Choosing to Live

Ancient Egypt was obsessed with death. So is modern America.Ancient Egypt was obsessed with Death. They wrote about death. They worshiped gods and goddesses of death. They built gigantic monuments to the dead. They amassed fortunes in metals, tools, and slaves, thinking they could take them with to the other side.

They rejected the God of Life.

In many ways our own culture mirrors theirs. We talk about death. We sing about it. We imitate it. We constantly invent new ways to cause it. We are always at war.

We have chosen to embrace death and to reject the God of Life.

Stephen Baars wrote that choice equals life. He was right in a way. Pharaoh chose to kill the children of Israel and his people’s children were killed. He chose to reject God’s reasonable offers, so choice and life were taken from him and his people. Every choice either adds to or takes away from our life.

Choose life.

If you choose to spend your days watching television, you are choosing death. You are surrendering active participation in your own life in favor of passive observation of someone else’s life. More often than not, that other life is a fiction. It is not real and can never be real. It is death. Video games aren’t much better. You might be participating, but it is still fiction, and it can still never be life.

In order to live, you must choose life. You must get off your couch and do something. Take a walk, learn a skill, have a conversation, sing a song, go to church, anything that advances and builds your life.

But be careful. Doing something isn’t always the same as living. There are many active choices you can make that will still take away from your life. Sports and physical activity enhance life, but somewhere there is a line beyond which sports become an invitation to death. Socializing, singing, dancing, laughing, drinking, and eating are all wonderful parts of life, but they can all steal from your life if taken in the wrong measures or in the wrong company. Love definitely adds to life, but imbalanced or untimely expressions of love only bring death. Both God and the Devil are in the details.

We should thank God that he has set us free from slavery so that we can make our own choices. We should also thank God that he has given us guidelines to help us make good decisions, to help us choose life.

May it please our Lord, we will be servants of God

The story of Joseph and his brothers is filled with shadows of Israel’s Messiah. In a very real sense, Joseph is a messiah as he saved both Israel and Egypt from the famine. But consider these points:

  • He told his brothers that they would serve him.
  • He was betrayed and sold for silver by his brothers.
  • He was abused and imprisoned (buried).
  • He interpreted dreams about resurrection after three days.
  • He was released from prison by Pharaoh (resurrected by God).
  • He revealed himself to his brothers at the end.
  • He saved all of Israel.
  • He saved Egypt and the people of the surrounding nations.

The parallels between Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus) are astounding, but the prophetic foreshadowing goes even deeper than this in very subtle ways.

Judah and Joseph both represent Messiah Yeshua in different, overlapping ways.

Ancient Jewish tradition expected two messiahs who would redeem Israel together. The first was Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph) who would suffer for his people and atone for them with his blood. The second was Mashiach ben David (Messiah son of David) who would defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in a peaceful era in which Israel is the chief of all nations. In the prophetic story of Joseh, one might expect that Judah, the ancestor of David, would play the role of the King, while Joseph would be the Servant, but they each play both roles. Judah is clearly the leader of his brothers, but also offers his life in exchange for theirs. Joseph, on the other hand, has also given his life for his brothers–unintentionally–and they all came to bow before him. Both of them are Messiah ben David and Messiah ben Yosef simultaneously. Perhaps because both Messiahs are actually one in reality: The suffering servant sheds his blood to pay for Israel’s freedom and returns later as the conquering king to break their chains and set up his throne in Jerusalem.

(Sorry, I’m getting carried away on a tangent, but Wow! What a tangent!)

Egypt represents the world. A few years after Yeshua was crucified, buried, and resurrected, the Israelites who had returned to the land of Israel were exiled again and scattered across the Roman Empire and beyond. Likewise, a few years after Joseph was brought out of prison (resurrected), the Israelites were exiled from Canaan by famine and took refuge in Egypt. The people of Egypt are the people of the world among whom the Israelites now live.

When Jacob finally met Joseph’s sons, he didn’t recognize them because they looked like Egyptians. Today, Many who are children of Israel are, in all outward respects, indistinguishable from the world. Israel does not recognize them, and only direct revelation from Messiah when he returns will allow Him to see them.

