Monthly Archives: May 2008

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 29

Genesis 27 – Jacob’s Deception and Isaac’s Blessing

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 14, 2006

Craig Atwood, Comenius Scholar 

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you and yours. First of all I want to congratulate all of the graduates at Wake Forest this weekend, with a special word of congratulations to the students I taught this year. Last week at Home Church we had our Song of Salem program, and we got to enjoy Moravian music and the art of Valentine Haidt.

Various Readings of Genesis:            That’s enough self-promotion for one day. We are here to unlock the book of Genesis. Let me remind you that we are broadcasting live from Home Moravian Church and you are welcome to join us for discussion. Last week we discussed some of the stories about Isaac. This week we have the poignant tale of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau.

            You have heard me say many times that Genesis was probably written after the Babylonian Exile by a Jewish scholar or priest who used a number of older sources in writing his great epic of his people. Scholars have named those sources J, E, and P. It may have been the great Ezra himself who was responsible for the final version of Genesis. For the most part we have been looking at Genesis in its final form, paying close attention to the meaning of the overall narrative, but there are times when it is helpful to look at stories in their more original form. That is the case with the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac.

E Source – Search for a wife:            The current form of the story is a little confusing because there are actually two stories imperfectly woven together. One story, which I will not read today, is about the need to find Jacob a wife. According to this story, Esau married two Hittite women, and his mother Rebekah did not like them. This is a common enough experience, a mother disapproving of her in-laws. We aren’t told why Rebekah didn’t like the women, other than that they were local girls. It may have been that Rebekah considered the girls local yokels or trailer trash. Maybe she was predisposed to dislike any woman who found her hairy son Esau attractive. In any case, she was determined that her precious son Jacob would marry the right kind of girl, a girl from the Old Country.

            At the end of chapter 27 Rebekah and Isaac send Jacob off to Paddan-aram to find a wife from among his cousins. We shouldn’t be surprised at this decision since that was how Rebekah and Isaac got together. The difference is that this time the son is sent to find the girl himself rather than sending a servant the way Abraham had. This makes sense if we understand that the older brother, Esau, was expected to be in charge of the family in Jacob’s absence. So, this story from the E source makes perfect sense in its own right and it fits into the context of the story of Rebekah and Isaac. It explains why Jacob went to Laban’s family with Isaac’s blessing, but this story fits awkwardly in context. Read it for yourself and see what you think. One of the problems is that Isaac is apparently dead or near death shortly before he sent Jacob away to find a wife. There are other problems as well.

            It seems to me that the story of Esau trading his birthright to Esau was originally connected to this story about finding a wife. Esau is portrayed as a rather slow-witted man of limited ambition and vision who settles down with the locals. Jacob, though, will continue the family line and the covenant by a good marriage. We are told that when Esau saw Isaac was unhappy with his choice of wives, he went and married a couple of his cousins, too, just to please the old man.

Racial Purity:            That all makes sense, but as it stands now, this story of the search for a wife for Jacob serves as the frame for a much more powerful and troubling story about Isaac being deceived by Jacob. It is hard to put these two stories together. It seems unlikely that Isaac would have happily sent Jacob off with his blessing to find a wife so happily immediately after this deception. It is also hard to fit Rebekah’s urgent appeal for Jacob to flee from Esau with her need to convince Isaac that Jacob should go on a long trip to visit her family. We can try to make these stories fit together in ingenious ways, but I think we get more out of theme when we deal with them as separate stories that the author of Genesis has woven together. One thing we should note is that by framing the story of the blessing with this story of the search for a wife, the priest who edited the final version of Genesis turned this into a story about maintaining racial purity for the chosen people.

J Source:            The main story is the one from the J source. We saw in our earlier study of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark that the J source was a masterpiece of ancient story telling. It invites us to investigate the complexities of our own lives and motives. J’s version of Jacob’s exile is the one that most of us remember from childhood. It is also the story that launched me on my career as a religion scholar when I was about 10 years old because I was so upset that the lying Jacob was blessed instead of the loyal Esau. Even at 10, I could see the difficulties in this text, and I bet you’ve seen the problems, too. Thankfully we have a reasonable explanation and don’t need to resort to conspiracies theories to explain what happened to the text.

            According to J, the reason Jacob left his family was because he had stolen his brother’s blessing. This is why he became “a wandering Aramean” who wrestled with God. Jacob was an exile from home, a deceiver forced to go an odyssey of self-discovery. Jacob steals a blessing but reaps bitterness and struggle. J does not present Jacob as a paragon of virtue, such as we depict our Founding Fathers, neither is he a hero and conqueror. He is the heel-grabber who labors and suffers for 20 years before being reconciled to his brother and family.


Read: I’ll be reading the story of Jacob’s deception and blessing from the translation by Stephen Mitchell who has separated this story in what was probably its original form.

Blessing:             The first thing to note about this story is the importance of the blessing by the father. It is a little hard for us to appreciate the passion of this story because we live in a world where words are cheap and rituals are empty of meaning. We hear a thousand messages each day, but have lost the ability to speak with one another about the things that really matter. We curse thoughtlessly and bless almost as carelessly, but language was still powerful and almost magical in biblical days. Walter Bruggemann (p. 227-228) notes that the act of blessing forms the dramatic tension of the story: “Blessing is understood as a world-transforming act which cannot be denied by modern rationality. For the son as for the father, indeed for the entire family, the matter of the blessing is as dangerous as it is compelling.”


            Our popular culture mocks parents rather than looking to them for blessing and wisdom. This story of Jacob longing for his father’s blessing seems almost pathetic in a world that values the Simpsons. We are too cool, too worldly, too independent to need the blessing of a parent. We can dismiss with Jacob’s story and proclaim our liberation from such archaic rituals. So we pretend. But deep in our hearts, in that vulnerable center of our soul, is the son or daughter aching to hear a word of blessing from a parent.

            You probably remember what it was like to look for a smile or some sign that your parents were pleased with you, not for what you had done, but for who you are. You may recall what it was like to be on the cusp of full adult responsibility. You may remember what it was like to long for someone you admired place his or her hands on you and tell you that your life would turn out alright; that you were ready to make your place in the world. In a few weeks our youth will participate in the rite of confirmation. Part of that ritual is their public profession of faith, but it also includes the blessing of the confirmands. The pastor will lay hands on them and pronounce God’s blessing for their lives. This is what Jacob longed for.

Jacob and Rebekah:                         The story of Isaac’s blessing has four major scenes with four main characters. First Isaac tells his favorite son, Esau that he wanted to bless him. Isaac knows that he will soon die, and, like a good father, he is putting his affairs in order. Esau runs off to do as his father commanded him. But off stage, or if you prefer, outside the tent Rebekah heard what Isaac told his son. Scene 2 has Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob. Many interpreters are harsh on Isaac for having a favorite son, but they forgive Rebekah for doting on Jacob. Many people argue that Rebekah was trying to fulfill the will of God by helping her beloved son receive the blessing. That may be, but the most reasonable explanation for her actions is that she loved Jacob more than Esau.

            Rebekah knew that Jacob would take care of her after Isaac died. She may have even thought that Jacob would simply be a better clan leader than his impulsive brother. It could be that she, like all of us, acted for many reasons that she could not fully explain herself. But act she did. Whether you view her as a Lady Macbeth or a saint, she was the principal actor in this drama. She is the one who took charge of the situation and convinced her son to deceive her husband.

The Deception            The third scene involves Jacob deceiving Isaac by pretending to be his brother. There is a bit of obvious comedy in the deception itself, which I think was intended. The 1960s British comedian Alan Bennet grasped some of the inherent humor of the phrase “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” There is a pun in Hebrew here that still works in English, by the way. Jacob is a smooth customer. We could call him Slick Jake, but Esau is hairy man. So hairy, in fact, that Jacob wears goat skins on his hands and neck. I am sure that in ancient times they laughed about that just as much as we would today.

            Lest you are tempted to exonerate Jacob for his deception, notice how far he goes. When his father questions him, Jacob lies. When he returns too quickly with the food that Rebekah has already prepared for him, he mixes his lies with impiety. “The LORD your God granted me success,” he says. The LORD will not become Jacob’s God until much later at Peniel. Now Jacob, like many people in our own country, uses the name of God in vain to add credence to his deceptions. Genesis does not try to excuse Jacob’s actions. That is left up to preachers and rabbis through the centuries who are embarrassed that the father of Israel was a scoundrel in his youth.

            But this is just a bit of comic relief in a scene filled with pathos. Isaac is blind and dying, and he wants to put his affairs in order. He wants to pass on his legacy and his blessing to the next generation. He has chosen Esau as his successor, but he literally cannot see the future. Isaac was in the situation that some of us may be in today. We want to establish our legacy, to make sure we have an impact on the future, but we cannot see what our successors will do, what our children will do. We have to act as best we can with our limited powers and vision, leaving the final result to God, whose purposes are sometimes different than our own. There is also pathos in the fact that Jacob feels that he must deceive his father rather than coming to him and speaking in his own voice. Jacob has to steal his brother’s identity to receive the love of his own father. Isaac remains suspicious of this smooth talker, but the smell of Esau’s clothing convinces him. Jacob leaves with his father’s benediction.

Esau and Isaac            The fourth scene is an agonizing scene between Esau and Isaac. What is most surprising in this scene is that the author appears to be so sympathetic to Esau, who was the ancestor of one of the enemies of Israel. Genesis displays remarkable insight into the complexity of human society and human motives. It is not a simple morality tale, but Genesis does teach us that some things cannot be undone, even if they were done in error. We have become accustomed to fixing mistakes, expunging police records, and making fresh starts. We are guided by the myth that “tomorrow is another day,” and that we don’t have to live with the consequence of what we did today. That’s not how the world is. Isaac gave his blessing and would not go back on his word. Esau had to leave with the results of that decision.

            Lest we be too sympathetic with Esau, though, we have to acknowledge that his fate was no worse than Jacob’s would have been had things gone as Isaac planned. Jacob lied and tricked his way to a blessing intended for Esau, but Esau was not cursed. This is important to note because later Jewish and Christian tradition was very harsh on Esau. In fact, John Calvin defended his doctrine of predestination on the grounds that God had predestined Jacob for blessing and damned Esau, just as he saves some of us and damns others. Calvin argued that God’s ways are inscrutable and cannot be changed by the actions of humans, but he read too much into this story. Esau was not cursed. His life, like that of Ishmael, would be one of struggle, but he had four wives and became very wealthy in his own right.

Exile:                        In the final scene, we see Rebekah and Jacob again. They now have to live with the consequences of their actions. If Rebekah had hoped that Isaac’s blessing would mean that her beloved son would be able to stay with her and take care of her, she was wrong. If Jacob had hoped that his father’s blessing would mean that he would become the head of the family and be respected by his brother, he was wrong. If either of them thought that their deception would go undetected or unpunished, they were wrong. Actions have consequences. Esau hated his brother.

            This recalls the earlier story of Cain and Abel. Abel was the younger brother whose offering was acceptable to God. Cain hated his brother and killed him. When we discussed that story many of us were bothered by the fact that no explanation was given for why Abel was blessed and Cain rejected. But in our story for today, we know why Esau hated Jacob. Rebekah did not need to go to Sunday School to figure out that Esau would kill Jacob as soon as Isaac had been buried. So she acted again to save her beloved son. She sent him away to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban, who was powerful enough to protect him from the wrath of Esau.

            Rebekah says something very interesting as she sends Jacob away: “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” It is ambiguous whether she is discussing the loss of Jacob and Esau or Jacob and Isaac. The latter makes sense in terms of both them dying on the same day, but the former seems more likely in the context. Rebekah knows that she has lost the love of her son Esau by robbing him of his blessing, and she cannot bear the thought of losing the life of other son. She is a tragic figure here, so different from the bright young woman who received a nose ring years before. Now she is trapped in her own actions. In order to save the life of the son she loved most, she must lose him. We shall see that Isaac’s blessing does eventually come true for Jacob, but not in the way Rebekah intended. Jacob will prosper, but only after years of toil and hardship. He leaves for Haran, and mother and son will not be reunited for 20 years.

            Next week we’ll continue with the story of Jacob, looking at his vision at Bethel in Genesis 28. Let me remind you that copies of these lessons are available from Home Moravian Church. Thank you for listening. 

I Samuel 15 – Genocide

I Samuel 15 – Amalekites and Genocide

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 24, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Congratulations to the women of Salem College who graduated over the weekend. For eight years I pronounced a benediction for the graduates, and I kind of miss it. When I preached for the hooding ceremony at Wake Forest, I told the graduates that they could comfort themselves with the thought that at theological education teaches you to have contempt for the high salaries it prevents you from earning. I was up in Bethlehem, PA this week consulting with Historic Bethlehem Partnership, Inc. The main topic of conversation was how to best interpret the 18th century Moravians for the general public. It is a challenge, particularly since so many Moravians today, especially pastors, are not fond of the Zinzendorf era even though it was the most creative and progressive time in our church’s history. Colonial Bethlehem was a religious commune in which every member of the society had meaningful employment and was cared for in mind, body, and soul. I think American society today could learn a lot from our Moravian ancestors who valued hard work, good music, and a living faith.

Like those old Moravians, we are engaged in a serious study of the Bible in order to learn new lessons. I have to admit up front that I think our text for this morning is horrifying rather than edifying. It is one of the rare stories in which a priest kills someone. Worse than that, it is a story about an attempted genocide when the king of Israel tried to wipe out another tribe from the face of the earth. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, which was the United Nation’s response to the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. I Samuel 15 reminds us that genocide has a long and brutal history. We are told in the NT that all of Scripture is useful for teaching and edification, and so we will try to draw some good lessons from this tale of merciless slaughter, but it will not be easy. It is important to recognize that the lessons we draw from this story may be quite different from those originally intended by the author.

Read            I Samuel 15

Amalekites                        Who were these people that Samuel ordered Saul to exterminate with extreme prejudice? They were an ancient nomadic people that the Book of Genesis claims were descendents of Esau. In other words, according to the sacred writings of the Israelites, the Amalekites were descendents of Abraham through Isaac. This is often overlooked in sermons on I Samuel 15, but the Bible included the Amalekites in the original covenant with Abraham. That makes this warfare between them a blood feud between cousins, and it raises serious theological questions for us that have implications in modern politics. If the covenant was given to Abraham and his descendents, why exclude some of the descendents of Isaac? Is the Promised Land only for the children of Judah? I think we have to acknowledge that religious beliefs are often distorted to serve political ends. The simple truth is that the Amalekites and the Israelites had become political rivals vying over the same lands and they hated each other.

