Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Unable to Focus

If you are a regular reader you know for the last several weeks I have tried to have a a regular blog post up early each Wednesday. This week I was not able to get that done. My intentions this week were to further discuss Joseph. I have written about a page and a half about his circumstances and was transitioning into explaining his reunion with his family and how he seemed to have to fight the urge to seek revenge. I was hoping to also going to point out how Joseph’s situation led directly to the fulfillment of one of God’s promises to Abraham a couple of hundred years earlier.

The problem is I am having a very difficult time focusing on the typical character study like we do each week. I have a lot of things pressing on my mind and my emotions that are really breaking my focus.   I mentioned last week that I had a pretty tough early childhood. This is not a subject I broach often. It’s not that I am embarrassed by it; I just have never wanted it to define me. So, it’s kind of a big deal for me to mention it again in this space.

When I was born my mom was only 17 years old. She was thrust into a position of trying to raise a kid, when she was still a kid. Her parents were over the road truck drivers and weren’t around a lot, so she was forced to try to be responsible not just for herself, but also for me. As you may already know, 17 year olds aren’t known for making the best decisions and my mom was no exception. From as long as I remember she had always battled addictions to alcohol and to narcotics. She also was diagnosed as manic depressive and battled that as well. She tried to do right in raising me and 2 of my brothers, but she never could seem to get out of her own way.

As a kid, it seemed whenever mom would fall my grandmother was there to pick up the pieces and try to make things whole. My grandmother has her own issues, but as a kid I couldn’t see those. I put her on a pedestal because she presented this image of stability to me that my mom never presented. She didn’t seem to struggle with addictions nor did she seem to struggle for money. I Could eat as much as I wanted at Grandma’s house because she always had plenty.  Looking back now I know some of my perceptions were faulty, but that’s the way I saw things as a kid.  In my eyes my grandmother was a somehow a beacon of strength when everything was chaos.

It’s been 10 years ago that my mom passed away. While we weren’t as close in the end as I wish we were, it still was a hard blow to take and it still hurts sometimes now when I think of her.  I still miss the good times and I admire that she always tried her best to overcome her demons. I wish she would have succeeded and my daughters could have gotten to know her. When she was clean and sober she was a remarkable woman she was smart, pretty, and very talented.

Over the last few years I have began to see my grandmother’s health deteriorate. I have seen her once sharp mind now fail her.  I have begun to notice her telling me the same things repeatedly. I also began to notice her stories were seeming to get more confused and the details were a little different each time.  It sometimes seemed like she was more ornery and cranky than she had been before. It was hard for me to accept that she wasn’t just getting older but that her mental health was starting to fail her.

Last fall I found out she had fallen victim to a sweepstakes scam that cost her and her thousands of dollars. Relunctantly I began to see more evidence that both mentally and physically she is simply unable to take care of herself. For months now My brothers and I have tried to convince her to move in with one of us or into an assisted living facility. For months she has found every reason to refuse.

She has been in a swing bed medical facility now for about 3 weeks. I have talked to her daily and I have talked to her nurses almost every other day. Her descriptions of what is going on have gotten more and more confusing. Finally this morning I got a call from her case manager at the facility telling me she isn’t showing the improvement that she needs to show to stay in the swing bed facility. She also confirmed what I already knew; that my grandmother can no longer take care of herself at home. What she needs is the level of care that can only be provided at a nursing home.

This is a tough pill to swallow. It’s going to be an even tougher pill to get this proud stubborn lady to swallow. I am dreading the next several weeks and months of trying to  help her get everything in order and get moved into a place she doesn’t want to move in to.  Emotionally I am already a wreck just thinking about what’s to come.  I know a nursing home is the only alternative that allows her to get the level of care she needs, I also know that she views a nursing home as a place to send old people to die alone. She views going to a nursing home as giving up.

I know none of this is why any of you read this blog, but I just can’t get my mind or my heart to focus on Joseph’s story right now.  The one thing I can take away from joseph is that no matter how bad things got as a slave or as a prisoner; he knew God was in control. That is a my biggest comfort to remember right now.

As we will continue to see once I pick Joseph’s story back up next week,  God’s plan is bigger and his grace is all we can ever need.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6-7

Monday, June 27, 2016

It's Not Too Much for God to Handle

There is an old saying: God won't put more on you than you can handle. I have come to believe that's not necessarily true.  There is a lot of things that happen in our life that are probably too much for us to handle.

I think a better saying is that God won't put more on you than He can handle.  As stress and circumstances mount up, it's important that we not wallow in stress and anxiety but instead that we take all of our needs and all our our desires to God.

It is through Prayer that he will bring us peace that eases our hearts and our minds.

Philippians 4:6-7 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible and it's one I needed to be reminded of tonight. I have about a million things on my mind and I just need to remember it's not my job to stress out and try to solve all my problems. It is my job to pray and seek God's will.

