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Authentic :: Esther


When I was in middle school I had a crush on this boy and so a friend of mine decided she would play matchmaker and asked him what he thought of me. I was sitting within hearing distance, and I’ll never forget his response. If pretty were a scale, he said holding up his hands so that she could see the invented spectrum, then Ashley is right here. And he pointed to the far end of the scale, which if translated into numbers would have put me around a 2 or 3.


Photo by Maria Molinero on Unsplash

Ouch.

I remember feeling a little stunned because it was the first time I had ever been made to feel less than, unacceptable, or unworthy. Up to that point I had a lot of confidence for a middle school girl. I made good grades. I had good friends. I was nerdy, but still accepted by most of my peers because I was so nice. But that moment something shifted inside me and I began to see the world a lot differently. 

I don’t share that story often because, honestly, I feel a little embarrassed that I let a jerkface boy create so much of my identity for so long. But the fact is, this happens all. the. time.  

As a woman, I’ve been made very aware that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but the beholder is quite often influenced by the onslaught of cultural imaging and stereotyping. I think most women can agree that these expectations can be a little overwhelming at the best of times and absolutely crushing at the worst. Because, quite frankly, it’s tough being a woman. 

It’s Tough being a Woman

Let’s face it, being a woman is not easy and when you have the weight of the world, at least your world, on your shoulders, things get evenmore complicated even faster. That’s Esther. Tough stuff.

So Esther is an orphan. When she was quite young her parents died. We don’t know how they died, just that both her mother and her father died and she is raised by a cousin—Mordecai (Esther 2: 5-7). A male cousin, no less. If that wasn’t enough trauma for one little girl when she wasn’t much more than a teenager she was taken into the Citadel at Susa as a candidate for “future queen” (Esther 2: 8). 

Sounds great, right? Queen? What little girl doesn’t want that? It’s not quite that simple. Don’t you know what happened to the previous queen, Vashti? After a lot of feasting and wine the King, Xerxes, summoned her to his presence. He wanted to show her off—like a real trophy wife. She refused—maybe cause she didn’t want to be groped and fondled by a bunch of rich drunk guys. Or maybe because she was spoiled and drunk herself. Regardless, when she refused the king, she was banished and never heard of again. Killed? Who knows? Maybe (Esther 1:19-20).

Also, let’snot forget that word candidate. She’snot guaranteed the title of queen, but once she is in the harem…well, she’s not coming out again. And well, pleasing the King doesn’t just mean looking pretty. That’s only part of it. I think you can follow my drift. Once you’re in that Harem, you are the king’s—so there goes Esther’s dream of any kind of normalfamily life.

Beauty Treatments for the Beautiful

After being ripped from her adoptive father’s home, in Esther 2: 8-18, we see this young protagonist spend 12 months in beauty treatments. Well, that seems odd considering the palace officials only brought the most beautiful young, virginal women to the harem to be considered as candidates in the first place. But if our culture has taught us anything, even the most beautiful women are often made to feel as if they are not doing enough to be as beautiful as they could be. This is why beauty pageants, though not inherently wrong, do often create more insecurities in women than they do promote positive body image. I have no real feelings for or against pageants, but I do have a lot of feelings about the way a focus on beauty affects the way women interact with each other and view themselves. As a result, we see a lot of problems in a culture which validates women based on beauty, and Esther experienced these problems first hand. 


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

To make matters worse, this atmosphere bred competition, and a brutal one at that. Esther wasn’t just competing against the other women either. She also had to contend with Vashti’s memory and even the cultural expectations as she hid her linage for fear of persecution. So, I can’t’ even imagine how the atmosphere of the harem inflamed her insecurities before and after being chosen as queen. 

