Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 14

[If this is the first installment of this series on Genesis you've seen, you deserve a little explanation. I'm a pastor of the Lutheran variety. But, as they might say in the movie, Airplane, "That's not important right now." What is important is that every week, I convene a Bible study called Tuesdays with Markie--an increasingly dated allusion to the Mitch Albion book. We've been working our way through the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis.

[The ancient rabbis considered Genesis the most important book of the Old Testament corpus. It sets the stage for every important theme in the Judeo-Christian faith. It certainly undergirds the faith of Christians. In saying that, I'm not really referencing the two creation accounts found at the beginning of the book, but themes like...
salvation not dependent on our works, but faith in a gracious God;
God's provision and care for imperfect people;
God's willingness to forgive;
the holiness of God; and so on
.[Human beings, even so-called heroes of the faith, are portrayed in all their fragile, imperfect wartiness, in this book. The effect of that is to give me hope that even an imperfect, warty sinner like me can have a relationship with the wonderful, gracious God of the Bible.

[I'm working to get these notes caught up with our actual discussions. Below this installment, you'll find links to previous posts in the series.

[By the way, right now, I've got three different series going. There's this one. There's another called Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time. And there's another on discouragement, which will appear occasionally.]

1. Genesis 31 begins with tension, a seemingly constant companion of Jacob. His brothers-in-law are complaining, saying that Jacob is doing well at his father-in-law's expense. Laban has also adopted a cool demeanor toward Jacob.

Chapter 30 tells why this has happened. For the first time, in this battle of schemers, Jacob has gotten the better of Laban. In actual fact, as Jacob will acknowledge, the advantage goes to God.

2. Jacob decides that it's time to scram. Out in the fields, Jacob conferences with his wives, the sisters, Rachel and Leah. The site was probably chosen for two reasons: (1) Shepherding is demanding work. Any farmer who has livestock can tell you that it's tough to take time away. Those animals always need attention and protection. (2) In the fields, Jacob can speak with the women away from spying ears and eyes.

This latter reason is undoubtedly the most important because Jacob proposes something drastic. He wants to take the women, their slaves, their family, and all the livestock Jacob has acquired and head back to the land where his father Isaac lives, Canaan, the land eventually promised to Abraham's descendants.

Jacob lays out his case to the women, arguing that Laban has repeatedly cheated him and that his attitude has become cooler.

Surprisingly, the women feel that their father has also mistreated them financially. They're ready to go.

Jacob and the women may seem prompted by decidedly unspiritual motives. But the Bible is an utterly honest book. It acknowledges the full panoply of human thoughts and emotions. Rachel and Leah also believe that God has decided to allow Jacob to thrive financially in spite of their father's efforts to continue taking advantage of Jacob. They further affirm that Jacob should do what God had told him to do.

This mixture of the seemingly pedestrian and pious, demonstrates one of the key components of the Judeo-Christian faith: We believe in what's called the immanence of God. God isn't far-off. When His people call, He hears. This immanence has its ultimate expression in something else that's called The Incarnation, the embodiment of God in the Person of Jesus Christ.

3. While Laban is off attending to the work of shearing his sheep, Jacob loads up his wives, children, servants, and livestock and heads back to the home of his father, Isaac. As they leave, Rachel steals her father's idols.

There is a whimsical element to this act, as often happens when the Old Testament talks about the idols worshiped by their Near East neighbors. The Hebrews were always poking fun at the manifest absurdity of worshiping finite things--be they carvings, sculptures, animals, money, success, horoscopes, people, or whatever. One of the most fun instances of this is found in Isaiah 44:9-20:
All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame. The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, "Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!" The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, "Save me, for you are my god!" They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?"
But there's more than whimsy in Rachel's action. She also demonstrates contempt, if not for her father's god, at least for her father. Later, this contempt is compiled when, to prevent Laban from finding the statuette, she sits on a camel cushion in which it is hidden and explains to her father that she would stand in deference to him, but she was having her period. An ancient Hebrew might have laughed out loud at this juncture in the story. Women were considered ritually unclean and defiled during this portion of their monthly mestrual cycle. The message would have been clear: This god who can be concealed in a camel cushion is below contempt by comparison to the one God of all creation.

4. There is also great tension in this story because Jacob, unaware of Rachel's thievery, vows that whoever might be guilty of swiping Laban's god will be put to death. Rachel must live however, in order for the great tribe of Benjamin to come into being, early hearers of this story might have thought. Besides, Rachel was the love of Jacob's life. Would he have kept his vow to Laban had he determined what Rachel had done? Would Laban, her father, have let Jacob go through with it? Vows, as we have seen before in Genesis, were considered inviolable things.

Forunately, Rachel's explanation to Laban, whether true or not, was sufficient to cause him to give up on the search. Two things I can't help but wonder though are:
Did Laban keep searching for his missing god after he returned home?

What did Rachel do with the stolen god?
5. Strangely to us, in this chapter Laban upbraids Jacob for taking his--that is, Laban's--family away. Actually, because Jacob is in something of a servile relationship to Laban, the father-in-law is justified in his anger, even though Jacob has been the victim of every sort of trickery, something which might seem to negate the legitimacy of Laban's position. But buttressing Laban's argument is the fact that in his culture, the son-in-law became part of the family, the father-in-law exercising a kind of dominion over his daughters, their husbands, and their children.

(6) Ultimately though, knowing that Jacob has been blessed by his God, Laban decides not to obstruct Jacob. They covenant together and make their peace.

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