Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Leviticus 9-15: Clean and Unclean

Well, it's been a while, but I'm going to do a big chunk (maybe two chunks) today so I can keep moving.

This part is all about what makes something ceremonially unclean, and what you're supposed to do when something (or, yes, someone) becomes unclean. It's pretty weird, but sort of neat. Some thoughts:

Chapter 9
(This is about Aaron offering sacrifices before God, after all the preceding chapters about how to do so)

  • I wonder sometimes why Aaron was chosen to be the high priest instead of Moses, and why there's not much in the Bible about him if he was so important. I suppose Moses was too busy to be the high priest. Still, I find it interesting.
  • There's a lot of instructions about how to present an offering to God. Why was the method - or formula, we could say - so important? If there was nothing inherently special, spiritual, or magical about the animals (or their various body parts), why did it matter what the priest did with which parts? I really don't know.
  • In verse 24, when Aaron offers the sacrifice, fire shoots out and burns up all the stuff on the altar, and the people freak out and fall down. I love that. They've already seen God do a bunch of awesome stuff, but it never gets old.
Chapter 10

  • Right at the beginning of this chapter, Aaron has two sons named Nadab and Abihu who put some weird incense that wasn't God-approved on the altar, and they die because of it. This is what I wrote in my notes when I read that: Harsh! What did they do that for? They knew the rules, and God made a really big deal about following them - like, the last NINE LONG CHAPTERS that have taken me forever to get through were all about how to do a sacrifice and how important it was and what it meant and all that. How could they just blow all that off? No wonder God was mad at them. I'm mad at them. That's likw how I feel when people post things on the board that I've expressly said "Do NOT do this!" Still, I'm sad that they died. That seems really rough.
  • In verse 6, Israel mourns the deaths of Aaron' sons, even though Moses doesn't let the mourn. That must have been really hard on them, since obviously they're the ones who would be the most sad over it. But I am glad that they didn't prohibit everyone from mourning. In fact, Moses said that the whole house of Israel would "beail the burning which the LORD has brought about."
  • I don't understand what happens in verses 16-20. Moses goes looking for the goat of a sin offering that they just offered, but it had been all burned up, so Moses goes to Aaron's sons (the ones who are still alive) and asks them why they didn't eat it, and Aaron says it's because his sons were burned up and it wouldn't have been good in the eyes of the LORD for him and his sons to eat the sin offering today. And Moses goes "oh, okay," and that's the end of the chapter. I don't get it. There must be some significance to all this stuff that I'm missing.
Chapter 11
(This part is about clean and unclean animals)
  • It's really weird to me that animals which have split hooves and chew the cud are clean. I mean, it's not a random selection of different animals, or even based so much on what they eat or anything. I suppose God could have made "clean" animals that didn't have cloven hooves, but he gave all the animals he wanted the Israelites to eat those two things in common. How funny. I mean, with the fish it makes more sense: scales and fins. That's pretty general. Hooves and digestive process just seems so weird to me.
  • We all know that the pig is considered an abomination to the Jews (as well as to Muslims and Hindus). But it's not the only animal that was unclean. I wonder why it became the sort of poster child of unclean animals.
  • I also think it's weird that God never says why certain animals were unclean. Today we think it's because of sanitation and preventing disease and whatnot. But God doesn't tell the Israelites that, and I'm sure they didn't know about bacteria and all that to figure it out. But then again, maybe it wouldn't have done much good to tell them why because they didn't know anything about that stuff. So maybe sometimes God doesn't answer our "why" questions because the answers would be more confusing than the questions.

Chapter 12 (it's okay, this one is really short)
  • Now, this chapter is really funny to me. It's about how when a woman has a baby, she becomes unclean for a certain amount of time. If it's a boy, she's unclean for a week, and on the eighth day when the boy is circumcised, that's when she enters a purification period of 33 . But if it's a girl, she's unclean for two weeks and has a purification period of 66 days. Why? I'd also like to know what the practical implications of this whole unclean period are. Is that kind of like maternity leave? Or is it a purely ceremonial thing that has no connection to "practical" matters like the unclean animals do?
  • What I do like about this chapter is that it tells what sacrifice to bring to the Lord when your kid is born. You're supposed to bring a lamb, but if you're too poor for that you bring a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. I think it's neat that God has different requirements like that. And notice, He doesn't just make it so that -everyone- has to bring birds. If you can afford a lamb, that's what you should bring.
Chapter 13-14
(These two are about leprosy, or icky skin diseases, and what to do about them)
  • The closest Israel got to having doctors was priests. They had to be able to tell what was just a scab and what was a serious disease, and they had to tell people how to treat each. Nasty job if you ask me. What really sucks is, there wasn't any treatment for disease, whether it was leprosy or just a burn. Pretty much you just wrap it up and try to stay away from people so you don't infect them. I wonder why God didn't give them more information about medical treatments? Lots of other ancient people groups had herbal remedies for all kinds of things (don't know about leprosy though). Well, maybe Hebrews did use herbs for things too, and we just don't know about it. But this leprosy stuff was apparently highly contagious, so people really had to stay away for their own good. I wonder if it was risky for the priests to be looking at their sores and stuff.
  • All of chapter 14 is about cleansing a leper and his house and stuff, so apparently people did recover from it. That's really encouraging. But not everybody did.
Chapter 15
(This chapter is just weird. It's about, um, bodily discharge)
  • Okay, first of all, why is this chapter in the Bible? This is like TMI to the nth degree for me! Now, it is my opinion that some books have a sort of personality, as though they were almost people themselves, separate from their authors (if you are an author, or if you have listened to one talk about their books, you understand how this is possible). And the Bible is called a "living book" so I think I can say it has more personality than other books, and its personality is totally candid. It is not at all apologetic when it talks about nasty stuff, or about deep stuff, or hard-to-believe stuff, or stuff that you just wish wasn't in there. It puts all its cards on the table, face-up, as it were. This chapter is an example of that. Now, I really don't know why this was so super-important to God or to Israel, but it apparently was worth writing 33 verses about (the baby chapter only has 8 verses), so we mustn't overlook it.
  • What I do find interesting here (yes, I said interesting) is that no matter what kind of discharge a person has, at the end of it they have to bring birds for a sin offering and for a burnt offering. Now, the text doesn't treat any of these things like sins. The people don't get punished for them, and generally it's something that the person can't help (like menstruation). But you have to offer a sin offering anyway, and I wonder why that is.
So that was a lot of really weird stuff in those chapters. Burning, dying, eating, scabbing, birthing, discharging, sacrificing stuff. All I can say is, no wonder Hebrews says that the Law is only a shadow of the things to come.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Leviticus 7-8: More Sacrifice

Yikes . . . three months. Sorry 'bout that. Slowly but surely, I will make it through Leviticus!

I read chapters 7-8 a while ago, so I'm just going to write what I have in my notes, and then I'll start up again with chapter 9 next time.

Chapter 7 starts off with the guilt offering, which is "most holy." For some reason I wondered how many things in the Old Testament are "holy" and how many things are "most holy," and what the difference really is. That's all I wrote down about chapter 7.

In chapter 8, we first hear about the Urim and Thummim. Those words mean "lights" and "perfections." According to what I've heard, they were these little rocks that the priests or whoever used to cast lots and hear from God, or something. Do we really know much about them? What is the significance of their names? Unlike almost everything else in the Pentateuch, these little deals are never really explained or described, just taken as given. This leads me to wonder if they had been around since before the Exodus and therefore the Hebrews wouldn't need an explanation for them. But I don't know.

In chapter 8, Aaron and his sons have to be consecrated before they can serve as priests before the LORD. I wonder, did Moses have to be consecrated before doing anything? I mean, he was the one who consecrated Aaron, and he's the one offering the sacrifices in this chapter and earlier in the story.

My other thought, which I've been musing over for some time, is this: what was the point of the sacrifices (other than the fact that they pointed to the future sacrifice of Jesus)? Was there something the blood of certain animals that had spiritual power? That sounds silly, so I don't think so. In fact, Hebrews even says that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (10:4). And yet, that same book also says that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (9:22). As Christians, we believe the only blood that has the power to forgive sins is the blood of Jesus Christ. So what was with the animals, and why did the people have to kill them to be forgiven if the animals' blood itself was powerless?

I think it wasn't about the blood at all, not directly. The animals the Jews sacrificed were not what forgave sins nor what covered them. I think the point was to show the people what the consequence of sin is: death. It was like God was saying to them, "this should be you - but I've made another way." I guess that's why Hebrews says, "In those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year" (10:3), because when you have to kill an animal because you screwed something up, you have to take it seriously. It makes you realize that God is so far removed from impurity that even one little slip separates you from Him. And it reminds you of what exactly God is saving you from, the ultimate consequence of your own actions.

Well, that's all I've got today. Next time I'll do more than two chapters.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Leviticus 1-6: Sacrifices and Burnt Offerings

So like Homestar Runner last summer, I seem to have skipped June. Now that I'm working more-or-less full time, it's been a little more challenging for me to make time for my reading. I will endeavor to post a blog at least once a week though.

