Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” Genesis 35:1 (NIV)
One of the things I’ve discovered along my spiritual journey is that the return is often as important as the destination. In some cases, they turn out to be one and the same.
In today’s chapter, God calls Jacob to return to Bethel which is the place where God first revealed Himself to Jacob. Jacob has been on a journey of exile for over twenty years, and now he has returned to his home and family. At Bethel, God renews the promises made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. God makes Jacob’s name change to Israel official.
The timing of this is important. Isaac is about to die. Having the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God is leading Jacob through a rite of passage. He’s returned from exile to lead the family, and head the family business. Things are about to change in a big way.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back. My spiritual journey has led me on paths of exile and return. I found it to be the path of both wisdom and maturity. In exile, I face trials and struggles that grow me up as I learn essential lessons in faith, patience, perseverance, joy, and hope. The return is the place where those lessons bear fruit. The landscape looks different upon my return. Time may have changed things, but most importantly I have changed. I see old things with new eyes. In exile, I have been refined, honed, broken down, and rebuilt for a purpose. The return is where that purpose eventually comes into focus.
I also found myself meditating on God’s name change for this patriarch-to-be. In exile, Jacob (meaning the deceiver) is transformed into Israel (he wrestled with God). When Jacob left Bethel, everything he had and came from his (and his mother’s) own deceptive cunning and initiative. In exile, he struggled with his Uncle, himself, and with God. He discovers in exile that his blessings come from God and not his, and his family’s, penchant for deception. Jacob left Bethel and went into exile. It was Israel who returned to Bethel ready for the next stage of the journey.
I have found that there are certain spiritual truths that do not change. Among those truths is the necessity of both exile and return.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Cover their faces with shame, Lord, so that they will seek your name. Psalm 83:16 (NIV)
I consider it virtually impossible for a person in 21st century America to comprehend what life was like for the ancients, such as the songwriters of the Psalms. As evidence, I submit today’s chapter, Psalm 83, as Exhibit A for your consideration.
Psalm 83 is a song of national lament. It’s a plea to God to protect them from and destroy their enemies. A quick side note as I’m thinking bout it: One thing that has become really clear to me as I journey through the psalms the past few months is that David, who wrote most of the songs compiled in the first half of the anthology we call the Psalms, wrote personal songs expressing emotions he felt in his own circumstances. The songs attributed to Asaph, like today’s, were more about tribal and national issues. It’s the difference between me blogging about the stress I’m feeling in my own personal life and blogging about the issues surrounding the recent national election.
Asaph’s song was written at a time of national crisis when all of the people groups surrounding them were allied against them and bent on wiping them out. Here in North America, the nations that we see as a threat are an ocean away. For Asaph and the people of Judah, the enemies were less than 50 miles away. The map below is a scale of 50 miles and pinpoints all but one of the people groups mentioned in Psalm 83. Jerusalem is pretty much right in the middle. They were literally surrounded by 10 neighboring nations bent on ending their existence.
I try to imagine it. I live in Pella, a small town in rural Iowa. I try to envision being at war with every other sizeable town in a 30-mile radius. The Newtonians, the Knoxvillites, Oskaloosans, the not-so-Pleasantvillians, the New Sharonians, the Albians, the Monrovians, the Prairie Citians, the Montezumians, and the big empirical threat the Des Moinesiacs. If all these people groups immediately surrounding my town were banded together in an alliance to come and kill everyone in Pella and take everything we have and own as plunder, I would be feeling an incredible amount of stress. Welcome to the daily “kill-or-be-killed” realities of Asaph and his people.
So, Asaph writes a spiritual fight-song asking God to protect them and fight for their existence. It’s a very human thing to do. We just commemorated Pearl Harbor Day on December 7 which was the last time America was seriously attacked and threatened back in World War II. It took me ten seconds to find a playlist on YouTube of American fight songs from that era including Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ in 1943, Hot Time in the Town of Berlin(When the Yanks Go Marchin’ In). And who can forget Spike Jones’ famous lyrics:
When the Fuhrer says, “We is the master race,” We sing: “Heil” (blow a raspberry) “Heil” (blow a raspberry) “Heil” (blow a raspberry) Right in the Fuhrer’s face.
How much life has changed in just two generations. I can hardly comprehend the realities of 80 years ago. How can I really comprehend Asaph’s realities over 2500 years ago?
