Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reading in Genesis This Week (25.19-36.43)

514zcWswk7L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I am continuing my Old Testament reading, along with Walter Brueggemann’s, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. The third section of the book, the story of Jacob and his family gets down into the dirt of family squabbles and power politics and shows how the faithful need to live (with both positive and negative examples) in a deceptive, oppressive, nasty world. I am posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there.

The 3rd part of Genesis, the Jacob story is a "conflict story." Following the promise of God places Jacob in conflict with his family and with the world around him because he is a man who believes in God's promise for his life. Sometimes Jacob complicates this promise by trying to manipulate it and take hold of it by the wrong methods, but, in the end, when forced to yield to God he experiences blessing within the great difficulties of life. Brueggemann calls the story "scandalous" because it exposes the realities of human sin, even within the promised family, and sets the story of God's mission within the gritty world of ambition, sex, power and violence. Jacob stands as a story that God works through the weak and powerless "little brother" and overturns the conventions of society to accomplish his plan.

The God of Israel comes to and sojourns with the unworthy and unvalued until they are brought safely home (cf. 28:15). It is that scandalous God who finally settled on a Crucified One as the way to make all things new. Thus, this oracle of inversion is not simply a political program of preference for Israel over Edom or Aram, though it may be that as well. It is also a disclosure about this God. To be faithful to the call of such a God brings conflict because this God himself evokes and enters into conflict with the way the world is organized. Genesis 25-36, 209–210

The story shows that it is God's plan to cause conflict with the way things are normally done as he chooses the younger brother to continue the covenant mission. Jacob and Esau's actions are freely chosen but will continue God's plan. God will shape Jacob and bring about his plan through the conflict without failing to keep his promises to care for Esau too.

This narrative is indiscreet and at times scandalous. It shows God and his chosen younger one aligned against the older brother, against the father, and against the cultural presumptions of natural privilege. Jacob is announced as a visible expression of God’s remarkable graciousness in the face of conventional definitions of reality and prosperity. Jacob is a scandal from the beginning. The powerful grace of God is a scandal. It upsets the way we would organize life. Genesis 25.19-28, 217

Jacob, in contrast to Esau, believes in futures to which Esau is indifferent...Those who do not believe promises and want more immediate satisfactions will no doubt compromise the faith for the sake of easier gains: pottage. Esau becomes a type for those who do not trust the promise and accommodate themselves. Genesis 25.29-34, 219–220

Chapters 26-28 are concerned with the blessing. God gives the blessing according to his own plan and choice. The blessing brings great prosperity to Isaac and Jacob which overflows to the people around them, but at the same time brings conflict and difficulty. God's plan to overthrow culture and propriety by blessing the younger son messes up Isaac's plan for a "quiet retirement" and breaks the family apart as all attempt to secure the blessing by their own means. Yet, the "bad guy" in the story is the one who receives the promise and blessing as God appears to the exile. Jacob must now learn, often the hard way, how to maximize his experience of God's blessing. It is a great comfort to see how God blesses even stumbling, blind attempts to live faithfully.

The Isaac narrative invites reflection on a world teeming with generously given life. That abundant life is recognized as blessing to those who will receive and share it. The chapter presents a world-view in which affirmation of the world and gratitude to God are held integrally together. Genesis 26, 226

The narrative exemplifies what is generally true of Genesis. This is not a spiritual treatise on morality. It is, rather, a memory of how faith moves in the rawness of experience. We must leave it at that. Genesis 27, 229

Every parent wants to “fix it” and make it right for his/her precious child. But it is beyond the parent, always, because other things are at work that do not yield to us. And so the parent is a mixture of hurt and failure and sorrow. Precisely at the moment of deepest kinship comes this strange impotence. Genesis 27, 233

The difficult part for us is that this is not an incidental religious curiosity in the Bible. It is, rather, a persistent theme which runs toward that strange company gathered around Jesus. The scandal there is the same. The ones whom all partisans of “primogeniture” would reject as unqualified and unworthy are the very ones invited to the festival of blessing (Luke 5:30; 14:12–14, 21; 15:1–2; 19:7). Genesis 27, 235

God commits himself to the empty-handed fugitive. The fugitive has not been abandoned. This God will accompany him... It is the name finally assigned to Jesus of Nazareth (“Emmanuel, God with us,” Matt. 1:23), who was indeed God with his exiled people...And this same promise was his last word to the Matthean church (Matt. 28:20), “I am with you always.” Genesis 28, 245

Genesis 29-31 describes the interaction between Jacob and Laban as they try to outsmart each other in order to secure their futures. They resort to deceptions, manipulations and bullying which only complicate matters and damage relationships. Yet, in the middle of the whole thing God accomplishes his plan to bless Jacob and bless Laban's family through Jacob. Most importantly, in the center of the story, God secures the next generation of promise and raises up the family that will become the 12 tribes of Israel. Despite all the scheming and planning, it is God, as he remembers (acts on) covenant, that makes everything happen.

