Category: Genesis

All In the Family- Pentecost 16

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1669620_704691989608711_9073102302507615052_oNarrative Lectionary Reflection

September 24, 2017

 

Introduction

Years ago, I was attending a dinner with a family at a local restaurant in Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.  The mother and father were present along with their two elementary age children.  Out of nowhere, the older brother hit his younger brother.  I was surprised.  What happened? I thought.

The father looked at me and said this is something that comes with having siblings.  I was still shocked and if I am honest, it still strikes me as odd today. Being an only child makes understanding sibling rivalry hard to understand.  The relations between siblings can be hectic.  Things that were long in the past, are resurrected, past hurts are brought to the fore.

Today, we look at a sibling rivalry, parents that had favorites and how God worked through all of this to create a chosen people or salvation of the world.

Let’s look at the Blessing of Jacob.

Engaging the Text

21 Isaac said to Jacob, “Come here and let me touch you, my son. Are you my son Esau or not?” 22 So Jacob approached his father Isaac, and Isaac touched him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the arms are Esau’s arms.” 23 Isaac didn’t recognize him because his arms were hairy like Esau’s arms, so he blessed him. (Genesis 27:21-23)

  Before we head into today’s text, it’s important to get some background.  Issac as we learned last week, is the promised son of Abraham.  He later marries a woman named Rebekah.  In chapter 25, we learn that Rebekah is “barren” and unable to conceive.  In this pre-scientific world, it was believed that the woman only received the “seed” from the man.  If it didn’t take root, she was blamed for it.  So, it was important for Rebekah to have a child.  She is blessed with not one, but twins.  However, the pregnancy was difficult.  Genesis 25:22 says that the twins struggled within her and she wondered if she was going to survive.  During this difficult time, she prays to God and is given a glimpse of the future: the two children represent two nations. One nation will be stronger than the other and the “elder” twin would serve the “younger” one. In essence, the older twin named Esau, would end up serving the younger one, named Jacob. This reversal of fortune is not simply the result of Jacob’s deceit, but is part of God’s plan.  It is through Jacob, that the people of Israel will arise.

It’s also important to note something about the nature of the two sons. Esau became a hunter, a “man’s man.” Jacob was different, he was more quiet and lived near the tents.  The parents had their favorites: Issac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. Since Esau was the firstborn, he was entitled to all the privileges that belong to being a firstborn.

But Esau was interesting.  He was aware of the covenant, but he wasn’t as committed to it in the way his grandfather Abraham did. This was a guy that wanted to go hunting, not sit and understand this relationship with God.

Jacob, was different. He did take the covenant seriously and was open to scheming to get the birthright. Rebekah also thought Jacob deserved the birthright and schemed to make sure he got it.  In a patriarchal culture, women didn’t have much power.  But she could work behind scenes to get what she wanted, or to be more precise what God had promised her. She knew that Jacob was the more spiritual of the two and was the real successor to the Abraham.  Because of her scheming ways, she is the shaker and mover in this story.  When Esau is out hunting, Rebekah finds his clothes, finds some goat skin to put on Jacob and then cook a delicious meal in order to fool Issac who at this time was blind.

In last week’s texts, you see Issac as a victim.  This week’s texts has Issac as the victim once again.  He is old, blind and near death.  Now was the time to give Esau his blessing. Jacob and Rebekah use this to their advantage to fool him.

But was Issac really fooled? He wondered why “Esau” sounded like Jacob, but still blessed “Esau” anyway. Some scholars think Issac was in on the charade and played along. Why? It could be that even though he wanted to bless Esau, he saw God at work in this deceit. He could see that God wanted Jacob, not Esau to get the blessing.  His giving the blessing also allowed him to avoid blame in hurting Esau.

A word or two about the blessing.  When we think of a blessing today, we think of someone praying over us or in the context of marriage, of asking “permission” to marry someone.  They might be meaningful words, but they don’t carry weight.  It’s not a binding contract of any sort.

In the ancient world, a blessing was wish for a good life, but it was also so much more.  The words of the blessing itself carried a force of their own; it was a guarantee that what was wished for will happen.  It was so powerful that any blessing or curse couldn’t be retracted.  This is what made Rebekah and Jacob plot and scheme and this is what made Esau so mad.  Esau lost out on what was to be something very meaningful and real in his own life. Theologian W. Sibley Towner explains how important the blessing was in that society and it’s importance to Jacob:

Blessing in ancient Israel was not some vague and wordy spiritual concept. It revolved around the very practical notion of material welfare—the sort of thing people have in mind today when they say, “We have been blessed.” However, the mere fact that a parent touches and kisses a child and pronounces words of positive hope over the child adds a true spiritual dimension to even such a material blessing. Naomi Rosenblatt captures this abiding sense of blessing: “By internalizing the blessing of our parents’ love, we acquire self-esteem, self-confidence, and a deep sense of security. Their blessing tells us we matter, that we are valued. All his life Jacob yearns for the genuine blessing he never got from his father Isaac” (quoted in Moyers, 265). One might quarrel with that last sentence, in the light of the blessing without any deceit involved that is later given by Isaac to Jacob (28:3–4). But we can certainly affirm that blessing is intended to give physical and emotional empowerment.1

Esau is not happy when he learns of the treachery.  He wants to kill Jacob, and that forces Jacob to flee for his life.

