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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Leaving a Family Legacy God's Way

[Author’s Disclaimer: This study attempts to weave together some very thinly represented information in the Old Testament narratives. Some parts of the story are admittedly speculative, but rather than bog down the text with footnotes, I am choosing to just tell the story as I see it and hope that it is not wildly off base from reality. Your tolerance for my storytelling liberties is appreciated.]

What is the legacy you’re leaving in your family?

Everyone wants to leave something behind. We crave for our lives to mean something beyond our own time and place. And a lot of us find that meaning appropriately in our families. In a recent Pew Survey, 99% of Americans said spending time with family was important, with 73% saying it was one of the most important things to them. That compared with only 32% who would say that about practicing their religious faith and about 23% who said that about their careers. We know family is important, but how do we make it important?

‌Too often, we measure a family by its business or busyness for a short span of years. Are our kids active enough? Are they succeeding in school? Are we respected in our community? How do people talk about us around town? Have we climbed the social ladder? Are we amassing wealth? All of these can seem like a family focus, but all of them are short-lived in comparison to the alternative God shows us. When we talk about meaning and legacy in a family, God sees something longer and larger.

David writes in Psalm 71:17–18, “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”

The psalmist thanks God for the legacy of faith that had been handed to him as a child, and he prays to God for enough years to hand off that faith to another generation. Faith is the true and lasting legacy. However, I think we miss a little of the power of this psalm in our English text, and also in the Hebrew text for that matter. The Psalms were written in Hebrew long before they were translated into English, and then a couple of centuries before the time of Christ, they were translated into  Greek. In the Greek text of this psalm, the compilers included a very specific inscription: “By David, a Psalm sung by the sons of Jonadab, and the first that were taken captive.”

It is not unusual to see a psalm attributed to David, but you will be rewarded for your curiosity if you ask about the sons of Jonadab. Who were these people and why are they famous for singing this psalm? The inscription mentions that they were some of the first to be taken captive, referencing the Great Exile of 586 BC when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. However, to understand that inscription, we need to go back in time about fourteen years before that.

The year is about 600 BC.

Jeremiah the prophet is in Judah at this time. He is trying to express to the people of Judah that God’s judgment is about to fall upon them. They have been faithless, and God plans to use the Babylonians as his instrument of justice against them. Throughout his ministry, God has given Jeremiah a variety of illustrations and symbols to help explain the situation to Judah, and in Chapter 35, he offers a very peculiar object lesson.

“Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak with them and bring them to the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers; then offer them wine to drink” (Jeremiah 35:2). The Rechabites are an obscure nomadic family from Samaria who had been seen in recent days around the lands of Judah. Elsewhere, the Bible tells us that “these are the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab” (‌​1 Chronicles 2:55b), but that does not help much in identifying them. At this time, the nomads had come south to Judah due to the ongoing invasion by the Babylonians that was making its way south. Thus, they are not only nomads but also refugees. God instructs Jeremiah to invite them into one of the chambers of the temple complex and offer them hospitality, specifically in the form of wine.

Jeremiah doesn’t know where this story is going, but he obeys. ‌​”Then I set before the Rechabites pitchers full of wine, and cups, and I said to them, “Drink wine” (Jeremiah 35:5). To be clear, Jeremiah is not asking the Rechabites to do anything immoral. He is not inviting them to a bar or a brothel. A prophet of God by divine command is inviting weary travelers into the Holy Temple to share wine with him. There is nothing sinister in this offer, only hospitality.

And yet, the Rechabites refuse the wine. “We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine, neither you nor your sons forever’” (Jeremiah 35:6). ‌Why does a nomadic family refuse free hospitality offered to them by a prophet in the Temple? It turns out they are a bit eccentric or perhaps even ascetic. They have a family tradition left to them by their ancestor Jonadab. As part of their tradition - perhaps one that began as an oath or vow such as found in Numbers 6 - they did not drink wine. It turns out, this isn’t even the strangest thing about them. As they explain, their ancestor Jonadab had also left them instructions about being nomadic, avoiding cities and towns, and not even planting farms or vineyards. “You shall live in tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn” (‌​Jeremiah 35:7). And so they had lived for generations, “ourselves, our wives, our sons, [and] our daughters” (35:8-10).

This family considered faithfulness to their father’s vow as more important than putting down roots or amassing wealth. Why? How long had this been happening? When Jeremiah meets these people, the answer is at least two hundred years old.

The year is about 840 BC.

The wicked dynasty of King Ahab in Israel and his cruel wife Jezebel is about to meet its end. God sends a prophet to a young military commander named Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat, the son of Nimshi. The prophet approaches Jehu with these words with a command to “strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord” (‌2 Kings 9:6–7). Jehu is given the task of driving out all the worshippers of Baal, including the priests, the king, the queen, their children, and all their armies. It’s a big job, and the young man needs help from people of great faith and courage.

