Discussing Torah matters because the Torah matters

Understanding Gentile Inclusion

I look at two pictures to understand Gentile inclusion into the house of Israel. First: Jacob's adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh. Second: the mixed multitude's presence at Sinai.

Ephraim and Manasseh were Gentiles, born of an Egyptian mother in Egypt. They knew the Gentile version of Joseph. They knew little of Joseph's Jewish family. Perhaps they knew that his Jewish brothers had rejected him, but that's about it. Fast forward: Jacob Israel adopts Ephraim and Manasseh as his own. Israel tells Joseph that his sons "are mine, as Rueben and Simeon are." In other words, they are elevated to the level of natural firstborn sons! Genesis 48 is a beautiful chapter if we catch a glimpse that Israel the father pictures God the Father, Joseph the son pictures Jesus the Son, and Ephraim and Manasseh picture the Gentiles being grafted into the house of Israel through their relationship with Joseph (Jesus). 

Later, in Exodus, the sons of Ephraim and Manasseh leave Egypt alongside the sons of Jacob. They belong to Israel now, not to Egypt––even though their fathers Ephraim and Manasseh had never been to the land of Israel! These two tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh) represent us Gentiles as we find our place among the sons of Jacob. We are not the sons of Jacob, though, because we are not physically Jewish. But note, Jacob didn't adopt Ephraim and Manasseh. Israel adopted them. His name had been changed. Spiritually there'd been a shift. We are not the sons of Jacob, but we are the sons of Israel. 

Second picture: at Sinai, God gave His Torah to "the Israelites." When we say it this way, we tend to think "the Jews." What about the great mixed multitude that went out of Egypt with the Jews? These Gentiles saw the judgement of Egypt and at some point their hearts were changed. They recognized that the God of the Hebrews was indeed the one true God, and they gave Him their allegiance. Maybe they put the blood on their doorposts; maybe they lost a firstborn son. Whatever the case may be, they left Egypt and risked their lives on that decision. Not only was this multitude a big crowd of Gentiles, it was a crowd of Gentiles that (I believe) represented every nation on earth. How can I say this? Genesis 41:56 says that a great famine was over "all the face of the land." (Read the various translations and you get the sense that the whole civilized world was affected. The world's population at the time was largely concentrated in and around that area of the globe.) This famine brought people from all over the known world to Egypt. Some came and went, others came and stayed. I believe God used the famine to bring a mixed multiple of people into Egypt so that, in time, He could draw them out and bring them to Sinai. This speculation aside, a great mixed multitude of Gentiles was nevertheless present at the foot of Sinai and they, too, had a Pentecost experience when God gave them the Torah. These Gentiles came to see themselves as partakers in the covenants of promise, members of the commonwealth of Israel. God didn't just give His Torah to Jews; He gave it to Gentiles too. He gave it to His people, the kahal, the sons of Israel. 

These two pictures inform my thinking on a number of items. That said, I look at the elders in Acts and I appreciate the wisdom of their light-handed approach to things regarding the Gentiles. They leave it so open-ended. In Acts 15, they give four basic laws which get Gentiles through the door of synagogue (see Acts 15:21). In synagogue, they would hear the Torah read, learn about their God, learn background about their Messiah, learn about the commandments. Where they went from there would a personal journey, but the elders had to assume that Scripture (ie. the Old Testament) would speak for itself. (Remember: there was no "New Testament" at the time.)

Rachel's Story: Last Call for Repentance

There’s a fascinating plot going on underneath Genesis 31-35. The characters in focus are Jacob, his beloved wife Rachel, and his father-in-law Laban.


It picks up in Genesis 31 when Jacob flees Laban’s household with all that he has. In the process of leaving, Rachel steals her father’s idols. She doesn’t tell Jacob. 


In the mind of any thief, the central question is always, “How am I going to get away with this?” Surely the question crosses Rachel’s mind as she discreetly removes the idols from Laban’s dwelling. She knows that Laban will put two and two together; he will associate the theft with Jacob somehow (Leah is a top suspect, as her tent is among the first that Laban searches). But Rachel reasons that Laban won’t go so far as to pursue Jacob into the hills. And, even if he does, would Laban be able to find them? No, she reasons, Laban will more than likely craft or purchase replacement idols and leave the matter alone. 


Why does Rachel take Laban’s idols? What is Rachel’s want? 


Here are five possibilities. 


1.    A noble action: She takes them from Laban as a kind of rescue, to wean her father away from idol worship. “If the idols can’t save themselves, then they can’t save you, Laban. You need to wake up to the truth.” 


2.   A prudent action: Laban’s idols are “oracles” as Rabbi Hirsch translates the Hebrew. Rachel recognizes that behind these idols are real, supernatural dark forces. She doesn’t want these forces to tell Laban which direction Jacob departed. So, by taking the oracles, she is buying time. “I'll take the idols so that Laban can’t consult them and figure out our location.”


3.  A sentimental action: She grew up with these idols and now she simply can’t let them go. Almost like a girl packing her time-raggled stuffed animal as she travels off to college. Or maybe like a Christmas nativity set from your childhood that you can’t seem to part with. “I’m taking these because I want something that reminds me of home.”


4.    A business move: as revealed in Genesis 31:14, Rachel and Leah knew that their father had no intention of sharing his estate with them. It’s been pointed out that there was a tradition in ancient Mesopotamia that he who possessed the family gods possessed certain rights over the household. Rachel sees Laban’s large estate and thinks, “I’ll steal these idols so that we can return after my father’s death and claim our due inheritance.” (Proponents of this explanation reference the fact that Laban accepts the theft of his idols once he guarantees that Jacob and his family will not cross a particular boundary line. He knows then that his sons’ inheritance is protected.)


5.    A simple act of spite: Rachel is so fed up with Laban that she wants to hit him where it hurts the most. “I could care less about these idols, but I’m going to steal them because I know how much they mean to my father, and he deserves to hurt after the way he’s treated me and my husband.” 