The Amalekites were a nomadic people, and many scholars question whether they would have had a city that Saul could have attacked. Saul probably attacked their encampments, but over time the tradition grew and the writer assumed that these nomadic herders had cities like the Israelites. The Amalekites show up several times in the Old Testament, and the good news is that Saul did not actually kill them all. Later kings had to fight Amalekites, too. Ironically, we see that it was an Amalekite who brought word to David that Saul was dead.

Genocide             Unlike some of the other neighbors of Israel, the Bible has no good word to say about the Amalekites. Every time they are mentioned, they are enemies of Israel. This is one of those ancient rivalries that make the Carolina-Duke rivalry seem trivial. (I know that is hard to believe.) You get the impression that Israelite mothers would tell their nursing babies about the wild Amalekites and that Israelite fathers would threaten to sell disobedient children to these nomads. The only reason Scripture gives for this deep tribal divide is that the Amalekites had attacked Israel during the Exodus and tried to prevent the wandering Israelites from resting at the oasis of Kadesh. Whenever the Israelites wanted to go to war against the Amalekites, they recalled this ancient grudge, much like the Serbians in the 1990s whipping themselves into a frenzy of hatred against the Bosnian Muslims over the defeat at Kosovo in the 14th century.

According to our text for today, Samuel went to King Saul and told him that the time had finally come to settle all the old grudges against the Amalekites. We don’t have the full text of Samuel’s sermon, but we know that he brought up the ancient grudges. Like Cato calling for the death of Carthage or General Sherman claiming that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Samuel told the king that God was demanding that every single Amalekite must die. Every man, woman, and child was to be killed. There should be no one left to carry on the family line or remember the dead. Even the animals were to be left to rot in the fields.

Modern Americans have difficulty understanding ancient tribal hatreds, but they lead to genocide. Just think about what the Hutus did to the Tutsi in Rwanda or what is happening right now in Iraq. We should not be shocked at the depth of Samuel’s hatred or the brutality of ancient war. After all, the United States dropped atomic bombs that killed every living thing in the heart of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What should shock us is that I Samuel 15 claims that it was God’s will that this tribe be erased from the earth.

 What do we do with this?                         There are several ways to deal with this as Christians today. We can simply choose to ignore this part of Scripture and pretend it does not exist. That is what the lectionary does. Or we can say that things were different in ancient Israel, and we should not judge the past by the standards of the present. That is the approach of many modern scholars, such as Bruce Birch in the New Interpreters Bible: “We must forthrightly acknowledge that holy war, as its practice is reflected in this story, cannot be a morally defensible practice for us.” But “it is important to note that the text of I Samuel 15 treats the command of holy war against the Amalekites as a legitimate command of the Lord.” (I Samuel, p. 1092) While this is true, we need to also acknowledge that millions of people do look to the Bible for guidance in morality, and some of them are not bothered by this divine commandment.

There are other ways to deal with stories like this. One of them is to consider the very real possibility that the story is an exaggeration of the historical facts. There is strong evidence to suggest that it was the final author of I Samuel who believed that the history of Israel would have been better if his ancestors had exterminated all the non-Israelites living in Palestine. It may sound odd to us, but it is possible that this is a romanticized version of an ancient story written by someone who wanted Samuel to be like one of those super heroes who kills all the bad guys in comic books. That same author also used this story to explain why Saul was rejected as king. If we are not happy with that idea, we could instead see this as a factual record of events long past that have no relevance for our lives today.

This is one of those times when Christians may simply want to acknowledge that for us the Old Testament is indeed the Old Covenant, and it does not have the same level of divine revelation for us that the New Testament has. We are free to read the ancient Scriptures with a critical eye informed by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. If we cannot picture Jesus, our high priest, telling Saul to kill babies or using a sword to hack his enemy to pieces, we should be cautious about declaring this story the will of God. We can learn from stories like this, but part of the learning may be contrary to what the ancient writer intended.

One reason I’m spending so much time on this question of interpretation is that this chapter of I Samuel has a long and bloody history in Christianity. Recently I was at a conference on religion and violence at Yale University, and an historian presented research on Puritan preaching on war. He discovered that I Samuel 15 was one of the favorite texts of Puritan preachers in colonial America, particularly when they were encouraging the congregation to kill neighboring Indians. The American Indians became the Amalekites in the hands of the preachers, and the Puritans added their chapter to the history of European genocide against American Indians.

Going farther back into history, the Taborite preachers in Bohemia used this chapter to justify the murder of Catholics. Catholics used this chapter to justify pogroms against the Jews and Protestants. One of the bitterest ironies in history is that a chapter about Israelites exterminating their enemies was used by Christians to justify the Final Solution in the 20th century. This is a very dangerous chapter that challenges our faith and our morality.

The Ban                        Let us return to the story itself and look at some of its nuances. Samuel has declared that the Amalekites are under the ban or herem. This is the origin of the word Harem, by the way. It refers to a category of things that are forbidden. Samuel was instructing Saul that all living things were to be killed because they belonged to God, not to the soldiers. In other words, in this type of holy war where the ban was in place, the spoils did not belong to the victor.

I know it sounds odd that the priest would consider it moral to kill rather than capture, but you have to keep in mind the nature of ancient war. Women and children were not spared by soldiers out of mercy; they were taken as captive to live their lives in slavery. As we read in the Iliad, young women were taken to be sex slaves and older women were put to work. Children were often sold. The livestock and so forth were likewise used or sold. In other words, the real meaning behind the ban was that the soldiers and king were not to profit from this battle.

Leaving aside the horror of genocide for a moment, lets think on the significance of a ban like this. Imagine if modern nations were to fight wars without enriching themselves at the expense of their enemies. Just think of how different the Iraq war might have been if the United States placed Iraqi oil under the ban, and if American businesses were not awarded lucrative contracts related to the war and reconstruction. Would things have been different if Haliburton had been a non-profit organization? We will never know, but at a minimum we should note that there would be fewer wars if no one thought they would get rich from war. By declaring the ban, Samuel was trying to insure that Saul was fighting the ancient enemies of Israel without thought for personal gain.

God’s Judgment on Saul             When Saul returned north from the battle in Judah, Samuel was shocked to hear the sound of sheep. He jumped to the conclusion that King Saul had gone to war on false pretenses. He had claimed that he was making Israel safe from those who wanted to destroy everything the Israelites believed in, but here he was returning with the spoils of war. Samuel thought Saul had hoodwinked him and that the war had really been about sheep and goats and slaves after all. The two men met at Gilgal and Samuel was very angry at Saul’s deception. Though Saul gave a perfectly reasonable explanation for what he had done, claiming that he was bringing the animals to Gilgal to sacrifice them to God, Samuel did not care. The harm was done.

Samuel informed Saul that God had pronounced judgment upon him for his disobedience. Samuel was no longer interested in Saul’s explanations, no matter how pious they sounded. He was no longer interested in Saul’s confession of sin and repentance. We are not told the whole story of what happened between Samuel and Saul, but clearly this was the last straw. Samuel declared that God had rejected Saul.

This is very harsh, particularly since it appears that Saul was sincerely trying to do what he thought was right, but sometimes you need simply to replace the leader instead of forgiving him. It had become clear to Samuel that Saul was not the type of king God wanted for Israel, and he withdrew his support for the king. He even declared that God has already chosen a younger man to be the next king. Saul’s effort to make the Israelites safe from their enemies unexpectedly led to a regime change at home when the war did not go the way it was intended. Perhaps there is some wisdom here for modern world leaders.

This leads us to one of the most famous scenes in the Old Testament. As Samuel turned to leave the king, Saul desperately grabbed his robe. It ripped. If this were a movie, this could be a moment of comic relief, but that’s not how ancient literature works. Samuel saw this as a prophetic moment. By tearing the sacred robe of the priest, Saul had pronounced judgment on himself. The kingdom would be torn from him. It is a visually dramatic scene that sticks with us, but the problem with it is that Saul will die as king of Israel. The rest of his reign, though, will be more of a curse than a blessing as his paranoia grows.

Grief                        The story ends with Samuel rather than Saul. First, Samuel takes it upon himself to kill King Agag. Keep in mind that one of the worst fates a leader in the ancient world could face was to be taken captive in battle and paraded as a prize before his enemies. Saul had not been merciful to Agag; he was using the old king to enhance his own glory. In some ways, Samuel was being kind. Though the Hebrew is ambiguous, it is possible that Agag saw it that way himself.

The final story is in some ways more moving.  We are left with a picture of grief. Samuel grieved over Saul and over Saul’s rejection. As our translator Hans Hertzberg reminds us. “He is the anointed; he is loved by many, even by his opponent Samuel, he is pious in the extreme, brave yet modest, without doubt a man of the stuff of which kings are made.” (I & II Samuel, p. 133) Yet, Saul had failed to live up to Samuel’s understanding of what a king should be. Even God grieved over what happened at Gilgal. If God and Samuel were upset by the events of chapter 15, why should we be any different?

Conclusion                        This has been a very heavy lesson, and I know you have a lot to ponder. I said we would try to pull out some helpful lessons from this bloody story. First, we can think about the importance of obedience. Jesus himself quotes from this story when telling us that God values obedience more than sacrifice. Churches emphasize forgiveness and repentance so much that we sometime undervalue the importance of doing the right thing to begin with. Second, we can learn something about the complexities of life. Saul may have been acting with good intentions, but the result of his actions were disastrous.

Lastly, we can take a clue from early Christian biblical scholars who read this book as a symbol or parable. For them, the Amalekites were symbolic of those things opposed to God and his people. God calls for us to purify our lives of those things that oppose the reign of God in the world. It is perhaps ironic that this brutal tale of slaughter may inspire us to destroy in our own lives those things that oppose Christ, including hatred, violence, and anger. It is possible that the best lesson we can take from I Samuel 15 is the need to completely destroy the type of violence described in this story. Go in peace.

John 11, part 1, Lazarus

John 11 – Lazarus and his Sisters

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 20, 2007

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church.. Today is confirmation for our youth and it is a time of graduation for our local colleges and universities. It is a day of new beginnings. Our lesson for this week is the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This story is definitely the climax of the first part of John’s Gospel. It is the seventh and most dramatic sign that Jesus did. This story plays a big role in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The main character wanted to prove his complete and total freedom from all the constraints of society. He randomly killed an elderly woman. Instead of being free, he found himself enslaved by guilt and fear. Eventually he is sent to a prison camp in Siberia. His only friend in the world comes to visit him every day, and she reads the story of Lazarus over and over until the criminal is reborn as a living and loving human being. The rebirth of Lazarus from death is one of the great stories of the Bible, and we will spend quite a long time examining it.

Lazarus           One of the central figures in this story is the dead man, Lazarus, but we know very little about him. He is the only man named in the Gospel of John who is described as someone Jesus “loved.” This has led a few scholars through the years to propose that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple who wrote the Gospel of John. It is interesting that biblical scholars tend to ignore the fact that the Gospel of John also says that Jesus loved Mary and Martha. Could it be that one of them was the Beloved disciple who wrote the gospel?

            The name “Lazarus” is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God helps.” Some scholars believe that the name of the dead man in this story was purely symbolic since “God helps” is the theme of the story. But Lazarus was a very common name in first century Judea, as were Martha and Mary. There have been lots of bone boxes (or ossuaries) found in the region with the name Lazarus on them. In fact, in the 1940s a tomb was discovered near Bethany that had ossuaries with the names Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Thus, we can say with full confidence that around the time of Jesus a man named Lazarus died, but the only record we have that Lazarus was raised from the dead is the Gospel of John.

Luke and John           One thing that troubles many biblical scholars is that this story is found only in John and is not mentioned in the other three canonical gospels. How could such a dramatic story not have been central to all of the gospels if it had actually taken place? There is a parable about a man named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke. A parable is a fictitious story told to communicate a true idea. The parable says that there was a poor beggar named Lazarus who was ignored by a rich man. When the beggar and the rich man died, one went to paradise; the other to torment. The parable ends with a statement that people will not believe “even if someone is returns from the dead.”

            It is odd that this is the only parable of Jesus in which one of the characters is named. The name could be symbolic since Lazarus means “God helps,” but it is possible that Jesus had in mind a real Lazarus. Some scholars speculate there may have been a connection between the gospels of Luke and John, and that the story of Lazarus in John is an extrapolation of the parable in Luke. In John’s version, Lazarus is raised from the dead and people do not believe.

            Other scholars reject this theory for several reasons. For one thing, there is no indication in the John account that Lazarus was a poor man. For other, the statement about coming back from the dead in Luke’s parable is not integral to the parable. It makes more sense that the idea of resurrection was added later to the parable in Luke rather than proposing that John created a resurrection story based on a parable. In other words, it is possible that Luke knew something about the resurrection of a man named Lazarus but he did not include the story in his gospel since it was not in Mark, his primary source. Instead, he tacked on a statement about resurrection to the parable of a man named Lazarus. It is also possible that these two stories have nothing in common other than the name of the main character.

Jairus’ Daughter        There is a parallel between John and the synoptics that is worth exploring. The synoptics have a story about the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5, Luke 8) that is not found in John. It is no more surprising that the story of Lazarus is not in the other gospels than that the equally dramatic story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter is not in John. The simplest explanation for this difference between John and Mark is that most of the historical material in John comes from Judea, especially Jerusalem, and most of the material in Mark comes from Galilee. It is possible that Mark and his church had not heard the story of the raising of a dead man in Judea and that John had never heard the story of the resurrection of a dead girl in Galilee. The difference between the gospels is not as significant as some claim.

            It is worth noting that all of the gospels, including the non-canonical ones, state that Jesus raised the dead. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the disciples of John the Baptist that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” In other words, even though there is no solid historical evidence to prove that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, all of the earliest sources we have claim that Jesus raised someone from the dead.  

