Twists and Turns

For the week of December 24, 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

Stelvio Pass

Va-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

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 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:23)

The story of Joseph is full of twists and turns. Father’s favorite, dreams of supposed grandeur, facing murderous hatred from his brothers, sold into slavery instead of being killed, father Jacob deceived by brothers as to Joseph’s fate (not sure if Jacob ever believed them), greatly respected and trusted by master, remains faithful to God in the face of master’s wife’s seduction, framed by master’s wife resulting in imprisonment, put in charge of prisoners, accurately interprets two prisoners’ dreams, later interprets Pharaoh’s dreams resulting in release and being made second-in-command over Egypt, brothers come to buy food from Joseph due to predicted famine, eventually reconciles with his brothers and settles his whole clan in Egypt, remains free from bitterness throughout.

There is one twist in the story that is easy to miss, however. It has to do with Potiphar, Joseph’s Egyptian master, the husband of the seductress. It strikes me as strange that Joseph wasn’t executed for his alleged crime. It is doubtful that the ancient Egyptian legal system would limit the penalty for attempted rape by a slave, to imprisonment. When Potiphar heard the accusation against Joseph, we read “his anger was kindled” (39:19). But why? And with whom was he angry? We reasonably assume that he was angry at Joseph for attempted rape, but if his anger was directed at Joseph, then, as I mentioned, one would think he would have been executed, which he wasn’t. Besides that, it doesn’t seem to be too long that we find Joseph having favor with the keeper of the prison, who put him in charge of the other prisoners (39:21-23). But who was the keeper of the prison? Later on in the story when we are introduced to fellow prisoners (Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer) whose dreams eventually lead to Joseph’s being made known to Pharaoh, we are told that the prison was in the house of the captain of the guard and it was the captain of the guard who put Joseph in charge (40:3-4). And the captain of the guard is no other than Potiphar (37:36; 39:1)!

Perhaps Potiphar had mercy on Joseph because he thought so highly of him. That certainly had been the case, but why would he continue to have such high regard for a slave who so abused his master’s trust by doing one of the two things expressly forbidden to him (39:6, 9)? We cannot say absolutely for sure, because the Scripture doesn’t spell it out for us, but I propose that Potiphar knew his wife well enough to know that Joseph was indeed innocent.

But if that’s the case, then why did he not let him off the hook? There’s no way Potiphar could take sides against his wife and especially not on behalf of a slave. So, the best he could come up with was imprisonment in his own dungeon, while giving Joseph as much freedom and responsibility in that horrible environment as he could.

If anyone understood that life isn’t fair, it was Joseph. He didn’t do anything to suffer yet again – this time due to the dysfunctions of his master’s family. But it could have been worse had he been executed—not only worse for him (though he may have wished for death on more than one occasion)—but for his family of origin whom he would one day save, not to mention that the Plan of God for the entire world was riding on his prophesied destiny.

You might wonder if it was really necessary for Joseph’s life to take all these twists and turns. Could not God have preserved the fledgling nation of Israel without all this intrigue and suffering? Did Jacob’s family really have to move to Egypt? If so, was there no other way to get them there? Did Joseph have to endure hateful jealousy, slavery, wrongful accusation, and confinement in a dungeon? Was there no other way to install him as Prime Minister in Egypt? The more I look at it, I don’t think so. Each and every twist and turn appears to contribute something essential to the outcome. I am not saying that every single thing that happened to Joseph absolutely had to happen in exactly that way. But certainly, every difficult, confusing, painful, and unjust situation and circumstance was not wasted.

It’s the same for you and me. Life can be really crazy at times. Disappointing. Frustrating. Discouraging. But God knows what he is doing. And however he does it, whether by orchestrating each and every plot twist or walking with us around every turn, he has promised his children that he would be with us (see Matthew 28:20) and work everything out for our good (Romans 8:28). He knows what he is doing!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Getting a Hold of God

For the week of December 17, 2016 / 17 Kislev 5777

Wrestling

Va-Yishlah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English 42:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12
Originally posted the week of November 20, 2010 / 13 Kislev 5771

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And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-26)

You cannot encounter the God of Israel without being transformed. This certainly was Jacob’s experience, but not Jacob’s only. The Torah and the rest of the Scriptures contain all sorts of examples of people whose lives were radically changed as a result of encountering God. What is interesting is how each person’s story is unique, which is one of many aspects that testify to the genuineness of these experiences.

Another such aspect is how unusual and unexpected these encounters are. They don’t sound made up. The account of God wrestling with Jacob is a case in point. Who would make up a story where the Master of the Universe initiates a wrestling match with a key character, Jacob, who was in terror of his twin brother’s wrath? Not only that, Jacob locks on to God to the point that God requests to be let go (God requests to be let go?), and that is only after God permanently injures Jacob’s hip. Jacob knows that this was an extraordinary encounter, for he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (32:30).

One of the questions that arises from this story is who was really holding on to whom? On one hand God requests to be let go and Jacob says he won’t until God blesses him. On the other hand how could it be that Jacob could hold on to God like that? Jacob himself is surprised that he survived this encounter at all, apart from how unusual it was that he held on to God as he did.

