The Best Way to Become Strong is through a Montage: Exodus 3 – 4:17

The Great Burning Bush. Moses Approaches. God Reveals His Plans. Moses Will Free the Israelites. Fear. Slow Tongue. God Will Help. Aaron Will Help. Now Go!

[The Lord said to Moses] “Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

Exodus 4:12 (NIV)

Moses and the Burning Bush, attributed to Dirk Bouts

Moses and the Burning Bush, attributed to Dirk Bouts

I have always been more inspired by weakness rather than strength. When I see someone in their most raw form, I often empathize more strongly with their plight and find their point of view much more understandable. The world needs strong people, no doubt, and to quote every children’s television show ever made, we all have our strengths to contribute to society. However, I am turned off by this need to believe in infallible heroes. I understand the desire to believe in mythological flawless individuals – it creates a standard for us to strive for. However, I believe that pushing any human being onto that pedestal somehow strips them of an element – commonality. I am not perfect, so why would I want to interact with someone who is? Show me a normal person doing a great thing, and you will have my attention.

As such, I was immediately attracted to Moses. After escaping to Midian, he comes across God in the form the famous burning bush. God instructs Moses to go back to Pharaoh and demand the release of the imprisoned Israelites. But Moses is nervous. He is not eloquent in speech and cannot lead other men with efficacy. But God does not relent. He will provide the words to say, the directions to follow. All Moses needs to do is believe. Cue the musical montage.

I think a weakened protagonist is absolutely essential to this tale. For those of the Judeo-Christian faiths, it is inspirational, as it shows that God relies on those of all abilities to do his bidding. More importantly, however, I believe that it reveals the vital importance of human limitations. And it gives me a little bit of hope in the Christian faith.

Recently, the Catholic Church, led by Pope Francis, made a landmark change in their church-wide approach towards homosexuality. They admitted that there were good and even healthy elements to same-sex partnerships, and that the queer community had talents to contribute to both society at large and within their own church communities. While this was a far cry from complete equality (and was a neutered version of a previous, more-accepting draft), it was certainly a step in the right direction. But before I begin clapping the rosaries together, however, I think that the mere existence of the statement reveals a far more devastating fact. Prior to this memo, the Catholic Church officially saw no utility in homosexuals. LGBT individuals inhabit all corners of the workforce, so I cannot generalize this to be true for society in general. However, it remains a startling detail. Homosexuality was viewed to be such a large weakness that queer folks were thought to have nothing of value to contribute to everyone else. Too busy with all the unabashed monkey sex to do anything useful, I suppose.

But when I think about it, perhaps homosexuality is a weakness of sorts. From an evolutionary stand point, homosexuals are less likely to reproduce and create a continuity for their genetic code, a big no-no to Mother Nature. We are more likely to contract certain sexually transmitted infections, though those that take precautions hedge that risk significantly. Also, LGBT individuals are much more likely to attempt or commit suicide, due partly to public scorn but also to the confusion that occurs when a person’s nature conflicts with how he or she was nurtured. Self-doubt is not a quality that Mother Nature expects in its species that end up thriving. While these are all biological limitations (once again, of sorts), they do not imply any deficiency in overall utility or ability. But there are still those out there that believe being LGBT somehow implies a deep impairment. Many think that it is a sickness to the human soul. Many think that pursuing romance with consenting adults is somehow sinister. That our love is dangerous. Some people still think that it is a choice. But I must say, I would worry for the neurological well being of the teen boy or girl who chooses homosexuality. He or she would likely be a masochist. Why take on a personality facet that immediately disgusts half the culture? I mean, the Red Cross won’t even let us give blood.

People typically do not like their weaknesses highlighted, and yet, it is what attracts me to a person the most. There is humility is acknowledging human weakness, and I would much rather approach an individual stumbling just like me than to talk to some flawless hero. I love Moses because he stammers and flounders. What humanity. That is a person I am willing to get behind, because I know that he views himself like one of the rest of us. I do not mean to equalize all individual achievement and ability; it goes without saying that certain individuals are much more equipped to handle some positions than others. And some weaknesses cannot be overcome, thus precluding the individual from performing certain tasks or achieving distinct accomplishments. We still need the “specially talented” – our economy relies on it. It is true… Our society does need some heroes.

But on a personal level? I’d much rather hang out with the stutterer. See you later Joseph. I am rooting for Moses.

I am a Saint. I Want My Free Pass: Exodus 1 – 2

Joseph Forgotten. Slavery. Torment. Hopelessness. Kill the Boys. Then: Enter Moses, Drifting Down the Nile. Raised by Pharaoh’s Daughter. But: Murder. Moses Flees.

Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Exodus 2:12 (NIV)

Moses rescued from the Nile, 1638, by Nicolas Poussin.

Moses rescued from the Nile, 1638, by Nicolas Poussin.

School weeks climaxed on Fridays at 2 pm when the teachers gave up and let us run around outside. But Middle Schoolers couldn’t quite handle all that freedom and still craved some structure, so the free time always evolved into a group game organized by the eighth graders. They always picked something they could easily win. They voted. Dodge ball: Eighth versus all. Line up on the foul line.

The eighth graders took the more dilapidated side of the court, which seemed to Mr. Conrad an act of goodwill on their part, but it was all strategy. If you managed to sink a ball into the other team’s basket, then all your fallen team members came back in off the line. See, they wanted us to have to aim for their crooked, oval-ish net, while they got our sleek upright one. No gift – All strategy.

All games became competitive to me, especially when the cards were stacked against the underdogs. I particularly loved dodge ball and fancied myself a stellar player, but in reality, I was only average. My body was 90% limbs, and my physique resembled a stop sign (big head – thin frame). The game of dodge ball wasn’t designed to meet my strengths. I dove and pitched and slammed and found myself out somewhere in the middle of the game. I picked myself up and joined my fallen comrades on the side, a dozen of us or more. We would fall to the older regime once again, and they would gloat straight through homeroom into the bus line and then the whole ride home.

I looked back at the game. Every few seconds, another youngen fell, and only a handful remained in total. We were running out of time. We needed to make a move, something drastic – hit ‘em where they live (I had heard my grandparents say that before). That’s right. I needed to hit them right where they live. I looked back at the distracted players, and without thinking, hopped right back into the game. I expected someone, Mr. Conrad perhaps, to call me out for cheating, but no one noticed. I rejoined my fellow players, as if I was never out in the first place.

It came to pass that I was the last one left alive. Somehow, I had managed to hide close enough to the back so the others were picked off first. The eighth graders assembled at the half court line to begin a series of rapid-fire ball rockets to get me out and end the game. Only one hope remained. I needed to sink the basket.

