Story is a major style of communicating God’s relationship with humanity. Across the pages of Scripture, we can read story after story of how God encountered a person’s life, and deep change followed. Some of the stories demonstrate a positive outcome and other stories illustrate judgement. In fact the whole Bible is framed within the context of lineage, a family tree, beginning with Abraham (Mt 1) or Adam (Luke 3) depending on which composition you read. Matthew’s Gospel points out that it is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob formed the roots of the family tree. And, it is Luke’s Gospel that help us to see how Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not the beginning of the covenant, but the covenant stretched all the way back to Adam. Luke sees Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as just one of the family stories in the global picture of God’s original design. To be sure the original intent hinges on these family stories of a God who sees his people and desires for their faithfulness to be rewarded with more family
First born sons in the ANE were valuable in sustaining the family tree. With the level of difficulty in living everyday life choices were made to ensure that the family lineage would survive. One way to ensure the continuation of the family was the dispersion of resources. The first born would receive a double portion, or twice the inheritance, as an investment for the longevity of the family name. The first born were indebted to their father, and were expected to sustain the family compound.
Some people understand these stories as the Old and New Testaments, but perhaps the best translation is “covenant.” The whole concept of “covenant” has gotten lost with our culture. But the original composers understood the concept of “covenant” as an abiding relationship. The Hebrew word is berit (covenant). Covenant is much like a contract or treaty. We witness Abraham walking the promised land seeking to wheel-and-deal with his neighbors to secure his safety in their relationships. These negotiations invited the neighboring people to become like family with a level of responsibility and privilege that came with being considered a part of the family. In a sense, the covenant agreement created what we understand as a platform for adoption.
In our video clip Sandi Richter points out the essential details of our relationship with God is founded in the Old Testament understanding of cutting a covenant. Where two parties are investing in a lifetime relationship with one another. This covenant is an everlasting covenant (oath, command, statute, and a sworn promise). The covenant helps the people of God to remember the promise made of the suzerain/vassal relationship, and the purpose of that promise. Politics and military alignments went hand-and-hand with ANE covenant agreements. When a stronger community group was dominant in the area, they would operate in a “lord/suzerain” and “servant/vassal” manner. In many ways the relationship is not unlike what we would understand as tenant farming in America where the tenant act as a caretaker. The “servant/vassal” would make an allegiance to serve only one “lord/suzerain.”
The word for this in Hebrew is called hesed (love, mercy, loving kindness, faithfulness, loyalty, and goodness). Perhaps a New Testament way of understanding the hesed is the fruit of God’s Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-23). This kind of relationship is worth singing about! Hesed is both eternal and temporal, and is based in the dependent relationship of those who cry out to God himself when they are in trouble. By contrast those who do not cry out to God – those who are wicked and those who are strong – do not seek dependency upon God. God will support those who know themselves as sinner, helpless, troubled, hungry, and thirsty. Those who know they need a deeper prayer life are those who are in position to receive God’s hesed.
The covenant inspires the people to seek the presence of God and the power promised from the commitment. This covenant has become the identity of God’s people on earth as provided by the ruach (breath of God). The ruach brings new life. This covenant is not simply with words, but implies action and behavioral modifications. The steadfast rule of the Lord God reaches into both heaven and earth with boundless sovereignty. His rule is profoundly merciful and compassionate to those who cry for his help. He is gracious and slow to anger. Let us further consider the hesed of the Lord. The acts of hesed by God’s people toward their opposition is based in covenant relationship. God’s people should not expect hesed from others but they will receive restitution from God himself. Forgiveness is extended to those who will humble themselves, and return to the covenant lifestyle. To live in hesed toward God and neighbor implies that the vassal perform at their very best in the relationship.
I quote one of my favorite characters from the motion picture Star Wars, “Do or do not; there is not try!” says Yoda. The bible teaches us that we are to be whole-hearted followers of God. I like the way the Facing the Giants coach inspires his less than inspiring football team, “Do your best…your very best! Then… leave the results up to God.” In John’s Revelation we learn that God wants us hot, not luke-warm in our commitment to the covenant. God calls his people to live in full-commitment to the covenant even into the next generation. If you want to study and understand hesed, the best place to look is in the Book of Psalms. Throughout the psalms, the concept of God’s love toward his people is spelled out in vivid details. One main ingredient in the covenant is the repetitive nature of God’s commissioned people to carry this covenant forward to the next generation.
We understand the whole of the bible is based in family systems, and that anyone who wants to join the covenant may do so by choosing a different lifestyle. The lifestyle is one of covenant with God. The covenant is passed on by remembering together the mighty acts of God for God’s people. Those stories are handed down from generation to generation. God has ordained every generation to instruct the young to not wander in the wilderness or be like their ancestors. This generational blessing is to be shared with the retelling of family stories about God. Our personal stories also need to be remember and told. Our testimonies aid us in overcoming temptations and strife in our battle against the enemy of our soul (Rev. 12.11). Judas was in Jesus’ inner circle of the covenant life, but he broke covenant with God by betraying him and aligning himself with another suzerain/vassal relationship.