These five possibilities represent potential motivations. But the narrative provides a few clues which may eliminate some of them:


Clue #1: she doesn’t tell Jacob about her actions. 

Clue #2: she still has them after 10 days! 


Clue #1 leads one to believe that a guilty conscience was involved, the result of self-interest. This rules out “the noble act” idea.


Clue #2 leads one to believe that “the prudent move” isn’t the answer either. Had she just been trying to prevent Laban from consulting his oracles, she could’ve buried the idols in the sand a day or two later, her goal having been accomplished. This clue also leads one to believe that “the simple act of spite” isn’t the primary motivation either. Had it been a simple act of spite, she would’ve discarded them or destroyed them soon after their departure. There’s no need to keep incriminating evidence any longer than you have to. 


“The business move” isn’t compelling because she already knows that Jacob is a wealthy man. Moreover, Jacob’s fathers possess even more wealth in their homeland. Therefore, Rachel doesn’t need to claim additional riches from Laban. Besides that, this motivation doesn’t seem very true to her character.  


Was her motivation sentimental in nature? Possibly. It is easy to cling to the past. The tokens of our childhood can be difficult to release, especially if we derive a level of emotional security from them. Still, I don’t find this reason compelling on its own. 


There is another explanation, a sixth possibility. As Dennis Prager writes, “Rachel surely believed in the God of Jacob, but she might well have still believed in the power of idols with which she grew up. When people believe in many visible gods, it takes a very long time to get them to believe in one invisible God. Rachel’s behavior may have been similar to that of Neils Bohr, the Nobel-prize winning physicist who was said to keep a rabbit’s foot in his laboratory. When an astonished visitor asked, ‘But surely, professor, you don’t believe in a rabbit’s foot?’ Bohr responded, ‘Of course not. But they say a rabbit’s foot brings you luck whether you believe in it or not.’”


Prager points out that Rachel, who was desperately anxious to have a child (Gen. 30:1) and then desperately anxious to have a second child, might well have been open to utilizing all means toward procuring her goal, including mandrakes and, of course, Jacob’s God, and perhaps also gods from her father’s household. This, I believe, is her primary motivation to steal her father’s idols. 


Ten days along in their journey toward Jacob’s homeland, the unexpected happens. Laban interrupts their progress and confronts Jacob about his stealth departure, and (with Rachel nearby) he brings up the theft of his household idols.  


Instead of simply assuring Laban that he did not take them, Jacob makes an audacious pronouncement—one that must have terrified Rachel. Jacob declares, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” Dennis Prager comments, “We are all occasionally tempted to make these types of grandiose avowals, but they are risky and rarely necessary. Jacob’s statement turns out to be highly risky—and unnecessary, as it does not deter Laban from searching the tents in Jacob’s camp.” Even more than risky and unnecessary, it is harmful because, in this moment, Rachel cements the secrecy of her sin. Suddenly the theft threatens her entire life. Her husband’s condemnation is so strong that the possibility of her ever admitting the truth is now and forever smothered. 


Laban goes searching the tents. Why doesn’t he believe Jacob’s categorical denial that neither he nor anyone with him had stolen the idols? “Because Laban regularly deceived people. People who lie assume everyone else does, too. This is the built-in punishment of the dishonest: they go through life convinced they are constantly being deceived” (Prager).   


He starts with his top suspects: Jacob’s tent, then Leah’s tent, then the tents of the two maidservants. By process of elimination, Laban works to uncover the guilty party. One imagines that Rachel must feel like Achan in Joshua 7. Just as Achan took from Jericho “some of the devoted things,” Rachel had taken from Laban some of his devoted things. Just as Achan endured an agonizing moment before being singled out publicly, so too Rachel is enduring an agonizing moment as Laban closes in on her and the idols. And, just as Achan hid the gold and silver in the ground beneath his tent, now Rachel hides the idols in a camel’s saddle beneath her body inside her tent. Death was Achan’s sentence. If discovered, will it be hers?


As Laban enters her tent, she tells him, “Let not my lord take it amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me.” Whether or not this is true, Laban believes her. Laban does not try to look under the cushion because it would have been inconceivable to him that Rachel would run the risk of menstruating while sitting on his gods. After searching through her other belongings, he exits the tent and Rachel breathes a long sigh of relief. She’s off the hook! Or is she? 


As an aside, the word for “search” (חפּש, khaw-fas) in Genesis 31:35 is used only twice in the Torah, and those usages connect two stories in a very curious way. It’s found here, when Laban has caught up to Jacob during his homeward journey and is now searching through Rachel’s belongings, trying to find his stolen gods. It’s found later when Joseph sends a servant to catch up to Jacob’s sons during their homeward journey. The servant searches through their bags of grain and in Benjamin’s sack he finds the “stolen” cup (Gen. 44:12). Of course, Benjamin’s mother is Rachel, so when the cup is discovered in Benjamin’s bag the brothers must have groaned. “We know his mom’s the one who stole the idols and now, well, here we go again! Like mother, like son. He’s stealing an object used for divination by this Egyptian overlord” (Gen. 44:5).  


Returning to the narrative at hand, we read that after Jacob’s departure from Laban, he arrives safely at the city of Shechem and buys some land outside the city (Gen. 33:18-19). Estimates vary as to how long he stays at Shechem, but a year or so would make sense. Something crazy happens (Genesis 34) and, as a result, many women and children from Shechem are brought into captivity in Jacob’s camp (34:27-29). Jacob seeks to leave the area quickly, afraid that the Canaanites might soon attack him and his household (34:30). God gives him directions to go to Bethel. He obeys, but before leaving he commands all who are with him (namely these Shechemite women who have come under his authority) to bury their foreign idols under the old oak at Shechem. He does not want any idols to join them on their journey to Bethel. 


