Why didn’t Isaac confront Jacob about stealing Esau’s blessing?

Q. Why didn’t Isaac confront Jacob about stealing the blessing meant for his brother Esau?

Your question is about the account in the book of Genesis of how Isaac’s younger son Jacob tricked his father into giving him, rather than his brother Esau, the blessing that Esau should have received as the older brother. Readers in many contemporary cultures will have questions about this account because in it, the authority figure (Isaac, the father) does not act in the way we would hope and expect authority figures to act.

For one thing, as you suggest, from the perspective of many contemporary cultures, Isaac should have confronted his son about his deception and theft and corrected him. Beyond that, many contemporary readers will wonder in the first place why, when Isaac realized what had happened (“Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.,” he told Esau), he did not retract the blessing that Jacob had obtained fraudulently. Was it really the norm in this culture for people to be bound by their word, even if they had been led to give it under false circumstances?

Apparently so. There is a comparable account in the book of Judges of how the Gibeonites, a tribe living in the land of Canaan, deceived the Israelites into swearing an oath of peace with them by pretending to be a group that lived far from Canaan. The Israelites were supposed to destroy all of the Canaanite tribes, but when they finally learned who the Gibeonites really were, they said, “We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now.”

As I said, this may seem strange to many contemporary readers. We do not consider people to be bound by their word if they have made a statement under compromised circumstances. In the United States, for example, a confession can be dismissed as evidence if it can be shown that it was made under duress. What readers of the Bible may wonder most is how God could consider people to be bound by their word under such circumstances. Isn’t God fair? Why would God hold people to statements they would not have made if they had not been deceived?

I think the answer, as we see often in the Bible, is that God chooses to work within the conventions of human cultures to pursue his redemptive purposes. The Bible clearly disallows many cultural practices that are destructive of human flourishing. But in general, as I have said in other posts on this blog, God works out his plan through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, accommodating human cultures in the process. Rather than completely setting aside the cultures humans have built, which are often for the most part positive creative achievements, God looks at a situation and says, “I can work with that.”

But this brings up an important interpretive principle: As one of my seminary professors used to say, “Narrative is not necessarily normative.” Just because Isaac, based on his own cultural norms, considered himself bound by a blessing he had given under false circumstances, that does not mean that we today should enforce the same norm. Rather, I think that based on the counsel of the Bible overall, we should only hold people to their word if it was given fully informed and with free consent.

So to answer your question, I would say that Isaac did not confront Jacob about stealing Esau’s blessing because Isaac considered it a “done deal” according to his cultural norms and there was nothing he could do about it. But we do not need to take that as a model for ourselves today. I think we should instead encourage people who have been led to give their word under false circumstances to take back what they have said and not consider themselves bound by it. And yes, they should confront the person who deceived them and impose any consequences that would be appropriate as a penalty and correction.

I pray, but I have not been baptized; am I a Christian?

Q. I have never been baptized, but I pray a couple of times a day, asking God to forgive me for my mistakes in life and to watch over my family and friends. I feel as if I am a Christian, but I’m not sure.

Regarding the issue of baptism in particular, please see this post, which I think will help answer part of your question:

Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized?

More generally, I would say that I am glad that you have a relationship with God through prayer, but I would like you to have the assurance that you do belong to God through Jesus because of what Jesus did for you when he died on the cross as your Savior. The Bible teaches that we can have confidence about this through faith in God’s promises and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

But this confidence is not something we are expected to acquire on our own. Being a Christian is not a matter of pursuing certain devotional practices in isolation; it is a matter of becoming part of a community of people who love and serve God together. So I would encourage you to seek out such a community near you, a church that honors and worships Jesus, and find your place in it so that you can grow in your knowledge of God and in your confidence that you are indeed a Christian through faith in Jesus.

I trust that in this way, God will indeed bring you to the place where you are sure that you do belong to him.

Does the Old Testament really talk about Satan?

Q. In my studies, I’ve been troubled by the fact that the Old Testament rarely references Satan. When it does, it is vague at best and usually refers to him in some other form. Also, I understand that there are numerous references to “the satan,” which is actually just a way of identifying an accuser. Some agents of God are even referred to that way in the Hebrew. This all makes me feel like Satan is a creation of the New Testament and that the serpent in the garden, or the antagonist in the book of Job, were just generic characters.

