In the Present Tense

September 28, 2009

Jacob and Crime and Punishment

Filed under: Bible study, Culture and the Bible — edoutlook @ 10:56 pm

It’s hard to remember just how different a world Jacob lived in.  When we read the Genesis account, it’s easy to think Esau unusually evil.

Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Genesis 27:41

To us, murder seems an extreme remedy, disproportionate to the offense. It seems to us that retribution should be no greater than the original offence. We sometimes hear today that one country’s response to another’s violent action is ‘disproportionate.’ We fail to realize that this sense of ‘proportionality’ comes from the Bible, and from an often criticized passage.

In Exodus, God sets forth the the notion of proportional response:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,  burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:23-25

Today it is is fashionable to sniff and declare ourselves morally advanced over shuch primitive notions, without realizing that our morally advanced ideas come from different passages in the Bible. But lets stay with Jacob and Esau half a millenium before the moral advance (that’s right, advance) of an eye for an eye.

There was no law, as we know it. Certainly no law enforcement agencies out among the nomadic herdsmen such as Isaac. And if there had been, they would not have been horrified at Esau’s pledge of revenge. The reason “eye for an eye” was a moral advance is because prior to that, it was common practice to kill someone for wounding you. Believe it or not, that too, is in the Bible.

Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.

If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Genesis 4:23, 24

Revenge killings were still commonly practiced among God’s chosen people during the time of the judges. That’s the reason for the establishment of the “Cities of Refuge.”

In short, the ancient world was wilder than the “Wild West.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had to take people from that lawless, violent environment and begin teaching them His ways. It was– and still is– a long journey.

September 23, 2009

Lessons from the life of Jacob – 3

Filed under: Bible study, Culture and the Bible, Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 4:39 pm

I hope readers will forgive my continued references to my new book, Torn, Jacob’s Story. Writing it occupied parts of several years, and its imminent publication keeps it on my mind.

And, it’s a very complex and intriguing story, one of the foundational stories of our faith, that reveals much about the way God works with us.

One thing that I find fascinating to consider, when entering into Jacob’s world, is just how little-known was the God we worship today. We read the phrase, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” today and it resonates with centuries of devotion. But in Jacob’s day– it was one family of three sheep and goat herders! Now, that is mind-blowing for me.

Today, more than a billion people consider themselves Christians, worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Millions of Jews worship Him, too. But there was a time when His followers consisted of a very, very few.

This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings from Mother Theresa. “Our goal is not success, but faithfulness.” Given the tens of thousands who worshiped other gods, the strife within his own family, and that he left them in a land where they would become slaves, Jacob does not seem very successful. But–despite failing and falling–he remained faithful. and because he did, we have his example, all of the history that followed–even the Bible was preserved by his descendants.

We will not all be successful, as the world counts success, but if we are faithful–one day we’ll get to discuss it with Jacob himself!

IF you’d like to read an excerpt from Torn, where Rachel discusses this with Jacob, here.

September 19, 2009

More on the Firstborn issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 3:36 pm

My last post elicited this comment:

Ed, I have wondered but never understood the issues of Joseph’s sons being elevated to the status of their uncles–and the younger one of them getting the birthright! Sheer grace–and that’s our calling with God. Thanks for reminding us of this. Martin.

This is a fascinating subject. The question of why the firstborn almost never (more about that later) actually received the birthright is explained by a little-known principle enunciated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:46:

The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.

Note that Paul is contrasting ‘natural’ with ‘spiritual.’ And the Bible narratives continually confirm this. Consider:

Cain was firstborn, but Abel was the spiritual one.

Aaron was firstborn, but Moses was the spiritual one.

Saul was the first king– the ‘natural’ king, he was ‘head and shoulders taller, remember– but David was the spiritual one.

Even within David’s line, David was not allowed to build the Temple, because he was a ‘man of blood.’ Solomon –the second in line, not the first–was the spiritual king, who did build the Temple.

Solomon is an interesting case. He was not David’s firstborn; nor was he even the first child of David and Bathsheba. That child died in infancy. So, once again, the second child was the spiritual one.

It even works with the Temple itself. The first Temple was a natural wonder, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but the second Temple was the spiritual one, the more glorious because Jesus blessed it with his presence.

So this principle manifests itself repeatedly in Scripture. Keep an eye out for it, and you might be surprised how, and how often, it shows up.

