We are reflecting now about the Old Testament particularly, part of the Bible, and particularly we’re reflecting upon what is considered to be by many, many people the surely scandalous: the parts of the Bible that are considered outrageously unacceptable, that go against all of our sense of modern morality and fairness and dignity and integrity, and even the justice of God would seem so often in the Old Testament to be unjust, to be unfair in how God is dealing with these particular people who are acting in the way that they are acting. For the most part, the people of God in the Old Testament, even before the calling of Abraham and the choosing of Abraham, you have in Genesis 1-11 nothing but stories of rebellion and apostasy against God. You have the murder of Abel by Cain, you have the building of the tower of Babel, you have in the time of Noah the carnality and the evil of all the people so that God sends the flood on the earth and starts everything over with Noah. But then you have even Noah himself, after coming out of the ark, getting drunk and having some kind of bad sexual relations with his son, Ham, so that Canaan, the son of Ham, is cursed forever, so to speak, and all these kind of things that happen.
So you know that the Old Testament— we all know that the Old Testament is filled with these stories that appear to be anything but edifying and inspiring, and they seem to be anything but holy, anything but noble and good. It seems really pretty bad, and I was already saying about how sometimes people who are not familiar with the Bible—maybe they’re quite familiar with the New Testament, at least the stories, by going to church, they hear the teachings of the Jesus and the parables, and then they decide, “Well, I’m going to read the entire Bible, and I’m really going to get inspired before I die” or something. Then they start reading the Old Testament Scriptures and are absolutely horrified in what they find there, what they find there in regard to their understanding of sexual immorality, what they find there in terms of treachery and lying and deceiving and hypocrisy, and then what they find there in terms of simply murder and killing, and then what they find there in terms of the fact that, for the most part, certainly for the most part after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, when you get to the Judges, you get to the Kings, the stories there in the Scripture, in the book of Judges and the book of Samuel, the book of Kings… I mentioned already, I believe, that in the Septuagint, 1 and 2 Samuel is called 1 and 2 Kings, and then 1 and 2 Kings is called 3 and 4 Kings. So you have no Samuel in the Septuagint; you just have the four books of Kings, whereas in the Hebrew Scripture you have 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.
But if you take the Judges and you take the Kings and the Chronicles—the Chronicles are kind of retelling the stories of the Kings—you don’t find any edifying stories about how faithful and loving and kind and obedient and just and righteous the people of God were. You find just the opposite—how bad they were, how they were always following their own mind, how they were idolatrous, how they were worshiping all the local Canaanite idols and the fertility gods, the Asteroth and the Ba’alim, and how basically they were just following their own mind and sinning against God spectacularly. When you look even through the kings of Israel, you find very, very few of them who were really righteous people—Josiah, Hezekiah maybe, Asa—but even David, even Solomon, they were those chosen by God for very particular purposes, but even if you take David, he was an adulterer and he was a murderer and he was in a sense a liar and he was a cheater and he was trying to get Uriah to go sleep with his wife when he was getting prepared for battle so that he would think that he had conceived the child who was actually conceived adulterously by David.
So you find all these incredible stories that seem to be totally immoral and highly unedifying in the holy Scripture, and then you see God dealing with all of these people. So the question is: How do we understand all of that? How do we interpret it? Here what we’d like to say today, very briefly, hopefully, is to show how again there are some principles here of reading the holy Scripture, interpreting the Scripture, that are very, very strong, steadfast in Orthodox Christian Tradition, certainly in the ancient Christian Tradition. These would be, just to repeat again, that all of the Old Testament is a pedagogy to Christ, that all of what we call the Old Testament and all the stories, the pre-history before Abraham, all those stories about Noah and the flood and the Babel tower and the killing of Cain and Abel, the fratricide and so on, and then certainly after Abraham, with Isaac, Jacob, Israel, the twelve tribes, Joseph and his brothers, and then with Moses, and then later on with all the judges and the kings—all of that is all written to show how God Almighty was preparing all things for the birth of his Son, for the salvation of the whole world. It’s a Christian principle, certainly an ancient Christian principle, that you read the Old Testament Scriptures in the light of Christ. The Old Testament Scriptures are only understandable through the lens of the crucified Christ, and through Christ who is God’s own Word in human flesh, the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the One for whom, by whom, in whom, through whom, and toward whom all things were created, according to the New Testament Scriptures.
