************ Sermon on Genesis 49:13-15 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on February 1, 2015

Genesis 49:13-15
"Zebulun and Issachar"

As you know, the Jacob of our Bible reading is old and dying. He has something to say before he dies – something from God and the Spirit of God. So, he called for his twelve sons and said:
(Gen 49:1-2) "Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. (2) Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel."
After they gather around his bed, he speaks to each one of them beginning with the oldest. And, we are told he gave each son "the blessing appropriate to him" (Gen 49:28). Each son was given a blessing or a curse that fit their character, their deeds, and their innermost thoughts.

We've looked so far at Jacob's blessing upon Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah – all of them sons of Jacob's wife Leah. We continue by looking at the blessing given to Leah's last two sons: Zebulun and Issachar.

I Zebulun
A We start with Zebulun. Zebulun was the youngest of six sons borne by Leah. When Zebulun was born, Leah said, "God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons" (Gen 30:20). Zebulun means "honor."

B We see the honor of Zebulun in Deuteronomy 27. Zebulun was one of six tribes chosen to stand on Mount Ebal and pronounce curses (Deut 27:13). By means of these curses, the people promised God they would refrain from certain behaviors. For example, one curse says, "Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol - a thing detestable to the Lord" (Deut 27:15). Another states, "Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow" (Deut 27:19). Still another: "Cursed is the man who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person" (Deut 27:25). In all, Zebulun helped deliver twelve curses (Deut 27:15-26).

C Upon entering Canaan, the tribe of Zebulun failed to drive out the Canaanites living in their portion of the Promised Land, although Zebulun did subject them to forced labor (Judges 1:30). This was incomplete obedience to God's command to drive out all the inhabitants of the land (Num 33:52). Not responding fully to God's Word, as was done by Zebulun, is something of which we all are guilty. How often don't we choose to follow our own paths rather than God's?

Later, however, Zebulun returned to God and followed His commands. They participated in the battles led by Deborah and Barak, and they fought valiantly (Judges 4:6; 5:18). The judge Elon was from their tribe (Judges 12:11). And, Zebulun did acknowledge David as king in place of Saul (1 Chron 12:23, 33, 40).

Isn't Zebulun like you and me? While at times we turn away from God, His love for us draws us back into communion with Him and obedience with His will. We see the honor of Zebulun in their return to God and His ways.

D In what seems like a strange parting blessing Jacob mentions Zebulun's territory:
(Gen 49:13) "Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon."
In line with this, the final blessing of Moses upon Zebulun mentions the abundance of the seas and the treasures hidden in the sand (cf Deut 33:18-19). However, when I look at my Bible atlas I notice that Zebulun's territory did not touch the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, nor did any of it border on Sidon. So what was Jacob – and Moses – talking about? Were they wrong? Or, do we have to look for the explanation elsewhere?

Zebulun's territory was located in Galilee. The seashore and border is the Sea of Galilee. This, too, is Zebulun's honor. Let me explain this.

In the light of the New Testament what is Galilee known for? This is where Christ first preached. This is where Jesus performed His first miracles. This is where Jesus lived. According to Matthew, this fulfils what was said through the prophet Isaiah (Mt 4:14-15; Is 9:1-1):
(Mt 4:13-16) Leaving Nazareth, [Jesus] went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun ... (14) to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: (15) "Land of Zebulun ..., the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- (16) the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."

Until the coming of Christ, Zebulun was a place of darkness. For instance, it was the first place to be attacked by Assyria. Do you know why? Because its territory lies along "the way to the sea" (Mt 4:15; cf Is 9:1). The "way to the sea" is the major trade route that joins Egypt to Mesopotamia. The Assyrian soldiers took this route when they invaded and conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In fact, this was the route taken by most invading armies so Zebulun suffered most and first in the wars and devastations that came upon the land. That's why it was a place of darkness and gloom.

Foreign domination and destruction was only part of the darkness. Did you catch the name for the area? It was called "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Mt 4:15; Is 9:1). There were a couple of reasons for the name. As I already mentioned, the tribe of Zebulun never succeeded in conquering all the heathen in its allotment in the Promised Land. Also, the area was surrounded on three sides by heathen territories – so there always was a pagan or heathen influence. Furthermore, when the Assyrians conquered the area they deported and scattered the Jews while heathen foreigners were moved into the land. It was a place of unbelieving darkness.

But with the coming of Christ a great light has dawned. This is its honor: to be the first place to host the Messiah, His teachings, His miracles.

Is this our honor as well? Like Zebulun, we are surrounded on every side by darkness and evil. But, also like Zebulun, ours is the privilege to have the light of Christ. May this be our delight and our joy, as we heard moments ago in the song by our choir:
Jesus, You are all to us.
Let the glory of Your Name
be the passion of the Church;
let the righteousness of God
be a holy flame that burns;
let the saving love of Christ
be the measure of our lives.
We believe You're all to us.
The presence of Christ was the greatest honor of Zebulun. May that be our honor as well.

II Issachar
A When it comes to the sons of Leah, Jacob reserves his final blessing for Issachar:
(Gen 49:14-15) "Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down between two saddlebags. (15) When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor."
As with Reuben and Simeon and Levi, Jacob's words are more of a curse than a blessing. But, they are appropriate and fit the situation.

So, what are we being told about Issachar? Issachar is compared to a donkey, a rawboned donkey, a donkey refusing to stand up and do what it is supposed to do. But then it submits because it doesn't want to give up its comfortable life.

