4.1.4 Brother/Sister: One's Fellow Man
Volume 4: The Human Condition—Chapter 4.1.4
Brother/Sister: One’s Fellow Man
To recap what we’ve established so far, “father” is scriptural shorthand for what Yahweh wants us to know about His role and character. Besides being our Creator, He is our provider, our ultimate authority, nourisher, protector, upholder, and disciplinarian. The “mother” metaphor reveals the role of the indwelling Holy Spirit—comforter, consoler, advocate, nurturer, intercessor, defender, and the one who confronts and convicts us when we Her children go astray. Not surprisingly, the roles overlap and complement each other, because our heavenly “parents” are actually One God, as we saw in Deuteronomy 6:4. And mirroring this arrangement, human fathers and mothers join to become “one flesh,” as revealed in Genesis 2:24.
At the risk of stating the obvious, none of these symbols would have any significance at all unless there were children in the picture. For whom does the father provide? Who does he protect (and why)? Who does the mother console and nurture? For whom does she intercede? People, no matter their marital status, no matter how much love and mutual devotion they may share, are not fathers or mothers until they have borne a child. Until then, they are merely people—men and women. And notwithstanding the sad fact that 45 million children are murdered in the womb every year, the world average for “births per woman” is 2.43 children. This implies that more often than not there are brothers and sisters in families. It is those relationships that I wish to explore in the coming pages.
I should note that (as with husbands vs. fathers, and wives vs. mothers) I intend to cover the symbology of “sons” separately from that of “brothers” and “daughters” separately from “sisters.” That is, the relationships between siblings (even if the bond is only metaphorical) are our present subject.
The scriptural definition of brothers (or sisters) ranges, as it does in common usage, from blood siblings to half siblings (i.e., the same father or the same mother but not both) to more metaphorical relationships. Members of an entire nation (which historically implied racial ties) are often called “brothers.” People who have no genetic connection but who share common beliefs also call each other brothers and sisters. The Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words notes, “Along with the terms ‘disciple’ (in Acts) and ‘saints,’ it [‘brother’] was one of the most popular names for Christians, and the only one used in James and 1 John. Each Christian was called ‘brother,’ and the Christians collectively were ‘the brothers.’ The name stressed the intimacy of the Christian community—that is, the relationship of believers to one another was as close as that of kin.”
Beyond blood-sibling relationships, then, the Bible characterizes several types of bonds as “brotherhood.”
(1) Any Israelite, regardless of how close or distant their family relationship happened to be, was to be regarded as a brother or sister.
For example, “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage.” (Jeremiah 34:8-9) The Torah, you’ll recall, had allowed an Israelite to “sell himself into servitude” in order to support his family or pay a debt, but it was never intended to be a permanent solution: you couldn’t “own” a Jewish slave in Israel. The laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee set boundaries on how long you could use your brother’s service—which made the whole system function more like contract labor, the same sort of arrangement professional athletes enter into with sports teams nowadays.
The rich and powerful all too often forget that those less fortunate are still their brothers, and as such are to be treated with respect and compassion. One would have thought that seventy years of Babylonian exile would have blunted the pride of the Israelite nobility, but given a little latitude, the old arrogance once again rose to the surface. We read: “And there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren. For there were those who said… ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.’”
God’s “man in charge, Nehemiah, put his finger on the source of the problem: the lack of brotherly love. “And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, ‘Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.’ So I called a great assembly against them. And I said to them, ‘According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?’” (Nehemiah 5:1-8) How dare you, he asks, treat your own brothers and sisters as chattel, as property, as slaves? Yahweh had provided opportunities for the poor, but the nobles and rulers were exploiting them for their own gain. If you would not sell your biological brother, sister, or child into slavery, why would you take advantage of your countrymen? We are to love people and use things—not the other way around.
Even after his conversion to Christianity, Paul, in describing the shame of his former life, referred to the Jews in the Diaspora as his brothers: “I [Paul] persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren [i.e., the Jews living in Syria], and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:4-5)
And when he found himself imprisoned in Rome for his faith, “It came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together, he said to them: ‘Men and brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans…. For this reason therefore I have called for you, to see you and speak with you, because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.’ Then they said to him, ‘We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you. But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere.’” (Acts 28:17-22) The trust being exercised by the Roman Jews here was not restricted to their immediate families, but extended to any and all Israelites—for they were considered brothers—people upon whom one could rely.
Paul’s heart for his brother Israelites was revealed in this agonizing declaration: “I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.” (Romans 9:2-5) Though Paul had been born in Tarsus (in the Asian province of Cilicia, in today’s southern Turkey) he still considered himself a Jew first—a citizen of Judea. If surrendering his life and soul would have ensured the awakening of his Jewish brothers to the reality of Yahshua’s anointing, resulting in their acceptance of His atoning sacrifice, Paul gladly would have done it. But it doesn’t work like that, and he knew it: Moses had crossed the same bridge, with the same results—see Exodus 32:31-33.
(2) Fellow Christians, from the very beginning, were regarded as brothers, as a family sharing mutual beliefs and interests.
“And in those days [after the resurrection and ascension, but before Pentecost] Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (altogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty), and said, ‘Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus; for he was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry.” (Acts 1:15–17) These “brothers” knew that Judas Iscariot had to be replaced in the inner circle of disciples, so they prayed for God to make His selection between Barsabas and Matthias—two godly men of their number. Then they drew straws (so to speak), and Matthias was elected.
So God (no doubt smiling and shaking His head) said, Nice try, guys, but I’ve got somebody a wee bit more provocative in mind. How about a fiery young Pharisee who’ll soon make a name for himself persecuting you—and Me? We read above how Paul (then known as Saul of Tarsus) had confessed to heading out for Damascus intending to arrest any Christians he found there. He never made it. We all know the story—how he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, and how three days later, the Lord Yahshua appeared to a disciple named Ananias in a vision, telling him to go find Saul and lay hands on him, because He was about to “open his eyes” in ways he never dreamed possible. “Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name....’” A perfectly natural knee-jerk reaction.
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’ And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.” (Acts 9:13-18) Note several things. (1) Upon receiving clarification and confirmation from Yahshua, Ananias immediately obeyed. (2) Unlike many of us, he didn’t assume he was smarter than God, just because God apparently wasn’t making much sense at the moment. And (3) on God’s word, Ananias received Saul as his “brother,” even though he was still blind and had not yet demonstrated his spiritual epiphany by being baptized—something that would have fairly screamed to his backers in Jerusalem that he had “switched sides.”
The initial reaction among those Saul had formerly persecuted was somewhere between caution and paranoia. “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.” Absent dreams or visions of the sort Ananias had received, this was a perfectly natural reaction: it has to be a trick. It would take another disciple of vision, faith, and obedience to tear down the wall of distrust: “But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out. And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.” (Acts 9:26-30)
Saul proved himself to be a “brother” to the Christians at Jerusalem through his courageous testimony and bold proclamation of God’s word. But when his Torah-based arguments hit a little too close to home for the “Hellenists” (those Jews of the Diaspora who had blended the worldly and philosophical lifestyle of the Greeks with the traditions of the rabbis), they decided it would be easier to kill the messenger than receive the message. These Jews—whom Saul naturally considered “brothers according to the flesh”—attacked him, so his new “brothers in faith” rescued him out of their clutches and spirited him out of harm’s way.
All of that made Christ’s Olivet Discourse prediction—applicable primarily to the Last Days—a new and visceral reality in the early church: “But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Now brother will betray brother to death…and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Mark 13:11-13) The “brothers” who will betray their brothers for following Christ during the Last Days need not be biological siblings, though they could be. They could also be “countrymen according to the flesh”—that is, people with whom you share a bond based on race, geography, economic status, or political philosophy. And alas, they could even be fellow “Christians” (at least in the cultural sense). If you don’t think that’s possible, remember the plight of the Waldensians, Hussites, and Albigensians, who were persecuted and slain for their faith by the tens of thousands over the centuries by their “Christian brothers,” the Roman Catholics.
Persecution tends to reveal who your real brothers are. Paul’s “natural” brothers (the Jews) hated him and attacked him time after time because of his defense of the word of God, especially because he taught that Yahshua was the fulfillment of the Torah—something that couldn’t help but fundamentally transform the way one approached this foundational document. But this recurring antagonism was countered with shelter and support from his spiritual brothers, the very people he himself had once persecuted in his ignorance. Another example: “But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there.” (Acts 17:13-14)
Brothers (and sisters, of course) are human—which means we’re fallible. We don’t always fully appreciate our spiritual parentage. One all-too-common mistake is to confuse our spiritual siblings with our Parents—that is, to “follow” influential, talented, even inspired people as if they were God Himself. Your pastor or mentor may be wonderful, helpful, eloquent, and inspiring, but at the very most, he is merely your brother. Don’t follow him; follow, rather, the One he ought to be following. Paul pointed out how this error can get out of hand: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13 ESV)
I don’t want to leave the impression that one’s “brotherhood” can be measured on a sliding scale—that one is “more” of a spiritual brother the more closely he agrees with you. With biological siblings, you either are one or you’re not: there is no middle ground. It is the same with Christians. As Yahshua told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again [literally, from above].’” (John 3:6-7) We are brothers and sisters in Christ only if we are born of the same spiritual Mother—the Holy Spirit. So it is possible to be brothers according to the flesh, and be completely unrelated spiritually—or vice versa. But since spiritual life is eternal, while biological life is temporary, the bond between brothers and sisters in the Spirit is infinitely stronger than merely being born to the same human parents.
(3) Our close companions, coworkers, and comrades in arms are often characterized as brothers.
This “kinship” is the result of shared passions, goals, and objectives, and beyond the more generalized bonds of Christian faith, it recognizes a close personal “working relationship,” laboring alongside a brother “in the trenches” (to borrow a World War I turn of phrase). It is working shoulder to shoulder with someone, being “equally yoked” with them in the pursuit of the same goal.
Perhaps the most poignant such relationship described in the Bible is the “brotherhood” that was shared between David and Jonathan. In a way, it is perhaps surprising that the two could have grown so close, for in the world’s eyes, they should have been rivals. Jonathan was the son and heir of Israel’s first king, Saul, while David was a “nobody” whom God elevated in the eyes of Israel due to his unshakable trust in Yahweh. The prophet Samuel had anointed David to be king over Israel when he was still a youth, yet David was content to honor Saul as God’s anointed as long as Yahweh saw fit. In the meantime, his friendship with the likeminded Prince Jonathan remained unshakable until the day he died. David’s lament over Jonathan’s untimely death brings tears to the eye: “How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan was slain in your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan. You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” (II Samuel 1:25-26) There wasn’t a hint of jealousy, envy, or territoriality in their relationship.
After Paul’s conversion, we often see his ministry in partnership with other believers. Barnabus, as we saw, broke the ice for him with the cautious saints at Jerusalem. And we see him alongside Paul in ministry half a dozen times in the Book of Acts. John Mark also worked with Paul for a time, as did Silas, Luke, and others. He thought of all of them as “brothers” in this close, personal coworker sense. For example, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother… Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:1, 3) Young pastor Timothy, who Paul mentored and to whom he wrote several valuable letters that ended up in our New Testament canon, is referred to as his brother in Philemon 1:1, Hebrews 13:23, II Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, and 1 Thessalonians 3:2. Working side-by-side with a “brother” was the rule, not the exception.
This shouldn’t come as any great surprise. Yahshua Himself (though all alone in His own mission—being the sacrifice for our sin) ordained that His disciples should work in pairs, not by themselves. For example, “And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits. He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts—but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.” (Mark 6:7-9) Matthew’s Gospel adds, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8) It was almost as if Yahshua wanted each disciple to have somebody with him as a witness to the power of God they were being authorized to wield—somebody to whom he could say, “Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming.” No, brother, you aren’t dreaming. I saw it too: the curse of sin and death flees before the authority of our Lord. Hallelujah!
When Yahshua “scaled up” the operation in anticipation of reaching all of Israel with the Good News, He kept the practice of sending out His forerunners in pairs: “After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He said to them, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.’” (Luke 10:1-2) Reading between the lines, it would seem that using the “buddy system” makes as much sense in ministry as it does in scuba diving. It provides backup, a support system if we run into unforeseen obstacles, a sounding board for when the Holy Spirit puts epiphanies into our little heads, someone to mourn with us when things go wrong and rejoice with us when they go right, an infrastructure for mutual accountability, and someone close to pray for (and with) us.
Even during the darkest days of the Great Tribulation, God’s pattern is that His servants work side-by-side. John reports, “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth…. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire.” (Revelation 11:3-6) These two (Elijah and Enoch, if I’m not mistaken) will serve as the ants at the Antichrist’s picnic, together reminding him, reminding the whole world, that there is a God, and he’s not it. They will stand as brothers in the face of almost universal hatred, supporting and encouraging each other, working in tandem toward the same goal, and perhaps finishing each other’s sentences—they’re that close.
Solomon explained some of the advantages to working side by side with a partner: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
The caveat here is that brothers in ministry need to be working toward the same goal, supporting one another, not tearing down what his partner has built. And on an even more fundamental level, such “brothers” need to be building their house on the same foundation—Christ. You can’t achieve “peace on earth” by blending the best that the Christian religion has to offer with that of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and atheistic secular humanism—one-world ecumenicism. Rather, we are called to be holy—set apart from the systems and schemes of man, and set apart to Yahweh.
Yahshua phrased the principle like this: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?” (II Corinthians 6:14-15) You can’t really be a brother or sister (in the sense of being a companion, comrade, or coworker in ministry) to someone who has a different spiritual mother. The Torah stated the same principle, without bothering to explain the nuanced application: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” (Deuteronomy 22:10) The lessons are two-fold (at least). (1) If you plow the field with one animal, you’ll wear him out. Teamwork lightens the load. (2) If you plow with an ox and a donkey together (i.e., mismatched: one large, one small; or one clean, the other unclean) you’ll end up going in circles.
Alas, I think I may have spotted a flaw in my own customary modus operandi here. I’m used to being the Lone Ranger. (No, that’s not quite right either: the Lone Ranger had his faithful Indian companion Tonto by his side.) I have in the past collaborated on several literary projects, but for well over a decade now, I have worked entirely alone: everything you’ve read on this website was written without the assistance of an editor, soundboard, co-author, or mentor—just me and my Bible and the Holy Spirit pointing stuff out to me as I sit here at this computer keyboard scratching my head.
On the other hand, I guess you could say my “sister” in this endeavor is my wife of almost half a century, though she doesn’t try to assist me in any literary sense. She just sees to it that I’m happy, comfortable, centered, and well fed as we plow God’s field together yoked together as one. She swears she doesn’t read my stuff, but I know she takes a peek now and then, because she occasionally expresses chagrin at my impenetrable linguistic proclivities. Gee, maybe I should pay more attention to my “writing partner.”
(4) Neighbors and distant relatives are sometimes referred to in scripture as “brothers.”
As the circle of brotherhood widens, we are reminded that a “brother” need not be someone you know, but merely someone with whom you’ve brushed up against sometime in the past. Any connection, no matter how tenuous, should be taken as a reminder to treat the people we encounter with deference and respect. For example, Yahweh instructed the people of Israel, “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:7) The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob, who had been the father of the Israelite nation four centuries previously. In other words, there was a genetic tie between the two nations, distant though it may have been.
At the very least, this would teach us to respect our genetic heritage. Since I am of Scot-Irish stock, and my wife’s people are French and Swedish, I should automatically consider Western Europeans my “brothers.” But of course, God’s instructions rarely (if ever) wholly consist of what lies on the surface. The lesson here might be that a people group who played a part in my spiritual reality, no matter how far back, should be considered kinfolk. Since I am a Christian, I’m speaking, of course, of the Jews—Israel—the people through whom Yahweh’s plan and purpose were revealed to the world: I am to consider Israel my brothers—even if I don’t (that I know of) have any Jewish blood flowing in my veins, and even if Israel has for the most part been out of touch with Yahweh for the past couple of thousand years.