September 15, 2009

Lessons from the Life of Jacob- 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 8:33 pm

Another lesson that Jacob’s story teaches us is that birth is not destiny. That statement may elicit a surprised “duh!” from many today. In our egalitarian society, we think that’s taken for granted. Far from it. Today, more people than ever are peddling the “birth is destiny” notion. If you’re born poor– (feel free to substitute “female,” or any other inborn characteristic) they tell us, you simply never catch up.

Now, in monarchical or feudal societies, it’s true. WHO you are trumps what you contribute, and who you are is defined by the circumstances of your birth. And that goes for monarchical or feudal societies that go under other names, where one-party rule means that whose child you are is more important than your character or talents

But in the Bible, this was never so. We may think birth was the determining factor, because of the birthright. But the Bible tells a different story. In a chapter from (SHAMELESS PLUG!) my upcoming book, Torn, Jacob’s Story, an elderly Jacob explains to his son, Joseph.

Jacob lived on, but became increasingly frail. One day Amos sent word that Jacob had fallen ill. Joseph decided that he could no longer delay, that the time had come to present his sons to Jacob for his blessing. So he set off for Goshen, taking Manasseh and Ephraim with him. They arrived just after midday.

Amos saw them coming and went into Jacob’s bed chamber. He gently touched the old man’s shoulder, and Jacob opened his eyes. “Your son Joseph is here, with his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.”

“Joseph? Here?” The old man started to rise.

“Easy, Master, easy,” said Amos.

But Jacob said, “I am not dead, yet, Amos.” Jacob sat up, and slapped his thighs. “Bring my children to me.”

Outside, Amos motioned for Joseph and his sons to enter. “How is he today?” Joseph asked.

“More difficult than usual,” Amos said, smiling. “Thinks he is young again.”

“I will try not to tire him too much,” Joseph said, and Amos gestured for him to enter the old man’s room.

“Joseph?” Jacob asked, for the years had finally begun to dim his eyes.

“Father,” Joseph said.

“I have been thinking of you,” Jacob said. “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of the Kinnahu, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’”

“You have spoken of this before, Father,” Joseph said. “Why do you mention it now?”

Jacob seemed not to have heard the question. “Now then,” he said, “your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; when El Shaddai keeps his promise, and gives to my children the land of the Kinnahu, Ephraim and Manasseh will have equal status with Reuben and Simeon; they will receive an equal share of land.”

A stunned Joseph did not know what to say. His sons would be reckoned equal with his brothers? Jacob had just announced the bestowal of a priceless gift.

But Jacob was not done. “Any children born to you after them,” he said, “will be yours; the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers.”

“This is a great gift,” Joseph said, as much to his sons and himself as to his father.

But Jacob had moved on, his dimmed eyes welling with tears. “As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of the Kinnahu while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath.” He paused, then, for the first time seemed to notice Joseph’s sons. “Now, who are these?”

“They are the sons God has given me here,” Joseph replied.

Israel said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”

So Joseph brought his sons close to Israel. And the old man kissed them and embraced them, and placed them on his knees– thus adopting them as his own. His face radiant, Israel said to Joseph, “For many years, I never expected to see your face again, and now El Shaddai has allowed me to see your children too.”

Joseph removed his sons from Israel’s knees, prostrated himself, touching his forehead to  the ground. Then he took both sons, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to Israel. But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.

Joseph saw this so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head, saying “My father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”

But Israel refused. “I know, my son, I know,” he said. “He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”

Then he blessed Joseph, “May El Shaddai, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm —may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth.”

Then he spoke to the Joseph’s sons. “In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing:

‘May Adonai Elohim make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” Thus he declared Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.

Joseph asked, “Is it not the custom that the firstborn should be given preference?”

“That is man’s reckoning,” Israel agreed.

“Is there some other reckoning?”

“Whom has El Shaddai chosen?” Israel replied.

Joseph shook his head. “I do not follow. . .”

“Was Abraham firstborn?” Israel inquired.

“You told us as children, that Haran was born first.”

“So I did. Was my father Isaac firstborn?” Joseph seemed about to confirm that statement, when Israel interjected, “Or was Ishmael born first?”

Joseph’s eyes went wide. “And your brother Esau was born before you!”

“It is so,” Israel agreed. “But El Shaddai told my mother in a dream, before our birth, that I would receive His favor. Adonai Elohim does not reckon as we do.”

Joseph thought for a moment. “It seems so– so contrary,” he said. “I am struggling to understand it.”

