fertile soil, broad valleys and a climate that was ideal for a wide variety of crops. Some of these crops were highly desired by countries far and wide. It had easy access to highways and seaports that could facilitate global trade. The immigrants that moved into this new world found that they could coexist peaceably with the native population. There wasn’t much development to speak of, so they were free to clear the land; cutting down trees and establishing settlements of their own. It was a land of promise, hopes and dreams.
So, the foreigners that settled in the land built a nation founded on God. They had laws and rules designed to follow the commandments of God. They didn’t worship the deities of the indigenous people, they worshipped the one true God and him alone. They believed that if they stayed true to the commandments of God and were faithful to Him that he would continue to bless them and they would prosper.
Yet, over time, the people began to value financial success more than they valued following God’s laws. They began to equate their financial success with the blessings/approval of God. There was no such thing as too much. They wanted more power and more money. They sought out trade deals with foreign nations that brought great economic success. However, with those trade deals came new ideas and practices that began to get in the way of following God. They began to compromise their religious practices to accept these new ideas.
The wealthier they got, the more they began to ignore their social responsibilities. They began to ignore the needs of the poor and less fortunate. Even worse, they began to exploit the poor in order to get more for themselves. After all, if the poor would just work harder, they could support themselves, right? They failed to see the inherent prejudice in the social system that kept certain people groups from ever getting ahead. Yet, all the while, their financial success continued, so God must be pleased with them.
What land was this? You might be thinking to yourself, this sounds a lot like the USA. There are certainly parallels I will touch on later. However, this is the story of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Maybe a little background will help. Jacob had 12 sons. These sons came from his two wives, Rachel and Leah, as well as 2 concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah (servants of his wives). His oldest son was Reuben. However, he was from his least favorite wife, Leah. Joseph was the oldest son of his favorite wife, Rachel. In the time of Jacob, the oldest son was entitled to a “double portion” of the inheritance when the father died. However, Reuben tried to take a bit of his inheritance early by sleeping with Bilhah. Reading between the lines of the Text, Jacob was ticked off. This gave him just cause to switch the “double portion” to his favorite son, Joseph.
We probably all know the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. I can’t go into all the details here, you can read them in Gen 37 through the end of the book. However, I will say that I think Joseph was kind of a jerk. He was that bratty younger brother that you wanted to pinch when nobody was looking. Yes, he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery, but he wasn’t a very likable brother either. In any event, Joseph rose to be the right-hand-man to Pharaoh in Egypt. He married an Egyptian and has 2 sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. These sons of Joseph receive the blessing from their grandfather, Jacob. In effect, Joseph has received a double-portion of his father’s inheritance. His two sons received an inheritance equal to what the other sons of Jacob received.
Four Hundred Years later, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. After a 40-year wandering in the desert they were getting ready to enter the Promised Land. Each tribe got a prescribed allotment/territory. When the land was divided, Manasseh and Ephraim got the choicest parts. Manasseh received the largest allotment of any of the tribes. Furthermore, this section of the land was mostly unsettled, so conquering it from the local inhabitants really wasn’t a problem. In fact, they didn’t take anything from the locals. They left them there and established their own settlements. There is a text in Joshua 17 that is almost humorous in its depiction of the tribes of Joseph. After getting the choicest part of the Land, they complained to Joshua that the local people were too powerful and there wasn’t enough land for them. Joshua’s response? Cut down trees and make a place for yourselves! Sort of makes them sound like spoiled brats (a bit like their ancestor, Joseph).
It was generally assumed that the leadership of the Israelites would come from Ephraim and Manasseh. In fact, Moses’ successor was Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim. The last judge to rule Israel before the monarchy was Samuel, also from Ephraim.
In short, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh had been given every advantage. They had the best lands and the leadership of the country. The system was rigged for them to come out on top. Today we might call it “white privilege.” What could possibly go wrong?
If we skip ahead a number of generations, we come to the time of the Divided Kingdom. After Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam surrounded himself with the spoiled, idiot rich kids he grew up with and ignored the counsel of his father’s elder advisors. The result was that the northern tribes, under the leadership of Jeroboam of Ephraim, secede from the union. Civil war ensues ending in a divided kingdom with the tribes of Judah ruling in the south and Ephraim ruling in the north.
You would expect that the Northern kingdom would flourish. They had all the advantages. And for a time they did. Some of their most successful kings were a father/son combo that built a strong capital in Samaria. The father, Omri, is only given scant reference in the Bible. However, the extra-Biblical sources indicate he was a powerful king. So much so, that Israelites after his time are called Omrites in these sources for years afterward. Omri and his son, decided to expand the fortunes of the Kingdom by doing a major trade deal with the largest trading conglomerate of their day—the Phoenicians. Reading between the lines of the Text, it seems that as part of the deal, Omri agreed for his son to marry a Phoenician princess, thus establishing one of the most infamous power couples in the world: Ahab and Jezebel.
From a worldly perspective, one would say that Omri, then Ahab/Jezebel were successful monarchs. They enjoyed tremendous economic success. They built big cities, like Samaria. They had a palace filled with ivory. They expanded their territory across the Jordan and effectively controlled East-West trade in the region. It was a time of great economic gains. From a worldly perspective, it seemed like this was a “blessed” monarchy. To use a current slogan, they had “Made Israel Great Again.”
