DEAR Rachel! Dark-eyed, daring, sweetly imperious beauty of the Mesopotamian plains! What splendor of young love in the meeting at the well, with the sheep and the city gossips for witness! What tragedy of unsisterly betrayal, of stint to mother love, of gasping, bitter death in sight of Bethlehem! Rachel! Of all the Bible women, from wayward Eve to the magnificent group about the Man of Galilee, thy figure charms me most—save it be that of Mary of Nazareth; and she was not so humanlike as thou. What fault was in thy proud life, that God should scourge thee so with thorns? Still, when thy soul cried out in agony, He gave thee sons,—sons whose deeds have rung throughout the ages, and will yet to eternity; sons, like thyself, compounded of fire and ice, of daring and compassion, of pride and abnegation,—the Sons of Contrast.
He walked a narrow path those seventeen years that were first in his life,—this petted favorite of his old father, cherishing his dead mother's memory, austerely following the grave counsels of his world-weary sire, and keeping an eagle eye upon the misdeeds and the rank speech of those sons of weak-eyed Leah and the maids—a young god in rectitude, and a fool to his sear-eyed brothers.
What torture he is to the sophisticated, this Joseph, scornful of muddy speech but half understood, and commanding, in his ignorant innocence, the beasts of lust to begone! What! (cry his brothers) half of life, ay, all of reality, is hid to him; yet he would assume to be a censor of life. Oh, he were well fit to hang tip-headed about the knees of his mother or of old Deborah! But they are gone; and he must needs come puling about with hairy men, and rebuke them for men's laughter and men's blows. And to show off his striped coat! And for all he shows a stripling's muscle and a willing heart, and will not let a lamb be missing for an hour, would he were gone! Shall men who smote a whole city and dared the countryside to block them in their march, fall before this big-eyed, moonfaced codling? His dreams indeed! His bowing sheaves! His sun and moon and twelve stars! It is a cause for ribald laughter.
But Joseph went through the furnace. And when the blast of hate struck him, it seared off the tassels of his pride. And hard labor shriveled the days of dreaming. Then lust flamed out and would have swallowed him; but the pure soul that formed in the fields of Canaan was proved gold in the house of Potiphar. Last, wearisome, hopeless days in the dungeon; but the will to service could not be quenched. And lo, there was a man!
What could Reuben say to his purity? What could Simeon answer in the face of his patience? What did Dan and Zebulun, Gad and Asher, know more of life than he? Who of them could have stood the fire of his trial? "The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob. . . . The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren." Genesis 49:23-26.
He was no milksop, this Joseph who filled his young soul with manhood's virtue, and faced license at Hebron and vice in On, whose feet were bound with fetters in the dungeon, and whose finger was gemmed by a Pharaoh in the palace. When it came to vision, who so wise as he? When decisiveness was required, who so quick as he? When diligence was the need, who so untiring as he? 'When subtlety was in place, who so penetrating as he? Lordly indeed he was, until the land of Pharaoh cringed before him, and shepherds of Canaan fell at his feet; but when compassion cried, then—"I am Joseph your brother. . . . Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves: . . . for God did send me before you." "Blessed of the Lord be his land, . . . for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush: let the blessing come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the top of the head of him that was separated from his brethren." Genesis 45:4, 5; Deuteronomy 33:13, 16.
Because Reuben, the first-born, failed, his birthright was divided among his brethren. To Judah fell the chieftainship; to Levi was given the priesthood; and to Joseph the double portion. So it came about that Jacob adopted Joseph's two sons as his own, inducting them into the nation as tribes equal to the older, his own sons. To Manasseh, the elder, was given second place, and he passes always under his own name; while Ephraim, the younger, because of greater qualities in leadership, took precedence of his brother, and though usually named as himself, sometimes passes in the kingdom of Israel under the name of Joseph.
In Ephraim are manifested most fully the imperious force and spirit of his father. In the history of Israel, Ephraim comes to the fore again and again—vigorous, energetic, sometimes dictatorial, often the leader in jealous challenge of Judah's precedence, or Benjamin's, or Manasseh's. Yet Ephraim was not a mere boaster. Of him came Joshua, the single-minded, strenuous, yet self-deprecatory, who stood in the place of the mighty Moses, and in whirlwind campaigns smote Canaan into submission and marshaled Israel for Jehovah. A woman, Deborah of Ephraim, shamed a man of war into a stand for independence, and she furnished the sinews of faith and fortitude which discomfited Sisera with his iron chariots. It was a young man of Ephraim, Jeroboam, whose energy and industry brought him favorably to Solomon's notice, whom northern Israel chose as king against
Judah with its weak Rehoboam, and who with imperious haste flung the challenge of religious as well as political rivalry against Jerusalem.
No humble place did Ephraim intend to take; yet his fervor, though sufficiently selfish, was, when analyzed, more solicitous for Israel than for himself. He quarreled with Gideon and with Jephthah because he believed his presence would have made victory more complete. There is observable in Ephraim an impulsiveness, often allied with arrogance, which it is not unjust to note is first discernible in his father Joseph; yet perhaps the mingling of the royal blood of Egypt in his veins gave him from his mother more of impatience and hasty action than was his due from Israel.
