Messianic Education Trust
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(Gen 47:28 - 50:26)

B'resheet/Genesis 49:28   All these are the tribes of Israel: twelve


Here, at the conclusion of Jacob blessing each of his twelve sons, the text sums up that these, all these, precisely twelve, no more and no less, are the twelve sons and so the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribes were as yet only in embryonic form, being simply the sons and perhaps grandsons of Jacob's sons, but these twelve sons of Jacob were the very ones whose offspring were to be the nation Israel. The phrase - all these - is a formula used after a list of things or names to emphasise the unifying factor: the sons that Avraham had with his second wife, after Sarah died, are summarised in this way: "All these were the sons of Keturah" (B'resheet 25:4). Similarly, the five kings who conspired to rebel against Chedorlaomer, leading to Lot's capture and subsequent rescue by his uncle Avraham, are listed: "All these joined together as allies at the valley of Siddim" (B'resheet 14:3).

The words - the tribes of Israel - is taken by Sarna to express, "the consciousness of an overall national unity and common identity that is 'Israel', even though each tribe is separately treated" in the preceding list of blessings and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Even though each of Jacob's sons receives very different and particular words of encouragement, censure or prophecy; even though the tribes were to have separate and distinct land-holdings and ancestral boundaries, yet they are one. The Torah's author sees the proto-nation of Israel already in form; despite petty squabbles and sibling rivalries, the Jewish people will survive and have survived all the ravages of time and history because - whether orthodox, reform or secular - a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and G-d's covenant is with the Jewish people. Sarna also points out that this is the first mention of the twelve tribes as tribes rather than sons. As Jacob is about to die and the baton is passed on to the next generation, so the form of Israel changes from the family of a patriarch to the tribes of a nation.

Lest there should be any confusion over Ephraim and Menasseh, the two sons of Joseph, and the issue of land-holdings in the division of Eretz Yisrael, the Who Is ...

Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death
Sforno makes a lengthy comment to tie together later passages of Scripture. These twelve who are "blessed by Jacob are the twelve authentic tribes; they are written on the breastplate and Ephod; they were present at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal; for these twelve Moshe set up twelve pillars and Joshua twelve stones from the Jordan at Gilgal and Elijah when he built the altar" on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). The Sforno explains that Ephraim and Menasseh are only considered tribes, or half-tribes, in the division of the land where Levi is excluded, so that there should still be twelve divisions.

The Talmud demonstrates the same overview of unity among differences in respect of the interpretation of Scripture. After three years of argument between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel over a particular piece of halacha, the Talmud records that a bat kol - a voice from heaven - announced that "These and these are the words of the Living G-d" (b. Eiruvin 13b) but rendered a decision to follow the opinion of the House of Hillel. What is important here is to see that despite differences between scholars over the precise implementation of one particular halacha, the scholars were all working within the same framework and for the same objective - the correct interpretation of the Scriptures - so that the people would know what to do. Even though the opinions differed, the rabbis recognised that G-d would be pleased by His people who were sincerely seeking to know His will and were following through by putting their convictions into action.

Rav Sha'ul picks up the same idea and applies it to the body of Messiah. Just as the household of Israel is not altered in the least by particular religious affiliation or the absence thereof, so the body of Messiah is not affected by denominations: provided that a believer has truly believed in Yeshua as the Messiah, it matters not whether he belongs to the Baptist church, a Methodist church, a pentecostal church or any other church; he is still a believer and is in relationship with Yeshua. This is the essence of "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one" (Galatians 3:28, CJB); by using categories in which it is impossible for there to be a mixture, reversal or confusion, Sha'ul makes the point that all these people, regardless of their station, calling or gender, are equally members of the body of Messiah. He makes the same point again when writing to another congregation: "For indeed the body is not one part but many. If the foot says, 'I'm not a hand, so I'm not a part of the body', that doesn't make it stop being a part of the body ... But as it is, G-d arranged each of the parts of the body exactly as He wanted them. Now if they were all just one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are indeed many parts, yet just one body" (1 Corinthians 12:14-20, CJB). There are many different body parts, with different appearances, functions, behaviours and characteristics; yet all are part of the body and all are needed for the body as a whole to fulfill its function as designed by G-d. No one part can remove itself and say "I don't want to play" because all are essential to the correct operation of the whole. Sha'ul goes on: "So the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you'; or the head to the feet, 'I don't need you.'" (v. 21, CJB); he is saying that no member of the body can send away or remove another member just because they are a different part of the body. More importantly, no group of members can discipline or disenfranchise another group because their function or calling is different - that would be like the hands of a body cutting off the feet because they couldn't play the piano!

The same theme appears in more specific terms in another of Sha'ul's letters: "Now if the hallah offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole loaf. And if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you - a wild olive - were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, then don't boast as if you were better than the branches! However, if you do boast, remember that you are not supporting the root, the root is supporting you. So you will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' True, but so what? They were broken off because of their lack of trust. However, you keep your place only because of your trust. So don't be arrogant; on the contrary, be terrified! For if G-d did not spare the natural branches, he certainly won't spare you!" (Romans 11:16-21, CJB). The Gentile church is not to be arrogant to Jewish believers, forcing them to "fit" their idea of what church should be or the lifestyle a "Christian" should live where there is a difference based upon calling. Jews and Gentiles are to stay as they are when they become believers (1 Corinthians 7:17-24) and are to accept each other's expressions of faith - provided, of course that they don't reject Yeshua - as valid within the body. Messianic Jews are a part both of the body of Messiah and the household of Israel. To borrow the phrases from the Talmud and the Torah: These and these are sons of the Living G-d - All these are the children of Avraham!

Further Study: Proverbs 27:8; Romans 12:3-8

Application: Where do you find yourself with regard to the Jewish question in the body of Messiah? Are you a Messianic Jew struggling to find acceptance from the Gentile church world, or are you a Gentile struggling with allowing Jewish ideas and identity from Jewish believers in your church? Why not ask G-d - the Father of all men - to help you to see this from His point of view: All are one in Messiah Yeshua!

© Jonathan Allen, 2009

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