God's Commitment to Abraham and His Descendants
"...In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis12:3).
To understand some of the Bible's most amazing and inspiring prophecies, we must embark on a study that begins 4,000 years ago—when God began working with a man called Abraham. Abraham lived in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, in the city of Ur, one of the most ancient cities whose remains archaeologists have discovered.
Abraham was a remarkable figure. God made astounding promises to him that continue to affect not only his descendants but the whole world. The story of his offspring is remarkable too.
It covers much of what we know as the Old Testament. This is a story filled with great themes—the rise and fall not only of great men and women but of kingdoms and empires.
The story of Abraham's descendants has its share of twists and turns and ups and downs and more than a few mysteries.
The books of the Old Testament describe Abraham's offspring growing into a mighty nation—the Israelite kingdom—and entering into a special covenant relationship with God. Comprised of 12 tribes, or family groups, the nation gained prominence for a time.
Yet before long the Israelites divided into two competing kingdoms. When the larger of the two, which retained the name Israel (comprised of 10 of the 12 tribes), rejected its partnership with God, it set in motion one of history's greatest mysteries when its people were forcibly exiled from their ancient homeland.
The smaller, southern kingdom of Judah—comprised of the two remaining tribes and remnants of another—failed to learn the lesson of its northern kinsmen. Its citizens likewise rejected God and were taken into captivity. For the most part, however, they retained their identity and have remained visible through history as a small and often persecuted race, the Jewish people.
But what happened to the 10 tribes of Israel whose enemies forcibly removed them from their land? The Assyrian Empire captured and exiled them from their Middle Eastern homeland in the eighth century B.C. But standard history books make no mention of them today.
The world remembers them only as the lost 10 tribes of Israel.
God, however, had entered into a covenant—a divine commitment—with all 12 of the tribes. He had promised they would always be His people and He would always be their God. Can we count on Him to keep His word? How is that possible if the lost 10 tribes died out, as many assume?
To add to the puzzle, Bible prophecy repeatedly tells us that these supposedly lost Israelites are destined to reappear on the world scene in a prominent role immediately after Jesus' return—after their rescue from a "time of trouble" that could dwarf their previous suffering. The prophets of old even speak of their restoration after that time of trouble to their original homeland under the rule of the Messiah.
Notice this promise Jesus made to His apostles: "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28, New International Version, emphasis added throughout).
Did Jesus mean what He said? If these descendants of Israel are destined to play a future role that God has prophesied for the world, where are they now? How can we identify them among the peoples of the world today? And why is this knowledge so important to us? As we proceed with this eye-opening study, you will learn just how much God is involved in shaping crucial aspects of our world. You cannot afford to be ignorant of this incredible knowledge.If this information about the lost tribes were simply of historical and archaeological value, then it might indeed be of interest only to those who are fascinated with history. But it is far more important than that.
It is a master key for understanding all biblical prophecy. It explains why so many prophecies speak of a coming restoration of all of the tribes of Israel as one reunited kingdom and why those prophecies are so prominent in the pages of the Holy Scriptures.
By understanding this incredible story, you can learn a lot about what God expects of all who would serve Him. May God grant you the spiritual insight to understand this amazing story and heed the lessons you are about to discover.
A story of relationships and agreements
Our story begins with a series of remarkable promises God gave to a man named Abram thousands of years ago.
"Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you," God told Abram. "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV).
As we will learn in this book, God is always faithful in His promises. Preparation for His relationship with ancient Israel began centuries before its people became a nation. He initiated His plans for Israel as a group of tribes—or extended families—when He established a relationship with Abram. Later He changed the name of Abram, meaning "exalted father," to Abraham, meaning "father of a multitude" (Genesis 17:5).
Notice again God's promise to him: "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3).
What a fantastic commitment! With these promises God set in motion an awesome design destined to benefit "all the families of the earth" when they are fulfilled. The history and prophecies of this nation, springing from Abraham, are important not only for its own people but for the people of all nations.
God later passed these promises on to Abraham's son Isaac, his grandson Jacob and then to Jacob's 12 sons—from whom came the 12 tribes of Israel. God provided succeeding generations more details about His purpose for Israel and how He intended to fulfill His grand design for them.
This commitment by mankind's Creator is the thread that links the various parts of the Scriptures together. It enhances the meaning and gives structure to the Bible. Even the mission of Christ is a continuation of this promise.