Competition Never Ends

Later in the narrative, we find Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father, entering the narrative as a bigger player than a conduit for the new queen’s upbringing. In chapter 2, he had even saved the king’s life by discovering an assassination plot. Unfortunately, this camaraderie and favoritism with the king is short-lived as jealousy expands not only in the harem but throughout the king’s men as well. Because let’s face it, when you build your whole kingdom on competition for favor, you are just asking for conflict among your people. Haman, an official of the king’s, wants o be top dog and he sees Mordecai as a threat (and he doesn’t even know the half of it! Since Esther remained silent about her lineage, no one even knows she is related to the Mordecai). Then, in Esther 3 Haman’s jealousy is just too much and we see it spinning out of control.

Haman devises a plot, not only to rid the country of Mordecai but of all Jews. His genocidal plan is received with indifference by the king. Which begs the question of what is actually worse—theactive hatred of Haman, or the passive indifference and allowance of the king?

Either way, Mordecai sees the danger, but alos the home and he pleas with Esther to go to the King about the edict. After all, Esther has the King’s ear and may be the Jews only hope. However, as we read Esther 4: 4-14, her response is heartbreaking. In verse 11 she reveals that thirty days have passed since she has been called to the King’s side. Her time is gone. She no longer has the King’s interest. Her husband has grown tired and bored with her and though he saw her high on the scale before, she is now feeling like she’s fallen to that 2 or 3. And she allows this to control her self-esteem, thoughts, actions and reactions. She let a jerkface man validate her identity, like so many women before her and so many women after her will do. And it crushed her. 

But Mordecai doesn’t accept this.

He reminds her that the King, her husband, this jerkface man does NOT control or validate her identity. You are a Jew! He reminds her. You are one of God’s chosen people, and He chose you for this moment! 

Xerxes may have chosen Esther as his queen, but God chose her as his daughter. And that reminder is all she needs to find the courage to act, because after all–despite what our culture tells us–men and women do not control our identities. Only God can do that and when we rest firmly in the knowledge that he has chosen us for a purpose and for his glory, then the way others percieve us no longer matters. 

Siezing your God-given Destiny

Esther 5 is so interesting because we see Esther taking charge and seizing her destiny and then at the last moment she seems almost to chicken out, but I’m not sure she hesitates for fear. Maybe, but I think it was the Lord guiding her words and steps. She fasted for 3 days and she’s hungry, tired, and scared, but it is in those vulnerable moments that we hear God speak with the  most clairty, because we stop trying to control our own destiny and we step into what he has planned for us. 

So, in Esther 6 we feel the increase of tension in a seemingly insignificant as we are waiting for Esther to reveal the plot to Xerxes.  Without the pause, we would have missed the most vital part of the whole story! GOD causes XERXES to have a sleepless night revealing an important hero—Mordecai. This downplays Esther, Mordecai’s, and even Haman’s role in the story and brings the TRUE protagonist to the forefront—GOD. Even though His name isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text, evidence that HE is still in control simply leaps off the page!

It is in those vulnerable moments that we hear God speak with the most clairty,
 because we stop trying to control our own destiny and we step into what he has planned for us. 

Esther 7:1-10 Finally shows us justice for Haman’s plot. In the remaining chapters, vindication for all the Jews comes through another edict where the Jews are allowed to defend themselves, but here ends Esther’s involvement in the story. Her words are straight from the Lord and she uses every moment to her advantage, thinking before she acted, and waiting for the Lord to move. 


Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Waiting on the Lord is never easy, especially when justice and revenge are more appealing options, but the older I become the more I understand that our happiness doesn’t depend on other people, what they think or what they tell us, our happiness depends on stepping into who the Lord created us to be–not what some jerkface says we are. 

Authentic :: Sarai

In January I picked a word I want to apply to my life throughout the course of the next year. Sort of like a nerdy version of a resolution, but with a whole lot of prayer and supplication that the Holy Spirit will reveal a focus area for my role in God’s plan. This year the word is transform. 

