A Complicated Promise

Bill Mefford

Our passage in Genesis recalls the powerful vision God gives Jacob. Prior to this event, Jacob’s mom, Rebekah warns Jacob of Esau, his older brother, and Esau’s hatred towards Jacob and his plan to kill Jacob because he had stolen Esau’s blessing with the aid of Rebekah. Esau is rightly ticked off and so Jacob decides to flee for his life. Before he leaves both Rebekah and Isaac charge Jacob to marry one of his cousins and to specifically not marry a Hittite or a Canaanite. Hittites and Canaanites were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah. 


So, when Jacob flees he has the dream we read about in the passage in Genesis. This of course harkens back to Abram’s dream back in Genesis 15 when God promises Abram that his descendants will bring forth a great nation. But in Abrams’ dream God also foretells 400 years of slavery for Abram’s people and then lists the lands they will ultimately conquer, all of which belong to other nations already. The same dream of future greatness that was given to a wandering Abram is given once again to his grandson, a fleeing Jacob. The same promise of God’s abiding and deep love and constant presence that was given to the pioneering Abram who at times made some morally questionable decisions, is once again graciously lavished on the equally morally questionable grandson Jacob, who deviously stole his father’s blessing from his older brother. 


On one hand, this is a story of God’s unchanging, unyielding, fiercely allegiant love for God’s people. God’s love is unconditional and does not ask who is most prominent, does not seek who is most powerful, does not depend on earned favor, and does not need to be bought off by affluence and worldly power. Neither Abram nor Jacob have any of these to give to God. God gives and loves extravagantly and without condition. God’s love is so powerful that God can and will deliver those trapped in generational poverty and oppression. 


And, on the other hand, this is a story of a seriously dysfunctional family. If you are Esau, what exactly do you get your mom for Mother’s Day when she helps your younger punk brother steal your blessing and warns him to get the heck out of dodge when you get pissed enough to take justice into your own hands? This is the story of family-mandated discrimination, which ultimately gets ordained by God later in Deuteronomy when God commands God’s people not to intermarry with people of other ethnicities. This is the story of raw power and conquest. This passage has been used repeatedly throughout the history of the Church and even today in regards to the oppressed people in Palestineas many church leaders have virtually ignored the story of liberationist deliverance from poverty and oppression in Exodus which clearly puts the people of God on the same side of all those who are oppressed and marginalized. Instead, God’s pledge to bring God’s people to a promised land flowing with milk and honey has been so decontextualized to justify foreign policy aims of powerful nations to colonize, oppress, rape, and pillage indigenous peoples across the face of the earth and throughout history. 


The promise to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob to bring through them a nation that will be a blessing to all the nations is, at the same time, a promise of hopeto some and a source of terror to others, depending on your theology, your politics, and your geographical location and/or nationality. 


In so many ways, I am the son of both of these theologies. I was discipled by friends in college who were some of the most authentic Christians I had ever met, to be a passionate follower of Jesus, to seek God through prayer,to worship Jesus in spirit and truth, and to evangelize others through proclamation and missional engagement. At various points in my life I was a street evangelist, eager to talk to others about how Jesus loved me and all of creation. I was an evangelical before I ever heard what an evangelical was. I learned to pray, to listen to God, to worship with all of my heart and soul, to diligently read and follow Scripture, and to share the good news of God’s love for the whole world with others. 


I was also discipled in college by mostly atheists and agnostics who were leaders of the campus chapter of Amnesty International to care about injustice in Texas, in the United States, and throughout the world. I learned how to provocatively protest “pro-life” rallies because their “pro-life” stance did not acknowledge the mostly poor people of color whom the state of Texas regularly murdered throughout the 80s and 90s. I learned to write letters and make calls to urge President Reagan to stop standing with the racist South African government and hold them accountable for the evil system of apartheid while also being wary of the way racism and injustice stain the systems and structures of the United States; systems and structures that all too often reflect the system of apartheid deeply entrenched within US churches and denominations.


My view of Scripture is shaped and formed by my current context – nothing is read or understood in a vacuum. I come to Scripture as a middle-aged, straight, white man with enormous privilege and who has been tremendously shaped by these two theologies: a theology of personal salvation and a theology of social liberation. And so when I read this passage from Genesis I honestly get irritated. I get irritated because this passage, as I shared previously, gets so easily taken out of context and used to justify injustice. I get irritated that there are things in the Bible that are not easily understood. Why can’t Rebekah and Isaac have sat down Jacob and Esau and mediated their conflict and then created a blessing that will flow through both of them to their descendants rather than play favorites that ended with hatred and jealousy? When there was likely so much to warn Jacob about in a dangerous new world as he sets out on his own, why did they focus only on directing him not to marry people of other races? Why was there so much conniving and manipulating and dysfunction? Why did that dysfunction have to result in generational injustice and hostility between the descendants of Esau and Jacob that continues to this day?


