Lately, I’ve been reading through the book of Genesis and have gone through the stories where Abraham has been called by the Lord, the birth of Isaac, and then Jacob and Esau. And what really struck me about these stories is just how faithful these patriarchs were to God’s instructions. These men weren’t perfect, but when God told them to do something they did it.
When we think back to these stories, it is generally acknowledged that Abraham is the obedient one. In the internal sense we see that this is because Abraham represents the highest of loves: love of the Lord. God tells Abraham to move from one land to another, he does it. Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and Isaac was just a boy when God asked him to sacrifice the joy of his life. And he was going to do it! So when God tells Abraham that he’s got to be circumcised as an adult, we shouldn’t be surprised when he goes ahead and does it. Think about that for a moment: if God came to you and said to do that to yourself, would you?! With a flint knife and without serious painkillers?! Not likely. But Abraham always did what God said.
But it wasn’t just Abraham who was obedient. Read this excerpt from Genesis 26:
Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham’s time—and Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines in Gerar. 2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. 3 Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. 4 I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” 6 So Isaac stayed in Gerar.
Did you catch that? There’s a famine in the land, their lives are at stake, and God says to them, “Stay put.” And Isaac does! Let’s take a look at that in comparison to the book of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah there’s also a situation where their lives are at stake, and God says to them…
Jeremiah 26:2, 3, 7-9:
“Stand in the courtyard of the LORD’s house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the LORD. Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word. 3 Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways.The priests, the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speak these words in the house of the LORD. 8 But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the LORD had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! 9 Why do you prophesy in the LORD’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?” And all the people crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.”
So Isaac is told to stay in a land where there is famine, and he does. In Jeremiah’s time, they’re given some bad news, but a chance to avoid it, but the response is to kill Jeremiah. Two very different responses.
Isaac’s son Jacob was also an obeyer. Jacob is mostly known as a somebody who was always devising a scheme… how to get the birthright, how to get the blessing, but when it came to doing what God said, he did it. Jacob fled from home after stealing his father’s blessing, and 20 years later God tells him to go back home. Jacob is scared. What is Esau going to do to him? So Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to try to suss out Esau’s state of mind towards him.
6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”
7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”
9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”
Jacob was operating “in great fear and distress.” He’s not a little worried, he’s terrified! He drops all of his fears on God, acknowledging how God has blessed him up to this point and says, “But you have said I’ll prosper…” So he went ahead with God’s plan.
So allow me one more comparison to Jeremiah. The kingdom has been taken over by the Babylonians, Jerusalem basically burned to the ground… then the Ammonites attack, and the survivors are now fearing for their life. They think the Babylonians are going to wipe them out in retribution so they consider going to Egypt. The inquire of Jeremiah’s as to what to, and…
When Jeremiah had finished telling the people all the words of the LORD their God—everything the LORD had sent him to tell them— 2 Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are lying! The LORD our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there.’ 3 But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.”
Are you following me here? Are you picking up what I’m putting down? It really is eye-opening to compare the differences between the patriarchs and the book of Jeremiah. It’s a complete reversal. 180 degrees. How did we get here? How did we get from “I’ll give up that which I love most” to “God’s lying to us!”
We know that the book of Jeremiah says that all the disaster that came on the people was a result of their idolatry. But the difference I see is how people dealt with fear. When the patriarchs were afraid, they acknowledged their fear, but then went ahead and did what God had told them anyway. The people Jeremiah was dealing with just let their fears overtake them. They thought surely the path that God was putting them on was not a good one. They thought that they had some angle, or some better insight than God Himself on how to navigate the situation. Jeremiah records them as “arrogant men” and you don’t get more arrogant than saying you know better than God.
There are some people who say that “fear” is an anacronym for False Evidence Appearing Real, and I think it really fits in this situation. The false evidence was the kings thinking that they could avoid doom, or that Baruch was inciting Jeremiah. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they had “evidence” that things were bad. Isaac just had to look around and see the ongoing famine in the land. That looks very real, and very present. Looking around and seeing desolation and being hungry, that can be pretty compelling evidence. But God’s Word is the real evidence. “Stay put and you’ll be fine” should be all we need. But fear will keep pointing out to us the desolation, our empty bellies, and try to tell us that God doesn’t know what He’s talking about.
Jacob was very aware of how he’d deceitfully stolen from his brother. His evidence was knowing how HE would have responded had somebody done that to him. He knew how he had worked Laban’s flocks to enrich himself, and therefore could project onto Esau what was coming his way if he ever stood on his home ground again. And it wasn’t going to be good, the only chance was to buy his way out of this mess. But he went ahead anyway with the only evidence being “God said.”
