The Bible in a Year – 11 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

11 January. Genesis chapters 32 to 34

Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with a man who he believes to be an appearance of God is a curious story.  Although angels often appear in human form (yes, today as well as in Bible times), they normally have no physical contact with people, and are to be distinguished from an actual bodily incarnation of God himself. This is probably the closest we see to that in the whole of the Old Testament, as it was only with Jesus that anyone could “see God and live” – Jacob’s encounter took place in the utter darkness of a wilderness night when the Lord’s face could not be seen.

 

The incident is a turning point in his life, not only for the unique encounter with God, but for the limp with which it left him (my wife currently has a problem with her hip, so I can see how painful and limiting it would have been), God’s blessing with a new name (Israel, by which name God’s people would henceforth be known) and in the way that it preceded the reconciliation with his brother. There is a spiritual truth here that before we can fulfil God’s purposes for us, we have to recognise ways in which we have been struggling against God (“kicking against the goads” as St Paul puts it), and accept both his blessing and the limitations that living out our calling may have on our human freedom.

The Bible in a Year – 10 January

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10 January. Genesis chapters 30-31

 

These chapters, and the previous one, tell the story of Jacob and his two sibling wives.  Some of the themes we have seen earlier in the book are repeated here: having children by a servant (the ancient equivalent of surrogacy I suppose) when one’s wife cannot conceive; and deception, whether by Laban in giving Jacob the “wrong” bride or his daughter Rachel in stealing her father’s idols.  But I will pick up on two incidental details:

 

At the start of chapter 30, there is a scene worthy of a TV soap, as tensions caused by Rachel’s childlessness come to a head. “Give me children or I shall die!” she moans; “Am I in the place of God?” her frustrated husband replies.  The ‘solution’ of having sons by his other wife and both their maids could only lead to further relationship difficulties, and at the end of the story, Rachel does finally bear a son, Joseph, who goes on to become the greatest of the brothers. How often do we have to be reminded that seeing God’s intentions fulfilled usually involves a large degree of patience?

 

When Laban and Jacob agree to go their separate ways, they set up what they call the “heap of witness”.  But they give it different names, which the NRSV footnote helpfully explain is because Laban uses Aramaic, and Jacob Hebrew.  Although he has worked for Laban twenty years and taken his daughters as wives (and so has surely learnt the language) he reverts to his mother tongue when it comes to naming the place. Language has such strong resonances for us, and placenames are rich in meaning.

 

The Bible in a Year – 9 January

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9 January. Genesis chapters 28-29

Jacob’s Ladder is one of those well known Bible stories, perhaps because it is so easily illustrated.  Or perhaps (for Sunday school teachers) because unlike most of the rest of Genesis it does not involve sex or violence.  But note – Jacob is sleeping out in the open with a hard rock for a pillow.  I had always pictured this as in some remote desert.  But he is actually staying in the “city” of Luz (the word is perhaps used in a relative sense, but a town at least).  So he has chosen to spend the night outdoors, maybe because it was a hot summer night, or maybe because he knew that solitude and contemplation of the vastness of the night sky are helpful to prayer.  And God meets him in a special way.  It reminds me to look for more opportunities to be truly alone with God.

 

I will write more about Jacob and his wives as the story unfolds tomorrow.

The Bible in a Year – 8 January

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8 January. Genesis chapters 25 -27

The saga of the patriarchs moves on a generation with the birth of Esau and Isaac, twins with a troubled relationship from before their birth.  They must have been very different characters, Esau the manly “Daddy’s boy” and Isaac the stay-at-home cook, his mother’s favourite.   Esau cannot have been very bright to fall for Isaac’s “sell me your birthright for a meal” trick, or maybe he thought it was meant as a joke. But Isaac, and later his father, seem to have taken it seriously and it had implications for future generations. When I was about ten I lent my cousin a small amount of money and got him to sign a note promising interest at 10% a month.  He never paid it back, and if enforced now it would probably amount to more than national GDP, but I have no intention of trying!

