Cleaning house

Jacob shook off the disturbing images of his sons’ bloodlust and prayed for some clear direction. God told Jacob to go back to Bethel and settle there. “Make an altar to me,” God said, “at the place where I appeared when you fled from Esau.”

Jacob knew he needed to set his house right before proceeding further. He made a blanket announcement to all who lived in his camp. “Sons, daughters, wives, servants, gather up all your foreign gods, cleanse yourselves with water from the spring, and change into clean clothes. We’re going to Bethel to build an altar to the God who’s had my back since I fled from my brother so long ago.”

For the next few days, everyone brought Jacob their idols. They removed the earrings they wore as symbols of wealth and substance, and they washed in the brook. Jacob took all the objects of false worship, the gods and the jewelry, and he buried them underneath an oak tree near Shechem.

When they left for Bethel, God inflicted a collective paranoia on all the villages surrounding the people of Israel so that no one dared leave their house to attack Jacob’s caravan.

They arrived safely at Bethel, and Jacob built his altar. God came to him and said, “Your name is Jacob, but from this moment you’ll be called Israel. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac will be yours, and it’ll belong to your children after you.”

Israel brushed off the old altar of stone he’d erected so many years before, and he named the place “El-Bethel,” The God of God’s House.

Soon afterward, Israel left Bethel and traveled toward Ephrath. Along the way, Rachel struggled through the birth of her son.

“Don’t be scared,” her midwife tried to soothe her. “You’re going to have a son.”

But Rachel’s dying words were, “He will be called ‘Benoni’ Son Of My Pain.

Israel buried his wife Rachel in a tomb and marked it with a boulder somewhere along the road. There, he renamed his newborn child Benjamin. Journeying on, he pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder near Bethlehem.

While living there near Bethlehem, Reuben slept with Bilhah, his mother’s servant and father’s concubine. Israel heard this troubling news, but he would need to think carefully about a suitable punishment for him.

Israel and Esau came to Mamre Oaks at Hebron to bury their father Isaac, who was a hundred and eighty years old when he died. From there, Israel and his family went and settled in Bethel. Altogether, Israel’s sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Inspiration: Genesis 35

Witness pile

“Are you quite finished?” Laban asked after quite the tongue-lashing from his rogue hand. “Your wives are my daughters. Their maids are my property. Your children are my children. Everything in this camp belongs to me.”

Then Laban’s face softened. “But,” he said, giving Jacob’s shoulder a friendly tap, “what can I do? I’ve met my match. Let’s make a promise between us.”

“Gather stones,” Jacob said to his children as he removed a boulder from the side of the hill and rolled it into the middle of the camp. Reuben and his brothers brought stones and made a pile near where Jacob set the boulder.

Laban and Jacob called the place The Witness Pile, each in his own tongue. Laban called it “Jegarsahadutha” in Aramaic, and Jacob called it “Galeed” in Hebrew. They called the boulder “Mizpah,” Watchpost.

Laban said, “God’s watching you and me when we’re apart. If you hurt my daughters or take other wives, God sees what you’ve done. This pile of stones and this boulder are a boundary. Neither you nor I will cross them to do the other harm. As these stones are a witness, may God be the judge.”

Jacob swore by his father’s faith and offered a sacrifice on top of the hill, and everyone from both camps threw an all-night party.

In the morning, Laban got up and loaded his camels, kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, and blessed them. He and his entourage left for Haran.

When Jacob and his family left to continue their journey south to Canaan, he met a company of angels on the way. He named that area “Mahanaim,” Two Camps 

Inspiration: Genesis 31, 32

Welling up

Isaac farmed a piece of land in that country, reaping a hundredfold the very same year. His sheep and livestock were so numerous that the Philistines raged with jealousy.

This wasn’t the first time a Hebrew and his wealth caused the Philistines to misbehave. In the days of Abraham, they had clogged all the wells dug by his father’s servants to deter him from success.

So Abimelech said, “You’re too mighty. You have to leave.”

Without argument, Isaac left Gerar proper and settled in the valley. Isaac dug out the wells that had been filled in by the Philistines in his father’s day, and he restored the names his father had given them.

One particular well discovered by Isaac’s servants in the valley caught the attention of the local shepherds, and they contested its ownership. Isaac named the well “Esek,” Strife. Isaac’s servants dug another well, and again the local herders fought with him. He named that one “Sitnah,” Hatred.