How exact is his portrait in the apostle Peter, the impulsive, hasty, imperious, and ambitious, yet withal the devoted, energetic, and loyal! Over the head of a reformed Ephraim well may preside a transformed Peter.
With much of the same character as his brother, Manasseh is more sedate, retiring, and modest. Passion in him is indeed seldom to be noted. How self-deprecating Manasseh's great Gideon, yet nevertheless how competent! But in Jephthah, the outlawed son of Gilead, we notice a different strain. Cast out, he went for himself, yet turned again to help in Israel's need; but when Ephraim would domineer, as he had over Gideon, Jephthah struck, and his "shibboleth" has remained a mark of history.
We cannot and need not separate greatly the sons of Joseph. Though numbered double, they are one except in minor respects, the first the more impulsive and imperious, the second more sedate, dependable, and modest. And among the apostles we find, well fitting these tribes, the two brothers Andrew and Peter. Andrew, like Manasseh, the older, is retired to the background by his more aggressive brother; yet upon him again and again a greater reliance seems to have been placed by his fellow disciples and even by the Master. Let him be the head of Manasseh.
We come to the last of the tribes, "little Benjamin." He is the youngest, yet with the exception of Judah and perhaps of Levi, the most prominent among the tribes of Israel. And more delightfully romantic is his history than any other. His twofold character is well portrayed in the combined words of Jacob and Moses. Daring and defiant does Jacob see him, the wolf, fierce, swift, and predatory; mild and benevolent is he in Moses' eyes, sweetly friendly, protective: "The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by him." Genesis 49:27; Deuteronomy 33:12.
And such was the contradictory character of Benjamin: headstrong, fiercely and unreasoningly loyal to his word or his prejudice, undaunted by odds, contemptuous of danger, succeeding in the impossible; but to the hunted, the needy, the fearful, how careful and benign! Best represented is Benjamin by Jonathan, who one day stormed the heights of Michmash and with a single follower and but one sword put tens of thousands of aliens to flight; and who again, went down to the hunted David in the wood of Ziph, and "strengthened his hand in God." "Swifter than eagles," "stronger than lions," "the bow of Jonathan turned not back;" yet, "My brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women"—this was the deathless lament of David.
And what a roll call in the pages of Israel's history is that of Benjamin! Ehud the left-handed, who smote the fat tyrant in his summer palace, coolly locked the door, and went his way to blow the trumpet in Israel and smite Moab at the fords; then the tragic Saul, who raised his people from cowering slaves to heroes that flung their enemies out, and who made the first name for Israel in the brief space of time before terrible Gilboa; Jonathan, prince unequaled in valor and self-abnegation, most beautiful type, in a dim dispensation, of the perfected man to be, the Christ. Nor does the tribe suffer in the chivalrous Abner nor the patient and true-hearted Mordecai. But Esther! Wonderful star of the Persian night! How her rare courage, her noble self-sacrifice, her keen wit, her determined will, shine out in the darkness that but for her might finally have swallowed Israel!
Fitting it is that the list should be closed with Paul, a Benjamite, and though by himself called "the least of the apostles," yet acclaimed by the Christian world as the Greatest. In him indeed the nature of Benjamin is readily to be seen. Fierce as a persecutor, and dauntless as an apostle, he was to the believers a tender shepherd. By him not only were the walls of paganism stormed, but the assemblies of the saints were taught and prepared for the great ordeals awaiting them.
He is not popularly placed among the Twelve; but he was selected by the Lord Jesus in person, and in a more marked manner than were any of the others. Who shall say that he was not meant by the Lord to take the place of that fallen disciple, Judas Iscariot? And if Paul is thus to be numbered with the Twelve, we may well suppose him to be the head of that division of the church from which in the flesh he sprang and which in the spirit he most ideally represents.
So we come to the end of the tribes of Israel. The sons of Rachel, high in spirit and with grievous faults, yet stand forth in the history of the church with charm and glory. Without them, we should lack most splendid pages of Christian history. How fascinating to trace (with fancy naming the Josephites and the Benjamites of all the ages) the great deeds of the fiery yet lovable heroes of this strain! Shall we see in the pure, fine Polycarp the image of Manasseh, and in Savonarola an Ephraim? Was Francis of Assisi a Joseph of his time, and Luther a Benjamin? Did not the eagle eye of Knox light with the fire of Jonathan? And did not Latimer carry his lamp and trumpet like a Gideon?
Back over the broad highway trodden by the feet of the soldiers of Christ, how wonderful is the record of faith which Israel has left, with the armies of the cross marshaled under the banners of the tribes of Israel, from masterful Judah to stumbling Reuben, from the stern Levi to the suave Asher, from sturdy Issachar to brilliant Naphtali and persevering Gad!
They are not all alike, save in the one badge of fraternal love and sacrificing service. Bound by the vow of Christ, they unite where preference would separate them, they cooperate where choice would set