They came from all Israel. Scripture called them “mighty men of valour”. A few thousands from here, several thousands from there. Each tribe, eager to demonstrate their affection for David, put their best on the pageantry to make him King of Israel.
However, one tribe was lacking in numbers and muscles. Whereas Zebulun had 50,000 and Naphtali 38,000, the tribe of Issachar could only muster 200! Even half a tribe sent 120,000 and the Aaronites – a family within a tribe – sent about 4000, but the whole tribe of Issachar only had 200 to offer!
As often with the Hebrew scriptures, the devil is in the detail. As it turned out, the tribe of Issachar were not being miserly after all. The 200 delegates from Issachar had something that Israel needed but the several thousands from the other tribes combined, lacked.
“from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do—200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command”.11 Chronicles 12:32
Kings in the ancient world kept around them ‘wise’ folks “who knew the times”.2Esther 1:13 Major decisions of state were based on insights given by such people. Herod for one was driven to infanticide because ‘wise’ men from the East told him a king had been born.3Matthew 2:1-16
Nebuchadnezzar said Daniel possessed the spirit of the gods.4Daniel 4:8 The Bible compared Ahitophel’s wisdom with an oracular divination.52Samuel 16:23 Pharaoh said there was no one in Egypt in whom God dwelled as Joseph for the advice that he gave.6Genesis 41:38-39 Joseph himself told his brothers that he had the gift of divination.7Genesis 44:15 Kings kept these people close by for the insight that they gave. People with such abilities were privileged. Their abilities were considered otherworldly. It’s not simply a question of intelligence.
No one book contains God’s first and last words on any issue.
It’s therefore no surprise that the couple of hundreds that Issachar supplied had control of the hundreds of thousands that came from the other tribes. People with a sixth sense get a leg up over others. It’s par for the course. As scripture says “not by power, not by might”; Issachar had the X Factor. How did Issachar come by this gift?
Before the prophetic age. The Levites held sway over matters of religion and rituals. They mediated the relationship between the people and God and guided the people by the law, discerning the will of God by the Urim and the Thummim. Israel always relied on those mysterious items to navigate the complex tribal and ancient near Eastern politics. David often consulted them in search of divine guidance in matters of war. And he was never disappointed.
That which the tribe of Issachar possessed was not part of Israelite religious script. But it was a game-changer. What Israel looked to gain by their ‘gifting’ fell within the magisterium of the Aaronites. Though the Levites had their delegates in the assembly of ‘mighty men of valour’, and the Aaronites had their own contingent (twenty times the number Issachar had), we’re told that these 200 men who had this mysterious ability were in command of the assembly – an assembly that included Levites and Aaronites.
There are several lessons to be learned from this episode. Issachar rose above that which is written concerning him in a spectacular fashion. When Jacob blessed his children, he said of Issachar:
“Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens: And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute”.8Genesis 49:14-15
A parent’s last words to offspring tend to have a mystical, fatalist weight to them. Not so for Issachar. He rose to defy the destiny of a servile beast of burden which his father’s words sought to consign him. Those to whom Jacob assigned glory waited on the words of Issachar.
God’s ways and means do not conform to any formula, not even formulae that He scripted in the Holy Books. No one book contains God’s first and last words on any issue. The Bible may have given the house of Levi all the trappings of the priesthood, Aaron might have borne on his breastplate mysterious objects with otherworldly powers, nonetheless the house of Issachar demonstrated that one could rise above all of that and bear the rule over the rulers.
Our destinies are not determined by the words or powers of others.
Back to the question: how did Issachar come by this gift? We don’t know for sure, but scripture suggests possibilities. To explore these, we will do well to consider how another child of Jacob subverted his father’s last words concerning him. Levi had been incensed that his sister, Dinah, was violated by Shechem.9Genesis 34:1-2 He and Simeon went on a genocidal rampage. Jacob felt isolated and frightened by the possible outcome of his children’s action. So he said to Levi and Simeon:
“Simeon and Levi are brothers — their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel”.10Genesis 49:5-7
Whereas Jacob saw in Levi, a cruel, violent killer, God saw in him a man of peace and a teacher of righteousness.11Malachi 2:6 Whereas Jacob decided to put Levi at arms-length, God not only took Levi for himself, God gave himself as inheritance to Levi.12Numbers 18:20 Levi was indeed dispersed all over Israel, God did it so Levi might teach the law and mediate the relationship between heaven and Israel in all the scattered communities of ancient Israel. Whereas the rest of Israel got land, Levi got the priesthood and the choice portions of all with which Israel honoured God. And for good measure, he got the Urim and the Thummim, the objects with divine powers.
How did Levi do it? According to Malachi 2:5-6:
“My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity.”
Although Moses said the secret things belong to the Lord our God, scripture says the Lord is happy to share his secrets with people who meet certain prerequisites. As the psalmist said: “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant”.13Psalm 25:14
Levi was one such person. He overturned all his father spoke into his life by choosing to walk with God in a manner that caused God to bring him into a covenant and gave him keys to powers beyond the natural realms.
Issachar was another.
Everyone has the potential to fall into this category. Our destinies are not determined by the words or powers of others; whatever privileges they might hold concerning us. Our parents, pastors, leaders, prophets and whoever else do not determine who we are or will be. Scripture is largely a long story about folks who did just that.
The secret things belong to the Lord our God.
Jacob wrestled the angel all night long and got a new name for his labour. Ruth overturned a divine law banning her people from coming into the congregation of the Lord14Deuteronomy 23:3 to become the matriarch of the house of David. Jabez was so named because he was birthed in pain, but he has become a reference point in prayer for many people through the ages.
Nothing about anyone’s life is sealed except one decides to seal it one’s self.
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