As he travels through Samaria, he mostly finds enemies rather than allies, until he stumbles upon one peculiar man, Jehonadab the son of Rechab. Without any preamble, Jehu asks Jehonadab if he is a true-hearted man, and if so, will he join Jehu in his chariot (‌​2 Kings 10:15). For reasons we can only imagine, Jehonadab agrees and hops up into the chariot. At this point, Jehu tells him where they are going. “Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord” (2 Kings 10:16). As an important side note, whenever you see the word “zeal” in the Bible, it usually means there is about to be some violence (see Phinehas’ violence against unholiness in Numbers 25 or Saul’s persecution of the church referenced in Philippians 3:6). Likewise, Jehu is going to war, and Jehonadab is going with him. “And when he came to Samaria, he struck down all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah” (‌​2 Kings 10:17).

In sum, Johanadab joins in Jehu’s war against the wicked. We get no further details, but apparently, Johanadab pledges his family’s loyalty to the cause. They become zealots. They take a vow of purity that prohibits wine and separates them from the prevailing culture. They roam the hills as nomads for the next 200 years until they meet Jeremiah.This, of course, raises another question. Why is Johanadab wandering around Samaria? What is he doing there? Why is he willing to support Jehu so quickly? Where does he come from? ‌By the time Johanadab got into Jehu’s chariot, the answer was at least three hundred years old.The year is about 1200 BC.

For twenty long years, the people of Israel have been oppressed by King Jabin of Canaan. Jabin’s armies had crushed all opposition. They were led by a powerful general named Sisera who fielded 900 chariots of iron. God summons the prophetess Deborah to guide Barak against Sisera and free the people of Israel. A battle is fought at the base of Mount Tabor, and God routs the forces of Sisera. Sisera runs away on foot but stumbles upon a nomadic family of Kenites. This is great luck for Sisera, “for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite” (‌​Judges 4:16–17). And so, believing himself to be safe in the tent of an allied family, Sisera accepts the hospitality of the Kenites and takes a nap.

Alas for Sisera, these are no ordinary Kenites. ”Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses” (Judges 4:11). This family of Kenites had separated themselves from the others, and it seems that they had rejected the truce with the forces of Jabin. These Kenites remember their heritage. They still think of themselves as the descendants of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses and friend of the Hebrews. Sisera thinks he has found allies, but he has found the opposite. Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite who is the descendant of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses kills Sisera in his sleep and hands his body over to Deborah and Barak (Judges 4:21-23).

But why is this family of nomads living in this region to begin with? Why does it matter to them that they are Kenites and the descendants of Hobab? ‌By the time that Jael drives a tent peg through the head of Sisera, the answer is already about one hundred and fifty years old.The year is about 1350 BC.

The long years of the conquest are coming to an end with just a few remaining loose ends to wrap up. The great general Joshua, the successor to Moses himself, has died, but a few lands remain to be claimed as part of the promises of God. In particular, the Southlands are still under the control of the pagans. A Canaanite fortress city sits on a defensible hill. The people there were named the Jebusites, and the city was named Jebu. In years to come, this mighty city would have another name—Jerusalem.

The people look for a tribe to volunteer to war against Jebu, and God selects the tribe of Judah (‌​Judges 1:1–2). In centuries to come, Judah would become the tribe of kings, and Jerusalem would become its capital. But before David can set his throne in Jebu, first his ancestors must war against the Jebusites, and they will need help. They look for allies, just as King Jehu would so many years later, and unsurprisingly, they found the same family of nomads to be willing allies. ‌​”And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negeb near Arad, and they went and settled with the people” (Judges 1:16). ‌While others waivered, the Kenites volunteer their assistance to Judah in their war.

As it happens, the war doesn’t go particularly well, but the Kenites do their part. It would be many years before Jerusalem finally came under full control, but much of the land became inhabited by Judah and their new nomadic friends the Kenites. But why are the Kenites traveling around with the Hebrews anyway? Why are they willing to volunteer in someone else’s war? Before Judah ever marched against the Jebusites, the story of the Kenites is already another hundred years old.The year is about 1450 BC.

The ten plagues are over and the Red Sea crossing is a fresh memory. Israel has come to Sinai to meet their God. Moses returns from the mountaintop with the Law and instructions for their next journey. On this day, the former slaves known as the Hebrews are packing up and preparing to leave, beginning a long journey to Canaan. Moses takes time out of his preparations to speak to one particular family.

“And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the Lord has promised good to Israel” (Numbers 10:29). These Midianites are not part of the family of the Hebrew people, but they are part of the family that Moses created in his travels, and he does not want them left behind.

However, Reuel is uncertain about this offer. At first, he refuses: “I will not go. I will depart to my own land and to my kindred.” (Numbers 10:30). Reuel knows who his family is and where he belongs. In his mind, his legacy is right here. This whole story of Moses, the Hebrews, and the Egyptians has just been an interruption of his family’s story. The Hebrews will go on, and Reuel will return to his heritage in Midian.

