On occasion, the early church's avid attempts to catch glimpses of its Savior in the pages of the Old Testament strained credulity a bit. There are examples aplenty of imaginative over-exegesis, where the clear meaning of a passage was ignored in order to draw out allusions to Christ. In our day, the pendulum has swung the other way, largely to good effect. This series of studies is an attempt to find some middle ground: respecting the original meaning of the Old Testament stories, while still drawing out those golden threads where the Holy Spirit's work in those ancient writers seems to have been clearly pointing to Jesus. But every once in a while, I'll throw in a piece that borders more on the early church's speculative edge. This week's passage is one such example: the list of the twelve sons of Jacob from Genesis 29-30.
It's fairly clear within the text itself that these sons (later to be called the twelve patriarchs, because they became heads of the twelve tribes of Israel) are given names which relate to their mothers' experiences at the time. (Many modern English translations helpfully include footnotes which elucidate these connections.) In that sense, they are a notable study of the way in which Scripture showed remarkable attention and concern for the inner lives of women at a time and in a culture when such issues were not generally thought to be of much consequence.
But early Christians also found in these names hints and foreshadowings of Jesus and his experiences. Although this may seem to be an example of wishful thinking, a moment's reflection may help us see why they made this connection. Since Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the Old Testament experience of Israel (indeed, Matthew's Gospel has him recapitulating many of Israel's major early events), it is not unthinkable that the Holy Spirit may have been pointing toward him at this particular point in salvation-history, when the nation of Israel was first taking shape in the family of Jacob. Further, the meaning of the twelve names of the patriarchs/tribes actually do seem to align with notable features of Jesus' identity, experience, and mission. If it were simply a matter of pure chance, we would expect to come across one or two names where we might shake our head and say, "Well, that one doesn't fit too well." But, so you can decide for yourself, here's the list.
- Reuben - This name is an allusion to the mother's saying at his birth: "See, God has seen my misery." Early Christians noted that this fit well with the prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 53, where Christ is described as the sufferer of great miseries. In the New Testament, the idea that Christ humbled himself to the point of humiliation, and that God looked upon Christ's suffering on the cross and vindicated him for it, carries strong associations with the meaning of Reuben's name.
- Simeon - This is an allusion to the fact that God hears us, and in particular, the story makes clear that it's all about the fact that God listens to us when no one else does, when we are despised and rejected by the world around us. This, too, finds a place in the experience of Christ, pointing toward the hatred he suffered: "He was despised and rejected by men."
- Levi - In this story, Levi's mother makes reference to being "attached" to her husband, and the Hebrew word sounds very much like Levi. The idea, then, is that of union--once again, a central notion to the New Testament. In Christ, we are now united to God and to one another. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, this name is rendered as "on my side," which calls to mind the fact that in Christ, God himself is on on our side (Rom. 8).
- Judah - This name is connected to the word for "praise" or "thanksgiving," both of which are intimately connected to Christ. The result of his work is praise, and the rite by which we celebrate his act is traditionally called the Eucharist--that is, the Thanksgiving.
- Dan - The Hebrew here appears to mean "he has vindicated." Once again, the idea of vindication is prominent in Christ's experience. It is the main point of Peter's sermon of Acts 2, explaining the resurrection as God's vindication of Jesus' identity and mission after his crucifixion. Early Christians, using their Greek versions of the Old Testament, also highlighted the legal nature of the idea of "vindication," and related the character of Dan to Christ's role as the divine judge.
- Naphtali - This name, meaning "my struggle," arises once again from the mother's experience, and the end of her saying regarding her struggle is: "I won." As such, to early Christians, the name of Naphtali came to stand for victory. This is, of course, yet another prominent meaning of the cross-and-empty-tomb narrative: Christ's struggle with the powers of evil, and his ultimate victory.
- Gad - This happy moniker appears to mean "good fortune" or "prosperity." Early Christians read it as referring to the many blessings that God provides to us in his gracious providence. And the greatest blessing, of course, is Christ himself.
- Asher - "Asher" simply means "happy." To early Christians, this was an indication of the joy that Christ had promised to his followers. Indeed, one of the core passages of Jesus' teachings in the Gospels, called the Beatitudes, speaks plainly about the happiness available in the Kingdom of God (the Greek word for "blessed" in the Beatitudes is actually the word for "happy").
- Issachar - This name means "reward." This is a word that God occasionally uses to refer to himself (as in Gen. 15, a passage that we studied in this series and which we saw was intimately connected to Christ, where he says to Abraham: "I am your shield, your very great reward."). Jesus himself uses this word in his final set of sayings in the Bible: Rev. 22:12 has him declaring, "Look! I am coming soon, and my reward is with me."
- Zebulun - This name likely means "honor" in Hebrew, an allusion to the mother's saying at the time of his birth. Not only is honor a major theme of the New Testament, since it is one of the fundamental markers of our attitude toward God (see Acts 19:1; 2 Cor. 8:19; 8:23), but it is also regularly listed as one of the most notable attributes of Christ himself (see Heb. 2:9, 3:3; Rev. 5:12). Consider John 5:22-23: "[The Father] has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him."
- Joseph - The name of Joseph in Hebrew appears to mean "may he add," yet another reference to the sayings of the mother at the time of the birth. This poignant little prayer has innumerable applications to fulfillment in Christ; one example would be the way in which God added the Gentile nations to his covenant-family through the saving work of Christ. Further, out of all the sons, Joseph is the one who emerges as a main character, as our leading representative of his generation. As we'll see, his entire life story is a sort of longform foreshadowing of Christ. Early Christians took Joseph as an example of the virtues of bearing the hardships of rejection and reproach, which is something he clearly did during his slavery and exile in Egypt. Incidentally, so too did Christ.
- Benjamin - The final son of Jacob is not mentioned in Gen. 29-30, but he comes to the forefront later. His name means "son of my right hand," and this was taken by early Christians as an allusion to Christ's divine nature; in essence, as an indication of his identity as the one who "sits at the right hand of the Father."
Now, to be clear, this may all still seem like a bit of a stretch. And maybe it is. But if I were to ask you to name one person who, in his own identity and life story, fulfilled both the positive and negative qualities of these names, what name could you give other than Christ? Who was the fulfillment of praise, unity, vindication, victory, blessing, joy, and honor on the one hand, and also of bearing humiliation and suffering rejection on the other? And who, above and beyond all these things, was the "Son of the Right Hand"? It could only be Jesus. In his own person, he fulfilled the experience and identity of Old Testament Israel by bearing the rejection of the cross, rising to victory at his resurrection, and bestowing joy, unity, and honor upon his people.