Archive for February, 2014

Isaac the Fortunate

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2014 by ancienthopes

Isaac, Abraham’s and Sarah’s “Laughter,” is a most fortunate man by biblical standards. He grows to a ripe old age rich from beginning to the end, and found true love with his wife Rebecca. Apart from his run-in with Abimelek the Philistine, lying like his father did in Egypt to protect his beautiful wife (26:1-11, cf. 12:10-20), and the struggle over the wells (26:12-16, also vv. 17-22 at Gerar), we really do not know of any notable event or accomplishment in his life. Perhaps a fair criticism of this august patriarch is that he showed favoritism towards his son Esau out of his love for wild game. Given Jacob’s rather unpleasant personality, we might suspect that more was at play here than mere culinary passions. Rebecca favored Jacob, and we see triangular relations forming: father and Esau against Jacob, and mother and Jacob against Esau. This is classic dysfunction. However, we do maintain that on biblical standards, Isaac’s life was a bed of roses.

By far the most interesting story has to do with how his father’s servant found Rebecca for Isaac (Chapter 24). It is a perfectly constructed love narrative around a well. (Isaac was not always so lucky with wells! But see 26:32f.) The servant is altogether lovable in his simplicity and Rebecca is utterly charming in her youthful beauty. Isaac is mentioned only at the tail end of the narrative where it is said that “[he] went out ‘to meditate’ in the field in the evening” (24:63). For millennia pious souls have been ravished with the thought of Isaac’s spirituality. However, the verb translated “to meditate” (Hebrew śûaḥ) happens only here with no cognates, and so we are left with no clue as to what it means. Given Rebecca’s observation (v. 65), scholars tend to translate it with the more innocuous “to take a stroll.”

Be this as it may, Isaac certainly functions, like his father before him, as a priest in the land of promise. He has a God-encounter where the promise of Eden Falls upon him with the mandate to bless the world (26:1-5). He carries this blessing on to Jacob, albeit unwittingly (27:27-29), and his word over Esau is the very opposite of Eden’s blessing (27:39-40).

We must come back to the point that Isaac does not accomplish anything worthy of note in his life, at least in the worldly way of Cain’s line with its inventors of metallurgy and musicians, or Nimrod, a great warrior and builder of cities (see Faustian Patterns, Nov. 25, 2013). For that matter, the same can be said of Abraham himself, and certainly about Jacob. These are not heroes, mighty men of war, builders of cities and buildings as we see enshrined in the national epics of pagan lore. In fact, they were ordinary men painted warts and all. That to me is one of the most fascinating things about these stories ─ that they grip our souls without pomp and circumstance. Everything turns on relationship, covenant, and blessing. Everything is about God and His encounters and the promises. This is why the great patriarchal triad of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob belongs to all humanity through the Hebrews; they are everyman, and their wives, every woman.

Worshiping Among the Trees

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 by ancienthopes

In his many years of living in and traveling throughout the Promised Land (some 100 years!), it is clear that wherever Abraham settled, there was a sacred grove and an altar. His first stop in Shechem is immediately associated with the Oak of Moreh, which means “Oak of the Teacher/Soothsayer (i.e. fortune telling, Gen. 12:6) where YHWH appeared to him with a promise to give him this land. His natural response is to build an altar for worship (12:7). From there he headed south to Bethel where he built another altar (12:8). A famine forced him to Egypt, but on return he dwelt by the Oaks of Mamre in Hebron, again building an altar (13:18). After the tumultuous incidents involving the “Cities of the Plain” and his nephew Lot (Gen. 14, 19), Abraham traveled to the south of Canaan in a region called the Negev to Gerar and ultimately to Beersheba, where he planted a tamarisk tree, and “called there on the name of YHWH, the Everlasting God” (21:33). Finally, he and Sarah were buried in the only land that he ever legally owned which he bought from Ephron the Hittite, a field east of Mamre, with “all [its] trees (23:17).

To this we may add Jacob’s standing stone, or pillar erected in memory of his dream encounter with God at Bethel, making a vow to God (28:18ff.) as he flees from the land before his brother. On his return, God commands him to set up another pillar at Bethel, pouring a drink offering over it (35:1, 14). At the end of his life, traveling to meet Joseph in Egypt, Jacob stops by Beersheba, and we would not be imposing too much on the text to imagine him walking among the trees his grandfather Abraham planted years ago, now fully mature, in deep contemplation. Was it there that he built his altar, sacrificing to God, encountering God through visions of the night (46:1-7)?

