More Than Bread: A Meditation on Manna

If it was possible without harvest or fruit of the earth, or any such thing, to preserve the lives of the Israelites of old for forty years, much more will [Christ] be able to do this, having come for a greater purpose.

–St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John

When I was reading the story of the manna in the wilderness with my 7-year-old daughter, she made an astute observation: “this is like that time Jesus made the bread for the people”. She was referring, of course, to the feeding of the 5,000 and, boy howdy, is that a smart insight. Jesus’ miracle made enough of an impact that all four evangelists include it in their gospels, and I think that is because of the very thing that my daughter noticed. By providing bread to hungry people in the wilderness, Jesus was demonstrating His power of nature and His ability to provide food for God’s people. In other words, He was demonstrating that He is God. If we dig a little bit into Scripture, we find that manna is a surprising through-line all the way from Exodus to Revelation. The manna in the wilderness was not just for the Israelites in the wilderness — it is for us.

Exodus 16 and Numbers 11: The Manna Appears

Our story starts with a question. Despite being told by Moses and Aaron that the Lord would provide bread for them in the morning (Ex. 16:8,12), when the Israelites saw the flakes like frost on the ground they declared “what is it?” (Heb. mān hū, Ex. 16:15). Thus the word “manna” is itself indicative of the mystery and wonder of what God does for his people. In some ways, it is like any other bread. It is described in naturalistic terms as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:31). The book of Numbers compares its appearance to bdellium and says that the Israelites learned to boil it and turn it into cakes (Num. 11:7-8). However, manna also did not act like normal bread. It would spoil after 24 hours, meaning it had to be eaten on the day it was collected. However, there was an exception made on the day before the Sabbath, as that manna lasted all the way through the Sabbath so that the Israelites would not have to collect bread on the holy day of rest (Ex. 16:22-26). Clearly, this wasn’t some kind of naturally-occurring phenomenon. We are meant to understand that this is more than just bread. Of course, the real lesson of Exodus and Numbers is how stubborn the Israelites are, even when given a miracle. Some people tried to store up bread, and it spoiled, while others tried to gather on the Sabbath only to find the ground barren. That first type of disobedience left Moses angry (Ex. 16:20), but the latter made the Lord angry (vv.28-29). Note that this was before the Law was given (in Exodus 20 and following), so the Sabbath proves to be a cornerstone of God’s command even before the revelation of the Law. Even in the midst of the wilderness, we must take time to rest and trust in God’s provision and presence.

Deuteronomy 8: The Manna’s Purpose

But as for the manna itself, we may still ask with the Israelites: “what is it?” In Deuteronomy, God reveals the first part of the answer. The Lord says twice in the book of Deuteronomy that neither the Israelites nor their fathers had known of such things as the manna (Deut. 8:3,16). He is reiterating that manna is more than just bread. According to those two verses, the purpose of the manna was to “humble and test” the Israelites. Remember that the manna was given in response to the grumbling of the people and their wish to return to slavery in Egypt (better the devil you know and all that). Instead, God wanted them to “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (v.3, NIV). The first lesson of the manna is that, in the midst of trials, we cannot return to our old ways, our old slavery to evil and sin. The bread of man does not satisfy, but only that which comes from God. Times of trial test whether we really trust that the Lord will provide for our needs. Do we instead store up grain for another day (cf. Luke 12:16-21) or try to outwork God by gathering when we should be resting? The second lesson of the manna is that the Lord wills “to do you good in the end” (Deut. 8:16). To truly trust God, we must believe that He desires our good, that He works all things for our benefit (Rom. 8:28). As the famous verse from Jeremiah puts it, His plans are “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11). His manna demonstrates His care for us, and we must trust that it will be there for us each day. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).

Joshua 5: The Manna Ceases

I neglected to mention one other fact about the manna: it was placed into the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with his people (see Ex. 16:33; Heb. 9:4). Along with the stone tablets of the Law and Aaron’s miraculously budding staff, the manna was there when the Israelites crossed the Jordan river with Ark in front and the waters parted (Josh. 3). Just as the Lord had promised, the provision of the manna had lasted all the way until they arrived at the Promised Land. And just like that, at the moment that they ate their first Passover meal from the land of milk and honey, the manna stopped (Josh. 5:12). In days of abundance, God often takes away the special grace He gave us to get through the days of trial. This is not because God is a big meanie, but because He wants us to grow up and mature. And part of maturing is joining with God in the work he is doing. If we want to enjoy the fruit, we must work the land. As Paul says quite bluntly to the Thessalonians: “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10, NIV). We should not use the provision of God as an occasion for gluttony or sloth. If we do, we may find that the provision dries up very quickly. God is serious about the Sabbath, but He also intends for us to work the other six days. The effectiveness of the one depends upon the other.

Nehemiah 9: The Manna and the Spirit

After the high priest Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the returning Jewish exiles, they are cut to the quick. Repenting in sackcloth and ashes, they recount the many ways that God has been faithful to them (and they have been unfaithful in return). On the topic at hand, they prayed: “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth” (Neh. 9:20). Thus the manna can be said to represent the Holy Spirit and His continual presence with the people of God. The manna is more than just bread — it is spiritual food for spiritual sustenance. It was a foretaste of the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh that would be promised by the prophets (Joel 2:28) and fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. On the eve of Shabbat, faithful Jews put out two loaves. This represents the two-day provision for the Sabbath, but also they are said to represent the dual blessing of physical and spiritual rest. God provides not just for our physical hunger, but for our much more important spiritual hunger.

Psalm 78: The Manna as the Bread of Angels

Psalm 78 is an epic recounting of God’s faithful acts and Israel’s disobedience. About a third of the way through the psalm we read these words: “Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance” (vv. 23-25). Here we finally get an answer to the question “what is it?” Manna is literally the grain of heaven and the bread of angels. Jesus compares heaven to a wedding feast (Matt. 22) or a great banquet (Luke 14), and portrays the inhabitants of heaven as feasting “sumptuously” (Luke 16:19). So perhaps we should view the manna as something like that bread which you get before the meal at a restaurant. It is a foretaste of the feast to come. While it sustained the people of Israel in their desert wanderings, it also whetted their appetite for the Promised Land. The grace we receive in this life is only a shadow of the abundance that we shall one day know in the presence of God. That is why the angel in Revelation says, “blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).

John 6: The Manna and the Bread of Life

It is in this chapter that Our Lord gives us the full revelation of what the manna entails. After the aforementioned feeding of the 5,000 (vv.1-15), Jesus walks across the sea of Galilee (vv. 16-21), but the crowd catches up to Him. He knows that they are just like the Israelites of old, only thinking with their stomachs. He warns them, “do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (v. 27). The people are skeptical and ask for a sign. After all, they say, “our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (v. 31). Of course, Jesus had just fed them with miraculous bread, but their obtuse stubbornness is even worse than a lack of gratitude (or observational skill). They correctly judge that the manna was “bread from heaven”, but don’t realize the spiritual significance of the verses that we have just been looking at. Jesus gently corrects the people that it was God, not Moses, who gave their forefathers the manna. Then He gets to the point: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35). The manna, like the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, points to Jesus. The manna was a temporary fix for a temporary problem; Jesus is a permanent solution to our ultimate problem: separation from the Father. As Jesus says, “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (v. 40). The response of the crowd to this salvation was the same as the response of their forefathers to salvation from the Egyptians: grumbling. How could this guy, who was just a man, say that he came from heaven? Give me a break!

But Jesus just doubles down: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (vv.48-51). Despite being the “bread of angels”, the manna was still ultimately just bread. But Jesus offers a very different kind of bread: His own flesh. Needless to say, this causes something of a commotion in the crowd. But Jesus was in a doubling-down kind of mood and gives us this remarkable discourse, worth quoting in full:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

John 6:53-58

So if we want to live eternally, we have to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. If we do that, we will be reunited with God, reversing the effects of the Fall. But how do we get this new manna; how do we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ? I think you already know….

1 Corinthians 10&11: The Manna and the Eucharist

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul equates the crossing of the Red Sea with baptism (v. 2) and then says that the Israelites ate “spiritual food” and drank “spiritual drink” from the rock, which was Christ (vv.3-4, see Ex. 17:1-7). So clearly the food also represents Christ and is equated with a sacrament. In chapter 11, Paul passes on the teaching that he had received: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (vv. 23-24). Of course, it is the disciples who had taught Paul what the Lord had taught them at the Last Supper, namely, that the bread and wine of the Passover had been transformed into the very body and blood of Christ (see, e.g., Luke 22:16-20). We eat the manna just as the ancient Israelites did each time we partake of the Holy Eucharist. But we receive something much greater than manna; we receive Christ Himself, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven. By partaking of the Eucharist, we take the very life of Jesus into our bodies. In so doing, we prepare ourselves, body and soul, for the final resurrection and the wedding supper of the Lamb. The ultimate answer to the question “what is it?” is Jesus. The manna is the grace of God found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Revelation 2: The Secret Manna

But that is not the final word on manna in Holy Scripture. In the letter the church at Pergamum in Revelation chapter 2, we find these mysterious words: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (v. 17). Note that the church at Pergamum had a problem with eating food sacrificed to idols (v. 14), so God is offering them food that will endure. But what are we to make of this secret manna and the secret name? In the Jewish tradition, the Ark of the Covenant and the contents therein, including the manna, would be restored in the messianic age. St. John indeed has a vision of the Ark in God’s heavenly temple, not hidden behind a curtain as the original Ark had been, but on display, resplendent with lightning, thunder, and hail (Rev. 11:19). So the manna has been transformed, but into what? Early Church theologian Tyconius (c.330-390) puts it succinctly: “This manna is the invisible Bread which came down from heaven, which indeed was made man” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2.17). In other words, the secret manna is Christ. And it is Christ who gives us our new name inscribed on the white stone. The symbolism of the white stone is debated: it may have to do with an admission token for public assemblies or events, or the white stone used by jurors to vote for acquittal, or even as a contrast to the black stone that symbolizes the false Mother Goddess of Phrygia. I’d like to think it’s all of those things. The white stone gains us admission to heaven and proclaims our acquittal of all sins thanks to the Blood of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 7:14), saving us from all false idols to which we have committed ourselves. By partaking of the secret manna of Christ, we are made into new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) and given a new name (see Is. 56:5; 62:2). For we are the Bride and we are marrying the Bridegroom and taking on His name as our own. So let us with joy partake of the wedding feast, of the secret manna of Christ’s Body and Blood, that we like the Israelites may be sustained in our times of trial and arrive at last in the Promised Land.

The Great I AM: Exodus 3:14-15, YHWH, and the Nature of God

Christ therefore is, and always is; for He, who is, always is. And Christ always is, of whom Moses says: He that is has sent me.

–St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Christian Faith, 5.1.25

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

–Revelation 4:8 (ESV)

The Secret Name of God

Moses was puzzled. First off, his ordinary day of shepherding had been interrupted by the inexplicable sight of a bush that was on fire, yet not burning up. Then a voice came out of the bush claiming to the God of the great patriarchs of old. To top it off, this voice was telling him, little old Moses who was on the run for murder and living with his father-in-law, that he would go to Pharaoh and set the people of Israel free. So Moses asks for assurance that God really has the right guy. God insists that He does. Moses is still not sure that he is talking to the right god. So he asks for a name. The reply:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Exodus 3:14-15

Notice that “God also said”. In the Hebrew Bible, when a person speaks twice in a row like that, it means that they have received no reply. Moses was still confused, indeed dumbfounded, by the strange name that God had given him. “I am who I am”? What is that supposed to mean? This was not a name like Marduk or Osiris. How was Moses supposed to communicate that name to the Israelites, much less to Pharaoh? So God clarifies that the same God of the patriarchs is I AM. The Hebrew for the relevant part of verse 15 is (transliterated): Yahweh elohe abotekem elohe Avraham elohe Yishaq welohe Ya’akob (“The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”). Notice that both YHWH and Elohim are united here. The personal God of the patriarchs was thus being given a new name that had only been revealed to Moses. The people of Israel would come to believe that this new name was the truest and holiest name of God.

