The Feast of Tabernacles is a time to celebrate God’s choice to dwell among His people and our complete dependence on Him. We are commanded to rejoice and feast with others: family and friends, the fortunate and the less-fortunate, believers and non-believers.
With that in mind, there is a small detail in the story of Jonah that many of us have probably missed. After Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, after the Ninevites repent, and after God forgives their sin and turns away their deserved destruction, Jonah leaves the city, sits on a hillside, and builds himself a small tabernacle to shelter himself from the sun.
But although he is dwelling in a tabernacle, he is embodying the opposite attitude of the Feast of Tabernacles. Rather than welcoming non-Jews into God’s family, he is angry that they have been forgiven. Rather than rejoicing, he is “displeased exceedingly,” “angry,” and “distressed” (literally, evil). Rather than depending on God, he is yet again trying to escape from God. Essentially, Jonah has a little pity-party on that hillside, a voluntary Anti-Tabernacles, during a time when he should have been rejoicing.
This week is a time for rejoicing. It is a time for celebrating God’s faithfulness and God’s blessings. It is a time for compassionately welcoming those who don’t yet know the truth. It is a time for trusting in God rather than the world around us.
Don’t be Jonah. Don’t choose to be angry and bitter. Don’t look for reasons to be upset. Don’t decide to hate those with different (even wrong) views. Choose to rejoice, to welcome, to celebrate, to feast.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
God commanded His people to keep the Feast of Tabernacles “because the Lord your God will bless you in all your increase and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely will rejoice.” It’s a weeklong festival celebrating the ever-abiding presence of God with us, and the health, prosperity, and joy that comes from the Lord.
So why do we read Ecclesiastes on this celebration? Ecclesiastes is a sermon from a man (“the Preacher”) who got everything he ever wanted. He grew as wise and intelligent as anyone could’ve hoped to become. He acquired more wealth than anyone who had ever lived before. He found great success in all his ventures, and his fame spread far and wide.
He had everything he could’ve wanted, everything any of us could want. He got all the things that the Feast of Tabernacles says we can have. But he got it the wrong way. Rather than sticking with God and being blessed by Him, the Preacher turned from God and tried to get it all apart from Him.
And he succeeded. He got it all. Fame, wealth, women, success. But without God, it all meant nothing. There was no purpose, no pleasure, no joy. It was, as the Preacher put it, “vanity of vanities.” He finishes his sermon by saying, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.”
As we enter this week of celebration, let’s not focus on the stuff. Let’s not focus on our own pleasure and desires. Instead let’s focus on the God who gives us richly all things to enjoy, the God who provides our every need and heals our mortal bodies, the God who is more than enough.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”
[This was originally posted on September 28, 2020]
Yom Kippur started at sunset last night, and the Book of Jonah is traditionally read on this Day of Atonement.
I was immediately struck by how often God refers to Nineveh as “the great city.” In the 8th century BC, it truly was a great city. Its population was greater than any city in seven US states; it was three times the size of Washington, D.C.; and it was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the strongest and wealthiest nation to have ever existed at that time.
But it was great in another way: This shining city was overflowing with wickedness. Murder, slavery, and every sexual perversion you could imagine. A few decades later, they would destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and a few decades after that, they would threaten to wipe the southern kingdom of Judah off the face of the map. And yet, in spite of all this depravity, God desired their salvation.
This got me thinking about the greatness of America. I truly believe that this is the greatest country that has ever existed. We’re militarily the strongest nation the world has ever seen, and time and again we’ve used our strength to liberate others from tyranny. We’re the most innovative nation, from walking on the moon to putting a super-computer in every pocket. We’re the wealthiest country in existence, while also the most generous, both in terms of our nation giving to other nations and our citizens giving to those in need.