Now we know that these stories have a deeper meaning, and that God isn’t trying to tell us to stay put when there’s a famine or drought. But He is telling us that fear and distress are precursors to real change in our life. If we get into a place where we are scared and fearful, turning to Google and trying to understand the world from a scientific point of view isn’t going to help. I feel bad for people without any faith, because when the bad times hit they just think they’re victims of bad luck and that there’s no hope for a way out. I can imagine somebody doing a search on the science of happiness and coming to the conclusion that they just need an injection of seratonin or other chemical compound and it’ll all be fixed. It might give some short term relief just as lots of drugs do, but to me that approach to life is what Egypt stands for. Google is great, but it isn’t where we turn for the big questions of life. God said, don’t go to Egypt. You may feel scared right now, you may not see a way out, but don’t go to Egypt. Stay in the promised land.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did. Every time. Every single time. And it wasn’t because they weren’t scared. They were. And it wasn’t because God’s way was painless, because it wasn’t.
Now, personally I don’t feel all that tempted by Egypt these days. I don’t tend to want science to answer my questions about spirituality. But what does really grab me in these stories is the pain. I do my best to avoid pain; physical, mental or emotional. I don’t think I’m the only one who does. None of us like pain.
Which brings me back to obedient Abraham’s circumcision. He was 90 years old when he was told to do it, and I’m sure the body changes over the years, but still that’s got to hurt. But what it represents is an external representative sign that they were of the Church, (AC 4462:4). We are considered to be spiritually circumcised when we are purified from the love of self and the world. (AC 4462:3). The knives of flint represent the truths that do the purification (AC 2799). But what we also know is that circumcision was a ritual that was done to set the children of Israel apart from other people. They were to be different. They were to be God’s people.
Being God’s people sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be blessed directly by God Himself? It doesn’t get any better than that! Yet, when the years go by, eventually what undoes all this original obedience is not so much a desire to avoid pain, or dealing with fear, but what starts them down the path to Jeremiah’s doom is the seemingly harmless desire to be like other nations. Yes, they got bogged down in Egypt for 400 years, and had a difficult time getting back to a God-centric life coming out of slavery because they really didn’t quite get what had really happened.
Eventually though they settle in the Holy Land as promised, and it’s all happening. The promise has been fulfilled. There’s relative peace in the land. But the people come to Samuel and say, “They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5). Samuel goes to the Lord and tells Him of the request, and the Lord says to Samuel that the people have in fact “rejected Me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7). Samuel gives the people a laundry list of reasons as to why they don’t want a king, but the reply is simple: “No!” “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19, 20).
Note that God said to them, “don’t do this,” but there was no obedience. No trust. No belief that God would actually take them to a better end, and no desire to be set apart as God’s chosen people. And it wasn’t like having a king was a totally terrible decision, at least at first. Saul was a great warrior for them for a while, and so was David. Solomon brought about the best years the kingdom ever saw… but each of the kings had flaws, flaws that God as king never had. The trouble was that each successive king added their flaws to the previous kings flaws, and while it was okay for a while, the trajectory had been set where they were no longer going to be special. They were going to be just like everybody else.
But that’s what they wanted. I said earlier that Egypt isn’t very tempting to me, but believe it or not, the desire to be like others is a temptation that I do understand. I look around at my life, and there are times when it would be nice to be just like everybody else. It would be nice even to just be more like everybody else if not just like them… you know, maybe be part of a major church organization. Or maybe just be apathetic to spirituality and go through life just talking about the cricket or the latest dumb thing said by a politician. It’s not actually happiness, but there is a certain comfort in being miserable, outraged, and annoyed like everybody else.
This is what God was dealing with. People who wanted to be just like everybody else. They really just didn’t understand the whole being different thing. Jeremiah questions God as to why is it that other nations aren’t being destroyed, because the other nations are just as bad as they are. But that’s exactly the point. In the end the Israelites are no better than anybody else. God says to Jeremiah:
“If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you,
Then how can you contend with horses?
And if in the land of peace,
In which you trusted, they wearied you,
Then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan? (Jeremiah 12:5)
God does not want us to be wearied by running with others. Specifically, the Word says “footmen” so the representation is being worn out by people who are in the natural because the “foot” corresponds to the natural. It’s the lowest elements in our life. If you get worn out by day to day life, by dealing with things of the world around you, how are you going to survive when your own ego starts swelling with pride? That’s the floodplain of the Jordan. Our desires swelling up, and encroaching on spiritual life. We have to be able to be God’s chosen people no matter what other people around us are saying and doing, and we have to be God’s chosen people even when we feel that we’re desiring something else.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… they didn’t want to be like others. They wanted to be different. They wanted to be set apart from everybody else. God promised them abundance if they did as He said. They were promised great things… and they believed. Do you believe? Do you believe it enough to do what God says in spite of what anybody else says? Are you willing to stand out and be somebody different from everybody else?
Let me close with this quote from King David, who in this instance really does have it right, and provides us with the attitude we should have when it comes to obeying the Lord:
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the strength of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)