Elijah: a shining light in a dark time

The prophet Elijah plays a pivotal role in Old Testament history despite the fact that he doesn’t have a book of the Old Testament that bears his name like many other important prophets.  Aside from being a prophet, Elijah is one of the few people who performed miracles in the Bible.

Although we see miracles throughout the Bible, God is the one who performs the vast majority of them.  Miracles performed by people only come in three eras – Moses & Joshua, Eljiah & Elisha, Jesus & the disciples.  With his miracles Elijah foreshadows the ones that Jesus would perform.  It is no coincidence that Jesus is actually called Elijah as some considered His coming to be a return of Elijah.  Theologically it is not the same as Elijah never claimed to be the Son of God and that alone is a drastic enough difference to stop any discussion in that regard.  However the two are similar in their miracles and it is certainly noteworthy that Elijah never experiences death.

Elijah ministered in the northern kingdom during some of its darkest years under King Ahab.  He would serve as one of the remnant that remained faithful to the Lord during this era.  This didn’t mean that his faith was unwavering however.  Even he had times when he doubted himself and what was going on.

In 1 Kings 17 Elijah tells King Ahab that it will not rain for the next few years unless he commands it.  For some time after this Elijah was fed by ravens and drank from a brook that he stayed near.  Because of the drought though, the brook dried up and God instructed him to go to Zarephath.

In Zarephath Elijah encountered a widow and asked her to bring him some bread.  She had a little flour and olive oil however.  Elijah told her to make bread and that flour and oil wouldn’t run out until the Lord sent rain upon the land once again.  Sometime later the widow’s son died.  Elijah cried out to the Lord and brought the son back to life.

There is probably no more important story in the life of Elijah than 1 Kings 18.  It is here that Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel.  A challenge is proposed where Elijah and the prophets of Baal each build an altar with a sacrifice upon it.  They will then call upon their god and the one who sends fire from heaven will be acknowledged as the true god.

As expected, Baal never responds to the prophets.  Elijah then proceeded to taunt them and their beliefs by implored them to shout louder because maybe their god was asleep or away.  The prophets worked themselves into a frenzy even slashing themselves with swords in a vain attempt to get the attention of their god.

After this, Elijah built his altar.  For good measure he soaked the wood and everything around it with water which would have been very scarce after three years of no rain.  When Elijah called upon the Lord fire came down from heaven and consumed not only the sacrifice but the wood, the stone altar, and even the water that had filled the trench surrounding the altar.  The people immediately turned on the prophets of Baal and Elijah ordered them to kill all 450 prophets there.  As the prophets were slaughtered rain returned to the land, a small cloud appearing in the distance.

Queen Jezebel, who is even more wicked than King Ahab, vows to kill Elijah for having done this to her prophets of Baal.  This sets Elijah scurrying in fear for his life.  He enters into a depression and asks the Lord to let him die because he is exhausted from running and because he is the only prophet of God left.

The Lord encourages Elijah by assuring him that there are still 7000 people remaining in Israel who have not bowed to Baal.  As a matter of encouragement, Elijah is given two things.  The first is that he’s told to anoint a new king.  This obviously was an indication that Ahab and Jezebel’s days were numbered and God would remove them from power.  On a personal level, Elijah is given a successor as well.  He goes and meets Elisha who immediately leaves all that he has to follow Elijah.  While Elijah struggled with thoughts that he was the only follower of God left, God gives him someone who will be with him until the end.

In 2 Kings 2, it is time for Elijah to leave.  We don’t know how old Elijah was at this time.  It is possible that Elijah was at the end of a normal lifespan and God chose to spare him from death.  It is also possible that age is just starting to take its toll and Elijah was slowing down.  It would seem that whatever the reason Elijah is being taken to heaven at this time, Elisha has completed his mentorship and is ready to take over for him.

It appears that Elijah knows that it is time for him to be called to heaven, and for that matter everyone else apparently knows as well.  As Elijah and Elisha enter several towns, prophets from each town inform Elisha that Elijah was leaving that day.  Elijah seems to want to leave quietly but Elisha will not leave his side.

Finally as the time draws near for Elijah to go, he asks Elisha if there is anything that can be done before he leaves.  Like Solomon once responded wisely to the Lord when offered a free gift, Elisha responds wisely.  He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.

Shortly after, chariots of fire come out of heaven and Elijah is carried away in a whirlwind.  All that is left is Elijah’s cloak which Elisha picks up.  As he returns it is apparent that Elijah’s spirit was resting upon Elisha.  The Old Testament records Elisha performing twice as many miracles as Elijah did which shows the double portion of Elijah’s spirit that he requested has come upon him.  2 Kings records many miracles of Elisha including some that were similar to Elijah’s.  Elisha carries on Elijah’s work with the help of his spirit and of course the hand of the Lord.

The Nation of Israel Splits

The nation of Israel has only been a nation for a very short length of time compared to how long the people of Israel have been around.  Over 4000 years ago, around 2000 BC, is the time that Abraham walked the earth and God made His covenant with him.  The Israelites, descendants of Jacob, were in Egypt for 430 years before the Exodus in 1446 BC.  After entering the Promised Land they had judges as rulers for around 300 years.  Then the people cry out for a king and they are given Saul.  While Saul reigns 40 years over Israel, he is rejected by God and David is given the throne.  He too reigns 40 years when his son Solomon takes over the throne.  After this, the kingdom splits.  Israel has only been a united nation for 120 years during the entire time of the Jewish people.

1 Kings 11 prophecies during Solomon’s reign that the nation would be torn in two but that the upheaval would not happen during Solomon’s reign for the sake of his father David.  1 Kings 11:29-39 records:

29 About that time Jeroboam was going out of Jerusalem, and Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh met him on the way, wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone out in the country, 30 and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. 31 Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes. 32 But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe. 33 I will do this because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites, and have not walked in obedience to me, nor done what is right in my eyes, nor kept my decrees and laws as David, Solomon’s father, did.

34 “‘But I will not take the whole kingdom out of Solomon’s hand; I have made him ruler all the days of his life for the sake of David my servant, whom I chose and who obeyed my commands and decrees. 35 I will take the kingdom from his son’s hands and give you ten tribes. 36 I will give one tribe to his son so that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I chose to put my Name. 37 However, as for you, I will take you, and you will rule over all that your heart desires; you will be king over Israel. 38 If you do whatever I command you and walk in obedience to me and do what is right in my eyes by obeying my decrees and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you. 39 I will humble David’s descendants because of this, but not forever.’”

After Solomon’s death his son Rehoboam assumes the kingship of Israel.  The people call upon him to lighten the load that Solomon has placed upon them during his reign.  Wisely Rehoboam consults with the elders who advise him to lighten the load placed upon the people.  Unwisely, Rehoboam rejects this advice and goes to the young men who tell him to increase the burden upon the people and prove that he is tougher than his father Solomon.  This causes the people to be upset and they reject Rehoboam as king with the exception of the tribe of Judah which Rehoboam was from.  The small tribe of Benjamin follows as does half of the tribe of Manasseh at some point but typically it is referenced as only Judah following Rehoboam.

Jeroboam had fled to Egypt because Solomon had tried to kill him.  Upon Solomon’s death he returned to Israel.  In 1 Kings 12:20, the people of Israel, with the exception of Judah, call upon Jeroboam and make him king over them.

When all the Israelites heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David.

