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.