Godly people in these early times were closely associated with trees, altars and even standing stones where they worshipped God, sacrificed, and made vows. This was even the case after Mosaic times where we find Joshua at Shechem setting up a standing stone underneath an oak in the “sanctuary of the Lord” in a covenant renewal ceremony (Josh. 24:26ff.). Deborah, a prophetess, was naturally found under a palm tree, which is no doubt associated with her powers to communicate with the supernatural. What may seem shocking is that these were the practices of the pagans that were condemned by later Mosaic legislation and the prophets (Dt. 12:2, I Kgs. 14:23, II Kgs. 16:4, 17:10, Jer. 2:20, 3:6, 17:2, Ezk. 6:13, 20:28, Isa. 57:5). We must conclude that the FORM of early worship did not differ in many ways from the pagan rituals, but the MEANING of the ritual was worlds apart. Pagan religion was not relational, but fundamentally magic driven. On the other hand, YHWH is identified as the God of Abraham (24:12, 27, 42, 48), to Jacob he was “God of Abraham your father, and Isaac (28:13), also the “fear of Isaac” (31:42). In short, YHWH is the God of the “fathers” who enters into covenant with persons, yet is worshiped among the trees much like the pagan gods were.

This universal bond linking trees to human worship, illustrated by both the bright side (biblical) and the dark side (pagan), reflects the primal connection humanity has to lost origins, the Garden and especially to its two trees (see July 8, 2013). Trees were nature’s first cathedrals, their trunks pillars, and light beams shining through the upper leafy boughs like windows. The Temple’s two pillars symbolize either the cosmic mountains holding up the firmament, and/or the two trees of paradise. It is likely that there was a grove of trees in the Temple precincts (Ps. 92:12-15, see The Symbols of the Biblical World, Othmar Keel, p. 143). For Abraham, his sacred groves were microcosms of the whole of the Promise Land, which was itself a symbol of Eden.

Outrageous Promises

Posted in Uncategorized on February 11, 2014 by ancienthopes

Underlying the whole concept of Covenant is promise. God motivates Abraham by making the promises that launched him on his pilgrimage in 12:1-3. These promises are tailor made for him in his own unique situation, and as we have said before, God made him these promises so that he could be a blessing to the world.

Now these promises have got to be impossible by human standards. By a strange irony, Abram means “exulted father.” For most of his life he carried this name not having any children through his lawful wife. We all know that he allowed Sarai to talk him into taking Hagar so as to produce offspring (chapter 16); the narrative does not condemn him for this outright, but leaves us with the distinct impression that this was not a work of faith. It was when he was 99 years old that God encounters him, changing his name to Abraham (chapter 17). Abraham means “father of a multitude.” This is even more absurd than his first name considering the fact that his only offspring was a son through his wife’s maid. Think how this went over with his relatives and friends! Then God tells him the impossible, the unthinkable; Sarah will bear a son! Abraham, standing before God Almighty, falls on his face before him, not in worship, but laughing in disbelief (17:17). Sarah was more discreet, laughing to herself behind the door. When confronted, she denied it. God countered, “No, but you did laugh” (18:9-15). The child was to be named “Laughter” (i.e. Isaac).

Promises have to be impossible so that it is clear that only God can perform them. They have to be tailor made because every soul is different, and every soul must be courted uniquely. Like Abraham, Christians are placed on this planet with a special calling, to accomplish something that is far beyond their natural abilities, and something that must be worked out supernaturally. These outrageous promises are the product of divine encounters that can take on a myriad of forms, some subtle like a gentle nudging of the soul, some dramatic like visions. These promises set the soul on fire, and set one on a journey like Abraham. Though it may take years to see the fruition of these promises, by the end we see that it was God, and only God, that worked in our lives supernaturally. What is more, though promises made when we are young are interpreted one way, we find in the end that they are fulfilled in ways far beyond anything we may once have thought. So it was with Joseph and his dreams; he had no idea the journey he would have to take, nor the strange and wonderful way they were fulfilled. Most often, it takes years, perhaps vast swaths of a lifetime of waiting, to see their fulfillment. Promises have to age in our souls so as to maturate our faith.

