The First Average Joe

Over the course of this study we have looked at the lives of some incredible biblical figures. They’re the heroes of the Bible, because they find favor with God, and they follow in the paths He shows them. After reading about their lives and all of the works they accomplish, it can be easy to forget that they start off as average people.

In the text for today, we watch as Leah, Rachel, and their two servants birth a lot of babies. Rachel’s womb remains closed for most of the text, and then at last she has a child, and names him Joseph. Genesis has foreshadowed for us that the children who are younger and who come from the most beloved wife often receive the birthright, rather than the eldest child (remember Isaac and Jacob), so we can predict that Rachel’s first child will play a big role in the story. However, if we look at the names that Leah and Rachel give their children, we see a bit of a different picture. Let’s look at the text:

In Gen. 29:32-35, Leah births Jacob’s first son and names him Reuben, meaning “behold a son,” and shortly thereafter births Simeon or “heard,” because God heard her affliction. She then births Levi, “joined to,” because she believes that Jacob will now be joined to her since she gave him three sons. Lastly, she births Judah, or “praise,” because she praises the Lord for the blessings of children.

After Leah births her first four sons, Rachel realizes that she’s barren, and decides to give Jacob her servant Bilhah to have children on her behalf (just as Sarai gave Abram Hagar in Gen. 16). In Gen. 30:6-8, Bilhah conceives and births Dan, or “judge,” because God judged Rachel and heard her voice; Bilhah births a second son whom Rachel names Naphtali, meaning “wrestling,” because Rachel wrestled with her sister and prevailed.

Leah then realizes that it’s been some time since she had her first four children, so she gives her servant Zilpah to Jacob to birth children on her behalf (Gen. 30:9-13). Leah names the first child that Zilpah bore Gad, or “troop,” because she predicted that a troop was coming. Zilpah births a second child, whom Leah names Asher, or “happy,” because she was happy that others would see her children and call her blessed.

At this point, Jacob has a lot of children, and Rachel didn’t birth any of them, yet he loved her the most. One day, the eldest son, Reuben, had some mandrakes, which Rachel believed helped with fertility. Rachel asked for the mandrakes, and in return, told Leah that she could be with Jacob for the night.

After striking this deal, Leah births three more children: Issachar, or “there is recompense,” Zebulun, or “exalted,” and the first daughter, Dinah, meaning “judgment” (v. 16-21).

At last, God remembers Rachel and opens her womb. There has been a lot of build up to this moment, because we know that Rachel is the beloved wife, and can predict that the child she bears will inherit the birthright. Many of the other children received incredible names — they’re Exalted, and Praise, and Wrestling, and Judgment. Their names carry a lot of weight and signify what they mean to their mothers.

So Rachel conceives and bears a son, and names him Joseph. We can imagine that Joseph would mean Faithful, or God who hears, or Saved, but it doesn’t. This long-anticipated child was named Joseph, meaning “another.”

After all of the excitement leading up to Rachel’s first birth, Joseph becomes merely Another son. We will watch in upcoming chapters as he lives an incredible life; yet for some reason at his birth, he simply seems like “another.”

Isn’t it easy for us to feel like simply “another”? Like one more in the long line of fellow parents, children, friends, and faithful believers who surround us everyday? When we get lost in the busyness of life, we can begin to focus on the value of what we do, rather than on the sacred identity that constitutes who we are. In the verses today, we see God create merely “another,” and if Joseph had confined his identity to his name, his story may have ended there.

Instead, though, God calls to “Another.” He uses Joseph in incredible ways, and ultimately gives him the birthright to carry the family forward. Joseph chose to follow God and to dream beyond the parameters of his name.

As we have those moments when we feel like simply another, when we feel humdrum and inconsequential, may we remember that God’s plan is bigger than how we view ourselves in the world. Joseph didn’t confine himself to his name or to his place in his family line; rather, he let God use him to do far more than he could have imagined. So may we remember today that regardless of how small we feel, God sees us, God loves us, and God can use all of us “anothers” to change the world for the good.

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Jacob, Leah, and Poetic Justice

As I read the text for today, I began thinking of all of the books, movies, and shows whose plots revolve around the theme of poetic justice. Either the antagonist gets a taste of their own medicine, or the good, humble character receives the honor and recognition they deserve. Those themes permeate so many of our favorite stories. After watching Jacob for the past four chapters deceive so many people around him, today we see the tables turn.

