The story has several versions; one goes something like this. Because of their rarity, white elephants were deemed sacred in Siam and could not be put to work. And when discovered, they were always given to the king and became his exclusive property. When the king wished to destroy one of his political enemies, rather than doing something overtly violent or harsh, he would give him the gift of a white elephant. Because the animal was both sacred and a gift from the king, the recipient was forced to keep the animal and provide it with luxurious accommodations. And because he could not put the animal to any profitable use, the upkeep soon bankrupted him. In his impoverished circumstances, he ceased to be a threat to the king.
What possible relevance does that story have to anything in Scripture? I was struck with the analogy while reading “The Song of Moses”: “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance” (Deut. 32:9). The implied comparison that Moses presents is that of the twelve tribes of Israel (actually only eleven received territory; Levi, as the priestly tribe, was excluded from this inheritance) receiving their allotted portion of the land of Israel to own in perpetuity generation to generation. The endowment was to be inviolable because the land each tribe, and eventually each family, owned was the basis of wealth in an agrarian society. For the average person to own unencumbered property that could not be seized at the whim of the king or some other wealthy or powerful person was a rarity in the ancient world. Such an inheritance was a remarkable blessing—each family had a “portion,” if you will, from the Lord.
By contrast, Moses sang, “the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” Solomon echoes that thought in his prayer of dedication following the completion of the temple. “For they are Your people and Your inheritance which You have brought forth from Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace. . . . For You have separated them from all the people of the earth as Your inheritance, as You spoke through Moses Your servant, when You brought our fathers forth from Egypt, O Lord God” (I Ki. 8:51, 53). And Jeremiah repeats the same truth: “The portion of Jacob is not like these; for the Maker of all is He, and Israel is the tribe of His inheritance; the Lord of hosts is His name” (10:16).
Whereas Israel received as its portion from the Lord the gift of rich wealth-producing land (along with untold other blessings both natural and spiritual), the Lord “received” (He actually willingly chose) as His portion a white elephant, the people of Israel. And instead of being profitable to Him, they were a net loss. Generation after generation would be thankless, murmuring, complaining, rebelling, testing the limits of His mercy, lovingkindness, and patience. And although the treasury of heaven contained all the wealth that existed and could never be bankrupted, they killed God’s prophets, and finally took His Son and happily killed Him. So God’s portion, that which He chose that it might bless and honor Him, cost both God and the Son of God an infinite price.
But remember—no sovereign forced this white elephant on God. He chose it of His own free will, and He did so knowing full well the price He would pay for the portion of His inheritance, which He chose. And before we become too smug, we should remember that God also chose the New Testament church. Paul asserts that “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4a). He did so all the while knowing that this new inheritance would be another white elephant, one requiring His death in order to redeem, one storming the storehouse of heaven for supply after supply, one living solely on the riches of His grace. No citizen of Siam sought to inherit a white elephant: it was the harbinger of absolute ruin, if not death. But God sought out a nation—Israel, and Christ sought out a bride—the church, knowing that death was certain, not the death of the recipient of the gift, but the death of the Giver. How wonderful our Lord and Savior is.
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