In revealing this secret name to Moses, God was giving to him the authority to act as his emissary on the earth. Those who bear the name of the Lord are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). More importantly, God’s new name was a revelation of His essential character. Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of this for Jews is the Lord’s holiness. We don’t even know how to pronounce YHWH, because it is considered such a holy word that good Jews never speak it aloud. Whatever else is going on with this name, it is clear that it (and the One who bears it) have tremendous power. Jews say “Adonai” instead, and adding the vowels of Adonai to YHWH leads to the familiar (but incorrect) pronunciation of “Jehovah”. Scholars generally believe that “Yahweh” is the closest we can get to the original pronunciation, but even that is just a guess. God is so much greater that us that even His true name is a bit of a mystery. As for what YHWH means, there have been many suggestions. A few, listed in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible include: “Truly He!”; “My One”; “He Who Is”; “He Who Brings Into Being”; “He Who Storms”. YHWH is, as I said, clearly related to the Hebrew word for being or “to be”, hayah. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob just is.

There are a few awesome implications of this most holy name of God. The ESV Study Bible lists four: (1) God is self-existent, and therefore not dependent on anyone else for His existence; (2) God is the creator and sustainer of all that exists; (3) God is immutable in being and character (see Heb. 13:8); and (4) God is eternal in His existence. Thus, a quick definition of God is the self-existent, immutable, and eternal creator of all that is. This is a very different being from the one that Moses thought he was talking to. The gods of other nations may be creators or destroyers, and may have awesome power. But they are not the eternal and singular author and sustainer of everything. The God of the Hebrews, in his self-revelation to Moses, thus puts himself above all other gods as the only one who is truly worthy of worship. All those other gods might be powerful, but none of them are necessary for the entire cosmos to exist. This is why atheists miss the point when some say that they just “worship one less god than you”. We have not chosen to worship one god among many. We worship YHWH, the only author and perfecter of the universe.

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

For those of you with a background in philosophy and/or apologetics, alarm bells are probably going off about now. Reading these verses bring to mind my favorite argument for the existence of God: Leibniz’s cosmological argument. I like this argument because its relatively easy to understand, intuitively satisfying, logically sound, and difficult to argue against. It was, as the name suggests, developed by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1715), a candidate for the smartest person to ever live. In addition to small accomplishments like discovering calculus and revolutionizing modern philosophy, he also devised a cataloguing system for Europe’s libraries that laid the groundwork for modern library science. Obviously, this is a great man. Of course, his cosmological argument was building on foundations going back as far as Aristotle running through St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways. Nevertheless, his version has both simplicity and rigor on its side. The argument runs as follows:

Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause)

Premise 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God

Premise 3: The universe exists

Premise 4: Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1 & 3)

Premise 5: Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2 & 4)

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

This argument is logically sound, meaning that if you accept the truth of the premises, you must accept the conclusion. But are the premises sound? Let’s go through each one.

Premise #1: This premise states what is known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Without this principle, we would expect things to pop into and out of existence all the time for no reason whatsoever. If you were to encounter an elephant in your backyard, you would probably like to know why. The answer isn’t just that elephants sometimes materialize into backyards (and even if that was the kind of thing that happened, such events would themselves require an explanation). Science depends upon the PSR because otherwise we would never be able to rule out that the things we observe are happening for no reason. Logic would also be a goner. The PSR also allows us to explain a negative state of affairs. The question “why is that bush not on fire?” makes no sense, while the question “why is that burning bush not being consumed?” does. Both questions presuppose that things which exist have a reason for their existence.

Before we get to premise two, Leibniz makes an important distinction which is required in order for his argument to be valid. There are two types of existent things: contingent and necessary. Almost everything is contingent. The computer I’m typing this on is dependent upon the production of electricity and software developers and miners of rare minerals, etc., etc. You only exist because your parents…well, you know. If your parents had never met, you would not exist, and your parents would not exist if their parents had never met, and so on. In other words, contingent things are explained by the existence of something else. Necessary things, on the other hand, simply must exist by their very nature. In some possible universes, unicorns exist (they are contingent). But in every possible universe, a triangle has three sides. A circular triangle is an impossibility because three-sidedness is intrinsic to triangles. It is necessary. Thus, the concept of a triangle explains its own existence. This will be an important distinction as we move on to….

Premise #2: This is obviously the most consequential and controversial premise. We must first tackle the objection that the universe simply explains itself, i.e. the universe is necessary. The universe, however, is not necessary. Think about two kinds of questions related to octagons. “Why is that octagon red?” or “why is that octagon so big?” have intelligible replies (such as “it’s a stop sign” or “it’s an mixed martial arts ring”), whereas “why does that octagon have eight sides?” just deserves the retort “because it’s an octagon”. So does the question “why does the universe exist?” deserve the reply “because it’s a universe”? No, because existence is not a necessary quality of a universe. The universe must have an external cause.

The question, then, is what sort of thing is this cause of the universe? Well, the most notable fact of the universe is that it is always changing (at least at the subatomic level). Change means that some potential is actualized, like a train car being moved down a track. But even as an infinitely long chain of train cars cannot move without a locomotive, so too can cause-and-effect only have been put into motion by an uncaused (necessary) thing. This cause must be changeless, because the cause of the universe is pure actuality and pure actuality can have no unrealized potential (otherwise it would be contingent). I’ll pause here to note that infinite regress of contingency is logically impossible and would violate the PSR. The cause of the universe must also be timeless/eternal because time is simply a measure of change, and the cause is changeless. Furthermore, time and space are not separate entities but part of a continuum (thanks Einstein!), so that which caused all matter must have also caused time as well. The last two qualities leads to the inescapable conclusion that the cause of the universe is also immaterial. Material objects are subject to both change and time, and the universe’s cause cannot be either. If the cause brought the universe into being ex nihilo, it must be omnipotent (or, more modestly, unimaginably powerful). In other words, to be pure actuality, the cause must have no potential that it cannot actualize.

Lastly, the cause of the universe must be personal, that is, it must have the qualities of a conscious being rather than a mindless force. We can conclude this for at least three reasons. First, things that exist are either concrete or abstract. A stop sign is concrete; the shape of an octagon and the color red are abstract. Abstract things have no causal power, since they are merely conceptual, so the cause must be concrete. However, we know that the cause is immaterial, and the only concrete immaterial thing we know of are minds. So the cause is some kind of mind. Second, there are two kinds of explanations of physical phenomena: scientific and personal. The scientific explanation for why a pot of water is boiling involves heat exciting the water molecules; the personal explanation is that I’m cooking spaghetti. An ex nihilo universe must have a personal explanation, because a state of nothingness has no matter, energy, or physical laws that could provide a scientific one. Third, abstract entities only exist in the mind and some of them are necessary. Therefore, a necessary mind must have been their cause. In conclusion, the cause of the universe is some kind of mind, and this mind must know literally everything in the universe, thus we could rightly call it omniscient.

So, to sum up: if the universe has a cause, that cause is a necessarily existing, uncaused, changeless, eternal, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being. We call such a being God.

Premise #3: This premise feels like it should have no objections, but there are some, albeit weak ones (in my opinion). Some scientists postulate a multiverse instead of a singular universe, but such a multiverse is no more philosophically necessary than a universe and so is contingent and needing an external cause. A popular view among some techie types is that we are living in a simulation produced by a super-intelligent artificial intelligence. But, of course, a super-intelligent AI is contingent as well, so what caused it? Lastly, some people believe that everything is just an illusion. How can we know that what we are experiencing isn’t just a massive dream? Well, if we can’t trust either our senses or out intuition, then science, logic, and, indeed, everything we might do to understand or meaningfully act in the world is pointless. That the universe exists is a basic premise for all knowledge. I think we can accept that it is true.

Premises #4 & 5, and Conclusion: The final two “premises” are actually just logical deductions from the first three, as indicated in my articulation of the argument above. Since the universe exists, it must have an explanation. And since the universe’s explanation must be God, God must exist. I have not tried to address all possible objections to this argument, but have just articulated it to the best of my understanding. The nature of the universe points to a Great I AM, and that I AM has revealed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Necessary Christ

The idea that God is a necessary being may sound like the sort of highfalutin nonsense we’ve come to expect from both modern philosophy and medieval scholastics. But this idea is a fundamental Christian idea, and not just from the medieval Catholicism of St. Thomas Aquinas. See, for example, early Church father St. Jerome:

There is one nature of God and one only; and this, and this alone, truly is. For absolute being is derived from no other source but is all its own. All things besides, that is all things created, although they appear to be, are not. For there was a time when they were not, and that which once was not may again cease to be. God alone who is eternal, that is to say, who has no beginning, really deserves to be called an essence. Therefore also He says to Moses from the bush, “I am that I am”, and Moses says of Him, “I am has sent me”.

St. Jerome, Letter 15.4 (to Pope Damasus, c. AD 377)

But it goes back ever further. Jesus Christ himself equates his own nature with that of the Great I AM. When walking upon the water, Jesus says the the disciples “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27, cf. Mark 6:50). That “it is I” is eigo eimi in Greek, literally “I am”. Jesus is demonstrating that He is God by walking on the water, just as He had mastered “the deep” in creation by ordering the cosmos (see Gen. 1:2). He makes this even more explicit in the gospel of John when the Jewish leaders scoff that He could not be greater than Abraham. Jesus’ reply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). St. Paul expounds upon this truth:

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Colossians 1:15-19

This is why the early Church fathers believed that the “angel” that appeared to Moses (and the “angel of the Lord” throughout the Old Testament) was actually the pre-incarnate Son. It was Jesus who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, just as St. Ambrose indicates in the epigraph above. And it is Jesus, the one “who was, and is, and is to come”, the necessary and eternal cause of all that is, whom we shall worship forever. God’s plan of salvation that He revealed to Moses at the burning bush was so much bigger than just rescue from slavery in Egypt. It was rescue from slavery to sin and a promise of everlasting life, of eternal joy in the presence of the Great I AM. In a time when everything seems always in flux and all foundations feel uncertain, may we hold onto this lasting truth and put our trust in Jesus, the Great I AM.

Endnote: A big tip of the cap to Catholic apologist Trent Horn and Protestant apologist William Lane Craig, along with the YouTube channel Inspiring Philosophy, for helping me to understand and articulate the cosmological argument, even though Horn prefers St. Thomas’s Five Ways and Craig prefers the Kalam cosmological argument. There may only be one Way to the Father, but there are many ways of discovering Him!

The Other Sons: A Meditation on the Overlooked Patriarchs of Genesis.

And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.

–Luke 13:30 (ESV)

One of the recurring themes of the book of Genesis is the subversion of the right of primogeniture. Indeed, the claims of the eldest son are often rejected in favor of a younger sibling. Starting all the way back in chapter four, where the younger brother Abel’s sacrifice is preferred to his older brother Cain’s, God’s blessing inverts the cultural norm. The Lord’s preference for the weaker, the younger, and the smaller begins here and continues throughout the Hebrew Bible (most famously in David, the youngest son of Jesse, elevated to the King of Israel). His preference has nothing to do with merit: Isaac is passive and easily manipulated; Jacob is a heel-grabbing liar, homebody, and mama’s boy; Joseph (depending on your interpretation) is either breathtakingly pretentious or hopelessly naïve. Yet God chooses these men to be the patriarchs of His chosen people, His instruments of salvation. Not for nothing is the Lord called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. As Paul says to the Corinthians: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). And so the stories of these men resound through the ages as examples to us of God’s great love and their names are remembered to all generations.

But what of the other sons? In denying primogeniture, did God forget the eldest boys? We certainly tend to. But I think there are lessons to be learned from these forgotten patriarchs and they all center on a word we don’t usually associate with the Old Testament: grace. The stories of Ishmael, Esau, and Judah beautifully demonstrate both God’s grace to us and how to share that grace with those who have hurt us. These three men all dealt with rejection and failure, yet all three found peace, prosperity, and purpose despite their status as outcasts. God humbled these strong men only to exalt them once again at the end. Their lives are a reminder to “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jam. 4:10).

