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No. 109: Crisis Time: Patriarchal Prologue, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 109
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
September, 1998

Last month, in our essay "Patriarchal Dominion," we observed the flow from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph. Our concern here is to advance our understanding of that narrative flow. I should mention that I am assuming much that is found in my book Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis, which is available from Biblical Horizons .

We observed last time that altars and sacrifices play a large role in the Abraham narrative (11:27–25:11), little role in the story of Jacob (25:12–37:1), and no role in the history of Joseph (37:2–50:26). We now observe that in the story of Abraham, God frequently appears to Abraham (12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 18:1-33; 22:1-19), while God only appears four times to Jacob in the Jacob story (28:10-17; 31:10-13; 32:24-30; 35:10-13), and once later on in the Joseph story (46:1-4). The Abraham narrative reads like an extended life-long dialogue between Abraham and Yahweh, and indeed, there are several actual dialogues between the two. In the Jacob narrative there are no dialogues, and God appears only at three/four crisis points. God does not personally appear at all in the Joseph story. If there is something to be learned from this fact is it this: As we mature, God chooses to recede further into the background of our lives, and leads us by means of His Spirit. This is an aspect of how He brings us to maturity.

There are a great many deliberate parallels between the Abraham and Jacob narratives, and these serve to bring out contrasts between the two stories. To begin with, Abram moves from Ur to Haran, and then to the land of promise. Jacob starts out in the land, is exiled to Haran, and then returns to the land of promise. Yet there are a clear differences. For one thing, Abram starts in a place of idolatry, sojourns in Haran until the older generation has died off, and then enters the land. Jacob begins in the land, though because of Isaac’s sin and Esau’s evil, it has become defiled. He is exiled to Haran, and then returns. The Abraham story is about taking the land, while the Jacob story is about maintaining possession of it. We shall have more to say about this below.

Moreover, Abram enters the land alone, as far as the text is concerned, though from a few statements it is clear that he had a sheikhdom with him (e.g., 13:7; 14:14). Jacob, however, enters the land with a large family, already becoming organized as a nation of sorts. As Bernard Och writes, "The journey from Haran to Canaan is no longer that of a childless individual moving towards an unknown destination, but that of a family, a people in miniature, returning to its parental home." [Bernard Och, "Jacob at Bethel and Penuel: The Polarity of Divine Encounter," Judaism 42 (1993): 164ff.]

Upon entering the land, Abram sets up places of worship (altars) at Shechem, Bethel, and Hebron. Jacob dwells in the same places, but in context the emphasis is on his livestock and economic strength (33:18; 35:1, 27). The establishment of worship is the first form of the conquest of the land, preceding any other type of dominion in it.

Both stories recount two struggles with relatives, and one climactic struggle with God. Lot and Ishmael correspond to Laban and Esau respectively. Och writes, "The Laban/Lot correlation is of special interest: both are men of means who are driven by selfish motives. They prosper as a result of contact with the bearer of God’s blessing, and are finally deceived by their [two each] daughters, who deprive them of their manhood/authority." And of course, Ishmael’s struggle with Isaac corresponds to Esau’s with Jacob. Here again, however, there is a clear difference, this time in magnitude. The struggle of Lot’s herdsmen with Abram’s is relatively minor and is quickly resolved, while Laban’s abuse of Jacob continues for years. Ishmael merely laughed, and thus provoked Sarah to jealousy for her son Isaac (Laughter), while Esau sought to murder Jacob. As history moves along, the conflict intensifies.

There is also a difference in the intensity of the two large exoduses of the two men. Abram left Ur, a place where sons die and wives are barren (12:28-29). Jacob left the land of promise because Esau was trying to murder him. Moreover, Abram sojourned at Haran until his father — the older generation (compare the Mosaic Exodus) — had died out-side the land; while Jacob, after fleeing Ha-ran, was pursued by (Pharaoh) Laban and al-most had to fight him before entering the land.

