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Caution, God at work here
Genesis 39: As it turned out, God was with Joseph and things went very well with him.
When Joseph is sold into slavery the last word to come to mind is “blessed.” Things don’t look like they’re going to turn out “very well.” Being sold into slavery indicates one’s being cursed rather than blessed. However, God’s at work here and the first part of the story gives us little indication of what the last part’s going to look like. While being sold into slavery isn’t one of our common concerns, it’s true that life takes some unexpected and unwelcome turns. The thing is that such events are, in the least, God’s providential will. That is, he isn’t pulling strings, forcing people to do bad things, but he does allow it to happen. In fact, the Lord specializes in turning stuff like this upside down. Because of that, sometimes things start out looking pretty messy, more like a demolition project than any kind of construction. The key in the passage before us today is the phrase “God was with Joseph.” In fact, that’s the key to the whole Joseph story. It’s almost as though there’s a sign: “Caution, God at work here.” For every setback there’s a more than equal advance. When God’s at work, the end of the story is always “things went very well.” It may not seem to be that way at any given point along the journey, but that’s how it is going to end.
Take away: We don’t always understand all that’s happening, but when God’s at work, things turn out just fine.
Talk about sibling rivalry!
Genesis 37: The story continues with Joseph.
Things finally settle down for Jacob and his journeys come to an end. His many children grow up as he and his wives grow old. It’s time to focus on the next generation. Jacob’s multiple wives plus their maid servants have produced lots of kids, especially sons. The fundamental flaw of this polygamous system is apparent in Jacob’s having a favorite wife who, in turn produces favorite children. The women struggled with this approach and their children aren’t as docile about it as their mothers were. Their sibling rivalry is similar to what their father and his brother experienced decades earlier. When Jacob makes it clear that Joseph is his favorite the other brothers band together in their hatred of him. It’s only a matter of time before this pot boils over and the day comes when the brothers are given a golden opportunity to act against Joseph. At the last minute they modify their plan and rather than murder him they sell him into slavery instead. The thing that comes to mind as I consider this story is the amazing flexibility of God. He works through situations that are mishandled. Had the brothers gotten along I still think Joseph would have become a powerful man. I also think all of their lives would have been easier. Still, when they act as they do, the Lord’s purpose isn’t ruined and the Lord immediately goes to work to accomplish his purpose while honoring their free will. As I read this story, I’m reminded that it’s better cooperate with what God wants in the first place and enjoy his blessing along the way. Still, while the Lord holds me accountable for how I live my life; poor decisions on my part will never negate his ultimate purposes in the world.
Take away: God always honors free will, but he doesn’t let our failures stop him from accomplishing his purposes.
The God of the House of God
Genesis 35: He built an altar there and named it El-Bethel (God-of-Bethel).
Having returned to his home region, Jacob and his large family settle in. However, it isn’t long before things get complicated. The interaction between Jacob’s family and the natives of the land turns ugly with a rape and then retaliation that includes murder. It’s time for them to go and the Lord names the place: Bethel. It was at Bethel that the Lord first appeared to Jacob when he was on the run from his brother. Now, he moves his entire family and all his belongings to Bethel. Apparently, it comes just in time. Not only are the locals preparing for war against them, but many of Jacob’s entourage has begun to dabble in the religions of the region. It’s time for Jacob and family to go to Bethel. When he arrives he builds a new altar to the Lord there. The name “Bethel” means “House of God.” Jacob names the altar “El-Bethel” meaning “The God of the House of God.” He isn’t only bringing his family to the place where he met God; he’s bringing them to God, Himself. I know it’s quite a stretch, but I can’t help but think of our own efforts to impact our families for God. It isn’t enough to insist that they behave themselves or even attend church with us. We need to bring them to God, Himself. Without that, everything else is just sideline stuff that’s bound to fail.
Take away: We need to do all we can to bring our loved ones to a personal relationship with the Lord.
God’s been good to me
Genesis 34: God has been good to me and I have more than enough.
