We now come to Asher, so called because, as Leah said at his birth, ‘the daughters will call me blessed’, Gen. 30. 13.1 Like so many of the tribes’ names, Asher, meaning ‘happy’, was a play on words – words that were taken spontaneously from the way the mother felt at the moment of birth. Sadly, her sister Rachel was not one of the ones who called her blessed. But Rachel aside, Leah was not far wrong. Centuries later, her reputation stood strong and it was Leah’s offspring, more so than Rachel’s, which became synonymous with fruitfulness, Ruth 4. 11-13. For Leah, it did not matter that this was not her biological child. Legally it was, and that was enough. Although in Leah’s case the means did not justify the end, she was right to esteem motherhood as highly as she did. On the other hand, it would have been better to see her derive happiness from God’s favour than from her thriving reputation. We can surely identify with Leah in this; it’s all too easy to take pride in the results of something we have played our part in, when it was God who enabled us to play the part in the first place.
Along with Leah’s and Rachel’s other stepsons, Asher is implicated in Joseph’s bad report which he brought back to his father, Gen. 37. 2, and along with all the brothers, he is embroiled in the actions which ultimately lead to Joseph’s sale. Leaving these things aside, the early references to the emerging tribe of Asher have a far more positive tone about them. Jacob’s prophetic remarks include references to the tribe being highly prosperous in food production, the cream of which would be fit for kings. In a similar vein, Moses spoke of them ‘dipping their feet in oil’ (olive oil), Deut. 33. 24. The people of the day would have clearly understood that as a reference to prosperity. Anyone who had enough olive oil to bathe his feet in it was clearly doing well for himself and, for reasons only known to God and His sovereign purposes, this would be Asher’s portion. Moses spoke to Asher last in his blessings on the tribes, shortly before he climbed mount Nebo to be laid to rest by God, vv. 24, 25. His last words were full of hope and promise. This is what we have come to expect through this series. Not through any means of their own, but by God’s sovereign grace, the final words on God’s people are full of hope, promise and glory.
The way that these prophetic promises would be fulfilled, at least initially, would come down to where the tribe was allocated land, Josh. 19. 24-31. The land northwest of Israel, facing the Mediterranean and stretching up as far as modern-day Lebanon, was especially fertile, and modern archaeology confirms the presence of olive oil production.2 Yet, despite this lucrative bounty from God’s hand, the tribe failed to drive out the Canaanites, preferring to live among them, Judg. 1. 31. Once again, we can identify all too well with this set of affairs. God’s blessing on us ought to make us more devoted, but in so many cases our response is one of spiritual apathy, cp. Prov. 30. 9. A case in point would be the church at Laodicea, Rev. 3. 14-18. Their attitude towards riches had made them spiritually lukewarm, an intolerable state for divine persons. God’s assessment was fierce; they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. What have riches done to us, what would Christ’s assessment be of us and will we repent if we find ourselves wanting? It’s not clear that Laodicea ever did.
In this survey of the tribes, we are tending to draw large brush strokes regarding the tribe in an attempt to understand the overall impression they leave on scripture. Asher’s beginnings were full of hope, but the fullness of their riches will only be seen in a coming day because of their compromise. Amidst these broad-brush observations, however, there are small details which often challenge the overall impression. For the tribe of Asher, there were times when they rose out of apathy and engaged in spiritual endeavours: promptly coming to Gideon’s aid against Midian, Judg. 6. 35; heartily backing David in his ascent to the throne, 1 Chr. 12. 36; and humbly responding to Hezekiah’s call to Passover, 2 Chr. 30. 11. Even in the New Testament, amidst the spiritual lukewarmness of Jerusalem, we find a devoted Asherite, Anna. Her joy at seeing the Lord surely eclipsed even Leah’s. May God help us to be like her, going against the grain of spiritual apathy around us, taking joy in the seed of the woman and His redemption, Luke 2. 38.