Dynasties and Birthrights

THE CHILDHOOD UNDERSTANDING of the familiar tune about climbing Jacob’s ladder needs a reset. The Genesis narratives aren’t just about heaven—they yield epiphanies into the ordinary life of faith. The household of Abraham and Sarah, even in its ancient context, is atypical. In family dynamics, without the miraculous moments, epiphanies subvert our expectations of whom and what God can utilize to reveal the faithfulness of divine promises. Sometimes the testimony is evident in ordinary lives—even ours. You’ve heard it said, “Our greatest weakness is our strength.” The episodes in Jacob’s life provide sufficient demonstrations of how passions both energize and blind us: Passion or anger; leadership or arrogance; emotion or intuition; determination or stubbornness.

Despite Jacob’s inconsistencies, the second half of Genesis encompasses his story, as the son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Here we find an unfolding drama. Characters display human nature at its extremes: conniving relatives, loving couples; creative entrepreneurs, dishonest contractors. All, somehow, used by God to form a people with whom the Spirit so evidently abides.

Even when we go our own way, God’s purposes are not thwarted. The challenge for the church in this Pentecost season is to trust that God is planting seeds in good soil—and the seeds that won’t sprout also have a purpose in this garden. Remember that the actions of justice, grace, and faithfulness we practice at home are as much a witness to God as our public proclamations and protests.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ JULY 6 ]
'I Will Go,' says Rebekah
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 145: 8-14; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

AN ATTENTIVE READING of the family narrative in Genesis exposes recurrent behaviors characteristic of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even where expected patterns vary, the influence of the elder can be detected in the choices of the younger. We may profit by suspending some of our preconceived notions and, as the saying goes, reread the stories again for the first time.

So accustomed are we to reading scripture as dismissive of women—especially related to the possessive nature of ancient marriage—we can miss the multifaceted actions of Rebekah found in these Genesis passages, which recall the matchmaking for Isaac and Rebekah that takes place at the well. Her place in this family is not merely the serendipitous matchmaking encounter, nor the mutual love-at-first-sight shared between her and Isaac. In this woman, the narrative preserves the dauntless temperament of Abraham. Unlike his father, Isaac is acquiescent. The son of one who left the land of his ancestors, Isaac remains in his mother’s home (Genesis 24:67). It is Rebekah who exercises Abraham’s pattern of going forth. She leaves the home of her father, solely on a promise. Directed toward the future, she responds, “I will go.”

Her response does not prepare us for her later conniving with her son, Jacob, against her husband, Isaac, a family dynamic that is not without nuance within the households of Abraham and Sarah: think Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. It is their ordinary life—family feuds, children who worship in the way of their fathers—that results in a witness to God’s covenanting faithfulness. As Walter Brueggemann notes, such novelistic features provide for great storytelling: “In a culture which grasps for visible signs of faith, which is driven to scientism, and which falls for too many religious quackeries, this story stands as a foil against easy and mistaken faith.”

The ordinariness of Jesus’ “eating and drinking” life (Matthew 11:19), as opposed to the asceticism of John the Baptist, draws today’s followers away from grand epiphanies and miraculous moments to glimpsing God’s grace in our mundane, muddled, day-to-day existence. Even when “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15), we pray that we, as works of God, shall praise the Lord and “speak of the glory” of God’s reign (Psalm 145:10-11).

[ JULY 13 ]
Sibling Rivalries
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 65:1-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

SIBLING RIVALRY continues to produce tension in our world. Our relationship with our enemies can be as close as Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb. Yet the reality into which we are to be delivered demands the presence of all nations.

The promise has always been that both sons will be provided for. Yet even in the womb, the haste to control this gift is evident. Jacob, who will eventually preserve the promise, nonetheless wrestles all his life for it. Jacob is no different than Esau. The self-promotion for personal satisfaction remains a human frailty in the biblical narrative—from Cain and Abel to Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son—as if human striving can somehow manipulate divine intentions. While God responds to our prayers (see Genesis 25:23), the divine intention remains in play: a concern for partnership, rather than power.