But when my irritation gives way to reflection I come back to the greatest treasure I have found in Scripture: that what irritates me does so because I find too much of myself in its pages. How many times have I looked at my siblings, both biological and those who I am akin with in Christ and been jealous of their blessing? How many times have I at least attempted to steal some of the fame and glory they were given for myself to make up for and hide my own inadequacies? How many times have I gamed the dysfunctions of family or work systems for my benefit, climbed the ecclesial ladder, and then christened that manipulation “ministry” because I used it to supposedly bless others? The answer is far too many times. Scripture is irritating and messy and troubling because my life is irritating, messy, and troubling. 


But what we do with this passage? I still find God’s promise for God’s people hopeful and inspiring as it reminds me that God can create something mighty and transformational out of virtually nothing. I find this same kind of creativity in my work through the Festival Center and for that I am deeply grateful. At the same time, a promise that can easily be used to displace and dehumanize others is deeply troubling to me. So, hope for me comes when I reflect on the fullness of Scripture and how seeing this individual passage against the backdrop of the entire biblical narrative shows how God’s promise is not intended for our selfish indulgence, but instead, is meant to give to others the same amount of compassion and justice that God has given us. 


I remember even in the soon-to-be founding of the nation of Israel that is in the rest of the Pentateuch, God commands the new nation to be empathetic to the cause of sojourners and others since they too were sojourners once themselves. Then later, prophets repeatedly warned Israel against mistreatment of the poor and both Micah and Isaiah set forth a remarkable vision of the end days when all nations, equally in need of God’s peaceful mediation, travel to the mountain of the Lord where they find long-awaited harmony with former enemies and in turn, transform their weapons into instruments that will feed the world instead of conquer the world. The ending picture of everyone sitting under their own fig tree is a powerful reminder that God’s promise will one day be fulfilled not just for Israel, but for all nations who travel to God’s mountain. 


Interestingly, the conflict between an overly individualistic view of salvation and a corporate liberationist understanding does not end with the close of the Old Testament. We see this throughout the gospels and most obviously at the very founding of the church in Acts. In the first chapter of Acts, just before the ascension of Jesus back into Heaven, the disciples use their final question of Jesus to ask when will God restore the kingdom of Israel. This comes after the disciples had spent three years living with Jesus, witnessing his crucifixion and resurrection, and even receiving a forty day tutorial on the Kin-dom of God. Just as nationalism is a collective form of selfish indulgence, the disciples’ grasp for power and affluence betrays the very essence of Jesus’ mission and teaching. They are not striving to be a blessing to the world; they want very much for the world to be a blessing to them for that is the essence of nationalism. 


But Jesus does not harshly rebuke them. He subtly reminds them that power – real power from the Holy Spirit – will come on them and the power will lead them to become witnesses and servants to his resurrection to all the world. They are called and frankly commanded to be a blessing to the nations. 


Seeing this passage in Genesis against the backdrop of the entire biblical narrative reminds me that the Bible can easily and has easily and will continue to be easily taken out of context. Passages have been, are being, and will continue to be used to justify all kinds of evil, including the sin of nationalism and colonialization. God’s promise to us – God’s promise to me – is not meant for me to use as a club to bludgeon others with. God does not make corporate or individual promises that are meant for me or us to deny other people their rights, or their basic dignity or humanity. To use what God freely and lovingly gives us to harm others is a betrayal of God’s gift. Indeed, it is a betrayal of God. 


I would be remiss if I did not reflect even briefly on someone we lost this weekend whose life is the embodiment both of a gospel that saves our souls and that liberates our communities. John Lewis was the son of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama and as a boy he preached to the chickens he tended. His calling to become a preacher – even with a speech impediment – led him to American Baptist College in Nashville. He idolized Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in Nashville he met James Lawson, a Methodist pastor who taught him nonviolence, not only as a tactic for social change, but also as a way of life. Lewis’ commitment to love and nonviolence allowed him to endure over forty arrests, numerous horrific beatings, and he never gave in to hate. He never used his moral or even his political authority to harm others. So, when I have struggled between balancing a gospel of individual salvation and a gospel of liberation John Lewis is one of those people I have always looked to and found inspiration from. 


This passage also reminds me that God’s promise is more about who God is than who we are. There is nothing I can do that can separate me from the love of God, even though I too often have done far too much to bring separation between others and God. And I pray today we can renew our passion to follow God in such a way that others will want to know the promise that has so graciously been offered to us. A promise that brings us life and calls us to work for liberation. 



Genesis 28: 10-19a