Literary Intention      One reason some biblical scholars doubt the historicity of the Lazarus story in John is because it is such a beautifully crafted story. It is one of the longer narratives in the NT and it reads like a play rather than like a story from oral tradition. There is drama and dialog and multiple characters. The “actors” in this drama are people who figure more prominently in John than in the other gospels. Thomas, Mary and Martha all have speaking roles. Unlike the other miracle stories in John, this story is preceded by a long discourse of Jesus with his disciples and with Lazarus’ sisters on the nature of the resurrection. The placement of this story as the pivotal event before the passion also raises doubts about its historicity because the story fits too perfectly with John’s narrative for it to have actually happened this way, according to many scholars.

            Several scholars have proposed that there was an original story about Jesus raising the brother of Mary and Martha from the dead. That story probably included the details that the location was in Bethany, that Lazarus was buried, and that the sisters were grieving. This event might have happened much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, but John uses this story as the climax of the Book of Signs and the bridge to the story of the Passion. John expanded on the original story with dialogs between Jesus and his followers on the resurrection of the dead. These dialogs probably reflect the teachings of Jesus to his disciples, but here they are interwoven into a dramatic framework.

            By now, we should have become accustomed to the fact that the author of the Gospel of John was an artist who shaped the tradition he received and crafted it for theological purpose. We have encountered this repeatedly in our study so far. The writer admits that he has done this when he says “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John’s Gospel never claims to be the kind of objective biography a modern historian would write. It is a story of faith so that the community of faith may understand Jesus and his work. It should be no surprise that a theological artist would have crafted the story of one of the most important deeds of Jesus in a way that highlights its significance and draws out its symbolic meaning. The story is important in its own right, but it is even more meaningful in its literary context.

Factual?          Of course, the real reason that many scholars view this story as a theological fiction created by John is that many modern people simply do not believe that Jesus could have raised anyone from the dead. We live in a world where the dead don’t rise and the lame do not leap. In the 19th century, some historians even proposed that when Jesus said that Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus were sleeping, he meant that literally. In other words, these are stories about awakening someone from a coma that were taken as miracle accounts by the gullible. 20th century scholars tended to just see the whole thing as a fiction with no basis in reality.

            The question of whether Jesus raised the dead is something that cannot be decided by historians because there is no way to verify the sources. If you are convinced that death is final and cannot be reversed by God, then you will reject the story of the raising of Lazarus as well as the resurrection of Jesus. The fact that some of us walking around today have been brought back from death by scientific means will not change your mind. If you believe that death is death and that Lazarus never emerged from the tomb, than I hope that you will at least approach the story of Lazarus as a parable.  

            For those of you who do not believe that death is the only thing certain in life, this story may have a different meaning. Gail O’Day sums up the issue of the historicity of the Lazarus account well: “For religious people, this mystery, the overlap between the natural and the supernatural, is seen as evidence of God’s transcendence of the categories by which God’s creatures understand the world to be ordered and of God’s intervention in the workings of creation. It is thus a question of faith whether one can acknowledge the possibility and, indeed, reality of God’s miraculous intervention in creation. … The only answer to the question of whether this miracle could have occurred is another question: Can we believe that God, acting through Jesus, has power over the course of life and death?” (O’Day, Gospel of John, 693).

            There you have it. The raising of Lazarus from the dead remains a mystery even if it is historical. If it is not historical, it is at least a great story with an important point. What you decide will depend in large part on whether you believe that the Creator acts in the world or whether nature is the highest reality and the death the final word. I think that if you believe in this story about Jesus bringing life into situations where death appears to be the final answer, your life will be filled with hope and joy even in the midst of grief. Now it is time to read the first part of this great story.

Read: 11:1-16  

Mary and Martha      The story begins a little awkwardly, and that may indicate that this is a story that was edited a couple of times. There is the simple statement that Lazarus was sick and that he was from the village of Bethany, the village of Mary and Martha. These two sisters must have been very important in the church of the Beloved Disciple and were known beyond that congregation. There is no reason to doubt the tradition that they opened their home to Jesus during his visits to Jerusalem. They are always mentioned together, and there is no indication that either one of them married. It was scandalous for adult Jewish women not to be married since the first commandment is to have children. Women were valued primarily as child-bearers. We do not know why Martha and Mary were unmarried, but one of the things that Christianity brought into the ancient world was the option for women to remain single.

            The only other gospel to mention these two women is Luke where we see Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha served the dinner guests. Thus, in both Luke and John, Mary and Martha are identified as disciples of Jesus. In Luke, Mary sits at the feet of the teacher listening to his words. In John, Jesus instructs Martha in the meaning of resurrection in a more direct way than he did with his male disciples. Martha is the first person in the Gospel of John to say that she believes that Jesus is the Son of God. We should remember and honor Martha for this proclamation of faith rather than simply as the overly busy housewife cleaning up from dinner.

            I hope you are noticing an important feature of John’s Gospel: the first person to believe in Jesus as the Messiah was the woman of Samaria. The first person to profess belief in Jesus as the Son of God was also a woman. The first witness to the resurrection will be a woman as well. Despite the very real and painful history of sexism in the history of Christianity, there is no doubt that women played a prominent role in the early church, especially in the church of the Beloved Disciple. I don’t know why it is the churches that claim to take the Bible literally that refuse to ordain women when a literal reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus chose women to be his disciples and his witnesses to the good news of salvation.

Anointing        At the beginning of ch. 11 Mary is identified as the woman who anointed Jesus. This is a little odd because the story of the anointing has not been told yet. That will be in ch. 12. It is possible that one of these stories has been moved from its original place. The other gospels tell the story of the anointing earlier in the career of Jesus and they do not name the woman. It is also possible that John assumed that his readers knew about the Mary who anointed Jesus and wanted to make sure that they understood the sister of Lazarus was the same Mary. It is also possible that this verse intentionally looks to future events so that the reader understands that the resurrection of Lazarus is connected to a greater story of resurrection.

The Delay       Whatever the reason for identifying Mary as the one who anointed Jesus, the effect is that the story of Lazarus is placed in the larger story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus delays in answering the summons to come to Lazarus, we are reminded that the Father did not save Jesus from death on the cross. Just as there was a greater message in the death of Lazarus than there would have been with a healing; there was a great lesson in the death of Jesus than in avoiding death.

            This story raises all sorts of questions for us, and we may not be able to answer them all. I remember when I was a teen-ager being very troubled by aspects of this story. If Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, why did he not hurry to them? Why leave them in grief? As it is written, Jesus sounds almost callous. He lets Lazarus die so that he can reveal his power. We are told throughout the Gospel of John that Jesus did not display his own power or seek his own glory. He was doing the will of the Father and revealing the glory of God.

            The delay at the beginning of the story prefigures the cosmic silence of the Father when Jesus is crucified. It is a hard teaching, but it is none the less true, that sometimes great things come at a terrible price. Lazarus had to experience death in order to be resurrected. Mary and Martha had to grieve in order to celebrate. One thing that is clear in this passage, as with the story of the man born blind. The Gospel of John rejects the notion that suffering and death are punishment for individual sins. Lazarus’ death was for a greater good, not because he was a sinner. In John’s Gospel, the work of Jesus is to overcome the power of death.

            We will continue with the story of the raising of Lazarus next week.

I Samuel 14:24-52 – Honey and Oaths

I Samuel 14:24-52 – Honey and Oaths

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 18, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It is a time of graduations. My daughter Emily graduated Thursday with her Associates Degree in Business, and we are proud of her. Wake Forest’s commencement service will be tomorrow morning, and then I’m flying to Bethlehem for a couple of days of meetings. Let me remind you that we will be having worship up at Laurel Ridge on June 2 and hope you can join us. We will have the Adult Bible Class that day but all other Sunday School classes are cancelled. We’ve completed our triennial review process at Home Church, and I want to thank all the people who said such nice things about my work here. It is a pleasure to serve here. I do want to give a shout out to Susan Weatherman, whose mother passed away recently after a long illness.

This week we are continuing our study of chapter 14 of I Samuel. In case you missed last week’s lesson, I’ll briefly recap the situation. The Israelites and Philistines were camped on opposite sides of a deep gulley, and Saul’s son Jonathan boldly attacked one of the garrisons with only a single companion. Since Jonathan’s assault went so well, Saul sent the rest of the army into battle, which spread all over the hill country of Benjamin. Last week the youngest member of the class had a very good insight. She proposed that one reason Saul was so cautious in this chapter was because he got into such trouble in the previous chapter when he acted on his own initiative instead of waiting for Samuel. This week we’ll look at what happened when Saul paid too much attention to priests and made a rash vow that nearly cost him his son. It is a long story, but it would lose some of the drama if I excerpt from it.

Read: I Samuel 14:24-44

The Oath:                        Saul declares that none of his soldiers will eat during the day of the battle. This is one of those ancient vows that strike us as more than a little odd today, but we know from ancient literature that this was not uncommon. In the Iliad Achilles, Odysseus, and Agamemnon argue over the wisdom of just such a vow. . A vow to fast during battle may seem irrational to us. We know men perform better when they have calories to burn, but it is the irrational aspect of this that makes it important.

Some believed that such a vow has a strong psychological impact on the troops and would inspire them to quick victory. Nothing should distract them from the task at hand – certainly not food. We see this kind of behavior on college campuses during final exams. Students give up things during exams. For some it is food or beer, for others it is shaving or bathing. As a professor, I heartily endorse giving up alcohol but encourage normal hygiene. In war, soldiers make similar vows. The desire is to separate the battle from normal life. It represents a desire to bring closure (and victory) as soon as possible.

Saul’s vow represents something beyond this normal pattern. What he was doing was dedicating his soldiers to God by making them observe a sacred fast during the battle. In other words, he is turning this military action against the Philistines into a holy war. What I am about to say will make many Americans uncomfortable, but the modern term for what Saul is doing here is waging a Jihad. His vow made his soldiers into Jihadists attacking the uncircumcised infidels. Saul’s men were not fighting like normal men; they were purified religious warriors assaulting the enemy. By the time of Saul, this was a well-established tradition in ancient Israel, and modern Christians and Jews should be aware that the origin of Jihad is found in our own sacred texts.

Jonathan breaks Haram            Jonathan was not there when the ban on food was declared, and during the battle he ate some honey. This detail about the honey is an important bit of realism in the story. There is evidence that parts of Israel had large colonies of wild bees making honey in ancient days, much like parts of Mexico used to. Honey was not simply a sweetener, like we use it today. It was staple of the diet of the Israelites, much as it is for many tribal people in Central America. It is quite likely that the description of Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey was once true – at least for the honey. One of the great things about honeycomb is that it provides instant energy with minimal effort. So, when Jonathan and the troops came upon a large group of honeycomb, Jonathan viewed it literally as a godsend. He ate some honey and his vision grew clear, strength returned to his tired arms and legs, and his hunger was abated.

Little did he know that this godsend of honey in the midst of battle would alienate him from his father and king. The men told him of Saul’s ban on eating, and Jonathan spoke openly against his father. Today sons often criticize their fathers in public, and we think they are daring, but in the ancient world this was a great crime. It was an age when fathers ruled the household and kings ruled the land. Jonathan was committing a double crime by openly criticizing his father’s commandment instead of simply submitting. What is shocking about I Samuel 14 is that the text does not condemn Jonathan for speaking so. The author clearly agrees with Jonathan that Saul’s oath was rash and that it would have been wiser to let them men eat honey.

The issue could not be decided in the midst of battle, and we are not told what the men thought of Jonathan’s criticism of the king. Clearly they were loyal to the son of Saul, but were probably concerned about the events transpiring. This vignette portends worse conflict to come.

Eating Meat and Blood                        The story takes an interesting turn at this point. The soldiers keep Saul’s ban on eating until sundown when they can celebrate their temporary victory. They are so hungry that they take the animals they have captured and begin to eat them without properly killing them. Translations vary, and some imply that the men were eating blood with the meat, which is one of the strongest taboos for Jews to this day. The Hebrew text could mean that the men were so hungry that they did not take the time to properly drain the blood completely from the meat, but it appears more likely that the real problem was the blood of the animals was not properly consecrated to the LORD.

In other words, the animals were not slaughtered in a way that respected their life as the property of God. In ancient Israel, the blood was poured out for the LORD. This is why Saul had to order that a large stone to be set up so the animals could be properly slaughtered and the blood drained. This was not quite the same thing as a sacrifice by a priest, but it was similar. In modern Islam, the male head of household is still expected to ritually slaughter a goat at the end of the Ramadan fast, which is an echo of this ancient Israelite practice.

The significance of the story is that Saul’s men kept his foolish vow, but the result was that their hunger made them forget the more ancient laws about ritual slaughter. They were so famished and exhausted that they forgot to give the LORD his due, and so they sinned according to the laws and customs of the day. In other words, Saul’s extravagant attempt to sanctify his battle against the Philistines had the opposite effect. In the end, his soldiers forgot one of the basic laws of ritual purity simply because they were too hungry to care.

There is an important lesson in this for religious people today. Jesus warned us against Pharisees who tithe mint and dill but ignore the weightier matters of the law. Our headlines are full of sanctimonious public figures who make great shows of their piety but forget the most basic ethical and moral laws. We have church leaders who insist on acts of piety that defy human nature, such as requiring priests to be celibate, while condoning worse offenses. We have politicians who wrap themselves in cloaks of sanctity while condoning torture and dishonesty. Jonathan was right to criticize Saul’s judgment. Saul’s vow was vainglorious and dangerous, and in the end it led the men into sin.

Divination                        Clearly Saul is beginning to lose control of the situation. He does set up a stone and begin to slaughter the animals in the approved fashion, but the momentum of the battle has shifted. He knows that he should pursue the enemy while they are disorganized and frightened, but he decides that he needs to consult with his priest again. He has lost the confidence that was so evident in the first battle against Nahash when the spirit of God was upon him.

When the priest consults the sacred lot, the LORD gives no answer. There is no word of the LORD for Saul to follow, and he does not know what to do. The king who was chosen by divine election and who has been victorious against great odds suddenly finds there is silence when he needs answers. No matter what you feel about King Saul, I think we should pause here and contemplate this dark moment of divine silence. There is something poignant here in the king’s confusion and doubt at this moment of triumph. Shakespeare knew his Bible, and his portrayal of Macbeth and Lear owe a lot to Saul suffering from God’s silence.