Jacob, now also named Israel, faces his original victim. He was born right after his twin brother Esau and he came out of the womb holding the heel of his brother; apparently trying to get a bit of a free ride! Esau grew up to be a down to earth, hardworking guy and Jacob grew up to be a person who takes advantage of down to earth, hardworking guys. Now it’s time to face the music. Blessed beyond his wildest dreams he, who left home with nothing, returns home with wives, children, servants, and a wealth of livestock. The first thing he has to do is to make things right with Esau. Jacob showers his brother with gifts. Actually, Esau has also done alright. Still, Jacob insists and his reason is the right one. “God has been good to me and I have more than enough.” It’s time to make things right with his brother. Jacob gives God the credit, acknowledging his blessings, and freely shares out of his abundance. Having said all that, I can add my own testimony. God’s been good to me too, and I also have more than enough. How can I use God’s abundant provision in my life to be a blessing to someone today? How about you? How has the Lord treated you?
Take away: How should a blessed person act?
An old wrestling injury
Genesis 32: He deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Jacob has a lifetime of taking advantage of people and Esau is the one who has lost the most to him. Hearing that Esau’s coming with a band of 400 men Jacob fears for his life and the lives of all those with him. He shrewdly prepares for the encounter, sending wave after wave of gifts to his brother and instructs his servants to identify Jacob to Esau as “your servant.” Having done all he can do, Jacob retreats to a place where he can be alone. As he considers his life he finds himself in a wrestling match with a man. Now, all his life, Jacob has struggled with people. His very name means “heel grasper” and he’s lived down to that name, tripping up others to his own advantage. However, this unknown opponent can’t be beat and they struggle through the night. Finally, his opponent reaches out and throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. At that, the wrestling match is over because Jacob can fight no longer. Still, he holds on, refusing to let go. Now, it may be that Jacob knows what’s going on from the beginning or at least through the night he realizes that this battle is of a supernatural nature. As he clings to his opponent he insists on a blessing. In forcing Jacob to say his name his opponent is making him admit that his whole life has been about “heel grasping” – cheating and taking unfair advantage of others. Once Jacob does that he receives the blessing he requests. His days of “heel grasping” are over. From now on, he’ll be known as “Israel” — a man who knows how to get hold of God and hang on. While I understand that Jacob has wrestled with the Lord through that night, I think he was really wrestling with himself. Finally, the Lord had to bring real pain to him to cause him to realize he can never win unless he confesses to himself and to God who he is. What does it take for us to admit our sin and failure? Restoration starts with confession.
Take away: Sometimes the best victory possible for us is admitting our failures and yielding in defeat.
Covenant of peace
Genesis 31: So let’s settle things between us, make a covenant.
There’s a saying that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives. Jacob is related to Laban both through his mother and by marriage. He and Laban have a strange relationship. Laban has lied to Jacob and cheated him. However, every dirty trick Laban tries backfires and Jacob comes out ahead every time. Laban hasn’t really lost anything because the overflow of Jacob’s blessings has spilled over onto him. Finally, Jacob has had enough. He, who arrived at Laban’s doorstep with nothing, is now leaving as a man who’s rich in family and belongings. Given the relationship between these two men, it’s no surprise that Jacob attempts to leave in secret. However, this is no small relocation and Laban and his men easily catch up to Jacob’s huge entourage. The two men have it out; Jacob complaining about how Laban constantly changed the rules and Laban about how everything Jacob has is his. This, apparently, clears the air. Neither man admits to any wrong doing but Laban suggests a truce between them. Out in the wilderness they make a covenant of peace. From now on they’ll do one another no harm. To commemorate the occasion they build a monument called “Galeed” or “Witness Monument” and part on good terms. They call upon the Lord to hold them to their new covenant. From now on they will treat one another with respect. Sometimes it’s a good idea to let the past go and get a new start with those with whom we’ve had issues.
Take away: Is there someone with whom I need to make a fresh start?
A work in progress
Genesis 31: But the God of my father hasn’t changed, he’s still with me.