What a great word, right? Transformation sounds really hardcore and meaningful and like you are going to turn the world upside down and rock it. And yes, there is a lot of that…but transformation also requires a lot of change and, let’s be honest, it doesn’t happen overnight, so patience…yeah. A whole lot of patience. 

You know what else? Transform isn’t something you do on your own. It is something that is done to you. If you know me (or have read my blog at all) you’ll know that I am a control addict. I keep giving it up only to take it back again, so the word transform was super exciting…until I realized that I have ZERO control over it. Seriously, zero. 

Photo by Julie North on Unsplash

Just another lesson in being super sure you are ready for what it is you are praying for, because when you ask God to transform your heart, mind, and spirit. Well, fasten your seat belt because it can be quite an awesome ride. 

I’ve never identified with Sarai more than I have this year, though she’s always been kind of my kindred spirit. Not only did God change her name, he transformed her into His princess. The Princess Diaries showed us that this is no easy task, but the cool thing about God is that he can transform anyone into His princess, even if the task seems impossible. 

Taking Control

Sarai was a daddy’s girl. 

She was a girl who had everything. A loving husband. A great place to live. Wealth (13:1). Beauty (12:11). What she didn’t have? Children. And because she didn’t have children she BELIEVED she didn’t have honor. And then, little by little she felt God taking everything she ever knew…away.

In Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 15:1-5 God makes a promise to Abram. He speaks with him, comforts him, and shows him the future. As Abram’s wife (and sister…well, half sister Genesis 20:12), Sarai has a share in this blessing as well. After all, it’s unlikely that Abram will become the father of many nations without a woman. Just saying. 

There’s a catch though, chapter 12 verse tells us that  Abram was 75 when he first received this prophecy, making Sari 65, and even for Biblical era, that is still pretty old to be a father/mother many times over. Frustrated, Abram continually asks God about this promise and God continues to reassure him that there is no mistake. My promises endure forever. Regardless in chapter 15 verse 6 Abram continues to believe despite the years that continue to pass him by. 

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

And that’s where Sarai steps in. She believes in the promise, but there is an awful lot of stress and pressure that accompany this given that Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children (chapter 16: 1). 

In Genesis 16: 1-4 we see that Sarai is practical. At this point, most scholars agree that she is well over seventy years old, past child-bearing age, and most likely people would have viewed her as cursed by God. I wouldn’t be surprised if people have told her that continually. Have you ever seen those memes about the way people ask mothers inappropriate questions? Well, it’s not just mothers! Women who are married without kids always get asked why or what’s wrong, or even worse, don’t you want kids? People are curious, sure, but these careless words bite deep into a woman’s sensitive soul. I’m sure society hasn’t changed that much over a few melinia. People will always think they have a right to know the intimated details of your relationships and family. 

But, in most ancient cultures Sarai’s inability to conceive would have even been grounds for divorce. So, what does she do? What many women would in her situation—she tries to fix it herself. 

Girl, I feel you. This is exactly why we are kindred spirits. I’m a fixer–if there is a problem I have an overwhelming desire to fix it myself. Unfortunately, that subtracts God from the equation and, well, things never end well.

Yet, I note Abram’s response to Sarai’s plans. In many ways this is a throwback to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6). It may have been Eve/Sarai’s idea—but that’s not how God intends for relationships to work in his paradise.

Sarai gets shamed a lot for her actions in Genesis 16:5-6, but I think we need to look at Hagar too. There’s a lot of female rivalry going on here.

If Hagar begins to despise her mistress after she finds out she is pregnant, then there is a clearly a power struggle in this house. Hagar’s pregnancy “proves” that the barrenness is Sarai’s “fault”, right? Well, sure that would be right if we believe we are at “fault” for God’s perfect timing…yikes. 

So, Hagar’s ego is fed, and she might even be walking around with her nose up in the air because she believes she is the one who must be intended for the promises God made to Abram…yikes. 

