Genesis 46-48, Psalm 16, Matthew 16
Facing life’s inevitabilities
Genesis 46 – 48
Before I was hired as a reporter for a large southern daily newspaper, I was given a spelling test. I not only did poorly on it, but I the editor, who interviewed me, told me that I received the lowest score that he could recall. I am indeed a poor speller and sometimes I even write the wrong word in place of the word that I had intended to write. Fortunately I was a good reporter. I could get the story and write it well, but I needed an excellent copy editor to correct my mistakes.
In these final chapters of Genesis we discover that a copy editor is perhaps needed to make corrections. It is likely that editing of Genesis did occur and that more than one author shaped the stories that we have been reading. As a result, Jacob is sometimes called “Jacob” and at other times “Israel.”
In Gen. 46:1, we read, “When Israel set out on his journey…” God then spoke to Israel once again in a vision at night, saying, “Jacob, Jacob.” It is puzzling that God has changed Jacob’s name to Israel, but continues to refer to him as Jacob. What is more important, however, is that we discover is a pattern of communication between God and humans that has been repeated several times and will continue throughout the Bible.
God calls, and a human being answers, saying, “Here I am.” This is significant in that when Moses asks God to reveal his name so that the people will believe that he has truly communicated with Moses, God replies in one of the most famous passages in the Bible, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) God remains a mystery to human beings, which cannot be easily pinned down, captured in a doctrine or definition.
God indeed is only known through the prayerful reading God’s Word, spending time with God’s people, worshipping with other believers, experiencing God’s creation, doing God’s work and communicating with God through the language of prayer and grace. Each time a human being utters, “I am,” in the Bible, we know that this is a reflection of the God who describes himself as, “I am who I am.” Never is this clearer than in I Samuel 3, when the prophet Samuel is called to service by God.
What is ironic is that Israel had already decided to travel to Egypt to see his long lost son Joseph before dying. It was only after Israel had set out on his journey that God spoke to him in a vision at night. Perhaps God spoke to reassure the frail and elderly Israel that he would survive the journey.
Throughout my ministry, I have witnessed many people move from their home into a retirement community. Many refer to this as their “final move.” They must downsize and evaluate carefully what to take with them. They give away things to family members and at my current church they bring large amounts of things to a barn, where we store items and sell them with the proceeds supporting outreach ministries. Israel knew that this was his “final move,” but he was not making it alone. His entire family was moving to Egypt with him, and God was leading them.
The author of Genesis then reviews the lineage of Jacob. Occasionally, my mother-in-law and my wife will have a conversation about a distant member of the family and try to determine how that person is related to them or to another family member. Here in a similar way, the family tree is being sketched out. God’s promises have come true, and from Abraham and Sarah a large expansive family has grown.
Rueben, Israel’s eldest son, appears to have disappeared. Israel now sends Judah ahead of him to lead the way to the land of Goshen, which is a lush land for raising livestock. When Joseph learns that his family has arrived, he readies his chariot and drives out to greet them. The reunion of Israel and Joseph must have been indescribable, like a parent reunited with the son who was missing in action in the Vietnam War and thought to be dead. “I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive,” says Joseph.
Joseph insures that his family will be well cared for in Egypt, but warns his brothers not to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds, for shepherds were despised in Egypt. (Gen. 46:34) They ignore this advice for whatever reason when they are introduced to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:3) Despite Joseph’s supreme role in Egypt, they appear content to refuse to take orders from their second youngest brother.
Jacob is then introduced to Pharaoh and blesses the ruler of Egypt, who has been a blessing to his son and family. Joseph meanwhile continues to use his shrewd skills to manage Egypt’s economy wisely in a time of famine. Miraculously, Israel lives 17 years in Egypt, before breathing his last. Before dying, Israel summoned Joseph and beseeches his son not to bury him in Egypt, but in his ancestral land.
Israel appears to have never met Joseph’s sons. “Who are these,” he inquires of Joseph. “They are my sons, whom God has given me here,” notes Joseph. The young boys take their place on their grandfather’s knees, then Israel blesses them, but in one of the more mysterious passages of the Bible he crosses his arms and blesses Ephraim, the second born, first. He blesses Joseph and his sons, saying:
The God before whom my ancestors
Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all
my life to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from
all harm, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be
perpetuated, and the name of
my ancestors Abraham and Isaac;
and let them grow into a multitude on the earth. (Gen. 48:15-16)
When Joseph realized that his father had placed his right hand upon Ephraim’s head instead of his firstborn son Manasseh’s head, Joseph tried to switch his father’s hands, but Israel would not let him. Hence, history repeats itself and a similar fate occurs in the family, as Israel insisted that just as he was stole the blessing of his brother Esau and became the greater of the two brothers, so, too, will Ephraim, the second born, be greater than Joseph’s firstborn son, Manasseh.
