Everyone is familiar with the story of Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob's twelve sons. However, fewer people are familiar with the story of his younger full-brother, Benjamin. His story and that of the tribe he fathered contain some interesting parallels and lessons for us today. Benjamin's tale begins in Genesis 35:16-19.
Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel travailed in childbirth, and she had hard labor. Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, "Do not fear; you will have this son also." And it was so, as her soul was in departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).
Rachel, whose entire married life had been spent desiring to bear sons for Jacob, gave birth to a second boy. Realizing that she was dying from the birth, she named the baby Ben-Oni meaning "son of my sorrow." However, Jacob changed the name of the boy to Benjamin meaning "son of my right hand." Matthew Henry explains:
But Jacob, because he would not renew the sorrowful remembrance of the mother's death every time he called his son by his name, changed his name, and called him Benjamin, the son of my right hand; that is, "very dear to me, set on my right hand for a blessing, the support of my age, like the staff in my right hand."
Beloved of the Father
Not long thereafter, Jacob thought he had lost a son whom he loved dearly. Bringing Joseph's goat's blood-smeared tunic to him, his sons had caused him to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. With Joseph gone, Jacob placed all his affections on his youngest son, Benjamin, the son of his right hand. Already, Jacob viewed the young Benjamin as the staff in his right hand.
When famine struck the land as God had told Joseph it would, Jacob sent his sons into Egypt to buy grain. He did not send Benjamin because, as he says in Genesis 42:4, "Lest some calamity befall him." To get a better understanding of Jacob's love for Benjamin, notice verse 38:
But [Jacob] said, "My son [Benjamin] shall not go down with you, for his brother [Joseph] is dead, and he is left alone [of Rachel's sons]. If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave."
His words picture an old man believing that the loss of another beloved son would cause his death. By protecting Benjamin, Jacob was protecting his own heart—and to him, his very life!
We have a heavenly Father that loves us even more than Jacob loved Benjamin! As the oft-repeated John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." I John 3:1 (NIV) provides an indication of just how much: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Not only did our heavenly Father love us enough to ask His only begotten Son to die as a redemption for our sin, but He lavishes such love on us that His desire is to make us Hisvery children.
As the first son of Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel, Joseph was highly favored by Jacob, which caused jealousy and anger among Joseph's brothers. They captured him, put him in a pit, and sold him to slave traders, who took him to Egypt where he became the slave of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard. Through a series of adventures involving dreams, Joseph came to the attention of Pharaoh. By correctly interpreting the Pharaoh's dream of seven fat years of plenty followed by seven lean years of famine, Joseph rose to a place of great prominence in Egypt, that of vizier or prime minister.
Citizens of all the nearby countries came to Egypt to buy grain because the famine had struck them so sorely—and the descendants of Abraham and Isaac were no exception. The ten sons of Jacob must have found it confusing and frightening to go into Egypt to buy grain so that the family could survive the drought. The streets teemed with people foreign to them. To make matters desperate, the stern, mighty Egyptian ruler who oversaw the distribution of grain suddenly accused them of being spies! They tried to tell the official that they were just shepherds from Canaan in need of food. Their confusion must have deepened when he asked about their family back in Canaan. Ultimately, one of the brothers, Simeon, was bound and placed in prison as a hostage until they returned with proof of their story. And what strange proof this man wanted! He demanded they bring their youngest brother down into Egypt.
As the brothers discussed their predicament, they began to admit that their sin against Joseph was the reason for their dilemma. Of course, they had not recognized the Egyptian ruler as their brother, Joseph. It is a strange quirk in people that, when placed under severe stress, they begin to consider their sins and shortcomings. The sons of Jacob began to feel chastened.
Upon their return to Egypt, with Benjamin in tow, they were well-treated. Simeon was restored to them, and Joseph took them into his own house and fed them. Benjamin, however, received five times the food that the rest received. In addition, each brother was given a new garment, but Benjamin received three hundred pieces of silver and five new sets of clothing!
Genesis 45:1-2 reveals how Joseph really viewed his meeting with his brothers:
Then Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Make everyone go out from me!" So no one stood with him while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard it.
And in verses 14-15, he expresses his feelings for Benjamin specifically: "Then he fell on his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. Moreover, he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and after that his brothers talked with him."
