The Difference Between Truth and Fact

There is a difference, you know.

Before you argue with me, let me define my terms for the sake of the conversation.

Facts are a set that overlap the set containing truth, if you want to graph the difference. Dictionaries define “truth” as “a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like;” they define a “fact” as “a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.”

There’s an objective value to fact. Facts are known by “actual experience or observation.” Facts can be researched, measured, quantitatively tested, verified, proven.

There’s a subjective value to truth. Truth can be a “fact, proposition, principle or the like.” Truth can be expressed, discussed, qualitatively evaluated, affirmed, accepted.

Facts populate the language of science.

Truth populates the language of faith.

Truth allows people the dignity of making an informed choice, of thinking for themselves, of meditating and considering and evaluating and coming to a point where they can say within themselves, “I believe.”

Well, this is what I believe:


The Bible is not scientific study. Scientific study is not the Bible.

The study of the origins of the universe through science is not the study of the beginning of God’s story about mankind.

One looks to answer how was the world created; the other, by Whom and why.

Let me put it this way. You can look up what grass is at Wikipedia. I already have, and here it is:

You can look up a poem that asks and answers “What is grass?” by Walt Whitman, and it goes like this:


Now, who is right?

Wikipedia? or Whitman?

Well, they both are.

They’re both “right.”

Because Wikipedia is trying to answer the question in a scientific way — with facts.

And Whitman is trying to explore the question in a poetic way — through truth.

You don’t get faith from scientific study, although many of the answers you will find within it are formed from evidence, conjecture, experimentation, AND faith in the conclusions based on the results and the logic used to reach them.

You don’t get science from the Bible, even though many of the things you read there have a basis in communicating source and order and reason and purpose. So we meditate on it, talk about it, come to conclusions, and we believe what we choose to believe.

The purpose of science is to help us find answers.

The purpose of the Bible is to help us find faith.

What might happen to our worldview if we stopped trying to see the Bible as a book communicating dry facts and tedious law, and saw it as a volume telling us the truth, a Story leading to a proposition/principle/or-the-like to be accepted or rejected?

And that proposition would answer the most important question of all:

Is Jesus the Messiah looked forward to in prophecy from earliest times … the fulfillment in full obedience of the law of God … His very Son through whom and by whom and for whom all things were created … the last Adam undoing the fatal lock of sin upon our souls wrought by the first Adam and every Adam’s child of us since … the perfect-yet-crucified-yet-resurrected Savior and Reconciler of all creation to her Creator?

How would it affect our view of others if we saw them not as good or evil; right or wrong; lost or saved; this or that; one or the other — but as beloved of God to the point that every last Adam’s child of us since Eden was worth the price of the very life of His Son?

How could it not improve our ministry of the gospel if we focused on the gospel, the Story, the main thing and not all the seeming factual contradictions or the tantalizing mysteries or the difficulties of translation or the differences of language and meaning? If we left behind the elementary doctrines of man about salvation and sanctification and predestination and excommunication — and only, singularly, lovingly told the story of Jesus over and over and over with undiminished and increasing passion; passion that is the very witness and hallmark of His Holy Spirit within us?

What if we let the facts sort themselves out by the ones who are enamored and enraptured by facts and science and proof, and we just told the simple truth?

And gave people the gift of reaching their own conclusions?


I estimate that, over the past 50 years, I’ve probably heard about 5,000 sermons.

That, of course, makes me an expert on preaching.

That, and the fact that I’ve been preaching part-time, maybe every third or fourth Sunday, for a whole year now.

Oh, and maybe leaving preaching and going on to meddling in my blog for about nine years now.

I’ve found that I don’t do as well preaching from a script or from an outline as I do when just speaking from the heart. I’ve discovered that my audiences seem to listen, evaluate, and appreciate that more.

I’ve seen that funny isn’t always funny and sometimes the unintentional, spontaneous, earnest comment is more hilarious or touching or convicting than anything you can possibly plan to say.

I’ve experienced the attractive magnetism of the gospel, the Story; and I’ve experienced the repellent force of opinion expressed as if it were gospel. I’ve tried proving a point, and I’ve tried telling the Story.