Finally, going back several years, Joseph was brought out of the prison–symbolically resurrected–and elevated to sit at the right hand of Pharaoh, who–at least in this respect–plays the role of God, the Father.

(I did say that the patterns are subtle. They don’t precisely align with the events of Yeshua’s life, death, resurrection, and return, but all of the elements are present, if somewhat rearranged.)

Read Genesis 47:25, keeping in mind that Pharaoh was, prophetically and in part, foreshadowing the role of God in the story of Messiah’s salvation of Israel:

And they [the Egyptian people] said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:25)

It’s a pitiable statement that most of us skim over no matter how many times we read Genesis. It seems sad that the Egyptians had to give up everything and became slaves of pharaoh just to survive, but consider the alternative. There was no hope of survival. Crop after crop had failed, and, without Joseph, they would have long exhausted their stores and died. They would all have been lost without him. They could live as slaves to Pharaoh or die as slaves to hunger. Either way, they were going to serve.

Right here in this forgettable little verse is the hope of all the world.

And the people of the world said to Yeshua, “You have saved our souls. May it please Adonai Yeshua, we will be servants of God.”

We were all lost, spiritually dead because of sin. Not a single person in all the world can save themselves from that famine. It doesn’t matter whether we think it’s fair or not. Would you deny the existence of droughts, hurricanes, and earthquakes because you don’t like them? Then where’s the value in protesting your innocence in the face of the Creator of Heaven and Earth?

And why protest becoming servants of God? We were created to serve Him. Clement of Rome, when addressing competition for status in the Corinthian church wrote,

The heavens moving by his appointment, are subject to him in peace. Day and night accomplish the courses that he has allotted unto them, not disturbing one another….Even the smallest creatures live together in peace and concord with each other. All these has the Great Creator and Lord of all commanded to observe peace and concord, being good to all. But especially to us who flee to his mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever!

Why do we, who reflect the image of the Creator in function and form more than any other of His creations, struggle so hard and continuously against the purpose for which we were created?

Here is what it means to “be saved”: You are created to serve, but are lost in your sin without the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua, Messiah ben Yosef. “Flee to his mercy” and be restored to your rightful place as a servant of God. You were designed to be God’s hands in His Creation and not just to do your own thing. Like any other purposefully designed tool, you will be happier, more fulfilled in doing that for which you were made. And when you pass on or if you are still alive when Yeshua, Messiah ben David, returns as the conquering king, you will hear him say “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” While those who have refused his yoke, choosing to starve in their sins rather than to be fed in His service, will feel His wrath.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

There’s no magic formula, no “Sinner’s prayer”, that can save you. It is only Yeshua’s blood, your commitment to serve and obey Him, and God’s grace to honor both the blood and your decision. Without His blood, we are lost. Without a commitment to obey God, we are lost. Without God’s mercy, we are lost. Thank God that He has made all of these available to us! There is nothing left for us to do but to repent from our sins and obey His Word.

You don’t have to understand the spiritual physics of blood atonement. You don’t have to understand why God created the world the way that He did. You only have to believe that He has created you for a purpose, that He wants the best for you, and that He has provided a way for you to be restored to your full potential.

This is the end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

If you have declared your allegiance to the King, your trust in Him, and your commitment to obey His commandments, then you are indeed a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a true servant of the Most High.

Joseph’s Plot and Judah’s Redemption

Benjamin wasn’t a thief, but Joseph’s cup was found in his sack. As soon as Joseph’s steward found the cup, everyone knew that it had been planted there and Benjamin had been framed. But why would Joseph do such a thing?

When they were brought before Joseph, Judah, Jacob’s third son, who had all but abandoned the family in order to pursue his fortune in the world, became the family spokesman. The coldly pragmatic course would have been to disavow all knowledge of the cup and let Benjamin take the fall. He did appear to be the target of the frame-up, after all–and the rest of the brothers would be saved.

Fortunately for everyone, Judah chose another route. Whatever the purpose of Joseph’s scheme, Judah had had enough of brother turning against brother. He was determined that they would all stick together no matter the consequences. When Joseph refused to punish them all for the crimes of one, Judah offered himself in Benjamin’s stead.

