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February 16 – The Torah: Jacob and Rachel

Jacob and Rachel

Today’s Bible reading

God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him.  God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel.  God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you.  The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”  Then God went up from him at the place where he had spoken with him.  Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it.  So Jacob called the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.” As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem),  and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. – Genesis 35:9-21

Jacob and Rachel by Abel Pann

Jacob and Rachel by Abel Pann

More thoughts for meditation

Jacob is Abraham’s grandson. His story is in Genesis 25-50.  His given name means “supplanter” or “one who grabs.” In the case of Jacob, he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heal when we was being born. Jacob later supplanted Esau as the heir of their father, Isaac.  After a night of struggling with an angle in chapter 32, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (one who wrestles with God). Jacob’s sons are the family leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The story of Jacob and his second wife, Rachel, is a great love story, along with a tale of how Israel is founded in unlikely ways by God’s mysterious direction. Jacob was sent by his father to find a wife from his uncle Laban’s family. He met Rachel at Laban’s well and for him, it was love at first sight. He single-handedly moved the great stone cover off of the well, perhaps trying to impress his future wife (Genesis 29:10-11). Jacob stayed with Laban’s family and within a month, he fell deeply in love with Rachel and determined to marry her. Laban convinced Jacob to work for him for seven years before he could have Rachel. Jacob agreed. Jacob cared for Rachel so much that the years “seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20).

After the seven years of labor, Laban agreed to allow Jacob to marry Rachel. In traditional wedding ceremonies, the bride usually had her entire face covered with only a small opening for the eyes. After Jacob married the woman and spent the night with his new bride he woke up in horror to discover that he had been tricked. Jacob thought that he had married Rachel but he had instead married her older sister, Leah. Jacob was outraged and when he confronted Rachel’s father Laban, the father told Jacob that it was customary to have the eldest daughter marry first. Laban said that Jacob could also marry Rachel if he agreed to work another seven years for him. Jacob, smitten by Rachel, quickly agreed and worked another seven years for Laban. Nothing could stop Jacob because “his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah…and he worked for Laban another seven years” to secure Rachel for his wife (Gen 29:30). Jacob had once deceived his brother Esau and had tricked him out of his rightful birthright. Now it was Jacob’s turn to be tricked.

Jacob’s other wife, Leah, had several children but Rachel remained barren. Rachel once said that if she didn’t have children she would die (Gen. 30:1). She eventually gave birth. As this growing, nomadic tribe was on the move again, Rachel had problems with her second labor, she  “began to give birth and had great difficulty….and as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, ‘Don’t despair, for you have another son.’ As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin” (Gen 35:16-18). Ben-Oni means “son of my trouble” but Jacob, now called Israel, named him Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand.” This may have been due to Rachel’s being Jacob‘s favorite wife or his “right hand“ to him. Perhaps Benjamin, was named after her.

“So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb” (Gen 35:19-20). Rachel had died but Jacob’s love for her never did. Jacob loved Rachel at first sight and at last sight. He set up a marker so he could come visit her and let people know how he honored her.

In the New Testament Rachel is mentioned during the account of Herod searching out and killing boys who might be the Messiah. Matthew quotes Jeremiah, whose prophecy is fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Ramah is the territory in which Bethlehem is situated. She who had so much trouble being married and then giving birth is a sympathetic ear for mothers weeping over their lost children.

Suggestions for action

Let’s appreciate the love and loss so vividly described in these ancient and influential stories of Jacob and Rachel. Part of why the stories are preserved is because they enshrine great truths: love and family matter, and most of all, God’s guidance and blessing are the foundation of true life. Loss, deception, and violence may mar our way, but the Lord guides our steps.

In your family and in your schedule today, how must you trust God?

Here is a moralistic version of the story on video for the kids which encourages the Leahs of the world.

February 15 – The Torah: Abraham

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Genesis 15:1–21

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

More thoughts for meditation

The story of Abraham (originally Abram) can be found in Genesis 11:26-25:10. He is the premier “patriarch” of Judaism—the first tribal leader or forefather. His story revolves around the themes of descendants and land.

Abraham is called by God to leave the house of his father Terah in Ur (modern day southern Iraq) and settle in the land originally given to one of Noah’s sons, Canaan. In faith and obedience, he sets out. He struggles but prospers.

