Genesis 49-50, Exodus 1, Psalm 17, Matthew 17
Coming home one last time and a vision from the mountaintop
Genesis 49 – 50, Exodus 1
One has to wonder how much transformation occurred in Israel or Jacob’s life. Here in chapter 49 he is referred to as Jacob, rather than Israel. Once again he is also true to character, exhibiting a strong memory and a commanding presence even at the reported age of 147. As his life draws to an end, his family surrounds him, and he blesses each son. Some of his blessings sound more like curses.
The words of our parents are powerful and play throughout our lives like a tape recorded in our head. Sometimes, we spend years trying to dismantle something that one of our parents said that sticks like glue to the cells of our brain and shapes the way that we see ourselves. One wonders what some of the sons of Jacob had to do to dismantle the final message that he gave them.
To Rueben, who has been missing for a while from our drama, Jacob says,
Rueben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigor,
excelling in rank and excelling in power.
Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it – you went up onto my couch! (Gen. 49:3-4)
Clearly, Jacob keeps score. He forgets nothing and forgives nothing. Simeon and Levi are scorned as well by their father as men of gratuitous violence, reminding us of the massacre that they orchestrated of the Hivites (Gen. 34:25-26). Jacob had earlier denounced their actions saying, “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land…” Gen. 34:30)
Judah and Joseph, Jacob’s favored sons, receive his longest and most heartfelt blessings. Jacob clearly played favorites to the end of his life. When Joseph is then blessed, Jacob acknowledges that God’s hand has shaped the destiny of his second youngest son, saying,
Yet his bow remained taut,
And his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,
by the name of the Shepherd,
the rock of Israel,
by the God of your father, who will help you,
by the Almighty who will bless you
with blessings from heaven above… (Gen. 49:24-25)
Clearly, Jacob claims some credit for his son’s success, as the God who preserved and guided Joseph, was the God with whom he, Israel, had wrestled with in the desert at Peniel and fought to a truce.
Faithful to their father’s dying wishes, Jacob’s sons buried in the cave in Canaan, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah were buried and where the author of Genesis speaks in the first person saying, “…and there I buried Leah…” (Gen. 49:31) Is this a first person account?
One can only imagine how Joseph cried as a slave and later as he languished in prison thinking of his father who doted over him and knowing how his father must have been heartbroken. Now, Joseph weeps uncontrollably and throws himself upon his father’s lifeless body. He has Jacob embalmed according to Egyptian practices.
Fearing a settling of scores, Joseph’s brothers lie once more and inform him that shortly before dying, their father had given them instruction to tell Joseph “forgive the crime of your brothers, and the wrong they did in harming you.” (Gen. 50:17) Did Jacob ever discover the evil that his sons had carried out upon Joseph? Did it crush his heart? Did he learn that Rueben had hoped to spare his life or that Judah had encouraged them to sell Joseph rather than kill him? We do not know.
What we know is that Joseph transcended his father’s ability to hold grudges. Joseph did not settle scores. Instead, he offers some of the most powerful words of the Bible when he utters:
Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?
Even though you intended to do harm to me,
God intended it for good, in order to preserve
a numerous people, as he is doing today. So
have no fear; I myself will provide for you and
your little ones. (Gen. 50:19-20)
Certainly, Joseph is the Bible’s first theologian, able to see the mysterious hand of the great alchemist God at work and transforming evil into something good. In the same way that God transformed evil into something good in the story of Joseph, God continues to do the same in each of our lives today.
Joseph lives to see his children’s children, before dying at the age of 110. His dying wish is for his brothers to transport his body back to Canaan when God speaks again in a vision and he can finally return home again. (Gen. 50:24-25) Little did he know that generations must pass before this was to occur.
Genesis is clearly one of the great books of the Bible and one of the finest pieces of literature in the world. Its sacred stories still speak powerfully to us and convey truths about the God which have enriched each generation and continue to shape lives today. The book of Exodus is similar and captures the most defining story of the Jewish people in God’s salvation drama.
In chapter one, we see that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled. The Jews multiply and become a great people in Egypt. A new Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph, now leads Egypt. He finds the growing Hebrew population to be a threat. His response is to enslave all of the Jews.
