How long after God rejected Saul did God tell Samuel to stop mourning for him?

Q. How long was it from when God rejected Saul as king because of his second serious disobedience (when God said, “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions”) to when God said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?”

This is one of those questions that we just don’t get enough information from the Bible to answer. But in cases like this, we should always see what we can find out by trying to get the answer.

We know that Saul was king for a total of forty-two years. (In his speech in the book of Acts, Stephen uses the round number of forty years.) We don’t know how long Saul had been king at the time of his first disobedience, when Samuel told him that as a consequence he would not found a dynasty, even though he would remain king himself. But many years must have passed between that time and Saul’s second disobedience, because the narrative in 1 Samuel says in between, “After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.” As I said in my previous post, “Saul had many positive qualities (courage, leadership) that enabled him to win some significant initial victories on the people’s behalf.”

However, after these years and these victories, unfortunately Saul seriously disobeyed the Lord a second time, as I discuss in this post. God then told Samuel to tell Saul that he would not live out his years as king. The Bible informs us that “Samuel was upset at this, and he prayed to the Lord all night long. Samuel clearly recognized Saul’s good qualities, and it seems that he was trying to intercede with God on his behalf. But God’s message to Saul, through Samuel, was that despite all the potential he still had, God simply couldn’t use someone who wouldn’t obey. Samuel delivered this message, and after that, we are told, he “left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.

It was only after some further time that God said to Samuel, How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” This gives us a little bit of a clue about the overall time frame. David became king, after Saul’s death, at age 30; he was very likely under 20 years old when Samuel anointed him, since he still wasn’t old enough to serve in the army. So there were at least ten years between the time God told Samuel to stop mourning and when Saul died. If we assume that took at least 10–20 years for Saul to conduct all of those military campaigns against the hostile surrounding nations after first establishing his own rule, it seems likely that not much more than 10 years could have passed between when God said he was rejecting Saul as king and when God told Samuel to stop mourning. The time could even have been shorter than this, depending on when Saul actually did disobey for the second time. But the expression how long? suggests that it was at least a period of some years. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. As I said, we aren’t given enough information to know for sure, but I would personally estimate somewhere from a few years to as many as ten years.

So what can we learn from trying to answer this question, even if we can’t settle on an exact time period? For one thing, we see that it was appropriate for Samuel to pray for Saul and to mourn for him. The Bible affirms these actions by recording them for us. The loss of a great leader’s potential future contributions through misconduct is tragic. We honor God, who gives leaders their abilities and opportunities, when we acknowledge what a loss it is when these gifts can no longer be used to the fullest.

However, another thing we learn is that it is not appropriate to mourn such a loss forever. People need to reach the point where they accept the consequences of their own actions, and we ourselves need to reach the point where we accept the consequences of others’ actions and join in the response that God is making to the new circumstances that have resulted from them.

Saul’s son Jonathan actually provides an excellent example of this. After David had to flee from Saul, Jonathan went to see him and helped him find strength in God. He told him, You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you.” In other words, Jonathan accepted that he would not become king himself, succeeding his father, because Saul had forfeited his rights to a dynasty and even to the kingship. Jonathan accepted that David would become king instead. But he envisioned where he would fit in those new circumstances, and he was prepared to assume this role and make his contribution. Unfortunately, Jonathan himself was killed in the same battle in which his father Saul died, so he wasn’t able to fulfill these plans. But he nevertheless provides a good model of accepting the consequences of another person’s actions—even when they affect our own future prospects—and planning to take part in the new things that God will do in light of those consequences.

This is what God was telling Samuel to do as well. God wanted him, in effect, to stop wishing that Saul could still be king and go anoint someone else. Mourning for a leader’s lost potential contributions should not be endless and infinite; it’s God’s purposes in the world that are infinite, and all other considerations must be subordinate to them. However, I think we can also assume that God did allow Samuel to mourn Saul for the full time period that was appropriate. This explains why there was a delay between the two things you’re asking about, however long that delay might have been.

Didn’t God treat Saul a lot harsher than David?

