Genesis 46:2-47:12 – How to Live in the World

Joseph presents Jacob, his Father, to Pharaoh, Gen xlvii 7 and 8
Joseph presents Jacob and his brothers to Pharaoh by French artist James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”

Then Jacob left Beersheba, and Israel’s sons took their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the carts that Pharaoh had sent to transport him. So, Jacob and all his offspring went to Egypt, taking with them their livestock and the possessions they had acquired in Canaan. Jacob brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons and his daughters and granddaughters—all his offspring.

These are the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob and his descendants) who went to Egypt:

Reuben the firstborn of Jacob.  The sons of Reuben: Hanok, Pallu, Hezron and Karmi.

The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jakin, Zohar and Shaul the son of a Canaanite woman.

The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari.

The sons of Judah: Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez and Zerah (but Er and Onan had died in the land of Canaan).

The sons of Perez: Hezron and Hamul.

The sons of Issachar: Tola, Puah, Jashub and Shimron.

The sons of Zebulun: Sered, Elon and Jahleel.

These were the sons Leah bore to Jacob in Paddan Aram, besides his daughter Dinah. These sons and daughters of his were thirty-three in all.

The sons of Gad: Zephon, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi and Areli.

The sons of Asher: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi and Beriah.  Their sister was Serah.  The sons of Beriah: Heber and Malkiel.

These were the children born to Jacob by Zilpah, whom Laban had given to his daughter Leah—sixteen in all.

The sons of Jacob’s wife Rachel:

Joseph and Benjamin. In Egypt, Manasseh and Ephraim were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On.

The sons of Benjamin: Bela, Beker, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim and Ard.

These were the sons of Rachel who were born to Jacob—fourteen in all.

The son of Dan: Hushim.

The sons of Naphtali: Jahziel, Guni, Jezer and Shillem.

These were the sons born to Jacob by Bilhah, whom Laban had given to his daughter Rachel—seven in all.

All those who went to Egypt with Jacob—those who were his direct descendants, not counting his sons’ wives—numbered sixty-six persons. With the two sons who had been born to Joseph in Egypt, the members of Jacob’s family, which went to Egypt, were seventy in all.

Now Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen. When they arrived in the region of Goshen, Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.

Israel said to Joseph, “Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive.”

Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and speak to Pharaoh and will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were living in the land of Canaan, have come to me. The men are shepherds; they tend livestock, and they have brought along their flocks and herds and everything they own.’ When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you should answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.”

Joseph went and told Pharaoh, “My father and brothers, with their flocks and herds and everything they own, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in Goshen.” He chose five of his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh.

Pharaoh asked the brothers, “What is your occupation?”

“Your servants are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “just as our fathers were.” They also said to him, “We have come to live here for a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants’ flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen.”

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in Goshen. And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock.”

Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?”

And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence.

So, Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, as Pharaoh directed. Joseph also provided his father and his brothers and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their children. (NIV)

Jacob Blesses Pharaoh
Jacob Blesses Pharaoh by Welsh artist Owen Jones, 1869

God likes fulfilling his promises to us – even and especially when we are in Egypt – in the world. Sometimes we work too hard at avoiding the world and creating heaven on earth right now.  God knew what the Israelites would face: four-hundred years of slavery in Egypt. Yet, God sent them anyway. Often, the people of God grow more in times of trial and hardship, than in times of plenty and peace.

The trip to Egypt included everyone in Israel. There is a genealogical list of those who made the journey because God fulfills his promises through people.  These are the folks who would carry on accomplishing the will of God.  Joseph and Jacob, the son, and the father, are reunited. Joseph diplomatically planned where the gang would live and work because Egyptians looked down on shepherds. Much like the ancient Israelites, we must navigate a world that is okay with us being in it yet not okay with us in the middle of things.

In the Old Testament, Egypt represents the world.  It is interesting God sent his people to live there. God seeks to create a people for his Name who are distinct from Egypt, yet, live among the people of the world.  There is a continual tension for God’s people to be holy and unique, not assimilating into the world’s mold; and, yet, at the same time, God wants them to have a constant engagement and interaction with the world. Therefore, two extremes are to be avoided: to focus solely on being a holy people through complete severance from the world as much as possible; and, to seek relevance in the culture through wholesale jettison of distinctiveness so that the sacred and the secular are connected.