Your question is similar to the one that I answer in this post: How can an evil being like Satan be allowed in God’s holy presence, in the book of Job? In that post, I observe about the character whom the narrator of the book of Job calls “the adversary” or “the accuser”:

“While this character is similar to the devil or Satan described in the New Testament, the portrait isn’t drawn as fully in the book of Job. The book doesn’t account for where he came from or how he became opposed to God. It does portray him as a crafty and malicious player within the complex moral web of the universe, but not necessarily as a consummately evil being who could never be allowed into the presence of a holy God.”

There is actually much debate about whether “the adversary” in the book of Job is indeed an “agent of God,” to use your expression, that is, someone who helps God with the moral government of the universe, something like the “devil’s advocate” (that is, the devil’s lawyer) who, in a saint’s trial, makes sure that all the deeds of the candidate for sainthood are fully considered and assessed, but who is not actually opposed to the candidacy. Many interpreters hold instead that “the adversary” is trying to harm Job because he genuinely believes that Job lives in a righteous way simply to receive blessings from God—this character is not capable of believing that people would obey God out of pure devotion. Personally I see the character more in that way, as sinister and malevolent, not working for God’s best interests.

So already in the book of Job, the portrait of Satan is being fleshed out. But I think this is actually one of those teachings that develops over the course of the whole Bible and finds its fullest expression in the New Testament. I think this is the nature of God’s revelation in the Bible: It is progressive; we have to follow the trajectory of a doctrine through all the pages of Scripture to appreciate it fully. I don’t think we can expect every doctrine to be fully articulated on every page right from the start.

Indeed, the New Testament itself indicates how its understanding of Satan expresses a doctrine that has developed throughout Scripture. In the book of Revelation, Satan is symbolized by a dragon, and Revelation explains that the dragon is “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.” So Satan is not a creation of the New Testament, but the fullest understanding of this figure who is diametrically opposed to God is found in the New Testament, which nevertheless helps us trace its own understanding back through the pages of Scripture.

How can we understand and interpret the Bible without “leaning on our own understanding”?

Q. I recently saw two pastors arguing over whether the “cool of the day” in Genesis 3:8 was in the morning or the evening. I was so baffled by this that I did an unscientific Twitter poll and got almost a perfect 50/50 split. Fascinated, I did a Google search and got thousands of results for just this ONE simple topic. The Bible tells us not to lean on our own understanding, but it would seem that this is exactly what every single one of us is doing. So my question is, how do we know we’re not leaning on our own understanding? Unfortunately, I believe it to be an impossible question to answer, because five people can look at the exact same verse and come up with five very different meanings and every single one of them will argue that their interpretation is correct or even inspired. Still, I’d like for you to offer your thoughts on the issue and how you think we can be sure that we’re not leaning on our own understanding.

There seems to be an assumption behind your question, that if we are actually not leaning on our own understanding, but instead allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth as we seek to appreciate God’s word, then we will agree on what the Bible says and what it means. I think this assumption is basically correct, with a few caveats.

First, there are some things that truly are open to interpretation, so we should not expect that people will necessarily agree about those things. To use your example, many interpreters try to understand the phrase “the cool of the day,” literally  “the breeze of the day,” in Genesis 3:8 by appeal to the use of the same phrase in Song of Songs 2:17 and 4:6, where there is a parallel line that might help explain its meaning: “until the cool of the day, when the shadows flee.” But does that mean when the shadows of the night flee with the rising sun, or when the shadows of the day flee with the setting sun? The problem remains: Is this the morning or the evening? In the end, it is a matter about which interpreters of good will who are all well informed can legitimately differ. The literary and linguistic data available to us are simply not sufficient to make a definitive determination. So we should not expect all interpreters to agree. However, we should expect all interpreters to be humble and charitable towards one another and acknowledge that their own understanding cannot be definitive.

This leads to a second caveat: If we want to understand the Bible correctly, we need to read it and reflect on it in the correct spirit. The Bible itself says, “A natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to such a person, who is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” In using the phrase “natural person,” the Bible is ultimately describing such a person’s attitude and source of confidence—where that person is “coming from,” to use the popular expression. This attitude is the opposite of humility and reliance on God, which are the attitudes described in the passage you alluded to in Proverbs 3:5–7: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes.” So one obstacle to understanding what the Bible says and means, evidenced in not agreeing about what it says and means, is simple pride. All of us should examine ourselves constantly and be horrified if we discover that pride is driving even the smallest part of our interpretation of a given passage.

