THE TOUCHY TRIBE
John H. Paterson
“Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols?
I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green
fir tree. From me is thy fruit found.” Hosea 14:8
THE history of the Children of Israel forms one of the principal themes of the Old Testament. It is the theme of God’s dealings with a chosen group of men and women, through whom He wished to make Himself known to the rest of mankind.
That being the case, have you ever wondered why the Bible dwells at such length upon the fact that, although there was only one people of Israel, there were twelve tribes? About some of these tribes — Judah, for example — we know a great deal, but of others very little. For all twelve of them we have a most detailed listing of their borders, their territory and their cities. We also know — though what to make of it would be hard to say! — that two and a half tribes decided not to enter the land of promise, but to settle east of the River Jordan. Nothing in their subsequent history shows them to have suffered by this decision, in which case we are left to wonder about their choice.
That the tribes were different from one another early emerges from the story. The point is made by Jacob’s thumbnail sketches of his twelve sons in Genesis 49. The successive censuses of the people (e.g. Numbers 2 and 26) show that some tribes became much more numerous than others as time went by, and we can read of the rivalries and conflicts between them which help to explain some of these differences (e.g. Judges 20:35). We know of the special priestly role to which the tribe of Levi was called. And we know that the birthright due to Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben (“unstable as water, thou shalt not excel”, Genesis 49:4), was forfeited and transferred to Joseph (1 Chronicles 5:1-2).
What all this suggests is that, if we can but trace them, we have here twelve histories rather than just one. To pick out these histories in some cases may well prove difficult, for we know so little of the tribe concerned. But it is my guess that, if we could do so, we should be led to the conclusion that the twelve tribes were intended by God to portray through their experiences different aspects of His work and character in human lives. Together, the twelve would then make up a united testimony that “blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).
Some of the tribes never really began to fulfil this role; their testimony never “got off the ground”. In one or two cases we can see, I believe, what the lesson was supposed to be, and we can also see where the tribe failed. If any reader can do this for all twelve tribes, then I hope that the editor will afford him or her space in these pages for an appropriate series of articles! For myself, I am taking the easy course of dealing here with only one tribe, the one which seems to me most clearly to exemplify the ideas I have so far suggested. That is the tribe of Ephraim.
The History of Ephraim
Let me start by recalling to you some incidents from the tribe’s history in the land of promise, incidents which seem to fit a pattern. In the first place, we find the tribe complaining to Joshua (who was, of course, an Ephraimite himself), that he had not allocated them a large enough territory for a tribe of their size and importance (Joshua 17:14-18). But Joshua knew how to handle his relatives. He said to them, in effect, “Certainly: take all the space you want! All you have to do is to drive out the people in your way!” [110/111] But the natives had chariots of iron, and Ephraim complained that this made the task too difficult; in fact, they never did drive out those inhabitants. The implication was that it was up to Joshua to send along someone to help them: they were a great tribe, but not that great! “The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle” (Psalm 78:9).
Then there are two incidents in Judges, both of which reveal a common character trait. When Gideon had defeated the Midianites, he sent word to the tribe of Ephraim to block the fords of Jordan and cut off the enemy’s retreat. This they did, apparently very effectively; it was a manoeuvre of which any general might be proud (Judges 7:24-25), but notice the reaction of Ephraim: “Why hast thou served us thus, that thou calledst us not, when thou wentest out to fight with the Midianites? And they did chide him sharply” (Judges 8:1). To be used just to block a retreat, rather than to be first-choice troops to fight the battle, was not good enough for Ephraim, the super-tribe!
Almost unbelievably, they did the same thing again, a few years later. This time, the Israelite leader was Jephthah, but the treatment he received was even worse than that meted out to Gideon: “Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? We will burn thy house upon thee with fire” (Judges 12:1). But Jephthah did not take this lying down; he pointed out that before the event, when actual danger threatened, they had been deaf and blind to his need for help. It was only after he had won the victory that they came accusing him of acting without reference to them.
We get the impression that, as a tribe, Ephraim was touchy in the extreme: status-conscious is a modern word which we might use. Nobody was supposed to do anything without giving Ephraim first refusal!
In this respect, if there was one tribe more than another which worried proud Ephraim, it was Judah. The birthright of Reuben, as we are told in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, might have been transferred to Joseph, Ephraim’s father, but “Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler” — the royal house. On this basis, any priority, any preeminence among the tribes of Israel that Ephraim might claim had to be shared with Judah. This so worried Ephraim that the prophet Isaiah, in that wonderful eleventh chapter which begins, “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse” (a man of Judah!), can foresee no greater bliss, in that great and coming day, than that “the envy also of Ephraim shall depart … Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13).
The Role of Ephraim
Now all of these characteristics are, you may feel, simply indicative of human weakness: we all know “me-too” people like Ephraim and, indeed, there is a bit of Ephraim in all of us. However, if we bear in mind God’s often-declared purpose that His people should represent Him and, by their quality, should testify to His power and greatness, then we are entitled to enquire a little further into this matter and ask: what was it that this tribe, in particular, might have been expected to exhibit in its character, and how does its actual conduct contrast with this intention?
Well, Ephraim, far from being the super-tribe it evidently considered itself to be, was the tribe that had no right to be there at all. Ephraim was not one of the twelve sons of Jacob, but one of Jacob’s grandsons. Ephraim and Manasseh were just there to make up the numbers! Levi, as the priestly tribe, was not to be counted as one of the twelve, and Joseph was to be counted twice, because his descendants had become so numerous (Joshua 17:17).