Just thought I would share because maybe some of you need the same reminder that i did.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Finding God's Glory: Slave, Prisoner, Dreamer, Ruler

Sometimes God’s glory is easy to see. Sometimes we are sitting on top of the mountain watching the most breathtaking sunrise and the entire world is going our way. More often than that, we find ourselves mired in sin, suffering or other circumstances that make God’s glory seem miles away.  As we have progressed through our Biblical heroes we have seen a lot of sin but we have also seen God’s amazing, redemptive power still uses sinners for His glory.  This week’s story, the focus isn’t about sin as much as it is suffering and circumstance and how God’s grace and His glory are still there even in the midst of it all.

I have been asked to share my testimony before and I have always said it wasn’t remarkable. I was about 7 years old when I walked down the aisle of an old country Baptist church. I read John 3:16 and accepted Jesus as my savior.  So, if you fast forward 30 something years, I guess you would expect everything from that point on to have been all smiles with nothing but peace and prosperity. If that’s what you expect you would be wrong. My testimony doesn’t necessarily speak to salvation as it does to God’s protection and provision.  My parents were probably too young to have kids when I was born, both of them had addiction issues at the time and both would spend time behind bars. I was passed around from grandparents to aunts and uncles, returning to my mom’s care every time she would “get her life together”.   I didn’t really know my dad until I was older. I remember having no food in the house at all. I distinctly remember the beginning of the month when we would get our WIC basket with off brand cereal, some fine yellow cheese, powdered milk, and that disgusting generic peanut butter. I witnessed more domestic violence and substance abuse than any kid should have to witness.  I truly believe everyone involved in raising me did the best they could at the time; however through no real sin of my own and despite putting my trust in God at a young age I often times found it very hard to see His glory. 

As I begin preparing for this week’s post looking at Joseph, I started to wonder if, because of his circumstances, he too didn’t often find it difficult to see God’s glory.  In looking at Judah in a previous post I talked a little bit about Joseph’s story, but nowhere near enough to do it justice.  In today’s post we are going to discuss some key events and how God’s hand of providence was there even when Joseph felt like it was miles away.

As far as background, Joseph was Jacob’s 11th son and his first son with Rachel, the woman he really loved. All of his other children had been born to Rachel’s sister Leah or to one of his concubines. Because of his love for Rachel, and because he had waited so long for Joseph, Jacob preferred him to all of his brothers.   Jacob’s favoring of Joseph was not a secret; all of his brothers could see it.  Even though he was the youngest, scholars believe at the age of 17 he was already put in a position of authority over his brothers. His dad had also made him a special coat that wasn’t just fancy to look at but also was likely a symbol of the authority he had over his brothers. 

“Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them”. Genesis 37:2b

When the Bible mentioned that Jacob brought back a bad report about his brothers some people immediately think this is referring to some type of childish tattle telling.  More likely this is more of a supervisor reporting back to the “big boss” about workers who were not behaving as they should be. Perhaps Jacob had put Joseph in the authority role, but his older more experienced brothers didn’t respect him or recognize his authority.  In any case between knowing their dad favored Joseph, being put under his authority, having to look at his special coat their dad made for him, the animosity grew between all the brothers to the point that they didn’t even speak to Joseph.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. Genesis 37:3-4

Joseph didn’t ask his dad to love him more, he didn’t ask his brothers to hate him, but also didn’t help things either. I can see this 17 year old man-child relishing his role as favorite son. I can see him taking advantage of the authority he was given. His biggest issue though may have been he didn’t understand how much his brothers hated him.  Joseph had a dream, in the dream it indicated that he would reign over all of his brothers. Even after all the animosity was already present, Joseph excitedly shared his dream with them.

His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. Genesis 37:8

Perhaps Joseph was young and naive and thought his brothers would be super excited about his dream, maybe he was an arrogant jerk who wanted to rub their noses in it, or perhaps he just had no concept of how much jealousy and resentment they had for him; either way, he shared not just the one dream, but also a second dream that included his parents bowing down to him as well. This dream was enough to not just get an angry response from his brothers but also a rebuke from his dad as well. 

The next time the brothers took the livestock to graze, Jacob sent Joseph to go check on them. As a kid I think I envisioned Joseph just kind of bounding up full of teenage energy just kind of wanting to hang out. In truth the brothers were close to 70 miles away from home and Joseph was most likely being sent as a supervisor to check on them. He was to make sure they were grazing the sheep the right way and that they weren’t misbehaving. As we noted in some previous posts, based on some of their actions, they probably needed someone to check on them; however they didn’t want it to be Joseph.

As they saw him approaching all their hatred boiled over; I am sure they thought “here comes daddy’s little boy in his fancy little jacket to tell us how to do our jobs.” As we discussed in Judah’s story, the brothers first wanted to kill Joseph but eventually decided to sell him into slavery instead.  So now Joseph is stripped of his special coat and of his position of authority; he is taken from the home where he is loved and now becomes someone else’s property. That must be a pretty hard place from which to see God’s glory.

The traders who bought Joseph took him on to Egypt where they sold him to one of Pharaoh’s officials where he had become a household servant. On a side note I have not found any accounts where slave traders or slave owners in that time treated their slaves with any type of kindness or dignity. 