Finally, I would say that, paradoxically, the very approach that led you to despair of people agreeing about the Bible actually is the way in which informed, humble, charitable interpreters ultimately will agree about what it says and means: considering what others say. People sometimes complain, “I just don’t get anything out of the Bible when I sit down to read it by myself.” My pastoral response is, “That’s because you’re sitting down to read the Bible by yourself.” We are not meant to understand the Bible alone, in isolation, by ourselves. We are meant to understand it in community. Admittedly there is a place for private reading as a devotional practice, but our Bible engagement must be more than that. We need the community to help us understand what we will not be able to understand on our own. So, looking around on the Internet, even doing a Twitter poll, are some good steps in that direction. But I would also strongly encourage participating in a regular group Bible study (composed of humble, open people) and being part of a church that has a commitment to sound preaching from the Scriptures with humility and deference to other views.

I think that if you cultivate humility and a reliance on the Holy Spirit in your own Bible engagement, and if you seek to learn from teachers and preachers who cultivate these same attitudes while diligently studying the Scriptures with all of the tools and training at their disposal, while you will not find that all questions are resolved by unanimous agreement within the entire church, I think you will find that many of your questions about the Bible are resolved to your satisfaction.

If humans originally multiplied by Adam and Eve’s children having sexual relations with each other, wasn’t that sin?

Q. When Adam and Eve started a family, how did the children multiply the earth without having relations with each other? After the flood, how did Noah’s family multiply the earth without having relations with each other? How could this be allowed and later a sin? I cannot wrap my head around this. Isn’t sin sin?

This is an excellent question. The Bible does indeed teach that the human race is descended from a single couple and that it is sinful to have sexual relations with a close relative such as a sibling.

But I think the reason why we have a problem trying to wrap our minds around this is that we tend to feel that if there are any circumstances at all under which an activity would not be sinful, then it must actually be not sinful in all circumstances. But that is not a necessary conclusion. There are, in fact, some extraordinary circumstances in which activities are justifiable that would not be justified in general, and this does not reduce morality to “situation ethics” in which the right thing to do is simply the right thing to do in a given situation.

For example, in her book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells about the moral dilemma that she and her family felt about lying in order to protect the Jews they were sheltering. She describes how some Christians who were sheltering Jews felt they could not, under any circumstances, say that something was true if it was not true. And so when Nazi soldiers came to their homes and demanded to know if there were any Jews there, they would admit that there were and turn the Jews over to the Nazis, who put them in concentration camps and killed many of them. Corrie and her family, for their part, would lie and say that they had no Jews in their home. By doing that, they saved many lives. I think that many Christians who believe and follow the Bible’s teachings about sin would feel that they did the right thing. (For a fuller discussion, see the series that begins with this post: Does God let us use deception for a good cause?)

To take up an even more exceptional example, consider the much-discussed case of the charter flight that crashed in the Andes in 1972. The survivors of the crash recognized once search-and-rescue efforts had been abandoned. After eating all of the available food and even trying to eat cotton and leather from the plane’s seats, they ultimately realized, after agonizing reflection and conversations among themselves, that they could only continue to survive by eating the bodies of the passengers who had died in the crash. They did so, and the world was amazed when, two months after the crash, two of the survivors succeeded in hiking over a glacier and down into a sparsely inhabited valley to get help.

The survivors were all Catholic, and a priest heard their confessions. The priest told them that they would not be damned for cannibalism, given the extreme situation that they had been in. Several of the families of passengers who had died in the crash said they were certain that their loved ones would have wanted to give their bodies in order to save the lives of the others. This episode is still widely discussed. But even those who say that the survivors did the right thing do not argue from it that cannibalism should be permitted under anything other than such very extreme circumstances.

So, to return to your question, let me respond to it with another question, which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority of the Bible, might answer differently. Suppose a disaster struck the earth and the only two people who survived were a brother and sister of child-bearing age, who knew for certain that they were the only humans left. Would they be morally justified in marrying one another and having children in order to continue the human race?

What is true religion, according to the Bible?

Q. What does the Bible say about true religion, and how are we to identify it today?

Let me respond to your question about “true religion” in a couple of senses.

In terms of true religion, we might ask when religion is truly what it should be. James, a brother of Jesus who was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem, spoke directly to this question in his New Testament epistle: “Religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, the Bible says that religion is truly what it should be when it leads people to help others who are in need and to live in an honorable and morally pure way. Another way to put this would be to say that people are truly living out their religion when they do these things. The Bible suggests that this is a legitimate expectation that others can have of people who claim to be religious.

