Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 1, 2023
Exodus 17: 1-7 – Common English Bible
The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
3 But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. 7 He called the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
Yup. They’re still griping, groaning, grousing, and grumbling. Once again, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Do you want to kill us with thirst?” A complaint they had already made.
So, Moses did as God instructed and hit a rock to make water gush forth. He called that place Quarreling and Testing because they were testing and quarrelling with God. Yes, after everything that’s happened, they still didn’t get it.
God has come through for them time after time. Of course, one could say, God should have acted years earlier and shortened their suffering… And when God sent Moses and Aaron to secure their release from Pharaoh, admittedly, at first it made things even worse. But God made up for it with boils and blisters and bugs; ten disasters one right after another, some a little too extreme in my humble opinion, but when Pharaoh relented and finally let the people go, God opened the sea for the people to walk through and closed it back up to the Egyptians in hot pursuit. They got six weeks in Palm Springs, honey nut Cheerios every morning and quail every night, and water whenever they demanded it – even flavored water in Marah.
In between, however, to be fair, they weren’t just sitting around campfires singing about Michael rowing his boat ashore. They were defenseless in unprotected wilderness, sitting ducks for bad actors. And it wasn’t long after water gushed from the rock that the Amalekites attacked. Who are they? Remember twin brothers Jacob and Esau? Esau was the big, red, hairy, older twin of Jacob, grabbed by the heel on the way out of the birth canal and tricked out of his birthright and blessing. Because of this trickery, Esau and Jacob were estranged for two decades. The night before their reunion, Jacob wrestled with his conscience and afterward, God renamed him Israel. All these grousing people in the wilderness – they were Israelites, meaning, descendants of Jacob, who was also the father of Joseph who saved Egypt from starvation. See how it all circles around. That’s Jacob. Amalek was Esau’s grandson. And now hundreds of years later, their descendants are back to feuding, or rather, one attacking the other.
The Amalekites attack and while Moses was still picking quail out of his teeth, he jumped up and ordered Joshua to gather defenders. Moses, Aaron, and Hur ran up the side of a hill to guide them. The Amalekites were a fierce tribe that roamed southern Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula attacking and plundering. As the battle raged between the well-armed Amalekites and the unprepared Israelites, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel would start winning the battle and whenever Moses grew tired of holding his hand up, the Amalekites would begin winning. Aaron and Hur found a rock so Moses could sit down and then they took turns holding up Moses’ arm. And in that way, Joshua defeated Amalek. But from that day forward, the descendants of the previously reconciled Jacob and Esau were forever mortal enemies.
This was the kind of danger the people faced. And this was the kind of exhaustion Moses faced. One day, his wife Zipporah and the kids showed up to visit. They hadn’t seen each other for years. Moses was always super busy and couldn’t come home for dinner most nights because, you know, his demanding schedule dealing with all the boils and blisters and bugs and stuff. So, at some point, Zipporah and the kids went back home to live with her father. Egypt was no place for children. And if I were Moses, would I want my children and spouse to watch me get griped at by people who should have been grateful?
Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, came along too and one night after supper, he pulled Moses aside and asked how he was doing. He could see how exhausted Moses looked and wanted to offer some fatherly advice: Get help! You see, in addition to enduring the never-ending complaints against him and fighting off warring tribes, Moses had been working as a mediator between every party in dispute among the people too. Jethro told Moses to pick some well respected and capable persons to serve as judges, responsible for smaller groups of people. They can hear cases and anything they can’t handle, bring those to you. It was pure common sense. And Moses listened to his father-in-law’s suggestions and did everything he had said. It was so brilliant, Israel maintained that system of judges for centuries.
So, exactly three months after the Israelites left Egypt, they entered the Sinai desert and set up camp in front of a mountain. God called to Moses from that mountain. Tell the people: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagle’s wings and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples of the earth. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” It’s such a tender, loving moment. Moses told the people and they all responded with one voice: “Everything God has said we will do.”
Then God said to Moses, “I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud in order that the people will hear me talking with you so that they will always trust you.” God instructed Moses that the people should wash their clothes and prepare for a holy event. When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud covering the mountain. They heard the blast of a very loud horn and all the people shook with fear. God pounded Mount Sinai with lightning until it was covered in smoke. The horn blasts grew louder and louder. And then Moses brought the people to the foot of the mountain so they could meet God. They were warned not to come too close or they will fall dead from pure holiness. The people stood at a distance while Moses approached the “thick cloud in which God was present” and Moses went up to the top of the mountain.
He would come back carrying something that would forever shape the identity of the people. We’ll find out what that is next week, but you can probably already guess without trying too hard.
Moses approached the “thick cloud” where God is present. Some translations say the “thick darkness,” which I really love. God is light, but King Solomon also described God as living in a dark cloud. What an unusual but marvelous and beautiful image. God in a dark cloud, in thick darkness. We so often characterize darkness as evil and sinister, but here the Bible describes how God is present in “thick darkness,” not a place of fear but of pure holiness. Imagine that it is in our darkest moments, when we fear dark clouds, that we encounter the Holy One. Quite a contrast to “you’re supposed to” messages about being happy and keeping a stiff upper lip – often meaning, don’t feel what you feel.
But do you know where seeds grow? In the earthy darkness of soil. And so do we. And where does human life begin to grow? In the warmth and darkness of the womb. And so do we. It is often during dark nights of the soul that we most readily engage in what is real, below the surface of “everything is fine!” and wrestle with ultimate meaning and questions of faith. Not that I’m opposed to being optimistic and staying positive, except when it’s false, fake. Some translations also interpret thick or dark as “dense.” As in, God dwells in a “dense cloud.” Can’t see through clearly. Some days that feels exactly right, too.
Earlier this week in the daily devotional email from the UCC, Quinn Caldwell talked about how so many of us would like answers to be easier, the direction we should go clearer, the rules to every situation more black and white. If only there was a search engine called www.whatshouldIdonow.com. I tried and there isn’t one just in case anyone wants to claim it. A few years ago, I led one of my more popular Lenten studies on a book called I’d Say Yes, God, If I Knew What You Wanted. There is definitely an appeal to certainty and a faith that tells us exactly what to do. But be careful.
Instead of a faith full of easy answers, clear direction, and everything laid out in black and white, Quinn expresses gratitude that we have “ancient witnesses and guides to follow, modern sages and teachers, companions for the road, a still, small voice inside, a mind that I’m trying hard to keep open, and communities of other confused souls who feast and fight and pray and love so hard that I’m pretty sure any path we’re on must be God’s.” Of course, there are Ten Commandments, but even they are not all easy answers in black and white. Bottom line: We should not fear dark clouds or unknowing because there we find the Holy God.
So, back to the story, Meg Jenista said, “If we could sum up the problem God’s people faced in the wilderness, it wasn’t starvation or thirst but, rather, that they kept forgetting to remember. They kept coming up against obstacles and immediately quarreling with Moses. They misremembered a sentimental version of their own slavery and accused God and Moses of ill intent. After waking up every day, collecting their daily provision, while still talking with manna crumbs falling out of their mouth, they complained they would die of thirst.” They had not yet turned their grousing into gratitude, so God enrolled them in a 40-year training program.
Just to be clear: Gratitude is not sunshine and balloons and having no problems. It’s knowing and trusting that God provides. Maybe not in the form of honey wafers and quail anymore, but God does provide. I asked the members of our Thursday Lunch and Lectionary group how.
And then how do we express gratitude? My favorite answer from the group was this:
People say all the time, “seeing is believing.” But really, belief shapes what we see. They don’t yet believe. But if you and I believe that God provides, we will see it happening everywhere all around us every day. What is God providing for you for you to see?
 Exodus 19:9
 1st Kings 8: 12
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 24, 2023
Exodus 16: 2-16 – Common English Bible
The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 3 The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. 5 On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 7 And in the morning you will see the Lord’s glorious presence, because your complaints against the Lord have been heard. Who are we? Why blame us?” 8 Moses continued, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning because the Lord heard the complaints you made against him. Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.”
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole Israelite community, ‘Come near to the Lord, because he’s heard your complaints.’” 10 As Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned to look toward the desert, and just then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared in the cloud.
11 The Lord spoke to Moses, 12 “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”
13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What[a] is it?” They didn’t know what it was.
Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer [two quarts] per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’”
Last week we quickly raced through the ten disasters caused by Pharaoh’s refusal to simply let the enslaved Israelites leave for a three-day festival in the desert to worship God. Often called the 10 Plagues, the first one was really just an effort to impress Pharaoh by turning a shepherd’s rod into a snake. But failing to impress Pharaoh, the stakes were quickly raised when
This Pharaoh had come to power claiming not to know Joseph. Egyptians forgot why this group of immigrants, the descendants of Joseph, were living in their land. The Joseph who had skillfully saved the entire nation of Egypt from starvation. And so Pharaoh was able to scapegoat the Israelites and eventually enslaved them. After years of suffering, God heard their cries and got personally involved by sending Moses and Aaron to get them released. But by approaching Pharaoh, they actually made things worse. Pharaoh forced the people to work harder by making the same number of bricks but without providing them with any straw to make them. The people rightfully complained. And Moses complained that God is doing nothing to help.
Then seven plagues in, an odd narrative shift. Pharaoh had gone back and forth between relenting, saying “just go already,” and changing his mind. But after the 7th disaster, God made Pharaoh stubborn and now it’s not just a story about an obnoxiously rich and powerful man refusing to grant the people a break, but something much more complicated, of which I have yet to find a satisfying explanation that doesn’t make God look like a jerk, prolonging their suffering and causing more.
The 8th disaster was the greatest hail storm that anyone had ever seen. And then a plague of locusts. Of course, to me, devastating hail storms and plagues of locusts just sound like North Dakota in summertime, along with constantly swatting away mosquitoes the size of birds. And after that, three days of darkness covered Egypt. Which just sounds like winter in North Dakota.
But then, nothing funny about it, the worst of all. Death came to the oldest child and animal in every family – terrible agony in every household in Egypt. Except for Israelite houses marked with blood from a lamb. For those families, God would pass over.
Finally, it was all too much. Pharaoh relented and the people could go. Well, they took off so fast, the yeast hadn’t yet raised the bread dough. They walked for several days and came to the edge of the Reed Sea. They made camp along the sea shore where a woman was selling sea shells. They deserved a nice waterside retreat. Except it also meant they were trapped. Soon enough, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent all the military might at his disposal to force his slaves back to Egypt. The people were furious at Moses and complained bitterly that they could have just died in Egypt without all this trouble. “You should have left us alone.”
But as you heard last week, Moses raised his hand and God blew a strong wind which dried up the sea for the Israelites to walk through and once they were safely across, the wind turned and created havoc for the chariots and Egyptian soldiers. All perished in the sea. God saved the people. Once they were all on the other side, Miriam picked up a tambourine and led them in singing and dancing all day and all night. “Horse and rider into the sea, God has saved us from the enemy.” That’s where we stopped last week.
So, here we are, the next morning after a good night’s sleep, they traveled forward. God knows where they were going. I mean, only God knew where they were going. But after three days in the wilderness, they had not yet found water. Their supplies had run out and so men, women, and children alike sat down on the ground and wailed: “Why didn’t God just let us die in the comfort of Egypt?” If brick-making seven days a week in the hot Egyptian sun was “comfort,” they really were miserable.
But with no other choice, they kept moving until they finally came across a spring in Marah. Water! Word was passed to Miriam to dig out her tambourines! People stood around and with great anticipation watched the first person taste what they expected would be the most wonderful, fresh, cool water people had been dreaming of for days. But before Miriam could start dancing, the person spit the water out. It was bitter, which shouldn’t have surprised them because the word Marah means bitter. No surprise that the water in a place called Bitter is bitter.