In the past two posts (read The Sacredness of Siblings here, and Birthrights and Blessings here) we watched Jacob manipulate and deceive his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, in order to obtain Esau’s birthright and blessing. At the end of Genesis 27, Esau becomes so enraged at Jacob that he intends to kill him, so Rebekah intervenes and sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban (Gen. 27:41-46).

When Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, Laban is overjoyed to see him. They embrace, and Laban invites Jacob into his house, where Jacob informs Laban of all that has taken place (Gen. 29:9-14). After a month of living and working in Laban’s house, Laban asks what Jacob would like in return for his labor. He states that he will work for seven years in return for the right to marry Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. The text is really sweet here: “Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her” (v. 20). 

Jacob genuinely loves Rachel, and he works a long time in order to marry her. However, on his wedding night, Laban brings Leah, his elder daughter, rather than Rachel, and she and Jacob consummate their marriage. The following morning, Jacob realizes that Laban deceived him, and he becomes infuriated. Laban suggests that Jacob celebrate the marriage week with Leah, and then Laban offers him Rachel, in return for another seven years of work (v. 22-30).

Leading up to this chapter, Jacob has deceived his father and his brother in grievous ways. Then we meet him in Chapter 29, and Jacob becomes the deceived one. 

The biblical text alone has a neat way of turning the tables on Jacob over the course of these chapters, but my husband pointed out to me that the Rabbis who wrote Genesis Rabbah (a 4th-5th Century Jewish commentary on Genesis) offer an even saucier reconstruction of Jacob and Leah’s wedding night:

“All night [Jacob] kept calling [Leah] ‘Rachel’ and she kept answering him, ‘Yes.’ But ‘in the morning, behold, it was Leah!’ (Gen. 29:25). He said to her, ‘Liar and daughter of a liar!’ Leah answered, ‘Can there be a teacher who is without pupils? Was it not just this way that your father called out to you, ‘Esau?’ and you answered him [by saying, ‘Yes’]? So when you called out [‘Rachel’], I answered you the same way.'” (Gen. R. 70:19)

In this interpretation, not only does the biblical narrative transform Jacob from deceiver to deceived, but Leah actually references Jacob’s deceit toward his father to justify the ways she deceived him. Just as Jacob responded “Yes” when is father asked if he was Esau, so Leah responds “Yes” when Jacob calls out the name, “Rachel.”

The tables turn on Jacob. Even the honored patriarchs occasionally experience retribution for their actions.

We love these stories because they’re about transformation and justice. They keep us thinking about the ways our actions impact others, and how to cope with the decisions that others make toward us. May we keep in mind today that even in the biblical text, God sees and loves his beloved children, while also allowing them to experience some of what they have inflicted on others. We know that God is good and just, and will multiply what we produce; so let’s produce love, goodness, and peace in the world. And at the end of the day, perhaps we will look around, and find ourselves surrounded with the good fruits of what we have created.

Birthrights and Blessings

In the last post, The Sacredness of Siblings, we looked at the relationship between Jacob and Esau, and how it changed after Jacob convinced his brother to hand over his birthright. Today we move ahead in the story and watch Rebekah and Jacob use deceptive means to claim Esau’s blessing as well.

In Genesis 27, we learn that Isaac had grown old and that he couldn’t see very well. Rebekah overhears him tell Esau to go hunt in the field and prepare him some food, and after eating he plans to give Esau his blessing. Rebekah then intervenes.

Rebekah shares what she heard with Jacob, and tells him to fetch her two goats. She turns them into a stew for Isaac, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and puts goat skins on Jacob’s arms to make them feel hairy and coarse like Esau’s (v. 5-17). They expend a lot of effort to deceive the elderly and blind Isaac.

Isaac maintains a high level of suspicion while Jacob stands before him. Isaac asks how Esau could have prepared the meal so quickly, questions why he has Jacob’s voice rather than Esau’s, and even sniffs him to see if he has the smell of Esau or Jacob. After doing his best to verify that it was indeed Esau, Isaac offers the blessing (v. 18-29). Shortly thereafter, the real Esau visits Isaac, and they all realize that Jacob had deceived them (v. 30-40).

