The Impossible Dance – Chapter 5 – Family to Nation
God working through broken individuals and communities
Although the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe is capable of simply doing things by a show of great power and irresistible force, he usually chooses to work through His image-bearers. He can work through individuals or groups, although even when he works through groups it’s typically through individuals within those groups. Most surprising is that even though all his image-bearers have flaws, God has still chosen to do His work within those flaws. Despite our persistent failures, not only does God patiently empower us to fulfill the responsibility of stewardship of Creation that He gave us from the beginning, but He also empowers us to participate in His work of restoring the universe.
Walk of faith
Sometime after the scattering of nations, from the line of Shem and Noah, God called a man named Abram to leave his country in the Euphrates River Valley and go to a land “I will show you.” As Abram left his home country, at the age of seventy-five, God promised not only to bless Abram and his descendants but to bless the entire world though Abram. Despite his occasional failures, Abram (later named Abraham) was noted for his faith because he believed God and showed this by being obedient in following God’s instructions even when they didn’t make sense.
When God called Abram to journey to another land, we don’t know what earlier experience Abram or his family or any other citizens of Ur or Haran may have had with God. Was there any experience at all? If not, then with what confidence did Abram have that he was following God when he took that journey to the Promised Land? Then after Abram arrived in the Promised Land, what further questions may Abram have had when he experienced a deep drought in that same land, such that he needed to take a brief trip to Egypt?
After Yahweh told Abram, that he would make a great nation from him, Abram initially expressed his faith by his obedience when he took that journey to the Promised land. Again, when Yahweh showed him the stars and told him that his descendants would be as numerous as those stars, Abram believed, and Yahweh credited that to him as righteousness. Then Yahweh reiterated the promise again when Abram was 99 years old and changed Abram’s name (which meant exalted Father) to Abraham (Father of many nations).
God told Abraham that a great nation would come out of him and Sarah. Yet, this did not look promising when the only son born to Abraham and Sarah was Isaac who was not even born until Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety. Isn’t it interesting that God told Abraham and Sarah to name their son, Isaac, which means “laughter.”?
One day, while Abraham was sitting in the entrance to his tent, he saw three visitors approaching and offered them water to wash their feet and then went to much effort to offer them something to eat and drink. As we read this description of Abraham’s greeting his visitors, it may sound extravagant to us, but would have been normal for the culture of the time. The normal custom was to regard visitors as those who have been sent by God.
Pleading to God
We don’t know the moment that Abraham recognized that one of the visitors was Yahweh, but it apparently happened by the time the visitors talked about Sodom and Gomorrah, which they were going to destroy. Concerned about his nephew Lot, who was living down there, Abraham made a plea to save the city if there were righteous people living in the city. At first, Abraham asked what if there were fifty righteous people living there, would they still destroy everyone there. When Yahweh said no, then Abraham asked, what about if there were 45 or 30 or 20 righteous people there. Each time, Yahweh said that he would not wipe out everybody if there were only that many righteous people there. As it turned out, God destroyed both Sodom and Gomorrah after He gave Lot and his daughters the chance to escape.
Faith and obedience
In one of the most controversial events, God called Abraham to take Isaac and go to a mountain, build an altar, and then offer Isaac as a sacrificial offering. Abraham must have severely tested, but Abraham obeyed God and went through the entire process to the point where he was about slay Isaac when God provided a substitute, a ram. Isaac would indeed be the next link in the genealogical chain connecting Abraham ultimately to the birth of the Messiah 2000 years later.
Slow and steady
The man who Yahweh would say would be the “father of many nations” had only one son born very late in his life and that son, Isaac, would have only twins. Even then, Esau and Jacob were born late in Isaac’s life, so the “father of many nations” would die only seeing two grandchildren.
Meanwhile, the Biblical record for life of Isaac is unremarkable. God had blessed Isaac with wealth, however, the most notable events in his life were 1) failing just as his father Abraham had done in fearing that king Abimelech might kill him to get his wife, so he claimed that his wife was his sister and 2) when he was preparing to die, he got fooled by Jacob into giving Jacob the primary blessing instead of his older twin brother, Esau. Blessed, fallible, unremarkable, yet still used by Yahweh to accomplish Yahweh’s will.