Almost 800 years after Israel disappeared as a nation, the apostle Paul described gentiles (non-Israelites) who are "without Christ" as "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).
That's strong language, but it underscores the importance of God's commitment to Abraham and that Paul recognized that Israel, including the lost 10 tribes, continued to exist. If Paul had been talking only about the Jews, the tribes comprising the southern kingdom, he would have spoken of Judah, not Israel (see "Are All Israelites Jews?," page 25).
Paul then clarifies His meaning. "In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:5-6, New Revised Standard Version).
How can all peoples share in the promises God made to Abraham through Jesus? Paul explains, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29).
This means that God must graft all who become His servants into the family of Abraham, and God has bound Himself by a series of covenants to accomplish this (Romans 11:13-27). (See "What Is a Biblical Covenant?," page 4).
God's promise to Abraham was not limited to a small and ancient people in the Middle East. It extends far into the future, and it is not limited by national boundaries. From the beginning, God designed this promise to bring blessings to all nations. That is His purpose.
That is what He will accomplish.
Why God selected Abraham
Why did God choose Abraham to be His servant and, through him, bring ancient Israel into existence as a nation? What did God have in mind, and why did He call Abraham into His service at that particular time in history?
After the Flood in the days of Noah, the earth's inhabitants once again began to turn their back on God. By Abraham's time all peoples had again grown corrupt.
God then set in motion a major aspect of His plan to offer salvation to mankind. Selecting Abraham was a crucial step in God's long-term plan to turn all nations back to Him. The remainder of the Bible is woven around His plan to reconcile all humanity to Himself.
You may remember that shortly before the Flood "God saw how
corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted
their ways. So God said to Noah, 'I am going to put an end to all
people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.
I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth'" (Genesis
6:12-13, NIV). God spared only Noah and his wife and their three
sons and their sons'
Then, shortly after the Flood, when humanity again began to oppose the ways of God, the Tower of Babel became the symbol of their rebellion (Genesis 11:1-9). In the context of this rebellion, and the founding of the city-state system of human governance accompanying it, God initiated a new phase in His plan to lead all nations to worship Him. He decided to select one faithful man and develop his descendants into a group of influential nations chosen for the explicit purpose of teaching and illustrating His values and way of life.
A part of that plan involves God's desire that all nations recognize the stark difference between these two conflicting ways of life. He wants every person to learn that His ways alone can consistently bring true and lasting blessings to all people.
Chosen for service
God created all peoples on earth "from one blood" (Acts 17:26). The story of the Israelites is the story of a single family the Creator God chose for His service out of all the earth's peoples.
Although the Israelites were a chosen people, in no way were they to be considered a superior people—either in antiquity or now. The apostle Peter later explained that "in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34-35, New Revised Standard Version). This has always been true.
Some may assume God chose to work with Abraham and his descendants because they were in some way greater or innately better than other people. That simply wasn't the case. God deliberately chose to work with a small group of people who had no international prominence.
Notice what God said to ancient Israel: "The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers ... Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments" (Deuteronomy 7:7-9; compare 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
God chose Abraham for a particular job. But He also tested Abraham to see if he would be faithful to Him. Abraham passed those tests. God then began using him because he believed and trusted his Creator. "For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness'" (Romans 4:3; compare Genesis 15:6).
God forged ancient Israel, under His careful guidance, from 12 related tribes, or extended families, whose ancestors were Abraham, his son Isaac and Isaac's son Jacob.
Abraham's extended family grew into an even greater multitude, the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob. God made them a nation and entered into a covenant relationship with them. Collectively they became known as "Israel," "the sons of Israel" or "the children of Israel."
Israel was another name for Jacob. When God began to work directly with Jacob He named him Israel, meaning "one who prevails with God" or "a prince with God" (Genesis 32:24-30).
Israel's descendants were also to be known as "the seed of Abraham," "the House of Isaac," "the House of Jacob" or simply "Jacob"—and by their individual tribal names of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Benjamin and Joseph. The patriarch Jacob later adopted Ephraim and Manasseh, his grandsons through his son Joseph, as his own sons in regard to his inheritance. As a result the nation of Israel has historically been said to consist of either 12 or 13 tribes, depending on whether the descendants of Joseph are counted as one tribe (Joseph) or as two (Ephraim and Manasseh).