So Jacob had already taken Esau’s birthright, and then he and his mom scheme to ensure that he gets the blessing as well. In the ancient world, these constituted two separate entities. The easiest way to explain it is that the birthright (bekorah) involved a one-time transfer of physical goods (i.e. when Isaac died, Jacob would take all of the inheritance).

The blessing (berakah), on the other hand, held even more power, because it determined what would take place perpetually in the future. Isaac tells Jacob, “May God give you the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen. 27:28-30). Those are powerful words that shape the fate of Jacob and his house.

When Esau learns that his brother has taken both his birthright and his blessing, he becomes infuriated. He begs his father to offer him some sort of blessing, but Isaac tells him that he already gave the full blessing to Jacob, and there is no way to retract it. Esau plans to kill Jacob, and when Rebekah learns of his plan, she sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban, who will hide him until Esau calms down.

The amount of family discord taking place is shocking. With each move that Jacob and Rebekah make, the family falls further apart, ending with Esau’s intent to kill Jacob, and Rebekah’s sending Jacob away.

Jacob and Rebekah’s actions add up over time. They don’t commit one act that leads to all of this tension; rather, it’s the culmination of Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel during their birth, Jacob taking Esau’s birthright, and finally Jacob taking Esau’s blessing that brought the family to this place of discord. Each individual action brought about its own set of consequences, but when placed together they created enough strife to damage the family as a whole.

Our actions matter. Every choice that we make either creates more goodness, connection, and love in the world, or it creates the opposite. We need to be intentional about the choices we make, and know that they have a lasting impact on our own selves, the relationships that we hold sacred, and on the world as a whole. And in every circumstance, every choice, may we focus on how we can foster love over hate, understanding over ignorance, and charity over self-interest. Because in the end, our choices will determine what our lives look like, and to some extent, the type of world in which we live.

The Sacredness of Siblings

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My brothers and sisters are some of the most encouraging and wonderful people in my life. I grew up with a brother, and when I was eight I got a sister; when my brother married, I got another sister, and in marrying my husband I gained two more brothers. That’s quite a network of siblings to turn to for wisdom, laughter, and strength. During childhood and adolescence, though, it can seem common for brothers and sisters to focus more on competition than the gifts they are to each other.

For example, this past weekend as we celebrated Mother’s Day, my mom shared a story about when I took the ACT test. Apparently, I studied really hard, and after I got the score I wanted, my brother celebrated, saying, “Great for her!” while I responded, “I beat his score!” Ouch. I’m not sure why I cared about beating his score, but regardless, it was not my best moment.

In the biblical text we see sibling rivalry all over the place. It makes a bit more sense in the biblical context, given that the eldest child typically inherited all of the father’s lands and goods, while the younger children received a single gift and may not even stay in the father’s land (see Genesis 25:1-6). Siblings had a lot on the line regarding their own wellbeing and security after the father died.

On numerous occasions, Genesis subverts the tradition of granting the birthright to the eldest son. Abraham gives his to Isaac, despite Ishmael being the eldest (Gen. 25:5), Jacob grants his to Joseph, rather than to Reuben or to any of his other sons (Gen. 49:22-26), and in the text we read today, Jacob takes the birthright from Esau. 

In Genesis 25:19-26, Isaac pleads to God on behalf of his barren wife, Rebekah, and she conceives twin boys. They struggle within her, and God explains that the two boys represent two nations, and that the eldest will eventually serve the youngest. When she births them, Esau emerges first, but Jacob grabs on to his heel (side note: Jacob’s name, yacov, actually means “heel holder”).

We learn that as they grow up, Esau is a hunter, and Jacob stays in the home. One day, as Jacob is cooking a lentil stew, Esau enters the home and asks for some of the stew. He states that he is so hungry he is at the point of death (v. 32). So Jacob uses Esau’s hunger and weakness to convince him to sell Jacob his birthright for the bowl of stew.

Reading sarcasm into the biblical text gets tricky, so I’ll just lay out the two options: either Esau really was at the point of famine in which he would die, and Jacob chose to withhold the stew from his dying brother until he attained the birthright. Or, Esau was acting like a child who says, “I’m starving!” to simply express that he was hungry. Either way, Jacob turns the tables by offering Esau stew in exchange for the promise of his birthright. And in doing that, he chooses to damage his relationship with his brother.