Deceit instead of faith
The biblical descriptions of Jacob and his twin brother Esau are not flattering. Esau is the older twin brother, but for a pot of porridge Esau was willing to give up his birthright. To seal the deal, Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, would conspire to deceive Isaac: They would take advantage of Isaac’s blindness by deceiving Isaac and setting it up for Jacob instead of Esau to receive the primary blessing from Isaac. This deceit happened even though when Rebekah was pregnant with the twins that Yahweh had told her that “the older would serve the younger,” so it is curious that Isaac still insisted on giving the primary blessing to Esau instead of Jacob and that Rebekah saw fit to use deceit to help Jacob receive that important blessing.
A higher order
The case of Jacob and Esau is not the only example where Yahweh would choose to upset the common order of things. In this case, it was side-stepping the normal primogeniture and instead have the older sibling serving the other sibling. In other times it would be stronger serving the weaker or having people outside the family displacing sins within the family. God repeats this pattern later by selecting Samuel to replace Eli instead of Eli’s sons, and in God selecting David to replace Saul instead of Saul’s son. And in all these cases, we see God preparing someone new to lead while he arranges to end another’s leadership.
Nation of wrestlers
After the deception of Isaac, Jacob’s would continue his pattern of deception. Yet, despite that character flaw, God would continue to bless Jacob with success just as he had blessed Abraham and Isaac. Jacob’s deceit with Isaac and Esau forced him to leave home and visit his uncle Laban, in Haran for many years. On the journey to Laban, Yahweh shared with Jacob the promise he made with Abraham and with Isaac, that “all the people on earth would be blessed through you.”
While staying with Laban, Jacob would continue his deceit to take advantage of Laban. Then years later, when Jacob left Laban to return to the promised land, God saw fit to engage with Jacob on both the journey to and from home. On the journey home, Jacob now has two wives and two concubines, thirteen children and a great wealth in flocks, herds, and servants. On that trip home, Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match with a man that Jacob learns was God. During that struggle, Jacob confessed his character by admitting that his name means “deceiver,” but then was given a new name, Israel (which means “wrestles with God”). Wrestling with God would become a hallmark of Israel’s descendants (that is, the nation of Israel) and is evident throughout the Old Testament.
Discipline and character development
Of Jacob’s 12 sons, Joseph was the most notable. When Israel treated Joseph as his favorite son and then Joseph developing a sense of self-importance, Joseph created a sense of jealousy among his brothers. So, on one occasion while out tending flocks on one opportune occasion his jealous brothers sold him off to merchants traveling to Egypt. In Egypt, the merchants sold Joseph to a captain of the Pharaoh’s guard as a slave. While he was a slave to the captain, Yahweh caused Joseph to prosper in whatever he took care of, inspiring the captain to trust everything to Joseph. However, Joseph became imprisoned because of an unjust charge by the captain’s wife.
Bloom where you are
While Joseph was in prison, Yahweh continued to cause Joseph to prosper, inspiring the warden to entrust many things to Joseph. A couple of the prisoners, the cupbearer and baker for the Pharoah, had dreams to which Yahweh gave Joseph the interpretations. The predictions Joseph revealed to the prisoners did come true, the cupbearer was restored to his job, but the baker was executed. Sometime later, when the Pharaoh had dreams that he wanted to have interpreted, the cupbearer informed the Pharoah about Joseph. Through the help of Yahweh, Joseph was able to interpret those dreams. This led to the Pharoah making Joseph his second-in-command, putting Joseph in charge of overseeing the harvesting and storage of grain in preparation of a coming 7-year drought.
Dreams come true
The drought extended up to the Promised Land, Canaan, where Israel was living. This gave the opportunity for Joseph to invite Israel and all the rest of the family to come to Egypt where Joseph would make sure they were provided for. Joseph was able to see that while his brothers had intended to harm him, Yahweh was able to use for the good. In fact, this provided the setting that Yahweh had revealed to Abraham in a troubling dream, that “your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own.” For a moment, Egypt seemed to be promising, but it wasn’t the final destination. It particularly wasn’t the promised land. More than that, God warned that dark times lay ahead before they would arrive there.
Discipling (a nation)
Following the process of growth
After Joseph and the Pharaoh who knew him died, the growing nation of Israel became enslaved in the land of Egypt just as God had foretold to Abraham. There are various questions that surrounded the captivity of Israel in Egypt:
- When there was a drought, why didn’t Yahweh provide for the Israelites in Canaan instead of having them go to Egypt?
- If they needed to be in Egypt, why couldn’t the Pharoah continue to treat them as guests instead of enslaving them?
We know that Yahweh told Abraham that a great nation would come from him and that He would give them the land of Canaan to live in. But why the side-trip into Egypt and why the slavery? The only reason given to Abraham was that “the sin of the Amorites was not yet reached its full measure.”
