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By Rev. Justin Smoot, for Wausau Pilot & Review
Israel has jumped into the news again with its offensive against the extremist groups in Gaza. There are Christian groups, also, that seem extremely invested in the nation state of Israel because they believe there is an eschatological dimension to its continued existence. Working towards a restored Temple is an attempt to expedite the end of the world. Such groups forget Israel, the God of Israel, and the unique relationship that should be the model for our, communal, relationship with God.
This relationship begins in the Book of Genesis with its namesake, Israel. A man who was born as Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham who was born as Abram. Born clutching the heel of his brother, Esau, Jacob continued to grasp and struggle his entire life.
The next thing we know, Jacob convinces Esau to trade his inheritance for a bowl of red stuff. (Genesis 25) This meant that Jacob, as second born, would be given the greater share of the inheritance, normally given to the firstborn.
Towards the end of Isaac’s life, he was ready to pass down the blessing to his oldest son Esau. This included the final benediction, “Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Genesis 27:29) This was part of the covenant promises that were passed down from his father, Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) Not a tangential part, but a central part of the covenant, to bless and be a blessing to others.
Jacob and his mother risked Isaac’s wrath, dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes, covered his arms and neck covered in goat’s skin, and prepared the food that Isaac requested. Jacob was disguised enough to appear like Esau to Isaac’s dim eyes. Isaac blessed Jacob, but when Esau came to receive the blessing there was nothing left for him. Isaac knew Jacob had tricked him. So, he told Jacob to flee from Esau’s murderous rage, and go to his mother’s brother, Laban.
Jacob worked for Uncle Laban, even though he tricked Joseph and stole away what he promised to him. Laban doubled the bride price for marrying Rachel by sneaking her sister into Jacob’s wedding tent on the wedding night. He agreed to give Joseph keep the imperfect lambs from the flock and then removed those lambs and sent them with someone else. Despite this, God blessed Jacob. His presence was a rich blessing to Laban. His flocks grew and whatever Laban tricked him out of, Jacob eventually received. God also blessed Jacob with 11 sons and 1 daughter between his two wives, Leah and Rachael, and their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. Throughout all of this, Jacob bore no ill will towards Laban, even as they parted to return to his ancestral land.
As Jacob neared where Esau lived, gifts were sent ahead. Afraid of his brother’s anger, Jacob sent his family away and prepared to meet Esau alone. That night, a stranger met Jacob. The two wrestled until Jacob was injured, but he would not let go until he was blessed by this stranger. God revealed God’s self in renaming him Israel because, “you (Jacob) have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” (Genesis 23:28) The meeting between Israel and Esau was anti-climactic, as Esau’s anger had long since faded. After having reconciled with his brother, Israel settled down in the land and had a 12th son.
Life for Israel’s family was interesting to say the least, especially given the dreams of Joseph, son of Israel, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Joseph’s dreams made his brothers jealous, and Israel clearly played favorites with Joseph who was the eldest son of his favorite wife. The brother sold Joseph into slavery and convinced their family that Joseph was dead. Ultimately, Joseph would up in Egypt where, like his father, he was blessed to be a blessing to Egypt and the world during a time of famine. The brothers’, rather than being punished for their crime, were joyfully reunited with Joseph and their entire family came to Egypt to live. (Genesis 37-50)
During their time in Egypt, Israel’s family grew large. When God delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land, the covenant with Abraham had been fulfilled. The people of Israel, many in number, traced their lineage back through one of Israel’s sons to his grandfather, Abraham.
Next Week: Israel in the Bible: Promises Broken
Rev. Justin Smoot
Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.