Jacob Becomes Israel

When Rebekah and Isaac sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s home to find a wife, Jacob stopped to rest at a place called Bethel. There, he saw a vision of angels going to and from Heaven. He vowed to serve God and God vowed to see him safely back home again to the Promised Land. (Genesis 32:10-22)

Many years later, as he was returning, God met him on the road again, but this encounter wasn’t as peaceful as the first. God appeared to him in the form of an angel and they fought all through the night. Jacob refused to let the angel go, until the angel seriously injured him.

After they wrestled, the angel told him (in Genesis 32:28), “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” However, the narrative continues to refer to him as Jacob and not Israel for several more chapters, only using the new name to refer to Jacob’s descendants. More years passed, and Jacob went on with his life.

Why did God give Jacob this new name and then not use it?

I believe it’s because Jacob wasn’t ready to be Israel, yet. Through his whole life to this point, Jacob had been passive. He was manipulated by his mother, by Laban, and by his wives, Leah and Rachel. The only times he actively pursued his own interests, he did so through treachery, sleight of hand, or flattery.

Jacob wasn’t an evil man, but he wasn’t a strong man either. He certainly wasn’t the kind of man you might expect to be the founder of a nation. He was a paragon of the beta male.

Idolatry was rampant in his house, and although Jacob might not have taken part in the worship of inanimate objects, his relationship with Rachel was, in its own way, idolatrous enough. She was the focus of his life. He doted on her to the detriment of the rest of the family, but fell short as her husband.

When she died, he merely put Joseph and Benjamin in her place and then left town to sulk by himself. His son Reuben took advantage of his absence to attempt a poorly planned and executed coup. His daughter Dinah began running with the wrong crowd, and got herself into a very bad situation. Finally, two of his sons sacked a city, killing or enslaving all of its inhabitants.

It was true then, as it is now, that profound personal growth rarely happens without profound personal pain.

After all of these troubles were piled on his head, God called Jacob back to Bethel (Genesis 35:1) where he had once pledged to serve YHVH (Genesis 28:20-22). Despite all of the trouble and conflict, God had kept his side of the bargain and brought him safely back to the land of his fathers. But Jacob hadn’t kept his.

Jacob Turns a Corner

With this reminder, Jacob finally began acting like the father and husband he should have been decades before. He commanded his family to give up their idols and he led them all back to Bethel, where Deborah, Rebekah’s old nurse and the last remnant of the previous generation, died.

Jacob finally took the helm of his own family and began to become Israel.

That’s when God repeated the promise of a new name as well as the promises Jacob had inherited from Abraham.

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God 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 from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”
Genesis 35:9-12

This is also the point at which the Biblical narrative begins to refer to Jacob as Israel.

Jacob became Israel, but he didn’t become perfect. He continued to make bad decisions and the narrative switches back and forth between the two names. Jacob was human, and no mere human will ever be perfect in this lifetime.

This shouldn’t discourage us, though. Our weaknesses are no barrier to God’s anointing.

God calls us wherever we are and then begins moving us in the right direction. Change doesn’t happen immediately for anyone, and we all move at a different pace. Even so, we are called and given a new name by God’s grace.

We don’t get to point at anyone else and say, “You’re too flawed. You don’t deserve that ministry.” Our expectations, our standards mean nothing to God. If he wants to raise up a drug addict to disciple thousands, then that’s what he’ll do. If he wants to raise up a weak husband and absent father to be the leader of a new nation, then what is that to you or me?

God will call whom he wills, even if it’s you.

P.S. This article was inspired by a conversation at Brenham Torah Community‘s Bible study a few weeks ago. Thank you, BTC!

Six Exercises to Find Your Calling

Six exercises to find your calling

Take from among you a contribution to the LORD. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the LORD’s contribution…
Exodus 35:5

I believe that everyone has a job to do in God’s Kingdom. Nobody is useless. Nobody is leftover bolt. Everyone has a calling from God to do something.

But how are you supposed to know what God is calling you to do?

Let’s take a look at how God called some famous people in the Bible…

Moses – God caught Moses’ attention by an small, unusual fire on a remote mountain. He plucked at his curiosity and then spoke to him in an audible voice. I’ve seen bushes on fire, but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t consumed, and I’ve certainly never heard one speak except in a crackle, pop, and hiss. Moses hemmed and hawed a bit, but in the end he confronted Pharaoh in God’s name and led the Hebrews out of Egypt.