Ishmael: God Hears

The trouble started for Ishmael before he was even born. Abraham had been promised more descendants than the stars in the sky, yet his wife was barren and, now, in menopause. So Sarah offers her servant (or slave, depending on the translation) Hagar to Abraham. Notice the exact phrase though: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram as a wife” (Gen. 16:3, emphasis added). The text really wants us to notice that Abraham’s lawful wife is offering a mere servant to act as a wife to Abraham. As an aside, I will note that while the Old Testament records many instances of polygamy, such arrangements are never approved by God and they almost always end in tears, as we shall see here and in the story of Jacob’s sons. In any case, Hagar proved fertile and conceived a son. Thus, “she looked with contempt on her mistress” (v. 4). Hagar believed herself to now outrank Sarah as both Abraham’s wife and the mother of his only son. Abraham, realizing that he will be forced to choose between his wife and the mother of his child, puts the onus on Sarah to decide how to handle things. So Sarah abuses Hagar to the point that the pregnant woman must flee into the wilderness. It looks like Ishmael will die before he ever sees the light of day.

But God, despite the fact that this child represents an unfaithful act and will bring nothing but trouble in the future, looks with compassion on Hagar. Of course, Hagar would have hardly seen it that way. An angel from the Lord tells her to return to Sarah and “submit to her” (16:9), which means to suffer yet more abuse. To offer some sugar with the medicine, the angel promises Hagar descendants beyond counting and then tells her to name the boy Ishmael “because the Lord has listened to your affliction” (Ishmael means “God hears”, v. 11). Dr. Justin Jackson of Hillsdale College says that these verses practically sum up the entire Hebrew Bible: the Lord has heard your suffering — now go suffer. Despite the promise of suffering, this story shows how God does not forget anyone and sees our sorrow even when we feel that He is far away. I love verse 13, where Hagar returns the favor of naming: “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me” (NIV). Ishmael embodies the fact that, even before a person is born, they are never out of God’s sight: “You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb” (Ps. 139:15, NLT).

Abraham always seemed to have deep love and affection for his firstborn. When God promises to give him a son by Sarah, after falling on his face in laughter and crying out in either joy or disbelief about his age, Abraham says “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (17:18). The promise of a son by his actual wife seems too good to be true, and even if it is true, Abraham does not want Ishmael to be forgotten. The Lord, far from chastising Abraham, honors the request: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (v. 20). Notice again God’s wordplay on Ishmael’s name. He really wants to emphasize that he hears Abraham and Ishmael, even in the midst of their doubt and sin. He will establish his covenant through Isaac (v. 21), but he will never forget Ishmael. Abraham demonstrates this by circumcising Ishmael along with the rest of the family, making him a part of the covenant (v. 25-26).

But it was not to last. One day, Sarah spots Ishmael “laughing” (the sense includes “mocking” or “scorning”, 21:9). Isaac means “laughter”, so the text may be trying to tell us that Ishmael was attempting to appropriate the “laughter” that belonged to Isaac. Either way, Sarah orders Abraham to cast “this slave woman with her son” out of the house (v. 10). Abraham is dismayed, but the Lord gives his assent to the banishment, promising the survival and lineage of Ishmael for a third time (v. 13). So Hagar heads into the wilderness for a second time, but this time she runs out of water. She leaves Ishmael by himself to die (she cannot bear to watch), and then sits down and weeps. The Lord has abandoned them. Except, of course, He hasn’t. Once again, an angel arrives to say that “God heard the voice of the boy where he is” (v. 17). What a beautiful phrase! God hears us not only when we are where we should be (or where we think we should be) but where we are. He reminds Hagar of his promise to her and it is only then that Hagar sees the well that was there the whole time. The parallels with Genesis 22 should be obvious. Here is a parent who is leaving their child for dead in the wilderness, who is visited by an angel, and who only then sees the salvation that has been there the entire time (the well and the ram). The story concludes by telling us that “God was with the boy” even though he could not return home. He stayed in the wilderness, growing strong and crafty with a bow and finding a wife from Egypt. This wilderness experience, full of suffering no doubt, changed Ishmael from a mocking adolescent into a strong and worthy patriarch of a great nation.

The last mention of Ishmael in Genesis is a dry genealogy which confirms that, indeed, Ishmael became the father of twelve princes, just as God had said (25:12-18). God keeps his promises; He does not forget. Despite Ishmael not being a part of His plan for salvation, God blessed him and prospered him. No human being is ever out of God’s sight or beyond God’s love. God hears.

Esau: Foolishness and Grace

For Esau, too, the trouble began while he was still in the womb. The problem was that he was not alone in there. He and his brother were fighting before they were even born. Rebekah, no doubt sleep-deprived, cried to the Lord asking what on earth was going on. The reply: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). Once again, the elder (and stronger) is made subservient to the younger, but also the elder is once again promised a nation. Then the twins are born, still fighting, Jacob refusing to release his grip on Esau’s heel. The parallels between Esau and Ishmael are striking. Both men grew up in the wilderness and became skillful bowmen, and both were beloved of their fathers. The problem for Esau is that his twin was a bit too clever, too much like his crafty mother for his own good….

Esau was handsome, talented, and hairy. But one thing he was not was bright. He was ruled by his appetites, which famously led to him selling his birthright for some red stew. People act like Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, but to me this looks like a trade openly agreed to by both parties (even if Esau claims that he was “about to die”, 25:32). If Esau was foolish enough to sell his birthright so cheaply, he probably did not deserve it (whether Jacob deserved it any more is another question entirely). This story continues in chapter 27 when Isaac, sensing that his death is near, tells Esau to hunt and prepare some game so that he might eat of it and bless his firstborn. Isaac’s love for Esau here seems entirely conditional on his skill at hunting and cooking and little to do with any paternal affection. In any case, you know the story. Rebekah convinces Jacob to get in ahead of Esau and trick his father into giving him the blessing meant for the firstborn, complete with a hairy costume and everything. The wild plan works and Isaac gives him an extravagant blessing (read vv. 27-29). Remember that this blessing was intended for Esau and notice how little he leaves for Jacob. Once Esau returns and figures out what has happened, he panics: “Bless me, even me also, O my father” (v. 34). When Isaac throws up his hands and says “what then can I do for you, my son?” (v. 37), Esau replies again: “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father” (v. 38). Then he starts blubbering. This childish display again demonstrates how just being the firstborn does not make you automatically worthy of blessing. Isaac does give Esau a blessing of sorts (vv. 39-40), but it really sounds more like a curse. The only comfort in it is that when Esau grows restless, “you shall break his yoke from your neck”. Genesis tells us that Esau plans to kill Jacob once Isaac dies, but he must have stupidly said it out loud because Rebekah hears and gets Jacob out of harm’s way just in time. All of Esau’s hopes and dreams are being foiled.

Poor Esau just wants back into his dad’s affections, even going so far as to marry into the Ishmaelites (another connection with that other eldest son) because he heard that Isaac didn’t like his Hittite wives (28:6-9). But this gambit does not appear to work, as we do not hear from Esau for over two decades. One can imagine the amount of bitterness and resentment, or even murderous rage, that can build up in that amount of time. Jacob certainly imagined it, as the bill finally came due for all his deceptions. On the run from Laban, Jacob hears that Esau is on the way “and there are four hundred men with him” (32:6). Four hundred was the typical size of a military unit — Esau was preparing for war. Jacob divides his camp in half, hoping to save some from Esau’s rage. He even puts his less favored wives and children in front, hoping to at least save Rachel and Joseph (more on that below). He continually calls Esau “my lord” and himself “your servant” in an apparent attempt to undo the blessing which promised that Esau would serve Jacob. He also sent lavish gifts, reasoning that “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (v. 20). He is hoping that some vestige of brotherly affection remains. But he doesn’t seem optimistic. He would have a famously sleepless night.

Let’s shift our perspective to Esau’s. The next morning, he sees his brother Jacob coming in all his finery, with his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven sons. But Jacob seems different now, more humble and wiser. And, unless his eyes are deceiving him, the younger twin seems to be limping. If Esau wanted to kill him, he would never have a better opportunity. So Esau, whose blessing promised that he would break the yoke from his neck, throws himself upon his brother’s neck…and embraces and kisses him. The two brothers, reunited after twenty years, openly weep. Just as laughter is a motif in the life of Isaac, so are tears in the life of Esau. He weeps with hunger when he sells his birthright and weeps with rage when he is tricked out of his blessing, and now he weeps in joy. What a beautiful picture of grace and forgiveness! Jacob introduces Esau to his in-laws and nephews and Esau refuses the gifts Jacob has brought. In light of such astonishing grace, Jacob sums it up perfectly: “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough” (33:10-11). Esau has shown Jacob, and all of us, what the face of God looks like. It is a face that accepts even a schemer and backstabber like Jacob and restores broken relationships. Indeed, with the grace of God, we “have enough”.

Esau’s story ends just like Ishmael’s: with a genealogy (although this one takes an entire chapter, Gen. 36). Esau became the father of the Edomites, named for the red stew for which he sold his birthright (and also, perhaps, his copious red hair). He still had to live with the consequences of his bad decisions, watching his younger brother become the father of God’s chosen people and ancestor of the Messiah. But God’s grace was upon Him and God’s promises were true. He became, in spite of himself, a great nation.

Judah: From Cub to Lion

Unlike our previous two patriarchs, Judah was not the eldest son of his father. He was the fourth son of Jacob (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi were the others), all born to Leah, while Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, remained barren (29:31). In an inversion of the story of Esau, Judah (which means “praise”) is beloved of his mother but rejected by his father. In time, Rachel finally gave birth to a son, Joseph, and he immediately became preferred by Jacob over his ten older brothers. We see this in the scene I mentioned above from chapter 33 that Jacob used his concubines and their four sons, then Leah and her six sons as a buffer between the potentially-murderous Esau and his favored wife and child (see v. 2). The resentment only grew as Jacob gifted Joseph a sumptuous robe and used his youngest son to spy on his brothers and bring back reports (37:2-4). To top it off, Joseph relates a pair of dreams to his brothers that indicate none-too-subtly that they would bow down to him. Like Esau, the brothers are filled with murderous rage toward a brother who seems to have stolen their father’s favor and blessing. Only Reuben and Judah object to this plan, though neither does so for purely altruistic motives of brotherly affection. Reuben, the eldest, just wants to get back into his father’s good graces, while Judah sees a chance to make some quick cash and get rid of the little twerp for good. Even so, Judah does say, “come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh” (37:27). Perhaps even at this early date, Judah has compassion upon his unworthy sibling. If they had hoped that this gambit would soften Jacob’s heart toward them, the brothers were disappointed. Jacob refuses any comfort and says “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (v. 35). Jacob would rather die than transfer any affection to the sons of women he does not love.

The curse of poor parenting passes on to Judah. He has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er took a wife named Tamar, but he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” and he died childless. By the law of Levirate marriage, Onan was required to provide an heir for Er by Tamar, but Onan practiced coitus interruptus because he knew the resulting child would not be his (v. 9, this in not a story about masturbation, but let’s not get into that). So Onan was also put to death by the Lord. Judah decided not to risk his only remaining son, despite the need for an heir, and forced Tamar to return to live with her father in disgrace, childless. In doing this, he was thwarting the will of God even more than he knew, for Judah (as we know) was chosen by God to be the ancestor of the Messiah. It should also be noted that at least two of his three sons were wicked men, which is not a great endorsement of Judah’s character. All of this would not end well. Judah’s wife died, and Tamar saw her opportunity. She disguised herself as a cult prostitute (veil and all) and tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her, being careful to first secure his signet, cord, and staff. When she turned up pregnant three months later, Judah, in a breathtaking act of hypocrisy, wanted to burn her at the stake. Tamar’s forward thinking proved valuable, as she showed Judah his own signet, cord, and staff. Notice Judah’s response: “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Judah knew that his cowardice and lack of faith was an even greater sin than his lechery — he had shown the impulsiveness of Esau. Tamar’s only real sin was wanting an heir and using trickery to get him (Judah’s mother and grandmother would have been proud). Here we begin to see the first glimpse of a changed heart within Judah.