But not to fear. God pointed Moses to a tree. Moses threw its branches into the water and it became sweet. They waited around until everyone had filled up their water jugs and then kept traveling until they came to Elim. Elim is a beautiful desert paradise described as having 70 palm trees and 12 springs of water. Travelocity could advertise it as a literal Palm Springs in the desert, minus all the mid-century-modern architecture. They enjoyed six weeks of rest and relaxation and when they resumed their travels, I can only imagine that more than a few people complained about having to leave.
And yup, as soon as they started moving, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt? You led us out here to starve to death. We remember the fish we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Back in Egypt we had pots of meat cooking.” They were hungry. And once again, the whole company of Israel complained bitterly against Moses and Aaron.
Temple Beth Shalom set up a voice mail system for dealing with this kind of thing. “If you would like our service schedule, press one. For membership information, press two. To complain to the rabbi, press three. To complain about the rabbi, press four, five, or six.”
Moses in turn complained to God who promised to “rain down bread from the skies.” Moses and Aaron informed the people, “God has heard your complaints. And by the way,” they added, “just so you know, when you complain, it doesn’t bother us. Your complaints are against God. And do you really want to complain against a God who can send frogs, lice, bugs, hail and more on command?” I think we call that being passive aggressive, obviously a tactic for human interaction as old as time itself.
Moses assured them that God had heard their complaints and promised to send bread every morning, adding, “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” In the morning, that “bread” was a layer of dew all around the camp, described as thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. This is…um, “food?” I’m a picky eater, so I understand when the people nervously asked, “What is this??” Moses said, “It’s the bread God has given you to eat.” Someone said, give it to Mikey. See if he likes it.
The bible says it was like white coriander seed. I had to look that up and discovered that’s it’s like cilantro (doesn’t help). Reportedly, coriander seeds taste “earthy” and the leaves are “pungent” and citrus-like, though I read on Wikipedia that some people think it tastes like dish soap. The bible, however, says it tasted like honey wafers. Nice! And the people called it manna. Manna from heaven.
Here’s how it worked: it came every morning, people were to gather up about two quarts before the sun burned it away. They could take as much as they needed for that day. Of course, that wasn’t enough for some people, but the “too much” they took “turned rotten and became infested with worms.” On the other hand, those who didn’t take enough found they had just enough. On Fridays they were to gather enough for two days. It wouldn’t spoil. And that way, they could rest on the Sabbath. They ate those delicious honey wafers every day for 40 years.
But not just manna. Every day at supper time, a flock of birds perfect for roasting flew down and covered the camp. And so, they were provided Honey Nut Cheerios every morning and quail every night. Not bad, although I’d probably tire of it before too long. And sure enough, it wasn’t too long before the people complained about something else: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst.” Moses turned around and angrily complained: “What should I do with these people.”
Moses hadn’t learned the skill of customer service.
Of all the things people do in the Bible, this is one of the most universal. To complain. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. Maybe we can look at all that time in the wilderness as needing 40 years of gratitude training. Did you notice that in all these stories, never once does someone say thank you?
But, to their defense, the Israelites had been enslaved for years – scholars debate somewhere between 86 and 430 years. Regardless of length, they were shaped by a system that took advantage of them and debased their humanity. Walter Brueggemann described their needing 40 years of wilderness for freedom training. Learning not to belong to anyone else but only God.
So, I don’t mean to equate our experiences, but we too are shaped by dehumanizing systems, like commercialism and capitalism. We need to ask:
That diminishes all of us. We hear a barrage of such messages six days a week, and so, to disrupt them, we gather here – to try to break through this dehumanization – for ourselves and others trapped by such systems. Once a week we gather to worship the One who is greater than all that, to say thank you, to express gratitude. But, that’s not enough. This is something we actually do need more of – a regular practice of gratitude in between Sundays.
I’ll start with myself. David, when it takes you an extra 60 seconds to get past Saint Vincent School on your way to work, instead of complaining, express gratitude for all the teachers who serve our community, thankfully preparing a new generation of educated citizens. I could go on and on but you get the idea.
It may be old fashioned, but we can stop to express gratitude before a meal, or before going to bed, while brushing your teeth, while riding the elevator or walking the dog. You may feel these are too small but it doesn’t matter what or how long, just think of anything that disrupts thoughts of scarcity. A prompt when we feel ourselves starting to complain, I’m grateful. It’s vitally important:
Because when you are grateful, you are not fearful. 
And when you are not fearful, you are not violent.
And when you are not violent, you realize you have enough.
And when you stop feeling like you “never have enough,” you are willing to share.
And when you share, you know you have enough,
Which in turn makes us grateful,
Which means we have no need to be fearful,
Which in turn makes us grateful.
Because we have enough. Every day.
 Adapted from Brother David Steindl-Rast
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 17, 2023
“Go Forward and Live”
Exodus 14:19-31 – Common English Bible
God’s messenger, who had been in front of Israel’s camp, moved and went behind them. The column of cloud moved from the front and took its place behind them. 20 It stood between Egypt’s camp and Israel’s camp. The cloud remained there, and when darkness fell it lit up the night. They didn’t come near each other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord pushed the sea back by a strong east wind all night, turning the sea into dry land. The waters were split into two. 22 The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left. 23 The Egyptians chased them and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and cavalry. 24 As morning approached, the Lord looked down on the Egyptian camp from the column of lightning and cloud and threw the Egyptian camp into a panic. 25 The Lord jammed their chariot wheels so that they wouldn’t turn easily. The Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt!”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the water comes back and covers the Egyptians, their chariots, and their cavalry.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. At daybreak, the sea returned to its normal depth. The Egyptians were driving toward it, and the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them remained. 29 The Israelites, however, walked on dry ground through the sea. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.
30 The Lord rescued Israel from the Egyptians that day. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the amazing power of the Lord against the Egyptians. The people were in awe of the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
Last week, Moses was living a quiet life as a husband, father, and shepherd. He spent his days safeguarding sheep and watching big puffy clouds float across the blue sky, perhaps daydreaming about the life of wealth and privilege he had lived as a youth, not wishing for it back but remembering how his death as an infant had been decreed. He was the child of one of those dangerous outsiders, but was miraculously rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in the house of one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
But one day he saw an Egyptian beating a slave and a righteous anger rose up inside him. He identified with the suffering of the Hebrew people and in response, killed that Egyptian, which led to a cascade of escapes and events that found him years later living a quiet life as a husband, father, and shepherd. And one day while minding his own business, he saw a bush burning but not being burned up. You heard the rest of the story last week. With great reluctance, Moses accepted responsibility to go back to Egypt and demand that the new Pharaoh let his people go, as long as his brother Aaron could help him.
So, on their first day of work, by the way Moses had just turned 80 and Aaron was 83; on the first day of their new job they ate breakfast, polished the leather on their sandals, and without an appointment, showed up at the palace of the Pharaoh. Like two tiny field mice, they pulled together the gumption and the moxie to proclaim, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Let my people go so that they can hold a festival for me in the desert.”
They were smart. They didn’t ask for the whole big, “let my people go – forever.” Just, “give my people a three-day weekend.” But from high on the throne, the deep voice of Pharaoh let out a long sinister laugh and ordered the slave masters to make things worse. Much worse. Order them to make the same number of bricks but give them no straw to make them. On their “downtime,” they had to scour the land gathering straw and when they inevitably began to fall behind, the slave masters drove them harder. Lazy bums, Pharaoh called them. Work harder! Harder!
The people were furious. They raged against him. Not him, as in Pharaoh, but Moses. “Why did you come here? To make our lives even worse? You’ve given him a reason to kill us because we can’t possibly keep up.”
In turn, Moses was angry with God. “Why did you send me here? I’ve only made things worse. And you! You have done absolutely nothing to rescue your people.” God replied, “Watch me! Now go back to Pharaoh and demand that he let my people go. Use the party tricks I taught you. That will impress him.”
So, they went in front of Pharaoh. Aaron threw his shepherd’s rod on the ground and it turned into a snake. Amazing! But Pharaoh called over his wise men and wizards and they did the same thing. Wah wah. Then Aaron’s snake gobbled up the other one, but still, Pharaoh wasn’t impressed. First day on the job and they failed.
The next day, God told Moses and Aaron to find Pharaoh and tell him that if he doesn’t let the people go for a 3 day festival in the desert, you will turn the water of the Nile River into blood. And the fish will die and the Nile will stink. Aaron held his shepherd’s rod over the water and it turned to blood. Amazing! But then the Egyptian religious leaders did the same thing. Wah wah. And a second time, they failed to impress Pharaoh.
Next, God said, OK, tell Pharaoh that if he doesn’t let my people go for my 3 day weekend, frogs will cover the nation – in the palace, on your beds and even in your ovens and bread pans. “There will be frogs everywhere crawling up on you and on everyone else in Egypt.” Pharaoh didn’t seem to care so Aaron raised his rod and voila, thousands of frogs emerged from the Nile and went everywhere and got into everything. Pharaoh relented. “If you pray to the Lord to get rid of these frogs, I’ll let the people go for their festival.” Victory! Third time’s a charm. Moses got rid of the frogs, but not by hopping away. They died right where they were – in the houses and yards and fields. They were scooped up in big piles and began to stink but at least they were dead. But now that the crisis was averted, Pharaoh changed his mind.
Next, as God instructed, Aaron hit the ground with his rod and all of a sudden, Egyptians began feverishly scratching themselves while their animals rubbed up against trees trying to relieve an itch. They were covered in lice. But, this time, Pharaoh’s religious experts couldn’t replicate the lice and told Pharaoh, this God has amazing power. And yet, Pharaoh still wasn’t impressed.
The next morning, Moses and Aaron repeated, “let the people go for three days so they can worship God. And this time, if you refuse, swarms of insects will descend on you.” Clearly Pharaoh didn’t like bugs because when he refused and all of a sudden bugs started swarming everywhere, Pharaoh waved his arms wildly and cried out, “Just GO already! But you have to have your festival here, not out in the desert.” Moses responded that it was the desert or nothing. Still swatting bugs, Pharaoh said, “OK, just get rid of them and you can go.” The insects swarmed away, but as soon as they were gone, Pharaoh changed his mind. Moses and Aaron were angry and very frustrated. All these signs and wonders and yet no sign of progress.
So, they repeated to Pharaoh, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go so that they can worship me. If you refuse, tomorrow morning I will send a deadly disease on all Egyptian livestock, but it won’t affect the Israelites.” Pharaoh laughed, except he wasn’t laughing the next day when animals owned by Egyptians were dead and all the Israelite animals were alive. And yet, Pharaoh still wouldn’t budge.
How long would this go on? How much more suffering was Pharaoh willing to force upon his people just to keep his slaves from a weekend at Burning Man? Well, let’s see.
God instructed Moses to throw some ash from a furnace in the air in front of Pharaoh. The ashes turned to soot that covered everything and caused blisters or boils to break out on everyone. The religious experts were so sore from the boils that they couldn’t even stand up to try to replicate the same thing – I actually thought they had given up a while back, but they were still trying. But the Lord made Pharaoh stubborn and he still wouldn’t listen.
But wait. Six plagues in, they were wearing Pharaoh down, getting him closer to finally relenting. But God made Pharaoh stubborn? This is one of the great mysteries of these stories. But first, let’s see what else happens.