Note that God ignored the fact that Edom was sometimes deserving of abhorrence by Israel. He tells them, “I don’t care: you are to treat them as you would a brother, not an enemy. I’ll deal with their sins Myself, in My own good time.” Esau/Edom is symbolic of the natural, worldly man—the one who sold his birthright for a moment’s gratification. Most of the world, in case you haven’t noticed, operates the same way today. They don’t give a flying fig about the Kingdom of God; they’re focused only on their short-term pleasure, profit, or position. Yahweh’s precept, perhaps surprisingly, tells us that we are not to despise such people, for they aren’t so much evil as they are lost. Vengeance belongs to God alone. We, meanwhile, “shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is our brother.” Our role, rather, is to remember that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) It is our job to reach out to “Edomites” in love.
Unfortunately, Edom (whether literal or figurative) seldom responds positively to our refusal to “abhor” them. Yahweh has foreseen the end of the path they’ve chosen, and it isn’t pretty. “‘Will I not in that day,’ says Yahweh, ‘even destroy the wise men from Edom, and understanding from the mountains of Esau? Then your mighty men, O Teman, shall be dismayed, to the end that everyone from the mountains of Esau may be cut off by slaughter. For violence against your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.’” (Obadiah 8-10) Once again, Edom and Israel (Jacob) are portrayed as “brothers,” but Edom’s violence—his intended fratricide—will eventually force Yahweh to deal with him in judgment.
And once again, think beyond genetic ties and ancient nations, but of symbols: those who “despise their birthright” (the salvation provided through Yahshua’s sacrifice, if only they’d receive it), will be “cut off forever.” And the evidence of their spiritual calamity is invariably revealed in their violence against those who revere the God of Jacob. We see the same viciousness from a different angle when John reports what he has learned about “‘Mystery, Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.’ I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus…. The waters…where the harlot sits are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues…. And the woman whom you saw is that great city [read: system] which reigns over the kings of the earth…. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath.” (Revelation 17:5-6, 15, 18, 16:19) We are on notice. Yahweh will not allow “violence against your brother” to continue forever. Babylon (like Edom) is ripe for judgment.
In one of the most foundational passages in the Torah (the one instructing us to “love our neighbors as we do ourselves”—singled out by Yahshua as the second-greatest precept of them all), Yahweh effectively equated “brothers” with “neighbors.” “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) To “rebuke” here (Hebrew: yakach) means to chasten, convince, or reason with someone, to offer correction, to argue against error.
We are told not to “judge” each other, in the sense that James describes: “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (James 4:11-12) “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:9) Meanwhile, the Leviticus precept directs us to call sin what it is: sin. We aren’t to sugar coat it, make it politically correct, or wink at it.
I know, the two ideas sound vaguely contradictory, but they’re not. Here’s the key: while we aren’t to go around accusing our neighbor/brother of being a cannibalistic homosexual bank robber, we are to make it clear that these things are forbidden by God. They’re sin, and sin leads to death. Or, if my sister holds the opinion that abortion is an acceptable form of birth control (or merely a legal and convenient way to sidestep one’s responsibility), it is my duty to “rebuke” her—tell her the truth: that Yahweh regards abortion as murder, and that life is sacred. But at the same time, it is not my place to hate or speak evil against her because she holds such views—even if she has had an abortion herself. As the bumper sticker ought to read, “Love them all, and let God sort it out.”
Speaking of the dangers of compromise, the Bible points out that there are people who, to gain an advantage, present themselves as our brothers, though they are nothing of the sort. That is, they are working against us, like the proverbial donkey yoked with the ox. Here’s an example: “And [Ben-Hadad, king of Syria] came to [Ahab] the king of Israel and said, ‘Your servant Ben-Hadad says, “Please let me live.”’ And [Ahab] said, ‘Is he still alive? He is my brother.’ Now the men were watching closely to see whether any sign of mercy would come from him; and they quickly grasped at this word and said, ‘Your brother Ben-Hadad….’” Ahab (as king of Israel) was supposed to be leading his nation in the ways of Yahweh, but he saw himself as “brother” to the idolatrous schemer (not to mention the sworn enemy of Israel) Ben-Hadad of Syria. (A certain twenty-first century American president leaps to mind as a parallel example, but let’s not go there.)
“So he said, ‘Go, bring him.’ Then Ben-Hadad came out to him; and he had him come up into the chariot. So Ben-Hadad said to him, ‘The cities which my father took from your father I will restore; and you may set up marketplaces for yourself in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.’ Then Ahab said, ‘I will send you away with this treaty.’ So he made a treaty with him and sent him away.” (I Kings 20:32-34) Basically, Ahab betrayed his country for the promise of a favorable trade deal and the return of some disputed territory. Ahab had, in effect, made a deal with the devil.
The story, however, doesn’t end there. A few verses later, we pick up the narrative. “Then the prophet departed and waited for the king by the road, and disguised himself with a bandage over his eyes. Now as the king passed by, he cried out to the king and said, ‘Your servant went out into the midst of the battle; and there, a man came over and brought a man to me, and said, “Guard this man; if by any means he is missing, your life shall be for his life, or else you shall pay a talent of silver.” While your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.’ Then the king of Israel said to him, ‘So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it.’” What we’ve got going here is a variation on the “You-are-the-man” ploy with which the prophet Nathan had confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba (see II Samuel 12). And Ahab, like David, walked right into it. “And he hastened to take the bandage away from his eyes; and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. Then he said to him, ‘Thus says Yahweh: “Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people.”’” (I Kings 20:38-41) The moral of the story is: be careful who you call your brother.
(5) In the broadest sense, all of mankind are our brothers and sisters.
Genetically, we are all related. All humans are the offspring of Adam and Eve, going back only about six thousand years. And the human genome suffered a severe constriction a thousand years later, when the flood ensured that all future generations would descend from Shem, Ham, and Japheth and their wives. So in truth, we’re all one big family—which is not to say we always act like it. But who among us isn’t inclined to cut his brother (or sister) a little slack for no other reason than that they’re our kin? It’s pretty clear that God (our Father) wants us to extend that same spirit of forgiveness to all mankind.
Yahshua told a parable about a servant who had been forgiven an impossibly large debt, only to turn around and be unmerciful toward a fellow servant who owed him comparatively little. The bottom line: “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18:32-35)
When He says we are to forgive our brothers their trespasses, He doesn’t only mean our biological siblings, nor just people of our same race or nationality, nor merely people with whom we share a common bond of faith or purpose, and not even just folks to whom we find ourselves connected by proximity or happenstance. No, in this context, a “brother” is any human being. If he has wronged us, we are instructed to be willing to forgive him. If he owes us anything, we are to respond with mercy to his plea for leniency, recognizing that we ourselves have already been forgiven a far larger debt, one we owed to our heavenly Father.
Putting the shoe on the other foot, we “brothers” should endeavor to pay our debts—and insofar as it is possible, live debt free. My wife and I live in a house and drive a car that we don’t actually own: we make contractually obligated monthly payments on the outstanding balance to a bank somewhere. To stop making these payments would be tantamount to theft, which is in turn a subtle form of idolatry. (That is, it would demonstrate that we value stuff more highly than the commandment of God.) But there is one debt that we (and I mean everybody) have incurred that we can’t ever pay off. I’m speaking, of course, of the debt of sin. If we wish to live in Yahweh’s universe, that debt needs to be repaid, for our sin has separated us from His presence. But the currency of the Kingdom of God is innocence—and let’s face it: we’re flat broke.
The “impossibly large debt” forgiven by the Master in Yahshua’s parable is indicative of this debt of sin. In infinite mercy, He paid it all so that we might live. You’d think that every sinner would be eternally grateful for the Gift. Remarkably, the solution for many is to “declare bankruptcy”—that is, assert that there is no God, meaning sin doesn’t exist, so they owe nothing and nothing needs to be repaid. I guess they missed the line in the parable where the “master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.” Simply declaring yourself guiltless does not make it so.
But for those of us who acknowledge our sinful, fallen state and are happy to receive Yahweh’s remedy for it, there is only one way to demonstrate that our gratitude is genuine. We must do for our brothers what Yahweh has done for us—forgive them. In Christ’s model prayer, He instructed His disciples to ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) Forgiveness is an integral part of love.
This may sound simple enough, but it’s not. People are our “debtors” because they have sinned against us. It therefore may seem natural (or at least normal) to hold grudges, to refuse (or neglect) to forgive them. And remember, forgiveness in not predicated on their asking to be forgiven: Christ forgave the Roman soldiers who were busy crucifying Him at that very moment. He forgave them, He said, because they “didn’t know what they were doing.” Most of our “debtors” would fall into this category. The Islamic terrorist who plants a bomb or rapes your daughter or cuts your head off has no idea what he’s doing, or why. Although it doesn’t feel like it, he’s just as much a victim as you are. The EPA agent who seizes your farm because it rained and a big puddle formed in your back forty (making you a water thief), is to be forgiven because he’s merely an arrogant moron enforcing unlawful rules. The drunk driver who cripples you in a senseless accident may deserve your undying animus, but he too is to be forgiven, for that is what we’re called to do by the God who forgave us much, much more.
Can I honestly say I’d be able to “forgive them, for they no not what they do?” I don’t know, and I pray I never find out. I do know what I’m required to do, however: I’m required to love my brother, because Christ first loved me. But this brings up a tricky issue. Does forgiveness cancel out justice? Are we to forgive criminals—let them get away Scot free with robbing and killing us or our brothers and sisters? Is blanket amnesty a Biblical concept? No. Even the most cursory perusal of the Torah reveals that punishments are to be inflicted in response to crimes. God commands it. It began, in fact, with the institution of human government in the wake of the flood of Noah, when Yahweh said, “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed. For in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:5-6)
So if you murder me, my “brother” (in however broad a sense you wish to define that term) is required to take your life in response. The Torah, not surprisingly, delineates a whole range of judicial reactions to sin—and in God’s world, the punishment always fits the crime: and eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, and restitution plus “bonus points” for theft. Crime did not pay in Theocratic Israel. It didn’t even break even.
In The Owner’s Manual (Volume II, chapter 11, elsewhere on this website) I wrote, “Though Yahweh didn’t designate a specific penalty for [generally] failing to love one’s neighbor, He did lay out detailed rules delineating what should happen in the wake of various key indicators of that absence of love: murder, kidnapping, rape, adultery, theft, criminal negligence, and so forth…. I’ve broken these down by type: retaliation, retribution, recompense, restitution, restoration, redemption, and rendering respect. These seven “R’s” reveal God’s remedy for our failure to love—a progression that in itself teaches us something about Yahweh’s method for reconciling us to Himself and for leading us into His love.” Loving one’s brother is not optional in God’s world. We are to love our neighbor—our brothers and sisters—as we do ourselves.
So John’s admonition might come as a bucket of cold water in the face: “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:13-15) At this late date, it’s no particular surprise that the world hates us believers. After all, we remind them of their fallen condition—even if we don’t say a word to condemn their behavior. By rejoicing that our sins are forgiven, we have de facto announced to the world that their sins are not—because they haven’t received God’s grace. But in what may come as a shock to some “Christians,” failure to love our brothers (defined any way you like) is evidence that we do not have eternal life within us.
Relationships between brothers and sisters are described throughout scripture. Let us examine seven of them as “case studies” that reveal how the symbol of brotherhood—our connection and interaction with (or our responsibility for) our fellow man—is played out in the real world.
Case Study #1: Cain and Abel
We may as well begin with the worst example of “brotherhood” we can find. Apparently, some time had passed after the fall of Adam and Eve into sin and their expulsion from the Garden. They had settled into their new life and borne children—we don’t know how many. We tend to assume that the world was populated with only four people at this point, but there may have been quite a few, spread out over several generations. However, the narrative focuses on two brothers from the first generation born to Adam and Eve.
Cain and Abel were both independent adults by this time, for we read, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but [his brother] Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to Yahweh. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And Yahweh respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell….” Again, the abbreviated narrative leaves us wondering what sort of instruction they had been given concerning offerings to Yahweh. Under the Torah, of course—and even in Noah’s day—it was clear that the shedding of innocent blood was God’s pattern, for it foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice, the one Yahweh Himself would make on our behalf, His only begotten Son, Innocence personified.
“So Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it….’” If God does not accept your offering, what can you do? (1) You can figure out what you did wrong—by His standards—and take steps to correct your path, or (2) you can try to take out your frustrations on the nearest convenient target. Needless to say, only the first option has a prayer of success. Surprisingly perhaps, we can infer here that “doing well” is not sufficient before God as a soteriological strategy: good works alone cannot save us. But they do demonstrate to God that the innocent sacrifice offered on our behalf is “accepted”—that is, that it is efficacious in covering the sin for which we offered it in the first place. Not doing well, on the other hand, means that repentance is still in order, and that if we refuse to do so, our sin will consume us.
But there’s something else going on here, something lost in the English. The word for “sin” (as in “sin lies at the door”) is the same word (Hebrew chatta’ah) that would have been used to describe the sin offering that Abel had offered up—the firstborn of the flock. Cain had no doubt brought the best fruits and veggies he could find, but Yahweh was telling him that innocent blood was required. Nothing else would suffice. Neither grapes nor gold, grain nor silver, would or could appease a holy God. But there was a proper sacrifice readily available, crouching at Cain’s front door, so to speak. All he had to do was stop trying to “buy God off” and begin opening his heart to his real problem—his sinful nature, his corrupt life.
Unfortunately, Cain opted for door #2. “Now Cain talked with Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.” Cain was the first guy in recorded history who attempted to elevate himself by bringing his brother down. It didn’t work. It never works. “Then Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?...’” Wow, what a clever comeback. But for some reason, God was not impressed with the witty repartee. It reminds me of the 2012 Democrat Party’s presidential convention when the audience booed God. They actually booed God! What were they thinking? That He’d go away and sulk?
“And He said, ‘What have you done?” Yahweh wasn’t asking because He didn’t know. He wanted Cain to face his sin. “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.’” (Genesis 4:2-12) Cain had never lived in Eden. He was born into a paradigm in which mankind had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow (see Genesis 3:17-19). Still, the earth had been bountiful, though Cain had no point of reference. It had no doubt never occurred to him that a stubborn, unproductive earth could result from his sin. As it turns out, relative bounty vs. poverty would be a tool Yahweh used throughout the age of man in order to encourage us (without abrogating our freedom of choice) to hear and heed His word. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 would codify the principle for the Children of Israel (and in principle, for us) in no uncertain terms.
And what about being a “fugitive” and “vagabond?” We are told that Cain left to live in “the land of Nod on the east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16), as if Nod were an established settlement. But nod simply means “wandering.” Unwilling to admit or repent from his sin, Cain was no longer comfortable living in the presence of God. Multitudes today, I must note sadly, have also chosen to “settle in the land of Nod.”
We concluded the previous section with a word from I John 3, reminding us that a lost world would invariably hate us who honor our Creator, and that the spiritual Rubicon revealing one’s true condition before God was his love (or not) for his brethren. We shouldn’t find it surprising to learn that the verses leading up to that revelation used Cain’s hatred of his brother Abel as the “horrible example” of what not to do in our relationships: “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (I John 3:10-12)
In case you missed it, John has subtly equated righteousness with love, and evil with hatred. And the place where our spiritual proclivities most clearly become evident is in our relationships with our brothers and sisters. Take that simile any way you like—biological siblings, or racial, cultural, or spiritual relationships. In the end, one way or another, we are all brothers and sisters. We need to act like it. Love one another.
Case Study #2: Jacob and Esau
Twins are usually the closest of brothers. But Isaac’s twin sons couldn’t have been more different. The saga of these two patriarchs goes a long way toward demonstrating that neither nature (biology) nor nurture (psychology) is what primarily shapes a child’s development. Rather, our free will—and what we do with it—is what most directly determines our path through this life and beyond. That is, it is not what happens to us, but what we ourselves choose to do at the crossroads of life, that shapes our destiny more than anything else.
