Tuesday, June 29, 2010

One of Israel’s Chilren Causes Trouble - Genesis 35:22a


And it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.

Jacob has just buried Rachel. Life was continuing either in Eder near Bethlehem or in Bethlehem itself. We do not know precisely how long he had to recover from some of his grief when another family tragedy struck him. His firstborn son, Reuben, borne to him by his first wife Leah, had intercourse with his father Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. Bilhah had been Rachel’s servant and she had borne Jacob two sons, Dan and Naphtali, when Rachel was not able to conceive.

I cannot imagine what must have gone on in Jacob’s mind on receiving the news. More trouble. Perhaps he thought, “More disgrace”. His heart must have heart. Perhaps he was also angry. How could he bear it?

It is interesting to note that what we have here in the first part of this verse is all that the Bible ever says about this indiscretion. We do not know what Jacob said or did when he learned of it? We do not know how it affected the relationships of those involved. Jacob does speak of Reuben later in a most positive way and Reuben does seem to redeem himself in action that he subsequently took with regard to sparing the life of one of his brothers. But that being the case, that is that no further mention is made of the situation, we should stop to consider why the text even mentions this occurrence.

The First (Old) Testament is indeed, among many other things, the history of the Jewish People. That history and the whole Bible itself for that matter has always been written with several concepts in mind. First, the history is not a defense of the Jews, making every attempt to make them look good. Clearly “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of Israel’s history are all revealed here. This is history; it is not a political propaganda or a ‘justification account’ of what took place. Secondly, scripture always treats sin for what it is – sin. It does not overplay or glorify it as such and it is does not underplay it or try to cover it up. It exposes it at face value. Thirdly, it describes most accurately the natural nature of man and his natural inclination towards sin. Finally, by both what it says and often by what it leaves unsaid, it reflects the concept that the Almighty God can deal with our sins, and can work with us beyond that sin. It is important that we understand the Bible’s view of sin in that way in order to be able to comprehend why a verse like Genesis 35:22a is recorded in its pages.

For us, the implication is manifold. First, we need to recognize that sin exists and it happens. All of us are prone to it. Second, it does not need to be the end of the world. Thirdly, we must recognize it as sin, accept the consequences, and get on with both our life and more importantly with our relationship with God. The latter requires repentance, a true desire to, and a carrying out of a, change in behavior and practice and sometimes environment or circumstances so that sin does not easily reoccur.

We should regard the fact that scripture says no more about Reuben’s sin as a willingness of our Heavenly Father to take our sin and remember it no more!

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Life Goes On - Genesis 35:21


Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.

There are many events that occur during the lifetime of an individual where for a fleeting moment he or she may think that life will never be the same again. For people my age, born in the 1940’s, these include the assassination of U.S. President John Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the various wars in the Middle East, segregation ruled illegal, Chernobyl, the catastrophic tsunami, and many, many more. And yes, in some ways, live did change considerably for those directly involved and only minutely for the rest of us. That would be true of any event one could identify, including those I left out or ones I never even heard of.

But in all cases, life does go on. So it was with Jacob after his beloved wife died en route to Bethlehem while giving birth to Benjamin. Life may well have changed for him considerably. Still, the only thing left for Israel (the new name God had given Jacob) to do was to continue on with his journey, taking his family and children with him.

The Bible tells us that his next tent stop was beyond the ‘tower of Eder’ or ‘Edar’ as the word is spelled in the King James, with Strong’s concordance preferring this spelling as well. The word itself meant ‘flock’ and this structure was understood to be a shepherd’s watchtower very near the city of Bethlehem. In fact, it was so close to Bethlehem, that some believe it was used to mean Bethlehem itself, at least in this verse.

Let us reflect on life’s losses for a moment. If you have faced a personal tragic loss in your life, you know your world and life has changed significantly for you. Time alone, contrary to what many say, is not the total answer. It helps, but the truth is that the memories of whom or what was lost will always leave a disappointing gap in your thoughts and life. But yet you know that life must go on. You know you have to keep on traveling towards your destination or goals. And you know that along the way you have to stop and pitch your tent somewhere.

