Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Remaining faithful (Genesis 40)

Joseph was to be in prison for several years until God's time for deliverance came. Although Joseph may not have realised it at the time, the imprisonment of the two Egyptian officers was part of the process whereby he would be exalted. God had never taken his eye of Joseph and was working all things for his good.

There are three lessons from the life of Joseph in this chapter. The first is that he continued to exercise the gift that God had given him, which was to interpret dreams. He did not see his circumstances as a reason not to do so. And we are told that he wanted to use his gift because he saw that the two officers were troubled. So, despite his own difficulties, Joseph was marked by compassion for others.

The second lesson is that Joseph was faithful to the message God gave him. He gave the good news to the cupbearer and the bad news to the baker. It would have been easy for him to tone down the message for the latter. Yet Joseph realised that faithfulness to God required him to say the truth at all times.

The third lesson is that Joseph remained faithful to God even although the one he helped forgot about him. No doubt, Joseph was disappointed. Yet neither the difficulties of his circumstances  nor the failings of others caused Joseph to give up his faithfulness to God.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Joseph Goes to Prison (Genesis 39)

This chapter is in direct contrast to the previous. In chapter 38, Judah shows no sign that he fears God whereas in chapter 39 Joseph is determined to fear God, and he continues to do so no matter what happens to him.

To begin with, Joseph prospered in God's providence and rose in responsibility in the household of Potiphar. His ability was recognised and the hand of God was clearly with him. We can see here how Christians can serve God successfully in a pagan environment without compromising their faith.

Yet Joseph was tested in his commitment by the persistent immoral suggestions of his master's wife. When he refused to do what she wanted, she concocted a story that made things look very bad for Joseph. Nevertheless Joseph realised that purity was more important than prominence. He had determined to put God first, even if it cost him his position.

We have to recall that God is still in control of the situation, even although things get very difficult for Joseph. In order to fulfil his purpose, God was willing for Joseph to be demoted and punished, even although he was innocent. The Lord allowed this to happen because he had great plans for Joseph. Many a Christian has had to walk this difficult path in which one difficult test is followed by another.

Did Joseph wonder why all this was going on? No doubt he did. He could recall the dreams he had been given by God when in Canaan, but everything seemed to suggest that they would not be fulfilled. Nevertheless he maintained his determination to fear God. Whether he was in a rich man's house or in a prison, his heart was in the right place.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Judah is deceived (Genesis 38)

This chapter can be read as merely an account of the sordid behaviour of Judah, one of the sons of Jacob. Yet because we have the New Testament we know that this chapter actually describes a crucial event in God's longterm preparation for the coming of the Saviour. The ancestor of Jesus would be one of the sons of Judah born to Tamar, a Canaanite .

The chapter begins by describing how Judah took a Canaanite wife by whom he had three sons. This action was contrary to what Isaac and Jacob had done - they had not taken wives from among the pagan Canaanites. Perhaps Judah had left home because he could not cope with the grief of his father over the loss of Joseph and the central role he had played when he suggested that Joseph should be sold to the Ishmaelites.

Judah at this time does not wish to keep any obligation. It was an ancient custom, later included in the law of Israel, that when an eldest brother died childless his next brother should marry the widow in order to continue the family line. Judah knew that his third son should marry Tamar after his two brothers failed to have an heir. Yet he refused to allow this to happen.

Therefore Tamar resorted to an act of deception and tricked Judah into fathering sons through her. Probably, it was done through desperation. Judah, who had deceived his father about Joseph, was now deceived by his daughter-in-law. He was forced to acknowledge publicly that she had acted more righteously than him in this affair. This does not mean that she, at that time, belonged to God's people.

The story highlights three truths. First, God expects us to fulfil our obligations. Second, God is in control of all events, even when those involved in them are disobeying him. Third, the central focus of this event is the coming of the promised Messiah, even although no one then could see it.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Joseph Sold by His Brothers (Genesis 37:12-36)

This passage describes one of the saddest stories in the history of God's kingdom. It is important as we read it to recall that what we are reading is primarily about the providence of God. His providence is seen in the life of Joseph personally, but it is also seen in his arrangement of events that would bring the descendants of Abraham into Egypt.

We can see in Joseph a picture of Jesus. For example, Joseph is like Jesus in that he is the persistent servant of his father, determined not to rest until he has found his brothers. Further, he is like Jesus in that he suffered cruel treatment at the hands of those he had come to help.

The account also suggests that Reuben was trying to take seriously his role as oldest son. Yet he was not prepared to do so in an obvious way. Instead he tried to do it secretly, and because he did, he was not successful. Perhaps his brothers would have listened if he had possessed the courage to speak the truth. This is a reminder that if we want to be effective for God we should have the courage to speak the truth in every situation.