We can repeat again how the risen Christ opened the minds of his disciples when he was risen from the dead to understand how Moses—that means the Torah, that means Genesis, Exodus, all those stories, and the prophets, all the writings and how the laws and how the psalms all refer to Jesus. They all show how it was necessary that the Christ be crucified, be given up, and be killed, and then be raised and then be glorified. This is the household plan of God; this is the oikonomia of God, hidden from all eternity, even from the angels, now made known in the Church.
And we can repeat again how the Apostle Paul insists, in Colossians and in the letter to the Hebrews, how outside of Christ the Old Testament stories are incomprehensible. They even are scandalous and they even are stumbling-blocks to people. What is this all about? Until they are seen in the light of Christ, until they are seen in how they lead up to Christ and how God was acting the whole time, with human beings in order to get to the point where you could have Mary the Virgin who could give birth to the messianic King who was God himself in human form for the salvation of all the world, and indeed even for the salvation of all the wicked and evil people of the Old Testament. For Sodom and Gomorrah Christ dies on the Cross.
There’s that terrifying sentence in the New Testament where the Lord says to Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum when he is there preaching; he said, “If you reject me, it will be better on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you, because you have seen the Messiah in the flesh and you have heard his teaching,” whereas those people in the old days, they were just very primitive people that God was trying to work with in order to work out his plan in history.
Now, this leads also to this other incredibly important principle, Orthodox Christian understanding relative to the Old Testament Scripture, and that is not only that they are a pedagogue to Christ, that they can only be understood in Christ, that if we’re not in Christ a veil hangs over our eyes and we can’t even see what it’s about, we cannot understand it—our minds have to be open to Christ to see what this is all about—but what we see, and one very important thing that we see about what it’s all about, is that it’s about a very important word in Eastern Orthodox vocabulary, theological vocabulary—it’s all about synergeia. Synergeia: co-operation, co-laboration, co-working. And what is that collaboration, what is that co-working? It’s God Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, the only God that there is—the God of gods, the King of kings, the Lord of lords—interacting with human creatures, who are selling themselves to evil powers and who are apostatizing and rebelling against God himself, rebelling against their own nature, made in the image and likeness of God, who are corrupting themselves and corrupting the world and are given over to evil and are acting, for the most part, very, very wickedly and very badly.
It’s the story about how God interacts with those people, because those are the only people he’s got. They’re the only ones that he’s got. I said already, I believe, that the best definition of divine providence that I ever heard is God working together with what he’s got, doing the best that he possibly can with what he’s got, and what he’s got is us. What he’s got is sinful people. What he’s got are Noah and Abraham and Lot and Isaac and Jacob and Israel and the patriarchs and Moses and Joshua and Caleb and Aaron and Mariam and David and Solomon and Jesse and Hannah and Samuel. That’s what he’s got: Hezekiah, Josiah—that’s who he has. And he’s got to work with what he has, and he’s got to find a people who will be faithful to him, who will be capable of obeying him, listening to him, loving him even.
