Archive for April, 2014

Joseph’s Ordeal

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2014 by ancienthopes

We do not know how long Joseph was in the pit (Gen. 37:24). Perhaps it was only the length of the meal his brothers enjoyed, during which they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way down to Egypt. Perhaps it was three days and three nights. Whatever, we can imagine the emotions that rocked his soul─the shock of betrayal, the suffocating terror of the dark earthen walls about him, the cruel demise in a single moment of youth’s illusion of immortality. Moreover, we see this poor boy’s spirit rise as he is lifted up out of the pit, only to be met by the ruthless, mirthful yet somewhat uneasy eyes of his own brothers as they hand him over to strangers for a few silver coins. (Silver plays a crucial role in this story as it unfolds; cf. 42:25ff., 43:18, and 44:2,17). Be this as it may, Joseph found himself a slave drawn down to Egypt, a curiously complex place that possesses an inevitable pull. There Abraham his great grandfather was forced by famine to seek sustenance, yet narrowly escapes losing his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:10-20). During another famine Isaac his grandfather was tempted to go down as well but warned not to by God (Gen. 26:1-5). As we shall see, Jacob his father goes down only when it could no longer be avoided, forced by famine as well. Egypt symbolizes the world, an unavoidable place of earthly necessity and sustenance, yet a dangerous place that devours and enslaves.

On his way down, Joseph had much time to reflect on these things and to study his soul. No doubt he bitterly lamented the sudden fall from his high position in a wealthy family destined for greatness to being enslaved by gypsy-like mercenaries. As far as he knew, life was over as he had experienced it. He grew up assuming that all things revolved around him. Surely he was the center of reality, and everyone, even his own family, existed for him. Now he had to deal with the truth of the matter. He was not the center of the universe. This is the lesson of the pit and great reversals of status or social standing. They teach us the truth about ourselves, and if we embrace the truth, we learn humility. Young and proud of his favored position and his spirituality, Joseph had to be humbled. Those who long to be humble must not resist the pit of humiliation; the only way to be humble is to be humbled.

Joseph’s situation was extremely tenuous. As a slave, he was completely dehumanized, his worth calculated by a few coins. He had no platform whatsoever with his masters as to how they would dispose of him. His opinion mattered nothing. For all he knew, he could be sent to the mines digging for copper till he dropped, never to see the light of day again, or moving brick under the whip. As horrifying as this realization was for Joseph at the time, something subtle and sublime made its way into his soul. He may not have seen it right away through the pain and disappointment, but he encountered a most elusive fact on the way down to Egypt. This is the fact of our powerlessness and our ultimate inability to manipulate ourselves into a position of security in this transient world. This, of course, is an old hackneyed truism that we all know to some degree by virtue of being mortal. But to really come to terms with this is a grace of God. Those who see it no longer feel that they have to be in control. They are not, nor cannot be, the masters of their own fate. What seemed to be Joseph’s most vulnerable moment was in fact the beginning of his own freedom─the freedom from the illusion of power, of control, of self determination.

One of the grandest illusions we hold dear to our hearts is that loss, privation, suffering, and trials are sort of an aberration, or detour, in life that otherwise should be pleasant and gratifying. This is especially true for Americans and those who enjoy the fruits of Western affluence. In fact, our whole purpose as a society is to bend the material world to our wills, forcing it to smile upon us. Success, security, progress and prosperity are ours by right, and anything that gets in our way is an evil to be abhorred. The truth is that suffering is not an aberration in this life and must not be understood as a mere “set back” in our rush to get to the top. Pain and loss are necessary parts of this existence and are as natural as the yearly turns of fall and winter. Rather than an abnormality, a tumor that must be removed and forgotten at all costs, suffering is the great means by which all aspiring souls ascend to God.

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Judah’s Awakening

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2014 by ancienthopes

Judah had three sons by this Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For Er, his firstborn, Judah provided a wife named Tamar, another Canaanite. Er, however, was wicked, and God killed him. According to ancient custom, Onan, the second born, was responsible for raising up children in his brother’s name. What is crucial at this point is Onan’s thought processes. He realized that raising a son for his brother would be extra trouble and an expense to him, and might jeopardize his hopes for his own family. Onan, therefore, performed a rather crude form of birth control so that Tamar would not conceive. God rewarded such selfishness by killing him as well, leaving Judah with only one son, Shelah the youngest. Judah, not wishing to arouse God’s wrath on his only son, promises to keep Tamar in his house till Shelah was of age, making it look as if he would fulfill the obligation. When the time came, though, it became clear to Tamar that her father- in-law would never give Shelah to her. Evidently Judah reasoned that any contact with Tamar would be dangerous to his only surviving son or would at least complicate Shelah’s own hopes for a family one day. Be this as it may, it is clear that Judah and his son Onan were operating with their natural, common sense understanding of their situation, motivated by their own interests.