But this was only the last in a long series of events that brought Ephraim to a position of power — a sequence of divine choices which no human logic could justify. Consider: Ephraim was where he was because Jacob had blessed him ahead of his elder brother, Manasseh (Genesis 48:10-20). Ephraim’s father Joseph was where he was, the ruler of Egypt and holder of the family birthright, because he had been blessed ahead of all his brothers: God had made him “to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52), which was how and why Ephraim (– fruitful) had received his name. [111/112]
But then we go on: Jacob was where he was because he had been preferred, in his turn, to his elder brother Esau (Genesis 25:23), and that quite independently of his own strenuous efforts at self-advancement. And Jacob’s father, Isaac, was where he was because he, in turn, had been preferred to his elder brother, Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-19).
What an extraordinary series of events! Four times over, at least, God allowed the natural sequence to be overturned and, at the end of the sequence, there was Ephraim, the product of God’s successive interventions. Perhaps we can visualise a modern parallel of someone who joined a firm as an office-boy and then, without ever going near the office in question, was promoted to departmental head, to managing director and, a few days later, to chairman of the board!
Now when we are thinking of God and His actions towards men and women we have a name for this kind of unmerited preferment that Ephraim received. We call it Sovereign Grace. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, Ephraim was the one which, more than all the others, ought to have been aware of God’s amazing grace, and lived in the light of it — of a four-times-over promotion, at the end of which the tribe enjoyed a status that, by nature, it could never for a moment claim.
Here, then, was a tribe whose true destiny was, surely, to be a prime exemplar of God’s grace at work in human lives. If anybody could appreciate the meaning and extent of that grace it should have been Ephraim. But, as we have seen, the reverse was the case: touchy, status-conscious, this tribe saw an entitlement where it should have seen the gift of God’s grace.
Grace is, I think, the hardest of God’s gifts for men and women to appreciate. Indeed, in the whole of the Scriptures, how many men — and, especially, women — can you think of who accepted it, humbly and immediately? Ruth and Mary the mother of Jesus would certainly head my list; after them perhaps Hannah; perhaps David in 2 Samuel 7. But the list cannot be much longer than that: for all the others, let alone for ourselves, the acceptance of grace caused, and causes, awful problems!
Think of Joseph, Ephraim’s father, who when he was young, sounded exactly as his son was later to sound: “Behold, I have dreamed a dream … the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me” (Genesis 37:9). What a long and weary way Joseph had to go, through hatred, injustice and neglect, before he came to accept that “God meant it unto good” (Genesis 50:20)!
Think, too, of Jacob, Ephraim’s grandfather who, before he learned the meaning of grace, had cheated and been cheated halfway across the Middle East. What travels and trials before the startling realisation came: “God hath dealt graciously with me and … I have enough” (Genesis 33:11)! It is a lesson which most of us will finally learn only in the glory of another Day — to be recipients of the grace of God and to recognise that we have nothing to do but to accept it. And the most difficult “status” of all to maintain is that of the recipient who says, “I have done nothing. I deserve nothing. I am where I am because of God’s grace and nothing else.”
Ephraim and Israel
Let me, if I may, add another dimension to this story of grace unappreciated. One has only to spend a few minutes with a concordance to realise that the name Ephraim is not used in the Bible for this one tribe alone. It is also frequently used to cover all those ten tribes which broke away from the rule of Judah’s royal house and formed the northern kingdom of Israel. This is probably true, for example, of the passage I have already quoted in Isaiah 11, and is certainly true of such other references as Isaiah 7:8 and 17. Most of all, however, it is true of the prophecies of Hosea.
Now it is evident that this use of the name Ephraim to cover the whole kingdom of the ten tribes is a habit of particular prophets. But I want to suggest that it is also largely confined to passages, or prophetic messages, of a particular kind. If you read the words of Isaiah or Hosea, I think you will find that where the name Ephraim is used in this way, it is nearly always in relation to the love of God for Israel. It is a message to Israel of God’s love and grace and their failure to appreciate them; a message of endearment for the undeserving. [112/113]
Families and friends commonly have what we call pet names for each other. They are used in private messages of love or friendship, but almost never when, say, a husband and wife are angry with one another, or when a parent is rebuking a child. A friend of mine told me that he always knew when his father was angry with him; ordinarily, he was known as “Glennie”, but if his father called out “Glenn”, he knew he was in for trouble!
I hope that it is neither improper nor irreverent to suggest that “Ephraim” was, in a way, God’s pet name for His people. Simply by using it, He was identifying Himself as a God of love and grace, no matter how serious were the charges against Israel. And so we turn to the prophecies of Hosea, and read those remarkable phrases in which the pet name appears:
O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee?
I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms.
How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? …
Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together.
I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not man.
The “Ephraim theme” of Hosea is a message of love betrayed. There is a note of incredulity in God’s words to His people, as when we say to someone who we thought was our friend, “I don’t understand: how could you do this to me?” If it were just a matter of sin, law and punishment, there would be no feeling, no emotion involved. It would be like a traffic warden writing out parking tickets for offenders, dispassionately, without emotion. But this time it is Ephraim that is the culprit: God’s special Ephraim. Of course He feels involved: He faces the dilemma of love betrayed:
“Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).
What lesson is there for us in this brief Bible study? This, perhaps: firstly, that it is perilously easy to presume upon grace; to start out feeling grateful for a gift and, in no time at all, to convince ourselves that what at first looked like grace was, in reality, no more than our entitlement. Secondly, that there is a difference in quality between sin as a legal concept and sin as lack of appreciation: that is, between a relationship covered by law and a relationship created by grace. Ephraim was intended in God’s purpose to demonstrate how a relationship with Himself can be created by grace alone. Let their failure alert us to the perils of presuming upon that grace.
“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).