There are three parts of the Old Testament that are really, really hard to get through: Ezra and Nehemiah, the Minor Prophets, and Leviticus through Numbers, where we are now. I think, though, that what you get out of these more difficult passages depends on what you put into it.

The first six chapters of Leviticus go over every kind of sacrifice that the Israelites were to make and what they were for. For the most part it's kind of repetitive, but don't skim or you'll miss some interesting things. Here are my observations from reading:

  • I've always wondered why you're not supposed to cut up the birds in sacrifices. All the other animals you chop up and dissect, but the birds you pretty much just pluck. If you can remember back to Genesis 15, Abraham didn't cut the birds when God made a covenant with him. Is that because they're too small?
  • What is it with God and leaven? No grain offering could have any leaven (or honey or oil) in it. I find that very interesting. Is this because it points back to Passover, when they weren't supposed to have leaven because they couldn't wait for the bread to rise? Does leaven symbolize something bad as it does in the Gospels when Jesus talks about the "yeast of the Pharisees"? Or was leaven actually bad for them, like how the unclean animals were potential health risks?
  • God specifically says several times that the fat of the animal is not to be eaten but is part of the offering to the LORD. I'm not sure why that is, but it immediately reminded me of Daniel 1, when Daniel and his friends refused to eat the king's food - the meat they were served would have been mostly fat. Leviticus tells us why: it was considered sacred. I find that really interesting, although again I don't know why this was the case. Was it another dietary thing? Was it more than that?
  • Leviticus 4:3 says that if a priest sins unintentionally, he brings guilt on the people. Does that mean there's such a thing as being guilty for what somebody else did? But if this happens, the people aren't the ones who have to make a sacrifice and repent; only the priest has to do that.
  • Chapter 4 is about sins that were committed unintentionally and what you have to do about them once you're aware that you did something wrong. This tells me that motive is not the determining factor in what counts as sin. I like to say that sin is breaking a relationship more than it is breaking a rule, and that's true, but thinking that way can lead to believing that as long as your motives are good, it doesn't really matter what you do. But according to this chapter, you can be guilty without even knowing it. We can do things with a clear conscience and still be hurting God.
  • I find it interesting that if a leader sins unintentionally, he must offer a male goat as a sacrifice, but if one of the common people sins unintentionally, he must offer a female. Not sure why that is either. There are a few other times when male or female is specified; most of the time the gender of the animal doesn't matter.
  • In chapter 5 it says that if you swear thoughtlessly to do evil or to do good, you become guilty. I think this is referring to making promises you don't intend to keep. What do you think? Apparently our words are important to God. A promise isn't something to be taken lightly or to be made lightly. If you promise to do something, do it. Your word is your bond.
  • God makes a provision for poor people, and he makes a provision for really poor people. If you can't afford a lamb, you can offer birds. If you can't afford birds, you can offer a little bit of flour (probably everybody had some of that).
  • 6:9-13 states several times that the altar has to have a fire burning continually. This is a very important point. The whole purpose of this sacrifice stuff is to show us the price of our sin and to remind us that we need a mediator to make things right between us and God. But we don't just need that mediator when we lie in court or steal something or whatever; we need it all the time. The fire is a constant reminder of our sinful state, of a relationship that has been broken.

All of this talk about sacrifices makes me think of Hebrews 10, which has this to say about the sacrificial system:

For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,
After saying above, "SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS AND WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, NOR HAVE YOU TAKEN PLEASURE in them" (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, "BEHOLD , I HAVE COME TO DO YOUR WILL." He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, waiting from that time onward UNTIL HIS ENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

What's cool about Leviticus is that ultimately, it points to Christ, who acted as man, priest, and sacrifice in His death on the cross. When we read all this stuff about burnt offerings, we're really reading about Him. It's kind of exciting to find connections like that.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Exodus 19-40: The Covenant

I'm going to finish Exodus today. It's 22 chapters - wow - but I'll try not to write a novel.

Mostly what happens is, Moses talks with God and gets a bunch of commandments - kind of an overview of what we'll see in the next few books of the Law. The people say they'll obey everything God tells them to do, so then God starts telling Moses about how to build the tabernacle and priestly garments, which takes about seven rather lengthy chapters. Meanwhile, the people down in the camp go ballistic and have Aaron make an idol for them. God gets really mad, and Moses goes back and freaks out and kills a bunch of people. Then Moses goes back up on Sinai for a while and gets more instructions, and then the people make the tabernacle, and then we have a short scene describing God's presence in the tabernacle by day and by night.

So here are some thoughts.

1. I went to a synagogue once when I was staying with my Jewish friends for a weekend. My friend's Sunday school class (yeah, they have Sunday school too) was going over the Ten Commandments. The way they number them is a little different: the first commandment to them is "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt" (Ex. 20:2). I'm not really sure how that's a commandment, but that's how they have it. Then they merge what we consider the first and second commandments into one: no other gods. I just think that's interesting.

2. Murder is punishable by death if the victim is a man, a woman, a child, or even an unborn baby - but not if it's a slave. Why is that?

3. A lot of sins were punishable by death according to the Mosaic Law. If we applied all of them today, we would have the death penalty for the following:
a) murder
b) manslaughter, but you could get asylum
c) kidnapping
d) being an obstinately rebellious son or daughter
e) having a dog that has a habit of biting people and you didn't put him down and he bites somebody and they die
f) being involved in Wicca, astrology, palm-reading, tarot cards, the occult, etc.
g) bestiality
h) adhering to a religion other than the state religion

And that's just from two chapters; there are a few other things that could get you executed. Nobody crucify me here, but I think it's funny that people point to the Law for the reason why the death penalty is in effect today, but only where murder and perhaps rape are concerned. Not too many people want the death penalty to apply to witchcraft or rebellious children. Take that however you will; it's just an observation.

4. The other day I was rereading my very early IM conversations with Justin. It was funny to compare our relationship now to our friendship back then. One thing I noticed is that certain things that we thought would be potential issues back then, did become issues when we started dating. I also saw that even in IM, the same weaknesses and tendencies which each of us has today were present kind of as seeds at the very beginning. Not that we haven't worked through any of those things, but I'm just trying to use an analogy for Israel right here. Right away, as soon as they're out of Egypt - actually no, even back when they're still in Egypt - we can see a pattern of distrust and unfaithfulness. They believe in God, they don't believe in God. They obey Him, they disobey him. It becomes much more evident in chapter 32 - it was only a few weeks ago that they said "All that the LORD has spoken, we will do!" - and already they're saying, "What happened to Moses? He might not come back. Let's make a god we can see instead of the scary cloud on the mountain." This is really foreshadowing what the rest of Israel's history will look like. Like I said last time, yo-yo.

5. This is something I got from my Bible teacher. I don't know how intentional it is in the text, but give it some thought. When the people told Aaron to make them a god, what they meant was a god they could see. They had a god, but He wasn't really tangible. So far, their way of knowing God came by hearing God's word through Moses. Is it any coincidence, then, that when they told Aaron to make them a visible god, he had them take the rings off their ears - a symbol of hearing? Just like Eve in the garden, who heard God's command not to eat the fruit, but saw that the fruit was good, so she ate it. Actually, you could say that a lot of themes in the Bible have to do with seeing versus hearing. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7) and "now faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Or, as someone once said (I really wish I knew who it was), "In the beginning was the Word, not the video."

6. God told Moses he would kill all the Israelites and then make him into a great nation, and Moses seems to talk God out of it. I mean, the text actually says, "So the LORD changed His mind" (32:14). Was God -really- going to kill them all? Considering that God has been so determined so far to keep His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I doubt it. Was He perhaps testing Moses then? And if so, what if Moses had said "sure, go ahead and kill them all"?

7. Aaron's a lousy excuse-maker. I don't understand him. The future high priest of the LORD is the one who makes this gold calf thing. Yet when Moses questions him, he makes it seem like the calf made itself - he says he threw the gold into the fire, "and out came this calf." Whoa, strange coincidence! What's weird is that Aaron still gets to be the high priest later.

8. Even after Moses intercedes for the people and asks God to be merciful to them, he has the Levites kill about 3000 people. Was he supposed to do that? God didn't tell him to. Personally, I think Moses has a hot temper. In chapter 11, when Moses warns Pharaoh about the last plague, it says he goes out from Pharaoh "in hot anger." I don't believe that phrase is used anywhere else in Scripture. Then with the golden calf incident, he gets so mad that he breaks the stone tablets that have the words of the covenant written on them. Then he tells the people to kill each other.

9. Right after Moses has the people kill each other, it says that God punishes everyone who was unfaithful to Him by "smiting" them. At first I thought that meant He killed them all, but when you think about it, if the vast majority of the people died, that wouldn't leave very many - and we find out in chapter 38 that there's over 600,000 men when the tabernacle is built. Also, Aaron was unfaithful, and clearly he's still around after the calf incident. Turns out the word use really means "to strike," not necessarily to kill. Personally, I think maybe God hit them with some kind of plague-like thing, even though in the laws He just gave Moses, it says that worshipping another god deserved death. So again, even in His judgment, God is showing mercy.