These are great things, but we have also allowed ourselves to become greater and greater in wickedness as well. We murder half a million of our own children every year, and pay for countless children to be murdered around the world. We collect money for the purpose of helping the needy, but then allow our corrupt leaders to keep most of it for themselves. We use our power and strength to exploit others. In terms of sexual perversion, we’re giving Nineveh a run for their money. We lie about one another constantly, we extend only judgment but demand only compassion, and we use other’s sins as justification for our own. We’re selfish, hypocritical, judgmental. Depending how you slice it, we’re better than Nineveh could’ve ever dreamed of and more wicked than Nineveh would’ve ever dared become.
And yet, in spite all of this depravity, God desires our salvation. And truly, the only greatness that really matters comes from Him. Our faithfulness to God has allowed us to become great in so many wonderful things. Our rejection of God has allowed us to become great in so many terrible things.
If America is to be as great as it can be, it must be as godly as it can be. And if America is to be a godly nation, its people must return to godliness. That means you and me taking responsibility for our lives, our families, our churches, and our communities. That extends beyond Facebook and Twitter, beyond November 3 and January 20. It’s an everyday sort of thing, and it requires patience and sacrifice. But for God’s people, it’s our commission.
“I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12)
Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year, which, as you would expect, takes place on the first day of the… seventh month… of the year (don’t ask). Rosh Hashanah (referred to in the Bible as Yom Teruah, or “Day of Blasting”) is traditionally the date of the creation of Adam and Eve, and is a day of celebration but also of reflecting on the sins and shortcomings of the last year as we usher in the new year of blessings and prosperity.
How To Do It
There are a number of traditions on Rosh Hashanah. Feel free to review them and then practice a few or all of them. Our family typically throws a Rosh Hashanah party with dozens of families, but you might feel more comfortable starting off with your family and a few close friends.
On Rosh Hashanah, we greet teach other by saying, “Shanah tovah!” which means, “Have a good year!” Make sure to greet your family and friends with this greeting on Rosh Hashanah.
Reflection and Repentance
An important aspect of Rosh Hashanah is reflecting on the past year. For all of us, there are things that didn’t go how we had hoped, or maybe we made mistakes or didn’t live the way we had hoped. Micah says,
“Who is like You, O God, who pardons our sins and forgives our transgressions… You will again have compassion on us and will trample out sins under your feet and hurl our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18, 19)
As such, take time to look back and repent of any sins or shortcomings from the last year. Then take a piece of bread—representing our sins—and cast them into a body of water. A lake, river, or ocean is a great place if available; if you don’t live close to a water source, we’ve been known to fill up a kid pool in the backyard and use that.
Be sure to explain to your kids/guests why you’re throwing a piece of bread into a lake. Give them a minute or two to consider the previous year and make a commitment to overcome in the coming year.
Begin the meal by having the women and girls light the candles while reciting the traditional blessing,
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His Word, and commanded us to light the holiday candles.”
As your family is ushering a sweet new year, you should prepare a sweet meal. Apples dipped in honey, round challah bread, sweet potatoes, beats, dates, raisins, and pomegranates should be served as sides/appetizers. Since this is the “head of the year,” it is customary to serve a fish head, reminding guests that this next year they will be the head and not the tail (Deuteronomy 28:13). Of course, you don’t have to consume the head. For a main dish, you can prepare something fish-based or a chicken. Dessert can follow in the fruit theme with a berry pie.
Blow the Shofar in Memorial of Kingships
One of the biblical mandates for Rosh Hashanah reads,
“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation.” (Leviticus 23:24)
As such, it is customary to blow the shofar during Rosh Hashanah. When asked why we blow the shofar, one answer the Talmud gives is that we do it “in remembrance of kingships.” Part of celebrating the new year is every one of us acknowledging that God is our King and the King of the Universe, and just as we cast off the sins of last year, we also make a commitment to live for God our King this coming year.
