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.

Were We Ever Cursed?

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It’s not easy being human. We face challenges every day, and have to use our resiliency and tenacity to figure out how we’re going to get through them. And while we’re striving to be great partners, children, parents, workers, siblings, and citizens, it can be easy to look back and ask, “Why?” Why did that happen? Why this diagnosis? Why this unemployment? Why this sadness? Why…? Why…? Why…?

One of the common responses to these “Why…? questions involves a few complex texts that we find in Genesis 3.

At the opening of Genesis 3, the man and the woman have already reunited and become “one flesh,” yet the man is nowhere to be seen. A snake then approaches the woman, and lies to her about why God told them not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden. She believes the snake, eats from the tree, and hands the man some of the fruit for him to eat as well. They then “see clearly,” realize they are naked, and sew fig leaves together to cover themselves (Genesis 3:1-7).

The man and the woman then hear God walking in the garden (He’s taking an afternoon stroll) and they hide, so God calls to them. They show themselves, and after some questioning, God realizes that they have eaten from the tree in the middle of the garden (v. 8-13).

What follows is a series of indictments from God directed toward the snake, the woman, the man, and the land, which are often titled, “The Curse of Adam and Eve,” or just “The Curse of Eve.” If we read closer, though, we find that God never actually curses Adam and Eve.

In verses 14 and 15 God “curses” (arar) the snake with a variety of maladies, and puts enmity between the snake and the woman. But in verse 16, when God addresses the woman, He simply “speaks” (amar) to her. Then again in verses 17 through 19, God speaks (amar) to the man, explaining that the ground is now cursed (arar) because of him, but God never curses the man.

The difference between a curse and a punishment is that a curse changes the foundational properties and qualities of the recipient — God removes the snakes legs, making it slither on its belly for the rest of its life, and God fills the previously fertile land with weeds and thistles, making it difficult to cultivate. God doesn’t change the man and the woman — he makes their lives more difficult, but their beings and their essence does not change as a result of their punishment.

For centuries, interpreters, scholars, and even some of the Church Fathers read this text, and assumed that God cursed the man and the woman. Readers call this text “The Fall.” Although Genesis 3 never mentions a “Fall,” it does mark the first time that God punishes humanity, and boots us out of a good land. We must remember, though, that while Genesis 3 may be the first time God punishes His people and exiles them from the land, it certainly isn’t the last time.

Genesis 3 gives us an archetype, a storyline, for what continues to happen over and over again throughout the biblical text and throughout our lives. And what we see each time this happens is God remaining with humanity, loving us, caring for us, cleaning up our messes, and continually working all things toward the good. We may no longer reside in Eden, but that does not mean that we are cursed. And we may have received a few punishments (we’ll get into the details of those tomorrow), but for now I want to encourage us to consider what it would mean for us to live as a free, uncursed, and beloved people, who still make mistakes.

 

We have a lot more exploring to do in Genesis 3 over the next couple of days, but for now, can we rest in the knowledge that we were never cursed? That while sin is real and active and tempting, it has never mitigated the love that God has for us? And that after the gigantic moment in the biblical text, in which God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, we find God (only six verses later) telling them that they have the power to choose whether or not to sin (Gen. 4:7). That doesn’t sound like a cursed life to me; rather, it sounds like a life of strength, power, agency, and hope. Today, may we embrace the God who withheld the curse from us and who continues to tells us that we are beloved, that we are strong, and that nothing can separate us from His love.

Mary, Let Go Of Me

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When was the last time you mourned? Some of us have only a few distant moments we can remember, while for others, mourning seems all too familiar. Mourning is an honest and raw expression of grief, sadness, and loss. It can hit us square in the chest, in the most unexpected moments, and from those periods of mourning onward, our worlds never quite feel the same again.

That’s where we find Mary on Easter morning in John 20:11-17. Weeping, she bends to look into Jesus’ tomb, and cannot find his body. She meets two angels sitting in the tomb, and explains to them that she doesn’t know where they’ve put him. Turning around, she meets Jesus face-to-face, and believes he is a gardener. He speaks her name, and immediately she realizes that it’s Jesus.

Overwhelmed with emotion, we can presume that Mary embraced Jesus, because he then responds, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Moments before, Mary was mourning the loss of Jesus. She believed not only that he was dead, but also that someone had stolen his body. So it makes sense that she felt overwhelmed with emotion and clung to him. In some ways it sounds harsh for Jesus to tell Mary to let him go — until we understand the true meaning of those words.

“I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus wasn’t just being wordy — he was trying to point us to another text that Mary would have known very well.

