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Digging Deeper: The Story of Jacob

The Stolen Blessing

When you think of Israel, look no further than the man who bears the name. He is the father, quite literally, of the twelve tribes. Such a man as Jacob should invoke great reverence. In fact, you would think that such a man should be a model for all of us to follow. Yet Jacob’s story is a story that is marked by his disobedience and God’s grace. Let’s look at the story of how Jacob, the man God chose to bless, lied to his father to steal the blessing from his brother.

 

Genesis 27: Background

First, let’s get a little background information that will help us to understand the story found in Genesis 27. First of all, Jacob’s very name means heel grabber, deceiver, or better put, usurper.  As we will see, Jacob lived up to his name. Before this chapter, Jacob steals Esau’s birthright by tricking him into giving up the birthright. We will see Jacob run at the end of this story only to wrestle with God and be given the name Israel. If you read on in Genesis, you will see Jacob get tricked and humbled when he was seeking a wife. I say all of this to say, Jacob’s story is one of God’s grace and mercy on a sinful man.

 

The Blessing

The story of the stolen blessing begins with Isaac realizing he was nearing death. Therefore, Isaac calls Esau, his oldest son, to receive the blessing. Fun fact, Isaac lives forty more years after this story happens. That is a slow death. Now blessings in the Old Testament are important. And if you recall Jacob’s birth narrative, he was supposed to receive the blessing and not Esau. This is in itself a bit of a problem and Rebekah, their mother, is concerned. What is her strategy for making sure God’s plan is followed? Her answer is to use Jacob to trick her husband and for Jacob to willingly trick and lie to his father. From the beginning of this story, we should be struck by the brokenness of all of our characters. Is this what God meant when he told Rebekah that, “the older will serve the younger?” Certainly not. Yet God does use this broken situation to bring about His plan.

Isaac wanted a meal hunted and cooked by Esau. Rebekah’s plan was for Jacob to deceive his father and usurp his brother by bringing the meal while wearing the skin of a goat and his brother’s clothes. This plan relied on Jacob’s ability to trick an old man who can’t see well. And he does just that. He masked his identity with fur to simulate Esau’s hairiness and with his brother’s clothes so that he smells like a man who has been out in the field.

 

The Deception

Upon entering the room with Isaac, Jacob announced his arrival. Isaac asked who it was. Time for Jacob to come clean. Except that is not what happens. Jacob lied and told his father he was Esau. When Isaac asked about how he could hunt and cook the meal so fast, Jacob invoked God in his lie. Do not pass over the fact that the man God chose to lead His people was using God’s name to aid him in a lie to steal a blessing. In fact, the verbiage used is striking, “the Lord made it happen for me.” God would have given the blessing to Jacob on His goodness and sovereignty and yet in the context of this story, Jacob is making it happen for himself. Brothers and sisters, we cannot make it happen for ourselves. We must obey God and let God work. Jacob does not.

As we continue to follow the story, Jacob has at least five opportunities to stop the charade and come clean with the truth. He blatantly lies three times by saying that he is Esau. Isaac then blesses Jacob all the while thinking it was Esau. Jacob, with the help of his mother, lied and manipulated his aging father. This is broken. We, as the reader, may ask, “how can God use such a broken story?” This is a great question. It is the right question. The whole reason for us digging into this episode of Jacob’s life is to see how God uses broken people. Jacob, Isaac, Esau, and Rebekah were not able to usurp God’s plan with their sin. He will work through the brokenness to bring about what He said would happen. God uses us in our brokenness. His grace is truly sufficient. Rebekah sought to obtain God’s will through trickery. Jacob lied and manipulated his father to obtain what he thought was God’s will. Yet God blesses Jacob later with many children, some of which become the fathers of the twelve tribes.

 

Brokenness and Blessing

As we begin to conclude this account let us not run past the elephant in the room. If God can use broken people, are there consequences to sin? In this story there certainly are consequences. Jacob would have to run far away to escape his brother’s wrath. Jacob never saw his mother again. She died while Jacob was in exile. A family was broken. There was a price to be paid for Jacob’s sin. Sin always causes brokenness, but as we see in Genesis 33 Jacob and Esau meet again and it is a joyful, restorative meeting.

