B'hor in a Box (part one)

Now, I'm really going to throw your chronological clocks for a loop, because in order to talk about Jacob AND Joseph, I actually want to talk about the Exodus.

I know, I'm sorry.

But there was a teaching that I once heard from Rabbi David Fohrman that has completely changed the way I read the stories of the patriarchs and has helped answer some of the questions that were raised for me in the stories of Jacob and Joseph.  If you can manage to put the playlist together in the right order, you can watch quite a collection of 10-minute YouTube videos here for Fohrman's teaching.  Also, my good buddy, Aaron Couch, has blogged about some of these ideas a few days ago, so he beat me to the punch.

We will be coming back to talk about other portions of the Exodus in the next few posts, but I'd like to take one aspect of the Passover and use it to frame our understanding of Genesis.

Fohrman, in typical rabbinic style, starts his teaching with a handful of questions.  Good Jewish thoughts always produce more questions than answers (and somewhere in the course of the wrestling [appropriate to Jacob] you feel like you have stumbled across an incredible treasure).  But one of his questions I found most peculiar to ask in light of the Exodus story.  Many orthodox Jews all around the world wear little black boxes attached to leather straps that are methodically wrapped around their arm every day called tefillin.  This is done in order to pursue the mitzvah (command) “fix these words of mine on your hearts… tie them as symbols on your hands...” found in Deuteronomy 6 and 11.  Inside these black boxes is a parchment that contains three mitzvoth: Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”), ve'ahavta (“You are to love the LORD your God…”) and the law of the broken-neck, firstborn donkey.

OK, that's weird.  The first two laws make some sense, but why in the world — out of all the 613 mitzvoth — would they choose the donkey law?

And so, without stopping to answer the question, the rabbi continues to look through the story of the Exodus.  Now, just a simple flipping through a cursory reading of the story of the Exodus produces a very interesting question.  We are told the story of the people of Israel under the oppression of the Egyptians.  Moses is call to be the deliverer and has his great confrontation with Pharaoh.  The conversation eventually leads to God dealing out ten plagues on the Egyptians.  And so we read about the Nile being turned to blood — and the frogs, the gnats, the flies, the livestock, the boils, the hail, the locust invasion, and the darkness.  Then we are told all about what is going to happen in plague number 10.  The death of the firstborn will be brought upon Egypt and all of Israel will be free to leave.  And then, right in the midst of that cliffhanger moment, with the violins beginning to swell…

We now interrupt this regular scheduled story to bring you an entire chapter devoted to the laws surrounding how you will eat the Passover meal for generations to come.


Right there?  Not after you finish the story and tell us how it ends?  But RIGHT THERE?  A whole chapter of what seems like arbitrarily chosen rules.

And so, the rabbis begin digging throughout the ages and they ended up noticing some interesting things in the story of Exodus 12.  There were some interesting phrases that were chosen.  For example, the instructions tell you in the Hebrew to go and “draw out” a sheep from your flock.  Now, while that doesn't seem too odd at first, the rabbis noted that it wasn't the right word to use.  There are a handful of phrases that could be used to communicate the idea more naturally (let alone feel better, grammatically).   Why draw out?  And why did you have to eat the meal in a group — unable to eat it alone — with your staff in hand and your belt/robe on?  And why in the world did you have to roast your lamb in a pot without water?  Now, that's an odd mitzvah!

And then the rabbis read the part of the chapter where they dipped the hyssop in blood — and the lights went on.

They had heard this story before.

All of these phrases had been used in the story of Joseph when his brothers sell him to the Midianite traders.

Why a pot without water in it?  Because Joseph was thrown in a cistern without water.

Why do you eat the meal in a group?  Because when they had thrown Joseph into the cistern, they sat down and ate a meal together.

Why do you “draw out” a lamb?  Because the brothers drew out (same phrase) Joseph from the cistern.

And why do you dip the hyssop in blood?  Because the brothers dipped Joseph's tunic in blood and presented it to their father. 