The sins of Joseph's brothers are clearly described. They were marked by callousness, deceit and disrespect for their father. Why did God allow this to happen to Jacob? He had deceived his own father when he tricked him into giving him the blessing that his father wanted to give to Esau. Sometimes God in his providence lets us taste the bitterness of our sins. Yet we also know that God was working in providence to bring great blessings to Jacob and his family through Joseph. And what he did for Jacob he does for each of his people.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Joseph's Dreams (Genesis 37:1-11)

Chapter 37 of Genesis begins to focus on the life of Joseph. Often the only detail that some can recall from this chapter is the assumption that Joseph was behaving wrongly when he reported the behaviour of his brothers to his father. I am not sure that he was doing wrong in doing so. After all, they were grown men. I suspect that Jacob was concerned about their behaviour because they had the potential for behaving badly, as the incident in Shechem, recorded in the previous chapter, reveals.

We are told two details about Joseph and they can be summarised as (1) what his father did for him and (2) what God did for him. His father made him a special coat. It was no ordinary coat because it roused the hostility of his brothers. The coat probably signified that Jacob regarded Joseph as his heir (he was the oldest son of Rachel, Jacob's preferred wife, and he did inherit a double portion through his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh). I suspect this is what the writer means when he says that Jacob loved Joseph more than his brothers. Reuben, the eldest son, had forfeited his right to the birthright by an appalling sin (Gen. 35:22; 49:3-4).

The other detail is that God spoke through Joseph by sending him dreams in which his family members acknowledged his authority in a very public way. His brothers regarded his dreams with jealousy (which suggests they suspected he was privileged), but his father while surprised did not forget them. They do not seem to have realised then that God was speaking through Joseph. Of course, we know that he was and we also know that many twists and turns would occur before God's prophetic word was fulfilled.

There are two lessons we can think about. The first is that Joseph's experience here is a picture of what Jesus would experience. Jesus too was hated because he was the Father's heir. The second is that, while God's promises are sure, a long time may pass before they are fulfilled.

Monday, 26 August 2013

The descendants of Esau (Genesis 36)

We may be surprised that Genesis contains genealogies connected to Esau. After all, he had despised his birthright and had never shown any interest in God. Yet the genealogies are included. Why? One answer is that they show that God ensured that the blessing given to Esau by Isaac was fulfilled (Gen. 27:39-40). He received many blessings connected to God’s common grace.

The lists of the generations of Esau remind us that God was in control and knew all the details of their lives. Although they did not think about God, he was aware of them. It was impossible to hide from him. God’s sovereignty and knowledge go together.

The lists also inform us that sometimes the people of the world seem to have more blessings than God’s people do, at least for a while. Esau married forty years before Jacob did and had several children. Yet Jacob was the one whose descendants God had promised to bless. Moreover Esau had obtained his territory while Jacob was living with Laban. Jacob had to learn to wait for God’s blessings to come, and this requirement is a common experience for believers.

Esau did not trace his blessings to God. Despite the Lord’s goodness to him in temporal things, they did not lead him to seek for any spiritual blessings. He should have accepted the fact that God had chosen his brother and rejoiced that spiritual deliverance would come through his brother’s line. But he did not, even although he knew what God had said about the matter. Esau’s judgement by God will be more severe than the judgement on those who will have heard nothing about God’s saving plans.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

God renews his promises (Genesis 35:9-29)

At Bethel God appeared to Jacob again and renewed his great and precious promises. We can see that the Lord repeated the change of name given earlier to Jacob, which would be a reminder to him that the Lord intended to continue working in his life. 

It was also an indicator that God can combine what may seem to be separate. Jacob had received his new name at Peniel, but here at Bethel the Lord repeated it. We are prone to separate occasions when we met God and say this blessing was given here and that blessing was given there. God replies and says to us, ‘I can give you blessings together that I previously gave separately.’

God also described himself particularly when he said that he was God Almighty (El Shaddai). This was the name he had used when he appeared to Abraham (Gen. 17:1), and there it is connected to his ability to do the miraculous (give a son to Abraham and Sarah) and his determination to maintain his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Jacob was reminded about the ability God possesses and the love that he has for his people, that he will take care of him and will fulfil his promises.

Through these spiritual high points in Jacob’s life, he experienced further tragedies and disappointments. The great tragedy he endured was the loss of his beloved wife Rachel in childbirth (vv. 16-20) and the great disappointment was the sinful behaviour of his eldest son Reuben (v. 22). Yet it looks as if his encounters with God helped him to cope with these sad experiences and he continued on his way to Isaac, which after all was the place where God’s people lived.