Q. I can’t help but think that God treated Saul a lot harsher than David and his descendants.

God was reluctant to give Israel a king to begin with, but when God relented, it sounds to me that God picked Saul because he had such a great appearance, not because he was so godly. God even had to give Saul a new heart. Why not pick a person that’s more suited for the job to begin with, or just tell Israel to wait until David is born and old enough?

Why did God use less oil to anoint Saul compared with David? Doesn’t that mean that God blessed Saul less than David? Didn’t God not only reject Saul, but make him worse by sending an evil spirit?

I understand that Saul didn’t obey God in all things, but neither did David. He lied to the priests about being sent on a mission by Saul, and it was because of David’s lie that all but one of the priests was murdered. This wasn’t the last time David lied. It looks to me like every time David lies, somebody dies. And then David took another man’s wife and had him killed. But it still seems there was nothing bad David could do that would remove him from God’s love. Why is that?

I have read your two posts about Saul and David. In the one entitled “How could God call David a ‘man after his own heart‘ when he committed adultery and murder?” you say that God called him that because “David was always devoted to the LORD as Israel’s supreme ruler and he never turned aside after other gods. This heart of loyalty became the standard by which all later kings were judged.” But what about Solomon then? He was David’s son, but he not only worshiped other gods, he built altars for them and actively encouraged idolatry! I understand that God took most of his kingdom away as a direct result of this sin, and yet Solomon was allowed to live out his live as king of Israel in all his splendor.

You also have a post entitled, “Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?” There you say, “It seems that God gave Saul a second chance, but this only showed that he still hadn’t learned to respect the limits of his authority as king.” I would hope to think that God is a God of more than two chances (or I am in a world of trouble), even if Saul was rejected to set an example for future kings.

To summarize, I don’t understand why God would punish one person so harshly for a handful of sins and other persons barely for so many sins, sins that would affect Israel for hundreds of years to come. David and Solomon are not at all far behind Saul in setting an example. I think they both messed that up royally.

First, I want to commend you for reading through the biblical story very carefully and not ignoring the things that bothered you, but making a note of them and continuing to think about them. (You provided quite a number of Scripture references, which I have turned into the links above.) But let me try to provide a perspective on the story that may help account for some of the things that aren’t adding up for you right now.

For one thing, it’s simply not the case that “it was because of David’s lie that all but one of the priests was murdered.” David’s “lie” (which was really a deception, as I’ll discuss shortly) actually should have saved the priests’ lives. David didn’t tell Ahimelek the priest that he really was running away from Saul, and even if this was because David didn’t think he’d get help if he admitted the true circumstances, the result was that Ahimelek wasn’t guilty of intentionally helping someone his king considered to be an enemy.

When Saul brought Ahimelek in for questioning and learned that he had helped David innocently, thinking he was  actually advancing Saul’s interests by doing so, Saul should have told him, “All right, you didn’t know any better, I won’t hold you responsible.” Instead, Saul not only ordered Ahimelek to be killed in response, he ordered his entire extended family to be killed—85 male family leaders—plus the entire town that the priests lived in, “men and women, children and infants, cattle, donkeys and sheep.”

This was vastly disproportionate vengeance for something that shouldn’t even have been punished in the first place. It’s reminiscent of Lamech, early in the Bible, swearing to take revenge seventy-seven times against anyone who wronged him—a primal example of human arrogant self-assertion against the restraints that God originally built into human life. The priests of the Lord especially should have been shielded and protected from such vengeance. All of Saul’s court knew this; we hear that “the king’s officials were unwilling to raise a hand to strike the priests of the Lord.” But a foreigner who was in Saul’s service went and killed them. This violence was no doubt intended to terrorize the rest of Israel with the threat that the same thing would happen to anyone and their entire town who did anything Saul didn’t like.

So David was not responsible for killing the priests. Nothing David said or did required Saul to make that response. Instead, Saul should have done just the opposite, recognizing that Ahimelek had not knowingly conspired against him. Beyond this, Saul, like his own officials, should have been unwilling to “strike the priests of the Lord.” But because Saul had already made the choice to step beyond his own proper bounds as king, he was prepared to do even that. The seeds of such an action had already been sown when Saul first made the choice that, God recognized, showed he needed to be rejected as king. David and Solomon certainly did some serious things wrong, and they were punished for those things and unfortunately the kingdom suffered as well. But they never descended into the extermination of entire communities. It was right for God to restrain Saul from going any farther on such a course.