In his confusion, Saul makes a vow that is more rash than the first. He decides that God will not speak because someone has sinned. It may have been the priest who put this idea in Saul’s head to explain why he could not get a clear oracle, but Saul’s response seems strange. He knows that many of the men were guilty of ritual sin in the slaughtering of the animals, but that is not enough for Saul. He is convinced there is something else going on. He vows that if any man has offended the LORD he should be put to death – even if it is the king or his son.

This may have been braggadocio and bluster. It is unlikely that Saul thought he or Jonathan had sinned that day, but a wise ruler knows that you should not make public pronouncements you cannot back up. People may hold you to your word. I know a lot of people who make the mistake of tendering their resignation as a way to negotiate with their employers. Never resign unless you mean it.

Wise leaders also learn from history and try to avoid the mistakes of past rulers. Saul clearly did not learn from the story of Jephthah, the Israelite judge who vowed to sacrifice the first living thing to come out of his house. His heart was broken when his oldest daughter was the one to rush out to greet the father she loved. Because of his rash vow, Jephthah murdered his own daughter for the sake of piety.

Jonathan Chosen            Readers of the story in chapter 14 know what Saul did not. We know that Jonathan was the one who ate honey during the battle, and we know what the lot will say. We watch with horror, thinking that Jonathan will be sacrificed needlessly because of Saul’s foolish vow to God. As we read, we feel the tension as the lots are cast. First, the soldiers are found not guilty. The sin is with the house of Saul. Finally Jonathan is identified by the priest as the guilty party.

Saul is trapped by his own words. The tragedy of Saul is not that he was not religious or moral; it was that he was foolishly religious and moral. He could not break his word, even when his word was nonsense. He decrees that his son and putative heir to the throne will die.

And brave Jonathan submits to the will of his father and king. Jonathan risked his life for the salvation of Israel, and now he is willing to give up his life for the nation. In this crucial moment, he is not defiant. We need to let our imaginations soar as we look on this scene that is so briefly sketched in Scripture. Jonathan is like Socrates drinking the hemlock because he respects the laws of the state he has criticized. Jonathan is like Isaac letting himself be bound by his father to test God. Jonathan shows us that courage is more than the willingness to go into battle.

Reprieved            But the people reject this decision. The people know that Jonathan is the hero of the day. The people see clearly that the LORD was with Jonathan in his bold assault on their enemies. The people see that Jonathan was wise where Saul was foolish, and they reject the judgment of the priest’s lot and the king’s vow. The people recognize that Jonathan was the agent of God’s salvation, and that is the true meaning of religion. Jonathan was representative of God’s action in the world in a way that the priest was not. They refused to let Saul murder his son to satisfy Saul’s stupid religious vow. Sometimes, the voice of the people is wiser than priests and kings, presidents and justices.

Denouement             And so Jonathan’s life was spared. We are not told how this affected the relationship between Saul and his son, but this experience may have contributed to the later estrangement of the two. We are not told how Saul dealt with the confusing nature of revelation. Saul was left with the quandary we all face. How do you know the will of God if you cannot trust the religious authorities or the prescribed rituals? It is quite likely that this was the day that Saul’s mind began to come unhinged as he dealt with the terror of ambiguity and uncertainty. One thing we are told is that Saul could not continue the assault against the Philistines that day, and the enemy returned to their strongholds. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory because of the king’s misuse of religion.

At the end of the chapter we are told that Saul had a bloody reign as king. Part of the evidence that he ruled for more than two years is this list of people Saul defeated in battle. Since the list resembles a similar list of the people David defeated, some scholars think it has been misplaced, but that it seems unlikely that the author of I Samuel would give Saul more credit than he deserved. The picture we have of King Saul at the end of ch. 14 is that he was a successful warrior, much like Charlemagne, but he did not built a stable government. It is interesting that he made a point of gaining the loyalty of strong men, one of whom would become his nemesis. 

Hooding Sermon WFU Div. School 2008

“Masters of Divinity: Servants of God Loving God’s Creation”

Isaiah 42:1-4; Romans 8:18-25; John 3:1-17

Master of Divinity Hooding Ceremony May, 2008

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction                All Right!  You’ve done it. You are on the banks of the Jordan about to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land. Congratulations. I want to thank you for asking me to be the speaker for this ceremony. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to say how good it is to be here. I never thought I’d feel more at home in an ecumenical divinity school with a Baptist heritage than I did in a Moravian seminary, but this is a special place. A few weeks ago, I watched a young man give his senior presentation. The setting was his home rather than a classroom. It was a Thursday evening and more than two dozen students attended because they sincerely wanted to learn about ministry from a classmate. As I sat there, I thought that this was a living example of the house churches of the New Testament, and the raucous zeal of those who wanted to serve their risen Lord.

You are ready to leave here, but you will find that there are things we did not teach you. One of the things they did not tell me when I became a professor 14 years ago is that teachers go through a grief process every year as they say farewell to students and friends. We will miss you. In case you haven’t figured it out, you need to know that no one other than your families is more invested in your success and happiness than the men and women sitting here in funny robes. I cannot guarantee that your three years at Wake Forest have prepared you to respond to every kind of challenge you will face in the future, but we are sending you out in confidence that you will continue to learn and grow as theologians, exegetes, preachers, counselors, activists, and teachers. Whatever your specific vocation, you will need to be prepared to minister in a constantly changing world. The Dean calls that “post-modern,” but I just call it reality.

Masters of Divinity               This ceremony today is an event combines religious and academic rituals. It is an opportunity for faculty, students, and alumni to recall the greater purpose of this divinity school within a larger university whose motto is pro humanitatis. Soon you will be awarded an academic degree with the strange title of Master of Divinity. To be honest, as a member of a church that still uses the titles Brother and Sister, I’ve always been uncomfortable with having a parchment on the wall declaring to the world that I am a Master of Divinity. Not to undermine the solemnity of this great occasion, but it sounds like a children’s cartoon from the 1980s: The Masters of Divinity face their bitter foe Ontological Shock.

I’m not sure which part of the title bothers me more: the Master or the Divinity. Aside from the sexism of the title (although “Mistress of Divinity” might be too fraught with ambiguity), the word “master” implies you are superior to others; that you will have underlings and servants. But there is another meaning of “master” that comes from trade guilds of the Middle Ages. A Master was someone who had proven mastery of a particularly field of study or work. The Masterpiece was the work you did to prove you could be acknowledged as a Master of a discipline. This still applies in some trades today. For instance, a Master Plumber has proven she or he knows a great deal about pipes and joints. A Master craftsman has the authority to supervise an apprentice.

You were expecting a history lesson, right?  This history lesson helps us understand this solemn occasion. This evening a major southern university is presenting you with a special article of clothing that symbolizes that you have joined the ranks of the Masters. The hood will not protect you from rain; it proclaims your new identity. None of us can honestly claim to be a Master of Divinity, but your degree indicates you have achieved a certain level of competence in the study of things that pertain to God and to the service of God. You have learned and been tested in the skills of biblical exegesis, doctrinal study, theological inquiry, the care of souls, preaching, and leadership in the community of faith. There is much more to learn outside of this institution, but this Divinity School believes that each of you is ready to assume leadership in society and speak with authority about the ways of God.

Privilege and Responsibility              On Monday morning you will hear a phrase that we generally ignore as if it is the fine print on a contract. Your degree will be conferred with all the rights, duties, and privileges there unto appertaining. Rights, duties, and privileges. I know that it is hard for you to view yourselves as privileged at the moment. You have worked very hard and sometimes felt abused. You have a mountain of debt and a molehill of economic potential in the marketplace of modern America. You sacrificed a great deal to be sitting where you are, and you may wonder if it will ever pay off. Just keep in mind that a theological education teaches you to have contempt for the high salaries it prevents you from earning! You are feeling many things at the moment, but I’m not sure if privileged is one of them. What privileges come with a M.Div. degree?

            Privileges that millions of people around this terrestrial sphere are longing for. Whether you want to admit it or not, by receiving a masters degree from an American university, you are a recognized member of the intelligentsia. You are granted authority to speak on a wide variety of subjects and you have been given the keys to the further pursuit of knowledge. You have the privilege of pursuing doctoral studies or serving in any number of jobs denied those who do not have a degree. Your future will not be without risk, but they are not the risks of men and women who have little formal education. You will continue to work hard, but never forget those whose hands and backs are mangled by toil. Yes, each of you is privileged and will be more privileged when your degree is conferred.

            As the lay theologian Stan Lee reminds us frequently, with great power comes great responsibility, and that is true of your masters degree. This institution was not established simply for your happiness, although we are all concerned about your welfare. This institution was established for the good of humanity and the promotion of humane values in the wider world.  You have the responsibility of deciding how you will use your knowledge and access to knowledge for the good of the world.

As we ponder the title Master of Divinity, we need to recognize that that Jesus introduced a fascinating twist to this title. In the sacred writings of Christianity, Jesus teaches that those who wish to be great in the Kingdom of God must become servants of all. If you are truly to live up to your identity as a Master of Divinity, you must become a servant in the Kingdom of God. Or, as it says in Hard Rock Cafes around the world, “Love all, Serve all.” I cannot tell you what your servant leadership will be or how you will live out your potential, but I assure you that this cannot be simply a theoretical perspective that we discuss on-line or over coffee. With this degree comes the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. You have the responsibility to spend time in contemplation and meditation on the ways of God and the labyrinths of the human soul. Most of all, you have the responsibility to rise to the challenges set before you, and to contribute your wisdom to the healing of the world. You must continue to search the Scriptures and the Internet so that you make ancient wisdom relevant in a modern world.

For God so Loved the World One dark night many years ago, a religious scholar paid a visit to a young rabbi. Like many of us, the scholar was responding to the private urgings of his own heart, and was seeking answers. The young rabbi told him: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  You heard this story read earlier in this service, and I hope you realize that the rabbi was talking to you. The Master of Divinity degree is not a ticket into the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that we have to born from above to enter God’s realm. To be born anew or from above is to approach life from God’s perspective, to take the spirit of Christ into your life and let your life be transformed. Being born from above is a life-long adventure and encounter with God. Too many graduates of divinity schools claim the mantel of being born again without living into the divine reality. Too many churches merely copy their society instead of embodying the passionate love of God for his creatures. John’s Gospel lifts Jesus up as the hope, the model, and the source of true human life. Eternal life is full and complete life; it is a life that begins now; a life that is so full of life that it can never be extinguished.

Jesus’ late night conversation about rebirthing is the setting for one of the most famous verses of the NT: John 3:16. These words do not exist in isolation, like a thunderbolt in the sky; they clarify what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, the religion scholar.  You, who follow the law and judge others must be born again. You who long to enter into heaven, but want to keep others out must be born again. Nicodemus, you must taste true eternal life; you must be turned around and see the world as God sees it. If you want to truly live, to have eternal life, unending, ever growing life, then believe in the divine logos or the Logic of God. You Masters of Divinity, you must see the world through heaven’s eyes.

            “For God so loved the world,” the anonymous evangelist wrote. Many of you memorized this verse long ago, but pause and think on these words. For God so loved the world.  Too many times the Bible is used by those who hate the world to condemn the world.  It is so tempting to use the church to retreat from the world, but God so loved the world. This world we inhabit may have become darkened and subjected to futility, as Paul says, but it remains God’s world; it is still God’s good creation; it is still the world that God loves enough to suffer to redeem it. To be born from above, to be a master of divinity, is to live in this world as a harbinger of hope and messenger of peace. Those who are born of the Spirit, who see the world as God sees it, are filled with God’s passionate love for creation. 

Creation and Nature:             Our Gospel lesson leads us naturally to Paul’s letter to the Romans.  We don’t have time for a lesson on cosmology, but one thing that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree on is that God is the cause of all that exists. Modern physics, in discussing the big bang theory of the origin of the universe, sounds very much like the book of Genesis.  In the beginning, there was nothing, and then blinding light, and from the light, all of the stars and planets. It is both humbling and thrilling to realize how insignificant we humans are in the grand scale of creation.  How can a person be compared to a star, and yet we are loved with an infinite love. This is a pillar of our faith, and yet we affirm faith the midst of challenges.

Intellectually we profess that God is the Creator and that creation is good, but in recent years it has been hard to view nature as good. Blizzards, earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes make us question the goodness of the Cosmos. As you were taking final exams tens of thousands of people were drowning in Myanmar. Thousands of voices were silenced by an earthquake in China. How can we affirm that creation is good when we confront such tragedies? I don’t think we can on our own. We need look with eyes born from above, with eyes of faith. All around us is the evidence that Paul was right: creation is groaning in travail, like a woman giving birth.

In the first chapters of the Bible, God gives humans the task of “subduing the earth” and making it fruitful. That has been a task humans have taken on with glee. From the days of ancient Sumer to now, people of all races and religions have tried to subdue the earth and destroyed it. We have looked at nature less like a mother in travail and more like an adversary. Our machines have left gaping wounds in the flesh of our planet. We have drained swamps and marshes, built rivers for our own convenience, and tried to restrain the great rivers. We make grass grow in the desert, and can produce great quantities of food. We have subdued the earth, and proven that we are little gods, or have we?

With the eyes of faith, we can see that the world suffers from the ravages of human sin and arrogance. With eyes of faith we see that creation is in bondage to death and decay. This is the Inconvenient Truth we must face. Though creation is good, it is subject to futility and screams in agony and confusion. This is why creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Creation is waiting for the children of God to be revealed because they are the midwives of redemption. That is what it means to be a Master of Divinity.

Bring forth justice to the nations.                  Long before Jesus taught Nicodemus and Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the Servant of God is one who brings forth justice in every part of the world. Are you prepared?  Are you willing to teach justice and act mercifully?  The world is in travail, but you are called to be midwives of redemption. Lands covered in the blood of children sacrificed in power struggles cry out for justice. A planet in which the forests are disappearing and the oceans are rising cries out for justice and redemption. We see image after image of the travail of the earth that break our hearts and threaten to unravel our reason. We want to shout, but the prophet reminds us that the Servant brings forth justice quietly, without raising his or her voice.

            The true master of divine matters will not break the bruised reed nor quench the dimly burning wick. The Servant will not ignore those who have been bent or broken by life or extinguish the flame of hope in people. Wherever there are servants of God, the hungry will be fed, the oppressed will be liberated, workers will no longer be exploited, families will be strengthened, violence will decline, and songs of hope will be sung. We act in love and mercy not because of an abstract moral code or it makes us feel good. We do so because we have been born from above. We act in love and mercy because we servants who share in the life and love of God. We are servants of the One who called us into being and who has redeemed us from our isolation and despair.

