Genesis 49:20 “Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king.”
When Asher stood before Jacob and received his blessing and prophecy his father announced to him in the hearing of all his brothers a future of prosperity. “You will bathe your feet in olive oil. Your meals will not be bread and water; your food will be rich, soups and salads, tender lamb, sirloin steak, fresh olives and warm bread out of the oven, both leavened and unleavened. You will have old wine to drink, and baskets of grapes will always be on your tables. You will be fascinated with food, with cooking, and recipes, and unusual menus, new combinations of vegetables and meat and spices. You will be obsessed with all of that, and you will discuss your favourite foods and recommend them to your friends. The men of Asher will be doing this at the city gates as well as their womenfolk at the well, and your children will grow up with educated palates and high expectations for their meals. “Asher’s food will be rich.” More than that, the tribe of Asher will provide royal delicacies for the Jerusalem court. “By order of his majesty the King” will be a sign over the entrance of many a farm in western Galilee, an area famous for its lushness and fertility. The farmers will be sending week by week their fresh produce to the palace of David and his descendants, food fit for a king, real delicacies that only the rich can afford. The word ‘delicacies’ in Hebrew refers to luxurious and delightful things, comfort food giving pleasure to the rich.
So Asher waited in turn for the divine pronouncement to be made to him on his future, and when Jacob came to him and looked at him he said these words to him, “Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king” (v.20) and . . .? And? And nothing. That is it. That was Asher’s blessing, material prosperity, plus nothing. What would you think if you heard God speaking to each one of your four children, and various guaranteed prophecies were made about the future of each one of them, and to one of them the promise was made that he or she would become very wealthy? Would you know on hearing it a combination of delight and fear? Haven’t we all at some time in our lives prayed the famous prayer of Agur “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God” (Pros 30:8&9)? Hadn’t you prayed that prayer for any children whom God might give you? Yet here is God announcing that this one child is going to become the richest of them all. Was that a blessing or a curse? Wasn’t it both as the prophecies were for all of Jacob’s children? Gad was going to be a brave warrior – the blessing of courage, but consider the curse of hand-to-hand combat, death and injury. Dan would provide justice – what a blessing, but Dan would also be like a serpent by the roadside – what a curse. Joseph would be a fruitful vine, but with bitterness archers would attack him. Blessings and cursings came to all the boys.
We all know that material things are a gift of God. We know that matter is not in itself evil. That is Greek philosophy not biblical ethics. God created the earth. And God gives us richly all things to enjoy. The electric light, comfy pews, an acoustics system, central heating, cookies and coffee later – all these things God has provided richly for our enjoyment. Jacob like his father and grandfather before him, had been a rich man, and when his father Isaac blessed him he said to Jacob, “May God give you of heaven’s dew and of earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine” (Gen.27:28). Jacob was one of the richest men in the world. In fact, he was almost at his wit’s end knowing what to do with it all. When he came back to Canaan from the years he worked for his father-in-law he said to God, “When I crossed the river Jordan and left this land all I had was the staff in my hand, but now I am entering the land again with all these possessions, my herds of animals and the servants looking after them, they are altogether too many for us to travel in a single company. We have to split up into two groups” (Gen. 32:10). Jacob had become tremendously wealthy as his father Isaac had promised him. There is nothing wrong with material things, even having an abundance of material things. Then how did Jacob’s son Asher deal with his riches?
- THE ROOTS OF ASHER’S MATERIALISM.
Asher was the full brother of Gad. In other words he too was illegitimate, the son of his mother’s maid Zilpah, born with all the indignities of that status. His birth was designed to make his father finally fall in love with his mother’s mistress, Leah, who was Jacob’s actual wife. So Asher’s upbringing was a fight for recognition, parental encouragement and love. The new biography of Steve Jobs, the inspiration of Apple computers, has just appeared, so very rapidly after his death. It is a warts and all production. The author, Walter Isaacson, reveals that Steve Jobs was adopted at birth and that he felt a lifelong sense of abandonment at being given way by his ‘true’ parents. We wonder what impact it had made on Asher to know the brutal facts that he was illegitimate, and his father’s wife had decreed that he should be born through her slave-girl simply for her to gain the love of his father? Was that deprivation much of Asher’s drive for possessions?
Then he wasn’t helped by the chief male role models around him growing up were his father Jacob and his grandfather Laban. They were immensely covetous men who were constantly vying with one another in seeing who could grab the most at the expense of the other. You remember what is recorded in Genesis 30 Jacob asked his father-in-law if he could have something from Laban for his own household, some payment, after working all those years for him. “What do you want?” asked Laban, and Jacob suggested that he might have all the streaked, speckled and spotted sheep that would be born. Laban readily agreed but speedily, the very next day, he removed all the speckled rams and the speckled sheep from his flock, taking them a three day journey away. But Jacob overcame that strategy with some strange ploy of his own which resulted in God blessing his herds with thousands of speckled sheep all of which were all his. The chapter concludes, “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen.30:43). Such prosperity came at a cost, intense rivalry and hostility from Laban and his sons. Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. It became dangerous for Jacob to stay in the area any longer and God told him to go back to Canaan.
So that was the atmosphere of Asher’s home life,
a sense of personal deprivation and rejection, intense rivalry over possessions – flocks and herds – between his father and Leah’s father, both men covetous farmers. Those were the chief influences over the long years of Asher’s adolescence and young manhood. Now, we have moved on years later, and the dying Jacob tells Asher that he too will become a very wealthy man. That was it. That was the only blessing he had for Asher. There was nothing else. As far as spirituality was concerned, “I’m sorry. I have none of that for you. I have nothing to give, none of that heavenly wisdom, none of that courage, none of that trust; no covenantal blessings. You are not going to be blessed by Jehovah, but you are going to be in such a position that you will bask in abundance, and be known and liked by kings all your days.”
For many people in Jacob’s days (and in our day too) hearing such a prediction would be like reading the most sublime and glorious horoscope. The hands of a Midas were on their heads. They would be living at the end of the rainbow. They could have anything that they wanted. When you speak to many parents about their hopes and wishes for their children they’re thinking in terms of prosperity. “How are your children doing?” you ask them, and they reply in terms of material prosperity. “Oh, they’re doing very well indeed. They are doing so much better than we ever did . . .’ but it is all in terms of wealth.
And in their history the tribe of Asher prospered. They were given the very best of the land of Canaan, and with their access to springs of water even during the years of drought they always had crops and herds in abundance and Asher did business with the kings and judges. It was just as Jacob promised him, and Asher was satisfied.
- THE FRUIT OF ASHER’S MATERIALISM.
Asher was given the finest farming land and he gave himself to making it hum, the herdsmen and cultivators of Asher, and their wives, and the young farmer’s clubs all lived for farming. Everything grew so well that Asher never suffered. He could produce royal delicacies and have a contract with the house of David, and set the table before the monarch with one sumptuous course after another. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king, and that one, and that one?
Yet there was another side to Asher. When he was allocated his land in western Galilee Asher, with all the other tribes, was given a strict admonition from Jehovah that he was to drive the Canaanites out of that land. Those idolaters were to be expelled lest the world stay in the church and worm its way in the heart of the church. What did Asher do? Didn’t she find the Canaanites useful farm labourers, harvesting the crops, weeding the fields, cutting the corn, milking the cows? What are we told? “Nor did Asher drive out those living in Acco or Sidon or Ahlab or Aczib or Helbah or Aphek or Rehob, and because of this the people of Asher lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land” (Judg. 1:31&32). All around them were Canaanites, and they worshipped their Baals, and they set up their shrines and Ashtoreth poles all over the land. And don’t you think that that was a pervasive temptation to Asher? When a woman who worshipped Jehovah could have no children, when a child grew ill and you had already lost one or two, wouldn’t you go to the god of fertility that your Cananite friends visited and make sacrifice ask him to spare your child or give you a child? When a Canaanite woman flashed her eyes and smiled at you wouldn’t you behave like every other person behaved at times like that? It couldn’t be wrong for it seemed so right. So Asher intermarried with Baal worshippers. It would have been a prize for a Canaanite woman to capture a rich son of Asher.
What happened in Asher was happening all over the land. We are told in the opening verses of Judges chapter 4, “the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan” (Judg. 4:1&2). The commander of his army was Sisera and he had 900 iron chariots. We are told that “he cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years” (Judg. 4:3). What did the people of God do? What they must always do in such circumstances; “they cried to the Lord for help” (Judge4:3). Did God answer? He always answers, and he raised up a prophetess named Deborah. She rallied the people around her and they attacked Sisera under Barak. She said to him, “‘Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?’ So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men. At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled” (Judge. 4:14&15). But soon another godly woman, Jael, got him.
Now the next chapter is the song of rejoicing of Deborah, singing in triumph over the Canaanites, but the song is particular and discriminating in its praise. You know how it starts, “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves – praise the LORD!” (Judg. 5:2). But Deborah denounces one by one the tribes who sent no one to fight against Jabin and Sisera. Where was Reuben and Gilead and Dan? Whey weren’t they fighting with us? Then she mentions Asher saying, “Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves” (Judg. 5:17). He was too busy working on his vineyards and tending his cattle and preparing his royal delicacies to fight against the idolaters who had cruelly treated the people of God. Deborah says, “Where were you when we needed you? When the rest of the people faced 900 iron chariots you were preparing your royal dainties and paying your Canaanite workmen. In other words your actions were guaranteeing that the people of God would have problems with the worship of Baal for centuries.
Four hundred years later at the time of Elijah you could not believe how powerful the worshippers of Baal had become. The Queen of Israel, Jezebel, was a worshipper of Baal. She massacred the prophets of Jehovah. A hundred of them were hiding in a cave, afraid to appear in public, being secretly fed by Obadiah. The prophets and priests of Baal strolled all over Israel as if it were theirs. Elijah was utterly outnumbered by them, indeed he thought that he was the only one left who worshipped the Lord. Asher tolerated the Canaanites; he stayed at home, and built bigger barns, and never fought with the chariots of iron, and the world won. The world won! Even though at that time Asher was there in the majority, ruling, governing, employing, paying, yet Asher gave place after place to the worshippers of Baal. And as a result this tribe’s love of the Lord shrank; it was not spiritually-minded tribe. No rulers come from it. No judges were raised up from Asher. No prophets and preachers. Jesus said that you cannot serve God and mammon, and Asher chose to serve mammon.
There was once a man who came to the Lord Jesus. He had everything that men and women want today. He had health – he came running to Jesus. He ha
d youth. He had authority and power for he was a ruler. He had wealth; he was a rich man. He even had morality; he had kept the ten commandments from his youth, and even though we know there is a certain superficiality about that claim – he had not and could not have kept them perfectly – yet there were no dirty secrets in this man’s life. Everything that men admire and want he possessed. But there was one thing that he lacked wasn’t there? You know what it was. He lacked eternal life. To have everything else, all the stuff that the world clamours for he had, but to lack the most important thing of all was his personal tragedy. He knew men could possess the life of heaven, and he knew that he didn’t have it – those are great discoveries. Do you realise that? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked Jesus. He went to Jesus. Who better to go to? People can make the most disastrous mistakes when they know they are strangers to the life of eternity. They go to spiritualists and mediums; they go to communes; they go to drugs; they go to alcohol and entertainment; they go on the road; they travel to India; they go to doctors for pills; they go to the instituted church. They go anywhere except going to Jesus. They don’t read the New Testament and kneel down in a room by themselves and begin to talk with him. They fail to cry out to him for the gift of eternal life. They may have everything like this rich young ruler had, but unlike him they don’t go to Christ for help.
What a dissatisfying thing money is! J.C.Ryle says, “It takes away some cares no doubt; but it brings with it just as many cares as it takes away. There is the trouble of getting it. There is anxiety in keeping it. There are temptations in the use of it. There is guilt in the abuse of it. There is sorrow in the losing of it. There is perplexity in the disposing of it.”
We are told that Jesus loved this young man, and Jesus told him what he had to do to have eternal life. He made it very clear and very simple. It was not at all complicated. Jesus told him that there was only one thing lacking in his life, just one thing! Sometimes we cannot number the things that are wrong in our lives, but Jesus told him that there was one thing only he lacked. Get rid of your prosperity. That is what was standing in his way. “Sell all you have – every little bit – and give the money to the poor. This is taking you to hell because that is what you are living for.” The Lord did not say that to Abraham, and he did not say it to Job, and he did not say it to Jacob, but he said it to this young man because his riches ate up his thinking and all his plans and emotions and the hours of every day. They were all that he could see. They were taking him to hell. And what is taking you to hell? The dearest idol you have known, whate’er that idol be, ask God to help you tear it from its throne, to worship him alone. You cannot serve God and mammon. Get rid of it all and serve Jesus Christ.
And these are the most difficult demands of discipleship in the Bible, and as you hear the story of the rich young ruler for the fiftieth time you begin to wonder, “Who then can be saved?” The disciples of Christ had heard it fifty times from Christ, and Jesus tells us this, to leave that question to God. Just you concentrate on this, doing what the Lord tells you to do. The things that are impossible with men are possible with God. You may have kept the ten commandments outwardly from your youth but there is still a besotting with your prosperity. Think of the very first of the ten commandments; remember how the law of God begins; “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” Who or what comes in your life before God?
I think that it is the most difficult task I have today to make you see that all you have, all your most prized possessions and all the money you have, is worth nothing compared to having Christ. I think that people are oblivious to the sin of covetousness. There was a Roman Catholic priest who had heard confessions in the confessional for many, many years, of every kind of sin, but he said he had never heard someone confessing the sin of being covetous. Yet it was a realization of that particular sin that convicted Saul of Tarsus and killed his self-sufficiency and satisfaction of living morally but without Christ. Here was the choice facing this young man; on one outstretched hand imagine all he possessed, his lands and his houses and his property, his silver and his gold, his horses and chariots – he was very wealthy. Then on the other outstretched hand there was Christ and his gift of eternal life, and this day he had to choose. You too have to make a choice. You cannot have both. What an enormous issue! What a long time the rich young ruler took to make up his mind, but when he did he rejected Christ, and hung on to all his riches – they were so great – and he walked away from Jesus, sad. Imagine that this happened. Imagine it might happen to you. You are faced with this choice – I am telling you that you are faced with it – and you might make the same choice as Asher made, and as the young ruler made, and you take stuff . . . and you reject the Saviour. If you do, please be sad; but better still don’t walk away. Take Christ and inherit eternal life.
- THE SURPRISING END OF ASHER’S MATERIALISM.
It is surprising first of all because the end of Asher is found in the New Testament. There’s not much about Asher in the Old Testament because gaining the whole world was their passion rather than dealing with their souls. So they produced no prophets, judges, preachers and generals, no one of any leadership. There was no one outstanding in the land of Israel that ever came from the tribe of Asher . . . until you come to the New Testament.
Then you know at the time of the great disruption in the Jewish nation under the son of King Solomon the land split in two, and the ten northern tribes became Israel, and a few centuries later they were taken captive by Assyria, and all those tribes disappeared – the ten ‘lost tribes’ of Israel, including Asher. But the very last member of the tribe of Asher actually reappeared in the New Testament – like the last of the Mohicans.
Then to deepen our surprise the member of the tribe of Asher who is such a giant in the faith turns out to be the very opposite of the rich young ruler. This person is a woman, and she is very elderly, and she has hardly any money at all, and she is the greatest of the tribe of Asher and she is presented to us in the New Testament. Her name is Anna and if you turn to the gospel of Luke chapter two you will read about her; “There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and she spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38). The first surprise is that five hundred years after the exile and annihilation of the ten northern tribes of Israel there still existed some who identified themselves with one or o
ther of them. Anna would tell people, “I’m of the tribe of Asher.” And they would look at her as people would look at a living specimen of a Great Auk today.
More than that, Luke considers her important enough to develop her identification by giving us the name of her father ‘Phanuel.’ In other words ‘Penuel,’ the Greek of the Hebrew ‘Peniel,’ and that is where this Jacob in our text today, here giving this blessing to Anna’s great ancestor Asher, had once been. Peniel is where her ancestor Jacob had wrestled with God and become a prince of God, and his name was changed from Jacob the deceiver to Israel the prince of God.
Now the tribe of Asher had been enjoying prosperity without blessing for centuries – like much of Switzerland and Monaco and New York and Wales, but it all ended in slavery and annihilation. By the time the little Lord Jesus is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents all Asher’s influence is gone, and the one surviving member of the once affluent tribe that we know about walks to the Temple in great poverty. She has nothing. Her marriage lasted seven years and then her dear husband died. She continued as a widow until she was 84 years of age and these were six decades of growing dependence on God. She fasted, we are told, that she might not be overcome by the things of the world. She prayed. She came to the temple daily, sometimes in the day and sometimes in the darkness she walked there, as God had commanded the people. It was her Father’s home and she envied the birds of the air who could build their nests in its nooks and crannies and never leave the place. She came to confess her sins and make her sacrifices, adore him for his mercy and grace, pray for the peace of Jerusalem and worship him in the beauty of holiness.
Wasn’t she rich? More than that, she was waiting for the promised seed to come, the one God had spoken of to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, telling him that through one of his descendants the nations of the earth would be blessed. She believed God, just as her father Abraham had. This was waiting for the seed of the woman spoken of in Genesis 3. This was the suffering servant of Isaiah, the Messiah on whom the Lord would lay the iniquities of us all. Anna knew the promises and lived in hope that her eyes would see that great day.
Then that never-to-be-forgotten day Joseph and Mary brought their little baby boy, Jesus, to the Temple to consecrate him to God and make sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons. A man of God called Simeon saw them and it was revealed to him that this was the promised one. His eyes had seen God’s salvation in this child and he could now depart to heaven in peace. The light that would one day illuminate us in Wales had begun to shine with the birth of Jesus son of Mary.
As they were talking together Anna of the tribe of Asher arrived on the scene and knew that the promised Redeemer had come and cried out, “Thanks be to God!” Then to all whom she knew in the Temple, the priests and the Levites and the worshippers who were among those also waiting for the consolation of Israel she spoke to them all about the little Lord Jesus. This daughter of Asher was truly rich, though a poor widow. How was she rich? I can give you three reasons:
i] She knew where she came from. Many have no idea. They vaguely feel that their ancestors were amoeba living in protozoic slime. They somehow have come from primitive soup! That is their past. Anna knew that God had created her in his image, and though sin had ruined her the Lord had restored her. She knew she came from the materialist covetous tribe of Asher to whom money and possessions mattered inordinately. She had come from that. She had come from that tribe’s lostness, the judgment that had come upon them. Her tribe had been annihilated, but she had been preserved and brought to know God. Daily she met with him and spoke to him. She lived by faith in him and she knew that when she died she would go to be with him.
She was not wealthy; she did not come from the ruling classes; she had no influence in the land but she knew God and she knew where she came from. Do you know where you come from? You come from the kingdom of darkness. You come from lostness and alienation from God. You come from hopelessness and rebellion. You come from the grip of hell. Demons have wrapped their chains around you. The god of this world had blinded your understanding. Never forget the pit from which you had to be dragged. God delivered many of you. He drew you with cords of love to himself. He translated you from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s own Son. You are victors from the dark domain. He redeemed you with the precious blood of Christ. He gave you life and faith and clothed you with the righteousness of Christ. He gave you something the rich young ruler lacked. He gave you everlasting life. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Anna of the tribe of Asher knew this and she was the richest of the members of the tribe who had ever lived. She was richer than Asher himself.
ii] She knew who she was. She was a worshipper of a God who kept his promises. She was a witness of the Lord Jesus. She was an advocate of him as the Redeemer of God’s elect. She was a believer of the Bible. She was unashamed of her faith in God. She was clothed in the garments of salvation. She lived in hope of the glory of God. Henceforth there was laid up for her a crown of righteousness that God would give her in that day, and not her only but all who loved his appearance. She had an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, that fadeth no away, reserved in heaven for her as she was kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last day. She knew where she came from and she knew where she was going and she knew the source of her great inheritance.
iii] She knew the future of the world. All the nations of the world were going to be blessed by this very Child whose parents had come and consecrated him to God. The good news of his life and death and resurrection and ascension was going to be preached from Jerusalem throughout Judea and Samaria and out to the uttermost parts of the earth. Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved. The nations, receiving this message, would rejoice. They would be delivered from the god of this world.
What a rich person was Anna of the tribe of Asher. Her heavenly Father blessed her with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. He promised her he would supply all her need according to his riches in glory
in the Saviour. That was her daily experience. She could say, “I am now 84 years of age, a widow for sixty years, but all I have needed God’s hand has provided.”
There are Christians who believe in and know the true satisfying provision of God. Think of Hudson Taylor the founder of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He once famously said, “Depend on it; God’s work done in God’s way will never lose supplies.” When a bank account was first opened in the name of the China Inland Mission and someone wrote a cheque for ten pounds for the C.I.M then Hudson Taylor went on to describe the assets of the C.I.M as, “Ten pounds and all the promises of God.” He said that the true principle of raising money for the support of Christian workers was this; “we move men’s hearts through prayer to God alone.” I know that there are Christian men and women who know and believe this, and when they visit the OMF headquarters in London they may touch the brick walls of the building with reverence. “It is the living God who provided this for them” they say. Others did the same at Muller’s homes in Bristol.
That is the God who provided for the needs of Anna of the tribe of Asher. Over a thousand years earlier Israel was being attacked and its leader summoned help from Asher who was bathing himself in his wealth, but he didn’t come to help Israel. Finally when the tribe has been decimated and there is just one member left. Anna comes to the Temple and she sees Jesus Christ and she has everything. As possessing nothing, and yet having all things The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 63 said, “Thy loving kindness is better than life.” We’d better think about that. God’s loving kindness is better than life, even better than all that this life has to offer us.
13th November 2011 GEOFF THOMAS