He makes a place for himself and his descendants in Canaan. Various candidates are put forward who might inherit the land after Abraham, but all are dismissed except for Isaac, his son by his half-sister Sarah. Abraham purchases a tomb in Hebron to be Sarah’s grave (the Cave of the Patriarchs, purportedly at the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque). By this he establishes his right to the land. His heir, Isaac, marries a woman from his own kin, thus ruling the Canaanites out of any inheritance. Abraham later marries Keturah and has six more sons; but on his death, when he is buried beside Sarah, it is Isaac who receives “all Abraham’s goods,” while the other sons receive only “gifts”

Most ancient stories are of questionable historicity in present terms. But many scholars believe Abraham’s life relates to a period in actual history. Regardless, the influence of his life is great. Jesus refers to him when speaking back to people who thought their descent from Abraham gave them special privileges.

“Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God,” though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:54-59).

Suggestions for action

In several places in the Old and New Testament, Abraham is called “the friend of God,” Including this one:

You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:22-24).

James is reflecting on today’s reading.

Abraham followed God by faith and was blessed with wealth, security, long life and intimacy with God because of it. God made his first covenant with Abraham. Look into your future as Abraham looked up to the stars and believe what God promises to you. Can you write down five things that you are promised by God? How do you see the Lord’s covenant with you?—what does that covenant mean to God?

The story in animation, if you care to see it.

Check out the Bible Project summary of Genesis [link]

February 14 – The Torah: Moses

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy 

But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”  Exodus 4:6-15

More thoughts for meditation

To get started on our Old Testament Overview, let’s reduce a huge topic to a few themes.

1) We are going to explore the text according to the arrangement in the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible, called the Tanakh. The word is an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the Masoretic Text‘s three traditional subdivisions: Torah (“Teaching”, also known as the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”).

If you look at your Bible, you’ll see that the Old Testament ends with the Prophets; the last book is Malachi, who predicts Elijah’s return before the “day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5-6) or the “messianic age.” If you go to the Tanakh, the Nevi’im (Prophets) appears in the middle, followed by Ketuvim. Here, the last words fall to King Cyrus of Persia (2 Chr. 36:23), whose edict tells the Babylonian exiles, “Whoever is among you of all his people…Let him go up”—that is, go home. The two collections tell a different story: the Old and New Testaments focus on the end of Israel’s land-bound salvation, with the book of Revelation showing the restoration of the whole earth; the Tanakh speaks of returning to the homeland.

2) We are going to explore the text according to stories about people. The Old Testament is a large collection of many kinds of literature. But all the writings are connected to a story of people: often individuals, but certainly the people called Israel.

So we will start with the Torah and focus on Moses (the traditional author of the “books of Moses” : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

“Torah” means instruction and offers a way of life for those who follow it. It consists of the foundational narrative of Jewish peoplehood: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of moral and religious obligations and civil laws. Most scholars teach that the final form of the written books were a product of the Babylonian captivity (c. 600 BC), based on earlier written and oral traditions, and completed by about 400 BC. Pre-captivity fragments have been found, however, which suggests that at least some elements of the written Torah are much older.

Moses Viewing the Promised Land — Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was born in a time when his people, the Israelites, an enslaved minority, were increasing in numbers, and the Egyptian Pharaoh was worried that they might ally themselves with Egypt’s enemies. Moses’ mother secretly hid him when the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew boys to be killed in order to reduce the population of the Israelites. Through the Pharaoh’s daughter, the child was adopted after she found him in the Nile River, so he grew up with the Egyptian royal family. After killing an Egyptian slavemaster (because the slavemaster was killing a Hebrew), Moses fled across the Red Sea to Midian, where he encountered The Angel of the Lord, speaking to him from within a burning bush on Mount Horeb/Sinai, the “Mountain of God”

God sent Moses back to Egypt to demand the release of the Israelites from slavery. Moses said that he could not speak with assurance or eloquence, so God allowed Aaron, his brother, to become his spokesperson. After inducing the Ten Plagues, Moses led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, after which they based themselves at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses died within sight of the Promised Land.

Suggestions for action

Moses is considered the greatest of Israel’s prophets. Jesus spoke of him: Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:45-7)

Moses instituted a civil government which illustrated the kingdom of God upon earth. His maxims and laws gave his people a way of life. The worship practices he instituted typified the redemptive mercy of God in the life and atoning death of Christ. He himself was a type of Christ whose work, Paul says, was a “tutor for Christ.”

Yet on the Mountain of God, he was unsure, as today’s reading shows. Take your journal and write down everything you know God did through Moses. In the next paragraph, write down everything you think God might like to do through you. A regular teaching in the Torah is that God does not need the biggest, best or brightest to accomplish goals. Consider who has sent you.

Here is the story of Moses in animation.

Today is Valentine Day! Be encouraged by this spiritual ancestor at Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body.

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