God safeguards a distinct people so that they will be a preservative in the world. Godly people are neither to live in a vacuum, cut off from the world altogether, nor to be wed to the world so that the two are indistinguishable.  We live in a fundamentally broken world in need of the peace and grace of spiritual people within it. The Church has had to struggle with how to live in the world for two-thousand years.  We have the advantage of drawing from a rich Christian history. For there is nothing we face now which has not been faced by the church before.

St Augustine

Saint Augustine wrote his seminal work, City of God, in about 413 C.E. The Roman empire had fallen, and pagans were blaming the Church because Christianity had become wed to the state. The people of God were unsure how to proceed.  So, Augustine sought to help Christians think about how to live in a post-Christian society.

Augustine’s work is lengthy and quite in-depth, so, the following is a brief distilling of his main arguments.  For Augustine, there are four essential institutions: two visible institutions; and, two invisible institutions:

  1. The Church – is a divinely established institution, designed to lead people to God.
  2. The State – is a political institution, adhering to political virtues to establish the peace.
  3. The City of Heaven – is made up of those predestined for salvation.
  4. The City of the World – is made up of those destined for eternal damnation.

We must pursue the City of Heaven, which for Augustine, is the pursuit of justice and righteousness. Augustine gave a clarion call for people to choose which city they will pursue, especially because many tended to blur the distinctions between the visible institutions of church and state.

Augustine’s conclusion is that the purpose of history is to show the unfolding of God’s plan. This involves fostering the City of Heaven and filling it with worthy citizens.  Therefore, the fall of Rome, a visible city so important to the people of Augustine’s day, was not near as important to the invisible God.

Maintaining an eternal perspective can help us today. The collapse of jobs, the scourge of a racialized society, the loss of life due to COVID-19, and injustice are significant events and circumstances – important enough to consider deeply how those issues will be handled. Augustine called out the people of his day for ignoring invisible spiritual solutions for the great problems among them.

Returning to the book of Genesis, a question arises: Will the Israelites become a nation through assimilation with Egypt and its institutions, or will they maintain their distinction as God’s people by relying on God’s covenant promises?  There are no easy answers to living in the world. However, it is important we struggle with how to get along in it.

God is the principal actor in the created world. God chooses to use his people as instruments of blessing to it.  Joseph’s wisdom and diplomacy, given by God, turned potentially catastrophic situations into times of prosperity. God, too, will use us as dispensers of wisdom – applying truth to concrete situations for the betterment of all involved.

Joseph handled the delicate situation of his brothers being shepherds while all shepherds were detestable to Egyptians.  Joseph brought the two worlds together through artful negotiation between the interests of both Pharaoh and the Israelites. He created a win/win scenario by setting up his brothers to help Pharaoh with his own needs in caring for livestock. In the end, all parties were satisfied because Joseph maintained a focus on needs instead of only advocating one side.

Rather than getting bogged down in promotion of methods and means, a sage approach is to maintain a focus on needs – which requires careful listening and a stance of empathy. Then, we can work toward prosperity for all instead of hardening into reified positions. A lot of problems in the church, work, society, and family can be turned to blessing if we seek the wisdom that comes from God.

May the Lord bless you and keep you; and, make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. Amen.

Genesis 27:30-46 – “Bless Me, Too!”

Isaac Blesses Jacob by Yoram Raanan
Isaac Blesses Jacob by Yoram Raanan

After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”

His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”

Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came, and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”

But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”

Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”

Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So, what can I possibly do for you, my son?”

Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.

His father Isaac answered him,

“Your dwelling will be
away from the earth’s richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck.”

Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.” (NIV)

The twins Esau and Jacob are the very definition of sibling rivalry. Even at their birth, they jostled and positioned for their entry into the world. Although brothers, they were different from one another in every way. As their aged father, Isaac, was near the end of his days, he was looking to pass on a family blessing to Esau, the firstborn. And that’s where things got dicey.

