Why does Isaac refer to Jacob’s “brothers” if he only had one?

Q. Did Jacob and Esau have siblings? When Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he is blessing Esau), he says, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.” This leads me to believe there were siblings, even though they are not mentioned anywhere else in the story.

This is a very perceptive question. I have to admit that even thoudh I’d read this episode many times before, I never noticed the issue.

I think it is unlikely that there were siblings. We learn earlier in Genesis that for a long time Isaac and Rebekah were unable to have children. Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, but he was sixty years old when Esau and Jacob were born, after “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife,” and “the Lord answered his prayer.” (As a side note, I don’t think Isaac waited twenty years before he started praying for Rebekah. Rather, I think this is an example of someone who persevered in prayer over a long time and finally had his request granted. It illustrates, as Jesus said, that we should continue in prayer and not give up.) But given these circumstances, it does seem unlikely that Isaac and Rebekah had further children, and indeed the Bible doesn’t describe them having any more.

So what, then, does Isaac mean by “your brothers” and “the sons of your mother”? Interpreters who do address the issue tend to take these phrases as referring to all related tribes. Ellicott says in his commentary, for example, that they would “include all nations sprung from Abraham, and all possible offshoots from Isaac’s own descendants” (in other words, all of the tribes and clans that eventually came from Esau). Keil and Delitzsch observe that Isaac’s entire blessing first envisions present agricultural prosperity (“an abundance of grain and new wine“), but it then looks forward to the “future pre-eminence of his son”: not only over “kindred tribes,” but also over foreign “nations and peoples.” In fact, “The blessing rises to the idea of universal dominion, which was to be realized in the fact that, according to the attitude assumed by the people towards him as their lord, it would secure to them either a blessing or a curse.”

Ironically, Isaac doesn’t realize that he is conferring all of these blessings on Jacob rather than Esau. But as events unfold and God works out His plan through the choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, Jacob becomes a transformed man, he is renamed Israel, and he becomes the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. As a result, as Paul writes in Galatians, “the blessing given to Abraham” (and repeated to Isaac, and passed on here by Isaac to Jacob) “came to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” And so it is no longer a matter of being one of Jacob’s “brethren” (a member of a kindred tribe), but of assuming an attitude of loyalty and obedience to his greatest descendant Jesus as Lord, that enables a person to share in the blessings that are embodied in Isaac’s words.

 

What is the Bible trying to say at the end of Hebrews 11?

Q. Hebrews 11:39,40: Please help me understand what God is telling us as the summation of this chapter. Appreciate this site so much. Thank you. Just ordered The Books of the Bible NT.

Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog. I’m  glad you’re finding it helpful. I trust you’ll have a great experience with The Books of the Bible.

To respond to your question, Hebrews 11 ends this way: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” What God is trying to tell us through this becomes clear at the beginning of the next chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In other words, we would expect that all the heroes described in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith” would already have been richly rewarded by God. Instead, we discover that they have not yet received their rewards. This might not seem fair to us, and so we ask why they haven’t been rewarded. The reason, we learn in these concluding words of the chapter, is that God wants all the faithful people down through the ages to receive their rewards together—perhaps as a single company united across time by their devotion to God through uncertainty, difficulty, and persecution. And that is supposed to inspire us to live up to the example of these faithful and courageous people ourselves. And just in case we need any more inspiration, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus in the same terms as the heroes of the faith who came before him, but also explaining that he is the one who  set the entire company in motion and who is the ultimate example of its character (“the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”).

So once we finish reading about all these faithful people, we’re not supposed to say, “Well, good for them.” We’re supposed to say, “God is counting on me to be like them!” And with the same kind of faith, we can be.

I can’t resist noting that this is a place where the traditional chapter divisions of the Bible, which were added many hundreds of years after its books were written, do us a real disservice in understanding its meaning. There’s not supposed to be any gap or break between “God is waiting to reward them and us together” and, “Therefore, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As you experienced, it’s hard to understand the first part without the second part. But the way we typically approach the Bible (a chapter at a time in sermons, study groups, or private devotions), we might not hear the second part until a day or a week later. In fact, we might never hear it at all if we’re in a topical study that has chosen Hebrews 11 for “faith” and will move on next to 1 Corinthians 13 for “love.”