It is my prayer that God continues to give you strength and stamina to continue your life’s journey. I pray He gives you a desire to keep on trusting and hoping that one day your losses will be fully replaced by His blessings and the glory of His Kingdom. I pray He grants you His wisdom to know where to pitch your tent next and that the stop is part of His plan for your life.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Rachel’s Death & Tomb - Genesis 35:19-20


So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.

Jacob’s beloved has died. There are some that would argue her death was in fulfillment of the curse Jacob himself had put on the one who stole the idols of Laban as we read in Genesis 31:32. I believe there is no connection. Others see her death as fulfillment of her own vow in Genesis 30:1, “Give me children, or else I die.” Again, I do not see the connection. She had children so the vow to die does not make sense. The physical cause of her death was indeed simply a complicated or difficult birth for that period of time. The Divine’s rationale for allowing her to die at this time is known only Him.

And the text tells us she was buried ‘en route’ to Bethlehem. There was no reason to take her back to Haran, her family’s land, even though strained relationships with Laban had been addressed. And certainly, Jacob had not yet established a home for his family where he was heading. It made sense to bury her on the way to Ephram.

This exact spot still exists today. This Jewish sacred site is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. However, the site also has great Christian and Muslim historical and religious significance. For the Jews, this is the third holiest site after the Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. It has become a key stop on Jewish pilgrimages, especially females unable to give birth.

The structure on the site, a cube with a dome on top, was built around 1620 by the Turks under Ottoman. The famous British Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore and his wife, increased it in size in 1860. Israel gained control of the tomb in 1967 after the Six Day War. The actual tomb lays 460 metres from the city limits of Jerusalem, but Israel and the Palestinian leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, agreed to leave the tomb under Israeli “control” with a constant Jewish presence.

On December 1, 1995, the Palestinian Authority was granted full control of Bethlehem with the exception of the tomb enclave. To reach Rachel’s tomb, Jews had to do so in bulletproof vehicles under military supervision. In 1996, Israel built a wall around the site. The Palestinians retaliated by saying the tomb was on Islamic land and the domed structure was a mosque.

The tomb was attacked at the end of September, 1996 by Arabs who set structures on fire and for several years that followed, made the site a battle-spot between Israelis and Palestinians. This culminated at the end of the year 2000 when the tomb was under gunfire for forty-one days. In May 2001, fifty Jews were trapped inside the tomb when a firefight broke out between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinians. The IDF left the scene in March 2002. A few months later, September 2002, the Israeli government decided the tomb would be enclosed on the Israeli side of the West Bank barrier. Bulletproof buses now take tourists and Jews to the site daily. In February 2010, Israel announced that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs would become part of the National Jewish Heritage sites rehabilitation plan against much protest from several countries, including the Turkish Prime Minister was said the tomb was “not and never will be a Jewish site, but an Islamic site.” The saga continues to this day.

But what else can we reap from this verse? First, if indeed the soul departs from the body at death, does it really matter where one is buried? I think not. People make special efforts to return the bodies of their loved ones ‘home’ for burial. There is something to be said for that. It often helps bring closure to the loss. But as long as we realize that it does nothing for the loved one.

Secondly, there is no mention of any public mourning for Rachel. We can assume that it took place in private. Certainly Jacob mourned for her in his own way. Mourning is indeed best undertaken as a personal private emotion. My father died over three and a half years ago and I still mourn his loss. I often wish he could see his family now, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren whom he had known before he died, enjoying his fruit trees and his property as we rebuilt and settled on it. I often wish that I could sit in the front yard on a special bench we put there and enjoy a game of backgammon with him, his favorite pastime, as we used to do. That is personal mourning. I cannot help but feel that exhibitions of loud and extended wailings at funerals do nothing to honor either the dead or those that remain, let alone God who is the giver and the taker of life.

You will remember that earlier we mentioned that Jacob was on a spiritual high (having met with God) just before his wife Rachel died during childbirth. God has a way of allowing that to happen even to those that enjoy his blessings; we cannot escape the downs that life often has to serve us. Again, it is where we go from that point on that matters. Earlier in this chapter, verse 14, Jacob set up a pillar in memory and thanks to God for his blessings and joys in life. Here he sets up a pillar of his sorrows. We need to remember both in our lives and to pass both on to our children.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Benjamin -- Genesis 35:18


And it came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni but his father called him Benjamin.