During the evening when he has nothing but a rock for a pillow, he has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder or staircase.  It’s a sign of heaven taking place on earth. During the dream God finally speaks in the story. God repeats the promise God made with Abraham.  Jacob might have tricked his father and brother of the blessing, God confirms the blessing on Jacob.  What God promised to Rebekah all those years ago, became a reality: the covenant would continue.

 

 

 

Conclusion

In someway we don’t see people at their best in this story.  Jacob is not the most upstanding person.  He continues his trickery after this story. Rebekah was also a trickster, going against her husband and son to make sure her favorite son got the blessing?  None of this is something we should emulate, but God does work through these less than perfect people.  Miguel de la Torre talks about women as trickster in Genesis:

(Rebekah) She follows the path of other tricksters, such as Abraham and Isaac claiming before sovereign leaders that their wives are their sisters, and will be followed by many more tricksters, like Laban switching wives on Jacob, Joseph’s brothers showing Jacob the bloody coat to prove Joseph’s demise, Rachel sitting on her father’s idol while stating she is menstruating, or Tamar playing the prostitute with Judah. At first glance, deception seems morally questionable. How can a blessing conferring a divine preferential option be obtained through trickery? Such a proposition offends the moral sensitivities of many Euro-American Christians who normally discount deceit as a sin. Yet for the marginalized the trickster can very well provide an ethical methodology for those within oppressive social structures who have no other option for obtaining liberation from disenfranchisement.2

Deception is wrong even when used for good, but God is able to work through this sin.  Rebekah believed in the promise enough that she was willing to do anything to make sure Jacob got the blessing that was promised.

In the gospels, we hear how Jesus tends to turn the tables where those who were considered on top in society we pushed down to make room for the lowly and excluded.  We see an early example of God’s upside-down kingdom where God chooses the younger son, going against what society said was the way things were done.

What does this sermon mean to you?  What does it say about our walk with God today?

 

1. Towner, W. S. (2001). Genesis. (P. D. Miller & D. L. Bartlett, Eds.) (p. 206). Louisville, KY; London; Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press.

2. De La Torre, M. A. (2011). Genesis. (A. P. Pauw & W. C. Placher, Eds.) (p. 252). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

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Just Following Orders- Pentecost 15

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10306175_10204951716065105_1944324567124155317_n (1)Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 17, 2017

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

 

Introduction

Today’s text has to be one the hardest passages in all of Scripture.  Great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard have tried to understand the passage of the binding of Issac to no avail.  Some of have tried putting a meaning to it that makes sense, but any meaning seems feeble because the truth of the matter is:God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son

In this study, we will not as much try to explain the text as much as sit with the text and the uncomfortable feelings it brings.  Why would God do this?  Why was Abraham willing to do this?  Are there limits to being faithful to God?

Today we look at the binding of Issac. 

Engaging the Text

God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)

  God had long promised Abraham that he would be the father of a new nation.  He and his wife Sarah didn’t immediately have children.  The wait was so long, Sarah told Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar.  Ishmael is the result of the paring.  But this is not the child God promised.  After a time, Issac the true promised child is born. After what seemed like forever, this child is now here.  

But God tells Abraham that he is to sacrifice his son “your only son whom you love,” God says to make the point clear.  It seems that God was asking Abraham to throw away the future.

But it’s important to notice here that the word “tested” is being used.  It will be used later when the Israelites recieve manna in the desert. God wanted total reliance, the and Israelites pretty much fail the test.

Notice that Abraham is quiet in response to God.  In earlier times, he was able to question God such as when he establishes that covenant with God (Genesis 17) or when he pleads for the life of his nephew, Lot (Genesis 18).  But here, where he is asked to sacrifice his only son, there is silence and acquiescence.