I know that not all families are like mine. I have been blessed with great relationships with all of my siblings. Yet in other families, sibling relations are often one of the biggest points of tension. Differing beliefs, lifestyles, locations, and a whole host of other factors can create dissonance and difficulty between siblings and within families. But as we see in the text today, we make choices to either assuage those differences or to escalate and perpetuate them to their greatest extent.

God has given us siblings as a blessing, and we are meant to feel gratitude for them. If you have a great relationship with your siblings, give thanks for them today, and let them know how much you care. If you have a more complicated or difficult relationship with your siblings, consider one thing you can do today to make your relationship just a bit happier and healthier than it was yesterday. In either scenario, we can be a voice of love and encouragement in the sacred relationships of siblinghood.

When Love Makes Us Clumsy

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I remember my first date with my husband. We had been friends for months, but had never gone out on our own. By that point, we both liked each other quite a bit, and looking back now we laugh about how nervous we were. I remember tripping on my way into the restaurant, almost knocking over my water glass on multiple occasions, and talking a mile per minute. Luckily, he found that charming, and a couple years later we got married.

Those first moments, conversations, and dates can feel so exciting that we get a little bit clumsy. And that’s true even in Genesis.

In Genesis 24 we meet Rebekah. Abraham has sent a servant out to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant finds her near a well (for more on this, read We Met At A Well). The chapter is actually rather long (you can read it here), but this is my summary: The servant expects to meet a woman at a well who draws water for him and for his camels. Rebekah does exactly that, and he rewards her with jewelry. Rebekah’s brother Laban then sees Rebekah wearing the jewelry, and offers the servant hospitality. From there, the servant discusses with Rebekah and her family the possibility of her becoming Isaac’s wife. Eventually, everyone agrees, and the servant and Rebekah return to find Isaac.

Here’s where the story gets especially sweet: In verses 63 and 64, we learn that Isaac had gone out to the field to meditate, and he looks up to see Rebekah with the herd of camels approaching in the distance. Then Rebekah looks up, sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. 

The English translations do a lot of work to try to make this scenario sound more dignified. The King James Version says she “lighted off” her camel, the English Standard Version says she “dismounted from” her camel, and the New International Version says she “got down from” her camel. They’re being gracious.

If the writer wanted to keep Rebekah dignified and controlled, he would have used the word tsanach. We find it in Judges 1:14, when Aksah gets down from (tsanach) her donkey to make a request of her husband. Rebekah doesn’t tsanach, though.

The word here is naphal — it’s the same word used to describe Abraham falling on his face before God (Gen. 17:3) and Joseph’s brothers falling down before Joseph (Gen. 44:14 and 50:18). In these instances, the people feel so overcome with emotion that they fall over. And upon seeing her betrothed, Rebekah naphal‘s from her camel as well.

This is a sweet and tender moment in the biblical story. One that demonstrates how those early stages of love can make us feel overwhelmed and even clumsy. And it tells us that those are holy moments. 

We are meant to feel surprised by God, and even by one another. Those remarkable moments when we feel caught off guard and overwhelmed by the circumstances we encounter can change what we know about ourselves and how we see the world. While we may feel embarrassed about our giddiness and joy, we see God in this text bless Rebekah for it. Let’s take the time today to remember a few of those joyful, silly, even clumsy moments, and celebrate them, knowing that God created us to feel overwhelmed and in awe of the love He has for us, and the love we find around us.

Understanding Joy And Grief On Mother’s Day

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This Sunday, May 8th, is Mother’s Day. Over the past few weeks, I have gathered cards and gifts for the mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers who I love so much. I look forward to spending the day celebrating the amazing women who have been my caregivers and role models throughout my life.

While Mother’s Day is a beautiful day of celebration for so many women, I can also think of the faces of many women who struggle on Mother’s Day. From women who want to be mothers, but struggle with infertility or who have lost a child, to women who may be facing another Mother’s Day after having lost their own mom. Mother’s Day is a complex day to feel joy for the moms we have in our lives, and also to recognize the struggle, sacrifice, and often grief that accompanies motherhood as well.