Gideon – God appeared to Gideon as a man and told him directly what he was supposed to do. To be certain that this was God and not just his own imagination, Gideon asked God to cause a fleece to alternately collect moisture and repel moisture. Surprisingly–at least to me–God obliged him. Gideon responded by raising an army through which God would drive the Midianites out of Israel.

Samson – Samson didn’t hear God’s call himself, but an angel appeared to his parents and told them what Samson’s role was to be. I don’t know if he ever believed it himself, but the nature of Samson’s character led him into one confrontation after another with the Philistines until finally he called out to God for the strength to bring down the house of Israel’s enemies.

Samuel – God called to Samuel in the night while he was a small boy watched the waning lights of the Menorah. The voice of God seemed so normal to Samuel that he thought it was a mere man. Samuel heard the voice three times before the corrupt priest Eli had to tell him that it was God speaking to him. It took four tries before Samuel answered God, but from that day on he let God’s words flow through him into the world.

David – David was a shepherd, and he was a good one. He kept his flocks safe–even killing lions and bears–until God sent Samuel to anoint him to be the shepherd of a much bigger flock. God’s Spirit filled David and guided him from that day on.

In the Bible, God spoke to people through a variety of media: fire, smoke, men, angels, prophets, visions, dreams, and disembodied voices. That’s great for them, but what about you and me? Signs and wonders weren’t normal even for those times, and we can’t all be judges and kings and prophets. How are the rest of us supposed to find our calling in God’s kingdom?

First, let me assure you that you do have a calling. You have a job to do in God’s kingdom.

Think of the Kingdom like an automobile. Some people are hood ornaments or custom alloy wheels, but is an engine mount or a bearing less important because you can’t see it? They’re actually more important than those other parts! Just like the parts on a car, everyone serves a purpose in the Kingdom, and everyone suffers when parts are missing and things don’t move the way they’re supposed to.

So, what’s your part? Should you ask God for a sign or should you put out a fleece like Gideon did?

I believe that God can still speak to people in dramatic ways like he did back then, but that’s not what we should be looking for. Notice that none of the people I listed above went to God and asked for a sign until after God came to them. They were just minding their business, doing the work that life had put in front of them.

Let me tell you a little about how God called me.

There have been two constant tendencies in my life. Drives might be a better word.

I write. I don’t remember when I first started writing, but I do remember that I started on my first novel in sixth grade. I would write a chapter in pencil, and my sister would type it out for me. It was all dreck, of course, and I never did finish it, but it started something. I’ve been writing more or less ever since, pouring words out on paper and screen in the form of stories, essays, letters, and endless online debates on politics, religion, technology, and whatever else caught my attention. I’m always thinking about the next thing I want to write, always writing essays in my head. I’ve never written professionally, and I know I don’t write as prolifically or as well as many others, but I’ve always been a writer.

I solve puzzles too. Crosswords, sudoku, troubleshooting computers, and even filling in the family tree. I’m not a genius, but I have a good eye for spotting patterns and making connections. Sometimes I wonder if I see patterns that aren’t really there, but I make my living as a computer systems administrator, and I’ve found that I’m pretty good at eliminating the noise of irrelevant data to help me zero in on the real source of a problem. Because of that, I’ve learned to trust my instinct on what might or might not be a real pattern. I always have a puzzle near at hand for idle moments, and I usually have my eye out for chiasms and parallelisms when I’m reading the Bible. It might even rise to the level of a compulsion.

These two skills have served me well professionally. In fact, in almost every job I’ve ever had, I gravitated into a role of expert troubleshooter, sorter, and documenter. Sift the data for what really matters. Catalog, categorize, and sort until it all makes sense. Then simplify, systematize, document, and organize the result into something useful, like training materials or operating procedures. I don’t care much for technical writing–it’s boring–but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t good at it.

I have some talents. So what does that have to do with God’s calling?