Tamar understood Judah. She dressed up like a prostitute and waited for him to come by. When he saw her, he “turned in” to her, as he turned toward the Canaanites years before when he left his brethren (Same Heb. verb nāṭâ in Gen. 38:1 with 38:16), and began the bargaining process. Promising a kid from his flock, he left his signet, cord, and staff as a pledge for her favors. When he sent his friend back to pay her and retrieve his things, she was gone. Later, when she is pregnant, Judah wanted to have her burned out of righteous indignation, but she presents the signet, cord, and staff as evidence of the fact that he was the father.

At this point a profound change comes over Judah. It is said that he “recognized” the evidence, a word that links this story with our larger story of Jacob, when he “recognized” his son’s coat (Same Heb. verb nākar in 37:33 and 38:26). For Judah, however, it was more than just a physical recognition, but a spiritual one. Upon seeing, he said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Here is recognition of one’s spiritual state; he saw that he was blind to what he was, that he was in the dark. In fact, he was a lot like his father Jacob, favoring and protecting his youngest son without consideration of the rights of his firstborn. He was essentially selfish, living in his own little world with a Canaanite wife and an occasional prostitute, unconcerned for those around him.

What we have here is a microcosm of our overall story, preparing the reader for what is to come. Jacob and Judah are both unjust fathers. Tamar suffers injustice from her brother-in-law just as Joseph did from his brothers. Family problems are solved through concealed identity: Tamar as a prostitute and Joseph as an Egyptian ruler. Tamar’s life is threatened until she reveals her evidence; the brothers fear for their lives till Joseph reveals his identity and reassures them. Moreover, Tamar gives birth to twins, the second born supplanting the firstborn, much like Jacob over Esau at the beginning of our story and Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh at the end of our story. Finally, both Judah and Jacob become enlightened about themselves, God, and reality. This little Judah story gives the reader hope about progress in the spiritual life in spite of the great odds.

Judah’s Descent

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2014 by ancienthopes

The most startling thing about Jacob’s family is its profound worldliness. They seem capable of every crime. At times the brothers appear more like a roving gang of vengeful thugs than Abraham’s offspring. Once, Simeon and Levi butchered all the males of a town, while the other brothers plundered it because of the rape of their sister Dinah (Chapter 34). Even Jacob was upset over this, not so much because of the violence, but because it placed him in danger with the inhabitants of the land (34:30; but see 49:5-6). Plainly, these people are wicked. However, it is equally plain that this family is categorically different than the rest of humanity, in spite of their immoral behavior. They were the children of Abraham through whom God was to reach the world with His love. They were God’s elect, His special people upon whom His thoughts and affections rested. This poses a problem. How is it that God’s chosen can act so contrary to the purity one would expect? The answer lies in the fact that the members of this family were living by their lower parts, that is, their senses and their reason. The story of Judah and Tamar best illustrates this (Chapter 38).

It is said that at the time when Joseph was sold, “Judah went down from his brothers” and “turned” toward a man referred to as an “Adullamite,” a Canaanite from the city of Adullam, a short way from Hebron where his family settled (38:1). “Going down” is directional not only in a geographical sense, but also in a spiritual sense. This comes right on the heels of Jacob’s lament for his son Joseph where he proclaims that he will go down to sheol in mourning (37:35). Moreover, in the larger context, our story hinges on Joseph, his brothers, and ultimately Jacob and his family going down to Egypt. For Judah going down from his brothers, for Jacob going down to sheol in grief, and for the family going down to Egypt, “going down” means descending from an ideal, a separation from what normally would be proper for those living in the land promised to them by the God of their father Abraham. In Judah’s case, the added fact that he went down “from his brothers,” and turned toward a Canaanite, makes it clear that Judah no longer considered his spiritual roots and preferred to live like the Canaanites. Judah has descended into the lower regions morally and spiritually.