After some time, a famine hits Canaan, and Judah and his brothers must go to Egypt to get food. Well, not all of his brothers. Jacob, having learned nothing, holds back his youngest son Benjamin, the only remaining child of his now-dead wife Rachel, to protect him. With plenty of time to think about this slight, the ten brothers bow before pharaoh’s governor and he, bizarrely, accuses them of being spies. Just as they had hated their brother Joseph for spying on them, so this man hates them. Indeed, their punishment is linked to their crime against Joseph, as the brothers say, “in truth we are guilty concerning our brother [Joseph], in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (42:21). The governor orders them to bring their youngest brother with them back to Egypt, keeps Simeon in prison as collateral, and puts money in their sacks (unknown to them). When the brothers return to Canaan, they discover the money and know that their goose is cooked (notice that this is justifiable payback for selling their brother to slave traders for money). Furthermore, Jacob flat out refuses to let Benjamin go, even though it means he will never see Simeon again. Judah re-enters the story here to point out to his father that the only way they are going to get food is if they bring Benjamin with them (43:3-5). Jacob immediately rebukes them for even telling the governor that Benjamin existed. But Judah replies that this governor specifically asked about their father and if they had another brother. Finally, Judah says: “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (43:8-9). Whether this is courage, self-sacrificial love, or just desperation is unclear. Whatever the reason, it is Judah’s boldness that finally causes Jacob to relent and all the brothers, Benjamin included, return to Egypt.

Upon returning, the brothers again bow before the governor, who seems more gracious now and weirdly emotional upon seeing Benjamin and hearing that their father is still alive. The governor extends grace to them about the money, and then prepares a banquet for them. Notice verse 33: “And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at one another in amazement.” They are amazed because (1) this governor knows their birth order, and (2) they are finally being given preference by their age — order is being restored (although Benjamin does get five times as much food [v. 34]). They eat bread and wine together in a prefiguring of the Eucharistic feast, a thanksgiving meal for the grace that God had bestowed upon all of them, especially this mysterious Egyptian governor. The next day, the mercurial governor accuses the brothers of stealing his silver cup. The brothers are aghast, but the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Here is the turning point in the story. The brothers could once again sacrifice the favored son to save themselves. Instead, Judah again takes the lead. He tries to protect Benjamin by claiming collective guilt for the theft (v. 16). The governor demands that Benjamin alone stay with him, so Judah replies with an impassioned speech. Explaining that returning without Benjamin would literally kill their father, and that he had promised to preserve Benjamin at cost of his own life, Judah offers to put himself in Benjamin’s place. The man who recommended selling Joseph into slavery now offers to himself become a slave on behalf Benjamin because, despite it all, he loves his father Jacob. This act of self-sacrificial grace breaks the dam of hostility and finally the governor reveals himself to be Joseph, their long-lost brother. Thanks to Judah, Joseph forgives the brothers for all the wrong they have done to them and the relationship is restored.

Judah’s story ends not with a genealogy, but with a blessing. In chapter 49, Jacob blesses all of his sons, but Judah, as befitting his new leadership role in the family, receives a special one. It’s worth quoting in full:

Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.

Genesis 49:8-12

Now it is to Judah that the other brothers will bow, for the cub has grown into a lion. Judah will rule not only his brothers, but other peoples. Here we see the establishment of the royal line that will produce the great King David and an even greater King of Kings who will rule and save all of humanity. From selfishness, impulsiveness, and vanity, Judah has grown into a worthy ruler, full of wisdom and grace. It is one of the most remarkable redemption stories in Scripture. The parallels with Christ are striking. The day after feasting with 12 brothers on bread and wine, the lion of Judah sacrifices himself on behalf of a (seemingly) guilty party because of his love for Jacob/Israel, that is, his love for the Father. This act of complete self-abnegation, of unmerited grace, saves not only his brother, but many more in Canaan and restores broken relationships. God’s plan of salvation comes through the rejected son.

Conclusion

The “other” sons of Genesis demonstrate to us the eternal, relentless grace of God. None of these three men were admirable, at least to start: Ishmael was a snotty, mocking adolescent; Esau was foolish, impulsive, and violent; Judah was greedy, lecherous, and cowardly. But all three were shown grace by God and (Esau and Judah at least) shared that grace with the brother who had wronged them. Ishmael and Esau became fathers of great nations, and Judah (along with crafty Tamar) became an ancestor of the Messiah Himself. Grace does not depend upon our character, but upon the character of God and our willingness to participate in His activity of mercy and love in the world. May the overlooked patriarchs of Genesis encourage us that no matter what is in our past, we too can participate in God’s grace and share it with this broken world.

Abraham’s Faith: Interpreting Genesis 22

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

–Romans 4:16 (NIV)

Abraham laughed when he heard the news. God told him that he would have a child at 100 years old, and, Genesis tells us, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). Whether it was a laugh of faithful joy or incredulous disbelief or some combination of the two is left up to the reader. Sarah laughed, too, a laugh tinged with bitterness and regret. Yet far from condemning their laughter, God joined it. He told them to name the child Isaac, Yitzhak, “laughter”. God was going to do the impossible, and through the impossible He was going to bless the entire world. What else is there to do but laugh? Then, in chapter 22, God makes one more impossible request: He asks for the promise back. Isaac, a perfect symbol of unmerited grace, the proof that God was good to His word, was to be sacrificed as a burnt offering. You know the rest of the story. If you don’t, go read it now. Today, I’m going to be tackling how to reconcile this passage of Scripture with our belief that we serve a good God.

Background and Caveats

I think it’s important to note from the outset that there is no consensus in any religious community, Christianity included, about how best to interpret this passage. My conclusions are mine and I don’t construe them as the “correct” way to read the text. That said (and as we shall see), any interpretation that attempts to dismiss the text or imply that it has been altered beyond recognition should not be considered by serious Christians. Either we believe the Bible is the Word of God or we don’t. If we do believe that, then we must assume that God has not allowed serious corruption into His Holy Word, that the Bible can be relied upon. Otherwise, why bother?

While I won’t be going through the passage line-by-line, I did want to point out something important. Nowhere in the text does it tell us what age Isaac is during this story. Although his birth is recorded in the previous chapter, the events of chapter 22 happened “some time later” (22:1, NIV, NLT, CEV, etc.). Parts of the Talmudic tradition put Isaac’s age at 37 (based on Sarah’s age at her death [127] minus her age at Isaac’s birth [90]). In any case, he might have been an adult, which puts a little spin on the whole “child sacrifice” angle. At the very least, it makes Isaac much less likely to have been naïve to what was going on and much more likely to be a willing participant. Of course, we don’t know Isaac’s age, but this simple question does remind us to be humble and careful in our analysis of this passage.

I will be covering some of the major interpretations of this passage in reverse chronological order, since the interpretations, for the most part, get better the older they are (in my humble opinion, of course). These are certainly not all of the interpretive angles to be had, but a sampling of the major ways in which people have grappled with the text. O.k., enough throat clearing. Let’s begin.

A Cover-Up or Holy Playacting: 21st-Century Deconstruction

Recent scholarship, obsessed with tracing out the threads of authorship and editorial control of Genesis (the “documentary hypothesis”), has often come to the conclusion that the story in Genesis is either a cover-up or a ruse. Some scholars believe that the original story ended with Abraham killing Isaac and offering him up as a burnt offering in obedience to God’s command. Later priestly redactors (aka editors), appalled at child sacrifice, added the bit with the angel and the ram in order to make the story fit with the later stipulations of the Torah. There is even a wild theory that the names in verse 24 are actually a code that subtly tells the reader that Isaac was indeed slaughtered and burned. Of course, this interpretation throws the entire rest of Genesis into question, because who marries Rebekah and who fathers Jacob and Esau? It must be some imposter going by the name “Isaac”. To deal with this, some documentary hypothesis scholars suggest that the original story had Abraham simply disobeying God and not sacrificing his son. This, too, could not stand, so later editors added the angel to give God’s approval to this change of plans. All of this relies on extremely tenuous scholarship based upon overly-confident assertions about which different authors wrote what parts of the text. It is a weird sort of wishful thinking. Rather than wrestling with the difficult text in front of us, it simply says that the text was changed and that the original was uncomplicated. It is hard for me to imagine that a priestly redactor could get away with such a drastic change to the oral tradition about the father of the Jews. It is also simply a matter of faith to me that the story we have in Genesis 22 is true. Thus, this theory must be dismissed out of hand.

A more subtle version of the deconstructionist hypothesis is that either the story itself or the character of Abraham was playacting. Perhaps this was a rite of passage to adulthood, complete with mock sacrifice. Or maybe it was a demonstration to the pagans (either of Abraham’s time or later) that YHWH did not accept child sacrifice. Either way, we have to believe that God didn’t really say to sacrifice Isaac. At the very least, the part where God says “but don’t do it for real” got left out of the text, which seems like an important detail. The historical evidence for the rite of passage theory is basically non-existent, and (per John Walton) the idea of substituting an animal for a human sacrifice was rare in the ancient world. Again, these theories seem like attempts to avoid the paradoxes evident in the text, either to save God from Himself, or conversely (and more likely) to cast doubt on Holy Scripture. It would be comforting to believe that we can either wish away the uncomfortable implications of the text or ignore it altogether as a fabrication. Instead of inventing a text more suitable to our predispositions let us wrestle with the one that is actually in front of us.

Interpretation is the Point: Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar” (1946)

In the first essay of his book Mimesis, German-Jewish literary critic Erich Auerbach compares a scene from Homer’s Odyssey with Genesis 22. In Homer’s work, the narrative proceeds as we would expect. Odysseus’ old nursemaid Euryclea recognizes him upon his homecoming by the scar on his thigh. Everything about the scar is explained and catalogued and nothing is left to the imagination, which is in keeping with the Greek rhetorical tradition. Reality is external and the motivations and actions of the character always happen in the foreground. The goal is to bring the joy and comfort of a lively entertainment. Genesis is something like the opposite. The most obvious fact about the narrative is how many unanswered questions it raises: Where is Abraham and how does he hear God’s voice? What is Abraham’s emotional response to God’s request? How far was the journey to the mountain and what happened during it? And so on. I’ll let Auerbach take it from here:

The decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal…remains mysterious and “fraught with background.”…In the story of Isaac, it is not only God’s intervention at the beginning and the end, but even the factual and psychological elements which come between, that are mysterious, merely touched upon, fraught with background; and therefore they require subtle investigation and interpretation, they demand them. Since so much in the story is dark and incomplete, and since the reader knows that God is a hidden God, his effort to interpret it constantly finds something new to feed upon.

from Eric Aurbach, “Odysseus’ Scar” in the book Mimesis

In Auerbach’s telling, our centuries’ long discourse around the text is the entire point of the text. It does not exist to provide answers, but to ask questions. Genesis is not aiming to entertain, but to subject us to the truth. Auerbach calls this commitment to the truth “tyrannical – it excludes all other claims”. Thus, character motivations are ambiguous and multifaceted and they undergo change due to circumstance. Genesis, like history, is full of ambiguity, confusion, and seeming contradiction. Rather than explain or justify such things, Genesis simply lets the characters and the story be what they are, come what may. In a text so “fraught with background”, interpretation is invited, or rather, demanded. To expect the sort of narrative clarity found in Homer is to do a disservice to the text, and, more importantly, the truth.

I really like this interpretation because I think it gets to the central theme of how Scripture represents messy reality rather than pleasant abstractions. That said, there is a sort of fatalism around this theory for the believer. If we can only ever guess at what God was doing in this instance, then the text has little utility for us. But 1 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” There is a mystery at the center of this story, which is the mystery of God Himself, but I’m not willing to say that this story was just included in Scripture as a kind of thought project. God wants to tell us something. Let’s explore further.

The Leap of Faith: Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1843)

The way most people view Genesis 22 derives, whether they know it or not, from the musings of a nineteenth-century Danish existentialist philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard. This despite the fact that most people (myself included) only have the faintest idea what he was talking about. Kierkegaard was troubled by the ethical implications of this story and molded an entire philosophy around resolving the tension of a morally just God asking for child sacrifice. On a purely ethical level, Abraham is committing murder (and child murder at that). In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard posits what he calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, which means that the obligation to God outweighs mere ethical concerns. Faced with the inherent absurdity of life, a “knight of faith” (of which Abraham is the ultimate exemplar) resigns himself to fate, just as a tragic hero might, but then overcomes tragedy through taking a leap of faith. Abraham’s secrecy, withholding his plans even from Isaac, makes sense because the revelation was given to him alone and the leap of faith was his alone to take. Ethical considerations are enslaved to both communal concerns and rational analysis, while religious experience is both highly personal and inaccessible to reason. Faith cannot be understood; it must simply be accepted. We acquiesce to such a blind, absurd faith because it is the only means to overcome the inherent tragedy of existence. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because the end (the teleos) of obedience to God outweighed any ethical prohibition. We must be willing to give up everything we love more than God in order to attain union with God, the ultimate form of existence.