We might also ask what makes religion “true” in the sense of genuinely teaching what God is like and how people can know God. You asked specifically what the Bible says about this, and the Bible says that in Jesus, God came to earth and revealed to us what God is like. As the apostle John wrote in his gospel, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [God the Heavenly Father] except through me.” So according to the Bible, true religion is that which points people to Jesus as the way to God.

The Bible indeed identifies Jesus as the way to God, but it also demonstrates that God will take any way necessary to get to us. It illustrates, for example, how Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, an elderly Jewish leader, about being born again, but to a Samaritan woman whom he met at a well about living water. Jesus introduced himself as the light of the world to a blind man he healed. The apostle Paul preached from the Hebrew Scriptures when he spoke to Jews in the synagogues, but he quoted from Greek philosophers when he spoke in the Areopagus in Athens. So we can expect, on the Bible’s own testimony, that God will reach through the whole range of human cultures and languages to help people find the truth that the Bible says is uniquely in Jesus.

Touching a leper did not make Jesus unclean; was that because he was God?

Q. Jesus healed a leper by touching him. According to the law of Moses, that contact with a leper should have rendered Jesus ceremonially unclean. But he was not defiled. Instead, this contact purified the diseased man. Is that because Jesus is God?

Here is the episode you are asking about, from the gospel of Matthew: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Stretching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, ‘I am willing, be clean!’ Immediately the man was cleansed of his leprosy.”

As I have discussed in other posts on this blog (such as this one and this one), Jesus was able to do the remarkable things he did on earth not because he was God (though he was indeed God), but because he was fully yielded to God and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In that way Jesus sets an example for us and offers a challenge to us, to be equally yielded and empowered and to do great things in his name.

So if it was not because Jesus was God that he did not become unclean by touching the leper, why, then, did Jesus not become unclean? I think the answer lies in the nature of God’s acts. When God does something, at what point is it accurate to say that he has done it? When we see the actual results on earth? Or when God declares that it is his purpose for something to be?

When Jesus healed the leper, this was a “performative action,” that is, an action that was “performed” by speaking. It was along the same lines as when Ephron the Hittite said to Abraham, “I hereby give you the field,” meaning that by virtue of saying that, he was transferring the field to Abraham.

The Greek text of the episode we are discussing makes clear (by using a present participle) that Jesus said “I am willing, be clean!” as he was stretching out his hand to touch the leper. So Jesus touched the leper not in order to heal and cleanse him but in order to affirm that the leper had been healed and cleansed and could now be restored to human community. (Jesus sets a further example for us here by being concerned not just for the man’s physical health but also for his restoration to warm human relationships.)

Matthew relates that the leper was cleansed “immediately” when Jesus made this declaration and touched him. That is, all traces of the disease disappeared from his body. But this was the manifestation of what was already true as soon as Jesus declared it.

I think there is a devotional application here for all of us: What things has God declared about us that are in the process of being manifested? How can we cooperate with that manifestation process?

Do we have to be even more righteous than very good people in order to go to heaven?

Q. I have been troubled by what Jesus says in Mathew 5:20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course I want to do what is righteous, but as humans we all fall short. I always thought we were saved and would join Jesus in heaven by His grace and that His sacrifice is enough if we invite him into our life. And yet there seem to be stipulations. 

Jesus made the statement you are asking about not to specify stipulations but to correct a misunderstanding. He introduces it by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” It appears that some people were misunderstanding Jesus’ emphasis on loving God and neighbor as the fulfillment of the law to mean that people no longer needed to measure their conduct by the law and conform to it. Some people apparently thought that Jesus was saying they could now do whatever they wanted. So Jesus was correcting that wrong impression.

However, Jesus was nevertheless not making a prescriptive statement but a descriptive one. While he made the statement negatively, it has a positive meaning. Jesus was saying, in effect, “If you will enter the kingdom of heaven, then your righteousness will surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.” He meant that loving God and neighbor would result in people fulfilling the law even more perfectly than scrupulous observance. These results would come specifically through the transforming effects of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. (The apostle Paul explains this well in his letters.)

And the expectation is not that a believer in Jesus will immediately be transformed and start fulfilling the law completely through loving obedience to God. Jesus also told parables comparing the kingdom of God, in the world and in a believer’s life, to seeds growing and yeast rising. In other words, Jesus used examples of slow, organic growth to describe the progress of God’s work. And that is what we should be looking for: growth, progress, in obedience. If we see that and recognize it as the effects of the Holy Spirit’s influence through our faith in Jesus, we can be encouraged that we will indeed enter the kingdom of heaven.