In verse 7, we hear Issac finally speak, seeing everything for the sacrifice except the animal. Abraham responds that God would provide.  What does that mean?  We know that God did provide, but did Abraham know this?  Or was it some kind of deception? Theologian Miguel de la Torre believes that this phrase doesn’t show Abraham’s trust in God as much as it was lying to his son:

As they approach the spot, Isaac notices that the sacrificial lamb is missing, prompting him to ask his father where they will obtain one. Abraham responds by both naming and providing insight into the character of God: ’elohim yir’eh, “God will provide,” for Abraham’s God is a God who provides. The reassurance to the boy that God will provide teaches the reader something new about God, while providing Abraham with a way of prolonging Isaac’s deception until the very last moment.

But trusting that God would not break God’s promise, Abraham could have believed that God would keep God’s word.  Theologian Terrance Fretheim writes that Abraham trusting in God could also be seen as a test of God:

Abraham trusts that God will find a way to fulfill the promises. At least by v. 8, his trust has taken the form that God will provide. His public confession of trust to Isaac constitutes a new situation with which God must work. This ups the ante for God. This has now become a test for God; it no longer involves simply Abraham’s trust, it is a matter of God’s providing as well. As Westermann puts it, “He throws the ball back into God’s court.”8 Will Abraham’s trust in God be in vain? Is God free to ignore Abraham’s trust? If God does not provide, that would constitute another kind of test for Abraham, a test at a much deeper level than the one that initiated this journey. If God tests within relationship to determine loyalty, then can God ignore the expression of such loyalty and remain faithful? Given God’s previous commitments (especially in chap. 15), God has bound himself to stay with a trusting Abraham. Now, in swearing by himself, God lays the divine life on the line, putting the very divine self behind the promise.

In verse 12, God stops Abraham from killing his son. “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me,” God says. God then provides a ram as a substitute for Issac.  The promise is saved.

So, what was the point of this exercise? In James 2:18-24, James credits Abraham for proving his faith in the work of sacrificing Issac.

If we set aside the fact that Abraham was only a second from killing his son, there is something to be said about what it means to put God first in our lives.  Could Abraham put the promise of Issac ahead of trusting in God.

It is one way to find something in the text.  Christians have long held that the substitution of the ram for Issac mirrors Christ’s death on the cross.

But we are still left with a story that is unsettling.  Was God guilty of child abuse as some scholars believe? What we do know is that in this instance, we learn more about the faithfulness of God.  God did provide as Abraham hoped.

But de la Torres wonder why Issac was spared, but not the daughter of Jephthah’sin the book of Judges:

The same God who spares Isaac is silent when another father offers his daughter as a human sacrifice. God provides a ram and saves Abraham’s beloved son, but what about Jephthah’s unnamed daughter (Judg. 11:29–40)? When her father lays the faithful innocent virgin of Gilead on the sacrificial altar to fulfill a foolish vow that he made, there is no angel dispatched to save the young woman. There is no ram to take her place. Where then is the God of life? Is she dispensable because she is not a son? To read the story of Jephthah’s unnamed daughter in the light of Isaac’s salvation leaves us with very uncomfortable questions.

There is a point to be made that God spares a son, but not a daughter, but there are also big differences in the story. Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, whereas Jephtaha made a foolish and costly vow to God.  But there are questions as to why God didn’t intervene in the same way.

Conclusion

So, what does this all mean?  As was said at the beginning, this is a text that one has to sit with instead of thinking how to apply it to our own lives.  We have to ask, what does it mean to be faithful?  We learn that Abraham is faithful, but we learn he will go too far in fulfilling his fealty to God.  God is faithful to Abraham in providing a ram for sacrifice, but we are left wondering why God would tell Abraham to do this.

That said, put aside the shock of Abraham doing something so horrible and think about this in terms of faith.  Religion, our life with God is based on faith.  How far are we willing to go follow God?  This doesn’t mean we would as far as killing someone, but it could mean taking a bolder step without knowing what is ahead of us.  I am reminded of some young people who worked at the campus ministry I was involved in.  They would move hundreds of miles to embark on this new journey and they had to raise their own salary.  It was a big step of faith for them to take up a new job with no promise of a steady salary.

Abraham was willing to lose it all because of his faith and trust in God.  It makes no sense and it seems like sheer madness, but then sometimes following God does look like that even when it doesn’t involve child sacrifice.

As I said before, none of this lessens the shock of the act, but as we look at Scripture we have to ask why something like this was placed in Scripture.  And the reason might be what I just talked about. 

How would you respond? Do you think there is something to be learned from such a shocking text?

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

In the Beginning- Pentecost 14

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 10, 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4

 

Introduction

Every few years, you will hear a story about creation versus evolution.  Some school district somewhere will have an argument between a local church and a school board and the questions are flying? Which one is true? Did we evolve from apes or were we created?  Was the world developed over millions of years or was it done in six days? Can you believe God created the world and also believe in evolution?

The creation story is one of the most well-known parts of scripture.  Why does it matter that God created the world?  Does it relate to science and how?