And here, this is one of the scandalous things, so to speak, about the old covenant. Here I’d like to make a point which is kind of a delicate point, but I think it has to be made. It could be easily misunderstood, so I hope you don’t misunderstand me, but there is a sense in which the Bible, the Old Testamental period, is radically different from our time, from the 21st century, in the sense that, in our time, people will usually say things like this. They’ll say, “It doesn’t really matter what god you believe in. It doesn’t even really matter if you believe in God or not. All that really matters is that you’re a nice person, that you’re a good person, that you’re a kind person, that you really don’t harm anybody, you don’t rape anybody, you don’t do violence to anybody, you don’t steal from anybody. Oh, yeah, in the business world, you can compete by the rules of the game which are sometimes quite immoral, but that’s just how it is. But we should all be really nice people, and we shouldn’t really be killing each other. We shouldn’t be raping each other. Certainly we shouldn’t be harming children. But beyond that, you know, we should be just good people, and that’s all that really matters.” Sometimes in America we’ll even say, you know, “It doesn’t matter which religion you are. It doesn’t even matter if you have no religion. It doesn’t matter if you’re a non-theist like a Buddhist, or an a-theist like, I don’t know, Dawkins and Hitchens and the modern atheistic people—as long as you’re a decent human being, a ‘good person,’ a nice person.”
Well, I could say that here, without any doubt, if you read the Old Testament Scriptures, I’m almost tempted to put it this way: just the opposite is what would be told. Just the opposite. It would be more something like this: Everyone in the world is corrupted, everyone is wicked, everybody’s killing each other, everybody’s in competition with each other, everybody’s out to get each other—but the really important thing is: Who is the God that you worship? Who is the one, true God? Who is the God who really made heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible? Which is the God that you ought to obey?
Here it’s very, very clear, without any doubt at all, that the main point of the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham for sure and certainly at the time of Moses, is that the only true and real God that there is is the El Shaddai Most High God who has given his name to Moses as Yahweh, which means I am who I am. That’s the one, true, and living God, and all the other gods are not gods at all. They’re no gods at all. What you find in the Old Testament is the one God who has to establish himself among the gods, and those wars in the Old Testament were not so much between peoples as they were between gods. It was God Almighty, Yahweh, the one true God, fighting against the Ba’alim, the Asterim, fighting against those fake, idolatrous gods. It was the one true God fighting against the idols that the people themselves had created, and even brought into the Jerusalem temple at a certain point in history. God has to destroy Jerusalem itself by the Babylons. He calls Nebuchadnezzar “my anointed, my christ, my servant.” He calls Darius and Cyrus “my servant,” for the sake of his ultimate plan.
But what the important thing in the Old Testament is not so much—I hope you understand me properly—morality as fidelity to God. This is why, in the Old Testament Scriptures, you’ll have, for example, a prayer of Manasseh, which for us Orthodox is part of the Bible, and we even use it in the Great Compline service in our Church, where Manasseh is praying to God a prayer of repentance to be forgiven, and his sin was the quintessential Old Testament sin. It was apostasy against the true God and the worship of idols and setting up high places and altars to those who were not God. Manasseh is begging God for forgiveness, and in the prayer he says, “Forgive me, O Lord, who have sinned against you, not as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who did not sin against you.” Well, it’s a kind of funny thing for him to say, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not sin against you. I mean, we’re going to talk about them right now, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how they behaved, and how God acted with them, which is far from a picture of pure, decent morality. But in any case, the whole point is that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, and even David never apostatized against God. They never worshiped an idol.
They were not keeping the laws of God—heaven knows David is not only known as the quintessential paradigmatic king from whose city, Bethlehem, the King of the world, the messianic King whose reign will last forever, the Son of David who sits upon the throne of whom there will be no end, is Jesus Christ himself, the real King—but David is not only the most important king of the Old Testament whose kingship is the one that Jesus Christ receives and has as the son of David, but David is also known in the Scripture as the quintessential sinner. Psalm 50 (51) that we still use in our services very, very often—it’s at the third hour, it’s at matins, it’s at the Divine Liturgy a couple of times, it’s at compline, that psalm—“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquities. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.” That’s traditionally the words of David himself, because he was a murderer and an adulterer. But even being a murderer and an adulterer, he never never apostatized against the true God.
