In Matthew 26:52, Jesus made a statement that has become famous: “Put your sword in it’s place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” The statement was made to Peter who had drawn his sword in order to defend Jesus from being captured and crucified. The saying of Jesus is often paraphrased as “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” What it means, of course, is that people who conquer through violence ultimately end up dying by violence. Or to put it more simply: what goes around comes around. Live a peaceful life towards others and they will generally be peaceful to you.

As with essentially all of Jesus’ teachings, stories from the Old Testament teach similar themes. In the case of “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” Genesis 31 gives us a vivid example of how this principle works through the story of Jacob and Laban. Prior to chapter 31, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and then tricked his elderly father into blessing him rather than his elder brother. Jacob then left the promised land to obtain a wife from his uncle Laban’s family. Laban ultimately lied and tricked Jacob into serving him for many extra years to obtain the wife Laban originally promised him. Jacob, in turn, cheated Laban out of the strongest lambs from his flock after they had reached an agreement. Ultimately, Jacob flees Laban and Laban and his tribe pursue Jacob.

From this story we can see what Jesus later taught explicitly: “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” If our life consists of lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, and fighting with others, then we can expect the same in return. If we wish to hold everyone accountable “an eye for an eye,” then we can expect the same from them. But God provides us with a different option. At the end of chapter 31, we see that although division and fighting and separation are part of our human existence, we can overcome these tendencies. At the end of chapter 31, Jacob and Laban reach a truce, an agreement to stop the cycle of violence.

And ultimately, stopping the cycle of violence and creating a new cycle of forgiveness and mercy is what Jesus offered us. Rather than fighting back against his captors, he tells Peter to put away the sword. Instead of cursing his persecutors he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even if our life has been full of deception, division, and fighting with others, we have an opportunity to follow the example of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31:43-55, and “put away the sword.” We have the ability, like Jesus, to begin a different cycle: one based on mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

I was driving around town today in my minivan, making some visits (no, I was not wearing my helmet as I did on Halloween, in case you are wondering), and I heard Ecclesiastes 2 on my Bible CD. Given the conversations with many people over these last two or three days, and my lack of time right now to come up with original material, I will post the words of the Bible itself–much better than anything I can say anyway. I hope you will take one minute to read and consider. The emphasis is mine. Here you go:

Ecclesiastes 2

I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor. 11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.

Let’s begin with the ‘who’ rather than the ‘why.’ In case you haven’t noticed—and it seems some in the Republican Party either have not, or resent—America is getting darker. My own family is probably representative of the broader American landscape. Four years ago we were a bunch of white people. Today, my wife and I are proud parents of a black 21-month-old daughter. We just had a wonderful visit with our two nieces whose Mexican-American skin is a few shades darker than ours. Welcome to modern-day America.

It is no secret Barack Obama carried the growing ‘minority’ vote. Neither is it shocking, at least not to anyone who knows anything about the culture of ‘darker’ Americans. But it was not the black and Hispanic vote alone that carried Barack Obama to victory. He also won because of strong support among younger voters, many of whom are Christian. To older generations of Christians, many of whom are staunchly ‘religious right,’ this latter category comes as a surprise—or if not a surprise, at least with perplexity. So what do these groups have in common? Why did they vote predominantly for Barack Obama?

As a good Orthodox Christian, I’ll begin by answering apophatically (that is, before explaining why, I will explain why not). The stereotypical reason given for the minority—and even the young vote—is that ‘these people’ are lazy. They want government handouts. They don’t want to work for their money. I saw many ‘jokes’ around the internet like this one: “I predict Obama will take the early lead in the polls until all the Republicans get off work to vote.” This is only funny—to people, unlike me, who think it is funny—because deep down lots of people actually believe there is truth to it. Of course, it is couched in terms of a joke, but jokes are only funny inasmuch as they reflect some sort of perceived reality. Yet this answer is not only oversimplified and stereotyped, but wrong. It is the why not.