So I commend you for puzzling over what really is a puzzle without what comes next, and for reaching out to ask about it. I also commend you for ordering a copy of the New Testament that doesn’t have any chapters or verses!

Why wasn’t Daniel’s name changed like that of his three friends?

Q. Why was Daniel’s name allowed to remain ‘Daniel’? His trio of friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had their names changed to ones in the Babylonian language. Curious to learn. Thank you.

Actually, Daniel was given a Babylonian name himself at the same time as his friends. The book of Daniel tells us that when these four  were brought to Babylon and enrolled in training to become servants at the royal court, the official responsible for them “gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.”

However, the book of Daniel does treat its central figure differently in this regard from his three friends, and that’s probably what has struck you. It continues to call him Daniel in its own narrative, though it does note in three places that he was “also called Belteshazzar“; the Babylonian characters in the book also address him by that name. By contrast, the book calls his three friends by their Hebrew names only in the first episode and at the beginning of the second one; after that, even in its own narrative it uses their Babylonian names.

It’s not clear why this is the case. It’s possible that the third episode, in which the three friends are the central characters (it’s also the last one in which they appear), is based on a Babylonian source, which would have used their Babylonian names, and they have simply been carried over. While the second episode does use their Hebrew names at the beginning, it uses their Babylonian names at the end; this might be to help create continuity leading into the next episode. Daniel, on the other hand, might have been known so well by that name by the book’s intended audience that the authors or compilers might have supplied his Hebrew name when their sources said Belteshazzar, but kept the Babylonian name in an “also known as” parenthesis. However, this is speculative; we don’t know for sure.

Whatever the case, these names are not just a matter of historical curiosity. They have something to teach us about faithfully following God in our own day. As I observe in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Daniel and his friends had to decide how much of the Babylonian
culture they could adopt without fatally compromising their faith. They
didn’t take an all-or-nothing approach. They didn’t say, “You’ve got to go
along if you want to get along,” and agree to everything the Babylonians
expected. They also didn’t say that everything Babylonian was evil and had
to be rejected. They diligently studied the “language and literature of the
Babylonians,” even though this literature centered around the exploits of
foreign gods. They also accepted new names that praised these gods instead
of their own God:

• Daniel (“God is my judge/vindicator”) became Belteshazzar (a
name that invoked the Babylonian god Bel);
• Hananiah (“Yahweh is gracious”) became Shadrach (“companion
of Aku”);
• Mishael (“Who is like God?”) became Meshach (again invoking
Aku); and
• Azariah (“Yahweh is my help”) became Abednego (“servant of
Nebo”).

Somehow these young men determined that what they were studying,
and the new names they were given, didn’t compromise the essentials of their faith. But they drew the line when it came to eating foods that God had told the Israelites, in the law of Moses, not to eat, because they had a distinct identity as his people.

– – – – –

After those observations, I pose the following questions for reflection and application in the study guide:

What kinds of situations might a person encounter today that
would challenge them to compromise their values and beliefs?

How can a person know where to draw the line in these situations,
so that they cooperate where possible but never compromise
essentials?

I hope these questions are of interest and use to you, and I thank you for your own question.

Daniel and his friends refusing to eat the King’s food, “early 1900s Bible illustration,” courtesy Wikipedia

Two questions from starting to read through the Bible in a year

Q. I just started reading through the Bible in a year with my church. There are things that have stuck out that I am needing to have answered. It’s like God is having me answer harder questions or address them.

1. At the beginning of Genesis, it says that the earth was formless and void and the waters … wait … the earth was there? Formless and void, and there was already water? Can you talk to me about this?

2. And what about when Jacob was fighting with the angel or God, and he couldn’t win, and then he wrenched his hip?

First, I commend you for going on the adventure, with others in your church, of reading through the Bible. I’ve heard other people say similar things when they’ve started reading continuously in the Bible: They notice all kinds of things they never saw before when they were taking a verse-at-a-time or chapter-at-a-time approach, and this has raised all kinds of new and challenging questions. But these are the kinds of questions that really help us go deep in our knowledge of God and his word.

