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B'resheet/Genesis 25:16 ... and these are their names by their courtyards and by their strongholds, twelve chieftains ...
This summary follows a precise enumeration and naming of each of Yishmael's twelve sons, given in birth order, in verses 13-15. We know from other ancient Middle-East documents that these were real people, not just names put in a list. Adbeel, for example, is the tribe of Idiba'il who were subjugated by Tiglath-pileser III and assigned to guard duty on the Egyptian frontier. Nebaioth may be the progenitor of the Nabateans who built the rose-pink city of Petra in Jordan; but his descendants certainly occur in the accounts of Ashurbanipal's campaigns against the Arabs. All these peoples - tribes or clans - were known to be nomadic in lifestyle, herders of sheep and goats, roaming in sometimes quite dispersed areas of the Middle East, generally to the east and south of the Land of Israel; they were not city dwellers. This is hinted at by the word - their courtyards - which comes from a root verb that is not used in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Davidson lists several derivative nouns with meanings such as "village, hamlet" or "enclosure, area, court".Rashi comments that these are "cities that have no walls, for they are open"; while Targum Onkelos translates the word as "open areas", which might suggest a camp consisting of tents pitched around a central area of open community space. Such a layout is typical of pastoral nomadic tribes.
Given that Yitz'khak is the carrier of the promise, and that Yishmael effectively drops out of the story halfway through chapter 20, in last week's parashaVayera, to reappear briefly next to Yitz'khak at their father Avraham's burial in the cave of Machpela in Hevron, why does the biblical author pause at this point to devote a couple of paragraphs to a genealogy-style summary of Yishmael's descendants, life and death? Why also the use of the word - princes or chieftains? Is the number of the sons - twelve - important? The text this points back to is: "And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation" (B'resheet 17:20, NASB). Even though Yishmael was not the one with whomHaShem would establish His covenant, He is nevertheless faithful to keep His promise to Avraham with respect to Yishmael; he is indeed the father of twelve princes and does in time become the father of a great nation of peoples stretching far and wide throughout the Middle East. The writer therefore takes the time, before moving on with the main story, that HaShem has kept His promises to Yishmael in exact parallel to the promise that will be worked out through Ya'akov's twelve sons. The only difference between the sons of Ya'akov and the sons of Yishmael is that the former are the children of the covenant while the latter are not.
G-d made a covenant with Noach after the flood had ended and He had let Noach and his family out of the ark. He told him, "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (B'resheet 8:22, NASB). Although the rains may be withheld for a season, as a sign of G-d's judgement for sin, that covenant still stands. One of Job's so-called comforters comments, "Dominion and awe belong to Him who establishes peace in His heights. Is there any number to His troops? And upon whom does His light not rise?" (Job 25:2-3, NASB), while the Psalmist several times proclaims that G-d provides for all of creation: "The L-RD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made ... The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Psalm 145:9,15-16, ESV). Yeshua teaches the people the same thing: "For He makes His sun shine on good and bad people alike, and He sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike" (Matthew 5:45, CJB). G-d's common grace is upon the whole of creation to maintain it in its order and path.
In spite of G-d's goodness and faithfulness, mankind has failed to take notice of the evidence that is before them. Even when the southern kingdom of Judah is threatened with the same punishment as her northern neighbour Israel, whose refugees probably filled the countryside, G-d observes that "They do not say in their heart, 'Let us now fear the L-RD our G-d, who gives rain in its season, both the autumn rain and the spring rain, who keeps for us the appointed weeks of the harvest'" (Jeremiah 5:24, NASB). Among the nations, the situation is even worse. Rav Sha'ul points out that, "What is revealed is G-d's anger from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who in their wickedness keep suppressing the truth; because what is known about G-d is plain to them, since G-d has made it plain to them. For ever since the creation of the universe His invisible qualities- both His eternal power and His divine nature - have been clearly seen, because they can be understood from what He has made. Therefore, they have no excuse; because, although they know who G-d is, they do not glorify Him as G-d or thank Him. On the contrary, they have become futile in their thinking; and their undiscerning hearts have become darkened" (Romans 1:18-21, CJB). Because of consistently ignoring the evidence that is all around us every day, the hearts and minds of those who choose to reject G-d become blinded to Him so that it is increasingly difficult for them to acknowledge Him.
Many people today deny G-d in their lives, either deliberately or deliberately. That is to say, some explicitly deny G-d, having looked at the evidence and rejected it; others ignore the evidence but without having considered it. Yeshua spoke about this in the well-known parable of the sower. The seed, or word of G-d, that fell on the rocky ground was eaten before it could germinate; the seed that fell on shallow ground couldn't grow roots to endure the heat and drought; the seed that fell among the weeds was choked by the thorns. Only the seed that fell on the good soil germinated, grew roots, had room to grow and brought forth a harvest. Our job is twofold: firstly to make sure that we are good soil, that we have weeded and prepared, that we receive the word gladly, make room for it, encourage it to grow and ensure that it stays watered. Secondly, we must encourage others, who will also hear the word to do the same. We must be prepared to scare away the crows, make sure that the seed is watered, risk pricking our hands by pulling a few thistles and even turn over some fallow ground to start the process. The question is: do you have what it takes and are you prepared to get your hands dirty? As G-d's sun and rain fall on you, will you share that with those who can't or won't recognise it falling on them?
Further Study: Psalm 19:2-4; Acts 14:17
Application: Why not start by recognising G-d's blessings in your life and thanking Him for them? Then ask G-d who else needs to know about the blessing today and offer to help. Then keep your eyes open, because you'll find yourself being taken up on that offer to help someone else enter or grow in the kingdom.
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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