God’s providence was still covering Joseph because he rose quickly to a place of trust in his Egyptian Master’s home. Joseph worked hard and took care of everything his master wanted him to take care of. The household flourished and the master gave Joseph more and more trust and responsibility.  Joseph had again ascended to a position of authority and even though he was now a slave, he was treated well and given dominion over the other slaves. That is until once again circumstances turned against him as his master’s wife began trying to seduce him.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’
But he refused. ‘With me in charge,’ he told her, ‘my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’ 10 And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even to be with her.” Genesis 39: 6-10

Like with his brothers Joseph tried to do the best he could with the authority he had been given; but again things seemed to happen to him that he couldn’t prepare for. After rebuffing her advances many times Joseph again found himself alone with his Master’s wife. This time she was more persistent, insisting he go to bed with her right then. In a moment of panic, Joseph ran away; but he left his cloak behind.

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. 12 She caught him by his cloak and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’ But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house Genesis 39: 11-12

I am sure there is probably some theological thought about him leaving his coat/cloak behind every time something bad happens, but I am not smart enough to know what it is.  Angered about being rebuffed yet again and probably scared that someone would find her with Joseph’s cloak, the Master’s wife began to scream that Joseph had raped her. She claimed that he had left his cloak behind when she started to scream and resist him. Of course this made the Egyptian master extremely angry. He had trusted Joseph with his household and now he is being told Joseph raped his wife.
Surely one of Pharaoh’s officials could have had Joseph put to death. He was nothing more than a Hebrew slave who had disrespected him and defiled his wife. Some scholars believe the Egyptians actually believed Joseph, others believe he was embarrassed by the entire situation. For whatever the reason instead of having Joseph killed he threw him in prison.

Now through no real fault of his own, Joseph has gone from the favorite son of a rich man in Canaan to a slave and now to a prisoner in an Egyptian prison. Again these are tough circumstances from which to see God’s glory and provision. Joseph remarkably still wasn’t broken; he continued to always do his best and continued to serve the God of his father.

But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. 22 So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. Genesis 39:20-23

Joseph had once again made the most of his circumstances and had risen to a position of authority even amongst the prisoners.  Even being in a position of authority, he was still a foreigner in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a place he wound up staying for many years. It must have been very difficult, but Joseph never lost sight of God’s glory and His provision, even though it would have been very easy to. 

While in prison, Joseph interpreted a dream from Pharaoh’s chief baker and his cupbearer. It was good news for the cupbearer, not so much for the baker.  The cupbearer promised Jacob he would remember him when he got out of jail, but he didn’t, not for another 2 years. Finally, when Pharaoh had a dream no one else could interpret, the cupbearer remembered Joseph.  After languishing in prison for many years, Joseph was called to interpret the dream.

So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh.
15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’
16 ‘I cannot do it,’ Joseph replied to Pharaoh, ‘but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.’ Genesis 41:14-16

Joseph had not lost sight of God’s power and glory despite his circumstances. He was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and was not only granted his release from prison, but was also granted a position working as an official second only to Pharaoh himself.

39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40 You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.’ Genesis 41:39-40

This is a seminal moment in history for the Egyptians, and the Israelites. With Joseph having such a high position of power, he was eventually able to move his father and his brothers to Egypt. This was important for a few reasons. First it helped them survive the great famine that occurred at the time. Secondly because of their status as foreigners the Egyptians would not marry and procreate with the Israelites. This was important to help them build their faith in God and hopefully turn away from some of the behavior they had fallen into in their homeland. While living in Egypt, even though they eventually became servants Jacob’s family, the Israelites grew to be a mighty nation with a rich history and a deep culture. When Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt there were 70 in there party. A couple hundred years later the Bible says when the Israelites left Egyptian captivity there were more than 600,000.

Despite every negative circumstance, despite how easy it might have been to take his eyes off of God, Joseph was always under God’s grace and provision. When his brothers hated him, when he was a slave, when he was falsely accused of rape, and when he was a prisoner God was providing for him in ways he couldn’t even imagine.  In our lives we encounter so much hardship every day; it’s so easy to lose sight that God is still at work in our lives. It wasn’t easy for me to think God could use me when I was growing up as a poor son of an addicted mom and a broken family. It also isn’t easy to imagine He would want to use a slave that became a prisoner from a family that didn’t even want him.

He can use us regardless of our circumstances. His grace is always more than sufficient

Joseph dealt with a lot of circumstances but kept his eyes on God. We will look more at his life next week including how he sought to get a little payback at his jerky brothers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Judah: Son, Brother, Father In Law

Our families are our first examples of how to live. They are our closest confidants and they can also be our greatest source of frustration. This has been true for as long as families have existed. Our families bring us so much joy, but also so much baggage. 

Over the last few weeks we have looked at the lives of some of the biggest heroes in the Bible. We have looked at the family that started with  Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob. Last week we looked at the failings of a few of Jacob's sons. Unfortunately this was the first time we have seen pride and lack of repentance get in the way of God using someone. This week we will be looking at another of Jacob's sons, Judah. 

Like  I have mentioned in previous posts, sometimes the stories in the Bible are a bit more lurid than we might expect. They are not as safe and sanitized as we might believe. Again this week, I will do everything  I can to make sure to keep this post family friendly, but I will not enhance or take away from the what the Bible has to say.