However, the Bible paints a different picture of Ahab and Jezebel. You see, Jezebel came with baggage. She was a worshipper of Ba’al (the storm God of the Sidonians). Not only did she worship Ba’al, but she got Ahab to go along with her. As a result, the whole country got in on the act. This set up a showdown between God’s prophet, Elijah, and the prophets of Ba’al. Long story short, it didn’t end well for Ba’al, the prophets and ultimately for Ahab and Jezebel.
Ruins of Ahab’s Palace in Samaria
Despite economic success, the northern kingdom continued on this path that was contrary to God’s commandments. A few kings later, the prophet Amos had some choice words for the conduct of the people of the Israel and the judgement to come. He criticized those who “trample on the needy.” He said they falsify their measuring devices used for commerce and “practice deceit with false balances.” He said they “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” As is the case with the all the prophets, the message was clear: turn from the un-Godly path you are on or face the consequences. Amos warned of coming destruction if they didn’t repent. Two years later an earthquake decimated much of the Northern Kingdom. Some 25 years later, the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib destroyed the Northern Kingdom and carried away much of the population to be assimilated across their empire. A kingdom that had all the social and economic advantages available to them fails to live into their calling and is destroyed by an enemy that made ISIS look like kindergartners.
A few weeks ago, I got to visit the lands of Ephraim and Manasseh. They are beautiful. Compared to other tribal allotments, Ephraim and Manasseh have everything one would need to be successful. Yet, despite all of their advantages they failed. It was their spiritual and moral failings that brought them down.
A Lesson for America?
There are some Christians who try to read the Old Testament passages of blessing and curses God gave to Israel and map them onto the United States. I don’t think that works. God gave those specific promises to His specific people in their specific land. The USA is not the new Promised Land—as much as some in American Christians would like to make it so. Personally, I don’t think the economic benefits enjoyed by Americans are some fulfillment of Old Testament scripture based upon our holiness.
However, I think there is a message in this for God’s people no matter where they are in the world. Do we believe that economic success is a sign of God’s pleasure with our actions or the actions of our nation? How many American Christians treat the US constitution as if it were handed down by God on Mt. Sinai right after He gave Moses the 10 Commandments? How easily do we equate the freedoms we enjoy in a democracy with God’s blessing?
The fact of the matter is that none of that is consistent with Biblical teaching. Jesus, the Apostles and the early church thrived under a dictatorship—an often cruel and hostile dictatorship. Jesus didn’t preach a message of democracy. He preached a message of self-sacrifice; of putting the needs of others above your own needs. He preached about taking up your cross to follow him. The early church began at a time when there wasn’t much freedom of religion, let alone rights to bear arms. It was a society segregated by social class. Yet, in the span of 300 years, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.
What I find interesting in the Old Testament prophets is their criticism of how the ruling class and elites of society treated those of lower social status. After idolatry, I think it’s God’s greatest complaint against His people. I quoted Amos earlier, I could have quoted any number of other prophets with similar messages. Now, some of you with “small government” Republican leanings (like me) would view this as an indictment of individuals not living up to their personal responsibilities, or maybe of the religious institutions of the day—and that is not incorrect. However, that isn’t a complete picture. The prophets also criticize the rulers (i.e. the government) for the same thing! In God’s view neglect of the less fortunate at either level is wrong. If you want to be a “Christian Nation”, then the government of that nation should take care of those that can’t take care of themselves. And, by the way, if you want to REALLY tick God off, then abuse or mistreat those who can’t care of themselves. It never ends well for those people in the Bible.
Throughout history, God has called His people to be different; to live in a way contrary to what the world thinks is normal. In Exodus 19, God told Israel that they would be for Him “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” He placed them in a Promised Land that was at the meeting point of the two major international highways of the ancient Near East and tells them to live differently. Why? So that the nations passing through could come to know who God was and what it means to follow Him. In the New Testament, Peter purposefully echoes this same language when talking about followers of Jesus—many of whom were Jews: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (I Peter 2:9)”
What does it mean to be “a kingdom of priests” or “a royal priesthood?” Priests in the ancient world were the representatives of the god to the people. They were the voice, eyes, ears, hands and feet of the god. When you saw the priest you were seeing the god’s representative or “likeness” on earth. So when ancient peoples read these texts, they understood exactly what that meant. I think a couple of passages sum it up nicely. Jesus identified the greatest commandment(s) and summarized all of Torah in Luke 10 when he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” His brother James does a bit of Midrash on this when he says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)” What I like about both of these scriptures is that their focus is on what we should DO more than what we BELIEVE.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a sobering parable of the final judgment. He said the nations would be gathered and separated like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The criteria for those that enter into the inheritance vs. those that don’t? What they did. How did they treat the stranger, the sick, the poor, the needy and those in prison? None of the measures were based upon their theological understandings. It’s all about how they lived out their faith by what they did. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Or to summarize James 2:26, a faith that isn’t proven by what you do is dead.
I have come to understand that God is much more concerned about how His people act in the world than by what they believe or understand about him. Our participation in His kingdom is based upon how we live out the calling He has given us rather than obtaining some enlightened understanding of Him. We are called to represent him in the world; to bring others out of darkness and into light; out of what the world views as “success” and into a kingdom that Loves God and loves their neighbor as themselves. A kingdom that is more concerned with service than with being served. A people that is more focused on helping others rise than on lifting themselves up.
Where did Ephraim and Manasseh go wrong? They put worldly power and economic success above living out their calling to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation that loved God. They didn’t trust in God for protection. They failed to take care of the poor and those marginalized by the social system. May we not be found guilty of the same.