10. How big is this group of people right now? A lot of estimates say over a million, but critics say that's crazy because there simply wouldn't be enough room for them; I mean, we know from the beginning of the book that they outnumbered the Egyptians, but we don't know by how much. More importantly, though, is that a line of a million people, even if they were walking ten abreast, would be over 90 miles long by my estimation. Yet in chapter 38, it says that the men over age 20 numbered 603,550. Can somebody explain to me how this would work?

Okay, I'm sorry I made that so long, but seriously, it's 21 chapters.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Exodus 13-18: Through the Wilderness

This is a yo-yo story. That is to say, the same cycle keeps repeating itself over and over, so we see Israel going up and down, up and down . . . Check it out.

First: Pharaoh's army chases Israel. Israel says they should've stayed in Egypt. Moses parts the Red Sea, and Israel is happy and praises God.
Second: The water is bitter and the people can't drink it. The people grumble against Moses. God tells Moses to throw a stick in the water and it becomes drinkable.
Third: the Israelites get hungry and talk about how much food they had in Egypt. God provides manna and quail.
Fourth: there's no water at Rephidim. The people complain and say they should've stayed in Egypt. God makes Moses hit a rock and water comes out of it.

And while all that is going on, the people are coming to Moses every day from dawn to dusk with their problems. She took my toy, my neighbor ate my sheep, they TP'd my tent, I don't know. But apparently just about everybody had some kind of problem, and nobody could work it out for themselves so they all cried to Moses. So Moses' father-in-law (remember him?) comes and tells Moses to appoint other people to help him judge.

Basically, this passage shows us something about people and something about God. It says that people have very short memories. God just did a whole bunch of crazy miracles in the last few chapters, and as soon as Israel gets ten feet away they seem to forget all about that. It's like, did they really think God did all those miracles in Egypt just to leave them stranded in the wilderness? Or would he part the Red Sea but not feed them? How dense can you be, right?

Unfortunately, we do the same thing. It is so easy to forget how God has provided for us in the past because, well, it's in the past. For some reason, every new little problem that comes up appears in our eyes to be this great overwhelming thing, and I guess we think that if God were -really- on our side He wouldn't let us have any problems at all. But as we saw yesterday, that's not the way God works. He doesn't clear the rocks out of the path; he just helps us get past them.

I can't remember what book it was, but I have a feeling it was Stone of Help by Robin Hardy - the main character has this dream where she's walking with God on this rocky path, and sometimes He stoops down and clears rocks out of the way to make it easier. And sometimes He leaves the rocks there, and she trips on them and stuff. She finally asks God why He didn't just clear away -all- the rocks, and He replies, "because if there were no rocks at all, there wouldn't be a path." Something to think about. It might've been that book . . . either way, Robin Hardy has some good lines in her Annals of Lystra trilogy.

This story really makes a sharp contrast between men and God. The people in this story are fickle and seem to keep changing their minds about God. God, on the other hand, is depicted as unchanging. He always has a way to provide for the Israelites, and He always preserves them even if He doesn't make the journey easy for them. I think He really wants the people to just trust that it will be okay. Maybe that's why He leaves obstacles in their path, actually. Maybe He just wants to see if anybody's going to learn from the past and trust Him this time.

Relationships really have a lot to do with trust. You never know how strong a relationship is until you get into a situation where it becomes difficult to trust the other person. Trials reveal who we really are. What kind of person am I under pressure? What kind of person are you?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Exodus 7-12: My Deliverer Is Coming

Let me preface this post by saying that I really wish I had my Prince of Egypt soundtrack with me right now, or that I had ripped it onto my computer, because it's been running through my head since I started Exodus.

We start with God telling Moses exactly what's going to happen: Aaron is going to talk for him, Pharaoh's not going to listen, plagues are going to hit Egypt, Israel's going to be saved, and all Egypt will know that YHWH is God. Then we see it all happen more or less exactly the way God told Moses it would.

Imagine with me for a second that you're Pharaoh. You have the coolest empire in the world right now, and you've got a bunch of slaves to make it cooler by building stuff for you (we know that the Hebrews built Pithom and Raamses; we don't know what else they built. We also don't know that they were the only slaves in Egypt, and they probably weren't). If I remember 7th grade history right, approximately 2/3 of Egypt's population was the slave class. That doesn't mean 2/3 of the population was Hebrews, necessarily, but there were quite a few of them. So if you were Pharaoh, and some guy came to you and asked you to let a huge chunk of your population, your cheap labor force, and the people who make your empire cool, go off into the wilderness for a couple days, you would say no too.

I don't think the plagues were just about letting the Hebrews go. They were about showing Egypt - and the rest of the world, because word spreads - that the Hebrew God was number one. That's why the text says over and over, "then you will know that there is no one like Me in all the earth" (9:14) and things like that.

The Egyptians, as we all know, were polytheists. They worshipped the sun and the river and all this other stuff, and a lot of their gods were represented as birds or frogs or dogs or what have you. In sending plagues that attacked various Egyptian deities, God was asserting His sovereignty and authority over the gods of Egypt. If Egypt is powerless before YHWH, then surely no other nation could stand before Him. That's what I think, anyway.

I find the parts about Pharaoh's heart being hardened very interesting. Four times (after the first, third, fifth, and seventh plagues) the text says "Pharaoh's heart was hardened," twice (after the second and fourth plagues) it says "Pharaoh hardened his heart," and four times (after the sixth, eighth, and ninth plagues and before the tenth) it says "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Hebrew writers are usually pretty intentional about patterns and stuff, so I think these distinctions are worth noticing. Some people seem to think that God hardening Pharaoh's heart means that God made Pharaoh act against his will, like if God had left him alone, he would've let the Hebrews go the first time. That's not what I see in the text. First of all, it doesn't draw any extra attention to the fact that God hardens Pharaoh's heart; secondly, it specifically shows Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and thirdly, by the time we get to where it says that the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, he's already done it himself six times (including the time Aaron's staff became a snake), so by now he's in such a habit of being contrary, the real miracle is that he ever let the Hebrews go.

I also find it interesting and sort of odd that it's only during the fourth, fifth, seventh, ninth, and tenth plagues that God sets Goshen, where the Hebrews are, apart from the Egyptians. Did they have to endure the other five? The text gives us no reason to believe they didn't, because it makes such a point of God setting them apart when He did. To take the text at face value, we have to assume that the Hebrews dealt with water turned into blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), boils, and locusts just as the Egyptians did. Weird, isn't it? But that seems (to me) to be the way God does things. He doesn't typically remove His people from disasters and trials and persecutions; He preserves them through those things. That's what He did with Noah and his family, and that's what He's been doing with the Israelites, and that's what He did with Job, and that's what He did with the early church, and that's what He does with us today. That's why I stopped believing in a pre-trib rapture. God has never been in the habit of stopping bad things from happening to His people. We can never be sure that He'll remove us from evil, from pestilence, from persecution, or even from difficult situations, but we can be sure that He will be faithful to be with us and help us through those times.

Finally, we have Passover. This is one of my favorite parts of the entire Bible I think, and I can't possibly do it justice with my writing, but I'll try to show you what I find fascinating about this passage.

First each family has to take a year-old lamb, a perfect lamb, and keep it in the house for four days. Now, I don't have much experience with lambs, but we bought a lobster from Walmart one time for dinner, and before we had even gotten home my little brother had already named it. If you keep a cute fluffy animal in your house for more than a few seconds, you can just bet that everybody will fall in love with it. Then four days later you slit its throat. That's kind of morbid, isn't it? Killing something that for a while was a sort of pet?

The second thing is that they have to put the blood on their doorways using a hyssop branch. Later on, when we get into Leviticus and talk about the sacrificial system, we'll see hyssop is used a lot in sacrifices to cleanse the people from sin. When I read this, I immediately thought of Psalm 51, where David says "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow." I'm pretty sure that is a direct reference to the blood of a sacrificial animal that was sometimes sprinkled on the people (like at Mt. Sinai) to represent that the animal's death covered their sins and made them blameless before God. But as Hebrews says, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins," because they're only animals. That's why people had to sacrifice them day after day, year after year, from the first sacrifice back in the Garden of Eden until the Atonement Day when Jesus died. After that, all those sacrifices became obsolete, because the blood of the true sacrifice, the only sinless man who ever lived, had been sprinkled over the people, washing us and covering our sins for good.

The third thing is that this wasn't just for the Hebrews. At the end of the chapter it says foreigners could eat the Passover meal if they became circumcised first, and I wonder if there were any Egyptians who did what Moses said and were spared that night. It says that "a mixed multitude" went out of Egypt with them - does that mean some Egyptians went with the Hebrews? I don't know. I think the text leaves that option open.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Exodus 1-6: Israel in Bondage

Welcome to Exodus! In case you ever wondered, the original name of this book was Shemot, which means "names." Likewise, the original name of Genesis was Bereshith (spelling varies), meaning "in the beginning." All the books were named according to the first couple words in the book, and if you read the Hebrew Scriptures those are the names they still use.