So the point I’m trying to make now is that, in the biblical time, the real issue was not being a nice person or a good person or even a very moral person—just about everybody was wicked, evil, and unrighteous, especially the judges and the kings of Israel itself, if you read the Bible; they’re all terrible, I mean, just really bad—but at least some of them did not apostatize. Some of them did not blaspheme God. Some of them did not worship idols, that they were faithful to God, and certainly that is what is said of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the sons of Israel and Moses and David and Solomon, however they were behaving, however wickedly, however, as we would say today, sexually immoral or conniving or whatever, murdering and violent they would be, still their God was the true God, and the other gods were not gods.
So you could say that the Bible would be just the opposite of modern time. Modern time, it would say it doesn’t matter what God you believe in; it doesn’t even matter if you believe in God, as long as you’re a nice, good person. In the Old Testament, it would say there aren’t really any nice, good persons, or there are very, very few, and most of us are pretty wretched and miserable and rotten, but the important thing, even if you’re a horrible sinner, is not to deny the true God, to know who the real God is and to worship him alone. That’s even the first law of the ten commandments of Moses: “I am the Lord your God. You will have no other gods besides or before me.” So it’s really about the true God. So that’s important always to keep in mind as well, and that we understand what all that means through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection on the cross, through the ultimate revelation of God in the messianic Prophet, the messianic High Priest, and the messianic King, who is Jesus Christ himself.
Now, another very important principle for Orthodox Christians about reading the Hebrew Scriptures is that we understand everything, to use a fancy term, we understand everything in the Holy Scripture, from the very first words of Genesis, well, even to the New Testament book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, but certainly all of the writings of the Old Testament are always interpreted what we would call using fancy words soteriologically. It’s soteriological. What does that mean? It means that it has to do with salvation, that everything that’s written there has to do with Christ. It has to do with his cross, his rejection, his being vilified, spit upon, beaten, mocked, killed, and then vindicated and raised by God his Father, seated at the throne at the right hand of God forever, of whose kingdom there will be no end, from whom the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all flesh and upon those who believe in him, that they could then really have the power of God in their life.
So the whole thing has a soteriological meaning; it’s for salvation. It’s for the salvation of the world, and we could say that all of the acts of God in the Old Testament, all of the mighty acts of God, the magnalia Dei, the megala, the mirabilia, the magnalia, as they say in Latin—in Greek they say the megalia—all these wonderful, big acts of God, wonders of God, everything that he does is ultimately for the salvation of the world in Christ. So there is this thread running through all these sagas and stories and traditions that are recorded in the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Bible. They are all to show us the saving activity of God, to reveal God’s plan for the world, and they are all to show not the fidelity and the goodness of human beings; they are to show the fidelity and the goodness of God. They’re not to show the righteousness of men; they’re to show the righteousness of God; the sadaqah and the hesed of God is what the Bible is all about. The hesed is his steadfast love, his mercy, and the sadaqah is his righteousness, and the emet is his faithfulness, his truth.
As one great Jewish prophetic writer of our own time, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, the Bible is not a religious story about certain human beings about God; it’s God’s story about all human beings, first of all the Jews, but then all the Gentiles and all the nations, too. It is not a human version of God; it is the one and only version that God gives us, the one and only divine version of humanity and the meaning of the world and the meaning of history and the meaning of all creation, the meaning of humanity itself, and the meaning of everything. So it’s about the meaning of everything.
But that revelation about the meaning of everything, it is a drama, a saga, a history worked out between the one, true, and living God and creatures, and human beings. In the Hebrew Scriptures, that means the Hebrew people, and ultimately those who came to be known as the Jews. It’s about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the twelve tribes, and then it’s about Judah and it’s about Israel. That’s what it’s about. So ultimately it’s about Jesus. In fact, we Christians would say everything is about Jesus and the Jews, the Jews and Jesus. It’s about the people of God and their Messiah, and that has meaning for everyone and everything. In fact, we would say it has meaning for the whole universe, the whole cosmos.