Judah's story can't be told without a little bleed over from some of his family's stories. Judah was Jacob's fourth son with Leah. His name meant praise and his birth seemed pivotal in the jealousy between the sister wives, Leah and Rachel. During his young life he would have witnessed the conflict and schemes between his dad and uncle, the hostility between his mom and stepmom/aunt, and I imagine he would have seen a lot dysfunction.   His three older brothers were all prone to rash decisions and violence and he had a younger brother, Joseph, who  his dad seemed to prefer over all the siblings. While Joseph is our primary subject next week; much of Judah's Story is wrapped up in Joseph's story as well, so we will be bumping into him a good bit throughout. 

Joseph was Jacob's first and at the time only son with his wife Rachel, who he truly loved.  He was favored by his dad and seemed to like to gloat about it. His dad even gave him a special coat that was multi colored. This didn't settle well with his brothers. At one point Joseph seems to relish in telling all of his brothers about  dream he had in which they were bowing down to him. Growing up with four younger brothers I can almost guarantee if the youngest would have told me about a dream of me bowing down to him he would have wound up with a wedgie or worse. In this case Joseph probably should have known his audience because he wound up with more than a wedgie!

The brothers felt like they had witnessed their dad favor Joseph long enough. They were tired of the little twerp walking around in his fancy multicolored coat and bragging about his dreams. So they decided to do something about it.  As we have already discussed the older brothers were hot heads and were not afraid to get blood on their hands. They were cool with going ahead and killing little Joseph.
[l]Here comes this dreamer! 20 Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” Genesis 37:19-20.
Judah however thought of an even more sinister plan. A plan that would keep his hands clean, still get rid of his pesky little brother forever and put a little silver in his pocket. As some traders approached heading towards Egypt, Judah shared his plan.

  26 What profit will it be for us if we just kill our brother and conceal the crime? 27 Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites instead. We won’t have to lay a hand on him then. He is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood. Genesis 37: 26-27
Judah convinced his brothers this was the plan to go with and just like that they sold Joseph into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. They also stripped him of his fancy coat, dipped it in goat's blood and took it back to their dad to trick him and tell him what a horrible death Joseph had suffered. 

Do we look at Judah here as a villain or a hero? In theory he saved his brother's life, but he only did it to keep his conscience clear and to make a profit. We know at this point Joseph was around 17, so we can imagine that Judah is likely in his early 30's.  It's hard to write this off as a stupid, youthful decision. Seems more like a calculated decision based on jealousy and greed. 

The questionable decisions for Judah don't stop there though. The next event is a little unsettling, but it's historically pivotal. Let's set the scene. A few years have past, Judah is now a successful shepherd who is married with 3 sons. He arranges a marriage for his oldest so, Er, to a young woman named Tamar.  All we know about Er is the Bible describes him as a "wretched human" and that God took his life. Not sure what that's all about but doesn't sound like Er was a good dude to hang out with.

Custom at the time, later becoming Mosaic law, was that if your brother had a wife and no children when he passed away it was your responsibility to marry his wife and provide a child. This was a custom that ensured the wife an inheritance and ensured your brother a legacy. With that in mind, after Er passed away Tamar had to marry Judah's next son Onan.  I don't know if Onan was greedy and didn't want to share his inheritance, if he didn't want to create a child that wouldn't be considered his,  or if he had some other issue, but when it came time for him to complete his husbandry duties...well, let's just go with the Biblical description and say he purposely "spilled his seed." This was a disrespectful act to his brother, his father, Tamar, and to local customs. The Bible said because of this, he died. 

So, now Tamar has lost 2 husbands and Judah has lost 2 sons. Judah's youngest son was too young to  marry and provide children so, Judah sent Tamar back to her hom until his son became old enough.  Judah let several years go by; He thought a lot about how both of his sons had died after marrying Tamar and begin to doubt whether he wanted to let her marry his third son. He had an obligation to Tamar. When he sent her home, he promised her he would send for her as soon as his son was old enough, but he didn't.  Judah decided he didn't want to risk his third son; to protect his son, he lied and deceived Tamar. 

A few years later, Judah's wife had passed away and he was traveling for business. He was feeling a bit lonely. Tamar had grown tired of waiting and wanted her rightful inheritance. She heard that Judah was traveling to the city for business and decided to take action. Tamar wore a veil and dressed like a prostitute and waited for Judah to show up.

It had been a long time since Judah had seen Tamar and apparently with the veil on he didn't recognize his daughter in law. He agreed to give her one of his finest goats for a night together. He didn't have the goat with him so he left his "lady of the night" with his staff and seal as identification and as a promise to pay.

Judah tried to send the goat back, but no one had every seen that particular prostitute before. So, Judah thought he had gotten his night of pleasure for free. Well, he had left behind his seal and staff, but those can be replaced.  As time went on, word got to Judah that his daughter in law was pregnant.  This was a huge problem, even though he hadn't done his part by sending his son to her, she had not done hers and stayed pure. Now she was carrying someone else's child. That's considered adultery and she should be put to death! Judah was outraged, he commanded that she be captured and burnt to death. 