I kicked a semi-inflated ball up into my hand and approached the line. The eight graders took their aim and fired. And as the thirty red balls (and one yellow one) sailed towards me, I lobbed up a hook shot towards the crooked rim. Swish. Straight in! My entire team stormed off of the line, dug me out of the mountain of balls piled on top of me, and launched their counter attack. We won. Because I had cheated.

Mr. Conrad blew his whistle to signal the end of the day. Back to home rooms, guys and gals. He came up to me and pulled me into a tight side hug, walking me back towards the front door of the school.

Good shot, Jesse, he said.
Thanks, it was luck, but –
He leaned his head into my ear. I won’t tell anyone. Then he let me go and walked off.

Moses starts things off on the wrong foot. The days of Joseph are long gone, and now, the Israelites have become an over-populated annoyance to the Egyptians. To combat this, Pharaoh enslaves them and demands the midwives to kill all future baby boys. A Hebrew woman ignores this and gives birth to a beautiful baby boy. When she cannot hide him from the Egyptians any longer, she places him in a covered basket and sends him down the Nile, to whatever God’s destiny for him may be. But luck! Pharaoh’s own daughter discovers the basket in the reeds with the swaddled boy inside. She takes him in as her own and names him Moses.

We all know that part of the story. The most atheist person in the room knows that story. However, I forgot about this next part.

One day, when Moses is much older, he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, and in anger, he charges and kills the Egyptian man. He ensures that no one saw him do this and buries the body in the sand. He got away with it, until. Soon after, Moses tries to separate two fighting Israelite, but one snaps back at him: “Are you going to kill us like you killed that Egyptian man?“ Moses knows that this information is dangerous. He gives up his status with Pharaoh and flees to the nearby Midian.

I have spoken recently about the idea of the greater good, and how God clearly employs this method when divvying up roles for all of His followers. He put Judah through the ringer, which resulted in two dead sons and a dead wife, all for the greater good. I know that Moses obviously plays a huge role in the future of Israel and that God plans to have him liberate the Israelites. But his sin which led him to flee is despicable. He committed murder. Our punishment bar set for this sin is eternal banishment and a permanent status as a transient (Cain). And Moses gets a free pass. He leaves on his own accord, likely to avoid the punishment he would have received in Egypt. Hmm.

I have heard it said that all sins are equal in God’s eyes, but all punishments are not. Circumstance and, yes, favoritism factor in when it comes to retribution. Life isn’t fair, and God planned it that way. He doesn’t really care to hear your criticisms on the matter. I struggled with that, and it’s something my parents reminded me over and over. You will get passed over for things you deserve, and you’ll get away with things you shouldn’t have. Just ignore all of it.

I think Mr. Conrad knew that. He allowed, by letting my transgression slide, the youngens to overtaken the eighth graders. The older guys’ arrogance had deflated to an appropriate amount, and their heads had lost some volume. The youngens had grown some confidence, and our sense of independence had solidified. There was so much greater good at stake if my sin had been revealed and punished. I said nothing. Mr. Conrad said nothing. And it ended right there.

The scales will never be equal. So just go do some good, and stop complaining.

Act II – It Was All Part of the Plan: Genesis 40 – 50

Prophecy of Famine. Promotion. Bounty. Devastation. Joseph’s Brothers Come to Egypt. Joseph Tricks Them. He Reveals Himself. Jacob Travels to See Joseph. He Dies in Peace. Joseph Dies in Peace.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Genesis 50:18 (NIV)

House of Israel welcomed by Pharaoh, watercolor by James Tissot (c. 1900)

House of Israel welcomed by Pharaoh, watercolor by James Tissot (c. 1900)

Lights up on a recently revived Joseph. The Pharaoh calls upon the Interpreter of Dreams for a particularly confusing set of nightmares. Fat cows eating sleeks ones. Crows circling. The sun scorching stalks of corn. Joseph understands these images as a dangerous prophecy: seven years of bountiful food followed by seven years of famine. Start preparing now, because it is all headed downhill in the near future. Joseph impresses Pharaoh with his interpretation, so Pharaoh ups the ante. He makes Joseph his second in command and charges him to prepare Egypt for the forthcoming famine.

Once the devastation hits and the crops dry up, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt for respite and guidance. Joseph recognizes them immediately, and once he reveals his identity to them, they are visibly shaken. Here stands their brother, the one they plotted to kill and sold into slavery. A man they knowingly cast aside and sent into a torturous endeavor. Surely Joseph will now seek his revenge.

But Joseph embraces the, forgives them. It was all for the greater good, a piece of God’s plan. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.

It is true what you have heard: God will allow bad things to happen to you for the sake of the greater good. And if He so chooses to allow any misfortune to enter your life, you are not to let it be a reason to fall from Him. Remain vigilant and obedience. And this commandment of obedience comes with an unspoken addendum. To obey is not enough. You must also be happy to do it – like Joseph. Your child must not only learn the words to Jesus Loves Me; he must also smile while he sings it. We are to be content with our role, no matter how much pain it causes and how little attention we receive for it. There is a possibility for misery. It may cost your life as a martyr. Alternatively, obedience may also pass without affecting your quality of life in any way. You may live uninterrupted. It all depends on where in His picture you figure. But it is not a threat; do not mistake it for such. Because there is a gift for remaining steadfast. We achieve eternal life. It is for the continuation of our lives that we believe. It is a form of survival. We will gain the Great Reward.

Wait.

Modern Christians cannot make a pitch to non-believers about faith without going into the inherent benefit, namely eternal life. John 3:16 is the most quoted verse in the Bible for this reason, for it epitomizes the entire draw of Christianity:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

Bam. Simple. What a concise pitch. Sacrifice (believe in Him) equals reward (eternal life). But what about these men and women who existed in a time without Jesus? I came to the realization that when these holy men of the Bible prepared to pass away, they held within them no hope of continuity. They prepared themselves for a true eternal sleep. So without the dangling reward of eternal life, what motivated them to follow God with such vigor? What did they think they would get from following Him?

They received agency. They became part of God’s holy lineage. They were cast in the leading role. And we have seen how important they viewed this possibility. Men have killed their brothers and tricked their fathers to get that distinction.

They were content acting as a cog in the machine and then passing away to eternal death – the punishment promised to Adam and Eve. They fought for the greater good; they counted it as an honor. For to become a “great name,” even without the continued awareness to see it to its end, was its own reward. That differs drastically from the motivations of the Christian people today, and it shows how faith in God has most definitely evolved from these beginnings. Pre-Christ motivation involved building a great fleet of ships to conquer the world, while the post-Christ version concerns itself with getting the most souls on the lifeboats. Our time is running out, and there is no “nation of Abraham” left to build. Grab the women and children and get out before we find ourselves on the bottom of the Atlantic, on our way to Hell.