But we read about this interaction, this synergeia, this collaboration of the righteous God with sinful people, and God wheeling and dealing with those whom he has and doing everything by his own grace. And here it’s very important to see that the Hebrew Scriptures are full of the grace of God, God’s gracious activity for the sake of the salvation of the world. Grace is not some kind of a radically exclusively New Testamental category. I know that 1 John would say that the law came through Moses, grace and truth through Jesus Christ, but the law itself is gracious. According to St. Paul himself, the law is holy, just, and good. The law is marvelously gracious, because it’s a gift of God. It’s a grace.
It’s poured out on people so people would know how to live and how to behave and how to do what they need to do so that ultimately the Messiah could be born. And they have to know what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad, what is true, what is false—so when they are bad and false and untrue and unrighteous, they would know that they are sinful; they would know that they are missing the point. This is the point of the entire Scripture, certainly the entire Old Testamental Scripture—the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets—until the appearance on earth of the Son of God, which this time of year we’re celebrating with the Nativity of Christ on Christmas and his Epiphany on the Jordan and his taking human flesh and his revelation in this world, for the sake of saving the world. He’s a Savior. His name is Jesus, which means “savior,” which means “victor,” which means “conqueror.”
Now, for today let’s just— we’ll just use Genesis. We won’t go much beyond Genesis today, just to make some kind of commentaries about this graciousness of God that’s dealing with very, very primitive, simple, crude people that God has to find, and the most marvelous thing is that he finds some who will believe in him. The quintessential believer is Abraham. He was reckoned righteous by his faith, so we see that that is there in the whole story, that there are those who will believe in him and try to follow him, but they will be far from perfect people, very far from perfect people. In fact, one of the lines of the New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews exactly, a New Testamental Scripture, speaks about those who by faith were righteous in the Old Testament. It doesn’t even say by virtue; it doesn’t say by moral goodness. It simply says by faith: by faith, by their belief in you, they led up to the time when Christ would come and Christ would be born.
So in the letter to the Hebrews, you even have a list: by faith Abel offered to God the more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. Noah, by faith built the ark and entered into it. Abraham, by faith obeyed God and left his country and went into the land of promise. By faith, Abraham offered up Isaac, his only son, to God. It says that all these died in faith; the patriarchs died in faith. Then it says by faith Isaac invoked the future blessings on Jacob and Esau. We’ll speak about that in a minute. By faith, Jacob when dying blessed his sons and the sons of Joseph, worshiping of the head of his staff. By faith Joseph himself at the end of his life made mention of the exodus of the Israelites. And it was by faith in God that Joseph was able to save the people when he was rejected and sold and betrayed by his brothers into Egypt. By faith Moses listened to God and led the people out of bondage and received the commandments. By faith even the prostitute Rahab, who is mentioned in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew, she was a harlot but she did not perish because she was obedient to God and helped God’s people.
Then it says all of these were made righteous and were well-attested by their faith. But then it says—it’s the last verse of the letter, chapter 11, of the letter to the Hebrews—this is what it says:
And all these, though well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that, apart from us, they should not be made perfect.
“Apart from us they should not be perfected.” So in the Old Testament we’re dealing with a whole bunch of imperfect people. The perfection only comes in Jesus. And then we’ll see that, later on, of course, we’ll talk about the fact that even the Christians, even after the Messiah, they still are apostate. They still are rebellious. They still hold the forms of religion but deny the power. There are still schisms and heresies and apostasies and wickedness and selling of sacraments, and there are still murderers of the saints and prophets all through Christian history. This terrible saga goes on until the end of the world, but after Christ it’s a saga exactly about infidelity to Christ the Messiah on the part of Christians themselves. That’s the whole Church history: the infidelity of Christians to Christ their Lord. Look at how many Christian groups we have. Look at the fighting among Christians. Look at the murdering of Christian by Christian. Look at the Christian kings that killed the saints, like John Chrysostom and Maximus and Basil and Theodore the Studite and Philip in Russia and Germogen and others. It’s all Christians killing Christians. It goes on all forever. Certainly it’s that way very particularly in the Old Testament.