In fact, my motto on this blog is, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” (That’s why I call it Good Question.) So thank you for asking your questions here. Let me refer you to some other posts I’ve written that offer some thoughts in response to similar questions that others have raised.

1. Regarding your question about the water in the opening creation account in Genesis, please see this post:

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post I suggest that we need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.” Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos. It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves. “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness. So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.

As for your question about the earth, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage:

Day 1 according to ancient cosmology

There I suggest that saying that the land had no shape or contents is equivalent to saying that it had not yet been differentiated from the waters. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, in which something the listener already knows to exist is described before it existed. It’s like saying, “The New York Yankees were called the Highlanders for the first few years of their franchise.” The “Yankees” were not really called the “Highlanders” then, because there were no “Yankees,” and never had been. What is intended is this: “The team that eventually became known as the Yankees was at first called the Highlanders.” In the same way, the Genesis account begins by explaining that what would eventually become the land had not yet been differentiated or populated. The case is the same with the sky, which will eventually separate the “waters above” from the “waters below.” Right now it’s just “waters” – “the deep,” covered in darkness But the Spirit of God is hovering over it all, sizing up the possibilities and making a plan.

2. Regarding Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (who in some way seems to embody a manifestation of God on earth), please see this post:

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

In that post I suggest that God was trying to demonstrate something in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers. When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.

The thoughts I’ve shared in summary here are developed at more length in the posts I’ve provided links to.

Once again, I commend you for stepping up to the challenge and adventure of reading through the Bible. Hang in there, keep reading, keep asking your questions, and keep looking for the answers to them!

How can honestly seeking Christians come to different answers on important questions?

Q. How can two Christians honestly seeking God’s will come to two contradictory answers to questions about things like the age of the earth or whether women can be pastors?

Followers of Jesus who are people of good will and who have equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures may still come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches if they have different interpretive presuppositions or if they follow different interpretive methods.

For example, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literally, this may lead them to conclude that the earth is much younger than the scientific consensus suggests. On the other hand, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literarily, this may lead them to believe that an earth that is billions of years old can be accommodated within a belief that God created the world as described in the Bible. (Full disclosure: I am of the latter persuasion, as is clear from various posts on this blog and from all of my other blog Paradigms on Pilgrimage.)

Similarly, if a reader of the Bible believes that the propositional statements within it have universal force, then they may see Paul’s comment to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” to be definitive on the question of whether women can be pastors. On the other hand, if a reader of the Bible believes that propositional statements should be understood and interpreted within their historical contexts, they may consider that such statements apply directly only to their original audiences, and that they must be applied to other contexts by inference and analogy. They would be read on a par with narrative and other genres, and not privileged because they are propositional. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I personally do not believe there should be any limitations on what women can do within the community of Jesus’ followers, simply because they are women. See the series of posts that begins here.)

So is there any hope that followers of Jesus who hold divergent interpretive presuppositions or who follow different interpretive methods can ever be brought to agree? Stated briefly, yes, I think that can happen. Specifically, I believe that over time our experience of God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others can make us uncomfortable with some of our previous conclusions, and this can challenge us to re-examine the presuppositions and methods that led us to them. In such a case we will ideally realize that it was not so much the Bible itself, but the way we were interpreting it, that led us to these conclusions, and we will continue to look to the Bible as a source of divine instruction, but we will do so in a new way. This has happened to me many times myself, and I’ve seen it happen for many others as well. Once this has happened, we not only come to see some things differently than we did before, we are also more accommodating of others who see things differently than we do now, and we can recognize more common ground between once seemed like contradictory views.

And while all of us are in this process, I think a good motto—found earliest in the writings of Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominisis: “In essential things, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” (And if two interpreters disagree over whether something is essential or uncertain, well, that’s where charity comes in.)

Can’t you make the Bible say whatever you want?