Promises of historic importance
As God worked with Abraham He expanded the series of covenant commitments between them. These commitments were based on the most important and far-reaching series of promises and prophecies ever delivered by God to a human being. The later prophets of Israel, Jesus' apostles and Jesus Himself all regarded these promises as the foundation of their work (Acts 3:13, 25).
Again notice what God told the patriarch Abraham: "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3; also note Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14).
The most important blessing ever to be made available to all nations through Abraham's "seed," we later learn from the apostles, is the blessing of eternal life through Jesus Christ (Acts 3:25-26; Galatians 3:7-8, 16, 29). Through His mother, Mary, Jesus was born a Jew, of the tribe of Judah, a descendant of Abraham (Hebrews 7:14). His sacrifice opens the door to the people of all nations to enjoy a relationship with the God of Abraham.
When people of any race or background enter into a covenant relationship with Christ, they, too, become Abraham's seed. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28-29: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."
Thus, from the beginning of God's interaction with Abraham, it becomes increasingly clear that God's objective is to make salvation available to all. The remainder of the Bible reveals many more details of how God will fully implement this plan. But we find its foundation in the book of Genesis in the promises God gave Abraham.
The Bible reveals many aspects of God's master plan for the salvation of mankind. The spiritual dimension of His promise to Abraham is only one part of the story. As physical beings we function in a physical world. Therefore God often achieves His spiritual goals through physical means such as giving or taking away physical blessings—using the principle of rewards for good behavior and punishment for sin.
For example, we need to consider why God promised to make of Abraham a "great nation" (Genesis 12:2). Many modern students of the Bible fail to understand the importance of this great physical promise. Critics of the Bible simply scoff at it altogether because they think the people of Israel never amounted to more than a pair of insignificant kingdoms at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. But they are wrong. God doesn't lie (Titus 1:2). He keeps His promises. We will soon see why and how God has fulfilled this particular promise of national greatness to Abraham.
Promises of great national and material blessings
From Genesis 12 through 22, seven passages describe the promises God gave and reconfirmed to Abraham. In the initial account (Genesis 12:1-3) God told Abraham to leave his homeland and family. This was the first condition Abraham had to meet before he could receive the promise.
When Abraham willingly obeyed, God then promised to bless him and make his name great. His progeny would also become great. (As we will see, the results of this promise would rank among the world's greatest historical developments.)
A few verses later God appeared to Abraham and promised his descendants the land of Canaan (verse 7). God's promises unequivocally included material aspects—physical land and possessions.
Genesis 13 provides more details about the promises. After the account of Abraham's willingness to give the fertile plain adjoining the Jordan River to his nephew Lot (verses 5-13), God, in turn, promised all of the land of Canaan to Abraham forever (verses 14-17), indicating that the temporal and eternal aspects of His promise were closely related.
Although Abraham was still childless, God also promised that his descendants would be counted "as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then [Abraham's] descendants also could be numbered" (verse 16). The immense scope of this promise—the almost limitless expansion of Abraham's descendants—should not be taken lightly. As we will see, it has enormous implications.
About a decade later God again appeared to Abraham in a vision. Notwithstanding that he still had no offspring, God again promised him an heir—and this heir, said God, would come "from your own body" (Genesis 15:4).
An incredible multitude of people would develop from that heir, Isaac. "Then [God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, 'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them ... So shall your descendants be'" (verse 5). How did Abraham respond? "And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (verse 6).
Abraham's confidence that he could trust God to keep His word—even far into the future—was one of the reasons God loved Abraham. God chose him to be not only the father of several mighty nations but "the father of all those who believe" (Romans 4:11). God was working out a dual role for faithful Abraham.
A few verses later God promised him not only innumerable descendants but all the territory stretching "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates" (Genesis 15:18). This swath of territory covered much more land than the land God included in His original promise of the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:6-7; 17:8; 24:7).
God expands His promises
As Abraham further demonstrated his faithfulness, God expanded the scope of His promises to him. Ultimately they involved far more than He had originally revealed. The most detailed accounting of God's astounding promises to Abraham appears in Genesis 17. "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly ... As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.
"'No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God'" (verses 1-8).
As with earlier statements of this promise, God's blessing was still conditional and based on Abraham's obedience and commitment to maturing spiritually. Here God again reminds him of this by saying, "I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless" (verse 1; compare Matthew 5:48).
