Gleanings from the Bible: Genesis 37-50

Joseph is one of those people who makes a bad start but matures into someone profoundly godly and wise.

Telling your parents and brothers that they are all going to bow to you one day is not the way to get your family onside, even if it is revealed in a dream given by God. And yet we can see that even this indiscretion and Jacob’s poor parenting (rather obviously singling out Joseph as his favourite) set in motion events which will bring about the purposes of God and preserve the future of Israel. It’s a lesson that our failures are not necessarily fatal when they are handed over to God. God can bring great good out of them, even though we must bear responsibility for what we do. It’s a lesson that is repeated through Scripture. We have seen it with Jacob and we see it again with David and Bathsheba, amongst others.

The deviousness of Jacob and his mother Rachel seem to have rubbed off on his children who, jealous of Joseph, sell him into slavery and fool their father into thinking that his son is dead (Jacob’s sins revisiting him!).

Joseph however goes against the family grain. He is morally upright and flees the advances of Potiphar’s wife (another lesson too frequently overlooked these days?). He is aware that God is with him, even when imprisoned and apparently forgotten (39:20-23). He firmly gives God the credit for the insights and interpretations he brings to the Pharaoh (40:8, 41:16).

As a result, Joseph is elevated to a position where his wisdom is used to deliver Egypt and the surrounding countries from the worst effects of a seven-year drought. This includes, of course, his own family. Through years of hardship, when it would have been so hard to see the hand of God at work, he was in fact working out a plan to bring Israel (Jacob) and his children to the comparative safety of Egypt, where they could grow into the nation, promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (45:5-8, 50:19). As we know in hindsight, this was just one step in an even greater plan for the world! (49:10)

Joseph stands then as a shining example of one who learns humility, who exercises grace and forgiveness and who recognises the hand of God in his life for the future of the Hebrews (The Children of Israel). But in the end it is God, working through the frailties and circumstances of human existence, who is the hero!

[A note about dreams:  They figure at intervals through Scripture as a way in which God reveals things to people. It would seem that most of the time dreams involve the subconscious putting together stories from fragments of experience.

I speculate here, but it occurs to me that God sometimes uses our subconscious to get through to us because our conscious mind is too actively engaged with everything that is going on. It is when we are quiet, or even asleep that we have a chance to “hear” God more clearly.

I hesitate to suggest that we experience God by perfecting some technique, but perhaps we do need to discipline ourselves to turn off the distractions, read God’s Scriptures written for our benefit, meditate on them and pray for insight. As we converse in this way we may find ourselves drawing closer to the One who is Spirit. At one level this is nothing new. It’s what Christians have proposed and done through the ages, but it’s an aspect of prayer that is surprisingly often neglected. We may complain that we don’t experience God, but perhaps we become so physically distracted (and so lacking in the expectation that God will speak to us) that we fail to be attuned to the Spirit and our Christian experience becomes mechanical and sterile.]

Gleanings from the Bible: Genesis 24-36

If ever you wanted confirmation that God can use anyone for his purposes then the stories of Isaac and Jacob should suffice.

Isaac seems bland compared to Abraham. He repeats his father’s failure in passing his own wife off as his sister but otherwise there is very little to report. Rebekah is something of a schemer and it obviously rubs off on Jacob, famous for his wiliness and deception. Mind you, you don’t get the impression that it would take much to fool his father Isaac and brother Esau.

It reminds me of an offer I received by post to buy the shares that had been given to me by the NRMA motoring organisation for loyal membership. The offer went something like this: “Your shares are worth $5.50 each and we are offering you $4 per share if you will sell them now.” I don’t have to spell out my response do I?  Now just consider Jacob’s offer to Esau: “Our father’s blessing to you, as the elder, is for you to be a part of God’s blessing to the whole world — but I will offer you a bowl of soup for it.” And Esau thinks it’s a good deal! What’s more, when Jacob comes to claim the blessing by pretending to be Esau, their father, Isaac, blind though he is, can’t tell them apart!