It was the sign that Joseph sought, the sole aim of hiding the cup in the sack and bringing them all back to Egypt under threat of slavery or imprisonment. Joseph wanted to see if his brothers had truly repented of the jealousy and violence that had caused them to betray him so many years before. Seeing Judah’s desire to protect both Benjamin and Jacob even at the cost of his own life, Joseph wept and revealed himself as their long lost brother.

If Judah had allowed Benjamin to be punished or had betrayed any selfishness in his motives, Joseph would have continued to hide his identity and might have punished them all. The pragmatic approach of sacrificing one brother for the sake of ten would have backfired, and they would have lost everything. The story of the Hebrews in Egypt would have been very different.

The question of “Why do bad things happen to good people” has plagued believers since the beginning of time, but the answers–however difficult to accept–have been available just as long. Very often, bad things happen to good people in order to help the weak to become strong, for the faithless to learn faith, or to provide opportunities for those who have been blessed to pass on their blessings to those who have not. Sometimes an innocent person might appear guilty so that someone else will have the opportunity to defend him or to develop his faith in God or his ability to lead God’s people.

The Bible isn’t a book of soft and easy answers. The truth–like God’s methods of character development–can be hard. If you want the easy route, the safe route, Torah isn’t for you. However, if you long for the greater blessings that await those who persevere, who choose the true path over the pragmatic one, keep digging. The truth goes deep.

The Cupbearer’s Choice

Threads in a tapestry, links in a chain, cupbearers in Pharaoh’s court…

God’s plan is always convoluted. He weaves divers threads from the beginning of time knowing precisely where He will bring them together millennia later so that events will converge just so and individuals will be presented with choices that will determine their status in the world to come.

Consider the long chain of events that brought Joseph into power in Egypt. God gave him dreams and caused Jacob to give him a peculiar coat so that his brothers would be jealous and betray him in time to sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan that delivered him to Potiphar who threw him in prison where he met the baker and the cupbearer who told Pharaoh about him so that he could save both Egypt and his own people, all the while laying down patterns that foreshadowed the ministry, betrayal, death, and resurrection of the Messiah who would also save both the world (Egypt) and Israel.

Complex, convoluted, and–in the end–all wrapped up with no loose ends. Not even Hollywood could tie a plot together like God does.

Joseph isn’t the only person for whom God arranged the threads of existence.

Let’s zoom in on Pharaoh’s cupbearer for a moment. Whatever his crime had been, God needed him to be in prison so that he could meet Joseph who could interpret his dream so that he could later tell Pharaoh about it. The plot grows thicker.

Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. (Genesis 40:21)

Read this verse again, paying special attention to the second half. Isn’t that an odd statement? “He placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand,” as if there was only one cup and it was a one-time event.

Throughout the Scriptures, cups are used to portray what we might call fate. God gives to one person or nation a cup of wrath and to another He gives a cup of blessing.

I will take the cup of salvation. (Psalm 116:13)
and
Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath. (Jeremiah 25:15)

So the cup that the chief cupbearer placed into the hand of Pharaoh is not just a cup, but a Cup of either curses or blessings. Whether it was one or the other depended on a series of choices:

  • Would the cupbearer remember Joseph to Pharaoh or not?
  • Would Pharaoh tell Joseph his dream?
  • Would Pharaoh believe Joseph’s interpretation and heed his advice?

If any of these had gone the wrong way, Egypt would have suffered in the coming famine while God would have saved the Hebrews some other way. As it was, the cup was full of blessing until Egypt once again forgot Joseph many years later.

Interestingly, the baker and the cupbearer foreshadow another aspect of the story of Yeshua. One of them (the cupbearer) was released and the other (the baker) condemned during a national holiday (Pharaoh’s birthday). Yeshua was arrested during a national holiday (Passover) and, after His trial, Pilate reminded the people that it was a tradition to release one prisoner every year at this time. They chose to release Barrabas (the cupbearer) and to execute Yeshua (the baker).

It makes me wonder if the cupbearer was actually a murderer and if the baker was innocent.

