Last night, one of my favorite shows depicted a heroic character preparing for battle. That character had been resurrected from the dead earlier in the season. At one point, he approaches a priest to discuss his uncertainty about whether he will win the battle, and he asks what kind of God would resurrect him only to have him die again. The priest responds, “The God we have.”
Earlier this week I read Genesis 39 and 40, and prepared to address the prevalent problem of what happens when we try to fit God into our own parameters rather than learning about the God we have in the Bible.
You can read the full text here, but this is a summary of Genesis 39: Pharaoh’s chief officer, Potiphar, buys Joseph from the slavers who took him in chapter 37. Joseph lives in the officer’s house and behaves so well that the officer eventually gives him command over almost every element of the home (Gen. 39:1-6). Potiphar’s wife then propositions Joseph, and when Joseph chooses the honorable route and denies the wife, she then finds another way to trap him and remove his garment. When Joseph runs out of the house naked, the wife accuses him of pursuing her (v. 7-18). The officer throws Joseph in prison, where Joseph again behaves very well and eventually takes over almost every element of the institution (v. 19-23).
So we have a rich kid-turned-slave who enters a house and chooses to act honorably. His faithfulness then pays off for a short while, as he gains some authority and respect within the household. And then we watch it all fall apart.
Joseph ends up in prison, and all we know is that “While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph” (v. 20-21). That’s it.
This is Jacob’s most beloved son, the one who had already been humbled for having grandiose dreams; it seems like his situation is improving, and then he ends up in prison after doing his best to act honorably. In these situations, it’s easy to ask, “What sort of God would allow this?”
I have heard many different pastoral responses to those “Why?” questions. In the religious world, we call them questions of “theodicy.”
When I worked as a hospital chaplain, many patients watched their TVs as pastors in the Prosperity Movement encouraged them to pray in a certain way for health and wealth. They suggested that if people only read their Bible enough, prayed correctly, and gave of their finances, then God would heal their suffering.
But Joseph was righteous. He was faithful and honorable in his work, and we know that God was already with him. God didn’t send him to prison; Potiphar did. God made no requests for Joseph to change, and he also didn’t keep him out of prison or get him out of there promptly. God simply dwelt with Joseph and influenced the jail’s commander.
I have heard other, more progressive pastors reflect on suffering, and draw the conclusion that we cannot pray The Lord’s Prayer’s, “Give us this day our daily bread” if there are still people in our world who only eat every three days. Instead, we should move away from texts and prayers that don’t fix all of the suffering that we see in the world.
But God never promised to fix all of our suffering. He desires a more complex relationship than that, which means that bad things can happen, and He stays with us through them, and works with us to find a way to make things better. If praying, “Give us this day our daily bread” inspires us to find a way to get food to people abroad, or even to help a local ministry get food to underfunded families on weekends, that prayer was not in vain. And in the situations of the worst and most heartbreaking suffering, such as those who starve and never find the nourishment they need, there is no “best possible outcome.” Things simply end horribly and we are left grieving, but we know that God sits there and grieves alongside us.
The God who Christians have, the One we see in the Old Testament and the New, is a God who does not keep people from facing suffering. Rather, He promises to stay with us, and to “work all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28) in the midst of suffering.
This is the God who heard the cries of Israel in the wilderness, and chose to offer manna, rather than scoop them up and drop them into the Promised Land (Exodus 16). This is also the God who was with Paul and Silas as men beat and imprisoned them, and then used their circumstances to save the jailer, rather than preventing them from suffering in the first place (Acts 16).
The lesson we learn from Joseph in Genesis 39 and 40 isn’t difficult to follow, and yet we can miss it when we try to make sense of suffering without looking at the Bible. In Joseph’s case, God doesn’t cause suffering, but He stays with him in it, and tries to work out the best possible outcome alongside him.
At the end of Genesis, after Joseph endures a number of trials and receives the honor he originally envisioned, his brothers approach him to repent for their actions against him. Joseph responds, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today” (Gen. 50:20). God takes the difficult circumstances that Joseph faces, and manages to save the lives of the surrounding Gentile world through him.
May we feel encouraged today that God stays with us in the midst of suffering. May we turn to the Bible, where we most clearly learn about the God we worship, in order to find perspective on the roles He plays throughout our lives, and specifically during our most difficult moments. And may we honor the questions we ask about suffering, and at the end of the day, know that the God we have will stay faithfully at our side throughout every season of weeping and every season of joy.
Over the past week I had the privilege to attend the Great Plains Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I met so many pastors and learned about the amazing ministry they’re doing within and beyond their communities.
Before I arrived at the conference I read Genesis 37, where we meet Joseph. We learn that he is Jacob’s favored son, and that Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him. Joseph then has some grandiose dreams in which his family bows down to him, and he chooses to tell his siblings about those dreams (v. 1-11).
As I read the passage, I thought, “Why did he tell them?!” He seems extremely braggadocios and haughty, and exacerbates his siblings’ jealousy.
As we continue reading Genesis 37, we watch Joseph’s siblings turn against him. They sell him into slavery in reaction to Joseph’s boastfulness and their jealousy (v. 12-28). Joseph then moves from a place of favor with his father, and community in his family, to a place of servitude among strangers. I struggled to reconcile why God gave Joseph a vision of his calling, only to have him given into the hands of strangers and humbled as a servant.