The natural response toward the rebelling tribes of Israel is to go to war against them and force them to comply with their new king.  Rehoboam is prepared to do just this, amassing 180,000 troops.  However, he was instructed by God not to go to war against his brothers as the splitting of the kingdom was the fulfillment of prophecy.

On the surface, things would appear to be good for Jeroboam to whom God has given the majority of the people of Israel.  God had come through on His promise that the nation would be split and Jeroboam would be king.  But there is one big problem for Jeroboam.  Despite controlling most of the people and the majority of the land area of Israel, he doesn’t possess the most important city Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is not just the capital city – he could build another capital – but it contains the temple and the Ark of the Covenant.  Jerusalem is the center of Israelite worship.

Jeroboam is afraid the people will return to Jerusalem to worship and end up returning to Rehoboam as king.  In order to combat this, he builds two golden calves in the cities of Bethel and Dan.  He tells the people that they shouldn’t have to travel so far away to Jerusalem in the south in order to worship, so he has created more convenient places for them to worship.

Jeroboam built other high places and appointed priests who were not Levites in order to offer sacrifices.  This obviously is not what the Lord desired Jeroboam to do.  He had promised to make Jeroboam into a dynasty in Israel but this was a conditional promise.  Jeroboam was required to follow the Lord and instead he rebelled against God by setting up idols and leading the people in worship of them.  For this reason Jeroboam had the kingdom taken away from him and disaster fell upon his family as well.

From the time of Jeroboam on, the nation of Israel would be no more and instead the Israelites would be divided into two kingdoms.  The northern kingdom contained most of the people and it was referred to as the kingdom of Israel.  The southern kingdom held onto the city of Jerusalem and continued to be ruled by descendants of David.  It was known as the kingdom of Judah as the tribe of Judah made up most of the people in the kingdom.

Eventually even these two kingdoms would be no more.  Because of their sin the northern kingdom was attacked by the Assyrians and defeated in 722 BC.  Rather than carry the people away, the Assyrians just took over the land and lived among the Israelites.  They intermarried with them and eventually a people group known as the Samaritans came from this.

The southern kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians.  The people were deported to Babylon in three phases.  The first people were carried away in 605 BC.  The next group left in 597 BC.  Finally in 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Jerusalem, its temple, and the last remnants of the southern kingdom as well.

David: A man of sin after God’s own heart

When you mention King David to someone the image they have in their head may vary greatly depending on who they are.  A child is going to think of one of the greatest children’s stories, David and Goliath.  They picture David as a young boy with great bravery and faith in God.

An adult on the other hand is likely to picture David as a man of God – someone who was said to be a man after God’s own heart.  Or they might acknowledge David’s greatness while also acknowledging that he had some major shortcomings in his life, most notable being his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah.

If you’re a Jew, when King David is mention, you long for the days when David was king.  Even though it has been 3000 years since David ruled Israel, his reign is still considered to be the pinnacle of the nation of Israel and the Jews still long for a return to days like when David ruled.

King David is such a central figure of the Bible and there is so much written about him, it almost feels as if he must have lived three lives to fit it all in.  He is probably as complex of a figure as there is in the Bible.

David’s two most well known stories are mentioned above; his triumph over Goliath and his fall with Bathsheba.  In between are a ton of stories and there is even plenty of significance before and after.  David was already a hero of sorts before he met Goliath.  He was a man of bravery before as he fended off wild beasts in order to protect his sheep.

After David killed Goliath there is a lot of overlooked action that takes place.  David is God’s anointed choice to become king but Saul is currently king.  This is the type of awkward situation that comedies are based upon but of course this is anything but a comedy.

David becomes a military leader and fights against the enemies of Israel.  The people sing David’s praises by saying “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.”  This obviously inspires jealousy by Saul.

David’s relationship with Saul is complicated by his son Jonathan who becomes David’s best friend.  Saul becomes tormented by an evil spirit but David plays his harp to soothe the king.  Nevertheless Saul seeks to kill David and he spends years on the run in fear for his life.  Some of our greatest Psalms were written by David as he fled for his life.

Despite the fact that David is God’s anointed to sit on the throne following Saul, and despite the fact that Saul is trying to kill him, David never seeks to kill Saul.  David has multiple opportunities to do so but does not act.  His reasoning is that God has appointed Saul as king and it is not his decision to make as to when Saul is to be removed.

Saul will fall in battle which of leaves the throne open for David.  Jonathan is also killed in battle which eliminates any possible thought of succession.  The man who delivers the good news to David thinks that he will earn favor with him by saying that he was responsible for killing David’s enemy – a lie.  Instead, David has the man executed, not for lying but for having the audacity to kill the man whom God had first anointed as king.

All of these events come before David ever becomes king.  It is already a lifetime of battles but also faith and relying on God.  When David becomes king the battles don’t end however.  He continues to lead a nation at war.  Despite being at war, the nation of Israel is at the height of its power while led by David.

One can’t give an honest account of David’s life without mentioning his sin with Bathsheba.  The story is a good demonstration of how sin can snowball into something bigger and quickly grow out of control.  When David witnesses Bathsheba bathing the entire mess could have been avoided if he had just averted his eyes once he knew what was happening.  Some try to lay blame on Bathsheba but bathing on a roof was common practice at the time and she did no wrong in that and was not trying to seduce the king.  While there’s no indication that Bathsheba was forced into the relationship, David is the driving force behind this sin.

After Bathsheba discovers that she is pregnant, King David tries to trick Uriah into going home and sleeping with his wife.  If Uriah had been willing to leave his men and spend a night of comfort at home with his wife, the proceeding mess could be avoided.  But instead Uriah is a righteous man who won’t rest while the rest of his men are not given the same comfort.  It is an ugly juxtaposition to David who has taken what doesn’t belong to him from one of the men who was fighting for him.  Others are making great sacrifices while David remains at home in luxury.

When Uriah is unwilling to go home and sleep with his wife, it is obvious that David will be unable to fool the man into believing the child that Bathsheba is carrying belongs to Uriah.  The king could admit what a terrible thing he had done but he is not willing to come clean.  So instead he places Uriah in a position where he is virtually guaranteed to die at the enemies’ hand.  Even though the enemy does the killing, David is responsible for the murder.

Finally Nathan the prophet confronted David in 2 Samuel 12.  Even though David had sinned in secret and worked hard to cover up the sin, God knew and there would be consequences.  Verses 10-14 describe the punishment that is inflicted upon David.

10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.”

God forgave David but there were severe consequences for his sin.  While David had been a man of war, he would continue to be a man of war.  Because David took the wife of another in secret, his wives will be taken from him in public.  This is fulfilled in 2 Samuel 16 by his son Absalom.  Finally, the child from the union of David and Bathsheba will die.

These are three brutal punishments that David must bear but one can hardly argue that they don’t fit the crimes that David committed.  Nevertheless, God also blesses David.  Despite his sin, David is still a man after God’s own heart.  He is not upset that he was caught in sin the way most are, rather he is crushed that he committed the sin in the first place.  Psalm 51 was specifically written after Nathan confronted David and it shows what a truly repentant heart looks like.

God forgives David and he and Bathsheba have another son named Solomon.  Of course this son goes on to be king following David.  And interestingly enough Bathsheba ends up in the lineage of Christ as well.  God never blesses sin but He can take terrible things and make good come from them.