I’ve learned that I can spend too much time preparing for a sermon and end up chasing rabbit trails and speaking too long.

I’ve accepted that short and bittersweet beats didactic and saccharine.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

So my only expert advice after one whole year of part-time preaching experience would be this:

Find what works for you as a minister of the gospel, and what works for your audience — whether you speak, write or live the gospel — and strike an effective balance between the two. You’re not going to reach everyone. Some will be drawn by the one who planted; another by the one who waters. God will give the growth. Reach as many as you can as well as you can without trying to strain too far beyond the gifts His Spirit has given you to do so.

Always make it clear when you are reading and relating scripture, and when you are expressing your opinion or interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with expressing an opinion or an interpretation and encouraging your audience to weigh what scripture actually says and come to their own conclusions. God wants us to meditate on His word and share our thoughts on it. But perceiving our own thoughts on it as equal to His word leads to presumptuous arrogance, and judgmentalism, and that pushes away those whom we would seek to draw closer to God. It might draw them closer to you or me as a minister if they strongly agree with some point we’ve made, but that’s not what we’re called to do.

Tell the Story. Tell it in its simplicity and beauty and exquisite poignancy. Tell it from your point of view. Tell it from scripture’s point of view. Tell it from any point of view you can comprehend. Tell it as if your life and soul depended on it. Tell it as if your audience’s lives and souls depend upon it. Never tire of telling the Story. Never apologize that it is, in fact, a Story — because that’s the way God wanted it told to us, and that’s the way He wants us to tell it to others.

Spend a moment at the table. It’s usually a prop that is always present. Whether you and your church family have just celebrated the supper at that table or are about to, it’s a reminder of the centerpiece of your worship together: Jesus Christ, Son of God, given and crucified; body and blood; life and death and life again. It’s at the heart of why we gather. Refer to it often, and lovingly, and meaningfully.

That’s pretty much what I’ve learned in a nutshell. It’s worth almost as much as one. You can’t expect too much from something that comes out of a nutshell, because most of what comes out of them is nuts.

So take it with a few grains of salt.

(I’ve found so far that most folks like salted nuts.)

With Many Other Words

We believers have a tendency to skip right over those words.

The Story here is so wonderful, and we have so much of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost, that we like to jump right from “Repent and be baptized!” to “about three thousand were added!”

But there are those words, right there in the middle, verse 40:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. ~ Acts 2:38-41

The sermon wasn’t over with “for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

He warned them and pleaded with them with many other words. It could have been an all-day revival that just started at nine in the morning.

I’ve only got one point to make, and I’m gonna make it as quickly as I can.

There were a lot more than 3,000 people in Jerusalem. Probably most of them had been there since Passover, to enjoy the feast with friends and families. They knew what had happened on that hill outside of the city wall. They knew who Jesus was and what He’d taught and what He’d done; how He died and quite likely the rumors that He was alive again. It was bound to be the talk of the town. Some of them may have welcomed Him into town and threw down their coats in His path. Some of them may have turned on Him and shrieked “Crucify Him!” when He hadn’t turned out to be the kind of deliverer they craved.

But they were there, and they heard the Spirit-wind and the many languages. They saw the tongues like flame. And they knew what Peter was talking about when he went back through their history and literature and prophecy and pointed out all kinds of things that could not have meant anything — in retrsospect — but that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah they had longed for and their forefathers for generations ahead of them.

Is there a preacher who can’t and wouldn’t like to imagine taking Peter’s place; having an extraordinary revival with 3,000 converts after one powerful, soul-bursting six-minute sermon like his in Acts 2?

But, let’s face it; it ain’t-a-gonna-happen very often these days. Most people don’t know Jesus except as an epithet when something goes wrong. They don’t have a clue about Hebrew history. They barely have a concept of sin beyond something bad that they don’t like. They didn’t pillory the Son of God to a cross with their vocal vote, or see Him there as He died hour by hour, or make the connection between prophecy and reality right before their eyes. And not all of the likely tens of thousands of visitors to/residents of Jerusalem — even the ones who were present to hear the Spirit’s message on Pentecost — said yes to the water and the blood.

