Archives for posts with tag: Paul

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.

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I’m quite sure few people consider the Bible to be funny.  It’s certainly not one of the first characteristics popping to mind when we think about Scripture.  But every once in a while the Bible throws in a little comedy.  My focus today on the birth of Isaac is one such story.  As is often the case with translations, the story loses some of its humor and wit in English, so I will try my best to convey those aspects of the story to you.

The birth of Isaac is introduced in Genesis 17:16, with God promising Abraham not only a son through his aged and infertile wife, Sarah, but a son who would become great, the father of many kings.  Abraham responds to God by falling on his face and laughing at God.  Let’s be honest, we might do the same if God made this promise to us when our spouse is 90 years old (actually, I think I would weep and beg for God to change his mind, but that’s beside the point).  But as I mentioned, some of the humor in this story is “lost in translation” (Bill Murray’s worst movie, by the way), so let me translate Genesis 17:17 slightly differently: “Then Abraham fell on his face and Isaaced, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?'”

You can see this is quite a strange “translation,” but I do this because the name Isaac in Hebrew means, “he laughs.”  So literally, in the Hebrew, Abraham falls down on his face and calls out his son, Isaac’s name (without knowing that yet, of course).  In English, you just do not get the same sense.  The only other way you could fully comprehend the significance in English would be to say Abraham named his son “he laughs.”  In either case, what is happening in this story is clear.  Abraham laughs at God’s promise in chapter 17.  Sarah laughs at Him in chapter 18.  And in chapter 21, God has the last laugh when Isaac is born of the senior citizen, Sarah, and serves as a reminder to his parents–by his very name–that they laughed off God’s promise.

Besides teaching us that God can overcome nature, and that we should put our trust in His promises rather than laughing at them, this birth story of Isaac highlights several other systematic biblical concepts.  I will mention some of them here only briefly, as they are related to the issue of Isaac’s naming, and the idea that God gets the last laugh.

The birth of Isaac shows the blessing of God comes through God’s promises, not through human planning and acquisition.  The story of Isaac is clearly contrasted to the story of Ishmael.  Ishmael was the product of Abraham and Sarah devising their own scheme, in order to give Abraham a child for the blessing God had promised him (to become a father of many nations).  In that story (Genesis 16), the Bible clearly mentions (in its own, modest way) that Abraham and Hagar had a sexual relationship to bear Ishmael.  In the case of Isaac, there is no mention of Abraham and Sarah having a sexual relationship.  Certainly, it is implied, but the Bible presents the story so that Isaac, in a sense, proceeds out of the mouth of God, a fulfillment of God’s promise.  Accordingly, when Paul mentions this story in Galatians 4:21-31, he mentions in vs. 28 how we are children of Abraham according to Isaac (i.e. the promise God made to Abraham). 

Similarly, the story of Isaac sets a precedent throughout the Bible, with God consistently choosing for His covenant to continue through one of the younger siblings rather than through the elder son.  This process shows that God will not be limited by normal human convention.  If He wills to do something, He is not bound by the limitations, ideals, or basic concepts of humanity.  In this case specifically, if God wishes for His covenant to continue through the younger son, Isaac, rather than the older son, Ishmael, it is God’s business.  Functionally, God behaves this way so no one can ever say His plan continues through human wisdom and strength.  Choosing the younger, the weaker, the poorer, etc., shows that God’s plan continues only by Divine Providence and not through the normal ordering of the world.

Or, as today’s blog title says, God gets the last laugh.

The first half of the 17th chapter of Genesis deals with the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.  The sign of this covenant is the circumcision of Abraham, his household, and his progeny.  Below I have highlighted three important aspects of this covenant.

Age

In verse 12, God commands the male children to be circumcised on the 8th day.  Obviously, this is at a time when the child is not able to choose for himself whether to be circumcised.  We learn from this a vital lesson that Jesus later taught His own disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16).  Accordingly, in both the Jewish and traditional Christian tradition, a child is circumcised (Jewish) or baptized (Christian) as an infant.  They are put in covenant with God first, and then as they grow older are taught God’s commandments.  This is where the Jews get the name “bar mitzvah,” which means “son of the commandment.” 

So for neither Jews nor traditional Christians is circumcision or baptism seen as the end, but rather as a new life, “…that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).  You can now see from the full quote of Jesus in John 15:16 the consistency between Genesis 17 and Jesus’ teaching.  We are chosen by God, before we even have a choice in the matter, but only so we may go forth and bear fruit through following God’s commandments.

Sign

Another significant facet to circumcision is the obvious mark circumcision leaves on the one who was circumcised.  This mark is important because in the ancient world slaves were known by their mark.  In the Bible, it became common to refer to a believer in God as a “slave of God” (often weakly translated into English as “servant of God”).  This terminology became the common phrase used by Paul to refer to himself in the introduction of his epistles.  Obviously, the physical mark and the terminology used indicates we are “owned” by God and are, thus, accountable to Him.  It is our responsibility to live by the rules of His house, and we are to have no other master.

Biology

Circumcision, as I understand it, was fairly unique to the Jews.  Certain other societies practiced it, but even today only an estimated 30% of males are circumcised, and the vast majority (if not all) of those have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  From a biological standpoint, what I find interesting about circumcision is God commanding the people to do something contrary to their biology.  In other words, God is asking males to do something that biologically changes them from the way they were born. 