The widow Naomi directs her two widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their childhood homes. In Ruth 1:14-18 Orpah turns back, but Ruth instead proclaims, Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 

“Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” — Ruth 1:16

“I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” — John 20:17

Jesus tells Mary to release him, not because he doesn’t love and care for her deeply, because her clinging is inappropriate, or because she is self-sufficient enough on her own. He tells her not to cling to him because he needs to ascend to God. And in ascending to God, he offers Mary the same promise that Ruth made to Naomi.

Wherever Mary goes, Jesus will go; wherever Mary stays, Jesus will stay. Her people are his people, and her God is his God. And now that he has resurrected, even the power of death will never separate them again.

That’s the hope that Jesus offers us on Easter: not that we will never mourn and grieve, not that life becomes perfect and infallible, but that He remains with us through every trial, sigh, and tear. His resurrection breaks the final barrier of death.

In those moments when we feel completely alone and abandoned, when we wonder where God is, and how we will ever get through the trials and difficulties that we face, Jesus offers us this promise, and we remember it on Easter Sunday:  Wherever we go, Jesus goes; wherever we stay, Jesus stays. Our people are his people, and our God is His God. And now even death cannot separate us from the his true and unending love.

“It Is Finished…” But What About The Resurrection?

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A few months ago I attended the filming of Adam Hamilton’s study of John. I sat in the audience, smiling and holding a coffee mug, while a camera crew filmed a series of six devotional presentations. After each devotional, Adam opened the floor for questions from the audience members.

Toward the end of the day I raised my hand to ask, “Why would Jesus say ‘It is finished’ if he hadn’t yet resurrected?” 

Adam responded well, but I still wanted more of an answer. So I researched and read quite a bit, and came to the realization that in order to understand the “It is finished” verse, we need to know a bit more about the full scope of the Gospel of John.

Of the four gospel accounts, John portrays Jesus as the most confident and determined. Jesus performs a lot of miracles, talks of himself in “I am” terms (which cues back to God’s description of Himself in Exodus 3:14), and predicts his death over and over again. One of the greatest examples of John heightening Jesus’ sense of mission is how he depicts Jesus praying before his arrest. I wrote about Luke’s account of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives earlier this week and entitled it, “When Jesus Also Doubted.”

In contrast to Jesus sweating blood and praying for another way out in Luke, John claims that Jesus began his prayer, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.” (John 17:1-5).

It’s almost as if Jesus had a to-do list while he was on the earth. In his prayer before his arrest, Jesus acknowledged to God that he had checked off most of the boxes, and now he needed to subject himself to arrest and death in order to complete the list.

So Jesus proceeds through his persecution and crucifixion, and in the moment just before he died, he proclaimed, “It is finished.” In his death, he had completed all of the tasks that God had commissioned him to do while he was on the earth.

The resurrection, the moment of in-breaking hope, happened three days later. But that wasn’t on Jesus’ to-do list; it was on God’s. In the moments before Jesus dies in Luke, Jesus states, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” (Luke 23:46). Jesus placed his hope, trust, and life in God, knowing that God would resurrect him.

Jesus completed so much while he was on the earth, and in his final breaths he finished the last task on the list. And that’s what we mourn and what we celebrate today. That Jesus had to endure such violence, persecution, and death, while knowing that God always held him, and would never leave him nor forsake him. Jesus knew that in dying, his trials on earth were over, and that God would physically resurrect him three days later. And upon his resurrection he would no longer suffer — he would instead spread hope, joy, and celebration.

What Jesus Said About The Afterlife

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As a chaplain and a pastor I get a lot of questions about the afterlife. People want to know what happens in the moments after we die.

I have heard a variety of answers from other pastors about this weighty and pertinent topic. Some of them use what I call Chutes & Ladders imagery, claiming that the faithful among us begin climbing a ladder to the heavenly gates, while the others find themselves whooshing down a hellacious slide shortly after death. Others give an answer that sounds something like teleportation — upon breathing our last, our souls get zapped into heaven or into hell. And still others merely shrug their shoulders and state that we simply can’t know.

I struggle with these answers, mostly because we can’t find them in the Bible. And what we do have in the Bible holds a lot more meaning than Chutes and Ladders, teleportation or, worst of all, the absence of existence.

In Luke 23:39-43, Jesus is hanging on the cross with two robbers who are also hung on crosses on either side of him. Then this happens: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.’” 

Jesus doesn’t say that we need to climb or slide or teleport to a new location. We’re simply with God after we die. And if we’ve been trusting God throughout our lives to faithfully walk with us, doesn’t it make sense that we wouldn’t be on our own after death? 

When Jesus claims in Matthew 28:20 that “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” we need not think that God’s presence somehow disappears upon our passing from this life. It seems to me that in many ways, our journey with God simply continues.

