My heroes are people who refuse to allow the injustices of life to define them.
Benjamin is one of them.
He started off rocky. His father had just made the biggest mistake of his whole life by leaving Bethel when God had overtly ordered him to stay there and put down roots.
As the first round of punishment for that sin (the first of many during the rest of Jacob’s life), Benjamin’s mother died in childbirth. As she died, she named him “Son of my Sorrow” which, no matter how you spin it, doesn’t come out as a blessing.
His dad graciously renamed him something along the lines of “Chip off the Old Block” but the flat out reality is that Benjamin began badly.
There was no mother there to nurse him and to facilitate the gradual process of his differentiating from the woman he had been a part of for so long. His father was so immersed in the grief over the loss of his beloved wife, he probably didn’t have much emotion to give to the little guy.
No one knows how Jacob processed his grief. Did he consciously or subconsciously blame Benjamin for the death of his wife? And if so, do you think this sensitive Mercy baby maybe knew it in his spirit?
Besides the specific dynamics of his nurture being delegated to some other woman, the whole household was in a state of upheaval. When Benjamin was conceived, they were living in Shechem where they had been for at least a decade. That means things were stable, orderly, structured.
At about seven or eight months in the pregnancy, Dinah got in trouble, Simeon and Levi committed genocide with treason, and the whole family had to uproot hurriedly and relocate to Bethel.
In addition to all of the emotional turmoil caused by the two sons taking the law into their own hands, moving an entire extended family with all the cattle, suddenly, along a rough mountain road was horribly labor intensive. One doubts Benjamin was smothered with attention during this season.
There was a God-encounter at Bethel, but the terrain and culture were not conducive for a cattle baron like Jacob, so after a brief hiatus, they moved on. During this migrant period, Benjamin was born and Rachel died, but the march continued until they arrived at Hebron, a region that was home to Jacob, but foreign territory to everyone else in the group.
There Benjamin had a bit of solace with the love of a grandfather and some restoration of stability to the tribe.
But that was short-lived because there was a case of incest in the camp which caused a huge upheaval, a rift and more complex spiritual dynamics.
My point is, none of this was Benjamin’s fault. Absolutely NONE. But every bit of it affected his tender Mercy psyche during that first year of his life. Unless there was a caretaker who was pretty exceptional, it looks like there was little positive in Benjamin’s life from the start.
Now dialing back in from the macro to the micro, you have the fact that Benjamin was clearly an “also ran” from the git go. How many of you know what it feels like to go to school and, in every class room, the comments are the same, “Oh, you are HIS brother!”
Older brother Joseph was daddy’s pet, even before Benjamin got tagged with the blame for beloved Rachel dying. We have a triple whammy here. First of all, Joseph was the crown prince in the family. Second, he was quite spoiled and didn’t mind flaunting his special privilege to the other brothers. And third, in addition to being a brat, he also was very competent. It would be easier to brush off his big head if he had nothing in it.
THEN Joseph vanishes, presumed dead. Family dynamics take another turn for the worse, as the brothers who knew the scam now had two dirty secrets they had to keep, and Jacob who was no fool, had to know in his spirit that the boys were messing with him big time, even if he could not do anything about it.
When Joseph left the family constellation, Benjamin’s life probably went down hill on a sled. First of all, dad got hyper protective and just about the time Benjamin became a teenager, his boundaries got yanked in to almost nothing.
Second, he utterly ceased to be a person and became a place holder. He became the last living connection to the beloved Rachel and the stand in for the lost but still beloved Joseph.
Ever been a place holder?
You are the new pastor taking over for some legend who people will still revere in 50 years. You are allowed to stand in his pulpit and preach, but after five years, no one knows you. They only know that you are not as good as the legend who they still miss.
Or you take over for Wunderkid at Western Widgit World and no one really bothers to find out what you can do, or how you feel about anything, or who you are, because they are so absorbed in the fact that no one, and I mean NO ONE, can deliver what Wunderkid did.
Or you are the new kid on the team, taking over for the All State MVP and no one bothers to find out what you can do because they already know you can’t fill the shoes of the MVP.
Or you are the kid who is left when the beloved sibling dies, and dad needs someone to fill the hole in his heart, so he hugs you, while he is pretending you are the beloved son who is gone.
And you know it.
That, my friends, is UGLY.
And you know what? It wasn’t Benjamin’s fault. He didn’t cause Joseph to disappear. He didn’t make the hole in his father’s heart. He didn’t cause there to be only two sons of Rachel. He did not cause Jacob to be alienated from the rest of his sons.
But even though Benjamin was squeaky clean, innocent of even a shred of contribution to this mess, it was his heart that got shredded as he became a token, a representation of something, a tie to the past, and was not known for who he was as a person.
It gets worse.
The whole drought and grain in Egypt scenario went down, and suddenly Benjamin was the object of a power play between a tyrannical Middle Eastern Prime Minister and his father. The drama played out over a year or two.
Put yourself in his shoes. Daddy has kept you on a short leash for years and particularly has kept you away from your half brothers who he doesn’t trust. Suddenly, you are faced with the proposition of making a several week trip with those brothers, without dad, to go see the Royal Grump in Egypt.
Was it scary? Was it exhilarating? How would a baby of the family Mercy who had never had a life feel?
At the end of the day, his feelings didn’t matter. They were not recorded. Because Benjamin was not a person. Because he was a place holder. An entity. A memorial. A connection to the past. He didn’t have a life.
The discussion raged around the compound for months. “Dad, we gotta. There is no other way.”
“No way. You are not taking the last tie I have to my beloved wife.”
“Dad, don’t be unreasonable. There is no food around here.”
“Don’t talk to me about unreasonable. I don’t love any of you. I only love my place holder who reminds me of my beloved wife and son. Out of abject selfishness, I am not going to risk my place holder for the good of the rest of you. I deserve a little consideration here.”