Afterwards, when Jacob runs away to his Uncle Laban’s he finds that conniving and deception run in the family. It’s just that Jacob turns out to be better at it.

And yet, in it all, God is working out his purposes. The affirmation of his Covenant promises are woven throughout the narrative and Jacob, who has recognised their value, seems to be brought to the end of himself in a wrestling match, as he calls on God to bless him.

Esau is blessed and his family line in mentioned, but it is Jacob who becomes know as Israel and his children are, well, the Children of Israel.

You see, we don’t have to be perfect, but recognising the value of God’s blessings towards us makes all the difference!

 

Gleanings From the Bible: Genesis 12-25

The story of Abraham marks a turning point in Genesis. Chapters 1-11 have introduced us to a scattered world, badly in need of help. God’s dealings with Abraham are the beginning of the answer to that need. We may also notice the shift from the broad brushstrokes of pre-history to a more detailed story of the unfolding of the history of Israel.

Abraham’s journey starts in 11:27 with his father Terah taking the family from Ur, aiming to reach Canaan, but settling for Harran. You can’t help wondering if he should have continued, but it is left to Abraham (or Abram as he was know then) to complete the trip, motivated by a word from God.

I don’t know how that word came to him, but it seems clear that the writer intends that we understand it as more than simply a feeling of being called by God. Here we have an extremely important specific set of promises which we recognise as a Covenant. Perhaps the closest we get to this these days is in a marriage service where (supposedly) binding promises are made, with consequences when they are broken. Unlike the marriage covenant, God’s covenant with Abram was more along the lines of a Suzerainty  Treaty where the powerful ruler sets out the promises and the conditions. So what were they?

1 I will make you a great nation
2 I will bless you
3 I will make your name great
4 You will be a blessing
5 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you
6 All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you

The condition or command was to leave Harran and go to Canaan, living a nomadic life.

In the following chapters God adds the Land of Canaan to the list of promises, which is why, unsurprisingly, it becomes known as The Promised Land, or simply, The Land. So the seventh promise is…

7 The Promised Land

These promises would be reinforced over and over for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, notably in the ancient Covenant Cutting ceremony of Genesis 15.

Promises 1, 2, 4 and 6 particularly find fulfilment in the people of God of every age, where the ‘great nation’ is the people of God’s Kingdom, who are blessed by God in order to transmit the blessing of Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ, to the world. They stand as an assurance and a challenge!

THE STRENGTHS OF ABRAM and THE PROBLEM OF SACRIFICE

Abram’s first great strong-point is that he is obedient!

He goes to the Land and carries out God’s instructions, even to the extent of being willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac (born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age). To the present-day reader this may seem unspeakably barbaric (as many do when they think of God sacrificing his Son, Jesus, on the cross, for which this story has a number of parallels) but a few things have to be taken into account…

One: In the first instance God did not intend that Abraham should carry out the task. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says that when Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, he reasoned that God could even raise the dead (Heb 11:19). In the second instance God intended that Jesus should indeed rise from the dead.
Two: Both were willing victims.
Three: The Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that child sacrifice was abhorrent to God, emphasising that this was an extreme test of utmost obedience. In the case of Christ’s sacrifice the New Testament letter of Hebrews (7:27) tells us that Christ offered himself as sacrifice. The idea of God sacrificing his Son can only be really understood in the rather complicated context of the nature of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together as one – so much different from our human notion of one person sacrificing another!

Abram’s second great strong-point is his faith.

It gives me some hope to notice that this towering man of faith, alongside Sarah (also commended by the writer of Hebrews for her faith) were both quite fallible human beings and that the writer doesn’t try to whitewash the fact!

  • These heroes have their doubts about the promises and need reassuring on several occasions.
  • Abram practices polygamy which, while not explicitly condemned in that setting at that time, is too often fraught with problems throughout the Hebrew writings.
  • Abram doesn’t seem to be trusting God when he tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, to save his own skin.