In reality, many, if not most, ‘darker’ Americans work hard for their money. In fact, I personally know many of these Americans who work longer hours in physically more strenuous jobs than me for half the pay or less. And then they send half their money to family in other countries so they can buy something more than a one room (note: one room, not one bedroom) house. I know many younger Americans who are far from lazy, but who have rejected the workaholic attitude of their parents’ generation. They actually listened to those sermons priests like me give at funerals—no one says on their deathbed they wish they worked more hours, spent more time at the office; rather, they tend to wish they had spent more time with their family. These young people’s parents thought their children would be best served by money, opportunity, and advantage. Meanwhile, all the kids wanted was a mom and dad who loved them, spent time with them, and were happily married. Those things do not happen when you are a workaholic. Many in the younger generation are not lazy—they simply value some things more than the almighty dollar.

So let’s get to the real reason these ‘darker’ and ‘younger’ and often ‘Christian’ Americans voted for Barack Obama. We need look no farther than the President’s inspiring Election Night speech. Here are two powerful quotes, representative of the real reason Obama was re-elected:

“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.

Near the conclusion of his speech, President Obama spoke these powerful and true words:

We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

These concepts are the real reason President Obama carried a large percentage of the minority vote, and not an insignificant number of the young Christian vote. But again, we must ask why. The reasons are both religious and cultural, yet they have this in common: all of these voting sectors are tired of the old Republican mantras of “rugged individualism” and American exceptionalism. Young Christians tend to reject these notions on biblical grounds. Minorities do not resonate with these concepts because they do not reflect their reality. Not to mention, young voters of all types increasingly understand that while the Emperor might not have no clothes, he often dresses as Jerry Jeff Walker likes his women: just a little on the trashy side. For those who do not understand this metaphor, I will say it in plain English: the younger generation realizes America makes a lot of mistakes, yet maintains an annoying arrogance. But back to the young Christians and minorities.

Since I am a ‘religious leader’ I will begin with the reason young Christians support Obama far more than older Christians. The highlighted passages from his speech last night have a biblical ring to them. When Obama spoke about “obligations” and “responsibilities,” I immediately thought  of Jesus saying in Luke 12:48: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” Ironically, this passage was part of the assigned reading today in the Orthodox Church—I read it this morning at Matins.

When the President pointed out “we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions” I thought of Dr Nicolae Roddy’s poignant phrase when he was at our parish for our Bible Lecture Series. He said, “When God says ‘I AM’ (Exodus 3:14) it also implies ‘you are not.’” As Fr Paul Tarazi, another guest at a previous BLS, once said: “Only God looks good with an ego” (the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14 reads “ego eimi”).

Many young Christians are tired of the perceived “I built it” attitude of the Republican Party (whether that is their attitude or not, you can debate—but it is the perception). Not only is such an attitude anti-biblical, it does not reflect reality. None of us built anything on our own. And young people are well aware these days of the science behind their genesis. As the aforementioned Fr Paul once pointed out to his anxiously over-obsessed teenager, who was taking a biology class: “Son, just remember, 16 years ago you were not even a sperm in my testicle.” Armed with this factual information, how could any of us honestly think “I built it”? And is it not revealing, as Fr Paul also has pointed out, that “I” is the only capitalized pronoun in the English language?

i have four young children (no, i purposely left “i” in lower case to make a point, Microsoft Word—quit auto ‘correcting’ me). Their mother and I have changed many diapers, interrupted countless hours of sleep, spent more money than I care to imagine on them, and have made numerous other sacrifices so they may grow and thrive—with no guarantee they will turn out as we hope, mind you. I better never hear them say “I built it.” The hell you did! You would be nothing without me. I would be nothing without my parents. None of us even decided to come into this world. If my children offend me with this type of talk, how much do we offend our heavenly Father with such an attitude?