When he instructs the midwives to carry out selective genocide and kill each son born to a Hebrew mother, they fail to carry out his orders. When called to task, they shrewdly respond in words that Jacob would be proud to have uttered, “…the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Ex. 1:19)
Pharaoh then orders the Egyptians to drown every boy born to Hebrew parents. Fear of “the other” or of those of a different race, color or religion has been at the root of much evil throughout the centuries. It has inspired horrors in Ireland, Yugoslavia Cambodia, Pakistan and countless other areas, as one people attempts to remove or exterminate another living among them.
Many people struggle in reading the psalms. The language of the psalms is indeed often violent. The psalmist often cries out for vengeance and beseeches God to extinguish his enemies. Readers are challenged to salvage words of grace among the calls for retribution, but we are wise to work through the difficulties in order to find the wisdom and comfort of the Psalms.
Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me. (Ps. 17:8-9)
We are fortunate indeed if we can relate to verse 8 and not to verse 9. The author obviously lived in a time and place far different from when and where most of us live. Yet, sadly there are many places in our world today where both verses speak powerfully to those who pray this psalm.
Chapter 17 begins and ends with two seemingly fantastic stories like bookends. Let us just focus on the first. After revealing his true identity to his disciples using the Socratic method to ask questions and elicit answers already present within his listeners, Jesus and his disciples continue their journey. Six days later, Jesus selects his closest associates from among the disciples – Peter, James and John.
The four go hiking. Tradition has it that they climbed Mount Tabor, but an armed fortress was located upon this mountain. Some scholars speculate that the event told here occurred on Mount Hermon. This mountain is 14 miles from Caesarea Philippi and is 9,400 feet high, 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan Valley. It can be seen from the Dead Sea more than 100 miles away.
While they were atop the mountain, Jesus was transfigured before them. “…his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white,” notes Matthew. (Matt. 17:2) This portion of the story returns us to the book of Exodus, where we shall later read that Moses went up to the Mount Sinai “…and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day [God] called to Moses out of the cloud.” (Ex. 24:16)
More significantly, when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai later in the book of Exodus as he carried the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments that God had inscribed upon them, we are told that “…Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. (Ex. 34:29-30)
Clearly, there is a connection between these stories. In Matthew, however, Peter, James and John – Jesus’ kitchen cabinet or closest associates – witness Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses is the giver of the Law. He received the Ten Commandments from God. Elijah was the prophet’s prophet, who ascended directly into heaven and Jews believe would return again prior to the Messiah’s arrival.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is perhaps my favorite story in the Bible. I love it, because it clearly is a story of theophany, where God, that mysterious Holy Other One, manifests his divine presence among humans. This is a transcendent and fleeting moment. I may love it in part, because I can relate to it.
When I was 18, I ventured off to Scotland with hopes of playing for a semi-professional soccer team in Aberdeen. Before the season began, I traveled across Scotland and visited the northwest coast, which is perhaps Scotland’s most beautiful region. I traveled by train from Glasgow to Oban, passing stunning lochs and mountainsides along the most beautiful train route that I have ever enjoyed.
On my first evening in Oban, I stayed in a boarding house atop the hillside overlooking the town. I sat on a huge slab of granite in the windowsill and ate a simple dinner of bread, cheese and milk as I listened to a beautiful piece of classical music on the radio and watched the sun set over the island of Mull. Beyond Mull lay the island of Iona, where Christianity was first brought to Scotland, by Saint Columba, who traveled from Ireland in a wicker coracle covered with leather in 563 A.D. Columba founded one of Christianity’s most famous monasteries on the shores of Iona.
As I listened to the music, broke the bread and watched the dying sun, I suddenly became aware that all of the bad and evil things in life that I could fathom were each leading to something good and far greater. My parents were going through a horribly painful divorce, which affected every member of our family in significant ways.
For that brief moment, it was as though God had lifted a veil and I could see into the future and witness how God would transform each painful episode into something truly life-giving and special. It was the most mystical moment of my life. That transfiguring experience played a pivotal part in the journey that led me to explore the faith of my childhood and eventually to become a priest.