Question: is Rachel still harboring Laban’s idols? And if she is, does she bring them forward now? Because this is her opportunity! In fact, it may very well be her last call for repentance. The Bible doesn’t tell us one way or the other. But maybe what the Bible doesn’t tell us is, itself, a clue. We are never told that Rachel dispossesses the idols. For her theft, she is not given any redemption and we are not given any closure. The idols are last seen with Rachel as she hides them from the father and guards her sin from everyone around her. What happens to the idols afterward remains a mystery. 


Nevertheless, here is one plausible way to tell the story: Pregnant Rachel stands alongside Jacob and watches woman after woman after woman step forward to deposit her household idol into a pit beneath the old oak at Shechem. Rachel envies their freedom to do it so honestly. She thinks of the idols of her childhood still hidden among her belongings. She resents them now even though she is very protective of the saddle they stay inside.


The caravan makes their stop in Bethel and then travels on toward Ephrath (Bethlehem). Along the way to Bethlehem, Rachel goes into labor and sadly dies during childbirth. She names the baby Benoni, meaning “son of my sorrow”. It’s a sad moment indeed, for she is a life cut short. 


One might ask, is Rachel’s premature passing an outgrowth of the curse that Jacob had unknowingly spoken over her life? After all, Jacob––like his fathers Abraham and Isaac––had been vested with a tremendous power to bless and to curse. Wielding this power somewhat carelessly, he wished death upon the thief of Laban’s idols, not realizing that the curse would land upon his beloved wife Rachel. And then, with her failure to repent––her failure to bring the truth to light––she compounds the matter and seals its consequence.


Her departing words, the name her son, references her sadness as she realizes she will not live to see her son grow up. But what if the sorrow she feels is also part of something bigger? What if unresolved guilt and growing regret is intertwined with the sadness of this immediate moment?


Jacob struggles in the wake of Rachel’s death. Rabbi Hirsch translates Genesis 35:21-22 to emphasize Jacob’s withdrawal from the family during this time. Hirsch’s translation of verses 21-22 reads: “[Jacob] journeyed on and pitched his tent at some distance from the herd tower. When [Jacob] was residing in that land, Rueben went and placed his couch beside Bilhah, his father’s concubine, so that [Jacob] heard of it...” Hirsch then comments, “It is possible that the tent pitched by Jacob is the tent that Jacob formerly shared with Rachel. Thus, the meaning would be: He pitched his tent at some distance from the herd tower around which the rest of his family had encamped.” As long as Rachel was alive, Jacob resided among everyone. But in the days following her death, he withdraws and isolates himself. And in his absence, Rueben makes his move on Bilhah.


We can imagine a moment during this dark period of time. It might go like this: a servant breaks off from the camp and travels over to Jacob’s lonely tent. The servant has come to tell Jacob about the outrageous disintegration of his family ranks. But Jacob is emotionally too distant to reach. The servant cannot understand why. Jacob gestures toward a pouch that is folded up in the corner of the tent. Out of the bag, the servant pulls Laban’s unmistakable idols into the firelight. The servant instantly understands. 


Following the death of Rachel, wide-eyed and white-faced Jacob had stumbled upon his wife’s long-held secret, and he couldn’t help but remember the words he had spoken to Laban. 

Pillars of the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle has its sanctuary which is divided into two rooms: the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. A number of pillars hold up the entrance to both rooms. God's design calls for five pillars in the front and four pillars in the back (as the pictures illustrate).

Why five pillars in the front and four pillars in the back? Well, one thing is worth pointing out: a lion has five toes on the front paw and four toes on the back paw. 

The pillars of the sanctuary are like the footprints of a lion. I doubt that God––the Creator and Designer of all things––missed this parallel. 

Genesis 26: A Flashback

Genesis 26 is backstory; it’s a flashback; it’s an excerpt from a previous time. It’s wedged between Jacob’s receiving the birthright and Jacob’s receiving the blessing. Why here? Because it pertains to both. 

Why a flashback?

Flashback is a literary device used to create a background to the present situation. An author uses this device as an opportunity to provide insight and meaning within the story at hand. Flashback is one of the most common and recognizable writing techniques, and when executed well, one of the most effective.

There is generally a trigger, something that causes the narrator to recall a particular event or detail from the past. The trigger is explored/explained in the flashback itself, which serves to provide new information to the reader. In this case, the flashback is triggered by Esau selling his birthright. “Esau despised his birthright,” says the final verse in Chapter 25. Then the page turns to Chapter 26, and suddenly the reader is transported back in time to the moment that God went to Isaac and endowed Isaac with all that was given to Abraham. 

In other words, when Esau trades his birthright for a pot of beans, it’s as if the Narrator calls a time-out. He’s like stop the tape. Let’s rewind. Let’s go back and understand the magnitude of this birthright. Let’s visit the moment I personally went to Isaac and promised him all the power and authority of Abraham. 

The flashback commences. We find ourselves witnessing a time when Isaac and Rebekah are living among the Philistines in Gerar. They live here “for a long time” (Genesis 26:8). Their marriage is a total secret. The locals don’t realize that the two of them are married. (Note: from this we can ascertain that Isaac and Rebekah were still childless. Had they any children in Gerar, the locals would have known that Isaac and Rebekah were husband and wife. There would have been no hiding their relationship. This is an important note because it lends credibility to the idea that this is, indeed, a flashback.) 

Isaac is lying to the locals, acting like his wife Rebekah is actually his sister. Why? Because he is afraid! He is acting out of fear. And this tells us something about his character. It tells us that Isaac can sometimes lose sight of the big picture because what’s in front of him is the most pressing thing. He’s a godly man, of course, but the danger in Gerar is clear and present, and God’s larger-than-life promises are, well, larger than life. So he loses sight of the big picture and decides to lie about his situation. And no one knows that better than his own wife, Rebekah, who has to pretend to be his sister “for a long time.” She knows it’s deceitful on their part, yes, but it’s for a good cause. 