At least, I think that’s what Kierkegaard was saying. Distilled down, many people believe that Abraham is being praised by the angel for exhibiting blind faith in an inscrutable God (see 22:12). This is how some have interpreted Paul’s theology in Romans (of which more later) when he asserts that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works (e.g. 4:22 – “for the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith”). The problem for me with all of this is, if we divorce faith and ethics, then what exactly do we have faith in? A God about whom it is impossible to speak intelligibly is functionally the same as a god who does not exist, at least as far as faith and practice are concerned. The strong ethic of the Law and the prophets just becomes suggestions at that point, because the true “knight of faith” can put aside the ethical as the needs of his or her religion demand. This seems like a dangerous invitation to cultic behavior, a God complex, and to unspeakable acts of moral cruelty done in the name of religion. Kierkegaard, writing to the spiritually-dead Danish church, wished to reignite religion with new passion. But passion without morality is a fire without a fireplace. If anybody without Abraham’s pedigree said that God told them to kill their kid, would we celebrate them as a “knight of faith”? No, we would have their kid taken away and them thrown into prison or a mental hospital. We cannot just dispense with ethics as a kind of stepping stone on the way to a life of faith. As the book of James reminds us, faith without works is dead. If Abraham is a paragon of faith, something else must be going on here.

Offering, Not Sacrifice: Rashi’s (1040-1105) Tanakh Commentary

Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, was a French medieval rabbi and perhaps the most influential Jewish interpreter of Scripture ever. His commentaries have been included in every copy of the Talmud and, in many ways, form the backbone of that work. He wrote a beautiful midrash expanding upon verse 2:

God said to Abraham: “Please take your son, your only, whom you love, Isaac” (Genesis 22:2). When God said: “Your son,” Abraham said: I have two sons. When God said: “Your only,” Abraham said: This son is an only son to his mother, and that son is an only son to his mother. When God said: “Whom you love,” Abraham said: I love both of them. Then God said: “Isaac.” And why did God prolong His command to that extent? Why did He not say Isaac’s name from the outset? God did so, so that Abraham’s mind would not be confused by the trauma.

Rashi, from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b)

This demonstrates a quintessentially Jewish way of interacting with the text, of imaginatively expanding upon the background that Auerbach wrote about. It is also in verse 2 that we find the heart of Rashi’s interpretation. The second half of the verse reads “go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you”. The word for “offer”, alah, has multiple meanings. It can mean everything from simply bringing something to a location all the way up to offering a burnt sacrifice. In Rashi’s words:

He did not say to him, “Slaughter him,” because the Holy One, blessed be He, did not wish him to slaughter him but to bring him up to the mountain, to prepare him for a burnt offering, and as soon as he brought him up [to the mountain], He said to him, “Take him down.”

Rashi, from Gen. Rabbah 56:8

Indeed, the first time in this passage that we see the Hebrew word for “slaughter”, shachat, is in verse 10: “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son”. Thus, there is ambiguity in God’s command. There is some evidence that Abraham did not really believe that God would make him kill his son, for he says to his two travelling companions in verse 5 that he and Isaac would “return to you”. Is he lying here, knowing that he is going to kill his son? Or what about verse 8 where Abraham declares that “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son”? Is he lying there, too? Rather, Abraham has faith that God will provide a way out. Verse 8 ends with the loaded phrase: “So they went both of them together”. In other words, Isaac knew what the deal was, yet he too went up the mountain in faith, no doubt in fear and trembling.

In this reading, Abraham taking the knife to slaughter his son is actually a moment of doubt, a wavering of his legendary faith. Perhaps Abraham was supposed to see the ram immediately upon reaching the mountain (one midrash speculates that Satan caused the ram to become tangled in the thicket). Either way, when the angel stays his hand, it is Abraham’s faith and not any specific action that is commended (indeed, God forbids Abraham from even touching his son, see v. 12). Abraham names the place YHWH-Yireh, for “on the mount of the LORD it shall be provided”, but that can also be translated “on the mount of the Lord there is sight” (see Robert Alter’s translation and the ESV footnote). In other words, things became clear (he saw the ram) only once he came into God’s presence on the mountain. The nature of Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice was spiritual, not literal. YHWH-Yireh – “The LORD is sight” – only in Him can we truly see.

I think this a beautiful reading of the text. It demonstrates how both Abraham and God acted ethically while also illuminating the purpose of this strange trial (the final of Abraham’s ten tests). Faith in God’s promises led to the creation of the great nation of Israel, a nation that would bless the whole world (see vv. 16-18). This is correct, I believe, but, as with so much Jewish commentary, incomplete. What exactly did Abraham have faith in? Was it a ram appearing out of nowhere or was it something more mysterious and more profound?

Faith in Resurrection: The Epistle to the Hebrews (c. AD 63-64)

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Hebrews 11:17-19

Abraham believed in resurrection from the dead. He must have in order to reconcile his belief in God’s promise of descendants greater than the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:5) with the command to sacrifice his son. God had done the impossible once already by filling a barren womb with a child. Abraham must have believed that God could do the impossible again. Thus, he was not journeying up the mountain to participate in child murder, but in a miracle, just as he already had participated in a miracle through Isaac’s birth. As it turns out, the miracle was a bit smaller, if no less wondrous. An angelic visitation and a providential ram gave Abraham his son back from the dead, as the author to the Hebrews notes, “figuratively speaking”. That figurative speaking is even more expansive if we turn to the person of Isaac himself. The child born to a woman who cannot have kids carries wood upon his back up a mountain to be sacrificed by his father only to be miraculously restored to life. To the early Church, the purpose of Genesis 22 was the same as the purpose of the entire Hebrew Bible: to point to Christ. Abraham’s statement that “God himself with provide the lamb” proves true on multiple levels: for Isaac, for the people of Israel (in the sacrificial system), and, ultimately, for the entire world through the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is the true blessing that is promised by the angel to Abraham’s seed. St. Paul makes this quite clear in Galatians 3:16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” In some mystical way, Abraham believed in Christ’s resurrection because he had faith that God would redeem the world from the Fall. That, not some blind Kierkegaardian leap, is why Abraham should be held up as a paragon of faith. He had already been justified by faith in believing the promise of God (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4), but now his faith was brought to completion in his final trial (see Jam. 2:21-22).

In a way, we have come full circle. We started with the theory that this was all playacting or, more seriously, that the son was truly sacrificed on the holy mountain. Perhaps the 21st-century Biblical skeptics have stumbled upon deeper truths than they know. Abraham and Isaac were playacting the drama of redemption and demonstrated by their faith the possibility and the power of resurrection. And the Son was killed on the holy mountain, except it was God the Father who sacrificed His only Son and not Abraham. Just as the ram was substituted for Isaac, so was the Lamb of God substituted for sinful humanity, taking on the sin of the whole world. The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, represents not a suspension of ethical considerations, but the ultimate fulfilment of God’s perfect love. Isaac, the child named “laughter”, the gift of perfect grace, must be relinquished to God. But the story does not end there. For by sacrificing everything, we receive it all back and so much more. God lavishes us with grace and resurrection power. Notice the promise to Abraham: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (vv. 17-18) God will multiply our blessings; He will defeat our enemies (including the greatest enemy, death itself [1 Cor. 15:26]); and through us, and our faith, He will bless all people. God’s character, His essential goodness and love, remains not only intact, but is strengthened by the story in Genesis 22. Although the many questions of the text may never be fully answered, we can rest assured that our God is not just holy, but also a God of mercy and grace, a God whose love endures forever.

Endnote: I would like to offer another hat tip to Dr. Jeremy Jackson and the Hillsdale College online Genesis course, especially for introducing me to Rashi’s commentary on this passage. The notes in the ESV Study Bible, the Ancient Faith Study Bible, the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, and Robert Alter’s translation and commentary also proved invaluable. Jewish commentaries can be found at sefaria.org and chabad.org.

A Good Tree and a Bad Choice: A Meditation on Genesis 2 & 3

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

–Proverbs 9:10 (NIV)

These opening chapters of Genesis are so rich and so profound that you could spend a lifetime exploring all the treasures to be discovered here. In just these two chapters, we see the nature of humanity, the relationship between God and humankind, the origin of marriage, the relationship between humans and creation, God’s plan for perfected humanity, the origin of sin and evil, the nature of the demonic, a psycho-spiritual portrait of fallen man, and more. Needless to say, I cannot cover all of that in a single blog post. So I will limit myself today to two related questions: Why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden if He was just going to forbid Adam and Eve to eat of it? And why did eating of the tree lead to the fall of humanity into sin and death?

Let’s set the context. In Genesis 1:26-28, we read that God made humanity in His own “image” and “likeness” to “have dominion” over the whole creation. Therefore, human beings served a priestly role as mediators between God and His created order. Adam is God’s representative on earth, embodying God’s qualities and doing God’s work. To do this, God creates a garden for the man, continuing the process of setting things in order that began in chapter one. By the way, chapter 2 should be seen as a sort of sequel to chapter 1 and not as an entirely separate creation account. When it says in 2:5 that “no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up”, it means that the plant life had not been correctly ordered yet, just as the earth itself had been formless and void, not that there were no plants whatsoever. Thus, God took the wildness of creation and tamed it for Adam. It then became Adam’s job to “work it and keep it” (v. 15), which has the sense of protecting and serving. Adam is to act as God’s emissary, maintaining the blessed order of the garden. Notice how God allows Adam to name all of the animals and abides by whatever Adam names them (v. 19). In my previous blog post, I pointed out that only once something had a name could it be said to truly “exist” (e.g. God called the light “Day” and the darkness “Night”). Thus, by naming the animals, Adam participates in God’s creative activity, bearing His image and likeness.

But something important was missing from the garden. No animal could be a “helper” for the man because none were his equal. So God made woman out of the side of the man (the Hebrew word translated “rib” in verse 21, tsela, carries the connotation of both flesh and bone, see v. 23). The woman serves as his ezer kenegdo or “suitable helper”, which sounds subservient but carries the idea of a “sustainer” or “load bearer” (God is often the subject of the word ezer [“helper”] in the Old Testament). Dr. Jeremy Jackson [see endnote] points out that Adam only receives his title as man (Heb. ish) once the woman (Heb. ishshah) is created. We are only fully human when we are in relationship with one another. The idea of an emancipated individual is simply not Biblical (it’s much more of a pagan Greco-Roman concept). Part of an ordered creation is ordered relationships, and that means living in community with both God and other people. Together, man and woman are to protect and rule the creation, while they themselves are under God’s rule and protection. The chaos of the cosmos is now in perfect order.

There’s one thing I passed over, however, one wrinkle in the story. God has a command for the human creatures, a single rule that they must follow. In the center of the garden grow two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (v.9). The first tree makes sense: it represents God sustaining life throughout the garden and there is no prohibition on eating from it. But what of this other tree? God says “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (v. 17). Why would God put such a death-giving tree in His perfect garden? It seems almost cruel. God seems to be practically taunting humanity with it. It’s like putting a plate of cookies in front of a group of toddlers and saying “don’t eat these!” and leaving the room. What did He think was going to happen? Also, isn’t the pursuit of knowledge a good thing? Perhaps God is scared of His own creation and wants to keep humanity subservient by keeping them ignorant. If God is truly this capricious, jealous, and duplicitous, then He is hardly worthy of our worship and devotion.