Now it is important that we really capture this picture. The group is ‘en route’ to Ephrath or what we now call Bethlehem. Rachel is in great pain. The midwife is trying desperately to alleviate her fears and to make her rejoice in the fact that she is having a boy child. Then this text says that in the process of dying, at the time her soul was departing from her, with her last breath and as a final wish, she names her young child Ben-oni. We will return to the topic of the boy’s name momentarily.

From Genesis 1:1 up to this point, the end of life for all our Bible characters has been recorded as a simple death. The actual word ‘soul’ has been used ten times prior to this, but always in reference to life (e.g. Genesis 2:7) or with respect to staying alive (e.g. Genesis 12:13 and 19:20). But here in this current verse, the word ‘soul’ is used in conjunction with death. The text says it was her ‘soul’ that was departing. This is our biblical introduction to the idea of a soul and body being separated at death. While there is no indication here of exactly where the ‘soul’ departs to, we can at least assign its destination to the very nebulous ‘world of the spirits’. We will have to hold that thought for a long time until we get to some later scripture.

And as she was dying, Rachel names her newborn Ben-oni. The word is translated as meaning “the son of my sorrow.” Under normal circumstances, the birth of a newborn would bring rejoicing. In Rachel’s case, this should have been seen as a victory over Leah, her sister who was also married to her husband Jacob. The two had competed viciously with respect to bearing children for their husband. Is it possible that Rachel, now dying, recognizes the futility of the competition she has spent most of her life trying to win? Seeing that death lies immediately before her, she ignores the last victorious ‘battle’ (the most recent son for Jacob), and she names her son as she did, recognizing she has lost the ‘war’.

Our present verse then surprises us by telling us that Jacob changes the boy’s name to Benjamin. The original form of the Hebrew word was thought by some to mean “a son of days” or in Jacob’s case of “old age”. However, the present ending applied in Hebrew clearly defines it as “son of my right hand”, that is, someone of whom one is very fond of and considers critical to his/her well-being. The question still arises as to why Jacob shows apparent disregard for the name that his beloved Rachel gave the boy, especially when one considers that she gave her life in the process of bringing him to this world. The jury is still out on that, but some scholars suggest that the Jacob, because of his love for Rachel, could not bear to be constantly reminded (whenever he referred to the boy) of her sorrow in life that she so strongly wanted to express at the time of her death. Instead, he chose to see Benjamin as a real blessing and someone who would be his great solace in his old age.

One scholar has suggested that Jacob may have understood the special role God had for Benjamin. The reference to the “right side” as in “son of my right hand” is often associated with greater strength and honor, primarily because the majority of people are indeed right-handed. If one searches for the word ‘right’ in scriptures, one would find several references to this idea of strength, honor, and truth.

As we study this verse, we would do well to think about the memory of our life that we will leave behind. Was she primarily glad or sad? Was he at peace with others or basically angry all his life? Was she a person with hope or usually pessimistic? And so on. The choice is ours. There is still time to change if you do not like what you think you will be remembered for. And for memory’s sake, do not botch it up on your deathbed.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rachel is Told Of Her Son Being Born -- Genesis 35:17


And it came about when she was in severe labor that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for now you have another son.”

It is not certain whether or not a midwife always traveled with Jacob’s family, but since they knew Rachel was pregnant they certainly had one available on this occasion. In both this and the previous verse, scripture indicates that Rachel’s labor in this pregnancy was ‘severe’. It was in this very adverse circumstance that the midwife tried to comfort her fear. Whether it was fear for her own life or for that of the child to be born is not clear.

The midwife, however, tries to allay that fear of Rachel’s by telling her that she indeed has “another son”. Was Rachel’s soul desire the survival of her newborn? Was it her fear that she may have let her beloved husband Jacob down if it were not a boy or if the child died? These are questions the Bible gives no answers to.

But what we can glean from this verse is most useful in our own times of desperation. Where there is fear, especially fear of death, there is also the presence of life. Rachel sensed a fear. Perhaps it was a fear of death – either hers or that of her baby. In either case, whether it would be her eternal life as a believer in Yahweh or whether it would be the earthly life of her newborn son, a new life would come of it.