Here’s the back story: “Now Isaac pleaded with Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If all is well, why am I like this?’ So she went to inquire of Yahweh. And Yahweh said to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body. One people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger....’” That wasn’t the way things normally worked in that culture and age, of course, but Isaac was all too aware that he himself was not his father’s firstborn son—Ishmael his half-brother would normally have received the birthright, yet here he was, heir to his father Abraham’s legacy.
We’re left to ponder what Isaac’s thoughts were on these developments. “So when her days were fulfilled for her to give birth, indeed there were twins in her womb. And the first came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over; so they called his name Esau [i.e., “Hairy”]. Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob [Literally, “Supplanter”]. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them....” One gets the feeling that he was just thankful to have two fine, healthy sons after twenty years of trying, and that his wife Rebekah had made it through the “twins” ordeal unscathed.
“So the boys grew. And Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man, dwelling in tents. And Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. Now Jacob cooked a stew. And Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.’ Therefore his name was called Edom [“red”]. But Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright as of this day.’ And Esau said, ‘Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?’ Then Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as of this day.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25:21-34)
Nobody in the whole story is guiltless. For his part, Isaac seems to have forgotten all about the prophecy of “the older serving the younger” as the boys matured. Esau grew up to be a man’s man, a rugged outdoorsman who had a natural connection with his father, but his impulse control was nonexistent. He wanted what he wanted, when he wanted it, and paid little heed to the possible consequences of his actions. Jacob was more of a “momma’s boy,” content to focus on gentler pursuits. There’s nothing wrong with that, but true to his name, he was all too quick to take advantage of his brother’s character flaws if he perceived a long term advantage for himself. And Rebekah by all accounts fostered and supported Jacob’s tendency to scheme and calculate (in lieu of using brute force) in order to get ahead in the world.
Genesis 27 describes how it all came to a head. Years later, Isaac, now old, weak, and nearly blind, decided it was time to bestow the traditional blessing on his beloved firstborn son. But he ignored the prophecy giving Jacob ascendency over Esau, and as far as we’re told, he didn’t even know about the infamous “red stew” incident in which Esau had sold his birthright so cheaply. So he sent Esau out hunting, asking him to make some of the “savory food” he loved so much. Isaac said he’d bestow the blessing on him when he returned. So an excited Esau grabbed his bow and headed for the field.
Rebekah, however, overheard the whole conversation. And unlike her husband, she never forgot anything—certainly not who God had said would inherit the family blessing: it was Jacob, not Esau. So taking matters into her own hands, she set out to trick her husband. She made some savory goat stew just the way she knew he liked it, dressed the reluctant Jacob in Esau’s clothing, and put goatskins on her son’s hands and neck so he would feel hairy and rough like his brother. Then she sent Jacob, armed with her tasty food and disguised with the smells and textures of his rough brother, in to see Isaac—to deceive him into doing what he should have done in the first place.
It almost didn’t work, for Jacob’s voice didn’t exactly sound like Esau’s. But in the end (probably distracted by the yummy goat-meat stew) Isaac bought the deception, and gave Jacob (still thinking he was Esau) the blessing: “Surely, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which Yahweh has blessed. Therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!” (Genesis 27:27-29)
Note that the last sentence of the blessing meant that God’s promise to Abraham now flowed through Jacob. Also, since we have no record of Isaac and Rebekah having any other children, we may infer that the future offspring referred to in the blessing (“your mother’s sons”) were ultimately spiritual—people who would one day revere Yahweh as they did. At the very least, this tells us that the nation of Israel (Jacob’s descendants) would be honored by all true God-fearing people. So-called “Christians” who in their politically correct stupor favor Muslim Palestine over Israel need to wake up and repent.
His mission accomplished, Jacob beat a hasty retreat—and not a moment too soon, for just then Esau returned from the hunt. Jacob’s cover was blown: blind or not, Isaac could see exactly what had transpired. If this was Esau now standing before him, then Jacob—the supplanter, the trickster—had deceived him. “Then Isaac trembled exceedingly, and said, ‘Who? Where is the one who hunted game and brought it to me? I ate all of it before you came, and I have blessed him—and indeed he shall be blessed.’” (Genesis 27:33) I would guess that God’s prophecy that “the elder shall serve the younger” flooded back into Isaac’s memory like a tsunami. And he suddenly realized that he had been on the wrong side of the equation, working against the revealed plan of Yahweh. Oops.
Don’t look so pious. We’ve all been there. When we find ourselves in Isaac’s sandals, there’s only one thing to do: repent, turn around and go in the opposite direction, as quickly as we can. And that’s what Isaac did. “And Esau said to his father, ‘Have you only one blessing, my father? Bless me—me also, O my father!’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: ‘Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother. And it shall come to pass, when you become restless, that you shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27:38-40) Yes, there was another blessing, but it wasn’t The blessing Esau had been counting on. A mixed blessing, as it turned out: some good news, some bad.
Isaac now realized two things. First, Jacob was indeed God’s chosen one, the legitimate holder of Abraham’s legacy. And second, from this point on, there would be bad blood between his two sons—to the point that Esau might murder Jacob the first chance he got, even though his own sin had cost him the birthright and the blessing. Having come to his senses, the chastised Isaac now bestowed another blessing upon Jacob, this one made in full knowledge of the facts. “May God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may be an assembly of peoples, and give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants with you, that you may inherit the land in which you are a stranger, which God gave to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:3-4)
Ironically, in the same breath he advised Jacob to leave the Promised Land. There were two reasons for this, the first being the obvious concern for Jacob’s safety, at least until Esau cooled off. But Isaac and Rebekah had also witnessed firsthand the disaster that Esau’s marriages to a couple of the local pagan women had been. So they asked him to look for a wife among Rebekah’s kin in Syria, and Jacob, fearing for his life, was all too happy to comply.
The symbology of the wife-choosing process in this family is all too palpable. Isaac’s wife, and now Jacob’s, had been chosen from among God-fearing (though not “chosen”) people—the same extended family from which Abraham and Sarah had come. Even back this far, the wisdom of the “don’t-be-unequally-yoked” principle was recognized. For all his flaws, Jacob was a worshiper of Yahweh, and he wanted to marry someone who shared his faith.
Esau, meanwhile, finally noticing that his two Hittite wives grieved his parents, decided to “fix” the situation by taking a third wife, this time a daughter of Ishmael—on the theory that “they seem to like wife material from within the family.” And once again, Esau proved through his actions that he didn’t have any knowledge or interest in the family’s spiritual legacy. Not only was Ishmael the one who had gotten himself exiled from Abraham’s household by persecuting Esau’s own father Isaac, it should be noted that Ishmael’s mother and his wives were all Egyptians, making his children (like Mahalath, whom Esau now married) three-quarters Egyptian—not Hittites, at least, but every bit as pagan.
The writer to the Hebrews sums up Esau’s spiritual profile: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God, lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled, lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” (Hebrews 12:14-17) The contrast couldn’t be clearer: Esau’s approach to God was merely “cultural.” He had no relationship with Yahweh, so he is characterized here as warlike, unholy, devoid of grace, bitter, troublesome, defiled, immoral, profane, and rash. His anything-but-perfect brother Jacob was none of those things, for he did honor Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac.
Since the story from this point on concentrates mostly on Jacob (whom God would rename Israel), that’s about as far as our study of their brotherhood will take us. But there is one more factor that bears mention. The birthright and blessing, via prophecy and larceny, were Jacob’s, but his hasty departure and decades-long sojourn in Padan-Aram meant that he received no temporal benefit from being Isaac’s heir, though God blessed him richly anyway. And Esau became immensely wealthy as well, despite the loss of his “firstborn” status. By the time Isaac died, at the extremely ripe old age of 180 years, both of his sons had made their own fortunes in the world.
My point is that the only significant advantages to being the holder of the birthright and recipient of Isaac’s blessing were spiritual in nature, not material. Though the plan of God for the salvation of mankind was still largely unexplained this far back, it is clear that Jacob/Israel would have earnestly desired to be the one through whom the promises of God to Abraham would be kept: “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) Esau, not so much.
One final observation: when the wealth of both Israel and Esau grew so great the land couldn’t support them both, it was Esau who moved out of Canaan, settling in Edom, south and east of the Dead Sea. Israel remained in the Land which had been promised by Yahweh to Abraham and Isaac. God’s plan was beginning to take shape.
Case Study #3: Dinah’s Brothers
Fast forward one generation. Jacob had married his beloved Rachael, but had gotten her older sister Leah in the bargain as well—which had not been his plan. Then, his wives’ handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, had been given to him as concubines, in order to move the procreation process along. Apparently, Jacob had learned nothing from his grandfather Abraham’s disastrous liaison with Hagar. These guys kept repeating the same culturally expedient behaviors over and over again, no matter how catastrophic the outcome. (You’d think they were Americans—unable to learn anything from their history.)
Eventually, twelve sons were born to Jacob. Only one daughter is mentioned by name, though there were more—see Genesis 37:35. That daughter was Dinah, born to the fertile Leah, among whose six sons were Simeon and Levi. She is mentioned because of an incident that was recorded in Genesis 34. “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her and lay with her, and violated her. His soul was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman and spoke kindly to the young woman. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, ‘Get me this young woman as a wife….’” I don’t care what society you live in, rape is wrong. But this wasn’t garden variety terrorism; it wasn’t even ordinary barbaric lust coupled with poor impulse control. This was a case of a spoiled, entitled brat taking whatever he wanted, presuming his elevated status in society would indemnify him—since it always had. Daddy’s lawyers and daddy’s money invariably came through for the arrogant Shechem. What a miserable jerk. (Excuse me. It’s not my place to judge.)
Eventually, of course, Jacob found out what had happened. “And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter. Now his sons were with his livestock in the field; so Jacob held his peace until they came. Then Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him. And the sons of Jacob came in from the field when they heard it; and the men were grieved and very angry, because he had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, a thing which ought not to be done….” No kidding. There is never an excuse or justification for this sort of thing. “Because I can” is simply unacceptable.
So, had Hamor come to apologize for his son’s behavior? Did he promise to turn him over to the city fathers for appropriate punishment? Not exactly. “But Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him as a wife. And make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters to yourselves. So you shall dwell with us, and the land shall be before you. Dwell and trade in it, and acquire possessions for yourselves in it….” Incredibly, Hamor tried to placate Jacob with a marriage and trade alliance.
Next, the perp himself got into the act: “Then Shechem said to her father and her brothers, ‘Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. Ask me ever so much dowry and gift, and I will give according to what you say to me; but give me the young woman as a wife….’” I realize that offering a dowry was customary in that age, but this proposal came on the heels of his abduction and rape of Dinah. That should have changed things. It was as if this privileged scion was saying, “Yes, I molested your sister, and I enjoyed it so much I want to be able to do it all the time. So sell her to me as my sex slave. Price is no object.”
This is where the story gets “interesting.” Rather than (1) cutting off Shechem’s head (and starting a war), or (2) saying, “Okay, give us the money and take her—sorry, Sis,” Levi and Simeon decided to try something a bit more unorthodox. “But the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father, and spoke deceitfully, because he had defiled Dinah their sister. And they said to them, ‘We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a reproach to us. But on this condition we will consent to you: If you will become as we are, if every male of you is circumcised, then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to us; and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people. But if you will not heed us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and be gone….’”
The brothers told them, in so many words, “If we’re going to be intermarrying, we need to share the same religion, and the sign of ours is the rite of circumcision.” The bait they dangled before the Hivites’ eyes was not just that Prince Shechem would get Dinah, but the prospect of the whole clan getting a shot at marrying Jacob’s beautiful daughters. Shechem, not surprisingly, jumped at the deal. “And their words pleased Hamor and Shechem, Hamor’s son. So the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he delighted in Jacob’s daughter. He was more honorable than all the household of his father….” The rest of Hamor’s men, however, would take a bit more convincing.
“And Hamor and Shechem his son came to the gate of their city, and spoke with the men of their city, saying: ‘These men are at peace with us. Therefore let them dwell in the land and trade in it. For indeed the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters to us as wives, and let us give them our daughters. Only on this condition will the men consent to dwell with us, to be one people: if every male among us is circumcised as they are circumcised.” But wait, there’s more. Here is what Hamor was really thinking: “‘Will not their livestock, their property, and every animal of theirs be ours? Only let us consent to them, and they will dwell with us….’” So basically, the Hivite gentlemen fell for the same incentives that Muhammad would offer his followers some three millennia later: babes and booty, sex and money, the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Works every time, apparently. ISIS is still recruiting with that same tired old poster.
“And all who went out of the gate of his city heeded Hamor and Shechem his son; every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city.” All they had to do, they thought, to “win the prize” was to get themselves circumcised, and the Hebrews would fall into their basket like ripe fruit. But circumcision is surgery, minor though it may be: it involves cutting on the most sensitive part of a guy’s anatomy. This, of course is exactly what Levi and Simeon had been counting on. Their plan now came together: “Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came boldly upon the city and killed all the males. And they killed Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went out. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. They took their sheep, their oxen, and their donkeys, what was in the city and what was in the field, and all their wealth. All their little ones and their wives they took captive; and they plundered even all that was in the houses….”
I’m just reporting what happened here. I can’t pretend to condone everything Levi and Simeon did. They were certainly justified in executing Shechem (for the rape of Dinah) and maybe Hamor (for defending it and then trying to turn the whole affair into a profitable business venture). Of course, by being circumcised, the Hivite men had voluntarily become complicit in Hamor’s scheme. But enslaving the women and children and taking the wealth of the city brought Levi and Simeon down to the moral level of the very pagans they had attacked, did it not? This detail, however, may prove to be prophetic: stay tuned.
And what was Jacob’s reaction? “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I….’” Really, Jake? They raped your daughter and paid the price, and now you’re worried about your reputation as a peaceful man living among the pagans? What about your reputation as a sitting duck, an easy target? Once again, Jacob is seen in his persona as a calculating schemer, not a man of direct and decisive action. Had he forgotten that he was the child of promise—the heir of the legacy of Abraham and Isaac? Had he forgotten that this whole Land was promised to him and his descendants, who would become as numerous as the sand on the seashore? Had he forgotten that God’s power was more than sufficient to back those promises?
As usual, Jacob was playing chess, while the rest of the world was playing hockey without a referee. His sons Levi and Simeon brought the conversation back down to earth: “But they said, ‘Should he treat our sister like a harlot?’” (Genesis 34) That’s the bottom line: there’s no way around that one. Their unanswerable response introduces the first of several points that this story teaches us:
(1) The reason Simeon and Levi took it upon themselves to defend Dinah was that she was their sister—the daughter of their father and their mother. If anyone was going to stand up for her, it was her brothers. My question is, where were Reuben, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun in all of this? They too were full brothers of the offended damsel. For that matter, where were the rest of Jacob’s sons? I realize we’re pre-Torah here, but Yahweh would in the Law assign the duty of avenger to one near of kin to the injured party. The avenger wasn’t to determine guilt or innocence on his own volition, you understand, but once guilt was established, it was his responsibility to bring the perpetrator to justice. We should be able to rely on our brothers to defend us, and we must support them.
(2) The fact that “[Shechem’s] soul was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman and spoke kindly to the young woman” was beside the point once he had raped her. The prince’s attitude, having stolen and joyrided in Isaac’s Bentley (so to speak) was, “Gee, that was a really nice car you had there. So I’m offering to buy it from you, so I can paint the thing purple and use it in the demolition derby.” The proper response to Shechem would have been, “Oh, you’ll pay for the damage alright, but she’s not for sale—especially not to you.”