But Moses has other ideas. “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you.” (Numbers 10:29–32)

‌Moses knows that God has something great planned for the Hebrews, and he does not want his in-laws to miss out. He wants to connect their story to the story of Israel, and he won’t take no for an answer. Why does Moses insist that the Midianite descendants of his father-in-law travel with them away from Sinai? ‌The answer is about thirty years old.The year is about 1480 BC.

A Hebrew baby had been adopted into the family of Pharaoh in Egypt, but he never stopped caring for his people, the Hebrew slaves. One day he sees a slave being mistreated and fights the man doing it. An Egyptian dies that day, and Moses is to blame. Pharaoh puts a death sentence on Moses, and so Moses flees out into the desert of Midian. Alone and despondent, he sits down next to a well, where an unlikely event transpires. The daughters of a Midianite priest are at the well, and they are being mistreated by a group of shepherds (Exodus 2:16–17). Just as he had stood up for his own people, now Moses - hero by nature it seems - rescues some damsels in distress. The women report the story to their father, Reuel, who responds with hospitality and an offer of dinner for Moses. Moses stays longer than dinner. He marries one of Reuel’s daughters and has a son (‌​Exodus 2:18–22) The hero of the well and the family of Reuel have their stories intertwined that day, never to be separated.

‌What is the point of all this?! Reuel took in a lost young man wandering in the desert, and he made Moses part of his family. About thirty years later, that same wanderer was the leader of a great people, and Moses returned the favor to Reuel by inviting his people to follow along with God’s story for the Hebrews. A century later, the family of Reuel, called the Kenites, joined Judah in its war against the Canaanites. Then 150 years after that, the same clan of families happened to be there to help deliver the people of Israel from Sisera. Over 300 years later, the descendants of that same family are roaming around Samaria when King Jehu was looking for allies against the wickedness of Ahab and Jezebel. Johanadab stepped up into Jehu’s chariot and once more was a faithful part of the story. Two hundred years after that, the same family was sitting in a chamber of the Temple, refusing a prophet’s wine because partaking in wine wasn’t what their forefathers had taught them.

God points to this family and says that is what he means by faithfulness. That is what a legacy looks like.

“The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me” (Jeremiah 35:12–14).

‌God uses this family’s story as a model of faithfulness. The families of Judah had been prosperous, but the family of Jonadab had been faithful. Their family was a living testament to the long-reaching effects of faith, loyalty, and kindness. God promises doom to Judah because of its faithless ways, but he has a different promise to the family of Jonadab the Rechabite. “Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me” (‌​Jeremiah 35:18–19).

The story of faithlessness was coming to an end, but God promised that the story of faith would never be over. ‌The Rechabites - unprotected nomads without any city walls to cower behind - were some of the first people captured and exiled by the Babylonians just thirty years later. But their story wasn’t over. It picks up again after 150 years.The year is 445 BC.

By the providential hand of God, the people of Judah are permitted to return to Jerusalem. Nehemiah begins a rebuilding project (Nehemiah 2:17). Nehemiah records that many opposed the project. At one point, the text says they had to build with one hand while they fought with the other just to keep the project going. But who would you guess was there, again, taking their place faithfully in that story?

“Malchijah the son of Rechab, ruler of the district of Beth-haccherem, repaired the Dung Gate. He rebuilt it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars” (‌​Nehemiah 3:14). The Rechabites are there again, doing their part, filling a small role in a big story. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even Hebrews, but they had kept the faith for a thousand years and weren’t about to stop now.

What is the legacy you leave in your family? We want to leave something that will last, but all the options we choose are so small and so fleeting. Faith lasts. While Nehemiah was building the walls, scribes like Ezra were compiling the Psalms. In those psalms, we see devotion to a true legacy.  ‌​”O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Psalm 71:17–18). Walls and cities would come and go, but faith could endure through it all. And now, at last, we can return to the inscription that began this study.

The year is about 250 BC.

It has been twelve hundred years since Hobab’s family followed Moses to Canaan. It's been eleven hundred years since they helped Judah settle around Jerusalem. It's been a thousand years since Jael the Kenite killed Sisera. It's been six hundred years since Jonadab the Kenite got into Jehu’s chariot. It’s been three hundred and fifty years since Jonadab’s descendants refused Jeremiah’s wine. It's been over three hundred years since they went into captivity, and it's been two hundred years since the sons of Jonadab helped Nehemiah rebuild the wall.

The Jewish people are, at the moment, flourishing and relatively safe. They have been commissioned to translate their holy Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, a gift that benefits biblical research even to our current day. An unknown scribe sits down and translates Psalm 71, a psalm about sharing faith from one generation to another. He thinks to himself, “I remember who used to sing that song.” And so he pens a simple inscription.

“By David, a Psalm sung by the sons of Jonadab, and the first that were taken captive.”

That is what a legacy looks like. It doesn’t come from business or busyness. It comes from playing a small part in God’s long story, a long obedience in the same direction.

Let faith be your legacy.

Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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