Jacob was to enjoy the company of Isaac for several years before the latter died when Jacob was 120 years old. No doubt they often marvelled at the way the Lord had worked in their lives. Jacob’s story reminds us of the mystery of God’s plan, the extent of his patience, the greatness of his pardon, the range of his providence, the gentleness of his power in restoration, and the certainty of his promises.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

God’s call to worship at Bethel (Genesis 35:1-8)

It may at first seem surprising that in order to deal with his present problem God first asks Jacob to look back. But we can easily see why God chose to use a particular event from the past, the event that occurred at Bethel. On that occasion, Jacob was alone and had nothing, his future in Canaan seemed bleak due to the threats of Esau, and his future in Paddan Aram seemed uncertain because he did not know how his relatives would react to him. The Lord caused Jacob to take a big picture view of his life with God. And we can see that Jacob got the message because he says in verse 3: ‘Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”

The second requirement for Jacob was to search for hidden sins.  So he asked his household to ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments’ (v. 2). The foreign gods may have been small models that people had to remind them that there was a true God. Of course, the effect of using such worship aids was the minimising of God – he was reduced in the estimation of the worshipper. The washing was an act of ritual cleansing, a picture of them washing away the effects of sinful practices – no doubt it was accompanied by confession of sin. So Jacob and his family engaged in repentance in order to recover their walk with God.

The third requirement was for them to recognise the Lord’s care of them (v. 5). In the previous chapter, Jacob had expressed his fears about the inhabitants of the land (34:30). The problem was still there after Jacob had remembered meeting with God at Bethel and repented for failing to live in its light. Yet the danger was gone, not because of Jacob’s skill, but because of God’s abilities. Jacob was restored to experiencing what had previously been his at Penuel. Then God had changed the heart of Esau, now he controlled the behaviour of the Canaanites and they could not attack him.

So Jacob travelled safely to Bethel and there he built an altar to the Lord. Shortly after, his mother’s nurse died. Her presence with Jacob suggests that she had left the home of Isaac when Jacob returned, but we are not told why. But I suppose we can say that she would have been glad to see the one she nursed long ago now worshipping God. But the story of Jacob’s recovery is not over. It was good that he had returned to God at Bethel. Yet what happened to him at Bethel is amazing.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Trouble in Shechem (Genesis 34)

How was it that Jacob ended up in Shechem? It was a town he had to pass through as he made his way back to his father’s home. Yet he remained there for several years. Why was this the case? Here are two reasons.

First, we can see this decision as a failure of Jacob to live up to his earlier promises to God. In Genesis 28 we are told that after seeing God at Bethel Jacob made a promise to the Lord that if he brought Jacob back to Canaan he would built an altar at Bethel and regard it as a place of worship (vv. 21-22). It looks as if Jacob had forgotten that personal vow, but we can be sure that the Lord had not forgotten it. The Lord had kept his promises and taken Jacob back to Canaan. So far, Jacob had not been interested in doing what he had promised.

Second, when he had returned to the Promised Land, Jacob had obtained a special blessing from God on Peniel and had been shown that his concerns about Esau’s revenge had not been necessary. So he had reasons for expecting God to protect him as he travelled to Bethel. Yet he had resorted to telling his brother a lie regarding going to see him in Seir and was now living with its consequences in Shechem. He had brought his family into a place of danger, perhaps without realising it.

Although he now returned to the Promised Land, Jacob’s life was not going to be easy, and we can see that in the terrible interest recorded in this chapter when his teenage daughter Dinah was raped by Shechem. We are not told if she had been visiting the women of Shechem regularly. After all, she had no sisters. But she would have expected protection there and she did not get any.

The chapter is concerned with how Jacob will deal with the situation. Moses depicts two groups of schemers – the Canaanites and the sons of Jacob. From one perspective, they are both the same in that neither group tells the real intentions to the other. Shechem’s family want to use Dinah as a means of getting Jacob’s assets and his sons concoct a plan whereby they can destroy their opponents. Watching the story unfold, a clear question arises about Jacob’s weakness. He cannot control his sons and their cruel actions make it dangerous for him to live in the vicinity.

But how can he get out of this situation, made worse by the cruelty of his sons? The next chapter will tell us.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Jacob reaches Canaan (Genesis 33)

When Jacob and Esau did finally meet, Jacob discovered that his brother had no antagonism towards him. It is clear that Esau also prospered during the two decades that Jacob was away, in fulfilment of the blessing he had received from Isaac. He was now a powerful chief, with more men than Abraham had when he rescued Lot. So it was obvious that he could help Jacob in practical ways, and the account tells us that Esau offered aid several times to Jacob.