(3) I mentioned above that the taking of booty when dispensing justice may have a prophetic angle, even if it seems (to us) to be overstepping one’s bounds. Consider this passage from Isaiah describing Israel’s astonishing new position of national prominence during Christ’s Millennial reign: “Then you shall see and become radiant, and your heart shall swell with joy, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you. The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you…. The sons of foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you. For in My wrath I struck you, but in My favor I have had mercy on you. Therefore your gates shall be open continually. They shall not be shut day or night, that men may bring to you the wealth of the Gentiles, and their kings in procession. For the nation and kingdom which will not serve you shall perish, and those nations shall be utterly ruined…. “Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, so that no one went through you, I will make you an eternal excellence, a joy of many generations. You shall drink the milk of the Gentiles, and milk the breast of kings. You shall know that I, Yahweh, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Isaiah 60:5, 10-12, 15-16)
This is not the result of conquest by Israel, for immediately prior to this, they were hated and hounded by the entire world during the Great Tribulation, a three and a half year period of time “when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered.” (Daniel 12:7) Rather, it is the result of returning (finally) to their God, Yahweh, and recognizing their Messiah, Yahshua—who is now running the entire planet from Jerusalem. This national spiritual epiphany, though perhaps the last thing one might expect of Israel even today, is by far the most oft-repeated prophecy in the entire Tanakh. The “milk of the gentiles” will flow to Israel (at least in part) as divine reparation for two millennia of abuse at their hands.
Twice during the wilderness wanderings (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), Israel was promised blessing, honor, and prosperity in return for honoring Yahweh and keeping His Instructions. Why they can’t seem to add two plus two—and admit that for the vast majority of their 3,500-year history they have instead suffered deprivations, deportations, and disasters, not the blessing of God—is beyond me. Any Jew with his eyes open should be able to look at his nation’s history and discern that they have not been enjoying God’s blessing—and therefore (by definition) must not have been in the center of His will. And the problem (obviously) is not with God or His promises, but with themselves—with their beliefs and behavior. It will hit them all at once, and very late in the game, that the “Jesus of Nazareth” their fathers crucified two millennia previously actually was their promised Messiah, God’s anointed One. Oops.
(4) The city that Levi and Simeon plundered in response to its prince’s rape of their sister Dinah was populated with Hivites. This nation is mentioned numerous times in the Torah as one of only seven proper “targets” for the nation of Israel to conquer and displace in the Promised Land.
For example: “When Yahweh your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when Yahweh your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of Yahweh will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, and burn their carved images with fire.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)
Note that God laid out specific prohibitions against the very thing the Hivites under Hamor and Shechem had wanted to achieve—and the bait that Levi and Simeon had used to draw them into their plan for vengeance—marriage alliances. Though the Hivites’ real end game hadn’t been mentioned in Genesis 34, it is spelled out here in the Torah: spiritual apostasy through religious compromise. Yahweh’s primary purpose in destroying the Hivites (and the six other Canaanite nations) was to ensure Israel’s single minded and undivided devotion to Him. Why? Because it was through Israel that Yahweh intended to provide salvation to the entire world—including pagans like the ones He was so keen on separating from Israel. (Note, by the way, that God made it clear that “conquering” and “utterly destroying” the Canaanite tribes from the land included the option of exiling them—“casting them out.” It wasn’t their deaths He was interested in per se; it was, rather, creating a holy people, a set apart nation, isolated from the world’s corrupting influence by any means necessary.)
Also, I don’t know how significant this is, but the Hivites had not been included in the list of nations that were to be displaced from the land in God’s original promise to Abraham. Yahweh had told him, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates—the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21) Is it possible that Shechem’s crime, eliciting Levi’s and Simeon’s exuberantly lethal response, earned the Hivites a place on Israel’s divinely authorized “hit list”? As for the Kenites, Kenezzites, Kadmonites, and Rephaim not being on the Israelites’ list, I think we can safely assume that these nations had faded from the scene, left the area, or had been absorbed by the other Canaanite tribes during the half a millennium between Abraham and Moses.
(5) The rite of circumcision that Levi and Simeon had demanded of the Hivites as a precondition of this “marriage alliance” would not, in and of itself, have transformed the Hivites into worshipers of Yahweh. For one thing, you can’t buy or perform your way into the kingdom of heaven. For another, it is generally accepted that circumcision was practiced sporadically (perhaps first in Eastern Africa) long before Yahweh invested the rite with symbolic significance with the ninety-nine year old Abraham and his household in Genesis 17.
The “sign” of Abraham’s circumcision, it would transpire, turned out to be a picture of the permanent and irrevocable separation of our sins from us through a process involving blood and pain—spiritual surgery. (It does nothing in and of itself to atone for sin.) No one understood this, of course, until Christ’s passion. Circumcision represents the same central truth taught by the Feast of Unleavened Bread—that what corrupts our lives can be removed, forever. Our sin is part of us—until it has been cut off. Once removed, it can never again be rejoined to us. Our mortal bodies are the vehicles for sin (i.e., missing the mark of Yahweh’s perfection), but they’re temporary. If we are in Christ (that is, born from above in the Holy Spirit) we have become “new creations” that are completely sinless—or will be, once we’ve shed these corrupted mortal cocoons.
The covetous Hivites, of course, neither knew nor cared about any of this. To them, it was all merely calculated to be a means to an end. They were faking the Hebrews’ religious practice in order to gain a temporal advantage—nothing more. In a way, their circumcision was a “form of godliness, while denying its power.” (See II Timothy 3:5.) The lesson for us is that it does no good whatsoever to emulate Yahweh’s believers unless you first believe in their God, honor Him, and revere Him as they do. If you baptize a pagan, all you’ll get is a wet pagan. The works follow the faith, or they’re worthless—“filthy rags,” as Isaiah described them. God’s pattern is: transformation first, then confirmation through demonstration.
Case Study #4: Joseph and His Brothers
Perhaps the most complicated and convoluted sibling dynamic in all of scripture is the relationship between Israel’s twelve sons—and specifically between Joseph and the rest of them. The fact that they weren’t all sons of the same mother didn’t help matters: the sons tended to sub-categorize themselves within Israel’s family by their maternal bloodlines. And if I may read between the lines, the sons of the sisters, Leah and Rachel, may have been held (at least in their own eyes) as somehow superior to the sons of their mothers’ handmaidens, sometimes referred to as Jacob’s concubines: Bilhah (who bore Dan and Naphtali) and Zilpah (the mother of Gad and Asher). It is reported (in Genesis 37:2) that Joseph “tattled” on these four to their father at one point, so we can sense the sibling rivalry from the very beginning of the story.
It is no surprise that Joseph held a special place in Jacob-Israel’s heart. He was, after all, the firstborn son of his father’s favorite wife, Rachel—the only wife of the four that Jacob had actually intended to marry. Rachel’s two children were born after the others, and she died giving birth to Benjamin. So we read, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic of many colors [or long sleeves]. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him….” Favoritism is never a good idea. (As the father of eleven children, I can attest to this.) But showing it as blatantly as Israel did is a recipe for disaster. Israel’s special treatment of Joseph for Rachel’s sake was taken as a slap in the face by his other sons—and perhaps their mothers as well. They didn’t vent their frustrations on their father Israel, though, but on the object of his affection, young Joseph, who was just a teenager when all the trouble started.
It didn’t help, of course, when Joseph began having what the brothers assumed were delusions of grandeur. “Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, ‘Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.’ And his brothers said to him, ‘Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.” (Genesis 37:3-8) In a second dream he saw the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down before him. Again, the meaning of the dream was lost on no one: “His father rebuked him and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?’ And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (Genesis 37:10-11)
These early experiences in receiving dreams and visions taught Joseph some valuable lessons, principles that would hold him in good stead later on. (1) One cannot control what he dreams. The dreamer is merely the conduit for what is happening in his sub-conscious mind. (2) Dreams can be sent from God. If they are, they will invariably employ symbols or metaphors (the same sort of thing Yahweh uses to communicate His truth to us every day—as this study is demonstrating). Dreams and visions, in other words, don’t usually rely on human language or the spoken word: you have to ponder their meaning. (3) Dreams sent from God always have a purpose—to inform, prepare, or warn us, whether of future events, the true nature of things, or perhaps as reminders of things from which we need to repent. Yahweh sometimes revealed Himself to key figures in scripture through dreams or visions. They are not sent for our amusement or entertainment, but for our edification. (4) The content or significance of such a dream isn’t always good news, nor will everyone receive and respond positively to what you’ve seen.
And (5) when relaying or interpreting a dream sent from God, we should state only what we’ve been shown—don’t embellish. We must deliver the embedded message with as much tact, respect, and compassion as we can muster. One gets the feeling that Joseph’s first couple of dreams—though transparent enough—were delivered with a bit too much enthusiasm, bordering on gleeful arrogance, even if they did eventually turn out to be true. If the story isn’t told in love, it can do more harm than good—the message can be mangled by the medium. As it turned out, Joseph was about to lose his “privileged son” status for decades, because God needed a humble man to deliver His message and save His people.
Joseph’s brothers—some of them—were so disgusted with the privileged “Papa’s pet” that they were practically ready to kill him. So when Israel sent Joseph off to check on their welfare (as concerned fathers—not to mention small business owners—are wont to do) the brothers treated him more like a spy than an emissary. But two of the brothers (both sons of Leah, for what it’s worth) did what they could to protect Joseph. Unfortunately, they didn’t work together; Reuben and Judah didn’t communicate with each other. They reacted like well-meaning but politically correct politicians, wishing no harm to Joseph, but afraid to offend their murderous brothers. This resulted in a tragic-comedy of errors, though one that eventually placed Joseph right where God wanted him.
“Now when they saw him afar off, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to kill him. Then they said to one another, ‘Look, this dreamer is coming! Come therefore, let us now kill him and cast him into some pit; and we shall say, “Some wild beast has devoured him.” We shall see what will become of his dreams!’ But Reuben [who had some influence, being the firstborn] heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands, and said, ‘Let us not kill him.’ And Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand on him’—that he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father. So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him.” To this day, discontented people often attack the symbol representing what they hate if they can’t successfully attack the thing itself. “Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it….” Reuben’s plan was to come back and rescue the lad in secret, knowing that news of his death would crush his father Israel.
But Reuben wasn’t around when this happened: “And they sat down to eat a meal. Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry them down to Egypt. So Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.’ And his brothers listened. Then Midianite traders passed by; so the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt….”
If I’m reading this right, it appears that Judah was convinced that his brothers still meant to kill the kid. He had not forgotten what his brothers Levi and Simeon had done to Shechem and the Hivites. Faced with the prospect of bloodshed or death by starvation in the pit, he seized at an opportunity to ensure Joseph’s safety, if not his freedom. They’d sell Joseph as a slave to some traders headed for Egypt. Judah didn’t particularly like Joseph, but he didn’t want his brother’s blood on his hands, either, though he wasn’t willing to openly oppose his belligerent brothers. This way, they’d be rid of the annoying dreamer, and make a little money on the side. Win-Win.
Alas, Reuben’s plan had fallen apart. “Then Reuben returned to the pit, and indeed Joseph was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes. And he returned to his brothers and said, ‘The lad is no more; and I, where shall I go?’” Being the eldest son, the responsibility for Joseph’s safety fell most heavily on him. “So they took Joseph’s tunic, killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the tunic in the blood….” In other words, they faked Joseph’s death. From this point forward, the conspiracy was one they were all determined to take to the grave with them. For all we know, they never did tell Reuben what had really happened.
“Then they sent the tunic of many colors, and they brought it to their father and said, ‘We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?’” They let Israel down as gently as they could. It would have been tragic but bearable if the old man thought his favorite son had been killed accidentally. If he had known that eight of his sons had been perfectly willing to murder Joseph, but had been talked into selling him as a slave instead, it probably would have killed him. The blood-stained tunic was the key to their deception. “And he recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.” (Genesis 37:18-35)
It often strikes me how utterly dysfunctional these “chosen” patriarchs were. God had picked Abraham’s family to be the conduit through which all of mankind would be saved. Israel (as a people) would become His metaphoric microcosm of the entire world; Yahweh would show us how He intended to save us from our sins through His specific (though symbolic) instructions given to the nation of Israel. But from the very beginning, their personal histories are a seldom-broken litany of lies, deceit, mistakes, murder, hatred, and self-imposed sorrow. Their reverence for Yahweh (which was no doubt genuine) was rarely enough to compel them to “do the right thing.” It’s as if God chose the most difficult, most troublesome, most counterintuitive path He could find in order to achieve our redemption, so we’d never get it into our heads that we deserved His favor or had earned His grace. The good news is, if Yahweh can use Israel’s flawed family to achieve His purposes, the rest of us can’t be beyond hope.
Most of the rest of the Book of Genesis is Joseph’s story—a saga as laden with prophetic typology as any in the Bible. There are scores of places in which Joseph is clearly a “type” of Christ—a preview or forerunner of some concept or principle that would ultimately find fulfillment in the life, mission, and destiny of our Messiah. But it is our purpose here to explore the relationship between Joseph and his eleven brothers—the dynamic of siblings. Of course, the fact that Yahweh manifested Himself as a man—Yahshua of Nazareth—makes the Messiah our brother: there is a human-to-human relationship between us that we need to bear in mind. And Joseph’s story is probably the best place in the Bible to explore the ramifications of that connection.
Cutting as quickly as possible to the chase, then, we find that young Joseph was sold in Egypt to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Because of Joseph’s diligence and Yahweh’s favor upon him, Potiphar’s house was blessed. But the captain’s wife became infatuated with the handsome young slave, and tried to seduce him. There seems to be some truth to the maxim, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” however, for finding herself rejected, Mrs. Potiphar cried “rape,” and her offended husband had Joseph thrown into prison. Yahweh’s blessing followed him, however, and Joseph soon found himself the head “trustee” of the entire dungeon. Prosperity followed him wherever he went—even in places nobody would choose to go.
Two of the king’s top servants fell out of favor and found themselves in the same prison as Joseph. The butler (or cupbearer) had a dream, and Joseph (giving the credit to God) interpreted it for him. It was good news for the butler: the dream meant that he was to be restored to his former position. The king’s baker too had a dream, and since it sounded a bit similar, he too asked for Joseph’s interpretation. Alas, the similarities were only superficial: the baker was to be executed. Both dreams came about precisely as Joseph had foreseen. He asked the cupbearer to put in a good word for him with the Pharaoh, but he forgot all about his young friend for two long years—until Pharaoh himself had a troubling and inexplicable dream, actually two of them. Joseph was brought in to interpret them.
The dreams, though different, both meant the same thing: there were to be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph pointed out that God had sent the dream, and He had doubled it because it was established: it would shortly come to pass. But Joseph didn’t stop there. He offered a bit of sound advice to the king: he should collect one fifth of all the food produced in Egypt during the good years, so they wouldn’t starve during the lean times. Then he suggested that Pharaoh appoint a wise man as sort of a “Prepper Czar” to oversee the whole affair.
We are not told if Joseph was surprised when the Pharaoh chose him for the task, transforming him overnight from a jailbird/slave into his exalted vizier, the second most powerful man in one of the world’s most powerful nations at the time. Pharaoh even arranged a prestigious marriage for Joseph—to one of the kingdom’s most desirable “debutantes.” During the years of plenty, two sons were born to them: Manasseh and Ephraim. (Not to let a cat out of the bag, but these two would take their father’s place as patriarchs of Israel—in effect positioning Joseph as the family’s “firstborn,” the one who traditionally received a double portion of the inheritance. That’s the third time in three generations that God overruled that particular tradition.)
The lean years brought Joseph’s brothers back into the picture. They heard that there was still grain to be had in Egypt, so ten of them (all but the youngest, Benjamin) headed south, finding themselves bowing low before a rather brusque Egyptian official who accused them of being spies. Talk about awkward. It was Joseph, of course—who recognized them, though they didn’t know him from Adam. Joseph was now forty-four years old, meaning these brothers hadn’t seen him for over a quarter of a century—not that they expected to see him, in this capacity or any other. Joseph prodded and probed, engaging in a time-honored diplomatic technique known as “messing with people,” getting them to reveal that “Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and in fact, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more….” Thus Joseph discerned that his “baby brother” and his father were still alive and well. So far, so good.