Conclusion      John 3:17 is less well-known than John 3:16. It says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.” The gospel is not about condemnation and damnation; it is about life and salvation for all. Too often we forget that in our quest for success.  Like Nicodemus we get stuck in our theology and observances, but we long for release from the malaise that afflicts our souls; the fears that leech away our love. We long for life eternal. This is more important than academic titles. Surrender yourself in faith. Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Hear again the words of the prophet, thus saith the Lord: “Behold my servants whom I uphold.  My chosen ones in whom I delight.”

Genesis – Lesson 28 Isaac’s family

Genesis 26 – Isaac’s Wife/Sister and Wells

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 7, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was a busy week for me grading final exams and papers. I let my theology students write on any topic in the history of theology, so I had papers ranging from early Mennonite theology to modern feminist theology. I also helped one of our Moravian students write his Credo, which is a pastor’s statement of beliefs and how those beliefs shape his or her approach to ministry. I think it was a good learning experience for both of us. One of the issues students have to grapple with in a Credo is their understanding of Scripture as revelation.

            We have been dealing with that same question all year in our study of Genesis. There are people who claim that they read the whole Bible as the literal word of God, but we have seen that does not really work with Genesis. We have to recognize that parts of Genesis are folklore. They are stories told to teach important theological lessons. Even in the time of Jesus, biblical scholars freely added interpretative details to their commentaries on Genesis. If we get hung up on debates over whether Genesis records historical facts, we actually miss the revelation of God’s word through these stories. We need to let the stories themselves speak to us even as we dig deeper into their meaning today.

            I mention this today because the stories of Isaac in Gen. 26 are not very inspiring. Both of these stories in Gen. 26 are very similar to stories we read about Abraham, and some scholars believe that these were originally Abraham stories that were transferred to Isaac. Other scholars think that the opposite was true. These were originally Isaac stories that were eventually attached to his more famous father. We cannot know for sure, but these stories are a reminder that sacred history takes place within secular history. The patriarchs may have been great prophets who spoke with God, but they also had to get along with their neighbors. Since many of the themes of Gen. 26 have already been discussed, we’ll be a bit cursory this morning.

Going to Gerar:          Like the Abraham story, Isaac’s journey south was caused by a famine in Canaan. This is a reminder that life in Canaan was not easy. On several occasions, the Israelites were forced to look for food in Egypt or elsewhere. It’s hard not to wonder what Isaac thought when the LORD renewed his promise that Canaan would be the homeland of his descendents as he was leaving Canaan in order to find food. I think I would have asked whether it wouldn’t be possible to have a promised land less prone to famine.

            The renewal of the promise was important for three reasons. First of all, it connects the story of Isaac directly to the covenant with Abraham. The LORD will be Isaac’s God, just as he was Abraham’s God, and the promises made to Abraham will continue with Isaac. We allude to this in our Moravian baptismal liturgy when we proclaim that the promises of God are to us and to our children. Biblical faith is an historical faith that endures through the passing of time. The second reason the renewal of the promise is important is so the reader knows that Isaac will only be sojourning in the south. His true home is Canaan.  And the third reason this important is because it shows us that Isaac was also a prophet who heard the voice of God and obeyed.

Abimelech       In Gen. 26, we meet King Abimelech again, and once again a patriarch tells the king that his wife is really his sister. You may remember Abimelech from an earlier lesson in which he deals with Abraham. We may well wonder, though, why Abimelech trusted Isaac after what he went through with Abraham. After all, Abraham had told the king that his wife Sarah was really his sister and let him take her into his harem. So why trust Isaac when he said that Rebekah was his sister rather than his wife?

            One explanation for Abimelech’s lack of learning is that this king is actually the son of the original Abimelech. It is not uncommon for kings to have the same name as their fathers. There is no reason for the storyteller to relate the dynastic history of Gerar. Another explanation is that the first encounter with Abraham was 75 years earlier, and King Abimelech just forgot about it. He was probably forgetting a lot of things by then. A third explanation is that there are simply three versions of one original story. One version tells of Abraham and Abimelech; another of Isaac and Abimelech; and the third version is of Abraham and Pharaoh. 

Wife-Sister Again:     Whatever the reason for having three versions of a story about a matriarch being passed off as a sister, it is clear that this was a significant story. Unfortunately, it is impossible today to determine just why this wife-sister motif was so important. We can note, though, there are some unique features of the Isaac version that make it interesting.

            The most significant difference between the story of Isaac claiming that his wife was his sister and similar stories with Abraham is that Rebekah was not taken from him. You may remember that Sarah was actually taken as a wife or concubine to Pharaoh and Abimelech, but that was not the case with Rebekah. Maybe she wasn’t as attractive as her mother-in-law, or maybe she was protected by God. We don’t know. All we are told is that Isaac’s deception was revealed after they had lived “a long time” in Gerar. The king saw him fondling or caressing Rebekah in a way that a brother should never caress a sister. Abimelech was angry at the deception, and he was angry about what could have been the result. He accuses Isaac of putting the city at risk because one of the men might have committed adultery with Rebekah.

            It is interesting that there appeared to be no concern that one of the men might have taken advantage sexually of an unmarried woman sojourning in Gerar, but the king was very concerned about adultery. This is another reminder that women in the ancient world belonged to men. Adultery was seen as a violation of property rights, not a matter of sexual morality. Once again, we are told nothing about the woman’s feelings in all this. Isaac had placed her at great risk rather than risking himself to protect her. Despite his evident affection for her, this is hardly the view of love given to us in the New Testament where a man should love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the church, giving up his own life for her sake.

            It is Abimelech who protects Rebekah, but it is not for her sake that he acts. He is afraid that the whole city will suffer if one of the men commits a crime. This may reflect Abimelech’s memory of the last time this happened, but most likely it is a reflection an ancient notion of guilt. Intention did not matter; only the actions themselves. And the guilt was applied to the whole community, not just the individual who had sinned. We see this same point of view in many of the Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus Rex, by the way.

Isaac’s Wells              After Abimelech ordered that Rebekah not be touched by any man, things went well for Isaac. Unlike Abraham, though, Isaac was not bribed by the king. He grew wealthy and powerful in Gerar because his crops did well. This is the first indication that the patriarchs were farmers as well as herdsmen, by the way. It is also an indication of just how long Isaac spent in the land of the Philistines. He had time to plant and harvest and grow wealthy. We could turn this chapter of Genesis into a story of the prosperity gospel: since Isaac was obedient, God made him prosper. But we have to remember that Isaac was also obedient when there was famine in the land. Prosperity is not proof that God has blessed someone.

            The focus of this story is on how Isaac dealt with his prosperity in Gerar. His neighbors were threatened by his success. We still see this today, don’t we? Rather than celebrating the success of businesses owned by immigrants, we feel threatened or jealous. We assume that someone else’s success harms us. At times, this may be the case. For instance, major retailers sometimes come into a community and depress prices so that the smaller businesses close. Sometimes individuals and businesses are competing for limited resources.

            In many parts of the world, water is one of those limited resources. So, we should not be too surprised that there was conflict between Isaac and the families in Gerar over water rights and wells. We had a very similar story earlier when Abraham and Abimelech fought over wells that Abraham had dug. In this version, Isaac gives into the demands of his neighbors and moves rather than fight. He dug several wells until he found room to live in peace with his neighbors. He named the last well he dug Rehoboth, which means ‘breathing room.” There are different ways to interpret this story. Some view Isaac as very weak and passive. Rather than defend himself, he just moves on. Many people have connected this passivity to his ordeal on Moriah.

            But we could view Isaac as a particularly strong character who knows that perpetual violence and conflict is no way to live with neighbors. It is unlikely that a weak and passive person would prosper in the ancient world the way Isaac did. He took action when he had to find food during the famine, and he took action in digging his wells. But he did not use violence to settle his dispute with Abimelech. It could be that Isaac was good and wise rather than weak. After all, he was a sojourner in the land of the Philistines. He was a guest rather than master, and he wanted to live in peace with his neighbors.

            What would have been accomplished had he responded violently to the provocations of the Philistines? At best, it would have been perpetual warfare. We have seen that half-a-century of warfare in the Middle East has not produced peace or security for the Israelis or Palestinians. Perhaps the example of Isaac finding room to live with his neighbors is a better example of wise policy than our American Westerns are.

Blessing:         In the end, Isaac settles in Beersheba, and we have yet another explanation of the name of that very important Israelite shrine. The story of Isaac and Abimelech ends with the king seeking out the son of Abraham and blessing him. It is a rather strange tale in context since Isaac has progressively moved away from Gerar. No reason is given for Abimelech deciding that Isaac was blessed by his God and worthy of praise. This may have originally been the end of the story of Rebekah as his sister, or there may have been another story that was lost. We know that something must have happened since the king came with army and chief of staff, which must have been quite frightening for Isaac.

            Abimelech decided that Isaac’s prosperity in the midst of adversity are evidence of God’s blessing. The key point is that Isaac was rewarded for taking the necessary steps to live in peace with his neighbors. He came to Gerar in the midst of famine but was able to prosper in peace. This peace was sealed with oaths and a feast. Perhaps some of our leaders should learn that compromise is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a biblical concept.

Overview of Jacob Saga:       Last week we discussed the prelude to the Jacob and Esau saga. We will be spending several weeks examining the story of Jacob in some detail, and it might be helpful to have an overview of that saga since it is one of the longest sections of Genesis (ch. 25-36). First of all, we should note that in many ways, it is Jacob, not Abraham who is the central figure in Genesis. Though Abraham was the great ancestor of faith who first answered the call of God, the tribes of Israel would be named for Jacob. Jacob experiences the most significant change of name in the Bible, going from Jacob (heel-grabber) to Israel, the one who strives with God. Jacob’s story is a story of striving and conflict. Unlike Isaac who moved repeatedly in order to avoid violence, Jacob struggles with everyone he encounters in the world. He struggles with Esau, his mother, his father, Laban, his wives, and even God himself. God will change his name to Israel, and it is a fitting name for Jacob the scrapper. Israel will be the name of the tribes who descended from Jacob. They will strive with God all well.

            The Jacob saga is made up of many different stories that probably came from a variety of sources that scholars refer to as J, E, and P, but the final version as we have it is a masterpiece of literature. It has been carefully assembled so that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts alone. There is a careful symmetry in the story. It begins with the conflict with Esau and Jacob’s flight from his family, and it ends with the reconciliation with Esau and Jacob’s return to Canaan with his own family. So we have an odyssey here. The main character leaves his home, but cannot return until he has completed his quest.

            When he returns he is both different and the same. During his odyssey, Jacob has two significant religious experiences. The first is his famous vision at Bethel when he sees the stairway to heaven. The second is his encounter with God at Peniel when he receives a new name as well as a limp. Each religious experience marks a significant transition in Jacob’s life while affirming that Jacob has been chosen by the LORD. In the middle of Jacob’s odyssey is his time in exile in Haran when he labored for Laban. The climax of his story is the birth of his 12 sons as the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham.

              It appears that the Jacob stories originated in the North, with the 10 northern tribes of Israel. The Abraham and Isaac stories are more closely associated with the southern kingdom of Judah. We can tell this in part from the place names. Beersheba is the key shrine for the Abraham stories, while Bethel is the main shrine in the north. We don’t have time to go into the whole history of Israel here, but it is helpful to remember that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The most important tribe was Judah, and that tribe established a separate kingdom after the death of Solomon. It is from Judah that we get the words Judaism, Jew, and Judea. Judah lasted longer as a kingdom than Israel did, and it was in Judah that the Old Testament as we know it was written. Most of the time when we think of Israel, we are thinking of Judah.

            The ten northern tribes disappeared after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721, but they were very important. The kingdom of Israel was different from Judah. In many ways, it was wealthier and more powerful, but it was also less stable. The prophets played a key role in the politics of the north, occasionally even anointing warriors to overthrow the king. The north was never as unified as Judah was, and its holy places were destroyed. The Samaritans were the descendents of Israel and maintained some of the old religion of the Israelites. As we can see in the New Testament, there was conflict between Jews and Samaritans for centuries. Some of that conflict is reflected in the Jacob saga. The complexity of the Jacob saga and the moral ambiguity of its main character reflect the complexity and ambiguity of human society itself. One reason Jacob is so compelling is that he is so much like us. His struggles with God mirror our own struggles with God. And in the final analysis, the major religious point of the Jacob saga appears to be profoundly simple. God chose Jacob despite his flaws rather than because of his strengths. And that may be the message for us as well. We are chosen for reasons we cannot fathom and despite our unworthiness. Though we struggle, God remains faithful to us. Next week we’ll look at Gen. 27.


Genesis – Lesson 27 Isaac and Rebekah

Genesis 25 – Isaac and Rebekah

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast on April 30, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Synod: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I learned last week from some of the divinity school students that you can sing Amazing Grace to the tune of House of the Rising Sun. We did that in a chapel led by a Moravian student. In addition to reading final exams and papers last week, I was at the synod of the Southern Province at Black Mountain. There was a wonderful sense of joy at this synod that contrasted with the synod of 2002. All in all, this synod was a celebration of the good gifts of the Moravian Church, including plain old common sense and a desire to make the world a better place. I am very hopeful about the next four years and eager to get to work to strengthen the Moravian witness. I should mention that we also approved the preparation of a “Shorter Moravian Hymnal,” which sounds to me like it will be a hymnal for shorter Moravians. I do hope that it includes the Even Shorter Church Litany. Someone at synod suggested that we could use shortbread for love feasts.

Abraham’s Other Children                That’s probably enough about church matters. You’ll be hearing more about the results of synod in the weeks and months to come, I’m sure. Let’s turn our attention back to the book of Genesis. This week we come to the death of Abraham. We’ve taken a long journey with Abraham since the New Year, and now his story comes to an end. Many commentators believe that our lesson for last week implied that Abraham died shortly before the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. That certainly makes sense in the story since Abraham is absent at the end when Rebekah arrives. If that is the case, then the report of Abraham’s descendents by Keturah and his burial is a bit out of place here in Genesis.