Moses and Aaron once again relayed the message – give my people 3 days off. If not, the greatest hail storm anyone has ever seen will devastate the land. Some of Pharaoh’s officials heard this and quietly stepped back and raced home to protect their families. Of course, Pharaoh refused. Moses raised his hand and lighting began flashing and hail started beating down on everyone and everything so hard that trees were shattering. Back at the homes of the Israelites, just a nice gentle rain. Pharaoh looked out at his nation being devastated and declared, “I’m wrong. You and your God are right. Go. You don’t need to stay any longer.” Pharaoh and Moses breathed long, deep sighs of relief. And then Pharaoh said, “Psych! No soup for you.”
Next, Moses warned, locusts will descend and devour every last piece of vegetation left after the hail. Pharaoh’s officials began to break ranks. “How long are you going to trap us in a corner like this? Egypt is being destroyed!” Pharaoh listened and realized Moses and Aaron had beaten him. “OK, go. You won.” Finally! But before rolling out the barrels, he asked, by the way, “Who is going to this festival?” “Everyone, young and old, and all our animals.” Pharaoh suspected a ruse and added a condition to their release. “Your people can go, but you have to leave the animals behind.” Moses countered that they needed to take all the animals to be available for sacrifice because they won’t know which ones they need until they get there. Pharaoh accused them of having an evil scheme. And so now, he said, they can’t take any women or children too. They argued back and forth until Pharaoh got tired of it and called “security” and had them removed.
In the morning, as Pharaoh was eating his avocado toast, a locust jumped onto it and he swatted it away. A little later, just as he went to take a sip of coffee, one landed in his cup. He spit it out and coffee spilled onto his robes. As he wiped the liquid away, he saw shadows and looked back up to witness the sky turning black. Locusts started landing on everything and began eating, the sound absolutely deafening, until nothing green was left anywhere, except where the Israelites lived.
Pharaoh urgently called for Moses and Aaron. He cried out, “I’ve sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Please forgive my sin. Pray to your God to take this deadly disaster away from me.” Moses left and prayed and God turned the wind and no more locusts. Finally, victory! But not really, of course. The Lord made Pharaoh stubborn. God, what are you doing?
Just then, darkness like nighttime approached and covered Egypt for three days, except where the Israelites lived. Pharaoh told Moses, “Get out of here. I never want to see your face again because the next time you see mine, you will die.” Moses replied, “You got it. I never want to see your face again either.”
Now the 10th disaster, God said, tell Pharaoh that at midnight the first born human and animal in every Egyptian household, including Pharaoh’s, will die. There will be a terrible agony heard throughout the land, like never heard before. But as for the Israelites, not even a dog will growl. Israelites were told to prepare a lamb for supper and use its blood to put on the door posts and over the door. In every Israelite home so marked, God would pass over.
And at the stroke of midnight, from the oldest child of Pharaoh to the oldest child of the prisoners in jail, all were dead. A terrible agony rang out across Egypt. Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron that night and granted their request, and with sorrow added, please bring a blessing on me.
No time for a party, the people were urged to hurry and leave as fast as they could, before Pharaoh changed his mind again. They left so fast, the yeast had not yet caused their bread dough to rise. On their way out, they asked all the Egyptians to give them their gold and silver. They were so traumatized by all the death and disasters, they handed everything over.
As they hurried away, God didn’t lead them out of Egypt by the shortest route. That would take them through the land of the Philistines and God was afraid they would run back to Egypt if the Philistines tried to attack them. Not sure why God couldn't have stopped that from happening, but instead, God led them a roundabout way through the Reed Sea desert. The Lord went in front of them during the day in a column of cloud to guide them and at night in a column of lightning to give them light. They went as far as the edge of the sea and set up camp.
And then Pharaoh changed his mind. Of course he did! “What have we done letting Israel go free of their slavery to us?” He summoned six hundred elite chariots and all of Egypt’s other chariots and with the whole cavalry and army, chased them to their camp on the sea. The Israelites could see the dust rising and hear the Egyptians yelling and feel the rumble of chariots and horses beneath their feet. They were furious and screamed at Moses. “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us? You should have left us alone.”
But Moses replied, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground and watch the Lord rescue you today.” Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the Lord pushed the sea back. The waters were split in two and the Israelites walked through to the other side. As the Egyptians pursued, their chariot wheels gummed up in the mud and in the morning the waters returned and covered every last Egyptian. The Lord rescued Israel that day.
Miriam picked up a tambourine and began singing and invited others to dance: “Sing to the Lord, for an overflowing victory! Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea!” Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron, the one who had asked Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like Miriam to “find” a woman to nurse baby Moses. She led the singing and dancing all day and all night long. “Pharaoh’s chariots and army God has hurled into the sea. Your strong arm, Lord, shatters the enemy.”
What a story. I do want to say about the whole “God made Pharaoh stubborn” that I don’t quite get any of the explanations. And that’s OK. But all the killing. It’s one blood bath after another. And the horses in the sea! Why? That wasn’t necessary and I don’t get it. It’s not OK, but to not understand is OK. Because to offer an easy answer doesn’t require us to wrestle with such questions as taking sides in war – such as Confederates falling to the ground while Black Union soldiers prevail. And what about mass suffering intentionally prolonged by leaders like Pharaoh – for ego, or their “enjoyment” of cruelty…
Here is what I know: These stories were told by people trying to understand their history, not facts about their history, but their relationship with God. And if each of us were to tell the history of our relationship with God, people might find some of our conclusions confusing too. If I were to say, God did this or that for me, you might look at me a side-eyed and say, “really?” Throughout our lives, God changes and who God is today might even contradict what we had previously believed with such certainty. God changes with us.
But what doesn’t change is that throughout history, God absolutely loves God’s people. And who can fully explain love? Be assured, this story isn’t over. Stay tuned for there’s more to come for the Israelites. And hear this once again. You are God’s beloved too. And there’s more to come for you too.
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 10, 2023
“God Gets Personal”
Exodus 3:1-15 – Common English Bible
Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro,[a] Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.[b] So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Jacob’s sons… These were the stories leading up to Pharaoh putting Joseph in charge of saving Egypt from a seven-year famine. But a new Pharaoh came to power who somehow, perhaps conveniently, “did not know” Joseph or how he was responsible for making Egypt a very wealthy country – the global superpower of its time.
Pharaoh tried to convince his nation that a group of peaceful immigrants living among them, the descendants of Joseph and his brothers, were “dangerous.” With ever escalating cruelty, he tried to crush them with increasingly brutal workloads and ultimately turned them into slaves. But nothing could break them. He kept plotting and ordered midwives to kill boys as soon as they were born. They cleverly disobeyed Pharaoh. Since that didn’t work, he simply commanded all Egyptians to throw any newborn Hebrew boys into the Nile River.
Into the middle of all this, a woman gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy. When she could no longer hide him, she came up with an ingenious plan. She put him in a basket and let it float down the Nile right by where the Pharaoh’s daughter was known to bathe – somehow hoping that the daughter of the man who decreed the death of such babies would look inside and feel compassion. And she did. Then they planned for baby’s sister to “happen” to walk by and offer to “find” a woman who could nurse the baby. The Pharaoh’s daughter agreed and even offered to pay that woman – the baby’s actual mother! It’s such a delicious scheme.
Pharaoh’s daughter named the boy Moses and when he was no longer nursing, adopted him as her own son. Moses, the son of slaves, grew up with all the opulent wealth and privilege one could imagine, in the house of the man who decreed his death for being one of those dangerous people. As a child, Moses couldn’t have possibly wanted for anything.
That all changed one day. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. How aware might he have been about his heritage? Had he been taught that he was the son of slaves? Did he know that he was somehow different than the woman he knew as mother? In an instant, something rose up within him – whether he was conscious of why or not. He identified with the man being beaten and felt moved to act. He looked around to make sure no one was looking and then he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand until he could come back the next day. But that next day, he couldn’t do anything about the body because two Hebrew men were over there fighting. When Moses asked why they were fighting, they replied, what business is it of yours? Are you going to kill us too? Busted.
If you’ve ever done something you shouldn’t and thought you had gotten away with it, having breathed a sigh of relief, well, upon being caught, you know how your face immediately turns red, and your heart beats a million miles a minute, and you almost black out as your mind races through all the options available, what can I do, but it’s too late to do anything. Your choices: confess or run. Well, there's lying too. Lots and lots of lying. But Moses ran. And he ran even harder when he heard that Pharaoh had found out and was now looking for him. Not to listen to his side of the story, but to kill him.
Moses ran and ran and ran until he reached the land of Midian. Midianites were sort of like seventh cousins. Interesting story: Moses was a descendent of Abraham through his wife Sarah – a story we now know well. Did you know that after Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah? They had seven more sons, one of whom was named Midian. So, there’s kind of a family connection but it’s so distant, and hundreds of years before, that they don’t really feel like family. But “family enough” to take you in – or at least let you stay around, maybe put up a tent in the back yard.
One day Moses was sitting by a well and seven women, daughters of the priest of Midian, came to draw water for their father’s herd of animals. It wasn’t like they were there to get a drink of cool well water to quench your thirst on a hot day. Imagine having to pull enough water out of the ground to quench the thirst of an entire herd of animals, one bucket after another. Just then, a bunch of shepherds came along and harassed the women and tried to chase them away from the well. Moses stepped in and chased the shepherds away instead and then finished the job for the women.
The story claims he did it faster than 7 women, which I find hard to believe, but it’s a set up for what comes next. The women arrived home earlier than usual and their father asked why. They explained about the rude shepherds and that an Egyptian man chased them away. And that he finished drawing the water for the animals. The grandfather heard this and exclaimed, why in the world didn’t you invite him home to eat with us? So, Moses was quickly summoned and he never left. He worked for the family as a shepherd and, in stark contrast to all the wealth and opulence of his youth, slowly settled into a very quiet, normal life. As the years went by, he married one of the daughters, Zipporah, and had children, one of whom they named Gershom, which means “I’ve been an immigrant living in a foreign land.”
A long time passed and the Pharaoh who wanted to kill Moses died. Egypt had a new king but the people continued to suffer just as much, groaning, crying out to be rescued from their suffering. And then the text says, “God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered” – a curious statement. God remembered. “God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked at the Israelites and understood.” God heard, God remembered, God understood. That something had to be done.
Up to this point, God has been a creator, a supreme being capable of speaking and oceans would appear and kittens and watermelons and everything good – and a few annoyances too. God would speak and the sky would instantly be formed above. And then God began an experiment called “humans,” at times I’m sure regretfully, who defied and disappointed and disgusted God on a regular basis. Over the years, when God overheated, a few people had succeeded at changing God’s mind, calming God down when tempted to rage over his experiment gone awry. One time, however, God was so sick and tired of humankind that a 40-day flood was ordered to start over again. But with a rainbow, God promised never to do so ever again. Not actual events, mind you, but true stories in the sense of teaching meaning.
The point – God was like a distant star who at times came closer to communicate directly, or through dreams, or through angels who served as messengers. Not exclusively, but God was mostly an otherworldly deity to be respected, to whom humans were to worship and show gratitude for life. In the background. But then came something new. A moment when God heard and was moved by their cries, remembered their covenant, and understood that something had to be done. And so, this previously otherworldly deity, somewhat aloof and prone to temper, God was moved to get personally involved. How?
One day Moses was out doing what Moses did every day – taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep, a little further away than usual. All alone at the distant edge of the desert next to a mountain, he came upon a bush that was burning, but not burning up. How weird is that?! He went over to look more closely and from out of that weird bush on fire came something even stranger – a voice calling his name and introducing itself. And, “Moses was afraid.” No kidding!
This disembodied voice explained that the people to whom Moses belonged were still being oppressed as slaves and said, “I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them. So, get going. I’m sending you!”