Although there are many instances which show David’s love and respect of the Lord, perhaps none is more to the point than what is recorded in 2 Samuel 6.  When the ark of the Lord is returned to Jerusalem, David rejoices and dances to the point that essentially his clothes fall off and he is left dancing in his underwear – an ephod as it is called in the passage.  This displeases his wife Michal and she confronts him about this but David is unconcerned about her displeasure.  Verses 20-22 tells the story:

20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

21 David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord.22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”

In short, David was unconcerned about what anyone else thought of Him.  He was going to worship before the Lord and if that left him humiliated in others’ eyes it was better that than to be humiliated in God’s eyes.

Despite David’s great reverence for the Lord and a desire to build a temple for God, the Lord won’t allow it.  It is because he is a man of war who has blood on his hands.  One could easily argue that David was only fighting the battles that God had him fight and that would be true.  I don’t believe that David sought out the battles that he fought.  But nevertheless this disqualifies David from the task in God’s eyes.

From a practical standpoint, it probably would have been difficult for David to fight off oppressing nations and do the building of the temple justice.  From a theological standpoint though, the temple should be built from the riches that God blessed the nation with and not spoils of war.

Solomon will be the one to build the temple and God promises peace in his day in order to accomplish that.  Nevertheless, David does much of the planning for the temple and prepares many of the materials that will be needed for its construction.  While David doesn’t get to witness the actual temple, he is at least able to see in his mind what it should look like once his son Solomon completes the work.

This has only scratched the surface of David’s complex life.  He was a complex man who had some very human faults.  But he is a man who loved the Lord and he didn’t just pay lip service when it came to repentance.  When he realized he had hurt the Lord with his sins, he hurt too.  This is perhaps the best definition that we have of what it means to be a man or woman of God.

Judges: a cycle of sin

The book of Judges is a story about the cycle of humanity.  While there are 12 judges, there are seven distinct cycles that occur in the book.  There is a repeated theme of sin and redemption throughout the book.  Judges 2:11-19 sums up the events of the entire book rather well.

11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands.18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

In a sad way, you don’t need to know the specifics of the book of Judges as this story just keeps repeating.  It is like the predictable plotline of a movie where you know that the guy is always going to get the girl in the end.  Judges is predictable like that without the happy ending.  As you’re reading you know that even though things are good for a time, they will eventually go poorly once again.

Judges stretches over a period of time of about 300 years, from the time of Joshua’s death until the Israelites demand a king.  The exact dates covered in the book of Judges are likely 1367 BC through 1050 BC.

If you add up the number of years associated with each judge, there is a bit of a number problem.  The judges rule for a period of 410 years.  This is not a big problem for the book however as these judges are not national leaders.  Instead they rule over a relatively small area as compared to the entire nation.  Because of this there are several judges who overlap in their reigns.

The book of Ruth also occurs during the time span of the judges.  She lives toward the end of this time period as she will be the great grandmother of King David.  This would place her about two generations away from the end of the era of Judges.

There are a number of judges whom we know next to nothing about.  There are 6 “minor” judges about whom little is written.  These include Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.  Much like the difference between the major and minor prophets, these judges are not necessarily less important than the “major” ones but less is written about them; in some cases they are only mentioned in one verse.  Nevertheless, these judges each usher in an era of peace following their reign.

The “major” judges include Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson.  Some also include Eli and Samuel as judges as they are rulers in Israel who obviously are not kings but generally they are left out in the discussion concerning Judges in part because they are not included in the book that bears the name.

The book of Judges contains some of the stranger stories in the Bible.  Ehud gained success because he was left handed.  When he was escorted into the presence of an enemy king, the guards only checked his side where a right handed person would carry a sword.  When left alone with the king, he stabbed him.  The king was so fat that his stomach enveloped the sword and covered it up.  Ehud then drug the body into the bathroom, locked the door, and then left.  The servants waited for the king to exit the bathroom – to the point of embarrassment, which would mean longer than anyone could take to go to the bathroom.  By the time the deed was discovered, Ehud was long gone.

Deborah is the only female judge.  She is recorded as actually pronouncing judgments for people much as Moses did for the Israelites before.  When called to battle, Barak shows cowardice and says that he will only go if Deborah goes, presumably as assurance that what God has told her will happen actually does take place.  Deborah’s response is that she will go but because of the lack of faith, the honor of the battle will go to a woman.  And indeed this is what takes place as the enemy Sisera wanders into the tent of a woman name Jael.  When he asks for water, she gives him milk and he becomes sleepy.  While he slept, Jael drove a tent peg through his temple and killed him.

Gideon is known as much for his fleece as his triumph in battle.  In order to be sure that God was calling him to go to battle, he asks for two signs.  The first is for the ground to be wet while the fleece on the ground is dry.  The next day he asks for the opposite, wet fleece with a dry ground.  Once assured that God was with him, Gideon is ready for battle but God isn’t through testing Gideon’s faith.  The army of ten thousand men is considered too big by God – even though the enemy numbered over one hundred thousand.  The people may believe that they won the battle on their own strength, so God narrows the army down, ultimately to 300 people.  At night they surround the enemy camp.  When given the signal, they break upon pots containing fire and blow their trumpets.  The 300 men look like a massive army surrounding the enemy and in their confusion the enemy kills one another.

Samson is known as much for his failures as he is his triumphs.  At birth he is set aside as a nazirite and is told not to cut his hair.  His hair will be the source of his strength.  Unfortunately Samson’s weakness is beautiful women and he ultimately succumbs to Delilah.  He reveals the secret of his strength and she shaves his head while he sleeps.  He is imprisoned and has his eyes put out.  A while later his hair has grown out and his strength has returned but the Philistines don’t notice.  When brought out as entertainment as a prisoner of war he literally brings down the house, collapsing the temple of Dagon.  In his death Samson killed more Philistines than he did in the rest of his life.  Despite what might appear to be a wasted life and a wasted gift, Samson is listed in the Hebrews 11 “hall of faith” as an example of someone with great faith.

Throughout the book of Judges we see a cycle repeated numerous times.  Things start out with sin as the people do evil in the eyes of the Lord.  After this sin, the people are given over to their enemy who oppresses them.  The people wise up and cry out to God for help.  God raises up a judge.  The judge defeats the enemy.  And peace is restored, usually for the life of the leader and the following generation.

Even though this happens in a cycle, things get worse as time goes on.  They are going in circles but it as if they are a ship caught in a whirlpool, slowly being sucked down.  The final verse of the book summarizes all that has taken place perfectly.  Judges 21:25 says, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”

The problem in the book of Judges was not that there was no king, it was that God was not king of the people.  They did not look to Him for help but instead did as they saw fit.  They only called upon the Lord when things got difficult.  Once that generation passed on to the next, the lesson wasn’t passed on and the people returned to their evil ways.  This is a modern reminder that Christianity is always only one generation from dying out if the love of God isn’t passed on to the following generation.  The people in the period of Judges failed the test miserably and things got continually worse as a result.

Ten Commandments – rules to live by

The Ten Commandments is literally at the heart of the book of Exodus, coming in at chapter 20 of the books 40 chapters.  It is obviously an important chapter of the book but whether it is the most important is a matter for debate.  It’s quite possible that we place too much importance on the Ten Commandments while overlooking the general guiding principles that they should give us for life.