On the flip side, Sarai does not handle the situation well; she created an unhealthy home by complicating her relationships, but she could have made so many different decisions and the outcome would have shifted in a completely different direction. Let’s not even consider the first mistake, but after Hagar “despises” her, she could accept the responsibility and welcome Hagar into the family…but that’s complicated too. So all around it’s just a hot mess. 

And let’s not forget that Abram is not blameless in this either. As the patriarch, he should be the one making the decisions, especially since he is in such close communion with God. I don’t recall him pausing to ask for God’s guidance as Sarai shoves Hagar into his arms. And I certainly don’t see him stepping up and taking responsibility for the chaos in his home. In fact, he washes his hands of the matter, figuratively turning back to the football game and letting the women figure out who the primary cook in the kitchen is. 

And so, Sarai does what makes sense. She strikes back at Hagar with such harshness that her maidservant runs away…we could follow Hagar’s story, but that’s for another post. Hagar eventually returns and bears a son to Abram when he is 86 years old–over a decade after the promise is first made. 

Letting God be GOD

And then another decade goes by, and when Abram is 99-100 years old, God gives him a new name–but more importantly God outbreathes his spirit into Abram and creates Abraham…in other words, God transforms him. It took 20 years, but God fulfilled the promise in his own timing. True transformations don’t happen overnight, and I think we see that Abram was not ready for God’s promise, but Abraham is.

And so is Sarai. In Genesis 17:15-17Sarai is reborn as Sarah.

This is not done lightly! Reborn, Sarah is now ready for the promises God made. Even more importantly, Abraham is ready to see Sarah as the vessel for God’s promise and not the problem. Though she is still skeptical and cynical, God has prepared her in His timing for the next step. The motif of laughter here is evident. Abraham laughs, exhausted. Sarah laughs, mocking. They both laugh in joy and disbelief. God really does fulfill his promises. Just when you are ready to give up, He shows up.

Just when you are ready to give up, He shows up.

Photo by Ye Fung Tchen on Unsplash

Waiting on God’s Timing

Sarai had a hard time waiting on God’s timing. I can relate to that on a deeply spiritual level. When it seems like I should be able to fix it, I don’t always understand why God wants me to wait on Him, but let’s be honest. I’m not God, so there is definitely always a reason for waiting on his timing. One of my favorite verses in seasons of waiting is:

For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.

Habakkuk 2:3 

Waiting is hard. But the end result is always worth it, and looking back, like Sarah, we often laugh to see just how much God transformed us before we were ready to walk straight into his promise. 

Authentic :: Rebekah

When I was a child, my best friend and I used to play ‘house’ and inevitably we would always want good husbands to be a part of the pretend game. For my imaginary future, I would always say a boy in my class at school who I had a crush on at the time was my “husband”. It would change pretty much weekly because, well even as I child I had commitment issues, but also I was young and didn’t really know what I wanted. All I knew was for a perfect, imaginary future I needed a husband.

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In middle school I made a list of what I wanted for my future—an assignment in class. A list of goals, we’ll call them (and yes, outdated as they are I still have this list). My teacher asked us to highlight our top ten then she collected the list, read the top ten aloud, and had the rest of the class guess to whom the list belonged. When it came to mine, a boy I only knew by name (and because he was pretty cute) piped up and said, “that’s gotta be Ashley. It’s all about God.” I remember at the time being kind of mortified because the disdain in his tone was palpable and he may or may not have rolled his eyes. The teacher returned the list to me and I sat quietly, my face radiating a bright red thought only possible in on a Crayola crayon.

Now, I think back on that list and that moment when everything was clear. I rarely talked to this boy, but he knew my reputation and in some ways, my heart. In my heart, even when I didn’t fully see I myself, my perfect imaginary future was not about a husband, but about a life filled with God’s glory and grace—and hopefully, one day, a husband who shares my heart desires in the same way. This life is not about me, or a man, or a family, it’s ALL about God.