There are different kinds of faith. We are to believe certain things about God as revealed in Scripture that we must all believe as a united body of believers. This is doctrinal faith. We are also to believe the general promises that God makes to all believers, that He will provide for us, protect us, save us, etc. Then there is the faith we are talking about here, personal promises uniquely fitted for us that propel us on a journey and stir our souls with the impossible. They give us a sense of purpose and place us in the broad context of God’s overarching plan of re-creation. Abraham is unique as a historical individual with a unique role in God’s plan, but he is also a type of every man, every woman of faith. If God cannot be to us as He was to Abraham, then what are we supposed to do with these stories?

I do believe that because so much of the Church is ignorant of this last kind of faith that faith seems so weak and lack-luster in our midst. Faith is understood mostly in terms of initial salvation, maintenance, and survival. Perhaps it is safe for us this way. We do not want to lose control, to set out into regions unknown, or to wait patiently on outrageous promises designed to thrust us into the supernatural.

And I will fetch a morsel bread, and comfort ye your hearts … (Gen. 18:5, KJV)

Posted in Uncategorized on February 4, 2014 by ancienthopes

Throughout the patriarchal narratives we find mysterious encounters with the mal’ak YHWH (“Messenger of YHWH”). Judging from the reaction of those who meet Him, and the person in which the Being speaks (sometimes in the first person speaking as God), there is no doubt that the assumption of the text is that this Being is a theophany. Notice that the mal’ak YHWH speaks as God in the first person to Hagar (16:10), and that she is surprised that she has actually seen a manifestation of God and survived (v. 13). Chapters 18 and 19 are tantalizingly ambiguous as to the nature of the three “men” that visit Abraham. We know that YHWH Himself appeared to him (vv. 1, 3), and that there were three men, and that they speak together in the third person plural (v. 9), but singularly in the first person singular (vv. 10, 14). “He” accuses Sarah of laughing (v. 15). Things get even more oblique as the narrative progresses. In verse 16 Abraham is sending the “men” on their way when YHWH converses in the first person with him (vv.17 21). The “men” go in verse 22 toward Sodom, but YHWH stayed back to speak with Abraham, and afterwards “went away” (v. 33). Some light is given in 19:1, where we have the two “mal’ākîm” visiting Lot. Evidently, one of the two supernatural beings was YHWH Himself, who actually lodged and ate with Abraham in human form. In 21:17 19 God hears the cry of Ishmael and the mal’ak YHWH calls down from heaven in human speech to Hagar, and speaks as God in the first person. The same is true of 22:11 18, where the mal’ak YHWH swears in the first person as YHWH “by Myself I have sworn…” (v. 15, cf. 31:11 13). Even more remarkable is the fact that Jacob fought with a “man” all night, only to be shocked when he realized that it was God Himself (32:30). The most revealing passage is the ancient hymn (so von Rad) in 48:15 16:

The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has led me all my life long to this day,
The Messenger (hammal’āk) who has redeemed me from all evil …

There is no doubt that Jacob equated the God of his fathers with the mal’ak YHWH. More than this, mal’ak is emphatic by virtue of its final position in the parallelism and the highly personal role as “redeemer” (as opposed to “walk” and “led”).

Pagan myths are saturated with stories of theophanies, but they are gods of the heavenly pantheon who encounter humans only incidentally, and when they do, it is for their own pleasure (or anger), and the incidents are not framed in historical time. Here we have the Transcendent God encountering actual historical persons in space and time as they lived it out, becoming immanent with creation. He is called a “messenger” because He is sent by YHWH. In this way He is differentiated from YHWH as His “messenger.” Yet, at the same time, it is clear in the texts that this Messenger is YHWH as discussed above. We can only conclude that the ambiguity is intentional, for it is by this ambiguity that YHWH’s utter transcendence is preserved in the face of His immanence in creation and relationships with mortal man. The incarnation of Christ with its complex theological issues has its roots deep within the patriarchal narratives.

When we consider that the Promised Land was understood theologically as a return to Eden, we see that these Theophany encounters are crucial, for the garden was the Holy of Holies where transcendence touched the temporal. Abraham rushing to greet his Creator at his tent door, offering Him a “morsel of bread” to “comfort His heart,” is more than just a quaint unguarded moment; it is paradise on earth.