This fact is reinforced by what immediately follows; it is said that Judah saw a Canaanite woman and took her (38:2). Seeing and taking are accompanied by disastrous effects in the Book of Genesis beginning with Eve with the fruit, the Egyptians with Abraham’s wife Sarah, the “Sons of God” who had sexual relations with the daughters of men, and Shechem who raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Wenham). These two words succinctly describe devouring on the basis of sensual encounter without regard for spiritual ramifications. The point here is that Judah is sensual man, operating from what his senses dictate, as opposed to spiritual man, who operates from the assumption that invisible realities are more foundational than visible realities. By marrying a Canaanite, Judah has become like his uncle Esau, who, as mentioned before, symbolizes sensual man par excellence and the urge for immediate gratification. Canaanite women symbolize the glamor and draw of this transient world. Such a choice no doubt bothered Jacob, who, like his father before him, looked to the land of Abraham’s ancestors to find a good wife (cf. Gen 24 with 28).

Truth be known, many Christians, true children of God, live like Judah. Gradually, they have descended down into their lower parts, living by their senses and reason, and go about this way without a clue as to their condition. What is needed is an awakening. For this we must wait for the next post.

No One Can Embrace God without a Fight!

Posted in Uncategorized on April 7, 2014 by ancienthopes

Jacob’s encounter with the Theophany at Peniel, upon re-entry to the land, is hardly less powerful of a story as his dream at Bethel. In fact, they are linked by visions of angels; the angels of the stairway and those of the army of God (cf. 28:12 and 32:1). Again, Jacob is awed, yet he still fears his brother Esau, and makes preparations in case of attack. This fear inspires a passionate prayer to God, reminding Him of His promises to him, asking God for deliverance (32:9-12).

As one traveled north from Jericho along the Rift Valley, one could observe, across the Jordan River, the high cliffs of Gilead to the east. There is a split in the wall-like plateau where a river cuts through on its way to the Jordan; this is the Jabbok. Here it was that Jacob sent his family across under cover of night. Alone like he was 20 years before at Bethel, Jacob confronts a stranger in the dark; he could not run, he could not hide. It could be that he thought he was his brother Esau attacking him. Terrified, he found himself, a mild man by temperament, suddenly locked in violent combat, fighting for his life. To his own surprise, Jacob had far more fight in himself than he ever knew. First of all, the contest lasted throughout the night until morning. Secondly, he found that he was getting the better of his mysterious opponent. Somewhere in the battle Jacob’s soul sensed that this was no ordinary man with whom he was thrashing about on the ground. What started as desperate fright now became steely determination to win something from this stranger who now clearly appeared supernatural. At the break of day, this mystical being, seeing that he cannot prevail against him by ordinary means, touches Jacob’s thigh, putting it out of joint. Clinging on to him with what strength he had in his arms, Jacob would not let go, would not accept defeat.

It is at this moment the very best in Jacob’s nature surfaces. He would not let go without a blessing. What started as a fight ends with an embrace. The Stranger demonstrates His lordship over Jacob by changing his name; no longer a “heel” (see “Jacob or Esau, Take Your Pick, March 3, 2014) he becomes “Israel,” meaning “he who strives with God,” or “he for whom God strives.” Jacob, still not fully comprehending Him who was before him, ventures to ask his name in return. It was the way in which his request was denied, by the simple question “Why is it that you ask my name,” that Israel knew He was a Theophany. In utter amazement, he realized that he got away with intimate personal combat with God and survived. Yet, he would never be the same; he would limp for the rest of his life.

No one can embrace God without a fight. By nature we humans fight God out of sheer fright, desperately clinging onto our own ways, protecting our turf, and pursuing self gratifying dreams. God shows up in the darkness of our night, and challenges us. Not one of us gives up without a fight. If by the grace of God, somewhere in the fight, our arms stop struggling and instead hold on, refusing to let go until God should give us a blessing, we win life’s battle. You can always tell one who has won with God, they always walk with a limp, a war wound, if you will.

Maximus the Confessor tells us that God has given us three powers of the soul; logikos (innermost secret place of the soul that searches for what is true and real), epithumētikon (desire and longing what is true and real), and thumos (fight). We see Jacob bending all three of these powers to God in this brief but intense encounter. As for fight, once it becomes an embrace, we must turn it against all that would keep us away from God. No one can grow spiritually without a long and continuous fight with the God who loves us, and a long and continuous fight against all that would separate us from Him!