Even as he was conceived in the night covers of his mother’s tent, Issachar was shrouded with insecurity. Leah, his unloved mother, had to bargain the night of love-making from her sister Rachel, their husband Jacob’s beloved. Though Issachar’s arrival would bring much joy to his mother’s heart, his place in the family would be filled with uncertainty. Nine sons his father had already sired, all with wives he did not favor, and still not the satisfaction of a love-child with Rachel. And when at last that longed-for Joseph finally did arrive, the status of the lesser-desired sons dimmed the more. Issachar’s longing for his father’s acceptance would never be fulfilled. Even as a grown man as he stood alongside his eleven brothers and awaited a “blessing” to be bestowed upon him by his aging father, he would be dealt yet another blow. To Joseph his adored son Jacob proclaimed: “Joseph is a fruitful tree beside a fountain. His branches shade the wall. May the God of your fathers, the Almighty, bless you with blessings of heaven above and of the earth beneath-blessings of the breasts and of the womb, blessings of the grain and flowers, blessings reaching to the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills.” But to Issachar he pronounced: “Issachar is like a rawboned donkey who lies down while carrying his load. When he sees how pleasant his resting place is, he will waste his strength and become a mere laboring slave.”
Issachar, a dumb ass, lazy, with no initiative to develop his potential. How devastating to be viewed by one’s father in this light! He always knew he was no favorite but to hear it from his father’s own mouth — “You’ll never make anything of yourself” — the wound was so deep it could take a lifetime to heal, or more.
A lesser man might have internalized his father’s disheartening expectations, sulked away in dejection, given up on his aspirations, resigned himself to fate. But something in Issachar’s spirit stiffened his backbone and ignited a determination to rise above the crippling impact of his father’s rejection. It may have been simmering resentment at the way he was continually devalued, or a determination to make his mother proud of him, or the mysterious activity of God — whatever the source, Issachar purposed to be something far more than his father expected of him.
Issachar married and started his own family. He saw to it that his own sons were not treated as he had been. He affirmed their worth and instilled in them a strong sense of loyalty and the importance of family. He passed along to his four boys not only his physical strength but strength of character as well. And though he grew old and died without seeing the full measure of his legacy, his children and their progeny established his name as one of highest honor and respect throughout ancient Israel. His sons’ families flourished under the harsh bondage of Egypt and proved themselves to be devout leaders under Moses during the exodus. So impressed was Moses with their integrity and diligence that on the eve of Israel’s crossing into Canaan he publicly predicted: the tribe of Issachar will gather together many people to “celebrate right sacrifices with them” and they will “taste the riches of the sea and the treasures of the sand.” And in the Promised Land, Issachar’s children did indeed prosper, eventually settling in some of Palestine’s most fertile land. Early on they distinguished themselves as a valiant military force as Israel took possession of the Land, a number becoming renowned officers under kings David and Solomon. They accepted political leadership (a judgeship and two kingships) and their wise counsel was sought in matters of highest importance to the nation. Of the sons of Issachar it is recorded: they were “men that had an understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.”
Issachar — the name means hireling. Or another translation means reward. It could go either way, I suppose. A rejected kid could turn the hurt in on himself, incorporate the negatives into his self-concept and limp into life as an underachieving victim. Or he could turn the wounds into muscle and develop tough mental disciplines — setting attainable goals, working hard, managing disappointments, holding onto hope. What makes the difference between failure and success? What is the determining factor?
A person. That’s almost always the reason. Someone who sees a child’s potential. Someone who sees strength where others see only deficits. Someone who believes enough in him or her to endure her moods, put up with her outbursts, remain steady through the tumult of her accomplishments and crashes. Someone who will not give up on her.
Who got to Issachar? Maybe his loving and tenacious mother. Or his big brother Judah. Or an uncle who taught him how to hunt. History is silent on this point. What we can safely assume is that along the way some significant person perceived great potential in Issachar, someone who saw in him an altogether different image from the dull, apathetic slacker his father saw. Someone saw his donkey-stubbornness as dogged determination. Someone saw his idleness not as sloth but a bent toward thoughtful reflection, an innate tendency to carefully weigh circumstances and consider alternatives. Some person saw the positives.
And in all probability, that influential person was unaware of the impact he or she was having on Issachar. That’s the way it often happens. A coach or school teacher or grandmother or big brother is drawn to a wounded young one, becomes a friend, invests time, provides encouragement. It’s more than structured mentoring — it’s more mystical than that. The chemistry is right. A connection happens. Affirmation that is neither contrived nor calculated flows from an inexplicable belief in that young one, a recognition of capacities that others seem to miss. And unbeknown to either, (until perhaps many miles down the road) this relationship proves to be the constant that made the difference.
The chroniclers do not record for us who that person was in Issachar’s life, nor if Issachar ever had the opportunity to express his gratitude. But Issachar does offer a reminder to us that emotional damage need not debilitate permanently. Issachar, a reward, a treasure tucked away in ancient writing waiting to provide encouragement for other injured souls. And their mentors.