Sought After

Although Rebekah is not mentioned in Genesis 24:1-9, it’s pretty cool that the text shows she was an answer to a prayer. There is something beautiful about being sought after–pursued–it gives one value on a spiritual level. Abraham had just lost his beloved, Sarah, whom he buried in a cave in Hebron. She was 127, and they had spent over 100 years together on this earth. Abraham was hurting, to say the least, and he looks at his son Isaac, who was single at the age of 37, and knows that his son is hurting too. Knowing what it feels like to hurt and have no one to comfort you for the loss, Abraham comes up with a plan.

First, Abraham asked his servant to put his hand under his thigh and swear an oath. Let’s think about this gesture for a moment—there are very few people in this world who I would allow the intimacy of touching me under the thigh. It’s a vulnerable and private place, which adds to the importance and seriousness of the request: go find my son a wife–not just any wife either, a God-fearing wife.

Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash

Sure. No problem.

And no pressure, right?

Abraham is certain this is the right plan; after all, God promised him the land he was living in would belong to his offspring–the servant is not quite as sure. He asks a couple of questions, makes a contingency plan, clarifies instructions, and then he is willing to swear his oath. I’m not criticizing the servant by any means; no, I’m rather empathetic to the fact that the servant has more faith in his master, Abraham, than he does in the Lord. At least at first. Sadly I do this more than I’d like to admit–I place faith in something or someone when really all I need is to trust the Lord’s plan for my life. It’s embarrassing, but thankfully God is really patient with me in my struggle.

So, the servant makes his way to the “town of Nahor” in Genesis 24:10-14. Nahor just happens to be Abraham’s brother. So far he has done all that his master has asked, and I just love what his first inclination is once he arrives: pray to Abraham’s God (again, a display of faith in Abraham more than the God he is praying to)…but the prayer is….different. He asks for a specific response from the girl he approaches. He wants her to be hospitable, not just to him but to all the camels with him too. Did you know that “a camel that has gone a few days without water can drink up to 25 gallons? That’s up to 100 drawings from the well for ALL the servant’s camels!” (Archeological Study Bible footnote p.40). That’s a tall order, so either the servant has some trust issues, or he is honestly looking for the right woman and doesn’t want to get it wrong. Be specific, Lord, he asks. And I don’t think that is wrong as long as his heart was in the right place.

I may not be quite so demanding for specifics in my prayers, but I ask for validation and confirmation from the Lord pretty frequently, and sometimes my heart is not exactly in the right place. Have I mentioned my control issues? That’s why. My prayer can often go something like this: Dear Lord, please give me everything I want in exactly the way I want it. Just being honest. But the reality is, God’s not really a genie, and often what I want and when I want it is not His plan and if I’m really going to get real I’ll admit that it’s better when I stop trying to tell God what to do and simply let Him move in my life.

The fact that God answered the servant’s request almost immediately proves that this servant had a good heart–he didn’t ask because he wanted God to prove himself, he asked because he wanted to get it right.

Rebekah’s Story

I have read Rebekah’s story a number of times and I’ll be honest sometimes I sincerely sit in awe of this woman who left everything she knew because a man revealed it was her God-given destiny. I am amazed by her strength, her courage, and even her wit; though sometimes a little misguided, her destiny brought about the ultimate perfect not-so-imaginary future—a Savior who would change the world. 

No wonder the servant wanted to get it right. 

Genesis 24:15-21 finally introduces us to Rebekah—who is quite remarkable. First, she is related to Abraham. It says she is “the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah who was the wife of Abraham’s brother.” That would make Bethuel and Isaac first cousins, making Rebekah Isaac’s first cousin once removed, in case you care to track the relationship.

I adore this interaction as it shows us Rebekah’s heart in an astounding way. 