I am convinced that if God gives you a job to do, he will also give you the means to do it, and among those means must be the talents you were born with, plus the experiences you’ve gained along the way. I can’t not write. I can’t not solve puzzles. It’s who I am, and there’s no getting around it. So, if God has a job for me, then how can who I am not play a role in that job?

If you’re not sure what skills or characteristics drive you, let me ask you four questions to help you find out. Ask yourself these questions and answer them as honestly as you can. Then ask a few other people to answer them about you too. Their answers might be more revealing than your own!

Six exercises to help you discover your calling…

1. What activities or responsibilities do you consistently find yourself handling in almost everything you do? Whether at work, play, school, or home, what are the consistent threads?

2. What kinds of problems do other people always come to you for help with? Avoid listing learned skills here. Try to focus on the broader picture. Instead of saying “fixing a car” or “programming the VCR”, say “mechanical problems” or “understanding incomplete or confusing directions”.

3. What kinds of activities do you get completely lost in? What can you do for hour after hour and hardly even notice that time has passed? How does that activity correlate with your answer to question 1?

4. What brings you peace? When your confused, lonely, angry, depressed…what calms your storm and brings you back to a place of focus and usefulness? (Drugs, alcohol, and mindless entertainments don’t count. Those things don’t calm the storm so much as dull your senses to it.)

The answers to these questions will contain a wealth of information about who you are and therefore what kinds of jobs God has prepared you for.

For many people–maybe even for most–discovering who you are isn’t quite enough to tell you what you’re supposed to be doing. Before you can really take your place in the Kingdom, there are two more things you need to know:

1. Where are you right now? I mean “where” in almost every way: geographically, economically, spiritually, professionally, etc. Are you a husband? An accountant? Do you live in Alaska or Costa Rica? Wherever you are right now, whatever you do, whatever circumstance you find yourself in, start right there. Make the most of it. Be the best husband or wife, the best job seeker, the most studious learner, the kindest grandmother.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.
Matthew 25:21

Unless there is something immoral about where and how you find yourself at the moment, don’t try to change everything. Just apply the talents that God has given you to the place that you are in.

2. What has God already told you? We shouldn’t be looking for signs in the heavens or a prophetic word to tell us what God has already told us plainly in writing. I mean the Bible. Are you reading it and taking it seriously? The character of God’s Kingdom, his people, and of God Himself is revealed in Scripture. If you want to be a part of this machine, you should know what the machine is for and what kind of performance the driver expects to get out of it. God doesn’t waste words, so if you can’t be bothered to find out what he’s already said, why should he bother telling you anything more?

When you have honestly and prayerfully considered these six questions, I believe you will have a very good idea of what role God wants you to play in his plans. That might even make you a little frightened. Don’t let it. God provides. What he didn’t put in your genes, he put into your life experiences. What he didn’t give you through experience, he will give you through relationships, community, and even what might seem like blind luck, but is actually divine Providence arranging the universe to make sure you will have what you need, when you need it to accomplish God’s purposes.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
James 4:3

It’s good to enjoy life, and you should enjoy what God has given you, but remember that everything God gives you is ultimately for a purpose, which is always to serve him.

Don’t be afraid that these exercises lock you into anything. You will gain more insight over time as you contemplate them over years of life and work. Your perspective will change. The things that thrill you and calm you might change too. That’s all fine, because your role in the kingdom might change too.

King David’s entire life was characterized by leadership, passion, and faith in God, but those qualities manifested differently at various stages of his life. He was a shepherd in his youth, then a raider, a general, and finally a king. Your role will also change over time. You will expand, contract, and shift gears. Don’t be afraid of change when it comes. This too is part of God’s plan.

Sometimes he even changes everything, turning caterpillars into butterflies and weaklings into warriors. There are exceptions to almost every rule. God sometimes sends cowards to fight battles and introverts to preach on street corners. Sometimes he even sends prophets and burning bushes. Whenever we think we have God figured out, he burns our pathetic little boxes to ash.

Roll with it. God knows what he’s doing.

If you don’t mind sharing, tell me what you discover through these exercises!

Forgiveness and the Heart of God

We've all heard that God is love, but God is also forgiveness.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
(Genesis 33:4)

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
(Matthew 5:39)

When I sat down to write, I intended to talk about Thanksgiving Day and family reunions, but then it went the way these things often go: somewhere else. Instead of Thanksgiving, I’m going to tell you about three seemingly unforgiveable crimes and their suprising aftermaths.