Potential religious reasons aside, minorities understand Obama’s talk about “obligations” and “responsibilities” and the “sum being greater than the individual parts” because this is their reality. I honestly do not know a single ‘successful’ (in the world’s eyes) minority in this country who is not where they are because of sacrifices made by others on their behalf, because of cooperation and collaboration. For most of them, and for a variety of reasons, the ‘nuclear family’ is not the norm. I am unaware of any minorities who are not where they are today because of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most minorities understand obligations, responsibilities, and the sum being greater than the individuals intuitively and naturally. They do not take for granted what most of us white folks assume: a high school diploma, a college education if we want, and the general benefit of majority status. No one questions whether or not we whites are ‘American.’ No one asks to see our birth certificate. No one asks about my three white kids, “Oh, where did you get them from?” No one assumes we white people are related because we are white, as many assume of our black daughter and other black people we hang out with from time to time.

And one final word to those who are concerned many younger Christians and minorities—or even President Obama—are ‘socialist.’ These aforementioned groups are, by and large, no more socialist than the Tea Party is fascist. Sure, there are some socialists who vote Democrat, just as there are some who vote Republican and believe certain things about ‘legitimate rape.’ But neither of these two extremes represents the respective party. Most young, Democrat Christians and minorities do not want the state to control everything—they simply want us to collectively pick up the slack so our sum is greater than the individual parts. Why? Because that is how they (correctly) understand the Bible. Why? Because the sum being greater than the parts reflects reality. To many young Christians and the vast majority of minorities, Barack Obama’s stated vision of America resonates with them more than anything they have heard lately from the Republican Party. And that, my friends, is the real reason younger Christians and minorities carried President Obama to re-election.

In my most recent post on Genesis 27 (a couple weeks ago) I discussed how Jacob, the “founding father” of Israel, is presented negatively in the Bible. In posts prior to that, I mentioned how his father, Isaac, is presented in Genesis as the ideal because Isaac was the one born of God’s promise and not out of human desire. The story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah (Genesis 28-30), further illustrates this point. It also shows how God’s “chosen people” often behave as bad, or even worse, than those outside their community. I will highlight a couple of important points from the Jacob and Rachel/Leah story and then speak of the significance.

(1) Unlike Isaac, who remained in the promised land his entire life, Jacob leaves that land to find a wife. And again, in contradistinction to Isaac, who did not labor for his wife, Jacob ultimately ends up laboring 14 years for his desired bride, Rachel. The significance of this passage cannot be overstated. The idea of laboring for one’s own desires (like Jacob) versus resting in God’s promises (like Isaac) is a biblical theme throughout the Bible, including the New Testament. For example, in the famous story of the Samaritan woman (John 4), this distinction is central. The woman of Samaria came from the city of Sychar. The root of Sychar in Hebrew implies one earns a living by work as a servant/slave. The fact there is little to no evidence such a city ever actually existed by this name indicates John is using the word as a play on laboring as a slave. John then contrasts Sychar with the Greek word kopio, which is the term Paul uses to speak of laboring for the Gospel. The difference between “Sychar” and “kopio“, of course, is that the laboring for one’s desires brings about discord whereas the laboring for the peaceful message of the Gospel brings salvation and healing to broken people. In other words, the laboring for the Gospel leads to rest. I went on this sidetrack to help show how the Gospel of Jesus is rooted in the Old Testament. Even in the story of Isaac/Jacob we see the distinction between laboring for our desires and resting in God’s promise.

(2) In English we have the saying, “What goes around comes around.” Jacob learns this lesson the hard way. Remember from the previous chapters Jacob dealing deceitfully with his father and brother to steal his brother’s blessing. Now, Jacob is tricked by his father-in-law Laban, who substitutes Leah for Rachel as Jacob’s bride after Jacob labored for Laban seven years. In order to obtain Rachel also, Jacob agrees to work yet another 7 years for Laban. “What goes around comes around!”

(3) Although technically the Mosaic Law had not yet been given, the astute biblical reader will no doubt realize Jacob is violating God’s law when he marries Rachel and Leah, who are sisters. In Leviticus 18:18, God commands: “[You shall not] take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.” Yet, this is exactly what Jacob did–he took Rachel as a rival to her sister. Beginning at the end of Genesis 29 through Genesis 30, we hear the pathetic story of this rivalry, with Rachel and Leah competing for Jacob’s love and attention, and bearing children in competition with one another. Once again, this story illustrates a serious problem with Jacob.