To begin with, these commandments are not just an important set of laws.  This is a covenant between God and Israel.  They are placed inside of the Ark of the Covenant, not the ark of the law or ark of the commandments.  In Exodus 24 we see that the covenant is agreed to by the people.

We know that this covenant was recorded on two stone tablets but every depiction I’ve seen of the Ten Commandments is actually wrong.  You always see the stone tablets with commandments 1-5 on one tablet and 6-10 on the other tablet.  In fact there are two tablets because there are two copies of the covenant.  Any time a covenant was made between two parties, there were two copies made, just as any modern contract today would do.  The two stone tablets include a copy for the Israelites and a copy for God.  As we might put an important document or contract in a safe deposit box today, this covenant is placed into the greatest safe deposit box in the universe – inside the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, what about the actual commandments?  Obviously a lot can be said about each one and I won’t pretend to give an in depth treatment of each command.  Instead I’ll start with a summary of them.  This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  If you grasp the overall goal of the commandments the individual commands are essentially unnecessary.

Jesus was challenged about the law and asked what the greatest commandment was.  It was a trap by the Jewish leaders but of course Jesus outwitted them in Matthew 22:34-40:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The Ten Commandments can be broken down into two components – love God and love others.  If we were capable of doing that unfailingly we wouldn’t need ten commandments because those things wouldn’t even cross our minds.  But of course we can’t do that.  The Ten Commandments serve as examples of what we need to avoid if we are to love God and love others.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the commandments by looking at the first four.  The first four commandments concern our love for God.  The first commandment tells us that we are to have no other gods before the Lord.  This is relatively straight forward in the idea that God is to be number one in our life.  It’s easy to think of this strictly in an idol worshipping kind of way but it obviously has just as much importance today.  We make gods out of our job, out of television, and out of our other relationships.  Any time that we put something ahead of God in importance, we make it into a god.

The second command tells us that we are to build no idols.  This means that not only are we not to have any other gods ahead of the Lord, we aren’t to worship any other gods at all.  When idolatry was prevalent as it was in this era, there were multiple gods.  Despite the presence of multiple gods, one of them had to be the most important.  God is more important than all of the other gods as He has just proven through the devastation He laid on Egypt with the ten plagues.

But it isn’t enough to just acknowledge God as more important and more powerful; there is nothing even comparable to Him.  There is nothing else to even call a god compared to Him so there is nothing else that is to be worshipped.  Because we don’t bow down to physical idols today it’s easy to miss the modern point on this command as well.  It means that not only is God to be the most important in our lives, there’s nothing else that we should replace Him with.  A person who states that they’re still putting God first in their lives by attending church 3 Sundays out of 4 while golfing the 4th Sunday would be violating this second command by still having idols.

The third command involves taking the Lord’s name in vain.  We’ve reduced this command to not saying a certain two word phrase that gets bleeped out on television.  And the saddest irony is that the word God is the part that is bleeped out, not the word that is offensive to many.  But that completely misses the point of this command I believe.

Misusing God’s name is anything that makes a mockery of God.  People may swear an oath using God’s name saying “so help me God” or something like that but if they have no intention of keeping that oath they take God’s name in vain.  Perhaps the clearest case of taking God’s name in vain is one that most Christians never think about.

Christian has the name Christ right in it.  It literally means “little Christ” or that we are considering ourselves to be Christ like when we call ourselves a Christian.  Any Christian who calls themselves such and then does something completely un-Christ-like is making a mockery of Christ.  This is a commandment that Christians violate far more often than they realize.

The fourth commandment is to keep the Sabbath holy.  This is probably the most controversial of the commandments today because some claim that Jesus did away with this commandment.  That is a debate that is outside of the scope of our explanation here.

For Moses and the Israelites, the fourth commandment was clear that they were to rest on the Sabbath day.  If there was any confusion to this rule, the manna which God provided six days a week did not appear on the seventh day.  By Jesus’ day the Jewish leaders had taken this rule and made it legalistic, losing the spirit of it.  Today we have adopted the day of rest as a day of worship.  Most Christian denominations no longer worship on the seventh day but on the first day of the week in recognition of Jesus’ resurrection.  Although it doesn’t say it in the commandments, worship and rest have been closely linked for a long time.

These first four commands focus on our love for God which Jesus identified as the greatest commandment.  The last six concern our love for others which is the second greatest commandment.

The fifth commandment tells us to honor our parents.  This is the single most important relationship that we have with others.  The family is something that God created in the very beginning.  It isn’t a man made institution unlike other relationships that we may have.

The idea of honoring our parents is pretty straightforward.  It doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our parents or do what they want us to do.  As we become adults we must make our own decisions that may not please our parents.  At the same time we must remain respectful of them even if we disagree.

There is one time when we may not honor our parents however.  Luke 14:26 states, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. “

Jesus does not mean hate in the way that we think of hate.  What He means is that sometimes we must make a decision between honoring family and honoring God.  When that time comes, we must honor God above family.  If you’re a Muslim who chooses to follow the Lord, this verse is very pertinent because you can’t honor your father and mother and follow Jesus.  Just like in the order of the Ten Commandments, God comes first.

The sixth commandment is against murdering.  Once again, this is pretty straight forward on its surface and it’s an idea that is accepted pretty much universally.  Jesus, however, made it clear that murder is not just about our actions.  We also murder people with our words whenever we attempt to cut them down.  We can murder people with our attitudes when we dehumanize them and make them into anything less than someone who was created in the image of God.

Commandment number seven is against adultery.  We know what adultery is but Jesus made it clear that even lustful thoughts towards one who isn’t our spouse is adultery.  Guys obviously have a bad but well earned reputation for lust.  Part of this is because we are visual creatures who are stimulated by our senses.  But the truth is that lust is not strictly a burning desire that causes us to think of sex.  Lust is longing for anything that is to be fulfilled within a marriage and wishing it to be fulfilled outside of marriage.

We think of lust and adultery in terms of sex because these are the most concrete ways of thinking.  But we also have emotional needs that are fulfilled within a marriage relationship.  Going to another to have those emotional needs fulfilled or longing to have those needs fulfilled is adultery as well, it just isn’t the physical form.

There have been numerous studies that have shown people who cheat on their spouses usually don’t do so starting out by looking for someone younger or better looking.  Instead the relationship begins on the emotional side as they are seeking someone to talk to or get sympathy that they may not get at home.  Even though we concretely think of adultery as sex, the issue is much more than that.

Number eight is that we shouldn’t steal.  We know that stealing is taking something that doesn’t belong to us.  Most people would never walk into a store and put something in their pocket and then walk out.  But we justify not paying for things that we’ve received in other ways.  The grocery store may not have charged us for an item and we don’t bring it to someone’s attention.  We justify it by the fact that it wasn’t our fault and the store is still making plenty of money.

We may steal from our employer by our attitude towards work.  We’re paid for eight hours of work but an hour each day may be spent chatting with coworkers about television and sending non-work related emails.  Anytime we receive something that we didn’t pay for or earn – and the intention wasn’t to give it to us for free – we steal.

Commandment nine tells us not to lie.  I’m not going to spend much time on this one because I probably don’t have much to add to what you’ve likely heard before.  We all know the difference between the truth and a lie.  Lies also come about when the whole truth is not given, when it is misrepresented, or when it was omitted.  A lie is anything that we say that is an attempt at deception or a prevention of the whole truth coming out.