As I mentioned, David’s “lie” was actually a deception. It’s generally accepted that people in a situation of powerlessness can use deception to save their own lives and especially to save other people’s lives. (See my three-part series, “Does God let us use deception for a good cause?“) That’s what David was doing here: He was at least trying to get help himself without placing the priests in an impossible dilemma, and as a result he also kept the priests from knowingly “aiding and abetting a fugitive.” But Saul had no regard for their innocence.

To address another one of your concerns,God didn’t just choose Saul because he was tall and handsome. Rather, once God had agreed to provide a king for the Israelites, God spoke privately to Samuel and told him, “I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me.” So God’s ultimate motive was not to appease the people’s request, but to deliver them in compassion, much as God sent Moses to Egypt to deliver the people there after hearing their cries. Saul had many positive qualities (courage, leadership) that enabled him to win some significant initial victories on the people’s behalf. This showed that he wasn’t just another pretty face. Unfortunately, after getting of to a positive start, he chose self-assertion rather than continuing reliance on God.

Samuel likely didn’t use more oil to anoint David than Saul. Even though many Bibles say that Samuel filled his “horn” with oil for David, while he just pulled out a “flask” for Saul, the two terms are actually equivalent. One definition of the term “horn” in such a context is “a container used as flask for oil.” Several English translations actually say “flask” rather than “horn” in the David story, to bring out this meaning. But even if the quantities of oil had been different, that would not have meant that a different degree of blessing was intended. This was a symbolic act, and the oil, whether a lot or a little, was meant to signify God’s choice of the person it was poured on. When you take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, whether you get a large or small piece of bread and a large or a small sip from the cup, the sacrament is still just as effective.

I believe that I have addressed many of your remaining concerns in the posts you mentioned, as well as some other posts on this blog. Please see the following posts as well:

Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?

Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?

If God gave Saul a “new heart,” how could Saul disobey and be rejected?

I hope that these reflections will help you make a little better sense of the story of Saul and David. The fact that I have written several posts in response to other readers’ questions about this story shows that you’re not alone in being uncomfortable with what seems to be God’s unfair treatment of Saul compared to the way David is treated. So once again I commend you for reading the biblical story carefully and thoughtfully. We shouldn’t just gloss over things that are troubling to think about. Instead, we should read and reflect and talk about our questions with others. I hope I’ve helped you to do that.

 

Deny Christ to save others’ lives?

Q. What does the Bible say? I’m told by my captors that if I don’t deny Christ, five Christians will be put to death. What will happen to my relationship with Jesus if I deny Him under those circumstances?

The first thing the Bible would say to you in this situation is that you shouldn’t trust or believe your captors when they say that they will spare these five other Christians (presumably your fellow hostages) if you deny Christ. Your captors are clearly opposed to Jesus and his message, and that means that they do not have a commitment to the truth or to keeping their word. (Jesus says, for example, in the gospel of John that those who oppose him “do not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in them.”) History and experience certainly confirm that oppressors who make promises to those under their power in order to get them to do things don’t keep those promises.

So the Bible would warn you, first of all, that if you deny Christ under these circumstances, it’s quite likely that you would be denying him for nothing. You wouldn’t be saving anybody’s life. Your captors are opposed to Christ and his followers, and there’s nothing to keep them from executing your fellow hostages anyway, after getting the propaganda triumph of your denial. They have no incentive to do otherwise.

On the other hand, if you don’t deny Christ, your captors have no incentive to execute your fellow hostages because of this. Their goal is clearly not just to capture and kill the six of you, but also to try to discredit Jesus by showing that his followers are not loyal. Once you show that you are loyal, their goal cannot be furthered by killing your fellow hostages—unless they were planning to do so anyway—because this would just show what an incredibly high price you put on loyalty to Jesus. It would defeat their purposes. They are more likely to try to come up with some other incentive, threat, or promise that might get you to deny Christ.

And even if the other hostages are executed, you haven’t killed them; your captors have. They can’t transfer their moral responsibility for that onto you.