Digging deeper into Jacob’s story, we find sin and brokenness in relation to God’s goodness and mercy. The man named Israel lied, cheated, and manipulated people. He even used God’s name to sell his lie. And yet all that his sin broke, God restored. Jacob and Esau, through the grace of God, met again and made peace. God blessed Jacob with sons who became the fathers of the twelve tribes. The story of Jacob displays God’s grace in taking a broken man and redeeming him to bring about, in his family line, salvation for the whole world through the Savior of the world; Jesus.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Abraham

The Abrahamic Covenant is a Covenant

Oaths are self-curses made before God or gods to establish the trustworthiness of promises or testimony. Oaths were religious tools for securing good faith between potential enemies so that they might have some relationship or safe interaction. Think of our common schoolyard oath, “Cross my heart and hope to die… stick a needle in my eye.”

We’ve all seen it. Someone is called to the stand to bear testimony in a court of law. They are asked to raise their right hand and swear an oath. “Do you swear that the evidence you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” They usually reply, “I do.”

It begs the question as to the value of “testified under oath” when those giving testimonies don’t believe in God. The godless don’t fear the consequences of lying beyond the punishment that men might give them if they are caught lying.

 

What is a Covenant?

Now, Covenants are more elaborate literary frames around the making of an oath. Indeed, The Anchor Bible Dictionary defines covenant as, “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.”1

In the Ancient Near East, there were (1) different kinds of covenants, (2) different sorts of relationships between those who make them, (3) different categories of promises that covenants might contain, and even (4) different styles of establishing them. Thus, even though there are hundreds of covenants in Scripture, the average believer is not likely to be able to name more than two or three.2

Since the Abrahamic Covenant is so vital for the Jewish People, honored and sealed in the circumcision of their sons even today, let’s lay the foundation for understanding Ancient Near Eastern covenants in general, so that we can apply what we learn later to the Abrahamic Covenant.

 

The Shape of a Covenant

The standard covenant form, other than a basic oath, is called a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. An agreement made between an emperor lord and a lesser ruler, nation, or person. Think agreement between Greater & Lesser.

There are basically seven aspects involved which may or may not all be included depending on the situation. The Mosaic covenant is a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty between Greater Yahweh and lesser Israel, so let’s use it as a running example.

  1. The party issuing the treaty has a preamble or introduction. See Exodus 20:1a “I am the LORD your God…”
  2. There is a historical prologue where the mutual history of those involved is written out. It is a big “You owe me” declaration. See Exodus 20:1b “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
  3. There were stipulations listed.  See Exodus 1:2-17, which lists the ten commandments. They are expanded in the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20:22-23:33 and expanded again through Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  4. Provisions for deposit of the text. Copies of the treaty were usually kept in sacred places such as the shrines of the gods or goddesses invoked as witnesses. See how Yahweh gives two tablets of the ten commandments in Exodus 32 (one for each party) which Moses breaks over the incident of the golden calf. Yahweh gives two more in Exodus 34. Both sets are placed, according to Moses in Deuteronomy 10:5, inside the Ark of the Covenant before the Lord.
  5. Periodic public readings of the covenant were also arranged as a reminder to both parties of the specifics of the treaty.  Deuteronomy 31:9-13 and 24-26 detail this reading as to occur every seven years. We actually find this reading in Joshua 8 and another renewal in Joshua 24.
  6. A list of divine witnesses was made. These witnesses were expected to wreak vengeance if an individual did not maintain his side of the treaty.  The Exodus version has no other witnesses given, as Hebrews 6:13 notes, “For when God made a promise to Abraham since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” The Deuteronomy version, however, does call witnesses. Yahweh calls nature itself to witness against Israel should they prove unfaithful.
  7. Blessings and curses were evoked.   If the covenant was not kept, these gods were to destroy the individual and all that belonged to him.  If the individual kept the treaty, these gods were to bless and protect. Often curses were assumed in the way the covenant is enacted. Sometimes they are painfully drawn out as we find in Deuteronomy 28.