Just to give them a small, poetic taste of their own medicine, Joseph threw the ten Hebrew “spies” into prison for a few days, and then called them before him once again. “Then Joseph said to them the third day, ‘Do this and live, for I fear God: If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined to your prison house; but you, go and carry grain for the famine of your houses. And bring your youngest brother to me; so your words will be verified, and you shall not die.’ And they did so. Then they said to one another, ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother [Joseph], for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.’ And Reuben answered them, saying, ‘Did I not speak to you, saying, “Do not sin against the boy”; and you would not listen? Therefore behold, his blood is now required of us.’ But they did not know that Joseph understood them, for he spoke to them through an interpreter. And he turned himself away from them and wept. Then he returned to them again, and talked with them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.” (Genesis 42:13, 18-24) It’s interesting that he selected the violent and impulsive Simeon as his hostage—the slayer (with Levi) of the Hivites in the “Dinah” incident. Could he have been the lead instigator of the “Let’s kill Joseph” plot? We aren’t told, but our past misdeeds do tend to revisit us, don’t they?
Still messing with them, Joseph secretly arranged to have their grain money placed in their feed sacks on the return journey—making them look like thieves as well as spies. They would know, as he did, how it felt to be unfairly accused of something for which you were blameless. So the remaining nine returned to Canaan, recounting the whole story their father. For His part, Jacob-Israel was still mourning for Joseph and clinging ever tighter to Rachel’s only remaining son, Benjamin, who was now pushing thirty. “Then it happened as they emptied their sacks, that surprisingly each man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw the bundles of money, they were afraid. And Jacob their father said to them, ‘You have bereaved me: Joseph is no more, Simeon is no more, and you want to take Benjamin. All these things are against me.’ Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, ‘Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.’ But he said, ‘My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is left alone. If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave.’” (Genesis 42:35-38)
What Jacob/Israel didn’t know was that the famine would last seven long years, and they were only two years into it. Forced by the dire circumstances, he finally relented, sending the nine remaining sons back to Egypt—this time accompanied by their youngest brother Benjamin, as the tough Egyptian overlord had demanded. They took money to buy grain, plus the money from the first journey that had mysteriously found its way back into their grain sacks, plus whatever delicacies from the Land they could find—all with the intention of getting (and staying) on the vizier’s good side. And at first, it seemed to work. The vizier greeted them warmly, invited them to lunch at his own palatial home, restored Simeon to them, assured them that the money from their first journey had remained with him, showed special interest and favor to young Benjamin, and sent them on their way with all the grain their donkeys could carry.
But Joseph wasn’t quite done messing with them. Again, he had their purchase price secreted in their grain sacks. And worse, he had his own silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s sack. As soon as they had left the city, Joseph sent his steward (no doubt accompanied by an armed force) to apprehend them, demanding of them, “Why have you repaid evil for good?” Of course, they protested their innocence (because in this case, they were), and agreed that whoever had stolen the goblet should die—or at least be held as the vizier’s slave. But when the cup was found with Benjamin, their whole world fell apart. They knew that they could not return to their father with news like this—the shock would surely kill him.
There was a complicated dynamic in play here—one that Joseph was playing like a Stradivarius. The brothers honored their father, and were therefore extremely protective of his youngest son, Benjamin. Benjamin had become especially precious to Jacob because of the loss of Joseph all those years ago, and they weren’t about to let their father down again. The guilt of their actions still haunted them. And Joseph had now brought that guilt back to the surface. He knew that dealing with it was the key to reunifying the family of promise.
At some point, the mask had to come off. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Joseph was the plaintive pleading of Judah (the one who had suggested selling Joseph instead of slaying him), begging the vizier to let him pay the penalty for Benjamin’s supposed crime, saying he would rather be enslaved than to see his father bereaved of another son of his beloved Rachel. Such self-sacrifice could only be the result of a repentant, contrite heart. “Then Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Make everyone go out from me!’ So no one stood with him while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard it….”
He finally blurted out the truth he had been so carefully hiding: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph; does my father still live?’” I am hard pressed to think of anything that would have come as a bigger surprise to the brothers. “But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence. And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Please come near to me.’ So they came near. Then he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt….” You’ve heard of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). I would imagine the ten brothers endured their own little five-step program. (1) The shock of discovering the one they’d once persecuted and betrayed—the object of their jealousy and scorn—is now in charge, holding their very lives in his hand. This would quickly give way to (2) the fear that payback for their crimes is in order: they’re doomed. But since retribution didn’t happen immediately, they’d begin to contemplate their sins, allowing (3) remorse to displace terror. Their contrition would be followed by (4) hope that their sins had indeed been forgiven, followed finally by (5) relief in the assurance that reconciliation has taken place.
Joseph now did his best to move his brothers through the first few stages as quickly as possible. “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt….” Joseph no doubt knew that some of his brothers would have trouble getting past the “fear” stage (with good reason), but he had bigger fish to fry at the moment. Because of his prophetic gifts and Pharaoh’s dreams, he now knew that the famine was not remotely over. He needed to get the rest of his family to safety—soon.
So Joseph told them, “‘Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near to me, you and your children, your children’s children, your flocks and your herds, and all that you have. There I will provide for you, lest you and your household, and all that you have, come to poverty; for there are still five years of famine. And behold, your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my mouth that speaks to you. So you shall tell my father of all my glory in Egypt, and of all that you have seen; and you shall hurry and bring my father down here.’” Let’s just hope that the good news doesn’t give dad a heart attack. “Then he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. Moreover he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and after that his brothers talked with him.” (Genesis 45:1-15)
Before we return to the “brother” theme, allow me to point out something unexpected, even counterintuitive, here. God had arranged it so that Israel’s family would have to leave the Promised Land in order to survive. Yahweh Himself had sent the famine, and then provided a way to live through it. Worse, He knew before it happened that the family would end up laboring as slaves in Egypt for the next four centuries. Could God not have merely have prevented the famine from touching Canaan? Did He not know (or care) about the suffering that generations of Israelites would endure? Of course He did. He knew and cared more than we can possibly imagine. But those who see God as some sort of celestial Santa Claus—making lists and checking them twice, checking to see who’s naughty or nice, rewarding good behavior and punishing evil on a day-to-day basis—need to adjust their thinking, based on this record.
The epiphany (for some) is that there is more to Yahweh’s modus operandi than merely taking care of our temporal needs—or punishing us for behaving badly. The widespread famine wasn’t sent in response to some sin Israel (or anybody else) had committed. Nor was it beyond God’s power to control. Rather, it was His purpose to teach all of us some universal truths through Israel’s experience (which is why He arranged for us to hear the story, from beginning to end):
(1) Blessing the nation of Israel wasn’t the point of calling out Abraham. The objective (as we can see in hindsight) was to provide a vehicle through which mankind’s reconciliation with God could be achieved. (2) In order to do that, Israel would have to serve as a microcosm for lost humanity: what happened to them would, one way or another, manifest itself in the universal human condition. So (3) in order to know what being “found” or “saved” meant, Israel (and ultimately, all of us) would have to experience what being “lost” or “endangered” was. That would have been a very hard concept to grasp if Israel had been temporally blessed by God, one generation after another in linear ennui, from Abraham’s calling until Christ’s advent. But (4) if Israel’s situation looked impossibly bleak for a significant period of time, then their ultimate rescue, their liberation from slavery, would serve as a potent metaphor for what it means for us to be emancipated from our sin. (5) Egypt, then, served as a symbolic stand-in for the world—the place in which we must live, even though it’s not our home and usually isn’t our friend.
Neither Joseph nor his brothers went to Egypt voluntarily. They went because they had to—they were compelled by necessity, by forces beyond their control. It is no different with us today. Even if we are worshipers of Yahweh, we must—by His design, no less—live in the world. This is where we must earn our living, raise our families, and make our choices. It is neither our place nor function to sit cross-legged on a mountaintop praising God in monastic isolation, as nice as that might be. No, if we’re going to honor Yahweh, we must do it here in the world, living among people who don’t understand us, who are put off by our seemingly illogical devotion to a God we can’t see, and who take offense when we praise Yahshua for separating us from our sin, because it de facto accuses them of continuing to live in theirs. We don’t have to “judge” them to make them angry with us. The Holy Spirit living within us does that even if we never open our mouths in condemnation of their sinful ways.
As the nation of Israel sojourned in Egypt, they soon (within a generation) discovered the downside of living in the world, famine or no famine. Their children and grandchildren were born there, never having known the Promised Land first hand. Then Egypt—the world—enslaved them. As they labored in bondage for four hundred years, the promises and blessings of Yahweh grew distant and hazy in their collective memory. Hope faded to the point that they no longer comprehended that liberty was even possible.
Today, we too are born into bondage to our sin, and throughout the world, vast multitudes have either forgotten or never knew that the price of our freedom has already been paid. We are free to leave “Egypt” whenever God calls us—free to dwell in the Promised Land of Yahshua’s salvation, unencumbered by the chains of despair that bind those who have no hope. This world is not our home. But like Israel of old, we may have forgotten God’s promises, still valid despite the years of our sojourn in the world. Peter reminds us that “Scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.’” (II Peter 3:3-4) These latter-days scoffers would tell us that God—if He even exists—has abandoned us like Israelites in bondage in Egypt. Don’t believe them. Do not let the passage of time shake your faith in the reality of your deliverance. Now as then, Yahweh is on a schedule.
Joseph’s ten brothers taught us what it’s like to doubt your deliverance. Despite his assurances, they had a nagging suspicion that their brother, the vizier of Egypt, had merely postponed his wrath until their father Israel passed away—which eventually happened, of course. “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.’ So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, ‘Before your father died he commanded, saying, Thus you shall say to Joseph: I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you. Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father. And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, ‘Behold, we are your servants….’” They refused to believe that they were actually forgiven, for they understood the seriousness of their crime. They knew they were guilty.
Don’t look now, but you and I are guilty of far worse crimes, perpetrated against God incarnate, no less. He too has offered His forgiveness, if we will but receive it. The question is not, are we guilty? We know we are. The question is, do we believe God when He assures us that our debt has been paid? Have we received the gift? Or are we still trying to buy our way into God’s good graces? Joseph’s brothers declared themselves his servants. It is unclear whether they were attempting to buy his forgiveness (which had already been given), they were declaring their undying gratitude, or they were merely being polite. Only one of those contingencies would have been the proper response. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which one.
For his part, Joseph had already moved on. “Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:15-21) Like Joseph, we are not to hold our brothers’ sins against them, for God alone is judge. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to remind them to seek His forgiveness—for we have all fallen short of the mark of perfection. We don’t get “bonus points” when God uses our evil deeds to create something good.
Case Study #5: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
It can seem odd to us that Yahshua the Messiah—God in flesh—also had fully human relationships. He didn’t just have disciples and worshipful followers; He also had family and friends. One family whom Yahshua knew quite well was that of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, who lived in the village of Bethany, on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, less than two miles from Jerusalem. He apparently had an open invitation to stay with them whenever He visited the city, for it was only a short walk, maybe half an hour, to the temple mount. Mark reports that Christ stayed in Bethany during the Passion week, commuting back and forth to Jerusalem until Thursday, the day before the crucifixion. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s a fair bet that He slept at the home of Lazarus and/or his sisters during that time. (They either shared a residence or lived as close neighbors—we aren’t told which.)
Most of us know the sisters from this familiar passage: “Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me….’” Martha was busy doing good works, and normally there’s nothing wrong with that. But her query implied that she thought everybody should be doing the same thing in the same way—or at least the womenfolk (as was customary), or at the very least, her sister Mary.
But Yahshua gently informed her that there is a time and place for everything, and that we aren’t all called to perform the same function in life. “And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42) There is a fine line between “service” and “being worried and troubled” about it. Making sure that everyone was well fed and the house was clean were all well and good—even appreciated—but they weren’t necessary. The Master whom Martha was compelled to make comfortable had been born in a stable, after all. His disciples were mostly rough fishermen, who wouldn’t have known a canapé from a can of peas. The only thing they did with their pinky fingers held out was mend their smelly fishing nets.
Both sisters knew that Yahshua was the Messiah. And both of them honored Him in whatever way seemed appropriate. But only Mary realized that He wouldn’t always be with them—that their moments of personal interaction were precious and fleeting. The opportunity to sit as Yahshua’s feet in awe and adoration would not last forever, and Mary made a conscious decision to “seize the day” while she could. Note that Martha’s complaint was that her sister had “left her to serve alone.” This reveals that Mary had been helping her sister until Yahshua arrived, but had put down her broom as soon as the Master had entered the house.
Don’t look now, but our Lord’s return draws near—and when He comes for His own at the sound of the ultimate trumpet, all of us will be compelled to drop what we’re doing and shout for joy as we’re caught up into the clouds to be with Him. It would be silly to protest, “Wait, Master, I’m not through serving You yet. Can You come back for me in a few weeks? Oh, and don’t take my sister, either—I need her to help me.”
We tend to be hard on Martha for failing to recognize the utterly unique privilege it was to sit and listen to Yahshua’s words in person. But now that He has fulfilled His mission and has returned to sit in glory at the right hand of the Father, it would be inappropriate to spend all of our time “sitting at Yahshua’s feet” via the scriptures. We have been given tasks to perform in the King’s absence. At the moment, we need to find a balance between Mary and Martha: both service and adoration are needed in our lives. In this age, we must not forget the words of Christ: “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” (John 9:4)
The most startling and well-known story about Lazarus, Martha, and Mary is recorded in John 11. “Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.” We’ll look at that story in a moment. “Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, ‘Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick….’” The sisters were so attuned to Yahshua’s ministry that they knew just where He would be at the moment. He was at Bethabara (also known as Bethany—I know, it’s confusing) in Perea, on the other side of the Jordan River, only about twenty miles away from the Bethany in Judea where Lazarus was, but a hard day’s hike: it was all uphill.
“When Jesus heard that, He said, ‘This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” That’s sort of like what He had said about why a blind man He had healed had been born with that handicap—it was nobody’s fault, but rather an opportunity for Yahshua to demonstrate His deity. This should have been the first clue that He was about to do something spectacular and unprecedented, but the disciples didn’t pick up on it. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So [literally: “Then”], when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was. Then after this He said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again….’” Yahshua had good reasons for the two-day delay, but His disciples completely misread it. They thought it meant that Lazarus’ health was improving, so there was no emergency.
Also, they were all too aware that Yahshua’s Messianic claims (backed by His miracles) had recently incited a riot in Judea (see John 10:22-39). “The disciples said to Him, ‘Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him….’” His point was that the time allotted for us to do God’s work is limited: we must work while we can, while God is providing the opportunity for us—the “daylight.” I think both Mary and Martha would have agreed.
“These things He said, and after that He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.’ Then Thomas, who is called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him.’” This is the same Thomas, you understand, who ran away like a frightened child when the soldiers came to arrest Yahshua a few months later. Anyway, it transpired that Lazarus had died almost immediately after Mary and Martha had sent their messenger to Yahshua. Rushing to the scene would not have changed the outcome, but waiting two extra days increased the drama exponentially. “So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days….”
“Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles away. And many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother….” Lazarus’ family (we may infer) was quite well to do. And with wealth in that society came influence and respect. So when Yahshua and His disciples arrived, Bethany was buzzing with important people—rabbis, Pharisees, and others of wealth and power in Judean society—all of whom had come to mourn with the sisters and show their respect. It was presumed by most that Yahshua had come for the same reason, but they were wrong: He had come to prove His compassion for all of mankind by demonstrating His power over death.
“Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house.” Again, the differences in their personalities were evident. Mary the introspective one was mourning quietly, while Martha the extrovert was out greeting guests. Neither approach was wrong, though they expressed their grief very differently. “Now Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You….’” Was this a dare, a hint, perhaps a prayer?