But the Mercy place holder did not deserve any such consideration as the debate raged on around him. After all, he was just a bargaining chip in the international commodities game.
Ugly, ugly, ugly.
And it got a lot uglier real fast.
The boys wore dad down. He more or less cursed the whole trip, laid a colossal guilt trip on them all and sent them off, preparing for the place holder to not come back.
Fast forward to Joseph revealing himself, Jacob coming down to Egypt and father and beloved son being reunited while the place holder vanishes from the story never to be mentioned again, now that Golden Boy is back in his father’s arms.
You think it was tough being Joseph’s little brother when you were a kid? What do you do when Joseph comes back into the picture, not just as the Prime Minister of the most powerful nation at that time, but more overtly as the savior of the entire family?
Glory upon glory. Dad loved Joseph with all his heart from day one, but he loves him wildly after losing him, getting him back and all that drama.
It gets worse.
Not only does Joseph have all the human assets wrapped up in a neat little package, he has God on his side too. It is now evident for the entire family to see (including dad and the place holder) that God Almighty had given Joseph dreams about this job ‘way back in the day, and it was clearly God who put him on the throne.
So . . . how does a place holder compete with the Prime Minister and with God for a bit of his dad’s heart?
The bottom line is, when Benjamin’s season of being a place holder for Joseph was over, he turned pretty savage. Love would not come to him, but the over-protected kid could turn into a predator who helped himself.
When Jacob gave his last words to his sons, the place holder was dead last and if this was a blessing, deliver me from any blessings like this. It was more of a bitter acknowledgment of what a sociopath Benjamin had become (with no repentance on Jacob’s part for making him this way).
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” Genesis 49:27 NIV
Ugly. Really, really ugly.
But hey! Some of you out there know first hand how utterly degrading it is to be an entity, a unit, a presence, a burden, a place holder, and not a person.
Two of the most foundational drives of the human race are to know and to be known. There is little evidence that Benjamin was ever known as a unique human. As life happened around them, Jacob, Rachel, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah and Aunt Leah all are allowed to have emotions that color the story and are recorded in Scripture for all mankind to see.
We have some degree of ability to know the others through the record of their emotions. But silent Benjamin is unnoticed, unknown, unrecorded ——– while a volcano was brewing inside him. He wanted to be known as much as anyone else did.
Actually, that is not entirely true. As a Mercy, he had a deeper God-given drive to be known than the rest of them. But he wasn’t. He was the silent place holder. The one you hugged when you were thinking about Rachel or Joseph.
So no one knew him until his emotions became visible in antisocial behavior. I wonder who first asked a friend, “What has gotten into little silent Benjy? He just hasn’t been himself since we came to Egypt.”
Treating a Mercy like a place holder and not finding out what is going on inside him is a perfect recipe for growing a sociopath. It’ll work almost every time.
So I began by saying he was one of my heroes. But what’s to like about Benjamin? He easily is an object of compassion, but where is the heroism?
Well, life is a movie, not a snapshot. This snapshot is pretty ugly. But the movie has a surprise ending.
Life happened. The centuries passed. Joseph vanished and the slave drivers filled the screen. God came. Israel went. After forty years in the desert and Moses went home too.
When it came time for him to bless the tribe of Benjamin, they were taken out of order. They were fourth out of 12 for no apparent reason other than God and Moses liked this tribe.
It sounds as though they were back to being a glorious incarnation of everything the Mercy gift is supposed to be. What Mercy would not cherish the following blessing/character description?
“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.” Deuteronomy 33:12 NIV
“Beloved of the Lord.” Wow.
“The one the Lord loves . . . ” No ambiguity there. The place holder label is GONE.
“Rests between his shoulders . . . ” No Jacob-hugging-Joseph nonsense here!
How did we get from place-holder-turned-sociopath to the stunningly elegant Mercy gift in full flower? Two other tribes are said to experience the favor of the Lord, but only Benjamin is called the object of Almighty God’s love. Pretty special. No place holder here.
Obviously God knew what a raw deal Benjamin got and God may have cut him some slack along the way. God must have pursued the tribe with some degree of persistence to bring about the transformation. But was it all God?
Let’s go back to Benjamin. Have you ever read the genealogies? I love them. They are loaded with treasures.
Benjamin was married and had ten kids when they went down to Egypt, which is the most of any of the sons of Jacob.
As you look at the names, they are all over the board.
Bela – Destruction
Beker – Young Camel
Ashbel – A Man in God
Gera – A Grain
Naaman – Pleasantness
Ehi – My Brother
Rosh – Head
Muppim – Serpent
Huppim – Protected
Ard – I Shall Subdue
I well know that most sociopaths bring their anger home with them and it isn’t pretty. But not all.
Is there any possibility that it wasn’t all God unilaterally redeeming the tribe? Is there any possibility that the love-starved heart of this Mercy man turned to his own family?
Did Benjamin fail forward? Did he look at the deep losses in his own life and make an inner vow that no child of his would ever be a place holder? Did he spend time getting to know each of his children and making absolutely sure they knew they were loved?
I don’t know. There are some men who are ruthless in the marketplace and tender at home. Maybe Benjamin, the ravenous wolf, was one of those.
Regardless! Whether God did 100% of the heavy lifting or whether Benjamin did some things right for his kids, I don’t know.
I just know I LOVE this story. The ravenous wolf became the beloved of the Lord.
How you begin your life does not have to define how you end it.
Life is a movie, not a snapshot.
The angry, displaced place holder, who probably set a new world record for jealousy, produced the tribe that just nestled into their intimate relationship with God.
I am addicted to redemption, and this story is a classic.
Copyright May 2011 by Arthur Burk