What I won’t get into are little white lies and things of that nature.  We all know that the age old question “Does this dress make me look fat?” is a trap.  It is not a question that wants an honest answer and certainly no man has been dumb enough to say, “No dear, the dress is fine, it’s your butt that makes you look fat.”

The tenth and final command is do not covet.  I believe that this command is last because it is the beginning of a lot of sins.  Why do people steal?  Because they want something that someone else has.  Why does adultery occur?  Because someone has coveted another person who is not their spouse.  You can break any of the other Ten Commandments because you first coveted something that wasn’t yours.

This is obviously a very brief breakdown of the Ten Commandments.  I believe that our goal should not be to legalistically try to follow these commands because we can’t.  That’s actually the point that the Jewish leaders never grasped and it is why they were in conflict with Jesus so much.  This covenant is one that couldn’t be kept.  A new covenant was needed and Jesus came to put it into effect.

The Passover Lamb

The Passover is an important celebration in ancient Israel that is largely overlooked by Christians today as ancient history.  Nevertheless there is much that we can learn from the first Passover that applies to Christians still today.

The first Passover came as a part of the tenth and final plague upon Egypt that would deliver freedom to God’s people who were held in captivity.  Exodus 13 addresses the Israelites and gives them instructions on what is going to happen.  Although this day would be the worst in the history of Egypt, it would be a day of celebration that the Jews celebrate to this very day, thousands of years later.

1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

There are three times each year that the Israelites were called together to celebrate – the Passover, the feast of weeks (which is when Pentecost took place), and the feast of tabernacles which follows the Day of Atonement.  While sacrifices are a part of all three celebrations in the Passover and the Day of Atonement blood sacrifice is central to what takes place.

On the Day of Atonement a sacrifice was made on behalf of all the people of Israel.  But it hasn’t been instituted yet in Exodus.  As opposed to the Day of Atonement, the Passover is a very personal matter.  Each family must sacrifice a lamb.  This is not something that is bought at a market and is ready to eat.  This is a lamb that the family has raised for the last year.  The father would personally have to slaughter the lamb.  The blood from the slaughter – on this first Passover – was used to cover the doorpost of the household.  In the following years the lamb was slaughtered in remembrance of what the Lord did when the Israelites left Egypt but as they place the blood on their doorposts, during this first celebration, they are literally covered by the blood of the Lamb as we like to say in Christian circles.

The Passover is an important celebration that wasn’t to be taken lightly.  In the book of Malachi the Israelites are reprimanded because they were bringing worthless sacrifices.  They sacrificed crippled and diseased animals that had no value to them.  In Jesus’ day the priests had made a mockery of the system because they had to approve of each lamb that was sacrificed.  Often they would reject the lamb that a family had brought from afar and force them to purchase a lamb from the temple at exorbitant prices.

The unblemished lamb is a picture of the sinlessness of Jesus.  Sacrificing anything else is the equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t have to be perfect or that God accepts sin.  Aside from the general taking advantage of people, the priests of Jesus’ day turned the sacrifice into an issue of money and made salvation available for purchase, but worst of all, only through them.

The Passover points to a personal need for Jesus.  Just being an Israelite didn’t save anyone on the night of the Passover.  Only those who were covered by the blood of the lamb on their doorposts were spared on the night of Passover.  Were there some Israelites who didn’t take part in this or who didn’t believe it?  The answer is most likely yes.  The angel of death passed through all of Egypt and it didn’t discriminate based on nationality, it struck down the first born male of every household that didn’t have the blood on the doorposts.

There is some archaeological evidence that suggests that there were hurriedly dug graves in the region of Goshen – where the Israelites were – that date back to around the time of the Exodus.  It’s likely that not all of the Israelites listened and they had to hurriedly bury their family members before they left Egypt.

Exodus 13:14-28 gives instructions for not only the night of the Passover but also the week surrounding it.  The entire time was a festival known as the feast of unleavened bread.  Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast in it.  It is an important reminder of the Passover.

There are two significant reasons for using unleavened bread in this festival – one practical, the other theological.  For practical reasons, yeast takes time to rise before you bake it.  This is a remembrance that the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for yeast to rise.  When God acts, He does so according to His timetable which may be years or at a moment’s notice.

The theological issue with yeast is that it is a picture of sin.  The modern equivalent to this is an apple.  You’re probably familiar with the phrase “one bad apple.”  The entire phrase is that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.  If a rotting apple is next to apples that are fine, then the rot will spread to the apples that are fine more quickly than if the apples are left on their own.  Yeast works similarly.  It spreads quickly.  If there is even a small bit of yeast, it will quickly grow and spread over everything.  This is the way that sin works as well.  If we clean up our life but leave just a bit of sin left, that sin is going to grow and spread and soon we’ll be consumed by sin again.  As the Israelites left Egypt to go and worship the Lord they were to rid of their lives of sin.

As Christians we know that Jesus was crucified on Passover.  But He also celebrated Passover the night before with His disciples in what we know as the Lord’s Supper.  This isn’t a mistake by the biblical writers.  By Jesus’ day there were so many Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover that it was impossible to sacrifice all of the lambs on one day.  As it was blood flowed like a stream from the temple mount where the sacrifices were performed.  As it became impossible to do all of the sacrifices in one day the northern Jews from Galilee celebrated the Passover feast on one day and the southern Jews celebrated the Passover the following day.  So Jesus was able to celebrate the Passover with His disciples and hang on the cross the following day as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered as well.

The Lord’s Supper that we as Christians commemorate was the celebration of the Passover that was initiated in Egypt.  It too was the result of blood sacrifice.  Of course Jesus was the Passover lamb.  Like the previous lamb, He too was spotless and perfect.  We celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice, His body broken and His blood shed.  The Passover was a commemoration of the day that the Lord rescued the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh but it also looked forward to Jesus.  In Exodus, the people were saved from physical death thanks to the sacrifice of the lamb.  In Jesus we are also covered by the blood of the lamb as we are saved from spiritual death.

God destroys the Egyptian gods through ten plagues

When it came time for the Israelites to leave Egypt it wasn’t an easy task.  Pharaoh wasn’t about to let the Israelites go but it wasn’t up to Pharaoh.  God had foretold of the Israelites time in Egypt way back in Genesis 15:13-16:

13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

Finally the time is up and the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land.  What stands between them and that goal is Pharaoh who will not release them.  So God institutes a series of ten plagues in order to get him to change his mind.

It may appear that the ten plagues that fall upon Egypt are simply disasters that bring the country to a screeching halt and make the people cry out for mercy.  Nothing God does is random however and the ten plagues is no exception.  The ten plagues are a direct attack on the gods of Egypt.  God is showing Himself to be all powerful while the gods of the Egyptians are worthless and unable to help those who are crying out to them.

The first plague strikes the Nile River and all of the water in Egypt.  The Nile River was by far the most important geographical feature in Egypt.  Even today the vast majority of the population of Egypt is along the Nile River.  Every year the Nile floods its banks and provides water for crops and otherwise makes the soil fertile in a land that is mostly desert.

The god Hapi was associated with the Nile River and the annual flooding is sometimes even considered the arrival of Hapi.  One of his titles was Lord of the Fish and Birds.  When the first plague strikes, all of the water of the Nile is turned to blood.  This causes the fish to die and is overall disgusting from the stench throughout Egypt.