Finally, Isaac dug another without contention. “Now this area is big enough for all of us,” he said. “We’ll be prosperous here.” He called the well “Rehoboth,” Wide Open.

After this, he went to Beersheba, where his father and Abimelech had made their promise to one another. The first night he arrived there, God appeared to him, saying, “I’m the God of your father. Don’t be afraid. I’m with you, and I’ll bless you. I’ll make your descendants multiply for your father’s sake.”

Isaac built an altar, called on the name of God, and settled there. Isaac’s servants dug a well at that spot too.

Abimelech paid Isaac a visit with his adviser Ahuzzath and his army commander Phicol.

“Well, this is a surprise,” Isaac said, inviting them into his tent. “You made it pretty clear you despise me. What can I do for you?”

Abimelech said, “It’s obvious that God is with you, so let’s promise we’ll leave each other alone. We’ve never touched you, and we sent you away in peace.”

Isaac prepared a bunch of food, and they all partied into the night. In the morning the king and his entourage left in peace. That same day, Isaac’s servants reported that they found water while digging yet another well.

“Let’s call it “Shibah,” Isaac said, naming it Oath. “And let’s name this city Beersheba as well.”

Inspiration: Genesis 26

God provides

One day, God dealt Abraham an untenable command. “Take Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a human sacrifice on a mountain I’ll show you in Moriah.”

Abraham got up early from a restless night’s sleep and woke his son. He saddled a donkey and cut up some wood for a burnt offering. Taking a couple of servants with him, Abraham and his son headed north for Moriah. After three days of travel, he looked out and saw the place God had designated for the altar.

“Stay here with the donkey and supplies,” Abraham told his servants. “Isaac and I will go up, worship, and then return.” Abraham gave the wood to his son, while he carried the lighted firepot and the knife. They walked together up the steep hill to the place of worship.

“Father,” Isaac called out as they walked along. “We have fire and wood, but where is the lamb for our offering?”

“God himself will bring the lamb, son,” Abraham said, a lump welling in his throat. They continued to walk on together. “God always provides for the faithful.”

When they reached the right spot, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood accordingly. Next, he bound his son and lifted him up onto the platform.

Abraham brought the sharp knife close to the boy’s throat for a quick, clean cut, and with tears searing his face, an angel from God called out from the sky. “Abraham!”

Abraham halted, the knife tremoring in his hand. “Here I am,” he ejaculated.

“Don’t harm the boy in any way,” he answered. “I know now that you fear God since you’ve withheld nothing you treasure.”

Abraham cut the cords that bound his son and wiped the tears from his bloodshot eyes. He looked up and spotted a ram, its horns tangled in a thicket. Taking the animal, he put it onto the woodpile in place of his son and offered it up as a sacrifice to God.

For the remainder of the time they worshiped on the mountain, and neither Abraham nor Isaac spoke. Amidst the smoke and silence, the angel called out. “God promises by his own name that because you’ve been obedient and not withheld your treasure from me, I will absolutely bless you and make your family as numerous as the stars in the sky. They will conquer their enemies, and by them, all nations will be blessed.”

Abraham and his beloved son returned to the servants who were camping below, unaware of the profound experience both men of God received. In the morning they got up and traveled down to Beersheba.

Abraham settled there, and word reached him that his brother Nahor became the father of eight sons, of whom, Bethuel became the father of a little girl named Rebekah.

Inspiration: Genesis 22

Parting ways

Abram now had an uncounted inventory of gold, silver, and livestock. He and Sarai, along with his nephew Lot resumed their circuit of travel, making their way back around to Shechem, where God first promised Abram he’d bring forth blessed nations from his family. The first altar he had built remained unblemished, so he conversed with God there in the evenings.

Lot was also getting wealthy, and soon the land couldn’t support both estates. The shepherds of both clans bickered more frequently, but when Lot’s herders started a turf war against the other, Abram intervened.

He met with his nephew by a creek one day. The smell of sun-soaked soil and rock was pleasant, and the water trickling over the pebbles altered their otherwise collectively foul mood. “Look,” Abram said, his jaw set,  “I’m not going to fight with you, and I’m certainly not going to allow our herders to go to blows. We’re all family here.”

