Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish nation because it was Abraham who was called by Jehovah to travel into the land of Canaan. It was with Abraham that the covenant between God and the "Chosen People" was forged, the bond that linked these particular people to that particular land. The covenant was passed on from Abraham to his son Isaac, and from Isaac to his son Jacob. Jacob, however, had twelve sons, and when it came time to pass the covenant on to his first-born, Jacob passed over Reuben because he had taken one of his concubines. He passed over Simeon and Levi because they had murdered the men of Shechem in cold blood when they were sick and unable to defend themselves. In fact, he passed over all the sons of Leah and his concubines, and gave the blessing to Joseph, the oldest son of his beloved wife Rachel.
Five hundred years later, when Joshua led these people back into Canaan after their slavery in Egypt, Joseph's importance as the one who received the blessing of the first-born was shown when the tribes descended from Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were given a land area greater than all the rest of the tribes combined. For hundreds of years thereafter, the tribe of Ephraim, located in the heart of the nation of Israel, provided the nation its wealth and its leadership, while the nation of Judah, enclosed on three sides by the Philistines the Negev desert and the Dead Sea, developed more slowly.
However it was the nation of Israel that was captured by the Assyrians and carried off into slavery and dispersal among the other nations. Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the other northern tribes, for all their greatness, were lost and never heard from again. All Jews from that time onward must trace their heritage back to Jacob's son Judah, for that was the only tribe that has survived to the present day. Judah became the first-born by default when the other tribes were carried away (See 1CH 5:1,2).
Judah, had five sons. The first three, Er, Onan, and Shelah, were children of a Canaanite woman, known to us only as "the daughter of Shua" (GEN 38:2). Whether she was his wife or only a harlot can be argued. What cannot be argued is the fact that she was a Canaanite woman, and therefore it was forbidden for him to associate with her in any way.
His eldest son Er was wicked, so we are told he was struck down by God and died (GEN 38:7). His brother Onan refused to give an heir to his brother's widow Tamar as was required by the law, but spilled his seed upon the ground instead, and was also struck down by God's anger (GEN 38:9-10). In order for Tamar to get the son she needed for her security in her old age, she disguised herself as a harlot and put herself where Judah would see her. Judah hired her and fathered twins with his daughter-in-law. Such a relationship was punishable by death according to the law of those days. Such are the beginnings of the Jewish nation: one third descended from Judah and a Canaanite harlot; two thirds descended from Judah and his incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law.
In those days it was the tradition and the law that all of a father's possessions and authority were passed on to the oldest son, and therefore it was extremely important to identify which child was first-born when twins were suspected. So when it came time for Tamar to deliver her children, the midwives were prepared to mark the first-born with a scarlet cord. As it happened, a hand was presented first, and was duly marked with the scarlet cord. Then the hand was withdrawn, and to the surprise of the midwives, the other child was born. He was named Perez. Moments later, the child with the scarlet cord around his wrist was born and was named Zerah. So which one was really the first-born?
The sons by Tamar signify the two essentials of the church, namely, faith and love--Perez faith, and Zerah love. Their birth represents that love is actually the first-born of the church, and faith only apparently so (AC 4812).
It has been disputed from the most ancient times which is the first-born of the church, charity or faith; for the reason that man is regenerated and becomes a church by means of the truths of faith. But they who have set faith foremost and made it the first-born, have all fallen into heresies and falsities, and at length have extinguished charity altogether. (AC 2435).
The appearance that truth comes first, while the fact is that it is good that actually precedes, is illustrated and confirmed by many different stories in the Word where the first-born son, for one reason or another, does not actually receive the blessing he apparently deserves. There is the story of Cain and Able, where Cain kills his brother out of jealously and has to flee. There was Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham's sons; Esau and Jacob, Isaac's sons; and we have already mentioned the confusion regarding Jacob's twelve sons, where the 11th son, Joseph, is blessed, but the 4th son, Judah, eventually prevails and becomes the father of the Jewish nation; and finally there Manasseh and Ephraim, Joseph's sons, who, when Joseph presented them to his father Jacob, were blessed with crossed hands so that the younger received the blessing of the first-born. In every case, these stories carry within the internal sense the message that we must not be deceived by appearances, but that we must look deeper within ourselves to see the Lord's secret operation in our affections, that although we appear to ourselves to be rational and always guided by the truth, the fact is that unless the Lord were secretly flowing into our hearts with affection, unless He were constantly stirring our "remains" of good – those special experiences of love from our childhood and youth, that nothing of the truth would remain with us.
The Heavenly Doctrines describe the process of growing from being immature and selfish to becoming regenerated and ready for heaven as the "Four Ages of Man" (See AC 3603).
In his second age, when he is more mature and experienced, a person is no longer content to only have the truths of the Word and the doctrines of the Church as simple memory-knowledges, but he begins to think about them, and to reflect on them from the experience he has gained during his own life's experiences. Under these conditions, he begins to find that the truths he has known since childhood actually have application in the activities of his life, and this revelation pleases him. This is the first appearance of the good of charity in his life--the delight that he feels when he does what he knows what is true from the Word. If he thought no further, he would then believe that truth comes first, and that good follows, for he was unable to perceive the Lord's influx into his remains that inspired Him to learn the truths of the Word in the first place. This emphasis on truth in and for itself is represented by the birth of Perez.
In the third age, if the person is one of those who is willing to be led by the Lord and thus regenerated, he begins to think about use, he begins to make choices based on the uses that can be accomplished, no longer according to selfish reasons of self-gratification, or personal gain. In this light, he reads the Word and reflects on doctrinal matters in order to learn how he might become more useful to his fellow man. Truth has receded from being in the first place, to becoming the servant of the good that is now seen, and desired in its place.
In the fourth age, which is the age of his regeneration, love of the Lord and the teachings of the Word for the sake of the good that can be done for others takes the first place. Thus good takes its proper place as the most important part of his life, and truth becomes it servant because it shows how good can be implemented and shared with others, and the true relationship between the two becomes clear.
And so it is even today with our own experience. The appearance is that knowing something is the most important, that you can tell people things, show them the truth, and they will then change their behavior accordingly. However, the truth is that people only do what they want to do. They will not change, no matter how much they know they should, until they really desire it for themselves.
I am sure that each of us can think of examples that apply to our own lives and particular situations, but for me the clearest example was the effort to quit smoking. I had taken up the habit before the health issue had become public, but very soon thereafter the truth of danger of smoking was known to me. Articles in the newspaper reported the latest findings. Warnings, progressively more severe, were printed on the cigarette packages. Graphically illustrated magazine articles about lung cancer and emphysema were carefully ignored. I tried to quit because my wife wanted me to. I tried to quit for the sake of my children--but none of these reasons had compelling force because they were mere fact which had no force in the face of my own desire to keep smoking. It was not until I became sufficiently disgusted with myself that I no longer wanted to be "a smoker" that I was able to quit--and I quit cold on the spot, and never looked back.
One of the big issues we face in education is the fact that is taught in so many places in the Heavenly doctrines that affection precedes learning, that only those things that are received with affection remain.
Lessons: GEN 38 portions, JOH 8:31-47, AC 4925
Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div.
Author: Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div.
October 21, 2008
Page updated October 21, 2008