I read stories like Joseph and worry. This story was taught to me as a child as an example of how God will utilize bad events for His glory, and how we must push through adversity to see that plan through – as if my determination would have any effect on the outcome. What am I to God? Am I a tool of His that he actually relies on to do His bidding? Joseph understood his role. He existed and suffered, as he said, to “save lives”. But I believe that Joseph must have known that God would have found another way, had he fallen by the wayside. Donny Osmond might be the leading man, but there is always an understudy waiting in the wings. He wasn’t that important. I ran into this same problem while reading the Tower of Babel. If the idea that we actually pose a threat to God is absurd, then I must understand that I am also not a tangible benefit to Him either. My lifeblood and worship do not make Him stronger, do not benefit Him directly. Rather, following God must be an opportunity that He is affording us, something that we can take or leave and will have no bearing whatsoever on the final product. The bus is leaving and will reach its destination whether or not we are on board. To come to this conclusion means that I must completely devalue myself in front of God.

This is where I am. If God loves us, then it must be equitable to the love a parent has for their child. I am of no utility to my parents, and they do not rely on me to accomplish anything for them. But they love me all the same, and if I want a part of their legacy, I am free to join them. But without me, they will survive. Jacob lived without Joseph for decades. He somehow managed.

Maybe that is the grace of God. He doesn’t really need us. He gains nothing by saving us. But He wants us all the same.

Intermission – Karma is King: Genesis 38

Judah’s Trials.

…For [Judah] thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.”

Genesis 38:11b (NIV)

Judah and Tamar by Horace Vernet

Judah and Tamar by Horace Vernet

God doesn’t change. But His tactics do. Consider this:

Judah commits a grievous sin. Out of jealousy and anger, he sells his brother Joseph into slavery. Then, he lies about it to their father Jacob, leading him to believe that Joseph died at the hands of a wild animal and presents his tainted robe as false proof. Then:

Judah leaves Canaan. We don’t know why.
He travels to Adullam in order to find a wife. Enter Shua, a Canaanite. They marry and sleep together and have three children, in order: Ur, Odan, and Shelah. Shua dies. We don’t know why.
Ur, the eldest, comes of age and marries Tamar. And so the bloodline may continue. But before they can conceive together, God puts Ur to death. We don’t know why.
Judah commands Odan to sleep with Ur’s wife to provide her with a righteous male. He sleeps with her, but does not want to give her a child that would not rightfully be in his name, so he ejaculates on the ground beside her during sex. God puts Odan to death. We do know why. He disobeyed his father’s command.
Only one son remains alive. Judah realizes that his youngest Shelah will now have to sleep with Tamar when he comes of age, to continue their line. But he worries. He realizes, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” Fear.
Tamar decides to trick Judah into sleeping with her. We don’t know why for certain, but we can guess. She probably wants to continue the line without waiting for Shelah to grow, because he may die as well.
Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah. Judah, not realizing that he slept with his daughter-in-law, sees that she is pregnant and condemns her to death for prostitution. She reveals the truth. The child is his. This baby is now the heir. He announces that Tamar is more righteous than he is. We don’t know why.
She bears twins. Brothers. End of Genesis Chapter 38. Back to Joseph.

This narrative absolutely terrifies me. It is not the harsh depictions of capital punishment, or the clear connection between morality and mortality, or even the curt descriptions of God’s judgment. It is the fear.  

Much of this passage leaves us in the dark in terms of motive. We get generic descriptions and loose connections between what happens and what results. But then, after the death of his two sons, Judah worries openly that his third may be put to death as well. Tamar then goes to extreme lengths in order to ensure that their lineage does not end with her and Judah. Let me repeat that: Tamar feared the wrath of God so much that she tricked her father-in-law into impregnating her. That must have been an astounding level of fear, and it is one that led to extreme actions in order to quell. And it is one that Judah feels equally strongly himself, evident in the fact that he celebrates Tamar’s righteousness for finding a way to their heir, however devious her methods may have been.

As a child, it blew me away whenever I learned that someone in the Bible went against God or didn’t have faith. I understood the sweeping “Biblical era” to be a fantasy-style card game, where God spewed His powers from the clouds. Everyone must have encountered the wrath and love from God on a first-hand basis – seen it with their own eyes. And to me, that was so much easier than how God interacted with us in modern times. It seemed like, more than anything, we were constantly making educated guesses based on inner-felt longings towards stimuli, and then called it being “led by the Holy Spirit.” But these ancient men and women had no excuse. It was all laid out for them.

Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden? God said don’t eat from the tree – easy!
Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt? God said don’t look back – preventable!
Build an ark? Done. Sacrifice first born? Do it. Provide an heir? Now.

It was so simple back then.

But this story differs, because the cause-and-effect is merely implied. We know that Judah sins by selling Joseph into slavery, and then a bunch of horrible crap starts happening to him. There must be a connection, a dour dose of karma. And Judah must realize that. His wife dies. One son dies, and then the other dies. When will it stop? When will God’s wrath be fulfilled and the punishments end? And why are some sins repaid ten fold while others appear to sneak by unchecked?

We don’t know why.

My previous faith in God was based entirely in this fear of this unknown – that bad things would happen to me if I didn’t follow the letter of the Word. I joined the Christian faith due to the imminent threat of my extinction – forever and ever. It never had anything to do with love, or even a want to go to an eternal paradise. It came from an active avoidance of the ultimate punishment. God’s wrath hung above me like chandelier ready to crash down at any moment. And the unease I have in reading this passage on Judah stems from that fear. Typically, I feel little connections to the characters in the Bible, since God’s tactics appeared to be so drastically different “back then.” But not with Judah. There is no communication between him and God. No standards. A punishment continues to unfurl before him. And he doesn’t know when it will stop.

But there is more to the story:

Tamar and her midwife come to realize that she will bear twin boys by Judah. Knowing the historical conflict between brothers over birthright, they decide to mark the first son to emerge with scarlet twine, so as to avoid any discrepancy over identifying the rightful heir. The birth begins. A hand emerges from the womb, and they wrap the string around its wrist. The heir is identified and named – Zerah. But then, Zerah’s hand recoils back up into the womb, and the second son descends instead. They name him Perez. Zerah comes next. Their measures for security failed. The boys are born under a cloud of uncertainty. They are brothers – instantly in competition. There was Cain and Abel. Then Jacob and Esau. And now Zerah and Perez. It reads like an omen. I can feel the fear of Judah and Tamar building. The fear of the continued wrath and confusion.  

It reads like prophecy. This will keep happening. Again and again and again. 

Act I – I Sort of Hate Joseph (and His Dreamcoat, Too): Genesis 37 – 40

The Dreamer. Sold into Slavery. Judah’s Troubles. Potiphar. Potiphar’s Horny Wife. Jail. The Baker and the Cupbearer. 

