Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Blogging the bible: A Family, and the trip Home

As the Blog through the bible experience continues, here are some thoughts on Genesis 30-33

The search for blessing that dominates Jacobs’s life now continues to be felt by his family. It’s an infection that becomes an idolatry.Look at how the chapter opens. IN the opening words of Chapter 30, what does Rachel say, “Give me children, or I shall die!” She is the love of Jacobs’s life. He was tricked into marrying Leah. He loves Rachel. With all that he has.He gave 14 years of his life to marry her. But now, that’s not enough. She looks at Leah, with all the standing, and being a woman of the ancient world, and knowing that your value was based on your children, and ability to bear children, she says, “Give me children, or I shall die!" This is the essence of idolatry. I have to have that, or my life means nothing. And that’s where she’s at.

Jacob, recognizing his inability to fulfill this desire, asks, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" Rachel’s response is to repeat Sarah’s mistake, and ask for her husband to sleep with her servant, and give her a child through the servant. There is no hope, no faith. No joy, and it’s clear, she has not learned what her sister learned, the importance of praising the Lord. Bilhah conceived,and bore a son, and she named him Dan, saying, God has judged me,and has also heard my voice and given me a son." Bilhah conceived again,and gave Jacob a second son, Naphtali “with mighty wrestling I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed”.

At that point, Leah gets in on the act,and  took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife, and Zilpah bore Jacob a son, and Leah said, "Good fortune has come!" so she called his name Gad. Then Zilpah bore Jacob a second son, and Leah said, "Happy am I! For women have called me happy." So she called his name Asher. She also bears two more sons, Issachar,“God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband," and Zebulon, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me,because I have borne him six sons." So she called his name Zebulon. Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah. Notice the name difference. There’s something fierce, and competitive in Rachel’s names. She wants vindication. It’s not like that in Leah’s names. There is a competition seems to still going on,but Leah’s not finding her identity in it, like Rachel is. Furthermore, it’s clear, God is choosing the despised mother, and exalting her. The kingly tribe of Judah and the priestly tribe of Levi, come from her, despite Jacobs love for her and her son Joseph.

The rest of the story of the children ends with God remembering Rachel. Why, we’re given a clue. “God listened to her and opened her womb”. It seems she finally cried out to God, and looked to him to be the one that is her all in all. And she bore a son, and said, "God has taken away my reproach," and she called his name Joseph, saying, "May the LORD add to me another son!"

The rest of the chapter tells how Jacob gets rich. He wants to leave, and Laban says stay, I know you’re making me rich. So he persuades Jacob to stay on, but for a fee, “every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats,and they shall be my wages”. And Laban says, deal, but that day, he seeks to trick Jacob again. However, he does something. He took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. The result is his flocks grew.There is no scientific reason that this works. It’s all God’s intervention.Jacob admits this in chapter 31. But there is something interesting going on here. It’s wordplay on the name Laban. For as Jacob peeled back the bark on the sticks and exposed the white (Laban in Hebrew) he saw the flocks grow. “He played the Laban game and won”,writes bible scholar Alan Ross.

What chapter 30 gives us is the story of how we get the 11 of the 12 tribes; Benjamin will be born in chapter 35. The relationships, and the tension between the two mothers, will be important as the story goes on. Jacob’s love for Rachel will carry to Joseph, with somewhat disastrous results. But more than that, these brothers will make up the roots of Israel.

Notice in all this, the tension that comes from polygamy. There is no glorification of it. These family members are broken by it. Each of these women is so eager to outshine the other, that she gives her servant to her husband rather than allow the other to get ahead in the race to bear children. The relationships are so self-centered and impetuous that at another time, one sister sells her sex time for a few mandrakes. Polygamy means messy relationships.

But, despite all this, God is working. This messy broken family is the source of the line of promise. While they are no better than any other family. He has called them, and sent them forward. From Judah will come the line of David, from Levi, the priests, and the purposes of the sovereign God continue on.

Chapter 31 tells of the split between Jacob and Laban. The two can no longer stay together. Laban has nothing but disdain for Jacob at this point. Now, God intervenes and says, “Go home”. "Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you."So Jacob calls his wives, and makes his case to them. They are in favor of leaving,and respond in faith. Notice that he in essence, asks for their input. He gives this incredible testimony of what God has told him, but it’s also a presentation, designed to convince his wives to come with joy. They respond as hoped, saying “Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us,and he has indeed devoured our money. All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do." They make clear, Laban exploited them, they are ready to follow Jacob, and follow God.

So they flee as a family. But the problem is, Rachel stole Laban’s household idols. Jacob was hoping for a clean escape. That hope was ruined by Rachel’s decision. Why did she do it? We don’t know. Maybe she thought she deserved them, thinking that since Laban had turned the tables on her in the name of custom, she had a right to do this. Maybe it was base self interest. To have the Teraphim, these household idols, may have meant the right to inheritance (it did according to the Nuzi tablets – ancient documents from the 15th century B.C). Who knows what she thought, but it almost backfired bad, because Laban went after them. To Laban, this was a bridge to far. It was one thing for Jacob to take his flocks and family, but his "god" too? Perhaps Jacob would try to steal back to Haran later and claim Laban’s estate. This was an issue that had to be dealt with. But at the last minute, God tells him be careful.