Imagine Judah's surprise when Tamar presented the staff and seal of the man who had impregnated her. Here he was about to have his daughter in law put to death for a sin that he committed with her. There is a lot to wrap his brain around; he had deceived Tamar and never sent his youngest son, now she had deceived him and was carrying his child. Not only that, she had the proof of what he had done. With all the new information, Judah had to admit he was wrong and Tamar escaped any punishment.

25 It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” And she said, “Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?” 26 Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not [w]have relations with her again. Genesis 38:25-26.

We don't see Judah let his pride get the better of him. He was well regarded in the community and could have fought to maintain his pride instead of humbling himself and admitting he was wrong. We don't see Judah seek redemption per se; but we do see a small glimpse into his heart here. The next time the Bible mentions Judah by name he and his brothers have found themselves in a tough spot. 

A famine has hit the land and they have gone into Egypt to try to buy food. They did not know the brother they had previously sold into slavery had risen to become a powerful viceroy in Egypt.  It was  Joseph , their brother, who was responsible for disbursing the food. He recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him. Whatever his motives, he accused them of being spies. Joseph made them leave one of the brothers behind, saying he would only release him if they would bring back their youngest brother Benjamin who had not traveled with them.  

Benjamin had grown exceptionally close to Jacob since Joseph's alleged death. He had stayed behind to take care of his dad, also so his dad could make sure he was safe.  When Jacob heard about the viceroy in Egypt holding one of his other son's hostage he was still not convinced that he trusted the other sons with his youngest and closest son, Benjamin. The famine however grew worse and times became desperate.We see Judah step up as a leader here and we start to see how far his heart has changed since the day he agreed to sell his brother for  silver.

Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the lad with me and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, we as well as you and our little ones. I myself will be surety for him; [d]you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then [e]let me bear the blame before you forever. Genesis 43:8-9
At first Joseph seemed like he was going to uphold his end of the bargain. Once he saw the brothers return with Benjamin, he released their other brother; he fed them and he allowed them to take provisions back home to Canaan with them. However, as they were leaving, he set them up. He had one of his workers hide his special silver cup in Benjamin's belongings.  As the brothers began to make their way back home with the food Joseph's people stopped them. He accused them of stealing his cup and told them if he found the cup on one of them, that brother would become Joseph's slave. 

Of course they found the cup with Benjamin, since Joseph had planted it there to begin with. Judah knew he could not return home without his youngest brother. He knew what that would do to his father.  This is when we see Judah's true character shine through. He gives a long plea, humbling himself before Joseph and putting his own life on the line. He explains how much Benjamin means to his father and begs Joseph to keep him as a slave instead.
32 For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.’ 33 Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. 34 For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me—for fear that I see the evil that would[k]overtake my father?” Genesis 44:32-34
This is a long way from the same guy who had once sold his own brother without any regards to how that would effect anyone else. Now he was thinking of everyone but himself.  He knew how important Benjamin was to his father and he was willing to make the sacrifice of staying behind himself, as a slave, to avoid causing his father any more pain, Judah's pleas did not fall on deaf ears. In fact they led to Joseph finally revealing to his brothers who he was and it led to the family finally being reunited. 

Like his brothers we looked at last week, Judah had some serious flaws happening; unlike them, he had a humble heart and found God's redemption. When his brothers inheritance was taken away and their descendants were scattered, Judah was given a huge blessing by his father and his descendants became royalty. 

 8   But Judah, your brothers will praise you.
        Your hand will firmly grasp the neck of your enemy,
        and your brothers will bow down before you in respect.
    Judah is a lion cub;
        my son, who rises from the prey,
    Who crouches down and stretches out like a lion,
        and like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10     The scepter will not depart from Judah;
        the ruler’s staff will rest securely between his feet.
    Until the One comes to whom true royalty belongs,
        all people will honor and obey him. Genesis 49:8-10

Judah's family would become the most successful of all the tribes of Israel. It is through Judah's descendants,and his one night with his daughter in law, that lead to King David's birth and all the kings who would follow him. It is also through Judah's line that we can trace the ancestors of both Mary and Joseph, the earthly parents of Jesus.

God used a man,who out of jealousy and greed,sold his own brother into slavery. The same man,who out of lust,slept with his daughter in law when he thought she was a prostitute. Neither of those failures were big enough to keep God from using Judah.  While we aren't shown the specific "wrestling with God" moment, we do see Judah gradually mature and we do see his heart transformed. 

God's grace can transform all of us. He can change our entire family tree. None of our failings are too much for Him to bear if we will give Him our heart first.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Family Values Follow Up

I really struggled with my last blog I posted about Simeon, Levi, & Reuben. I have given it a lot of thought and I think the reason why I struggled so much with it is because it didn’t fit my narrative.  When I started the Broken Vessels Series I think I wanted to focus on how God used broken people. I wanted to look at figures throughout the Bible and throughout history who despite their brokenness have still been used by God to accomplish great things.

My humble childhood, my broken family, my shyness, my own failures have all been reasons why I have been afraid to step out in the past and let God work through me.  I knew I wasn’t a worthy vessel for him. I have recently discovered though through a lot of study and prayer that I am exactly the kind of broken vessel God wants to use for his glory. Initially I thought I would go through the Bible and pick those stories that proved my point. I think I originally envisioned doing profiles on the big heroes and showing they had flaws; and showing how those flaws didn’t prevent them from being used for God’s glory.