So here are my observations:

Why does the story call Moses' father-in-law Reuel the first time and Jethro the other times? My first guess is that Reuel is more of a title or a description than a name. It means "friend of God," and he was the priest, so maybe "friend of God" is another way of saying "priest." I don't really know.

A lot of people who preach on this passage point this out, but God knew how to prepare Moses for his future job. First he was raised in the Egyptian palace as the son of Pharaoh's daughter, so he had the best education you could probably get anywhere in the world, plus his mother no doubt taught him Hebrew religion and history. Then he spends 40 years as a shepherd, which means he had to learn how to be in charge of lots of dumb animals. Very soon he would be in charge of lots of dumb people, and I think herding a tribe of people who don't like you across the country is probably not too much different from herding a flock of sheep. Maybe.

Don't miss the last couple verses of chapter 2, because they're very deliberate. It says, "So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them." In other words, God wasn't ignoring them, nor had He forgotten them - just like we saw with Noah during the flood. When bad things happen to us, our first tendency is often to think that God either doesn't care or isn't around, but that's not true. He 1) hears us when we cry out to Him, 2) remembers (i.e. doesn't forget) His promise never to leave us, 3) sees us in our misery, and 4) pays attention to us. Those are four very deliberate actions on God's part.

When God calls Moses, Moses makes lots of excuses. First he plays the "I'm not good enough" card, and then God answers him by saying "I will be with you" - in other words, it doesn't matter who you are. Then Moses asks who he should say sent him (I'm not sure why he asks this; if anybody has an idea, let me know), and God gives him His covenant name, YHWH. YHWH is derived from the verb hayah, which means "to be." That's why it's translated "I AM WHO I AM," in all caps like that. It's God's personal name, His most holy name, the name that describes Him as the One who is. I think it's a pretty awesome name.

Next Moses says that the Hebrews won't believe him, so God gives him three signs which I imagine each symbolize something and could be made into a sermon (you know, because there's three of them, and sermons always have three points): turning the staff into a snake, making his hand leprous, and turning water into blood (Moses doesn't actually do that one at this time, God just tells him about it).

So then Moses says (he's getting more personal now) that he's not good at talking. I think Moses might have been like me a bit in that respect, because I'm not very good at talking either, and if God told me to go before the ruler of the civilized world and tell him something he really wouldn't want to hear, I wouldn't want to do it either. God has a really good comeback here: "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes hi mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" This is really, really important. When God calls you to something, He also equips you with everything you need to accomplish your calling, even if it doesn't seem like enough to you. Moses thought that talking to Pharaoh required being able to speak well, but in God's eyes, Moses didn't need that. He gave Moses all the tools he needed, and then promised that He would help him along the way. And He did: He sent Aaron to be his speaker, and He trained Moses along the way, so that by the end of the story we see Moses talking, not Aaron. Which is pretty cool.

This principle is something I realized one day in ballet class, when I was thinking about how bad my turnout was. I realized that God had given me the body I needed to have for whatever task He's called me to do. And whatever that is, I don't need perfect turnout to do it. I have all the tools I need to be the dancer God has called me to be, and I have everything I need to go wherever God wants me to go. All I have to do is use what He gave me, and He'll help me do the rest. That was a huge encouragement and relief to me; maybe it will be to you as well.

Moses finally gives his most personal excuse: "God, please send somebody else." Deep down, he really just doesn't want to do it, and I can't say I blame him. Moses had what seems to be a nice, quiet life over in Midian. He had a wife and kids, a father-in-law who seems pretty cool, and some sheep; what more could he want? Then along comes this wacked-out bush that turns out to be Jehovah God telling him to drop it all and go back to a country where he's wanted for murder and tell the most powerful man alive to give up his number one source of labor. I wouldn't want to do it either. I really don't think God was all that concerned with what Moses wanted to do, because what Moses wanted to do was continue his nice, quiet, safe little life. God isn't safe, and He doesn't guarantee us safe lives as His followers. The only thing He really does guarantee is that He'll be with us. Actually, that's a lot.

That's all for today; tomorrow we'll look at the 10 plagues. Won't that be fun?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Genesis 47-50: Wrapping It Up

Yay, one book down, 65 to go! I did some tallying up last night, and at the rate I'm going it'll probably take me a good 5 or 6 more months to get through the rest of the Bible. At first I thought I wanted to finish by the end of the summer, but then I decided nah, I should stretch it out so I can devote as much time as I want to each story.

So today we have the end of the beginning: Jacob and the family comes to Egypt, Jacob blesses his sons and Joseph's sons, Jacob dies, Joseph saves the Egyptians from the famine, and eventually Joseph dies too.

I think it's great that when Joseph brings his father to Pharaoh, the first thing that Pharaoh says to him (at least in what's written) is "How old are you, anyway?" Jacob was one old dude. 130. And he lived to be 147. Not bad for a guy who threatened to die if his kid were taken from him.

What happens with the famine is, the Egyptians spend all their money buying food until they have none left. Then they pay with their livestock, and then finally they pay with their land and Joseph basically establishes a serfdom in Egypt. I haven't done any outside historical research, but does anybody know about that?

One thing Jacob does right is that at the very end of his life, he has a blessing for each of his sons. The blessing for Simeon and Levi is actually not very nice, because they were the ringleaders in killing a bunch of people, but at least he said something to them. Basically he tells them all where their land is going to be. He also makes a prophecy about Judah being the tribe from which kings will come, and (whether or not he realized it) the tribe from which the King of kings would come.

Oh, and in chapter 48 we have yet another instance of the underdog coming on top. When Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, he blesses the younger (Ephraim) over the older. It's actually kind of funny because Joseph pretty much guides Jacob so that he'll put his right hand on Manasseh and his left hand on Ephraim, and then Jacob crosses his hands so that his right is on Ephraim, and Joseph goes "No Dad, it's this one," and Jacob goes "No, I'm doing it this way."

We have two deaths in this story: Jacob's and Joseph's. Joseph dies in the very last sentence of the book, so we hear a lot more about Jacob's death. We find out that the Egyptians mourned for him for seventy days - and you thought a month of flags at half-mast for Ronald Reagan was a long time - and when the brothers take him back to Canaan to bury him, they mourn for another seven days, so that the other Canaanites take notice of it and go "whoa, something really traumatic happened to the Egyptians."

I think it's neat how people treated death in ancient times. Sometimes I get the feeling that people today don't really know what to do with death. It's this big purple elephant that we really don't want anybody to look at, yet we have no place to hide it, so what we tend to do is throw a blanket over it and call it part of the furniture. Or something. You know, we try not to mention it to our kids ("Oh, your fish ran away to the ocean while you were at summer camp"), and even as adults we're really not comfortable talking about it. It's a topic for hushed tones and solemn occasions.

That's not how these people treated death. Even the way they talked about it makes it seem kind of beautiful: they called it falling asleep sometimes, or the way it's worded in Genesis is "so-and-so breathed his last, and was gathered to his people." I'm not really sure what being gathered to your people means, but it's like there's this community after death - you're buried with your relatives, and maybe your soul goes where their souls are too. It's like what Theoden says in ROTK when he's dying . . . but I don't have my book with me so I can't tell you exactly what he said, but it's something about going to be with his fathers, in whose mighty company he shall not now feel ashamed (because he's just fought some really cool battles and said a lot of really cool lines and is now dying a really cool death).

Okay, rabbit trail.

Then there's the mourning afterward. People today don't know how to grieve. We're so bad at it that people even have to write books and host classes about it. By the way, those are good things. I'm not knocking them or anything; I'm just saying, if we knew how to grieve and recover from loss, we wouldn't need those things. Back in the day, mourning was a public thing. We saw yesterday (or I saw; I didn't point it out) that Tamar was still wearing her widows clothes several years after her second husband had died. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob for two and a half full months, and he wasn't even related to them. That is really pretty cool.

Finally, the very last thing we see in the story is that Joseph's brothers are still not sure Joseph has forgiven them for trying to kill him, and now that Jacob's dead they're worried about what he's going to do to them. But Joseph reminds them that it was God's doing to bring him to Egypt and that he forgives them. It's funny because you'd think that was rather strongly implied back in chapter 45 when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Sometimes, though, you have to forgive a person more than once. And sometimes you have to keep assuring them of your forgiveness a couple times so they get the picture. And it doesn't just say "Joseph said 'I forgive you,' the end." It says that he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. I think that went a long way to helping them realize that they really were all friends again.