 

Rebekah is one of many women in the Bible whose difficulties having children – in her case after twenty years of trying – were overcome when God granted a miraculous pregnancy in answer to prayer.  But not everyone who suffers in this way has such an outcome, and let’s spare a thought for childless women we know, praying that they may find fulfilment in other ways.

 

We sometimes hear of “water wars” in the world as an increasing global population stretches a scarce resource, but it is nothing new.  Isaac has to re-open wells that a rival ethnic group have sealed up after Abraham first dug them, and meets opposition for doing so. But eventually the one at Beer-Sheba is found acceptable, and a covenant with King Abimelech is sealed there in a repeat of a similar story from Abraham’s time.  Pray for those people and parts of the world, especially the nomadic tribes of Ethiopia and the Sahel, who struggle to find water in their wells today.  May they find water, and live in peace with their neighbours.

The Bible in a Year – 7 January

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7 January. Genesis chapters 22 to 24.

The near-sacrifice of Isaac is another very troubling story.  Although it ends happily and is given as a lesson about faith in God, I imagine Isaac must have been traumatised and had a difficult relationship with his father for a long time after being nearly murdered.  The story is of course seen by Christians as a foreshadowing of Christ who also had to carry the wood to his own place of execution.

 

The next story about Isaac – the fetching of his cousin’s daughter Rebekah for an arranged marriage – is a happier one, and the sort of thing that goes on in many communities today.  Although the story is told as one of divine providence, I expect Isaac would have known who he was looking for and where she could be found. Then as now, though, the girl (and for that matter the young man) would not really have been given a choice.

The Bible in a Year – 6 January

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6 January. Genesis chapters 19-21

At the end of the last chapter of yesterday’s reading, the story turned suddenly to that of the destruction of Sodom and its neighbouring towns. Here is Abraham the trader, using haggling skills that he has no doubt used many times in his life to buy or sell animals or other goods.  But this time he is haggling to save lives – not quite disinterestedly, for his nephew Lot lives in Sodom.  He stops the bargaining at ten – possibly the size of Lot’s family?  And God agrees not to destroy the town if only ten people are righteous. God’s mercy is great, but it has its limits – it turns out that not even that number are available to save their community.

 

Even allowing for the passage of time and different cultures, as I hinted yesterday, I still find the attitudes to women in these chapters astonishing.  Is Lot really saying that he will let his betrothed-but-still-virgin daughters be raped rather than his guests?  Or is this irony – “you know I couldn’t possibly give my daughters, still less would I give up my guests”?

In the next chapter (20) we see the “my sister not my wife” deception played out again, just as with a previous ruler. Has Abraham not learnt his lesson yet, that trust in God must overrule any earthly fears?   Fortunately this time the king does nothing to Sarah – perhaps not surprisingly as she is now an old woman!  Another storyline repeats itself with the second banishment of Hagar and her son.  One can hardly imagine the desperation of someone faced with starvation – surely she would have given her son any last bits of food and water that they had – yet so many people in the world today face just such a situation.  May the Lord meet their needs as he did Hagar’s.

The Bible in a Year – 5 January

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5 January. Genesis chapters 16-18

In this part of the story, first of all we see an angel appearing to the badly treated slave Hagar – made pregnant by her master as he and Sarah despaired of God’s promise of a son coming true, then thrown out of the house, and collapsed (no doubt very hungry, thirsty and in tears) by a roadside spring. But does the angel comfort her and rescue her? No, she is sent back to her mistress (where presumably she would continue to be mistreated) and told that her son will live a difficult life. The only good news is that his tribe will be very numerous. It’s not what we expect, but as so often I need to remind myself that I’m reading about a very different culture from more than 3000 years ago, with a very different understanding of God as well as of human rights.

 

In the presence of God, a second covenant is then made with Abraham, that of circumcision as a sign of commitment to him by all Abraham’s household and their descendants, including the foreigners and slaves – we sometimes think of the Jews as a pure “race” but in fact they include others who have opted in to the faith.  Only now, 13 years after Ishamael was born does God make it clear to Abraham that the covenant will be realised through a son of Sarah’s, not Ishmael.  Finally, “three men” appear, to confirm the promise in the presence of Sarah herself – we don’t know whether Abraham had shared his earlier encounter with God with his wife, but I get the impression that he had not.  It has often been remarked that Abraham addresses these three in the singular – “my Lord”.  Some people see here a hint of the Christian belief in God as one being in three persons (creator, word and spirit) rather than the Jewish understanding of God as a single (undivided) person. But that’s a whole other debate…

The Bible in a Year – 4 January

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4 January. Genesis chapters 12 to 15.