Wait, what? God’s great plan to get personally involved is to send someone else to do it. Understandably, Moses protested. What does your coming to rescue them have to do with me? You’re God. I have a job and a family to feed and a bunch of other very rational, very good reasons why he was not suited to the task – five reasons to be exact. God listened to each objection and had something to say – not to refute it but to repeat – I will help you.
First objection: Who am I do to this? Don’t worry. I’ll be with you.
Second objection: What am I supposed to say if they ask your name? So, God said, “Nice to meet you Moses. My name is I am.”
Third objection: Moses said, but people won’t believe me. So, this is a fun one: God taught Moses three party tricks. God asked, what’s in your hand? Moses replied, a shepherd’s rod. “Throw it on the ground.” He did and it turned into a snake. Moses jumped back from it but God said, pick it up. And it turned back into a rod. God said, do that, and people will believe.
Next trick. Put your hand inside your coat. Moses did and when he took his hand out, it had a skin disease like flaky snow. God said, put your hand back inside and pull it back. No skin disease.
Third trick. Pour some water from the Nile River on the ground. He did and it turned to blood on dry ground.
And that’s how God addressed Moses’ third objection. I don’t love the idea of God teaching cheap party tricks, but it makes a good story and shows that God is trying really hard.
Fourth objection: but I’m a terrible speaker. The Bible says that Moses had a speech impediment. And God said, “Again, I really mean it. I’ll help you. I’ll teach you what to say.”
Having run out of excuses, Moses fifth objection was simply: just send someone else. By this time, God had grown tired of his obstinance and like any exasperated parent to a demanding child, “Here. Take a juice box.” So God took a breath, metaphorically of course, and offered Moses a compromise. His brother Aaron could be the spokesperson for Moses as long as Moses was the spokesperson for God. Deal? Now off you go, and don’t forget to take your shepherds rod so you can show off your tricks.
And with that, Moses went back to his father-in-law and told him he needed to return to Egypt to check on his family and see whether they are still living. And off the whole family went. But before they arrived, there is one absolutely bizarre and unexplainable event. A few verses tucked in, such that you almost wonder if a monk one day was having a little fun to see if anyone would notice. Starting at verse 24, chapter 4 in Exodus: “During their journey back to Egypt, as they camped overnight, the Lord met Moses and ‘tried to kill him.’ His wife jumped into action and cut off the foreskin of their son with a sharp-edged flint knife and touched it to Moses’ genitals. And so, the Lord left them alone.” Gross and way to personal. Scholars have a really hard time with that one so I prefer my explanation that a monk was trying to have a little fun by shocking us. And with that truly odd conclusion, next week there are in Egypt and begin the long process to convince Pharaoh – Let my people go.
There is so much to this part of the story. I love the explanation of how God works in this world. “I’ve come down to rescue them so I’m sending you.” Lutherans have a great banner for this: God’s Work, Our Hands. I love the image of the burning bush, which is really just an example that God might use anything to get our attention.
But here’s what spoke to me this week: Go through the hymn books of Mainline Protestant Christians and you’ll see a lot of hymns sung about God. God’s majesty and grace and power. The God who created oceans and skies as well as sparrows and watermelons. Beautiful. And sometimes a little detached. Mainline church music doesn’t quite as often sing songs to God, prayers of gratitude and intimacy. Same thing with Jesus and the Spirit. For some, getting too personal might make us uncomfortable. As worship planners, we try to pay attention to a balance of praise and presence. After all, as Job asks, “Is not God beyond even the most distant star?” But don’t we also know that God is as close to us as our breathing – to pray with, not about?
Think about what we need when life becomes a struggle. It’s time to have a little talk with Jesus, not read about him in a creed. When your lows become a death valley, God doesn’t watch us struggle from on high but God walks alongside to strengthen us through the struggle. We are not alone. That is who our God is. I’m with you.
And how does God walk alongside us to strengthen us through the struggle? Through the person sitting next to you. Just like we are for the person sitting next to us. Or walking past on the street. And at the next desk.
This is our God who says, “I know about their pain and I’ve come down to rescue them.” So “get going. I’m sending you!”
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 3, 2023
“Disrupted by Compassion”
Exodus 1:8 – 2:4 – Common English Bible
Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”
2 Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
When we left off last week, Joseph had reconciled with the very brothers who threw him in a pit and sold him to traders on their way to Egypt when he was 17 years old – the bratty little brother who liked to tattle on them, who told them outrageous dreams about ruling over them, and who liked to rub in their faces that he was daddy’s favorite.
After a subsequent wild ride of events, including 13 years in prison, Joseph interpreted two dreams for Pharaoh and ended up in charge of successfully preparing Egypt for seven years of famine, along with saving others from starvation too, including his unsuspecting brothers who came from Canaan to buy grain.
Joseph told Pharaoh about his family and he invited them all to settle in Egypt. Jacob and his wives and his 12 sons and 21 daughters (yes, he had 33 children with 4 wives), plus their children, wives, grandchildren and great-children. They were invited to settle in the best land in the whole nation – Goshen. And the locals didn’t mind because Joseph was in the midst of saving their entire nation from starvation.
But there’s an often-overlooked part of the story. In a famine that lasts seven years, you can imagine that people would eventually run out of money to buy more grain. It started happening. The people weren’t told to save up for 7 years of famine, Pharaoh was and he took full advantage. When the money ran out and all of the peoples’ silver had been traded for grain, Joseph traded for their livestock. And when the people had no more livestock, he traded for their property. And when all the land was in the possession of Pharaoh, the people “offered” to become slaves to save themselves from starvation. Joseph effectively turned the nation into sharecroppers. The people could still live on the land that once belonged to them, but they would have to pay back Pharaoh with the produce of his land. Without money, livestock, or land, they were completely without anything except his mercy. Perpetually in his debt.
But then promptly, nothing more is said of that curious story or of the famine itself and suddenly it’s 17 years later and Joseph’s father Jacob is about to die. It is on a father’s deathbed that a blessing is conferred upon the oldest son to become the leader of the tribe.
But you may remember that Jacob tricked his older twin out of that blessing. Jacob conspired with their mother to deceive their father out of giving his death-bed blessing to Esau. Jacob stole that blessing. And here it is, now time for Jacob to give his death bed blessing. He gathered all 12 sons around. Rueben was his oldest and the obvious family heir, but instead of blessing him, Jacob cursed him because – today’s soap opera detail – Rueben slept with one of his father’s wives. He was out.
So, logically, the blessing would then fall to Simeon, or if not him, the next brother in line, Levi. But Jacob chastised them both: “Cursed be your anger, it is violent; cursed be your rage, it is relentless.” No blessing for them either.
Judah was the next in line and it was this fourth son who finally received the favored status – the head of the tribe. It’s why Jews are called Jews, Judahites, and not Ruebenites. More about his story another time.
Jacob continued blessing son after son, reserving the longest blessing for the first son of his favorite wife Rachel, still his favorite son, Joseph: “Blessings from the sky above, blessings from the deep sea below, blessings from breasts and womb. The blessings of your father exceed the blessings of the eternal mountains…” and on and on he goes for 19 lines. In contrast, he said to his son Issachar that he is a “sturdy donkey,” a funny compliment, and simply as a matter of fact, told Zebulun that he will live at the seashore. Even his beloved Benjamin, the baby brother, only got three lines. Bottom line, this is how Judah became the head of the tribe of Israel. Ruben slept with one of his father’s wives, and Simeon and Levi were hotheads.
Jacob died was brought back to Canaan to be buried. His body was accompanied by all the elder statesmen of Egypt and their chariots and horsemen – a huge collection of people who mourned for seven days.
Joseph continued to live a long life, 110 years, long enough to meet the grandchildren of his children. Upon his death, he was honored and buried in Egypt. But how soon we forget.
Today’s reading began, “Now a new king came to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph.” How is that possible? Thanks to him, the country not only survived seven years of famine, they were now a wealthy nation, thanks to the wealth amassed from the desperate nations around them. At the time, Egypt was the equivalent of a global superpower. What else is going on?
Somehow, scripture is continually relevant and this is a great example. Pharaoh needed a scapegoat. He needed someone to blame for some indiscretion or some incompetence… something that would deflect attention. He needed an enemy and found the perfect target.
Several years ago, Alan Alda starred in a Michael Moore movie called Canadian Bacon. It’s one of my favorite movies. He plays a hapless president plagued by poor poll numbers. His advisors convince him he needs to create a war to cover up a faltering economy, but they didn’t want any real consequences, so they declared war on Canada. They stoked suspicions and the fear of Canadians walking secretly among us. Americans were suddenly pouring maple syrup onto the streets, Anne Murray was banned from the radio, and TV stations couldn’t show hockey anymore. The president’s approval ratings soared and any memories of our long friendship with Canada were forgotten.
Pharaoh tried to alarm the people by claiming, “There are way too many of these foreigners for us to handle. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to devise a plan to contain them. Otherwise, if there’s a war, they might join our enemies,” and as one translation adds, “or just walk off and leave us.” That’s such a curious line. I mean, if there are too many, why not just let them leave? Could it be, maybe, that he needs their cheap labor?
They were put into work-gangs and made to perform hard labor. However, the worse they were treated, the more children they had. There had been too many and now there are even more! So, they went a step further and enslaved them. They piled on work, trying to crush them under a cruel workload — making bricks and mortar and back-breaking work in the fields.
But nothing was working. They couldn’t be broken. So, Pharaoh told the two Hebrew midwives to kill all the boys as they were being born. Shiphrah and Puah respected God too much to do as they were ordered so they made up a story that the Hebrew women were so strong, they gave birth before the midwives could show up. When that idea didn’t work, Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: Throw every newborn Hebrew baby boy into the Nile River.
He tried torture. He tried to enslave. Nothing was working so Pharaoh turned the entire nation into a killing machine against the people who had saved their ancestors from starvation. Was it really that a new king didn’t know who Joseph was?
How could they do that? The nation had lost its collective memory. Or perhaps they were forbidden to learn their history. As one liberation theologian said, “Ordinary people don’t set out to oppress and exploit. That can only happen if those in power can skew or even obliterate the corporate memory of the people. Those who are to be victimized must be perceived as a threat. People will accept the oppression and exploitation of a people because they have been frightened by the powers that be to scapegoat that people.”
It’s a playbook dating all the way back to ancient Pharaohs and once again, ancient scripture remains relevant. Throughout history, immigrants have conveniently played the role of scapegoat. A nation that forgets is dangerous and will do it again and again. Pharaoh found a target. But one person disrupted his plans.
We now transition from a summer of stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – stories about Sarah and Hagar and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah. And don’t forget Uncle Laban. Stories of Dinah and Joseph and his 11 brothers. Of tricksters and dreams and wrestling in the night. Stories about why were they in Egypt. How did they become enslaved and how will they get out? Hopefully you can see how this has all been leading to the great sweep of stories about Moses and burning bushes and plagues and so much more.
Scripture is full of admonitions to remember, exhortations to remember. God repeatedly cautions, warns – do not forget who you are and where you came from. Once you were a stranger in a strange land. And every time they chose to forget, God admonished them.
And so, the story begins with the birth of a beautiful Hebrew boy. But every Egyptian citizen had been ordered to kill just such a child, so his mother tried to hide him. One day, his mother put him in a basket to float down the Nile, just downstream of where the Pharaoh’s daughter was known to bathe. His sister stood nearby to watch what would happen. Why her, I don’t know, but Pharaoh’s daughter noticed the basket and sent one of her servants to bring it. The boy was crying and she felt compassion.