 

Types of Covenants

These covenants usually had some form of ratification ceremony, which was often directly related to aspects of the curses. These acts often symbolized the ingestion of the curses, such as in Exodus 24, we have the communal meal on the Holy Mount before a revelation of Yahweh. Other times they acted out the violence of the curses, which we will see in the Abrahamic Covenant when Yahweh passes between the severed parts of the animals. Sometimes public pronouncements were made to accept the consequences of the covenant, such as the cry of the people in Joshua 24:24, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”

Covenants can also be made between equals. These are usually covenants of peace, like an armistice, which we see between Laban and Jacob in Genesis 31 or even covenants of familial bond like we see when Jonathan gives David his robe and armor in 1 Samuel 18.

Covenant ratification acts, i.e., the professions or antics associated with actualizing a covenant often became shortcuts to enacting commonly known covenants where all the parties understood the stipulations, curses, and blessings without having to state them publically or write them.

So, covenants of peace and protection were automatically made by eating from someone else’s table… whatever form that table took. We see this all over scripture, but most explicitly in Joshua 9 when Israel covenanted peace and protection with the Gibeonites by tasting their disgusting rations. This is the reason for Saul’s reluctance to eat from the table of the witch of Endor, in 1 Samuel 28, and the cause of her insistence that he does… given his penchant for killing witches.

Sometimes you might find someone employing family language like father, brother, etc. We see this in 1 Kings 20:32 when the king of Israel declares of Ben-hadad, with whom he’d been fighting, “Does he still live? He is my brother.”

Sometimes simple gestures enact covenant bonds, like seizing hands, grabbing someone’s garment hem, or, as noted above, giving garments.

One special form is a covenant of grant, where a Suzerain bequeaths a blessing to a subordinate who has pleased him or her in some special way. There are three powerful examples of these in Scripture: The Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15 which is a land grant; the Phinehas Covenant in Numbers 25, which is a priest grant; and the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7, which is a dynasty grant. This is an important realization when trying to interpret them in Scripture and when trying to understand their impact on Biblical theology as a whole.

Look for this discussion to be continued in the second part of this blog.

 

1The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “Covenant” (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
2We have yet another problem in this lack of awareness, which I cannot cover in full here. That is treating covenant like an idea and not a literary or social form. Here the believer confuses promises and covenants and finds covenant everywhere some agreement is worked out. Failing to understand the nature of covenants, they fail to both see the ones that are dancing before their eyes and intuit their presence in plain sight.

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Cain and Abel

What did God say to Cain?

The story of Cain and Abel is usually heralded as a classic tale of sibling rivalry, hate, and murder. It is a tale of persecution, the godless hating the righteous. Is this not the very perspective of none other than Jesus Himself in Matthew 23:35?

While this is perfectly legitimate, the story has four parts, not two:

  1. God rejected Cain’s offering but accepts Abel’s
  2. God confronts Cain in his anger
  3. Cain murders Abel anyway
  4. God curses Cain. Each part has lessons for us.

Today I want to focus on God’s confrontation with Cain.

 

Another Tale of Brothers

In his book, East of Eden, John Steinbeck uses the story of Cain to address the struggle of several characters in the book. A psychopathic and perverse murderer named Cathy encounters two brothers locked in a Cain and Abel struggle. She marries one, seduces the other, and nine months later abandons her twin boys with her husband, Adam. She sets herself up as a Madam, a short way off. The twins, Caleb, called Cal, and Aron, also grow up with Cain and Abel conflicts, because Aron is beloved by their assumed father, and Cal is tortured with jealousy. When Cal discovers the truth about their mother, he uses this knowledge to destroy his brother, driving Aron to join the military during World War I. Aron is summarily killed. Upon hearing the news, their assumed father, Adam, has a stroke.

Adam has a Chinese servant, named Lee. He is fully entrenched in the lives of Adam, Cal, and Aron as well as that of Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel. Together, Samuel, Adam, and Lee begin a quest to understand exactly what God says to Cain in the biblical story, when Cain is in the throes of murderous jealousy. The Hebrew says, “Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but YOU timshal over it/him.” The struggle, as you might have guessed, is with the Hebrew term “timshal.” How shall we translate it?

