Archives for posts with tag: Genesis

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.

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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!

Of the three great Patriarchs of Israel, Isaac tends to be the one who is most overlooked. The most likely reason for the relative oversight is because comparatively little is mentioned of Isaac. Abraham and Jacob have much longer stories. However, the Isaac story is absolutely essential to our understanding of Genesis. In Genesis 24, we have an extended story about Isaac finding a bride—or rather, a bride being found for him. Let’s look at some of the key elements of this story.

 

First, it is necessary to keep in mind that Isaac has already been presented as an ideal character. He was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. As I mentioned earlier, it is though Isaac was born “out of the mouth of God” since the text of Genesis specifically neglects to mention any sexual union between Abraham and Sarah resulting in Isaac, as it mentioned such a union between Abraham and Hagar that produced Ishmael. Instead, Isaac is promised by God and then Sarah appears with child.

 

Second, in this 24th chapter of Genesis, Abraham insists that Isaac remain in the land of Canaan. Abraham had evidently learned his lesson from when he had previously journeyed down into the land of Egypt. Consequently, Isaac is the only one of the three Patriarchs who was born in the promised land, lived his entire life in the promised land, and died in the promised land. Abraham began outside, but came in, while Jacob was born inside, but died in Egypt. That Isaac remained in the promised land his entire life is not insignificant. Isaac shows himself to be a true son of promise by staying within the promised land.

 

The third, and perhaps most important, aspect of this Isaac/Rebekah story is that Isaac does not have to slave or labor for his wife at all. Contrast that with the later story of Jacob, who labors a total of 14 years for Rachel. Being a son of God’s promise, and being faithful to that promise, Isaac is a free man, as St Paul referenced much later in Galatians 4. Faithfulness to God and putting our trust in His promises provides us with true freedom, while relying on our own selfish will leads us to slavery, even when we think we are free.

 

Finally, in this story of Isaac and Rebekah we have a happy ending—so rare in the Bible when human beings are involved! But the reason for this happy ending is simple: everyone in the story, from Abraham to Isaac to Rebekah, put their trust in God. This serves as yet another example of how we humans tend to complicate situations by forcing our own will upon situations rather than exercising patience and allowing God to do His work.

 

Again, although relatively little is mentioned about Isaac as compared to Abraham and Jacob, he is presented in Genesis as an ideal. He is the son of promise and is faithful to that promise, putting his trust in God. Isaac sets aside his selfish desires and follows God’s path, leading him to true freedom.

Genesis 22 is a fairly well-known story of Abraham’s faith in God being confirmed by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Of course, God does not desire human sacrifice, so He provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son. The moral of the story is obviously a willingness to be obedient to God, to put your trust in Him, even when it seems dangerous or absurd.

 

Many commentators correctly see a link between this story of Genesis 22 and the crucifixion of Jesus. God, like Abraham, was willing to offer up His Son for the salvation of the world. The legitimate question comes up: why would God do such a thing? Isn’t it cruel to sacrifice your son? And, by the way, isn’t it the son who suffers more than the father. The answer to these questions requires a contextual reading of the text.

 

In the ancient world, and perhaps most so in the Semitic world, the role of the firstborn son cannot be understated. Anyone who has spent time around people of Middle Eastern descent notices the great honor granted the firstborn son of the family. In the case of Isaac, although he was not what we Americans would classify as the firstborn to Abraham, for family purposes in the ancient Near East, Isaac was the firstborn, the only-begotten of Abraham from his wife, Sarah, and the heir to Abraham’s inheritance. Not only was the firstborn the heir, but the thinking in this time was that the firstborn especially (although, technically, not exclusively) continues the life of the parents. In other words, your life continues to exist through your progeny. To have no children, or for your children to die before re-producing, means your name and life is cut off for eternity (at this time, there was little or no idea like we have of life after death).

 

In this way of thinking, to allow your firstborn, only-begotten son to die means to essentially kill yourself. You are allowing your name, your inheritance, to die. You are being cut off the earth. You are making the sacrifice. So in Genesis 22, Abraham is himself making a great sacrifice. He spent 100 years childless, with no one to carry on the family name. Finally, God intervened and gave him a child, and now God asks Abraham to offer the child as a sacrifice. This would again put Abraham in the position of dying off with no inheritance, no name, no memory of him left on earth. Despite this, Abraham puts his trust in God, realizing the son he was given is not his own, but a gift from God. Abraham understands he is accountable to God for the child, and so obeys God’s seemingly outlandish command. Abraham is then rewarded and reinforced for his obedience and God reveals this scenario as a simple test of Abraham’s faith.

 

Incidentally, this way of thinking is also significant in the New Testament. That Jesus is underscored as God’s firstborn, only-begotten Son, dramatizes even more the crucifixion of Jesus. Before the victorious resurrection, it is as though God’s name, His inheritance, and the memory of Him is completely obliterated from the face of the earth.