I believe strongly that God’s grace is bigger and stronger than any flaw or brokenness we may have.  I want to share that amazing news with everyone else who is broken like me.

Somehow I was moved from high level profiles of the most famous Biblical heroes to a more in-depth study that has led me through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and now to Jacob’s family. The details have been fascinating and stories remarkable. Up to the point of the last study of Jacob’s children, the stories had still fit the narrative I had set for myself.  That’s where the challenge started.

As I studied the events at Schechem with Simeon & Levi and as I studied the “relationship” between Reuben and his stepmom, I didn’t see the grace or the encouragement I was looking for. I struggled and searched to find evidence to fit my narrative and it just wasn’t there.  I begin to wonder why these stories were even included. Jacob had 12 sons (13 children) and 7 of them are barely mentioned.  Why include these stories of failure at all? If these stories aren’t in the Bible to show God’s grace, why are they there?

Then it hit me these stories are just as important because they speak to the need for God’s grace.

Outside of God’s grace we are all broken sinners and left to our own devices we would be forced to endure the punishment for our sins. It is God’s grace that changes this outcome.

God’s glory is amplified when he accomplishes great things through humble means. These stories in the Bible point to the heart of the sinner. We have already looked at scammers, liars, drunks, and adulterers. We will examine murderers, thieves, doubters, and sinners of every ilk. God’s grace in every case is sufficient to redeem and use these people.  The difference between the broken sinners that bring God glory and those that are just sinners lies in their heart.

Despite being unqualified and having a propensity for the drink; Noah still had a heart for God. Despite doubting God’s promises and actually laughing at him Abraham had a heart to serve God.  Jacob was a scammer and had conflicts everywhere he went; but his jeart was still set on following God.

Reuben, Simeon, & Levi never show their heart for God.  We never see their heart ache from the sins they committed. We never see them wrestle with God as they try to make peace with their heart.  They had pride and stubbornness in their heart and that pride kept them from acknowledging their sins and seeking his grace.

These stories do not indicate that God’s grace is not sufficient. They do not indicate that his redemption is not available. These stories don’t indicate that these men were too broken for God to use.   I believe strongly if any or all of these three men would have opened his heart and accepted God’s redemptive grace their story would have a different ending.  There is too much evidence to deny this.

God’s grace is extremely powerful. He is able to redeem and restore even the greatest sinner; however not every sinner will turn their heart toward him. Not all sinners will humble themselves to allow God to work in them and through them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Family Values: Vengeance & Sex

As I mentioned previously; all the stories in the Bible are not sweet and innocent. Some can be quite lurid, I will do my best to give this account it's proper justice and keep it family friendly.  The full accounting can be found beginning in Genesis Chapter 33.

So, after spending his life to that point in a state of constant conflict; Jacob began making peace. He made peace with his Uncle Laban, his brother Esau, and through a heated conflict he even made peace with himself and God (read more HERE). Even though God changed Jacob's name and his heart he still had 13 kids (12 sons) with 4 different mothers and therefore the drama did not end.  We will not look at all 13; instead will focus on 2 specific incidents involving some of the family. We will focus on two more brothers in the next 2 weeks.

23 Now Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons. Leah’s six sons were Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 Rachel’s two sons were Joseph and Benjamin. 25 Rachel’s servant, Bilhah, had two sons: Dan and Naphtali. 26 Leah’s servant, Zilpah, had two sons: Gad and Asher Genesis 35:23-25

After Jacob and his family passed through the region where his brother Esau lived, they settled in a city called Shechem and bought a piece of property. His daughter Dinah went into the city and was raped by the son of the ruler of the city. Whether he felt guilty or whether his father was trying to make things right, the rapist came to Jacob and his family to ask for Dinah's hand in marriage.

He and his father made the case that he was madly in love with Dinah and they wanted to make peace. We don't know what Jacob would have said or done, but we know what his sons did. Simeon and Levi convinced the ruler and his son that they would be willing to allow Dinah to marry him if all the men in their family wold agree to get circumcised.  If they would just do this one little thing they would live in peace together forever.

I am not sure what the procedure was then. I don't know what they used for the cutting or what they used for the anesthesia but I can't imagine it was a fun process. I am not sue what the motivation was, maybe guilt or maybe he was smitten,  but the ruler and his son went along with this plan. They also convinced all the men of the city to go along with the plan as well.

As a grown man I can not imagine how much pain must have been involved in getting circumcised; especially without anything to dull the pain and with who knows what kind of tools.   Apparently it hurt so bad that on the third day, Simeon and Levi were able to take swords and kill every man in the city without a fight. They didn't stop there! They also cut the tendons on all the oxen and beasts of burden in the city,  rendering them almost useless. They basically looted and ransacked the city.