The fact that I can’t comprehend Asaph’s realities leads me to extend him some grace as I try to wrap my head around the context of asking God to destroy my enemy. Which leaves me asking, “What am I supposed to take away from Psalm 83?”
That brings me to the lyric that stuck out at me this morning:
Cover their faces with shame, Lord, so that they will seek your name.
Underneath the cries for God to help them successfully defeat the enemy was a desire for their enemies to ultimately know God. When Jesus arrived on the scene hundreds of years later the situation was very different. The known world was ruled by the Roman Empire and while Jesus said that humanity can expect wars to continue right up until the end of the Great Story, He set the expectation that I, as His follower, would take a different approach to getting my enemy to “seek His name.”
“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
I understand that there is a difference between international relationships and personal ones. All I know is that today, in my circles of influence, Jesus asks me to follow His instruction to love my enemy, bless my enemy, and pray for my enemy.
So, “Praise the Lord, and pass…” a little more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. Isaiah 62:2b (NIV)
A friend recently shared with Wendy and me that their child had reached the age when they wanted to be called by the more formal version of their first name. This is not unusual. I remember hitting the age when I wanted people to drop what I considered the childish sounding “Tommy” and call me just “Tom.” That lasted until college when friends just stated calling me “Tommy” or “Tommy V” and I just sort of rolled with it. Our Madison went through a similar journey with her moniker. She asked that we drop the “Maddy” and call her “Madison.” Somewhere in her young adult years she came to accept “Maddy Kate” as the endearment with which it is used.
For millennia names were attached to specific meanings. The name given to a person was, itself, a metaphor that attached meaning to that person’s life. In fact, the study of names and their meaning is an interesting thread of study across all of God’s Message. Not only are name fascinating, but God quite regularly changes or gives people new names in the midst of their earthly journeys. Here are a few examples:
Abram becomes Abraham
Sarai becomes Sarah
Jacob becomes Israel
Hoshea becomes Joshua
Solomon also named Jedidiah
Simon becomes Peter
Saul becomes Paul
In some cases, the name changes were cultural, shifting from one language to another. Daniel was given the name Belteshazzar when he was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Sometimes name changes were bestowed by others, almost like a nickname, in response to an episode or event in that person’s life. Other times, however, it was God who did the changing and there was spiritual context to the change. Jesus told Simon that He was going to call Him Peter (which was also a language change, Petras was Greek for “Rock”) and added “on this rock I will build my church.”
In today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah is promising the people of Judah that their momentary circumstances of devastation, defeat, destruction, and depression will give way to better times. The times, they will be a changin’. And with the change comes a new name.
As I meditate this morning it strikes me that in some corners of our culture names have ceased to have any attachment to meaning at all. When I go on-site with clients and meet with teams I will regularly run across people with names with spellings and pronunciations simply made up by a parent. I even had one woman tell me this past month that her name was “meaningless,” and the subtext of the statement was that she felt a lack of meaning in her life. I found it fascinating that a name without common metaphorical meaning became, itself, metaphorical to her.
“But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit….”
Acts 13:9 (NRSV)
Names and Nicknames I’ve been given by others over the years:
Thomas DiGomas “Don’t Give a Damn” Nostrum
I find names and the monikers we give one another fascinating.
I find it fascinating that a man born and raised as Saul became known to the world and to history as Paul. I have written several posts over the years about names. I find that names can be powerful metaphors. Changes in lives paralleled with a change in names is a somewhat recurring theme across all of God’s Message. Abram becomes Abraham. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul.
The interesting thing about Saul’s change is that it happens abruptly in today’s chapter. It just happens with no explanation. Scholars assume that the Hebrew “Saul” gave way to the more Greek “Paul” as his ministry switched from preaching to Jews to preaching to Greeks. It is a logical and simple assumption. The fact that the meticulous and detailed archivist, Luke, does not explain the change leads me to believe that even Luke thought that the reason for the change would be apparent to his readers.
But it’s fascinating to know that “Paul” to the Greeks meant “little.” Paul the persecutor and executioner of early Christians considered himself the “least” (or “littlest”) of the apostles. Paul alluded to physical afflictions that humbled him and left him feeling “little” and weak, but trusting in God’s strength.
This morning I’m asking myself: “What’s in a name?” and “What’s in a name change?” A name is a metaphor. It’s a label placed upon us, and as such it holds a certain meaning.