One might have tried to explain away the corruption of the Nile as a disaster of some sort that flowed downstream.  But not only is the Nile turned to blood, so is all of the water in Egypt, including even what was just sitting in buckets according to Exodus 7:19.

The next plague is a plague of frogs.  Frogs cover the entire land.  Personally, I wouldn’t be too bothered by frogs.  I wouldn’t like them everywhere but I can think of worse things to have all over the place.  The irony of this plague is that frogs were a sacred animal in Egypt.  The goddess Hekt was depicted with a head of a frog and often with the body of a frog as well.  The Egyptians worshipped a frog so God gives them so many frogs that they become sick of them.

Because the frogs are considered a sacred animal, the Egyptians couldn’t do anything about them.  They couldn’t kill them or otherwise get rid of them.  Even though the magicians could make more frogs come up onto the land, they couldn’t do anything about the frogs all around them.  Pharaoh has no option but to plead with Moses.

The third plague to strike the nation is gnats.  Gnats don’t sound too bad until you remember that these would number in the millions.  Also, these are not gnats like we probably think of.  These are called sand flies or fleas.  They burrow under the skin and cause irritation.

These gnats attack the Egyptian religion in several ways.  Even though the pests are in the air, this is actually an attack against the earth god Geb because the gnats are formed from the dust of Egypt.  Egypt was wealthy because it had fertile soil.  All of the fertile soil is gone in an instant and instead it has become an irritant for the Egyptians.

The other thing that happens with this plague is the disruption of religious activities in Egypt.  The gnats would cause the priests to be ceremonially unclean, either through their actual presence or by the scratches left by the people seeking relief from the itching.

Unlike the previous signs that Pharaoh has witnessed, the magicians are unable to reproduce what has taken place.  They recognize that this is a power greater than their own.

When the magicians declare that “This is the finger of God” it could mean one of two things.  They may be declaring that the infestation of gnats could only be done with the power of their god of insects Seb.  If they believe that this is something that Seb has caused they would have reason to hate this god for what was occurring.

If the magicians recognize that this is the power of God, big G, then they are informing Pharaoh that this power is beyond them.  Pharaoh would be wise not to cross a power that is above them and their gods.  Once again however, Pharaoh’s heart is hard and he does not listen to Moses, nor his own magicians.

The gnats are not gone before the land of Egypt is covered in flies as well.  God does something different with this additional plague however.  God spares the land of Goshen where the Israelites live.  They will not be harmed by this plague.  It will be the same in the book of Revelation where tribulation believers are spared of some of the perils that fall on humanity.

Once again, this is a direct attack on an Egyptian goddess, Hatkok.  He was worshipped as lord of the flies and he is shown to be powerless to help the Egyptians from what had befallen them.  If they considered him to still be in power, then he would be the cause of the troubles and would be hated.  He is either not the cause of the flies and powerless or he has brought calamity on the Egyptians and thus worthy of hatred.

Exodus 9 features the 5th, 6th, and 7th plagues.  Plague number 5 is upon the livestock of Egypt.  Bulls were among the most sacred animals in Egypt.  One of the most popular cults worship Apis the bull god.  Several temples kept live bulls there to be worshipped and at one point in Egypt’s history bulls were even given sacred burials and placed in vaults.

The pervasiveness of bull worship is seen as the Israelites construct a golden calf while waiting for Moses to return from Mt Sinai.  Several other gods were depicted as cattle – Ptah, Hathor, Bakus, and Mentu.  When Israel constructed their golden calf, it wasn’t to honor just one false god but many.  This is why they said in Exodus 32:4

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

God shows power over all livestock and the gods of Egypt are shown to be powerless to stop the deaths of one of the most sacred animals in Egypt.  As with the plague of flies, God makes a distinction between Egypt and the Israelites.  Not a single animal belonging to the Israelites died.

The next plague is the plague of boils.  It was common for the ashes of a sacrifice to an idol to be cast into the air.  Those whom the ashes landed on were considered to be blessed.  This time the opposite occurs.  Moses throws soot from a chimney in the air.  As the ash descends, festering boils break out on the people and the animals all over the land.  Obviously this is unpleasant for all who have to endure the painful boils but once again it strikes at the heart of the Egyptian religious culture.

Egypt was noted in the ancient world for its skill in medicine.  This was attributed to their gods who were known to be gods of healing.  Once again, this shows their impotence as they are unable to heal the boils that broke out over the people of Egypt.  In particular, this is an attack of the god Typhon who was believed to control such diseases

The seventh plague is a plague of hail.  Most of us have probably seen hail at some point in our life.  Even small hail can cause a great deal of destruction but this is no ordinary hail storm.  Verse 24 states that this is the worst storm that struck Egypt in its history.  What is particularly interesting is that ordinarily it doesn’t storm in Egypt.  They rarely even get rain and there are entire years where they may get no rain.  So any kind of storm would be rare and this storm obviously is unprecedented.

Yet again, this is an attack of the Egyptian gods.  Shu was the god of the atmosphere while Nut was the sky goddess.  Both are powerless to stop the storm or protect anyone from it.

Plague number 8 is a plague of locusts.  These locusts devour whatever wasn’t destroyed by the hail previously.  There are over 90 varieties of locusts and any of them could cause devastation like the Bible tells when in groups so large.  There have been swarms of locusts that are so big that they have blocked out the sun before.  This swarm is even more massive than those large, naturally occurring swarms.

After the devastation is seen, once again it is evident that the gods of the Egyptians have failed them.  Nepri, the grain god, Anubis, the guardian of the fields, and Min, deity of harvest and crops have not saved the Egyptians.

Plague number 9 really starts to hit the heart of Egyptian worship.  Ra was known as the sun god and he was the most important of the gods whom the Egyptians worshipped.  Ordinarily light defeats darkness.  When you turn on a light, the darkness goes away.  You can’t bring more darkness into a room to smother out the light that’s already there.  God is in control of the laws of nature however and He can snuff out light with darkness and show the sun god to be powerless as well.

As for the actual plague, God may have used a natural phenomenon to bring about this supernatural plague.  There is a yearly phenomenon known as khamsin where for 50 days in the spring the wind blows off of the Sahara Desert.  For two or three days the wind really picks up, picking up sand and dust with it.

Now, consider the state of Egypt at this time.  After all of the plagues, the land is devastated.  All of the vegetation has been destroyed and there is nothing to hold the sand in place at all.  What might have been a normal, yearly sandstorm came out of nowhere and darkened the sky for three days.  This would have been an oppressive darkness.  Today, when it is dark, we turn on a light and the darkness goes away.  Even with lamps, they would have had little success.  The wind would have made it impossible to keep the lamps lit.  And even if they could keep them lit, the light would have reached a foot and reflected off of all the sand in the air.

The tenth plague is the killing of the firstborn males.  It introduces the Passover to the Israelites but that is another important discussion for another time.  Ra, the sun god may have been considered the most important god in Egyptian worship but Pharaoh himself was considered to be a god as well.

While living, Pharaoh was thought to be the embodiment of the god Horus.  Upon his death, Pharaoh became the god Osiris or god of the underworld.  The firstborn son of Pharaoh would be the next to become Pharaoh and thus a god as well.

The final plague on the firstborn will strike the house of Pharaoh and kill his son.  God will show himself to be more powerful once again.  Not only is God more powerful than all the other gods, only He is capable of striking one of these supposed gods dead.

