Satan’s wager

High upon the isolated hills near Uz, a righteous priest named Job placed his tenth blood-let ram on the smoldering altar. Watching the flesh ignite against the white-hot bed of wood and fat, he prayed for his youngest daughter’s soul and repeated her name until the swirling black smoke turned to a webby haze of gray.

He had spent the solitary hours before sunrise atoning for the sins of his ten children, who had frolicked and feasted the night before and had almost inevitably cursed God in at least one careless breath before finally sinking into a drunken slumber of forgetfulness.

Job’s blameless reputation and matchless wealth was the stuff of legends, at a time when great evil spread as quickly as humankind itself, eastward across the arid expanse of Mesopotamia.

The man had a wife and ten grown children, seven sons and three daughters. His fields were peppered with seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, a thousand beasts of burden, and as many servants as a census could count.

Job’s sons lived in the city at the mountain base. Their lives consisted of squandering their father’s coin and throwing lavish festivals at one another’s homes. Inviting their sisters and every neighbor within shouting distance to join in the gaiety, Job’s sons would drink and dine, often until their merriment roused the sun the next morning.

Job tended to keep to himself, deep inside his head for most of the day, keeping earnest vigil with his God. When his sons’ feast days had run their course, he would rise early and toil up the hill, leading by rope another train of sacrificial animals.

The smell of burnt flesh coming off the altar wafted high into the secret courts of heaven, and God took pleasure in it. A host of Watchers returned from their earthly posts and presented themselves before God’s throne, and the serpentine dragon, Satan, was among them.

“Where did you come from?” God asked the outsider, unamused by the interruption.

“I have come from walking the earth,” Satan hissed, “seeing whom I might satisfy with my services.”

God smirked. “Have you tried my faithful servant Job? In righteousness, there is no equal. Out of reverence for me, he shuns all evil and does only what is good.”

“Surely you see why he shows such loyalty,” Satan replied. “You shield him on every side and bless every seed he sows. Separate the man from his possessions, and watch him curse you to your face.”

“Very well. Everything Job owns is released to your influence,” God said. “Only, you may not harm the man himself.”

With that, the dragon took his leave and went to work on God’s blameless servant.

Inspiration: Job 1

Israel’s relocation

Joseph gave his brothers food and fresh, clean garments for the journey back to Canaan. He gave his brother Benjamin five changes of clothes and three hundred pieces of silver.

Then he loaded ten male donkeys with select Egyptian goods and ten female donkeys with grain, bread, and other foods for the journey to Canaan and back.

“Don’t fight along the way,” Joseph said with a grin. “Especially you, Simeon and Levi. And don’t sell anyone to traders, Judah.”

When the brothers arrived home, they immediately went to Israel’s tent to give him the news. “Joseph is alive, and he’s the ruler of all Egypt!”

Israel didn’t believe them until he heard how Joseph revealed himself and what he said. When he looked out of his tent and saw the wagons and donkeys, Israel’s spirit was enlivened. He felt like a new man.

“What are we waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s go and live under the care of the one who saved us from death!”

On the way to Egypt, they passed through Beersheba, the place where his grandfather Abraham made a pact with a king. Israel, no longer as young as he used to be, began to doubt the safety of his travels. He found the remnants of an old altar there and offered sacrifices to the God of Abraham and Isaac.

Then he heard the voice of God in the night.

“Jacob, don’t be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there you will become the nation I promised to your father’s father, Abraham. I’ll be there with you when you go down to Egypt, and after your beloved Joseph closes your eyes with his own hands, I’ll be with you as you go back up.”

The next morning, Israel journeyed west toward the land of Egypt. His sons carried Israel, the sons’ wives, and sixty-six children in wagons, with a train of livestock and goods acquired in Canaan following behind them.

As the caravan of Israel neared the land of Goshen, seventy in number, he sent his son Judah ahead to announce their arrival.

Joseph’s chariots entered Goshen shortly after Israel and his family arrived, and the brothers greeted the young viceroy and his entourage with fresh water. They led Joseph to a shade tree where his father was resting.

When Israel saw his son, he stood and embraced him. Joseph wept on his father’s neck for several minutes.

“I can die peacefully,” Israel said, holding his son close, “now that I know you’re alive and well.”

Joseph composed himself and addressed his brothers and their father. “I’m on my way to present myself to Pharaoh. I’ll tell him my family has come from Canaan to settle here. When you see Pharaoh, and he asks about your occupation, tell him, ‘Your servants are shepherds, like our fathers before us.’ Because shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians, he’ll “force” you to settle here in nearby Goshen.”

Inspiration: Genesis 45, 46

God’s promise

After Abram’s conquest and victory over the king of Elam, he stirred sleeplessly in the night, fearing retaliation.

“Don’t be frightened, Abram.” God appeared in a vision one night. “I’m your protection, and great will be your reward.”

Abram remembered the promise God had made when he called him out of Haran, so he answered, “But what will you give me? I’m childless, and my legacy is my adopted son and servant Eliezer.”

God’s message was unmistakable. “Eliezer won’t be your heir. Your own flesh and blood will pave the way of my promise.”

God led Abram outside of his tent and said, “Count the stars if you can. Your sons and daughters will be as many.”

Abram mustered renewed faith in the promise, and for that, God considered him righteous.

“I’m God. I took your father from Ur and took you from Haran to give you everything as far as the eye can see.”

Abram stammered. “Help me believe.”

“We’ll make a pact,” was God’s reply. “Bring me a heifer, a female goat, and a ram, all of them three years old. Also bring a turtledove and a pigeon.”

Abram did as he was told, cut them in half, and stacked each piece onto the other. The birds he left whole. Abram guarded the sign of God’s promise against the birds of prey circling overhead, shooing them from the pyre until, around sunset, he dozed off.

Abram descended into a terrifying nightmare. The circling vultures turned into the captors of his future offspring, and he saw them being carried off to a strange land for four hundred years.

“Your descendants will be slaves, poorly treated and beaten down,” God said in the dream, “but I will punish the nation responsible. In the end, they will know my might, and they will inherit great riches.” Then He said, “As for you, you’ll die at a ripe old age and will be buried in peace.”

Abram’s night terrors subsided, and his breathing calmed. God appeared once more and said, “Your offspring will come back here and take the land in the fourth generation, for at that time the Amorites will have come to ruin because of their evil practices.”

The sky went black, and a smoking firepot and a lighted torch passed between the carcasses. God said, “I give this land to your blood relations, from the Nile all the way to the Euphrates.” The pyre, the sign of God’s promise, was ignited, the animal flesh burned up in the holy fire.

As dawn approached, the presence of God lingered, and the fire’s embers smoldered into fine dust.

Inspiration: Genesis 15

Abram’s call

The brawny shepherd hoisted himself onto the peak of 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.

From Shem’s family line had come the so-called Semites, and one such shepherd, Abram, considered the Babylonian city of Ur his first home.

He and his wife Sarai had migrated north to the sprawling metropolis of Haran with his father’s tribe.

As Abram stood overlooking the vast expanse of Haran, the ancient Semitic legend rang in his ears.

Canaan will bow to Shem.

Then God suddenly spoke.

“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