Somehow, the Passover is connected to the story of Joseph.

But how, and why?

The rabbis are quick to remind us that Joseph is just a retelling of the Jacob story.

Wait… what?

You may remember that we previously mentioned the ancient Sumerian literature likes to be cyclical in nature.  The ancient Babylonians would tell stories where each generation repeated the cycle of their previous generation.  You see this in Abraham and Isaac.  If you go back and look at all the stories of Isaac's life, they are all repeats of events in Abraham's life.  Opening well, settling disputes with shepherds, lying to Abimelech about his wife.  Isaac is a retelling of Abraham.

And Joseph is a retelling of Jacob.

Think about it: Which character doesn't get along with his brother(s), has to leave home, works in the house of a foreigner, is wrongly accused, and has to deal with visions/deals with two sets of seven?

Is it Joseph or Jacob?

It's both.

But wait, what does any of this have to do with the Passover?  And what about those little black boxes?

And now, realizing how long this blog post is going to be, I will be splitting it into two parts.  So with those questions ringing in your ears, the dreaded words:

To be continued…


Here I Am

Genesis 1–15 gives a pretty great overview of the stage that God is trying to set for the story that He is telling.  The goodness of creation and His love for it (including you).  The invitation to rest.  The tragedy that is the human story, insisting that there must be more — more to produce, more to prove, more to do in order to be accepted.  God's reaffirmation of the story.  Man's continued tragedy of mistrust.  Finally meeting Abram, a man who will trust the story of God and a man that is able to serve as God's sidekick for restoration.  Abram's trust in the midst of the struggle.  God's reaffirmation of His love for Abram.

However, if we don't start picking up the pace a little bit, we're still going to be studying Genesis when my toddlers graduate high school.  (Sounds like fun, right? Alas, there is so much more of God's narrative to explore.)  So, I'm going to start skipping chunks of the story in order to keep the pace moving.  We're going to skip the Hagar and Ishmael story (hint: the Hebrew word “to look” or “to see” is crucial there), the covenant of circumcision (doesn't seem right, does it?), the whole Sodom and Gomorrah debacle (that's an entire blog series just waiting to be written), and jump right up to Genesis 21.

Take a few minutes to read Genesis 21–22.

The point would stand out even more if we had been reading the context of Genesis 16–23, but if you're using your working imagination as you read these two chapters, you realize that something seems terribly off chronologically.  Did it seem that way to you?

Ishmael was born in Genesis 16 and then we are introduced to the birth of Isaac some five chapters (and many would say 13 years) later.  However, when I read the Ishmael story in chapter 21, I get this distinct sense that Hagar is working with a little child.  While there is nothing in the Text that tells us this is the case, I haven't met too many readers that picture Hagar laying a 13-year-old youth under a shrub.  On the other hand, Isaac is born at the beginning of chapter 21 and then seems to be considerably older in the proceeding story (many readers, myself included, often picture a 13-year-old youth). 

It's as if the author of Genesis wants you to question the placement of the two stories.  While the stories don't technically fall out of chronological order, there is this chronological uneasiness to how they read. 

Could this be done on purpose?

This will be the first time that we run into this Hebrew writing tool.  An Eastern author will often place two stories right next to one another on purpose, in order to draw your attention to the interplay between the two stories.  The author is wanting you to see the two stories as one story in order to find the treasure that is buried within.  We will see this tool used again later in Genesis.  (Challenge: Can you guess where?)

But again, just as we did earlier, let's make sure that we're not jumping to conclusions based on theories about literary techniques.  If our theory is correct, then the way these two stories read is simply a flag to catch our attention and there will be plenty of other indicators the moment we begin digging.  And, in fact, we find this is the case here in these two stories.  If you read the two stories side by side, it is easy to spot specific (and chronologically-ordered) parallels connecting and tying the stories together.  Here are five that I find the easiest to catch.