Here are the exoduses:

Ur – Haran – Land

Haran – Two Camps (32:2) – Land

Egypt – Sinai Camp – Land

One of the important similarities of the two stories is that human efforts, though well-intentioned, prove futile. In the Abraham narrative, we see the patriarch attempt to protect Sarah by claiming (rightly) to be her brother on two occasions. This should have meant that Pharaoh and Abimilech would negotiate with Abraham for Sarah’s hand in marriage. This worthy plot, however, fails when the two men turn out to be tyrants who seize Sarah without regard for any custom and law. Abraham’s attempts to protect the bride and the future seed come to naught, except for God’s intervention. Similarly, Sarah offers Hagar as a substitute mother for the promised seed, and to this plan Abraham acquiesces; but it is thwarted when Hagar refuses to let Sarah adopt Ishmael (16:2) and rears him as her own son (16:4). It becomes clear that only God can provide and protect the seed.

Similarly, Jacob’s worthy attempts to secure the land prove bootless. Esau cared nothing for the covenant; his god was his belly, while Jacob loved the Lord. Thus, Jacob got Esau to make a formal and official transfer of the birthright to him in exchange for a stew of lentils (28:31, 33; "this day" makes it formal). Along the same lines Rebekah, knowing that God had commanded that Jacob inherit, took steps to deceive sinful Isaac into giving the covenant blessing to the chosen son. All of this came to naught, however, for Esau had an army and decided to kill Jacob and take the inheritances for himself. Also, Jacob’s scientific attempt to produce spotted and speckled sheep and goats would not have worked except for God’s intervention (31:10-13).

The Jacob story is particularly important because it means that we cannot simply inherit the land, the Kingdom. It must be given anew by God. Jacob must leave the land and come back into it. He must learn that possession of the land is not a natural right, acquired through birth, inheritance, or marriage, but a free gift of God that is granted to His people. The same lesson is taught repeatedly in the book of Judges and by the prophets. It is a lesson that applies directly to the Church as she moves through history: Every generation must receive the Kingdom from God anew.

Two Crises

Both the Abraham and Jacob stories are bracketed by special visits from God. In the case of Abraham, the visits take place early and late in the narrative: as he leaves Ur and as he is told to sacrifice Isaac. In the case of Jacob, the special visits come as he leaves the land, at Bethel, and as he comes back into it, at Peniel. In the cases of both Abraham and Jacob, especially the latter, God appears initially at a moment of greatest vulnerability, when the person has lost his history and his protection, and becomes the Divine Benefactor. Abram is leaving everything behind, and Jacob is fleeing Esau and losing his family ties.

At these two first encounters, God appears as Friend (Life); but in the climactic encounters He appears as Enemy (Death). Everything that Abraham had lived for was concentrated in his son, Isaac, the promised seed. God comes to him and tells him that he must kill his son. Everything that Abraham had lived for, living under the promise of God and with faithful obedience to God, was about to be destroyed by God. Abraham was required to see through this awful threat and learn three things. One, that Isaac would be brought back to life again, since God had promised that through Isaac the world would be blessed. Two, that God and God alone is the Governor of history; human participation is secondary. And three, that Abraham was not really adequate to be a father (Abraham = "Father of Many"), and that the only adequate Father is God, to whom Isaac must be committed.

Similarly, God appears as Enemy to Jacob at Peniel. Jacob is at a point of total vulnerability, faced with Esau’s vengeful army ahead and fearing the return of jealous Laban from behind. Jacob has sent his entire clan across the river, where Esau is, and now God comes and tries to prevent him from entering! God had built him up as a large clan, with wives, children, flocks, and herds, and now God was going to take it all away, though Jacob had been faithful since before he was born, wrestling with Esau in the womb. Like Abraham, Jacob was required to see through this encounter. God stated that Jacob was a good wrestler, and that he had won the match. In other words, all of Jacob’s previous trials had been brought on him by God to make him strong, able to lead the Church. Jacob was required to see that God offers blessings through the trials He brings upon us, and to demand a blessing after wrestling with God.

The result of both awful encounters with God is that Abraham and Jacob briefly see God "face to face," as is implied in Genesis 22:14 and stated in Genesis 32:30. Both men had come to a place of maturity.

The Two Trees

Now, the difference between God’s first appearance to these patriarchs, and His later threatening appearance, is the difference between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Judgment. Remember that death is connected to the Tree of Judgment: When you eat of it, you die (2:17). God comes to Abraham and commands that Isaac die, and puts Abraham through a death & resurrection crisis. God comes to Jacob and tries to kill him, putting him through a death & resurrection experience.