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Genesis 37:3-4 (NIV)

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat 1991 Revivals Logo

Joseph and the Amazing
Technicolor Dreamcoat 1991 Revivals Logo

I don’t typically like to make sweeping generalizations about entire sub-cultures, but I am pretty sure that every gay man knows the story of Joseph and his spectacularly-sewn garment. I hate musicals, and even I could sing a few tunes from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from memory1. Theater aficionados tend to fall into two groups: those that burst into Close Every Door whenever a Broadway karaoke moment offers itself, and those that hate this musical just a little too much – meaning that they probably secretly love it. In terms of adaptability, it is no surprise that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber settled on the Joseph epic as their chosen biblical story. This is the first longform narrative presented in the Bible with a strong motif (the mysterious dreams) as well as clearly defined heroes and villains. The plot is episodic (meaning lots of room for MUSICAL NUMBERS) and has plenty of distinct supporting characters (get ready for some CELEBRITY CAMEOS). Sounds like West End material to me. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Recall that Jacob had a favorite wife Rachel who bore him a favorite son Joseph. Joseph is a perfect candidate for prime fatherly affection: a trustworthy confidante over his brothers’ actions, a vivid dream-interpreter who has predicted his own ascent into greatness, and most importantly, a living reminder of his beloved wife. In short, Joseph is a bonafide all-star, and to make it clear to the world where his affections lay, Jacob gifts him an ornate robe to don around the others. This rubs Jacob’s other children the wrong way (and who can blame them for that?). Being the most liked in a group of twelve others has never ended particularly well, and so Joseph’s brothers concoct a plan to commit fratricide. But the youngest in the group Benjamin pities Joseph for the hatred leveled against him and figures out how to save his life. He convinces the others to instead sell Joseph into slavery so they can all make a pretty penny. Judah, another one of the younger sons, jumps on this idea as well. They shift gears. They strip him of his robe, dip it into the animal gore, and bring it back to Jacob to “prove” his death. Meanwhile, Joseph begins a new chapter in his life as a slave traveling into the heart of Egypt. His bad luck gets worse after he is wrongfully accused of coming on to his master’s salacious wife. This lands him in jail, at the bottom of his luck, as far as possible from his prophesized success.

Of course this is a popular musical. We have a hero with a touch of hubris and a horde of jealous brothers who have it out for him. So he is beaten down to the lowest of lows, and after an inspirational slow song, rises from the ashes of his misery in order to achieve his destiny. And we can get Donny Osmond as the lead. And there’s a disco megamix during the curtain call. Yes yes, this will tour the United States for decades.

I gotta stop right here and say… I sort of hate Joseph. This is a new development, an opinion I just formed while revisiting the story today (and yes, by listening to the soundtrack which, yes, I had on my iPod), because I remember growing up being absolutely enamored with the character. What’s not for a young dreamer to love? Joseph is the optimized version of the “chosen son,” one who is bestowed with destiny (from God), talent (from dreams), and love (from Jacob). He also handles adversity with a measured level of grace, taking one unjust event after another without crying out or plotting revenge. This speaks both to the timelessness of this story as well as its appeal for children – and the appeal of parents to tell it their children. You are special; you are good; you are Godly. We are all Joseph when we are young.

But all those good feelings towards Jacob’s greatest son came crashing down as I just reread it. Suddenly, I sided with the brothers, and while I did not empathize with their murderous desire towards Joseph, I certainly could understand their jealousy. Most parents fight hard to make sure their children know there are no favorites among them, and only a despicable one would ever announce such a sentiment so publicly. And as we have seen with Cain, God does not take kindly to those that act upon their covetous feelings. I think many adults struggle with this type of peer-related jealousy, and I would make a anecdotal guess that most post-educated individuals relate more to the brothers. It feels good to hate Joseph, because he did nothing to deserve his role as the favorite. And yet Jacob favored him anyway, and God selected him. He is a goody two-shoes, a narc, and kind of an arrogant jerk, too2. There is so much to relate to as a child and yet so little to like as a somewhat bitter adult.

We were all Josephs at some point– idealistic, gifted, with a self-administered prophecy for success. We encountered those who cheered for our failures, but since we were favorited, we showed resolve and fought for our destiny.

There is a chapter-long aside right near the beginning of this tale – one of those “Lot’s daughters” type stories that you rarely see headlining the roster on Sunday mornings. After selling his brother into slavery, Judah travels off to find a wife and build his own family, but sin and despair meet him at every corner. Consider this entry Act I of Joseph’s story. I am going to shelve the rest for now and circle back to Judah’s aside in Genesis 38, whose tone and storyline sharply contrasts that of the rest of the narrative. Consider it the brief intermission before completing the journey. I hope you like intermissions. I enjoy stretching my legs myself.

(To Be Continued…)


1 Thanks Mom for shoving that one down my throat.
2 And the Donny Osmond portrayal in the musical doesn’t help that final assertion.

No Heroes: Genesis 34 – 36

The Rape of Dinah. Revenge Plot. Attack. Rid Your gods. Rachel Dies in Childbirth. Isaac Dies in Old Age. Begat. Descend. Rule.

Three days later, while all of them were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male.

Genesis 34:25 (NIV) 

Gladiator (2000)  Theatrical Release Poster

Gladiator (2000) Theatrical Release Poster

I saw Gladiator four times in theaters. My mother dragged me each time, at the tender age of 13, because she thought it was just the best. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely a worthwhile film, but extreme violence was never really my thing, and I mean, come on, four times? Was it really that good? Oh yes, it was that good, due to a muscular, courageous, image-of-heroism man named Maximus Decimus Meridius. My mother just adored him. That valor – That manhood. He stood up for what was right with the heart of a saint and the fist of a soldier. What was there not to love? The man was a bonafide hero (not Russell Crowe – the guy who played Maximus – he wasn’t a very good person). The name Maximus hung above all other names in my household, slightly above William Wallace (not Mel Gibson, but also not the real William Wallace – rather Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart). Maximus symbolized heroism in a fallen world, a standard of bravery and honor that we should fight to match. My mother even named our fat pug Maximus, because… I don’t know… Italian, that’s why. But my friends nicknamed him “Monster,” because he would flip out, snarl, and snort whenever someone came into the house. So who knows if Maximus-the-pug was truly a hero or a villain?