With this echo, the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23) need be not only an evangelism strategy for reaching those outside the community of faith. Instead we might see two nations, both with access to the word of God’s promises. Each has the opportunity to reap the blessing—it is the birthright of humanity. But one will despise the divine intention in pursuit of worldly wealth, wisdom, and welcome. Today’s disciples are no more understanding than Jesus’ first century followers. One would expect sown seeds to grow. But Jesus had to explain to the fishermen, more familiar with winds, the importance of good soil. Not a literal planting and sowing, but a metaphor for mutual support against secular temptations of fortune, foresight, and fame. The challenge of a Christian witness in the world may be to get our own house in order.

[ JULY 20 ]
Crossed Paths
Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

JACOB'S DREAM journey between heaven and earth begins here at Bethel. Whether escaping the wrath of his brother Esau (Genesis 27:41-45) or returning to Paddan-aram, the land of his mother and grandfather, to find a wife (Genesis 27:46 to 28:1-5), Jacob leaves his father Isaac with a burden and a blessing. As the journey begins, we learn how God will shape Isaac’s blessing for his son.

The reading this week is tamed by speculations that the placement of a rock at one’s head means sleeping on it (as Elizabeth Achtemeier notes, at the very least he probably wrapped it with his cloak). Jacob’s evening rest stop has become the meeting place of heaven and earth. Not merely a moment of confirmation that he is on the right track or in pursuit of success, Jacob is astounded to have crossed paths with God. And what comes after Jacob’s vision is as important as his heavenly glimpse.

We know this story because Jacob marked the spot of his encounter with God. God is not present because Jacob marked the spot. Jacob marked the spot because God was present. We mark births, deaths, anniversaries, and graduations. Yet we rarely mark public places where we taste heaven on earth. We construct buildings and invite God in, but on the occasion of life-transforming moments too often we neglect to name God as present.           

Disaster, devastation, and disappointment evoke the question “Why is God doing this?” But when good happens, our “thank-you-God” shout-outs mirror the cheers of a running back after a touchdown. However, a bowl-game goalpost dance does not evoke remembrance of the Covenanting God at work. We are simply in awe of the player.

In a culture that believes we can have good without God and justice without Jesus, Christians must explicitly subject these ideas to the claims of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Like Jacob, we must point to the glimpses of heaven that occur within the ordinary. This is how we witness to heaven on earth.

[ JULY 27 ]
Order My Steps, Lord
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

WAS LABAN SO wrong—ensuring the honor of Leah, his firstborn daughter, by giving her in marriage to Jacob before the younger, Rachel (Genesis 29:15-28)? At the time, the primogeniture laws of the firstborn to inherit were the linchpin of the socio-economic system, as Walter Brueggemann reminds. As with most readings of the text as scripture, these episodes expose human frailty in the hands of a faithful God. Not to be missed in this passage is the echo that Jacob never seemed to rightly grasp the cultural traditions regarding the firstborn. But his uncle Laban does. There is conniving and misdirection on all sides. “Jacob is a scandalous challenge to his world,” write Brueggemann, “because the God who calls him is also scandalous.” Without correcting the ancient practices of giving a woman in marriage and other gender inequities contemporary customs redress, might this story enable us to picture the irony of judging the promise of a person at first glance?

The Matthew reading places in Jesus’ words a similar caution about judging too swiftly. Deciding who is in or out remains a risky endeavor. “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous,” he preaches (13:49). The witness to salvation tells us this is the role of God, not us.

Jacob’s action suggests that in Rachel he has found his “one pearl of great value.” Yet it is Leah who effects change, like unseen leaven. It is Leah who will mother the children that lead to David, Moses, and Jesus. As Elizabeth Achtemeier tells us, “God takes a distasteful situation and turns it into a cause of blessing.” Jacob didn’t protest or withdraw from Laban’s trick to get him to marry Leah. Instead, Jacob worked diligently within the bounds of an unfair arrangement. In the end, the swindled swindler came out ahead. Such a reading enables us to truly sing Glenn Edward Burleigh’s beautiful hymn, “Please, order my steps in your word” (119:133). 

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at sojo.net/ptw.

Image: bean seeds in a hole, Photographee.eu / Shutterstock

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