But notice that “kings” is plural. We aren’t simply celebrating that God is God. We are celebrating that God has created each and every one of us to rule and reign as kings on earth (Genesis 1:28, Exodus 19:6, Romans 5:17, 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6). So as we blow the shofar, we make a commitment to serve Jesus Christ our King and rejoice that we get to reign in life with Him.
Once you explain why we sound the trumpet, pull out your shofar are give it one long blast, three medium blasts, nine short blasts, and finally one really, really long blast.
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, read Genesis 21:1-34—the birth of Isaac—with your family. The next night, it is customary to read Genesis 22:1-24—the binding of Isaac. You can also read Genesis 1 with your family, as Rosh Hashanah is traditionally when God created Adam and Eve—the original royal priesthood of the earth.
“Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.” (Revelation 13:18)
Revelation says that 666 is the number of a man. So who is that man? Is it Trump or Biden? Pope Frances or King Charles? Bill Gates or Elon Musk?
I have a different theory. The number 666 is not talking about a forthcoming man. Instead, 666 is a reference to King Solomon.
How can that be? To understand this theory, we need to look back at the history of the kings who reigned over Israel.
Pharaoh, King of Egypt
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Israelites have found themselves residing in Egypt after relocating there under the governorship of Joseph. Soon after, there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He was concerned that the Israelites might soon become a threat, so he decided he would “deal wisely [חָכַם – chakam] with them” (Exodus 1:10):
“Therefore they set taskmasters [שָׂרֵי מִסִּים – saray mesiym, lit. “rulers of slaves”] over them to afflict them with their burdens [סְבָלָה – subala]. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities [עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת – aray miskunot], Pithom and Raamses.” (Exodus 1:11)
God, of course, did not take kindly to the enslavement of His people, so He brought plagues upon Egypt, resulting in the deliverance of the Israelites and the destruction of the Egyptians.
As the Israelites wandered through the desert towards the Promised Land, God commanded the Israelites that they were to be a nation unlike any of the other nations. They were to be a special treasure above all others, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
Of course, God knew what lay ahead. One day, God foretold, they would come to Him and say, “Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations” (Deuteronomy 17:14, 1 Samuel 8:5). To ensure that the Israelites would have a good king, God gave three commandments specifically to these future kings. Upon their ascension to the throne, they were to write down these three commandments and read them every single day. And what were those three commandments?
He shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses;
Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away;
Nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself. (Deuteronomy 17:16-20)
Even though the very first thing God said to mankind was that they were to “multiply” (Genesis 1:28), God demanded that the kings abstain from multiplying in these three areas: Egyptian horses, wives, and silver and gold.
Solomon, King of Israel
Fast forward four hundred and eighty years. Solomon the son of David has been crowned King of Israel, commissioned by his father to build God a temple. God has granted Solomon a wise [חָכָם – chakam] heart, to be used to “administer justice” (1 Kings 3:28). Thus Solomon begins the work of building God a house.
And how does it build this house?
“So the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as He had promised him… Then King Solomon raised up a labor force [מַס – mas, singular of mesiym] out of all Israel; and the labor force [מַס – mas] was thirty thousand men.” (1 Kings 5:12, 13)
Solomon built the temple using the labor of 30,000 slaves—something the pagan king of Tyre called very “wise” [חָכָם – chakam] (1 Kings 5:7). Just as the Egyptians, in an attempt to be wise, enslaved the Israelites to build their temples, so too did King Solomon, in all his supposed wisdom, enslave the surrounding nations to build his temple (1 Kings 5:13, 9:15).
Following in Egypt’s footsteps, Solomon also ordered that storage cities [עָרֵי הַֽמִּסְכְּנוֹת – aray hamiskunot] be built (1 Kings 9:19); he appointed Israelite rulers [שָׂרֵי – saray] over the slaves (1 Kings 9:23); he even appointed Jeroboam (who would soon lead a rebellion against Solomon’s son) to oversee the burden [סֵבֶל – sabel, root of “subala”] of the labor force (1 Kings 11:28).