The flashback ends when we reach the final two verses in Genesis 26. We now return to the present. We’re back where we left off. Esau abruptly re-enters the frame. He sold his birthright the last time we saw him. Now we see him selling his family name as he intermarries with the Hittites.

No doubt, Esau will squander the blessing. Esau has already proven himself to be careless (selling his birthright so easily), resentful (despising his birthright), and rebellious (marrying women without regard to his parents or his heritage). But what’s his father Isaac supposed to do? Here’s Esau, his firstborn son, right in front of him, waiting eagerly for this blessing.  

The birthright and the blessing in a nutshell...

Birthright: the responsibility to take care of the family and the estate 
Blessing: the means with which to carry out that responsibility
Whoever has the birthright (typically the firstborn son) needs to get the blessing,
the means with which to carry out the birthright. 

Esau should not receive the blessing. He is the firstborn son, but he sold his birthright to Jacob. So Jacob is the one to whom the blessing should go. And their mother Rebekah knows this with such certainty. (After all, in Genesis 25:23 God told her that the older would serve the younger.) But Rebekah also knows her husband. She knows that her husband can, at times, lose sight of the big picture. He did it in Gerar, and he is about to do it again. If he gives the blessing to Esau, it will be a big mistake, one he cannot undo. So it is decided: she will protect her husband from disaster. She will be deceitful, yes, but it’s for a good cause.  

In time, her husband would learn the truth. Isaac would learn that Rebekah was behind the scheme to switch Jacob for Esau. And Isaac would have been furious with his wife, had it not been for one important discovery. He discovers that Esau sold the birthright to Jacob! As it turns out, Jacob has legally come to possess the firstborn status! Because the birthright––the firstborn status––was sold to Jacob. So, as a matter of fact, Isaac’s wife really did protect Isaac from a terrible mishap––that is, to give the blessing to someone who does not possess the birthright in God’s eyes. 

Still, a very brave maneuver on Rebekah’s part, to do what she did, to risk her name on so daring a move. What if it had gone wrong? But you know, maybe such bravery she learned in Gerar, going out as a “single” woman, risking herself among the Philistines for such a long time. While Isaac was afraid, Rebekah learned how not to be afraid. She certainly wasn’t too afraid when she told Jacob, “My son, [if this doesn’t work], let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get the ingredients for me.”

Now can we conclusively say that Genesis 26 is flashback? No, we can’t. But the idea does seem to have some merit. As flashback, the chapter’s placement in Genesis sure makes more sense to me. And interestingly, another curious thing opens up. And that is, when the king spies Isaac and Rebekah being intimate with each other in Gerar (26:8), maybe this detail captures the special moment when Jacob and Esau were conceived. Sure––the idea is far-fetched, so I say it with a sort of wink, but then again, if it is a flashback, the possibility works just fine within the narrative. 


Genesis 20 is scandalous! I’m telling you, this is juicy stuff. First we have to understand that Abraham is no small character among the people of his day. People know him. He’s a very wealthy man (Genesis 13:2). He has dealings with kings and pharaoh (12:16; 14:17-18). His possessions are great (13:6). He has numerous servants and herdsmen––more than 300 men work for him (14:14)! And those 300 men presumably have wives and children of their own. Suffice to say, Abraham’s name carries quite a bit of recognition in the region.

In Genesis 17, we read that Abraham circumcises “all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner” (17:27). From this we see that Abraham is also well known for his covenant relationship with God. Everyone in his household is aware of it. They are part of it. They know of God’s promise to make Abraham a great nation. And God has made it very clear that He will do so through Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

So now get this: Abraham gives his wife Sarah to King Abimelech! Sarah stays in Abimelech’s house for at least one night. We turn the page to Genesis 21 and guess who’s pregnant?! Sarah!

Said at a whisper: Is Sarah pregnant with Abimelech’s baby?

You and I know better––of course she’s not. The Torah is clear: Abimelech does not touch Sarah (see 20:4, 20:6). Upon returning her to Abraham, Abimelech gives Abraham a thousand pieces of silver as a sign of her innocence in the eyes of all who are with them. He tells her, “...before everyone you are vindicated” (20:16).  

But then she’s pregnant. And you know how it is. During those long days out in the field, the shepherds get to talking. The wives of the shepherds get to talking. “Did you hear Sarah’s pregnant?” “Oh? Didn’t she spend the night at Abimelech’s house somewhat recently?” “Well Abimelech said he didn’t do anything with her.” “Oh yeah, right...” 

Modern American pop-culture tends to be critical, cynical, and celebrity-obsessed. If this story were to occur in America today, the front page of the tabloids would read like this: “SCANDAL! SARAH PREGNANT WITH PHILISTINE BABY.” It would have a paparazzi picture of Abraham, head down, set beneath a snapshot of Sarah and Abimelech disappearing behind closed doors. The edition would probably sell well, despite it being very, very untrue. 

I’d sooner believe the Torah than a tabloid. There’s a verse in Genesis 25 that I love because it relates to this so-called “scandal.” It’s verse 19 and it starts this way: “These are the generations of Isaac: Abraham fathered Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah . . .”

Actually, that’s not how it reads. Did you notice anything missing? I removed a portion that God included on purpose. I like to think He included it to quell the rumors that arise from Genesis 20. Here’s what it actually says (and note the redundancy): “These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah. . .”

It would have been enough to say simply Abraham fathered Isaac, but it also says “...Isaac, Abraham’s son” as if to stress the fact that Isaac is indeed the son of Abraham. God is leaving nothing to question. Isaac is, without a doubt, Abraham’s son. Despite what you may hear in the fields, the son is Abraham’s!

Can you think of anyone else in the Bible whose birth was under “scandalous” circumstances?

Genesis 23: Part of a Larger Portrait

Genesis 23 begins with the death of Sarah in Hebron. Abraham gets word of her death and goes to weep over her. The language implies that they are separated when she passes away. 