Yahshua now began, step-by-step, preparing her for the shock of her life. “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:1-24) This was a fairly remarkable insight on Martha’s part. The Tanakh had revealed very little about the afterlife beyond the existence and function of Sheol. Yes, there were scattered hints of something beyond the grave, but there wasn’t much clear or definitive teaching about “the resurrection at the last day.”
Still, a few nuggets do undeniably reveal what is so clear in the New Testament. For example: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2-3) As far back as the Book of Job, the outlandish hope of bodily resurrection had been articulated: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth. And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold.” (Job 19:25-27) But most of the Tanakh’s references to resurrection are far more obscure: “I will ransom them from the power of the grave. I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction! Pity [for death] is hidden from My eyes.” (Hosea 13:14) Or, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me.” (Psalm 49:15)
Any way you slice it, Martha knew her scriptures and displayed remarkable spiritual insight. So Yahshua took her to the next level: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world….’” Again, this reveals extraordinary scriptural knowledge. Only Job had linked “the Redeemer” with the concept of resurrection. But a Redeemer, by definition, has to pay a price to buy back a life. Yahshua had not yet gone to the cross on our behalf, becoming the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as John the Baptist had phrased it. Martha, though, connected the dots, as faint as they were.
Now it was time to bring Mary into the conversation. “And when she had said these things, she went her way and secretly called Mary her sister, saying, ‘The Teacher has come and is calling for you.’ As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly and came to Him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the town, but was in the place where Martha met Him. Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, ‘She is going to the tomb to weep there.’” Christ wanted both Mary and Martha to see what He was going to do for their brother, of course, but it appears He also wanted the assembled throng to serve as eyewitnesses. “Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died….’” This was exactly what Martha had told Him. Though the sisters were “wired” differently, the same current flowed through both of them. They both knew—and counted upon—Yahshua’s healing power.
“Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And He said, “Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!’” Yes, He did. But from our vantage point in history, we might wonder if His tears were as much for the lost condition of mankind—something that would eventually put each and every one of us into the grave—as they were in empathy for the grief of Martha and Mary. These tears of compassion naturally begged the question: Where was Yahshua when His dear friend Lazarus lay on his death bed, suffering? “And some of them said, ‘Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?’” As callous as it may sound, this is a fair question, akin to what both Mary and Martha had said: You could have kept our brother alive, if only you had been here. Where were You?
But Yahshua knew that as compelling as healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, casting out demons, or cleansing lepers may have been, only one thing would prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that He was God Incarnate—the very proposition that had compelled the Jews to try to stone Him for blasphemy only a week or two before this. That “thing” was exercising power over death itself. “Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’” If you’ll recall, the preferred burial custom of the day was to wrap the corpse with spices to mask the smell of decomposition, lay it in a safe place where animal marauders couldn’t molest it, and wait for the flesh to rot off the bones—at which time the skeleton would be removed from the sepulcher and the bones would be placed in a small box called an ossuary, which would then be buried permanently.
“Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.’” The process of decomposition had begun in earnest by this time. There was going to be no “near-death” experience here, no amazing and timely resuscitation such as had happened (the skeptics might say) to the son of the widow of Nain, or to the daughter of Jairus. There was a tradition, a myth that said the soul hung around for three days after a body died. Now we know why Yahshua stayed an extra two days in Perea: He wanted there to be no question that Lazarus was, as the Munchkin coroner in the Wizard of Oz would have declared, “not only merely dead; he’s really most sincerely dead!” Yahshua was about to demonstrate that He alone held the keys of life and death.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’ Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying….” You’ll note that the friends of the family obeyed Yahshua and rolled away the stone from the tomb, even though His request was outlandish. There was no way for them to have known what He planned to do. Not even Martha knew for sure. The lesson for us is, we are to obey Christ’s clear directives, even if we have no idea why we should. “Loving one’s enemies” sometimes doesn’t seem to make much sense, either. It doesn’t matter: just do it. It could well be a matter of life or death for somebody.
“And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.’ Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’” It was the ultimate transformation (short of the rapture, that is). Yahshua had converted Lazarus’ body from a decaying corpse into a living man—free even of the disease that had killed him in the first place. The mourning of his sisters Mary and Martha had been changed to rejoicing, their grief to celebration. The skepticism of the Jews had (for many) been transformed into genuine belief that Yahshua was indeed the Son of God, wielding the power of Yahweh Himself in their midst. “Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him.” (John 11:25-45)
God is not in the habit of cramming incontrovertible truth down our throats. Typically, He offers evidence—and lots of it—but in the interests of preserving our privilege of free will, we are rarely shown something that doesn’t require at least a “mustard seed” of faith. Such was not the case with the raising of Lazarus. It happened before scores of unimpeachable witnesses, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem (i.e., not in some backwater town like Nain, or in Hicksville Galilee), and so long after the man had died that there was no chance of spontaneous resuscitation. There was simply no way out of this, no way to chalk it up to “unexplained natural causes” or dumb luck, or unreliable rumors from gullible and over-enthusiastic rustics. After this, no one would logically be able to deny the power of Christ. From this point forward, freedom of choice would require purposeful rejection of the truth. Denial of Yahshua’s deity would entail a conscious decision to choose falsehood over fact.
That’s not to say nobody did that very thing: “But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.’” (John 11:46-48) This is another permutation of “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” The chief priests (who were of the Sadducee sect) and their rivals the Pharisees were the most powerful and influential people in Judea (if you don’t count their Roman overlords). Though they were at odds over most issues, they all agreed that Yahshua presented a threat to their privileged positions, their power, and their wealth. The chief priests didn’t really believe there was a God, and the Pharisees, who did, were aghast at the idea that this man could be His Anointed One: after all, they had accused Him of being demon possessed, and He in turn had called Satan their father. Ouch!
The story was beginning to build to a climax, and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus found themselves right in the middle of it. “Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was (who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead). There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus [now a celebrity] was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil….” Parallel accounts in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 flesh out the story and fill in some gaps. Yahshua came to stay in Bethany (probably at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha) on Sunday, Nisan 9—the day before the Triumphal Entry. But the supper subsequently described here (apparently a fete celebrating Lazarus’ resurrection) took place several days later (i.e., on Nisan 12, two days before Passover) at the home of a man called Simon the Leper.
If I’m reading this correctly, this same Simon (which was admittedly a very common name in Judea) was Judas Iscariot’s father (John 12:4). Obviously, if he was living in a house in Bethany, Simon’s leprosy had been cured—and the only one who ever did that was Yahshua. Simon’s son Judas would naturally have felt a strong emotional attachment to Yahshua at the time of his father’s healing, going so far as to become His disciple. This scenario would also explain why he now so boldly opened his mouth as the “authority” on how the money represented by Mary’s offering should have been allocated: “But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it….” The dishonest and insecure Judas was apparently just mouthing off to impress his father here.
“But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always….” (John 12:1-8) Mark adds, “Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Mark 14:6-9)
Could it be that Yahshua’s gentle rebuke in front of His disciple’s father was what finally sent Judas over the edge, turning him against the Master? It’s hard to be dogmatic, of course, but it appears that Judas felt humiliated by Christ’s remark (although Matthew reports that he was not alone in his criticism of Mary’s extravagant gesture). A psychologist could have a field day with this: the insecure misfit idolizes the healing rabbi for all the wrong reasons, giving up three years of his life following Him, only to discover with chagrin that the Teacher couldn’t care less about overthrowing the hated Romans or being crowned King of Israel. At last he comes home to his father, hoping to make a big impression on the old man with his authority and influence as a member of Yahshua’s inner circle, only to be publically humiliated over a matter of money and motive.
It appears, then, that Judas’ betrayal of Christ—which took place the very next day—may have happened primarily because he got his feelings hurt. Perhaps Solomon was speaking prophetically when he wrote, “Wrath is cruel and anger a torrent, but who is able to stand before jealousy? Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Proverbs 27:4-6) Or maybe it was just a case of: “Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool.” (Proverbs 17:10) Or, “He who corrects a scoffer gets shame for himself, and he who rebukes a wicked man only harms himself. Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you. Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:7-8)
But I digress. We were discussing the siblings, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Once again, they all found themselves playing central roles in Christ’s ministry during the last week of His earthly sojourn. They were as different as brothers and sisters can be, and yet their love for Yahshua drew them together, making their familial bond seem trivial compared to their bond as followers of the Messiah. Lazarus seems to be the “quiet one,” for not a single word of his is recorded in scripture. Rather, he is the one to whom things happened: his adventures are a parable of what can befall a Christian in this world: sickness, death, resurrection, and (surprisingly, perhaps) becoming a target of godless rage simply because we have been used for God’s glory.
What am I talking about? I wasn’t quite finished with the story in John’s Gospel: “Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there [i.e., at the party at the home of Simon the Leper]; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.” (John 12:9-11) That’s just swell, isn’t it? We, like Lazarus, can expect to be hated and plotted against in this world if we, who were once dead in our sin, become alive—transformed by Christ’s love. We don’t have to say a word. (As far as we’re told, Lazarus didn’t.) All we have to do is show up. Our transformed lives are all the evidence the lost world needs in order to believe that Yahshua is the way, the truth, and the life—and all the reason some people need to hate us.
His sister Martha, on the other hand, was anything but quiet. She was always seen talking, sending messages, and asking perceptive questions. And every time we see Martha, she was serving, busy, making herself useful, taking care of everyone else’s needs. It’s hard to hate someone like that, no matter how much you’d like to. Modern examples of the “type” would be George Muller of Bristol, Corrie Ten Boom, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Billy Graham, or his son Franklin. Martha didn’t have a lazy or selfish bone in her body. The promise of the Kingdom of God compelled her (and others like her) to serve constantly and faithfully.
But why was she like that? What drove her to serving people as unto God, rather than building a successful business and making lots of money? (And yes, such a thing was possible in the world until religious people gained control. If you don’t believe me, read Proverbs 31:10-31.) I’d like to propose a theory as to why both Martha and Lazarus became such close and devoted followers of Yahshua. Granted, I’m going to have to do some dot connecting, but hear me out. I believe the devotion of both Lazarus and Martha may have been due entirely to the transformation they saw in the life of their sister, Mary.
We read in the “Lazarus” narrative above, “It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.” (John 11:2) And we (okay, I) mentally jump to the scene in the next chapter where Mary anointed Yahshua at the house of Simon the Leper: But since both Matthew’s account and Mark’s state only that she anointed His head, it may be that John is referring to a different incident. “Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” (John 12:3) Why would Mary do that? Anointing someone’s head is a sign of exaltation—even coronation (see Psalm 23:5, I Samuel 16:12-13), and foot washing was a sign of personal humility; moreover, to do it with a precious and costly oil would have indicated the dedication of one’s entire life and resources to the service of the anointed one. But again, why Mary? What special connection did she and Yahshua have?
It is my hypothesis that this was not the first time Mary had done this. In Luke 7, there is a story eerily reminiscent of the one we just looked at, but that took place years earlier. “Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner [that is, someone whose conspicuously immoral life was notorious in the community]; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume….” The only reason such a disreputable woman would do this is that she had compared her ruined life to the holiness of Yahshua, confronted her sins, and repented—publically demonstrating her remorse by her act of abject contrition.
Neither the woman nor the location is named, though the Pharisee was identified as someone named Simon. Could it be that this took place in Bethany, and that the woman of ill repute was Mary? That would explain a lot about the subsequent devotion and appreciation of Lazarus and Martha, not to mention the adoration of Mary: she had been lost and broken, but was now found and restored. Seeing your beloved sister so thoroughly and suddenly transformed from the town’s lewd and contentious “bad girl” into the gentle, loving, devout, and joyful young woman that Mary had become—literally overnight—had to have made quite an impression on Lazarus and Martha. “Grateful” did not begin to express their emotion: they, like Mary, were in awe of the One who had wrought the change in her life: Yahshua.
Back at Simon’s house, “Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.’” (Luke 7:36-39) In response to the woman’s remarkable act of homage and the Pharisee’s skepticism, Yahshua told a parable: “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?’” There was only one way to answer this. “Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have judged correctly….’” Simon reluctantly drew the obvious conclusion, perhaps sensing the rebuke that was coming.
Yahshua now addressed Simon’s unspoken contention that Yahshua couldn’t perceive was going on with the woman: “Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ Then He said to her, ‘Your sins have been forgiven.’” Yahshua didn’t downplay the seriousness of her sin. He “merely” pointed out that her contrition before God had elicited His forgiveness.
You and I know that her sins were forgiven because of her repentance—the result of a changed heart. We know this because our sins were forgiven for the very same reason. But the Pharisees were steeped in the Torah. They knew, quite rightly, that atonement for sin was possible only with the sacrifice of innocent blood. That was the system God had instituted. It didn’t occur to them that both of these two seemingly contradictory soteriological strategies (repentance and sacrifice) were in fact the same thing. And little did they suspect that the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” was reclining at the table with them at that very moment, His feet now moist with the woman’s tears, and reeking of her costly perfume. Yes, He hadn’t yet been sacrificed, but the Pharisees themselves would make sure this would take place—less than three years later.
At the moment, however, “Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this man who even forgives sins?’” An excellent question, actually. In order to forgive sins, He either had to be speaking with the authority of Yahweh, or He was a blasphemous imposter. But note that at this early date, He merely stated the fact: her sins had been forgiven. As far as God is concerned, true repentance doesn’t really care whether you’re looking forward to the cross, or back upon it. It is one’s reliance upon the efficacy of the sacrifice that makes atonement work. “And He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” (Luke 7:41-50)
There’s one more intriguing possibility in this story, though perhaps a bit more far-fetched than identifying the “sinful woman” as Mary. I’m wondering if perhaps Simon the Pharisee named in Luke 7 is the same person as Simon the Leper in John 12, Matthew 26, and Mark 14—who we have established was (in all probability) the father of Judas Iscariot. It is clear that Simon the Leper personally knew many of the influential priests and Pharisees in Bethany—an unlikely circumstance if the man had never run in those circles before his illness. The scenario would require, of course, that Simon the Pharisee would have contracted leprosy sometime after the Luke 7 story, and had subsequently been cured by Yahshua—and we aren’t informed of any of that in scripture (which in itself proves nothing, of course).
If this hypothesis is correct, however, it means that Mary’s remarkable spiritual transformation, wrought by her encounter with Christ early in His ministry, precipitated a whole series of events that might not otherwise have transpired. First, her brother and sister would have not have been so dramatically and personally touched by Yahshua’s life. Then, when Simon contracted leprosy, Mary’s changed life would have encouraged him to seek help from Yahshua, whose cure in turn so impressed Simon’s son Judas that he became a disciple—though for all the wrong reasons. (For what it’s worth, Judas is named last every time the disciples are listed together—he was probably the last one Yahshua called.) And three years later, when Simon the cured leper took it upon himself to publically celebrate the resurrection of Mary’s brother Lazarus (now his friend and fellow believer)—not to mention the Man who had redeemed them both from death (whether literal or figurative), Mary’s reprise of her initial act of contrition was instrumental in bringing Judas’ fatal character flaws to the surface.
It’s just a theory, of course. It doesn’t matter whether I’m right or not—nobody’s salvation depends on this, though it would fill in a lot of the blank spots in the story. That being said, know for certain that whatever we do, good or bad, can have repercussions and consequences far beyond anything we could have imagined. It is no coincidence that Yahshua said of Mary, “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Mark 14:9)
Case Study #6: James and John, Peter and Andrew
Two pairs of brothers were listed among the twelve disciples of Christ. In fact, three of the four (and occasionally all four of them) comprised Yahshua’s “inner circle,” those who were privy to the most sensitive or significant facets of the Messiah’s ministry, such things as the transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and Yahshua’s pre-betrayal agony at Gethsemane. This inner circle was comprised of James and John (the sons of Zebedee and Salome), and Simon Peter, son of Jonas. Peter’s brother Andrew was a crucial “player,” however, for he was the very first of the disciples to recognize and acknowledge that Yahshua was the Messiah—God’s anointed. As in our study of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we’ll have to consult all four Gospels to get a complete picture of what transpired.