Rather than lead the people to be a holy nation, set apart from the rest of the nations, Solomon seemed set on emulating the other nations. He apparently took Exodus 1:11—a description of the persecution and enslavement of his people—and used it as a template to establish his own kingdom.
It should then come as no surprise what we read in the following chapters. Solomon begins making alliances with all of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel, intermarrying with idolatrous wives—wives who would soon turn his heart from the LORD. He winds up with an astonishing seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, mostly from Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Sidon; and sure enough, he was soon worshipping Ashtoreth and building temples for Chemosh and Molech (1 Kings 11).
He also began purchasing thousands of Egyptian horses to build up his army, trusting in chariots and horses for protection rather than in the name of the LORD (Psalm 20:7). To build his wealth and strengthen his alliances with the pagan nations, he exported some of these Egyptian horses to the kings of Syria and surrounding nations—the same nations that would soon attempt to conquer Israel (1 Kings 10:28, 29).
Between profiteering from the sale of Egyptian war horses to enemy nations and exploiting slave labor to build his kingdom, Solomon became one of the wealthiest men who ever lived, generating over a billion dollars in silver and gold every year. Far from multiplying justice and righteousness, Solomon was multiplying the precise things he was commanded to abstain from: foreign women, Egyptian war horses, and silver and gold.
And just how much did he make every year?
“The weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold.” (1 Kings 10:14)
That’s right. After building his kingdom—and God’s!—on the backs of slaves, after forsaking the three commandments that God had given him, after abandoning the call to use his wisdom to spread justice and righteousness to the surrounding nations, Solomon instead turned from God’s Word and exploited the gifts he had been given to make himself rich and famous.
And the number assigned to that betrayal was 666.
The Number of the Beast
I don’t think that Solomon was the Antichrist, or that he’s coming back to usher in the last days. Rather, my current reading is that the warnings we were given concerning the number of the beast were meant to prepare us against the spirit that turned Solomon away from the LORD.
Israel was called to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, a special treasure set apart from the rest of the world (Exodus 19:5, 6). But instead, Israel decided to fall in line with the sins of every other nation, leading to sexual immorality, greed, human rights abuses, and idolatry.
We too, the Church, are called to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood, His own special people, who will proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of the darkness of this wicked world and into the marvelous light of His kingdom (1 Peter 2:9). Will we walk in that light, or will we follow in the footsteps of Solomon—and Pharaoh before him? Will we give into lust and celebrate sexual perversion in order to fit in with this corrupt generation? Will we betray God’s Word if it will make us a few extra bucks? Will we exploit and dehumanize those made in God’s image to score cheap political points? Will we bow our knee to the gods of this generation? Or will we hold fast to the one true God, regardless of the cost?
Here is wisdom. Choose this day whom you will serve.
Isn’t 666 a reference to [Nero/the pope/Nickelback/etc.]?
Sure, I see no reason why that can’t also be true. God, in His infinite wisdom, is able to give prophesies that could have multiple accurate meanings. It’s certainly possible that Revelation 13 could be warning Christians of the dangers of following in the footsteps of Solomon while also warning that various world leaders have already followed in Solomon’s footsteps and are an immediate threat.
It’s also possible that 666 has nothing to do with Solomon. It just seemed like too big a coincidence not to be intentional.
Tomorrow night is the start of Tisha B’av—the observance of when the first and second temple were destroyed (586 BC by Babylon and 70 AD by Rome). Traditionally on Tisha B’av, the book of Lamentations is read, which consists of a five-chapter dirge over the destruction of Jerusalem. If you haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to check it out this weekend.
The first chapter of Lamentations consists of 22 triplets that follow a qinah meter. As the Hebrew alphabet has 22 verses, each triplet begins with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, making the first chapter an acrostic poem. The second chapter follows these patterns as well.