Let’s just take a quick look here and see some of these things. For example, Cain and Abel. You know, in the letter to the Hebrews, it says by faith Abel was pleasing to God, and Cain the tiller of the ground was not. Then it says that God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but did not accept the sacrifice of Cain. Some people ask, “Well, why not?” In fact, some people say, “Well, God was partial to those who offered animal sacrifices, and he didn’t like those who offered agricultural sacrifices, like the fruit of the ground that Cain offered. That’s why God accepted Abel and rejected Cain.” That’s not very convincing, I don’t think. I think that the answer is rather given in the Scripture, where God says, when Cain is angry, the Lord says to him, “Why are you angry? Why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, and you must master it.” So it seems the text is saying that Cain’s offering wasn’t acceptable because he was acting sinfully or unfaithfully to God.
So God is dealing with his people as he knows how, but right here we have, right from the very beginning, that Abel is acceptable and Cain is not. Then a mark is even put on Cain. Read the story. Cain complains that his punishment is harder than he can bear, and then God says, “No, I will protect you,” and so on, so God is even merciful to Cain, the very first person who commits murder. He murders his brother, and yet God shows mercy to him, ultimately, and protects him. That’s a very important continuous part of the Scripture, too. God continuously shows mercy to those who are sacrilegious, blasphemous, impious, and unrighteous and sinful. In fact, if there’s anything about the Old Testament story, it’s the fidelity of God to have mercy on all, not just mercy on all of the wicked people of Israel and all the Jews and everybody else, but mercy on the whole of humanity. That’s the Gospel. The Gospel of Christ is that God shows mercy on all through the blood of Christ. He saves everyone, and the judgment will be whether or not we accept the mercy of Christ.
Here, by the way, it’s very important: It is not a Christian teaching that the Jewish rejection of the Messiah was in the crucifixion of Jesus. That’s totally ridiculous. The whole of humanity kills Jesus: the Jews and the Gentiles, the Jews and the Romans, the political people and the religious people, the priests and the politicians. The whole world is rising up against the Lord and against his Christ, as the psalm says. But then the judgment is: Do we accept the mercy of God when Christ is risen from the dead and forgives the whole world? Do we accept that forgiveness or not? That’s the key and the only important question that Christians would hold, and it’s the only important question on earth. Do people want the true God? Do they want the truth, and are they willing to accept mercy and forgiveness for their evils? We’re all in those evils, every single one of us, you and me and everybody else, you know.
Now, if you take the Genesis story, we can flip over to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is the quintessential believer. He believes God; he trusts him in everything. Nevertheless, he lies. He lies about Sarah. He’s ready to give Sarah—or Sarai at the time; his name hadn’t been changed yet—over to the Pharaoh. He’s going to let his wife be in the harem of the Egyptians, because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t do it, they’ll kill him because his wife is so beautiful. Abram says to Sarai, “I know you are a woman, beautiful to behold. When the Egyptians see you, they will say: This is his wife. They will kill me; then they will let you live. So tell them you’re my sister, that it may go well with me because of you.” And so then that happens. Then of course God reveals to the Egyptian Pharaoh that this is actually a married woman; she belongs to Abram. So he says, “Why did you do that? The Lord will afflict Pharaoh in his house with great plagues because of Sarai.” So the Pharaoh says to Abram, “Why have you done this to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? Why did you say: She is my sister?”
And Abram does exactly the same thing with Abimelech later on. Abimelech, the leader of the Moabites, who’s a descendant of the incest of Lot with his two daughters. You know, when Lot was in Sodom he was saved with two of his daughters, but when he goes to Zoar, he commits incest with both of those daughters, and they produce the Ammonites and the Moabites. This Moabite, Abimelech, he’s also lied to by Abram. It’s very interesting that Isaac will also lie about Rebecca to the very same Abimelech in the Genesis, saying, “She’s not my wife; she’s my sister.” In Genesis 20, Abraham said of Sarah, his wife, “She is my sister,” to Abimelech, and then Abimelech says, “Why did you do this again? Why did you lie to me?” It seems that this becomes a typos in the Bible, as we mentioned, and the same thing happens in the 27th chapter of Genesis, where Isaac does exactly the same thing with this story.