 

What is Timshal?

The ESV translates it, “but you must rule over it,” which gives Cain a commission. The JPS runs with potential, “but you may rule over it.” The American Standard presents a command, “but do thou rule over it.” The King James Version renders it a promise or prediction, “and you shall rule over him.”1 The question is, does God command Cain, promise Cain, or offer Cain the possibility of escape from the ruinous path he has taken?

English has a long list of what we call modal verbs or helping verbs. These are special verbs that add nuance to an action’s time, tense, or relationship to reality. To say, “I can lift a car,” does not suggest that I DID lift a car. Saying “can” lift only says that I’m a braggart who claims the ability to do it. Saying, “He should be there by now,” does not mean that he IS there. Adding “should” implies that, based on known data, one is either expected to be there already, or he has disappointed social expectations by not being there. What will his mother think of that?! Indeed, there are many such words, terms like must, ought to, have, need to , used to, may, will, might; they express things like command, hope, expectation, anticipation, moral compunction, desire and so on.

Hebrew, however, uses a single verb form to express any one of these nuances for its action. An “imperfect verb,” like timshal, has the ability to express the idea that the action will happen, routinely happens, or even that it may, might, should, could, can, or would happen.

 

Can, Will, or Should?

So Samuel, Lee, and Adam discuss the matter at points in East of Eden, setting up the final scene between dying and grieving Adam and guilt-ridden Cal, who has always felt the compulsion of his own dark nature. Lee is determined to force Adam to speak words of comfort and forgiveness to his son even if it kills him. He delivers a moving speech demanding that Adam muster the strength to say something to save his remaining son.

He says to Adam as he lay on his deathbed, Cal “did a thing in anger, Adam, because he thought you had rejected him. The result of that anger is that his brother and your son is dead. …your son is marked with guilt… almost more than he can bear. Don’t crush him with rejection. …Give him your blessing! …Help him, Adam. Give him a chance. Let him be free.”

Adam does muster his strength for one last word to his broken son. Steinbeck writes, “Adam looked up with sick weariness. His lips parted and failed and tried again. Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered words seemed to hang in the air. ‘Timshel!2 Then his eyes closed and he slept.”

 

Timshal!

Adam gives Cal the same chance that God gave Cain. God could not have been predicting that Cain would overcome, because Cain didn’t, but fell to murder. God might have commanded Cain to overcome, but there are better and clearer ways of doing so in Hebrew. Rather, I think Steinbeck’s characters hit upon it best in the end. Earlier in the book, Lee tells Samuel and Adam the results of his Hebrew work with the Rabbis, trying to unpack God’s words to Cain:

“…this was gold from our mining: Thou mayest.   The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin… The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—3 ‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians  10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. ” One may wonder if Paul is giving commentary on Genesis 4:6-7.

Cain and Abel is not just a story of jealousy, hate, and murder. It is the story of temptation and God’s merciful provision in it. It is the story that tells us, no matter our sense of victimhood, that we are responsible for our choices. We are not beasts driven by instinct, but, as God’s image in the world, we have choice and culpability in the choice. Timshal!!! Brothers and sisters… Timshal!!!

 

1I simplified the KJV and JPS to eliminate outmoded word forms like mayest and thou.
2Sic
3Sic

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Digging Deeper: The Creation Story

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., writer for Foundations by ICM

 

Rider on the Storm

Genesis 3 introduces us to a recurring image associated with divine judgment in Scripture—Storm Theophany.1 Unfortunately, the confrontation of Adam and Eve is typically presented in terms that undermine the seriousness and violence of the scene.

In Genesis 3:1-7, the first humans have rebelled against their maker because the Serpent has convinced them that God’s rules have the express purpose of robbing them of a profound blessing—equality with God.

 

Genesis 3 Out of Context

After they sin, we typically read something like: 

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself

The original language of this passage—especially when reading in its Ancient Near Eastern and biblical context—lends itself to the description of an explosive and terrifying conflict between Holy Yahweh, rebellious humans, and what Revelation 20:2 calls, “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan.” Even so, common translations like the one above from the ESV tend to underplay the drama and misrepresent the nature of the event. 