That should not bother us too much. A good storyteller knows that you don’t interrupt the story to give a lot of extraneous details. The author of Genesis waited until Isaac had a wife and a future before telling us that Abraham had several children by a third wife, or a concubine if you prefer. This wife and children were simply not important for the main story, and we learn that they did not inherit Abraham’s property and status. Readers have been very critical of Abraham for having more than one wife and for treating these children different than Isaac, but that was the custom for many centuries. What is surprising is that the Bible names these children and reminds us that there were many descendents of Abraham who were not Israelites.

The most important name in this list is Midian. In Exodus, an Egyptian named Moses flees to the Sinai Peninsula. There he is taken in by a priest named Jethro, who is a Midianite. Moses marries Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and it is while he is living with the Midianites that Moses encounters the Burning Bush and hears the voice of God. It seems clear from the Exodus account that the Midianites knew and worshiped the God of Abraham even when the Israelites in Egypt did not. We do not know much about these Midianites, but the evidence from Genesis and Exodus indicates that they were worshipers of the LORD even though they were not part of Israel. This is another indication that the Old Testament has more universal scope than you may have thought.

The Death of Abraham          There is another interesting aspect of this story of the death and burial of Abraham. According to Genesis, Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father. This is one of those things that I had overlooked my entire life until I was preparing this lesson. Abraham had driven Ishmael and Hagar away, but it was not a permanent exile. After the death of Sarah, Abraham and Ishmael appear to have reconciled. We learn that Ishmael himself was the father of 12 Arab tribes, just as Jacob would be father of 12 tribes. Abraham gave his son gifts before he died, and the two brothers were united again.

            We see this in our world today, do we not? How many times have estranged brothers, sisters, cousins, and others come together for the funeral? How many funerals will it take for Arabs and Israelis to recognize they are brothers and sisters? How many funerals until we recognize our neighbors and our enemies as brothers and sisters? 

Isaac               It is interesting that the story of Isaac moves immediately into this story of the struggle between Esau and Jacob. As soon as the birth is announced to the reader, we see the boys grown up and discussing dinner. Unlike Abraham and Jacob, we have no stories of Isaac when he is neither father nor son. This may simply indicate that Isaac didn’t do much in his life that merited stories. He simply did what men are supposed to do. He loved his wife, took care of his family, and built for the future. But he was overshadowed by others. It is hard to be the child of a great person, especially when that person places his hopes on you. It may be even harder to have a son who breaks the mold that you have prepared for him, which is what Jacob did. The fact remains, though, that we know little of Isaac other than as a son and a father. Perhaps Esau’s people recorded stories that were lost to the descendents of Jacob. Perhaps Esau heard his father laugh more than Jacob did. We will never know.

Rebekah’s Children               A new chapter in the history of Israel begins with the statement that Isaac’s wife Rebekah conceived. I’m not sure that there is any news in our lives that is more emotional than the news that someone is pregnant. My niece Jody just gave birth to her third child, named Caitlin Faith, by the way, so this is in my mind. Nothing changes your life like a having children. Pregnancies are never routine or ordinary. Even in the days when women had a dozen or more children, each pregnancy was a combination of joy and fear. The Bible relates several stories of pregnancy and birth, many of which begin with a barren woman. Each one is significant. Each one reminds us that the history of salvation includes women as agents of salvation. The Bible is not just a story about men. Each pregnancy story reminds us that our lives are connected to the lives of those ancient women who knew the same joy and terror we feel. These things are particularly true in the story of Rebekah.

            We hear that Isaac’s wife is pregnant, and we know that this is a good thing. We know that Isaac prayed for this event. Unlike his father who had to wait decades for the promise of descendents to be fulfilled, Isaac will see his children grow up. We can imagine the rejoicing that greeted the news that Rebekah had conceived, but we soon learn that this was an unusually difficult pregnancy. There were two children being created in the womb; two eggs growing into the form of human beings; two nations struggling against one another even before the patriarchs received the breath of life.

            For thousands of years, twins have fascinated and even terrified humans. In some tribal societies, twins were not accepted as genuine human beings. They were considered unnatural and even dangerous. In other societies, twins are sacred and almost magical. Whether revered or feared, twins were something special because they seemed to violate the natural order. They also confused the family hierarchy in which the oldest has the highest status. Should the first born twin inherit more than the child born just minutes later? Even in our modern society, twins will tease about which is the oldest as if that gives some priority. And in our society we are still intrigued by the phenomena of two infants emerging from one womb. So, this little statement in Genesis that Rebekah was pregnant with twins continues to resonate with us. We know that something special is about to happen in this story. These twins were struggling with each other before they even drew the breath of life, and we will see that the struggle continued.

Read: Genesis 25:21-34

Jacob and Esau          We expect twins to share many things in common, more than other siblings, but these two were quite different from each other. They were fraternal rather than identical twins. The first born was ruddy and hairy. You may have seen babies like this. Clearly this baby was healthy, if not  beautiful. I am reminded here of Bishop Schwartze who was very honest. He never wanted to offend a parent, but he also did not ever want to lie. So when people showed him their baby, he would also just say, “Now, that’s a baby!” I suspect that’s what people said of Esau: that’s a baby!

One of the major features of Genesis is that many stories tell the origin of names. This is called etiology by the way. We need to use words like that to prove that we went to seminary. The descendents of Esau were called Edomites, and Edom means red. The storyteller is trying to explain why this tribe was called red by connecting the name to Esau, but modern scholars think the name Edom probably had more to do with the color of the land in that region rather than the color of their ancestor. But I’ve always liked the red baby story.

The key point about the names of the babies, though, is that the twins were radically different. The biblical writer used an economy of words to paint a vivid picture of two types of manhood. Esau was a robust and hairy man, but Jacob was fair skinned. Esau was a manly man who liked the kill things, but Jacob was a momma’s boy: the bearded hunter and the pale scholar. Jacob and Esua are what scholars call archetypes – basic types that run throughout human literature and mythology. We still respond to these archetypes don’t we? If you are a Tolkien fan, you can see Esau and Jacob in Boromir and Faramir, or if you prefer Mario Puzo, think of Sonny and Michael Corleone. 

Supplanting Esau:                  We expect that Esau will be the patriarch of the family. He is the oldest, the healthiest, and the bravest, but he always has a younger brother grasping his heel. Jacob may be pale and cling to his mother’s skirts, but Jacob will supplant his brother. Genesis reminds us that the struggle of life takes place even within families, even among brothers. In this case, the younger, weaker brother will prove to be the most cunning and courageous. Genesis 25 ends with one of the shortest and yet most haunting stories in the Bible. This famous story of the lentils seems to be disconnected from the rest of the story of Jacob. It separated from the rest of the story of Jacob by an entire chapter about Isaac and Abimelech, and later there is no indication that Esau had given away his birthright.

            There have been many attempts to reconcile the problems raised by this story of the stew in the context of the Jacob-Esau saga, but none of them really work. What we have here is an ancient tale from a different tradition than the rest of the Jacob saga. We talk about this more in a couple of weeks. For now, we should note that even though the tale of the lentil stew is confusing within the larger story, we can see that the writer of Genesis included it here as a way to foreshadow the great saga that follows. In Gen. 25, we see Jacob and Esau as teen-agers. It is doubtful that this selling of the birthright was ever taken seriously as a legal bargain. I would not be surprised if this was not originally told as a funny story, much like other family stories. Tell us about the time that uncle Esau was so hungry that he “traded” his birthright for daddy’s stew.  I can even imagine folks saying, “wow, that lentil chili was good enough to sell your birthright for.”

            Like many family stories we tell today, this story reveals something about the two boys. Esau, the manly man, was too physical, and his appetites, as Augustine pointed out, were too strong. He was ruled by his body and its immediate wants and needs. Esau was stupid or unworthy to rule the family. We know that he became a mighty prince, but even in his greatness he was foolish. He was like many men and women today whose desires lead them to make very bad decisions. We like Esau and can understand him even as we criticize him for acting like a hungry bear.

            It is Jacob who haunts me in this story. If I were to make a movie of this, I would focus attention on Jacob’s eyes as he hands the stew to his brother: cold, cunning, pitiless eyes. At an early age, Jacob was shrewd enough to recognize his brother’s weaknesses and exploit them. Rather than acting in compassion, as a brother should, Jacob was selfish. But his saga is just beginning. Next wee we’ll continue with Isaac and Jacob.

John 10 (cont.) The Messiah?

John 10:22-42 “Are You the One?”

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 13, 2007

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Happy Mothers’ Day to mothers of all kinds. We read Comenius’ School of Motherhood in class recently and I highly recommend it for mothers and fathers. Let me give a shout out to Elizabeth Atwood who will be enjoying a Sunday lunch with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren after church. Today is Youth Sunday here at Home Church, and the youth have worked hard preparing for worship. I’m sure we will have many proud mothers in worship. Next week is Confirmation and so the youth have been meeting with pastors all week to discuss their faith. Apparently Sarah Atwood was more than usually loquacious in her conversation with Gerry. She claims it was the Cherry Coke talking.

Messianic Expectations        This week we are continuing in our study of John, ch. 10. Our lesson for today takes place during Hanukah. As we discussed earlier, Hanukah is about the rebellion of Judas Maccabeus against the Greek dynasty that ruled Judea in the 2nd century BC. Messianic expectations would have been high during the eight days of the festival, especially for those Jews who believed that the Romans were as oppressive as the Greeks had been. In John’s telling of the life of Jesus, there has been growing anxiety about who Jesus was, especially whether he was the Messiah. We saw that the very first miracle, changing water into wine, had messianic overtones. Speculation has been increasing since he healed the man born blind, and Jesus’ arguments with the religious authorities have grown more intense.

            At the Hanukah festival, the crowds ask Jesus open whether he is the One. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they ask. The literal translation here is interesting: “How long will you take away our breath (or life)?” We don’t know for sure that this was an idiom for keeping someone in suspense, but that is the way it is usually translated. I think John wants us to picture the people afraid to breathe until they know what is going to happen. The future is in the balance, tensions are rising. Is this the climatic end of history or another disappointment in the making? Are you the One to come?

Parallels to Synoptics            There are strong parallels between this scene in John and the trial of Jesus as presented in Luke 22 and Mark 14. In the synoptic gospels, it is the high priest who asks Jesus to state plainly whether he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed”. I think that John’s account makes sense because such questions would have been asked of Jesus long before he was arrested. The charges brought against him during the trial like summaries of complaints rather than new charges. People did not wake up on Palm Sunday and say, “That chap on the donkey sure looks like he might be the Messiah. Let’s arrest him.” I think it makes more sense that both the support for Jesus and the opposition to Jesus grew over a period of several months in Jerusalem, similar to how John describes it.

            One thing that is interesting in this scene is that the crowd asks Jesus to tell them “plainly” whether he is the Messiah. Like many of us, the crowd was getting tired of parables and metaphorical language about good shepherds, the bread of life, the water of life, and so forth. We have seen that much of the Gospel of John is about Jesus as the Messiah and fulfillment of the hopes of the old covenant, but rarely was this stated plainly. Even the most direct statements about the identity of Jesus have been cryptic and poetic. “Before Abraham I am.” “The Word became flesh.” John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and called him the Lamb of God, but he did not say, “Look, there is the Messiah!”

            So far in the Gospel, the only person to whom Jesus directly said that he was the Messiah was the Samaritan woman. She said that she knew a Messiah was coming, and Jesus told her that he was that person. John’s Gospel leaves the reader in much the same situation as the original audience of Jesus. We are left with questions that we must answer in our own lives. “Is Jesus the One?” If he is the Messiah, what does this mean?

Read: John 10:22-42            

The Christ?                There is no doubt the earliest Christian proclamation about Jesus of Nazareth was that he was the Jewish Messiah. The earliest Christian sources use the word Christ as a personal name for Jesus. Throughout the NT, Jesus is called Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. Christ is simply the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Messiah, in turn, means anointed. It is probably best that we do not translate Christ into English, otherwise Jesus would be called the anointed, or the oily one.

            The synoptic gospels all go to lengths to demonstrate that Jesus was legitimately the Jewish Messiah. They give dozens of quotations from the OT to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Luke and Matthew both try to show that Jesus was a direct descendent of King David, even though their genealogies diverge. The climax of Mark’s gospel comes when Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ. In all four gospels, the question of Jesus’ Messiah-ship is the central issue at his trials before the priests and before Pilate.

            Why didn’t Jesus just walk into town and announce that he was the King of the Jews? Part of the answer is probably practical and political. He would either be ridiculed or arrested. However, part of the answer may be because Jesus knew that the people had the wrong idea of the Messiah. They were looking for David the warrior, for Joshua the killer of Canaanites. What they got was David the poet, Moses the lawgiver, Solomon the sage. They were looking for someone like Muhammad who raise an army and seize power. Instead they got someone who spoke in metaphors and invited outsiders to sit at the table. They were looking for victory. Instead they got a Messiah who would lay down his life for the sheep.

Shepherd-Messiah     Here in John’s gospel the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah flows naturally from the discourses about the Good Shepherd. The kings of Israel were often referred to as shepherds, and David, who had been a shepherd as a boy, was the exemplar of the kings. David was the founder of the dynasty that ruled the Kingdom of Judah until it was conquered by Babylon in 587 BC. The Jewish messianic expectation was that a descendent of David would arise and reclaim the throne of David in the city of Jerusalem. Like the original David, the Messiah could be an obscure person anointed by God. People in the crowd naturally assumed that when Jesus was comparing himself as the Good Shepherd who would rule his people, he was claiming the role of successor of King David. It is possible that Jesus did not claim the title of Messiah for himself precisely because the Jewish Messiah was expected to be a conquering king like David– one who takes life rather than one who gives life..

You Didn’t Believe:   So, the people are agitated and confused. Are you or aren’t you the One? Jesus replied that he had already told them the answer. This is remarkable because no where in the Gospel of John has Jesus told the people of Jerusalem anything about his being the Messiah. How could he say “I have told you and you do not believe” when he has not told them? We need to read further to find the answer. “The works that I am doing in my Father’s name give testimony for me.” We have a similar story in the other gospels, but there it is the followers of John the Baptist who ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. He tells them to tell John about the works he has done. He has healed the sick, brought good news to the poor, and proclaimed release to the captives.