The reason given to Abraham for being in Egypt follows a general pattern. Although God occasionally supernaturally intervenes during events, it seems that God most often allows natural, normal processes to take place, whether they be physical, psychological, sociological etc. We see that process in living things – plants, and animals – as they grow through specific physical processes. Regarding, the great flood in Noah’s time, that only occurred after evil gradually, through normal psychological and sociological processes, eventually reached a particular threshold.
Fullness of time
The emerging story of the chosen people of God becoming a nation started slowly with Abraham, with one child of the promise, Isaac, who had two children, only one through whom the promise would come, Jacob. Finally, Jacob had thirteen children. But it would take time for that family to grow into a size that could be called a nation – and that took a couple hundred more years – in which time the “sin of the Amorites would reach their full measure.”
Although the Bible does not specifically mention it, there may have been other things that God was waiting to happen such as the development of the Israelite community and the consequent interaction of the Israelite community with the Egyptian community during the Israelite captivity. God allowed events to gradually unfold until “the fullness of time” came for God to orchestrate a dramatic release of the Israelite community. This event would serve as a foreshadowing of another event, the spiritual release of all peoples from slavery to sin.
So it was, that in the fullness of time, when the sin of the Amorites reached its full measure, Yahweh called Moses to release the enslaved Israelites from Egypt to bring Israel back to the Promised Land.
Discipline, Miracles, and Death
There were the ten plagues that God brought upon the Egyptian captors to show the Pharoah that Yahweh was not just a local God in Canaan but that His power extended over all creation, even in the land of the Egyptian gods. In the process, the Pharoah’s own heart continued to harden against Yahweh to the point where God would seal the Pharoah’s fate and further harden the Pharoah’s heart. In the end, it took the killing of the firstborn of Egyptian families, including the family of the Pharoah to not only convince the Pharaoh to let people of Israel go, but the people of Egypt also supplied the people of Israel with great wealth as they left, with some Egyptians joining the people of Israel in their flight.
Then there was the miracles of the pillars of cloud and fire, which would continue until the nation entered the Promised Land, and the miracle which let Israel cross the Red Sea on dry land followed by the drowning of the Egyptian army. The Bible reveals the pattern of God punishing nations that He used to discipline the people of Israel.
Once on their way, the Israelites experienced more miracles, the mountain enshrouded in a cloud where Yahweh talked with Moses and delivered the Commandments and other rules, manna and quail falling from the sky, springs of water in the desert. Despite seeing all those miracles, Israel wasn’t ready to have Yahweh lead them into the Promised Land to face the obstacles there and so God had them encamp in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who refused to trust Yahweh died. So many deaths must have happened, but scripture barely mentions them. Here we will see, not for the last time, seeing miracles not only did not change hearts but that all our hearts seem predisposed to turn away from God.
Shadows of the Kingdom
During the time in the wilderness, God instructed the Israelites to build a tabernacle that would serve as the point of presence for Yahweh in the community. God’s presence within the Tabernacle would allow Israel to see God both as an unapproachable and transcendent God and as a personal, immanent God living among his people. In this way, the tabernacle would serve to display the shadow of a deeper reality.
The instructions are quite detailed. The materials used to build the tabernacle were gifts given to the Israelites as they left Egypt. God dedicated the workers for building the various parts of the tabernacle, filling them with his Spirit and then giving the skills and abilities they needed. God gave everything needed for the construction of the tabernacle. Between the detailed instructions, the materials provided by the Egyptians and the skills of the craftsmen, the tabernacle would be a beautiful work of art. Although the Israelites were told not to make graven images to worship as idols, that obviously did not mean that they couldn’t create works of art to be used to enable worship.
Sacrifice and Love
The amount of killing conducted in the tabernacle to fulfill the necessary sacrifices would be a constant, grisly reminder of the cost of our sin. There were sacrifices for many types of occasions: burnt (or ascension) offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings and others. There was much bloodletting from the many animals sacrificed on the altar, a constant reminder of the cost of our sins.
In addition to the rules of the tabernacle, God also gave other rules that covered other areas of life. Most of us are familiar with the moral code we know as the ten Commandments, but there were many other laws that covered other situations as well. The 613 rules in the Old Testament can all be summarized in the commands: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; Love your neighbor as yourself. Whether in the ten commandments or in the 613 rules, all the rules are predicated on love, thankfulness and pleasing one another. All the instructions point to practical ways for us to love God and one another.
God also gave detailed instructions about how and when to conduct the rituals surrounding the tabernacle. In the case of all the offerings, something had to die. The cost of sin was death, and it takes death to restore one’s relation with God. Moreover, the animals presented for sacrifice for the burnt offerings needed to be pure and without blemish or defect.
These “perfect” sacrifices were pointing to our ultimate need for a truly perfect sacrifice made on our behalf. The sacrifice would have to more than an animal with no visible blemishes. The sacrifice would have to be a perfect human whose identity would only be gradually prophetically revealed … by a new “Adam” who would succeed where the first Adam failed.
Sacrificial death, though, can take a different form than we expect. In Psalm 51, David declares,
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17 ESV)
and Micah declares.
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8, ESV)
and later, the apostle Paul declares,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2, ESV)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)
These passages indicate a sacrifice of dying to oneself, of laying one’s own interests aside for the sake of another … for the sake of Christ. A sacrifice not to “make things right” with God but because things are right.
The Calendar and liturgy
What does it mean to for us be created in the image of a holy God? What do we mean when we say, “God is holy?” We first encounter the term in Genesis 2:3 when God indicates that the seventh day was made holy, the seventh day was to be set apart from the other days. When Moses encountered God’s presence in a burning bush, God told Moses to remove his sandals because the ground was holy. It was also God’s intention to make Israel a holy nation, set apart from other nations and through which He would bless all the nations on earth.
The nation of Israel established a couple of practices which distinguished them from the nations around them: the food, and the calendar. There were some restrictions of the food they could eat such as certain meats, fish, birds, and insects, but the calendar provides the most distinguishing difference. While some cultures had recognized a 7-day calendar, it was the Israelites who set aside the seventh day of the week as a Sabbath on which no work was supposed be done. But that is not the only distinguishing characteristic of the calendar.
In the present day we have a universal calendar, and we have a priority for journalistic chronology. That is, we remember historical events on the actual day that the events happened according to our calendar. It is important for us to track events in the chronological order in which they happened. However, there are a few exceptions that we should note. Sometimes we set our remembrance day according to our convenience – for instance, we always celebrate days such as Martin Luther King’s birthday, not on his actual birth date, but always on a Monday because of our priority for extended weekends.
For the Israelite calendar, the priority was not chronology but liturgy. The remembrance days for events were not set according to the actual historical date on which they occurred but were set according to the liturgical calendar. This practice become clear when you trace out the timing of events in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and compare them to the remembrance dates. It was more important to have events in the context of God’s activity rather than the contexts of the events themselves.
This concept provides the background for celebration of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was such an important concept for the Jews, that God used the account of creation in Genesis 1 to present the concept of Sabbath. When we think about God’s creating activities, God did not need six days to complete His creation, nor did he need to rest. So why do set up the remembrance of God’s creation in a 7-day timeframe? Once again, the crucial point is not the chronology but the liturgy.
The crucial point about the creation event was not the event itself, but what it was for. The purpose of creation was to create a “temple,” a place where God could “rest,” that is, “be” with his people. That’s the main point. There are tasks to do of course as we join God in his creative work in the universe, but the point of the tasks is to be with God. When you look at Genesis 1-2, you will notice that the first six days have a defined beginning and end, an evening, and a morning. The seventh day does not have a defined closing – that implies that we are in the seventh day. This day we are in, the age we are in, is the “day” that we “rest” with God. God has intended that all our activities should be done with, at rest with, God.
This brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish Biblical calendar: the first month was during the spring equinox, harvesting time, whereas in the surrounding cultures the first month of the calendar was set in the fall equinox, crop planting time. The difference in meaning was that since Israel’s year started with God’s work, the year begins God’s provision of the harvest which fed the nation and provided seed for the fall. This contrasted to the surrounding cultures which began their calendar with their work, so their year began with their work that provided for the next harvest.
What can be confusing is that in current practice, Jews do not use the biblical (or liturgical) calendar but the civil calendar which places the first month in the fall instead of the spring. Christians do have an equivalent practice: our civil calendar begins in January, which was set by the Roman government and coincided with Roman elections whereas some in the Christian community observe a liturgical calendar which begins in the fall with the season of Advent.
The liturgical focus of the calendar with its de-emphasis of the chronology of historical events helps explain some interesting discontinuities and apparent conflicts in the Biblical text. If we interpret the events described in Exodus liturgically instead of chronologically, we can make better sense of the flow of Exodus.
One of the “apparent conflicts” occurs in Exodus 19, as the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. At the beginning of the chapter, Yahweh made a covenant like the one with Abraham and declared that they were to be a “kingdom of priests,” and that they were to prepare to go up the mountain after the sounding of the ram’s horn. And yet, at the end of the same chapter, Yahweh told Moses to not let the people, even the(people designated to be) priests, to go up the mountain. By noticing such apparent conflicts, we can better chronologically rearrange the events in Exodus so that they make better sense to chronologically minded folks such as we are.
A possible chronological arrangement of events looks like:
- Covenant established – Exodus 19:1-25; 20:18-21
- The initial, Abrahamic covenant was given followed by the Decalogue (10 Commandments) – Exodus 20:1-17; 20:22-23:33; 25:1-31:18
- The golden calf incident – Exodus 32
- A covenant renewal – Exodus 33-34
- The code for priests – Exodus 35-Leviticus 16
- An incident with goat idols – Leviticus 17:1-9
- The Holiness code – Leviticus 17-25
- Israel renews the covenant – Leviticus 26
While the rearrangement may help us make chronological sense of the text, in the end, the text in Exodus presents Israel as now being a nation with priests and the community centering its worship around a large tent called the Tabernacle. The liturgical intent of the text is to focus on the outcome, that Israel will be a nation with priests serving a holy God who may reside among them but who is not directly accessible.
Worship at the tabernacle was a community event. No one could do this by themselves. God assigned different people to do different tasks, which not only included direct involvement in worship but also in the care of the tabernacle and its furnishings. Even one’s individual sins required the use of priest to handle the sacrifice. Before the tabernacle, anyone could make offerings, but with the tabernacle, only designated priests could perform the sacrificial offerings.
The liturgical calendar also helps in understanding the creation account in Genesis 1. God did not need six chronological days to complete His creation. God established the six days for liturgical reasons: for establishing a week which consists of six workdays followed by a Sabbath as enunciated in Exodus 20:8-11. The Sabbath would be one of the markers that would set apart the Israelites from the other nations.
This arrangement continues the pattern of representing the holiness of God in creation. God’s image-bearing creatures are set aside from all other creatures; Sinful humans are separated from the Garden of Eden; Noah and his family are set aside in the ark from all other people; Abraham is set aside from all other people to usher in the blessing of all people; Moses is set apart from the other Israelites to see God face-to-face; the Levites are the tribe set apart from the other tribes to manage the care of the tabernacle; the priests are set apart from the other Levites to carry out the rituals in the tabernacle; the Sabbath from all the other days to remind us of God’s provision, in particular his provision for rest – and the list goes on.
- Read Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 40:8; 58:12; Philippians 3:20-21. What should our attitude be as God fulfills his plans through us?
- Read Genesis 18:1-8; Hebrews 13:1-2. In the nomadic culture, hosts readily showed hospitality to any visitors because they were supposed to regard all visitors as being from God. What keeps us from exhibiting the same attitude?
- Read Genesis 24-25. We can never know how God will use the ordinary things in our lives to fulfill his purposes. How does that knowledge help you look at your own life?
- Read 1 Samuel 3-4; 1 Samuel 15-16. These passages illustrate how God continues to accomplish his will despite the messiness of our lives. How does that affect how you pray?
- Read Genesis 32:22-28. God would rename Jacob to Israel, which means “wrestles with God,” which would eventually become the name of the nation descended from Jacob, and the nation through which the Messiah would come. Can we be strong in our faith in God if we have not wrestled with God?
- Read Genesis 15:12-21; Exodus 1:1-22. We often don’t know the reasons for the difficult circumstances in life. How might Abram’s dream explain why God originally provided hospitality and refuge in Egypt but then allowed the Egyptians to enslave Israel?
- Read Exodus 8-10. In the narrative of the ten plagues, several times the Pharoah hardened his own heart, but then there came a time when Yahweh reinforced that trajectory and Yahweh hardened the Pharoah’s heart. What kind of warning might that be?
- Read Hebrews 8:5-6; 10:1-18, 1 Peter 2:9. God designed the Tabernacle to represent a greater reality. Our relationships among people also represent a greater reality. What is it?
- Read Psalm 51; Romans 12:1-2. We do not have a temple to make animal sacrifices. What we do have is the opportunity to offer ourselves as a daily sacrifice. What is meant by a broken spirit?
- Read Hebrews 10:19-39. The New Testament does not command Gentile believers to set aside people as priests nor to observe the Sabbath. However, we not to “neglect gathering together” so that we can “stir one another to love and good works,” and help each other persevere in our faith. How can we then help each other practice holiness by the setting aside of things in our life, to consecrate them to God?