When the Children of Israel arrived at Kadesh-barnea, Moses decided to send a band of spies into the Promised Land. They were supposed to scout out the area and access the strength of any possible adversaries that lived there. Moses selected 1 man from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to form this stealthy group. These spies quietly travelled through southern Canaan for several days before returning to the Israelite camp. When they got back, Moses asked them to describe what they had seen. The group presented a thorough report to the congregation.
The spies stated that the Canaanites appeared to be very strong and their cities looked quite formidable. Moses asked the spies if they believed that the Children of Israel could successfully invade the Promised Land and defeat these inhabitants. The team took a vote on the question. 10 of the men said “No” because they were fearful of the sizable enemy. Only 2 of the scouts voted “Yes” because they believed that God was with them and would give them the victory. The majority opinion carried, and the Children of Israel turned back from the Promised Land and instead wandered through the wilderness for the next 40 years (Numbers 13 & 14).
Though they had been outvoted, God still rewarded the 2 spies who had trusted in Him. All of the other spies along with the entire first generation of the exodus died in the wilderness with the exception of these 2 men and Moses. Their names were Caleb and Joshua. Joshua became the leader of the Israelites after Moses died and Caleb later received a special inheritance specifically for his family. It is noteworthy that Caleb was from the tribe of Judah and Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim. Over time, these 2 tribes became the most prominent of the 12. This is no coincidence; it shows God’s ongoing blessing of both Caleb’s and Joshua’s posterity.
This morning we will study the tribe of Ephraim. It was the second most distinguished of the tribes, following only Judah. After today’s message, we will only have one more tribe left to consider in this series through “The 12 Tribes of Israel”.
I. EPHRAIM - THE GRANDSON OF JACOB
Ephraim was the grandson of Jacob and the younger son of Joseph. He and his older brother Manasseh were both born in Egypt during the years when Joseph was serving as Pharaoh's second-in-command. His mother was Asenath. The name Ephraim means “double fruitfulness” and it expresses Joseph’s joy because God had made him “fruitful in the land of his affliction” (Genesis 41:52).
The Bible doesn’t mention Ephraim’s adult life, but it does describe a scene from his childhood. After Jacob’s family moved to Egypt, Joseph took his 2 sons to meet their aged grandfather. Jacob promised that 2 tribes would emerge from the line of Joseph - one through Manasseh and the other through Ephraim. Jacob then crossed his arms while laying his hands on his grandsons to pronounce a blessing. By doing this, he transferred the blessing of the firstborn son to the second and vice versa. When Joseph started to correct him, Jacob insisted that Ephraim - though the younger - would be greater than his brother (Genesis 48:8-20).
II. EPHRAIM - THE TRIBE OF ISRAEL
Moses counted the Children of Israel twice during the exodus. The first census took place near the beginning of the journey. At this time, the tribe of Ephraim had 40,500 warriors (Numbers 1:32-33). By the time of the second census near the end of the trek, the sons of Ephraim had declined to 32,500 (Numbers 26:37).
Whenever the Israelites stopped and set up camp, the tribe of Ephraim was stationed on the western side of the tabernacle. It was the leading tribe of the western camp, which also included Manasseh and Benjamin. The Ephraimites marched 7th in the procession of Israel (Numbers 2:18).
During the Old Testament era, the high priest wore a special breastplate. It displayed 12 beautiful gemstones which depicted the 12 tribes of Israel. Many religious experts believe that the jacinth represented Ephraim. If so, the color of the tribe is orangish-red (Exodus 28:17).
The Ephraimites received a small, but strategically located, area of land in central Canaan (Joshua 16). Their inheritance included the city of Bethel, where Abraham had built an altar many years earlier (Genesis 12:8) and where God had confirmed the Abrahamic Covenant to Jacob (Genesis 28).
After the conquest ended, various regional judges ruled in Israel for almost 350 years. Deborah hailed from the tribe of Ephraim (Judges 4:4-5) and so did Abdon (Judges 12:13-15). During these years, the tribe of Ephraim battled bravely against the enemy on multiple occasions. However, they were greatly offended when Gideon didn’t immediately call them for assistance (Judges 8:1). Later, the Ephraimites pridefully provoked a civil war with the judge Jephthah because he had defeated the Ammonites without waiting for their help (Judges 12:1-6).
Following centuries of rule by tribal judges, the 12 tribes united to form the single nation of Israel. The prophet/judge Samuel, who was himself a descendant of Ephraim (1 Samuel 1), named Saul as the first king. Sometime later, the tribe of Ephraim sent soldiers to support young David’s bid to become the new king (1 Chronicles 12:30). After the reign of King Solomon, the nation of Israel split.
During the period of the divided kingdoms, the tribe of Ephraim was aligned with the northern monarchy of Israel and Jeroboam, its first king, was an Ephraimite (1 Kings 11:26). Just as the southern kingdom was named Judah, so also the northern kingdom was often called Ephraim. Thus, there are many instances in Scripture - especially in the writings of the prophets - where the name Ephraim does not refer to a particular tribe but rather to all of the tribes in the northern kingdom. Israel/Ephraim fell to the Assyrians sometime around 720 BC.
III. THE LESSON FROM EPHRAIM
The symbol for the tribe of Ephraim is an ox (Deuteronomy 33:17). An ox is an incredibly strong animal, but it can also be wild and uncontrollable. In a similar way, the tribe of Ephraim was very powerful and influential. Sadly, they were also horribly sinful and wicked at times. They struggled with pride, idolatry, and disobedience. The leadership they exhibited over the northern kingdom actually led people away from God rather than towards Him.
The tribe of Ephraim serves as an example of wasted potential. Though they had so much going for them, their pride and self-centeredness often seemed to get in their way. Their elevated position among the tribes could have been used as a source for good to point others towards righteousness. Instead, on the whole, they did just the opposite. As a result, the northern kingdom collapsed much sooner than the southern kingdom did. Each of the northern kings in succession just got worse and worse...
Like Ephraim, God has blessed each individual person with the potential to lead others to Him. He has entrusted the gospel message to believers and equipped them for the work of ministry. He has called His followers to be ambassadors for Christ and to carry the name of Jesus everywhere. He continually gives them opportunities to point lost sinners to the loving Savior. Yet, all too often, Christians fail to draw people toward the Lord but instead they actually push them away. Their potential for good is frequently squandered away...
Ephraim was a man, a tribe, and a nation. The man named Ephraim was the second son of Joseph, and was a grandson of Jacob. The tribe that descended from Ephraim was the eleventh of the 12 tribes. Ephraim was an alternative name for the northern kingdom, more commonly known as Israel. When we read the word Ephraim in the Bible we must be careful to consider the context of the passage to determine which of these meanings is appropriate.
The main idea of today’s message about Ephraim is this: we must be careful not to waste the potential that God has given to us. He has called us to do good works and to shine the light of Jesus in dark places. But are we actually doing that? If so, how often are we doing it? How much potential are we wasting? Could we and should we be doing more for Jesus?
Next week we’ll conclude this series on “The 12 Tribes of Israel” with a message about Jacob’s youngest son Benjamin. In the meantime, may we each strive to reach the potential for good that God has placed within us.