  1. She is hospitable and caring to the servant, immediately taking care of his needs. 
  2. She sees a need and doesn’t hesitate to be the one to fill the need–even if it means spending the rest of the afternoon doing a back-breaking job of drawing water from the well to water the camels of a stranger. 
  3. She is both strong, yet humble, accepting praise from the servant, but returning to her family for advice and guidance. 
  4. She is wise, confiding in her mother immediately after the exchange–no secrets!
Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

Let’s back up a second and picture this scene with the servant and many camels coming to the well in mid-day when all the ladies are out and about. His arrival would have caused quite a stir! Camels would have immediately indicated great wealth, but then he places a nose ring AND bracelets of gold on Rebekah. Now, I’m not saying she’s a gold digger…no really she’s not, but I’m not sure I’d say the same for her family…

Genesis 24:22-31 shows Rebekah running to her mother’s household, and yet it is her brother (not her father) who runs out to meet the stranger. Odd, especially since later we see that her father is still alive. At any rate, Genesis 24:32-49 recaps all that has happened–from the orders of the servant’s master, Abraham, to the prayer, to Rebekah’s action and basically ends with…so, what do you think? It’s a total God thing, right?

In Genesis 24:50-53 Rebekah’s male relatives, brother and now father, respond with a resounding…if it’s from the Lord then who are we to argue? Especially since you come bearing those dolla, dolla bills, ya’ll. I feel pretty justified in this judgment consider Laban will later trick his sister’s son, Jacob, into marrying both his daughters and working for him for free for 14 years. Laban is interested in the bottom line, with a little God-speak thrown in to cover the stench of his greed. But that’s another story.

We don’t actually get Rebekah’s reaction to this proposal until we read Genesis 24: 54-61. This interaction is fascinating. The servant is eager to return to his master, but Laban and momma dearest aren’t so keen to say good-bye to baby girl (or all the wealth of the servant’s entourage). Especially worthy of note is the request that Rebekah stay 10 days or so…

Now I get why Momma wants her to stay–it’s her baby and they’re obviously close (remember, no secrets). But the brother’s motivation I question. Maybe I’m being unfair and he will really miss his sister when she leaves…or maybe he’s still thinking how to profit from this arrangement. I don’t know which it is, but either way it’s the fact that they ask Rebekah for her opinion is unusual.

But here’s the thing, asking Rebekah fulfills the rest of the promise the servant made to Abraham in Gen. 24:8. She’s not only willing, she’s determined. Along with all her other qualities, I can’t help but admire her. And given the cultural context–this points straight back to God again.

Genesis 24:62-66; 25:20 shows a brief encounter with meeting Isaac, who is not sad about this woman being brought to him (he might think she’s pretty hot). But more importantly, it reveals an important character trait of Rebekah.

Modesty. 

In a day where modesty has gone out of fashion, I find Rebekah’s response to meeting her husband to be refreshing. Her modesty didn’t change his reaction. If anything he admired her even more, and I think that’s true about the right kind of men today. God-fearing men don’t really want to see women’s bodies on display for the world. Sure, it can biologically set a few things in motion, but often those things are better saved for private settings anyhow, so being modest is a way to respect yourself, and your partner (or future partner) in more ways than one.

Decidedly Human

Like Sarah before her, Rebekah was barren (Genesis 25:21-24 ) but didn’t have to wait quite as long for the answer to her prayer. I even note that God responded directly to Rebekah, which tells me she didn’t rely on her husband’s faith but continued to grow in her own relationship with the Lord. As tempting as it is to use others’ faith as a crutch for our own faith, we will see more amazing things if we personally pursue a relationship with God and trust in Him more than those around us. After all, humans are only human.

And Rebekah was human too. She made her share of mistakes. In fact, the biggest mistake she made was in trying to make God’s plan happen in her own time and way (just as Sarah did…oh and me too).

God can use our mistakes to create great things, but it doesn’t negate the consequences that inevitably result when we prove time and again that we are only human.