Genesis thinks that heroes are better left for fiction. After Esau’s tearful forgiveness of his brother, we transition into a downright sinister story. A nearby man named Shechem takes Jacob’s daughter Dinah and rapes her while she travels to meet some neighboring women. He claims that he has fallen in love with her, and so after the act is done, he approaches Jacob in order to gain favor in his eyes, so that he may marry her. But his sons do not take kindly to Shechem due to this deep transgression. They trick him, pretending to go along with his request to wed Dinah, but only on the condition that he and his men undergo circumcision. Shechem and his men comply, but after the act is done… Jacob’s men slaughter them and pillage their homes. Jacob’s sons seem to have forgotten the recent forgiveness of their uncle Esau, or perhaps they simply chose to ignore it. There is no compassion on this day – only revenge.

I have spent a majority of my journey thus far trying to glean lessons from the initial stories of the Bible. I am working to construct a set of values that guided these early followers of God, so that I may understand the origins of Christianity. However, this has not worked. All of the characters in Genesis act inconsistently, and the writer offers little commentary on how we are intended to interpret their actions. No man is a hero, and even the good ones are capable of terrible evil. Look no further than God’s own buddy Jacob, who angrily chastises his sons after learning of their violent retaliation. Is this a holy rage on Jacob’s part? Did Jacob learn from the example of his brother Esau that we must forgive even the most heinous crimes? Nope. He hollers at his sons for “making him obnoxious” to the neighbors around him and opening them up to attacks. Now that’s a guy with his priorities in all the wrong places. His daughter was raped, and while we could argue that his sons’ vengeance was misguided, it was certainly not an act that could be considered obnoxious. Jacob is the reigning father of God’s holy lineage. This is the man that God has placed in the center of His world. Reflect on that fact. If God truly has a plan, He has put it in the hands of one wishy-washy and selfish individual. And this is far from the first time He has done this.

I never liked thinking about “God’s plan,” and whenever an adult mentioned it while I was growing up, I would immediately disengage. As a child, the concept of an ultimate plan for existence was admittedly comforting but also too broad and abstract, and now it feels like a cop-out for Christians who encounter something unexplainable. To me, it is a blank check, an all-encompassing free pass, a trump card. It can cover anything and everything since theologically speaking no one can act outside of God’s plan. The philosophical dilemma this inevitably leads to, particularly amongst agnostics and almost-Christians, is that if God is so darn good, then why allow any of this at all? Why the frills and the pomp? It also strikes up an interesting contradiction, that if God is all-powerful, then that must mean he knew that Adam and Eve would sin, which means that he meant for humans to be sinful, which means we don’t really have free will, and that means, he must –

I am going stop there and merely hover over the rabbit hole rather than falling straight in.

My point is that I cannot stop myself from logically following one conclusion to the next. If no man is perfect, then I cannot put my trust fully in any man. Thus, I must trust God, but why should I trust a God who knew that His creatures would flounder and confuse themselves? Why should I follow a God who I cannot possibly read, who leaves His commandments in the hands of man, the scourge of His creation? This is the whole point of this project, to both dig up and settle these issues, and after only two weeks, I am left utterly confused. But perhaps…. by looking confusion straight between its eyes, by stripping it of its power… there is solace and understanding. And maybe that is the beginning of faith.

Undying Anger: Genesis 31 – 33

Jacob Flees. Streaked – Speckled – Spotted. A Chase. Stolen gods. A Second Chase. Wrestling with God. Jacob becomes Israel. Esau Forgives Jacob.

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

Genesis 33:4 (NIV)

Esau Selling His Birthright  (c. 1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen

Esau Selling His Birthright (c. 1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen

Anger is a tricky emotion. It is neither inherently good nor bad, and it can be utilized to achieve almost anything. On one hand, righteous indignation has led to enormous advances throughout history, particularly in combatting social inequities. Alternatively, anger can lead to terrible evil – no examples need be given as we have all experienced this in our lives. It also dominates our already saturated 24-hour news cycle. Everyday, we hear that Christians are angry; Muslims are angry; Satanists are angry; New Jersey drivers ticketed by a cop dressed as a giant duck are angry. And when I stumble across an article about a furious citizen or a pissed off mob or a woman who can’t afford a failure-to-yield ticket a duck gave her, I find that I often empathize with the wronged party, to the point where I take on their emotional state. However, my matching energy typically lasts for a minute or two before a new story or situation grabs my attention. It is such a modern condition – that instant anger followed by complete indifference. This is so easy to blame the Internet, since we all know the Internet to be a dumping ground for only the most extreme examples of insincerity. But in reality, the Internet is just the delivery service for a completely exhausting supply of information. We are informed about a ton of crap going on in the world, and we become overwhelmed – which is completely unsurprising. Who can stay angry with all of the stuff? And even more importantly, how do we decide what is worthy of our active fury?

Esau had a completely legitimate reason to be angry. Recall that Rebekah, Esau’s mother, enlisted Jacob, his brother, to trick him out of his blessing – the one reserved for the eldest son that guarantees the continuity of his bloodline. She dressed up Jacob as Esau and pushed him towards her ailing husband Isaac, who lay nearly blind in his tent. Isaac fell for it and bestowed his blessing. Jacob fled after the act, and Esau returned. Isaac turned up his hands. What could he do? The blessing was gone forever. Esau left the tent and, in a moment of rage, vowed to kill his brother.

Cut to probably decades later*. Angels visit Jacob and tell him to prepare to meet his brother again. They advise him to humble himself before Esau, offer gifts in advance, and refer to him as “my lord.” Even with these clear instructions (and the implied protection that comes with them), Jacob is understandably apprehensive about the meeting. He committed a selfish and horrible act, robbing Esau of his inherent value (however arbitrary that may seem to us modern readers). Finally, Jacob approaches his brother with the utmost modesty, offering an array of cattle and gifts as penance. But before he can speak a word to him, Esau acts.

He runs to meet Jacob, embraces him, and weeps. He forgives Jacob.

This is a powerful and wholly unexpected outcome given the narratives we have seen thus far in Genesis. God particularly has been an angry and righteous figure, often doling out severe punishments as retaliation for sinful behavior. On top of that, God’s own people have been a generally angry bunch. God described the pre-Noah citizens of the Earth as “violent,” and we already have read two explicit narratives of brothers attacking one another in anger and jealousy. However, with a simple act of forgiveness, Esau snaps the Cain and Abel cycle of violence. He relinquishes his anger, and he receives nothing in the way of reparations. This detail struck me on a personal level. In our society based on retribution, lawsuits, public shaming, and justice, the idea that Jacob could just walk away from his theft without some sort of reparative payment is shocking. And it also sets a high bar for us. We must forgive even when the cards have been stacked against us, even when nothing can be done and no punishment will suffice. We must forgive, or we risk succumbing to the slippery slope of anger. I imagine that Esau must have recognized the aimless nature of his anger – it was not righteous, and it would not result in righting a far-reaching injustice. It was completely internal.