Early the next morning Abraham… (21:14a)
Early the next morning Abraham… (22:3)

Abraham sets the supplies on Hagar  (21:14b)
Abraham sets the supplies on Isaac  (22:6)

Hagar puts the boy under a bush  (21:15)
Abraham puts Isaac on the wood  (22:9)

Hagar looks up to see a well  (21:19)
Abraham looks up to see a ram  (22:13)

Hagar story ends with a covenant  (21:22-34)
Isaac story ends with a covenant  (22:15-19)

The stories are meant to be linked by the author.  But why?

So what are our questions?  What are the things that bug us?

Obviously, there are a lot of things that bug us about these two stories.  It's not easy to read stories about the dysfunction of families, the rejection of maidservants, and the death of children and not be bothered.  But one of the things that bothers us about Hagar is her decision just to leave the boy under the bush.  Every mother I've ever talked to is bothered by Hagar's actions.  By the way, did you notice how far away Hagar went when she left her child?  About a bowshot.  And what did Ishmael become when he grew up (what appears to be a completely irrelevant issue)?  An archer.

You don't suppose that the author is trying to say that the decisions of a mother affected the development of her child, do you?  But I digress…
SIDE NOTE: As we talk about Abraham, it should be noted that we should be bothered by Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.  Growing up in the church, I cannot tell you how many times I heard Abraham praised for his faith because of his willingness to kill his son.  Not once was that called into question.  Not once was I invited to say, “No… wait!  This is a horrible thing!  What kind of God asks you to do this?  Don't do it, Abraham!  It's not right!”  It should be noted that willingness to engage in child sacrifice is not a commendable character trait.  Therefore, we would be driven to learn a lesson from context.  Why does Abraham not object — not even once, not even a little — to God's request?  Quite simply, because EVERY god that Abraham had ever known had demanded child sacrifice.  Every god in the lands of the pagans asked for your firstborn child on some level.  This was normal.  So when God asked Abraham for his firstborn son, it doesn't strike Abraham as odd.  In fact, this story isn't about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his child at all.  It's about the lesson that God wants to teach him from that place.

And so the thing that bothers us about Hagar is her willingness to abandon her child.

And we turn our sights toward the Abraham story.

And if you read Genesis 22, you may have made a mental note.  Did you hear anything redundant?

Such as a call from heaven?

At the beginning of the story, God calls to Abraham, “Abraham, Abraham!” and Abraham responds, “Here I am.”

At the end of the story, the angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” and Abraham responds, “Here I am.”

Indeed, we have a chiasm on our hands again.

And in order to make this blog post short enough to read, let's skip right to the center.

As Abraham walks along, up the mountain with Isaac, the thoughts of what he is there to do weigh heavy on his mind.  I often ask my students, “What is Abraham's demeanor as he walks up the mountain?”  And the immediate answers are always, “He's weeping.  He's visibly angry.  He's shaken and distressed.”  But there is no way that Abraham is wearing that emotion on his sleeve.  If Abraham is weeping, it is going to provoke a conversation with his son that he's not ready to have.

And so Abraham talks about the ball game that was on last night.  He talks about weather.  He talks about anything that allows him to disengage from the situation at hand.  The seventh verse says, “Isaac spoke up…”  The Hebrew uses language there to suggest that Isaac interrupts a conversation.  As much as Abraham might be trying to avoid the situation, he is interrupted with the very word he doesn't want to hear.


And now, Abraham finds himself in the exact same moment that Hagar found herself in with the previous story: The son's imminent death.  It's fight or flight time.  What will Abraham do?  Hagar fled the scene — abandoned her son.

Do you know what the middle verse of the chiasm is?

Your wonderful NIV translates it, “Yes, my son?”

The Hebrew is “HERE I AM.”

In Isaac's moment of greatest need, Abraham isn't going to leave his side.  THIS is why God has partnered with Abraham — because Abraham has God's heart.  I hear Abraham say, “…son, even if you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you…”  And when the story is all over, Abraham has learned his lesson.  He names the place “The LORD Who Sees”.  We translate it “The LORD Will Provide”, but that's a horrible translation.  Abraham walks off that mountain having learned some incredible lessons.  First, God will never demand child sacrifice.  But second, the LORD is a God who sees us.  He sees us and He walks with us and He doesn't ever leave our side.