We hurt each other every day. Selfishness, offense, and anger are commonplace, while mercy and forgiveness are rare.

We’re all familiar with the story of Jacob taking the blessing and the inheritance from his brother, Esau, but what happened between them later isn’t told as often.

I’m sure that Rebekah, their mother, loved them both, but she found Esau’s personality and life choices to be a constant irritation, and her favoritism toward Jacob probably made Esau feel as though she didn’t love him at all. When Jacob deceived dad into giving him Esau’s blessing, it almost certainly damaged whatever relationships remained in the family. You can almost hear the pain in Esau’s voice as he begged his father, “Don’t you have anything left for me?” Jacob took Esau’s mother, then he took his birthright, and finally he conspired to take his father’s blessing too.

Esau was understandably more than a little upset.

Jacob fled the country to escape his brother’s murderous wrath and didn’t return until decades later. During the whole journey home from Haran–weeks at the least and probably months–Jacob dreaded the confrontation that was sure to come. He begged God to protect him from his brother, but as he approached the borders of Canaan, he heard that Esau was headed out to meet him at the head of a small army. Jacob sent gift after gift in an attempt to appease Esau, but he knew that his brother had a hot temper and would not have forgotten how he had been mistreated.

Finally, Jacob saw his brother in the distance, a massive cloud of dust billowing behind him and the four hundred men who were with him. He got down on his knees and bowed his face to the ground seven times, but Esau came on even faster. When he reached Jacob, he yanked him off the ground, put both arms around him, and kissed him. Imagine Jacob’s relief!

Was it really that simple, though?

In the Hebrew of Genesis 33:4, there are small marks above each letter of the word for “kissed him”, vayishakehu. I have heard three interpretations of these marks:

  1. They are Esau’s teeth because his greeting was disingenuous and he would rather have bitten Jacob on the neck than kiss him.
  2. They emphasize Esau’s genuine affection for Jacob. They are tongues of flames or rays of light from one bright point in an otherwise bleak family landscape.
  3. They are scribal marks to indicate a copyist error and the word should have been deleted.

More than 2500 years after the fact, we can’t do much more than speculate. The truth is that we don’t know what was going on in Esau’s head at that moment. All we know is what he did: He embraced his long-estranged brother, kissed him, and wept. And what he didn’t do: Accuse and remind his brother of all the pain he had caused.

Esau was a fool in his youth and repeatedly made bad decisions, but there’s no doubt that he had been wronged. Jacob knew his brother’s weaknesses and used them to take everything that he valued. Esau is never described in Scripture as a righteous man–quite the opposite!–and he had abundant reason to hate his brother.

Yet he still forgave Jacob graciously and earnestly.

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
(Psalm 133:1)

On October 2, 2006, Charlie Roberts saw his two children off to school, then, armed with guns and knives, he drove to a nearby Amish schoolhouse. He ejected everyone from the building except for ten young girls. When the school was surrounded by the police, he shot all ten of them in the head, killing five and leaving others with permanent injuries. Then he shot himself. Later, the families of some of the girls he shot came to his house to express their condolences to his family and to help them through their own loss.

Let me say that again: The families of the victims helped the family of the murderer to get through their grief. The only thing more astonishing than this would be to have shown kindness directly to the murderer himself, but he denied them that opportunity and even the possibility of justice when he took his own life.

The Amish have their faults, but in this they brought the very love of God into the midst of death and tragedy.

There isn’t much you can do to someone that is worse than deliberately and coldly murdering their children. There is another story of brutality and forgiveness that we have all heard.

We suffered from a terminally diseased heart. There was no medicine, no exercise, nor surgery that we could perform to be well again or even to slow our decay. We were doomed. God saw our pain and our impossible position. He understood that our only hope was a new heart and that the only heart suitable for saving the entire human race was his son’s. So he sent Yeshua to show us how to live with a new heart, but we rejected him and his teaching, and then we killed him for it.

God understood that this too was necessary, because you can’t transplant a heart from a living donor.

Yeshua came, knowing that he would be tortured and killed by the very people whom he came to save, and at the height of his torment he said, “Father, forgive them.”

