Archives for posts with tag: Israel

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.

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.

One of the things I most appreciate about my seminary experience was the opportunity to study the Bible. Growing up in a Christian home I had, of course, read the Bible. I was quite familiar with what the Bible said. But I learned at seminary I often did not know what the Bible meant. Beginning at seminary, and continuing to this day, I have made an effort to better understand what the Bible means. I have learned not to take for granted any word that is used, any paragraph that is written, no matter how minor or tangential it may seem. Often, it is in these short clips we capture the essence of the Bible.

Today’s post on Genesis 21, and specifically verses 8 through 21 (the story of the departure of Hagar and Ishmael) is one of nearly countless examples of such an occurrence. In our normal reading of the Bible, we tend to gloss over 14 verses like this. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the biblical story; but, in fact, these passages are crucial.

To understand why I am saying this, let’s step back to a topic I have mentioned before. Probably all of us are familiar enough with the Bible to understand the main thrust of the narrative is the story of Israel. We tend to focus on major figures—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc. And certainly these men were vital to the story. But in so doing, we should not neglect to look at the bigger picture. As I have said before, Genesis is an introduction to the Bible. In Genesis, we find key words, phrases, promises, characters, etc., preparing us for the rest of the story. And as I have also mentioned, Genesis begins not as a story of Israel, but as a story of humanity. The story does not begin in chapter 11 with Abraham, but in chapter 1 with the creation of the cosmos and, shortly after, the introduction of Adam and Eve, the father of all humanity. It is my firm belief the Bible begins this way by no accident, but as a way to show that this biblical story is meant to instruct not only the Jews, but all nations; for God cares not only about the salvation of the Jews, but of all humanity.

In the 14 verses referenced in chapter 21, we are reminded once again of this greater context. Although the biblical story and, more specifically, God’s promise to Abraham, will not continue through Ishmael, God still shows his concern for Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. God assures Hagar that, although Ishmael is not the son of the promise, He will nevertheless care for Ishmael and make of him a great nation. In other words, God does not simply dispose of or overlook Ishmael and Hagar because they are not “chosen.” He still loves and cares for them—they are still His children. They will not be the main characters in God’s plan for salvation, but He is still their God and behaves in a fatherly way towards them. It is important for us Christians to remember this lesson in our dealings with non-Christians. They, too, are God’s children. God cares for them and loves them. So should we.

Genesis 12 is a brilliant chapter as the story of Genesis shifts from focusing on all humanity to the story of the three great patriarchs ofIsrael, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In Genesis 12, Abram (who was later re-named Abraham) is asked to make a great sacrifice (if you have not already, see the post on Genesis 11 to understand what a sacrifice Abraham was asked to make by leaving Ur) and receives an extraordinary promise from God.  Specifically, Abram is told to leave his great city and is assured by God he will become a great nation and be a blessing to all families of the earth.

Abram initially obeys God, but soon a famine comes upon thelandofCanaan.  Rather than trusting in God, who had told Abram to dwell in Canaan where he would become a great nation, and instead of asking God to provide for him, Abram departs thelandofCanaanforEgypt.  In other words, Abram is now acting on his own accord instead of putting his trust in the promise of God.

When Abram entersEgypt, he is concerned the Egyptians will want to kill him and take his wife Sarai (later renamed Sarah) as their own, so he concocts a lie, saying Sarai is his sister.  Abram was correct: the Egyptians think Sarai is a beautiful woman and bring this to the attention of the Egyptian ruler, the Pharaoh.  Pharaoh nearly takes Sarai as a wife, but God intervenes and stops this from happening.

Now, keep in mind just how significant this story is to an ancient Jewish reader.  Remember thatEgyptis one ofIsrael’s archenemies.  The Israelite people had been enslaved inEgyptfor 430 years.  And here, in this story, you have your great Patriarch Abraham and your first matriarch Sarah, making a huge mistake that almost makes you, the Israelite reader, a child of Pharaoh rather than a child of Abraham.  More clearly, unless God had intervened, you would be a child of your enemy rather than a child of your father.  Actually, had God not intervened, you probably would not even exist!

I’m sure most of us have thought at one time or another about our own existence and how different we might be–or, again, how we might not even exist at all–if our father had not met our mother.  Or what if our grandfather had married someone besides our grandmother?  My paternal grandfather was 18 years older than my grandmother, so I have definitely thought about this scenario a time or two!  Or what if one of my ancestors 1,000 years ago had died in a war before procreating?  We could go on and on, but thinking about this too much makes my head spin and my heart sink!  But considering it also makes me thankful I do happen to be here.

Thinking about this also helps us understand Genesis 12.  At the very beginning of the story ofIsrael, the biblical reader is confronted with this notion: had it been left to the decision of your fathers, you would not even be alive.  At best, you would be a child of your enemy.  You are only here because God intervened and saved you.  What a humbling thought!

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with, or have heard of, the story of the Tower of Babel. This story is found in Genesis 11. What might not be so obvious is the connection between the Tower of Babel and Abraham’s being called by God from his homeland, Ur of the Chaldeans.

The name Ur in the Babylonian languages means “the city.” To refer to a city as “the city” indicates it is a powerful, marvelous city. I can certainly relate to that personally, having attended seminary just north of “the city”/New York City. Anywhere near that area when someone refers to “the city,” they are referring to New York City. In fact, generally speaking, a reference to “the city” is even more specific than to New York City in general—it is referring to Manhattan proper, one of the boroughs, and not the entirety of New York City. For example, someone in Queens or Brooklyn might mention “going to the city” while they are already in New York City because they are speaking specifically of that most marvelous borough of Manhattan—the one with the enormous buildings that is always bustling with people and traffic.

If we have this in mind we can see the connection between the Tower of Babel and Ur. At the beginning of Genesis 11, God is displeased with humanity because they had decided to congregate in one place and build (remember, I mentioned building is usually not good!). They did this specifically to “make a name for [themselves] lest [they] be scattered abroad” across the entire earth (vs. 4). This behavior displeased God, who had previously commanded humanity to spread forth and multiply, because it represents human arrogance. So God confused the languages at Babel and scattered humanity across the face of the earth.

Now, if you don’t like God’s approach at the Tower of Babel, at least respect His consistency! Because we quickly see once again God call Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, out of “the city” and into a wide open space. Throughout the rest of Scripture, God will primarily deal with His people either out in the open, in the wilderness, or in exile and slavery. In all of these cases the people are tested to see if they truly put their trust in God or if they instead trust in their own endeavors and accomplishments. Israel will often be tested to see whether they rely on God or whether they wish to “make a name for themselves.” They will find out if they trust in God and His Law to provide them with eternal protection or whether they will rely on the city gates, the political leaders, and the armies to protect them instead.

For me, personally, what I have mentioned above is one of the most challenging aspects of Scripture. I have to ask myself: do I really put my trust in God and His promises? Or do I rely more on the protection provided by the locks on my front door, or the police officers patrolling the neighborhood, or our military protecting us from foreign invasion? If I’m honest with myself, I probably will not like my answer.