When we ourselves are in the midst of the valleys we cross in life, we do not have the advantage of knowing what lies ahead. We cannot read ‘the next verse’ to see how things turn out as we studying Rachel’s story are able to. As a result, fear often sets in. But somehow we must learn to focus on the fact that our God is still with us, that there is an end in sight, and that ultimately, even death is indeed the beginning of life.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rachel Labors in Childbirth -- Genesis 35:16


Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor.

Ephrath is not to be confused with Ephraim in the north. Ephrath is the ancient name for Bethlehem. The distance from Bethel almost directly south to Ephrath (Bethlehem) is about thirteen or so miles as the crow flies. One could imagine that with a pregnant woman in the traveling group, the trip could take several days.

We learn here in these verses that Rachel was pregnant again. During that trip from Bethel, Jacob’s wife Rachel began to deliver the child that she was carrying with great pain and agony. This must have been very hard not only on her and the baby, but also on Jacob. He must have been wondering why, right after God’s recent communication and blessing to him, he now had to watch the person he loved so dearly go through this great pain.

Many of us have gone through similar experiences. We had just been on a mountaintop high with God and then He seems to allow us to fall into a major personal valley in our lives. It is during those travels in the valley that we need to remember that the God of the mountaintop has not changed. He is also present in the valleys. He is also committed to seeing us through the valley. He wants to take us to the mountaintop once more, only this time as stronger and better individuals for having experienced yet another valley with Him.
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I believe the most critical response or attitude to have during life’s lowest and darkest experiences is to know that we are, as children of God, being carried in His arms as we move through the valley. We must focus our gaze on the One who holds us. We must be confident in our belief that a mountain that will be climbed, stands just ahead.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Jacob Erects a Pillar at Bethel -- Genesis 35:14-15


And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a libation on it; he also poured oil on it. So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel.

This was another momentous occasion -- God coming down to speak with Jacob. There was no option but to build a memorial at the site. You will remember back in Genesis 28:18 after God had appeared to Jacob in a dream, Jacob had set up a pillar to God using the stone on which he had laid his head that night of the dream. Given his humble state, having left his father’s home in fear because of what he had done to his brother Esau, this simple pillar was acceptable. However, now after he had become so successful over the years, he now erected a more solid edifice that would have a more permanent nature.

We are told that he also poured some oil and some form of a drink on it in memory of his communication with God there. He did want this place to become known as the ‘house of God’ and thus he called it ‘Bethel’.

Has God spoken with you lately? Do you know where it was? Have you somehow made a memorial there to commemorate that occasion? We need to. We need to highlight for ourselves, and for our children, these significant times in our lives. So that they and the world might now that the Lord Almighty is indeed our God.
demonstrate His ongoing love for me.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Can An Omnipresent God Move Around? -- Genesis 35:13


Then God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him.

In Genesis 35:9 we read that God simply appeared to Jacob. Here in this segment of the text we gain a further understanding as how He may have done that. When God was finished meeting with Jacob, the scriptures say (35:13) He “went up from him (Jacob)”. One can assume, but never definitively, therefore, that God ‘had come down to meet with Jacob’ in the first place. Once again, the modern western mind has a dilemma. We have been taught that God is everywhere. We say He is omnipresent. If that is true, then why did He likely come down to meet with Jacob, and more certainly, why did He go “up form him”, from the place where He had spoken with Jacob?

My learning during a recent trip to Israel a month ago for a ‘rabbinical model’ pilgrimage helped me put it into perspective. The Jewish mind would have no problem with these two concepts. God is both omnipresent (from a divine perspective) and He is present in specific places and times (from a human author’s perspective). Both ideas can coexist with God.


I believe there is much to be gained by the believer with such an arrangement. Our almighty God is indeed everywhere at the same time. Understanding that, I receive the comfort and the peace of knowing He is fully in control and in charge of all events going on in the universe. He is able to see it all simultaneously and act accordingly as He deems appropriate. While my limited human capacity can fret about so much, His infinite authority is still in control of all. He is still on the throne and His plan for mankind is being fulfilled. I am thankful for that and realize it could not be any other way.

