Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Violent Take it by Force (Genesis 25-28)

Compared to Abraham, there is very little to say about Isaac. As the child of the promise, God’s blessing is always just handed to him. His one bit of active obedience is to relocate to Gerer and not Egypt when a famine hits Canaan. There he has Rebekah pose as his sister because he is afraid someone will kill him to steal her (she being so beautiful and all). This is the same deception that Abraham pulled on both Pharaoh and Abimelech, and the king doesn’t fall for it a second time. Yet God grants Isaac favor, and he prospers in the land of Gerer.

Jacob is another matter entirely! Never was there a man who pursued blessing so ruthlessly! He comes out of the womb clutching Esau’s heel, and the brother's rivalry only gets more intense.

One day Esau comes in famished, and Jacob offers him stew in return for his birthright. He basically says “what good is my birthright to me dead” and agrees. The Bible concludes,
Thus Esau despised his birthright.
I always thought this a little harsh: after all, what good is it to him dead? But compare this with Abraham agonizing over the sacrifice of Isaac: choosing to put God and his promise over the life of his son.

Isaac’s shady dealings at Rebekah’s expense eventually catch up with him. He sends Esau out to hunt him game, with a promise of the fatherly blessing when he returns. Rebekah quickly sneaks Jacob in with some food (the way to a man’s covenant blessing is through his stomach) and Isaac mistakenly blesses him instead of Esau. Esau is furious, and plans to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies.

I can’t help but see echoes of Cain and Abel – the privileging of the younger brother over the older, the older brother’s disappointment, culminating in an attempt on the younger brother’s life. Here we are again at the beginning. Will man “do well” this time? Rebekah comes to the rescue, convincing Isaac to send Jacob away to her brother Laben to find a wife. The excuse works, because Esau has two Hittite wives who have been making life hell for Rebekah.

What has Esau done to get his blessing revoked? His actions don’t seem that bad on face value. But they are sins against the covenant. To sell the birthright for a bowl of stew is to hold God’s redemptive project in contempt.
To marry local women is to derail the promise of founding a nation, by assimilating into the local people. Esau realizes at least this much, so he marries one of Ishmael’s daughters as well. He can’t regain the blessing, but at least Isaac can assure him that he won’t always live under his brother’s yoke.

Meanwhile, Jacob is on the run. Sleeping under the stars one night, he sees a vision of a ladder reaching up into heaven. The Lord appears in glory, promising to give to Jacob all the blessings flowing from Abraham. Jacob awakes amazed, saying,
How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
He vows to follow the Lord, if only He will provide him the means. God has found one like Abraham – a man who will pursue His blessings with confidence and determination.

You mention a couple little sticky points. Why are the men of God, Patriarchs at that, such wimps that they lie about their wife being their sister to save their own skin? What kind of example is that?! Yes, and imagine what it does to the relationship with their wife? How can you honor and respect someone like that?
I've always felt for Rebekah, she knew the prophesy that the older would serve the younger. She heard that Issac was going to bless Essau (and knew he would leave no blessing for Jacob?).
Did she know Issac was far from God's will and was it God's plan for her to intervene?
What's a Godly woman to do, sit back and watch her husband disobey God and affect future generations as a result?

Catherine mentioned a good sermon on the twice-repeated wife-posing-as-sister story. I think the guy gleaned a lot of good stuff out of it.

I'm a little wary of talking about how Abraham and Isaac's escapades would have affected their relationships with their wives. The ancient near east was a very different culture - by our standards horribly misogynist. I imagine they honored and respected their husbands because, among other things, their husbands had authority to have them burned alive if they deemed it necessary (like Judah nearly did to Tamar).

Even given all this, it is still hard to see Abraham and Isaac looking all that good. They act like cowards - not confident in God to protect his chosen family from the powers that be. Despite all this, the story shows God humiliating the established nations on behalf of this wandering caravan. The God-of-the-underdog theme keeps coming back.

As far as the woman acting - well, so far it is hit and miss. Sarah's attempt to move the promise along by her own efforts lands them with Ishmael. Rebekah, on the other hand, ends up moving things in the right direction. Of course, we would rightly disapprove of her deceitfulness, but focusing on this sort of thing can distract us from the larger picture of what God is doing.

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