I wonder how hard it was for Joseph to forgive his brothers. I mean, it all turned out great for him in the end - he got a lot of money, a wife and kids, power, fame, the works. But he still was robbed of his life for a good 13 years, and he didn't get to see his dad for over 20 years. It sounds like he was over it by this point, but I bet if they'd come to him to apologize when he was in prison, he wouldn't have been so nice. I guess you never know how things are going to turn out for you. Even if somebody tries to ruin your life, God can make something really good happen as a result of it, so we shouldn't become bitter over the bad things.

That's all for Genesis. Stay tuned for the beginning of Exodus tomorrow - same time, same place.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Genesis 37-46: Joseph

Joseph is one of those people that every Sunday school kid hears a sermon about at least twice a year, so I'm going to try to come up with something at least moderately original in this post.

The first thing we see about Joseph is that he's daddy's favorite. You'd think Jacob would have known better, not being his father's favorite; for that matter, you'd think a lot of kids would know better than to become their parents when they grow up. I just watched Jumanji last night, and one of Robin Williams' lines is "26 years in the jungle and I still became my father." If you don't want to become your parents, I think you have to pay attention to your tendencies and habits, because it's all subconscious. I mean, nobody really -intends- to act like their parents. It comes naturally. Okay, moving on.

The next thing we see about Joseph is that he's either stupid or full of himself, because he tells his brothers, whose dislike of him is probably blatantly obvious, about this dream he has of his brothers bowing down to them.

Here's a question. When Joseph tells his second dream to his father, Jacob says "Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?" But Rachel, Joseph's mother, never does bow before him, because she dies giving birth to Benjamin. Does this part of the story take place before Benjamin is born? Or is Jacob talking perhaps about Leah? And either way, in what way does Joseph's dream about the "moon" bowing down to him come true?

Remember Reuben? He slept with his father's . . . concubine I guess. That apparently got him disinherited (as we'll see in chapter 49). I wonder if that shook him up a little, because when the rest of the brothers decide to kill him, Reuben plans to save Joseph's life (unlucky for him it doesn't work out that way). If I remember right, this may be one of the first acts of self-sacrifice anybody we've read about so far has made. That's positive. But of course, Joseph gets sold into slavery (to Ishmaelites . . . go figure) while Reuben's off doing who-knows-what. Rotten luck.

Then the story skips off to Judah, the fourth-born. At some point, and I'm not really sure what point that is, he gets married and has three kids, and the first two are evil so God kills them, and his daughter-in-law Tamar gets passed from son to son until Judah doesn't want to give her to the third kid because he thinks he'll die too. So what happens is Judah ends up accidentally sleeping with Tamar (accidentally meaning he didn't know it was her, he thought she was a temple prostitute . . . shows what kind of guy he was), and she winds up pregnant, and he almost kills her but then she reveals to Judah that he's the father, so he goes "my bad" and doesn't kill her. He also doesn't sleep with her again. Rather decent of him. So this odd little story doesn't seem to have any huge significance, except that one of Tamar's sons (she has twins) winds up in Jesus' genealogy too. Another unlikely character - an illegitimate kid. Jesus has a muddy pedigree.

So then we go back to Joseph, and we all know the story about Potiphar's wife. You really can't blame Potiphar for believing his wife's lie about Joseph. I mean, she is his wife after all, and I'm sure if she was your wife you'd rather believe she was innocent too. Anyway, God has a really wacky way of getting Joseph where He wants him. You'd think Joseph could just as easily go before Pharaoh as the servant of Potiphar, captain of the bodyguard, but no, he has to go to prison first. It probably did a good blow to that ego of his.

Skipping ahead just a bit, have you ever noticed that whenever one of God's boys is around and the king has a dream, none of the magicians can interpret it? That can't be a regular occurrence or else the king just wouldn't have magicians. I'm sure they came up with something every other time, but for some reason this time they couldn't make up an answer (and it's not nearly as hard as Nebuchadnezzar's dream - remember, he made the Magi tell him what the dream was first; he was a smart guy). Anyway, so that's another God thing I bet.

I watched a History Channel special about "prophecy" once, and it looked at future prophecy from lots of different religions. From Judaism, the example they picked was Joseph. What really weirds me out is that the narrator says "Joseph is unclear about the source of his prophetic knowledge" (or something to that effect). But both times Joseph is approached with a dream - first by the cupbearer and baker, and then by Pharaoh - he says very explicitly that "interpretations belong to God" (40:8, 41:16, 25, 28, 32). This is why I take everything the History Channel says with a grain of salt.

We finally find out that Joseph is 30 when he stands before Pharaoh. He's been in Egypt for 13 years (he was 17 when the story started). We don't know how much of that time he was in Potiphar's house and how long he was in prison (except that it was more than 2 years), but I imagine he probably spent a fair amount of time in both places, because it takes time to rise through the ranks like he did.

I'm not really sure why Joseph pulled that prank on his brothers like he did. Was it to pay them back, or was it just for fun, or did he really plan to keep Benjamin with him in Egypt? I don't know, and the text doesn't give any clues. But as you know, the story turns out okay and they all come to live with Joseph in Egypt (Goshen, to be precise). A few observations:

1. How old is Benjamin when all this happens? It's now at least 7 years after Joseph became second-in-command, so even if Benjamin was a baby when Joseph was sold, he's 20 now. Everybody talks about him like he's a little kid. Is that a translation error, I wonder? Because in the list of people who come down to Egypt, Benjamin has 10 sons already. That's a lot for a 20-year-old. Unless they were born in Egypt and I'm just reading the text wrong. Anybody have an idea?

2. Egyptians are snobby people. It's "detestable" to them to eat bread with Hebrews (why Hebrews, I wonder?), and shepherds are detestable to them too. I'm sure they had sheep in Egypt. What's up with that? On the other hand, that's how Jacob's family all ended up in Goshen, because they had to live apart from the Egyptians.

3. I wonder why it's Simeon who Joseph holds hostage while his brothers go back to Canaan. Maybe he was the meanest one. He and Levi, remember, were the ones who killed the Shechemites. He seems like a pretty reckless fellow; maybe it was his idea to kill Joseph.

4. Reuben and Judah both show maturity and selflessness in this part of the story. Reuben tells Jacob he can kill both his sons if Benjamin is harmed in Egypt. That's a pretty bold move, considering all that's happened to them so far. Judah later says Jacob can hold him personally responsible if Benjamin doesn't come back, and when Joseph says Benjamin will be his slave, Judah begs to take his place.

I'm stopping here because that was pretty long. Next time I'll wrap up Genesis. Only 4 chapters left. Yay!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Genesis 32-36: Turning Point

One of my new favorite parts in the whole Bible is coming up in this post.

When we last left Jacob, he was leaving Laban. Now, as he's on his way back home, he hears that Esau is coming toward him with 400 men. Considering that the last time Jacob saw his brother, his brother wanted to kill him, this comes across as really bad news. He gets scared, divides his people up, sends Esau several caravan-loads of animals , and has everybody go on ahead of him while he stays behind for the night to freak out alone.

This is one of the coolest things that ever happens in the Bible: "Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak."

Why did God wrestle with Jacob? Why did Jacob wrestle with God? I kind of get the theological significance of this event, but I still find it odd and interesting that God actually had a fist fight with Jacob all night. I bet it was really good for Jacob though. When I was in high school and my guy friends got mad at each other, they would beat each other up and then they'd be friends again. I wonder if this was like that. I mean, up until now we've gotten a pretty rotten picture of Jacob. He's a liar from a family of liars, a cheat, a swindler, maybe a coward, and whatever other nasty things we can attribute to him. For somebody who's called to father a nation that's supposed to be holy unto the Lord, I'd say he's not doing so well. I'm probably reading things into the text, but when I come across this part I think that Jacob's been avoiding God all this time, and now that he's finally alone, he can meet God face to face. And what happens isn't pretty.

This is the redemptive point in Jacob's life. After this point, as we'll see in a bit, Jacob starts acting different. He doesn't become a really good person (his parenting skills, for example, are . . . well, like his father's), but he does start doing some things right where God is concerned. But I'll get to that in a bit.

So God meets with Jacob, and they wrestle. This is what I do like about Jacob: at this point, he and God didn't have a friendly encounter, but they did have an encounter. Maybe they didn't have a very good relationship, but they had a real relationship. I don't know what Jacob thought about God before this night, but one thing's for sure: God had to have been real for Jacob after this point. It's hard to ignore a God who dukes it out with you all night long, then leaves you with a limp to remind you of it.

Other things I'm wondering . . . why did Jacob win? And why did God dislocate Jacob's hip when He wasn't winning? That's just weird. What did He mean, "You have wrestled with God and men and have prevailed"? How can you prevail against God? I mean, I don't think He was talking just about the wrestling match.

Jacob's name, as we all know, means "deceiver" (or more literally, "he grasps the heel," which is an idiom). Israel means "He wrestles with God." That's a fitting name for the nation-to-be if ever there was one. All of Israel's history can pretty much be summed up in three words: wrestling with God. Huh. Not sure what else I can add to that. Do you guys have any thoughts?

