The Twelve Sons and the Twelve Gates

Seventeen years had passed since that most famous family reunion (Gen. 48:28). Israel was old when he stood before Pharaoh, but now he passed beyond the realm of all terrestrial classification. His one hundred and forty seven years hung about him in a most ghostly way. His eyes, once brown, had now grown white with blindness. We see him on the eve of his death, white bearded and white eyed, staring intently through the mist which blinds most of us to spiritual realities. He had summoned his sons one final time to bless them; or more accurately, to reveal their destiny (Gen. 49). Anticipation and anxiety filled the place as his sons, themselves of great age, assembled before him. Behind them stood nervously the vast assembly of Israel’s generations─children, grand children, and great grandchildren. No one was quite sure what their venerable patriarch would say.

All knew what happened to Joseph shortly before when he brought in his two sons to be blessed. The blind old man crossed his hands as Joseph positioned Manasseh his first born to his father’s right side, and Ephraim the second born to his left side, thus giving the right hand blessing to Ephraim the youngest. Joseph tried to “correct” the situation but soon found out that the way it happened was correct all along. In the Book of Beginnings no firstborn receives firstborn honors. We cannot help but feel the gentle mirth of the blind man who now clearly saw the ways of God. No doubt his memory flew back to the days when he deceitfully stood before his blind old father, and tricked him into giving him first born status. Isaac was blind both physically and spiritually; Israel was blind physically but saw clearly with his soul. This made the assembly before him insecure, for they could not read him.

Israel began with his first born, Reuben, and worked on down to Benjamin, his youngest. On the whole, what we see before us is not a stellar group; in fact, they are us. Reuben never seemed to grow much, stymied by his inability to exert his rights as first born. His father directly addressed this, along with the embarrassing incident with his concubine Bilhah. Simeon and Levi were condemned for their violence, a character flaw that plagued them all their lives, although we expect they mellowed some with age. Judah became the lion of the tribe; he was the one who inherited the first born honors in the family, and through him promise to Abraham that kings will come forth from him will be fulfilled (cf. Gen. 17:6 with 49:10). Apart from Joseph, he was the one who showed the most dramatic change in life. As for the sons of the concubines, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, and Naphtali, we know very little of their lives. Jacob’s blessings on them are notoriously ambiguous, and few of which have obvious fulfillment. Joseph’s portion fell to his sons, for Israel claimed them as his own, raising the number of his sons to 12. In so doing, Israel made Joseph his equal; he stands as the fourth great patriarch after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob his father. He, as well as Judah, was blessed the most extravagantly. Benjamin, conspicuous for his silence throughout the story, is likened to a ravenous wolf. Obviously, his father knew something about him that we don’t.

These are the great grandsons of Abraham, the friend of God, the man of faith! These are the fountains of Jacob, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, the family of God, chosen above all on earth! Of these twelve, about only two do we know anything positive at all; of three we know the negatives. The rest are all enigmas to us. Surely if there were anything noteworthy about their spiritual journeys, the author of our story would have told us. The silence about them screams out at us─all the more so when we consider that the twelve gates of Heaven are named after them! (Cf. Ezk. 48:30-34 with Rev. 21:12). The first things the redeemed see when they pass into heaven are these names above the gates! It is hard to think of a more splendid honor for such a common, lackluster bunch.

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