Overall they still believed that God would fulfill the seven promises. It’s just that they seemed to think that he needed a hand at times!

So flawed characters can still be used in the purposes of God to achieve great things. A fact reinforced in the tales of Isaac and Jacob which are next.

 

Gleanings from the Bible: Genesis 1-2

In the Beginning God created a way of identifying Fundamentalists, Conservatives and Liberals.

Well you’d sometimes think so!

A lot of ink has been spilled over whether we are to take the six days of Creation literally, whether it is a fairly irrelevant borrowed myth from another Ancient Near Eastern culture, or whether it is a theological statement not intended to have any scientific veracity. Then there is a range of views between.

In most Christian circles we can agree on one thing: that God is the Creator, and perhaps that is where we should start – rather than our disagreements. The second thing we can glean from these two accounts of creation is the existence and almighty power of God. We notice that God creates humanity in his image, capable of relating to and understanding him, at least to an extent. I assume this also has to do with our moral character – our sense of right and wrong, good and bad, justice and mercy and so on. We may also note that God created everything “good” and that in completing the creation with humanity, God declared it, “very good”.

Chapter two, verse 4 then becomes more personal. It hones in on Adam and Eve. And what I see here is God’s desire to provide bountifully for humanity, to set boundaries for their protection and well-being and to give them the freedom of the garden, even to the extent of being free to step over the boundaries. After all a relationship without freedom is no real relationship at all!

Now there are probably some people thinking at this point, “What sort of freedom do we really have if rejecting God leads to judgement and ultimately, hell, the loss of Eternal Life? Isn’t God just holding a big stick over us all the time? Love me or else!”

But in fact that is why these opening chapters are so important. They tell us what God’s wants for us. We have Paradise, the opening bracket which will close with Paradise reclaimed in the final chapters of Revelation, at the other end of the Bible. Paradise is God’s intention for human beings enjoying the Tree of Life, the symbol of Eternal Life enriched by the presence and glory of God. In the intervening time God’s provision still exists for those who accept and those who reject his love toward them. The rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Imagine that one holiday you and your significant other arrive at a mountain retreat with a collection of chalets built into the hillside. The place is almost empty and the host is able to give you a choice of several places of accommodation. “You can stay in any one of them,” she says. “The first three, near to my own house, have superb views, and enjoy the best facilities, further down the mountain are pleasant but there is one that is quite unsafe and the foundations have been damaged by a boulder. It stands on the edge of a ravine. In the near future it will be demolished but in the meantime there are warnings around it and you must stay away for your own safety.”

You could exercise your freedom and sneak into the condemned chalet. So is the owner forcing you or warning you of the consequences.

When God talks about eating of the Tree, symbolising the knowledge of good and evil, it seems to me that he is warning about the consequences. And when evil is committed it would be a poor judge who did not administer justice. Just watch the news. People are outraged when the criminal receives too light a sentence for his or her crimes.

No, Genesis one and two paint a beautiful picture of all that humanity was meant to enjoy and the boundaries are significant but comparatively few.

But why should we believe these accounts anyway? Who was there to see it all? How can we know?

Traditionally the accounts have been ascribed to Moses, who is recorded as seeing God face to face and communicating with a transparency not seen anywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures (In other words, God told him what happened). Others argue that the first five books of the Bible (The Pentateuch) were penned much later after Israel’s return from Exile, around four hundred years before Christ to re-establish Israel’s identity. Others would be happy to settle with Moses with later editorial alterations. There are arguments for various views, but in my experience the arguments themselves don’t provide fruitful insights.

It seems helpful to me to begin with the assumption that, whatever the date and however many human authors, these chapters are inspired by God to help us to understand some foundational truths about our existence – the most fundamental being that we are created to relate to our Creator as responsible and responsive human beings, made in his image. The truth within the chapters, lies not in the dating, or scientific argument, but in how it is borne out by the rest of Scripture and is consistent with what we know, principally about Jesus Christ. But that is for another blog.

Next: Genesis 3-11