Jacob the “heel grasper” has had the tables turned on him. His uncle, Laban, it seems, has some “use others as a stepping stone” tendencies himself. First, after Jacob has served him for seven years he’s tricked into marrying the wrong daughter! He ends up with both of Laban’s daughters as wives in a tension-filled household. The sisters even involve their maids in a sort of pitiful “make babies” contest. Laban then makes a deal with Jacob to work in exchange for livestock. The deal turns into a sweet one for Jacob so Laban just changes the contract – not once, but repeatedly. Meanwhile, God’s at work. When Jacob is treated unfairly God gives him a plan that will keep things fair. It’s at this point that Jacob, thinking of Laban’s changing rules, says “God hasn’t changed – he said he would stand by me and he has.” Jacob hasn’t yet arrived but he’s a work in progress. The Lord’s using the experiences of his life to teach Jacob about his faithfulness. The lesson Jacob is learning is the same one I’m learning. It isn’t that I’m always fairly treated or that things always go as I think they should. The steadying factor in my life is that God never changes and is ever faithful to me.
Take away: Life is often unfair and uncertain but God is always faithful.
Jacob reaps what he has sown
Genesis 29: Why did you cheat me?
If not for poor Leah being caught in the middle this situation’s quite funny. Jacob, that “heel grasper” who cheated his rather dim witted brother and lied to his nearly blind father, has met his match in his uncle Laban. After working for seven years for the hand of the beautiful Rachel he ends up with her sister Leah instead. He doesn’t even realize what’s happening until, if you catch my drift, “after the fact.” Again, poor Leah is caught in the middle and I can’t help but feel sorry for her. Still, there’s a feeling that Jacob’s getting what’s coming to him. Finally, the cheater experiences what it’s like to be cheated. He ends up with both sisters as wives, and when their maids are added in, he has a small harem. Anyone who reads about the rivalry and competition that develops out of this arraignment can never come to the conclusion that polygamy is a good idea. Their lives are a real mess. However, even as this silliness plays out I see God’s hand at work. The Lord takes the cheating and scheming and ill-advised multiple marriages situation and turns it on its head, working through human failings to keep the promise he made to Abraham. Even as I read this story and shake my head at its folly, I see God’s grace at work.
Take away: God can work through even silly things to accomplish his will.
Jacob’s stairway vision
Genesis 28: God was in this place – truly. And I didn’t even know it.
Jacob – that “heel grasper” has lived down to his name. He, with this help of his mother, fooled his father, Isaac, into granting him the precious blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother. Now, he’s paying for it by having to get out of the country before Esau can get his hands on him. Alone in the night he has an unexpected encounter with God. In spite of his failure and lack of character God graciously renews to Jacob the promise he made to his grandfather, Abraham. Jacob awakes from his dream and says, “God was here, in this place – far from home, when I have done nothing but wrong, and when I am not thinking of him at all – he was here all the time.” Jacob is not only on a long journey in distance, he’s at the first step of a spiritual journey that will take decades. This “heel” has heard from God and while there’s still more wrong than right about him this “stairway vision” marks the beginning of that spiritual journey. The story of Jacob’s spiritual journey is more entertaining than most, but it does remind us of our own stories. I am glad today for God’s grace – his unexpected, unearned, promising, and patient grace.
Take away: Thank God for grace.
One messed up family
Genesis 27: Fix me a hearty meal so that I can…bless you.
If there ever was a dysfunctional family, this is it. Isaac, frail and blind, is basically interested in being taken care of. Rebekah is a conniving, manipulative wife. Esau, well, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and Jacob is, as his name suggests, “a heel.” Here my friend is a family in dire need of counseling! Isaac, who will live for years longer, is convinced he’s dying and needs to pass the promise given to his father, Abraham, on to his son. However, he can’t imagine blessing anyone without his having a full belly. Rebekah hears her husband’s intention and goes to work to secure the blessing for her favorite, Jacob. Again, this is a messed up family! For the people of ancient Israel, hearing this story must have been a letdown. After all, these are their ancestors: their heroes of their faith. Abraham had his share of blunders, but, ultimately, he comes out looking good. Isaac, his son, ends up with a family that would be at home in a modern sitcom. However, there’s one redeeming feature to all this. You see, the story isn’t really about the tragic comedy of Isaac and family. Instead, it’s about God. Their pitiful story is redeemed by the Redeemer. The Lord has made promises to this family and he intends to keep those promises. The Lord’s always gracious and while their situation may not be very pretty it does serve to highlight the brightness of God’s grace.
Take away: I’m thankful that the Lord works through the comedy of my life in redeeming ways.