The final score of the plagues is God 10, Egyptian gods 0.  God has shown all of the gods to be worthless and powerless.  They have done nothing to protect their worshippers because God holds all of the power.

Jacob the Deceiver

It is interesting that some people offer an excuse that they can’t come to church or they can’t be a Christian because they’re not good enough.  Obviously the goal of church and Christianity is to make people more holy and Christlike but there has never been a holiness requirement to get in the doors of a church.

Instead, the Bible is full of scoundrels whom God chooses to use for His purposes and in spite of their flaws.  Jacob is one of many of these less than perfect people.  From the time of his birth, it would appear that Jacob has been branded.  Even before his birth it was prophesied that he, the younger would be the greater of the brothers.

At his birth, Jacob came out second, holding onto his brother’s heel.  Thus he was named Jacob which means “he grasps the heel.”  But this name has a double meaning – grasping the heel is a Hebrew idiom for a deceiver.  Now you’ll certainly think that this is a very odd thing to mean deceiver but we actually have a very similar expression in English.  If someone is deceiving another person in a joking manner we might say that they’re “pulling someone’s leg.”  The English expression might even be derived from the Hebrew one but I couldn’t begin to tell you how the expression ever came to be.  For our purposes it’s important to note that Jacob is named as a deceiver at his birth and he will live up to that reputation.

There is a bit of family heritage of deception for Jacob to follow.  We don’t think of Abraham and Isaac as deceivers so much but they both played the same trick, and Abraham did it more than once.  Because they thought that powerful men might kill them in order to take their wives they lied and said that she was a sister instead.

In Genesis 27 Isaac is old and believes that he is about to die.  He calls his son Esau in and asks that he prepare his favorite meal and then he will bless Esau.  Rebekah overhears this and hurriedly puts a plan in motion that allows Jacob to steal the blessing.

Jacob has already obtained the birthright from Esau in a less deceptive manner.  In short, his brother sold it for a bowl of soup because he was hungry.  A birthright traditionally meant that the eldest son received a double portion of the inheritance at the passing away of his father.  So this wasn’t just a symbolic thing but it was a very substantial amount of money that was paid for a bowl of soup.

With the blessing however, Jacob intentionally deceives his father.  He wears his brother’s clothing in order to smell like him and covers his arms and neck with fur because his brother is a hairy man.  This wouldn’t work if Isaac’s eyesight wasn’t failing but it is enough to trick his father into blessing him instead of his brother Esau.

This isn’t the end of deception in Jacob’s life however.  Unfortunately for him he will be the victim of deception as well.  Deception runs in his family not only from his father and grandfather but also on his mother’s side.  Rebekah played her own role in the deception of her husband Isaac.  But her brother Laban was also a deceiver.

As Jacob reaches his mother’s home he meets Rachel and immediately falls in love.  He agrees to work for Laban for seven years to be allowed to marry Rachel.  On the wedding night however, Jacob is deceived and the marriage is consummated with Leah in the darkness of the night.

After seeing what has taken place, Laban tells Jacob that tradition is that the oldest daughter must be married first.  Whether that was an actual tradition or not, seven years time would have been an ample amount in order to warn Jacob of this.  Instead, Jacob must work another seven years for Rachel.  The only upside to this ordeal is that he is allowed to marry Rachel “on credit” so to speak and can marry her as soon as the bridal week is completed with Leah.

The deception continues after Jacob has paid his 14 years of service to Laban.  He works for another 6 years and during that time Laban changes his wages 10 times.  Finally it is time to leave Laban but Jacob is afraid of a direct confrontation with his father-in-law so he leaves without warning.  Genesis 31:20 describes the situation succinctly: Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away.

Still there is one final deception involving Laban.  Rachel took her father’s household gods when they left but didn’t tell Jacob this.  There’s no indication why she did this.  They could have been valuable or it may have been a way of getting revenge on her father for the way he treated Jacob.

When Laban catches up to Jacob, because he didn’t know that Rachel had taken the idols, he states that anyone who is found with them will be put to death.  Obviously he would not have made such a statement if he had not been deceived by Rachel and not told about her theft.  Rachel then deceives her father by sitting on the idols and telling him that she can’t get up because she is having her period.

Even though Jacob has been blessed by God and has been following Him in his life, he will have a life changing experience when he wrestles with God.  Then Jacob’s name is changed from deceiver to Israel which means “he struggles with God.”  Jacob is no longer the deceiver that he once was.  But that doesn’t mean that his children still haven’t learned his ways.

Jacob is the victim of one more deception and it is perhaps crueler than any other that he was the cause of or the victim of.  Because of the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, they sold Joseph into slavery but led Jacob to believe that he had been killed by a wild animal.  They even brought back his infamous coat of many colors covered in blood.

Jacob’s life was surrounded by deception and he was a victim of it as often as he was the culprit.  He had a family heritage of deception and ultimately he paid the price by passing the deception onto his children who ultimately deceived him as well.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

Isaac was born to Abraham at a very old age.  Abraham was 100 years old at his birth while his wife Sarah was just a young 90 years old.  Isaac was the child that God had promised Abraham 25 years beforehand when he called him to leave the land of Ur and to go to a place that he would be shown.  God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and they would possess a tremendous amount of land.

Abraham’s positive response to God by picking up everything and going to a place he had never been didn’t mean that there weren’t bumps along the way.  After about ten years of waiting on the Lord, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands.  Sarah gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child for her and Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old.

Another 13 years pass and God speaks to Abraham and essentially tells him that the time has arrived for Him to begin fulfilling the covenant.  While I believe most people would understand considering the circumstances, Abraham had jumped the gun by 14 years.  Even though Ishmael is not the son that God had promised, God promises to make him into a great nation as well.  But Isaac would be the son of promise and the covenant that God had made to Abraham would be fulfilled through him and not Ishmael.

This sets the stage for Genesis 22 where God speaks to Abraham and asks for a sacrifice to be made.  God doesn’t ask for just any sacrifice but he asks that Abraham sacrifice his only son.  There is an obvious parallel here between the sacrifice of Isaac and God sacrificing His only Son.  One can imagine the great difficulty Abraham must have had when he was asked to give up his only son.  But God the Father must have had the same difficulty in giving up His only Son.

One might try to argue that God knew what would happen to Jesus and the decision to sacrifice His Son was easier for this reason.  There was obviously no faith required on God’s part.  But this also meant that God sent His Son into the world knowing exactly what Jesus would endure in life and in death.

While Abraham was certainly ready to sacrifice his son, he also expected to receive him back from the dead.  Abraham’s faith had grown since the time that he and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands and Ishmael was born.  Abraham knew that God’s promise was fulfilled through Isaac and that even if Isaac was sacrificed he couldn’t remain dead because there was a covenant between him and God.

Hebrews 11:17-19 tells of Abraham’s faith:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Abraham is told to go to the region of Moriah and he will make an offering on a mountain that God will show him.  As one may expect, this area is not a random selection by God but rather a very important place.  Mt. Moriah is one of several mounts that make up, or rather will make up after Abraham’s time, the city of Jerusalem.  So Abraham is instructed to travel to the site where Jerusalem will be in order to make the sacrifice.

But there is more significance than this.  Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon’s temple will be located and the sacrifices for sin would be performed.  It will be the location of the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant resides and the presence of God Himself will be.