When Abraham breaks from his mourning, he rises to find a place worthy of Sarah’s burial. “His wife is to rest in a place that will be her permanent, everlasting burial site, and for this purpose Abraham seeks to acquire a piece of land in perpetuity. For many years he has dwelt in Canaan as a stranger; despite all his wealth, he has never sought to acquire even a square foot of land. After all, his calling is to be a wanderer. But now the necessity to bury his wife forces him, for the first time, to make a permanent acquisition of land. His wife’s grave is to be the first bond that will tie him to the land; it is to be the place that will draw him and hold him” (The Hirsch Chumash, Bereshis, pg. 503).

He goes to the Hittites in Hebron and there, at the city gates, he negotiates a real estate deal. Abraham has a certain cave in mind so he speaks directly to the property owner. The owner prices the property at 400 shekels. A high price according to all commentators, but without complaint Abraham pays the 400 shekels in full. Having acquired the property, he buries his wife in the cave at the end of the field. In time, this cave will become the burial site of Abraham himself, as well as that of Isaac and Rebekah and even Jacob and Leah. Today the cave––a very holy site––can be visited in Hebron. 

Examining the whole of Genesis 23, we’ll find that the chapter is characterized by ongoing repetitions. Every point is repeated and reiterated. Verse 17 enumerates literally every article of the property: “So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, east of Mamre––the field with the cave in it and all the trees in the field, throughout its whole area––was made over to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city.” The narrative adds further: “…the cave of Machpelah, before Mamre, that is Hebron in the land of Canaan . . . the field and the cave deeded to Abraham by the sons of Heth as a property for a burial place” (23:19-20). The Torah leaves no room for ambiguity as it itemizes the conditions, the details, and the witnesses involved. In this way Genesis 23 constitutes a kind of legal document, a contract or a deed with all of its stipulations. After all, this chapter marks one of the most historic transactions ever made: the first piece of Holy Land ever procured by a Hebrew. If for nothing else, Genesis 23 is significant for this reason alone.

It is significant for other reasons, though. Let’s stand back and behold the wider panorama into which Genesis 23 fits. In Genesis 23 Abraham procures a field. In Genesis 24 Abraham procures a bride for his son Isaac. I love that a field and a bride are procured in back-to-back chapters. Permit me to elaborate. 

A theme we find in Scripture is that the field and the bride are connected. The two go together. The story of Ruth is our classic example. In the last chapter (Ruth 4), a man named Boaz tries to sell a parcel of land (4:3-4). The potential buyer offers to buy it. Boaz says, “The day you buy the field you also acquire Ruth the Moabite” (4:5). It’s like: You want the field? Then you have to take the bride as well. But now the buyer declines. He wants the field but he doesn’t want to marry Ruth the Moabite. So he tells Boaz, “You buy it for yourself” (4:8). So Boaz does. Boaz himself redeems the field and the bride. 

In the New Testament Jesus says that “the field” represents the world (Matthew 13:38). Jesus then tells two short parables that run like this: 

(#1) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” 

(#2) “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. Upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

In both parables, a man gives up all that he has in order to acquire that which he truly desires. But in the first illustration, the man buys the field to get the treasure. In the second illustration, the man buys only the treasure itself. And what is the treasure? One pearl of great value. Now interestingly, Proverbs 31:10 (CJB) associates the pearl with the great value of an excellent wife. Making the connection, we see this theme of the field and the bride sneaking up through the cracks. Jesus will give up all that He has to purchase the field and the treasure, the pearl of great value––the excellent wife. 

In Romans 8:19, 22-23, Paul writes that the world is longing for redemption just as we––the Bride of Messiah––are longing for redemption. The world and the Bride are in this together: both fallen, both groaning, both eagerly awaiting the return of our Redeemer. Our need for redemption traces back to when man sinned and the earth was cursed “because of you” (Genesis 3:17). Everything comes full circle when the earth is made new and the Bride is presented at the end of the story. All of this to say simply, the field and the bride are connected. It is quite lovely that they are procured in back-to-back chapters in Genesis. 

We return to the panorama into which Genesis 23 fits. In sight now are chapters 22, 23 & 24.

Looks a lot like the New Testament, doesn’t it? The Father gives up His only begotten Son, Jesus. What follows is the death of His beloved Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s tent goes vacant as her people go into hiding, or “underground” so to speak. The Father sends His Holy Spirit into the world to seek a Bride for His Son from among the nations. The Holy Spirit returns the Bride to His Son. The Son brings his Bride into the New Jerusalem where He is with her. The whole earth is theirs because the field has been purchased at no small price. 

This deserves a little unpacking. First, a look at Jerusalem. We see Jerusalem through Sarah: Sarah passes away and her tent is vacated, though Isaac and his bride will, in time, inhabit his mother’s tent (Genesis 24:67). Sarah is a mother, and note how Jesus personifies Jerusalem as a mother:

“And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you...’” (Luke 19:41-44).

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39).

Following the tragic events in 70 AD, God’s beloved Jerusalem passes away, the Father mourns, and her tent becomes desolate. But the story is not over. God sends His Spirit to return a Bride to the land. And here, in this special place, His Son and the Bride take up residence. From that day on, they never depart from the land just like Isaac and his bride never left the land.  

What an amazing thing to consider: that the whole of the New Testament is hinted at here in Genesis 22, 23 & 24!

Lets part with one last note about Genesis 23. It is a detail revealed only in the Hebrew. The high price that Abraham paid to secure the field in perpetuity was 400 shekels. 400 is the value of the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the letter tav (ת). The letter tav represents a cross. And that is perfect, because it is with the cross that God paid in full to acquire the title deed of the earth (see Revelation 5:9), thus securing a place in which His family can spend their future together at rest––not dead but forever alive.

Genesis 24: Eliezer and the Holy Spirit

67 verses! No doubt, Genesis 24 is the longest chapter in all of Genesis. 

