Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 9

[The Tuesdays with Markie Bible study at our church is looking at the Old Testament book of Genesis. This series of posts summarizes our discussions. This post looks at Genesis, chapters 25 and 26. While our group also looked at chapter 27 last night, I'll pick back up with that later.]

One of the themes of this section of Genesis--and the chapter I'll address in my next post--is the significance of oaths, whether made by God or human beings. Their importance resides in the fact that in the Biblical thought-world, words are more than just words, more than sounds or figures on a page (or computer screen). They have real importance and real consequence. When someone made a vow with words, it was deemed binding for all time. More than that, it was deemed to have a power and a life all its own.

Perhaps, from the perspective of Genesis, this is partly reflective of what it means for human beings to be created in the image of God. In the first creation account in Genesis, God speaks words and various portions of creation come into being. His utterances have power to create and affect events.

In the New Testament Gospel of John, the prologue picks up on this theme, calling Jesus "the Word of God," the power Person of the Godhead Who created the universe.

In the same Gospel, John describes events that happened many centuries after the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the Patriarchs of Biblical faith), at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. The Roman governor had a sign designating Jesus as the "King of the Jews," printed in several languages. The Jewish leaders objected. But Pilate, hardly a model of stability, nonetheless replied, "What I have written, I have written."

This understanding of the power of our words lay behind much of what we will see in these three chapters.

1. The beginning of chapter 25 presents us with the end of Abraham's presence in Genesis. His part in God's intentions for the human race comes to an end; he dies "an old man and full of years" (Genesis 25:8).

2. Abraham married after the death of Sarah. Genesis 25:1-6 presents another one of those interminable Biblical genealogies (which, by the way, occasionally have great significance), enumerating the descendants issuing from Abraham's marriage to Keturah. Where Keturah comes from, we don't know.

Verse 5 says that Abraham gave all his possessions to his son, Isaac. This fits with the customs of those times in which the entire inheritance went to the firstborn son. But Abraham is interested in much more than passing his possessions on to Isaac. He sends all the sons born to him by his concubines "to the east country," presumably to the region in Iraq from which he came. In this action, Abraham shows that Isaac is the unique child of promise, the one who will, like Abraham himself, be among the fathers of God's people, Israel.

3. Abraham's burial in the cave of Machpelah, where his wife Sarah was previously buried, is a sort of "foothold" or a down payment on the promise of God that this land will be the home of his descendants, more numerous than the stars in the sky.

4. The birth of Isaac's and Rebekah's twin sons, Jacob and Esau, foreshadows much about the subsequent narrative. Their activeness in their mother's womb presages the contest that will unfold between them.

5. Names are usually quite significant in the Bible's thought-world. (This may be another example of the power associated with words in the culture.) Jacob's name can mean God Protects or Heel/Supplanter. Jacob will develop into a cunning heel, in fact. But God will also protect him, another example of God's undeserved grace. The name of his brother, Esau, means Hairy, probably denoting not just a prominent physical feature, but also something of the primitive boorishness of the grown man.

6. Rebekah inquires "of the Lord" (Genesis 25:22) and learns what her two sons will be like. The term used for her inquiry probably indicates some ritualized form of prayer.

7. Interestingly, in violation of the normal customs, Rebekah learns that "the elder shall serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23). This means that Esau, the first of the twins to be born, will serve his younger brother, Jacob. Later, it seems, that this is a prophecy that Rebekah is willing to help happen.

8. The patriarchal families were, we would say today, dysfunctional. Abraham and Sarah clearly had their problems, as we've seen. Now, we learn that Isaac and Rebekah had diverging favorites. Isaac liked Esau, while Rebekah preferred Jacob.

An important lesson for us is that God doesn't love or bless perfect people. God loves and blesses imperfect people.

The patriarchal families weren't beneficiaries of God's promise because they were good. They were people of God's promise because they trusted, or believed in, God's promise.

9. A dramatic example of both Jacob's cunning and Esau's primitive boorishness can be seen in Genesis 25:29-34. For a bowl of lentil soup, Esau sells his birthright as the firstborn to Jacob. That Jacob would withhold food from his brother and Esau would give up his inheritance so cheaply says volumes about both of the twins.

The incident also points up the power of oaths and words again. After all, there were no witnesses to hear Esau pledge his birthright for Jacob's soup. But words were regarded as binding before heaven. To go back on one's word would be a deep offense against God.

10. Commentator Gerhard von Rad points out that Genesis 26 is really the only place in the entire book that presents purely Isaac narratives. Isaac is the overlooked member of the patriarchal ancestors of Israel (and of Christian faith). In fact, while scholars see very ancient independent sources for these stories of Isaac, they testify to a guy who, unlike his father wasn't a trailblazer; who, on the negative side of the ledger, repeated some of his father's worst actions; and who, positively, in highly emblematic acts, re-dug the wells Abraham had originally dug. There is a place in God's kingdom not only for those who initiate, but those who maintain.

11. In this chapter, King Abimelech and his commander Phicol (along with Abimelech's adviser Ahuzzath) have encounters with Isaac. Von Rad says that because the incidents here described came some eighty years after Abraham's encounters with an Abimelech and a Phicol, it's highly unlikely that these are the same people, but people bearing the same names. (Like George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush or John Adams and John Quincy Adams.)

12. Genesis 26:6-11 is likely to evoke the response, "like father, like son" from readers. Isaac's action here, similar to the two times his father did the same thing, is born not of faith, but of fear. Psychoanalytical theorist Erik Erikson said that the fundamental conflict we must all resolve to become healthy is "trust vs. mistrust." This is true in our relationships with other human beings (first with our parents) and it's true in our relationship with God.

In the case of God, this conflict may be stated as "faith vs. fear." It's likely that none of us ever passes the test of faith with flying colors. But, the Old Testament tells us that God is boundless in His mercy and understanding of our human frailty. God looks at our hearts and says that if it is our will to live in His direction, trusting Him, that small and simple faith is enough for Him to count us right with Him and gives Him the opening into our lives to begin to transform us from people of fear to people of faith. Isaac, however imperfectly, trusted God. When we will to trust God, God starts to transform our wills so that we are increasingly capable of doing that, a capability that will only be brought to perfection in eternity.

12. In the midst of a famine, the nomadic Isaac sows seeds and his crops yield a hundredfold. No wonder that Abimelech saw Isaac as being peculiarly blessed.

13. Genesis 26:17-22 contain a number of vignettes explaining place names. (Again, the importance of words.)

14. The covenant sworn between Isaac and Abimelech also underscores the importance of words.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8]

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