Peter and Andrew were both keenly sensitive to spiritual issues even before they met Yahshua. Andrew for certain, and probably Peter as well, were disciples of John the Baptist (Christ’s forerunner, the potential fulfillment of Malachi’s “Elijah” prophecy). They knew something extraordinary was afoot, for their mentor John had characterized himself as someone the prophet Isaiah had foretold: “He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. [Isaiah 40:3]” Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. And they asked him, saying, ‘Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?...’” John did not realize that he could have been the fulfillment of Malachi’s “Elijah” prophecy (if only Israel had listened—see Malachi 4:5-6). And the Messiah and the “Prophet” foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) were one and the same—not John, but Yahshua.
The Pharisees had a point. If John was neither the final “Elijah” nor the “prophet” nor the Christ—in other words, if he was not trying to gather followers to himself or start a new religion—then why was he baptizing people? “John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loosen.” (John 1:23-26) Matthew adds, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) John’s response was basically, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Although his message of repentance in anticipation of the Messiah’s coming went right over the heads of the Pharisees, it was not lost on his own devout disciples.
Who was this mighty, Spirit-filled Judge whom John the Baptist had foreseen? “The next day, John stood with two of his disciples [one of them being Andrew]. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!...’” John was a priest. He knew what was required in a sin offering. His description of Yahshua identified Him as the fulfillment of—the reason for—every single blood sacrifice in the entire Torah. It also meant, to anyone who was paying attention, that this “Lamb” was perfect before God. But this innocence required that He would have to die to atone for the sin of Israel, and indeed, of all mankind. This early in the story, however, I don’t think very many people “got it.”
“The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see….’” It’s kind of a funny scene. Andrew and his friend get caught “stalking” this One whom John had pointed out. When asked point blank what they were after, they blurted out something innocent, innocuous, and a little dumb. What they really wanted to ask Him was “Are You the truly Messiah, as our teacher John claims?” But of course, Yahshua knew that, and loved them for it.
“They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour). One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus….” The reason I believe Simon was probably already a disciple of John is that he was nearby when Andrew went looking for him—at the southern end of the Jordan River, not up in Galilee where their fishing business was.
It seems to me that Andrew is shaping up to be the “perfect” believer. The first three things we see him doing in scripture are (1) seeking the right path—one that in his case meant repenting of his sin and being baptized by John, (2) tracking down the truth concerning the Christ, and (3) telling his brother about the wonderful thing he’d found. It doesn’t take special talent or spiritual anointing to do these things. We have no direct evidence that Andrew ever worked a miracle but here he did one of the most important things any believer can do: he brought his brother to Yahshua.
It would transpire that Peter was the “gifted” one in the family—gifted first with the ability to put his foot in his mouth and survive the adventure, gifted with insight, boldness, courage, and faith, and yes, gifted with the resilience to recover (with Christ’s help) from the kind of spiritual lapse that would crush an ordinary man forever. Yahshua saw Peter’s unique profile immediately: “Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, ‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated, A Stone).” (John 1:35-42) One look was all it took: Yahshua sized him up and remarked, “Yeah, your name may be Simon Johnson, but I’m going to call you Rocky! Suits you better.” With apologies to Sylvester Stallone, Yahshua saw in “Rocky” the aptitude and attitude that would allow him to take a blow, shake it off, and come back for more. In a word, Peter was resilient.
After their “mountaintop experience” with John the Baptist (which took place, ironically enough, near the lowest elevation on the face of the earth), Peter and Andrew returned to their homes in Galilee—probably in Capernaum, along the northern shore of the lake, where the fishing was the best. The record makes two things certain: they had not forgotten about their encounter with Yahshua, nor what John had said about Him; and they had discussed the matter—with all its promise and potential—with their friends and colleagues back home. Like so many twenty-first century Christians living in eager anticipation of the Messiah’s return, Andrew and Peter could smell renewal and restoration in the air.
And then, who should show up but Yahshua Himself. “And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.” (Mark 1:16-20, cf. Matthew 4:18-22) Mark’s account seems a little abrupt, as if Christ’s charisma was so compelling, folks who barely knew Him just dropped what they were doing and followed Him the minute He showed up. But it wasn’t really like that. Yahshua didn’t manipulate people’s emotions to gather a following. On the contrary, He invariably asked them to consider the cost of being His disciple—even though He was like no one they had ever met, or ever would.
More to the point, there was a lot more to the story. Luke fleshes out the plot for us: “So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret [i.e., Galilee], and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.” (Luke 5:1-3) There were so many people who wanted to hear Yahshua teach, He could barely find a place to stand, so He borrowed Peter’s boat and used it as a pulpit.
This didn’t all happen in a vacuum, of course. Christ’s activities in the area had drawn quite a bit of attention, and with good reason. Matthew reports, “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him—from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 3:23-25) If you’re interested in the kinds of things He taught, read the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. The people’s reaction? “And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29)
Back to Luke’s narrative: “When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ But Simon answered and said to Him, ‘Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.’” There’s a revealing lesson about “God’s rewards” here. Yahshua had borrowed Peter’s boat for a couple of hours. As “payment” for the loan, He offered the fisherman the opportunity to work even harder, if only to demonstrate that “success” comes from God alone. Yahshua, of course, didn’t know anything in particular about fishing—Peter and his partners were the real experts. But he remembered what his brother Andrew had told him: “We have found the Messiah.” We aren’t told what Peter expected. He was exercising obedience here, not necessarily faith. It’s pretty clear, however, that he wasn’t expecting the fish to obey the Master as well. “And when they [Peter and Andrew] had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners [James and John] in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink….”
The spiritual ramifications were immediately apparent to Peter. He was in the presence of deity, and it terrified him, for he knew himself to be a flawed and impetuous man. “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.’ So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.” (Luke 5:4-11)
Unlike so many today who genuinely think they can impress God with their penance or piety, Peter instinctively knew that he was (as John the Baptist had put it) “not worthy to loosen the strap on Yahshua’s sandal.” And in marked contrast to those today who see Christ’s blessing as a road to mere temporal prosperity and nothing more, the reaction of Peter, Andrew, James, and John was to see the windfall as a sign that bigger issues—spiritual issues—were afoot. What Yahshua could accomplish through them with mere fish was but a hint of the positive impact they could make on the world—if only they’d follow Him. So they did. As the old saying puts it, “God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.”
Soon after the two pairs of brothers left their fishing boats to follow Yahshua, they received two back-to-back confirmations that the One in whom they had placed their hopes was indeed the Christ, the very Son of God. First, “There was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, ‘Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be quiet, and come out of him!’ And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.’ And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee….” Two concepts pop up time and again in these narratives: Christ’s authority and the people’s resulting astonishment. If folks today are no longer astonished at Yahshua’s life, perhaps it’s because they don’t perceive His authority.
Demon activity was widespread at this time—not surprisingly, because Satan was faced with his biggest challenge ever: how to derail God’s plan for man’s salvation—a plan he barely knew because Yahweh had held His cards very close to the vest. Gill’s Exposition notes, “The Jews pretended to cast out devils, and to heal those that were possessed with them; which they did sometimes, by making use of the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and sometimes of the name of Solomon: Josephus speaks of many in his time who had this power of healing; and he himself saw one Eleazar, in the presence of [future emperor] Vespasian, his children, officers, and soldiers, cure many that were possessed of devils.” Yahshua would later be accused by jealous scribes of casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons (see Luke 11:19)—a theory that makes no sense whatsoever because it implies “a house divided against itself.” After His resurrection, some Jews went about exorcising demons by invoking the name of the Messiah. One hilarious account of this sort of thing is related in Acts 19:11-20. But the four disciples noted something that the others missed: that Yahshua’s authority was His own—He didn’t have to invoke anybody else’s name in order to make the demons obey Him. And let’s face it: only God could do that.
Immediately after Yahshua had cast out the demon, this happened: “Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them.” (Mark 1:23-31) Again, both pairs of brothers were witnesses to a miracle of healing, this time of Peter’s mother-in-law.
Yahshua was all too aware that the brothers were about to do something that may have seemed to the casual observer to be irresponsible and immature—going off to be the disciples of an itinerant rabbi, leaving their families and businesses uncared for. But this was a far cry from “running off to join the circus.” Yahshua had already proved His ability to provide for their temporal needs: their partner Zebedee (a devout man) and his employees would look after things at home, both for his extended family and Peter’s. (We aren’t told if Andrew, James, or John were married, but if they were, the business under Zebedee’s care would provide for their families as well.)
So by healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, Yahshua diffused the bomb of discontent before it had a chance to blow up in anyone’s face. In fact, it sent precisely the same message to Peter’s family (and Andrew’s) as the amazing fish harvest had been to the parents and families of James and John: “Let these men go with your blessing to follow the Master. Yahshua will ensure—miraculously, if necessary—that all your needs are provided in their absence.” And the brother-disciples would have no cause for concern or misplaced guilt for having followed their hearts.
These four weren’t the only disciples Yahshua chose, of course, though they were probably the first called. (They’re listed first in all three synoptic Gospels.) “And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons: Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, ‘Sons of Thunder’; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.” (Mark 3:13-19, cf. Matthew 10:2-4, Luke 6:12-16)
Just as Yahshua had “renamed” Simon, giving him the nickname “Peter” (“Rocky” in our idiom), He also gave James and John a colorful descriptive surname—Boanerges—an Aramaic compound (B’nè-regesh) meaning “Sons of Thunder” (or earthquake, tempest, or some other commotion). Always at the center of the action, these two liked to keep things shaken and stirred—toward Christ. The nickname is reminiscent of a passage from the Tanakh: “And I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations.” (Haggai 2:7) Vincent’s Word Studies notes that the name “is justified by the impetuosity and zeal which characterized both the brothers, which prompted them to suggest the calling of fire from heaven to consume the inhospitable Samaritan village (Luke 9:54); which marked James as the victim of an early martyrdom (Acts 12:2); and which sounds in the thunders of John’s Apocalypse.”
“Impetuosity and zeal”? Those traits rise to the surface in this anecdote: “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.’” Actually, Matthew 20:20 makes it clear that their mother Salome (cf. Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40) was the one who brought the issue up, being a devout woman who was convinced that “the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (see Luke 19:11). If nothing else, it proved that their parents were solidly behind the decision of James and John to follow Christ. “And He said to them, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?...’” As if He didn’t know.
“They said to Him, ‘Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’” They didn’t have a clue what that might entail, of course, but they desperately wanted to be closely associated with their Messiah, no matter what. I can’t really fault them for that. “So Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared….’” As outlandish as their request may seem to us, it is perhaps not quite as “far out” as we assume, for Christ had recently established that “in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28) But James and John were no doubt thinking more in terms of honor than of responsibility or service.
This, of course, didn’t win them any popularity points with the other disciples. “And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” All of them, however, had missed the point. “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:35-45) The one sin God seems to hate most of all is pride, arrogance, the elevation of oneself at the expense of his brothers. But Yahshua pointed out here that it’s hard to be proud when you’re cleaning toilets or changing diapers. A big part of “loving your brother” is serving him.
The misplaced enthusiasm of the “Sons of Thunder” once again got them in trouble: “Now it came to pass, when the time had come for [Yahshua] to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him.” Samaria was situated between Galilee and Judea. You pretty much had to walk through Samaritan territory in order to get from one of those places to the other. “But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’” (Luke 9:51-56)
The incident James and John had referred to is recorded in II Kings, chapter 1. Basically, Elijah had called down “fire from heaven” (in all likelihood, lightning) on two successive groups of fifty soldiers who arrogantly demanded his compliance. They were operating under the assumption that their king, Ahaziah (and by extension, Ba’al-Zebub, the demon-god to whom the king was praying), wielded greater authority than Yahweh. The captain of a third group of soldiers, however, begged for the lives of himself and his men, showing deference to the prophet and honor to Yahweh. So the Angel of Yahweh (probably a theophany) authorized Elijah at that point to go and deliver his bad news to Ahaziah personally: because he had enquired of Ba’al-Zebub instead of Yahweh, the king was going to die.
The Samaritan village had declined to receive Yahshua not because they had rejected Him in favor of some false god, but simply because of deep and dimly understood prejudices that had existed between the Jews and the Samaritans for centuries. If He’s on His way to Jerusalem, then why should we Samaritans give Him the time of day? Yes, the Samaritans had given Him a cool reception. Terrible thing. But Yahshua was purposely going to a place where He would be betrayed, mocked, spat upon, scourged within an inch of His life, crucified, and laid in a borrowed tomb—and He didn’t call down fire on Jerusalem, either. His self-sacrifice was the whole point, though none of the disciples understood that yet. There would come a time for judgment. This wasn’t it.
Though we usually see James and John acting almost like twins—standing side by side, working as a unit, thinking the same way, and finishing each other’s sentences—the other pair of brothers, Peter and Andrew, seem quite dissimilar. Neither profile is necessarily to be preferred, of course. But it is noteworthy that in Christ, brothers don’t have to be joined at the hip (so to speak) to be unified in their convictions and goals. Simon Peter’s gregarious and flamboyant personality made him a natural leader, and God would use him to do great things, despite his flaws. But his brother Andrew was (apparently) the quiet, dependable type—a behind-the-scenes facilitator and manager. Could it be that the reason Andrew was not included with the mercurial Peter, James, and John in so many amazing moments in Christ’s ministry was that he could be trusted to “mind the store” in Yahshua’s absence—managing the other disciples? For that matter, is it possible that Yahshua kept Peter, James, and John so close to Him because they tended to get themselves in trouble when He wasn’t around? Just a thought.
In some ways, Andrew seems closer to his friend and fellow disciple Philip than he is to his extrovert brother Peter. On at least one occasion, Yahshua seems to have used Philip to draw out the best in Andrew: “Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.’” Philip, the realist, saw (and calculated) the scope of the problem, though he failed to factor in the creative power of the Master. But Andrew, the visionary, having been one of Yahshua’s four earliest disciples (and the first to realize that He was the Messiah) had witnessed firsthand Christ’s creative power at the wedding in Cana, where He had turned ordinary water into an excellent wine. So, “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’” (John 6:5-9) Wink-wink, nudge-nudge. It was practically a dare—but one born of unshakable faith.
We again see Philip and Andrew working together as brothers (in the sense of co-workers in faith) in this scene: “Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast.” This feast was the Passover when Yahshua was to be crucified. “Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip told Jesus.” (John 12:20-22) The fact that Yahshua, now pressed for time and focused upon the cross that loomed before Him, was unable to accommodate their request, does not negate the fact that Andrew’s primary goal was to introduce people to Christ.
Although the “inner circle” of Christ’s disciples was usually restricted to just Peter, James, and John, there was one immensely important lesson in which Andrew was included—the Olivet Discourse. “Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’” Sounds like Peter running his mouth, though we aren’t told. “And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.’ Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?’” (Mark 13:1-4, cf. Matthew 24:1-3, Luke 21:5-7)
With only the four brothers present, Yahshua launched into a detailed and terrifying description of what the Church and Israel could expect to see during the Last days before the commencement of His kingdom. He discussed everything from the “budding of the fig tree” (i.e., the reestablishment of Israel in the Land—something that finally took place in 1948), to the disturbing signs of the times, the rapture, the Tribulation, and the abomination of desolation, to the separation of the sheep from the goats—the wicked Tribulation survivors from the redeemed—which will take place only when “the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory.” There is so much information there (pulling together prophetic bits and pieces from one end of scripture to the other) that one could write a thousand-page book exploring it all. (Been there, done that: see The End of the Beginning, elsewhere on this website.)
Why was Andrew included with his brother Peter in this one instance? I’m speculating, of course, but perhaps it was because Yahshua knew that James would soon be martyred, the first of the twelve, and He didn’t wish to leave a discourse of such immense prophetic significance to the last generation of our age with only two witnesses—one of which was Peter, who as we now know still had some painful growing up to do. (As Solomon said, “A threefold cord is not easily broken.”)