I find it incredibly interesting to read a conversation that God holds over 500 years later.  When God is calling Moses to go to Egypt to rescue His people, Moses says, “And just who should I say sent me when they ask?  What is your name?  They've probably been wondering just where in the world You've been for the last 430 years!”

God says, “Tell them my name is, ‘HERE I AM’”

It's the exact same Hebrew conjugation.

God tells Moses to tell them — if they've been wondering where He's been this whole time — He hasn't left their side.  For 430 years, God has been as faithful as Abraham sacrificing Isaac.  In their moment of greatest need, God is here.


It comes up again later, you know.

Jesus is standing in a garden when they come to arrest him.  “Who are you looking for?” he asks them.  “Jesus of Nazareth,” they respond.


And they all fall over.

It's Jesus' moment of fight or flight.  Will He go to the cross or save Himself?

In the world's moment of greatest need, Jesus isn't going anywhere.


Yet again, we're invited to trust the story.  Yet again, God shows us His undying love, His steadfast faithfulness, His resolute commitment. His reckless pursuit of you and me.

Will the tragedy of human doubt reign again?  Will we replay “the fall” over and over and over again?  Are we that doomed?  Are we that depraved?  Are we that hopeless?  Or can we follow in the footsteps of Abraham and build altars while we pitch tents?  Can we welcome (to quote the writer of Hebrews in the eleventh chapter) God's promises and God's story from a distance?  Can we live like foreigners in this world, confident that God is building something better for us and all those who come after us?

Could the love of God empower us to be people of which it might be written, “the world was not worthy of them”?

We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.

May we be inspired to run the race for a God who sees.

** Much of this material has been influenced by the many different teachings of Rabbi David Fohrman on "The Phantom Akeidah".


Getting Egypt out of Us

But before we leave this story in Genesis 15, we need to deal with one other oddity in the story.  Go ahead and review the chapter.

So, we talked about the incredible lesson that God is teaching Abram here.  God encourages Abram by telling him that He is his great reward.  Abram responds in frustration that God's promise will have to be fulfilled through his servant, now that Lot is gone.  After some persistent prodding by Abram, God hesitantly tells Abram that his descendants will come from his own seed and shows him the stars as a metaphor for his future descendants.  We are told that Abram trusted God and God responds by telling him that he will also acquire a chunk of real estate.  Abram (maybe thinking this is too good to be true) wants some form of collateral to hold God to His word.

Again, I think we see Abram being human here — wavering and struggling between trust and self-security.

God responds by setting up the covenant agreement and passing through on Abram's behalf as well as His own.  This incredible statement on God's behalf serves as a reminder of God's character, His patient love, and His reckless pursuit of the redemption of His creation.

But there's something that's not right in the story.
What about verses 13–16?

Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

What's that all about?  I mean, the content is true and useful, but it doesn't really fit, does it?  Kind of “kills the mood”, in my opinion.  And what in the world just happened that provoked that kind of response from God?  Why has this simple interaction with Abram resulted in all of those promised descendants suffering in Egypt for 400 years?

I'd like to use Abram's story to make some observations:

God got Abram out of Egypt (chapter 12), but He still has to get Egypt out of Abram.  You see, Abram brought a lot of things out of Egypt.  Gold, silver, livestock, many forms of wealth — and servants.  One of those servants is an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar.  Abram is going to take God's inside information about the descendants coming from his seed — the information that God didn't seem interested in sharing — and he's going to try to write his own future from his own perspective.  Obviously, with Sarai being barren, Abram must need to procreate with someone else; so he and his wife decide to pursue a family through their maidservant, Hagar.  Abram brought some of Egypt with him (quite literally) and now we have a significant problem on our hands for the next few chapters of Genesis.