If you look closely, there are a few cracks beneath the surface of these poetic flourishes. The acrostic is not quite right. The letter pe (17th letter) comes before the ayin (16th letter). Additionally, the qinah meter, while almost universal, is missing from a few verses. The poetry looks great to the untrained eye, but it’s slowly falling apart underneath.
The third chapter continues the (almost) pattern of acrostic and qinah meter, even leveling it up a bit. Not only does each triplet begin with the next Hebrew letter—each line of each triplet begins with the next Hebrew letter as well. It’s no surprise that, as the poetry seems to improve, the subject changes from merely lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem to calls for repentance and a renewed hope that God will deliver them from their troubles. But while they seem to be getting things in order, the flaws in the poetry remain.
The improved poetry is short-lived. In chapter 4, rather than acrostic triplets, there is a noticeable downgrade to couplets. The mismatched acrostic and missing qinah meters remain present. Just like Jerusalem, the poetry is falling apart fast.
We finally arrive at chapter 5. As you would expect, this chapter has 22 verses. But there isn’t even an attempt to form an acrostic. There are no couplets or triplets. There’s no qinah meter. All attempts at poetic flare are abandoned, just as Jerusalem had been abandoned. As Jeremiah laments, “The young men [have ceased] from their song” (Lamentations 5:14).
As we look back on the destruction of the City of God this weekend, let’s reflect on the state of our own “city upon a hill.” Are we living out God’s commission towards peace and justice? Or have we moved our souls far from peace and forgotten God’s goodness (Lamentations 3:17)?
The night Jesus was betrayed, Judas led a band of men to the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus. As the Son of Man was surrounded by soldiers, priests, and Pharisees, Peter charged the captors and struck the high priest’s servant in the head with his sword.
Despite what you’ve seen in movies, Jesus and His disciples weren’t surrounded by a small group of religious men. John’s gospel tells us Judas brought “a detachment of troops.” A detachment, for those not familiar with the Roman military, was one-tenth of a legion—a legion being five thousand men. In other words, Jesus was waylaid by about 500 trained Roman soldiers—as well as a group of priests and Pharisees.
So… you have 500 armed soldiers from the world’s most power army on one side… and eleven day laborers with two swords who just woke up from a nap. What was Peter thinking?
To make sense of this, you need to understand the prophecies of Zechariah. In the final chapter of his book, Zechariah foretold of a day when God’s people would be surrounded by enemy nations bent on destroying the Jews (Zechariah 14:2). On that day, the LORD Himself would go forth against the nations to fight on behalf of His people. And His attack would start when the Messiah stood on the Mount of Olives (v. 4).
As the Messiah stood upon the Mount of Olives, surrounded by enemy nations, a great earthquake (seismos)—greater than the earthquake in the days of Uzziah—would strike, splitting (schizo) the mountain in two. Uzziah’s earthquake, of course, had occurred when the priests tried to stop the king from making a sacrifice in the temple, causing the roof of the temple to split in two (2 Chronicles 26, Antiquities IX, 10.4). Then the LORD would enter Jerusalem with the saints (hagios) (v. 5).
Next, the lights would be diminished in the middle of the day and living water (hydor) would flow from Jerusalem. Then the faces of God’s enemies would melt (think Raiders of the Lost Ark), and the LORD would be declared King over all the earth (v. 9, 12).
This prophecy may seem obscure to you, but to a persecuted first-century Jew living under Roman occupation, this would have been well-known and oft-discussed. Now consider what the disciples would have thought. They have been traveling with the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, for over three years. Jesus has been constantly talking about finishing His work, and then they head to Jerusalem during the Passover. No wonder His disciples offered to call down fire on those pagan Samaritans a few days earlier (Luke 9:54). This was the end! The time for all of their enemies to be destroyed.
Every night that week they retired to the Mount of Olives. And every night the disciples waited for Jesus to begin His holy war on God’s enemies. And finally, after days and weeks and years and centuries of waiting, five hundred Roman soldiers and a pod of imposter priests launched their attack. On the Mount of Olives, of all places. And Jesus stood to His feet.
