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This study was written by Jeanie Crain, who is a professor of English at Missouri Western State College.
A question that will occur naturally to anyone coming to the study of Bible literature for the first time is: "Why does Yahweh use the individuals He chooses to carry His revelation forward?" One answer is: the workings of the infinite have always been, and will continue to be, mysterious and inscrutable to ordinary human intellect. At the level of faith, one ascribes this election to grace. Throughout history, one cannot help but notice that those who contribute to the kingdom of God are not necessarily the physically gifted nor necessarily the morally strong. One has only to think of the bad judgment, incompetency, and jealousy of Saul; the bloodshed and rebellion in the house of David, or the military problems and division in the house of Solomon; and wonder, "Why did God choose these people?" The only possible answers seem to be the ones given by the Lord Himself: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" (Rom. 9:15; Ex. 33:19)[Footnote #8] and "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways...For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9). In summary, the thoughts of the Infinite God are higher than those of creatures bearing His image.
Still, we empathize with the new Bible reader who asks why Jacob, who stole his older brother's birthright, was preferred to Esau, for Jacob was the son whose offspring would become tribal leaders of the Hebrew people. And why was Judah, who slept with his own daughter-in-law (mistaking her for a temple prostitute), a forefather of the Davidic kingdom? Why did Ruth, a Moabitess, choose her mother-in-law's God, and become the mother of the Davidic line? Why did Moses survive being thrown into the Nile, only to murder rashly an Egyptian who was beating his own slave? What happened in Moses' heart during forty years in Midian that enabled him to reply, (at least initially, that is, before he became the greatest excuse maker of all time) "Here am I" when called by Yahweh ("the God who causes to be")? Why was Aaron, the first-born, used as a mouth piece rather than the leader or law bringer? Similar questions can be asked about the era of the judges, kings, and prophets, leading ultimately, to the question as to why the Jews were the first-born and the Gentiles, the adopted children? What is to be most noted is that Yahweh-God calls into being, sustains, and defines destiny as human beings know it.
Consider Abraham. The backdrop for Abraham's call is the table of nations outlined in Genesis 9 and 10. Shem is chosen for blessing, the descendents of Canaan subjugated to him; Japheth's descendents, on the other hand, are to "live in the tents of Shem" (Gen. 9:27). Thus, from an original unity of humankind, nations emerge separated not only by language and land, but primarily by politics. Why Shem is chosen to father the children of Eber (the Semitic peoples including the Hebrews who later become Israel) is left unexplained. Paul in Colossians calls the workings of God "a mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations" (Col. 1.26).
Yahweh chooses Abram, who is childless, telling him his heir will come out of his own issue (Gen. 15.4). The offspring destined to carry God's grace forward, however, will be subjected to slavery for four hundred years, a very long time for any people of God to wait in faith. The Lord speaks of such waiting: "For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay... the righteous live by their faith" (Hab. 2:3,4). Through Isaac, Abram's offspring is named, even though another nation emerges from Ishmael.
Later, the story of Isaac's children, Jacob and Esau, foreshadows the full relationship of the Jew and Gentile. Jacob is the second born son who steals the birthright of Esau. Jacob is deceitful and manipulative in his determination to fulfill what he sees as his destiny. Why is it then that he fathers the twelve sons from whom the twelve tribes of Israel emerge? The relationship of Jacob and Esau is a picture of humanity: the relationship is one of hate and a determination to kill (Gen. 27:41,42). Jacob flees from Esau's wrath (at the urging of his mother Rebekah) to seek a wife among her people rather than from among the Canaanites. On his way to seek the "bone and flesh" of his own people, Jacob chooses God in response to a very personal revelation. He sees a ladder reaching from earth into heaven with angels of God ascending and descending; this is the vision Christ tells Nathaniel he will see: "[Y]ou will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (John 1.51). Jacob's response is recognition that "the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it" (Gen. 28:16). The sanctuary of Yahweh is revealed to be the earth; Jacob is afraid and overcome with awe. He declares: "The Lord shall be my God" (Gen. 28:21).
Despite the recognition of Yahweh's presence, Jacob is not yet fully transformed. This is revealed in his fear and distress at encountering his brother Esau; he must undergo yet a chastening of self-confidence before he is ready for right relationship. Jacob wrestles until dawn to receive his spiritual blessing, and this time, Jacob reveals his true identity: the man with whom he wrestles asks him pointedly, "What is your name?" (Gen. 32:27) and he replies, "Jacob" (meaning "he grasps the heel", or figuratively, "he deceives"). But God says: "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel" (meaning, "He who strives with God" or "God strives"). Jacob is now ready for a new relationship with Esau, who runs to meet him, and embraces and falls on his neck, and kisses him (Gen. 33:4). The changed Jacob, whose new life is signalled by the new and symbolic name Israel, now tells his brother to keep his possessions, that he has enough. In Esau's human face, Jacob now finds the image of right relationship, finding his face to be like "seeing the face of God" (Gen. 33:10).
The picture of Esau and Jacob is not complete until their destiny intertwines itself with that of the Jew and Gentile. Paul states clearly that it "is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendents" (Rom. 9:8). He then states the working of grace quite matter-of-factly: "The elder will serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (9:13). At play here again is the idea "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (9:15). It remains a mystery of grace that the first born Israelites should have had "the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ" (9:4,5); and yet, the "Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith" (9:31). Paul quotes from Isaiah, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me" (10.20).