Before breathing his last, Israel informed Joseph that he will receive a larger portion of land than each of his brothers. Playing favorites to the end, Israel demonstrated just how challenging it is to change our character, the character which God had used to bless a great multitude. (Gen. 48:22)
Psalm 16 warns us to be attentive to what we choose to put first in our lives. If we place anything other than God first, our life will not follow its natural trajectory, and we will increase the challenges the lie before us. The psalmist notes,
Those who choose another god,
multiply their sorrows. (Ps. 16:4)
He then offers some of the most beautiful words in the Psalter, coming from a person who has learned difficult lessons and discovered profound reward from meditating on God’s Word day and night, as described in Psalm 1.
I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I
shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my spirit rejoices;
my body also rests secure…
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy. (Ps. 16:7-9, 11)
Some of these words are used in the opening sentences of the Episcopal Church’s burial office. They speak profoundly to the belief that life does not end, but continues in a new way after death for those who live in Christ Jesus.
Christians believe that heaven is not a physical place, but rather it is a way of being, which we glimpse in this life, if we are fortunate, but which we shall experience fully after we die. Heaven is that state of being where we are constantly in the presence of God and with those whom we have loved and lost but are reunited. Therefore the psalmist rightly notes, “In your presence there is fullness of joy.” (Ps. 16:11)
The journey that Jesus and the disciples took was hardly an easy one when walking. Scholars estimate that they spent six months together as they traveled through Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. It was a rich time of teaching, witnessing miracles, healing and being in the presence of Jesus, which prepared them for leadership and equipped them to carry forth Jesus’ ministry and teaching.
Despite having experienced hungry crowds following them from place to place, the disciples appear to be slow learners, forgetting often to bring along food and supplies to feed those who flocked to hear Jesus. It was crucial for Jews only to eat food that was deemed to be kosher or holy; hence they could not eat what the Gentiles ate.
“Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” warns Jesus. The Pharisees were the most prevalent religious teachers of Jesus’ time. They were a group of fervent of believers, who attempted to live in accordance with all 621 Jewish laws. They interpreted these laws in such a way that everyone else could be expected to uphold them as well. The Pharisees also believed that there was some form of life after death.
The Sadducees, by contrast, were the other main branch of Judaism in Jesus’ day. They did not believe in an afterlife. They controlled the financial operations of the Temple and benefited directly from the money changing that took place in the Temple. They mandated that Jewish pilgrims had to change their Roman currency with Caesar’s image upon it in exchange for Jewish coinage, which alone could be used to purchase animals to sacrifice on the altar. The exchange rate was exorbitant, which Jesus despised.
When Jesus’ disciples appeared somewhat dense, and he scolded them saying, “How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread?” (Matt. 16:11) He was warning them instead of the “yeast” or bad teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who misconstrued God’s Word to benefit themselves and led others astray. Each generation must carefully look at itself and ask it what ways we are behaving like Pharisees and Sadducees. There is a portion of the Church that always resembles them, and we are frequently part of it.
Jesus then led them to Caesarea Philippi, which was located about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. It was outside the realm of Herod Antipas and in the region overseen by Philip the Tetrarch. It was a mostly Gentile or pagan region. The area was full of temples, where the ancient Syrian gods had been worshipped. In a cavern nearby the great god Pan was said to have been born. The Jordan River was said to spring forth from this same cave.
Upon a hill in Caesarea Philippi stood a great temple of white marble dedicated to the godhead Caesar. It had been built by Herod the Great and dedicated to his patron Caesar. Philip added his own name to it, and the community became known as Caesarea Philippi. The place with rich in history, saturated with stories of pagan gods and representative of divine Rome. Nymphs were even said to be easily spotted in the woods. It was in this historic pagan center that Jesus, knowing that his days were now numbered, outted himself as the Messiah.
He asked his followers, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Reader take note that this is the most important question asked in the Bible. Each one of us must answer this question for ourself. No one can answer it for us.
Is Jesus merely a great man? Is he a wonderful healer, a sort of precursor to today’s best physicians? Or was he rather a masterful teacher and person of enormous wisdom and learning such as Plato, Aristotle or the Buddha? Many a person who calls him or herself a Christian actually holds the belief that Jesus was merely an extremely wise person, like the Buddha or other religious figures whose teaching remains helpful for us today. Yet, Jesus is so much more. This is what he is seeking to share with the disciples.
His followers noted that some people believed Jesus to be John the Baptist risen from the dead. Others said that he was Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who ascended directly to heaven on a chariot and who according to Jewish tradition was supposed to return before the Messiah came. Others speculated that Jesus was Jeremiah returned to life or one of the prophets who had reappeared. Then Jesus asked them the question of questions, “But who do you say that I am?”