25 Now it came about on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came upon the city unawares, and killed every male. 26 They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went forth. 27 Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and looted the city, because they had defiled their sister. 28 They took their flocks and their herds and their donkeys, and that which was in the city and that which was in the field; 29 and they captured and looted all their wealth and all their little ones and their wives, even all that was in the houses. Genesis 34:25-29

Part of me can't really blame them. This jerk had just raped their sister then had the gall to come around talking about how he loved her. Oh Heck NO! I can understand the desire to burn the city to the ground.  This was an act of malice though. They had used deception to get the upper hand and then allowed their rage to take over. They didn't just punish the actual rapist or his father who was enabling him, they also killed lots of innocent people destroyed property, stole belongings and brutalized animals.

Simeon and Levi felt justified.  They had stuck up for their sister. Even when Jacob pointed out that their actions had put them at risk of attack from neighboring people's they held firm that they were right. 

On Jacob's deathbed he recounts the unchecked anger his two sons had exhibited and apparently had not made peace with.  He is thankful that his sons will not be the judges of his soul.  
Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Their swords are implements of violence.
Let my soul not enter into their council;
Let not my glory be united with their assembly;
Because in their anger they slew [e]men,
And in their self-will they lamed [f]oxen.
“Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will [g]disperse them in Jacob,
And scatter them in Israel.    Genesis 49:5-7

Jacob does not condone the defilement of his daughter,  but he also doesn't condone the vengeance his sons wrought. Their anger and vengeance were the reason their tribes would later be scattered and their inheritance would be far lighter. 

The Bible doesn't tell us if either ever sought repentance. We do know that God still used Levi's offspring as the priests of the nation of Israel.

The Bible is full of broken people who don't always make the right choices. Another example is Jacob's oldest son Rueben. As the family was moving on after the debacle in Schechem, he took an opportunity to sleep with his father's concubine Bilhah, aka his step mother. That has a certain ick factor to it.  On top of just being really icky, Rueben showed disrespect for his father and his family by his actions.  While I can easily relate to Simeon and Levi,  I can't really understand Rueben. I guess they weren't technically related and all, but still. 

Jacob cited Rueben as formerly being his strength but becoming as unstable as water.  Because he defiled his father's marriage bed,  he was left without an inheritance.

Reuben, you are my firstborn;My might and the beginning of my strength,[b]Preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.[d]Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence,Because you went up to your father’s bed;Then you defiled it—Genesis 49:3-4

Similar to his brothers we never see Reuben have a change of heart.  We are left only knowing he failed and was punished. 

This was a particular hard blog for me to write. I believe we are all broken. I believe we all fail. I believe we all have anger, sexual sin or other things that normally would separate us from God. In looking at these stories about Jacob's sons I kept searching for the encouragement. I kept searching for where God was going to change their hearts and use them.

I had to be reminded there's not always a happy ending. While God specializes in using broken flawed people just like me, he doesn't use them against their will and he doesn't use every broken person.

As we have looked at Abraham, Isaac and Jacob we saw that each one of them was very broken but we saw that each one of them gave their heart to God. With their willing heart God was able to use them despite their brokenness or some could argue because of their brokenness. In the case of Simeon, Levi and Reuben we just never see them give their heart to God.

So as I look for encouragement in this passage the only encouragement I can truly find is that I know that when I fail when I come up short when I let anger get the best of me I can turn to Jesus for forgiveness and not lose my eternal inheritance.

Next week we will look at Judah, another one of Jacob's sons. We will compare his failings to his brothers and his heart to his brothers as well. I think we will find it much more encouraging.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Treachery, Mandrakes, and Wrestling with God

Bible stories aren’t always safe and sanitized. Sometimes they can be a little wild, and a little risqué. I did my best to keep this particular story family friendly. For the entire saga you can read in Genesis Chapters 27-33.

I didn’t grow up in the most normal of nuclear families. I had brothers, half-brothers, step brothers, a step mother, step dads, and a foster sister.  Trying to explain it all can be a little complicated; but we were family.  This is an account of a family even more complicated to explain than mine.

So, in the aftermath of Jacob scamming his dad and stealing his brothers rightful blessing and birthright (see the full account here) Jacob went into a bit of exile to keep his brother from harming or killing him.  He moved in with his Uncle Laban, his mom’s brother.  Jacob wanted to represent his mom well and wanted to earn his keep so he worked very hard for his uncle.  After a month Uncle Laban felt bad for making Jacob work hard and not paying him, so he approached him and began negotiating a salary.

Laban had 2 daughters; Leah who was older and Rachel. The Bible described Rachel having “a lovely figure” and “being beautiful.”  Jacob was immediately smitten with her from first sight.  He also had no money or belongings with him for a traditional dowry. So when it came time to discuss salary there was only one thing Jacob wanted, Rachel.  He agreed to work for Laban with his livestock for 7 years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

The years had to be long for Jacob. We know he preferred to be inside but was stuck outside with the livestock. However the Bible said the time flew by because he was so excited to get through it and marry Rachel. His love for her was intense. When the time had finally come he went to Uncle Laban and reminded him of their deal.  He could not wait to consummate their marriage.

You would think being the scammer he was, Jacob would have seen the next move coming, but he didn’t.  Laban threw a huge party to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. Of course there was a lot of food and a lot of wine.  Once the party was winding down Jacob expected Rachel to be brought to him for their first night together. Instead Laban brought his oldest daughter Leah to Jacob; and they slept together. 

