This week’s posts have centred on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Monday’s looked at the elder brother. Tuesday’s addressed misapplications of the parable to public policy and the church environment. Wednesday’s entry addressed the way Jesus’s audience would have understood the story. Thursday’s discussed the parable in light of the examples of conflict, forgiveness and blessing in the Book of Genesis among brothers.

Today’s post posits that this parable’s overall theme is Jesus’s ministry to reconcile the lost tribes of Israel to God, uniting them with Judah.

This is not to say that Christians should disregard the message of forgiveness in the parable. The examples from Genesis on brotherly forgiveness and paternal — God’s — blessings — as well as those throughout Scripture — indicate that we are to copy their example in our own lives.

However, Jesus coming as the Shepherd to find lost sheep of Israel is foretold in Hosea and Ezekiel.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel

Yesterday’s post outlined the story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis. The high point in his life occurred when God wrestled with him one night and had to stop the struggle at dawn the following day by dislocating his hip joint. Afterwards, God gave Jacob a new name: Israel. This was because he prevailed over both God and man.

Israel’s twelve sons each presided over large families, or tribes. Hence, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Book of Exodus begins with all the tribes living in Egypt. Joseph, who managed grain stores and advised Pharaoh, had been there for years. Pharaoh invited Joseph to reunite his brothers, their families and patriarch Israel and gave them the finest land, which was in Goshen.

Genesis 50 records the death of Joseph. He had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Even though he died, there were still twelve tribes, to be explained below.

These are the first seven verses of Exodus wherein all of Israel’s — Jacob’s — sons are named:

Israel Increases Greatly in Egypt

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Exodus 1 explains that a new Pharaoh came to power, one who had not known Joseph. He feared that the Israelites would have so many more children that they would outnumber the Egyptians and possibly go to war with them. Therefore, to prevent this from happening, Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites.

Jewish Virtual Library’s useful entry on the Twelve Tribes of Israel also has a map of each of the tribes’ territories once they reached the Promised Land. A summary and excerpts follow. Emphases mine below.

First, despite Joseph’s death and subsequent merging or absorption of other tribes, the number twelve remained constant:

The number twelve is neither fictitious nor the result of an actual genealogical development in patriarchal history. It is an institutionalized and conventionalized figure which is found among other tribes as well, such as the sons of Ishmael, of Nahor, of Joktan, and Esau. Similar organizational patterns built about groups of twelve, or even six, tribes, are known from Asia Minor, Greece and Italy.

Also:

there can be little doubt that this pattern of twelve attributed to the Hebrew tribes is very real and historically rooted. Thus, if one tribe were to withdraw from the union or to be absorbed into another, the number twelve would be preserved, either by splitting one of the remaining tribes into two or by accepting a new tribe into the union. For example, when the tribe of Levi is considered among the twelve tribes, the Joseph tribes are counted as one. However, when Levi is not mentioned, the Joseph tribes are counted separately as Manasseh and Ephraim. For the same duodecimal considerations, Simeon is counted as a tribe even after having been absorbed into Judah, and Manasseh even after having split in two, is considered one.

Secondly, once in the Promised Land, each tribe had its own territory and was self-governing, although they shared several common holy places, such as the Ark of the Covenant and Penuel (where God wrestled with Jacob and renamed him Israel).

The Old Testament recounts the stories of the twelve tribes which, many generations after Israel’s sons died, were often in conflict or refused to support each other. Jacob foretold what would happen to his sons in Genesis 49. Some tribes fared better than others. Ultimately:

It was only toward the end of the period of the Judges when the Philistine pressure on the Israelite tribes increased in the west and that of the Transjordanian peoples in the east, that the religionational tribal confederation assumed political and military dimensions. The Israelite tribes then consolidated as a crystallized national-territorial entity within the framework of a monarchical regime. David, Solomon, and afterward the kings of Israel and Judah tended to weaken tribal consciousness in favor of the territorial and monarchical organization. It is apparent, however, from Ezekiel’s eschatological [end times] vision that the awareness of Israel as a people composed of twelve tribes had not, even then, become effaced.

This brings us to the prophecies of Ezekiel, Hosea and onward to the main objective of Jesus’s ministry.

The Bible and the lost tribes of Israel

The other day I excerpted a sermon (or essay) by Pastor David B Curtis from the Berean Bible Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. It is called ‘The Father’s Two Sons’ and puts forward the case that the larger meaning is Jesus’s attempt to find the lost sheep of Israel and bring them back into the fold.