This apparent ethical dilemma is much like the “situational ethics” problems that were suggested a while back. In one of them, a serial killer rings your doorbell and asks if your son is at home. He is; do you tell the truth? (In more general terms, is it justified to do a small wrong for the sake of a great right, such as saving a life?) One fallacy of these dilemmas is that they assume things that would never happen. Serial killers don’t ring the doorbell. A second fallacy is that you only have two options: in this case, to answer the question directly by either lying or telling the truth. You have more options than that. If this really happened, I’d recommend telling the killer, “Stay right there,” locking the door, and calling 911.

However, even though it’s entirely unrealistic, let’s assume that you really could save the lives of those other five hostages by denying Christ. Let’s also assume that by denying Christ, for all you know, you would lose your soul—for the sake of this exercise, you can’t count on being forgiven if you repent afterwards. So the question really is, “Would you be willing to risk losing your soul to save another person’s life?”

Suppose you did. Suppose you went ahead and denied Christ, even at that risk, in order to save the lives of your fellow hostages. Then you really wouldn’t be denying Christ. You’d be imitating him. Only Christ-like sacrificial love would lead a person to do something like that. Jesus himself went to the cross and, at least as many understand it, was separated from fellowship with God so that he could bear the sins of the world. You might be speaking a denial outwardly, but with your action of self-sacrifice you would be expressing ultimate loyalty to the way that Christ taught.

Still, your denial would bring dishonor to Christ on earth. And you would be doing wrong by saying one thing when you really believed and were practicing something else. And if your course really hadn’t been the wisest one, that would be disappointing to Christ as well. So what would happen to your relationship with him?

What does the Bible say? It tells us that Jesus forgave a disciple, Peter, who denied him not to save others but to save himself, after boasting that he would never deny Jesus even if he had to die with him. Certainly if Jesus forgave and restored Peter under those circumstances, he would forgive someone who denied him thinking, even if mistakenly, that this was justified to save others’ lives. Even if you couldn’t claim forgiveness, I believe that Jesus would offer it freely.

Still, I think the best outcome would be not to trust the false promises of your captors, to remain faithful to Christ, and to recognize that this would probably lead them not to kill your fellow hostages but to try to think of some other way to get you to deny Christ. The Bible says, “Do not be immature in your understanding. With respect to wickedness be innocent, but in your understanding be mature.” I think the wisest and most mature course in this case would be not to take the captors’ promise at face value, but to discern the motives and intentions behind it and respond accordingly.

How could God bless Abraham when he was deceitful?

Q. When Abram (Abraham) went to live in Egypt, he said deceitfully that Sarai (Sarah) was his sister, not his wife. But as a result, he “acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.” In other words, he got very rich. And he got to take all those things with him when he left after his deception was exposed. It’s almost as if God blessed him for being deceitful. That doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, God doesn’t want us to get money through deception, does He?

When I consider this passage about Abram in Egypt, it strikes me that the original Hebrew readers would have readily understood his time there as an “antetype” or preceding example of their own experience in Egypt. Consider the parallels:

• Abraham goes to Egypt because of a famine, as the Israelites did.

• The Egyptians compel Sarah to serve Pharaoh, as they later compelled the Israelites to serve them. (Sarah was intended as a concubine for Pharaoh, though the passage does not say whether she actually became his concubine before he realized her true identity.)

• God strikes the Egyptians with plagues because of how they are treating Abraham and Sarah, just as he struck them with plagues for enslaving the Israelites. (Some translations say something like “the Lord inflicted serious diseases,” but the statement is more general: “afflicted them with great afflictions.” The same term, “affliction,” literally “a striking,” is used for the tenth plague in Exodus.)

• When Abraham leaves Egypt, he takes away much wealth from there, just as the Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians by asking them “for articles of silver and gold and for clothing” and carrying those away with them.

Indeed, the association between Abram’s time in Egypt and the later experience of the Israelites is made explicit just a little later in Genesis, when God tells Abram, “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. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.”

It’s worth noting that this suggests that the “plunder” the Israelites would take from Egypt would be at least partial compensation for the many years they would be forced to work without pay. But what about the riches Abraham acquired? They don’t seem to be anything that the Egyptians “owed” him.