Jacob went to bed ecstatic! He was finally getting to marry the woman he had loved for 7 years. He was finally going to get to… well, let’s keep this post family friendly. He must have woken up distraught and furious. He had just consummated his marriage to the wrong sister.

He ran to confront Laban- “What did you do to me?”” We had an agreement!” Laban scammed him badly; but it was the custom in that culture that the oldest daughter was to be married first. Laban agreed that if Jacob would stay on and keep working for him for another 7 years he could marry Rachel as well.

So now Jacob is not just married to two women; he is married to 2 sisters. Even more so he is married to two sisters while he lives with their father for at least 7 more years. Another element to consider is that he actually only loved one of the sisters but he was now committed to both. Sounds like a recipe for a smooth easy life, right?

Things didn’t get better for Jacob when Leah becomes pregnant and gives Jacob his first son. Leah hoped having a son would make Jacob love her, it didn’t. He did continue to fulfill his husbandly duties though and she had another son., and another, and another.   At this point, Jacob has 4 sons with Leah and has not yet had one with the woman he loves.  This created some serious jealousy and animosity.

Rachel was angry with Jacob, she was angry with Leah, she was angry with herself, and she was angry with God. She decided to give her servant to Jacob for him to sleep with so she could claim that child.  Jacob had 2 children with Rachel’s servant, which caused Rachel to feel vindicated that she could now claim to have children with her husband as well.

Image result for bible mandrakesThe sisters continued to compete for their husband’s love and when they didn’t conceive they found proxies.  Since Rachel had used her servant to have 2 kids with Jacob; Leah used her servant as well. Of course she conceived.  That’s now 7 children with 3 different moms.

Jacob’s love and affection for Rachel were greater than for Leah and everyone noticed it. That led to one of the strangest deals I have ever heard of.  Leah’s son had gone out into the wheat fields during harvest and brought in some mandrakes for his mother. Mandrakes were also referred to as “love apples” and apparently were fragrant if odd looking and are revered for their aphrodisiac qualities. Many of the Google search images of mandrakes look like they have faces or bodies, kind of creepy.

When Rachel saw the mandrakes she wanted some of them as well.

“…Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
15 But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
“Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”
16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night. “ Genesis 30:14-17

So, if you read that the same way I did, Rachel just sold a night with her Husband to her sister for a few plants.  Wow!  As you might have guessed following that night Leah became pregnant again.  She later had a sixth son and a daughter with Jacob as well.  

That was now 10 kids for Jacob before finally he had a son with Rachel.  They were both very happy to have a son. They would eventually have one more rounding the total family out to 12 Kids with 4 different women.  That had to be fun at Sunday dinner.

After Jacob had completed his 7 years of service for Leah and now his 7 years of service for Rachel he was anxious to get back home to his homeland, but Laban convinced him to stay on and keep working for him.  The wages they worked out were going to be good for all parties, but both Jacob and Laban were schemers and both tried to make sure they were getting the better of the deal.  Both plotted and schemed to try to get the better of the other.

After several years of this animosity rose between the two and Jacob decided to hit the road. After 20 years living on Laban’s land working for him, marrying his daughters and providing him grandchildren Jacob took his family and all his possessions and left without telling anyone they were leaving.

The Bible tosses in a nice little side story about how when they were headed out Rachel stole some household items from her father. When Laban caught up with the group she continued to hide the items she had stolen and even told her dad she couldn’t get up from where she was seated because it was her time of the month. No surprise Rachel was deceptive since she had learned from both her husband and her father.

Laban had a vision from God that warned him not to cause harm to Jacob. He and his men eventually caught up to Jacob and his family. After each posturing and getting in each other’s faces they were able to talk out their differences and seem to part amicably. They worshipped together, dined together and Laban got to have a proper send off, kissing his daughters and grandkids good bye.

As Jacob and his family traveled back toward his homeland he began to worry about what might happen when he finally came face to face with Esau. This is where we see Jacob’s heart. This is where we see him humble himself in prayer; this is also where we see him humble himself in the eyes of the brother he wronged.  I believe this was the moment where Jacob dealt with his anguish, he dealt with his deceptions, he dealt with his past, and with his future.

The Bible says he wrestled with the Lord until daybreak. We have all had that moment when we feel our life is out of control; we have reached our wits end.  That’s where Jacob was. That’s where his true character was revealed.  In wrestling with the Lord; I am sure he wrestled with his relationships with his parents, his relationships with his wives, his relationships with his children, mostly his relationship with God himself. I imagine his fear, his doubt, his anguish, and his uncertainty all drove him to keep fighting with God.  He passionately fought with God seeking solutions to his problems.

Jacob was left with 3 reminders of his conflict with God that night; a noticeable limp, a new name, and seemingly a new peace and humbleness in his life. From this point forward Jacob was known as Israel and his children grew into the Twelve Tribes of Israel and later into the nation of Israel.

Jacob, had spent his entire life in conflict. He had problems with his dad, his brother, his uncle, his wives, and his uncle’s family. Some of his problems were his own creations and some were because of others. None of that stopped God from bringing him peace and using him.  Fear, abuse, sin, broken relationships, deceit, nothing is bigger than God’s grace. He will use us despite it all.