Cush was also the ancestor of Nimrod, who was the first heroic warrior on earth. Since he was the greatest hunter in the world, his name became proverbial. People would say, “This man is like Nimrod, the greatest hunter in the world.” Genesis 10:8-9 (NLT)
One of the challenges facing the fearless wayfaring stranger wandering through every chapter of God’s Message are chapters like Genesis 10. What is the great spiritual take-away from a list of genealogical references on any given day? Face it, this life journey is a mixture of ups and downs and not every day is a spiritual pinnacle. Think about it: for every great five-star meal you enjoy in this life you have to eat a lot of bland bowls of oatmeal.
I was at first struck today by the reference to Nimrod, “the first heroic warrior on earth” and “the greatest hunter in the world.” From purely a testosterone driven, male perspective this is a really awesome legacy to have through all eternity. But then you get to the phrase “People would say, ‘This man is like Nimrod,'” and suddenly the testosterone drained out, and I imagine I’m getting bullied on the playground by Nick Greaser and his cronies calling me “Nimrod” as they de-pants me in front of the girls.
It’s the name. Nimrod. Seriously. This is why agents and publicists in Hollywood make actors change their names.
Leslie Hope < Bob Hope
Archibald Leach < Cary Grant
Virginia McMath < Ginger Rogers
Ralph Lifshitz < Ralph Lauren
Alphonso D’Abruzzo < Alan Alda
Marion Morrison < John Wayne
Nimrod < Rock Hunter, Nick Bullet, Jack Talon, etc.
Nimrod needed a publicist. I’m just saying.
I know this is not a terribly hyper-spiritual thought for your day, but as I mentioned before some days you get served up a culinary masterpiece and other days…well, you get the point.
Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold. Proverbs 22:1 (NLT)
There was a certain executive I knew. Bright, intelligent and charismatic, this man made things happen. He made good things happen to the mutual benefit of everyone in his company. This gentleman was a winner and was on the fast track to great things.
Then, one day, he was gone. Suddenly, without warning, he wasn’t there and the company has kept their lips tightly sealed with regard to the reason. One coworker quipped that the departed executive had become Voldemort (e.g. “He who must not be named”). Another, who could not and would not speak of the circumstances for the exec’s leaving simply said of the man, “He’s dead to me now. So sad. Worse than the fortune he gave up was the loss of his reputation around here.”
Perhaps it’s because of that last statement that the image of this person came to mind when I read the first proverb in today’s chapter. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Lord knows, I can’t point a finger without three pointing back at me. Nevertheless, I am reminded this morning that a man’s reputation – whether it is justly or unjustly destroyed – is incredibly difficult to rebuild.
These are the names of the men Moses sent to scout out the land. Moses gave Hoshea (Salvation) son of Nun a new name—Joshua (God-Saves). Numbers 13:16 (MSG)
Oneo of the over-arching themes I’ve discovered in my journey through God’s Message is that God is a God of transformation. We grow and we change. I am not exactly the same person I was 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or even last year. I am not perfect, but with life experience and God’s never ending work in my soul, I am growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Another over-arching theme in God’s Message that points to this work of transformation is the giving of new names. Moses gave Hoshea a new name, Joshua. God gave Abram and new name, Abraham. Jacob was given the new name Israel. Jesus gave Simon a new name, Peter. Saul was given a new name Paul.
In God’s Message, the giving of a new name always pointed to a life transformation. You were this, now you are this.
Today, I’m asking myself many questions:
How am I growing? How am I different today than this time last year? Is God doing anything in my heart and life? If so, what? How has my life transformed over time? If God were to give me a new name, what would I want it to be?
Reading through what seems like endless genealogical records in the beginning of Chronicles, I begin to appreciate how important lineage was to Israel in the Old Testament. The family you were born into determined all sorts of things from status, to where you lived, to what you did for a living and your responsibilities in temple worship.
I don't think I fully appreciate what it's like to have your life and social status completely determined by the family into which you happened to be born. Being born in a country and a time in which you're raised believing you can do anything and succeed at anything you choose to do if you put your heart and mind to it, it's hard to fathom being constrained by my family name.
One of the awesome things that Jesus did through his life, death and resurrection was to shatter this legalistic system in which your family was of utmost importance. Ephesians 1:5 says "In love [God]predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will." Through Jesus, being born into the right family with the right genes and the right name becomes a moot point. When we place our faith in Jesus, we're adopted into the family that really matters.