The key to a covenant relationship is surrounded by obedience because we have been loved, loved with a kind of love that is deeply merciful, completely faithful, and tremendously loyal. Covenant is bound with blessings and curses (Deut 28.1-14, 15-68). To be sure both heaven and earth have been called to witness to our covenant keeping agreement (Deut 30.19-20). The ten commandments were cut in two pieces of stone (earth) and written with the finger of God (heaven).
According to Sandra Richter in her book The Epic of Eden, covenant requires the vassal to pay tribute, offer sacrifice, fight wars, obey laws, and remain faithful to the suzerain who is God himself (90)! God desires for his people to understand their role in creation as tenant and stewards of created ordered, and to recognize his authority over all of creation. This is the kind of relationship that Abraham sough from God himself when he cut-covenant in Genesis 15. In essence when God promised Abraham the land and decedents as numerous as the stars, sand, and soil, God was saying, “May what has happened to these animals (which were cut in half) happen to me if I fail to keep my oath” (Jeremiah 34.18-22). We are given a hint at the personalities of the boys already at odds with each other in the womb. One will be stronger, the older will serve the younger. Their appearance is completely different as well as their interests. They were different in their intellect and spirituality.
To be sure Esau was disinterested in the covenant relationship that came with the birthright. Perhaps he assumed that his father’s love for him over his brother would circumvent any disregard for the birthright. The right of the firstborn is to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deut 21.15-17). Esau did not forfeit his position in the family, but his behavior was reckless. Isaac intended to leave everything to the oldest son and leave nothing for the younger twin. Traditionally, both boys were to be present at the blessing and share in it. Jacob received a four-part blessing: provisions of the land, negotiations with the nations, leadership in the family, and covenant promise from God. There was nothing left to pronounce for Esau except the opposite of the blessing! Jacob was responsible now to find a suitable wife to ensure the family tree would continue. Jacob has been sent away without the family fortune to pay for a bride.
What secures Jacob’s future at the heir to the covenant promise to Abraham is the Lord’s appearance to him personally. The other component that brings assurance that God intends to bless Jacob is the promise, “I will be with you.” Divine Encounter becomes a place of worship. Dreams and night visions are common experiences in the bible. Fresh understanding of God’s name, character and nature are common to those who carry God’s promise. God is not deterred by Jacob’s behavior of making a deal for a birthright, or masquerading as his brother to gain favor with his father. And, now Jacob is marking a place with a boundary stone that this is God’s place. This journey that Jacob is on will soon be defined by his self-development.
The very bait-and-switch technique that won Jacob a birthright has now been used against Jacob. Life lessons! Favoritism continues to plague the family relationships. And, in our next sermon we will see how favoritism will send Joseph to Egypt as a slave. Barrenness continues in the storyline from Sarah to Rebekah and now beloved Rachel. Jacob begins his life in a struggle. There are three notes in the text of the struggle (Gen 25.22, 23, 24). The “boys pushed against each other inside of her,” “two nations…two different people…one people will be stronger than the other,” and “his brother came out gripping Esau’s heel.” Jacob continues to struggle as he invites Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25.31). Even Jacob’s mother and father get involved in the wrestle between the boys by taking favorites (Gen. 25.27-28). To be sure Isaac was planning to bless his favorite son to the exclusion of the other, Jacob. It is Rebekah who intervenes on Jacob’s behalf (Gen. 27.1-17, 42-46).
Esau will weep loudly, pleading for a blessing from his father’s hand, which he will not receive. Isaac had no intention of leaving anything to Jacob. At the root of this family dysfunction is favoritism between children, as well as a lack of parenting on Isaac’s part regarding marriage choices. Esau apparently did not understand that Isaac was displeased with his choice to marry the local ladies. Esau has an ah! Moment as he recognized his father’s displeasure and realized his wives were unaccepted in the family (Gen 28.6, 8).
After many years of servitude to his father-in-law, Jacob is called to return home (Gen. 31.13). God had been watching over Jacob all along, and now God is calling Jacob to keep his “solemn promise” to fulfill the covenant (Gen. 28.10-22). When Jacob follows God home, Jacob discover a pacified Esau. When 400 men approach you, expect trouble. But Jacob had sent a procession ahead of him, surely Esau was intimidated. Jacob uses the word chen (favor, goodwill, grace) as he seeks reconciliation with his brother that he might reenter the land of promise (Gen. 8, 10, 15). In the New Testament we witness a son who has left his home, and finds his way back. It seems that a greeting of rejoicing is met with running, hugs, kisses, & crying (Gen. 33.4). Jacob is bowing himself before Esau as a vassal to the suzerain, submitting to his brother’s lordship in covenant.
There are difficult seasons in our lives when we seek God’s will. We yearn for God to be our suzerain, the one who holds us in the palm of his hands and cares for us. We fight our own flesh as we surrender to his Lordship as we become his vassal, the one who submits. Our responsibility is to remain in that covenant relationship so that God watches over us. And, it is in the midst of our chaotic family system that God will care for us if we but only surrender to his covenant.
Everyday discipleship requires our full attention. Wesley’s 22 Holiness Questions are a great way to reflect on whether you are remaining in God’s grace. Take time with God this week in meditative reflection. When we search ourselves, we find our relationship with God is strengthened. Click here to read the questions!