Yet Jacob refused to take any help. Instead he insisted that Esau receive a present from him. Probably Jacob was aware that he as the heir to Isaac could not be indebted to Esau. He was also aware that he had to behave like God who had given so much to him.

Being Jacob, he still was not entirely honest with Esau. He gave his brother an impression that eventually he would go to Seir (the territory of Esau) to see him (v. 14). Of course, he may have done so later on, but at this time he chose to travel in the opposite direction and away from Seir. Deceit is not a way to ensure God's protection.

This change of direction also prevented Jacob from travelling to Bethel where he had previously met with God or to his father’s camp further south at Hebron (35:27). Fear can make us change our plans without considering the consequences. And there would be consequences for Jacob because of this choice (which we will read about in the next chapters).

Eventually, he reached Shechem and decided to settle down there. Things now seemed to be fine for Jacob because he erected an altar to the God of Israel. But an alert reader will have noticed Jacob chose to live near a pagan city (as Lot had done), and there was still the fact that Jacob had lied to his brother. Correct external practices cannot undo intentional lies – the God of truth would yet have something to say to Jacob.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

What happens when we meet with God? (Genesis 32:24ff.)

Yesterday we looked at this incident in which Jacob wrestled with God. Today we can ask a few more questions about this important event.

What benefits did Jacob obtain? Jacob was now ready to get a new name Israel, which means ‘God will prevail’. Name usually indicates character. When he was merely Jacob, he knew about striving unsuccessfully with men, even if he made some temporary gains. But as Israel, he had discovered the secret of real success, of obtaining blessings from God, and even at this moment he seems to have been given the victory over Esau that he so wanted, that he now had power over men. 

What was Jacob denied? Jacob wanted to know more about the Divine Stranger who had wrestled with him. Yet his request was turned down. Perhaps he was being reminded that he cannot ask the same questions as God. After all, the Lord can say to us, ‘What is your name?’ and we will tell him who we are. But we are not God’s equal and we cannot command him to reveal everything about himself to us. Jacob was being told that there were some things he had no right to know.

Or it could be that Jacob’s request was refused because he was not yet ready to know more about God. After all, he had already that night being made ready to trust fully in God and what a prolonged incident it had been. There is a sense in which Jacob, in asking God to reveal his name, was assuming that he was now ready to experience more of God. But he wasn’t. What he had been given that night was sufficient for the present. In the future he would learn more as God led him on in his paths.

How did Jacob respond? The answer to this question is not given in Genesis 32, but it is found in Hosea 12:4: ‘He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favour.’ Why was he weeping? Not because he was in physical pain as a result of the wrestling. Instead he wept tears of repentance because he realised that he was not fully depending on God. The Lord had shown Jacob his sin and there in the presence of God Jacob confessed with tears. Despite the unusual way of obtaining the desired result, the Lord had brought self-dependent Jacob to the place where he could become Israel, the man who experienced God’s transforming power.

What did Jacob conclude? We see the answer to this question in verse 30: ‘So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”’ Jacob realised that the One he should have feared had been gracious to him. His God had taken steps to appear in a manner that would not destroy Jacob. Jacob realised, through a remarkable display of divine grace, that God was on his side. 

The theological description of this divine appearance is a theophany, and it is generally accepted that the divine person who appeared in this way was the Son of God. He appeared temporarily to Jacob in a particular form but that form was discarded when the meeting was over. Almost two thousand years later, the Son of God appeared in a form in which human could see him face to face and not be destroyed. That form has not been discarded, and so we can look forward to seeing him face to face for ever.

Of course, we should not regard the incident at Peniel as merely an incident in the life of Jacob. The incident tells us how we can interact with the One who delights to call himself the God of Jacob. We can have dealings with him in which we will not be destroyed even although we have sins very similar to Jacob. The story encourages us to draw near to him and ask him to change us. And we will be changed as long as we continue clinging to him. After all, it is better to limp with God into the future than march into it without him.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Wrestling with God (Genesis 32:24ff.)

It was good for Jacob that the Lord was on his case, even if Jacob was unaware of it. The final action of Jacob on this important evening was to send his wives and children across the Jabbok. Then he was left alone, or so he thought. Perhaps he intended engaging in further prayer or maybe he intended to function as a guard, keeping an eye on any of his men or animals who might attempt to return. Whatever his intentions were, he was in for an unusual night. Jacob was going to spend several hours participating in a wrestling match with a Stranger.