In a book that includes the invention of the universe, the creation of man, the destruction of the world, the scattering of peoples and languages––all of these epic occurrences that could fill many books by themselves––it’s extraordinary that this particular story about a servant’s mission to find a bride and bring her back to the masters son is the most spacious chapter in Genesis. Can it be because its among the book’s most meaningful chapters? Certainly! 

Genesis 24 reminds me of a scene where two guys are flying over the Pacific Ocean in a commercial airliner. Hours and hours go by and still there is no end to the ocean beneath them. Finally one guy turns to the other and says, “Man, the ocean is big!” The other guy says, “Yeah and that’s just the top of it!” This chapter, the biggest and broadest in Genesis, is just like that: wide but very deep. Half-jokingly, I like to say that Genesis 24 is where God sits down and says, “I’d like to tell you a little bit about the Holy Spirit.”

Who is Eliezer?

Eliezer is not once called by name in Genesis 24. Instead the chapter refers to him only as “Abraham’s servant” or as “the servant,” the man who “had charge of all that Abraham had” (24:2). But we know it’s a man named Eliezer because in Genesis 15:2 Abraham says that if he should go childless, the heir of his house would fall to Eliezer of Damascus. From this we learn that Eliezer of Damascus is Abraham’s senior servant, the oldest of Abraham’s household, the one set to inherit Abraham’s estate. It is this Eliezer of Damascus who scores the starring role in Genesis 24. It is this Eliezer of Damascus who seeks a bride for Abraham’s beloved son Isaac. But it is important that he is not named in this chapter as an individual separate from Abraham. He is rather an extension of Abraham, as we shall see later. 

To review Genesis 24 in two paragraphs, the chapter goes as follows: Abraham tells his head servant (Eliezer) to go and find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant connects to his master in an intimate place, swearing that he will do so. He departs on a long journey. The servant eventually comes upon a well where he sits down and prays. He is then approached by an attractive woman named Rebekah. Abraham’s servant runs over to her and says, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She gives him a drink, and then she says, “I will draw water for your camels also.” Eliezer gazes at her in silence as she draws water for his ten camels. When she finishes watering his camels, Eliezer gives her a gold nose ring weighing a half-shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten shekels (one shekel’s weight for each camel she watered). He says to her, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She tells him, and she invites him to spend the night. Eliezer bows and worships God because he knows he has found the one! 

Rebekah’s brother Laban invites Abraham’s servant into their house. Eliezer tells the family who he is, what mission he is on, and what took place earlier at the well. Laban, Rebekah’s brother, listens to the story and realizes that this pairing is a match made in Heaven. Laban says, “Take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” Again Abraham’s servant bows. He brings out jewelry of silver and gold, and garments, and gives them to Rebekah. He gives precious things to Rebekah’s brother and mother. They all eat and drink together, and Eliezer spends the night. In the morning, Rebekah and Eliezer set out together. A journey ensues: Eliezer is returning to his long-standing home with Abraham and Isaac; Rebekah is venturing toward her new home, following Eliezer wherever he takes her. Soon enough, Isaac sees in the distance his father’s servant leading Rebekah, his bride-to-be, toward him. As Rebekah gets closer and closer to Isaac, she asks, “Who is that man walking in the field to meet us?” Eliezer answers her, “That is my master [Isaac].” She dismounts the camel and veils herself. Eliezer greets Isaac first, telling him everything that he has done. Isaac then takes Rebekah into the tent of Sarah his mother, and there, Rebekah becomes his wife. “He loved her,” we are told by the very last verse.

Now look over the chapter again but zooming out: Abraham is the Father. Isaac is the Son. The father’s servant, Eliezer, is the Holy Spirit. Rebekah is us––the Son’s Bride.