Aimless anger is the most personally dangerous, and I often find myself succumbing to it. It originates from the general feeling of inadequacy, that “life isn’t fair” mantra that repeats in my head. My parents taught me to deal with adversity by putting my head down and moving forward, and while I can push through most situations with that kind of resolve, the inherent issues with my sexual identity halted my emotional development. I did not want to be an “other.” That just seemed unfair to me. And without anyone aiming slurs or hatred directly at me, my anger took on a strange life.

You suck, faggot!
– No One (to me)

I wish I had a guy named Carl who I could just aim my anger at whenever life gets me down – a guy I could blame for all the injustices in my life as well as all the global atrocities that go without villains. But without such a cartoon, my anger stays with me. It hangs off of me like an oversized hoodie, inhibiting my movements but still keeping me warm. See, I love my anger, because it never reaches the surface. It just lies there, muddying my worldview. Esau sets a great example for me, for all of us. He gives us our first biblical taste of true forgiveness – where the damage is done and nothing can be changed. The pardon is enough. It sets us free.


* Bible Math: (Time wandering) + (6 years of labor for Leah) + (6 years of labor for Rachel) + (6 sons born to Leah) + (2 sons born to Zilpah) + (2 sons born to Bilhah) + (1 favorite son born to Rachel) = (“Probably decades”)

Simple: Genesis 29 – 30

Jacob’s New Home. True Love. Seven Years for Leah. Seven Years for Rachel. Children for Power. Children for Revenge. Children for Love.

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.

Genesis 29:16-17 (NIV, emphasis mine)

OldBarneyLight

Barnegat Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

These are the facts. Henry developed some sort of infection on his head and face – the exact diagnosis was vague. And the prognosis wasn’t much better: who knew when it would go away, who knew if it was infectious, and since this was Jersey in the 60’s, there was no way the teacher was letting him come into that school. She made it clear: traditional schooling would be an infeasible option for Henry this year. The infection developed near the end of summer, so they could just defer his enrollment and do the whole fifth grade thing a year later – but that meant a year of pre-adolescent idleness. Or they could homeschool him – but both parents worked to make ends meet. They went in to the school principal to come up with a creative solution, one that didn’t involve missing an entire year of school or sacrificing half their family income. The principal recommended hiring a tutor, and he had just the guy: a formidable young man in his early 30s – intelligent, excited, and diligent. They agreed to this option with an appropriate amount of reluctance; they just had not planned Henry’s year to unfold this way. The tutor started his sessions early that autumn and met with Henry every day for a period of six months.

Something sinister happened that year between Henry and his tutor – we know that much for sure. And it seemed to be, or rather, the consensus reached by his family was that whatever evil occurred between the two of them resonated throughout his life with the most negative of consequences.

I first met Henry at my Pop-pop’s funeral. He wore a kitschy powder blue suit two sizes too big. He was gaunt and dark and donned a large gold ring from his pinky, an artifact from his senior high school with the jewel missing. I turned to my Aunt Leisa with a puzzled face, and she whispered in my ear, That’s Henry. My confusion continued. He’s your other Aunt.

No, Henry wasn’t a transgendered woman, and frankly, that thought would have never crossed my pubescent mind. I knew she meant, He’s your gay Uncle Henry. Why do you think you’ve never heard of him? He stood up on the pulpit, his clothes hanging off of him loosely like a puppy’s collar, and announced that he had a poem to read, written by his lifelong partner and lover Luke. I could hear the sound of all the eyes in the room collectively roll. He unfolded a printed sheet from his pocket and read a clearly plagiarized poem in the vein of “Oh Captain! My Captain!” He finished without fanfare and returned to his seat. I saw him only a handful of times after that – he lived across the country after all and rarely came through town. And no one liked his partner Luke. He was a huge part of the problem – an enabler in the most classic sense.

Henry died a decade later from complications stemming from chain smoking and drug abuse. The doctor explained it by saying that Henry simply wore his heart out much quicker than the rest of us. His addiction to painkillers had slowly chipped away at his insides, and his tobacco use had developed into COPD. Simply: His organs had nothing left to give. He called my father from his deathbed. Henry said that he wasn’t ready to die – this just wasn’t the life he had planned for himself. There was no funeral. We all came to the collective consensus that his life was a tragedy and worthy of deep reflection. Where did things go wrong? How could it have possibly turned out this way?

Simple answers often feel the best. Cause and effect. A trajectory. The family settled on this narrative:

Uncle Henry developed his condition at a young age. The family hired a tutor.
The tutor sexually abused Henry – systematic, cruel, and consistent – for half a year.
Because of this trauma, Henry turned to homosexuality.
Homosexuality led to Luke. Luke led to drugs.
Homosexuality led to isolation. It led to alienation. It eventually led to madness.
Luke encouraged the homosexuality, and thus, Luke encouraged the isolation, alienation, and madness.
His family said no more drugs, no more isolation, no more Luke.
Henry said no.
And then so on until… the ending.

That was his sad, sad story, at least to the majority of the family. Henry’s parents never acknowledged the abuse, and while others – including my father – intuited this storyline, no one ever really talked about it. It was just the story. No need to talk. This was it.

The early Bible thrives on the concept of simplistic narrative, and Jacob’s early life gives a prime example of it. Jacob finds a woman he loves in Rachel. Rachel is defined by a single simple word; she is beautiful. Her father says that in exchange for seven years of labor, Jacob can marry his daughter. But trickery! After seven years, Rachel’s father gives Jacob his less attractive daughter Leah to marry. Leah is ugly. And so begins the one-upmanship. Leah and Rachel fight for the affection of Jacob. Rachel is barren while Leah is fertile, and so Leah looks to catch Jacob’s eye with children. When she can no longer conceive, she gives Jacob her maidservant to sleep with in order to continue her line. Rachel counters with her maidservant, to give her line. A classic duel over affections. Who will win out? Everyone wins, because eventually, the children that pile up between the four wives will end up being the fathers to the twelve tribes of Israel.

I do not mean to mock or even draw criticism to the narrative presented here. If the Bible attempted to present its vast history taking into account every nuance of humanity, then its girth would make it impenetrable. However, the attractiveness of the simple nature of these narratives remains potent. Leah, Rachel, and the whole gang here act like one-note characters in a melodrama. Their cause-and-effect motivations elicit strong reactions and clear lessons but fail to come across in sympathetic or realistic ways. I am intended to relate to these people on the broadest of levels, so that I can glean the lesson quickly and completely. And this method of storytelling is effective. The whims of man will end up fitting into God’s ultimate plan. There. That’s a lesson I picked from that story, and there are many more available if I glance at the tale from different angles.

It is dangerous to apply this simplistic approach to our real world interactions. It risks the reduction of an entire life to a sole action or trait. Does any single word accurately describe your entire persona? Are you merely gay, hefty, jealous, or kind? You would be a boring individual if that were the case.