Quite often we read this passage as if Jacob was wrestling in prayer and we use him as an example of persistent prayer. Yet the passage does not say that he was praying to God, it does not even indicate that he spoke to God until near the close of the wrestling engagement. The wrestling was a physical activity, but it has a spiritual lesson. Through this lesson the Lord dealt with a fault that was obvious in Jacob at this time. We can approach the incident by asking several questions.

Who was actively wrestling? It is clear that both individuals were engaged in the conflict. But one was active and the other was defensive. The active participant was the Stranger and Jacob was resisting his advances. This was not a wrestling match in which Jacob wanted to engage, but it was one in which the Stranger was determined to take part.

Who was the Stranger? It is clear from Jacob’s response that the One wrestling with him was God (Hos. 12:3-4). We cannot tell at what stage Jacob realised it was God. Why was God wrestling with him? I suspect God wanted to show Jacob the folly of depending on his own ideas. Of course, God could have easily made Jacob immobile at any time; after all it was not difficult for God, with a touch, to make Jacob limp. Yet Jacob did not show any spiritual discernment until the Lord touched his hip socket. Jacob immediately realised who had done this, and instead of wrestling with the Lord he clung to him tenaciously.

The incident was a test for Jacob as to how he would obtain future victories. In the past he had won a victory over Esau by his cleverness when he obtained both the birthright and the blessing. Now he was anticipating another clash with Esau and it looks as if Jacob thought he could deal with it by combining prayer with his cleverness. From one point of view, he was not the old Jacob, but from another point of view the old Jacob was very involved in his strategies. I suppose we could ask, ‘At that moment, was Jacob like Abraham or like Laban?’

Why did Jacob triumph? He triumphed when God took away an important aspect of Jacob’s strength, which was his ability to stand on his own. The Lord was aware that Jacob would not fully depend on his Maker until there was no other alternative. It was not sufficient that Jacob be a praying man. In addition, he had to become a broken man, a dependant man, one who was no longer depending on his own abilities. Jacob learned here what Paul would also learn, that it is when we are weak that we are strong.

When did Jacob triumph? Strangely, it was when he stopped wrestling with God and began clinging to God. The victory came when he said to God, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ (v. 26). Because he had become weak, he was now strong. God had so dealt with Jacob that he was now unable to run away from Esau. Whatever Esau would do the following day, Jacob was totally dependent on God. Now Jacob realised this was the case and he held on to God.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Concerned about the past catching up (Genesis 32)

Many intriguing features in Jacob’s walk with God are described in the Book of Genesis. One of them is the way in which God dealt with Jacob’s fears, and that issue is one of the concerns of this chapter. In Genesis 32, Jacob is obviously worried about an imminent meeting with his brother Esau. Should he have been concerned?

On the one hand, we could say yes. After all, his last news about Esau was twenty years old and at that time he wanted to kill his brother for taking his father’s blessing by deceit. Jacob had no idea if Esau was still angry about that incident. On the other hand, we could say no. During those twenty years, God had shown his powerful care of Jacob many times. Even here in verse 1, Moses records a special meeting with Jacob’s camp and a host of angels, which should have been a great encouragement to Jacob because their appearance was a reminder that he was protected by the armies of the Lord.

So how did Jacob deal with this difficult situation? Moses mentions three responses of Jacob. First, he tried to be friends with Esau; second, he prayed about the situation; third, he assumed that Esau could be placated by lots of gifts. The first response was common sense; the second response was a prayer that expressed, at least, surface trust in God; and the third response suggested careful thinking about the problem.

The first response of Jacob sending several messengers to Esau backfired. They made contact, but they failed to find out what Esau thought about Jacob. What should we make of the message he gave them to pass on to Esau? To begin with, we can see that the message of Jacob to Esau made no mention of God. Instead it reads like the claim of a self-made man who had prospered well during his time with Laban. Further, the message to Esau reads as if Jacob had not previously received the birthright and the blessing from God – Jacob gives to Esau the title and position that Esau should have been giving to him (lord, your servant Jacob). If these were the only words of Jacob that we had, we would not think that he feared God.

So Jacob now felt that he had to pray (32:9-12), which is always a good sign. In many ways his prayer is very commendable, indeed Spurgeon in one of his sermons calls it ‘Jacob’s Model Prayer’. We can see that in his prayer Jacob addresses God appropriately as the covenant God of his fathers, that he reminds the Lord of his recent requirement to go home. He confesses his unworthiness of all the evidences of God’s loving faithfulness to him over the past two decades. He presents his concern in very clear terms (v. 11) and reminds the Lord that he cannot allow Jacob’s family to be harmed without breaking his previous promises. He mentions the cause of his concern in plain words that are easy for others to understand.