Plus it takes time to make disciples. You can stir people and persuade them, perhaps even baptize them in a matter of minutes. But have you made them disciples? Do they know Whom they have believed? Jesus chose twelve men, and with very few short breaks, spent most of three years with them as nearly as we can tell. One of them still turned on Him and the other eleven deserted Him at the moment of truth. Still, they came back from it on Pentecost with a hundred or more friends (Peter didn’t preach alone, you know) to do what God had in mind for them to do — together. That’s discipleship. They communed, shared, prayed and stayed together. When some were arrested, they didn’t scatter like threatened rats; they gathered to pray. That’s discipleship.

I don’t preach. Well, not often. Sometimes I get the urge, but it usually passes after I lie down a while.

But on those rare occasions when I do, I can usually get past the unrealistic ambitions and expectations with a few fairly rational thoughts like these:

The miracle doesn’t always happen.

The audience isn’t always primed.

Preaching is only part of the process.

Discipling takes time.

Not everybody accepts the message.

Just Tell The Story

Some time ago — and I can’t recall where; on what blog or forum — my contention was that we don’t need to judge the eternal predisposition of another person in order to share with them the Story of Jesus.

And it was met with objection. By someone who insisted that we do.


When you sit down and talk to someone that you barely know and the subject of the Dallas Cowboys comes up, don’t you get an impression fairly quickly about whether that person’s for or agin’ ’em — or they don’t give the first care?

Is it any less true if you talk about Jesus?

If the someone you’re talking to responds enthusiastically and positively, has an interest in the subject and enjoys sharing their own faith, don’t you pretty much know that you’ve found a brother or sister in Christ?

And if the someone you’re talking to displays no real knowledge of Jesus or a negative impression of His followers, or no genuine opinion on the subject either way, don’t you kinda deduce that you’ve met someone who doesn’t really know Christ and needs to?

I’m thinking that I don’t have to go into every conversation with a checklist of doctrinal possibilities and interrogate each person I meet before I can love them and share a table with them and have fellowship with them.

Oh, we may not have fellowship in the Lord; that’s up to Him to determine. But we can have fellowship of the Lord in the same way he dined with all kinds of people at all stages of belief.

And it can start so simply.

Just tell the Story.

Ease right into it just as if you knew what you were getting into.

“Would you mind sharing this table with someone who will have to say a prayer of gratitude even over a tray full of McDonald’s?”

“Is it okay if I ride next to you and read my Bible if I promise not to keep it to myself if I find something cool?”

“I am perplexed by this. Do you see here in John 5 where Jesus says we should eat His flesh and drink His blood. What do you make of that?”

“Do they have to put these tables so close together that a person doesn’t even have room to kneel down and say grace?”

“You look like a normal person. If I told you that I believed some guy two thousand years ago is still alive and was the Son of God, would I start looking abnormal to you?”

“This may sound selfish, but when I see a news report like that, I just want to start praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ You know?”

“You are a really patient person with all us crazy folks at this table, and I’ve just got to tell you that your servant nature reminds me a whole lot of Jesus Christ. Thanks for serving us today.”

Yes, we believers are a little crazy. A little crazy about the One who gave Himself up for us, so we’d be a little crazier not to give ourselves up for Him. Give up a big tip. Give up a little dignity. Give up a bit of our time and love and self-importance.

If we can’t do those things for a chance at telling His Story, what does that say about us?

The Nativity Story from John 1

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook asked a group of mostly preachers what they would be preaching about on Sunday, December 25, Christmas morning.

I answered, “I don’t preach, but if I did, I’d preach on the Nativity Story from John 1. Yup, John 1. It’s short, but cosmic.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. ~ John 1:1-5, 14, 17-18

I love the baby-Jesus-in-a-manger version of the story as dearly as anyone. But this version has incredible power in its brevity.

The very Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God from the beginning, took our form to live with us. The glory of which angels sang was now visible in Him. You could see grace. You could see truth. In Jesus, you could see God.

Want another tiny sample of this part of the Nativity Story?

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” ~ John 8:58

They wanted to kill Him right there in the temple by throwing rocks at Him, they were so incensed to hear this. He claimed to be God. But truth is a defense against blasphemy as well as libel … and He walked away, unharmed. I have to wonder if their hands were stayed by doubt in their conviction that He was only a man; that a man could not also be God.