So, moving on. Jacob goes to meet his brother, who isn't mad at him anymore. They talk a little and keep going their separate ways. Short meeting, evidently. At least they're all still alive. Next Jacob goes to this place called Shechem and his daughter Dina gets raped, so her brothers kill all the men in the entire village.

Now, I know that we generally think that back in the day women were considered property, and they probably were, but these brothers don't sound too different from my brothers. I'm not sure they'd go kill an entire town if something happened to me, but then again, my brothers weren't raised in ancient Near Eastern culture either. Either way, the big brother protective streak evidently goes a long way back. I kind of appreciate that they cared about their sister and stuff, but they really should've just not let her wander off in the first place instead of going and killing everybody. After that happened they had to leave (my guess is people in other towns were mad at them now), so they went back to Bethel.

What's cool is that when they go, Jacob tells them to purify themselves and get rid of their false gods and stuff (I assume this means Rachel's dad's action figures too). Nobody in the story has done that yet. The next thing that happens is Jacob renames Bethel, which means "house of God," to El-bethel, which means "the God of the house of God." That sounds redundant, but in a forgotten sermon I wrote some notes in my margins that I'm now going to elaborate on. "El-bethel" is commemorating the God of the place rather than the place. Islam, incidentally, is about a journey to a place. One of the things you have to do as a good Muslim is make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life. Judaism, too, is a lot about places: the promised land, particularly Jerusalem, and more particular the Temple Mount. Christianity, or at least what Christianity is supposed to be, is a journey to a Person. That's why Jesus said whoever wants to worship God must worship Him "in spirit and in truth."

The next thing that happens is that Rachel dies. Okay, and I've got to say something nice about Rachel even though I don't like her, because the other day Justin made a good point that in this culture, bearing children was really the only thing that gave women any worth. So as far as society was concerned, nobody cared that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah; she was worthless because she was barren. So that's why she got desperate and went crazy trying to have kids. But now she dies having Benjamin, which is really sad.

Next there is one sentence about Reuben sleeping with Bilhah, one of those maids from before. It only gets one sentence, but later on it will be important because Reuben was the firstborn and should've gotten all the inheritance. It's important for the same reason that it's important that Simeon and Levi, the second and third born, were the ones who killed the men of Shechem. You'll learn why another time though, because we're not there yet.

The next thing that happens is account of Isaac dying, and then it talks about Esau's descendants. The only thing I have to say about this is that it's nice that both Esau and Jacob were there to bury their dad, just like both Ishmael and Isaac buried Abraham; and that if you read through the descendants of Esau there are a few names you might recognize, like Amalek.

Well, that's probably more than long enough. Next time we'll hear about Joseph.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Genesis 27-31: Jacob and the Family Dysfunction

Okay, so it's been way too long since I wrote one of these. I'm in Genesis 36 right now, but I'm breaking Jacob up because there's soooo much to talk about.

Very brief summary: Jacob tricks his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau decides to kill Jacob, so he runs away to his uncle Laban. Jacob wants to marry his cousin Rachel but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah first. Leah and Rachel squabble over children and get into a baby-making contest (Leah wins). Then Jacob has some not-quite-fair dealings with Laban to build up his own flock. Then they leave, and Rachel steals Laban's household gods. Laban chases them, they make a covenant, and then they leave and go their own separate ways.

Okay, so I'm about halfway through Genesis, and I really don't like this patriarch family one bit. Abraham and Isaac were bad enough, but Jacob is a whole 'nother story. He cheats, his uncle cheat, his mom cheats, his wife steals, his wives fight over him, and his brother wants to kill him. What is God thinking using these idiots? It's amazing He got anything at all done with them. It's like trying to teach little kids something and all they want to do is beat each other up. You won't get very far. So the fact that God succeeded not only in keeping these bozos alive but in building a nation out of them is very impressive.

An observation from Gary Smalley and Dr. John Trent (they're psychologists or something) is this whole issue of the "blessing." Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with their kids, and their kids knew it. I don't really blame Jacob for wanting to get some kind of affirmation from his father, because he probably never did all his life until he pretended to be his brother. Parents should be really conscientious about making sure all their children feel equally loved. Isaac only had one blessing to give; I think you should have an individual blessing for each of your kids.

I could go on all day about this, but let's move on.

I do feel bad for Leah. I bet it really sucked to know that the only way her dad could marry her off was by tricking a guy into thinking he was marrying her little sister. I'm glad she had a lot of kids, and I'm glad that God used her, not Rachel, to continue the line that eventually went to Christ.

Rachel bugs me. She was pretty, but she wasn't a very good person. When she figured out she wasn't having kids, the first thing she does is complain to Jacob. What can Jacob do about it? Nothing. The second thing she does is give her maid to Jacob to build a family through her. Um, I thought we did this already with Sarah and Hagar. Evidently Rachel missed the memo that this is a stupid idea. Oh, and guess what she names her maid's kids? "He has vindicated" and "My struggle" - in other words, "Take that, Leah!" The third thing she does is she bargains for some mandrakes, which were believed to increase fertility. So Rachel by now has appealed to her husband, her own ideas, and superstition - but not God. I'm surprised God eventually gave her any children at all. Oh, and guess what she named her own son? "I want another one." Sheesh, what a brat. Compare Rachel to Hannah, who did nothing but pray so hard she looked drunk, and promised God that she'd give her son back to Him if she ever had one. I like Hannah; I don't like Rachel.

Now it's Laban's time to shine. For some reason, Jacob notices that Laban isn't happy with him. Maybe it's because Laban's noticed that his flock are all a lot weaker than Jacob's? So anyway, Jacob sneaks away with all of his stuff (probably wasn't easy to sneak), and Laban finds out he's gone and follows him. God actually comes and warns him not to say anything to Jacob, so look at what Laban does when he meets Jacob. This is hilarious. He goes, "It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, 'Be careful not to speak either good or bad to Jacob.'" Oh yeah, Laban, you think you're so bad. I bet Laban thought he was pretty special for God to have come and talked to him. Probably thought God was protecting Jacob from big scary Laban. Whatever. It gets better. The next thing Laban says is, "But why did you steal my gods?" In other words, he was just talking about the God of Abraham visiting him, and how that's so cool, as if Laban is now on a level with the patriarchs, and then he snaps back to "I want my action figures back!" What a loser.

What Jacob doesn't know is that Rachel stole the action figures. Why, we don't know. But we already know she was a brat, so that's explanation enough for me. Smart Rachel, she almost got herself killed. Good thing she was a woman and could make up a convenient excuse. You mention that thing and guys get terrified. Needless to say, she wasn't searched, so she got away with stealing the action figures.

Anyway, so then Laban (probably really huffy by now) says that Jacob's wives and children and flocks and everything Jacob owns really belongs to Laban, but since he's such a nice guy, he's willing to make a covenant with Jacob and let him keep all that stuff and go on his merry way unharmed. Gee, wasn't that nice of him? So they make a covenant and promise not to ever go onto each other's territory to do them harm. And they say "May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent from the other." That phrase became a farewell saying called the Mizpah Blessing, which I think is neat.

So now we've seen Jacob's family at pretty much their worst, but there's still more to come. Luckily, though, things will start to get better soon.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Genesis 24-26: Isaac

First of all, has it really been a week? Sorry about that. I stopped reading at night because it kept me up all night, and I kind of need sleep. So I'll have to find another time of day to read it, maybe after rehearsals and stuff in the evening. Better than sitting around watching TV.

Anyway, so this little segment is about Isaac. Here's how it goes:

  • Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac
  • Isaac marries Rebekah
  • Abraham dies
  • a list of Ishmael's kids
  • Jacob and Esau are born
  • Isaac goes to Gerar, the same place Abraham went in chapter 20
  • Isaac pulls the same "she's my sister" stunt that his father pulled, and gets in trouble for it
  • Isaac gets rich
  • Abimelech (the king) gets kind of scared of him and makes him leave
  • Isaac's people fight with the Philistines over some wells
  • Abimelech realizes it's not good to leave on bad terms with a really rich person so they make a covenant
First of all, I think Abraham must have trusted his servant an awful lot. He sent him all the way back to Abraham's old house in Mesopotamia (it says he went to the city of Nahor, which isn't in my Bible map, but I guess it's probably around Haran, which is a pretty far ways away from where Abraham is right now). And he's trusting his servant to find a wife for his son. That's kind of a big deal. Maybe his servant has really good taste, I don't know. Anyway, when the servant puts his hand under Abraham's thigh, that's some kind of covenant too. I don't remember any of the details about that custom though or else I'd elaborate. But suffice it to say, it was a really big deal.

What I find interesting about this servant is that he keeps calling God "the God of my master Abraham," and I'm not sure what he means by that. He seems to have quite a bit of faith in God himself because the first thing he does is he asks God to bring out exactly the right woman and give him a sign to know who she is. Why do you think he calls God "Abraham's God" instead of his God or just plain God? Is it because he's a servant, or is that a cultural thing, or something like that? I've just always found it curious.