For this reason, I have cherished a connection to the story of the Transfiguration, where the disciples suddenly witness a mystical event as God seemingly lifted the veil and they could see Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah. Something extraordinary occurred.
Peter, who bears some resemblance to Rueben in Genesis, whom Jacob describes as “unsteady as water,” tries to capture the moment by suggesting that he build a house where Jesus, Moses and Elijah can reside. Why not enshrine this experience so that it may continue? Peter, James and John could continue to learn infinite wisdom from these three figures, who are the Mount Rushmore of the Bible.
A bright cloud overshadows the mountain just as it had overshadowed Mount Sinai for six days before God’s glory appeared to Moses in the book of Exodus. It is from these two episodes that the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, one of the greatest Christian classics on prayer and a book of challenging mystical thought written in Middle English in the 14th century, finds its inspiration.
The underlying message of this work, which stimulated most recently the Centering Prayer moment, proposes that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and surrender our mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness.” When we reach this point, we may glimpse the true nature of God just as the disciples did upon the Mount of Transfiguration.
Once again, God speaks to Jesus and to those around him saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The first time that this occurred was when Jesus was baptized. (Matt. 3:17) Then in Matthew 12:18, Jesus quotes these words, which find their origin in Isaiah 42:1-4.
While I believe that Transfiguration actually took place and probably in a way similar to what is told, Matthew appears to be weaving a powerful theological thread through his story so that his Jewish audience will understand what is occurring. In Jesus, Matthew presents us with a second Moses, a leader who is a great teacher like Moses, a student of the Jewish Law, but one who is the Messiah and who has been preceded by John the Baptist, who is Elijah in disguise.
Jesus tells his disciples, “’…but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ The disciples then understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.” (Matt. 17:11-13)
The disciples’ reaction to this episode is fear. So often in the Bible and in life, we find that one of the first reactions to a true encounter with God is fear. Jesus, however, touches his followers to reassure them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Matt. 17:7) When they look up, Jesus is alone.
As they trek down from the mountain, Jesus commands them to tell no one about what they had witnessed “…until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matt. 17:9) Once again, scholars called this the Messianic Secret, referring to Jesus’ desire for secrecy about his miracles and signs. Jesus makes it clear that no one will understand his true nature and mission as the Messiah until they see him suffer, die and be resurrected. That is why in the words of St. Paul, we preach Christ crucified, not Christ who was merely a miracle worker.
William Reed Huntington (1838-1909) is one of the great figures of the Episcopal Church. His own personal epiphany led to the creation of what would later become known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, a document which emphasized the four key points of Anglican identity. It was designed to help pave the way for a reunion with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Reed, who served as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in New York City, spent a summer day climbing to a high point overlooking Mount Desert Island in Maine. Perched atop the mount, he was deeply moved. When he returned home, he wrote the following prayer, which has been enshrined in The Book of Common Prayer to commemorate the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is celebrated by churches around the world on August 6, and was first commemorated in the fourth century.
O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son,
wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we,
being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in
his beauty ; who with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth,
one God, world without end. Amen.
Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… (Gen. 50:20)
Do not fear if you do not understand all or even many portions of what you are reading. It is part of learning to read the Bible that everyone must experience. Learning languages is one of my favorite hobbies. I am currently reading a famous novel by the Spanish author Pio Baroja. Do I understand everything? No. I do, however, get the gist of what is written. To truly understand it, I shall have to look up many words in a dictionary and reread the book once or twice. So it is with the Bible. Get the gist of it as you read through it for the first time. The Bible, however, is a book that we shall never exhaust, and we can find new and deeper meaning in it each time that we read it.
Have you had a personal epiphany? Have there been moments in your life when you knew God was truly present? Were you ever struck by fear because you sensed the presence of God close at hand? What have been your mountaintop experiences in life?
O God, Loving and Forgiving, you set each one of us on the mountaintop at various moments in our lives so that we can gain perspective upon our life and the lives of others and see the world in a fresh, new way. Help us to treasure these moments, to share them with others and to make good use of the insights that we have gleaned from the mountaintops of life. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania