Genesis 49:27 & 28 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder. 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.”
The blessing of Jacob began way back in the first verses of this chapter with a superscription. The dying patriarch exhorted his boys, “Gather round so that I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel” (vv.1&2). Now it ends in verse 28 with what is referred to technically either as a ‘colophon’ or a ‘postlude’, that is, a closing summary, but it was not spoken by Jacob. In these words Moses is informing us that this blessing of Jacob had centred upon the twelve tribes rather than on these individual brothers, and that is what we have sought to do as we have examined the tribes’ blessings. This is the first time in the Bible that the phrase ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ is to be found. Strangely enough it only occurs on one other occasion (maybe twice more) in the entire Old Testament, and then we find it three or four times in the New Testament. In other words what is so familiar a phrase to us is a rare phrase in the Bible, but the words ‘twelve tribes’ have actually occurred earlier than our text in the book of Genesis. They refer to the twelve tribes of the Arameans, or the twelve tribes of the Ishmaelites, or the twelve tribes of the people of Esau. Even in ancient Greece there was a tribal structure of twelve, but, as I say, this is the first time this entity, ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’, is mentioned in Scripture.
What a diverse group of tribes they were, united for less than a century under three kings, Saul, David and Solomon and then breaking into two clumps and never united again. The tribal characteristics were very different from one another although united in their religion, their language and their blood relationship to Israel himself. Those links were not strong enough to bind them together. What unites all of us together (and we are very disparate group of men and women) – we who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – is the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He holds us together. All our daily problems, which we have to face and overcome, we do so by him, our guiltiness, our weakness, our ignorance, our need of guidance, our help in being parents or children, husbands or wives, we find our strength and wisdom in him. We cope by Jesus Christ; we get by with a lot of help from our best Friend. We can’t find the way, and there is no life without him. He helps us live with one another, and bear with one another and care for one another. Because of our love for Jesus Christ and for one another we cover a multitude of one another’s sins, and so we stay together as his body. What these Old Testament believers found it impossible to do we largely achieve through Jesus Christ. We keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.
So we turn to Jacob’s words about Benjamin, the well known younger son who never opens his mouth to speak a single word recorded in Scripture. There is something paradoxical in Benjamin, a seeming contradiction, and that is evident in his father’s words. We have a positive image of him as everyone’s kid brother, the youngest boy, loved by his father, and yet when Jacob speaks to him he says, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” It is as surprising as it would be reading that Mary Poppins is a wolf. Benjamin a wolf seems a contradiction, but look at the history of the church for the last two thousand years and you meet frequent contradictions. But you don’t have to go back very far into history to find a contradiction. You find many a paradox in your own life as a Christian, and that many of these are by God’s own appointments. We find that our lives are one contradiction after another. Paul says, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I can’t carry it out. For what I do isn’t the good I want to do; no, the evil I don’t want to do – this I keep on doing” (Roms. 7:17&18). We find that the godliest of men, Job, is permitted by the God he loves to lose everything, family, possessions, health and the support of his wife and friends. Or again think of that extraordinary vital church of Christ in Corinth and yet there were those eating and drinking damnation to themselves at its Lord’s Suppers. Some of its professing Christians had died because of their behaviour, and others were sick. The life of Benjamin is a statement of this sort of paradox; the silent kid brother is a ravenous wolf who devours the prey and divides the plunder, and yet his name is on the doors of glory, and he is sealed with the Spirit of God. He is limping to the same place as we inconsistent believers are limping.
- BENJAMIN’S LIFE WAS PARADOXICAL AT ITS BEGINNING.
Of the personality of Benjamin we are reduced to hunches and guesses. Though often referred to in the book of Genesis I tell you that he is never quoted as saying one word. We do know about his birth. His mother Rachel, with her last breath, named him Benoni, meaning ‘son of my sorrow.’ We are told the grim fact that Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. He never knew his mother. She was buried under the old oak tree by the road to Bethlehem.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that she refused to be comforted, and Matthew quotes those words in his gospel when he speaks of the mothers of Bethlehem whose sons were killed by Herod’s troops at the birth of Jesus, that they also refused to be comforted. It was not that it was impossible for Rachel to find comfort, or that her husband would not give her any comfort. We know that that was not so, but she refused the comfort he and others brought her. She was told, “The baby is well, a fine little chap, and Joseph your other son is thrilled to have his own special brother. God has given you two sons,” but to Rachel, consumed with the desire to have children, many sons, more than her sister Leah had had, she cannot be comforted. Only two boys and she knew she was dying. She was inconsolable.
Rachel was not a highly spiritual woman. She schemed with her maid that she had sons by her husband, and she battled with her sister through her life, and at the end there was no comfort for her. Her chief end in life was having baby boys and her sister had won that race; she had had more children and she also outlived her. Rachel was broken hearted at death. Apparently she never understood the conviction of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. Her chief end had been child-bearing. She did not know the first answer to the Heidelberg Catechism that our only
comfort in life and death is that we are not our own but belong to our faithful Saviour.
