Tag Archives: Israel

Family is Family

 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way;
Numbers 21:4 (NIV)

My maternal grandfather, Claude Hendrickson had a particularly difficult childhood. Grandpa Spec’s father committed suicide after learning he had tuberculosis. It was assumed that Perry Hendrickson wanted to spare his family the medical costs and difficulties associated with a long, terminal illness. My grandfather, the eldest of three siblings, was farmed out to his maternal grandparents to be raised. His mother retained custody of the younger siblings.

“Spec,” as he was known this whole life, experienced a strict upbringing with his grandparents. There was, however, discipline and faith. He managed well, got married, worked hard, and made a decent life for his family. Meanwhile, his siblings suffered their own difficulties as their mother, Olive Hendrickson, went through a string of failed marriages. Spec’s brother Ralph, an alcoholic, came looking for a job from his older brother. Spec agreed to hire his brother, but explained that he would fire him the first time he found his brother drinking on the job. When that eventually happened, Ralph was fired and promptly returned family in Illinois where he spread malicious lies about Spec among the family there. Spec felt ostracized by much of his family from that point on.

Spec and Ralph remained estranged, yet when Ralph died Spec drove to Illinois to pay his respects and to face a family who thought the worst of him because of Ralph’s malicious stories. Imagine my grandfather’s horror when the funeral director handed him the bill for his brother’s funeral. As “next of kin” the family expected him to pay the bill for his estranged brother who had caused him so much trouble. My grandfather paid the bill, returned home to Iowa, and let it go.

Family is family,” I can hear my grandfather say from his rocker, chewing on a cigar.

This story came to mind as I read today’s chapter. There is a subtle, recurring theme through the story of the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews. It appears again today when the nomad nation takes a circuitous route to avoid the land of Edom. Skirting Edom to the east meant living in an extremely desolate area east of the Dead Sea.

Back in Deuteronomy God had told Moses to leave Edom alone because the land of Edom had been settled by Esau, the twin brother of Jacob (aka Israel). The story of the twins is back in Genesis 25. Esau had been Jacob’s older twin, but Jacob had deceived Esau into giving him his birthright. The result was “bad blood” between the brothers and their descendants.

It has been some 600 years since the days of Jacob and Esau, and now the nation of Israelites are living in a desolate desert wilderness clawing out their survival because God had ordered, through Moses, that they leave Esau’s land alone. The people weren’t happy.

“Family is family.” There has always been an unwritten human principle about being faithful to family, to provide for family, to be true to family. In my life journey I believe I’ve seen the power of this sentiment slowly fade in our culture as families spread out over larger and larger geographical areas. Yet, I’m not sure it will ever fade completely. There’s something that’s built in our DNA. It’s why millions of people are doing DNA tests and searching out their roots to understand who their family is and “where I come from.” There is a part of us and our life journey that we realize is only understood in the context of the family from which we spring.

This morning I’m thinking about our human family and the things that connect us. I continue to marvel that modern genetics has definitively shown that all of us descend from what scientists refer to as “Genetic Eve.” We are all part of the same human family. Like the Hebrews, over time we feel less and less connection. Despite the fact that God reminded the Hebrews that the Edomites were “family” they didn’t think of the Edomites in those terms. They saw their distant cousins as enemies who refused to allow them to pass through the land. The Edomites didn’t see the Hebrews as distant cousins but as a threat to their very existence. Along the way our self-centered fears and desires turns human family members into mortal enemies.

Then there are those like Grandpa Spec. Despite having every reason to save his money and walk away angry from his brother’s funeral, he simply paid the funeral bill and let it go.

Family is family.

Indeed.

Lesson of the Prophetic Prodigal

In that day people will look to their Maker
    and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah 17:7 (NIV)

Isaiah is taking a prophetic tour of the region of his day. In previous days we’ve been to Moab and Aram. The tour of doom continues today to the kingdoms of Syria, and even to Israel’s northern kingdom.