Just then the baby’s sister “happened” to pass by and asked, “would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” It was an absolutely brilliant set up. The girl went and “found” a woman, the boy’s actual mother. And then Pharaoh’s daughter offered to pay this “anonymous” woman to nurse it. I love it. After the child was weened, Pharaoh’s daughter, even though she knew it was a Hebrew boy, the target of her father… she adopted the child as her own son and named him Moses, meaning, I pulled him out of the water.
That’s the story of Moses’ birth. The birth of great heroes often include miracles. In fact, Moses isn’t the only hero to have been pulled out of the Nile as a baby. But there’s more to this story than his birth.
In this long sweep of history, the story demonstrates how the seeds of freedom for the slaves were sown years before through the sophisticated use of civil disobedience by women – the midwives who defied Pharaoh, by Moses’ clever mother and sister who carefully plotted a way for him to be rescued, and then by the daughter of the very Pharaoh who decreed his death. Whether she intended to or not, she made a fool out of her father.
The evil schemes of one man were disrupted by acts of rebellious women – acts of rebellious compassion. It inspires in me again an appreciation for how small personal acts multiply into great acts of liberation. When we feel overwhelmed by hatred or violence, nothing is worse than feeling like there is nothing we can do, worse than even anger. But each act of compassion, rebellious compassion, inspires another.
That is what makes this ancient text relevant today. We too can remember and reject what is fearful. We can engage in acts of rebellious compassion toward the people we are told don’t belong here, toward people who are different in any way. We can name what Pharaoh did – his blame-pointing, fear-mongering, power-grabbing – and disrupt and defeat it. With compassion.
As Paul told the Romans: “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves. Leave that to God. Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if she is thirsty, give her a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon their head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.”
Like the women who saved Moses, engage in the kinds of acts of compassion that plant seeds of liberation which may blossom long after us. And for God’s sake – literally, for God’s sake – don’t forget our history. Don’t forbid the teaching of our history. As scripture teaches, it will lead to terrible things over and over. That’s why God repeatedly pleads with us to remember it all.
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 27, 2023
“Always Being Prepared”
Genesis 45: 1-15 – Common English Bible
Joseph could no longer control himself in front of all his attendants, so he declared, “Everyone, leave now!” So no one stayed with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers. 2 He wept so loudly that the Egyptians and Pharaoh’s household heard him. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I’m Joseph! Is my father really still alive?” His brothers couldn’t respond because they were terrified before him.
4 Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me,” and they moved closer. He said, “I’m your brother Joseph! The one you sold to Egypt. 5 Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Actually, God sent me before you to save lives. 6 We’ve already had two years of famine in the land, and there are five years left without planting or harvesting. 7 God sent me before you to make sure you’d survive[a] and to rescue your lives in this amazing way. 8 You didn’t send me here; it was God who made me a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler of the whole land of Egypt.
9 “Hurry! Go back to your father. Tell him this is what your son Joseph says: ‘God has made me master of all of Egypt. Come down to me. Don’t delay. 10 You may live in the land of Goshen, so you will be near me, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and everyone with you. 11 I will support you there, so you, your household, and everyone with you won’t starve, since the famine will still last five years.’ 12 You and my brother Benjamin have seen with your own eyes that I’m speaking to you. 13 Tell my father about my power in Egypt and about everything you’ve seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 He threw his arms around his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. 15 He kissed all of his brothers and wept, embracing them. After that, his brothers were finally able to talk to him.
This summer we have been following the story of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now we’re on to Jacob’s sons. As you heard last week, Jacob had one son he treated differently than all the rest. Joseph was the youngest and the only son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel. This son not only received preferential treatment and gifts from his father, he flaunted them, like a really nice embroidered coat, and he tattled on the brothers, and he told them outrageous dreams – like the one when they were out working in the field gathering bundles of wheat and Joseph’s stood up straight and all the other bundles bowed down to it.
The brothers were tired of his antics, so when they saw an opportunity to get rid of Joseph, they discussed all the different kinds of ways they could get away with murder. Cooler heads prevailed and they decided that instead of killing him, they would sell him to some traders passing by on their way to Egypt. Then they took Joseph’s amazing technicolor dreamcoat and smeared it with blood and brought it to their father and told him that a wild animal killed him. Jacob was beside himself in grief. His favorite son, the only child of his favorite wife, was dead.
Meanwhile, the traders who paid 20 pieces of silver for Joseph arrived in Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the commander of the royal guard and Pharaoh’s chief officer. Joseph performed his duties so well that he kept being elevated and put in charge and then put in charge of more and more until he was the chief of Potiphar’s entire household. And then the story continues, “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.” That’s the Common English Bible translation. I was curious how other translations described him. One said he was “of a beautiful form and of a beautiful countenance.” Another, “Strikingly handsome.” And that’s why, we’re told, Potiphar’s wife grew “infatuated” with him and kept trying to seduce him.
All summer you’ve heard stories straight out of soap operas. Or perhaps we should say, soap operas straight out of scripture. Here is another. Joseph kept resisting her. “Sleep with me,” she kept begging. Genesis 39:7. One time she grabbed his garment and demanded passionately, “lie down with me.” Verse 12. She persisted and to get away, he slipped out of his coat as she held on to it. Certainly, that’s happened on Days of Our Lives and all the rest. Well, realizing that he was never going to give in, she took that coat to Joseph’s master. And what started out as a sort of funny story turned tragic. She lied. “Look what the Hebrew slave did to me. He tried to sleep with me. I screamed but no one was here to save me. He took off his garment but when he heard someone coming, he ran off and left it behind.”
It is a sadly familiar story. Such lies in the South led to lynching. He looked at me the wrong way. Or he whistled at me. Emmet Till was beaten until he was unrecognizable, shot, and thrown into a river with a metal cotton gin hung around his neck with barbed wire because of a lie to create a pretext. In this case, Joseph was put in jail.
But while in jail, Joseph so impressed the jail’s commander that eventually Joseph, as a prisoner, was put in charge of the prisoners. It was during this time that one day Pharaoh got angry at his head bakery chef and chief wine-steward and had them thrown in jail. One morning they looked distressed. Joseph asked what was the matter. They both had dreams but didn’t know what they meant. Joseph listened and interpreted them and, in the end, the dreams became reality. Joseph said that the chief wine-steward would be praised by Pharaoh and restored to his position while, and a warning for anyone would like to cover their ears for this gruesome detail… Joseph interpreted the dream of the bakery chef that his head would hang from a tree while birds pecked at it. In reality, his head was impaled on a stick, but close enough. The chief wine steward happily returned to work and promptly forgot the whole ordeal. Thirteen years passed. Joseph spent 13 years unjustly detained for that told lie against him – another eerily familiar detail.
Well, one night Pharaoh had two disturbing dreams. He stood by the Nile and saw 7 healthy-looking, fattened cows grazing along the banks. Just then, 7 scrawny, terrible-looking cows emerged from the river and promptly devoured the fattened cows. He woke up troubled. He eventually fell back to sleep and had a second dream about 7 ears of corn, full, well-formed and 7 scrawny looking ears of corn, scorched by the east wind. The scrawny ones ate the full ones, but those 7 pitiful looking ears still remained scrawny.
Pharaoh summoned all of Egypt’s religious experts and all of his advisors. He described his dreams but no one could interpret them. That’s when the chief wine steward remembered a young Hebrew in jail. Pharaoh summoned him and Joseph explained that 7 years of abundant fields of grain would be followed by 7 years of a devastating famine. He told Pharaoh that he should find an intelligent, wise man and give him authority over the land of Egypt to collect and store as much grain as possible so it will last through 7 years of famine. Pharaoh and his advisors thought that was a good idea. And the man they put in charge was Joseph.
And just like he said, 7 years of abundant yields of grain did indeed lead to a period of famine that affected every part of Egypt and the rest of the known world. Every country came to Egypt to buy grain. And who did they have to see? Joseph.
Back home, his father Jacob and his brothers were suffering the famine like everyone else. Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain – all of them except one. His beloved Rachel had one more son named Benjamin but sadly she died shortly after childbirth. Jacob couldn’t risk losing him too.
The brothers went to Egypt and met with the man in charge of selling grain from their storehouses. They didn’t recognize Joseph but he recognized them and devised a scheme seemingly designed to torment them. He spoke to them in a harsh tone and accused them of being spies looking to exploit the country’s weaknesses. No, they defended; we’re just the 12 sons of a man in Canaan. One brother is still at home with our father and one brother is gone.
Joseph was that “gone” brother, and this was the first he heard that he had another brother. Joseph told them that if they are honest men to go home and bring back the youngest son to prove their words are true. But one of them would have to stay behind in prison. Rueben exclaimed to his brothers, “Didn’t I tell you we shouldn’t have wronged our brother. But no. You wouldn’t listen. That’s why we’re in this danger now.” Joseph enjoyed listening to their little exchange. Joseph had spoken to the brothers as though he were an Egyptian, through an interpreter, so the brothers didn’t know he could understand them.
He sold them the grain and Simeon was tied up and put in prison. But Joseph ordered that the money they used to pay for their grain be hidden in their sacks. When they arrived home the brothers told their father they must return with Benjamin in order to get Simeon out of prison. Jacob was out of his mind fearing that he might lose yet another of his most beloved sons, not to mention that now another one of them was a prisoner back in Egypt. It was then that they opened the sacks of grain and discovered the money. Jacob angrily accused his sons of trying to torture him. “If anything happens to Benjamin, it will send me to my grave in grief.”
They didn’t rush back to Egypt to free Simeon because Jacob was trying to wait as long as he could to save Benjamin’s life. But when the grain was gone and they were hungry again, the brothers went back with Benjamin to buy more.
They arrived back in Egypt and met with Joseph and told him about finding the money in their sacks. “Please, we don’t know how this happened.” Joseph, through an interpreter, told them, “Don’t worry about it.” He invited them into his home and had a feast prepared for them. And he laid his eyes on his brother for the first time. And one of those little details I find funny – he gave Benjamin 5 times as much food as the others. Still rubbing it in their faces.
They ate and drank together and were put at ease. While they were eating, sacks of grain were being assembled for them to take. Once again, Joseph ordered that their money be placed in the sacks of grain. Along with a silver chalice in Benjamin’s sack. Except this wasn’t generosity. He did it to trick them. Joseph had his servants follow them and before they left the city, accuse them of stealing. “The master’s silver chalice is gone. Why have you repaid his hospitality with such ingratitude?”
The brothers discovered money in their sacks of grain again. They returned to Joseph and defended themselves saying they had nothing to do with it. He told them not to worry about it but if one of them has his silver chalice, he would become his slave. From oldest to youngest they opened their sacks of grain until it was found in Benjamin’s. They all tore their clothes. Judah pleaded with Joseph that if they returned home without Benjamin, their father would drop dead of grief and explained that Jacob had already lost a son who had been killed by a wild animal – Joseph himself standing in front of them. Judah begged that he be kept behind as a slave instead of Benjamin because he couldn’t go home and bear seeing the grief of their father.
Joseph could no longer control himself. He sent everyone except his brothers out of the room and wept so loudly that the Egyptians could hear it. Remember Joseph had been speaking to them through an interpreter as though he were an Egyptian. But as he broke down in tears, he said in their language, “I am Joseph. Is my father really still alive?” The brothers were speechless.
And that’s where today’s reading begins. Joseph said, “Don’t be upset that you sold me. Don’t be distressed. God sent me here to save your lives. Go back and bring my father and your children and your grandchildren and your flocks and herds and everyone with you. There are five more years of famine coming but you won’t starve.” And he threw his arms around Benjamin’s neck and wept and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. And then he kissed all his brothers and wept, embracing them. And finally, the speechless brothers could speak again.