Another glimpse?

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” ~ John 14:8-10

God with Us. Immanuel.

Jesus knew who He was. He knew what Isaiah had prophesied in 7:14, and He knew that “Immanuel” meant “God With Us.” He had to have known what His mother had treasured in her heart for all those years.

And in telling Philip and the other apostles once again Who He was, He was promising to give them the very Holy Spirit within Himself so that God could do His work through them as well.

One more glimpse, this time from someone other than John:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:5-11

God became a single cell; a nothing; a thing invisible except through a microscope. God became a baby. A young man. A servant.

A sacrifice.

God intended all of this to happen, and that was why it was as good as done as soon as Jesus was born, and the angels could sing praise at His birth for what He would yet do as a man, and a servant, and a sacrifice.

Jesus showed us that God could be in and among man, so that God could continue His work in us and among us and through us by His own Holy Spirit.

Jesus showed us that we could be born anew; become something very different, something still like a human being on the outside, but full of grace and truth and God within.

Jesus showed us that the true glory of God is to serve, to give, to be given and spent out and used up in love to others.

He gave up a throne in heaven to wash dirty feet.

He gave up being in the Presence of God in order to be the Presence of God.

He surrendered His life there to surrender it again here, and to give it abundantly and without measure to anyone who hears and believes and asks.

Eden: Literal, Mythic, Allegorical …?

I’m not here to make enemies or stir the pot on this one. I know it’s popular at one extreme to defend the literality of the Genesis creation account even to the length of a 24-hour-day. I know it’s popular at the other extreme to see it as two accounts, mythic in nature and structure, and both meant to be allegorical in their meaning.

What if it’s possibly all of those things — and much, much more?

(I’m not an extremist on matters of theory. More of a collectivist.)

I find great value in seeing the deep meaning in the creation account, but I see it as a single account, inspired by a single Author. After all, it’s not likely that there were eyewitnesses who recorded the creation story in writing, is it?

We’re dealing with a God who could have created (and still can) in any way He wishes. He doesn’t have to follow what we have defined as the laws of the universe, and He doesn’t have to limit Himself to what we have decided are His boundaries by what we deduce from scripture.

This God created all things in seven days. I don’t know how many hours long those seven days/ages/epochs of creation were. I don’t know how fast the earth was rotating then, or how much time passed between sunrise and sunset. I really don’t care. There weren’t any clocks then, or any writers that we know of to watch them. I believe it means “day” because it says “there was evening and morning” … I suppose that means “sunrise” and “sunset” … six times. That’s pretty definite. Moses quotes it twice in establishing Sabbath: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth ….” (Exodus 20:11; 31:17)

He created it and He related it — presumably through His Holy Spirit to the writer (quite possibly Moses; it isn’t exactly autographed, is it?) — to benefit all of us. He created it and He related it, so I see no reason why God couldn’t have been truthful in relating it exactly as He created it. It’s written in the simplest possible language, structured as a gorgeous cosmic poem, telling the Story exactly as He wanted it told. Children memorize it. They sing songs about it. (“Day one; day one …”) It’s clear and pointed and colorful and memorable.

If you were God and wanted your Story passed down from one generation to the next, isn’t that the way you’d want to do it? Especially to that first generation, who literally woke up in a new world every morning?

And about that. I said I believe there is one account. I don’t divvy up the account into two parallel and somewhat contradictory stories, one ending at Genesis 2:3 and the next beginning at Genesis 2:4. It’s all one Story.

God created in seven days, culminating in mankind on that sixth day (and much of the animal kingdom over which mankind — male and female — was to rule). But Genesis 2:4 — as nearly as I can tell — backs up to focus in on a special creation moment within that larger story in which God created A MAN, male, before there was even vegetation and living creatures to tend. At some time on that third day …

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. ~ Genesis 2:5-7

Whether geysers, springs or both watered the earth, I do not know and have no need to speculate. The fact is that God created a caretaker for the garden He was about to plant in the east, and He provided the man with an eyewitness point-of-view for the remaining days of creation. My picture — totally interpretation! — of the days that follow (four, five and six) is that God creates fantastic new living things: plants, fish, birds, animals; and asks Adam what he would like to name each one as He does so. Adam has a function in creation, of giving name and meaning to what God creates.