In their interaction, notice the way that Laban acts. 

First, he acts like the hurt father. 

Then, notice he reveals the true issue,the gods. He needs the gods. He loves the gods. And as he searches for the one that took them, for the one that is under the penalty of death, it never occurs to him that Rachel would sit on them while she has her period. But there she is. In this, the “gods” are revealed to be “nothing gods”, sat upon by an unclean woman during her period. This is the bibles view of idols. They are “nothing gods”.

Finally, notice that there is an agreement that marks out the boundary between Jacob and Laban, and his descendants, and the peoples of the east. The boundary, Galeed, later Gilead,is the edge of Israel’s border. They are now separated from these people forever. The stone pile, a Mizpah (watchtower), stands as a witness of that boundary,reminding them that God is watching over this covenant.

Chapter 33 begins with a visible reminder to Jacob that God is for him. Angels of the Lord met Jacob, and when Jacob saw them, he says, "This is God's camp!" This is a great encouragement to Jacob, and it prepares him for the encounter with Esau. Jacob sends Messengers to Esau, who comes to meet him with 400 men. Jacob is understandably scared, given how they parted, and takes precautions to protect his family by splitting it up. But he has hope, hope that he did not have when he fled.

The night before he is to meet his brother, something happens. He meets a man. With whom he wrestles. All night. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched Jacob’s hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as Jacob wrestled with him, and the man said,  "Let me go, for the day has broken," but Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." At this, the man asks for his name, and then renames him. "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." At this, Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." Instead of giving his name, the man said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And then, he gives Jacob the thing he’s been after his whole life, as we’re told “there he blessed him”. There God blessed Jacob. So Jacob calls the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." From then on, he limps.

Notice how different a man he is by the time he returns. The young Jacob is quite a contrast with the one that will meet Esau. 

On the surface, not allot is different. While he’s now rich, with a family, he’s still scared for his life. 

But look at the same time, look how he acts. Before, as he left, he just ran, with no apologies. When he met God, it was all God’s action; he took no part in initiating the encounter. God sends the ladder, and the vision, but his response is not to praise God, but barter with God. If you do this, I’ll do this. Now, when  God again takes the initiative: Jacob meets angelic messengers, and then he calmly, carefully acts. He sends messengers, and then sends waves of gifts, telling them to show Esau respect and honor. Furthermore, he admits that ultimately, things are out of his control. Bartering is gone; in “great fear and distress” Jacob takes action,and then prays, begging for help. He reminds God of his covenant promises. He reminds God of his unworthiness. He reminds God that he came home in obedience,he reminds God of how He has acted on his behalf, acknowledging that he did not deserve these blessings. He begs for God to intervene and deliver him from Esau,and confesses that he is afraid. The old Jacob didn't pray for anything, the new one cries out in mercy. It is clear. He has learned fear, humility, reliance on God, and how to pray. But ultimately, he shows that he has learned that God alone saves. He still does what he can, he does not fail to act, but he shows that he trusts that God will be his ultimate savior, and he will not let his savior go, for anything. When God shows up to wrestle with him, to finish breaking down the old Jacob, he wrestles till God blesses him. In the end, he limps forward, a changed man, weaker, limping, but mightier,because he has been transformed by God.

Chapter 33 recounts the reconciliation between Esau and Jacob. Notice Jacobs’s humility. A changed man, he treats his brother with respect, and honor, and is overjoyed to see his brother at peace with him, a far cry from the way that he felt as he left.

Notice the healing and restoration that God has done in Esau as well. Before, he valued possessions,and nursed his grudge and plotted revenge over losing the birthright. Now, he cares nothing fro grudges, and says, keep your stuff. Jacob, relieved by the change, can only marvel at the way that God has changed him.

Notice also how Jacob credits God with everything. The Children are God’s gracious gift. The possessions are God’s gifts, “the Lord has dealt graciously with me”. But not only does he credit God with these blessings, he also is intent on restoring something of what he stole. When Esau says, I have enough, what does he do? He urges Esau to take his gifts, and indication that he wants to share some of his blessing with Esau.

Finally, notice also that Jacob does not want to live to close to his brother. He heads in the opposite direction from Edom. He clearly is happy with the reconciliation, but he wants distance.

The story ends with him worshiping. Ingratitude to God, “he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel”.

What lessons to take away? There are many that we could lift up, but let me leave you with two.

First, God is the God that is the only source of blessing.We can look to many things. They will all fail us. Till we know that e blessing of our Lord, we will always be searching what we can only find in God. when we learn this, we will be much stronger, because we are empowered by the one that is greater than "he that is in the world".

Second, we can take comfort in knowing that God is sovereign even when it seems plans go awry through human failings. He alone is the source of grace in our lives.

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