The Kingdom of Israel split during the time of David’s grandson (Solomon’s son). The southern Kingdom of Judah (David’s tribe) along with the tribe of Benjamin, continued to make Jerusalem its capital city, and continued to put descendants of the line of David on the royal throne. Isaiah was a prophet of Judah. With Solomon’s temple a prominent fixture in Judah, the worship of God was more likely to be central to the lives of citizens there.

The northern kingdom was made up of the other ten of Israel’s tribes. There were different capital cities, but in the days of Isaiah it was in Samaria. The monarchy in Israel was a political free-for-all, and religion was seemingly a free-for-all as well. While Judah was more apt to be faithful to God and the worship of God at Solomon’s temple, the tribes of the northern kingdom were more given to worship of Canaanite deities.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah’s apocalyptic, regional prophecies include their northern kin, though the coming doom does not mean total destruction for Israel. Isaiah speaks of a gleaning (harvest) in which some fruit remains. Isaiah’s message predicted the regional invasion of the Assyrians, in which the Assyrians would take many captive and leave a few behind. This was a common practice of siege warfare in that day.

From a spiritual perspective, the tribes of Israel and Judah are bit like Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. While Jesus’ parable was not intended as a political allegory, the the metaphor of the parable resonates. Judah the more dutiful older son and Israel the rebellious younger son. God has a pattern of allowing His children freedom of will to accept or reject His ways, and equally allowing his children to experience the painful fruits of their own actions and decisions.

This morning I am thinking about how easy it is as parents to want to protect our children from themselves. When we control all behavior, control all exposure to the world, and protect children from all harm they are more likely to be safe. They are also less likely to be wise. It is only in the distant country, and in the painful consequences of his own actions, that the prodigal realizes his folly and makes a choice to return home.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel pre-figures the lesson of the parable. Israel will suffer the devastation of an Assyrian siege, its best and brightest will be taken into captivity, but the painful lesson will turn the hearts of the prodigal back to their spiritual Father.

Raised in Flyover Country

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:1-2 (NIV)

When I visited Israel just over ten years ago, the first days of our journey were in and around Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a big city, and it has all the hustle and bustle of a big city. When you layer the never-ending religious tension between Christians, Jews, and Muslims on top of the din of activity, it is a fascinating experience. If found that my guard was always up in Jerusalem. I felt that I always had to be aware of my surroundings. I don’t know that I ever felt relaxed.

Several days later we headed north, to the region of Galilee. There was something in the transition from Jerusalem to Galilee that felt very natural. It was like leaving downtown Chicago and finding yourself in the farms and fields of Illinois and Iowa. I stood on Mt. Arbel and looked out over the fields sprawled around the Sea of Galilee (see featured image). Small towns and villages dot the landscape. Farming and fishing are the livelihoods in what Jerusalem residents surely consider the “backwater” area of the nation. Israel’s version of “flyover country.” And, I felt right at home.

Even nominal church attenders who make an annual pilgrimage on Christmas would recognize a couple of the verses the prophet Isaiah penned in today’s chapter. One is pasted at the top of this post. The other is:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

What I had never connected before, is that Isaiah calls out that this Light that will shine, the child that is born, will honor Galilee. It wasn’t going to be in the hubbub of Jerusalem and the center of the region’s worldly power. The Messiah would bless the simple folks scratching out a living from the land and the water far from the pomp and prestige of civic and religious authority. It was of Nazareth, in Galilee, that Jesus’ own disciple sarcastically asked, “Does anything good come from there?

There’s a sentiment that every child of Iowa knows.

This morning I’m thinking about life in flyover country. I’m thinking about my small town, filled with good people who live in concert with the land and the seasons. I live in a place that generally brings up vague, usually incorrect, notions from the people you talk to on the streets of New York or Los Angeles.

“Iowa? Oh yeah. With all the potatoes.” [No, that’s Idaho.]
“Iowa? I heard of it.” [Nice. You still remember 2nd grade geography!]
“Iowa? I had a great Aunt that was from there.” [But, you still couldn’t find it on a map, could you?]

