Tag Archives: Egypt

Stories, Themes, and Waypoints

“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant;
    do not be dismayed, Israel.
I will surely save you out of a distant place.”
Jeremiah 46:27 (NIV)

We just finished our Memorial Day weekend at the lake with friends and the kids wanted to watch Star Wars’ Rogue One. As I watched I thought about the underlying story of the hero, Jyn Erso. The movie starts with Jyn as a young girl being separated from her parents (particularly her father), which is infused with all sorts of psychological weight. We quickly meet the adult Jyn, and we find her in prison (in more ways than one) and adrift in life. Through the entire movie we accompany her on her journey to be reunited with her father and reconciled to the larger purpose their own journeys play in the larger story. The last words she hears before that final, fateful moment: “Your father would be proud of you.”

Exile and being “on the run” is a common theme in stories. The Star Wars universe uses it over and over again. In the original Episode 4 we meet Luke in exile with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine along with a mysterious old wizard, Ben Kenobi, also living in his own exile. They leave the planet with Han Solo who is on the run from Jabba the Hut and the bounty on this head. In The Force Awakens we meet Rey living in exile on Jakku where she meets Finn who is… wait for it…on the run from the evil Kylo Ren, who in his own self-appointed exile, having run away from home to join the dark side.

Why do stories, novels, movies, and plays use these same themes and devices over and over again? Because they touch something deep inside us. We identify with them in our own respective journeys. When I listen to people tell the story of their life journey and/or their spiritual journey I’ll commonly hear people speaking in terms of “running,” “getting away,” “thrown out,” “straying,” “rebelling,” “distancing,” or being “far from home.” We get it. We connect with it. It’s part of our common humanity.

With today’s chapter we’re entering the final section of the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s works. This final section is a series of prophetic messages Jeremiah made against the nations that made up the socio-political horizon of his day. The messages were seemingly arranged geographically from west to east, beginning with today’s prophetic word against Egypt.

After waxing apocalyptic against Egypt, Jeremiah speaks to his own people, promising them both exile (citing punishment for their idolatrous ways) and the eventual return and reconciliation of their descendants.

Exile and return. There’s that theme again.

This morning I’m sitting at the lake watching the morning fog roll through the trees across the cove. It’s the same view my parents enjoyed for so many years before me. It’s the same view our girls enjoyed growing up. It’s the view I get to introduce to our grandson in a few weeks. There something special about the places that become waypoints in the journey of multiple generations. Generations and their respective stories of being home and being on the run, of exile and return, of separation and reconciliation. The common themes that become a different kind of waypoint, connecting us to the larger story.

“L’chaim”

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.”
Leviticus 18:3 (NRSV)

This past weekend we were with friends at the lake. It was a wonderful weekend. We lay in the sun and on the water. We took a boat ride in which the hum of the engine and the rocking of the waves lulled our friends to sleep. We watched a good movie together that resonated with profound lessons about the contrast between life and religiosity. We drank a luscious red wine and ate a rich mixture of crackers, cheese, fruits and veggies. We explored new ideas. We shared both joys and heartaches. We spoke into one another’s lives.

Our friend raised his glass multiple times during the weekend in what is an important ritual for him, and offered the Hebrew toast “L’chaim” which means “to life.”

When you look at the Great Story God is telling from Genesis to Revelation, there are a few simple themes woven throughout. One of them is the theme of life and death:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live….” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

We continue our journey today through the ancient sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus. If you’ve been following along I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the whole thing gets a bit surreal to our 21st century western sensibilities. In today’s chapter, we encounter a host of rules centered mostly around sex. The key to unlocking the message is in the third verse (pasted at the top of this post).

The Hebrews had just escaped from being slaves in Egypt. They were headed to the land God promised them in Canaan. They have been immersed in Egyptian culture for hundreds of years and they are about to experience Canaanite culture. Neither culture was particularly healthy.

King Tut RenderingIn Egypt, the ruling families were known to practice incest in the belief that they were keeping the royal bloodline pure. The Pharaoh and his family were considered deities and the thinking went that if the royal family only bred from among each other that they wouldn’t be tainted by any non-deified humans. Of course, we know today that his is a really bad idea. Consider the famous King Tut. Extensive research on Tut’s mummy reveals that the boy king behind the famous hoard of golden treasure was far from what we would consider god-like. He had a club foot, probably walked with a cane, and he had abnormally wide, feminine hips for a boy. These are likely genetic issues stemming from the fact that his parents were brother and sister.