Q. Over the last couple of years of reading different Bible interpretations it seems to me that there are 2 major distinct views. 1. Although Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have slightly differing opinions, they are basically are the same. 2. The other group, those that consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, that there is no immortal soul thus no eternal Hell, that the whole above Church Hierarchy is actually a fake Christianity + more. Now I have been reading some of your views about how you can reconcile the differences within the #1 group, which I can understand, but how would you reconcile the #2 group when they basically are saying that the larger group you belong to, #1, is Satan’s false Church. Like you they also quote the Bible to back up their claims. I am not a Christian of any group so I find the whole thing very confusing as it seems to me that really you can make the Bible say whatever you want, it is just a matter of interpretation. I look forward to your reply.

Thank you for your question. Yes, you can make the Bible say whatever you want—if you take individual statements out of context and select and arrange them to support your prior commitments. But this is not a responsible way to read or teach the Bible. We would not handle any other book that way, and we shouldn’t accept it when people do it with the Bible.

As I have shown in my books The Beauty Behind the Mask and After Chapters and Verses, unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and especially verses, which happened many centuries after it was written, allows and even encourages this disintegrative approach. That is why I have helped to develop editions of the Bible that do not have the chapter and verse numbers in the text.

The proper way to understand and interpret any work of literature (and that is ultimately what the Bible is, a collection of literary works of different types) is to understand first what it was saying to its original audience. That requires an appreciation for the historical context in which the work was written and what issues it was intended to address (circumstances and occasion of composition); what kind of literature it is (literary genre); how it is put together on its own terms (literary structure); and what strong ideas run all the way through it (thematic development).

Interestingly, the large Christian communions that you describe as Group #1 essentially reflect a formation that took place before the Bible was divided into verses. Almost of necessity, their understanding of the Bible and its teaching was grounded in the disciplines I have just described. And I am fascinated and grateful to hear someone who is not a Christian say that they find the three main branches (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) to be “basically the same.” That is certainly what we believe about one another: that we agree on the essentials, and differ only on discretionary matters.

So when it comes to understanding and teaching the Bible, the difference between Group #1 and Group #2 is not a matter of interpretation, but of method. Of course someone who is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant could also follow the “pick and choose” method, but if they did that, they would likely soon start to have differences with the large, historic tradition to which they belong, and hopefully that tradition would help correct the mistakes that are nearly inevitable with that method. Group #2, I should note, actually got its start within the broad Christian tradition, but when its method led it to have different views, it went off on its own and declared the whole broad tradition wrong, instead of trusting in the consensus that Christian believers have had down through the centuries.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that I have Bible study guides available for free download. They approach the Bible as a collection of literary works, without chapters and verses, in terms of their circumstances of composition, literary genre and structure, and thematic development. Have a look at this page and see if there is a guide you might want to look at. (I’d particularly recommend the one to John for someone who is trying to find out more about the Christian faith.)

Thanks again for your question, and I hope this response has been helpful.

 

Are we not supposed to call anyone pastor, teacher or father?

Q. Does the Bible say we shouldn’t call anyone pastor, teacher or father? I heard a man on YouTube state this but he gave no scriptures to reference. Thanks in advance.

The passage this man was likely referring to is Matthew 23:1-11:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think this a situation, however, where it is not so much the thing in itself that must be avoided, but the misuse of that thing. We can see that by analogy to the other things Jesus mentions. We wouldn’t say, for example, that there should never be places of honor at banquets, such as a “head table” for the bridal party at a wedding. Rather, people shouldn’t desire to have the best places as a matter of worldly prestige; instead, we should cultivate the mature spiritual quality of humility. That’s what Jesus was getting at.

Similarly, I think there is a valid place for titles of honor in many contexts. It’s respectful, for example, for a college student to address the person who’s teaching their class as “professor” when asking a question. It’s certainly respectful for children to address their parents as “mother” and “father” (or Mom and Dad, or something similar) rather than calling them by their first names.

So the point is actually not to desire “status symbols” that confer social prestige. Rather, we should be humble and seek our praise from God alone, through loyal obedience, not from other people. I hope this helps answer your question.