The reason I find this fascinating is because the Bible—and most especially the teachings of Jesus—teaches us to behave contrary to our biological impulses.  For example, we have a biological impulse promoting selfishness, or an ability to survive.  In Scripture, however, you are taught not to be selfish, to give freely and generously to others in need.  Another example: biologically speaking, we intuitively know to stay away from people who are unkind towards us—it is a survival mechanism.  Yet, Jesus taught us to love those who hate us.  Many more examples could be given, but I think you see the point.  Most of what Jesus taught us to do is overcome our biological impulses, which is essentially what Paul means when he speaks about living according to the will of the Spirit rather than according to the desires of the flesh.

These three facets of circumcision are certainly not the only significant aspects of the covenant in Genesis 17, but to me they stand out as important principles that play a role throughout the Bible.

I am back from vacation and the Parish Life Conference, so I hope to keep this blog more regularly updated.  Today I will return to the book of Genesis, chapter 15.

Chapter 15 offers a pivotal moment in the Bible, primarily because in verse 6 Abram (later re-named and subsequently referred to here as Abraham) is “accounted righteous” by God.  Whether we like it or not, in a very real way this one verse has shaped the past 2,000 years of history.  The reason I make such a bold statement is simple: this verse is the cornerstone of the defense/apologia of the Christian movement as seen most explicitly in Acts, Romans, and Galatians.  And, of course, we know that history has been changed because of Christianity.

According to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as thoroughly outlined especially by St Paul of Tarsus, being accounted righteous by God is independent of being perfectly obedient to the Mosaic Law.  I believe it is important for Christians to understand that the teachings of Jesus and Paul–that righteousness is found apart from the Mosaic Law–is not a “new” concept, but one found in the Old Testament.  Put differently, in defending the teaching of Christ, Paul did not invent a new argument or concept, but simply referred back to Scripture to make his case.

In Paul’s time, as in our own, we are tempted to think (even if we profess something different with our mouths) we are righteous because we follow certain rules (insert the rules of a specific religion or denomination).  With religious Jews, it is easy to fall into the trap of righteousness by following the Mosaic Law.  However, as Paul correctly points out, Abraham is deemed righteous by God BEFORE the Mosaic Law even exists.  Therefore, if one is accounted righteous before the Law is given, then righteousness does not come through the Law.  Instead, as Genesis 15:6 indicates, it comes through belief in God.

Now it is important to keep in mind that the word translated “believe” in Genesis 15:6 is more than an intellectual ascent or a simple confession of faith.  Rather, biblical belief in God means you put your trust in God.  I often compare this to kids and their “belief” in gravity.  Give a 3-year old kid a balloon and take him outside.  Watch him let go of the balloon and cry when the balloon flies away.  The child has such a strong trust in gravity he believes whatever goes up will always come down.  The 3-year old in this example has a biblical “belief” in gravity–he behaves according to something unseen based on a trust in that principle.

Ultimately, putting this kind of faith, trust, or belief in God is what leads to us being accounted righteous.  It is our authentic admission that we are insufficient before God, and our recognition that only He can correct that, which leads us to holiness.  Certainly, if we have that sincere faith, action should follow; we should behave in a certain way.  As St James pointed out in his epistle, if our behavior does not match the confession of our lips then it proves we do not have a biblical belief in God, but only the kind of intellectual belief I mentioned previously–and one shared even by the demons (James 2:18-19)!  Yet, we should never permit ourselves to think our actions make us holy.  It is only God who can deem us holy, and only when we are willing to admit our deficiencies and inadequacies. 

Yesterday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church was John 4:5-42, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The story is, of course, packed with meaning, but I would like to point out one interesting aspect that is frequently overlooked.

John 4 says Jesus came to a city of Samaria called Sychar.  To my knowledge, there is no historical evidence such a village existed.  This led some Church Fathers and scholars to conclude there is some sort of scribal error involved with Sychar.  However, I am inclined to think it is no error at all. 

The root of Sychar in Hebrew means to earn your living by working as a servant/slave.  It is this same word used in Genesis to describe the 14 years of Jacob’s labor to acquire Rachel.  In addition to this Sychar, several times throughout John 4 the Greek word “kopio” is used.  In verse 6 it is translated as “wearied” and in verse 38 several times as “labor.”  The word “kopio” is also used by St Paul in his epistles to speak of laboring for the Gospel.

One more thing to keep in mind is the play on the five husbands in the story.  The number five in Scripture is often a reference to the Torah, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–the Mosaic Law).  Since the Samaritans only accepted the five books of Moses (and not the rest of the Old Testament), Jesus’ discussion here about the five husbands is likely referring to the woman being under bondage to the five books of Moses.  Remember, a woman during these times was legally subject to her husband, under his authority.

Based on this info, you can see how there is a play going on between Sychar and kopio.  The Sychar, the laboring to keep every aspect of the Mosaic Law, leads to bondage.  Drinking of that water leaves one thirsty, always needing to do more and more, work harder and harder.  On the other hand, the kopio, the laboring for the Gospel of grace, leads to freedom.  Those who drink of the Gospel’s waters will never be thirsty again.  They will reap that for which they had not labored (vs. 38) and, following this path of grace, will continue to kopio/labor for those who will come after them and reap of their work.

As Christians, this should be our worldview: freely you received, freely give (Matthew 10:8).  We have freely received God’s grace, so we must in turn labor to make this grace known to others–not only in our preaching, but through our works of love and mercy.