It seems clear that Jacob’s time of prayer did not enlighten him regarding the attitude of Esau, which was his main concern. Jacob had gone to pray because he was apprehensive about his brother’s arrival, and after he had finished praying he was still concerned about what would happen when Esau came. Therefore Jacob’s priority was still about placating his brother, and so he devised a plan in which instead of merely telling Esau what he had received, which he done when he sent the messengers, he now shared with him a large number of the animals he had accumulated. There was wisdom in this plan because it would show Esau that Jacob was a changed man, although we cannot say that is why Jacob chose it. Yet there is an important lesson for us in this policy. Those about whom we are praying should see that we have been changed by the grace of God.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Going home (Genesis 31)

Jacob realised that the moment had come for him to go home. This decision was based on two factors: one was providence (his brothers-in-law as well as Laban had turned against him) and the other was specific divine guidance to leave (probably through a dream, as described in verse 3). So he decided to obey immediately, a clear sign of Jacob’s devotion to God.

Because he had such clear divine guidance Jacob regarded it as important that his wives should know the bases of his decision. So he detailed to them how God had led him and worked for him in providence as well as giving him specific instructions and comfort (vv. 4-13). They received his information with total agreement and encouraged him to proceed (vv. 14-16). There is an obvious principle here – husbands and wives should share what God tells them and encourage one another to obey God.

Nevertheless Jacob and his wives were not open with Laban, and not surprisingly. They chose to leave when Laban was away. Rachel also stole her father’s idols or gods, which seem to have been manmade objects that depicted God (v. 19). Such objects were later forbidden for the Israelites when God gave to them the Ten Commandments. Laban would have assumed that his property was safe as long as those idols were in his tents. Rachel perhaps assumed that taking them would deprive Laban of such protection, which would explain why she had no intention of giving them back to him (v. 35), and transfer the protection to Jacob. Of course, she was wrong, but sometimes God’s people can act superstitiously! All we have to do is observe how some regard religious furniture in churches.

As expected, Laban was annoyed and pursued after them. God was still protecting Jacob and warned Laban in a dream not to use words to manipulate the situation. Laban took this warning seriously, but still wanted his idols back. He had passed on the ways of deception to Rachel, and she deceived him over his idols. Therefore he lost all that he valued – he had lost the best of the flock to Jacob, his daughters were leaving with Jacob, and his idols had gone too. Laban had discovered that divine providence paid him back with interest!

Jacob used the opportunity to rebuke Laban for his deceitful behaviour. Of course, Jacob had not forgotten his own deceitful practices with Esau, but he had experienced the crucial difference of divine help throughout the two decades he had been with Laban. He speaks about God as one who was with him as he had been with Abraham and Isaac. It is clear that Jacob now knew who he was as well as who God is.

Laban therefore suggested that they make a covenant. Jacob arranged for a pile of stones to be erected and they all ate together at a covenant meal. Jacob called it Mizpah because the pile would remind them that God would always be aware of their commitment to their promises not to harm one another in the future.

The chapter closes with Laban and Jacob going home. Did Laban ever meet Jacob again? They did not meet again in this life, but did they meet in the next? Laban did commit the future into the hands of the God of his forefathers, even if he did not use the name of Isaac. Was that a sign that he believed in the true God? One day we will find out. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Growth comes from God (Genesis 30)

The wives of Jacob longed for his attention and each wanted to bear children to him. Yet along with the desire there was an awareness that only God could give children to them. Both of them were willing to use the cultural practice of using their servants to provide children. Of course, the reader of Genesis will recall what happened when Sarah also used the practice. Soon God had given several children to them.

The birth of Joseph to Rachel seemed to mark a change in Jacob’s outlook and he informed Laban that he wanted to go home. Since Rachel was his preferred wife he may have regarded her firstborn son as his real heir and wanted to take him and the others back to the land God had given to him. Often the birth of a child brings a person to realise their priorities, but with Jacob it may have taken the births of several for him to do so.

During those years with Laban God had blessed the work of Jacob to such an extent that Laban noticed the difference that Jacob made. Therefore he wanted Jacob to continue working for him, without giving him any wages despite agreeing to do so. Jacob was still learning that only God could provide for him as far as material prosperity was concerned. At the same time it was clear that the Lord was keeping his promises to him.

We can even see God's overruling control in the way Jacob was guided in a dream to increase his flocks as they mated, as indicated in the next chapter. No-one would have done this before, yet Jacob was learning to trust God when he gave such guidance. He is an example of how obedience to God's directions, even when no-one else is doing them, will result in divinely-given growth. Jacob was growing inwardly and in his possessions, evidences that God was keeping his promises to bless him.