Since Eliezer scores the starring role in this chapter, I want to keep the focus on him. So here are 14 ways to answer the following question: How is Eliezer a picture of the Holy Spirit? 
  1. Eliezer had charge of all that Abraham had. Understand, the Holy Spirit is God’s own Spirit! And it’s His Spirit that controls and moves and accomplishes things. The Holy Spirit is the One who travels into the world to seek a Bride for the Son.
  2. Eliezer is sent by the father just like the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father. Eliezer acts on the father’s behalf. Eliezer works to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham just as the Holy Spirit works to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham. 
  3. Although I used Eliezer’s name in my chapter summary, in truth, Eliezer––by divine directive––is not mentioned by name in the chapter. Instead he is seen as an extension of Abraham, a life in service of Abraham. In other words, Eliezer’s identity is always connected to the master. The two characters are intertwined. So, too, the Holy Spirit’s character is always intertwined with the Father.  
  4. Three times in one chapter we see Eliezer bowing and worshiping the Lord. This adheres to the spirit of the Holy Spirit: one who finds expression in humility and prayer. Note also that Eliezer––a picture of the Holy Spirit––is a war hero, one who goes into battle to rescue the lost.
  5. Eliezer travels to the city of Nahor (24:10) to find Rebekah. He goes to the slayer or piercer, because according to Hebrew scholar Julius Fürst, Nahor means slayer or piercer (Source). Jesus was slain. Jesus was pierced. Yet God sends His Spirit to the very people who did it, to call out from them a Bride for His Master’s Son. 
  6. Eliezer does not act according to common logic. According to common logic, Eliezer would have entered the city and asked for the whereabouts of Abraham’s family. Instead, he visited a well that whole community drew water from. He prayed that the first girl to give him water would be the one for Isaac. His prayer was answered and his plan worked, but still, it was not the most logical approach. It doesn’t make a lot of sense on paper. But see, the Holy Spirit isn’t too concerned with making sense on paper. The Holy Spirit defies formulas, defies description, defies the limits of human logic. Eliezer does not abide by common logic just as the Holy Spirit does not abide by common logic.
  7. Eliezer runs to Rebekah (24:17). He initiates their interaction. Likewise, the Holy Spirit eagerly comes to you. The Holy Spirit initiates. But you must respond. If you are unwillingly to follow, God does not hold the Holy Spirit responsible. (See 24:8.)
  8. Eliezer gives Rebekah a nose ring weighing one half-shekel. What is this about? Well a half-shekel represents a contribution to God, per Exodus 38:26 & 30:11-13. It is significant that he gives her not an earring or a ring for her finger but a ring for her nose. The nose is where life is breathed in. God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. Where life is breathed in is where Eliezer places the ring of gold. 
  9. Eliezer doesn’t pass out applications and select the best applicant. He doesn’t look for the richest girl. Instead he looks for the girl with kindness and compassion in her heart. Notice, his test involves two aspects. Part I is a spoken request: “I am thirsty.” Part II is an unspoken request, a need that is not verbalized: his camels are thirsty too! Rebekah meets the spoken need but also senses the unspoken need. This precisely is the kind of bride that God wants for His Son. Not someone who recognizes just the external but also the internal. To look beyond the obvious and see into the spirit of the matter, the need that is unspoken. Rebekah has a heart that Eliezer, like the Holy Spirit, gets excited about.  
  10. Eliezer is like the Holy Spirit in that he manages everything, yet everything belongs to the son. Reference John 16:13-15 where the Son says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” 
  11. After their meeting at the well, the special encounter between Eliezer and Rebekah is retold to her family. And it’s here, when Rebekah hears this retelling, that she comes to understand her destiny. Back when she was drawing water for the camels, she didn’t realize what would come of her actions. She doesn’t really put it all together until she hears it through Eliezer’s voice as he recounts the story. And in this way, it is by the Spirit that we discover our calling. 
  12. He gives gifts, garments, and precious things. In my translation it says costly ornaments. I know other translations say precious things. But note, “this term rendered precious things, as seen in Songs 4:13, is used to express exquisite fruits or delicacies” (Source). Rashi concurs, as he translates v.53 to say delicious fruits. So Eliezer gives gifts, garments, and delicious fruits (Source). I like this translation better because it yields an insight. Eliezer gives gifts to the bride but the delicious fruits he gives to Rebekah’s family. After all, the fruits are not for Rebekah. The fruits are because of Rebekah. They are for the others. In like manner, the Holy Spirit gives us gifts (1 Corinthians 12), but the fruit of the Spirit are for everyone around us. 
  13. Eliezer does not accept delay. When Laban wants Rebekah to stay for another ten days before leaving, Eliezer doesn’t want to wait around. He wants to act. He wants to move. He tells them, “Do not delay me” (24:56). This is indicative of the Holy Spirit. 
  14. Eliezer leads the bride home. He guides her to the son. It’s interesting that she is carried by the very camels that she watered the night before. It’s like her good deeds service the thing that bring her to the son. But it’s Eliezer who is leading the way. Now Rebekah has never seen Isaac before. She asks Eliezer, “Who is that man walking toward us?” And Eliezer says, “That is my master.” I love this so much because we serve a Messiah whom we’ve never seen. But we know Him through the insights of what the Spirit is revealing to us. Just as Eliezer introduces Isaac to Rebekah, it is the Spirit who introduces the Bridegroom to the Bride. And it is the Spirit who tells the Son all that He has done. And then we, the Bride of Messiah, are grafted into Abraham’s family and loved by the Son. 

The Tower of Babel

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9 ESV)

Heres how I would pitch the movie: the camera pans across a wide plain, and mankind says, “Come, let us make bricks...” And then, “Come, let us build a city and a tower into the heavens . . . let us make a name for ourselves...” And then God says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language...” So when Babel is calling together the nations and saying let’s go up!, God calls together His legions and says let’s go down! It’s like a battle scene, where two sides rush the field toward one another. Except in this case, the field is vertical. It’s heaven versus earth. Earth is attempting an invasion into heaven. But God, with his army of angels, falls upon the city, infiltrates the tower, and confuses the frequency of their radios. The people don’t know what to do, so they scatter. The defeat is great for mankind is no match for the Heavenly Host! God and His angels return to Heaven, victorious. The credits roll and Psalm 89 plays...

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
    your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
    Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,
God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
    and awesome above all who are around him?
O Lord God of hosts,
    who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
    with your faithfulness all around you?
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;
    the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.

I must say though, in Genesis 11, mankind has come up with something unique. They have devised a plan in which they would effectively recreate Adam. With all of humanity concentrated into a single structure, under one name, with one language, in theory mankind would wield as much power as Adam had. Nothing would be impossible for them. But as the people migrated and gathered together for the first time, the first thought that occurred to them was not “Let us glorify God as Adam did; let us serve Him with our united energies” –– but “Let us make a name for ourselves.” 

Hearing this phrase, we realize that “we are standing at the threshold of world history, Rabbi Hirsch writes. “Mankind gathered in a plain where they sought to manufacture the needed materials by their own strength and ingenuity. They came to recognize the great power of a community: If all join forces and work together, man can overcome and master nature. They decided to create a structure that would be an everlasting monument to the power of the community and its preeminence over the individual

“Here lies the danger. An individual will ultimately realize by himself that his powers are limited. Not so the community. For the community is indeed strong, and so it may easily come to regard itself as the highest goal––as though the individual has value only through the community. The individual is thus nullified by the collective. 

“If the community declares: We want to join forces so that we may establish ourselvesif the individual is called upon to be a servant of the community but not to serve God; if the community presents itself as an end, instead of a means to an end––then mankind’s whole moral future is lost. The result is that man discovers his own power and becomes proud of the artificial means at his disposal. The idol of hollow aims is created, aims that bring about no blessing. For the sake of these aims, the individual is expected to sacrifice his life, and the community renounces its allegiance to the individual. Individuals, of course, weep at the loss of a loved one, but when the community builds its edifice of glory the toll in human life is of no importance. The community says: “Let us burn whatever there is, never mind what we destroy, as long as it will aid in building the edifice of our fame, renown, and glory.” Millions may die, yet the community is easily comforted and adds new layers onto the edifice of glory. Thus, the community becomes an end in itself. The community no longer exists for the sake of the individual. Instead, individual members are compelled, or enticed by artificial means, to submit and to sacrifice themselves for the whole.