Are we really supposed to “command” God as it says in Isaiah?

Q. In Isaiah 45:11, God says, “Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command me.” Does God really want us to command him and tell him what to do?

God is using the imperative form here (“ask,” “command”) in an ironic sense. God is actually telling those who would challenge him that they do not have the wisdom or the power to question what he is doing or to try to keep him from doing it. This is clear from the immediate context, in which God says,

Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker …
Does the clay say to the potter,
    ‘What are you making?’
Does your work say,
    ‘The potter has no hands’?
Woe to the one who says to a father,
    ‘What have you begotten?’
or to a mother,
    ‘What have you brought to birth?’

So it is clear that God actually does not want the people he is addressing to question him or tell him to do something else.

Many versions translate the imperative form in such a way as to show that it is ironic. For example: “How dare you question me about my children or command me regarding the work of my hands!” Other versions translate the imperatives as rhetorical questions. For example: “Do you question what I do for my children? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands?” Both of these approaches show what is really going on in this passage.

We sometimes use ironic imperatives in English. For example, if someone threatens us, we might say, “See if I care.” In other words, “Go ahead and carry out your threat, and see if I care what you have done.” We do not really want the other person to carry out the threat. We are simply telling the person that what they are threatening to do would make no difference to us, and so they should not even bother doing it. We are actually telling them not to do it by telling them to do it—an ironic imperative.

Does the Bible say that we should or shouldn’t cross ourselves?

Q. Is there anywhere in the Bible that says we should or shouldn’t cross ourselves? Or is there an example where someone may have crossed themselves? Or is there anything in the Bible that’s supports me crossing myself? By crossing ourselves, I mean the expression of the Holy Trinity, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Thanks for any help.

The Bible does not say that believers in Jesus should or should not cross themselves. The Bible does not depict anyone crossing himself or herself. However, the activity falls into a category that the Bible provides very clear teaching about.

I refer to activities in this category as “insignia.” They are things that we do to signify that we belong to God. Further examples would include wearing a cross on a necklace or pin, wearing a WWJD bracelet, refraining from certain activities on Sundays, abstaining from certain foods or drinks, or calling fellow believers “brother” and “sister.”

In the Old Testament, insignia were required. God told the Israelites, for example, to eat certain foods and not to eat other foods. This was a way of showing that they belonged to him. He said in Leviticus that they must “make a distinction between clean and unclean animals,” that is, between those they could eat and those they could not eat, because “I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

Similarly God told the Israelites to observe the seventh day of the week as a day of rest on which they would do no work. He said in Exodus, “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come.”

But the people of God in the New Testament are not a single nation that God has set apart from all the other nations as a model of how God wants people to live. The people of God are now a multinational community. There are still insignia in a sense: The character qualities that the Holy Spirit builds into the life of each believer are a sign that that believer is living as part of a community that belongs to God. Jesus said of love, the supreme character quality that underlies all the others, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

But the people of God now follow a wide variety of cultural practices, so insignia of the Old Testament type have become a matter of personal conviction. They are not required, and they are not forbidden. Rather, the principle is, as Paul wrote in the case of Sabbath observance, “Each person should be fully convinced in his or her own mind” that it is appropriate either to participate in the insignia activity or not to participate in it. The New Testament says the same thing about some other specific activities such as eating or not eating certain foods and drinking or not drinking wine. These specific teachings express the general principle I have described.

The same principle would apply to crossing oneself. If you are comfortable doing that as a non-verbal form of prayer (perhaps accompanying verbal prayers, spoken or silent) or as an act of worship (upon entering a sanctuary, for example) or as a way of identifying yourself as a follower of Jesus, then you are perfectly free to do so. But you are not required to do so. If you belong to a particular group of believers who have agreed among themselves to follow this practice, while it would still not be required biblically, you would probably want to follow the same practice yourself as a shared devotional expression with the believers with whom you are in closest fellowship.

Let me finish by sharing a story. I customarily bow my head and give thanks silently to God before a meal. One day when I was in college, I wanted to do this in the dining hall, but I also didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for anyone who might not understand what I was doing. So I waited until everyone else at the table was otherwise occupied. Then I briefly bowed my head, closed my eyes, and said grace. When I lifted my head and opened my eyes, the girl sitting across from me was looking right at me. She asked, “No … ?” and made the sign of crossing herself. “No,” I replied somewhat awkwardly, “I’m not …” and made the same sign myself. I learned from the experience that crossing oneself actually is something that most people understand and are comfortable with!