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B'resheet/Genesis 48:15 The G-d before whom my fathers - Avraham and Yitz'khak - walked, the G-d who shepherds me all my life until this day ...
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Yosef has brought his sons Manasseh and Ephraim to see his father Ya'akov so that he can bless them. Like his father before him, Ya'akov has trouble seeing clearly in his old age, so that Yosef has to guide his hands to the two boys' heads in time for them to have a little argument about what must now be as familiar to the whole family as it is to all the readers: the inevitable switch in primogeniture. Nevertheless, Ya'akov can still speak clearly and duly lifts up his voice to invoke a blessing over them. He starts by invoking or calling upon the G-d whom he is asking to bless his grandsons.
TheRamban starts by suggesting that "the prophet calls upon the G-d of his fathers, who has the greatness and the power and who did great and tremendous things for them, and he calls upon the true G-d, who had been his shepherd all his life." Richard Elliott Friedman comments that Ya'akov's wording "is technical covenant terminology known from ANE documents to mean loyalty to one's partner in a covenant." This language is focused around the two verbs in the text. The first, - the hitpa'el 3mp affix form of the root , to walk - has either the reflexive sense of walking for themselves or walking around. Rabbi Hirsch explains that " is a term only used of G-d and man and designates a leading of oneself, accordingly, a going of one's own free-willed moral energy." The Radak expands this idea into his comment that, "this expression means serving G-d in thought and deed, for the root of divine service is in the heart." Nahum Sarna notes that "Ya'akov does not include himself" in those walking before G-d, agreeing with the Radak's assertion that "rather than praise himself for walking in G-d's ways, Ya'akov invokes the merit of his ancestors."
The second verb is - the Qal ms participle from the root , to pasture, feed, shepherd - with a definite article to means "the one shepherding". Hirsch adds that Ya'akov, "says that he had learned to know G-d, He has been the shepherd who had led and guided, fed and maintained him from the beginning of his existence to that very day." The Ramban thinks that "it is possible that the word is derived from the word , friend, companion, acquaintance, as in the verse "Do not desert your friend and your father's friend" (Proverbs 27:10, NJPS), for in that attribute there is peace." TheSforno paraphrases this as, "You, who always showed me kindness ..." Nahum Sarna reports that, "the image for the deity as a shepherd is common throughout ANE literature and appears frequently in the Bible. It expresses the idea of G-d as provider, protector and guide: "The L-RD is my shepherd" (Psalm 23:1), "with compassion will I guide them. I will lead them to streams of water" (Jeremiah 31:9, NJPS), "Give ear, O shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph like a flock!" (Psalm 80:2, NJPS). Gordon Wenham adds that "the image is particularly evocative in the mouths of men like Ya'akov or David who were once shepherds themselves"1 (when Samuel asks Jesse if he has other sons, Jesse replies, "There is still the youngest; he is tending the flock" (1 Samuel 16:11, NJPS)). The phrase "my shepherd", Bruce Waltke suggests, is "an intimate royal metaphor for G-d that signifies His provision, restoration and protection. The aged shepherd acknowledges G-d's special shepherding of his life."2 As a curious observation on the last words of the verse, Abravanel points out that, "The numerical value of 'all my life' is 130, the number of years during which Ya'akov was provided for by the Holy One before his arrival in Egypt; 'this' is 17, the number of years he lived in Egypt."
Grouping this text with the continuation in the next verse, "May the G-d ... may the G-d ... may the angel ...", Wenham observes that "this blessing foreshadows the later priestly blessing in its tripartite structure - "May HaShem make ... May HaShem bless ... May HaShem lift ..." (B'Midbar 6:24-26) - and, like the priestly blessing, this has also been used in Jewish liturgy." Three is a powerful number in the Scriptures - many things come in threes and it is used for emphasis. Walter Brueggemann claims that "the blessing provides a crowning summary of ancestral faith. Its content is as close to a credo as this tradition comes. The One who is the subject of this sacrament of hope is the one who has been with and for this family and has never been found wanting."3
Putting the focus back on the 'walking' verb, Wenham points out that Ya'akov's words, this blessing, "contains clear echoes of Avraham's final words. Avraham walked before the L-rd who sent His angel ahead of his servant to find a wife for Yitz'khak (B'resheet 24:20)." Avraham's life-long commitment to obeying G-d and maintaining the relationship with Him had the consequence that G-d continued to work through him and acted to preserve the covenant and the family line through into the next (and following) generations. Waltke makes that generational link even clearer: "G-d's covenant promises to Avraham and Yitz'khak are certain because they walked before G-d. For their heirs to experience the promised blessings, they too must walk before Him." In the Great Commission, Yeshua used the same verbal type - , the aorist passive participle of the verb , to go, proceed, travel - to describe the progress of the disciples, travelling and making disciples: "as you walk" or "in your walking", make disciples. It is as people walk before the L-rd, living out their lives before Him, walking in His ways, that disciples are made and trained, that the kingdom grows; that is the way to experience blessing - G-d blesses us as we walk before Him.
Here, then, are two challenges for us today. Firstly, are we walking according to G-d's ways, seeing where He is going and what He is doing and walking after Him to join in with His work and His mission, and therefore experiencing Him as our Shepherd: leading, guiding and directing us in both our kingdom work for Him and His provision for us? As followers of Yeshua, we must be following Him, watching Him to se where He goes, paying attention to His calls and instructions, and allowing Him to provide for us, to discipline us and to comfort us in times of trouble. That is what sheep do with a physical shepherd and Yeshua spoke very clearly in that metaphor when He told the crowds, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (John 10:27, ESV). We need to ask ourselves carefully who we are following and where we are being led. If we are truly following Yeshua then we will hear His promise that, "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (v. 28, ESV); we know His words to be true by experience: "I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:29b-30, ESV). If we are harassed, know no peace and feel driven from pillar to post, then we are not following Yeshua; we have taken our eyes off the Shepherd and have fallen prey to those who "come only to steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10, ESV).
The second challenge is, when we invoke Him in blessing or prayer, when we speak of our G-d to others - both inside and outside the household of faith - do we refer to Him in these ways: as the G-d before whom we walk and the G-d who is our Shepherd? Our mouth and the way we speak will show clearly how we view G-d and the relationship we have with Him. Ya'akov spoke warmly, of a personal shepherding relationship and of the way his fathers walked before G-d, in His ways and in His blessing. Do our words and our invocations of G-d, when we ask Him to bless others - perhaps for healing, for material provision, or for emotional support and relationship - carry similar warmth and conviction or do we carefully choose and qualify our words, lacking the depth of personal testimony and experience? No-one will want to consider something about which we are uncertain; it is only our conviction that will convince others to take G-d at His word and give Him a try. We cannot invite others to "taste and see that the L-RD is good" (Psalm 34:8, ESV) if we don't know and like Him for ourselves.
1. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 465.
2. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 599.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 361.
Further Study: Isaiah 40:10-11; 1 Peter 2:2-5
Application: Do you know and exhibit the warmth and depth of your relationship with G-d when you speak about Him to others, or are you tepid and cautious, not wanting to over-commit to something of which you are not quite certain? Why not speak to the Shepherd today about making your experience real and tangible so that you can share it with others.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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