How often have you heard, “Everything happens for a reason?” It’s a common sentiment meant to make someone feel better, but it’s also often the most egregious thing we can say to someone. Kate Bowler discovered she had stage 4 cancer. One day a neighbor came to the door with a casserole. It was a lovely gesture. She handed it to Kate’s husband with words of reassurance, “Everything happens for a reason.” He replied, “What is it?” The neighbor looked at him like she didn't understand his question. “What is the reason?" he asked. She dropped her eyes and stepped back.
So, we could look at today’s story of Joseph sold into slavery and 13 years in prison and say, “See, everything happens for a reason. If his brothers hadn’t done that to him, they could have died in the famine.” Maybe that’s true, but it's one thing for us to tell Joseph, that’s why this happened to you – so that your suffering could save us. And it’s another thing for Joseph to reflect back and say, “you know what, because of this suffering, I can do this for you.”
Not everything happens for a reason. But everything that happens can serve a purpose.
It is not for us to say to someone, “you are suffering so that…” But each of us can take the power and discern how “because of my suffering, I can…” And isn’t it liberating to know that every situation and circumstance that comes into our life isn’t for a reason – judgment or condemnation for some fault or failure – but every situation and circumstance in our life can be redeemed, can be used for a purpose that helps someone. I think that’s at the heart of the Christian faith.
It is good news to know that, throughout life, we can take whatever happens to us, whatever someone does to us, including whatever mistakes we make, and turn it into an opportunity to serve. And in serving, find meaning. Just like Joseph.
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Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 13, 2023
“Little Brother and Big Dreams”
Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28 – The Message
Meanwhile Jacob had settled down where his father had lived, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of Jacob. The story continues with Joseph, seventeen years old at the time, helping out his brothers in herding the flocks. These were his half brothers actually, the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought his father bad reports on them.
3-4 Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was the child of his old age. And he made him an elaborately embroidered coat. When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than them, they grew to hate him—they wouldn’t even speak to him.
12-13 His brothers had gone off to Shechem where they were pasturing their father’s flocks. Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are with flocks in Shechem. Come, I want to send you to them.” Joseph said, “I’m ready.”
14 He said, “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are doing and bring me back a report.” He sent him off from the valley of Hebron to Shechem.
15 A man met him as he was wandering through the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 “I’m trying to find my brothers. Do you have any idea where they are grazing their flocks?”
17 The man said, “They’ve left here, but I overheard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” So Joseph took off, tracked his brothers down, and found them in Dothan.
18-20 They spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, “Here comes that dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We’ll see what his dreams amount to.”
21-22 Reuben heard the brothers talking and intervened to save him, “We’re not going to kill him. No murder. Go ahead and throw him in this cistern out here in the wild, but don’t hurt him.” Reuben planned to go back later and get him out and take him back to his father.
23-24 When Joseph reached his brothers, they ripped off the fancy coat he was wearing, grabbed him, and threw him into a cistern. The cistern was dry; there wasn’t any water in it.
25-27 Then they sat down to eat their supper. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way from Gilead, their camels loaded with spices, ointments, and perfumes to sell in Egypt. Judah said, “Brothers, what are we going to get out of killing our brother and concealing the evidence? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not kill him—he is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
28 By that time the Midianite traders were passing by. His brothers pulled Joseph out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who took Joseph with them down to Egypt.
Abraham and Sarah had Isaac. Then, Isaac and Rebekah had Esau and Jacob, twins feuding all the way back to the womb. We’ve been following the story of Jacob for a few weeks –
In today’s text, all that drama is behind them. No more drama and soap opera theatrics, right? Just brothers who love each and get along. And so, the story proceeds with Jacob’s 11 sons; Jacob, remember post-limp, is now known as Israel.
But first, there’s also a story about their sister Dinah. The lectionary understandably skips over her because her story is dark and unpleasant and not generally something told in polite company, especially church. Sadly, churches are in the habit of keeping these kinds of secrets. Dinah is raped by the son of the king in the land where they are living as immigrants. When Jacob learned of this, he was angry but he also feared that when news reached his sons, they would feel honor-bound to retaliate, so he kept it a secret and, in the meantime, arranged with the king for Dinah’s and the son’s marriage, certainly without any say on the part of Dinah. Part of the marriage agreement between the fathers, the king agreed that all the males of Shechem would be circumcised, including the king, which would cancel out the need for revenge. But when the brothers learned this, they weren’t buying it. They waited and then, a few days after the circumcision, strategically while the men were still feeling the um…after-effects, they then killed every man in town, including the king and his son, looted all their valuables, livestock, and took the women and children. It is not a story with a silver lining in the end and it’s shocking that it wasn’t removed from the sacred canon of scripture, but it is the explanation why Jacob and company moved from Shechem to Bethel. More importantly, a story like this in the middle of scripture keeps us honest.
So, today’s text begins the epic story of liberation and how it came to be that the people lived in, were enslaved by, and ultimately how they fled the same Egypt that had previously saved them from starvation – but that’s all to come. Today it starts with a 17-year-old twerp named Joseph, a total caricature of a bratty little brother.
But first, you remember how Jacob was tricked into marrying Uncle Laban’s oldest daughter, Leah? So, Jacob never really came around to love her, not that that was the expectation of marriage. Leah was a plain Jane, while Rachel was a stunning beauty. However, unlike Rachel, Leah could produce sons – one right after the other. After the fourth son, Rachel, feeling humiliated, gave her slave Bilhah to Jacob. They had two sons who according to the custom would be considered Rachel’s children. But Leah wasn’t going to let this go unanswered, so she gave her slave Zilpah to Jacob and she had two more sons – for Leah. And then Leah conceived again and again and again – two more sons and at least one daughter named Dinah. Poor Rachel could only watch, even though she remained the love of Jacob’s life. Jacob absolutely adored her and one day to their surprise, Rachel conceived and bore a son. Jacob was over the moon! He loved that boy, too much for the taste of his brothers. Of course, Joseph made things worse by rubbing it in their faces.
Sibling dynamics are fascinating, aren’t they? I’m the youngest of four – 17 years younger than my oldest sister and 15 from my brother and 10 from my other sister. The economics of farming from when they grew up to when I grew up were substantially different. One example is that they all had to wait until they were 12 years old to get a watch. I got a watch when I was 8 and it’s been grist for the mill for 50 years! However, I didn’t go around twirling and waving my arm in the air and saying nehya, nehya, nehya. At least I don’t think I did.
Well, Joseph didn’t show such restraint, especially when his father gave him an absolutely beautiful coat. Plus, you heard how Joseph was a little tattle-tale. There’s also a story the lectionary skipped over about a dream that Joseph told his brothers. “We were out in the fields gathering bundles of wheat and all of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around and bowed down to mine.” (Why would he tell them that!?) Not surprisingly, the story concludes, “the brothers hated him even more.” Even Joseph’s beloved father reprimanded him for that one.
One day while all 10 of his brothers were out in the fields working and Joseph was hanging out at home – now wait, he’s 17 years old, so why isn’t he out working in the fields too? Anyway, one day, Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields to bring back a report on what his brothers were doing. Joseph had previously ratted them out so how do you imagine the brothers were supposed to feel when they saw Mr. Lazy-Pants little twerp of a brat brother with his big dreams coming in the distance? And yet it’s still shocking to think they began discussing how to murder him and get away with it. It’s a fascinating, detailed conversation straight out of Shonda Rhimes.
As the text reports, fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and instead of murder they decided to sell him to some traders passing by. And the moral of the story: sell your brother, don’t kill him. Amen. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. But wait. They didn’t kill him and only sold him into slavery…?
A couple of details to share: There have been a lot of unfamiliar names this summer that keep coming around. Each week I’ve tried to repeat them just enough in order connect what has been happening with who. And all the way back, nearly two months ago, I told the story of Hagar, Sarah’s slave with whom Sarah suggested, given her advanced age, Abraham sleep in order to provide him with an heir. Same idea Rachel had with her slave. Hagar’s son was Ishmael and when surprise, surprise, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, it created a lot of conflict and nearly led to their death. But their lives were spared. There’s a little detail you might not have noticed in verse 25 today. It was the Ishmaelites who bought Joseph and took him to Egypt. As in, the ancestors of Ishmael, son of Hagar. Except, in verse 28, the same people are called Midianites. You can use this in Bible trivia one day.
But did you also notice that the name Jacob and Israel kept going back and forth in our reading today? Well, it’s an example of the differing versions of the same story woven together. One school of thought continues to call him Jacob and the other Israel. And one calls the same people Ishmaelites and the other Midianites.
These two schools of thought also call God different names – one uses Elohim and the other Yahweh. The Elohists think that the reason Joseph’s brothers hate him so much is that he is a little brat. And the Yahwist tradition, or was it the Elohist? Anyway, the second thinks his brothers hate him because of his outrageous dreams. Oh, and you missed one of the dreams recorded in Genesis. I told you about the bundles of wheat bowing down. Joseph also told them a dream that the sun and moon and 11 stars bow down to him. Not that it really matters which is more upsetting, his bad behavior or his big dreams, do you see why the brothers might have thought about cooking up his disappearance? It’s not an excuse but certainly an explanation.
But OK, what’s the point of all this? We can tell the story of Joseph and think it’s cute and isn’t it funny how family dynamics can be so similar 4,000 years later? But these family stories also might be quite painful for some of us.
Steve Garnaas-Holmes made a powerful observation:
Robert Frost is mostly right that home is where,
when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Mostly. But biblical families aren't havens of belonging,
places of safety or unconditional acceptance.
Nor sometimes are ours.
Family is sometimes where we treat loved ones like we would never treat strangers.
Home might be where monsters live under our beds, and in our closets, and maybe in our parents' room.
The monster of who we are supposed to be, expected to be,
made to be.
Sooner or later we have to come home and reckon with family. Face to face or elsewhere; whether dead or alive.
It's the final frontier:
our deepest wounds, our greatest fears,
our heaviest failures, the sneakiest neuroses we have to wrestle with. It’s Jacob and his angel.
One day we have to go back into that literal or metaphorical house and take what's true and flush the rest.
Honor the child of us, the one who protected and sustained us — and thank that child.
Forgive ourselves, and say goodbye and let the others go too.
Let them stay while we move on. It's how we get free.
I pray for your courage to go there.
I pray that, alive or dead, they will help you.
But remember nothing depends on them.
It's your work.
Do it, and with even those who sold you into slavery,
you will be ready to act with grace and honor and generosity.
Next week we’ll see what Joseph ultimately does when confronted by, and shocked by, the reappearance of his brothers years later.
But before I end, I have one last big question. Where was God in this story? God is never mentioned. Well, I think it’s not always necessary to say God’s name because God is always present, always near. I think like the biblical writers, we also often live with an assumption of God’s presence. And yet, when it comes to family pain, sometimes that’s still our biggest question. Where is God?
Where is God? God is the strength we rely on, God is the comfort which holds us, God is the hope for another day and the dream of reconciliation to come. Joseph’s and ours. Today’s story is not done. And neither is ours. As unthinkable as it may be, one day we will reconcile with those we have mistreated and those who have mistreated us. But as we will see next week, Joseph did it on his own terms. And neither should reconciliation be demanded from us.
But when the opportunity arises, sometimes confronts us, remember that though reconciliation can be frightening, strength, comfort, and hope are very real. And we don’t even need to say their names to know they are near to our heart – providing us a very present help in times of trouble.
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 6, 2023
Genesis 32: 22-29 – Common English Bible
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there
This summer, we started with Abraham and Sarah who laughed at the idea that a 100-year man and a 90-year-old woman would have a child. That child was named Isaac.
