Hidden away in the some of the most tedious books of the Bible, among a myriad of unpronounceable names, lies one of the most remarkable stories of fatherhood ever told.
His name was Asher. He was the eighth son of Jacob, born in Paddan Aram, which today is Northern Syria (Gen. 35:26). Remember Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel. At different times, when they struggled with infertility, both of them gave their handmaids to Jacob. Asher was born from Leah's handmaid Zilpah. He had an older brother named Gad. At Asher's birth, Leah said, "'How happy I am! The women will call me happy.' So she named him Asher" (Gen. 30:12). Asher means "happy" in Hebrew. So Happy Gilmore wasn't the first to be called Happy!
Asher's inauspicious start
But when you look at the way he started out, I'm not sure how happy he was. He wasn't born from Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel. He wasn't even born from Leah, but from one of her handmaids. Asher didn't have the honor of being the oldest son, like Reuben, nor was he the strongest son—that would have been Judah. He wasn't the doted-on youngest son; that was Benjamin. He wasn't the favorite; that was Joseph. Asher lived his early life in the shadows, learning to be content with the leftovers.
Besides that, Asher grew up in one of history's most dysfunctional families. There was parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, deceit, and longstanding resentment. I hope you know there are really no perfect families in the Bible. There's hardly a single model family for anyone to look up to with either awe or envy. Adam and Eve are no sooner out of the garden than one of their sons murders the other. Noah's sons are forced to devise a strategy to hide their father's drunken shame. Jesse's sons, brave and loyal in service of their country, are capricious and cruel to their youngest brother. David is a man after God's own heart and Israel's greatest king, but he can't manage his own household. Even in Jesus' family, we see the same thing. In Mark 3, Jesus is healing the sick and fulfilling his call as Messiah, while his mother and brothers are outside trying to get him to come home, convinced he's crazy. The Bible most often portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell painting, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption.
But that doesn't excuse what Asher and his brothers did. Asher participated in something in his youth that was terribly wrong. He joined in on the selfish and hard-hearted scheme to have his half-brother Joseph thrown into a pit and later sold as a slave to a traveling caravan headed for Egypt. He would later watch his beloved father grieve that loss. Years later, he was part of the delegation of brothers who were petrified to see their brother Joseph again, now as the second command in Egypt. Asher certainly didn't have the greatest start.
Asher's surprising legacy
I'm not sure when or how it happened, but somewhere along the line, something began to shift in Asher's life. Somehow he became a different man. We'll never know for sure what brought about his transformation, but what we do know for sure is he left behind a legacy of wisdom, faith, character, and service to his nation at large: a legacy not only attached to him, but to his descendants. How do I know that?
First, we know that when Asher went to Egypt, he became the father of four sons: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah. We also know he had a daughter, and her name was Serah (Gen. 46:17; 1 Chron. 7:30). What's fascinating about this is Serah was the only granddaughter mentioned among 53 grandsons in the lineage of Jacob. That's not because there weren't other granddaughters. It was customary in a patriarchal society to only list the sons. But for some reason this one woman, Serah, couldn't be left out. Although it's not recorded in the Bible, Jewish history says she was a woman of great virtue and went on to have a tremendous impact. What's even more interesting is Jewish rabbinical literature says Serah was actually Asher's stepdaughter. Apparently, Asher had married a widow named Hadurah when Serah was three years old. So Asher was the father of what we call a blended family. He welcomed Serah into his home, raising her as his own. To be included in his lineage as the only granddaughter, she must have held a special place in his heart and lived an exemplary life.
Not only was Asher the father of four sons and a daughter, but when his father Jacob was preparing to die, he brought each of his 12 sons to his bedside. One by one, Jacob gave each a special last word. Honestly, some of them weren't so kind, but he reserved for Asher a unique word of blessing, saying, "Asher's food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king" (Gen. 49:20). We're not sure exactly what that means; it almost sounds like he'll become a culinary expert, but more likely it points to some kind of abundance or prosperity.
Fast forward 400 years. Asher is long gone, but his descendants aren't; the tribe of Asher is still very much alive. The people of Israel are getting ready to go in and conquer the Promised Land. Moses is preparing to die, but before he does, he'll give his own blessing to each of the tribes. He runs through 11 tribes, and for some reason, he doesn't address them in the customary order, but waits until the end to speak of the tribe of Asher. To them he says: "Most blessed of sons is Asher; let him be favored by his brothers, and let him bathe his feet in oil. The bolts of your gates will be iron and bronze, and your strength will equal your days" (Deut. 33:24-25).