            The works that Jesus had done testified to his identity as the true Messiah. The reader is asked to recall the signs and wonders that Jesus has done in the Book of Signs and ponder the deeper meaning of his teachings. He has turned water into wine, multiplied food in the desert, healed a dying child, made the crippled walk, opened the eyes of the blind, and walked on water. He has given words of hope and life to Nicodemus at night, called the disciples together, brought the Samaritans into the kingdom of God, and cleansed the Temple. He has been revealed as Moses, Elijah, and now David, the Good Shepherd.

Hearing the Voice of the Shepherd               In response to the question “are you the one,” Jesus also returns to the theme of the Good Shepherd. His sheep know if he is the one. His sheep do not need to ask that question. They know in their hearts that he is the one sent from God. It is those who have distanced themselves from God who have to ask the question. They could not believe that a wandering sage in ragged robes could be the Messiah. Just think how strange the message of Christianity must have sounded in the 1st century. Someone executed by the Roman Empire was the Messiah sent by God to save his people?

Followers are protected         Jesus moves quickly from the question of his identity as the Good Shepherd to assurances that his followers have eternal life and will never perish. This should not be overlooked in the heat of metaphysical arguments about the divinity of Jesus. Those who belong to the shepherd will have life and not be destroyed. The assurance that is given to the sheep of Jesus here is similar to that given by Paul. Nothing, neither angels powers or principalities can snatch God’s flock from the hand of Jesus. The focus here is not only the power of the sheep to persevere; it is on the power of the shepherd to protect and nurture them. The sheep of Jesus do not fear because they know their lives belong to God. This was written to comfort Christians who had been kicked out of the synagogue or who faced persecution from the pagans. The followers of the Son cannot be snatched from the hand of the Father because the Father and the Son are One.

Blasphemy?    John 10:30 is one of the most important verses in the history of Christian doctrine. Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” This theme runs throughout the Gospel of John, and is particularly strong in the final prayer of Jesus. The Son does not proclaim himself to be the Son of God or the Messiah; it is the Father who witnesses to him through his mighty works. The Son is the Son because he does the will of the Father. According to John, Jesus’ opponents picked up stones in response to his claim that he and the Father were one. It is perhaps intentionally ironic that Jesus does not use the name of God here, which would have been blasphemy, but his opponents do so.

            Incidentally, being stoned in the Bible is a little different from being stoned in modern America, although both can leave you crippled or dead. Jesus’ question is a good one for us. There is a scene in the movie Life of Brian where a man is about to be stoned for saying the name Jehovah. Before the stoning starts he repeatedly shouts the word Jehovah. When the priest warns him that he is only making it harder on himself, he points out that he is going to be stoned. How could it be worse? The crowd is so primed for the stoning that when the priest reads out the man’s crime, the crowd hurls stones at the priest for saying Jehovah. It is a humorous scene that is based in part on this passage in John.

            John is describing a situation in which those who were not of the flock of Jesus respond to his teaching with violence. The violence in the Gospel of John is primarily directed at Jesus by those who reject his teaching. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is a healer, teacher, and shepherd. It is those who feel their power and authority being threatened who resort to threats and violence. I think John raises an important question: Is it not the greatest blasphemy of all to invoke the name of the Lord God when taking human lives? Jesus stops the impending stoning by asking a question that cuts to the heart of the matter. What is he being attacked for? For doing good things? If the works are good, they must come from the Father in heaven. Then why is wrong to claim unity between the Father and the one who does the Father’s works?

You are Gods             Verses 36-38 are a little obscure for us today, but modern scholars have determined that John has given a good example of 1st century Jewish biblical interpretation. Jesus defends himself from the charge of blasphemy by quoting Psalm 82:6 in which the judges of Israel are called “gods; sons of the Most High.” We cannot go into detail on this issue, but the judges of Israel were like gods because they had to judge as God judges. They were representatives of God in the legal system, even though they were imperfect.

            These verses in the Psalm and John remains a bit shocking for modern readers accustomed to the idea that only the Lord should be called “god.” There is a debate among scholars over whether it was John or Jesus who made this argument from Scripture, but the main point is clear. It could not be blasphemy to call Jesus God if other humans had been called gods in the past. Even by the Jewish law, which his opponents claimed to uphold, it would be unjust to stone Jesus for saying that he is God’s Son.

            It remains a point of debate nearly two thousand years later whether Jesus was here claiming to be the unique Son of God. John 10:22-38 played an important role in the development of Christian teaching on the Trinity. We don’t have time this morning for the history of the Council of Nicea, but opposing sides in doctrinal disputes quoted from this passage. Jesus’ self-defense against blasphemy can be interpreted as evidence that he did not claim to be uniquely divine. On the other hand, some early Christian theologians took the statement that Jesus and the Father are One being to such an extreme that there was no distinction between Father and Son. Arius argued that since the Father sanctified and sent the Son into the world, the Son must be a creature of God rather than God himself. Both views were condemned by several church councils. What is clear that the Gospel of John teaches that Jesus was so intimately connected with the Creator that his works and God’s works were the same. The Father was in the Son and the Son in the Father. If that is too hard to believe, John says, then at least believe in the life-giving work of the Son as a work of the Father.

Escape            The end of ch. 10 is Jesus’ most direct confrontation with the religious authorities who were opposed to him. The chapter ends with their attempt to arrest Jesus, which fails once again. This time no explanation is given for how he eluded his captors, but Jesus leaves Jerusalem and goes to the Jordan River, where John had been baptizing before he was murdered. It is a symbolic journey. Chapter 10 ends with a return to the beginning of the Book of Signs: the witness of John the Baptist to the Lamb of God. When Jesus returns to Jerusalem in ch. 12, it will be as the Paschal Lamb who will be sacrificed by the high priests. But we are left with the basic question of the Gospel. Is Jesus the One expected? Do you believe and will you follow the Lamb of God?  Next week we will look at the climatic end of the first part of John’s Gospel.           

Genesis Lesson 26 – Isaac

Genesis 22 – The Binding of Isaac

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Palm Sunday, April 9, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you. Last weekend I enjoyed seeing the side-walks covered in pink cherry blossoms that swirled in the spring winds. Even something as ugly as concrete can become so beautiful that you stop and just admire. Today is Palm Sunday, and tonight we begin our week-long journey through the final week of Jesus’ life. Next Sunday at 6 a.m. we will celebrate the resurrection on God’s Acre in Salem. I hope you will join us. Lots of other churches have “Easter Sunrise” services these days, but most of them gather at 8 or 9 o’clock. If you don’t see the sun rise, it doesn’t count as a sunrise service. So, come on down to Old Salem and join your voice to those who will shout: “The Lord is Risen Indeed!” Next week we will not have a Bible lesson, but tune in to hear Moravian Easter music.

Fear and Trembling:              This week we are turning our attention to a story that has traditionally been seen as prefiguring or fore-shadowing of the Easter story. Before reading Genesis 22, I want to share with you some thoughts from Soren Kierkegaard’s work Fear and Trembling (p. 63)  . Kierkegaard warned about the tendency of pastors to preach this text too easily, too quickly. “One mounts a winged horse, the same instant one is at Mount Moriah, the same instant one sees the ram; one forgets that Abraham rode only upon an ass, which walks slowly along the road, that he had a journey of three days, that he needed some time to cleave the wood, to bind Isaac, and to sharpen the knife. And yet they extol Abraham. He who is to deliver the discourse can very well sleep till a quarter of an hour before he has to preach, the auditor can well take a nap during the discourse, for all goes smoothly, without the least trouble from any quarter.” Being mindful of Kierkegaard’s admonition, today we will take the slow road to Moriah, and we will find that the path is dreadful. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard, will find that that true faith lies on the other side of despair.

Child Sacrifice:           In Genesis 22, God demands that Abraham offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. You have probably heard this story before, maybe even in Sunday School, but it can be a dangerous story if mishandled. All powerful things, including the Bible, can be destructive if used carelessly. I find it harder to preach on this text than I did when I was a younger man. All you have to do is read the newspapers to know what parents are capable of. I know that you have at times cried when you learned of the death of a child that was caused by a parent’s neglect, anger, abuse, or insanity. Now that I am older and know more about the evil of the world, I am wary when I speak on passages like Genesis 22. There are those who hear voices in their heads urging them to imitate Abraham or Jephtha and kill their children. It is not just the insane or the evil who justify their crimes with stories such as this. It is also politicians and zealots who sacrifice young men and women in senseless wars; who ignore the deaths of children when they drop their bombs or blow themselves up. Today, it is too easy to sacrifice children to whatever god we truly worship, whether it be greed or pride or fear. Let us pause to remember all of the children who have been sacrificed blasphemously, and let us proceed with our lesson in fear and trembling.

Read Genesis 22

Strangeness:              Like many great stories, Genesis 22 is both compelling and frightening. It captures our imaginations and speaks to primal fears and desires. Walter Bruggemann describes it as “among the best known and theologically most demanding in the Abraham tradition” (Genesis, 185). He could have gone further and said that it is one of the best known and most demanding stories in the Bible itself, perhaps in Western literature. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin wrestled with this text because it both confirmed and shattered their theological ideas. For Luther, this passage revealed a contradiction in God himself. God willed that which he otherwise forbade and took back that which he had promised.

            If you have been following our lessons in Genesis, you know that Isaac was not just any child. He was the child of the promise. He was the reason Abraham had left all that he knew in Ur and became a wanderer in Canaan. Isaac was the proof that God was faithful to his promises to Abraham. Isaac, the laughing boy, was the future, but God demanded that Abraham kill this child of promise. And Abraham agreed to God’s demand. Which is the most terrifying?

End of Child Sacrifice:           Genesis 22 was almost certainly written after the destruction of the Jewish temple, when the people were taken into exile. It is part of the struggle to make sense of the fact that the God of Abraham had let his beloved child, Israel, be abused by the Babylonians. We can read this story in terms of the debate among the priests and prophets of Israel over the meaning of the exile. Would God destroy Israel or provide a way out? In contemplating the smoke rising from Auschwitz, the story of the binding of Isaac as a burnt sacrifice gained new poignancy in the 20th century.

            In reading Genesis 22, we need to keep in mind that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac. He intended to, but Isaac survived the ordeal. For over a century, historians of religion have argued that this story marked the transition from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. The ram substitutes for the first-born son. We know other ancient societies sacrificed children to appease the gods, but the Bible consistently forbids this. The God of Abraham rejected human sacrifice for all time, just as the God of Noah placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his covenant with the earth. The God of Israel may have been frightening, but he was always the faithful partner in the covenant. It was the God of Abraham who provided the world a moral law that protects the weak.

Dread:                        On one level I am content to view this story as an ancient memory of the time when animal sacrifice replaced human sacrifice. But that doesn’t do justice to the story itself. It is one of the most artfully crafted stories ever written. It is a story that invites us to explore the complexities and difficulties of life and morality. Kierkegaard captures the strangeness and difficulty of this text succinctly: “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac, but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread.” (41) Rather than give a simple catechism answer to this tale as a story of faithful obedience, let’s enter into this dreadful story.

            It begins with the simple statement that God tested Abraham. The Hebrew word for tested is translated elsewhere as tempted. God tempted Abraham. Does God test Abraham’s faith or does he tempt Abraham into doing something abominable? Or is it both? This gives an interesting perspective on the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray to God that he not lead us into temptation, we should think of Abraham. We pray that we never be put through the ordeal that Abraham faced; the ordeal of having to choose between our obedience to God and our obedience to God’s moral law; between our love for God and our love for our children.

            The testing begins with God’s call, just as God called upon Abraham to leave Ur. Abraham responds “Here I am.” Abraham does not hide from the deity who has called him by name. His reply is a prophetic response; a placing of oneself at the hands of God to be used by God. “Here I am!” I am ready, willing, and able. Abraham does not yet dread the demands of God, but then he heard the words, “Take your son, whom you love.”

Beloved Son:              The translator Stephen Mitchell argues that the Hebrew here should not be translated “your only son,” as in most English versions. Isaac is not his only son, but he is the beloved son, the son of the promise. This emphasis on Isaac as the beloved is more than a way to heighten the drama of the story. We who hear this tale need to be assured at the beginning that Abraham loves Isaac. Love means that we protect our children; that we do everything in our power to bring them to adulthood; that we nurture them and care for them. Abraham loved Isaac. He wanted him to grow up, get married, and have children. He not want him to die.

            The whole meaning of Abraham’s life was bound up with Isaac. Isaac was the proof that God kept his promises. Isaac was the child of the promise, the hope for the future, the living embodiment of Abraham’s hopes and dreams. Genesis does not tell us if Abraham loved Sarah or Hagar or anyone else, but it does say that he loved Isaac. This fact separates this story from all of those horrifying tales of child abuse and murder. Abraham loved Isaac as much as he loved himself – as much as he loved God.

            Many Muslim scholars believe that the beloved child in this story was Ishmael, the first born, which would make sense. It was ancient practice to offer the first-born as a sacrifice to God. We see this in the Exodus story when the Angel kills the first-born sons of the Egyptians but accepts the sacrifice of a lamb in exchange for the Israelite sons. In Genesis, though, Abraham has already given Ishmael up at the request of Sarah. So it will be Sarah’s son who is to be sacrificed. Isaac, the one she doted on, is to be slaughtered and burned as a offering to God. Abraham left while it was dark, perhaps so Sarah would not see him take the boy away from her. But perhaps she did know and spent the night in anguish. Perhaps this was her penance for sending Ishmael away, but this is not Sarah’s story. It is Isaac and Abrahams: father and son.

The Dreadful Journey:          We do not know how old Isaac was, but he seems to be about the age of puberty. Some see this journey to Moriah as part of an ancient puberty ritual. We no longer know for sure. All we are told is that Abraham listened to God’s command. Without complaint, he prepared for the journey. What was he thinking as he saddled the donkey and cut the wood for the fire that would consume his son, his future, his faith, and his life? Three days they walked to the sacred mountain. Three days of dread and silence. Three days without laughter; without tears; without prayer. Three days of anguish.

            Finally they see the sacred mountain. They leave the servants behind so that no one will see the heinous crime. Isaac has to carry the wood for his own offering because the father carried the knife and the fire. Abraham carried death and destruction as they walked. Finally, Isaac speaks. He will not be like the lamb led to slaughter who does not open his mouth, but he does ask the question of innocence: “Father?” Father – a reminder to Abraham of his responsibilities and his joys. How many of us have asked that same one word question? Father?