God also gives the man a choice between two trees in the center of the garden that would determine his destiny. The man could eat of the tree of life and live forever (though no mention is made of that option expressed to him), or eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — and die that day.

Choice. Now whether you take this account literally or allegorically, that point is indisputable. The man could choose to obey or not. This was real choice, life-or-death choice, and it comes in the simplest terms available.

But in those days that followed, there was one thing not good: the man was alone. God was not alone; had never been alone. (The Hebrew word for “God” in the creation account is actually plural, elohim … “Gods.”) His Spirit had hovered over the waters at the beginning (Genesis 1:1-2) and the Word was with Him and was Him and everything was made through Him and for Him (John 1:1-4) — and the Word would one day be named “Jesus” (14-16). Yet the man was alone, and God formed Eve for Adam from his very own side, to be at his side, and to be the mother of all living. You can’t have “mankind” without a mom.

After all things are named and the couple are settling in, they are naked before God because they have no knowledge of good and evil and therefore no shame — they only know God and the goodness He has created and provided.

That gives the Accuser an opportunity — to provide another point of view, to lie, to create doubt, to tempt … and to ruin, destroy and eventually kill. He strikes at their innocence; their Achilles heel.

Why is that choice provided by God? Why was the temptation permitted?

God is love. Love is choice. Real choice. Life-or-death choice. The Accuser had made this choice, and chose self … and in Eden, God has created a crucible of choice to vindicate His love for (and goodness toward) others against the Accuser’s selfish desire and evil intent toward others.

At some point in the future, the Word would become flesh and receive the name “Jesus” (“God saves!”) and fully vindicate with a crushing blow to the Accuser’s head, destroying death once and for all.

That’s my take. It may be pure speculation, but — as I have said in other contexts — it fits all the known facts and I think William of Occam would be willing to shave with it.

You don’t have to agree with me. We’ll still be siblings in Christ if you believe but disagree with me.

But this view of the creation account makes a lot of sense to me … and makes a lot of other things in scripture make more sense.

Do me a personal favor. Before you write it off or fly into paragraphs of objections, think about it for a couple of days. Read the account again. Study it. Pray about it. Ask God for clarity on the matter.

Then feel free to leave a comment, okay?

It’s not like this all came to me in seven days, you know.

Was God Just Clearing His Throat When He Said, “Herem”?

Herem (sometimes spelled more phonetically correctly as “cherem“) is a concept that gives me cold chills up and down my spine, and I am obviously not alone in my reaction to it.

It describes the consecration of something to God – often, in the Old Testament, an entire city – usually by totally destroying it.

It has come to have the lesser meaning, through the centuries, of complete ecclesiastical censure from the Jewish community – what we would call, in Restoration Movement circles, “disfellowship.” But that’s not the meaning I’m talking about.

Total destruction of an entire village or city – “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3) – at God’s command; that kind of herem is a concept some have found so repulsive that it has caused them to doubt the inspiration of (some) scripture; that God could or ever did order such a thing in Deuteronomy 7:16 or 7:26 or 13:15. Or that Joshua was following His orders when he did so in Joshua 10:1 or 10:28 or 10:35 or 10:37 or 39 or 40-42 or 11:11-12 or 11:20-21, etc., etc., etc.

It is an action which these folks find so morally repugnant that they cannot bring themselves to believe God would command it.

I can totally sympathize with them. Herem sounds, to twenty-first century American Keith, too much like Holocaust. Extermination. Genocide. How could creatures whom God created and loved be ordered by Him to be annihilated? How could a merciful God condemn Saul for having mercy on King Agag and sparing him from the herem of the rest of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15)? How could a loving God inspire Isaiah to warn that He would Himself commit herem to “all nations” in His wrath (Isaiah 34:2)?

Surely, these folks reason, the herem instruction must have been attributed to God by writers of scripture rather than coming from God Himself.