The unpredictability of who Yahweh chooses is clearly illustrated in Jacob's son Judah. Jacob's deathbed blessing singles out Judah to receive the scepter and ruler's staff. Why Judah? Judah after all is the man who slept with his own daughter-in-law, mistaking Tamar for a common cult prostitute (Genesis 38). Judah, typical of human beings, is quick to see and condemn the shortcomings of Tamar but has to have his own shortcomings revealed to him. He at least has the humility to acknowledge after the fact that Tamar "is more righteous than I" (Gen. 38:26). In the meantime, as a result of that union, Tamar bears twins, with Perez coming out ahead of his almost first-to-be-born brother Zerah, whose birthright has been marked with a scarlet thread. In the prevailing of Perez, though, is established the Davidic line. As unlikely a recipient of grace as Judah may appear, he, nonetheless, reveals the character of greatness in becoming surety for his brother Benjamin; he even asks that he be allowed to remain a slave to the Egyptian Lord (who is Joseph) in Benjamin's place (Gen. 44:32-33). The picture created here is one of substitutionary sacrifice.
To the list of God's unlikely chosen, Moses, and his brother Aaron, contribute significantly to the early revelation of Yahweh. When Moses is born, odds have been stacked against him: the Hebrews have multiplied in Egypt, and Pharaoh has commanded that "Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile" (Exodus 1.22). In the story of the babe in the basket boat, we see the sinister human will that seeks at every turn to thwart God's purposes.
As Moses grew, although he had chosen nobly "to share ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season" (Heb. 11:25), he acts rashly and foolishly in murdering the Egyptian and so is compelled to flee. After years of sojourning in exile in Midian, God's steadfast love is revealed to Moses in the dramatic theophany of a burning bush. Moses is possessed with mystery and dread at its sight. We understand how his only possible reaction is to reply "Here am I" (Ex. 3:4). God reveals Himself as the God of Moses' father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and now the God of Moses (Ex. 3:6). Moses hides his face and is afraid to look at God. When he learns, though, that Yahweh is redirecting him back into Egypt into the courts of a new Pharaoh, Moses balks and begins excusing himself from this frightful task: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" (Ex. 3:11). Yahweh's reply is meant to be reassuring: "I will be with you" (3:12). This is not enough for Moses who turns into an excuse maker, not unlike any of us who are called to play a part in God's revelation to human beings. Now Moses asks, "What shall I say?" (3:13). He is instructed that he is to reveal Yahweh: he is to tell the Egyptians "I AM WHO I AM" and the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you" (3:14). He is further instructed to tell the Hebrews that this God is the God of their fathers, the God whose name is to be remembered throughout all generations, the God who promised to deliver them out of Egypt and to bring them into a "land flowing with milk and honey" (3:17). Moses is told, "they will hearken to your voice." Moses excuses himself again: "They will not believe me" (4:1). To this excuse, he adds yet another: "I am not eloquent" (4:10). I have always appreciated Moses' attempt here and the reply he receives from God: "Who has made man's mouth?... Is it not I?" (3:11). Moses is then pushed a bit here: "Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak" (4:12). Moses still pleads, "Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, somebody else" (4:14). Moses' resistance is no longer funny, and we are told "the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses" (4:14). God says, "Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well" (4:14). One almost suspects a bit of mockery here. God continues, "I will be with your mouth and his mouth" (4.15). Even Moses apparently can no longer come up with excuses; we find him next going to Jethro and saying, "Let me go back, I pray, to my kinsmen in Egypt" (4.18).
We get an indication of the temperamental emotions of Moses, seen earlier in his abrupt killing of the Egyptian, when Pharoah resists his warning that the final plague will be the death of the first born. Moses goes out from Pharaoh in "hot anger" (11.8). After the final plague, Pharaoh relents; he actually summons Moses and Aaron to his house and says to them, "Take your flocks and your herds... and be gone" (12:32). Once again, though, Pharaoh changes his mind (14.5) and pursues; this time, though, Pharaoh suffers the consequences of his continued disbelief and hardness of heart. We are told that "not so much as one" of the pursuing Egyptians survived (14.28). What is tragic for Pharaoh and the Egyptians is salvation for the Hebrews, who sing in victory the praise of Yahweh.
One other theme in Moses' call and commission should not be overlooked: he is not the first-born son. We have here a repeat of the motif of God choosing the second son. We recall that Ephraim and Manesseh are Joseph's sons, that Jacob when he bestows his death-bed blessing, laid his hand upon the head of Ephraim, the second-born. Jacob refuses to see this as a mistake, telling Joseph rather, "his younger brother shall become greater, and his descendents shall become a multitude of nations" (Gen. 48.19). This is a reminder of the switch in birthrights between Esau, the first-born, and Jacob, the second. Yet another confusion of first- and second-born occurs when Perez comes out first even though his twin Zerah has tried to emerge first, the mid-wife marking the entry of his hand first with a scarlet thread.
What shall we conclude from God's grace as revealed in human history? This study of God's unlikely chosen could easily be extended into the judges, prophets, and kings. What one finds is a picture of grace progressively revealed in human beings who show us the best and worst within ourselves. We are Adams who deliberately disobey; and Moses' who kill out of jealousy and impulsive anger; we are Noahs who succumb to wine, Abrahams who despair that the human race will continue; we are Elijahs in our despair and Jacobs in our ambitions and manipulations; we are Judahs seeking out Tamars as well as Judahs pleading for our younger brother; and yet, among us, under the power of grace, there will emerge the transformed Pauls who see clearly God's continuing revelation to humankind. Among us, God's unlikely chosen, there is "neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 4.29). Unlikely candidates that we are, still "by grace [we] have been saved through faith; and this is not [our] own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2.8). And by His grace, God's final revelation will be complete: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear...and death shall be no more" (Rev. 21:3-4). Amen.
8. Note: All Scripture references in this article are taken from the Revised Standard Version.
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