November 02, 2004

The Rechabites

Christians know the heroes of faith in the Old Testament on a first-name basis – Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Esther, Daniel and David, among others. Each spring we watch Charlton Heston part the Red Sea on TV. Even Jabez enjoyed a season of fame. But God does not see as man does, and one of the names He favors lacks star power and appeal.

Buried in the book of Jeremiah, an obscure band of Bedouins – the Rechabites – makes a brief appearance before the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. God uses the obedience and faithfulness of these people – they are proselytes, not Israelites – as an object lesson to stiff-necked Judah.

In the 35th chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet is instructed by the Lord to speak to the Rechabites and escort them into the Temple. The tribesmen are descendants of the Kenites or the family of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. Inside, Jeremiah invites the guests to take a cup of wine. But this is not happy hour. The Lord is setting them up to be a righteous example to the rebellious Jews in Jerusalem. The Rechabites are unwitting players in a test of obedience, which, in the end, earns them an everlasting reward. Let's pick up the story in verse 6 after bowls of wine are set before them:

But they said, "We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying, 'You shall drink to wine, you nor your sons, forever. You shall not build a house, sow seed, plant a vineyard, nor have any of these; but all your days you shall dwell in tents, that you may live many days in the land where you are sojourners.' Thus we have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he charged us . . . ."

Notice that the Rechabites obey ALL that their father commanded them (Jonadab was actually their forefather who lived about 300 years earlier). The rabbinic commentary in the Judaica Press Book of Jeremiah Volume Two says the Rechabites "knew no benefit from this commandment. They observed it purely because it was their father's wishes." The book says Jonadab's order to forbid wine is easily understood in light of the warnings against drunkenness in Proverbs and the prophetic books. Isaiah 28 attributes the exile of the northern tribes to overindulgence in wine.

It's doubtful this meeting went unnoticed by the princes and priests, who had shut their ears to correction. What irony: the Rechabites obey their earthly father, but the Jews refuse to obey their heavenly Father, even though He rose early to warn and teach them (Jeremiah 32:33). Judah continued to defile God's house and Name with idolatry and the shedding of innocent blood. After the Rechabites refuse the offer of wine, the Lord pronounces judgment on Jerusalem for its disobedience. Then He makes this stunning promise to the Rechabites through the prophet – "Because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept his precepts and done according to all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: 'Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack of man to stand before Me forever.' " One small act of obedience is rewarded with unprecedented favor. Methodist scholar Adam Clarke (1760-1832) says in his commentary, "His name shall ever be honorable, and his posterity shall enjoy My continual protection, and there shall never be found a time in which men of his spirit shall be wanting as patterns of genuine simplicity, filial obedience, purity of manners and deadness to the world." Rabbinic literature suggests that God's covenant with the Rechabites was superior to the covenant with David, inasmuch as David's was conditional while the Rechabites' was without reservation.

Christianity could use some Rechabite-minded followers today as the church sinks deeper into an abyss of compromise and apostasy. In the last three weeks, delegates of the Presbyterian Church USA huddled with Hezbollah terrorists in the Middle East, and the Episcopal Church USA official website promoted a pagan eucharist written by a female priest who also is a practicing Wiccan. The ceremony involves the worship of the queen of heaven with raisin cakes. God complains about this very practice in Jeremiah 7:18-20, "The children gather wood, the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour drink offerings to other gods, that they provoke Me to anger." Solomon was right, there is nothing new under the sun. Men continue to call evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). But somewhere out there, God knows, a Rechabite descendant – perhaps unaware of his or her heritage – is worshipping the Lord today in spirit and truth.

Postscript

Biblical and historical records can be helpful in tracing the Rechabite family tree. Jonadab or Jehonadab, the Rechabites' ancestor, appears in 2 Kings 10:15-28 when he is invited into the chariot of King Jehu, who in his zeal for the Lord slaughters the descendants of Ahab and the prophets of Baal. Jonadab apparently was a worshipper of YHVH.

It is likely the Rechabites were exiled to Babylon with the Jews. When they returned to Jerusalem, a Rechabite ruler named Malchijah repaired the Refuse Gate (Nehemiah 3:14). Jewish sages believe the Rechabites married daughters of priests and had grandchildren in the priesthood. We know from 1 Chronicles 2:55 that some became scribes – "These were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab." Church father Eusebius (260-340) wrote that when James the Just – the brother of Yeshua and first bishop of the Jerusalem church – was being stoned by the Sanhedrin, a Rechabite priest protested, "Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you."

The rabbis in the Judaica Press commentary present an intriguing scenario. They claim the sons of Jethro dwelled in the land of Jericho for 440 years while the Israelites assigned to live in that territory worked on the Temple. When the Temple was completed the Rechabites left Jericho to study Torah in the Judean wilderness with Othniel ben Kenaz, also known as Jabez.

Over the centuries, pockets of Rechabites have turned up in remote locations. Benjamin of Tudela (1160) found descendants "twenty-one day’s journey from Babylon, through the desert of Sheba, or Al-Yemen, from which Mesopotamia lies in a northerly direction, are abodes of the Jews who are called the Rechabites." He described them as an independent tribe that lived in large, fortified cities. Rechabite Jews were discovered in China in the 1500s. Isaiah 49:12 confirms that Israelites were dispersed to the land of Sinim, which is China. In the 1800s English missionary Dr. Joseph Wolff located about 60,000 Rechabites living in Arabia. They spoke Arabic and some Hebrew. Wolff noted that they did not drink wine, lived in tents and remembered the word of Jonadab the son of Rechab. Dwelling with them were children of the Israelite tribe of Dan, who along with the Rechabites expected "the speedy arrival of the Messiah in the clouds of heaven." A Bedouin tribe recently was found near the Dead Sea that claimed to be descendants of Jehonadab.

Posted by Jeff King at November 2, 2004 12:40 AM
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