A quick aside before we move on: I should spell out my view of the historicity of these two chapters. I believe that Adam and Eve represent real people, although there may have been more than two humans alive when the primordial sin took place. Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man” (Rom. 5:12), thus “Adam” (a word that just means “human”) represents a real person whose name, if he even had one, is unknown. I believe that Eden was a real place (see this video for a compelling case for Eden’s actual, geographic location), although it may be representative of the “type” of place that existed before the fall. The writing in Genesis 1-11 is clearly poetic and symbolic. The point of these chapters is not to record history, but to convey spiritual truths about God, humankind, creation, and the relationships between them. The overriding theme of Genesis 1-11 is order emerging from chaos and then chaos overcoming order. God creates Eden, then man falls and becomes so corrupt that God sends a flood (the ultimate chaos) to destroy everything. Humanity rebuilds, only to repeat the same mistake at the Tower of Babel, leading to God scattering people to their various nations. The Flood was an actual flood and the Tower was an actual tower, but the stories are told in a mythological style in order to convey deeper truths that would be missed in a bloodless, historical retelling. Besides, history writing as we think of it didn’t emerge until much later, so we are often applying criteria to these stories that they simply were not trying to meet. Sensitive and faithful reading of the Scriptures will take into account both the cultural background and authors of the work, while also keeping these passages in the context of the whole of Scripture. You may disagree with some of this, but that’s my hermeneutic and I figured the best practice is to be open about such things.

So, back to the tree of knowledge. The first point to make is that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not an “evil” tree to be contrasted with the “good” tree of life. Genesis 1:31 says: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Nothing God creates is inherently evil, so the tree itself was not a source of evil. Furthermore, the pursuit of knowledge of good and evil is commended by God. For example, King Solomon asks God to “give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:9). To which God responds: “Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (3:12). And God gives Solomon riches and honor on top of that! There is an entire book of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs, entirely concerned with how to gain wisdom and discernment, or, in other words, how to gain the knowledge of good and evil. So desiring the fruit of the tree was not, in itself, sinful. It is ridiculous to assert, as some try to, that God was afraid or jealous of His own creation. Why would an omnipotent creator who just formed man from the dust (representing chaos and death) suddenly become fearful? If He really didn’t want the man to eat of the tree, He could have not put it in the garden to begin with and solved all his problems. And that gets to the answer of our first question. The usual answer for why God put the tree of knowledge in the garden is that He had to in order to respect man’s free will. If Adam and Eve could only choose the good, then their free will was functionally meaningless. In order to be free creatures, the chance to disobey God must exist. I think this answer is correct, but incomplete. I believe that God put the tree in the garden because He wanted them to eat from it…eventually. There is no part of God’s command that says they will never be able to eat the fruit. Perhaps as they walked with God and obeyed Him, they would have gained access to the knowledge of good and evil.

The eating of the tree’s fruit is clearly symbolic of man’s attempt to find a shortcut to knowledge. Knowledge acquired this way may be powerful, but it is (here’s that word again) disordered. Only knowledge under God’s gracious rule is life-giving. Knowledge outside of God’s order brings death. So let’s look at chapter 3. The Hebrew word for serpent (Heb. nacash) can also be translated as “deceiver” or “diviner” or “shining one”. This is clearly meant to represent a demonic being, perhaps a fallen seraph, and the book of Revelation associates him with Satan (Rev. 12:9). Whatever this creature is, he pulls a famous gambit of liars: “I’m just asking questions”. He asks Eve if God said not to eat of any tree in the garden, which, of course, God did not. Eve corrects the serpent, but then adds a prohibition of her own: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (v.3, emphasis added). By adding to God’s commands, she makes God appear more severe and less merciful than He is. The serpent, seeing the rupture in the divine-human relationship represented by Eve’s addition to God’s command, accuses God of lying and says that the only reason God forbids eating the fruit is to keep humanity down. The actual words he uses are interesting: “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v.5). But remember: humanity is already made in the likeness of God. Of the two of them, Eve is much more like God than the serpent. The motive of the serpent becomes clear: jealousy. He wants to be God, and is envious of humanity’s closeness to the divine, so the serpent projects his own jealousy and fear onto God. The serpent cannot destroy God, but he can do the next best thing by marring the image of God. To do that, he just needed the human to try to usurp God’s role in the garden.

This raises our second question, that is, why does eating the fruit lead to death? Again, the fruit of knowledge is good and commended by God. The straightforward answer here is that eating the fruit leads to death simply because God banishes humanity from the garden for doing so, thus cutting them off from the tree of life. Which leads to the obvious question: why did God banish Adam and Eve? To answer this question, let us look at the three questions God asks Adam: “Where are you?”, “Who told you that you were naked?”, and “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (see vv.9-11). That first, poignant question is obviously not about physical location. It is a question about relationship, in essence asking “why have you distanced yourself from me?” Already, God is calling for repentance, for the man to come out of hiding and back into relationship with Him. Adam replies that he was afraid and naked, so he hid. This leads to the second question, which again is not informational in nature. God is asking from whence Adam got his information (and his orders). By listening to the serpent, Adam and Eve gained knowledge, but at the cost of shame and fear. Knowledge is power, but power comes at a price. Third and finally, God asks a direct question about whether they have disobeyed. Again, God is giving Adam an opportunity to own up to his fault. Instead, notice Adam’s response: “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (v.12). In one sentence, Adam passes the blame not only to the woman, but to God Himself (the woman you gave me). In one fell swoop, Adam ruptures his relationship with both God and the woman. Eve then blames the serpent’s deception for her decision, carefully overlooking the fact that she had the choice about who she would listen to. It is only at this point that God curses the serpent, the woman, and the man and casts humanity out of Eden. One wonders if they had confessed their sin whether God would have forgiven them. Instead, they doubled down on pride and fear and laid a curse upon all their descendants (Eve’s name meaning “mother of all living” [v.20] thus has a somber double significance).

But that still doesn’t quite answer the question about why God cast Adam and Eve out of the garden. Isn’t this evidence of God’s cruelty, or at least that He values justice at the expense of mercy? I think its rather the opposite. God gives his reason for casting humanity out in verse 22: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever”. One way to read this is that God is afraid that Adam and Eve will become rivals, but, again, that’s absurd given that God literally created (and could, theoretically, destroy) them. No, God is showing great mercy by casting them out of the garden (he even gives them animal skins to wear [v.21]). If they were to eat of the tree of life in their state of sin, they would live forever in that sin. Thus, they would turn God’s perfect garden into literal hell by making it a land of creatures whose knowledge was acquired outside of God’s order. By casting them out of the garden and dooming them to mortality, God set into motion His plan of restoration, of new creation, that would come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And in Revelation 21-22, we see that redeemed humanity will return to Eden (the New Jerusalem) and eat from the tree of life (see 22:2). God does not want us to live forever in sin and death, but rather in the new and perfect eternal life found in Jesus. The cherubim with the flaming sword at the gates of the garden is there to protect us from ourselves. We, who were called to serve and protect the garden, instead used it for our own selfish gain and now the garden must be protected from us. As Paul says in Romans, the creation “waits in eager longing” for humanity to return to the garden and take up our priestly role within it (Rom. 8:19-22). God casts out the sinful Adam so that the sinless Adam (that is, Christ) can usher us right back in.

In conclusion, sin and death entered the world because of the pride and fear of humanity in desiring to be “like God” (even though we already are) instead of walking with Him in obedience. God puts the tree of knowledge before us, but He asks us to trust Him, knowing that we will only truly enjoy the fruit of knowledge if we eat it in obedience. The same fruit which brought life and prosperity to Solomon brought death and destruction to Adam because Solomon listened to God and humbled himself, while Adam listened to the lies of the serpent and tried to outsmart the Lord. Thanks be to God that on another tree, a tree of death, Jesus offered Himself as a perfect “fruit” that, paradoxically, brought life to the entire world. As Jesus said: “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). We have a choice of which fruit to eat today: the fruit of lies, of fear, of pride, and of death. Or we can feed on Jesus, the fruit of truth, of love, of humility, and of life. Jesus has reopened the garden to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. May we enter it through Him today.

Endnote: I am indebted for many of the ideas in this post to the excellent work of Hillsdale College’s Dr. Justin Jackson and his free online course on Genesis. The first class, on Adam & Eve, is available on YouTube here and the entire class is available on Hillsdale’s website here. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the YouTube series by Inspiring Philosophy on Genesis 1-11 (full playlist here), the translation and commentary of Genesis by Robert Alter, and the notes, edited by John H. Walton, in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

The God of Order: A Meditation on Genesis Chapter 1

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

–Romans 1:20 (ESV)

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

–1 Corinthians 14:33 (NIV)

Genesis 1 is not about the creation of the world. Or at least, it’s not about creation in the way you and I think about such things. On its surface, this is a nonsensical statement — the first sentence clearly tells us that this is about the creation of everything, heaven and earth! But many scholars would argue that this is a fundamental misreading of the text that has led some Christians to young earth creationism and other people to reject the Bible as ludicrous fiction in light of modern science. It also misses the most important message of this chapter, a message that is more urgent today than ever.

When an ancient person, particularly one from the Ancient Near East, looked for a leader they had one goal in mind above all others: order. Faced with the unpredictable natural world and the unruly wills and passions of mankind, someone who could bring order and stability was someone worth following. Thus, the only god who could be worthy of worship was one who created the conditions that allowed for human flourishing. Even the most warlike of the pagan gods only went to war for two reasons: (1) to defend civilization against those who would disrupt it or (2) to expand civilization and conquer those who stood against society’s proper functioning. Evil gods or demons (e.g. Tiamat) were agents of chaos who disrupted the natural order, snakes in the perfect garden. To live a good life was to align yourself with the divinely-ordained structure of the world. This wasn’t conformity for its own sake, but a simple understanding that the whole community could only flourish if each member knew his or her role and fulfilled it. Only then could peace and abundance even be possible.

The Hebrews believed this absolutely, as even a cursory reading of the Old Testament demonstrates. The centerpiece of the Jewish life was the Law (Torah). This is the righteous order that God revealed to Moses and is recorded in the first five books of the Bible. To live a good life meant to align oneself with the Law. No wonder so many Psalms rejoice in the revelation of God’s law. For example:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

Psalm 19:7-9

In Deuteronomy 28, we see that a blessed life consists in following the law, while a cursed life results from disobeying it. The curses aren’t some kind of capricious punishment from a vengeful God. Rather, blessing is a natural outpouring of common grace from living in accordance with reality and the Truth, while curses are a similarly natural consequence for living by lies and outside of the proper rule of God. All things tend toward chaos and death unless we make the conscious decision to live and work for justice, peace, and life. Proper individual behavior and a well-ordered society cannot be divorced from one another. Indeed, one leads naturally to the other. Disordered individuals created a disordered society, and a disordered society breeds disordered individuals. Perhaps this is the meaning of the verses promising divine punishment for sin on people’s descendants and divine blessing on their descendants for obedience (see, e.g., Exodus 34:7). As any agricultural society knows, you reap what you sow, generation after generation.

Very well, you may be saying, but what on earth does this have to do with Genesis 1? Primarily, it helps make sense of the otherwise inexplicable verse 2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” God has not spoken anything into existence yet (he doesn’t create the sea until day 2 [v.7] and the land until day 3 [v.9]). So where did this formless earth come from and what waters could the Spirit be hovering over? Also, how does one measure a “day” in a universe with no terrestrial earth and no sun? The problem here is that we are looking at these verses through a modern, scientific lens. We are trying to make these verses fit with what science tells us about the origin of the universe. This leads to the foolishness of trying to suggest that the entire universe is only 6,000 years old because “day” means a literal 24-hour day. Thus, Genesis seems absurd on a purely factual level. But what if the Bible isn’t trying to be a science textbook? What if it has other, and perhaps more important, messages to convey? Let’s dig a little deeper.