It is this earthy man through whom the resilient purposes of God are being worked out. The purpose of God is somehow operative in the places of scandal and deception. Even Luther tries too hard to explain away the sordidness of the narrative. One would expect Luther, especially, to affirm that God’s promises have no interest in moral rectitude. But the text is clear enough. Precisely in this doubtful character the promise of God is being fulfilled. Genesis 29-31, 252

That remembering is the heart of the gospel. It will not be explained. It can only be affirmed, celebrated, and relied upon. That is how it is with Rachel. That is how it also is with Leah (29:33; 30:17). The two mothers of Israel, the loved and not loved, the beautiful and not beautiful, discover together that barrenness is not a problem for human solution. New life is God’s gift. The seemingly incidental assertion of Leah in 29:32 is the claim of the entire narrative. God looks upon the affliction of his children (cf. 31:42). Genesis 29-31, 255–256

History may appear to be closed with the collapse of public institutions, with the shortage of energy, with the ways of technology which outstrip our humaneness. What is to come leaves us filled with a mixture of hope and dread. This narrative for the family of Jacob and for the listening community is subtle but sure. On the one hand, history is not closed because God has surprises yet to give. But on the other hand, the future will be shaped in God’s promised way. And no human scheme or device can do more than delay that sure future. Genesis 29-31, 260

Chapter 32 marks the return of Jacob to the land as God had promised when he fled the land. It also marks a return to face Esau and seek reconciliation. It is a scary experience but God responds with a bodyguard of angels to protect Jacob. However, as Jacob prepares to face Esau he also must face God, in this passage a shadowy wrestler, who allows Jacob to win and lose at the same time. Jacob emerges from the encounter with God blessed, but crippled and a changed man. He then is ready to face Esau and be reconciled.

On the one hand, Jacob/Israel soars to bold heights of a Promethean kind. But then, he is corrected by a limp, affirming that only God is God. On the other hand, Jacob is a cripple with a blessing. Israel must ponder how it is that blessings are given and at what cost. This same theology of weakness in power and power in weakness turns this text toward the New Testament and the gospel of the cross. Genesis 32-33, 270–271.

God will not be taken lightly or easily. There will be no cheap reconciliations. On the way to the affronted brother, Jacob must deal with the crippling (and blessing) God. The Israel that goes on to the reconciliation with the brother is not only buoyant and successful, he also limps. Genesis 32-33, 272

Even though Jacob is in the land, he is still not safe and must be a man of faith if he is to succeed. Threats come from the outside with people, like the Shechemites, who would pretend faithfulness for economic benefit. Threats also come from the inside, as Simeon and Levi respond to the outside threats with violence and vengeance. Jacob (Israel) fails both by allowing the corruption of compromise with the unfaithful and, at the same time, failing to be faithful blessings to the people around them. The answer to that is repentance and renouncing of the sins of the world around them and a new start.

Passion is often a strange mixture of religious fervor and animal craving. And passion is always in tension with cool pragmatism, seeking survival through planned action. Faith must live and move and decide within that tension. It is an issue which the community of Jacob must face whenever it comes to the prosperity and stability of the land. The land always comes with people who have another vision (cf. 12:6). They must be dealt with, whether passionately or pragmatically or, perhaps, faithfully. Genesis 34, 280

Exposition of this passage in our time may need to ask about the false powers and loyalties which must be rejected. And it will want to ask about the symbolic actions which might accomplish disengagement...Thus, we may discern continuity from the Israelite purification practice concerning foreign gods, to the baptismal renunciations in the early church, to the mandates for disengagement in our time. This community of faith is continually engaged in dramatic and genuine relinquishments of Canaanite alternatives. Genesis 35.1-15, 282

However, before the story moves on to the new start for the family with Joseph the story of Jacob ends with the genealogy of Esau. It is important to see that Genesis does not make the election of Jacob a rejection of Esau. He is not the bearer of promise but he does share in its blessings and mercies. God is concerned about Esau as well as Jacob.

It is a problem to affirm the election of Jacob and yet to assert the legitimacy of the others. But that is what this tradition does...This awareness has important implication for the faith community in the context of the human community. While God has a particular and precious relation to this chosen community, it is not the Lord’s only commitment. In other ways and on other grounds, these others are also held in his care and kept in his promise. Genesis 36, 287

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