“Tradition has it that this project was undertaken under the leadership of Nimrod. [The Torah supports this idea, as it says in Genesis 10:8-10: Cush fathered Nimrod. Nimrod was the first on earth to be a mighty man . . . The beginning of his kingdom was Babel . . . in the land of Shinar.] Indeed, only a mighty man like Nimrod can sway people to make such a sacrifice. Not even he will succeed if he doesn’t know how to kindle their enthusiasm for his aims, if he does not know how to identify his own glory with that of the masses who sacrifice themselves for him. A Napoleon or an Alexander knows how to charm the masses and win their devotion not with promises of gold and riches, but merely with a bit of ribbon in the lapel of a jacket.

“The event in Genesis 11 is not the only instance in history where lust for glory prompted the building of a “tower” and the indiscriminate consumption of all else. This event is a reoccurring phenomenon in world history. History, for the most part, tells only about towers of imaginary glory, which Nimrod and his successors enticed, or forced, their nations to build. But simple human values, a person’s conduct in the privacy of his own home––about such things history books do not tell. Such things are recorded only by Elijah and the Messiah, the heralds and agents of mankind’s ultimate redemption, and signed by God as witness.” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Bereshis, pg. 266-269.)

Suffice to say, Genesis 11 is an ancient warning given to all citizens throughout history. The tower represents the State, and its suppression of the individual. But God values the individual more than He does the State. After all, with the exception of Israel, no State is saved. There will be no Rome in Heaven. The flag of Greece will not fly behind the Pearly Gates. The United States Congress will not convene in God’s Kingdom. God is not interested in spending eternity with a global superpower. Rather, He wants to spend eternity with you, an individual. 1 Peter 2:5 tells us what God is accomplishing with individuals: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house...” Stones, like people, are each unique; there are no two exactly alike. God––a master stone mason––skillfully handles our differences and patiently works with them. Using love as His mortar, He brings us together to accomplish His great work. But the State would seek to accomplish something else: to turn stones into bricks. Bricks are manufactured to be exactly the same. They are interchangeable, easily stacked, and easily replaced. The State, if given absolute power, would margin off our differences and mold us into a thing that can be used to prop itself up. It would do this to you, your son, your grandson, and his son, because you see the State is never big enough. Construction seemingly goes on and on and on. The Tower of Babel went unfinished in Genesis 11 because the State is always unfinished. It requires more and more bricks to satisfy its endless desire to rise. And what does the State use for mortar? What is the slime holding the bricks in place? Materialism. Materialism is the tar that entraps the bricks. At least that is the case in 21st Century America.

It seems like Americans are being made into bricks, set to the form of political correctness. Notice, we are increasingly limited in what we’re allowed to talk about publicly. What is deemed “acceptable social dialogue” is a packaged language, uniform in many ways. Tolerance and diversity are proclaimed in the streets, but only if you agree with the terms of those declaring it. You see, if your beliefs differ from popular science and secularism, then you best keep quiet. Leave your religion at church––don’t bring it to the voting booth! Don’t talk about it in public. Don’t express it in writing. “Fit into this shape and be part of what we’re building here, understand? If you find it hard to accept, here’s a new house, a new car, a new trip, a new TV, a new TV show. Whatever it takes to get you quiet and get you comfortable.” Certainly the materialistic hold on us makes for a sticky situation. But it’s the kind of thing Christians are up against today in our country. Indeed, the spirit of the tower remains alive and well. It was never finished.

Again, the tower represents the State and its suppression of the individual. As we think about this, I want to compare two structures that are not far apart in the Bible: the tower constructed by the people in the plain of Shinar and the altar constructed by Noah in the mountains of Ararat. Both of these structures were built (banah, בנה) by man, and in both cases, a large portion of humanity was involved. (Noah was an eighth of the world’s population when he built that altar.) However, there are some key differences: Babel’s structure was made of bricks; Noah’s was made of stone. Babel’s was a collective work; Noah’s was a personal work. Babel’s was dedicated to man’s glory; Noah’s was dedicated to God’s glory. Babel’s elevated Babel; Noah’s elevated all the earth (as it is said, his altar of stone was a continuum of the earth, lifting it heavenward). Babel’s sent up a spirit of pride; Noah’s sent up a spirit of humility. Babel’s tower rose high into the sky; Noah’s “tower” was only a few feet tall, and yet, his ascended far higher. Babel’s tower merely wanted to reach the heavens, but Noah’s actually did! For we read that Noah’s made it all the way up to the Lord as a pleasing aroma. But for Babel, God had to go down and see it. He had to step down from Heaven. So we can infer that Noah’s efforts ascended higher than Babel’s. Meaning: the efforts of a single man devoted to God will surpass the efforts of an entire nation devoted to itself.

Let’s conclude with one last comparison. Genesis 11:6-7 reads: “And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’”

We compare this to an earlier passage from Genesis: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:22-24). 

In both passages, God reaches into the course of history and intervenes directly. If God hadn’t intervened, man would have lived forever and anything we proposed would have been possible. Now these may seem like good things at first... Living forever? Doing the impossible? Why would God intervene and prevent such things from happening?

Well, the context is important. In the context of Genesis 3, to live forever is to be separated from God perpetually. In the context of Genesis 11, to accomplish anything we propose is to accomplish nothing that you propose. God separates us from the Tree of Life (temporarily) so that we may break free from our fallen state. God separates us from one language (temporarily) so that we may break free from a fallen State.