Here we move from studying religion or the Bible as an objective thing outside of ourselves that we examine like a cadaver on a dissection table or a historic book in a library from which we glean information, but which exercises no power over our lives, to something entirely subjective which has power to transform our lives and our ultimate destiny. “But who do you say that I am?” This is a question that cannot be sidestepped and which each of us must answer for ourselves.
Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” His reply is correct and demonstrates his powerful understanding of Jesus. His insight, however, is not perfect as we shall soon see. Jesus then pledges to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. In many ways, this verse has been greatly miss-used by the Church. It has created strong separation between Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox Church.
The Roman Catholic Church has used this verse to exclude all Protestant clergy from being accepted as true priests or clergy. Only those who are under the leadership of the Pope or the successor to St. Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, are believed by the Roman Catholic Church to be true priests. Here we see the sort of foolishness that Christians succumb to when they create the Church in their own image, rather than in the image of Jesus.
In 664 A.D. King Oswy of Northumbria summoned Christian called for a gathering of Christian leaders to meet at an abbey in the north of England to determine whether his people should follow the way of the Roman Catholic Church or the way of Celtic Christianity. The latter developed in Ireland and migrated to the western coast of Scotland, England and Wales and filtered eastward.
Oswy and his wife each followed a different branch of Christianity and therefore celebrated Easter at different times of the year along with large portions of the kingdom. Wanting a more unified Christian approach, Oswy turned to Hilda, abbess of Whitby Abbey, and asked her to convene a synod where the pros and cons of Celtic and Roman Catholic Christianity could be debated.
Celtic Christianity was far less hierarchical, more focused on nature. It was monastically-organized with a focus on prayer, earthiness, daily living and moments and places where heaven and earth seemed to touch called “thin places.” Roman Catholic Christianity was more hierarchical and organized by dioceses and led by bishops as opposed to abbots from monasteries.
In the end, King Oswy made the final determination after hearing defenders of both sides argue their case. He ultimately chose that his kingdom should follow the Roman Catholic way of expressing the Christian life as argued by Romanus and Bishop Colmán, who noted that Jesus bestowed on Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This was the clinching argument that persuaded King Oswy to side with Rome. Many believe that it was a mistake to side with Rome. Whether it was or not, it led to the demise of Celtic Christianity, which was a beautiful expression of Christian living.
What is vital to note here is that Jesus predicted his own death. He warned his followers that they must soon go to Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes. (Matt. 16:21) Then Peter overstepped himself and took Jesus aside and rebuked him for his negativity. Peter perhaps had a vision of Jesus leading an uprising that would overthrow the Roman government in Jerusalem or liberating all of the Jews throughout Israel. Whatever Peter had in mind, it was not seeing Jesus undergo suffering and crucifixion to atone for the sins of the world.
Jesus immediately upbraided Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23) It is perhaps the most powerful rebuke in the Bible and certainly the most powerful leveled by Jesus. How often it is that we level our sharpest comments at those who love and trust, because we feel safest with them and therefore speak the bluntest truth to them. Jesus adds, “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The final words which Jesus spoke to his followers in this chapter (Matt. 16:24-28) are among the most powerful that he ever spoke. See Matt:16-26. They remain our marching orders to this day. Their power has not lessened in any way since he uttered them to his disciples 2,000 years ago.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? (Matt. 16:24-26)
Seek to find one or two verses each day that speak powerfully to you and underline them in your Bible. Write them down on an index card and carry it with you throughout the day. Try to memorize them if you can. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, calls “Scripture memorization” his number one spiritual tool by far. This is something that most mainline Christians do not practice, but which would help them enormously in their journey of faith with Jesus. Let this phrase or verse from Scripture be a spiritual bouquet that you can carry with you and enjoy throughout the day to refresh your spirit. You may even wish to share it with someone you meet, or, if you memorize it, it will come back to you in a time of need or be available to you to share with someone else, who may benefit from hearing it.
Who is Jesus for you? Is he the Son of God and the Messiah, who died for our sins and to grant us forgiveness and bring us into profound relationship with God? Or is he merely a great teacher, a wise man, who united others and brought them comfort and hope? No one can answer this question for you. Your answer, however, will greatly shape how you live your life with God and with others.
Holy, Mysterious Creator God, we are small and you are grand, magnificent and far beyond what we can imagine or understand. Your ways are not our ways, and we have infinite lessons to learn from you about healing, forgiveness, generosity, kindness, faith, hope and love. Help us to be humble learners so that we may receive the wisdom, truth and life, which you desire to impart to us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie