A God For Liars, Killers, and the Religiously Inept

The Family Jacob Always Wanted

Perhaps the wisdom of parents telling their children “I love you all the same” wasn’t invented by the time of the Patriarchs. Polygamy certainly complicated the matter “this mommy loves you, that mommy hates you.”

Sarah hated Hagar and Ishmael and had them put out even though she had initially arranged the  affair with Abraham. Rebekah loved Jacob while Isaac loved Esau, and now Jacob loved Joseph better than the rest.

We instinctively spin narratives of desire and expectation about the future. We can easily imagine that on that day that Jacob first laid eyes on Rachel he imagined she would be the cornerstone of his best-life-now programmed life. Rachel was the wife he always wanted and Joseph and Benjamin make four. He got tricked into Leah and accepted Bilhah and Zilpah in bargain.

Jacob’s ordered dreams always caved in around him. With the premature death of Rachel Jacob’s third act of his anxious life  will be marked by his paralyzing anxiety for the safety of his favorite sons: Joseph and Benjamin.

Genesis Family Values

We’ve seen already that “family values” in Genesis are pretty unhealthy. Family in Genesis is for fighting. Jacob had to flee his family of origin because of his deceptive ways and his brother’s desire to kill him. He was regularly swindled by his uncle until he got the upper hand and swindled him back. In the sad story of Shechem  old Hamor has no idea what accepting the invitation to join Jacob’s family would mean.

Bloodshed within the family goes all the way back to Cain and Abel and is revisited in Abraham’s family (Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael dead), Isaac’s family (Esau wants Jacob dead), and now in Jacob’s family fratricide would only to be interrupted by the profit motive. There’s no money in a dead brother, why not sell him into slavery? I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Shape of World Saving

Through God’s electing call he has entered into a special relationship with this one particular family through one particular line. The purpose of this relationship and the calling of this family is nothing short of saving the world. 

“Saving the world” is of course not an idea that’s strange to us. We in fact live in an age where there is a lot of pronounced “world saving” going on. People want to save the world from global environmental threats, from nuclear arms, from racism and discrimination, etc. Our shape of this “world saving” however, is generally unexamined.

In Charles Taylor’s long pathfinding of our road to secularization one crucial step he notes in the tradition of “Latin Christianity” the development of what he calls “the new police state” (Kindle Loc. 1440) where churches, governments and leaders attempt to organize the lives of their citizens in rational ways.

There are certain common features running through all these attempts at reform and organization: (1) they are activist; they seek effective measures to re-order society; they are highly interventionist; (2) they are uniformizing: they aim to apply a single model or schema to everything and everybody; they attempt to eliminate anomalies, exceptions, marginal populations, and all kinds of non-conformists; (3) they are homogenizing; although they still operate in societies based on differences of rank, their general tendency is to reduce differences, to educate the masses, and to make them conform more and more to the standards governing their betters. This is very clear in the church reformations; but it also is true of the attempts to order people’s lives by the “police states”; (4) they are “rationalizing” in Weber’s double sense: that is, they not only involve an increased use of instrumental reason, in the very process of activist reform, as well as in designing some of the ends of reform (e.g., in the economic sphere); but they also try to order society by a coherent set of rules (Weber’s second dimension of rationality, Wertrationalitat).

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (p. 86). Kindle Edition.

The degree to which we’ve bought into this approach is beyond question. Nearly all churchy or secular attempts to “save the world” today tend to implicitly adopt this modus operandi . The degree to which God doesn’t adopt this approach should shock us.

God’s way of approaching the threats to the world right from the start seem VERY wrong headed. He picks a barren couple to found a nation. He choose a family with a history of violence to address his grief at being faced with a world filled with violence and his way of relating to this family looks haphazard, negligent and confusing.

If God were a modern world saver he would have made for himself an identification card with his name and picture, scheduled regular meetings with his clients, clearly delineated appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and kept them in close accountability. He probably should have rolled out this program with a broad field of agents and addressed his “concerns” to as large an audience as possible. What we find here in the book of Genesis seems the complete opposite of such a reasonable, rational approach.

Is it Too Much for Yhwh to Make Appointments?! 

One of the most frustrating behaviors of the LORD that we might be tempted to call a relational dysfunction is that he can’t seem to keep a schedule. He pops into Abram’s life late in the story (Abram is 75) and seems to pop in and out with him on Yhwh’s timing, not Abram’s convenience.

The LORD seems to barely talk to Isaac. I’m sure Isaac would have greatly appreciated a “word of knowledge” to trust his ears, not his taste buds and his hands at that critical blessing ceremony.

The LORD then pops into Jacob’s life in this random place for Jacob that he will name “Bethel”. Jacob surmises that it must be God’s house because that is where they always seem to meet. He also meets him to wrestle with him by a river. How strange can this get?!

With the change of attention to Joseph and Jacob’s sons God seems to go completely AWOL. Whole chapters will in fact go by and you won’t be able to find the word “God” or “LORD” or “Yhwh” anywhere. What kind of Bible writing is this supposed to be!

Groping for Yhwh in Folk Religion

Not only does Yhwh not seem to keep a consistent schedule with his dysfunctional family intervention, but he seems to give them no clear guidelines about how they are to relate to him. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be left to use whatever cultic elements are at hand, sacrificing, tithing, covenant cutting, spontaneous prayers and dream or oracle watching to try to fill in the gaps between the meetings where God shows up.

Oracles in fact play a large role in both the Jacob and Joseph stories and on the surface seems to play a less than helpful part.

If you recall infertility seems to be as identifiable marker for this family as violence, and Rebekah spends a long time waiting for God to show up and give her children. Once he does the twin boys wrestle so violently in the womb that she begins to regret asking for them. The oracle of Jacob’s supremacy certainly couldn’t have helped the favoritism in the family or done anything to restrict Jacob’s ambition. His ambition and his mother’s manipulation would rupture the family setting into motion the episode with Laban, Rachel and Leah.

Now again at the beginning of the Joseph story Joseph is having dreams that seem to be messages from God. His interpretation of these dreams are that he will be ruler of his family, including his parents. Some sharp therapist today might be tempted to suggest that the source of these dreams are Jacob’s favoritism.

Whether your explanation is rational or irrational the response by the rest of the family to Joseph’s dream telling is predictable, and knowing the generational patterns of the family a bloody outcome seems likely.

God is Silent for Yet Another Family Catastrophe

Joseph is spoiled, gifted and behaves poorly. His brother have had enough of it. They want to kill him but can’t even arrive at a consensus to do that. Reuben holds out and wants to save him in a sneaky way. Always with the sneaking in this family!

Judah has the bright idea that there’s no money in killing their brother, why not sell him into slavery. The rest of the group (sans Reuben again) agree to that so they sell him to the “Ishmaelites” who are either Arabs or their cousins and so Joseph goes off to Egypt as a slave.

A bit late the brothers realize that they’re going to need to make up a lie and make it up quick, so they stick to the family tradition of involving goats in deceiving their fathers, bloody up Joseph’s emblem of favoritism and let Jacob’s anxiety do the rest of the work while they try to act sad.

Spiritual Edification?

If you are an ardent modern world saver this story is not what you’re looking for. Better jump ahead and work the book of Leviticus for your daily devotions. The God behind these stories doesn’t seem like he’s the kind of God who will be highly compliant with the world-saving program you are looking to roll out and mass produce.

If you are another kind of person, you might, however, find some comfort and encouragement here.

It seems this God likes to choose lying, violent, clumsy-at-religion people to save the world through sometimes.

If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t want a busy-body-god always tapping you on the shoulder hen-pecking you about all your little peccadilloes then you should be happy. This God it seems will let you make a total mess of your life and others wracking up all sorts of chaos, pain and tragedy. You’re free to move about the planet with whatever power you possess, indulging your appetite and avarice.

This God also, however may look absent but is not really. He gets things accomplished even through the messes we make. He lines up things in ways we can’t understand, and refuses to line things up in ways we want.

This God seems to like to educate through the school of hard knocks and fill our mouths so thoroughly with the garbage we said we wanted until we sometimes get to a point that we begin to learn that the only thing that will satisfy us is everything, which is only Him.

Jacob and his sons will learn lessons in hard ways not easy ways. They will make messes and have drama wherever they go. They will run up the cost of their renovation in anxiety, blood and pain and lead us in doing so until nothing less than God himself will have to get up on the cross and show us what we are and where we lead ourselves every time.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A God For Liars, Killers, and the Religiously Inept

  1. Pingback: The Roadside Hookup That Changed the World | Leadingchurch.com

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