So this is what you’ve got. Now, that’s what God has. He’s got Abraham, he’s got Sarah, he’s got these people. They’re dealing with him. They’re willing to believe in him. He pledges fidelity to them. He promises that in their seed, the Christ—as St. Paul said, that one Seed—all the world will be blessed. But these are the kind of people that he’s dealing with.
Now, if we go, if we move from Abraham and Sarah and move to Isaac and Rebecca, then we see one of the most amazing stories of deceit in the holy Scripture. That is the 27th chapter of Genesis, actually, that I just mentioned. I said the chapter wrong just now. But it’s the story, the famous story, of Esau and Jacob, where Rebecca doesn’t want Esau to get the blessing of Isaac. So what does she do? She brings Esau, who’s the hairy man; Jacob is the smooth man. She wants Jacob to get the blessing. Jacob has already got the birthright from Esau, so then what happens?
When Isaac is very old, his wife Rebecca brings in the boys, brings in Jacob, dresses him up like Esau, covers him with skins so when the father whose eyes are dim feels him, he feels that he’s hairy; puts on the clothes so that he smells like Esau who was a hunter and out in the fields and has that agricultural smell about him; and then he even brings the special meal and the food for him to drink, and then what happens? Isaac blesses Jacob, who is not the firstborn. Then Esau comes in and asks Isaac for the blessing, and he doesn’t get it, because Isaac has already blessed Jacob. It’s a major deceit; it’s a huge lie. It’s a total manipulation to get the blessing of Isaac onto Jacob and not onto Esau, and it’s done by the loving wife of Isaac himself, Rebecca, the one whom he loved.
We’re familiar with that story, and Jacob just outrightly lies to Isaac. When Isaac says to him, “Who are you?” he says, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau,” and it wasn’t Esau; it was Jacob. Then he blesses him, and that’s why Jacob is even named “Jacob”; it means the supplanter, the one who takes the place of the other, and he does it by treachery; he does it by deceit; he does it by lying, together with his mother.
But here we would say all this has to take place so that the law of God could be fulfilled, because God wanted the promise to go from Abraham, through Isaac, through Jacob, and it’s Jacob who wrestles with the angel and becomes Israel, and it’s his twelve sons who become the twelve patriarchs of Israel. Now even Jacob had a story of deceit with him. Jacob loved Rachel, and he wanted her, so he asks her father, Laban, to give her to him. Laban says to Jacob, “Work seven years for me, and I’ll give her to you.” Jacob works seven years, and then when Jacob goes to bed at night, instead of sending Rachel in, Laban sends in Leah. Leah sleeps with Jacob and conceives the child, and he thinks that it’s— he doesn’t realize it, but he thinks that it’s Rachel. Then he wakes up and he realizes it’s not Rachel. So Jacob says to Laban, “What is this you’ve done to me? Why did I serve you all these seven years for Rachel? Why have you deceived me?” Laban says, “It is not so done in our country to give the younger before the firstborn. I have to give you Leah first, and then I can give you Rachel. Work another seven years, and you’ll get Rachel, too.” And that’s what poor Jacob has to do.
So he has two wives, Leah and Rachel, both. Then of course he has the concubines that they give him; he’s got the maids that they give him. He has all these children: Zilpah and Bilpah and all these people that Jacob is having children from. Then he produces the twelve tribes of Israel. Well, by you might say post-Christian standards of the 20th century, this is like wild stories! But they are wild stories because they were written in wild times, and God is working with these people to fill in his plan. Then we can even see what happens with the children of Jacob. We already saw how Judah produces the child who becomes the father of David when Tamar, his daughter-in-law, pretends to be a prostitute and seduces Judah so that she could have a baby, because her first two husbands are killed by God—Er for his wickedness, Onan for spilling his seed on the ground, and so on. So you have here this incredible deceit on the part of Tamar to get Judah to produce a baby for her.