This is the first time we see Laban. We'll see him again later. He seems like a decent person so far. Oh, and it really amuses me that they ask Rebekah if she'll go with the servant or if she wants to wait a few days. She doesn't really get consulted about whether she wants to go to Canaan and marry her cousin, but on the other hand, she doesn't seem opposed to it. Anyway, I think she ends up liking Isaac. It does say he loved her. And if I'm not mistaken, that's the first time it talks about a husband and wife loving each other.

I like the description of Abraham at his death: "Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people." Contrast that with the description of Sarah a few chapters earlier. Sarah lived and died; Abraham lived a full life and died satisfied.

The next thing I find interesting is that we find out Rebekah was barren. Everybody knows Sarah was barren and Rachel was barren, but we forget that Rebekah was too because the text doesn't make such a big deal of it. So the first time I read that I thought, "that's a little too coincidental for me." But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't just a really weird coincidence that the patriarchs all picked these barren women. I think God did it on purpose. I think I mentioned in a previous post, He's very particular about choosing people who don't seem right for the job. For example, when you're trying to build a nation whose decendants will be as numerous as the stars and the grains of sand, you generally don't do it through three women in a row who can't bear children. I think God does that to show that this isn't a fluke; this is Him bringing His plan into action.

Jacob and Esau are an interesting bunch. On the one hand, you have to kind of feel sorry for Esau that Jacob talked him out of his birthright by holding food in front of his nose. On the other hand, what kind of guy is so careless about his entire inheritance that he would trade it for a bowl of soup? I wonder sometimes if Esau is the guy they're making fun of in the caveman cartoons. But I'll talk more about the twins next time.

Isn't it funny that now Isaac is pulling the same lie that his father used - twice - when he goes to Gerar? (By the way, this probably isn't the same Abimelech that Abraham met; Abimelech is just Hebrew for "my father is king" or something like that). This is part of that whole cycle of distrust/deceit thing I was talking about earlier with Abraham. Parents, be careful what kind of example you set for your kids. They'll take it and run with it. Kids, be aware that your tendency as you grow up is to become like your parents. If you don't want to become like your parents, you have to be intentional about it.

God talks to Isaac and reiterates the Abrahamic covenant (the promise He made to Abraham) with him. What's funny is that God talks to Rebekah before He talks to Isaac, at least in the story.

By the way, I think a lot of the problems between Jacob and Esau occurred because their parents played favorites. Don't ever do that. All your kids need to be shown an equal amount of love - and notice that I said "shown." If you love all your kids equally but spend way more time on one than on the others, that's not going to cut it with them.

Okay, so that's about all I have. Next time I'm going to talk about Jacob.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Genesis 23: The Death of Sarah

I found this chapter interesting so I thought I'd devote a whole blog post to it. So this will be a little shorter than usual (yay!).

So chapter 23 is about Sarah dying, but really it's about Abraham buying a place to bury her. Seriously, the part about her death is maybe two sentences.

Now, I'm not totally sure what to make of Sarah. See, not very many women are mentioned in ancient literature, particularly ancient historical literature. So the fact that Sarah got mentioned as much as she was, I think, is fairly significant. She was a pretty important lady.

On the other hand, what do we know about Sarah as a person? We know that she was barren (at first), pretty, that she talked her husband into doing stupid things, that she didn't believe God's word to her, and that she apparently really had it out for Hagar. Every time the Bible mentions Sarah, the person you see is not exactly the model wife of Proverbs 31, or even the inwardly beautiful woman Peter talks about.

So by the time we get to Sarah's death, all the author can say about his nation's mother is how old she was and how much Abraham spent to bury her.

I guess it just makes me kind of sad.

I'm trying to ask every time, what can we learn about God through this? Well, first off, God seems stuck on using people who aren't very good. That's a comfort to me personally because sometimes I think I'm like Sarah in all the wrong ways. God can work with your raw material, I guess you could say.

That's actually all I can come up with. What do you think we can learn about God from Sarah?

I'm kind of challenged by this chapter, actually. I don't really get the impression that the author meant it as such, but I can't help thinking that we can take a warning from Sarah's life. When you die, what will people have to say about you? If your life is only remembered for the few most significant things you did, what would those be, and what would they say about you?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Genesis 18-22: Sodom and Isaac

Those are the two main stories being told in this segment.


chapter 18: three men (somehow the three of them are a theophany: a manifestation of God in human form) visit Abraham and his wife and promise that they'll have a son within the year. Sarah goes "yeah right" but the guy hears her and says "you better believe it." Then two of the guys leave, but the third one tells Abraham that he's going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they're full of wickedness. Abraham asks God to spare the cities if there are righteous people in it, and eventually barters God down to ten righteous people in the city.

chapter 19: Well, apparently there aren't ten righteous people in the city, because the two men from earlier show up in Sodom, get Lot (remember him?) and his family and tell them to leave. So they do, and they settle in the mountains, and Lot's daughters commit incest with their dad (this is gross) so they can't have kids, because apparently they don't think they can go down the hill to the village, just because their father's too chicken to do so.

chapter 20: Anyway, then Abraham goes to visit a king and does the whole "she's my sister" thing with his wife like before, gets caught like before, and comes out with more possessions as a result, like before.

chapter 21: Then Isaac is born. Then Ishmael (Hagar's kid - he's a teenager now) starts picking on him, so Sarah gets fed up and makes Hagar and Ishmael leave. God visits Hagar again. Then we jump back to Abraham, who makes a covenant with Abimelech (the king he scammed in the previous chapter)

chapter 22: Everybody knows this chapter. It's the part where God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and just when he's about to do so, God intervenes and tells him not to kill Isaac after all.

I didn't really have any questions this time, but here are some things that either I thought of or somebody told me and I wanted to tell you too:

  • Abraham's bargaining with God is really interesting, because you could almost get the idea that God is wishy washy and you can talk Him out of things. I don't think He is though, because He says that his mind is made up about the matter. However, I think He really wanted Abraham to know that this wasn't a rash decision and that He wasn't going to be killing innocent people along with the guilty.

  • Abraham talks God down from finding fifty righteous people to only finding ten, and God says that if there are ten righteous people, he won't destroy the city. I wonder if Abraham could've talked God down even lower, and I think maybe he coudl have. During this whole thing God seems very accomodating of Abraham's request.

  • Genesis is about beginnings, and one of those beginnings is the beginning of redemptive history, or God's relationship with man. As one of my commentors noted, Abraham most likely didn't have a clue who YHWH was when he left Ur; God progressively revealed Himself to Abraham as he went (the idea of progressive revelation is seen throughout scripture: a truth is slowly revealed in increments until they reach a pinnacle in Christ, or something like that). This story sets a precedent for how we are to understand God. Keep this incident in mind when we get into later stories about God killing people: God isn't acting out against the people, but against their sin. If there are righteous people undeserving of punishment, God seems to really want to spare them.

  • I'm not sure how big Sodom and Gomorrah were, but isn't it sad that there weren't even 10 righteous people in it? Lot and his family (that's four people) alone made it out alive (his sons-in-law would have too if they'd taken Lot seriously). And really, I'm not sure that even Lot was all that righteous. The Bible usually notes right away when there's a righteous person amongst wicked people, and nobody does that for Lot until Hebrews.

  • Some people are really concerned about the fact that Lot offered his daughters to the mob at his door in order to preserve the two men in his house. I would first of all like to say that this would have been seen by that culture as a perfectly moral action; hostpitality was one of the most important virtues, if you will, from ancient times up until fairly recently (as students of Macbeth should know). Secondly, I would like to say that the text doesn't tell us whether Lot did right or wrong in this action, like it doesn't tell us whether he was that righteous of a person or not. This is an important distinction: just because the Bible says something happened, doesn't mean it's saying that's what should have happened. My old pastor said once that the people in the Bible are not ideal people; they are real people.

  • Why does Abraham do the same lie in the same situation? Doesn't he remember how it turned out last time? Is he completely nuts? Or is he just like us? Do you have any patterns of behavior that are so ingrained in your life that even if you know they're wrong, you can't help doing them? Ouch. I think I just hit myself on the head.

  • I love that the angel of the LORD appears to Hagar again. Justin said the other day, when we were discussing this, that you get the idea that Hagar's relationship with God continued after that initial meeting. I think this little passage here supports that idea. God shows Hagar that He doesn't just show up once and then disappear; He continues in His faithfulness toward her. That's pretty cool to me.

  • The almost-sacrifice of Isaac is another weird story. I mentioned progressive revelation earlier; it comes into play here. Being of a pagan background, Abraham probably is familiar with human sacrifice, and we haven't seen God tell him not to do it yet. On the other hand, Abraham knows that God promised his descendents would come through Isaac. Plus, God emphasizes the fact that Abraham loves his son. That makes for a really sticky situation. See, Abraham has a pattern of distrusting God's word. God promised him lots of descendents, so Abraham made one of his servants his heir. God promised an heir from his own body, and we got Ishmael. So now Abraham finally has Isaac . . . what does he do? Is he going to take matters into his own hands like usual, or wait to see God deliver on His promise? Look what he says to the young men attending him: "We will worship and return to you" - meaning, we will worship, and we will return. Abraham thinks Isaac is going to be okay (I think he thinks that). The author of the Hebrews thought Abraham was counting on God to raise him to life again after he'd killed him. So basically, what we have here is a HUGE stepping-stone for Abraham, from distrust to trust in God and His ability to provide and make good His promises.