There are consequences to our actions.  We have mainly been showing how Abram is a man of great trust.  But even his moments of struggle have consequences.  Not only does Abram bring material goods and physical possessions out of Egypt, but he also brings a mentality out as well.  He's been affected by the lure of self-security and self-production.  He's going to write his own future.  Not only does God have to get Egypt out of Abram's descendants, he has to get Egypt out of Abram's heart.  The ways of the empire run counter to the ways of God's peace.

Sometimes we don't need to have the answers.  God didn't seem to want to share His plan with Abram, because of the possibility of what Abram would do with too much information (combined with his limited perspective).  I think there is a huge lesson for us in the story of Genesis 15.  There are moments in our lives where we feel like shaking our fists toward the heavens and demanding answers from God.  And there are also moments where God won't tell us the answer, because if we knew it, we'd misuse the information and screw up the story that God's trying to tell through us.

Abram HAD to know how God could possibly be his great reward.  So God gives him a peek into His plan and Abram takes that little slice, writes all the rest of the chapters in his head, sleeps with Hagar, and writes the wrong story.

And so God, in His great patience and love, says to Abram (in my own words), “Here is my promise.  And here is my collateral.  And here is me showing you my selfless love for you, again.  But, know that we are going to have to deal with this ‘Egypt in your heart’.  The only way for me to get Egypt out of you and your children is to let you go back to Egypt and have all the empire your hearts could desire.  I'll let you have empire until you're sick of it.  I'll let you get it all out of your system; and when it's all gone — when all you want is Me, again — I'll bring you out.”

You see, when we put our trust in the “Egypts” of the world, it matters.  Whether it's a nation, a political party, a paycheck, a retirement fund, an education, or a benefit package — when we put our faith in empire, it does something to our heart.  There are consequences to our actions.  God has to work to get our own “Egypt” out of us.

And it's hard sometimes when we don't have all the answers.  But sometimes, we wouldn't want the answers, anyway.  And so we look to the future and we remember the past.  We remember that we stand on the shoulders of great men like Abram and we try to learn from their stories.  We try to learn in order to write better stories for our descendants.

We try to learn to trust the story.
To trust that God really did love Abram and had his back.
To trust that God really does love us and is for us, too.
And we look to a future that is unseen and unknown and we set sail with obedience, trusting in God's way, knowing that we already have everything that we need, knowing that we are free to look out for the barren woman, the outcast child, the homeless veteran, the hungry, the alien, the orphan, the widow.  We set sail knowing that we are free to lay down our lives for others, trusting our security to God and not to the empire.

Because God is up to something in the world.
He's tiptoeing through the back alleys looking for orphans.
He's comforting the widow and sustaining the hungry.
He's tucking in His robe and running to greet prodigals.
And it brings Him great joy to restore.
And there is so much to do.
And He's still looking for partners.


Walking the Bloodpath

If we needed any evidence that Abram wasn't the happiest camper after letting Lot go for the second time as he trusted God's story, we need to look no further than the very next story (Genesis 15).

We can almost sense God's joy as he reacts to Abram's faith, trust, and obedience.  The story begins with God approaching Abram, celebrating his victories.
"Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward."

Can you sense God's excitement?  I can see God fist pumping the area, saying, "YES!  That's what I'm talking about!  Way to go!"  And knowing that Abram has to be confused and afraid, God says, "Don't be afraid!  I am your great reward!"

But Abram is in no mood for religious talk.  (Ever been there?)

In the Hebrew, you can sense the frustration of Abram in his response:
"O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?"

Abram says, "Are you kidding me?!  I just gave up everything!  You are my reward?  How can you possibly reward me?  I have no future.  And not only that, but what I do have is going to go to my stinking servant, since I will not have any descendants!"

Abram can't see what God is up to.  We rarely can.  Our perspective is so limited and so finite.  Our perspective calls us to question our hope and it challenges our perseverance.  Abram is frustrated — understandably so.  How could he possibly see any way out of this situation that will lead to God fulfilling His promises?  I can resonate with Abram in this story.  Even when God blesses me with the strength to live by faith and trust His story, I still find that I can be so frustrated by what I can see and how hard it is to trust.

