The Cost Of Calling

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.

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The Other Half

Gloria Steinem recently created a docu-series called Woman that Viceland will release on May 10th. The series consists of videos of female correspondents interviewing women all over the world about their political statuses, and the ways that marginalization and violence impact them individually and socially (you can watch the trailer here). Regardless of your feelings about Gloria Steinem’s politics, this series taps into the deeply embedded patterns of violence against women that permeate our world. And I wish this weren’t true, but we find similar and horrific violence in the biblical text. 

Genesis 34 is a mess. It opens with Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who we discussed previously. Over the course of the story, Shechem (the prince of the land where Jacob and his family currently reside) sees Dinah, and either sleeps with her before marriage, or rapes her (the word anah, translated “humiliate,” can imply both). Either way, he socially, and perhaps personally, defiles her, but the text says that he loves her, so he asks to marry her (Gen. 34:1-8).

Shechem offers for Jacob and his sons to live fully integrated in his land; they could buy property, marry, and travel freely. He also commits to paying a full bride price, even when that price is circumcising every male in the city (Gen. 34:9-24). At this point, Shechem and everyone in the city thinks that they have reconciled with Jacob and his sons. And that’s when Levi and Simeon, two of Dinah’s brothers, ransack the city, kill all of the men, loot their goods, and take Dinah with them (Gen. 34:25-31).

At the end of the chapter, Jacob complains to his sons about the amount of damage they’ve done, and their response is: “But didn’t he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

The notion that violence against women creates violence among society is not new. 

As with most situations of violence, Dinah remains silent throughout this text. We don’t hear her voice or know her thoughts, and before we fall into the trap of thinking that no women had agency in the biblical period, we must remember Rebekah and Sarah and Hagar, who had loud voices and big stories. Shechem’s tribe and, in retaliation, Dinah’s brothers, use Dinah’s body as a means of power brokering, and we lose her voice in the process.

If we read this chapter in context, we get a glimpse of how Jacob’s family sank to this level of violence. Yesterday we read the gorgeous story of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in Genesis 33, and watched as Esau rose above the revenge that Jacob anticipated. The end of the chapter provides some context for how we arrive in the chaos of Genesis 34.

Jacob and Esau have just embraced, wept, and kissed one another, which signifies their reunion and renewed relationship. After some conversation, Esau suggests that he will travel with Jacob. Jacob claims that his children and flocks are too tired to travel at Esau’s pace, so he sends Esau ahead of him to Seir, and promises to meet him there (Gen. 33:12-15). In the very next verse, we read: “That day Esau returned on the road to Seir, but Jacob traveled to Succoth” (v. 16-17).

Jacob lied! After the generous greeting that Esau offered him, Jacob lied to Esau’s face (despite having just equated Esau’s face with the face of God; Gen 33:10), and chose to travel to Succoth, and then on to Shechem’s city. And that’s where the violence of Genesis 34 begins. 

Before the events at Shechem, Jacob had begged God for a peaceful reception with Esau, and after God granted it, Jacob immediately lied and traveled further away from his family, and, arguably, from God. So when the violence settles in the first verse of Genesis 35, God speaks to Jacob and says, “Get up, go to Bethel, and live there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you ran away from your brother Esau” (Gen. 35:1).

Jacob first arrived in Bethel in Genesis 28. This is the sacred location where God blessed Jacob and promised him descendants, land, and protection. In Genesis 35, God meets with Jacob again and calls him back home. He sees the destruction that has taken place, the violence both inside and outside of his family, and He draws Jacob back to Him.

Jacob’s deceitfulness and lies led to the violation of Dinah’s body and personhood. And God sees that and speaks against it. 

We have violence all around us. In both subtle and extreme ways, women all over the world feel the crushing pressure of political power on their bodies and their minds every day. The calling of Scripture and the calling of God is to liberation. Some women may never feel that liberation in this lifetime, but all of us are called to know and to act within the realms we influence.

I know of churches in rural Indiana who send groups to Latvia to learn about and contribute to the fight against sex slavery. There are churches in Minneapolis that hold events to heighten awareness of and raise money for groups fighting modern slavery. I know of ministries like Timothy’s Gift that work in women’s prisons to embody God’s love to those women who so easily forget their belovedness. I know women who have devoted their careers to writing grants for domestic violence shelters, so that other women can find solace and protection when fleeing from those closest to them.

These women and organizations have listened to the call of God, have realized the gifts they have, and have engaged them in an effort to end violence and bring peace and reconciliation among all of God’s people and creation. And that’s our call today. 

If nothing else, the story of Dinah teaches us about how our actions impact those around us. And so may we pray today the prayer of Saint Francis, which calls us not only to God, but also to each other:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.”

May we find in ourselves today the attributes of love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy, and may we use those to come home to God, and to empower our world.

Finding The Prodigal In Genesis 33


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.

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

sibling

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.