I think the issue really comes down to this: Did the Egyptians only take Sarai as a concubine for Pharaoh because Abram told them she was his sister—they wouldn’t have done so otherwise? Or was Abram correct in believing that the Egyptians were going to take her one way or another, and the only question was whether they would kill him to get her?

If the former is the case, then Abram feared unnecessarily, rather than trusting in the Lord, and he was also unnecessarily deceitful and caused Sarai real or potential dishonor as a result. It would certainly be difficult to understand how God could allow him to acquire such riches under those circumstances.

However, the thematic connections between Abram’s experience in Egypt and the later experience of the Israelites there, along with the explicit connection that is made shortly afterwards, suggest that Abram was  correct to see the Egyptians as people who would oppress foreigners. Indeed, the fact that when “the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman,” they “took” her as a concubine—there’s nothing about them seeking consent from the “brother,” offering a bride-price, etc., as we typically see elsewhere—indicates that they may well have been as forcefully oppressive as Abram feared.

This brings us to a different question: Was it valid for Abram to use deception to try to ensure that, if Sarai were inevitably going to be taken as a concubine, at least he wouldn’t be killed in the process? In this series of posts, I consider some other biblical characters (such as Rahab and Samuel) who apparently used deception to protect themselves and others from oppressors who held a significant power advantage. It seems that in some cases, God’s purposes may actually have been advanced through this.

It’s a controversial question with no clear answer, but if we assume that people who are at a hopeless power disadvantage can legitimately use deception for protection (for example, by hiding people who would otherwise be captured and mistreated or killed), and if we conclude that Abram was indeed right in believing that the Egyptians would want to take Sarai even if they had to kill him to get her, then his deception is at least understandable. He didn’t deceive the Egyptians in order to get wealth; instead, he got the wealth as the “brother” of a woman who had been “taken into Pharaoh’s palace.” In a sense, accepting these gifts was a means of maintaining the deception, which appears to have been vital to his survival.

However, we also have to consider that Pharaoh responded by returning Sarai to Abram and sending them on their way when the Lord “afflicted the Egyptians with great afflictions.” We do have to wonder what would have happened if Abram, instead of claiming that Sarai was his sister, had cried out to God for protection in this dangerous situation. God could presumably have “afflicted with great afflictions” anyone who tried to harm them, and that would have protected them.

But as so often happens in the Bible, what we are seeing is the action of God in a situation that is already imperfect because of human choices. Still later in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah go to live among the Philistines for a while. Abraham says to himself, “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife,” so he once again claims that Sarah is his sister, and she is taken into the palace of King Abimelek. But in this case God speaks to Abimelek in a dream and he responds by returning Sarah immediately. (It turns out that there was “fear of God” in that place.) But even though in this case the passage specifies that Sarah had not yet become Abimelek’s concubine, the king still pays Abraham a large quantity of silver “to cover the offense against you,” that is, as compensation for an offense against Abraham and Sarah’s honor, even though it was unintended and based on a deceptive claim, and no actual harm was done.

We might conclude that if such compensation was appropriate in the case of Abimelek, some compensation would also be appropriate in the case of Pharaoh, particularly if he was more oppressive and less God-fearing. Even though the riches Abram acquired in Egypt were not originally intended as compensation, but rather as gifts, and they were due to Abram’s false pretenses, we could still understand them ultimately as being compensation: Pharaoh says, “Take your wife and go,” and he doesn’t ask for the gifts back.

However, as I said, it’s already an imperfect situation due to human choices by the time we get to sorting out what role God’s actions play in it, so I think there’s good reason to continue pondering what happens in this episode.

 

Was Jesus a legal or an illegal refugee?

Q. What do you think of this recent comment by Paula White (spiritual advisor to Donald Trump)? “Many people have taken biblical Scriptures out of context on this [issue of immigration] to say stuff like, ‘Well, Jesus was a refugee.’ Yes, He did live in Egypt for three and a half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.”

The concept of legal vs. illegal immigration, when applied to the ancient world, is anachronistic and irrelevant. Ancient countries didn’t forbid foreigners to enter if they didn’t have certain permissions. (As one Christian leader has already observed in response to White’s comment, the concept “hardly applied during Jesus’ time, centuries before the existence of modern nation-states that issue passports and visas to regulate migration.”)