Jacob announces that Issachar's sons, like a stubborn donkey, will fail to do what they are supposed to do. Instead, they will choose being comfortable over everything else.

B Issachar did not start off this way. In fact, this tribe started off so good. In the wilderness, the fighting men of Issachar took their place in the army with the other men of Israel (Num 1:28-29). The leader of Issachar presented a generous offering for the dedication of the tabernacle (Num 7:18ff). The tribe of Issachar received and conquered its allotment in the Promised Land (Josh 19:23ff). The princes of Issachar stood with Deborah and Barak in fighting Jabin and Sisera (Judges 5:15). The Judge, Tola, was from the tribe of Issachar (Judges 10:1). The men of Issachar stood with David when the kingdom was taken from Saul (1 Chron 12:32,40). And, at the command of the Lord, it was Baasha of the house of Issachar who struck down evil King Nadab, son of Jeroboam (1 Ki 15:27).

Yet, Jacob basically announces Issachar will fall away. They will become too comfortable in this world. Like the church of Ephesus, they lose their first love, their love for the Lord (Rev 2:4).

It started off small, a compromise here and a compromise there, a little bit at a time. For instance, the spy from the tribe of Issachar was one of those who gave a bad report about the giants and walled cities of the Promised Land (Num 12). And, at the time of King Hezekiah, the men of Issachar participated in the Passover even though they had not first purified themselves according to the command of the Lord (2 Chron 30:18).

Is Issachar a picture of us? I hope not. I pray not. My hope and prayer is that we do not fall away, that we always remain true to the Lord, that we keep our first love for the Lord.

C Let me give you an illustration of Issachar's sin from the early church. We know that Christians were persecuted shortly after the time of Christ already. The early church faced many rulers who tried to eliminate followers of Jesus Christ. One such ruler was Decius, the first Roman emperor who undertook an empire-wide campaign against non-Roman faiths beginning around 250 A.D.

Decius ordered everyone in the Roman Empire to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and for the well-being of the Emperor. His edict ordered that the sacrifices be performed in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and a signed and witnessed certificate be given to all those who obeyed the decree. It was the first time that Christians faced legislation forcing them to choose between their religious beliefs and persecution. Many believers suffered imprisonment, confiscation of property, and even death because they would not obey the emperor.

However, too many professing Christians compromised their faith. Some Christians bribed the Roman officials and purchased a certificate without actually sacrificing to the gods. Others became apostate, renouncing Christ when their lives and livelihoods were hanging in the balance. Like the sons of Issachar, they chose a comfortable life over anything else.

Jesus has much to say about this. He tells us to seek first the kingdom and its righteousness (Mt 6:33). He tells us to acknowledge Him before men (Mt 10:32). He tells the rich young ruler who loved his possessions and wealth to give it all to the poor (Mt 19:16-30). Elsewhere, the New Testament tells us not to love the world or anything in the world (1 Jn 2:15).

The early church shows us that the more comfortable we become in this world, the harder it is to persevere as a disciple of Jesus.

D Sadly, as today's passage says, many of Issachar's sons will become all too comfortable in this world. Issachar represents those who enjoy this life and this world and its comforts and pleasures. Jacob tells his son that many of his descendants will enjoy the things of this present age so much that they will give up their freedom and "submit to forced labor" (Gen 49:15). Given the choice of serving God or luxury, Issachar will choose the latter even if comfortable living means surrender of principles.

It is clear to me that like the early church, God's people today are being confronted with a choice between religious beliefs or bending the knee before a pagan altar.

The pagan altar today takes many forms. One such altar is abortion. Even though most Americans are personally opposed to abortion they also take the easy route, the comfortable route, and say it is a woman's choice. To take this route is to follow the sons of Issachar.

Another such altar is gay marriage. It is frightening what is going on. A federal judge ruled that the church's stand against homosexuality is a crime against humanity. Another court declared a Christian baker violated the law by refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Canadian authorities denied a charter to a Christian law school due to its stance against homosexuality. President Obama believes the constitution permits homosexual marriage in all fifty states. There are churches and synagogues that bend the knee and marry anyone. They, too, are following the sons of Issachar.

So, I want to warn you, congregation, against the sin of Issachar. I want to warn you against the sin of compromise. I want to warn you against choosing praise from men more than praise from God (Jn 12:43). I want to warn you against the comfortable pew.

We cannot retreat from shining the light of Christ before men. But that is exactly what Issachar ended up doing.

What do you desire for yourself and your family? Are you looking for a comfortable existence, a safe existence? Or, are you willing to take risks by sharing Christ with friends and neighbors and co-workers? Are you willing to stand up for what is true, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy?

And, what do you hold before your children and youth? Do you encourage them to pursue a good-paying career or do you encourage them to engage in some kind of Christian ministry as a missionary, pastor, Christian-aid worker, or Christian school teacher? Do you tell them to love Christ above all?

Issachar is a lesson to all of us to pray for the help of God's Spirit so that we love Him above all and never turn from Him and bend before the values and mindset of the world. The lesson of Issachar also makes me think of the words sung by the choir:
Jesus, You are all to us.
Let the glory of Your Name
be the passion of the Church;
let the righteousness of God
be a holy flame that burns;
let the saving love of Christ
be the measure of our lives.
We believe You're all to us.

That's the lesson of Zebulun and Issachar. Have you learned this lesson? Can you sing this with the choir?
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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