Abram put an arm around Lot and gave him a quarter turn from where he stood. “Elevate your gaze, man. All this land is ours,” he said, making a sweeping gesture across the vast horizon. “Let’s agree that if you go east, I’ll go west. If you go west, I’ll go east.”

Lot looked around, his eyes narrowed. To the east, he saw the lush plains of Jordan, with her natural irrigation systems and cascading rivers, reminiscent of the fables of Eden.

“I’ll go east,” Lot said, biting his lip.

“And so it will be,” Abram concluded.

Lot spread his estate among the cities of the plains. He purchased property within the city limits of Sodom, a town known for its pride, laziness, and sexual appetite.

Abram moved westward, bringing his people and possessions to the beating heart of Canaan.

“Look up from the spot you’re standing on,” God said. “Look north, south, east, and west. These wide, open spaces will be yours forever.” And he promised, “I’ll make your children as numerous as the stars.”

The more he heard the promise, the more God added to it, and the more real it seemed. Abram settled down in Hebron at a place called Mamre Oaks where he built another altar to await the fruition of all that God had promised him.

Inspiration: Genesis 13

Abram’s call

Your son Canaan will bow to Shem.

From Shem’s family line, the so-called Semites, a man named Abram emerged from a Babylonian speck called Ur. He and his wife Sarai had lived with his father’s tribe north of Ur in Haran.

Abram hoisted himself upon the highest hill in Haran and surveyed the modern trading mecca. On the horizon, an imposing castle of great basaltic blocks overshadowed the temple of the moon-god. Here, God’s voice began to ring in his ears.

“Take your herds and head south. You’ll settle in a place I’ve designated for you, and for the fulfillment of a promise I’m making to save all humankind.”

Abram listened as God’s voice echoed in his dreams.

“You’ll become a nation of glory,” God told him, “blessed and renowned. Those who bless you will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed. Because of your dominion, Abram of Ur, every family in the world will have reason to celebrate.”

Abram took God at his word. When he was seventy-five years old, he straightened his spine, packed his bags, and loaded up his wife, his nephew Lot, their livestock, and all the servants they had acquired in Haran. Together they journeyed voluntarily into dust-swirled chaos.

Traveling through Canaan, they stopped at Moreh Grove in Shechem. God said, “This will be the land of your children.”

Abram had no children and knew his wife was barren, but he built an altar anyway, willing to stretch himself beyond his personal limits, believing that God’s word was His bond.

From Shechem, he and his entourage continued trekking south, living off the fruit and fat of the land. All along the route, Abram would order his surroundings by building one altar after another. His confidence was a magnificent stone castle in its own right, and his resolve to take possession of a new kingdom was fueled by a God who would show up indiscriminately to repeat his promise of wide, open spaces and endless descendants.

Inspiration: Genesis 10-12; I Chronicles 1

Sea sick

Noah let fly a raven through an access hatch, but the waters continued to swell for another five months. Finding no place to land, it returned.

Seven months later, the large vessel and its living cargo lodged itself in a cleft on Mount Ararat, and for three months the waters continued to drain outward into the seas.

After spending about a year on the boat, Noah released a dove, but it too returned. He rereleased the dove seven days later, this time returning with an olive leaf in its beak. After another seven days, he released the dove for the third time. Noah never saw the dove again.

Noah and his family decided it was safe to disembark. They had lived in the floating house for a year and two months, and by that time, their claustrophobia was full blown.

Noah gathered the seven pairs of split-hooved animals, as well as the seven pairs of birds. Instead of using them for clothing or some other resource, he built an altar and incinerated them as a sacrifice.

This gesture so pleased God that he said, “I’ll never again curse the earth or destroy all creatures because of humankind. The human heart is hell-bent from an early age and needs saving. May the seasons endure. I’ll provide a way of promise, hope, and salvation.”

Then God made a new promise between himself and humankind. “Multiply yourselves and populate the whole earth. From this day, the animal kingdom will fear you, for they are now yours for food. I gave Adam and Eve the gardens; I now provide you with everything. However, don’t eat the blood of animals. Blood is life. For that matter, whoever causes human bloodshed will pay with his blood. I have encoded My image in human blood.”

Then God ordained a sign of his promise. “Whenever you see a rainbow,” he said, “remember that I’ll never again destroy the earth because of human evil.”

Inspiration: Genesis 7-9