A "great nation" is expanded to "many nations"
Remember that an important part of God's promise was to greatly multiply Abraham's descendants. Here God emphasized this yet-to-be reality by renaming the patriarch. Up to this point he had been known as Abram. God now told him: "No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5). As mentioned earlier, Abram means "exalted father," but Abraham means "father of a multitude."
God elaborated on this aspect of His promise: "I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you" (verse 6; see also verses 15-16).
God continued: "Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God ... You shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations" (verses 8-9). The account in Genesis 17 establishes God's commitment to Abraham as an "everlasting covenant" (verses 7, 13, 19), a binding agreement obligating God to give the patriarch's descendants the land of Canaan in perpetuity (verse 8).
God's commitment to Abraham was major and far-reaching.
The sixth account of God's promise to Abraham appears in Genesis 18 in a setting immediately before the destruction of the sin-infested cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham's angelic guests—messengers with news about the divine punishment to come on the two cities—reconfirmed the soon-coming birth of a son to the 99-year-old Abraham and his wife, Sarah, 10 years his junior (verses 10-14).
With God promising that He would not "hide" His intentions from Abraham (Genesis 18:17; see also Amos 3:7), the angels then visiting the aged patriarch affirmed earlier promises that Abraham would "surely become a great and mighty nation"—a physical, material and national commitment of immense scope. They also reconfirmed the messianic promise that "all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him" (Genesis 18:18).
Dramatically fulfilling the promise, about a year after this encounter Sarah gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:1-3). First Abraham had proven himself faithful to God. Now, miraculously, God proved His faithfulness to His commitment to Abraham.
Abraham's supreme test
The climax of these seven accounts of God's promises appears in Genesis 22. Here we find one of the most significant events in the Bible. This is God's final elaboration to Abraham of His promise.
In this account Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac foreshadows the foundational event of God's plan to offer salvation to all—God's willingness to offer His only Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice (John 3:16-17).
Earlier we noted that God's promises were dependent on Abraham's continued obedience (Genesis 12:1; 17:9).
But after the events of Genesis 22 God transformed His covenant with Abraham by elevating it to a new level—and with good cause.
God told Abraham to take Isaac, the son of the promise (Romans 9:9), and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:2). Abraham's supreme test of faith had arrived. But by this time in his life Abraham had learned to trust God implicitly. He had long experienced God's wisdom, truth and faithfulness. He proceeded to do as he was told, only to be miraculously stopped at the precise moment he would have slain his son (verses 9-11).
We can learn several profound lessons from this incident. First, God—whether in ancient or modern times—has never sanctioned worshiping Him with a human sacrifice.
Second, God prohibited Israel from following the pagan practice of offering firstborn children as sacrifices to idols.
Human sacrifice was part and parcel of the Mesopotamian society from which Abraham was called, as well as the nations around him. But God made sure his faithful servant would not actually slay his son, although Abraham did not know in advance what God had in mind.
In the next verse God's words reveal what He really wanted to find out about Abraham: "... Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me" (verse 12). In his willingness to obey the living God, Abraham had proven that he would relinquish that which was most precious to him, his only heir (verse 16; compare John 3:16). God did not want Abraham's son as a sacrifice. But He did want to know if Abraham trusted Him enough to make the hardest choice God could put before him. Abraham passed the test.
Third, Abraham's behavior demonstrated he was a man fit for the role of "father of all those who believe" (Romans 4:11-22; Galatians 3:9; Hebrews 11:17-19)—that he was a suitable founder of the family of countless descendants who could become the people of God (Genesis 18:19).
However, God could not complete the plan He initiated through Abraham without involving the problem of human sin, and that problem would later require the sacrifice of humanity's Redeemer—Jesus the Messiah, the Lamb of God (John 1:29).
God's commitment becomes unconditional
At this point God's promises to Abraham—physical and spiritual—became unconditional. His words, "By Myself have I sworn" (Genesis 22:16), show that the fulfillment of the promise no longer depended on Abraham. The fulfillment of the promise would now depend solely on God Himself. He unconditionally committed Himself to fulfill His promise to Abraham and his descendants.
God puts His own truthfulness and integrity on the line in these commitments. He has unconditionally bound Himself to bring all of His promises to pass in all their details (see "Does God Keep His Word?," page 10).