By the way, before we get too judgmental on the ancient Egyptians, it should be noted that the whole “pure blood” philosophy among royals carried on in Europe for centuries. J.K. Rowling didn’t just make up the “pure blood” notion for the fictional wizarding world. The royal families in Europe are a dizzying mixture of marriages between relatives.

Intermarriage among Europe's royal Hapsburg family.
Intermarriage among Europe’s royal Hapsburg family.
In ancient Canaan, the local tribal cultures had their own mixture of unhealthy sexual practices which spilled into their local religious practices. Ritual worship of pagan gods such as Molech included strange sexual practices and the sacrifice of human children by burning them.

So, as we read through today’s chapter we have to realize that it was a prescription against cultural and religious practices from Egypt and Canaan that were unhealthy for individuals and society as a whole. It’s back to the theme of life and death. These things don’t promote life and its healthy regeneration. These things bring destructive havoc on people, relationships, and society. Underneath the rules lies the same old theme: life and death. God is once again saying, “I want you to choose life by living in such away as to avoid those things you’ve seen in Egypt and will see in Canaan which are really unhealthy and contribute to destruction and death.”

Which brings me back to last weekend with our friends which was so full of life. Our bodies rested, our souls refreshed, and our relationships were strengthened. We tasted and drank in goodness spiritually, emotionally, relationally as well as in the literal food and drink we enjoyed together. Our activity and our conversations were life giving. And that’s always what God wants us to choose.

L’chaim.

Shift Focus

 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt….
Deuteronomy 7:17-18 (NRSV)

There is a technical term used in movie making called “shift focus.” It’s when the camera is focused on one object while another object in the shot is blurry, then then camera shifts the focus so that the other object is in focus and the first object blurs out.  Filmmakers use this technique to transition the audience’s attention and to move the story along.

When things in life go wrong and times are tough, it’s easy to get myopically focused on our present circumstances. Our brains zero in on what’s happening in the moment and, as a result, our hearts can drive all sorts of negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, doubt and depression. These emotions can be spiritually crippling and paralyzing.

In today’s chapter, Moses anticipates that his people may find themselves in such circumstances. He instructs them to do a mental and spiritual shift focus as an antidote to their fears: remember.

  • Remember when you were slaves in Egypt and God delivered you.
  • Remember when the plagues hit and you remained safe.
  • Remember when the Egyptian army was chasing you and God miraculously saved you and gave you victory.

He could have gone on:

  • Remember when you thirsty and God provided water from a rock.
  • Remember when you were hungry and God sent bread from heaven.
  • Remember when you wandered and God sent both cloud and fire to lead you.

The shift focus from our present circumstances to past situations reminds us that God has been faithful in the past (So why shouldn’t I believe He will be faithful in my current situation?), that we survived in the past (So why shouldn’t I believe I’ll get through this), and that things eventually worked out (So why shouldn’t I trust that my current situation will work out, too?). The result is that our faith begins to counter our fear and our paralysis gives way to us moving forward.

Today, I’m reminded of the many times God has provided and protected me through the years. Why then, should I fear present troubles?

chapter a day banner 2015

 

Light in Multiple Messages, Layered Metaphors

Sir John Hamelin effigy Wymondham, England
Sir John Hamelin effigy Wymondham, England

When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens
    and darken their stars;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
    and the moon will not give its light.
All the shining lights in the heavens
    I will darken over you;
    I will bring darkness over your land,
declares the Sovereign Lord.
Ezekiel 32:7-8 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, God wraps up the seven prophetic messages given to Ezekiel against Egypt. And, the thing that strikes me as I read this morning is metaphors and word pictures, layer upon layer of meaning.

First of all, there is the number seven. I have mentioned before that across God’s Message, seven is the number of completion. There were seven days to complete creation. There were seven seals on the scroll in Revelation to complete God’s judgement. Within the scroll there were seven trumpets and seven bowls. The number seven has even deeper roots when you begin to study the Hebrew language. The fact that there are seven prophetic messages for Egypt is no coincidental. It is a metaphorical message pointing to God’s complete and perfect judgement again Pharaoh/Egypt.