This morning I’m taking solace in the fact that the Messiah came from a place like Iowa. He grew up working with his hands in the trades. He knew small town people scratching out a living from the land, living in concert with the seasons of planting and harvesting. It was here in flyover country where God wanted Jesus to be raised. I get it. We grow good kids here, as well as crops.

Loving Devotion and Life-less Obligation

I have been on a pseudo-sabbatical from my daily chapter-a-day posts for the past month. I took the opportunity of late summer vacations both to the lake and to Kauai to rest from my normal routines, though when I rest from regular routines I have a penchant for developing new ones.. I’ve felt prompted, of late, to wade into the writings of the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve blogged through only once back in the spring of 2010. It’s rather daunting journey, merely for the length of it (66 chapters!). Like all lengthy journeys it affords both tedious plodding and memorable, breathtaking moments. Here we go.

One of the keys to reading the poetic verse and visions of the ancient prophets (nearly all of the prophetic writings of what we refer to as the Old Testament are penned as Hebrew poetry) are 1) the cultural and historic context of the time in which the author was writing and 2) the person and circumstance of the prophet himself.

Isaiah lived in the capital city of Jerusalem during a period of “the kings.” The twelve tribes of Israel had been united under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, but then split in two during the reign of Solomon’s son. The southern kingdom was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and had its capital in Judah. Judah was loyal to the house and line of David. The northern kingdom (Israel) was made up of the rest of the tribes and claimed Bethel as its capital and religious center. Israel’s monarchy was continually a free-for-all which made for a lot of political intrigue.

Like all great books, the beginning introduces the overarching themes. In today’s opening chapter Isaiah sets the scene in Jerusalem where Solomon’s temple was the center of Israel’s sacrificial system. Over the last few months I blogged through the book of Leviticus, in which set the sacrificial system into being as established through Moses. The dutiful, religious people of Judah continue to carry out their rituals, festivals and sacrifices. But, there’s a problem.

Isaiah gets right to the crux of the matter. The people were carrying out their religious duties, but had forsaken the heart of their relationship with God. They were like a spouse who manages the daily household routines of marital and family obligation while their heart wanders in desire for others. God wanted their obedient actions to be motivated out of love and desire, not rote obligation void of love and devotion.

I have confessed to being a person of routines, and this morning I am thinking about the religious routines in my own life. My daily quiet time and blog post are a routine. Attending church services on Sunday is a routine. Giving financially to my local church and other ministries is a routine. But, are these coming from a heart-felt love and devotion to God, or are they merely Life-less robotic religious behaviors? Do my actions point God toward a living love and desire within my heart or, like the people of Isaiah’s day, have my religious behaviors become absorbed by the rotting stench of my hypocrisy?

Dealing with that stain and stench is another major theme of Isaiah’s poetic visions, which he establishes in today’s chapter:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.

 

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The Natural Order of Things

“…but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am the Lord.”
Leviticus 26:45 (NRSV)

When our girls were young I could have said of them that when they were a bit older they would bristle against their father’s authority and would test what I had always said about right and wrong. Our relationship would be strained and stretched thin. They would, in one way or another, choose to do that which was unpleasing to me. They might even rebel against me and say things against me that were untrue. They would likely spurn my advice and choose their own path and experience the consequences of their actions. But, my love for them would not change nor would it change my caring for them in need or my desire to have harmonious relationship with them. In time, their hearts would turn back toward me and we would have a good relationship once again.

As I write that previous paragraph I am recalling specific moments with both of my daughters over the past 15 years. How could I have predicted all of this when they were young? Because it is the natural order of things. Children grow to be their own persons. They bristle against authority and roll their eyes at parents. They test that which they’ve been authoritatively told. They stake their independence and choose their own way. Once they strike out on their own path, their perspective changes. The father who seemed so stupid a few years earlier suddenly seems to have worthwhile wisdom.