Israel laughed. “Struggling? I have been struggling with El Shaddai ever since I was born– born second,” he said.

No, birth is not destiny. God gives us free will, the power to think and to do. And though circumstances may pose challenges, sometimes severe ones, we also have God’s assistance to overcome these challenges.

*for more information on my upcoming book, go to Torn: Jacob’s Story

September 12, 2009

Lessons from the life of Jacob I

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 12:26 am

(SHAMELESS PLUG)Torn A blog is supposed to be in some ways a reflection of what’s happening in the blogger’s life. What’s happening right now for me includes preparations for the imminent publication of my book on the life of Jacob. Pacific Press tells me it’s due on October 1st. Whether that means the actual date of printing, etc., when it’s released to the public, or when I’ll actually hold a copy in my anxious hands– only time will tell.

A related thing that occupies me is preparing a series of presentations on “Lessons from the Life of Jacob,” that I will give at camp meetings, men’s retreats, and other speaking engagements.

When people have discovered I was working on this project, many have said, “Jacob. Oh, I really identify with him.” Me, too. That’s one of the major things that attracted me to his story.

It seems like so often we imagine  biblical characters as perfection personified– no struggles, no doubts. I remember a secular reviwer’s dislike for the movie “Luther” (2003). His main criticism? The Luther in the movie didn’t strike him as a real because Luther is portrayed as “uncertain.” Apparently, he sees Christians as filled with certainty.

Maybe it’s just me, but, the best Christians I know, the ones I admire the most, often struggle with uncertainty. While certain about God’s goodness, they are (wisely, it seems to me) quite uncertain about themselves and their own wisdom.

I think many Christians share this misconception. They see biblical characters as moving confidently from one step to another, never doubting God’s will. Then they attempt to emulate this mistaken model, and we get a sort of double hypocrisy. Attempting to appear like an imaginery, non-existent saint.

One thing that’s very difficult to do is paint a halo over Jacob’s head. He tries to buy the birthright, deceives his father, and shows such favoritism to one son that the other brothers want to murder him. He’s a towering figure, with big flaws. And yet, today we speak of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” A people and a nation bear his name, Israel.

And that name, Israel, comes from the fact that he struggled with God. That’s a real encouragement to me, and anyone who ever struggles with God, with understanding Him, and conforming to His will.

And that’s one of the first, and most abiding lessons I received from my wrestling with writing Jacob’s story.  We all struggle. And that’s all right.

September 7, 2009

Is Heaven a release from labor?

Filed under: Culture and the Bible — edoutlook @ 6:29 pm

I am always fascinated by how our viewpoints about things are affected by the culture we live in. Today is Labor Day in the U.S., where many will celebrate– well, not laboring.

It always seems a little perverse to me. We’re encouraged to celbrate laborers, but at the same time regard them as oppressed, downtrodden. Labor is seen as a necessary evil, and so we celebrate those who endure it.

That’s just another way that our contemporary world is out of tune, not only with the eternal, but with all the wise men of the ages. We think that labor is a necessary evil, and that relaxation, usually exemplified by stretching out on a sunny beach, is pure blessing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson thought differently. He saw doing nothing, “idleness,” as unhappiness. And so have wise men throughout the ages. Frankly, if Heaven is a life without labor of any kind, I think eternity could get pretty boring.

In my favorite book on Education, Ellen White made the following statement.

At the creation, labor was appointed as a blessing. It meant development, power, happiness. The changed condition of the earth through the curse of sin has brought a change in the conditions of labor; yet though now attended with anxiety, weariness, and pain, it is still a source of happiness and development. And it is a safeguard against temptation. Its discipline places a check on self-indulgence, and promotes industry, purity, and firmness. Thus it becomes a part of God’s great plan for our recovery from the Fall.

Notice that before the fall, at creation, labor was–what’s this?– a blessing! You mean, in a perfect world, their will be work to do?

I surely hope so. Years ago, I kept bees as a hobby. When the nectar is flowing and bees are busy collecting it and making honey, you can go into their hive, and they pretty much ignore you. Because they’re happy when they’re doing what they were made to do. On dry days, when the breeze is hot and there’s no nectar flowing, bees have nothing to do but hang around the hive, and they can be really cranky. Watch out!

We’re like that to. We weren’t made for idleness. Labor means development, power, happiness! So, it’s fine to relax and recharge for a time. But for real joy, we’ll want to get back to work.

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