In this context, Pastor Curtis says the Prodigal Son represents the lost tribes, those who were cut off from the rest through sin and disobedience.

The tribes aligned as follows:

There were the 12 tribes, and they previously split into two separate nations. The two tribes of Judah and Benjamin were considered the Southern Kingdom, and together they were referred to as Judah.

The other ten tribes made up the Northern Kingdom, and they were designated by the name Israel.

This was Israel’s status:

These ten northern tribes were:

1. In a covenant relationship with the Father – just as the younger son was

2. Cut off from the Father – just as the younger son was

3. Considered dead to the Father – just as the younger son was

4. Intermingled with the pagan nations – just as the younger son was

5. Being restored to the Father through the Messiah – just as the younger son was

6. Causing the existing tribes to recoil and rebel against the Messiah

Hosea 1 recounts the Lord’s instructions that Hosea should take ‘a wife of whoredom’ and have ‘children of whoredom’ because they disobeyed Him. The three children were a son named Jezreel (‘sowing of seeds’), a daughter called No Mercy (God’s absence of mercy towards Israel) and another son named Not My People (God had left them to their own devices).

However, the end of the chapter foretells that Israel would one day return to the Lord. Furthermore (Hosea 1:11):

And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.

That head is the Messiah — Jesus Christ.

Curtis then takes us to Ezekiel 37, the ‘dry bones’ chapter:

The prophet is taken to a valley, shown old dry bones, and they are given flesh and brought back to life with the Spirit of God. This is understood as resurrection imagery looking to the day when the people are restored to life in the land of promise.

The next instruction from the Lord to Ezekiel involved two sticks, representing Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 37:18-19, 22-24):

18 And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah,[e] and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand.

22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. 23 They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings[f] in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

24 My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.

David also refers to Jesus, David’s descendant.

As we read the New Testament we also see a narrative of Jesus as the Shepherd who came to find His lost sheep.

In the gospels, John 10:16 mentions ‘one flock, one shepherd’. In Matthew 10:5-6, Jesus instructed the disciples to go only to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. In Matthew 15:24, Jesus said He was sent ‘only’ to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’. His primary purpose was to unite the tribes and reconcile them to God. After their rejection, He turned to the Gentiles.

The letters of 1 Peter are addressed to former Jews in the diaspora of Asia Minor. 1 Peter 1 and 2 have several references to straying sheep, a Shepherd as well as the reminder that they were not always one people but are once again ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood’ because they believed that Christ Jesus is their promised Messiah.

Another word often used in the New Testament, particularly the gospels, is ‘children’, meaning the lost tribes. Luke 1:1 speaks of John the Baptist turning ‘many of the children of Israel’ to ‘the Lord their God’. Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27 record Jesus’s words of ‘children’s bread’ (His ministry to Israel).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Jewish leaders

Once we take all of these biblical references into account, we come to a clearer understanding of the primary lesson of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: restoring Israel to sonship with God the Father and brotherly relationship with Judah.

Recall that in the first two verses of Luke 15, the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus’s associating and eating with sinners.

As I wrote the other day, His response to them is contained in three parables: the Lost Sheep (Israel), the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son (Israel).

When we view the Prodigal Son as the lost tribes of Israel, it is easy to see that the father in the story is God the Father, who wants to welcome them back into His family.

Curtis tells us:

The two sons represent the two houses, Israel and Judah. Israel, the youngest son, starts in covenant, but is broken off, dispersed among the pagan nations, and then later, as a lost sheep, some are brought back in love and mercy from the Father.

Curtis explains the parable’s open ending in this context:

For some reason, the current religious regime was not seeing that as the plan and were not accepting it, and that is why the story has an open ending – because they were being told what was happening, and were to decide their response.

As we know, the Jewish leaders — the elder brother — were unswayed by Jesus’s appeal. They were angry with Him from the beginning.

In light of the Old Testament prophecies, Curtis’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son makes more sense than the ones we usually hear or read. His advice to us when reading the New Testament is:

knowing his main task is to the lost house of Israel, and we understand that in Hosea they will be restored and called “Children of the Living God”[,] we should start picking up on that language coming about in his work …

And of course, to make sure you do not misunderstand this as to say only those of the houses of Israel and Judah would be called children of God, we know from the opening remarks in John, that after [Jesus] came to his own, and was rejected in the end, that this grace was granted to others.

I hope this interpretation enriches your understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It has added a profound and new dimension to my appreciation of it.

This and other posts on the parable can be found on my Christianity / Apologetics page under Parable of the Prodigal Son.

End of series

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