I'd like us to think for a few moments about these words: not only what they meant for Asher's descendants, but for us. This is quite an amazing thing to say about a man's legacy, especially a man who started as inauspiciously as Asher. It's a reminder to all of us, but especially to the fathers among us, that we simply can't measure the impact of our lives during our lives. We don't always get to see the legacy we leave. We can't always see how the choices we make today will impact our children, and our children's children, and even their children. Here's a man who seemed very average. Here's a man raised in one of the most dysfunctional homes recorded in the Bible. Here's a man who made some huge mistakes early in his life that left deep wounds in his family of origin. Sprinkle on top of that the added challenges of raising a blended family of four sons and a stepdaughter while married to a woman who had lost her first husband, and most of us would think Asher wouldn't produce much of anything lasting at all.
But look what Moses says about his descendants. First, he says, "Most blessed of sons is Asher … " This is one of those hard-to-translate Hebrew phrases, as seen by the variety of ways it's rendered in our English translations. The NASB says, "More blessed than sons is Asher … " The KJV says, "Let Asher be blessed with children … " One thing we know is that blessedness was often measured in that culture by the number of your descendants, and so that may very well be what Moses was talking about. In the Book of Numbers, we're told that not long after the Exodus, Asher's descendants multiplied to include more than 41,000 fighting men (Num. 1:41). Later in Numbers, we learn that before the invasion of Canaan, this number increased to 53,400 (Num. 26:47). That's an increase of nearly 30 percent. That's significant, considering the total number of Israel's fighting men decreased by some 2,000 men over the same period of time. God promised Asher a posterity, and he delivered. This is something every father desires and should even pray for: not just that God would give us just physical children, but that he would increase our spiritual posterity, that the Lord would help us reproduce our faith in others. Remember how Paul called Timothy his "true son in the faith" (1 Tim. 2:2)? He even said to the Galatians that he would be in "the pains of childbirth until Christ was formed in [them]" (Gal. 4:19).
The second thing Moses says about Asher's descendants is this: "let him be favored by his brothers." The word "favored" means "to approve, to be pleased with, to delight in." Asher would be loved by his brothers. There would be a sweet unity between his tribe and the rest of the tribes of Israel. It's almost like he'd be everyone's favorite. There's no reason to be suspicious about this. The Bible talks a lot about the blessing of having favor with others, but this is unusual for brothers. Research shows that up to 45 percent of adult siblings have relationships marked by rivalry or distance.
The Wall Street Journal featured a story about an 85-year-old man named Al Golden, who still chokes up when he talks about his twin brother Elliott, who recently died. The brothers shared a room growing up, graduated from the same college, and then married within a month of each other. Yet Al still remembers how their father often compared them, asking one or the other, "How come you got a B and your brother got an A?" Elliott became a lawyer and eventually a state Supreme Court judge. Al sold life insurance. Al says he always envied his brother's status and secretly took pleasure in knowing at least he was a better fisherman and owned a bigger boat. Even as adults, there was a lot of comparison and competition. Then one day, Elliott accused Al of not doing enough to take care of their sick mother. After that, Al didn't speak to his brother for more than a year. Elliot repeatedly reached out to him, but Al ignored him. Then one day, Al received an email from Elliot telling a story about two brothers who had a stream dividing their properties. One brother hired a carpenter to build a fence along the stream, but the carpenter built a bridge by mistake. Al thought about the email, then wrote back, "I'd like to walk over the bridge."
I believe Asher was that kind of a man. He was the kind of man to build a bridge rather than a fence. It reminds me of something said in the Book of Proverbs: "When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone's way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them" (Prov. 16:7). We should pray we might walk in peace and have favor with those around us. It's inevitable that disagreements, disputes, and times of animosity will come between us and our brothers and sisters. But our prayer should be that we'll be the first to seek reconciliation and quick to forgive. Romans 12:18 says, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Ephesians says, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you" (4:32).
The third thing we see in Moses's blessing of Asher's descendants sounds rather strange to us: "Let him bathe his feet in oil." What does that mean? Of course, back then, washing your feet was a constant need in the dusty terrain. And only the wealthy had the luxury of using olive oil to wash and soothe their feet.
But this makes complete sense, because when Joshua divided up the Promised Land between the 12 tribes, he gave the tribe of Asher a piece of land in the area of Galilee, where the soil was rich and olive trees flourished (Josh. 19:24-31). The best olives in all of Palestine were raised where Asher's lot fell. It was even said of that area, "It is easier to raise a legion of olives in Galilee than to bring up a child in Palestine." Even today, one tree will produce 15 gallons of olive oil per season. So you can understand Moses's statement: "Let him bathe his feet in oil."
I can't help but think that every Christ-following father listening to this message has dipped his feet in oil. We have an abundance, don't we? More important than any material comforts we have are spiritual blessings. I've been struck lately, in reading my Bible, how often the spiritual blessings we have are called our "riches in Christ." In Ephesians, we read of the "riches of his grace" and "the boundless riches of Christ" (2:7; 3:8). In Romans, we read of the "riches of his kindness" and the "riches of his glory" (2:4; 9:23).