God’s story-telling mastery is so complete that He has done the same thing for every one of us. You are somebody’s cupbearer, choosing in each moment to deliver the truth about God, His Law, and His Messiah or to withhold that truth. If you behave or speak in such a way as to deny someone God’s Truth, you become partly responsible for the resulting curses in that person’s life, and you have no way of knowing in advance which moments, which choices will have the greatest impact. It’s your responsibility to do right when you are able, to put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand, so to speak. When you have spoken the Truth, when you have shown the love of Messiah in the world by doing good to those around you, then your cup becomes one of blessing to you, and the power to transform the contents of the cup in one way or the other devolves to the next person.

We are all threads in a continuous fabric that stretches from one end of time to the other. God sees the overall pattern and places us where He needs us. We don’t always have a lot of control over the basic circumstances in our lives. We do, however, have control over how we choose to interact with those circumstances. We can be like Joseph, speaking the Truth, doing what’s right, and forgiving those who meant to do us wrong, or we can keep silent, look after ourselves, and resent those who appear to have imprisoned us.

You can choose to drink from a cup of salvation or be forced to drink from a cup of wrath. However the world appears around you, the choice remains yours.

Your circumstances don't determine your destiny. Your response to your circumstances does.

A Foreigner in Canaan

Genesis 37:1  And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.

David Stern translates this verse, “Ya’akov continued living in the land where his father had lived as a foreigner, the land of Kena’an.”

It was clear in last week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach) that Jacob continued the family tradition of being a stranger in his own land. That was as it should have been. Pagans filled the Land and sought either to assimilate or to destroy the Hebrews. Assimilation into the local, Canaanite culture would have been a disaster. Abraham told Eliezer that Isaac was not to marry a Canaanite woman under any circumstance, and Isaac gave Jacob the same advice. Intermarriage consistently brought more problems than it was worth. Remember Esau and Judah.

You will not be assimilated. Resistance is fundamental.

It is always difficult to live by God’s standards, and doubly so without the support of a like-minded community. It is easy to allow standards to slip, to let a little transgression slide. With no one to hold you accountable without the moral support of Torah-keeping friends and family, it’s as easy as breathing. Yet God’s consistent marker upon his people is that they are visibly different. They do not behave like the world around them. They dress differently. They speak differently. They behave differently. They keep different holy days. They are conspicuous and set apart (the literal meaning of “holy”) by God’s design. We are not called to be seeker friendly, to make citizenship in the Kingdom of God look easy. We are called to occupy a foreign and hostile land until Messiah Yeshua returns and delivers the kingdom he promised. Like Jacob, we must continue living in the land in which we and our fathers have been aliens.

The real question is not how to blend in, but what to do with our conspicuousness. I can say with absolute certainty that I have not found a satisfactory answer to that question in my own life in a way that honors God. Being different without being better is just being odd.

These must be our priorities:

  1. Mercy and service to the fatherless, the widows, the sick, the poor, and imprisoned. There is no higher good deed than doing good to those who cannot repay you.
  2. Justice to all people. Obedience to the letter of the commandment without regard to justice is not obedience to the author of the commandment.
  3. Obedience to God’s commands. You cannot preach forgiveness and repentance if you haven’t repented of your own sins.
  4. Preaching the gospel. Once your own house is in order, you can set about helping others build theirs.

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.

Why Was Jacob Always Seeing Angels?

Why did Jacob encounter so many angels?There are angels all over in Scripture. They guard people and places. They deliver messages. They execute judgment. They guide some travelers and hinder others.

But I think, of all the angelic encounters in the Bible, Jacob’s are perhaps the most mysterious.

When Jacob fled from his brother Esau after taking his blessing from their father, he camped at Beer-sheba Bethel and dreamed of angels coming and going from Heaven (Genesis 28:10-15). As he watched these angels busy on unknown errands, God said to him, “Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth… Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:14-15) Since Jacob was running for his life to a place he had never visited before across potentially dangerous territory, especially for a man alone, this must have been very encouraging. He traveled from that place to Haran where he served Laban for fourteen years, was cheated out of wages but still came out ahead, fathered at least 11 children, and became very wealthy.