Which is a way of thinking that leads to all kinds of problems, not the least of which is to what extent the inspiration of scripture can be relied upon, or discerned and determined, by us rather dim-witted mortals. If we don’t like part of scripture that doesn’t seem Godly to us, can we just reclassify it as uninspired and shuffle on past it? By what standard do we determine what seems Godly to us? And where does that process stop, if it’s completely subjective?

I think the answer to the questions above is complex and difficult and far beyond my powers of comprehension even if it were within my powers of explication.

But here’s what I think.

  • God is merciful and loving. He is also just and righteous. We can’t handle that balance perfectly, and He can. This perplexes us, and we have a tendency to create God in our own image rather than accepting the vice-versa.

  • God is sovereign. He created us, for His own purpose, to His own glory – and not to meet our standards of morality, however much we might think them to be perfect.

  • He creates and destroys. He gives life, and He takes life. If you have difficulty with the concept of Him taking life or a city full of lives or the lives of 185,000 Assyrians at the hand of one angel or causing a flood that obliterates all kinds of life, you are going to have big, big problems with the idea of Him judging mankind and meting eternal punishment to those whom He deems disobedient – people who do, in fact, desperately deserve punishment for their hatred, violence, greed, slander, abuse, tortures, and murders. Was there even one of the consequences foretold by God in Deuteronomy 28 which were not visited upon His beloved people to discipline them?

  • The instances in which herem are described in scripture were swift and sure. They were accomplished without rancor or pity – there was no time for either. They accomplished the destruction of cultures which had become so twisted that evil was thought to be good and good was considered to be evil. Captured kings were dismembered, or if killed, their corpses dishonored and displayed. Cult prostitution was rampant. Babies were sacrificed to idols made by hands. Scripture calls their practices “detestable” over and over again. The reason God required the destruction of such cultures was so that their evil would not infiltrate Israel and contaminate her culture, and that’s exactly what happened when His people failed to obey His command. They were to be His instruments of obliterating this evil from the land He was giving them so that they would never forget what His wrath might do to them.

  • God did not love Israel any more or less than the nations around her. (Jonah 4:10-11) But a point came when Israel’s sin began to exceed that of the nations around her; she had not learned to excise sin, act justly, love mercy nor walk humbly with her God though her history was replete with the consequences of not doing so. Examples of herem went unheeded and/or unremembered. Repeated defeats and captivities had proven ineffective. Law would no longer suffice. Destroying Israel would not be instructive. Redemption was the only alternative.

  • And if you have trouble with the idea of God taking lives that are not innocent, you are going to have insurmountable difficulties with the notion of a God who allows the life of His innocent Son to be brutally wrung from Him, blow-by-blow and blooddrop-by-blooddrop and breath-by-breath, naked, nailed to a cross, in front of His mother.

  • This is all just a little beyond us. It does not fit within the limitations of the three-and-a-half pounds of head cheese comprising billions of neurons firing electrical impulses that go a little faster than 250 miles an hour inside our skulls. We need to get over ourselves, get past the idea that we know better than He does and stop judging Him and the way He has chosen to communicate with us through His word.

  • God is God, and we are not.

  • Thank God for that.

Sibling Rivalry, Slavery and Subterfuge

Today’s reading: Genesis 37-38.

Whether your Bible version reads “coat of many colors” or “richly-ornamented robe,” it’s clear that the garment Jacob made for Joseph was special. And his twelve brothers were jealous of the special love their father had for him.

So when seventeen-year-old Joseph had a couple of seemingly-prophetic dreams that showed his family bowing down to him, and a teenager’s wisdom in sharing it with them, his brothers threw “that dreamer” into a pit or dry cistern out in the wild. Rueben – perhaps weary and wary of further bloodshed after violently avenging his sister Dinah against Shechem’s clan – talked them out of killing Joseph outright. He had hoped to come back and rescue Joseph. While Reuben was away, his co-leader in that raid – Judah – had the bright idea to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing Midianite caravan. We don’t know who got the money.

Then, painting his torn robe with the blood of a slaughtered goat, they showed it to their father and let him draw the conclusion that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him. Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. ~ Genesis 37:34-36

“All his sons … came to comfort him ….” Even the ones who had conspired to sell their brother as a slave. Swell family, huh?