It’s hard to say for sure, but this we know: “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also.” (Acts 12:1-3) Though Peter would be released, all of the disciples would eventually be martyred for their faith. As it turned out, the brothers James and John would be the first and last to die (though John’s attempted martyrdom—by being boiled in oil—miraculously wasn’t successful: he lived well into his nineties, a beloved elder of the church at Ephesus). Both Peter and Andrew were crucified in unusual ways (Peter upside down, and Andrew on an X-shaped cross), ostensibly at their request, because they felt unworthy to die precisely as Yahshua had.
Whether brothers (or sisters) are as alike as James and John or as different as Andrew and Peter, whether or not they share similar abilities, aptitudes, or personality profiles, one thing is crucial: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) Or as Peter himself put it in I Peter 3:8, “All of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another. Love as brothers.”
Case Study #7: Yahshua’s Brothers (and Sisters)
Since Yahshua is the “only begotten Son of God,” conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin (as described in Luke 1:26-38), it is clear that He had no full siblings—same mother and father. But the Gospels speak often of His close-knit family, His mother, brothers, and sisters. They are mentioned, for instance, when He performed His first recorded miracle, turning water into wine at a marriage in Cana. He had already called His first four disciples (Andrew, Peter, James, and John, as we read above): “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. After this He went down to Capernaum, He, His mother, His brothers, and His disciples; and they did not stay there many days.” (John 2:11-12)
Cana was about seven miles due north of Nazareth, and Capernaum was some fifteen miles northeast of Cana (the “down” refers to elevation, not compass points). So they were all walking away from His home town of Nazareth, and toward the place where His early ministry would take place—where His disciples lived and worked. Since “His brothers” traveled with them, it is clear that they too had witnessed the water-to-wine miracle at Cana, though they had yet to draw any Messianic conclusions about their half-brother.
There is a persistent myth circulating among Roman Catholics about who these siblings were—or were not. So let’s deal with this ludicrous fantasy right here at the outset. Meghan Murphy-Gill, writing for USCatholic.org (December, 2013) notes, “The evidence may seem clear, but scripture scholars and theologians have been debating these and other passages for nearly two millennia, arguing whether those brothers and sisters were in fact biological siblings, step-siblings, ‘half’ siblings, or not even siblings at all, but cousins.
“The first recorded argument was between St. Jerome and another fourth-century theologian, Helvidius, who had written that after the virgin birth of Jesus, Mary had other children with her husband, Joseph. St. Jerome disagreed, indicating that by the fourth century at least some of the church community believed that Mary had stayed a virgin for the rest of her life. These children of Mary, Jerome said, were from Mary of Clopas, Jesus’ aunt and his mother’s sister, making them cousins. He claimed that the Greek word adelphios could refer to cousins, not just biological siblings.
“Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis and a contemporary of Jerome and Helvidius, threw another possibility into the hat. He argued that the siblings weren’t cousins, but Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, making them the step-siblings of Jesus. Joseph isn’t mentioned outside of the birth of Jesus, causing some to believe that he was much older than Mary and died before Jesus’ public ministry. It is conjecture, but some apocryphal works, such as the Protoevangelium of James, the Gospel of Peter, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, all seem to indicate a tradition of belief that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were the children of Joseph.”
Why do some Catholics work so hard to deny what seems obvious from the text—that the “brothers and sisters” of Yahshua were the subsequent offspring of Mary and her husband Joseph? It’s because of a mad scramble to try to paint Mary as a perpetual virgin—the “Queen of Heaven” of Babylonian lore, and therefore co-Redemptrix with Christ: a demigoddess in her own right, the “mother of God.” You’ll notice that the controversy didn’t even arise until the fourth century—when Emperor Constantine converted to “Christianity” but subsequently tried to blend the pagan traditions of Rome (and past civilizations going back to Nimrod’s Babylon) with the teachings of Christianity.
Part and parcel of this heresy was the elevation of Semiramis (the wife of Nimrod) to the status of a goddess, and of her son Tammuz as the incarnation of the sun god—known in Rome as Mithras. The idea was to equate Yahshua with Tammuz and Mary with Semiramis (Nimrod was positioned as “god the father”) so pagans would feel right at home in this new “seeker-friendly” religion. (All ties with Judaism would have to be severed, of course: Sabbath worship was outlawed and the Torah was relegated to the realm of folklore, hence Christianity’s tendency to wallow in ignorant darkness from that point forward.)
I have often noted that one can occasionally learn something about the real thing by examining a counterfeit. Even Satan knew that God must be both paternal and maternal in nature—hence the “trinity” structure (father, mother, and son) of his first and greatest bogus bill, the Babylonian mystery religion that permeated the post-flood world. Like 99.99% of Christendom today, the Roman Catholics failed to recognize that Yahweh’s “maternal” manifestation was the Holy Spirit indwelling the church. But knowing (unlike Islam) that you can’t build a family with a Father alone, they seized upon Mary as the logical candidate for the “Mother/Queen” role. It’s about as big a theological mistake as it’s possible to make.
The whole thing is a not-so-funny comedy of errors. If Mary was to be passed off as a goddess (an idea at which she would have been appalled), she would have had to be sinless herself. Since sex equals sin in the twisted religious mind, she would “logically” have to remain a virgin. Otherwise, how could she forgive sins herself? Forget the fact that God invented sex and blessed the marriage bed. Ignore the idea that children were the Father’s ultimate blessing upon a husband and wife.
When the angel who had approached Mary about being the mother of Yahweh’s Anointed One had said, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28), he didn’t add, “Oh, and by the way, you and your husband will never get to share a normal, affectionate physical relationship. No sex for you—ever. There will be no more children after Immanuel—He’s just too hard an act to follow. Your beloved Joseph will be emasculated in the process as well. He will be rewarded for his faithfulness, support, and obedience with a lifetime of sexual frustration.” Some blessing! On the contrary, being blessed with multiple children would certainly have blunted the social stigma that might have followed Mary as an “unwed mother.”
And then there’s the inconvenient little fact that Mary offered “a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:24) This was precisely as required in the Torah: “When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before Yahweh, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female. And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.” (Leviticus 12:6-8) Mary was dirt poor, so she went with the inexpensive turtledove option. The point is, it was a sin offering, a chata’t—offered because she was acknowledging her sin. If she had been sinless (as some Catholics claim), then by bringing a sin offering she actually was “bearing false witness,” a sin in itself. Either way, the whole “Mary-was-perpetually-sinless-and-therefore-may-forgive-sins” myth is blown to smithereens. I’m sure she would be the first to agree.
By the way, if Isaiah is correct (i.e., “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”—Isaiah 9:6), and since “the priest” was to make atonement for the new mother, it follows that there must be a viable priesthood, and an operating temple, in order for the Messiah to be born into the world. That has not been the case since the Romans tore the temple down in 70 AD. Jews who reject Yahshua as Messiah must deal with that inconvenient little fact. The Torah kills any theory held by Jews or Catholics who would seek to deny that, as Yahshua said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)
So, with that bit of theological silliness out of the way, let us proceed.
Early in His ministry, Yahshua’s family concluded that He may have become mentally unbalanced—that He was having delusions of grandeur—so they went to “save” Him from Himself. “Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind.’” (Mark 3:20-21) The Greek rendered here “His own people” (“His family” in some translations) uses the preposition para, making it read literally, “Those from Him,” or “those beside Him.” Although a word-for-word translation into English sounds less than definitive, the nuance of the Greek makes it clear that His family is indeed meant. Consider: “Pará, an emphatic ‘from,’ means ‘from close beside’ (‘alongside’). It stresses nearness (closeness) which is often not conveyed in translation. Pará is typically theologically significant… [It] usually adds the overtone, ‘from close beside’ (implying intimate participation).”—Helps Word-Studies. No one other than Yahshua’s disciples and immediate family fit the description. But Mary knew exactly who He was, and His disciples were following Him because of what He was saying and doing. Thus “those from Him” could only mean Mary’s other sons, Yahshua’s half-brothers.
A bit later in His ministry, Yahshua returned to His hometown, Nazareth, where He had grown up, and taught there. “When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, ‘Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter’s son?…’ We have a saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” They knew Yahshua as a carpenter, not a rabbi, having been trained in His craft by His (adoptive) father Joseph. It has been surmised that perhaps Joseph was no longer in the picture at this time (he would have been in his mid-fifties). The parallel passage in Mark 6 describes Yahshua simply as “the carpenter, the son of Mary,” as if Joseph had died, and Yahshua (the firstborn) had at some point in the not-too-distant past taken over the family business. In character, of course, He would have made sure His half-brothers were well trained and able to carry on the trade to support their widowed mother Mary after He left home to pursue “His (real) Father’s business.”
The Nazarenes’ complaint continued: “Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?…” Apparently, there were four brothers and at least three sisters: the “quiver” of Joseph and Mary was chock full of “arrows.” (See Psalm 127:4-5.)
A note on the brothers’ names: “James” is actually Jacob (Yakob—transliterated into the Greek as Iakóbos). Joses was named after his father Joseph—a name honored in Israel since the time of the patriarchs. Simon (or Simeon), as we have seen, was a very common name, and also that of a son of Israel. And Judas (Jude) was named after the family’s own tribal patriarch, Judah. Yahshua’s name (Jesus, i.e., Joshua, rendered as Iesous in Greek) was quite common in Israel as well. Its Hebrew equivalent is Yahowsha’, Yahuwshuwa’, Yahushua, Yəhowsu‘a, Yâhowshuwa`, Yâhowshu`a, Yehowshu‘a, Yehoshua, Yĕhôšûă‘, Yeshua, Yahoshua, Yeshuwa’, Y’shua, or Yahshua, depending on whose lexicon you consult. It would appear that rendering Hebrew/Aramaic names into English is as much art as it is science.
But I digress. The Nazarenes grumbled, “‘Where then did this Man get all these things?’ So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.’ Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:54-58; cf. Mark 6:1-5) This “unbelief” extended to Yahshua’s half siblings. They all knew that their elder brother had been working with them in their father Joseph’s carpenter shop: He had not had the time to spend years learning the ways of the great Jewish sages. And besides, He spoke with authority, not as the scribes, who merely quoted the opinions of their distinguished forebears. They didn’t know quite what to think about the miracles and healings their brother had done all over Israel—a few of which they had actually seen with their own eyes. For the moment, they couldn’t get past the idea that Yahshua was just their older brother, the carpenter—no different from them. Little did they realize (yet) that this simplicity, vulnerability, and humility—this humanness—was sort of the point. God—as God—could not offer Himself up for the sins of mankind. But God as a Man (tempted in every way as we are) could—provided He was, and remained, sinless.
Another revealing encounter took place when his family came to see Yahshua, but couldn’t get close to Him because of the large crowd that had gathered to hear Him teach. “Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers [some manuscripts add: “and Your sisters”] are outside seeking You.’ But He answered them, saying, ‘Who is My mother, or My brothers?’ And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God [Matthew words it: “My Father in heaven”] is My brother and My sister and mother.’” (Mark 3:31-35; cf. Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21)
It wasn’t (as it may sound) an insult, a rejection of His family ties. Yahshua, rather, was using the circumstance to remind us that we’re all “blood relatives,” and should treat each other accordingly—with familial love, respect, concern, and support. But note that the primary definition of this “family” is those with whom we share spiritual parentage—those who “do the will of God.” And what does that mean? Following the rules? Living perfect, sinless lives? Not exactly. The “will of God” is that we simply trust Him: “This is the work of God: that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:29) The sad fact is that, at this early stage of His ministry, Yahshua’s half-siblings hadn’t yet done that—they didn’t believe that He had been sent by Yahweh—anointed to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That day would come. Christ’s resurrection would prove what His words and deeds could only suggest: He was God in flesh.
Scattered throughout the Epistles are hints that Yahshua’s siblings did indeed come to know Him as much as the Son of God as He was their brother. There are several offhand mentions that place them at the forefront of the early church: Paul asks, “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (I Corinthians 9:5) After his conversion, he consulted with James, who had quickly become the head of the church in Jerusalem, an “apostle” (“one sent out”) in his own right: “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians 1:18-19)
Jude was careful not to trade upon the familial relationship he shared with Yahshua, but in humility referred to himself as His slave in the introduction to his little epistle: “Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” (Jude 1-2) Since Jude (a.k.a. Judas or Judah) was such a common name at the time, more information was needed as to which Jude was the author. So he identified himself as the brother of James—the head of the Jerusalem assembly (and not coincidentally, the half-brother of Yahshua).
The “conversion” of Yahshua’s brothers had apparently happened at the very end of His ministry, for they were still skeptical five months before the Passion: “Now the Jews’ Feast of Tabernacles was at hand. His brothers therefore said to Him, ‘Depart from here [in Galilee] and go into Judea, that Your disciples also may see the works that You are doing. For no one does anything in secret while he himself seeks to be known openly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.’ For even His brothers did not believe in Him.” (John 7:2-5) Two months later, Yahshua raised Lazarus from the dead. And three months after that, He was Himself crucified and entombed, only to resurrect Himself under His own power on the third day.
Whatever it was, something during that window of time changed the brothers’ minds, for they were enthusiastic believers by the time of Yahshua’s ascension into heaven, forty days later: “While they watched, [Yahshua] was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’ Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:9-14)
While it’s interesting—and significant—that Yahshua’s power over death could overcome the skepticism of familiarity into which his half-brothers had fallen, we must not forget the broader definition of Christ’s “family.” As He had said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.” At the end of the Olivet Discourse (when Yahshua explained the realities of the Last Days to Peter, Andrew, James, and John), He revealed how the redeemed who had somehow survived until the commencement of His Millennial reign would be separated from those who had rejected Him in favor of self-interest or satanic persuasion. He likened it to a herdsman separating his sheep from the goats.
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand [that is, the vindicated “sheep”], ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Remember: all of the people left alive at this time—at the end of the Great Tribulation—missed the rapture. That is, they were not believers when Christ came to fulfill the prophesied “great catching-up” at the Feast of Trumpets. They lived through a period of time in which God’s word had been suppressed, in which Satan’s evil marched rampant over the face of the earth. Those not killed in the mayhem and anarchy of the times were faced with the ultimate trial: submit to Satan through the antichrist’s compulsory “mark of the beast,” or refuse it—making themselves rebels, non-persons, and enemies of the state. Following only their consciences, multitudes will defy the one-world government-religion-society. And although we aren’t given statistics, my sense is that hundreds of millions will be martyred for their newfound faith, and hundreds of millions more—both Jews and neo-Christians of the “church of repentant Laodicea” who belatedly received the grace of Christ (see Revelation 3:18-21)—will somehow evade the headsman’s ax until the end of the Tribulation.
So, since how the Tribulation survivors treat them is the sole determinant of their fate, it behooves us to figure out who “these My brethren” are. It most certainly begins with the Jews—people of Israelite descent whether or not they are Israelis by nationality. They will be hunted and hounded in satanic rage; Hitler’s holocaust will seem like a mildly stressful Monday morning by comparison. I believe “the brethren” will also include other post-rapture Christian believers, of whom there will be far greater numbers than Jews. Giving aid, shelter, support, and provision to people who are in rebellion against the antichrist’s dark forces will earn you a death sentence, but some—many—will risk everything to do that very thing. Even if you have only a vague idea who the real God might be, your practical mercy toward anyone whom Christ considers “His brother” (or sister, of course) will define you as a blessed “sheep” when the King takes His throne.
There’s really no point in trying to get technical with this, of course. The only “safe” strategy will be to assume that everyone still alive is someone the King considers “these My brethren.” And although the specific “separation of the sheep from the goats” will take place at the end of the Great Tribulation, there is no reason to suppose that the principle isn’t in force right now. The greatest commandment of all is that we love Yahweh our God. But the second-greatest is like it: to love our neighbors, our brothers, our fellow man, as we do ourselves. In the end, there is no practical way to demonstrate our love for God other than to show love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness to our brothers—defined in the broadest sense imaginable.