As I mentioned in the previous post, these stories of Jacob, the founding father after whom Israel is named, are intended to teach us humility. Being the chosen people of God does not mean we are better than others. Furthermore, if we hear the story of Jacob and his wives as intended, we are taught the importance of laboring not for our own desires, but instead putting our trust in God’s promises, which alone brings rest, reconciliation, and peace.

Although in recent times people have become more critical, generally speaking most Americans have an overall positive attitude towards our Founding Fathers. Pretty much no matter our political leaning, we look back to important documents they authored in establishing our country: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and their own personal writings. Their faces decorate our coins and they are usually remembered fondly in history textbooks. More or less, we could say the same thing about pretty much any great nation. They all have a founding story and, generally, the founders are held in high esteem in the people’s minds.

Not surprisingly, then, those of us from a Judeo-Christian background often hold the “founding fathers” of Israel in high esteem. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three great forefathers. Because we consider these three to be pillars of ancient Israel, and because God chose them among all people, our minds lead us to the conclusion that all three of these patriarchs must have been exceedingly holy. If we are decent, respectable human beings, that notion is certainly challenged when, for example, we read Genesis 27 and the story of Jacob stealing Isaac’s blessing. People have asked me a simple question: “Why is it acceptable for Jacob to lie, cheat, and steal?”

The simple answer is as follows: “It is not acceptable.” But the longer answer, provided below, gives some context to the simple answer.

Jacob is, in fact, an important character in the biblical narrative. He is the last of three great patriarchs, and is the one for whom Israel is named (Jacob’s name was later changed to Israel–see Genesis 32:28). He is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel since the twelve tribes descended from his twelve sons. In this sense, Jacob is the father of all Israel.

Unlike our mind’s overall positive picture of our own Founding Fathers, the Bible paints quite a negative picture of Jacob. According to Genesis 27, he lies, cheats, and steals his father’s blessing–the very blessing given by God to Abraham and then from Abraham to Isaac. The significance of this story should not be overlooked. To do so, in my opinion, would be to change the very core of biblical teaching, because the two most important aspects of this story are at the core of an authentic Judeo-Christian worldview. These two points are:

(1) God chooses whoever he wants to choose, for whatever reason(s) He wants to choose them. The decision is His, often completely unknown to us as to His reasoning, and certainly not subject to our own holiness or piety. This principle can most certainly be seen in Genesis 27. Jacob violated some of the most basic aspects of human morality (lying, cheating, stealing)–all of which would later be prohibited in the Mosaic Law and the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20. Why would God choose a lying, cheating, thief? We do not know the exact reasons, but we do know it was not because of Jacob’s own righteousness.

(2) Being one of God’s ‘chosen people’ does not make you better than everyone else. This second principle is related to the first, but seems difficult for people to grasp in reality. For some reason, whenever we think of ‘chosen people’ we think ‘better’ or ‘holier.’ As Jacob proves, this simply is not so. If one believes they are ‘chosen’ by God, the praise belongs to God–not to themselves–for as Genesis 27 proves, God did not choose you because you are holy. Even if you are both ‘chosen’ and holy, your holiness did not force God to choose you. In fact, if you are both ‘chosen’ and holy, then you are only holy because God loved you first, and thus you are expected to love all others (1 John 4:19-21), including your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). You have no right to boast.

You see, the Bible pressures the reader to view the world differently than normal. Instead of looking back to your nation’s founders with pride, the Bible forces you to look back and see your forefather as a liar, cheater, and thief. And if your father/founder is a liar, cheater, and thief, what right do you have to be arrogant, boastful, or cocky? What right do you have to glory in the fact you are ‘chosen’? You have none; rather, you have a responsibility to behave as your only true Father–your heavenly Father–behaves. And as Matthew 5:43-48 points out, that God loves all, both His friends and His foes.