Isaac married Rebekah and after they also tried for many decades, she finally became pregnant and gave birth to twins named Jacob and Esau, but in a sign of what was to come, the twins put up a terrible battle inside Rebekah’s womb. And when they came down the birth canal, Jacob grabbed the heel of his twin and never stopped trying to get ahead of his older brother. He used every means of trickery and deception he could think of.
Among the stories told, Jacob sold Esau some stew for the price of his birthright. Later, Jacob dressed himself with Esau’s clothes and covered his neck and arms with goatskin in order to trick their blind father Isaac, while he was laying on his deathbed, into giving Jacob power over the tribe. He was helped by his co-conspirator mother who cooked goat to taste like venison. You can read about this in sermons from earlier this summer.
When Esau learned he had been tricked again, he was so enraged he vowed to kill his twin brother. Their mother sent her favorite son off to live with her brother, Laban. As Jacob ran for his life, the first night he was so exhausted that he slept with a rock for his pillow and dreamed of messengers, like God’s angelic office workers, going up and down from heaven. It’s where we get the familiar image of Jacob’s ladder.
He finally made it to Uncle Laban’s and began working for him. And fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. Uncle Laban promised Jacob that he could marry Rachel if he worked for free for 7 years. Jacob agreed and at the end of 7 years, he indeed married Laban’s daughter. Except that the morning after the marriage had already been consummated, he woke up and discovered he had just slept with Rachel’s sister, Leah. Uncle Laban had tricked Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter, but promised that Jacob could marry Rachel if he worked for free for another 7 years. The trickster met his match. Although, to add to this soap-opera, Jacob began a scheme to steal his uncle’s sheep.
After 20 years of this dysfunctional family dynamic, Jacob felt God was calling him to reunite with his estranged twin brother. It was a frightful idea because, you’ll remember, their last interaction had involved Esau’s raging vow to kill Jacob. But the time had come.
Jacob, however, didn’t tell Laban he was leaving. He just took off with his wives and his possessions, his 11 children and livestock, plus some of Laban’s possessions – those ill-gotten sheep. Rachel added to the fun by stealing her father’s household gods. When Laban discovered this, he raced after their caravan and demanded what had been stolen. He searched through everything but Rachel sat on the gods and declared it was her time of the month and she couldn’t be touched. Laban went home infuriated while Jacob’s caravan moved on toward an uncertain reunion.
I wanted to remind us of this backstory because this is all part of that which Jacob is now wrestling. But this time, it wasn’t a dream on a rock pillow; it was so real, he walked away from it limping from a torn muscle.
But before I talk more about this wrestling match, I want to finish the story of Jacob and Esau. Next week the lectionary skips on to one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph and his amazing technicolor dream coat. But it leaves us wondering, what happened with Jacob and Esau?
So, for 20 years Jacob had imagined, fretted over, what might happen when and if he ever saw his twin brother again. God told him it was time. But Jacob didn’t want to just show up unannounced. He sent some messengers ahead to prepare his brother. They were to announce: “This is a message from your servant Jacob” (servant, not brother who tricked and deceived and stole from you). “I’ve lived as an immigrant with Laban, where I’ve stayed until now. I own cattle, donkeys, flocks, men and women servants. I’m sending this message to my master now to ask that he be kind.” His master? Jacob is laying it on pretty thick as he begs for mercy. The messengers returned and told him that “Esau is coming to meet you with four hundred men.”
Hearing the report back, Jacob was terrified. He prayed to God, “you were the one who told me to do this, so you better protect me! Save me from my brother!” Jacob came up with a strategy. He divided everyone and everything into two camps. He thought, if Esau meets the first camp and attacks it, at least one camp will be left to escape.”
Then he pulled aside 200 female goats and 20 male goats. He sent a servant ahead and told him, when Esau asks you who you are, tell him these are a gift from his servant Jacob. Also tell him, Jacob is right behind me. An hour later he sent a group of 200 lambs and 20 rams with the same message. They are a gift of Jacob. He’s right behind. An hour later he sent 30 nursing camels with their young. Same message. An hour later, 40 cows and ten bulls. And an hour later, 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. Every time, the same message. Jacob thought he could pacify Esau and overwhelm him with one generous gift right after the other. Quite the contrast to all the things Jacob had stolen from Esau.
That’s when Jacob went back across the river and spent the night alone. As it turned out not alone but a night spent wrestling with… was it angels or demons or God? Was he wrestling with his conscience or maybe his fears? All of the above? Think of all the baggage he was carrying.
In the morning, he limped across the river and rejoined his family on the other side. His fears were confirmed when in the distance he could see Esau coming closer with his 400 men. Oh… crap. His plans hadn’t worked. Jacob frantically took his women servants and their children and put them together in a group out in front. And behind them, Leah and her children together. And behind them, Rachel with Joseph. And behind them, stood Jacob. He then came out from behind and approached Esau, bowing to the ground seven times.
When Esau first spotted Jacob coming from behind these groups of women and children, the big hairy brute came running, not with fists ready to punch but arms wide open. Esau hadn’t sent an army of 400 to harm Jacob. He sent a great big welcoming party. Esau threw his arms around Jacob’s neck and kissed him and they wept. And then he asked to be introduced to all his sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews. And then he asked, “What’s with all the gifts you sent? I don’t need any of that. Take ‘em back!”
It’s the consummate story of grace and generosity of spirit that reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son. We may agree that the father had every right to demand a full accounting of what his wasteful son had done with his inheritance. The father had every right to be angry and skeptical that his son would have finally come to his senses. But he wasn’t angry and told his oldest son, who was angry, I’m just happy we’re reunited. I thought my son was dead but he is alive. Esau too could have recited a litany of all the ways Jacob had tricked him and deceived him but instead, he was grateful to be reunited with his twin.
To finish their story, the brothers had so many livestock and family members, they were so rich and successful, that they had to part ways and live in different lands. There simply wasn’t enough room. But, for the first time in their lives, after all they had gone through, they were at peace with one another. That must have been quite the relief for their father Isaac, who was still alive. Remember he was supposed to have been on his death bed 20 years earlier when Isaac was tricked out of giving his blessing to Esau, his favorite son. Isaac didn’t die until he was 180 years old, at a time when his sons were at peace.
I’m almost out of time before I’ve even talked about what Jacob’s wrestling in the night means. But first, there’s still a couple of things I want to make sure you understand. To be clear, Jacob and Israel are the same person. When you hear about the 12 Tribes of Israel, that’s the same thing as the 12 sons of Jacob. We’ll talk a little more about that next week. This night of wrestling marks the transition from Jacob, named for grabbing his brother’s heel as they were born, to Israel, which means one who strives, struggles, wrestles, with God.
This is a very important story because it teaches that to be the people of God is not to be the puppets of a grand marionette but people who push and pull and argue with God and accuse God of being unfaithful and yet know that it is to God that we belong. Like any relationship, love is sometimes expressed in affection and sometimes in anger. But it still remains love.
Genesis 32 is a profoundly mysterious story that raises numerous unanswerable questions. Like:
Corrine Carvalho defines faith as “the stubborn refusal to let God off the hook.” Wrestling. And an adult faith welcomes that struggle. Answers to ultimate questions don’t come neatly packaged. And, in fact, answers aren’t the point. Meaning doesn’t come from having the answer. Meaning comes from the struggle to understand. It changes us, transforms us. Even renames us. It changed Jacob into Israel.
So, what are you wrestling with today? Angels? Demons? Is it God or your conscience or your fears?
Hold on. Persist. And remember, when you demand an easy answer, it is a blessing that God invites us to wrestle, not to be puppets.
 Callie Plunkett-Brewton, working-preacher.org
Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 23, 2023
“Surely God is in This Place”
Genesis 28: 10-19a – The Message
Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.
13-15 Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”
16-17 Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”
18-19 Jacob was up first thing in the morning. He took the stone he had used for his pillow and stood it up as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He christened the place Bethel (God’s House).
Last week I shared the story of Jacob and Esau – twins born to Isaac and Rebekah, a blessed event after 20 years of trying to get pregnant. But, in an ominous sign, these twins began fighting with each other even while they were still in the womb. It was so bad, Rebekah complained, “Why should I still live?”
Jacob was born trying to get ahead of his brother, grasping onto Esau’s heel to hold him back as they came down the birth canal. And he never stopped trying to get ahead of his older brother. Having failed in the womb, as adults, Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright for the price of some stew. Some years later, Jacob once again tricked Esau out of his rightful place as the head of the tribe. Jacob did this by conspiring with his mother Rebekah to deceive his father Isaac. It’s a wild story as good as any soap opera and if you want to catch up, watch or read last week’s sermon.
So, today’s reading begins right after Jacob tricked his twin again. Esau was so angry, he promised to kill Jacob, but he would wait to do so until after their father was dead. But before that happened, Rebekah sent her favorite twin off to live with her brother Laban. Jumping ahead in the story, that’s where he met Laban’s daughters and was tricked into marrying both of them, which then, in retaliation, Jacob schemed to steal his uncle’s sheep. My colleague Jeffrey Spencer describes Jacob as someone who puts the fun in dysfunctional.
So, today’s story happens at the end of the first day of running from Esau’s murderous rage. Jacob was so dog-tired he simply used a rock for his pillow and fell into a deep sleep, the kind with dreams so convoluted you wake up tired. Do you ever have those kinds of dreams? My worst dreams are of being late to something. More than once I’ve had a dream where I realize I forgot my sermon at home and think I’ve got enough time to run home and get it but something keeps happening and finally by the time I make it back to the church, you’ve all gone home very angry that I skipped out. Running, running, running… Jacob was running for his life when he laid his head on a rock and fell into a deep sleep.
And what a fascinating dream. This is the source of the famous spiritual We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, except in that case, the dream was of the enslaved escaping to heaven. That’s not Jacob’s dream. In his dream he saw God’s messengers busily going up and down like office workers on what we might envision as a Mayan Temple. The original audience would have imagined ziggurats in Babylon. But wait, Jacob wouldn’t have known what a Babylonian ziggurat was. Babylon was hundreds and hundreds of years later. What was that doing in his dream?
The Book of Genesis was compiled during the Babylonian exile, full of stories the people had carried with them for generations. All of them true stories, except that they didn’t actually happen. Or maybe pieces of them happened that were all sewn together like a patchwork quilt.
Do you remember in school having to diagram sentences?
Sorry to the English teachers in the room, but yuck. I hated doing that. As much as I hated diagraming Bible passages in seminary. We had to dissemble the biblical patchwork quilt. We used letters like J and D and P to delineate which paragraph or story belonged to which tradition and what era it had been written. But once you could see what came from where, you could understand the why – the agendas and purposes of each group that contributed to the patchwork quilt.
At first, that kind of deconstruction was disturbing. I remember how after 17 years of blissful ignorance in Sunday School, I got really angry with my first college Old Testament professor. I wasn’t prepared to hear Dr. Wilterdink say that the Bible is mythological. It took me a while to calm down. He wasn’t saying the Bible is a bunch of fairy tales, but it’s not history. The Bible is true, or rather, contains truth. I can even say it’s the Word of God. But it’s not factual. It wasn’t meant to be.
They are stories passed down generation to generation to explain why we are who we are and why things happened. Like in today’s reading, one question might be why is this place, this rock, special? And so, we’re told a story about our ancestor Jacob and the time he escaped from his brother and used this rock as his pillow and turned it into a sacred pillar. This story also functions as a transition to explain how he came to marry his four wives and how he came to be the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Except, it’s not the only story of how he came to meet his cousin-wives. In the chapter right before today, Genesis 27, a different story is told that the reason Jacob went off to Uncle Laban’s is because Isaac and Rebekah couldn’t stand the wives of Esau. Rebekah said to Isaac, “I’m sick to death of these Hittite women. If Jacob also marries a native Hittite woman, why should I continue to live?” The same question she asked of her feuding twins in the womb. So, in this version, Jacob is sent off to find a wife, not to escape Esau. Which is the true story? Truth is found in the meaning, not the history.