Now was the time.
Peter charged, expecting Jesus to begin shooting lasers out of His eyes and melting all these evil men in their armor.
But Jesus’ attack never came. Instead, He reprimanded Peter and surrendered to the troops, to be taken away, tortured, and murdered on a cross.
Where was the victory of the Messiah? Where was the earthquake? The splitting of the mountain? The darkness and the flowing water and the saints? Where was the King over all the earth?
Maybe the disciples were wrong about Jesus. Maybe He wasn’t their Messiah.
But as He hung on the cross, darkness swept across the land. At noon. In the middle of the day (Matthew 27:45). Then as He took His last breath, the earth quaked (seismos), splitting the rocks apart (schizo) and tearing (schizo) the veil of the temple from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51).
After He died, Jesus was pierced by a soldier, and living water (hydor) flowed from His side (John 19:34). Then the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints (hagios) were raised and entered the holy city (Matthew 27:52-53).
Peter and the disciples were expecting the Messiah to attack their enemies as He stood upon the Mount of Olives. And they were right. They just expected it to happen the wrong way. They expected Jesus to wipe out all the Romans. But the Romans weren’t their true enemy. The real enemy is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Just as Zechariah had prophesied, the rocks were split in two. The priests tried to stop the King, but instead the veil was torn apart. The lights were diminished. The living water flowed. The saints entered Jerusalem. Death was defeated. And Jesus became the King over all the earth.
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? …Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)
In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his most trusted servant (possibly Eliezer) back to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Eliezer is told to find a wife among Abraham’s people, but if he is unable to find a woman (or she refuses to marry Isaac), he will be released from his oath. Essentially, if this doesn’t work out, the line of Abraham might end. This is sort of a big deal.
As you would expect, Eliezer prays to the LORD for help, asking Him to show Abraham “checed” (faithfulness, goodness) and to lead him in “emeth” (truth) (Genesis 24:12, 14, 27, 48).
These two attributes of God appear throughout the Bible, very often together. Jacob prays to God for his checed and emeth (faithfulness and truth) when he returns home to face Esau (Genesis 32:10); David prays for God’s checed and emeth throughout the Psalms (Psalm 40:11); God even reveals Himself to Moses as “the LORD abounding in checed and emeth” (Exodus 34:6).
So Eliezer prays for God’s checed and emeth as he journeys to Nahor, hoping to successfully find Isaac a wife and secure the lineage of Abraham. Sure enough, God delivers. Just as Eliezer finishes praying, he is approached by Rebekah, who is the perfect answer to his prayer. He thanks the Lord, tells her his story, and meets her family.
But then something interesting happens. He asks once more for checed and emeth—but not from God. He asks for it from Rebekah and her family. He asks them to deal faithfully and truthfully with him, to give him a straight answer, to let him know if she would marry Isaac, fulfilling God’s plan for the family of Abraham.
In other words, the plan of God was accomplished by the joining together of God’s checed and emeth and Man’s checed and emeth. God is always faithful and true, and when we respond in faith and truth, God’s plans are realized.
“Let not checed and emeth forsake you. Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man.” (Proverbs 3:3-4)
While Rebekah was pregnant with twins, God appeared to her and said,
“Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body. One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
We often interpret this in light of what we know will eventually come to pass between the two brothers: Since we know the younger brother Jacob will end up with his older brother’s birthright and blessing, this heavenly declaration must be prophesying those events. “The older (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob)” by forfeiting his inheritance. Thus, Esau is the loser of the prophecy because he serves, while Jacob is the winner because he is served.
I think this interpretation is wrong.