  • I'm almost done, I promise. Isaac, by now, is a big boy. I don't know exactly how old he was, but I've heard he was an adolescent. Abraham is a very very old man. Isaac figures out (unless he's really stupid) what's happening as far as the sacrifice goes, and he could probably take his dad out. But he doesn't. What is almost more amazing to me than Abraham's faith is Isaac's. How many of us in a similar situation would just sit there and let what happened, happen?
That's really all I have to say. Thank you so much for all your comments, everyone. Even though I don't reply to every one of them, I do read them all and I enjoy them greatly. I need to go to bed now.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Genesis 12-17: Abraham's Calling

Today I got a lot of reading done, which was pretty cool. I'm actually in the middle of chapter 18, but I figured it was more appropriate to do 12-17 together so I could do 18-19 together (Sodom and Gomorrah stuff).

In a nutshell: God tells a guy named Abram to leave home and go to a place he doesn't know about but that God will show him when he gets there. Abram goes. On the way he stops by Egypt, tells the pharaoh that his wife is his sister and gets in trouble, then goes back to his journey. Then he separates from his nephew because they're both too rich to live together, saves his nephew from being a POW, meets a guy named Melchizedek, talks to God a few times and enters into a covenant with Him that keeps getting more specific and complex. He gets his wife's slave pregnant, and she runs away, but then comes back and has the baby. Finally, God reveals a sign of the covenant for Abram and changes his and his wife's names.

1. At the end of Genesis 11 it talks about Abram's father Terah, who takes his family to Canaan but then stops and settles in Haran, where Terah dies. Then chapter 12 starts with God calling Abram to leave his father's house and go to Canaan. Now, a lot of people say that part is sort of a flashback, that what really happened is God told Abram to leave Ur by himself, and he took his whole family to Haran, then stayed there, then left again to go to Canaan. I'm not sure if this is true, because once again, I think that would be reading into the text a little more than is there. I can see how it would make sense since Terah was on his way to Canaan, but I don't know for sure. Thoughts? Grammar insights?

2. Who is Melchizedek? His name means "king of righteousness," and it also says he is "king of peace: (Salem/Shalom) and a priest of God Most High (El Elyon). Abram tithes to him, the first tithe we see in Scripture. Hebrews says that Melchizedek is without genealogy, beginning of days, or end of life (7:3), "made like the Son of God." Does that mean he's like Jesus pre-incarnation, or an angel, or something else? What do you think?

Here's some things I got out of what I read today:

  • there's a cycle of distrust in Abram's life. We first see it when he lies to Pharaoh, but we see it again in the way he treats God by not trusting Him to provide a son (15:1-3, 16:1-2). We'll see it again later, just to warn you in advance.

  • God takes Abram's faith and considers him righteous, even though in the very next chapter Abram distrusts God to the point that he sleeps with Hagar to get a child. Maybe that's what you call faith the size of a mustard seed

  • God cuts a covenant with Abram in chapter 15: the ancient practice was to cut animals in half and lay the pieces across from each other, then walk through or in between the pieces as if to say, "may what happened to these animals happen to me if I fail to keep the covenant." This is what Jesus was referring to when He said "no one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn. 14:6, emphasis mine). What's awesome is that the cultural practice was to have both parties of the covenant pass between the pieces, but in Genesis 15, only God does so, in a form that looks like something on fire. Abram doesn't have any terms to keep, which is completely contrary to the lord-vassal-type covenants made in this period.

  • There are random facts in Genesis that make it read more like a personal account: in this passage it's the sentence about the birds trying to eat the carcasses and Abram driving them away. I thought it was interesting that it was included. It may have a theological significance but I don't know.

  • This is just about the awesomest thing I found in this passage: when Hagar runs away from Sarai, the angel of the LORD (probably pre-incarnational Christ) appears to her. This is the first time we see "the angel of the LORD" in Scripture, and He's not talking to Abraham or Moses or anybody important, just an Egyptian maidservant who got pregnant by her boss and beaten by her mistress. The really great thing is that Hagar was an Egyptian who probably worshipped tons and tons of gods, one for every occasion, yet when she was in her moment of distress, none of them came to her aid. Despite all that her culture had chalked them up to be, none of them could help her because none of them could really see her. It was Abram's God, whom she probably didn't worship, who sought her out and comforted her, even prophesied about her son's future. In return Hagar calls Him El Roi ("god sees") and names the place where she met him "Beer-lahai-roi" in honor of the God who lives and sees her.

  • God seems determined to use the most insufficient, unable, and even incompetent people to accomplish His means. Noah was a drunk, Sarai was barren (and maybe had anger management problems), Abram was a liar and let his wife tell him what to do, and Hagar was a foreign slave who wasn't really part of the story at all until now. God doesn't use the people that pagan myths use: the heroic, strong, handsome, and brave. That tells me two things: 1) it doesn't matter what you can do, because God can do anything through you if you're only available; and 2) God is concerned about even the smallest, most insignificant people in the story. Nobody is unimportant to Him.

  • Right after Hagar names God "El Roi," God gives Himself a nickname to Abram: "El Shaddai." Most English Bibles that I know of translate this "God Almighty," which is actually incorrect. The Hebrew shad means a woman's breast, so God is telling Abram He is "God the breasted one," meaning God the nourisher, provider, sustainer. In case you're wondering, the Septuagint (Greek) translated shaddai to ikonos, meaning "all-sufficient," which was the closest word they could come up with. From there we got "almighty."

  • When God changes Abram's and Sarai's names, what He essentially does is insert an "ah" into them. Many people think this is a reference to His personal name Yahweh. So essentially God is giving Abraham and Sarah the identity of belonging to Him, being part of His family or something. Kay Arthur's inductive study "Covenant" has more information about this and other covenant stuff I've mentioned so far. It's a really good study.
That's about enough for now. Let me know what you think.

Gen. 4-11: Corruption and Judgment

I'm lumping several things together in this post, since right now I'm in the middle of chapter 18 and I don't want to get too far behind in my blogging. Note: This post has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit the purpose of this blog.

To sum up Genesis 4-11, it's all about people screwing up. First Cain gives the wrong offering, and then he kills his brother. Then everybody becomes wicked, so God sends a huge flood. Then Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Then a bunch of people rally together to build a tower to heaven, so God mixes up their languages. Throw a few genealogies into the mix and that's what it is.

I'll start with questions.

1. Why didn't God like Cain's offering? I think, personally, that it was a kind of sin offering, and the only thing that can cover sins is blood. I'm sure Cain knew that, and while it was nice of him to offer his grain and stuff, it wasn't what was required. That's what I think, but I don't know. What do you think?

2. How on earth did Noah get all those animals to fit in his boat? Even if they were all babies, and even if he collected them by genus or family or "kind" or common ancestor or whatever, that's a lot of animals, especially the bugs.
***Note: I don't particularly think the Flood had to cover every inch of the earth, since people weren't that spread out. But there is archaeological evidence in many parts of the world for a deluge (in Eastern Washington it's called Dry Falls), and that makes me think that maybe it was that big. But what do you think?

3. Why was the tower of Babel such a bad idea? What about its being built did God oppose? The only thing I can say for sure was that the people were defying God's command to spread out and fill the whole earth (I had another thought last night when I read it, but I forgot what it was. I've since begun taking notes so I don't lose anymore ideas).

So now I think the important part is to find out what we can learn about God from all this. It doesn't actually matter very much whether the Flood was a global phenomenon or how Noah got all the animals into the ark. What matters is what God reveals about Himself in the text.

So here's what I think.

1. God is involved with His creation, and He is concerned about us. He interacts with us.

2. God is a God of judgment, but even His judgment is merciful. He sends Cain out to wander in the world, but He doesn't kill him or allow him to be killed. He destroys the world with a flood, but only after 120 years of waiting. Plus, it's not like people all of a sudden got wicked and God started disliking them. It had to be a long process before people became so bad that every thought in their minds was continually wicked. And with the tower of Babel, all God does is stir things up, making people speak different languages so they have to spread out.

3. God is faithful. Genesis 8:1 says that God remembered Noah when he was in the ark - that doesn't mean He forgot about him and then suddenly went "oh yeah, I've got a guy in a boat to take care of." It means He never stopped remembering Noah. And then God promised that whenever He saw a rainbow, it would remind Him of His covenant not to destroy the earth with a flood again. If you think about it, I bet it's always raining somewhere in the world. So maybe God is always seeing a rainbow somewhere and always remembering His covenant. I think that's cool.

Questions, answers, comments, criticisms, concerns - all are welcome.