Rather, the issue was how the local population would treat foreigners who came to stay among them. And the biblical Scriptures are very clear about how God’s people should treat them. God told the Israelites, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Jesus was a very particular kind of refugee: an asylum seeker. That is, he fled for safety to another country because he would have been killed if he had stayed in his own country. The fact that this “was not illegal” is the whole point. Trying to criminalize asylum seeking, whether in law, or through the way government policy is carried out, or in the popular imagination, is a  departure from a time-honored international standard of justice and compassion.

If Jesus had been killed by Herod, he couldn’t have been our Savior, either.

Were any women killed for worshiping the golden calf?

Q. Were any women killed for worshiping the golden calf? If not, why? Didn’t they contribute their gold to make the image and engage in the same behavior as the men?

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”

The account in the book of Exodus that describes how the Israelites made and worshiped the golden calf does leave us with the impression, at least at first, that only men were killed in punishment. Moses told the Levites, who had remained loyal to the Lord, “Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” All of these terms are masculine, suggesting that only men were  targeted.

However, there are at least three things that suggest women were likely killed in punishment as well. First, the Hebrew language, by convention, uses such terms in the masculine when both men and women are in view. For example, the commandment in Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself” clearly applies to both men and women. And while the preceding commandment in Leviticus says literally, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” many modern translations, recognizing that this word in Hebrew can apply to any relative, male or female, in such a context, translate the expression as “anyone of your kin” or “a fellow Israelite.”

Also, the account of the golden calf concludes by telling us that “the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” So even if no women were killed by the Levites for their part in making and worshiping the idol, it appears that some women did die in this plague.

Finally, in the New Testament, Paul describes to the Corinthians several things the Israelites did that constituted a pattern of disobedience and rebellion, as a result of which “their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.” This was in keeping with the punishment that God announced when the people rebelled definitively at Kadesh and refused to enter the promised land. So any women who were involved in the golden calf episode but who were not killed in punishment at the time nevertheless died in the desert as the result of chronic disobedience that included that episode.

In other words, anyone who contributed to making the calf and participated in its worship was subject to punishment—women as well as men. There was no unfairness in that regard.

Still, the account of the golden calf and of these divine punishments is one that  thoughtful readers of the Bible wrestle with today. We may wonder why people were killed for making and worshiping an idol. But worshiping a different god meant becoming an entirely different kind of culture than the one envisioned in the Law of Moses. In Old Testament times, every society was a theocracy that mirrored the character of the god it worshiped. The Canaanite gods were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, and immoral, while Yahweh was pure, holy, compassionate, and concerned for the poor and weak. Even as the Israelites first started to worship the golden calf, they  began to change the character of their society, engaging in “revelry” (sexual immorality, though described euphemistically as “dancing”) as part of the proceedings. The decay was spreading so fast that it needed to be halted immediately. The overt violence may trouble us, but it seems to have been intended to prevent the subtle, crushing violence of injustice and oppression that would have settled into the society if it had adopted Canaanite-style gods.

Why didn’t God give Esau back the blessing that Jacob stole?

Q. I appreciated your post on “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wresting match?” but I have another question. This one has been disturbing me for quite a long time. Why did God allow Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing and get away with it? Why did God continue to bless Jacob? I expected that at some point, because we are dealing with an omnipotent being, God was going to reverse the blessings, but that doesn’t happen. Please answer.

Let me respond by offering a series of observations. First, the blessing  that Jacob stole from Esau was specifically the blessing of primogeniture, that is, the blessing Esau would have been given so that he could fulfill his responsibilities as the first-born son of Isaac.

Primogeniture (which simply means “first born”) was one of the existing cultural institutions that God incorporated into the Law of Moses to promote order and provide for those in need. The book of Deuteronomy commands that when a father dies and his inheritance is divided, the firstborn son is to be given a “double portion,” that is, twice as much as the other sons. In this culture women didn’t own property and so they were dependent on male relatives, typically their fathers and then their husbands. But any unmarried sisters, or widowed sisters without children, would have to depend on this oldest brother after the father’s death. That’s why he was given a double portion, so he could care both for his own immediate family and for his extended family in his late father’s stead.