            Abraham responded to his son just as he responded to the Lord. “Here I am.” But the meaning of these words have changed. Now the words are filled with sorrow, with the silent tears of a shattered heart. No longer words of willing faith. Now they are laden with tragedy and dread. Yes, I am your father, for a little while. You are my precious child. Here I am, my son.

Provision:       Isaac, the lamb trusting his father, asks: “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” God will provide, is the answer. Interpreters disagree on the meaning of this. Is Abraham deceiving Isaac until the critical moment? Is this a statement of faith that God will provide a way out of this test? Could it be that Abraham has faith that God will overcome this contradiction in himself and provide a way? Some assert that it was not God testing Abraham in this story; it is Abraham who is testing God. Abraham is telling Isaac that God will surely change his mind. God will be faithful to his promise. God will prove worthy of Abraham’s devotion and sacrifice. God himself will provide the lamb.

            This story is remembered differently in Islam. The child was also a prophet who knows that he will be sacrificed. He willingly submits to the will of God and the will of his father. It is the son who willingly carries the wood and offers his throat to the knife. Perhaps.

            There is an ancient Jewish legend that Abraham looked down at the face of his son as he raised the knife. A tear fell from the old man’s eye. A single tear that encompassed all of the misery of Abraham’s shattered life and his impossible choice. The tear fell into Isaac’s eye, blinding the boy. This was why Isaac could not see well later in life. He remained blinded by the grief of his father. We are not told what effect this terrifying episode had on Isaac as a person, but we do learn that Isaac’s name for God was simply Fear. The Fear of Isaac.

The Ram:       And in the moment of crisis, the LORD spoke. He called Abraham’s name twice, and yet again, Abraham responds with those words “Here I am.” Again, the meaning of these words has changed. Does Abraham respond in fear, in resignation, in anger, or in hope? You decide. This is the last time in the Bible that Abraham speaks to the LORD. We do not know if God ever called his name again, but we have no more stories of Abraham saying “here I am.” One senses that Abraham said “Enough.” He made the final sacrifice. He had offered his son, whom he loved to the LORD. Abraham passed the test, or perhaps God passed the test. Enough.

            Abraham looked up and saw a ram to sacrifice instead of his son, and he named the place Jehovah Jireh: the LORD will provide or the LORD sees. Remember that the word provide comes from the Latin pro-video, or to look ahead. The LORD saw what Abraham was doing and he provided a way out of the crisis. As with the miracle of Hagar’s well, miracles are often a matter of seeing the solution that has always been there.

Making Sense of the Story:              And here we are on this beautiful Sunday morning preparing to sing to the Hosanna in worship. We have taken the dreadful journey with Abraham and Isaac to Moriah, but what sense do we make of this story? We could talk about our lives today as we ruthlessly sacrifice our children’s happiness to our ambitions, our over-work, and our selfish neglect. But that doesn’t fit this story from Genesis. Abraham was sacrificing his hopes and ambitions along with Isaac.

            We could interpret this story as an example of absolute obedience to the will of God, but is that all it is? We could conclude that this is about the test of faith, but what was the test? That Abraham believed that God would indeed provide a substitute for Isaac? That Abraham would murder his son at God’s command? Or that God would remain faithful to the covenant?

            Perhaps this is a story about idolatry and the need to achieve that perfect state of renunciation and detachment that the mystics speak of. If we speak of detachment, though, we must remember that means sacrificing all the things of this world; it means selflessness, which is different from the selfish way we sacrifice our children. When we face the dreadful journey to Moriah and come to the point of desperation, then we learn to distinguish between the renunciation of faith and the detachment of narcissism.

            What message or messages does this story of human sacrifice from ancient days have for us today? I am not sure, but as we approach Good Friday, we should ponder the mystery of the testing of Abraham as we contemplate the death of Jesus. According to Christian teaching, God demanded of himself what he once asked of Abraham. The tear that blinded the eye of Isaac of Moriah fell from the eye of God. Next week we will gather before dawn to proclaim the good news that death has been overcome.  

I Samuel 14: Jonathan the Bold

I Samuel 14: Jonathan the Bold – The Adult Bible Class of Home Church,

originally broadcast May 11, 2008 by Craig Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Happy Mothers Day and Happy Pentecost! It is rare that Pentecost falls on Mothers’ Day, but Easter was very early this year. Pentecost is a day in the church calendar when we especially worship the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. You may wonder if there is any connection between the two observances, and believe it or not, there is. 250 years ago, Moravians around the world observed Pentecost as a special time to honor the Holy Spirit as the Mother of the Church. The Holy Spirit cares for us, provides spiritual food for us, comforts us, and teaches us much like an earthly mother. Moravian missionaries found it was much easier to teach tribal peoples about the Trinity by telling them about God as the Father, God as the Savior, and God as the Mother. According to John’s Gospel, people must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God, and Count Zinzendorf pointed out that we are born from a mother. It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of rebirth. So, the old Moravians wrote lots of liturgies and hymns to worship the Holy Spirit as the true mother of Christians, and Pentecost was a particularly important day to celebrate the maternal aspects of God. From this perspective, it is appropriate that Mothers Day and Pentecost fall on the same day this year.

It was a tough week in the world. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the thousands who lost loved ones in Burma and the millions without homes. Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists are united in their effort to help the survivors. Disaster on this scale is almost unimaginable, but if the predictions are accurate, the coming century will see more and more severe storms as the earth’s temperature rises. We need to deal with the immediate crisis, but we also need to address global warming. I heard someone recently proclaim that he does not believe in global warming, but it does not matter if you believe or not. The earth is getting hotter and we must do something about. As for me, I believe in God, and I believe God expects us to be stewards of creation.

Closer to home, I spent most of the week grading papers for a course I taught on Moravian theology, which was very interesting for me. I think the Baptists in the class understood Moravian theology better than the Moravians, but don’t tell anyone I said that. Congratulations to the students from North Carolina who graduated from Moravian Seminary yesterday. Graduation at Wake is next week, and I will be the speaker for the hooding ceremony at the Divinity School on Saturday. I hope the Comenius patrons will join us. 

Jonathan            In our lesson for this week from I Samuel we meet Jonathan for the first time. Jonathan was the son of Saul, and he is one of the most attractive figures in the Old Testament. He was young and bold, and could inspire great loyalty in his men. The first time we meet Jonathan is during the insurgency against the Philistines. The Israelites had established their military camp on one side of a deep gulley, the wadi es-swenit, in the region of Geba. The enemy was on the other side, with their headquarters at Michmash. Last week we read how the Israelites hid from the superior Philistine force. This week we’ll read how Jonathan decided to take the battle to the enemy, much like George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. Instead of crossing the Delaware River, though, Jonathan crossed the treacherous wadi es-swenit.

Read: I Samuel 14:1-17

Saul and the Priest                        The story opens with Saul sitting under a pomegranate tree with his elite forces. He is not being portrayed as lazy here. He is doing what generals have done for centuries. He is biding his time, waiting to see what the enemy is planning. No doubt he has sent out scouts to reconnoiter for him. Most of all, he is thinking. We don’t know what he is planning, but we do know that he has brought spiritual leaders into the camp with him. There is a priest named Ahijah who was the son of the brother of Ichabod, the grandson of Eli. If you have been following the story so far, you know that Eli was the priest who raised Samuel at the shrine in Shiloh. It seemed like the priestly line of Eli had ended when his sons were killed in the great battle of Mizpah, but it continued through the brother of the unfortunate Ichabod who was born an orphan. I doubt anyone has ever given a sermon on Ahijah and his uncle Ichabod, but it is worth pausing to reflect on the mercy of God. Ichabod lost his mother, father, and grandfather on the day he was born, but he is remembered here because his nephew became a priest serving the first king of Israel. We know that Ahijah was a priest because he carried the ephod, which was the sacred apron worn only by priests. It is interesting that Samuel is not there. Based on the previous chapter, we would expect that Samuel would be in the camp with Saul, but he is not mentioned at all. This is further evidence that the story of the sacrifice we read last week was out of place chronologically.

Later in chapter 14, it is Ahijah who consults the Urim and Thummin stones in an attempt to divine God’s will. According to some of the ancient manuscripts, Ahijah was also in charge of the sacred Ark of the Covenant that had been brought into the Israelite camp. The ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, omits the ark. We read stories about the ark earlier in the book, and it appeared that it had passed out of the possession of the Israelites so its presence here with Saul is confusing. Modern translators disagree over whether the Hebrew version or the Greek version is accurate. In any case, it is clear that Saul had a priest from the shrine of Shiloh with him in Migron. People often assume that the problem with Saul was that he was not religious enough, that he rejected the advice of the priests, but that is not the case. Here he shown as being very concerned that God is on his side in the battle to come.

Jonathan goes up                        While Saul is waiting in camp and consulting with his priests and officers, Jonathan acts with the boldness of youth. He and his most trusted soldier decide to test the Philistine defense. Rather than consulting with priests, Jonathan simply decides to see if the LORD will show him a way. He says that the LORD can use a few to defeat many. This claim of Jonathan is repeated throughout the Old Testament, and it has inspired many Christian groups through the centuries. A small group that is faithful to God and courageous can overcome tremendous odds. It is not just soldiers who have been comforted by this thought; these words have inspired social reformers in their seemingly hopeless crusades to end slavery, reform prisons, establish decent working conditions, and give people their human rights. So often we think that we cannot act until we have built a large organization, raised large sums of money, and been endorsed by the wealthy and powerful. So often we are like Saul sitting under the pomegranate tree plotting and consulting while our enemies grow stronger.

But Jonathan decided to see if the LORD was with him. He would show himself to the enemy, boldly risking his life. The sign he asked for was this. If the Philistines said, “we’re coming to get you,” Jonathan and his armor bearer would stay where they were in safety. If they taunted the young men and called for them to come up, they would attack. 3000 years later it is hard for us to know the significance of these possible responses. Perhaps Jonathan had decided that if the Philistines were confident, they would seize the opportunity to attack a couple of Israelites who had ventured into the “no man’s land” between the armies. Perhaps Jonathan hoped to lure them out of their protected positions. Or, it could be that Jonathan was trying to trick the Philistines into thinking that he was deserting and joining them so that their defenses would be down. We do not know for sure what was going on, but clearly Jonathan was not being foolish. He was bold, but he had a cunning plan.

As it happened, the Philistines did call for him to come over to their side. Whether they were taunting him or tempting him, we do not know. We do know that the terrain was steep and rocky. The two Israelites had to climb up on their hands and feet to reach the sentries. No doubt the Philistines did not even see them coming because of all the rocks. They had had their joke with the natives without thinking about the fact that the natives knew the landscape. Jonathan had probably climbed this cliff as a boy. By stealth, he approached the sentries and took them by surprise.

In war as in sports, one of the worst things you can do is lose your footing. Unlike the Iliad, the Old Testament does not give us graphic descriptions of how the Philistines fell when Jonathan leaped on them. We do not know if they fell to his spear and sword or if they tripped on the rocks as they fled. All we are told is that the armor bearer killed those who had fallen. Two men killed twenty in a small field of battle. It is no wonder that the Philistines were panicked, but to add to the drama of the account, there was an earthquake. The author does not tell us that God caused the earth to shake, but that is the implication. The LORD was fighting with Jonathan. His boldness and shrewdness were rewarded.

Meanwhile, back at the pomegranate                        The sounds of battle alerted Saul’s look-outs. They reported that there was a panic in the enemy camp and that a battle was being waged without Saul’s order. The king did not know what to do or even who was fighting. He knew that the Philistines had not attacked since the battle was on the other side of the gulley. Rather than seizing the moment, Saul wanted to know who was missing from his post. He wanted to know who had assaulted the enemy without his orders, but we do not know why he wanted to know this. Was he trying to decide if it was worthwhile rescuing this intrepid soul? Was it someone expendable? When he heard the news that it was his own son who had thrown himself on a superior force, he knew he had to do something. He called for the ark to be brought up and prepared for battle.

What Saul was doing was rational and cautious. Most leaders like to know as much information about a situation before they act, but there are times when caution is the wrong response. Rather than taking advantage of the situation, Saul turned to the priest and the trappings of religion. One of the most surprising things about the Bible is that there are so many stories that warn us against relying two much on religion and ritual. Sometimes religion becomes a way to avoid acting responsibly and ethically in the world. Sometimes religion leads us away from faith by allowing us to focus on rituals and sacred objects instead of stepping forth in faith. Too often, we leave things up to God to fix instead of acting boldly like Jonathan.

A Movement                        This was a time when Saul needed to act rather than to pray. Finally, the tumult grew so loud, Saul knew something must be done. He rallied the troops and crossed the gulley to join the battle begun by his son. Leaders today need to learn from Saul here. Even though he was not as bold as Jonathan, he recognized that something important was taking place, and he took advantage of the situation. It was like the Civil Rights movement. Black and white Christians had been planning and preparing and discussing what to do to address racial segregation in America, but it took Rosa Parks to get things rolling. It took a few bold Jonathans who decided to eat together in a Woolworths in Greensboro. Their boldness encouraged the big leaders to act and join the fray. When they said “yes, we can,” thousands more acted.

Saul thought he only had 600 men to attack the mighty Philistine army, but once he went into battle, his numbers swelled. Those who had been hiding in safety came out to fight. Even those Israelites who had become mercenaries joined in the rebellion. Saul was wise enough not to reject their help just because they had served with the enemy. The deserters joined the insurgents, and the battle spread all over the hills. In a few hours, Saul’s army had grown to ten thousand rebels. Keep this in mind when you are struggling for justice in our time. You may think that you are alone, but when the time is right thousands will rally to a good cause. When people see that victory is possible, they will risk everything to do what is right. The Berlin Wall fell in a few days because thousands of good people came out of hiding when they realized victory was possible. Do not lose hope.

Conclusion                        We are running out of time this morning, but will continue with discussing this battle next week. Before we go off the air, I want to highlight what we have learned from I Samuel 14. There come times in life when someone needs to take the risk and boldly confront oppression. We need Jonathans who recognize when the LORD is calling for boldness. But we also need the power brokers like King Saul to jump into the fray. And all of us need to recognize when it is time to come out of safety, when it is time to stop serving the oppressors, and join the fight for justice, to proclaim the truth, and to change the world.