And so to reduce my Uncle Henry’s life to a simple list of actions and reactions feels horribly inadequate – not only for its complete mischaracterization of homosexuality but also for its obviously missing details. All we have are sparse facts, and we are left to connect the pieces ourselves. And for a family entrenched in conservative thinking, the simplest and most sweeping explanation ended up winning out. No room for nuance. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had made their judgment. Something horrible happened to Henry, and we all saw how it ended. This is what homosexuals do. They abuse children and make more homosexuals. They do drugs and wallow in hatred. And then they die from their own malice. Henry did not choose what happened to him, but he made a lot of dumb choices thereafter.

But this narrative did not sit well with my father. After my Pop-pop’s funeral, he took my brother and me for some Jersey-style pizza: thin, soggy, plain. I asked about Uncle Henry, what he was like, growing up and today.

He told me his older brother was the funniest person he knew – always a jokester. Henry used to whisper in his ear at night that the moon was hungry and wanted to eat him. They could spend hours on the Long Beach Island shores, particularly in the winter, walking to and from Barnegat Lighthouse. They paid their dollar and walked all the way up the winding staircase to the top and looked out into the endless ocean. Henry liked heights. He liked roller coasters, too, and the two often made trips to the local theme park, that was before Six Flags bought it up and made it all corporate. He always stood up for his brothers. He was the toughest guy in school. A big kid smacked my father one day, and Henry found him and broke his nose. Three weeks later, the big kid drowned during the school picnic. There was no connection, but Henry felt responsible. The accident haunted him. He considered himself a devout Christian and often quoted the Bible. He said God would see him through. He was discharged from the Navy after a mental breakdown. He had chronic back pain. He struggled with addiction. He never held down a job. He lived off government support. He lived in a trailer. He called my father once a week. He could go on for hours. He was always invited to come stay with us. He only said yes to that once. His body withered. It failed him. He called my father on his deathbed. He begged not yet not yet not yet. He died with Luke by his side, while my father sped down I-95 to get there in time. My father was told by the hospital that he could keep the remains. He gave them to Luke. Luke called my father once a week. He would go on for hours. My father thanked him, from the bottom of his heart, for staying with Henry when the other members of his family abandoned him – when their parents abandoned him – when their characterizations of him were horribly inadequate – when they summed him up with only one word. My father cried on the phone. They spoke every week for a year. Then, one evening, Luke called my father, got the voicemail, left a message, said goodbye, took a bottle of painkillers, and drifted away. My father sped down I-95, but it was too late. He delivered Luke’s ashes to his family. He took my Uncle Henry’s ashes. He drove up I-95 straight to Jersey, to Long Beach Island, to Barnegat Lighthouse. It was winter. My father climbed the spiral staircase and let his brother go.

I cannot believe in the concept of simple. My father taught me better than that.

Queer Sibling Rivalry: Genesis 25 – 28

Abraham Dies. Jacob and Esau. Prophecy of Conflict. Abimeleck – The Constant Fool. Stolen Birthright. Stolen Blessing. A Dream.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.”

Genesis 28:20-21 (NIV)

Jacob's Dream by William Blake (c. 1805)

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake (c. 1805)

When you look at your 22-year-old brother, and he’s wearing jean shorts cut up to his mid-thigh and a deep neoprene V-neck tee and he’s tousling a hand-weaved hemp bracelet between his fingers, then suddenly you realize there is a race between the two of you to come out to your parents first. You see, there is an unspoken rule in the multi-gay-children-born-to-conservative-parents world: the first son to come out is a disappointment; the second one is just a dick. My brothers’ early eccentricities evolved into a more outright flamboyance during his college years – his quirky humor became aberrantly outrageous, and his sparkling persona took on the energy of a constantly traveling showboat. But besides these amusing superficialities, his rhetoric and demeanor deepened. He began voicing concerns over more “left-wing” causes, such as the AIDs crisis and universal healthcare, and suddenly, he had doubts about some of the standards of behavior set out in the Bible. My parents viewed this as a direct result of his college experience, but in reality, it was probably just a natural release of pressure. His personality always contained these facets, and now he was just opening the valve. No need to calibrate anymore; he was among friends.

My brother came out to me on the eve of his college graduation. He asked if I preferred gin or whiskey for the pre-grad party that evening, then he asked if I was dating anyone, then he told me he was bisexual, and then he took a shower. He seemed eager to drop the bomb and then run away so he did not have to witness the potential destruction. I was left to strike up conversation with his roommate – this beautiful Yugoslavian woman with a raspy voice.

I said: So my brother is bisexual.
No, she replied, He’s gay. He just doesn’t want to disappoint you.

Too late. This was a huge disappointment. My brother was unaware of my budding sexual debacles, and while I always knew he was gay, I never wanted him to be confident enough to come to that self-realization. I now realize the cruelty in this attitude – that I actually desired my brother to squelch his sexuality so the pressure would be taken off of me and my transient appetites. For the rest of the night, I wouldn’t make any sustained eye contact with him, wouldn’t actively celebrate his graduation, wouldn’t really talk to him. He assumed the obvious – that I disapproved of his sexual preferences and that his admission had stunned me into silence – but the truth was far worse. I resented it, and I resented him for learning to be open about it. Suddenly, our relationship had an inherent competition. There was only room for one queer son in this family, and that honor appeared to be shifting towards him.

Back in the Bible, Abraham dies, and we join his ailing son Isaac on the brink of death himself. He marries Rebekah, and with her, they bear a pair of fraternal twin boys who are in a competition of their own. Esau beat Jacob out of the womb by a hair – thus granting him the right to the family bloodline and birthright – and yet God sets forth a vow that the older (Esau) will end up serving the younger (Jacob). This is a shocking prophecy for the times as it completely undermines the structure previously set forth for determining rightful heirs. Eldest sons carry the family name. End of discussion.

The story continues with a dramatic turn of events that unfurl the contents of God’s foresight. First, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some stew when he is particularly famished. Then, due to some dissatisfaction over Esau’s choice of wife, Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal his blessing from the almost blind, almost dead, almost senile Isaac. She dresses up her seconds-late second-born son Jacob, douses him in the scent of the burly Esau, and leads him into his father’s tent. Isaac falls for it. He gives his blessing to the wrong son. Jacob – the younger son – is now the rightful heir.