For one, this verse doesn’t actually say that “the *older* shall serve the younger.” The word “older” is the Hebrew word “rab,” which actually means “greater.” And of the 458 times it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s only translated “older” in this passage. In fact, if the author meant to say “older,” there’s another word he could have chosen. The word “gadol” means “older,” as we see in Genesis 27:1, where Isaac refers to Esau as his “beni ha-gadol”: “my older son.”
In my opinion, a better translation of the end of Genesis 25:23 would be, “…and the greater shall serve the lesser.” When read this way, the passage is ambiguous as to who is the “greater” and who is the “lesser.” So… who was the greater one?
At first, we might think that the greater one was Jacob. After all, he outsmarted his brother and ended up with the blessing, right? Well… it’s not actually so clear. It’s true that Jacob deceived his father and brother in order to receive his father’s blessing (Hebrew berakah). But twenty years later, when Jacob returned home to face his brother, he returns the berakah, saying, “Please, take my blessing” (Genesis 33:11).
Okay, so maybe Esau is the greater one. He is stronger than his brother, after all. Additionally, after he meets up with his brother after twenty years apart, he tells Jacob that he doesn’t need his brother’s gifts, for “I am great (rab) enough” (Genesis 33:8). Right there, Esau declares himself to be the great one. Case closed, problem solved.
Except… Esau isn’t the only brother who is called great. After living in exile for twenty years, the Bible calls Jacob “exceedingly great” (rab) (Genesis 30:43).
So, both brothers are called great (rab), both brothers were increased greatly, and the blessing changes hands several times and doesn’t really seem to play into this all that much. Which one is the “greater” one? That original prophecy tells us:
“The greater *shall serve* the lesser.”
The greater one is the one who serves.
And with that in mind, which of the two brothers served? During the twenty years that they were separated, we read eleven times that Jacob served (abad) his uncle Laban. This service to his uncle led directly to Jacob becoming great, both in terms of finances, family, and influence. And then when Jacob and Esau finally reunite, Jacob calls himself Esau’s servant (ebed) five times. Those twins spent years and years seeking greatness by trying to steal the inheritance from one another. But finally, Jacob began to seek greatness *through service*.
You find this dynamic live on through their descendants. Esau’s people became the Edomites, while Jacob’s people became the Israelites. After 400+ years in slavery, the Israelites asked permission to pass through the Edomite’s land. The Edomites chose not to serve, refusing them entry into their land (Numbers 20:21).
Despite this poor treatment, God wrote it into the Israelites’ legal code that the Edomites would always be welcome to join the congregation of Israel and worship the One True God beside them, “for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7, 8). The Israelites were commanded to serve their brother Edom.
So often we read Genesis 25:23 and assume that the one who “serves” is the one that gets the short end of the stick, but the opposite is true. The one who “serves” is the one who is considered “great.”
And this interpretation of greatness and service fits much better within the whole narrative of scripture. The very first usage of the word “service” in the Bible (abad) is found in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was given the important task of abading the garden—of serving it, of tilling it. Hundreds of years later, Moses demands that Pharaoh “let God’s people go,” that they may abad Him. After their salvation from Egypt, God gives the priests and Levites the important job of abading Him in the tabernacle. And throughout the prophets, the future Messiah is called the ebed of the LORD—the Servant of God. Service is what God’s people are called to, and serving God and others is what makes us great in the eyes of the LORD.
And thousands of years later, we see this play out between two opposing kings. King Herod was an appointed “king of the Jews.” He was rich, ruthless, and wanted to be served. He considered himself to be so great that he gave himself the title, “Herod the Great.” And did I mention that he also was an Idumaean—an Edomite, a descendant of Esau.
But there was another King of the Jews. This One came not to be served but to serve. This One became poor that we might be made rich. This One bore our sicknesses that we might be healed. This One who knew no sin became sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God. This One—an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob—was the True King, the Servant King, the Great King.
And this Great Servant King taught all who would listen how to achieve greatness as well, by echoing the words He had spoken to Rebekah thousands of years earlier:
“He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)