According to a typical rendition, God shows up unawares to finish out His day with His usual stroll, sharing the cool breezes of the evening with His newly minted favs—the first couple. When He arrives, however, He can’t find them. What could have happened to them? Like any panicked parent, He rushes about calling out for them. But alas, when He finds them, something is amiss. They have tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves, and are hiding from Him. He confronts them; they confess; He judges them, bringing the whole world under a curse. 

 

What’s Missing?

This is one of the most significant judgment scenes in the Bible, second, perhaps, only to the final judgment in Revelation 20. Even so, the usual telling leaves one a bit flat compared to dozens of such scenes elsewhere. Where is divine wrath? Where is the energy of doom? It comes off so dispassionate and hum drum. “Well that’s unfortunate… now the whole world is cursed… what’s for dinner?” It feels more “Disappointed Papa” than “Offended Holy Creator.” 

What we are missing is the true nature of God’s arrival in Genesis 3:8 as depicted in the Hebrew text, and properly honed expectations from the story’s ancient Near Eastern and biblical context. God is manifesting His presence… that is theophany… a god-appearing. God is not ignorant of what Adam and Eve have done at the bidding of the Serpent. He comes manifesting Himself for Judgment. In context, one should expect a terrifying revelation in the storm that strikes terror in the heart of rebellious humanity. 

 

The Many Appearances of Storm Theophany

For honing our expectations, let’s consider just a few of the many manifestations of the divine in storm. 

One popular storm theophany appears if you’ll pardon the pun, in Exodus 19:16-25, where God comes with “thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud,” and “a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.” The mountain “was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire,” and “the mountain trembled greatly.” A few chapters later in Exodus 24:17, we read that in addition to heavy cloud, “the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain...” 

The call of Ezekiel begins in chapter 1, saying, “As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal.”  

In Isaiah 30:27ff, we read, “Burning is His anger and dense is His smoke; His lips are filled with indignation And His tongue is like a consuming fire; His breath is like an overflowing torrent, Which reaches to the neck, To shake the nations back and forth in a sieve…” Its picks up later saying, “And the Lord will cause His voice of authority to be heard, And the descending of His arm to be seen in fierce anger, And in the flame of a consuming fire In cloudburst, downpour and hailstones. For at the voice of the Lord Assyria will be terrified.” 

In Habakkuk 3:3-6, Yahweh comes in judgment and, “His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels.” The prophet is paralyzed with fear, writing in verses 15-16, “You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters. I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me.

The New Testament is certainly not devoid of this imagery. To name only two, we find John saying in Revelation 11:19, “There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” Revelation 16:18 describes God’s judgment as, “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.” 

 

Genesis 3 In Context

So… what happened to Genesis 3? 

The answer… Nothing happened to Genesis 3. It has all the components an Ancient Near Eastern person might expect. BUT… translators struggled during the early stages of the gentile church to fully grasp the text and the import of the eastern imagery. 

The traditional translation runs into trouble in four places when it says, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day

First, the word translated “sound” (Hebrew QOL) is a common term in judgment scenes representing the thunder of Yahweh, His earth-shaking voice blasting trumpet-like as He comes on. 

Second, the word translated “walking” is a special verb form that intends here agitated or violent movement—Thrashing about. 

Third, there is no “in the cool of the day” in the Hebrew text. Rather it says, “in the RUACH of the YOM.” RUACH can mean among other things, wind, breath, or spirit. 

Fourth, this wind/breath/or spirit is associated with the YOM, which has two meanings. YOM can mean either day or storm.

So, given the standing Hebrew text and the biblical context of judgment scenes, what we have in Genesis 3 is the first of many storm theophanies, as God comes in terrifying glory to judge our first parents for their rebellion against Him. 

And they heard the thunder of the LORD God thrashing through the garden in the wind of the storm, and the man and his wife hid themselves.”  

It is a bad news/good news situation, however. For there is hope. In the midst of judgment, Yahweh declares His plan for redemption through the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent, and reverse the curse over creation.

1The term “theophany” will be explained below in further detail…a simple working definition, for now, is the appearance of God.