When we think of something “existing”, we think of either physical or experiential properties. However, even the word “exist” means literally to “come out of” or “stand forth” (from ex – “forth”, and sistere – “cause to stand”). So existence comes from something. Of course, the cause is ultimately God, but that would be an imponderable to the ancient Hebrews. To ancient people, something existed once it had a purpose or a role (thanks to John Walton for this insight). This is why naming was so important. Once a thing had a name, it had a purpose, and only once it had a purpose could it be said to properly “exist”. Thus, the most important function of God’s creative act was not material creation, but the naming and ordering of that creation. This is evident in the Hebrew word bara’ in verse 1, which is usually translated “create”, but has the sense in the original of “selection” or giving something a place and a purpose. So God calls things out of the primordial darkness and puts them in their proper place. Even the words for “without form” (tohu) and “void” (bohu) refer more to things that are unproductive or without function than things that simply are not materially existent. Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned in other meditations, water, especially the ocean, represents chaos and evil to the ancient Hebrews. Thus, a pitch-black, abyssal sea would represent everything that was not of God. It’s also, incidentally, not a bad image for what the universe was like for its first 9 billion years or so. God took the primordial elements produced by the Big Bang and formed them into useful and productive objects like stars and planets. Of course, the Hebrews knew nothing about this and it did not concern them anyway. Chronology just did not matter to ancient people like it does to us, especially when dealing with something like a creation story. Genesis is much more interested in what the creation tells us about the character of God.

Before I move on, I would like to solidify this point about creation as ordering by noting something many scholars over the years have highlighted. It’s often referred to as a symmetry of “form” and “fill” in the days of creation. This is probably best represented in chart form:

Form (Raw Material)Fill (Proper Order)
Before: Formless Darkness (Chaos)
Day 1: Light (Day and Night)Day 4: The Sun and the Moon
Day 2: Sky and Sea (upper and lower waters)Day 5: Birds and Sea Creatures
Day 3: Land and VegetationDay 6: Land Animals and Humans
Day 7: Rest (Order)

As we can see, God spent days 1 through 3 creating environments in which to work, the raw material of creation. Then in days 4 through 6, he filled those environments with the creatures fitted to their proper spheres. Thus, God created light on day 1 and then divided those lights into greater and lesser on day 4. He created sea and sky on day 2, then filled them with sea creatures and birds. Lastly, He created land and vegetation on day 3, then filled the land with animals and humans, giving them the vegetation as food on day 6 (v. 29). Providing bookends to this are the dark and formless void on one end and God’s rest on the other. That rest (see Gen. 2:2) indicates that God Himself is now abiding in the order He created as ruler and guide. Scholars have noted that temple dedications took seven days and the number seven was a symbol of completion. Thus, God abides in the “temple” that he created and rests from His labors. As God says in Isaiah 66:1: “heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?”

All of that is to say that reading Genesis 1 primarily to get information about the chronology or timing of the creation of the universe is to miss the point entirely. We end up having to field “gotcha” questions from skeptics about why the sun was created after vegetation on the earth or how the moon can be the “lesser light” when it’s just a hunk of rock. Genesis is not a scientific text because it is not trying to be. That isn’t to say that Genesis 1 doesn’t correspond to reality (the basic chronology does line up with modern evolutionary theory, including on when the moon was probably created). It’s simply to say that Genesis, like the Bible as a whole, wasn’t written about us; it was written about God. Always remember: God is the protagonist of the Bible, not you. Genesis chapter 1 tells us what God is like and demonstrates why He is worthy of worship.

So what does Genesis 1 tell us about God? It tells us that He has power to order all of creation. This is best expressed by God Himself in Job 38. I was going to quote some verses, but just read the whole thing. Notice how God expresses His power by His ability to set limits, to put the stars in their courses and tell the sea “no further”. But the creation is more than just powerful — it is beautiful. The Lord is a God of abundant life and endless creativity. The ceaseless wonder of the created world leaves anyone willing to observe it in awe. But there’s even more. Genesis 1 tells that God created all of this for us, that is, for human beings. God wants us to fill the earth and subdue it and gives us everything that grows upon it as a gift (see vv. 28-29). Thus, we see that our God is a God who loves and cares for us. He provides everything we need and sets it in its proper place. Of course, Genesis 3 complicates things a bit, but human action cannot ultimately undo the cosmic order set by almighty God. Thus, Genesis 1 tells us that a beautiful and powerful God ordered the earth for our benefit because He loves us.

Wonderful, you may be thinking, but what does that mean for me? I would refer you back to the second verse in the epigraph (1 Cor. 14:33). Our God is a God of order and peace. We live in a very disordered period in history, with everyone at each other’s throats at all times. Much of this comes from the loss of community and the sense of obligation to others and society as a whole. Self-expression, individuality, my needs, my desires, my rights trump all other considerations. If you are immediately thinking about how this applies to those you disagree with politically, then I assure you that the previous sentence applies to you. A society in right order means a society organized around the common good and a singular vision. That can only truly happen if the society is aligned with the Truth. That Truth was revealed to the Israelites in the Law, but “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Heb. 10:1). The Truth came ultimately in the form of a person, Jesus, who fulfilled the Law and Prophets and set the universe back into order. That is why John begins his gospel this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

Notice how even though John asserts ex nihilo creation (in case you were concerned that I was denying that — see also Col. 1:16 and Heb 11:3), he is mainly concerned with how Jesus separated light from darkness and, in so doing, conquered the darkness. Only by being in the light as Jesus is in the light (1 John 1:7) will we be able to order our society properly and live in peace and abundance. Just as God only rested once He had finished His work, so will we only find peace and rest once we put ourselves under Christ’s rule. This may mean humbling ourselves to work we feel is “beneath us” or to associate ourselves with those we find repugnant or to forgive those same repugnant people. It is God who determines our role in His world, not us. May we accept His yoke upon our backs, trusting in His love and care that the creation demonstrates. For only then can we live life fully and experience true shalom, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

Psalm 23:6 — Abiding in the Lord

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

–Revelation 21:3 (ESV)

The Hebrew for this passage leaves a lot of room for interpretation, so I figured that, before I get into my mediation, that I would put six of the most popular English translations side-by-side to illuminate the various ways this verse is translated (I omitted the KJV because, c’mon, you already know that one):

  • Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (ESV)
  • Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (NRSV)
  • Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (NIV)
  • Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD as long as I live. (CSB)
  • Certainly goodness and faithfulness will follow me all the days of my life, And my dwelling will be in the house of the LORD forever. (NASB)
  • Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. (NLT)

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” In my meditation on verse four, I conjured the image of evil following us around. However, if we remain on the path of righteousness, we shall only be accompanied by goodness, mercy, and unfailing love (see the CSB translation). The Hebrew word for “follow” radaph has the sense of being pursued, chased, or even persecuted. The hound of heaven wants to bless us so badly that He will chase us down if He has to! We have the sure and certain promise that our Shepherd will bless us if we remain in his will. As Jesus reminds us: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11). Notice that all the translations agree that this goodness, mercy, and love is a daily blessing. This links up nicely with Christ’s admonition to take up our cross “daily” to follow him (Luke 9:23). If we do our part to bear our cross daily, and die to self each morning, God promises to follow after us and shower us with all the grace and mercy and love that we could ever need. Our cup overflows.

“And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” We usually read this phrase as a promise our heavenly reward and just move on. While that’s an acceptable interpretation, I think that there is a lot more going on here. An alternate version of the ESV translation using the footnotes reads: “and I shall return to dwell in the house of the LORD for length of days.” Keep in mind that to the original Jewish readers of this passage, the house of the Lord meant the Temple. The only people who lived in the temple would be the Levites, and David was not a Levite. Thus, the reading of “returning” again and again to the house of the Lord (e.g. at the feast of Passover) makes more sense. To the Jews, God literally and physically dwelled in the Holy of Holies within the Temple. No wonder that they desired to live in the Temple even though that was only reserved for the priests. To return to a quote from my meditation on verse one: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10). This desire is made most explicit in Psalm 27: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (v. 4). All of this leads to a sort of melancholy wistfulness. We can only spend a little time in the presence of the Lord, and even then, the Holy of Holies is denied to everyone but the High Priest, and he only gets to experience the Lord’s presence one day in the year. Nevertheless, for the “length of days”, a good Jew desired to dwell in the Lord’s temple, even if they could never truly dwell with Him.

The young woman was frantic. She looked at her husband with exasperation: “I thought he was with you.” Her face red, her heart about to beat out of her chest, the woman burst into the temple not with joyful anticipation, but with abject terror. And there he was, calmly conversing with the teachers of the Law. With that motherly combination of relief and rage, with tears stinging her eyes, Mary grabbed her child by the wrist and all but spit out: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” To which Jesus replied: “Why were you searching for me?…Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:41-49, quotes from the NIV). Jesus shared the psalmist’s desire to dwell in God’s house, but this time it was personal. God was just “Dad” to Him. Going to the temple wasn’t a visit to a deity; it was a return home. But Jesus went much further than that: He spoke of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. Only after His death and resurrection did the disciples understand. Indeed, at the moment that Jesus died on the cross, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). The Holy of Holies was now open to all people. For God’s dwelling was not in the temple, but in a man. The author of Hebrews puts it beautifully:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22

Through Christ’s death, the dividing wall between us and God has been broken down. Christ as both priest and victim has offered the perfect sacrifice that reunites us with the Father, allowing us to dwell in his presence forever.

And that is why I don’t think this phrase is about heaven after we die. The psalmist desires to dwell in the Lord’s house “my whole life long” (NRSV) or “as long as I live” (CSB). Old Testament Jews did not really have a concept of the afterlife beyond the vaguely-defined concept of sheol or “the grave”. So to dwell somewhere forever meant to spend your whole natural life there. The salvation offered by Jesus is not just to get us into heaven, but to redeem our lives now. If we want to dwell in the house of the Lord today, well…”do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). We could not live in God’s house forever, so God came to live with us and in us. Even in heaven, in the New Jerusalem, there is no temple “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). We are invited to live not just in the Lord’s house, but in Him forever. Truly, the dwelling place of God will be with men. And death will be no more and He will wipe the tear from every eye. Alleluia!

In this psalm, God is reminding us of our dependent state, that we are sheep in need of a shepherd. He gives us all the provision we could ever need if we but trust Him. His green grass and living water truly satisfy in a way that world never can. He restores our souls to their former glory, making us new as we walk along the paths of righteousness that He has already laid out. Even though we live our lives in the shadow of our own mortality and haunted by evil both without and within, the Lord will never abandon us and will gently guide us through even the most treacherous times and protect us from the evil one. He has given us His own body and blood as a feast of overflowing blessing that gives us victory over our foes and promises abundant life. God will chase after us to shower us with His blessing. And He will dwell with us, and we with Him, forever. This psalm is much more than a comfort to the grieving at funerals. It is one of the most glorious proclamations in Scripture of God’s provision and guidance for our lives today. So let us dwell with Him today and every day.

Psalm 23:5 — Sharing the Wedding Feast

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Now the metaphor abruptly shifts, from a shepherd to the host of a great banquet. This shouldn’t be too jarring for us as Jesus used both images of Himself. He is the host of a great wedding banquet where the invited guests proved unworthy, so he flings open the doors to invite anyone and everyone to feast (Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners not to take the best seat at the banquet, but the lowliest, so that the humble might be exalted (14:7-14). Jesus’ final night with his disciples was spent at the Passover banquet, where he offered nothing less than Himself as the meal. And finally, after the triumphal defeat of wicked Babylon in Revelation, we have this: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7-9). The feast to which Christ invites us is our own wedding feast — He is the bridegroom, and we, somehow, are His bride. Thus, the feast is about so much more than God’s provision in tough times. It is a promise of eternal life as children of the king and as the Lamb’s pure bride.

That is why this feast is given “in the presence of my enemies”. It’s a victory feast. When Christ offers Himself in the bread and the wine, He reminds us that it is through his sacrifice that death is defeated and we are saved. He sustains us and restores our soul with green grass and pure water. But this water is not just a temporary fix for our daily problems. He gives us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Only by tapping into this “living water” can we hope to survive the valley of the shadow of death. What this verse tells us is that we can expect more than mere survival by the skin of our teeth — we can expect total victory over all the enemies of our souls. Again, this is not a promise of some heavenly future after we die. All enemies are defeated in heaven. No, we dine in the very presence of our enemies, in this life, today.

I glossed over the Last Supper in that first paragraph because it kind of gives away the game. The table that our Shepherd/Host sets before us is, of course, the Eucharist. Jesus makes this quite clear in John chapter 6: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (vv.51, 53). The feast that He offers us, the life that He offers us, is His own self. That is why Paul said that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). When we take Holy Communion, we literally take Christ into our bodies. Every Holy Eucharist is a victory feast, a wedding supper of the Lamb. What an honor and an awesome privilege to be invited to such a feast, not only as a guest, but as a Bride.