Her husband, Jacob, grieving at the death of his beloved wife, but rejoicing that their son had been preserved, was comforted, and the evidence for that assertion we see in his dismissing the name his wife had suggested for the baby, Benoni. He announced that the boy’s name was to be ‘Benjamin’ ‘the child of my right hand.” And so immediately the paradox of Benjamin got into motion. Because of this child Jacob had become a widower. There was grief he bore in getting the gift of this son through his late wife Rachel. That child was always going to be with him, adored by him, at his right side – what joy – and yet each time he looked at him he thought of Rachel his mother and how he missed her – what pain. The coming of this boy had caused his beloved’s departure.
Then forty years pass and Benjamin stands before him with his other brothers, and Jacob is on the brink of joining his wife in death. Benjamin has been listening to the mixture of blessings and judgments that have come upon all the other boys, one by one, and finally, last of all, it was his turn to hear what was going to happen to his line. What will be his own blessing? What will be his desendants’ future? Dad looks at his and says, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder” and that is that. Is that a blessing? Would you be happy to hear any of your children’s futures predicted in that way? This would be for all of us more of a condemnation than a blessing. A ravenous wolf is bloodthirsty, biting the heads off the chickens that he might return to later on but does not intend to eat now, a rapacious animal, self-sufficient, he kills more than enough in the morning so that he can divide it with the pack and the wolf cubs when he brings it back in the night. That is the image of Benjamin’s future. There is as little spirituality in this as there was in his mother’s life. He is prepared to shed blood for both him and his fellow wolves to survive.
But come with me some centuries later, 400 or 500 years, and what does Moses say of Benjamin as he makes his predictions and pronounces his blessings on the various tribes in Deuteronomy? He describes Benjamin thus; “the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders” (Deut.33:12). There is Benjamin, in a place of absolute security, resting all day long on him. It is the picture of the young lamb, too weak to walk, and the shepherd has picked him up and carries him across his shoulders, holding his legs firm so that he can’t fall. And I say to you, Can both be true? Can he be a ravenous wolf and at the same time the lamb lying across his loving shepherd’s shoulders? Yes he can. Yes we can. Can the Lord Jesus be the Lion of the tribe of Judah as well as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Yes he can, and so can we live under the paradox of being such different men. Martin Luther was both lamb and lion. Haven’t you shaken your head in fearful amazement when you have heard of some act of a professing Christian? In some ways that person is as tender as a lamb, and then in other ways that person has shown that he or she can be as cruel as a wolf! So let’s see how it was possible for Benjamin to be both.
- BENJAMIN’S LIFE WAS PARADOXICAL IN ITS CONTINUANCE.
i] Let us see the wolf in Benjamin. Let us turn to one of the passages in the Bible that is every Christian’s least favourite, the last three chapters of the book of Judges. This section of holy scripture contains one of the most sordid incidents in all the Bible. It seems so very unedifying and un-upbuilding, one you want to skip in family devotions. This is the incident beginning in Judges and the 19th chapter. A certain man walked from Judah to Ephraim with his concubine and his servant leading two donkeys. He arrived at Gibeah, a city of the tribe of Benjamin and he needed overnight accommodation. He hung around in the city square but everyone studiously ignored them. The sacred grace of hospitality to the traveler was very rare in this place. Finally an old man who happened to be also from Ephraim was returning home from a day’s work in the fields. He was one of the old school and he asked the younger where they were from, and he invited them to stay in his house, adding the warning “Whatever you do you mustn’t stay the night in the square.” He took them in and gave them food and they could wash and be refreshed. But some of the homosexuals of the town had seen this man in the square and that night they pounded on the old man’s door and shouted for him to send out the stranger. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was being repeated in Gibeah of Benjamin. Finally the man handed over his concubine, and they so raped her and abused her that night that she crawled to the threshold of the door in the morning and with her hands on the door she expired. He put her body on his donkey and went home to Ephraim where he dismembered her body into twelve parts and sent a part to each of the tribes of Israel, telling the tribes what had been done in Benjamin.