Then there is the theme of darkness and light in the verses I’ve pasted above. Darkness carries with it the sense of separation from God. In creation there was darkness over the surface of the deep immediately contrasted by God’s first act of creation: Light. There was darkness in the plagues of Egypt in the Exodus. Darkness fell over the Earth the day that Jesus was crucified. The same darkening of the heavens described by Ezekiel in the judgement of Egypt is also present in John’s vision of the end times. We know from human experience, just as a child cries for a night light at bedtime, that a descent into darkness is an ominous sign.

The final prophecy against Egypt is a list of other great armies who have fallen in defeat. Ezekiel describes them laying with their hordes “in the pit.” What fascinates me about the imagery is the description of warriors, hordes, and burial practices:

Meshek and Tubal are there, with all their hordes around their graves. All of them are uncircumcised, killed by the sword because they spread their terror in the land of the living. But they do not lie with the fallen warriors of old, who went down to the realm of the dead with their weapons of war—their swords placed under their heads and their shields resting on their bones—though these warriors also had terrorized the land of the living.

Ezekiel describes “the fallen warriors of old” buried with their weapons. The swords were placed beneath their heads, shields resting over them. Over the centuries, most cultures have had prescriptive burial practices for their warriors. As a boy growing up I was taught about my maternal ancestor, Sir John Hamelin, who lies entombed in effigy in a church in England. The sculpted tomb depicting him as he lay wrapped in chain mail, his feet crossed, his shield covering his body. This type of practice has been customary since early civilization. Ezekiel’s point is clear: When Egypt falls to Babylon the destruction will be so swift and complete that no one will be left to give them the carefully prescribed and celebrated burial of a warrior.

This morning I am, once again, amazed at the layers of message and metaphor given by the prophets. There is almost a desperation in the depth and breadth of it as if God is trying every possible means of communication to get through to the listener. If one word picture doesn’t work then let’s try a different approach. Human beings, myself included, are notoriously given to blindness of that which is staring right at us (e.g. Me: Sweetie, have you seen my keys? Wendy: You mean the keys you’re holding in your hand? Me: Doh!). Every one of us is given to the dark which comes with spiritual blindness. It is not strange that we need things repeated to us in diverse ways before we see the Light.

Today, I’m thankful for a Creator who ceaselessly reveals Light in endless ways.

Copyright Infringement

Source: Christopher Dombres via Flickr
Source: Christopher Dombres via Flickr

Egypt will become a desolate wasteland. Then they will know that I am the Lord. “‘Because you said, ‘The Nile is mine; I made it….'” Ezekiel 29:9 (NIV)

Just last week I read a story about a legal dispute in which recording artists Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were sued by the family of Marvin Gaye. The family of the late soul legend claimed that Williams and Thicke stole elements of their father’s copyrighted song Got to Give it Up for their song Blurred Lines. In the end, a jury awarded the Gaye family $7.4 million dollars.

Copyrights are a big deal. When a book is written, a song produced, or a movie is distributed there are laws designed to protect the writers, artists, and producers. In our internet age in which things can be produced and distributed across the globe with a click, disputes over who created something and who has the rights to this or that get messy. The legalities get even messier when you include individuals and their lawyers from different nations.

I thought of this as I read this morning’s chapter in which God accuses Egypt of spiritual copyright infringement. The Egyptian pharaohs had a long history of claiming themselves to be deities. To claim that you were a god was a common way for ancient rulers to elevate themselves as authorities over their constituents. In his proud claim of divinity, it seems that Pharaoh took credit for creating the Nile. Creator God took note of the copyright infringement and the next couple of chapters stand as His summary judgement.

It’s easy to think of Pharaoh’s pride as a relic of ancient monarchs. I have observed, however, that we live in a scientific, techno-industrial age in which God is summarily dismissed as non-existent. We are asked, instead, to place our faith in scientific theories presented as indisputable truth. In the absence of an almighty God before whom we are to be humble, we are free to feel a sense of creative pride in the babies we make and genetically engineer in our laboratory. We are free to take personal responsibility and/or credit for healing disease, being a well-spring of hope, or bringing salvation in various forms to people, relationships, our environment, city, region, state, nation, planet, or universe.

