With the inheritance of Canaan and the dividing up of this priestly territory among the tribes, Israel became a microcosm of the nations of the world.
This division between Israel and the nations as a substitutionary “land and sea” would prevent another global rebellion, and thus another global judgment. 1 The existence of a “peculiar” people who could never assimilate prevented a repeat of the compromise of the sons of Seth (Genesis 6:2) and of the sons of Joktan, the first Hebrews (Genesis 10:25 – 11:2). Serving as a restraint from sin, circumcision was thus a divine mercy which, to some degree, blessed all nations right from its inception. This office is prefigured in Abram’s kingly prevention of a conspiracy of nations in Genesis 14, followed by his priestly refusal to lay his hand on the spoils. He was in covenant with God and could have no open obligations, through treaty or intermarriage, to the kings of the land. Not only would his inheritance come from the hand of God, his ministry of evangelism among its current inhabitants could not be tainted. 2
The Sand of the Sea Shore
The territorial division between the “social” land of Israel and the “social” sea of the Gentiles also explains the typological significance of the phrase “the sand of the sea shore.” Like the stars in heaven, grains of sand speak of a multitude which cannot be counted (Genesis 22:17) but the sea shore also serves as a buffer zone, an interface, between the land and the sea. This is why the ministry of Jesus, in preparation for the global Gospel, focused on fishermen and boats rather than shepherds and fields. Through the apostles, His would be a priesthood of all nations, one that would occupy and plunder the sea.
A wise king, whether good or evil, will not scatter but gather. Thus, “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured” (Genesis 41:49); Jabin, king of Hazor, gathered the nations against Israel, “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces and came and encamped together at the waters of Merom to fight against Israel” (Joshua 11:4-5); Gideon faced “the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East [who] lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance” (Judges 7:12); Hushai counseled Absalom, “that all Israel be gathered to you, from Dan to Beersheba, as the sand by the sea for multitude, and that you go to battle in person” (2 Samuel 17:11); under Solomon, “Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy… And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:20, 29).
A wise king who is good, like Joseph and like Solomon in his early days (who, incidentally, both married converted Egyptians) will gather by the power of the Spirit for the benefit of the nations, and they will respond by bringing their riches, the wealth of the sea (Isaiah 60:5, 11) to support the worship of the true God.
For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. (Romans 16:19-20)
A king who is wise concerning evil will gather gold, gather many pagan wives, gather people in the service of their idols, and multiply horses and chariots as insurance against the hosts of heaven (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). This is Solomon in his latter days, and as a result, the Lord divided Israel in the days of his son Rehoboam.
Once again, this was a tragic division that nonetheless occurred with a greater conquest in mind. Once again, there were godless attempts to reunite what was divided, to seize kingdom before God’s time. Firstly, since Judah hosted the Temple and the priesthood, kingly Jeroboam attempted to usurp its priestly authority by establishing his own false worship. The second attempt at a reunion between north and south was through intermarriage: the house of David with the house of Omri. You might notice that this twofold rebellion, priestly then kingly, was a recapitulation of Israel’s “priestly” sin at Sinai (Exodus 32:31-35), and the nation’s “kingly” adultery with the Midianites in the wilderness (Numbers 26:1-2, 64-65), rebellions which, like the world before the flood, the Lord judged without mercy.
However, since the salvation of the world depended upon the priesthood of Israel, the Jewish nation was never cut off entirely. A holy remnant of its priestly leaven was always preserved (Isaiah 1:9; Romans 11:1-5). Whereas the other kingdoms of Canaan were dispossessed and scattered like chaff by Nebuchadnezzar, the faithful of Israel were scattered like miraculous seed across an even greater territory, and would soon be regathered and reunited in worship.
Why Twelve Tribes?
Like circumcision, the divisions that God makes in the flesh are always for the ultimate purpose of a greater unity in the Spirit. Eve was “divided” from the flesh of Adam that the two might be reunited in the flesh and multiplied. When added together, the three of heaven and the four of earth make seven, a perfect week. But when multiplied, heaven and earth make twelve. Since Israel was the whole world in microcosm, the history of the tribes of Israel was given to us to help us understand God’s plan for the nations. Like Adam and Eve, and the tribes of Israel, the nations can only be united if they are first united in worship.