God orchestrated the events in Joseph's life to bring him to a position of greatness in Egypt, from which he could save his family from physical destruction in a time of distress. In fact, God had foretold these happenings through Joseph's dreams (Genesis 37:1-11), in which he saw his family bow down to him. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to see that Joseph is a type of our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ. Notice Hebrews 2:10-11:
For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.
Our Elder Brother left the splendor of a holy heaven and came to the corruption of earth. He took the form of a man and associated with wicked men. He suffered emotional and physical pain and death to pay the penalty for mankind's sins. He has promised that He has gone to prepare a place of everlasting, spiritual safety for us, His brothers:
In My Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)
Just as Joseph yearned to see his younger brother and prepared a means of physical safety for him, Jesus Christ prepares a place for us in His everlasting Kingdom. He longs to see us there, just as Joseph yearned for Benjamin. Undoubtedly, there will be tears of great joy when we are finally united with our Elder Brother and Savior.
As was the custom of the time, when Jacob was about to die, he blessed each of his children. To Benjamin he said: "Benjamin is a ravenous wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil" (Genesis 49:27).
Historically, Benjamin was the smallest and weakest of the twelve tribes of Israel. This was due to a war Benjamin fought against the other eleven tribes, in which Benjamin was virtually annihilated (Judges 19-21). Despite this, God made good use of this weakest of peoples—an object lesson for us as Christians (I Corinthians 1:27).
Israel's first king, Saul—a tall, strong, regal-looking man—was a Benjamite. His reign began well: "And Saul answered and said, "Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?" (I Samuel 9:21). God even "gave him another heart" so that he prophesied with the prophets (I Samuel 10:9-10). He was so humble that, on the most important day of his life—at Mizpah where all Israel was gathered to proclaim him king, he hid himself among the baggage (I Samuel 10:21-24)! The people were so impressed that they "shouted and said, 'Long live the king!'"
But Saul sinned. The sad tale is found in I Samuel 15:19-21:
[Samuel asked,] "Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?" And Saul said to Samuel, "But I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal."
Like all sinners, Saul had his excuses. How well we understand that! Nevertheless, as with all sin, a price had to be paid for disobeying God: Saul's kingdom was taken from Him. What was Saul's reaction? He attempted to kill the man God appointed to replace him!
I Samuel 18:10-11, 28-29: So David played music with his hand, as at other times; but there was a spear in Saul's hand. And Saul cast the spear, for he said, "I will pin David to the wall with it." But David escaped his presence twice. . . . Thus Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, . . . and Saul was still more afraid of David. So Saul became David's enemy continually.
I Samuel 19:10: Then Saul sought to pin David to the wall with his spear, but he slipped away from Saul's presence; and he drove the spear into the wall. So David fled and escaped that night.
Saul became as ravenous as a wolf, trying to devour his prey and to divide his spoil. He was so depraved that he sought to kill his own son, Jonathan, for his loyalty to David (I Samuel 20:30-34)!
Moses penned a second prophecy concerning Benjamin in Deuteronomy 33:12: "Of Benjamin he said: 'The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him, who shelters him all the day long; and he shall dwell between His shoulders."
Philippians 3:5-6 introduces another son of Benjamin: ". . . circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." This is, of course, the apostle Paul as he described himself and his qualifications.
We find some of Paul's history in Acts 8:1, 3:
Now Saul [as he was known then] was consenting to his [Stephen's] death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. . . . As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Later, in Acts 9:1-2:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Yet, a strange thing happened to Saul on his way to Damascus. He met Jesus!
And as he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" And the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads." (verses 3-5)
And what were the results?
Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, "Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?" But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. (verses 20-22)
Paul wasa ravening wolf rending his prey, the church, and devouring and dividing the spoils of it, but Jesus Christ entering his life changed him forever. Like the prophecy of Benjamin, he became the beloved of the Lord, one who was covered by Him and made to dwell safely between His shoulders.
Christians are much like Benjamin. We have a heavenly Father, like Jacob, who seeks to protect us and keep us close to Him. We also have a heavenly Elder Brother, like Joseph, who has suffered for us and gone ahead to prepare for our deliverance. Like King Saul, we also have been as ravenous wolves trying to devour our prey and take spoils. And like Paul, we have met Jesus Christ and been changed by the encounter.
Now we are striving to be worthy of the title "the beloved of the Lord," and we pray for the safety available only between His shoulders. Except for God's love, we might have been Ben-Oni, son of sorrows, but our heavenly Father has reserved for us another name, Son of His Right Hand.