I often wonder if we haven’t simply engineered a more subtle and spiritually insidious form of Pharaoh’s ancient copyright infringement.

wayfarer chapter index banner

An Epic Production; A Bit Part

2012 12 USP Joseph Backstage Grovel LR

All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.
Ezekiel 17:24 (NIV)

Ezekiel’s prophetic parable in today’s chapter is specifically related to the political circumstances of his day. Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off her royals, nobles and promising young talent back to Babylon. A royal family member, named Zedekiah, was set on the throne as a political puppet of the Babylonian king. But Zed had his own ideas and conspired with the Egyptians to deliver Jerusalem from Babylonian control. Today’s chapter is Ezekiel’s prophetic prediction of Zed’s failure and downfall.

Two things struck me this morning as I read the chapter this morning and considered the regional intrigue of Ezekiel’s day.

First, I am mindful of the Israeli Prime Minister’s controversial address to the U.S. Congress earlier this week and the reality that the political intrigue of that region of the world continues 2500 years later. The Israel of today has its capital in Jerusalem, the same capital city destroyed by the Babylonians in Ezekiel’s day. The Egyptians to whom Zedekiah pled for help remain a nation to this day. The ancient Babylonians are today’s Iraq. The Assyrian empire of Ezekiel’s day is today’s Iran. The names are slightly changed, but the peoples and the players are the same as are the regional power struggles and conflict. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Second, I was struck by God’s word through Ezekiel that there is a divine plan being worked out in all of this. God can bring down the powerful from their lofty heights and raise the lowly to positions of prominence. All the world’s a stage and there is a Great Story being played out amidst the proscenium of time. We are part of the same production.

All of this makes me and my silly little troubles feel small and insignificant. And yet, Jesus reminded us that there are no small parts. I may be a bit player and an extra in the chorus of this epic production, but the costume department considers me important enough that  every hair on my head is numbered and the Producer/Director knows my name. I have a part to play, as small as it may be and as insignificant as it may seem. It starts with loving my neighbors as I love myself, and acting accordingly.

Purpose in the Pain

Joseph is raised from prison to prominence as the biblical story is retold in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 66

You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.
Psalm 66:11-12 (NIV)

Wendy and I are in production week for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The award-winning Broadway musical retells the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-47), the famed little brother who was given a dream that he would rise to greatness and all of his brothers would bow down to him. His older siblings responded to Joseph’s dream in typical fashion by throwing him into a well and then selling him into slavery. Though his father was told he was dead, Joseph was actually taken to Egypt where he was put to work in the house of prominent local official. After a brief stint of success in his job, Joseph was wrongfully accused by his master’s wife and put into prison. Talk about a string of bad fortune.

Through the long weeks of production, Wendy and I have constantly ruminated on the story of Joseph. I can only imagine the cynicism and anger Joseph must have felt rotting in the Egyptian prison. For years and years and years his dreams of greatness had proven to be nothing more than pipe dreams. One bad turn after another appears to lead Joseph further and further away from the dream God gave him as a boy. It seems so unfair for God to give a promise of incredible blessing, then immediately lead Joseph down a marathon road of suffering.

Of course, Joseph’s misfortune proves to be God’s divine providence in the end. In prison, Joseph gains a reputation for having a knack with dreams. Circumstance brings him before Pharaoh who was having some confusing dreams about an upcoming famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he raises him to a place of unparalleled prominence and puts him in charge of getting the nation ready for the upcoming famine. I’ll let you guess or read the rest (or buy a ticket and see the show over the next two weekends). Joseph’s long, hard road was actually preparing him for leadership, honing his character, and putting him in just the right circumstance to save his family.

I was reminded once again of Joseph’s incredible story when I read David’s lyrics from Psalm 66 this morning. Joseph’s biography, along with David’s, remind us that God’s ultimate purpose for us is often at the end of a tough road. Wendy and I can bear witness to this simple spiritual principle as we see it at work in our own lives. The truth is, we want the blessing without the burden. We want the pleasure without the pain. Yet, God’s purpose is for our spiritual maturity and wholeness, and that does not come without a price.

Today, I’m thankful for the hard roads I’ve trekked on this life journey. They haven’t been easy or fun, but they have been both necessary and beneficial. It is what it is.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7 (NIV)