Then I witnessed the ordination service at the Great Plains Annual Conference. During the service, a renowned bishop of the United Methodist Church offered the sermon. Before he began his homily, he asked one of the newly ordained ministers to come up on stage. The elder bishop proceeded to kneel down and wash the feet of the young ordinand.
The image of the distinguished bishop holding the feet of the young clergy reminded me that in our moments of greatest calling and vision, we often find ourselves bowing down in service.
At the beginning of Genesis 37, Joseph receives his calling. He sees the vision that God intends to fulfill in him. So he brags about it to his brothers, never imagining that in order to actualize God’s vision, he will have to submit to estrangement and servitude.
God shows us through Joseph’s story that all of us have a calling, and regardless of what that calling entails, we must first, foremost, and always find ourselves in a place of service in order to attain the vision God has given us.
Knowing the trajectory of Joseph’s story heightens how we understand Jesus’ ministry as well. Before Jesus was betrayed, he gathered his disciples together and knelt down before them to wash their feet (John 13:1-17). They didn’t feel worthy, yet he took the posture of a servant in order to show what true calling and discipleship means.
When we kneel down to wash the feet of others, to humble ourselves and to give of ourselves in service, we follow in the footsteps of Joseph, Jesus, and so many of our ancestors. Because our God is a God who honors humility, and tells us through his Son that blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, and blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:2-11)
So may we feel challenged by the story of Joseph today. May we know the calling that God has given us, and may we also willingly accept the servanthood that His calling requires. And at the end of the day, as we have served and worked and knelt, may we find ourselves faithfully embodying the vision to which God has called us.
The story of The Prodigal Son still brings tears to my eyes when I read it. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and I also have so many memories of retreats and camps that retold the story of the Prodigal Son in beautiful ways. It makes sense that we retell the story, because it provides such a clear picture of God’s grace, forgiveness, and enduring love for us.
We find the story in Luke 15:11-32. We first meet a man with two sons, the younger of whom feels dissatisfied so he asks for his portion of his father’s blessing. He leaves his father’s home, spends all of his inheritance, and ultimately hires himself out to a farmer who has him care for his pigs. While the son is estranged and starving, he decides to return to his father, and offer himself as a hired servant. However, when the son is still a long way away, his father sees him, runs to him, embraces and kisses him, and throws a banquet to celebrate his return; “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).
The story is so profound and moving, and for the longest time it seemed to me that we could only find a story with so much grace and forgiveness in the New Testament. But as I continue to learn time and time again, God demonstrated his love for us long before we arrive in Luke.
In Genesis 33 we meet Jacob, whose name recently became Israel after a wrestling match with God (see Gen. 32:24-32; feel free to leave questions about this in the comments section). Jacob knows that Esau is on his way to meet him, and as you can remember from our posts on their early relationship (see The Sacredness of Siblings and Birthrights and Blessings), Jacob fears that Esau will kill him.
Jacob responds two ways: first, he prays to God (Gen. 32:9-12) and he sends gifts ahead of him to meet Esau (Gen. 32:13-21). Jacob’s prayer is especially profound, and I believe it impacts the outcome of his encounter with Esau. He pleads, “I am not worthy of the least of all of the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Gen. 32:10).
Jacob humbles himself. He admits that he does not deserve the blessings that God has lavished upon him, and then he asks for God to deliver him from the hand of Esau.
So then we arrive in Genesis 33, and Jacob sees Esau coming. I can only imagine that Jacob is shaking in his boots (or sandals), as he watches his brother lead four hundred men into his camp. Jacob approaches and bows to greet his brother, and in a turn of events that Jacob never could have imagined, he watches his brother run toward him and embrace him. Esau falls onto Jacob’s neck, kisses him, and they weep (Gen. 33:1-4). Esau demonstrates the forgiveness and grace that surpasses what Jacob could ever have hoped for.
When we look closely at the language here, we see that it’s the same language of forgiveness and grace in that Jesus uses in the parable of The Prodigal Son. Genesis 33:4 states, “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Describing the prodigal son, Luke 15:20 states, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
The Greek in the New Testament, and the Greek in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) are very similar here: we watch Esau and the father of the prodigal son, “run” (from the Greek root trecho), “kiss” (from phileo), and “fall on” (pipto) the “neck” (trachselos) of Jacob and the son, respectively. The moment of redemption in The Prodigal Son echoes the same reconciling moment between Jacob and Esau. More specifically, Jesus draws directly from Genesis in order to relate his own parable.
God wanted us to know his grace and forgiveness all along. He wanted us to accept that if we pray to him (as Jacob did), he can release and redeem us from even the most frightening of circumstances. God’s love surpasses our weaknesses and frailties, and God celebrates when we return home to one another, and home to Him. Jesus knew this as he told his story of the Prodigal Son; he recalled what he knew of God’s work through Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau and repackaged it for his own audience.
May we feel refreshed and empowered today by the redemptive love that God offered us first in Genesis and every day since. May we come home to one another, and home to the God who has always wanted us with Him, just as we are. And may we, at the end of the day, know that our identity is found, not in our wandering or fleeing, but safely beside the One who created us and loves us always.
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.
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.
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.