Many years later, traveling back to the Promised Land from Haran, Jacob again encountered a large number of angels, this time at a place he called Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1-2). He saw them and exclaimed, “This is God’s army!” Jacob didn’t interact with them or with God, at least not right away, but he was reminded that the last time he saw angels, he had been running from Esau. This time he was headed back to Canaan where Esau was still waiting. Although many years had past, we all know that some grudges remain hot long after the original cause.

Hoping to cool Esau’s anger, Jacob sent his own angels (Hebrew melek in verse 3, the same word used for angels in verse 1) ahead with liberal gifts. When he heard that Esau was coming to meet him, he reminded God of His promise so long ago and pointed out that his offspring weren’t yet like the dust of the earth, so shouldn’t God still be watching over him?

What Jacob might not have realized was that there wasn’t anything particularly special about Mahanaim except that it’s the place where God momentarily opened his eyes. Those angels weren’t permanently camped there. They had surrounded Jacob at Beer-Sheba and stayed with him all through the years. They were always there, even when he couldn’t see them. God had great plans for Jacob and He wasn’t about to let anything interfere with those plans. Even though Jacob couldn’t see them except once every few decades, they never left his side. They couldn’t abandon him to Esau anymore than God can break a promise.

Here’s the best news of all: God has a plan for everyone, and He sends His angels to make sure those plans are carried out. Now, I can’t promise you that you’ll like whatever God has in store for you. Jacob suffered quite a bit over the years. Having a destiny doesn’t mean having a life of ease. It might even mean suffering and dying a terrible, painful death. I know that doesn’t sound encouraging, but it should. If your trust is in God, then whatever you suffer in His service now will be reversed ten fold later, whether in this life or in the life to come.

On the other hand, if your trust is in something else, this ought to be the furthest thing from a comfort. Remember the angel that blocked Balaam’s path. He had set out to curse Israel. God not only turned his curses into blessing, but ensured that Balaam eventually met a violent and shameful end, and there was no counterbalancing reward waiting for him on the other side of death, but rather the lake of fire.

God’s promises are sure, His plans unchangeable. Don’t be on the wrong side of them.

There are angels all around us all the time, carrying messages, executing judgment, standing guard. Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Trust in God and believe in His Providence, for there is an angelic army on your side.

Truly, if God is for us, who can possibly be against us?

Esau’s Choices

I’ve heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who learn from others’ mistakes and those who have to learn from their own. Esau represents a third type: those who don’t learn from anyone’s mistakes and blame others when things go badly.

Esau had a number of character flaws, the most obvious of which was an inability to master his base urges. This is illustrated in Genesis’ characterization of him as a hunter, as opposed to his father, Isaac, who was a farmer, and his brother, Jacob, who was a herdsman. There’s nothing wrong with being a hunter, but it is emphasized in the narrative because it is an activity through which an impetuous, yet skilled, man can easily earn a living, at least for a time. If he wants meat, he can go out and get it. A herdsman, on the other hand, tends his animals today for next year’s meat. He plans many more moves in advance than does a hunter. A wise hunter also plans in advance to learn effective techniques and to ensure conditions favorable to game, but such wisdom isn’t absolutely necessary to be a successful hunter, while, without planning and preparation, a herdsman must shortly seek a new career.

However, this Torah reading (Genesis 25:19-28:9, called Toldot) reveals another of Esau’s flaws, one that isn’t discussed quite as much.

Esau never asked for advice and consistently made bad decisions.Esau hated asking for directions.

He was a lot like Cain in this respect. When Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t, Cain’s response wasn’t to ask for help, but to attack Abel. Esau was especially bad at this when it came to women.

The custom in those days–and it was a very good custom–was for parents to a spouse for their child, or at the very least to be heavily involved in the vetting process. Esau, however, being a man of the “now” didn’t wait to ask his parents’ advice. He married not one, but two, Hittite women who “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” (Genesis 26:34)

Perhaps Esau misinterpreted the friendly commercial dealings between his family and the Hittites or perhaps he just fell prey to his impulsive nature. We aren’t told precisely why he chose these women. We are only told that his decision was deeply offensive to his parents.