It's interesting: One of the greatest riches we have as believers is the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in us. In the Bible, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In the old days, when a preacher really had it going and the Spirit was moving, people used to say, "His feet were dipped in oil." But in a sense, each one of us has dipped our feet in oil. The Spirit of God regenerated us when we were dead in our sins. And as we go out into the world, he's our comforter, helper, and guide. He empowers us to be his witnesses and gives us spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ. Every day, we should be dipping our feet in that oil. Without it, our souls will grow weary and sore.
The last thing we see in Moses' blessing of Asher's descendants is: "The bolts of your gates will be iron and bronze, and your strength will equal your days." This is a promise of military strength, the ability to stand against your enemies. The land Asher inherited in the Promised Land was at the northern tip of Israel. They're promised that they would be given strength sufficient to stand against the enemies that would invade from the north. God—through Moses—is saying, "Asher, you'll be blessed with prosperity, but at the same time your enemies will attack you and try to permeate your stronghold. But you'll withstand them because the bolts of your gates will be iron and bronze, and you'll stand up against the enemy's assaults."
It's no surprise that some of Asher's descendants proved to be outstanding warriors in defending Israel. This great legacy is found in 1 Chronicles 7:40, "All these were descendants of Asher— heads of families, choice men, brave warriors and outstanding leaders. The number of men ready for battle, as listed in their genealogy, was 26,000." Average Asher has a legacy that went far beyond what he ever imagined: choice men, brave warriors, outstanding leaders.
But that's not all. The last part of verse 25 says "your strength will equal your days." Another translation says, "[A]s your days, so shall your strength be." Let that promise sink in. We know we're constantly under attack. The Bible says our "enemy prowls the devil around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). But what we learn here is that God will give us strength to resist him. Notice what it says: God's strength will come to you daily, as you need it.
I often fall into the trap of looking toward the future and thinking, "What if this or that happened to me? What if my wife got really sick? What if one of my kids was killed? What if I got cancer? What if persecution came, and I had to deny my faith or face death?" I can't imagine how I'd handle any of that. Maybe my faith wouldn't hold up. But look what it says: "Your strength will equal your days." You don't get strength from God for tomorrow's trials; you get it for today's trials.
Corrie ten Boom used to tell of a conversation that took place between she and her father when she was a little girl. "Daddy," she said one day, "I'm afraid I'll never be strong enough to be a martyr for Jesus Christ."
Her father wisely responded, "Tell me, when you take a train trip from Haarlem to Amsterdam, when do I give you the money for the ticket? Three weeks before?"
"No, Daddy, you give me the money for the ticket just before we get on the train."
"That's right," he replied, "and so it is with God's strength. Our wise Father in heaven knows when you're going to need things too. Today you don't need the strength to be a martyr. But as soon as you're called upon for the honor of facing death for Jesus, he'll supply the strength you need—just in time."
Corrie said later, "I took great comfort in my father's advice. Later I had to suffer for Jesus in a Nazi concentration camp. He indeed gave me all the courage and power I needed."
Moses is saying to the descendants of Asher and to us, "Yes, you'll face challenges from the Enemy. Yes, you'll face hardship and grief and sickness and persecution. But don't worry about tomorrow, because as your days, so shall your strength be."
Once again, here's a father who seemed very average. Here's a man raised in a dysfunctional family. Here's a man who sold his own brother into slavery and lied to his father for decades to cover it up. Here's a father of five in what very likely was a blended family. No kings or judges or priests came from his lineage. Here's a very average man who you'd think wouldn't pro- duce much of anything lasting at all. But here's a man who left a legacy that was greatly blessed: a legacy of abundant posterity, a legacy of favor with his brothers, a legacy of feet dipped in oil, and a legacy of strength to withstand the enemy.
One more tidbit to finish it off: Soon after Jesus was born, his parents brought him into the temple to present him to the Lord, and there they met an old woman named Anna. Listen to what it says about her:
What a legacy! Average Asher was the progenitor of a wise old widow who recognized this baby would bring redemption to Jerusalem.
We know that redemption isn't just for Jerusalem, but for the whole world. Jesus brought redemption for every man and woman, every father and mother, every son and daughter, every brother and sister. You may have been raised in the most dysfunctional family known to man. You may have made some mistakes in your life that caused unnecessary pain for others, which you deeply regret. You may not have the picture-perfect family of a Norman Rockwell painting. You may never have a President or a billionaire or a superstar athlete in your family line. But who you are today will impact generations to come.
You may not get to see much of the legacy you leave. You may not see how the choices you make today will impact your children, and your children's children, and even their children, but they will. You simply can't measure the impact of your life at any point during your life. So take heart, and live your life as if every choice is a personal investment that will pay dividends down the road.
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.