Jacob, always the trickster, was still playing out the rivalry. When his brother Esau was out hunting and preparing to receive his father’s blessing, Jacob posed as his brother and deceitfully gained the blessing of Isaac. Both Isaac and Esau were shocked to discover what happened. Esau’s response was one of grief, disappointment, bitterness, with tears and weeping. Despite Esau not being known for his sensitivity to God or family before this event, we can certainly feel his cry: “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!”

Blessing with hands

The blessing. As a chaplain who works with behavioral health patients, I have heard many times over the lament of individuals without a blessing from their father. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we were meant to be blessed – to have a loving and enduring stamp of approval from both our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers. And when an earthly father, or father figure, either cannot or will not extend a vital blessing to children, it is a terrible wound – like an invisible open putrid abscess which continually leaves the person emotionally and spiritually sick.

Blessing is needed. Without blessing we flounder in the world, struggling to see hope, wondering if we are loved, and lacking confidence in our faith. To be blessed is to receive a beautiful gift. The term “blessing” in Scripture is a powerful communication of God’s presence and approval. So, when humans bless one another, we offer commitments of love and connection. We provide powerful words of encouragement and picture a special future for those we are close to.

None of this is optional. Blessing is God’s way of building up one another and fortifying each other for the rigors of this world. When blessing is withheld, and even worse, when it is replaced with cursing, then individuals are bereft of support to face stressful situations. Like a ship adrift without any power or wind, so the person trying to live in this world without blessing is dead in the water. Where there is no blessing, like Esau, revenge fills our hearts.

Jesus clearly understood the need and the power of blessing, and he was not deterred in deliberately offering it:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16, NIV)

I wonder how this simple encounter affected the lives of those children on that day in which Jesus blessed them. I am curious in what ways they grew-up and how Christ’s blessing shaped their lives. Because that is what blessing does: it forms us into the kind of people we were meant to be.

Receive today this blessing from Holy Scripture:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen. (Numbers 6:24-26, NRSV)

Luke 10:21-24 – Freedom and Blessing

Ethiopian Jesus 2
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus teaching

Then Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the people who are wise and smart. But you have shown them to those who are like little children. Yes, Father, this is what you really wanted.

“My Father has given me all things. No one knows who the Son is, except the Father. And no one knows who the Father is, except the Son and those whom the Son chooses to tell.”

Then Jesus turned to his followers and said privately, “You are blessed to see what you now see. I tell you, many prophets and kings wanted to see what you now see, but they did not, and they wanted to hear what you now hear, but they did not.” (NCV)

A healthy view of Holy Scripture is to look at it as an unfolding drama of redemption. Ever since the fall of humanity, God has been on a rescue mission to reclaim, redeem, and restore people. This human project has obviously taken several millennia; and, it still has not reached its fulfillment.

The Christian tradition understands that the climax of victory and final restoration to our true state as humans will occur when Christ returns. By warning us that divine mysteries are hidden to some and revealed to others is Jesus’ way of cautioning us toward triumphalism and self-congratulation. Yes, redemption is a reality; and, it is also not a reality. It is both here and is coming. We are delivered from sin, death, and hell – and, we still labor against the evil machinations of systemic world problems, our own sinful nature, and a demonic realm which is looking for every opportunity to exploit sin’s residue upon the earth.

What this all means on a practical basis is that the good old days for some were the bad old days for others. History is always written by the winners and those in power. The hidden voices are typically squelched. The vision of Jesus is that all kinds of people, not just a certain segment of winners, should enjoy God’s favor.

There were ancient people who longed for spiritual and physical freedom. They looked forward into history and had the hope of Messiah and God’s promises being fulfilled. History is still unfolding. People yet remain locked in personal bondage and large swaths of humanity still experience oppression and a longing to enjoy blessings which others possess and take for granted.