It gets worse.

Judah, old enough to be married to a Canaanite woman and have two sons of marrying age plus a younger one, lost his firstborn because the son “was wicked in the Lord’s sight, and the Lord put him to death.” Wanting his firstborn son’s clan to continue – Er gave Judah no grandchildren – Judah gave his second son Onan to Er’s widow Tamar. Onan didn’t mind sleeping with her, but didn’t want her to bear his children for Er. And, “what he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so He put him to death.”

Tamar, tired of waiting for the third son to be given to her – even though he was old enough, dressed up like a shrine prostitute with her face veiled. Judah, not recognizing her, negotiated payment for sex with her at one young goat and gave her his seal and cord.

When she became pregnant, Judah was told and – not knowing the child would be his – was ready to burn her alive. She sent the seal and cord to him with the message that they belonged to the father. Judah, with all of the patriarchal wisdom of the head of a kingly tribe, morally decided, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah” and spared her.

She gave birth to twins who – like their grandfather Jacob and great uncle Esau – jockeyed for first place in the womb, and Perez beat Zerah.

So these two chapters come full circle, right back to the theme of sibling rivalry.

But – as LaGard Smith notes in his commentary – Perez would eventually become one of the all-too-human ancestors of the Promised One, the Messiah.

In this study so far, God continues to work His will through these thoroughly messed-up families, through sin and slavery and shame and murder. It’s a pattern that continues in the Bible for generations of history, right up to the point where the Promised One is sold for the price of a slave, shamed before those who loved Him, and murdered for the forgiveness of sin.

Can God still work His will through completely flawed people like you and me? In spite of – but still using – our sin, does He even teach us the reason to avoid it by experiencing its consequences – then provide a costly Way of escape from it to buy us back from slavery to it?

Does He see our future as He saw Joseph’s, and give us glimpses of what it can be through a dream of revelation that awaits us at the close of scripture?

Names, Names, Names and More Names

Today’s reading: Genesis 36.

There are passages of scripture which try men’s souls. (And women’s.)

There are others that just try our patience. (And our agility at attempting to pronounce early Hebrew and Aramaic names if we somehow get stuck reading them out loud and in public.)

I like to think that a genealogical list like this was as exciting to the people who originally wrote such scriptures as baseball or football statistics are to a live-feed researcher at ESPN. It sure isn’t to me. (Neither are baseball or football statistics, though.) When I’ve tried yearly Bible reading plans before, I usually didn’t get far enough to get Bogged Down in Leviticus. I’d hit one of these genealogical tables and immediately put it aside as a cure for some future night of really bad insomnia.

However, my mom loves genealogy. I enjoyed a quick visit with her yesterday and the night before, and a whole lot of our conversation was centered around ancestors she had been recording in a “My Family” book that my daughter left with her months ago – and also ancestors and family in the updated version of the genealogical book that she and I published for a family reunion on her side (Ellmore) of the family … in 1984.

She sent them both with me. Even though the technology I used to set the type for the reunion book probably doesn’t exist anymore – so I can’t update it to match – I will keep them safe for future generations. Someone will find them interesting – maybe because they reflect something of how times, names, and hairstyles have changed.

For the most part, both of those books name and describe people with about the same gender balance that you will find in real life: around 50%-50%.

The names, names, names of Genesis 36 are the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, who moved away from Jacob/Israel’s clan for a lack of supporting resources for all their flocks and herds, and later became a nemesis for the expanding nation of Israel. Most of the names are male.

Sons were very important to the nomadic families of that era. Daughters, apparently, not so much. (I don’t know whom they thought would bear all the children that those sons would father. Maybe Middle-Eastern people of that time just had more of a “Y” chromosome predisposition.) But it was a prejudice that may go back as far as the phrasing of Genesis 6:4 and it yielded a custom – only males inherit – that remained universal in Western civilization until only a couple hundred years ago. Males became patriarchs. Males became chiefs. Males became kings. (Well, some slaveries to bloodline-determined royalty ended that custom, and far longer ago. The “Y” chromosome does not always triumph!)