I apologize for the lack of blog posts as of late. We have had several things come up in our family, preventing me from posting regularly. Thankfully, things seem to have settled down now and I hope to blog on a regular basis once again.

Returning to the book of Genesis, I have mentioned several times now how Isaac is presented as an ideal; an example to which we should aspire. This was certainly the case with Isaac’s patience and his trust in God. In Genesis 26, Isaac continues to be an example for us, most especially in his willingness to live at peace with his neighbors.

Genesis 26 begins with Isaac once again choosing to remain in the land God promised him and his descendants. In contradistinction to Abraham earlier and Jacob later, Isaac spends his entire life in the promised land. Despite the famine, Isaac trusts God to take care of his needs in the very land God has promised him. So instead of leaving for another as Jacob will later do (and end up enslaved in Egypt for 430 years), Isaac remains in the land God has given him and “reaped in the same year a hundredfold” (Gen 26:12). In other words, God rewards Isaac for his obedience and his patience.

But the most outstanding and exemplary aspect of Isaac in Genesis 26 is his willingness to live peaceably with his neighbors. Isaac had every excuse to be bitter towards his neighboring Philistines. They asked him to leave the land because of jealousy/envy (vs. 16). They stopped the wells previously dug by Abraham (vs. 15) and quarreled with Isaac’s servants over a well of running water they dug in the valley (vss. 19-20), as well as another well elsewhere (vs. 21). Nevertheless, when Isaac was approached by the Philistines to make a covenant of peace, Isaac gladly accepted, throwing a feast for them (vss. 30-31). In some ways, this passage reminds me of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 15:11-32): rather than “holding accountable”the Philistines for their sin, Isaac rejoices in his neighbor making the correct decision to return and repent. This is similar to the father in Luke’s parable throwing a banquet when his exceedingly sinful son decided to return home from his riotous living. Neither Isaac, nor the father in Luke’s parable, set conditions for the one repenting, but restored them immediately, rejoicing in their reconciliation.

Yet again, Isaac, who was born of God’s promise rather than of human will, is shown as a model. Despite famine and persecution, he remains faithful to God’s charge to remain in the land he was promised. Because of Isaac’s faithfulness and forgiveness, reconciliation with his adversarial neighbor is possible and Isaac is able to live in peace. Genesis 26 calls us to live at peace with our neighbors, realizing the world God has given us is big enough for us to co-exist, even with our adversaries.

I mentioned in my previous post, on Genesis 24, that Isaac is presented as an ideal figure. Genesis 25 confirms that and adds to what has already been said regarding Isaac. What is so significant about Isaac in chapter 25 could easily be missed. But if you catch what is happening, you see how Isaac models the virtue of patience.

Recall earlier how Abraham was promised directly from God he would be given a child. Seeing his wife, Sarah, barren, Abraham and Sarah concocted their own plan to have a child. This resulted in the union of Abraham and Hagar and the birth of Ishmael. However, God came back to Abraham and told him Ishmael was not the son of the promise. Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s suggestion that Sarah herself would bear a child in advanced age, but eventually Sarah did bear Isaac, the son of promise.

Genesis 25 paints a completely different picture with Isaac. In verse 21, when we learn Isaac’s wife Rebekah was barren, we hear that Isaac takes a much different approach to having a son than Abraham. He does not turn to one of Rebekah’s servants or come up with his own game plan, but “pleaded with the Lord for his wife.” Upon hearing this prayer, “the Lord granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived.” Sounds simple enough: Isaac is without child due to a barren wife, he asks God to grant him a child through his wife, and God hears his prayer. But pay close attention to the details.

Verse 20: “Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah as wife.”

Verse 21: “Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife, because she was barren.”

Verse 26: “Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.”

We could easily miss that 20 years passed from the time Isaac figured out his wife was barren and he entreated the Lord until the time Rebekah actually gave birth to Isaac’s sons! Obviously, this little tidbit is important. I think of how many times I have entreated the Lord and expected an answer immediately. Or how many times I have been disappointed when I did not see immediate results from prayer or other labors. Isaac once again stands as an example for us. May we learn to practice his patience!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.