Friday, January 29, 2016

The Redeemed

As Jacob prepares to die near the end of Genesis, he's living in Egypt with all of his sons. He speaks one last fatherly word over each of them, prophetic words about what will come of them as they each become their own tribe in the nation of God. Here are the words he speaks about two of his sons:

Simeon and Levi are brothers. Their swords are weapons of violence. Do not let me attend their secret meetings. Do not let me join their assembly. In their anger they murdered men. At their whim they crippled cattle. May their anger be cursed because it's so fierce. May their fury be cursed because it's so cruel. I will divide them among the sons of Jacob and scatter them among the tribes of Israel. (49:5-7)

We don't really know what causes Jacob to say this about these brothers. We don't know what he's referring to when he talks about their swords, their secret meetings, their anger, their fury, their offenses. And there's not much of a logical reason why he groups these two brothers together out of all the brothers, unless it perhaps relates to these secret meetings and all the mayhem they've carried out together.

But what we do know is that as the story of Israel progresses through the Old Testament, we sort of lose track of most of the tribes of Israel. The lines between them start to blur and eventually, we don't hear much about Dan or Isaachar any more, but rather simply about Israel. Benjamin is a noted exception to this. As is...Levi.

The Levites become a prominent group in God's continuing story. Part of Jacob's parting words certainly come true - they are divided and scattered among the tribes of Israel. But they are so precisely because they are chosen of all the sons to be the servants of God's tabernacle. (Interesting note: Jacob spoke that Isaachar would become a servant/slave force, yet they are not the ones chosen to be God's set-apart servants.) Yes, part of Jacob's words over his son come true.

But what about the rest of what he said?

What does it say about God that He chooses this tribe whose namesake was violent to become the servant of His tabernacle? Levi murdered men, crippled cattle, was cursed because of his anger and fury...and his descendants become the only men in all of Israel who are worthy to carry the sacred things.

We could say, perhaps, that what Jacob sees as fault, God may see as qualifiers of service. Levi is good with a sword, which would make sacrifices most efficient. He's good at secret meetings, which God was known to have with His chosen. He's master of assemblies, and the tabernacle is nothing if not an assembly. He murdered men, exacting judgment on them, which sets him up to be a judge; he crippled cattle, yet another act that prepares him for ritual sacrifice. He's clearly passionate. Fierce. Maybe it's a display of God's redemption that He turned this son's skill set toward sacred service. 

Or maybe the sacred service was intended to sanctify the son's skill set, inflicting a measure of discipline upon Levi.

Of course, we must ask the same question about Simeon. Simeon received exactly the same words from his father, Jacob, but his story plays out very differently. Simeon is given his own share of the land and his descendants settle down in their own territory and slowly fade into obscurity. We simply don't hear much more about them. We don't hear about their swords. We don't hear about their secret meetings. We don't hear about their offenses, their anger, or their fury. Nothing. So the question becomes - is Simeon the redeemed? What would that mean?

Levi may be redeemed because he lives out his story in very public service to God. Simeon may be redeemed because he settles in the land and lives out his story in quiet normalcy, nothing at all special about him. Which is it?

Could it be...both?

It says something amazing about God that these two brothers, these two men who are grouped together for their characteristics and their attitudes and their actions, these two guys who are so similar that even their father can't separate them, take two remarkably different paths through their stories - through God's stories - and yet both are still one fundamental thing: God's people. God's redeemed people.

It's an encouragement for us who look around our world and see some men living their lives in sacred service for God and see others living in quiet obscurity, who look in the mirror and see one or the other, and who wonder which is which. Which is the redeemed? Which is God's man? The answer is both. 

We are God's people. God's redeemed people. In service of the temple or a land of our own, we are. This is our story.

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