God is winding down His ancient law given to Moses. In today’s chapter God delivers an amazingly prescient foreshadowing of what’s to come in His relationship with His children:

  • “If you will not obey me…” (they wouldn’t)
  • “If you continue to be hostile to me…” (they would)
  • “But if, despite [correction] you continue to be hostile…” (they would)
  • “I will scatter you among the nations…” (He did)
  • “Those who survive I will send faintness into the heart of the land of your enemies…” (Like Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and etc.)
  • “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors…” (they did)
  • “Then I will remember my covenant…” (He did)

As I read this foreshadowing this morning I am reminded that God is parenting His fledgling children. I could have predicted when our girls were small what was likely to happen, and I’m nowhere near as omniscient as God. Yet there’s an order to God’s creation. There is a natural way of things and God knew how they were going to go. He wove it into telling of the Great Story.

This morning I’m thinking about the natural order of things. This morning our daughter will arrive at the lake after making a 14 hour road trip to join us for a few days. We can’t wait to see her and to be with her. There was a day, not so long ago, when I’m not sure she would have considered a 14 hour road trip just to spend a day or two with dad and Wendy worth her time. But today it is, and we’re overjoyed. It’s the natural order of things. I can fight against it, or I can learn to be at peace with it. I think I will continue to fight my natural inclination toward the former and continue to seek to embrace the latter.

Just like…

“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”
Nehemiah 9:38 (NIV)

One of the benefits of studying God’s Message over time is that you eventually begin to make connections and see patterns across the Great Story.

In today’s chapter we have the Israelites gathered together. They’ve been defeated and enslaved by the Babylonians for 150 years, but the King has allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. They return, remember anew the Great Story and renew their commitment to God and His laws. They make a “binding agreement” to be faithful.

Just like when they were gathered in Sinai and Moses gave them the law to begin with…

Just like the multiple times they got rebellious and stiff-necked during their forty-years of wandering and renewed their commitment…

Just like at the dedication of Solomon’s temple…

Just like during the time of King Josiah when the law of Moses was found and read for the first time in a generation because the people had abandoned their faith to pursue pagan religions…

Just like… me and the countless “binding agreements” I’ve made with God at camps and conferences and workshops and worship services through the years, only to prove myself faithless again and again.

One of the themes of the Great Story is the same theme I see in my own spiritual journey. People are people. No matter how hard I try and however many well-intentioned “binding agreements” I make with the Almighty, I always fall short of keeping them. But, that’s the point:

[Jesus] saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)

…if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)

When in my repetitive, never-ending, cyclical faith-less-ness I finally stop trying to earn my spiritual merit badge, then I finally begin to understand the depths of God’s mercy, grace, and faith-full-ness. That’s when I truly begin to understand the Great Story. That’s when real Spirit-ual growth begins to occur.

The Struggle for Unity Among Many

The Israelites went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and they inquired of the Lord. They said, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites?”
Judges 20:23 (NIV)

The violent gang rape that had taken place in the previous chapter of Judges now becomes national news and sparks corporate outrage. The other 11 tribes of Israel muster an army and demand that the perpetrators of the act be delivered up for justice. Their fellow countrymen from Benjamin refuse. The tribes of Israel find themselves on the brink of civil war.

This morning as I read of the events described I thought of our own civil war here in the United States. I thought about the name itself: “United States.” Many smaller states united as one. It was not unlike the 12 tribes of Israel, spread out and occupying their own geographic territory, but with no strong central government to bring unity. In Ken Burns’ classic documentary of the American Civil War it is explained that, prior to the war, it was common to say “the United States are” (plural). After the war, we began to say “the United States is” (singular). As the end of the book of Judges, the nation of Israel is having a similar experience.

Today, I’m thinking about the need we have as humans in society for strong central leadership and authority. Without it, smaller societal groups with strong identity and disparate ideas quickly fall into conflict that can turn divisive, violent, and deadly. We need law, order, and the freedom to express our ideas. We need a system that allows for reasonable exchange and compromise.

Without it, things get ugly.