Because we understand the unconditional nature of God's promises, we have a better picture of what to look for down through history concerning the descendants of ancient Israel. Since God cannot annul His promise to Abraham because He will not break His word (Numbers 23:19), every detail in His promises becomes a guide in our search for the identity of the lost 10 tribes of Israel after their exile.
Genesis 22 concludes with God restating the central elements of His commitment to Abraham: "Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the sea—shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies" (verse 17, New American Standard Bible). These physical, material and national blessings continue as clues to the identity of Abraham's modern descendants.
God continued: "And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice" (verse 18, NASB). This blessing would prove to have dual meaning. Through Christ, as the Seed of Abraham, God would make salvation available to the whole of humanity (compare Galatians 3:16; John 3:16). But all the world would also benefit materially from the abundant physical blessings God would bestow on Abraham's descendants. God's promise had both spiritual and material aspects.
Promises renewed to Abraham's son Isaac
God renewed His promises to Abraham in subsequent generations. He reconfirmed His covenant to the patriarch's son Isaac (Genesis 26:1-5) and to his grandson Jacob (Genesis 27:26-29; 28:1-4, 10-14; 35:9-12).
Through Jacob God passed the national and material aspects of His promises on to the descendants of Abraham's great-great-grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph (Genesis 48:1-22).
That the Bible records in some detail how these promises of blessings pass from one generation to another is additional evidence that God's covenant with Abraham included physical, material and national aspects besides the vital messianic prophecies.
God's promise to Isaac that "I will give to your descendants all these lands" (Genesis 26:3-4) implies great material blessings. God also promised him, as He had Abraham, almost limitless descendants, telling him his descendants would "multiply as the stars of heaven" (verse 4).
At one level this promise would be fulfilled by the time the several million Israelites reached Mount Sinai under Moses' leadership and, later, at the time of Solomon (Deuteronomy 1:10; 1 Kings 4:20-21). But Moses himself was aware that the blessings of great multitudes were to be multiplied many times over what had already occurred by his time (Deuteronomy 1:11).
Jacob receives the birthright and blessing
The physical blessings passed down to Isaac normally would have gone to the firstborn son, Esau (Genesis 25:21-26). However, Jacob, the younger of twin brothers, persuaded Esau to sell his birthright to him for a meal of stew (verse 29-34).
What was the birthright, and why was it important? The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains that the birthright was "the right belonging naturally to the firstborn son ... Such a person ultimately became the head of the family, the line being continued through him. As firstborn he inherited a double portion of the paternal estate ... The firstborn was responsible for ... exercising authority over the household as a whole" (1979, Vol. 1, "Birthright," pp. 515-516).
To attain the blessings of the birthright from his father, Jacob resorted to tricking the blind and aged Isaac into believing he was Esau (Genesis 27:18-27). Little did Jacob know that deceit was unnecessary. God had already revealed, even before the births of Jacob and Esau, that Jacob would be the stronger of the two and that Esau would, in the end, become subservient to Jacob (Genesis 25:23).
But God allowed Jacob to receive the right-by-birth promise to be the family patriarch and to receive the best of the family inheritance from his father without intervening to change the circumstance. Later He would teach Jacob to cease trusting in his own deceitful devices.
Now notice the blessing Isaac pronounced on Jacob: "Therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!" (Genesis 27:28-29). These were no idle words. Isaac was officially passing on to Jacob the awesome promises God made to Abraham.
Later, through a dream, God confirmed to Jacob that he indeed would receive the birthright promise. God then revealed to Jacob that his descendants, numbering "as the dust of the earth," would "spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south"—in all directions from the Middle East (Genesis 28:12-14).
Considering the enormity of such a promise, it is little wonder the apostle Paul later speaks of Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, as the "heir of the world" (Romans 4:13). God obviously intended for Abraham's descendants to eventually dominate much of the world. This publication explains how this promise has been fulfilled and will yet come to pass in an even greater way.
Joseph's two national identities
In Genesis 35 we encounter another aspect of the birthright promise. Here God promised Jacob that "a nation and a company of nations" would proceed from him (verse 11). Knowledge of this aspect of Israel's inheritance is essential if we are to understand key prophecies. The birthright promise would be fulfilled in two separate national entities.