About thirty-six years later, Jacob and Rebekah conspired to get Esau’s blessing from Isaac and seized on Jacob’s need for a wife as an excuse to send him away from Esau’s murderous rage. Rebekah told Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Genesis 27:46)

Esau learned of this and, in an attempt to regain his parents’ favor, decided to get another wife, this time from the family of Abraham. Unfortunately, he went to the wrong side of the family. Instead of going to Abraham’s nephew, Bethuel, for a wife, he went to Abraham’s half-Egyptian son, Ishmael.

Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.
(Genesis 28:6-9)

Instead of asking Isaac and Rebekah directly, he again tried to reason out for himself what he should do. Instead of resolving the problem, he merely added to it. He could have saved everyone trouble by asking for help in finding a good woman from the beginning. When his parents’ displeasure became obvious, again he could have saved even more trouble by asking for help. Unfortunately, Esau just wasn’t the type to ask for directions. With no map and only a hint at the proper bearing, he thought he could plot out the correct route for himself, and he failed at every turn.

I’ve been where he was. I thought I was smart enough to plot my own course. Marriage, parenthood, career… Billions of people manage these things. Surely I could figure them out too. What I failed to see is that nobody does it successfully without the active support of family and community and the advise of others who did it first. I didn’t have those things–didn’t know that I needed them–and I foundered.

The Scriptures are full of admonitions to listen to counsel.

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
(Proverbs 12:15)

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.
(Ecclesiastes 4:13)

But these verses leave out one important lesson that we should take away from Esau’s example: You can’t follow advice that you never received.

Esau didn’t do what his parents wanted, but it appears that he wanted to. For whatever reason, Isaac and Rebekah failed to teach Esau in a way that he understood, and he failed to ask. He was an intelligent and capable man who could learn the habits of wild game through observation and reason. Applying those skills to his relationships, he saw what his family did and heard what they said, but he drew the wrong conclusions because there were factors that he couldn’t see.

The world is full of wisdom. Some comes only by experience and some by listening, but there is wisdom that only comes by asking.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
(James 1:5)

If you find that your plans continue to end poorly no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, it’s time to ask for help. Ask your parents, brother, pastor, or rabbi. Ask God. If you ask honestly, very few will deny you, so ask them all. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22) Nobody can figure everything out alone.

Wisdom is all around you, available for the asking, and you can’t follow advice that nobody gives you.

The Only Enduring Legacy

Abraham married three times, had at least eight children, traveled the known world, led an army, and accumulated fantastic wealth. He interacted with kings as an equal and was a personal friend of the Creator of heaven and earth. He lived a long and eventful life and half the world calls him father today.

Genesis has something very curious to say about what he did with all that he had acquired.

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.
(Gen 25:5-6)

If Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, what gifts could he have given to his other sons?

There are three ways to understand this:

  1. Abraham gave gifts to his other sons and then bequeathed all that remained to Isaac. This is possible, but based on the order of the statements, I don’t think this is what is intended.
  2. Rashi wrote that these gifts might be the things that he had acquired from Pharaoh and Abimelech after the misunderstandings over Sarah. Abraham didn’t want to be associated with them, so didn’t really consider them his. For this to be true, he would have had to keep two completely different sets of books, including segregated flocks and servants, for more than 75 years with no confusion between the two. Why wouldn’t he have just given them away during that time? This explanation also seems unlikely to me.
  3. “All he had” didn’t include tangible things at all, but spiritual things. This, I believe, is the correct answer.

Everything belongs to God. Whatever we have is only held in trust for the day God requires it from us. “I own the cattle on a thousand hills,” God says. But Abraham did have a set of possessions that was completely his. God could never recall these things, could never demand that anyone to whom He has given them, return them:

  • Covenant
  • Promises
  • Knowledge
  • Wisdom

These are things that neither God nor man nor death can ever take from you. You can’t touch them or put them in a bank, but once yours, they are yours forever. Not only that, but you can share them. You can give them away as much as you want without ever running out. They can’t be inflated, deflated, or out of stock. When you die, your relationship with the Father, your knowledge of His character, and the wisdom of His righteousness are the only things that will still belong to you. Best of all, you can pass them on to your children.