And apparently, God isn't too interested in providing answers at first.  If you notice the next verse, it starts with "And Abram said…"  In the Hebrew, if there are two adjacent statements made by the same person and they both begin with "____________ said…", then it is assumed that there are two different conversations taking place.  If it were one conversation, the second "And Abram said…" would be unnecessary.  Therefore, if Abram asked the original question in verse two, he apparently got no response from God.

And so he asks his question again; this time, more pointed and with a little more 'umph'.
"You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."

Abram cuts right to the point.  He has a question and he wants an answer.

And so God (in my opinion, hesitantly) shares His plan with Abram.  He tells Abram that his descendants will come from his own loins.  And so, Abram trusts God (Wait, what!?  That's no small matter, but we won't deal with that here; it was worth mentioning) and then God widens the promise some more to include the land as well.  At this point, Abram starts looking for some collateral to hold on God's promise.  And God tells him to go and get a heifer, a goat, a ram, a pigeon, and a dove. 

So Abram gets the animals and cuts them in half and arranges them opposite of each other.

Does that seem odd to you?
God didn't tell him to do that.

Abram knows exactly what to do because this is a common practice in the world of covenants.  They are setting up what is called a bloodpath covenant.  This is a covenant sign that is often used in Abram's day to signify a betrothal (engagement) covenant.  Those very animals are used, cut in half, and arranged opposite one another on opposing slopes.  Here is a picture of what the covenant looks like:

The arranged halves create a path of blood in between the animals.  I will use the example of a betrothal to explain the ceremony.  As the two parties agree to the marriage, the lesser party (in the example, this would be the future groom; he is asking the father of the future bride to marry his daughter) dons a white robe and then passes through the path of blood.  As the blood splashes up on his white robe, the symbolic statement is, "If I mistreat or abuse your daughter, you may do this in my blood".  After this, the father dons a white robe and passes through the blood path, saying, "If I do not supply you with a virgin for a daughter, you may do this in my blood".

It's the collateral covenant that allows for the parties to be held liable for their promises.

God sets up an engagement covenant for Abram.
Now, whose move is it?  Who is the lesser party?  Abram is, obviously.

But Abram doesn't pass through the halves.  In fact, he chases away the vultures.  What does that tell you?  This ceremony has been set up for some time.

But Abram knows that he'll never be able to keep his end of the covenant.  He won't be able to live obediently for God for the rest of his days.

If Abram's little toe hits the bloodpath, he's a dead man.

And so God puts him in a deep sleep (the same sleep He put Adam in, by the way) and, while Abram is greatly distressed and troubled, Abram sees a flaming torch and smoking pot pass between the halves.  Now, fire and smoke always symbolize the presence of God (think the pillar of fire/smoke).  So what does Abram see?

God is passing through the covenant halves — twice.
God passes through the halves on behalf of Abram.

In other words, "Abram, when you fall short, I will cover your shortfall.  We will pay for it in my blood."

Goosebumps yet?
That's incredible.  And every Christian immediately sees Jesus in this story.

But I would make this point.  It's not just that this story is a foreshadowing of Jesus.  It's that this is who God has ALWAYS been.  God has ALWAYS taken our sin on Himself.  God has ALWAYS covered our shortfall.  This is who God is.  There is no "God of the Old Testament" and "God of the New Testament".  He always has been the same God.

His message has always been the same:  "I am God.  I love you.  I am for you.  I will fight for you in spite of yourself."

"Just trust me."

* While some of this material has come from the teaching of Rabbi David Fohrman (particularly paragraph 8), a bulk of this material has come from the teachings of Ray VanderLaan.  The picture used in this blog post was acquired through the site linked within the post and high-resolution versions can be purchased from there as well.  Another fantastic treatment of ancient covenants can be found in Sandra Richter's book "Epic of Eden" (InterVarsity, 2008).