It was customary for a father, on his deathbed, to bless the firstborn son, asking God to give him material abundance so that he could care for the extended family, and to make his brothers come under his authority so that order would be preserved within the clan. Accordingly, when Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he’s Esau his firstborn), he says, “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine,” and, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

A further observation I’d like to make is that, paradoxically, God repeatedly did not follow the custom of primogeniture as He carried out His program of redemption. The Old Testament is full of examples of God choosing younger brothers over older ones: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau (even before they were born, God told their mother, “the older will serve the younger“); Judah over his three older brothers as the ancestor of the royal line; David over his seven older brothers as king; and so forth. It seems that God simply looks for the person who can best fulfill his purposes, regardless of that person’s social standing. And so the judges, for example, include both men and women (Deborah), even though this was a patriarchal society that privileged men, and they also include an illegitimate son (Jephthah) and a youngest son (Gideon).

My next observation is that God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. We get an indication of this when Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God does not take away our free will; God lets us choose, and God is always able to work with our choices to advance his own positive purposes, although there can also be negative consequences for people who makes bad choices.

Genesis tells us that “Esau despised his birthright,” that is, his responsibilities as the firstborn son weren’t important to him and he was likely to neglect them. Jacob, on the other hand, was hard-working and ambitious—a real hustler. He was much better suited to assume the leadership of the Israelite family as it began growing rapidly into a group of tribes that would become a nation. Ideally, Esau would have recognized Jacob’s abilities, and his own disinclination, and offered Jacob the role of family leader voluntarily. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Jacob was a “hustler” in another sense—a con artist. He took advantage of a weakness in Esau’s character to defraud him. The book of Hebrews describes Esau as “profane,” meaning literally that “nothing was sacred to him.” (Clearly these were two young men who both needed some character development!) One day Esau came home famished at the end of a day of hunting and saw that Jacob had made stew. He pleaded for some, and Jacob “sold” it to him in exchange for his birthright, which he knew meant nothing to Esau.

But Jacob still had to get the blessing that went with the birthright, and so he also deceived his father Isaac, pretending to be Esau once his father’s eyesight had grown so dim that he couldn’t tell the difference. (Though smooth-skinned Jacob also had to put on Esau’s clothes and wrap his arms and neck in goatskins, so that he would smell and feel like his hairy older brother!) As a result of this deception, Jacob received his father’s blessing, in God’s name, of both material abundance and family leadership.

So why did God honor this blessing, when it was obtained under such fraudulent circumstances? As I said earlier, God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. Unfortunately we often don’t give God good choices to work with, and that seems to be what happened in this case. There were plenty of negative consequences for Jacob: He had to flee from his brother’s anger at this deception, leaving with nothing but a staff and spending twenty years in exile. But through the hardships of those years, his character was shaped and he became a man who could lead the tribes of Israel into their future. The same thing could have been accomplished much more positively, but I think that everyone involved (not just Esau and Jacob, but their parents Isaac and Rebekah, who each showed favoritism towards a different son) didn’t give God enough good choices to work with to allow things to happen any better. As I said, God doesn’t take away our free will.

One final observation I’d like to offer is that when Jacob returns from exile a wealthy man, rich in flocks and herds, he does make some restitution to Esau for the material abundance he stole from him when he took his firstborn blessing. Jacob sends Esau hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, and donkeys, and when they meet in person, he says to him, “Accept the gift I have brought you.” This is literally, “Please accept my blessing that has been brought to you.” Jacob is making restitution by providing Esau with a “blessing” in place of the one he stole. Jacob also bows down to Esau and calls him “My lord,” even though Isaac’s blessing to Jacob had been, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

These actions on Jacob’s part don’t undo Esau’s surrender of his birthright; that was an permanent transaction between the two of them, even though it wasn’t concluded under the best of circumstances. But it does seem that Jacob, now that he is more mature, at least tries to return some of the benefits of their father’s blessing to Esau.

Sometimes this kind of thing is best we can hope for. It’s a messy world, even with an omnipotent God actively working to bring about its renewal.

Raffaellino Bottalla, “Meeting between Esau and Jacob,” c. 1640. Esau and Jacob ultimately were reconciled later in life.