Each tribe had its own personality and its own unique glory, its own strengths and weaknesses (1 Corinthians 15:39-41). Upon the shoulders of the High Priest, the only Israelite who could wear a robe of “mixed” materials, the name of each tribe was written on onyx stones. 3 Here they were indistinguishable from each other, merely words carved in stone like those on the tablets of Moses, “external law.” But each tribe was also represented by a gemstone on his breastplate (Exodus 28:17-20). This pictures the shift from circumcision of flesh to circumcision of heart, from external law to internal law, from the discipline of childhood to the maturity of self-government, from nature to culture. Gemstones are “bridal.” They are cut stones, related to Solomon’s Temple rather than the unhewn stones of the Abrahamic altars. Moreover, unlike the holy fire placed upon the altar stones, their “fire” dwelt within, and together they represented the rainbow which surrounds the throne of God. 4
Gathered together and carefully arranged by Spirit-filled craftsmen, these bridal stones were “awesome as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:4, 10). They were legal representatives of the tribes mustered in military formation around the Tabernacle. Each tribe had a unique identity, and raised its own martial flag. As self-governing entities which were yet united through mutual submission to God and cooperating in His service, they pictured the Lord’s plan for the nations.
Unity via Death
For Israel, as it was in Eden, priestly submission before heaven was required before kingly dominion of the land promised by God could be presented freely as a gift. This is why the Aaronic High Priest removed his glorious robe of government, including the shoulder pieces and the breastplate, and entered the Most Holy on the Day of Atonement clothed only in “unmixed” priestly linen, the wrappings of death.
Real unity – koinonia – is always the result of integrity, a confession from the heart rather than a false oath that is mere “lip service.” The unity of Israel’s tribes was “quantum entangled” with the integrity of God’s house. When Israel’s priests sinned, the Tabernacle was torn apart. When Israel’s kings sinned, the tribes were torn apart. Both of these divisions were “sacrificial” in nature, just like the circumcision. Just as God divided the nations that they might be conquered, so He also divided Israel that her idolatry might be conquered.
Ezekiel 37 gave God’s people in exile the hope of a reunited Israel, a “bridal” army rising from the grave after atoning for her sins. This repossession of the land under a “new covenant” was also predicted by Jeremiah. Israel’s mourning would be turned to joy, just as it was on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest, emerging from “death,” would once again be invested with his robe of glory, but now with the Abrahamic promises of fruit in land and womb restored for another harvest cycle. Every man dies alone, including Jesus, whose friends were scattered. But not even Jesus, the firstborn from the dead, was resurrected alone (Matthew 27:52).
Hebrews quotes Jeremiah’s hope in a “new covenant” to demonstrate that just as God miraculously reunited Judah and Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-32), so now in the first century He was reuniting Jew and Gentile. This could only occur in the death and resurrection of Christ, through the fulfillment and removal of the Law. He not only fulfilled the Law which divided the world (external law), He sent His Spirit to unite the world in true worship (internal law). The stones which were plundered from the earth and shaped with God’s chisel would finally be filled with fire on the day of a better Pentecost than that which occurred at Sinai. As a priest-king after the order of Melchizedek, Jesus is being invested not with the twelve gemstones of the tribes of Israel, but with the glory of all the nations in the construction of a bridal city, whose adornment includes pearls from the sea.
One of the deepest currents in the New Testament is the rivalry between the two pretenders to the throne of Israel, the Herods and the Christ. Although the struggle for preeminence between these “brothers” was prefigured in Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Judah and Joseph, Perez and Zerah, Saul and David, Adonijah and Solomon, the culmination of Israel’s history was the ultimate revelation of the nature and identity of true priest-kingdom. While Jesus humbled Himself before the Father and thus qualified to gather riches suitable for a holy kingdom, the Herods, who claimed to be as wise as Solomon but were instead fools, amassed gold and wives and chariots and founded a house upon the sand of the sea (1 Kings 10:14; Revelation 13:18; Matthew 7:24-27). Only one of these claimants to the throne of Israel would successfully inherit the nations (Psalm 2:8).
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Inquiétude.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||For more discussion, see Michael Bull, Cosmic Language.|
|2.||↑||For more discussion, see James B. Jordan, Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis, 65-66.|
|3.||↑||For more discussion, see James B. Jordan, The Law of Forbidden Mixtures, Biblical Horizons Occasional Paper No. 6.|
|4.||↑||For more discussion, see James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World, 76-78.|