Friday, 16 August 2013

God uses Laban (Genesis 29)

Eventually Jacob arrives at the home of his relatives. As soon as he reaches the location, he experiences God’s timing in a remarkable manner because Rachel also approaches the well with her sheep. He was so glad to meet her that he seems to deliberately ignore local arrangements regarding watering of flocks. This was followed by a warm welcome into the family home. Jacob must have hoped that everything else would go as smoothly.

During the first month he was there Jacob fell in love with Rachel. Therefore he was willing to work seven years for her father in order to have her as his wife. Jacob knew he could not go home in any case. So he may have assumed that everything was still going smoothly.

Eventually the seven years passed and Jacob wanted a wedding. The next day he discovered that his father-in-law had tricked him and given him Rachel’s sister instead. We cannot say whether Laban was acting out of respect for local custom or whether he merely used it to get a husband for his older daughter as well. In any case, Jacob who had deceived his brother was now deceived by his father-in-law, who not only had secured the futures of his two daughters but had also obtained another seven years of work from Jacob.

Clearly God was teaching Jacob about the horribleness of deception. One way to feel the awfulness of sins that we have done against others is for someone to do the same sin against us. Jacob had practised deceit against Esau, now he was on the receiving end of deceit from Laban.

Yet we should not miss a higher way in which God used Laban. In giving Leah to Jacob, Laban prepared the way for Judah to be born, and the Saviour came from that line. Although he did not realise it, Jacob without Leah would never have had a Saviour. Nor would we. Laban’s deceit, through God’s over-ruling, has resulted in great blessing. Jacob may have regarded the extra seven years as irksome, but up in heaven he now has a different view of the amazing wisdom of God. 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Meeting with God (Genesis 28)

Why did Jacob find himself on this journey? We have already seen two obvious reasons. On was the danger caused by his deception of his brother and the other was the advice of his parents. These two features lie on the surface of this incident in Jacob’s life. Yet we know that below the surface there is another more powerful influence at work, and that influence is the secret purpose of God. Of course, there is mystery here, because we cannot grasp the wisdom of God. Yet it is a fact, and this incident reminds us that it is a fact, that God is always at work for the good of his people.

What would Jacob have felt?  For the first time in his life, he is without a familiar face to look at. He may have had fears about what lay behind him (would Esau chase after him?) and fears about what was ahead of him (how would relatives whom he had never seen treat him?). That is often how we feel, isn’t it? We look back and there may be fears, and we look ahead and we see potential difficulties. Jacob was a person like us – he was not a superman, indifferent to such things.

Where did God deal with Jacob? Luz was an important place in the spiritual history of Jacob’s family. Years before, his grandfather Abraham had built an altar at Luz when he was exploring the land God had promised him. Sadly, because of his circumstances, Abram showed unbelief and then went down to Egypt for protection (Gen. 12). Eventually he recovered spiritually, and the place where he expressed his return to fellowship with God was at Luz (Gen. 13:3-4). Readers of Genesis would have picked up this detail. They would see that Jacob was not only returning to the place where Abraham had come from, but they would also see that that he was imitating the spiritual experiences of his grandfather.

What did Jacob discover? During his sleep the Lord appeared to him in a dream in which there was a ladder reaching from earth, right where he was, to heaven and on this ladder angels were being directed by God to perform certain activities. It looked as if the whole attention of heaven was focussed on Jacob, with even all the angels being sent to take care of him. That would have been a wonderful encouragement to frightened Jacob, wouldn’t it?

Then he heard God speaking to him and reminding him of what he had done in the past for Abraham and Isaac, and then he informed Jacob of what he would experience from God in the future. The promises concerning the future included posterity (he was not yet married), protection, personal prosperity, and provision of worldwide blessing.

The range of promises that God gave to Jacob at this time is staggering, and we must remember the situation he was in. He had recently connived with his mother to prevent his brother receiving a blessing from his father. Their desire was right, but their method was wrong. Of course, God did not approve of their behaviour, but here he is giving to unworthy Jacob this vast number of blessings that will extend long after his life chronologically and out to parts of the world that he did not know about geographically.

What Jacob did? He realised that he was in a special place, a privileged place, and he was apprehensive (v. 17). Here we have an example of Christian response, when we discover that the goodness of God is so great that it is almost unbelievable. We want to ask, ‘Why is God so good?’  Jacob’s response also included personal dedication (28:20-22). It is important to note that his dedication was expressed in living one day at a time, which is how it should be.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Esau (Genesis 27)

What can be said about Esau? At first, we may feel some sympathy for him as he loses out the second time to his scheming brother. Yet a little thought will remove such understanding. Here are some details about him.