The Bible finally dishes up its first bit of Telemundo-worthy melodrama with this story, and while the nature of the conflict may seem antiquated to some, the idea of the family birthright still carries deep, yet admittedly altered, importance to many modern Christian families. Wives still adopt their husbands’ last names; dowries are still paid; men still run households. And sons are still meant to acquire their fathers’ best qualities and build upon them, so that they may one day lend their name, collect their dowry, and run their household. It may seem ridiculous to those born outside the Christian faith, but these traditions are far from dead. And for my family, these traditions were more like religious rites, and the pressures to adhere were massive. Somebody had to carry on the family name. My sister couldn’t, and my brother wouldn’t. My brother’s honesty had guaranteed my continued deception. He had beaten me to the punch. He had cloaked himself in a sequin gown and doused himself in the musk of perfume and was now shuffle-stepping off over the rainbow. And the only one left in the tent with the almost ready, almost hopeful, almost fulfilled father was… me. It was left to me. After all, the second son to come out of the closet – to ruin that lineage and to destroy all the plans and to embarrass the family by being the second one and to negate the birthright, the tradition, the blessing, the name – that second son is such a dick. I would never be able do that to my parents.

After his conflict with Esau crescendos and then drops, Jacob wanders away from his family to find a suitable wife. After entering a strange new land, he falls asleep on the ground and has a prophetic dream. He sees a large stairway that bridges Heaven and Earth with angels ascending and descending. Then God appears and establishes the terms of his newly acquired blessing. This land now belongs to Jacob, and all will be blessed through him. Jacob awakens and makes a feverish vow. “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking,” he says, “…then the Lord will be my God.”

This prayer struck me as odd at first. Firstly, Jacob’s loyalty is conditional, second only to God’s protection – a big no-no, I assume. Secondly, and more importantly, it is potently vague. Watch over me on this journey. That is all encompassing. It is wonderfully generic. It feels warm.

Not make me strong.
Not make me fatherly.
Not make me love a woman.

Just watch over me.

God, I love that prayer. And I love that it comes from such a lying, deceptive, jealous, human man.

Watch over me Watch over me Watch over me

I just love that.


 

For additional reading, check out this Huffington Post article about a new study on gay brothers and genetic links in homosexuality.

You Will Be Tested on the Following: Genesis 20 – 24

Sacrifice of Isaac, by Adi Holzer (1997).  Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sacrifice of Isaac, by Adi Holzer (1997). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Abimelach and the Second Lie. Sarah Bears Isaac. Laughter. A Great Schism. Treaty. The Play Sacrifice. Sarah Dies. A Funeral. The Acquisition of Rebekah. Isaac Marries.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Genesis 22:1-2 (NIV)

LET’S BEGIN WITH AN UNEQUAL ANALOGY

Theme Park Trip, My Church, 2009. Pastor Hank drove the van, and we had something like 15 excited pre-teen guys in the back. The highway, the exit, the tollbooth, and then finally, the first glimpse of lift hills and twisted tracks. The volume in the van grew once the mountains lowered from view and the roller coasters peeked up, and it seemed like a perfect time for a buzz kill. I leaned into Hank as we pulled into the parking lot. You know those kids-on-a-rope, when a kindergarten takes the class, and they all hold onto the rope so no one wanders away? He smiled and nodded – he had a rope in the trunk of the van. It was meant to be.

So we let the kids out of the van and went over the rules. Standard rigmarole: partner up, don’t wander off, but then. We showed them the rope and told them the plan with straight faces. A second leader held a camera to tape their reactions, hoping to capture some priceless one-liners worthy of our new YouTube page. And while a few grimaces appeared, most of their faces simply fell into neutral. And instead of any sort of protest, they dutifully grabbed a slot on the rope and walked to the front gate. They even began to walk in unison, because the rope wasn’t really long enough, so they were squished together, not quite like a lock step, but you get the point, they looked ridiculous. And to my continued surprise, no one questioned this or even voiced their embarrassment. There was far too much at stake by refusing: time out from rides, a call back home, or even worse, an early pick up from parents looking forward to their day off. The sacrifice of dignity was worth the spoils of an uninterrupted day of fun, and this non-reaction from the obedient group completely destroyed the joke. We abandoned the stunt before security, completely unmemorable. I coiled the rope up from the participants. Now I had a rope to carry around all day. Damn it. Not my finest hour as a leader.

BACK TO THE BIBLE

God tells Abraham to take his only son and sacrifice him. This is Isaac: the one promised to Abraham, the one born in Sarah’s old age, the one who would be the continuation of his holy bloodline, the one, the only one. God puts this command up without any warning, and it is pre-empted by nothing of significance. So. Abraham gathers the wood. He binds Isaac with rope. He places him on the altar, brandishes the knife, holds it up, but then. Stop, God calls out, Don’t lay a hand on him. It was a test, and Abraham passed. God now knows that Abraham is a fearful man, worthy of the bloodline that God has planned for him.

This is a popular story in Sunday Schools – for its obvious parallels to the eventual Christ sacrifice, but also for its clear message. All Christians must be prepared to give up what they hold most dear in order to follow God, a task that seems impossible in certain situations. In the example of Abraham, God not only asks for him to give up his son and his heir, but he also requires him to do the deed himself. God sets a standard, and it is up to Abraham to alter his identity and life direction in order to comply. God doesn’t change, after all.

This taps into the modern dilemma of Christianity, one that has been rippling out for its entire history: what lengths must we go to remain holy in God’s eyes? It is the battle of religious conformation versus individual transformation – or simply – do we expect our religion to conform to our state of being or are we expected to go without parts of ourselves in order to show our dedication? My gut says that in order to adhere to any religion, you must alter your worldview and behavior in some major way. Otherwise, why convert at all? There seems to be a line in the sand though. Turning a kind face to your neighbor seems easy to accomplish when compared to abstaining for romantic intimacy for an entire life. Modern apologists would say that level of identity loss is simply too far. Some sacrifices are not worth it, and more so, are not even required.

I recall (spoiler alert for those reading the Bible for the first time) that Jesus’ crucifixion was meant to fulfill the Jewish tradition of sacrifice, and as such, we are no longer required to present a burnt offering in exchange for atonement. But did that change also demolish the entirety of the holiness code – the sexual regulations, the moral strictures, the slave-master dynamic, the secondary role of women? I have to keep reading to find out. Regardless, Abraham’s obedience sets a dangerous precedent. This God demands what He demands, and our choice to adhere comes with consequences. He tests us in ways that seem wholly unfair. He asks what feels to be too much. He asks for everything. He wants what you love, who you love, how you love, for all of that symbolizes a gap in your love for Him. Follow. Or fall.

When I announced my plan for pre-teens-on-a-rope, some grimaces appeared, but most of the faces fell into neutral. True, no protests, but also, no excitement. I had sapped their energy with my ridiculous demand, and they took it with solemn obedience.

They followed. And thus, they did not fall.

 

How much of ourselves must we give up in order to follow God? Sound off in the comments or send an e-mail to GodDoesntChangeBlog@gmail.com.