We will focus at the beginning of the Bible and wonder what it meant to the first readers of this text and what it means for us today.

Engaging the Text

There are actually two stories of creation. The first one is today’s text.  The other one is found in the second chapter of Genesis.  For times sake, we will focus on the first story, but remember the first story is in more detail and longer and the second story seems more like a summary of God’s act.  Both are important for different reasons.

  In the book, the Magigian’s Nephew, author C.S. Lewis provides an example of what God’s creative act was all about.  Aslan, the lion god-like character would sing the world into being.  In some way, Genesis 1 is describing something like that.   God sees the world a formless void and begins speaking.  With each utterance, the world began to appear. Light. Darkness. Day. Night.  Every time God would speak and create, God would finally say that the creation was good. 

The creation as mentioned in the Bible is not looked at scientifically, but through the eyes of an artist. The poet James Weldon Johnson posits God as an artist in his poem The CreationHere is how Johnson describes the making of the sun:

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”

So, God sees all of creation in the way we see a work of art, a thing of beauty, something that is good. Why did God have to say things were good all of the time?

Having God call the creation good over and over was a way to tell people that the created order, the material world, was good.  The sun, moon, stars, our pets, you and I are all deemed good, a gift from God.

What does it mean when we see the world around us and know that all of it, even us is considered a gift of God?  How then we do we respond to creation, to the care of others?

Why did God create in six days?  God spoke things into being, meaning God could have created everything all at once.  The early theologian Augustine believed the creation event was just that- done all at once.

The move for God to take time in creating the world could mean that in God’s eyes creation is a process instead of a product.  It is a process that is ongoing, meaning it didn’t stop on the day God rested.

The clues to being a process are found in several verses (see Genesis 1:11 and 22)where God allows creation to “put forth.”  This means creation itself is creating. For God to enter our time, to take time to create, means that the divine life enters into our time.  You, I, the trees and the sky are part of the divine life.

When God rests on the seventh day, it is not yet called Sabbath.  But what does happen is that God is able to take “time off” and allow creation to keep on creating, to allow them to be.  That is also part of the divine life.

Theologian Terrance Fretheim explains the importance of this divine life and what it means for all of us:

To speak of creation as coming into being along a genuine timeline lifts up creation as dynamic process, and not simply as divine product. God chooses to take time in creating and endows creatures with creative capacities. God determines not to do the creating alone; God, working interdependently and over time, involves the creatures themselves in creational developments. What creatures do actually counts in the ongoing becoming of the world.

All of this tells us that the creation is not a one off.  It is something that keeps happening, even today.  The artist is still painting.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

I Promise.

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Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15
September 7, 2014
Ordinary Time

I don’t know when I noticed that Noah and the ark wasn’t such a wonderful little story for kids.  All of the sudden the images of happy animals in a boat gave way to a crowed boat filled with animals-animals that poop.  I’m a city kid so farm life isn’t familiar to me.  But I’ve been to enough animal barns at the State Fair to know that having pigs and horses and elephants and so on is going to create one big mess.

But then, that’s not the most frightening thing about this passage.  God is upset over God’s creation.  God saw the evil taking place and regretted even creating the earth.

So, what does God do?  God sets the reset button.

The water that floods the world is in some way an undoing of the creative process we see in Genesis 1.  The water comes and sweeps away all of the evil in the world.  No more animals no more humans.

Except not everything has been swept away.  God spares Noah, his family and all the animals.  This small remnant of creation will be the seed that rebuilds the earth.  Even as God judges, God also brings salvation.

The rainbow that God talks about is a reminder to God that God would never flood the earth again.  God’s creation would continue to sin, continue to drift away from God.  No matter, God would not destroy the earth with water again and the rainbow is God’s promise: no more hitting the reset button.  God would find another way to deal with the waywardness of God’s creation.  The rest of the biblical story is God finding a different way to restore God’s creation.

In 1997, a great flood hit the Red River Valley which straddles Minnesota and North Dakota.  Communities up and down the Red River were threatened with flood waters.  One such community was Grand Forks, North Dakota, the state’s 3rd largest city.  Despite a noble effort by citizens and volunteers, the rising flood waters could not be held back.  Fifty thousand people had to flee their houses as a result.  As the waters filled the city, a fire started in one of the buildings downtown.  Water everywhere and now a fire.  As the firefighters tried to deal with the fire using boats, a photographer for the local newspaper snapped a photo that became iconic.  In the midst of flood and fire, there was a rainbow.  The rainbow became a sign of hope to a beleagured community, a promise that things would be better.

In the midst of pain and sorrow, God tells creation and most importantly Godself that things will be better. Hope is around the corner.

I promise.