First, he grasped with both hands an illegitimate way to obtain the blessing he knew he was not entitled to by divine arrangement and previous personal rejection. His willingness to go and hunt for deer was evidence that he was hoping to bypass the will of God.

Second, his tears of regret were not addressed to God and he saw no evidence of God’s activity in preventing him having the blessing (‘See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears’ – Heb. 12:15-17).

Third, he wanted to kill the ancestor of the Saviour (27:41), in whom Esau could have trusted if he had the desire of experiencing God’s mercy. This intention showed he had no awareness that he was a sinner.

Fourth, Esau imagined that he could win divine favour by imitating in the external aspects of religion. He had observed that his parents regarded it as very important for Jacob to marry a relative in whom there was the fear of God. So Esau went and did the same and chose Ishmael’s granddaughter as a wife (28:9). He discovered, however, that changing the externals cannot change the situation in a spiritual sense.

Hopefully we will not be like Esau? Better to be a believer in whom God is working than a person in whom he is not.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Isaac still a man of faith (Genesis 27)

It is a very sad situation to watch, Isaac blessing Jacob but thinking he is blessing Esau. Surely nothing spiritual is going on there. Yet the author of Hebrews chooses this incident as an example of faith when he says in Hebrews 11:20 that ‘By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.’ How could Isaac be exercising faith when his intention was to go against what God had said to Rebekah about their children? Yet the fact that he was exercising faith tells us that there are aspects of it here that we should imitate.

First, Isaac believed that all blessings came from God. The fact that he was wanting to bless Esau does not hide that he knew where blessings came from.

Second, God’s future was Isaac’s hope as he faced death. Certainly there was nothing in the present that would encourage him. The community of God’s worshippers was very small, perhaps even smaller than it had been in the lifetime of Isaac’s father, Abraham. Neither of his sons would have given him great encouragement. After all, Jacob on whom the future blessing rested, according to Rebekah, had not even bothered to get married, and he was now 77. Isaac had to look away from the present, which he did, and comfort himself with the knowledge that the future depended on God.

Another detail that is connected to Isaac’s faith is that he still retained the divine right to give a blessing. On this occasion, he functioned as a prophet. He did not retain this role by his own good deeds, because he had failed many times. Of course, this is very encouraging because we often imagine that somehow our faith has to be perfect. It is true that faith is God’s working, but it is his working in a sinner’s heart. If the condition of living by faith is sinlessness, then we have had it. God did not withdraw his gifts because Isaac had failed. This aspect of God’s grace occurs repeatedly in the Bible – think of David, Solomon, Peter, Mark.

Of course, this raises the question, can we exercise faith in God at the same time as we are doing wrong? Obviously Isaac did. So I suppose the answer depends on why we are doing the wrong. When all is said and done, we don’t know why he was determined to bless Esau. Maybe he did not place much value on a woman’s claims, so did not embrace Rebekah’s information about the future destiny of their children. Perhaps he judged by sight and assumed that since the only one with children was Esau, therefore he had to be blessed. Or he may have been guilty of a form of panic – after all he was 137 years old and assumed that his death was near (he was to live for another 43 years). Whatever the reasons may have been, Isaac’s faith remained. And I think we should trace that to God’s grace.

We remember the incident when Jesus predicted the denial of Peter. The response of Jesus was to pray for Peter that his faith would not fail under Satan’s onslaught. Does this not indicate that the particular target for the devil was Peter’s faith? And I suspect that he always attacks faith. What better way to damage Isaac’s faith than to persuade him to bless the wrong son? But there was One looking on who knew how to stop all that.

The next evidence for the faith of Isaac is that he trembled when he discovered that he had blessed Jacob rather than Esau (27:13). Why did he tremble? Because he realised that God had prevented him from sinning. There is no anger in his discovery that the proper recipient has received it. He acquiesces in what God has done, and that is evidence of faith in God.

A final evidence for the faith of Isaac, and also for the faith of Rebekah, is in the decision to send Jacob to Rebekah’s family in Paddan-aram (27:41–28:5). Rebekah was concerned about two things: (1) Esau would kill Jacob and (2) Jacob might marry a Hittite woman. The first concern was motherly and her second concern shows she was focussed on who would be the mother of the heir to the promises. She knew a way to resolve both matters and informed her husband. Isaac agreed, and when sending Jacob away gave him the real Abrahamic blessing: ‘God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!’ (28:3-4). I suppose those verses reveal how God would have given the blessing to Jacob without all the intrigue that occurred in Genesis 27. In any case, Isaac now has his spiritual bearings back and he and his wife are agreed as to how the covenant line will be preserved.