Then this same Judah is the one who sells Joseph, and again he lies to the father. He says, “A wild beast has killed him. Here is his robe. It’s covered with blood.” In fact, they sold him; they betrayed him. It’s a prototype of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. Well, you have the Judas, the Judah of the Old Testament, with his brothers, selling Joseph into Egypt. It’s all done by a lie; it’s all done by treachery; it’s all done because of envy and jealousy. But here we would say that God’s plan has to be fulfilled through all of these particular activities. It’s God fidelity; it’s God using all of this stuff. But what he’s using is us.
Even in the end of Genesis, if we just end there for today, we even have another lie. The brothers go to Joseph after they are saved and say, “Our father, Israel-Jacob, before he died told us to tell you to forgive us.” Well, there’s no record that he told them that at all, but they were trying to save their skin. And Joseph didn’t even need that lie. He said, “Well, I’ll forgive you anyway,” and then he puts this whole story, and probably the most important form for us right now today—Joseph says, “Fear not, for I am in the place of God. As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today. So do not fear: I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he reassured them. And so he says to them that all of this is by the providence of God. It was the plan of God that all of this took place, and it was the plan of God not only to keep the people Israel alive so that later on they could be brought out of Egypt by Moses, but it was the plan so that God himself could come in the Person of Jesus Christ to save and redeem the whole world and to forgive everybody everything, including all those lies, treacheries, deceits, murders, and all the stuff that we find in the Old Testament.
So it’s all divine providence, and it’s soteriological providence. It’s gracious providence. It’s providence so that God’s plan would not be thwarted. But God has to work with the people he’s got. When you get into the book of Judges, man, you’ve got treachery and lying there all the time. One of the most juicy stories is in the fourth chapter of Judges when Ehud kills Eglan, and here Eglan also, by the way, is a Moabite king. So he’s also a descendant of the incest of Lot with one of his daughters. You have the Ammonite kings and the Moabite kings that the Israelites are fighting against. How does Ehud kill this guy? Well, he lies to him again. He tells, “I have a secret message for you from the king, but you have to be quiet, where nobody else could here. Tell all your attendants to leave our presence.” So this poor, fat, old Eglan, who’s like obese, he sends everybody out, and then when he sends everybody out, Ehud reaches in, takes his hand, takes his sword, and thrusts it through his belly. It says, the hilt went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, and he did not draw the sword out of his belly, and the dirt came out. And Ehud went out into the vestibule and left. And then the servants came in and they find this Eglan, dead on the ground, because he had been deceived and brought into the room so Ehud could kill him.
You have the same thing with Jael driving the spike through the head of Sisera in the book of Judges. The woman, who then works together with Deborah to keep the people going, in the midst of incredible evil, incredible deceit, incredible treachery, incredible violence and misery, total rejections of God and disobedience to God. But in the midst of it all, God is faithful, and that’s the edification of the holy Scripture. The Scriptures are inspiring and edifying not because of the behavior of people. The Scriptures are inspiring and edifying because God himself is incredibly, absolutely, amazingly, wondrously faithful, and he does all of this so ultimately he can save us, that he could forgive us, that he could have mercy on us.
Later on, all the prophets will say the same thing. They’ll say even the destruction of Israel, even the descending of the Babylonians, all of the Assyrians, the Persians, the Egyptians, everything that happened to those poor Hebrews and Jews, it’s all because of their sin. Jeroboam, Rehoboam—it’s all apostasy and blasphemy on the part of the people, idolatry. And God remains faithful. He does what he ‘s got to do, and what he’s got to do sometimes is just destroy everybody in sight. He destroys the idolaters, and he destroys the Israel people themselves, and Judah.
Then you get to the violence of God in the Old Testament, for the sake of his ultimate plan, where he will be the Victim of violence and save the world as the Suffering Servant. So this is what we have in the holy Scripture, and we’ll speak about that violence and the warfare and the blood next time.