“You anoint my head with oil.” In the Old Testament, it was priests and kings who were anointed with oil. But this verse hints at how such honors would be extended to all who are in the Lord. As Peter reminds us, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, emphasis added). As the Body of Christ, we participate in Jesus’ triple office of prophet, priest, and king. The anointing of our head is more than cleaning us up or showing us honor. We are being invited to participate with Christ in his royal and eternal priesthood. Another aspect of this anointing with oil is preparation. Tying into the message of repentance from yesterday, this anointing is a cleansing balm that washes away impurities while rejuvenating our bodies and souls. The bride must be made ready for her bridegroom, spotless and shining with beauty. Only then will we be found worthy to become one with Christ and join him as a royal priest bathed in marvelous light.

“My cup overflows”. God is, as the kids say, extra. He always gives of Himself lavishly. Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana perfectly encapsulates how he is a God who loves to give extravagant gifts (John 2:1-12). Their cups were literally overflowing with new wine at that feast! Indeed, Jesus reminds us that we will need new wineskins for the new wine that he plans to pour into our cups (Matt. 9:14-17 and parallels). Once again, it is clear that the wine that fills our cup past the brim represents the life that Jesus gives us. I think sixth-century monk Cassiodorus (c.490-583) put it quite well:

The cup is…the Lord’s blood, which inebriates in such a way that it heals the mind, restraining it from wrongs, not inducing it to sins. This intoxication renders us sober; its fullness empties us of evils. He who is not filled from this cup ends up hungry and in perpetual need.

Explanation of the Psalms 23.5

Only by becoming inebriated upon the new wine of Christ’s blood can we satisfy the deepest hunger of our souls. And thanks be to God that He provides more of that than we could ever need. The strength to walk the right path in the valley of death comes from drinking the Lord’s cup and eating at the Lord’s table. Obviously, this is about more than just participating in the Eucharist every Sunday. This is about an ongoing, daily relationship with Jesus where His life is lived through us and, therefore, He provides for our every need.

So what do we do with all this? I think at least one key lies in a New Testament parallel to this final phrase of verse 5: “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38). If we want to receive the blessings of God, to enjoy the feast and to be fed by the Lord, we cannot hoard these treasures for ourselves. Our lives must be marked by generosity, and the more we give Christ away, the more of Him that we will receive. The cup overflows so that we will have no choice but to share our bounty with others. Let us share Christ with all whom we meet today.

Psalm 23:4 — Walking in Light in the Midst of Darkness

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willin’ to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet somethin’ I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say: ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.’

–Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from the movie No Country for Old Men

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

–1 Corinthians 15:26

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Here we have the turning point of this psalm, the verse that transforms this otherwise nice but unmemorable work into one of the most beloved and oft-quoted pieces from all of Holy Scripture. While we earnestly desire green pastures, still waters, and the restoration of our souls, much of the time all we can see is darkness. Many translations say that we walk through “the darkest valley” (NIV, NRSV, NLT, CSB), or, in one version I like, “valleys as dark as death” (CEV). Fear of the dark is among the most primal phobias of our species. A predator in the noonday sun may be just as dangerous, but we can at least take its measure. But who can know what unspeakable dangers lurk in the dark? I am reminded of the “dark island” in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a land shrouded in fog-like darkness where dreams come true. Except that the dreams are all nightmares, and anyone who spends too long there (like poor Lord Rhoup) are driven insane with terror. Perhaps this valley is just the “dark night of the soul”, a temporary state where God seems absent and all hope feels lost. For those who struggle with anxiety or depression, this state is far from temporary. For those who live with chronic pain or abuse or grinding poverty or persecution or any of the other “whips and scorns of time” this dark valley may seem interminable. The devil may be defeated, but that is cold comfort on an empty stomach or with a broken heart. Our efforts to follow the shepherd in even the best of times seem haunted: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom 7:21, NIV). We are told over and over in Scripture “do not be afraid”, but how am I supposed to do that when evil lurks in the dark, dogging my every step? It steals any joy that might be had from the green pastures and still waters. Like the thorns from the parable of the sower, the darkness has a way of choking the life out of even the most vibrant Christian.

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? This dark valley is, indeed, under the shadow of death. Whatever we do in this life is always shadowed by the inevitable way it will end. We cannot escape our mortality. We have no choice but to push our chips forward, put our soul at hazard, and go out to meet the incomprehensible. That is why this verse is so beloved — it grapples with the central question of how to live our lives in the face of inevitable death. That is also why so many “feel-good” philosophies, ideologies, and spiritualities fall short. They cannot answer the question that death raises, or at least, they can only put it off until it is unavoidable. Christianity, by contrast, has a rich tradition of memento mori in which we are encouraged to ponder our death to tame our vanity and to spur a sense of urgency to live holy lives. We don’t have much time on this planet and it behooves us to remember that we live in the shadow of death. Rather than being a source of sorrow, memento mori is intended to be an invitation to wonder, to prayer, and, ultimately, to action.

“For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” This is the solution to the problem of death, and why we need not fear evil. To return to Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the ship only escapes the dark island when Lucy prays to Aslan and he appears as an albatross, bringing light and guiding the ship out of the darkness. And Aslan’s message, whispered to Lucy, is a message for all of us: “courage, dear heart.” We need not fear death or despair or darkness for we have a shepherd who has promised to guide us through it. It seems paradoxical to us modern people that implements of discipline, the rod and the staff, would be a source of comfort. But we know that God is a good father who disciplines us as a father disciplines his child (read Hebrews 12:5-11). He uses his rod and his staff not to cause pain, but rather to gently guide us back onto the paths of righteousness. We can only truly be hurt by evil if we stray from the shepherd and the path that He has laid out for us. Remember that it was Him and His path that led us into this valley in the first place. Why would he do that? Because, as I’ve said before, He cares first and foremost about the salvation of our souls. In order to restore our souls to the glory for which they were created, sometimes he must take us through tough times. His rod and his staff not only guide us, but they are also formidable weapons against the enemy. When David (the author of Psalm 23) is trying to convince Saul to let him fight Goliath, he appeals to his experience as a shepherd:

David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.

1 Samuel 17:34-37

Notice that David’s confidence is not in his own abilities (which are quite impressive), but in the Lord’s deliverance. God will not allow us to come to ultimate harm and will work all things for our good if we allow Him control of our lives (Rom. 8:28). Our Shepherd’s staff has a two-fold purpose: to pull us out of the trouble we get ourselves into and to beat back the evil one. We have a good shepherd who has defeated every enemy that could possibly come against us, even death itself. He has triumphed over our sin and Fall “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). As John reminds us, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Therefore, we have nothing to fear from the darkness so long as our God stays with us, which he has promised to do for eternity.

So what are we to do? Perhaps we should continue reading that passage from 1 John: “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:7-9). We must walk together in fellowship along the paths of righteousness, and then we shall be in the light as Jesus is in the light. We do this by confessing and repenting of our sins. Only then can we experience the comforting embrace of our shepherd and the restoration of our souls.

Psalm 23:3 — Walking the Right Path

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

–Isaiah 30:21 (NIV)

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

–Revelation 21:5 (ESV)

He restores my soul.” This sentence really belongs with the previous verse. By shepherding us into pastures of green grass and slaking our thirst with still water, the Lord restores our soul. St. Augustine equates the “green pastures” with the Word of God, meaning that our soul is restored by feeding upon Him and His word. What really struck me in thinking about this verse was the implication of the word “restores” (or, in some translations, “refreshes”). To restore something is to return it to the way it was originally. We often get so caught up in our sinfulness, in the moral corruption of our heart and its desires, that we forget a crucial truth: God created us good. Our soul is fundamentally good and holy. The Fall has corrupted what God created, but our soul is not evil. In Western Christianity, we have such an emphasis on human sinfulness (in order to appreciate the atoning work of Christ) that we have, in some cases, blasphemed against God’s good creation. Entering God’s rest means becoming, or, more accurately, returning to that which we were created to be. Again, the green pastures and still waters are not a break from our lives — they are the life that God intends for us. The whole purpose of Christ’s incarnation was to restore our souls, to repair the rupture of the Fall and reconcile us back with the Father. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do — far from it. Just as someone who restores a car must often replace parts and buff the chassis and apply coats of paint and reupholster the seats, so must God do quite a bit of work on us to return us to our former glory. And we must be willing to cooperate with what he is doing in order to see that transformation in our lives. If we do that, if we allow God’s restoration project to be brought to completion, we will see that we have become something beautiful in His hands.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” As I said in my mediation on verse one, so many people in our society want to forge their own path. They get our their spiritual machete and hack through the wilderness, hoping to find the hidden treasures of meaning, purpose, and hope. But our shepherd has already cut out a path for us. Some translations have Him leading us down “right paths” (NIV, NLT, CSB, CEV). Indeed, there are many wrong paths, just as a math question has many wrong answers but only one right answer. Following a pre-planned path seems restrictive and narrow-minded to many people. But that is what Jesus calls us to: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). Staying on the path is not easy when there are so many tempting fruits growing just out of reach. But those fruits will prove to be poison in the long run. Only the right path, the path that our shepherd guides us down, leads us to the green pastures and still waters that truly restore the soul. Notice in the teaching from Jesus that the narrow gate verse immediately follows the “Golden Rule” (Matt. 7:12). Following the right path is as much about our relationship with other sheep as it is in following to the shepherd. So this is not actually limiting at all. Following the right path frees us from the constant work of hacking through this wilderness of sin in which we find ourselves and allows us to love God and love others as we ought to. And when we do that we will find that we shall not want for anything — all of our needs, emotional, physical, and spiritual, will be met.

I think that Isaiah verse above illuminates an important facet about being shepherded: the shepherd is not always in front of us. The Lord wants us to mature in him (see, e.g., Eph. 4:13-16), and so he will allow us to follow the path on our own. That doesn’t mean we are truly alone, however. He will always be behind us with a gentle reminder not to stray and with an occasional nudge as needed (more on that tomorrow). Some people wait around their whole lives for God to “give them a sign” when it is He who is waiting for them! Scripture gives us clear guidelines for what a righteous life looks like. How we actualize that in the world in which we find ourselves is up to us. God is there with us every step of the way, but He does expect us to do our part. He cannot walk the path for you. So many people just want someone to tell them how to live their lives, be it a pastor, a therapist, a self-help guru, or a psychic. But the older I get, the more I realize a truth both comforting and terrifying: nobody knows what they’re doing. Even if we were all trying to follow the same path of righteousness, it would look different for every one of us simply by virtue of our individual identities. That isn’t to say that pastors or therapists can’t help illuminate the path a little more clearly (n.b.: psychics are charlatans who just want your money). But many adults seem to want someone to tell them how to live and make their decisions for them. Well, Jesus has given us the model, he has left us the Holy Scripture as a guide, and He has given us the Holy Spirit to be a constant companion. If you are waiting for a sign, here it is. Jesus did not leave us a 12-step program or a self-help philosophy. No, He said “follow me”. The path is laid out in front of you. Walk on it, knowing that our shepherd will never leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5).

What does it mean that he leads us in paths of righteousness “for his name’s sake”? The Name of the Lord is synonymous with His character, with who He ultimately is. Thus, leading us along the right path and restoring our souls is a revelation of who God is. For God is love (1 John 4:8), and love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8). God is inviting us to test His character and see that it is true and trustworthy. We don’t walk down righteous paths because of what we can get out of it. Even the spiritual benefits are secondary to our ultimate goal: Jesus. Our Shepherd Himself is the goal of our quest. He guides us along the path so that we can be with Him just as He is with the Father (John 17:21). If we are all following the same path, we will be united with one another and united with the Lord. Thus the two parts of the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37-40) are brought together as our love for God feeds into our love for our neighbor and vice versa. All this will magnify the name of the Lord — “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). So let us commit ourselves today to walk in the path that Our Lord lays out before us, trusting that it will lead to the restoration of our souls. For I really do believe, despite the desperate state of the world today, that Jesus is busy making all things new.