After all the diagramming and dissembling, it makes total sense that it was written down during the Babylonian exile because during the exile, the Israelites were forced from their homeland, dragged away from the Temple where they worshiped God. Surely God was in that place! They mourned, how can we sing the songs of Zion in Babylon? In response, they told each other stories, including about the Patriarch Isaac and how at a time when he was utterly alone and afraid, running for his life, with only a rock for his pillow, he saw the connection of earth and heaven and woke up and exclaimed, “Surely God is in this place!” Hence, it’s a “true story” that God is not limited to a particular place.
I love a good story about scandals and villains with soap opera twists. But ultimately, the question is, where is the truth in this story for you because the real commission of the spiritual life is to explore these texts until they aren’t just mythological stories about someone else but words by which we can live our lives.
Words for those times, for example, when we feel utterly alone.
Misunderstood or afraid.
Times that we are trying to escape danger, even from family.
Times when it has felt like all we’ve had was a rock for our pillow.
And in those moments, asking, are we going to be OK?
Richard Rohr said, “these are the places where human beings hate to go, but it’s the place where God is always leading us. It’s [the in-between place] when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.”
We have lots of those times in our lives. Leaving a job without a new one, leaving a relationship without a new one, leaving a home and even leaving a church before you’ve found a new one. That place where we surely knew God but it’s not who we are anymore. We can visit all kinds of churches that might make a great new home but it’s not the same, even though “the same” is what we need to leave.
As Rohr said, “It’s when you are between your old comfort and any new answer. [Those are anxious times and if] you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will keep running.” The spiritual life is learning how to hold anxiety, live with ambiguity, trust and wait.
Jacob wasn’t on a vision quest. He wasn’t seeking deeper answers to spiritual truths. No, he had pushed his luck too far and was now running, running, running; he was in a limbo of his own making. But pay attention: That’s exactly when God told Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
It’s easy to say surely God is in this beautiful sanctuary. But that dirty-tricks scoundrel Jacob, as well as the Babylonian exiles, learned that God is not limited to one place or time. It’s a true story that God is just as surely with us in the desolate, isolated, forlorn, anxious, and ambiguous places of our lives. And if you can trust that, you don’t have to run anymore.
Searching for truth in this story and meaning, I also find encouragement to listen to our dreams. Dreams are often just weird. But sometimes they are the way the sacred and divine break through to share a message.
Maybe it’s a message to carry on.
Maybe it’s a message that you are not alone.
Maybe it’s a message for when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, knowing you had to leave something behind but unsure about what you will find.
That’s exactly where you will find God – or God will find you – and you can turn your granite pillow into a pillar of gratitude.
 Learn a little more here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/The-patriarchal-narratives
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Dreaming the Truth, Gospel Medicine
Sermons from Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 16, 2023
“Interesting Characters in Our Family Tree”
Genesis 25: 19-34 – Common English Bible
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham became the father of Isaac. 20 Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean and the sister of Laban the Aramean, from Paddan-aram. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, since she was unable to have children. The Lord was moved by his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 But the boys pushed against each other inside of her, and she said, “If this is what it’s like, why did it happen to me?”[a]
So she went to ask the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb;
two different peoples will emerge from your body.
One people will be stronger than the other;
the older will serve the younger.”
24 When she reached the end of her pregnancy, she discovered that she had twins. 25 The first came out red all over, clothed with hair, and she named him Esau. 26 Immediately afterward, his brother came out gripping Esau’s heel, and she named him Jacob. Isaac was 60 years old when they were born.
27 When the young men grew up, Esau became an outdoorsman who knew how to hunt, and Jacob became a quiet man who stayed at home. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was boiling stew, Esau came in from the field hungry 30 and said to Jacob, “I’m starving! Let me devour some of this red stuff.” That’s why his name is Edom.[b]
31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright[c] today.”
32 Esau said, “Since I’m going to die anyway, what good is my birthright to me?”
33 Jacob said, “Give me your word today.” And he did. He sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 So Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew. He ate, drank, got up, and left, showing just how little he thought of his birthright.
In your family tree, do you have any “interesting characters”? And who knows… In a few generations, you might be the “interesting character” in your family tree.
Well, here’s a doozy. A liar and a cheat – even cheating members of his own family. A deceiving dirty-tricks scoundrel willing to stoop lower than anyone could imagine. And a patriarch of three religions. Our religion. Jacob.
So, to recap the last few weeks: there’s Abraham who had a child with his wife’s slave Hagar, a boy named Ishmael. And then a boy with Sarah when he was 100 years old and Sarah was 90, who you may remember laughed at the absurdity of such an idea. When he was born, they named him Isaac; later, as a 12 year old, Abraham almost sacrificed him. At age 40, Isaac married Rebekah. They too had difficulty getting pregnant and waited twenty years until Rebekah finally gave birth to twins – Esau and Jacob. But in a sign of their feuding to come, they put up a terrible battle with one another in Rebekah’s womb, all the way through the birth canal as Jacob grabbed onto the heel of Esau in an attempt to hold him back so Jacob could be born first.
Jacob never gave up trying to get ahead of his twin, and he used deception, dirty tricks, lying and cheating to do it. Today’s text is just the beginning of one of the most “interesting characters” in our family tree.
As you heard, Esau and Jacob may have been twins but they were nothing alike. Esau was a big brute and not the brightest bulb in the box. He was covered in red hair, even at birth, and loved hunting. Esau was his father’s favorite because he hunted for his favorite wild game – venison. On the other hand, Jacob was smaller, quieter, and “the brains” who preferred hanging around the tents. And he was his mother’s favorite.
I always liked this part of the story. When I was younger, whenever we had potlucks at church, I hung out in the kitchen drying dishes so I could listen to the gossip. Did you hear what Laverne said? Girl!... Or the equivalent of whatever plump German women said. I enjoyed staying in the kitchen while all the other boys played football in the cemetery behind the church. One other detail: My brother was covered in red hair and he loves farming, hunting, and fishing. I hate touching the worms. But that’s where the brotherly comparisons stop. I hate the idea that one brother, a twin at that, would deceive the other.
Jacob just couldn’t get over how a brute like Esau would inherit the family fortune. So, he came up with a scheme to trick Esau out of his birthright. Esau went out on a long hunt and Jacob knew he would come back hungry. Jacob found just the right place so the smell of his cooking would waft onto the path on which Esau would be walking home, ensuring the smell would entice Esau. Famished, Esau demanded some of Jacob’s stew but Jacob said the price would be Esau’s birthright – the rights to the entire family fortune for a bowl of stew. Even though Esau was born only seconds earlier, Esau was the eldest and entitled to it all. But the hungry Esau reasoned that he wouldn’t need his birthright if he starved to death, so he agreed – not the brightest bulb… He was enraged when he realized he had been tricked, but an oath was an oath. That’s just part one of their story.
Jacob wanted more. He had the birthright and the fortune, but now he wanted the power that came with being named the leader of the tribe. That power was conferred on a father’s deathbed. Without such a blessing, Jacob would have been rich but not powerful.
So, years later, Isaac lay on his death bed. The time had come for the blessing that conferred power over the tribe. Esau may have been tricked out his birthright, but he wasn’t going to be tricked out of this one. To please his father and seal the deal, Esau promised Isaac that he would go hunting and bring back his favorite game – venison. However, Rebekah overheard their conversation and told Jacob and the two of them conspired to trick Isaac and steal from Esau.
Here’s how: Isaac was blind. While Esau was out on his hunt, Rebekah told Jacob to slaughter a goat and she would cook it to taste like venison. They dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes so he would smell like his brother and put goatskin on his hands and neck so that when Isaac went to embrace Jacob, he would feel hairy like his brother. Isaac ate the fake venison, felt the hairy goat skin on his arms and neck when they embraced, but he was curious that his voice sounded like Jacob’s. He asked if that was really Esau. Jacob lied and, lowering his voice, said yes. And so, Isaac conferred upon Jacob the irrevocable blessing intended for Esau. Esau returned home with the venison and realized he had been tricked again. This time he was so angry he vowed to kill Jacob.
But the story continues. Rebekah sent Jacob away to live with her brother, Laban. While living with Uncle Laban, Jacob fell in love with his daughter Rachel – yes, his first cousin, but at the time not forbidden. Uncle Laban agreed that Jacob could marry Rachel as long as he worked for him for seven years. Seven years went by, Jacob and his new wife consummated the marriage, but when the bridal veil was lifted for the first time, Jacob discovered he had just slept with Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Soap opera, anyone?
Jacob was enraged that he had been tricked. Doesn’t feel very good, does it? Uncle Laban reasoned it would have been wrong for the younger sister to be married before the older, but he did offer that if Jacob worked for him another seven years, he could then marry the true love of his life, Rachel. By the way, married to two first cousins, sisters, at the same time.
Jacob wasn’t simply going to let the deception go without revenge, so during those seven years, he ran a scheme against his uncle to steal his best sheep. Laban had agreed that he would keep all the white sheep and Jacob could have all the darker colored ones. Got it? Jacob painted the sheep so he could take them. Can anyone say dysfunctional family?
Jacob and Laban lived together in an uneasy peace for six more years. One day, Jacob decided it was time to leave and try to reunite with his estranged brother Esau. But for whatever reason, he didn’t want to tell Uncle Laban he was leaving. So, while Laban was away, Jacob packed everything and everyone up, including Laban’s daughters. When Laban came home, he was angry that Jacob had simply left, but he was even more upset when he realized Jacob had stole all of his household gods – worth a lot of money. Laban raced after the traveling band and demanded his idols back, but Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel sat on them and proclaimed it was her time of the month so no one could touch her. You know the old saying, the family that steals together stays together.
It was at that spot, a place known as Mizpah, that Jacob and Laban made a sort of peace with each other. They told each other “May the Lord keep watch between you and me while we are away one from the other.” We say that to each other at the end of every Church Council meeting. We hold our hands up to the Zoom screen and say this line to each other. I snicker to myself every time because it’s more than a blessing. It’s a warning. Laban and Jacob are really saying to each other, “I can’t keep my eye on you, but God will know what you’re up to.” And with that Mizpah Blessing, Uncle Laban went back home without his idols or his best sheep. The tricksters playing off each other back and forth. There is more to this story but I will get to that next week.
What a family tree! When we tell family stories, we often clean them up a little, smooth out some of the rough edges. If this is the sanitized version, wow. But of course, there are plenty more stories in the Bible that are even more scandalous that this. King David alone will cause fainting and fury. I like these stories of real people because if God can use dirty tricks scoundrels like them, then surely God can use me. And you. And everyone we imagine to be outside the grace of God.
And in that way, this story, and many others, isn’t primarily about us. It’s about the kind of God to whom we all belong. A God who loves me and who loves you. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even Jacob.
So, was all that trickery and deception OK? Is the Bible saying it’s alright to do all those things as long as it’s for a good reason? I don’t think so. Jesus asked, “what good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul.”
I think this falls more in line with Paul’s statement to the Romans: There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Neither will lying, cheating, and trickery separate us, though I don’t recommend it as a philosophy of life.
But I am grateful that no matter who we are on our family tree, God always has room for us. As well as all the dirty trick scoundrels to whom we are related.
I love being a