I like studying theology. I love to grapple with the truths of Scripture in order to get to know God better and how to live life the way he intended. Yet, as I study theology I sometimes find a disconnect between the way some people try to explain the truths that they supposedly derive from Scripture and the reality of God in the Bible itself. What is often missing is an overwhelming sense of wonder in the attempt to explain the infinite God of the Universe. How could we read stories like this one and presume that we can fit the teaching of Scripture into neat little categories or claim to discern how all its loose ends fit together into a fine-tuned system.

When I compare the result of the know-it-all attitudes of some teachers with what we actually find in the Scriptures, I am led to believe that what these people are putting forward is not just lacking in its details, but in the very essence of their teaching. In other words, they are completely misrepresenting both God and his written Word.

Teaching that is in keeping with the reality of God is one that reflects the examples of the genuine encounters with God that we find in the Bible. This is teaching that leads us to greater and greater humility before God and people. It is honest about human failure and sin, while demonstrating that God is our rescuer through the Messiah. It highlights our need to depend solely on God, putting him and his agenda first. This kind of teaching never leads us to thinking that we know it all or have God and life figured out (this is why I am hesitant to embrace an “ism” or becoming an “ist”, if you know what I mean). In fact, the more we truly learn the Bible, we discover how much more there is to learn about God and life, not less. This is not to say that what we learn on the way is not valid. Far from it! Whatever we learn about God and his Word today is essential for what we will learn in the future. But we should never think that we can get a handle on God. Like Jacob, we need to learn that the more we get a hold of God, it is actually God who is getting a hold of us, or however it actually works.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Messy Families

For the week of December 10, 2016 / 10 Kislev 5777

Family Painting

Va-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3 (English: 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English: 12:12 – 14:10)

 

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Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” (Bereshit/Genesis 30:22-23)

Jacob’s family was blessed by God; it was also a mess! First, he grew up with tension between himself and his twin brother. There was a prophesy hanging over the two of them: contrary to custom, he would rise to supremacy even though his brother Esau was born first. He was a mama’s boy – homebody type -while his dad preferred his macho brother. Jacob was shrewd with his eye on the future; Esau lived in the moment and by his stomach. After stealing his father’s big-time blessing from his brother, he ran from Esau’s murderous threats to their mom’s relatives in Mesopotamia, where he worked for her brother, Laban. Uncle Laban was similar in some ways to Jacob, which helps sets the stage for his own messy family to be.

Jacob’s beginnings with Laban’s household look a bit like a Harlequin Romance. Instantly falling in love with Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters, he agrees to work for his uncle seven years that “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Bereshit/Genesis 29:20). Talk about heart-warming, that is until Uncle Laban does the most unbelievable switcheroo in history by substituting his older daughter, Leah, in place of Rachel. How in the world did Jacob not realize? She was probably veiled for most of the time (which led to the Jewish tradition of unveiling the bride at the beginning of the wedding ceremony. We’re certainly not going to fall for that one again!); the world was a lot darker at nighttime then than it is today; and if alcohol had a part to play, I wouldn’t be surprised!

But true to form for both these two, they cut another deal whereby Jacob would also get Rachel immediately for another seven years’ labor. Not a good arrangement! No wonder that years later God would command Israel through Moses not to marry a woman and her sister (see Vayikra/Levities 18:18). God tolerated for a time the substandard custom of polygamy, but not when the women were sisters as in Jacob’s case. And to think that Jacob didn’t want Leah in the first place. What a mess!

So-called normal family life is difficult enough without an arrangement like this. For the next twenty years or so, competition ensued between the two sisters with regard to childrearing. After Leah had four children (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah) and Rachel none, Rachel resorted to surrogacy. If you think surrogacy is a modern invention, you haven’t read the Bible. And this wasn’t the first time either. Jacob’s grandmother Sarah suggested a surrogate situation to her husband, Abraham: “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Bereshit/Genesis 16:2). In the worldview of their day, the child born via the wife’s maidservant would be regarded as if it were her own. So, Rachel had two children through surrogacy (Dan and Naphtali). Then Leah, who stopped having children herself for a time, had two more through her maidservant (Gad and Asher), before having three more herself (Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah). And then finally, Rachel had two of her own (Joseph and Benjamin), tragically dying immediately after Benjamin’s birth. All the way through this, the two sisters wrongly thought they could win their husband’s love or rid themselves of shame through the having of children.

Isn’t this all ridiculous? But isn’t it also common? Perhaps not exactly this sort of situation, even though with the changes in various jurisdictions regarding the definition of the family, we might see this exact scenario again. And yet the messy family didn’t undermine God’s plans and purposes. It’s wild that it ended up being son number eleven (Joseph), who would be the one to save the day for the whole clan. Besides this being a crazy way to build a family, the competitive atmosphere helped fuel the discord that resulted in Joseph’s being jettisoned to Egypt, which in the long run was best for everyone.

Don’t get me wrong! The good that arose from the soil of family dysfunction in no way justifies any of it. But it does give us hope. If God can work powerfully in and through Jacob’s messy family, he can do the same with ours.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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