Having a lot of boys probably meant that you had more strong arms (yet see the unnamed woman Judges 9:50-53), and wise leaders (but see Deborah, Judges 4), and willing shepherds (though see Rachel, Genesis 29:9) and capable warriors to defend the women and children (however, see Jael, flipping back to Judges 4).

Somehow or another, Jacob and Esau both got twelve.

That’s the main thing I get from this nominal chapter: there was balance. There may have been a saying later that “Jacob have I loved and Esau I have hated,” but God pretty much evened out between them the material blessings that counted at that time: flocks, herds, possessions, wives, sons. (Okay, Jacob had one wife more than Esau’s three.) Esau fathered twelve chief-kings. Jacob fathered the heads of what would become known as the twelve tribes of Israel.

But it was God’s sovereignty that determined which of them would be the ancestor of His Promised One; there could only be one. It was Israel.

The Promised One would be the King who would put an end to male-female hierarchy in His kingdom (Joel 2:28; Matthew 19:4; Acts 2:18; Acts 21:9; Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, etc.).

Maybe we’re not quite civilized enough that we’re there yet. But we’re inching toward it (remember, suffrage is still less than 100 years old in the United States), and there are still some Deborahs and Rachels and daughters of evangelists named Philip among us.

Thank God for them.

And let them speak of the Promised One of Israel.

Rape, Revenge, and Isaac’s Demise

Today’s reading: Genesis 34-35.

Rape is never right. It can’t be made right by speaking tenderly to the victim afterward or falling in love with her, and Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite discovered that the hard way.

He violated Jacob’s only daughter Dinah, tried to woo her, and evidently held her hostage until she acceded.

Jacob, hearing the news, keeps it to himself and is willing to hear Hamor explain his son’s actions. The eleven boys, however, were coming in from the fields – probably with their flocks and herds – and heard what happened. They were “filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel … a thing that should not be done.”

So there was – at least among some of Abraham’s descendents – the beginning of a code of conduct, and rape was clearly a violation of it.

The Bible is full of gender bias. There, I’ve said it, and I have no intention of repenting of it. It’s true. But it’s a merely human assumption that scripture approves of gender bias. What it does – like those straight-news reporters of the 1950’s and 60’s hoped to do – is tell The Story accurately, about God’s people building their own culture, right or wrong.

There was no law. God hadn’t given it yet.

So while Hamor pleaded on behalf of his son and Shechem offered any dowry for Dinah to be given to him in marriage – perhaps trying to make the best of a bad situation with his neighbor Jacob; trying to make things right – “Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully as they spoke.” They put the price of the dowry at the circumcision of every male in Hamor’s clan. Since this would cost them nothing in terms of wealth – and they said to themselves “Won’t their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours?” – they agreed.

And in the third day of their pain after surgery, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi, stormed Hamor’s city and killed every unsuspecting and virtually defenseless male in revenge for the crime against their sister. The other brothers joined them, looted it, “seized flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs.”

Jacob tried to upbraid them, and warn them of the consequences: the surrounding Canaanites might unite against the family and exterminate them in a preemptive strike to protect their own families. But he had no answer to their question: “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”

Then God directed Jacob to move to Bethel and build an altar there.

This reminder of God’s presence was enough for Jacob to tell his family to clear out all the idols, and wash the memory of sin from their clothes before they left for Bethel. There, God reminded Jacob that he was no more Jacob, but Israel … and He confirmed once again the Abrahamic promise. Jacob built the altar as God had directed.

Moving from Bethel to Ephrath (Bethlehem), Rachel went into labor with the last of Jacob/Israel’s sons, Benjamin. She had difficulty in delivery, and perished in childbirth. Israel set up a pillar to her memory at her tomb, and moved on. Hot-headed Reuben slept with Bilhah, the mother of some of his brothers, and Israel heard of it.

Then he went home to Mamre, where Abraham and Sarah had lived and his father Isaac was at the end of his one hundred and eighty years.

After Isaac breathed his last and was gathered to his people, both sons – Esau and Jacob – buried him.

In years to come, God would tell His people that vengeance was His; that He would repay. But for the moment, He seemed to be letting them write their own story and discover first-hand why vengeance should be His.