Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Genesis of Forgiveness II: Abraham to Jacob

The exploration of the Bible for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation continues. See part one (and comment thread) for goals and rationale as well as for mention of the Hebrew words cited here...

Messing with Abimelech [Gen 20 & 26]:

When Abraham moved into King Abimelech's territory, he pretended his wife was his sister so one of the godless locals wouldn't kill him to get her [20:2, 11-12]. As a result he may have saved his life but he lost his "sister" Sarah to Abimelech anyway. Only because God warned Abimelech in a dream not to sleep with her did he abstain. In fact, in the same dream God told Abimelech that he had been punk'd [20:3, my paraphrase], and to the news this pagan king reacts by defending his clear conscience and (after God's further instruction and a confrontation with the parties involved) returning Sarah to Abraham along with a gift of livestock, servants, land, and 25 pounds of silver [4, 14-16]. In the course of all this God tells Abimelech "I have kept you from sinning" and warns him nonetheless that he must return Sarah or die [7]. Innocent as he might be, Abimelech is at least potentially complicit in the wrong that has arisen and is accountable for what he does once he learns the truth. Amazingly, he seems to go above and beyond the call of duty, not only in restitution for the offense but in establishing a relationship of newfound trust between the parties involved where before there had been nothing but deep suspicion on the side of the newcomers. In this episode it is Abimelech who hears from God, it is Abimelech who confronts and rebukes Abraham, and it is Abimelech who welcomes these newcomers into his kingdom and seeks to "cover the offense" (not kaphar) and "vindicate" Abraham at cost to himself [16, see also the treaty at 21:22-23]. At the same time, it is Abraham who must pray to God for Abimelech's life and for the healing of the barrenness that God had already inflicted upon his family in the midst of the mess [7, 17].

God's order of redemption and covenantal promise have not changed, but that does not preclude him from working from the outside-in from time to time along the way.

Crazily enough, this all happens again when Abraham's son Isaac stays in the area at God's direction [Gen 26:1-6]. This time Abimelech's officials actually ask straight up about Isaac's wife and Isaac more blatantly lies to them [6-7]. Abimelech does not appear to take Rebekah as a wife this time, but still finds out he's been punk'd again when he sees Isaac making out with her out his window one day [8]. Confronting this family yet again, Abimelech's extra caution is vindicated and Isaac's suspicion is seen to be more unwarranted than was Abraham's. There is no mention of God's intervention or revelation this time, but Abimelech again confronts the situation head-on and gives Isaac protection and room to thrive in his land [9-11]. Some jostling for position takes place in the land when Isaac outgrows his elbow room, and some envy and quarrelling crops up among these early Philistines, but by and large these things are resolved and Isaac finds room (lit. Rehoboth) to flourish [12-22]. After God blesses Isaac and their covenant is mutually renewed [24-25], Abimelech comes to him to make a treaty out of respect for Isaac's Lord [26-29]. Meeting Abimelech at first with accusations of hostility, Isaac ends up throwing a feast for them and swearing an oath to live in peace alongside (but separate from) each other [27, 30-31]. In this exchange Abimelech claims to have always treated him well and honours him as one blessed by God [28-29].

Clearly this amicable resolution and this profound respect for Abraham and Isaac's God allows Abimelech the Philistine something of an indirect share in the peace (shalom) of God - a share he is in some respects more deserving of than Abraham and Isaac themselves.

The stickiness of these situations makes for a great parable, showing the mess of iniquity that one can get into even when one is, individualistically speaking, innocent. There is no explicit mention of interpersonal forgiveness in this episode, but reconciliation is laced throughout, and in this instance though God initiates it the primary human catalyst is not the one that we might expect. I take this as an evocative insight when I ponder the degree to which church folk ought to work with societal reconciliation efforts that are not explicitly pinned to Christian motivations.

Isaac the Living Sacrifice [Gen 22]:

When Abraham is told to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah it is not completely unheard of in ancient culture, but it is no doubt a staggering command, not just emotionally and morally but also "religiously" in light of God's prior revelations and promises to Abraham. That he comes within an inch of doing so is taken by the Bible as an indication of his faith, but that he is stopped and given a ram to sacrifice instead is taken as a weighty indication of the different kind of God that this one reveals Himself to be. As a precursor not only of the sacrificial system to come but also of the eventual crucifixion of Jesus Christ we have the loaded words of God to Abraham: "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided" [14]. And because of Abraham's willingness to entrust all into God's hands (including God's promises themselves) and to obey we are told that "through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed" [15-18]. Isaac inherits this blessing in 26:4, and is for us perhaps the first example of a living sacrifice [Rom 12]. What this has to do with forgiveness is all fairly ambiguous except for the centrality that an atoning sacrifice will have in the just forgiveness of God as it is revealed further on in Scripture.

Esau's Blessing [Gen 27]:

For all that has been said thus far about the order of redemption (i.e. God plans to bless all the earth through a certain people), with Jacob we get our first explicit indication that this order is not systematizable according to human presumptions. By our calculations based on the Ishmael/Isaac episode and the cultural norms, Esau the firstborn ought to be the one to inherit the covenant blessing of God passed on through Abraham and Isaac. However, through no moral merit of his own (but quite the opposite), Jacob inherits that blessing [27:1-35]. Esau seems to get a raw deal here, but in a foreshadowing of some of Jesus' teachings and parables of the kingdom he must simply learn that the hierarchy doesn't matter so much as the sharing of the blessing, if indeed the parties concerned will share it.

By giving the blessing to Jacob rather than Esau God does not forsake Esau, but orders it so that he is now blessed by serving his brother rather than vice versa [27:36-40].

Thanks in no small part to Esau's own begrudging (which we no doubt have some empathy for), and of course to Jacob's conniving, this is no smooth affair - thus enmity does prevail for quite some time [41-44]. But for the moment we are left to ponder the fact that what Esau takes from Isaac as the withholding of blessing and pronouncement of a curse is said in Genesis 27:41 to have been a certain kind of blessing itself. We see how this can be so when in his magnanimous generosity to Jacob years later, Esau does indeed fulfill Isaac's prophecy by serving his brother, and does it in such a way that his gracious face appears to Jacob as if the very face of God [33:10].

What is interesting in the question of forgiveness and reconciliation here is that Jacob is told by Rebekah to flee to her brother Laban's place to "stay for awhile until [Esau's] fury subsides" and Esau "forgets what [Jacob] did to him" [27:44-45]. This exile ends up being providential in God's hands, and though Esau's forgiveness would to a retrospective idealist no doubt be preferrable to his forgetfulness, one can not deny the practical wisdom of Rebekah's advice to get some distance and buy some time for the sake of future amicability if not peace between discordant brothers.
Also, where we can't conceive of someone forgiving us, we might look to the common reality of forgetfulness as kindling for the imagination instead of succumbing to total despair.

Jacob and Laban: A Messy Peace [Gen 29-31]:

After years of conniving on both sides, with God's blessing and the achievement of enough confidence and prosperity to do so, Jacob considers moving away from his father in law Laban's place and going out his own [31:3ff]. Theirs is hardly a trusting relationship, but they do find a way to live together amicably on the face of things. Curiously, God gives Jacob advice in how to shrewdly get out from under Laban's opportunistic meddling with an advantage befitting the years of patient service he had rendered and the blessing that his presence had brought the land [30:29-30; 31:10-16].

When the false peace between them comes to its end it is with Jacob fleeing and Laban pursuing him with charges of deception [31:19-30]. God warns Laban to withold judgment on Jacob, but Laban pretends that he would have celebrated his departure and blames Jacob for his secrecy. All this to say that when they finally strike a treaty they have been pushed to the point of having to clear the air about their relationship and are yet then able to make a covenant because of the "God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac" [36-42, 53]. One would be hard pressed to call the resulting relationship a full-fledged reconciliation, but they do arrive at a measure of such reconciliation by parting ways with a blessing and a ritual in which God is remembered as the "judge" and "witness between" them not only to keep them from harming each other but to keep them in one accord under the same God [48-55].

It is hardly a picture of glorious shalom, but it is no longer a false peace either. Such a messy story will rarely get preached on, but this relationship of in-laws seems to me a perfect parable for the ways that this peace which passes understanding can guide on the road to reconciliation in a world of enmity and mistrust and abuse.

Jacob and Esau Reconciled [Gen 32]:

When Jacob's time with Laban is over he takes it as time to reengage with Esau. For good reason this causes him "great fear and distress" and so he approaches Esau cautiously if not contritely [32:1-21]. In the first place Jacob expresses his contrite heart to God, declaring himself "unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness" shown him through the years in exile. Here he prays God "save" him "from the hand of" Esau and appeals to God's promises to preserve him and cause him to flourish [9-12]. (At this point Jacob may still be trying to manipulate God like he does everyone else, but the ensuing wrestling match in the night appears to put him in his place [22-32].) In the second place, Jacob thinks to himself that he can "pacify" Esau with gifts and perhaps even be accepted (nasa', forgiven?) by him [16, 20].

After Jacob's struggle with God he appears genuinely contrite before Esau and even declares himself Esau's servant [33:1-8]. But by blessing Esau with plenty, God has freed him to refuse Jacob's offer and to merely accept a gift from him without necessarily taking him into his service. Offering instead to accompany him on the way, Esau shows grace and hospitality becoming God himself [33:10]. When Jacob refuses to join companies, Esau even offers to leave some servants with him. Happy enough with Esau's favourable attitude toward him, Jacob insists on parting ways and settles in Succoth, a place of gracious shelter (succoth) outstripping what he might ever have expected in return for his dastardly deeds.

Given what happens next, we wonder if he should have gone with Esau instead, and so by not taking the offered reconciliation all the way perhaps opted out of the better reality that Esau's forgiveness (or at least forgetfulness) may have afforded.

Jacob and Shechem: More Mess [Gen 34-35]:

When Shechem rapes Jacob's daughter Dinah and then arranges to appease the family with an offer of land-sharing and a respectable marriage (you name the price), it is an ugly start to a relationship to say the least [34:1-12]. When Jacob's sons include circumcision as part of the treaty and then turn around and slaughter and plunder the still-healing men of Shechem's family, things get even uglier [13-29]. Jacob is not impressed with their deception and vengeance, but they turn back at him the question of justice [30-31). This dilemma between peace and justice is not answered in this passage, but is certainly raised for our reflection with gusto.

God instructs Jacob to leave that land along with all the plundered persons and property save the foreign gods and to take a fresh start with God in the heritage site of Bethel. On leaving the area, we are told, "the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them" [5]. Not sure what to make of all this except that it illustrates quite well how one grievous act can infect not just current situations but groups of people with enmity for generations. It is interesting to wonder what Jacob would have or should have done in response to Dinah's rape and the resultant negotiations. What could forgiveness and reconciliation here possibly have looked like? And what about justice, if what Jacob's sons did is reprehensible?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

one of the clearest and most succinct explanations of the mt moriah episode as i've ever read.

ps. i don't think your discussion of the cover of the ark sounded over-blown at all. am enjoying these exegetical notes.