In Genesis 48 Jacob passed this part of God's promise to Abraham and Isaac to Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. At the same time Jacob placed his own name on these two grandsons (verse 16). As a result, many later references to "Jacob" or "Israel" in the prophetic books of the Bible refer primarily to these two branches of Jacob's descendants.
Jacob's blessing included land—national territory—that his two grandsons' descendants would inherit "for an everlasting possession." They also would grow into "a multitude of people" (verse 4). Here, for a second time, we see the remarkable promise that Jacob's descendants—specifically those who would spring from Ephraim and Manasseh—would grow into "a multitude of nations" and a single great nation, respectively (verse 19).
Not all dimensions of the promises, however, would go to Joseph and his descendants. Judah would receive a promise with an important spiritual dimension.
Through Jacob God gave the prophecy that "the scepter [ruler's staff] shall not depart from Judah" (Genesis 49:10). That prophecy pointed both to the dynasty of Israel's future king, David, and to the role of Jesus, also of the tribe of Judah and a descendant of David, as the Messiah (Luke 1:32; Hebrews 7:14; Revelation 5:5). Christ is destined to rule the earth as King of Kings (Revelation 11:15; 17:14; 19:16).
In contrast, the birthright promise of physical, material and national greatness went not to Judah but to Joseph, bypassing the firstborn son, Reuben. Notice the circumstances that routed this promise into Joseph's hands: "... [Reuben] was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, so that the genealogy is not listed according to the birthright; yet Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came a ruler, although the birthright was Joseph's" (1 Chronicles 5:1-2). With the birthright promise Joseph's descendants—Ephraim and Manasseh—were to receive the blessings of wealth, power and national prominence.
Blessings for Joseph's descendants
Perhaps the most revealing of the biblical passages about the birthright promise, however, is in Genesis 49. Here we find Jacob blessing and prophesying about each of his sons' descendants "in the last days" (verse 1). Notice that the blessings Jacob pronounces on the descendants of Joseph for the last days are monumental.
"Joseph is like a grapevine that produces much fruit, a healthy vine watered by a spring, whose branches grow over the wall. Archers attack him violently and shoot at him angrily, but he aims his bow well. His arms are made strong. He gets his power from the Mighty God of Jacob and his strength from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.
"Your father's God helps you. God Almighty blesses you. He blesses you with rain from above, with water from springs below, with many babies born to your wives, and many young ones born to your animals. The blessings of your father are greater than the blessings of the oldest mountains, greater than the good things of the long-lasting hills. May these blessings rest on the head of Joseph ..." (Genesis 49:22-26, New Century Version).
This prophetic passage tells us that Joseph's descendants "in the last days" will live in a productive, well-watered and fruitful land. They will be a people who have greatly expanded their territory and influence—politically, militarily, economically and culturally—a people "whose branches grow over the wall," or beyond their natural borders. They will be a people that, on occasion, will be attacked by other nations but will generally be victorious. Their triumphs will sometimes seem "miraculous" or "providential" because the Almighty God is their helper and source of blessings.
They will be a people who live in an unusually favorable climate that easily supports their steadily expanding population. They will enjoy the blessing of good crops, vast herds of livestock and extensive natural resources such as fine stands of timber and valuable minerals mined from their soil.
In other words, we can expect them to possess the choice blessings and resources of the earth. All of these blessings are to be theirs "in the last days" (Genesis 49:1).
Where can we find the descendants of Joseph, the lost tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh? This list of blessings eliminates most of the nations of the world as contenders. To find them we must ask: Which nations possess these blessings in our world? God promised all these blessings to the descendants of Joseph "in the last days." Since God does not lie, we can trust Him to keep those promises.
What does the evidence tell us? As we will see, the evidence is overwhelmingly in God's favor. If we believe the promises and God's fulfillment of them, our outlook toward the world will be quite different from the outlook of those who remain ignorant of this knowledge.
In the nearly 3,700 years since God gave these promises, few nations can lay claim to blessings anywhere near these. Even fewer can claim the kind of economic stature and national prominence—even superpower status—promised to Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, "in the last days."
Two candidates, however, perfectly meet the exacting criteria of these prophecies: the United States of America and the British Commonwealth of nations. How well does their apparent fit mesh with the evidence we find? To answer that question, we embark on a study of historical evidence of the tribes of Israel from their beginning as a nation down to our day.
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