The result of eating the Tree of Judgment is that one’s eyes are open and one becomes like God in a new and fuller sense (3:7, 22). This is exactly what happens in the Abraham and Jacob stories. Abraham’s eyes are opened to see the ram as substitute for Isaac. Jacob’s eyes are opened to see who the Wrestler really is.

Becoming like God in the fuller sense means that one has entered into the mature phase of life. This is implied in the Abraham encounter, for after this event Sarah dies and Abraham takes a new wife, has many sons, and exercises a new and much fuller kind of dominion for the rest of his life. It is clearly stated in the Jacob encounter, when God tells Jacob that Jacob has won the match, and is now mature enough to move into the land and take dominion in it.

Thus we see in these narratives that God is restoring the proper relationship of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Rule. God comes at the beginning and gives life through the promise. God comes much later on and threatens death in a crisis, through which He bestows the Tree of Judgment and Rule.

This is not something that happened only to these two men; it happens to all of us. In baptism, God gives us the Tree of Life. Through the Lord’s Supper, God gives us the flesh-bread of the Tree of Life (bread = life), and also the blood-wine of death (blood = death), which symbolizes rule and authority, and which promises that in Christ we will mature to the point of becoming like God in the fuller sense. In our lives, we will at some point go through a "mid-life crisis," which is the time when God comes and tries to kill us. We likely experience great trial, and in the midst of that trial we lose any sense of God’s friendly presence. It seems that all is against us. We want to quit and die. Many men abandon their wives at this point in their lives and take up with younger women. For women, the mid-life crisis is usually associated with the change of life.

This is the time when we have to learn more fully what it means to live by faith alone. Previously we had the enthusiasm of youth to carry us. Previously we may have had a close relationship with God as Friend to carry us. Previously we had the expectation of doing great things before we died. But now all those expectations are gone. Hope dies. All we have worked for, with God as our Friend, seems to be ruined. We have to see through this crisis and keep going even though it is unpleasant, seeing the reward at the far end.

This crisis, which varies greatly from individual to individual, is the essential turning point in development toward maturity. For this reason, the Bible says that rulers should be elders, or if they happen to be younger men, they must hearken to elders. The elder is the man in his 50s or 60s who has been through this experience and has come out of it and lived in terms of it for a time.

The crisis is the time of sacrifice. Consider that in the first part of our lives we build up an estate of some sort, like Abraham’s son Isaac, like Jacob’s clan. Maybe it is our family and children, which are now old enough to leave home. Maybe it is our job, which falls apart in some sense. Maybe it is our marriage, which no longer seems to work. All of these things are part of us, and all of these things die with us when we die in the crisis, and come to life again in a new and unexpected form when we exit the crisis. It turned out that Isaac did not die after all. It turned out that Esau had lost interest in killing Jacob. Life went on, but in a new and unexpected way.

Everything is killed and given up, but is received back. Yet, paradoxically, what is received back is both more glorious and more humble. After the crisis, we limp like Jacob. The works of the later part of our lives may well be far less visible and outwardly effective than the works of the first part of our lives. Yet, because we ourselves have been transformed, our secret influence will be far greater. We may no longer have "any form of comeliness that men should desire" us as we become more Christlike, but our Christlike in-fluence will be multiplied in the same way His has been, though we probably won’t see it.

Thus, Abraham pretty much passes off the scene after his crisis, though he lived for about forty more years. Who knows how much influence he had among the Gentiles during those years? We do know that his later sons were faithful, and generations later, the God-fearing Midianite Jethro became Moses’ father-in-law and guided Israel in the wilderness for a time (Exodus 18).

Similarly, though Jacob came into the land, his new dominion was paradoxically thwarted by the evil actions of his sons (Genesis 34). His son Joseph was taken from him, and shortly thereafter his favored wife Rachel died in childbirth. "Few and evil" were his days, as he told Pharaoh (47:9). Yet, the influence of the post-crisis Jacob on his son Joseph turned out to be the salvation not only of the Hebrews but also of the whole world (41:57). Joseph became a father to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh knelt to ask Jacob’s spiritual blessing (45:8, 47:10).

These are things that we also may expect.