Saturday, January 07, 2006

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 24

We're heading toward the finish line of our look at Genesis. Over the long months that these posts have appeared, I've heard from people, both within and outside the congregation I serve as pastor, that they've found them helpful. At least one person sent an email to inform me that they have formed the basis of a study of Genesis at another church.

Starting this coming Tuesday, I'll be leading a new session of studies at Friendship, this one based on the New Testament book of Acts. So, as has been true with our study of Genesis, I hope to post notes on our look at that book here, too.

Genesis 46: 1-27: Throughout the Old Testament, you find these counts of different kinds. Quite frankly, while there are gems of insight that Biblical scholars sometimes find imbedded within them, they make my eyes glaze over. An accounting of the families of Jacob's sons comprises most of this chapter.

Genesis 46:28-34: (1) The reunion with Jacob is told with surprising economy, although it does say that Joseph "wept on his [father's] neck a good while."

(2) But, ever the planner, Joseph almost immediately tells Jacob and the others about how he will present them to Pharaoh.

The Egyptians, as was true of New Testament Judeans, regarded shepherds as low-lifes. They had almost no interest in shepherding. So, while the Pharaoh would have likely disdained Jacob's family, he wouldn't have regarded them as a threat. He might have said something like: "They want pastures for their flocks? That's no big deal. Nobody else wants pastureland anyway."

Genesis 47:1-6: The tale of Joseph and his family falling on their feet continues here as Pharaoh tells Joseph to put Jacob and family in charge of his own personal livestock.

Genesis 47:7-12: The conversation between Jacob and the Pharaoh is interesting for several reasons.

First: The Pharaoh seems almost deferential to Jacob.

Second: Jacob is almost comical. (He reminds me of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.) He says that his life has been "long and hard" and then says that his 130-year lifespan to that point is nothing compared to how long his ancestors had lived. Like Tevye, Jacob seems to glory in being a patriarch of God's chosen people, but may sometimes wish that God would choose someone else.

Third: Most amazing of all, perhaps, is that at the conclusion of their interview, Jacob blesses the Pharaoh. Keep in mind that the Pharaoh was regarded as a deity by the Egyptians, another key element in the story of the deliverance of the Hebrews from an Egyptian Pharaoah some 430-years later, as recounted in the book of Exodus. Yet Jacob blesses the Pharaoh here. In doing so, there is an implict expression of the superiority of the God of the Hebrews, the God of all creation.

Genesis 47:13-26: Joseph's policies are portrayed as shrewd and wise, although in our modern eyes they might be regarded as unkind or exploitative. In effect, he extends the power of the Pharaoh by forcing the hungry masses to sign over their land and belongings to him.

He also establishes a 20% tax rate for everybody but the priests, who are tax-free. These are not Hebrew priests, of course, but the priests who oversee the religious life of Egypt.

One class participant, after we'd talked about the tax-free status of the Egyptian priests, looked at me with a smile and said, "I'll bet you wish we had a similar policy." I laughed, but I really don't wish that we had such a policy in America today. In fact, I think that churches ought to pay taxes. But that's a topic for another post. As for we modern "priests," most US clergy--yours truly included--are in a weird tax category: The IRS considers us to be employees of our churches or agencies; Social Security considers us self-employed. It makes for an interesting tax return each year.

Back to Joseph: In this part of his saga, we see exemplified a classic historical truth. In times of crises, whether involving war, economics, public health, or perceived danger, the power of governments tend to increase. That was certainly true of Pharaoh's power in the face of Egypt's seven-year famine.

Genesis 47:27-48:22: This is the beginning of Jacob's long goodbye. As he prepares to die, he especially blesses Joseph and his two sons. Interestingly, he deliberately blesses the younger of the two, thus continuing a family tradition of violating the traditions of Hebrew culture.

Genesis 49:1-27: This is often referred to as Jacob's Blessing. But in fact, as commentator Gerhard von Rad and others point out, Jacob blesses some, recites aphorisms about others, and condemns others. In this mishmash, Jacob discusses not only what will happen or has happened in the lives of his individual sons, but also presages what will happen in their descendant tribes.

Judah is the son/tribe that comes off "smelling like a rose." Judah would emerge as the most important of the tribes and the land from which the nation of Judea, following the split of God's people into two kingdoms, would come. From Judea came the Savior Jesus.

Genesis 49:28-50:14: Jacob is given, in effect, a state funeral by the Egyptians. He is accorded astounding honors!

Genesis 50:15-21: The shame and paranoia felt by Joseph's brothers displays itself again after their father's death. They concoct the obvious fiction that the dead and honored Jacob had told them to tell Joseph not to harm them in retribution for their selling him into slavery many decades before. Joseph sees through the subterfuge and is deeply moved by his brothers' shame. (And perhaps, by their inability to flush the family penchant for scheming.) He weeps and then tells them, in one of the most poignant passages in all of Scripture:
"Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as He is doing today."
Joseph had long ago learned the lesson that even when we are sinned against, God is the primarily offended party. He also learned that God can take even the rotten situations in our lives and, if we will submit ourselves to Him, bring good out of them.

Genesis 50:22-26: Though nearly the youngest, Joseph dies before his brothers. One may speculate as to whether the hardships he endured contributed to his early demise. But I think the key thing to remember is that the goodness of a life isn't measured by its length, but by the extent to which a we allow God to direct our paths. In this, I have a lot of surrendering to do.

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