Brother Esau was out hunting for meat to feed the family while Jacob was sitting about in the office. A quiet man, the Bible says he was. Quietness is a lovely virtue in some people of course, but it wasn’t so with Jacob. Surface quiet only, like the bland frontage of a secret service building. Behind the front however, schemes for destabilisation, regime change and assassination are ricocheting off the walls.
Jacob wanted to inherit his father’s wealth but his elder brother was the successor. What could he do? Catch a man when he’s vulnerable, when he’s very, very hungry after getting home after a hard day’s work. Pass a steaming bowl of lentil stew in front of the victim and then withdraw it again and say, ‘You can have your food but only when you say I can have Daddy’s property when he dies.’ Poor Esau, driven mad by hunger, gave in.
Half the job done. To receive the inheritance and his father’s blessing, he would have to place his hands in his father’s and, although his father was blind, he was able to feel with his hands and he’d recognise the deception because Jacob had soft hands whilst Esau’s were rough and hairy. Solution? Simulate Esau’s hands by sticking bits of goatskin on them. That’s what he did and it worked.
Joseph, inflated by the knowledge that he was Jacob’s favourite son, would tell tales on his brothers and be sure he’d get away with it. And he’d have dreams, dreams which later became reality, about his brothers bowing down to him and he told his brothers about this as he strutted before them in his standout, multi-coloured garb. What a swollen-headed creep! It’s almost a surprise the brothers didn’t kill him instead of merely selling him as a slave to passing merchants.
Sometimes though, a person is disliked, not because he is bad but because he’s truly talented and not afraid to express it. Somebody with a strong sense of self, a strong sense of destiny is often dismissed as arrogant. Apathy hates energy. Grey mediocrity hates light and colour. Stay-at-homes hate the adventurer. Part of Joseph’s brothers’ hatred might have been down to one or two of these.
Joseph, as it turned out, went on to save many lives through his brilliance as an administrator during a time of famine. He also had moral talent because he practised mercy and forgiveness as was shown when eventually he met up again and became reconciled with the brothers who’d caused his banishment.
Maybe liberation is like a great work of art. At the back of it is hard work and discipline. Maybe too, liberation means being led by what is loved rather than what is hated. It’s not achieved simply by heeding Moses’ call to the enslaved to escape. They did escape but when they woke up from the euphoria of release to find themselves in the heat of the Sinai Desert with no Coke machine in sight, they started thinking that captivity hadn’t been that bad at all. At least they had water, figs, grapes and pomegranates, melons, leeks, garlic and onions.
It was going to be a hard task keeping together a people of such fickle morale. Crowd control was necessary and the Ten Commandments were a pretty good essay in that.
Good to get away from the patriarchs. Good to get away from the grim protracted struggle for tribal survival. Good to get away from murder, Eglon with a sword, including the hilt, buried in his fat belly and Sisera skewered to the ground by a tent peg driven through his temple. It’s good to get to a woman at last because it makes a change, not because women are morally superior. It was a woman who did it to Sisera with the tent peg, having first lulled him with a bowl of milk.
Before the Book of Ruth, a theme seems to be that bad stuff happens when you behave badly. But bad things happened to Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, and she was not a bad person at all. She had to endure exile, famine and the deaths of her two sons, one of whom was Ruth’s husband. Naomi didn’t respond to her grief by looking for targets to fire at with arrows of blame. Instead she loved. She loved her daughter-in-law Ruth. They both loved each other. Said Ruth to Naomi, ‘Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay.’
The two women went to Bethlehem and Ruth gathered sustenance by gleaning in fields belonging to a chap called Boaz. He noticed Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and it made her an attractive person to him. But there was more to it than just spiritual attraction.
Manipulation has a bad reputation but it’s only bad if the outcome is bad, isn’t it? Anyway, Naomi devised a plan whereby Ruth, seemingly by chance, bumped into Boaz in the middle of the night in the threshing room. Well, it led to a kiss and a cuddle and Ruth asking Boaz if he’d spread the corner of his garment over her.
In the morning, Boaz met with the legal people to sort out propriety, property and solemnisation issues and he and Ruth got married. And then they had a baby and Naomi was delighted to be employed in his upbringing.
Saul and David
David ran from the spear-flinging wrath of Saul. He ran until the whole earth seemed to fall away and he descended into a gigantic oven where mountain-size rocks were baking and cracking in the heat. But David was a musician, an artist, and he found beauty and rest in this region of hell. There was a line of green bamboo indicating the presence of water and David followed it until the bamboo parted to reveal an emerald lawn. Here the fugitive found some moments of repose.
He climbed to his next refuge, a cave amongst the Crags of Wild Goats. But then, horror of horrors, a disturbance of stones and then the sun was blocked out of the cave entrance. Saul had arrived. However, by blocking out the sun, the cave was now dark and David wasn’t spotted and anyway Saul was distracted for a moment by the need for a pee.
Even so, David couldn’t take the tension any more. His sword raised, he hurled himself at Saul but he only cut off a piece of his clothing. His hope was that Saul would realise that David could have killed him if he’d wanted but had declined to do so. Would this knowledge pacify him, if only for a while? It did. The two were reconciled but Saul never became reconciled with himself and he went to his death with his inner self still in disarray.
A royal vegetable garden was needed but the piece of land desired by the king was owned by a guy called Naboth and he said he wouldn’t sell because the land had been in his family for generations and it was his duty to pass it on to his successors. Rebuffed, the King sulked, took to his bed and refused to eat. His wife, Jezebel, took up the matter, bribed a couple of people to say they overheard Naboth cursing God and the king and Naboth was stoned to death. The royal vegetable garden was secured.
Book of Job
That theme again, that suffering is divine retribution for wrong doing. But Naomi suffered and she didn’t seem a bad person at all. And Job’s friends, they couldn’t understand the calamities suffered by him because, to them, he was a good man. So, does suffering serve another purpose like the fire that purifies gold? Didn’t the rich say something similar to make themselves feel better about imprisoning their little children in boarding schools?
Well, there’s a time to keep quiet and a time to state your case. And there’s a time to stop thinking you’re right and a time to hold on to your point of view even when it feels the whole world disagrees with you. I suppose wisdom is knowing when to give way and when to hold on.
Song of Songs
Taking a stroll to a budding vineyard past Lily of the Valley and the girl with honey under her tongue. ‘Blow on my garden that its fragrance may spread abroad.’
Beautiful feet striding over mountains belong to the bearer of good news. But the bearer is ‘despised and rejected,’ killed and ‘assigned a grave with the wicked.’
‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.’
Being present at a birth is quite often cited as being an experience so profound it could be called religious. Is it the feeling that the little body is lit by a personality already formed? The body is new but the person is not.
Daniel said to the king, ‘The writing on the wall says you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’ And the king died that night.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.