Yet this almighty God, in His role as a loving Holy Father, cares enough to come down and meet with one of His children. He cares enough to come meet with you and me, right where we are, in order to comfort us, assure us of His promises, share with us His plans for our lives, meet our very desperate needs, and so on. I am also very thankful for that. As a needy child, I could think of no better way for my Father to demonstrate His ongoing love for me.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

God Blesses Jacob -- Genesis 35:11-12


God also said to him, “I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendents after you.”

As I study this section today, Israel is once again the target of global criticism for its military and political stance with respect to the Palestinians, both in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. And yet, when I read the text, I see clearly that the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been given the ‘promised land’ as theirs. If all the parties involved had the same worldview with respect to the Word of God, there would be no dispute whatsoever with respect to the Jews’ right to all of present-day Israel; there would be no middle-east crisis that involved Israel. Unfortunately, we are not all on the same page.

God had indeed given the ‘promised’ land to Jacob’s descendents. And over thousands of years, perhaps because of their rebellion against God, various empires were allowed to take it away from them. The Jews spread all over the world. As time passed, they yearned for a land they could once again call their own. In 1948, God allowed them to re-establish the Promised Land as their very own, a land politically recognized by almost the entire world, as the state of Israel. There the truly ‘chosen people’ are indeed recognizing God as the Almighty, although many have not accepted His Son Jesus as their Messiah yet. God is both protecting and blessing them. They are being fruitful and multiplying just as this verse promised.

The phrase “A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you” is a reference, going back in history, to the fact that Jacob’s descendents will consist of all the tribes of his people, the Israelites, each with their leaders. If we accept that this verse is written in such a way that the events described therein were to occur in a chronological order, then we can establish that it will be after all of these tribes are formed that the ‘land’ would be given to Jacob’s descendents. As we study the early books of the Bible, we will see exactly that. What is occurring today in the modern Middle East is a battle with respect to that ‘ownership’ promise God had made back in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In these verses and the one before (verse 10), God is simply reminding Jacob of a few things, beginning with the revised name He had given him earlier. Jacob, as a man close to God, knew all that God had to say to him. He needed nothing new, only to be reminded of what in fact God has already said, promised, done, and expects. God does that with us periodically. That is one reason why we today have His Word. It is a reminder of what He has already said, promised, done, and expects. May we gladly receive these reminders from a loving God, and an Almighty Father.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

God Reconfirms Jacob’s New Name -- Genesis 35:10

And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called him Israel.

When God appeared again to Jacob to bless him, we note He first wanted to reconfirm a new name He had given to Jacob earlier.

God had also given a new name to his grandfather. In Genesis 11:26 we simply read that Terah begat Abram. But in Genesis 17:5 God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.

In the case of Isaac, Jacob’s father, God had selected the name Isaac before he was even born as we read in Genesis 17:19. When we get to Jacob, we read in Genesis 25:26 that his parents first named him Jacob, but soon thereafter in Genesis 32:28, when Jacob ‘strove’ with God, God changed his name to Israel. What is interesting is that from Genesis 34:7 to this present verse, Genesis 35:10, he continues to be referred to as Jacob until God once again reiterates the name He has given him, that is, Israel. At that point, Scripture refers to him sometimes as Jacob and sometimes as Israel. Later, in Genesis 46:2, we will see that God Himself calls him “Jacob, Jacob” in his dreams. And right up to today, both Jews and Christians refer to him as Jacob.

God seems to have wanted to be the name giver to these three patriarchs of ‘His people’. While the Christian mind may find it problematic that God the name-giver, at least in Jacob’s case, did not appear to stick to the name He Himself gave Jacob, the Hebrew mind has no problem. There is no contradiction in the fact that God may have given Jacob a new name from a divine perspective and at the same time the human Moses may have recorded or used another name when referring to him. Thus, both Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably.

What is important for us is to note two things: First, that people who are close to God and are to be used mightily by God are the ones that may get a new name. Secondly, that whether or not God gives us a new name is not the issue, but rather that when He gives us a new purpose, a new task, a new responsibility to carry out on His behalf, we be willing and ready to do so. Before we start looking for a new name, perhaps we need to focus on identifying what God has in store for us to do.

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