Abram/Abraham was very well travelled. Having come from Ur of the Chaldeans, he passed via Bethel all the way down through the Bible lands to Egypt, back to Bethel, pursued his nephew’ captors all the way from Sodom to Damascus, and finally settled at Hebron.  Thousands of miles travelled, most of it when he was already an old man.  http://www.bible.ca/ has some useful maps.

 

He was also a very generous man.  Some of the more allegorically minded commentaries make much of the fact that he insisted on giving Melchizedek the king/priest his full share of the spoils of battle. More importantly, he let his nephew take the first choice of his share of the promised land, surely knowing that Lot would choose the more fertile plains of the Jordan valley, leaving Abram to farm the harder hill country.  But like everyone he had his faults.  Look at how he told the ruler of Egypt that his wife was actually his sister (therefore “available” to the Pharaoh’s harem) in order to save himself.  Even by the standard of the day this was unacceptable.  But God can still work through people despite their failings.

 

Towards the end of this very eventful life, when surely he was ready to settle down at last, Abram is promised that he will become the ancestor of countless people, despite his wife being old and barren, and has the faith to believe that.

The Bible in a Year – 3 January

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3 January. Genesis chapters 8-11

Re-reading the story of Noah I was reminded that it is easy to think we remember a story, but forget important details.  How long was Noah on the ark? Most people would say 40 days.  But that is only how long it rained, starting on the 17th of the second month of Noah’s 600th year.  But they did not leave the ark until the ground was completely dry, on the 27th of the second month of the following year.  A whole year had passed in their life.  Peoples around the world whose land gets flooded today will understand the implications of a year without sowing or reaping – the stores they brought with them will have to last another year (much of the ark’s lower decks must have been taken up with food and fodder!) But the Lord honours the Noah family’s commitment to him with a short poem or song (as it is set out in modern translations): “As long as the earth endures / seedtime and harvest, cold and heat / summer and winter, day and night / shall not cease.”  John Bell’s modern worship song “While earth remains” celebrates this promise of the continuing seasons.

 

Another little detail is that before the dove – that symbol of peace, often shown with an olive branch in its mouth as recounted here – Noah sent out a raven.  I recently saw an artwork showing this often-overlooked act. The raven gets no credit yet it did the hard work, flying around until the land appeared.  Noah’s wife, surprisingly, is also not named anywhere in this story, although she must have worked her socks off caring for all those animals as well as her own family. Sometimes life feels like that, doing the hard work and getting none of the recognition. But God knows, and will honour our work for him even if others do not.

The Bible in a Year – 2 January

Please see my introduction before reading this.

2 January. Genesis chapters 4-7

I regard these early chapters of Genesis as mythological rather than historical, although there may of course have been historical events that inspired stories such as that of the great flood.  But what can we learn from them?

 

It is interesting that the genealogy of Noah (and thus of all of us, according to the story) derives through Adam’s third son Seth, and not through Cain, presumably due to his murder of his brother.  Meanwhile, God’s punishment of Cain for the murder was to make his land infertile and thus cause him to leave the homeland and become a wanderer, which he considers “unbearable” (as it must be for anyone forced to leave their community in this way). But he is protected from vengeance, which is never God’s way for the world.  The moral? Our sins can indeed have long-lasting consequences for ourselves and others, but justice must not be confused with vengeance.

 

The beginning of chapter 6 intrigues me with its repeated references to “the sons of God and the daughters of humans”.   Is this merely a patriarchal view of sons being more important than daughters, or is there some deeper meaning? Likewise the Nephilim (sometimes translated as “giants”)  – could be a folk memory of Neanderthals, or may have a more spiritual meaning.  I don’t know.