When this shocking complex of events was heard throughout the land all eleven tribes rose up against Benjamin in war. It was a bloody and merciless affair that lasted a long time and 65 thousand people were killed. Benjamin fought like a wolf but eventually the tribe was outnumbered. They were fighting four hundred thousand men from Israel, and Benjamin lost thousands of men as wave after wave of the tribes advanced on Benjamin. In one day alone twenty-five thousand men from Benjamin were destroyed and on another day eighteen thousand men from Benjamin were killed, and on another day another twenty-five thousand were wiped out. In fact Israel had to make special accommodation for the tribe in order that Benjamin was not extinguished in this tribal holocaust. It had come to that stage, when men debated would there be only eleven tribes from then on. The last chapter speaks of the grief of all of Israel that this disaster had come upon them. Where could wives be found for the men of Benjamin? The tribes decided to send an army platoon to Jabesh Gilead and they took four hundred young women from that place for the Benjamite men, and then they sent another platoon into Shiloh and caught hundreds of young girls there as wives for the men of Benjamin. What a story! Benjamin the ravenous wolf hunted and destroyed for his carnal wickedness, but not annihilated because he was yet Benjamin one of the twelve.
But that is not the only indication of Benjamin the wolf. One of the most notorious of the judges was Ehud, son of Gera the Benjamite, and every Christian knows that Ehud was a left-handed man, in fact the only time Scripture mentions left-handed men they are all from the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin had seven hundred men who left-handedly could sling a stone and hit a head and never miss! What is so ironic is that the name ‘Benjamin’ means ‘son of my right hand’ and yet his line produced all these left-handed men. And it was because of his left-handedness that Ehud the judge was able to accomplish his purpose. You know the story. It is again not the most favourite passages of Scriptur
e that you’d like to take on a desert island with you. We are told that Israel was under the power of the king of Moab, Eglon, for eighteen years, and the Israelites sent their judge Ehud to pay him tax. Let me read to you the brutal account of how this son of Benjamin destroyed Eglon: “Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a foot and a half long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way the men who had carried it. At the idols near Gilgal he himself turned back and said, ‘I have a secret message for you, O king.’ The king said, ‘Quiet!’ And all his attendants left him. Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his summer palace and said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’ As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out of his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, ‘He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house.’ They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead. While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah” (Judges 3:16-26). Then Ehud called Israel to arms and they struck down the Moabites and the land had peace for eighty years. That is Benjamin the wolf! There are others who are also brutal wolf-like men. Shimei who cursed David was also of the tribe of Benjamin.
ii] Let us seek a lamb in Benjamin. It is not easy to find a lamb. There is Esther, in the book bearing her name. She is of the tribe of Benjamin, and also her uncle Mordecai. I don’t suppose you would say that either of those people had a high degree of spirituality. I mean you wouldn’t expect either of them to have written any of the psalms in the psalter. But they had a courage and wisdom and were used of God to save Israel alive. We must not think of lambs as vacant and empty-headed. We consider them to be without guile. The Lamb of God sits in the midst of the throne of heaven and rules over heaven and earth and hell. There, in the book of Esther, Benjamin rises to greater heights than anywhere else in the Old Testament – it’s quite a pinnacle. By Esther and Mordecai they reach the very throne of Persia (the most powerful nation in the world) and protect and preserve the people of God
I would like to say that there is another ruler who symbolizes a reigning lamb but immediately I tell you his name you grow restless in your seats, because we again meet the problem of the split personality of Benjamin. I am thinking of King Saul. He was the first king of Israel and yet he came from the non-royal tribe of Benjamin. What do we do with this man? Where does he fit into the whole plan of redemption? His being anointed to be king of Israel was doomed to failure. The king must come from Judah. Judah has the sceptre and the crown. Judah is the father of kings, but the very first king comes from Benjamin, and so that kingship is rooted in failure. This dynamic tall personality comes from the wrong tribe and yet he will go along with a big populist movement in the land and accede to their desire that he become the nation’s king.
Then later you see this paradox in him when he joins with Israel’s preachers, and men cry out, “Isn’t Saul also among the prophets?” And the answer is “Yes. The king of Israel is prophesying!” So isn’t this Benjamin the spiritual lamb showing himself in Saul’s personality? Yet before you know it King Saul goes to Endor, to a witch and wants to communicate with the dead! Then he is the wolf! This is the King who gave his daughter to holy David as a wife, but very soon he wants to pin David to the wall with a javelin. In the whole case of the men of Benjamin you are dealing with a virtual case of schizophrenia, men being torn in opposite directions, the lion and the lamb, men who rise to the heights of leadership, beginning so well and yet ending up badly. Consulting God with prophets and then consulting witches with the spirit that comes from the pit, and it all ends up in suicide. That is Saul, the son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin.
“Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” (Roms. 15:4). It is teaching us that there is going to be a Benjamin who has this kind of paradoxical life, not only in Egypt, or during the Judges, or at the time of the first kings, or in Persia but throughout his history. We are going to meet Christian men like Benjamin often on our pilgrimage, men who are facing two ways. And we are taking it in turns to become someone as inconsistent as Benjamin. Think, for example of the situation of Jerusalem the capital of the nation, the home of the king, the place of the Temple the centre of the life of the nation. It was a place which had been filled with shekinah glory and it was also a place which needed the Messiah to come with a whip and drive out all the crooks who had taken it over. Where is Jerusalem? It’s within the borders of Benjamin. In the land of Benjamin was the actual seat of the kings of Judah, the three great and good kings, and the scores of feeble kings all doing evil in the eyes of the Lord. They were all in the territory of Benjamin. Where was Golgotha and the chanting priests mocking their Messiah as he hung on the cross – that place of infamy? It was in Benjamin. You say the word Benjamin and you go from one extreme to another. There is light in Benjamin and there is darkness in Benjamin. There is hope and there is despair in the same person at the same time. What do we do with a Christian whose name and personality is Benjamin? He creates all the biggest pastoral problems. The elders discuss Benjamins year after year. A minister might think to himself, “It would be a wonderful church but for the Benjamins.”
- BENJAMIN’S LIFE WAS PARADOXICAL AT ITS CONCLUSION.
Where does it conclude? It concludes when the Old Testament dispensation and the old covenant comes to an end. In other words, Benjamin and all the tribes are terminated with the coming of the new covenant. No more kings, and judges, and priests, and levites, and prophets, and aliens, and tribes, and sacrifices, and feasts in Jerusalem, and holy buildings, and a holy land – it is all gone. All ended. Good-bye to all of that, never more to be restored; there is no need for it to be restored ever again. All its functions were a preparation for the coming of the Messiah and his finished work, and the pouring out of the Spirit, and sending the new covenant gospel from Jerusalem out to the uttermost parts of the world. Benjamin, the physical seed of Jacob has come to his end and soon he will disappear.
There is just one more descendant of Benjamin to come and he will express these sentiments to that first generat
ion of Christian Jews, “Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebs. 6:1). He will believe, “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God” (Hebs. 7:18&19). This member of the tribe of Benjamin will affirm this truth, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebs. 10:19-22).
Ask ye who is his name? Let him introduce himself to us in the letter to the Philippians, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Phils 3:3-7). It is of course the greatest of all the tribe of Benjamin who is speaking these words, Saul of Tarsus, the apostle Paul. The beloved one who made himself of no reputation, who exhorts us to love our enemies and overcome evil with good, the lamb of God who also had once been a ravenous wolf – “persecuting the church” to the ends of the earth. Here was a man who would leave no stone unturned until he had accomplished his purposes. Here is one who had guarded the garments of the wolves who’d stoned Stephen to death and would that night divide the spoil. Here was a man as strong as a lion, single-minded as a wolf tearing the church of Christ apart, until that great day when God met with him and made him a lamb. Henceforth on his shoulders God carried him, protecting and strengthening him, until his life’s work was over.
Paul was a true son of Benjamin. You remember him standing before the Sanhedrin and telling them, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day” (Acts 23:1) and immediately the high priest Ananias was offended and ordered the guard to smash Paul in the mouth. Paul spoke immediately as a son of Benjamin, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” The one saying that is he who tells others that if it is possible, so far as it depends on them, live at peace with everyone. He is a follower of the Christ who called Herod a fox and denounced the Pharisees but who also prayed for those who crucified him. The Christ who is meek and lowly is also Jehovah Jesus with all power on earth and in heaven. He will judge the world. He will say to many, ‘Depart from me into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” We speak with his authority, we love with his compassion. A bruised reed he will not break; a smoking flax he will not quench.
This is Benjamin, the rapacious wolf and the beloved of Jehovah. Benoni, son of my sorrow; Benjamin son of my right hand. The Benjamites had to learn that when they were weak, then they were strong, because they abandoned creature confidence in their own resources and they looked to the power of Jesus Christ in them. “When I am weak, then am I strong.” That might seem difficult to understand. All your friends think. “When I am strong them I am strong.” The Bible tells me no. When in Gibeah the Benjamites wanted power over the traveler and took his concubine and in that night destroyed her then they weren’t being strong at all, were they? Cruelty and the suicide bomber and the destruction of the Twin Towers are not acts of strength. What weaklings, to kill unarmed strangers and themselves. The Bible tells us that when we are weak and need strength for daily living totally outside of ourselves in the Lord Jesus, then we are mighty strong! Of his full strength we fill ourselves. The Bible says, Abandon your own strength of character and righteousnesses and come naked to Jesus. Trust in him if you want paradise. The word is not, “Kill the infidel and you immediately gain paradise.” That is the way to hell. It says live a life of trust in Jesus Christ. Live a life of suffering for Jesus Christ like this greatest son of Benjamin. Listen to this account of his life: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:23-39). He boasted about his sufferings and weaknesses so that Christ’s power could rest upon him. In fact, this conquering child of Benjamin could say, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cors. 12:10). This is my only comfort in life or in death, in time or in eternity, that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour.
10th December 2011 GEOFF THOMAS