Through no coincidence I am sure, Mt. Moriah is also likely to be the place that Jesus hung on the cross.  You might wonder how that could possibly be if the temple was there but there are two very easy ways that this could be the case.  The first is that Solomon’s temple was destroyed.  Where Herod’s temple was built centuries later was not necessarily the exact same spot where Solomon’s temple had been.  The other easy explanation would be that while the temple was big, so are mountains and the temple and the spot of the crucifixion could have been on the same mount.  Realistically though, it is more likely that Herod’s temple was not in the same location as Solomon’s.

When the time comes for the sacrifice Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice was.  I can only imagine that Abraham had to look away with tears in his eyes when he told his son that God would provide the sacrifice.  Of course Abraham is prevented from actually sacrificing his son and God provides a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac.

If Mt. Moriah is where Jesus would also hang on the cross, then Genesis 22:14 provides a bit of prophetic foreshadowing.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

Quite literally on that mountain it was provided, Jesus being the once for all sacrifice.  Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son as an offering to God but instead a ram was provided as a substitute.  While Solomon’s temple stood on Mt. Moriah sacrifices were made year after year as an atonement for sin, in order to cover up the sins of the people.  And then finally Jesus was provided as the once for all sacrifice for sin.  No more sacrifices were needed.  The blood of Jesus didn’t just cover up sin like the previous sacrifices did.  Instead it washed it away completely.  God provided it all on Mt. Moriah.

Promises to the Patriarchs

The intent of this writing is not to discuss the life and major events of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but rather to track the promises, blessings, and covenants that were made with the three patriarchs.

Out of all the people on earth, God chose to bless Abraham and his descendants.  Unlike in Noah’s day where Noah was apparently the only righteous person left, there is nothing spectacular about Abraham.  We can assume that he worshipped the Lord before God spoke to Him but he is not the only follower of God at the time.  God may have chosen Abraham because he was a man of great faith or there may be some other reason that Abraham is chosen.  The truth is that we don’t really know why Abraham was chosen by God as opposed to anyone else.  What we do know is that Abraham responded to God’s calling.

In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave his country and family and to go to a place that God will show him.  At that time God makes several promises to Abraham which are found in Genesis 12:2-3:

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

After Abraham picks up his possessions and his family and goes, God makes another promise as they arrive near Shechem in Canaan.  Genesis 12:7 says, “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

Of course there is a small problem with God’s promises because Abraham is 75 years old, his wife is ten years younger at 65, and they have no children.  If Abraham had any doubts about God’s plan early on, they aren’t stated.

In Genesis 13 Abraham and his nephew Lot decide that they can’t stay in the same place because their herds are too large.  Lot moves to the lush land to the east.  After they part ways, God speaks to Abraham again and expands upon the original promise that he was given.  Genesis 13:14-17 says:

14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 15 moves from simple promises of God to an actual covenant.  We can trust God to keep His promises but in Genesis 15 a covenant is made which would be the equivalent of a contract today.  This is a guarantee that what God has promised will be fulfilled.

Genesis 15 is the first time that the elephant in the room issue of offspring is addressed.  God promises Abraham that the promises will be passed on to his own flesh and blood and that the inheritance would not just go to a trusted servant as Abraham had apparently believed.  Genesis 15:6 is one of the more important verses of the Bible in that it explains the simplicity of faith to us.

Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.

In short, God said it, Abraham believed it, and that faith was rewarded.  This chapter doesn’t just address the issue of offspring however.  It once again renews the promise of land.  This is where God makes a covenant with Abraham and the promise of land is expanded.  Genesis 15 ends with verses 18-21.

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—  the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites,  Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

If you look carefully, this land stretches down to Egypt and over to the Euphrates river in modern day Iraq.  The nation of Israel has never occupied all of this land.  There are three things that we can do with this promise then.  The first would be to dismiss it; God got it wrong and Israel just never became as great as was promised.

The second option is to spiritualize it.  There are many who believe that God is through working with Israel because they rejected their Messiah.  Therefore all of the promises that were given to Israel are being fulfilled or will be fulfilled within the church.  I personally believe that there are some problems with this view but that is a whole other topic.

The third option is to maintain that this is a literal promise that has yet to be fulfilled.  It’s much easier to see this being fulfilled since 1948 when Israel became a nation again.  If I had to guess, this won’t be fulfilled literally until the Millennial Kingdom but I could be wrong.  In the 1930’s or even the early 1940’s I’m sure that no one saw a way in which Israel would become a nation again so anything could happen.  Just know that this covenant has not been completely fulfilled if you take it literally.

Genesis 17 has another covenant given.  The covenant of circumcision is instituted.  God’s promise is expanded once again when Abram and Sarai are given new names, Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham is told that nations would come from him as well as kings.  He is also told that the covenant would be an everlasting covenant and his possession of the land would be an everlasting one.

Genesis 17 also tells us that God will bless Ishmael even though he is not the child that God had promised Abraham.  He and Sarah would yet have their own son at their old age.  Ishmael would be made great and would be blessed but God’s covenant would be with Isaac who would be born within a year.

In Genesis 22 Abraham is tested and called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God spares Isaac and blesses Abraham once again by saying that his descendants would capture the cities of their enemies and that all nations on earth will be blessed through his offspring.  Originally God told Abraham that all people would be blessed through him, now they will be blessed through his offspring.  There is a present day blessing that surrounds Abraham and his descendants but ultimately this is a prophecy that Jesus would be a descendant of Abraham.

Not much is said about Isaac.  Only a few chapters of Genesis focus on him compared to Abraham and Jacob.  God renews His covenant with Isaac in Genesis 26 while there is a famine in the land and Isaac contemplated leaving for Egypt.  Instead God tells him to remain in the land where he will be blessed.

Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau.  God says that there are two great nations within Rebekah’s womb but one would be greater than the other.  It is Jacob who would be the greater nation.  We know that he bought the birthright from his brother Esau for a bowl of soup and that he deceitfully stole his father’s blessing.  More importantly though, Jacob is the one whom God will bless and to whom the covenant will be passed on.

Jacob must flee from his brother’s wrath over the stolen blessing and as he does so, God speaks to him in a dream at Bethel.  Genesis 28:13-15 records God’s words to Jacob.

13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

God is with Jacob over the next 20 years as he marries Leah and Rachel and fathers 11 of his 12 sons in that time.  After Jacob leaves Laban to return to his homeland he receives word that his brother Esau is coming to meet him.  Fearing the worst he sends his family away and cries out to the Lord for help.  Genesis 32 doesn’t record another confirmation of God’s covenant but is still significant because Jacob wrestles with God on that night.  Jacob will not let go until he is blessed.  His blessing was a new name.  Instead of being called Jacob, he would be called Israel which means “he struggles with God.”

Finally in Genesis 35, God speaks to Jacob once again at Bethel and blesses him and reconfirms the covenant one more time.  Assuming that this is written chronologically this last blessing is important because Genesis 35 also tells of Israel’s final son Benjamin being born.  But with joy also comes sorrow because Rachel dies while giving birth.  Israel’s family is now complete but at the cost of beloved wife.

The chapter then closes with the death of Isaac.  While Isaac thought that he was dying many years before as he called his sons to him, he has hung on for at least another 20 years.  But finally at the age of 180 he dies.  Thus the blessings and covenant are officially passed on to Israel where they will be fulfilled in his twelve sons.