In Genesis 21, we meet two very different mothers facing very different circumstances. Back in Genesis 16, we saw the first fruits of conflict between Sarai and Hagar (read: When God Meets Us In Our Grief). We start with Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac and laughs that she has birthed a son at such an old age. God has fulfilled His promise to her, and she now has a healthy baby after years and years of barrenness. We see the blessing and joy of motherhood in the person of Sarah.

Shortly thereafter, in verses 8-21, we learn that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, laughed (presumably at Sarah), and offended her deeply. Sarah then instructs Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.

To Abraham’s credit, he takes the matter to God. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s instructions, and promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the wilderness. So Abraham gives Hagar a bit of bread and water, and sends her and Ishamael away. After wandering for some time, she runs out of food and water, and believes that Ishmael is going to die, so she sets him under a bush because she’s too grieved to watch. Hagar cries out to God, and God comes to meet her. In the midst of her grief, God offers her comfort, a well, and the promise of His faithful presence with her and her son throughout the rest of their lives.

Hagar experiences a different type of motherhood than Sarah. For the second time, Hagar found herself in the wilderness with a child (once in her womb, once in a sling she carried), wondering how she would ever survive her circumstances, let alone save her child. Motherhood causes her pain and suffering, and I think that’s perhaps why God meets her so often and in such a personal way.

Motherhood is a sacred gift. We are meant to treasure the mothers in our lives, and the precious roles we play as parents, grandparents, aunts, godmothers, and friends. As we approach this Mother’s Day, may we feel gratitude, joy, and love for those influential women in our lives, and may we also be cognizant of those who may carry a heavier burden on that day. Whether you identify more with Sarah or Hagar, may you know that you are loved and appreciated as a beautiful, strong woman of God. And may we all remember that God promised both Sarah and Hagar that He would never leave them nor forsake them, especially in their moments of greatest struggle and greatest joy.

The Restorative Power Of Pausing

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This last week I didn’t write any posts. I simply needed some time to pause, breathe, and be present to those around me. I felt restored and ready to write something new when I returned to Genesis this week; yet, when I opened to Genesis 20, I realized we weren’t in new territory at all.

Genesis 20 opens with Abraham and Sarah traveling to yet another location. As I read the text, I realized that they really haven’t paused much so far — in each chapter they’re working and living, and then moving to another land. In this particular instance they move to Gerar, and happen to make the exact same mistake they made in Genesis 12.

In When Our Heroes Let Us Down, we discussed the decision Abram made to abandon Sarai to Pharaoh in Gen. 12, insisting that she was his sister. God became very upset by that whole scenario, informed Pharaoh about what had happened, and Abram and Sarai left the land richer than ever. Abram acted in a way that felt disappointing, and we talked about what it means for those we love and admire to fall short of our expectations.

Here’s the bigger issue: today we watch Abraham make the exact same mistake, simply in a different household. Abraham lies to Abimelech this time, claiming that Sarah is his sister. So Abimelech takes Sarah into his household, and God appears to him to inform him that Sarah is, in fact, Abraham’s wife. Abimelech then confronts Abraham, gives Sarah back, and Abraham and Sarah leave the land richer than ever.

It’s odd to read Genesis 12 and Genesis 20 right next to each other. They really do feel like mirror images of the same mistake. God had to intervene on both accounts to inform the leader of the truth about their relationship and to rescue Sarah. Abraham’s willingness to commit this sin a second time is what really gets to me.

I wonder if their continued moving from place to place may have influenced the events of Genesis 20. At least for me, when I start moving quickly and forgetting to pause, I rely heavily on routine. It takes time to evaluate our decisions and make new ones, so if we’re in a hurry it becomes easy to simply do what we’ve done before. I’ve had certain phases of my life where I eat almost the same thing every day, simply because it would take time and energy to decide on something different.

Abraham’s situation is rather extreme. I would hope that Abraham would have taken the time to realize how much his decision hurt God and his wife in Genesis 12, but we have little evidence that he did. He chose to take the exact same route in the heat of the moment, and little to our surprise, he faced the exact same outcome.

We need to take time to pause. To reflect on the decisions we make everyday. None of us are perfect, and it can be tempting to choose the routes that are easiest and most familiar, all the while making life harder on God, those around us, and ourselves. Let’s take the time to identify one thing today that we can do or change that will bring greater peace and life to those around us. And in the end, may we find permission and space to pause.