I’m sure Abraham imparted wisdom and knowledge to his other sons–whether or not they accepted these gifts–but the Covenant and associated promises he only gave to Isaac. Not because he didn’t want to give them to all of his sons–he asked God as much when he had to send Ishmael away–but because Isaac was part of God’s redemption plan, while Zimran, Jokshan, et al, weren’t. The Covenant was Abraham’s single most important possession. It was only because of the Covenant, that he received God’s promises, that he learned of God’s character, and that he adopted the wisdom of God’s righteousness. The Covenant was truly all that Abraham had and he gave it to Isaac long before he died.

I would like to be able to pass on some material goods to my son when I die, but what I really want him to take from me is a covenant relationship with our Heavenly Father. When I die, when my son dies, when we are all dead and turned to dust, Abraham’s Covenant is the only thing we will still possess. It ensures our eternal salvation, our resurrection and reunion with our Creator. It is the most important thing in the world that a father could give to his son.

It’s important to teach our children to save, to invest, and to live productive lives. But it is infinitely more important to teach them to be a friend and a son of God and a productive citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. As you gather with family and friends this week, remember to thank God for the great gift He promised us through Abraham and delivered to us through Yeshua. Especially remember to let your children see your gratitude.

Abraham's one enduring possession was the Covenant God made with him.

The Roles and Fields of Righteous Men

Every laborer has his place in God's vineyard.Four of the great patriarchs of Torah were faced with the deserved destruction of unrighteous people, and the all reacted differently.

When God told Noah that he would destroy the entire world by a great flood, he spent his days building an ark to save his family according to God’s command, but also in preaching to the lost. Even though God had told him the world was beyond saving, he meant to try it anyway. God did not rebuke him for it, and the Apostles even praised Noah for his great work as a preacher. Even so, his efforts seem pointless. I doubt that he gained anything useful from them except for a greater understanding of the debased nature of man. God killed every living person on the planet outside of Noah’s small family.

A few hundred years later, God told Abraham that he was about to destroy Sodom. The people there had never done anything for Abraham, and in fact had caused him a considerable amount of trouble. Abraham knew that Sodom was a cesspit and didn’t want anything to do with it, yet he dared to bargain with God to save the people of Sodom anyway. The remarkable thing is that God entertained this negotiation. Like Noah before him, Abraham’s efforts went unrewarded beyond the personal gain of a greater understanding of God and man. God sterilized Sodom with fire, saving only Lot, his wife, and two daughters.

Lot too, tried to save more than were only in his house. He tried to save his married daughters and their families as the angels told him, but he couldn’t even convince those whom God had told him to save. He should have been working to save the people of Sodom all along, but he waited until it was too late, and then he couldn’t even save what was once his own. Even those family members who had escaped with him would be taken away, his wife by her own disobedience, and his daughters by his own poor judgment and the infectious wickedness of Sodom that they had brought with them. Lot, too, learned something of God and human nature, but he couldn’t save anyone.

Later, Moses would be given the opportunity to save others multiple times. He tried to save Pharaoh and the people of Egypt through preaching, but he already knew that they wouldn’t listen and would be crushed beneath God’s wrath. However, the outcome in Moses’ other opportunities was different than all those previous. He called Israel out of Egypt, and they followed him and the pillar across the Red Sea to safety. He interceded on Israel’s behalf several times in the wilderness, even offering his own life, and caused God to spare them each time.

I’m not sure that Moses was such a better man than Abraham or Noah. (A strong argument could be made concerning Lot, however.) They were all great men of God. So why did Moses succeed where his ancestors had failed?

The answer is the same that must be given to the man called to be a shepherd who would rather be a traveling evangelist, to a prophet who would rather be a king, and to a hand that would rather be an eye: It wasn’t their job.

Noah’s job was to clear the land. He uprooted trees, cut sod, and tilled the soil. It didn’t matter how long he preached to the blades of grass; they would never become wheat. Abraham planted seeds in the soil Noah had prepared. He weeded, watered, and fertilized. And Lot…well, Lot tried, but in the end, all he could do was transplant a few questionable tares from one garden to another.

But Moses harvested. He arrived in just the right season, and he reaped where he hadn’t sown. That was simply his role to play. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Moses was greater than Abraham. Where would the reaper be without the sower? Moses just had a different job to do.

(Originally written for Soil from Stone, January 22, 2013.)