True to his purpose and his word, the Father does forgive us, despite what we’ve done. For all those who repent of their sins and beg his mercy, he forgets their sins and grants them mercy, and like Esau, God doesn’t remind us of the terrible things we did before. He wants us to forget them too, and then to move past them and to live in a manner that honors the new heart that he is creating in us.

The greatest part of Yeshua’s story is that his death wasn’t the end, because he rose from the grave so that we too could rise and share in his glory, not only with a new heart inscribed with his Torah, but a whole new everything and a story with no ending at all.

We’ve all heard that God is love, but God is also forgiveness. Yeshua forgives because he and the Father are one and forgiveness is in his blood. We are called to be like him, and there is no greater way to honor him than to forgive like he did, like the families of Roberts’ victims, and even like Esau forgave Jacob: without reservation and without condemnation.

The Passion of Esau

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Esau wanted to do the right thing but never stopped to ask what that was.

Last week, I wrote about some of Jacob’s encounters with angels and his trust in God.

This week, I’m going to beat up on Esau again, and not just Esau, but his descendants too.

Esau was a man of passion. That isn’t a bad thing. Any self-help guru worth his salt will tell you that passion is a basic ingredient of success. It just needs to be balanced with self restraint.

When he was young, Esau was ruled by his passions. His physical urges drove him to make foolish decisions that he would later regret. He was hungry, so he traded his birthright for a meal. He wanted a woman, so he went out and got himself two of them.

Edom means red. Esau was ruled by his passions. He burned hot and burned out quickly.

Fortunately, as Esau aged, he learned to reign himself in. His desires drove him to obtain the seeds of wealth, while his late learned discipline allowed him to keep and develop them into a substantial sum. By the time Jacob returned from Haran with his family, Esau had accumulated large herds and an army of servants. When they met east of the Jordan, they met peacefully. When Jacob resisted Esau’s attempts to assimilate his family into his own, Esau didn’t respond with anger or force, but went on his way.

Unfortunately, he passed his impetuous tendencies onto his children.

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom [another name for Esau], before any king reigned over the Israelites.(Genesis 36:31 ESV)

At first reading, this verse sounds like the Edomites were a great success, and in many respects they were. While the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, Esau’s descendants became kings and their kingdom lasted for more than a thousand years. But examine the list of Edomite kings in the following verses:

  • Bela son of Beor of Dinhabah
  • Jobab son of Zerah of Bozrah
  • Husham the Temanite
  • Hadad son of Bedad of Avith
  • Samlah of Masrekah
  • Shaul of Rehoboth
  • Baal-Hanan son of Achbor
  • Hadar of Pau

These were kings, not judges in the style of Israel, yet not one of them was the son of the previous king. A scepter rarely passes from one man to another who is not close blood relative without violence. The Edomite culture was one of violence and upheaval, each regime wresting the kingdom from the one before and taking the people in a new direction. Like their father, Esau, the Edomite kings saw what they wanted and took it.

When Moses asked the King of Edom if the Hebrews could pass through their land on their way to their own homeland, their king refused and threatened to attack if they crossed the border. The people of Israel even offered to pay for any resources they might use. The Edomites responded by sending an army. One interesting aspect of this exchange is that after the initial communications, the conversation is described as happening between Israel and Edom, alternate names for Jacob and Esau (Numbers 20:21). The Edomites followed Esau’s pattern of responding to Israel’s return to the land with a show of force, but unlike Esau, the Edomites had not learned to temper their immediate passions for the sake of future material gain.

The end result is easy for us to see today. The Jews maintained themselves as a distinct people even without a homeland for thousands of years and have reestablished themselves as an independent state, while the Edomites were completely absorbed by the surrounding peoples, including the Jews, during the time of the Romans. Their land is the harshest desert now, occupied by Israel and Jordan.

All of our base physical urges–hunger, desire, ambition, etc.–are good things. God built them into us and we wouldn’t be human without them. But be careful and remember Esau. He is a warning to everyone. Don’t look for the easy way or the fast way. Seek wisdom, not gain, and gain will follow in time. Teach your children to act boldly, but always to consider tomorrow’s consequences of today’s actions. Your great grandchildren will remember the lesson.