On this Independence Day in the United States it is important that we recognize and hold together both the blessings of realized freedom along with the limits of others’ freedom. And, with this realization, we continue to actively work for all people and keep praying that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, circa 1852

So, today, I am lifting a voice from history which exemplifies the struggle of the black experience in America. The following is a small portion from a speech by the ex-slave Frederick Douglass orated on July 4, 1852, nine years before civil war, with President Millard Fillmore and many congressional politicians in attendance:

“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloodier than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

Because history is forever unfolding, freedom and blessing develop over time and come more powerfully to some than others. True spiritual discernment, with the awareness to labor on behalf of the common good, does not ultimately come through astute observation and superior intellect; it comes by divine revelation. God will both conceal and reveal according to divine purposes and not human agendas.

Christian spirituality cannot be reduced to praying a sinner’s prayer and then maintaining a holding pattern on earth until heaven. Rather, Jesus remains present in this world through the person of the Holy Spirit and is continually interceding on behalf of those who need freedom and blessing. As Christ’s Body, Christians are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, animated by the Spirit to bring God’s ethical and benevolent regime to those who need it most.

If we are blessed, we are to pass blessing on without prejudice. For the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit.

Dear God, Creator of the universe and all that inhabit it, we come as your Church, and as individuals, in humble submission to your word and your way. God, you are the Alpha and Omega, The Almighty Judge and The Forgiver of All Sins, so we come with humility and contrition on behalf of generations past, present and those yet unborn. We ask that you forgive us and create in us a new spirit. Bind our hearts and send forth the healing power that you and you alone can give to us and this sin-sick world. Bring us into reconciliation with one another and restore us to your righteous and holy path. Amen.

Genesis 22:15-18 – Faith, Obedience, and Blessing

Blessing to Abraham

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (NIV)

The biblical character of Abraham is synonymous with faith. And for good reason. God had told Abraham that he would have a son with his wife Sarah. This was especially unusual because the couple were well advanced in age, and Sarah was incapable of having children. Infertility is not just a modern problem; it has always existed.  Yet, despite all the contrary evidence of age and ability, Abraham believed God. Years later and with a mix of patience and impatience from the would-be parents, the promise from God was realized.  Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.

“The child of the promise.” This was Isaac’s moniker – which made the command from God so perplexing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2). Huh? I can easily imagine Abraham saying to himself, perhaps not out loud, “What the [insert favorite expletive]!”  But it only seems strange and super-weird to us. We get no reaction from Abraham, no questioning, no talk back.  He just goes about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and takes his only son with him on the journey to the mountain.

While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of talking with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served. We get an insight from the author of Hebrews into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking that is consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God:

“Abraham had been promised that Isaac, his only son, would continue his family. But when Abraham was tested, he had faith and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he was sure that God could raise people to life. This was just like getting Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-18, CEV)

Abraham did not try and figure out God’s mind. He picked no fights and chose not to debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do.

Abraham simply obeyed.

He reasoned that it did not matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides. After God stepped in and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac, Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide.” (Genesis 22:14)

You and I most certainly do not always know why we are facing the circumstances we must endure. We very much are rarely privy to know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing his voice, there is no hesitation to respond with obedience. We are convinced that God will provide. Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden; it is a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Blessings come through obedience. They are not willy-nilly thrown into a crowd like some cheap stadium trinket between innings of a baseball game. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, this very connection between obedience and blessing was re-emphasized:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. (Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 9, NIV)

A simple observation about the blessing of Abraham: It took nearly five-hundred years before that blessing was realized. Furthermore, in the Christian tradition, it then took another fifteen-hundred years before the blessing was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. And, I might add, all the promises of God to his people will be fully consummated at the end of the age when Christ returns. For a contemporary society which prides itself on timeliness and efficiency, taking the much broader scope of all history might seem unacceptable.

So, we come back around again to trust. Just as Abraham trusted God, even when it seemed like nonsense fraught with major moral implications, so we are to exhibit patient and persevering faith. Although the scope of history is massively large, the only moment we have is the now. It is now, today, in which we put one foot in front of the other and toddle forward into the next moment – by faith.

We simply obey.

Then, we obey again… and, again. It is in such continual small steps of faith and obedience that we will discover the blessings of God in the middle of our path.

Sovereign Lord, your ways are sometimes strange.  Yet, I know that everything you do is always right, just, and good.  It is to your gracious and merciful character that I know you will guide and provide. My allegiance is to you as I anticipate your divine blessings in my life through the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.