Without proof-texting, and without eschewing the Bible, we can read the story of Jesus on the cross and know that as he died, he firmly believed that his spirit would live on with God. While he didn’t talk about heaven, hell, clouds, or fire, he did speak about paradise. And not just paradise for himself, but also paradise with us.

So may we hold tight to the hope of paradise today. May we prayerfully reflect on the meanings of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. And in the midst of the fear, doubt, and ambiguity that all of us face at some point or another, may we rest in the knowledge of our future place in paradise.

Slowing Down

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It struck me yesterday how busy Holy Week is. Especially for pastors and lay members in the church — we have so many services that hold such importance, all squished into a very small window of time.

With so many events taking place, it seems easy to lose sight of each movement of Holy Week. But then again, as I read the Passion Narrative again this week, I realized how easy it is to push past some of the most meaningful moments in the text in an effort to get to the resurrection.

The story of Peter’s betrayal is a text that I have previously rushed through. Jesus had already predicted so much that came true, and Peter’s denial didn’t seem to really move the story forward in any especially distinct way. Yes, Jesus predicting Peter’s denial in Luke 22:31-34, and Peter’s actual denial in Luke 22:54-62 show Jesus’ power to prophesy, as well as Jesus’ unfailing love for Peter. It’s an amazing story, but in the scope of the crucifixion and resurrection I found it easy to skim past.

If we pause and give these verses just a little more attention, we see a much larger narrative at work. We don’t typically tie Jesus’ beating and taunting in with Peter’s denial, but as my husband and I read the text this week he pointed out connections that can change the way we look at this text.

Just after Peter denies knowing Jesus in Luke 22:54-62, the writer begins describing how Jesus’ captors beat and taunted him. The text states in verses 63-65, “The men who were holding Jesus in custody taunted him while they beat him. They blindfolded him and asked him repeatedly, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’ Insulting him, they said many other horrible things against him.”

On the surface it just sounds like they’re mocking him. Like they’re taking one attribute Jesus claimed to have, and daring him to do it again. And in Jesus’ resolve, he holds back and refuses to give in to their taunts.

The text is far more subversive than that. The writer wants us to see that as Peter fulfills Jesus’ prediction of denial, Jesus’ captors dare him to prophesy. Yet Jesus doesn’t need to yell out a new prophecy, because Peter is literally fulfilling one at that very moment.

These are moments that we can miss in the midst of Holy Week and in the chaos of our lives. But they’re sitting in our Holy Book, waiting for us to grasp them. So may we slow down and pay attention today and in the coming days. Because as we prepare to approach the cross and the tomb, we have such greater truths to grasp than even this.

When Jesus Also Doubted

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I recently came across a post that Rachel Held Evans published in March 2013 called “Holy Week for Doubters.” In it, Rachel describes the questions that many of us fear asking on Holy Week; the deep questions of faith and doubt. Those questions can often catch more of our attention on Holy Week, as we attend numerous services, travel to visit family, suffer through Good Friday, and celebrate on Easter Sunday.

It struck me as I read her post that we are not the only ones who doubt on Holy Week. In fact, Jesus endures a time of great trepidation and doubt just before his arrest. 

After Passover Jesus goes on to the Garden of Gethsemane or to the Mount of Olives, depending on which gospel you’re reading. He retreats there to pray. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts, his prayer time is tumultuous. Particularly in the gospel of Luke, Jesus experiences a moment in which the reality of his circumstances come to the fore, and he is petrified.

Luke 22:41-46 states, “He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. He said, ‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.’ Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” 

I have had a number of times in my life in which I felt the weightiness of doubt. I began asking questions, reading a lot, and wondering what really holds up and stands strong in the end. However, I have never reached such a point of anguish as to begin sweating blood.

Jesus knows his fate in this situation, and doubts his ability to endure it. So he seeks. And the response he receives is a heavenly angel who arrives to give him strength.

Sometimes when we doubt, we need comfort more than answers.

I often describe the spiritual journey as a Jenga tower. Do you remember that game? A series of blocks all stacked upon one another, slowly growing while simultaneously creating more holes. And if you touch the wrong block just a little too hard, the whole tower comes crashing down.

So we resist asking questions, we hold them close to our chests, in an effort to prevent all that we’ve built and all that we believe from falling to pieces.

The beautiful thing, though, is that after those blocks are scattered across the floor, we get to pick them up. And instead of building one tall tower whose pieces all have to fit just right, we can build a house. 

We begin anew with a foundation on the God who understands doubt; the One who once sweat blood in a garden, who once begged for God to change his circumstances. And we create a home. A home that we can change, that we can remodel, and mostly that we can dwell within, knowing that the ground upon which we stand has promised to remain with us always, to the very end of the age.