In Genesis 27:5-17 Rebekah plays favorites with her sons just as Jacob would play favorites with his son, Joseph in the future! The consequences of her actions include losing her son…forever. There is no record of Rebekah ever seeing her son again (and I believe she probably died in the 14 years Jacob worked for Laban, her brother). We can choose our sin, but we can’t choose the consequences. I truly believe she had the best of intentions, but she lied and manipulated her husband and children to fulfill a prophecy that she didn’t have enough faith in God to bring about in a less deceitful way. And while God can use our mistakes to still create great things, it doesn’t negate the consequences that inevitably result when we prove time and again that we are only human.

Sought by God

Photo by NICK SELIVERSTOV on Unsplash

Rebekah was sought after and valued as a treasure once she was found. A gift from God. Genesis 24:8 paired with Genesis 24:57 casts an important light on ancient culture marital rituals vs. God’s will. Wives were not, as was cultural ritual, to be treated as possessions, but rather involved and respected. Then, with their consent, accepted as treasures. This is God’s will. Marriage, though the focus of Rebekah’s story, is not to be the center of our world. Significant others will not bring you ultimate joy and happiness. That’s not even really the point of marriage. No, marriage is meant to be a reflection of God’s relationship with his people. He seeks after us, and like Rebekah loves nothing more than our response to be an immediate “I will go.” Not in 10 days, but now.

All we have to do is say “I will go.”

Eliezer the servant did not have the same quality of faith as Abraham, but as he learned to trust his master and God, his faith grew. Rebekah leaned on this faith of Eliezer to help her be resolute, but she was more confident, probably because she had a personal faith to begin with. It might not be easy to trust God; we all have our own stories that affect how we interact with God, but God promises that if we seek him, we will find him. All we have to do is say “I will go.”

Authentic :: Joseph

The story of Joseph has been told in many ways from the Broadway musical Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat to children’s movies like Joseph: King of Dreams. Each adaptation focuses on the themes of going after your dreams, the dangers of jealousy and favoritism, and sibling rivalry. While all of these are very prevalent in the story, to me it is a story of redemption pointing straight back to Jesus.

Joseph’s is a tale of suffering, rejection and exaltation—foretelling the ultimate Christ who would suffer and be rejected to ultimately be elevated to the right hand of God. BUT there are some distinct differences between Joseph and Jesus, the most poignant being Joseph’s arrogance and pride which, if we’re being honest, were at the root of his suffering and rejection. Whereas Jesus’ rejection was entirely unwarranted.

And boy can I relate to Joseph! If I had a nickel for every time my pride and arrogance led to negative consequences, well, let’s just say I could probably quit teaching. Like my junior year of high school, for example. I was the ultimate band nerd and I wanted so bad to be the drum major, not because I had a deep love for all things band—I really didn’t—I can be honest with myself now, though I still hesitate to type (all that pride). I wanted to be drum major because I wanted people to admire me. I wanted the attention and the satisfaction of knowing I was the winner…and I wanted to spend time with a boy I liked prior to the audition. On the other hand, my friends who also tried out had much more musical aspirations. I won the competition, but it cost me a lot in my friendships and I had to deal with some bullying I probably wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t been so proud.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Back to the point, who exactly is Joseph? Biography tells us he’s the first son of Rachel and Jacob, but the 12th born to the family (Leah had 6 sons and a daughter, Bilhah had two sons and Zilpah had two sons before Rachel had her first—Genesis 35:23-26). The dysfunction in his background was just the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t reality TV, but it sure could be the inaugural episode of Sister Wives!

Genesis 37:1-4 and 12-14 begin the story, highlighting Joseph’s position in the family as the baby. Verse 4 is our narrative hook (lit-speak) introducing a pretty powerful conflict: 

When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Genesis 37:4 NIV

 Joseph may be one of the youngest, but he is the favorite. And that doesn’t sit well with these grown men who have been trying to gain the favor of their father pretty much their entire lives. And we’re not talking about a couple of years between these brothers. Rueben, who was born firs, was at least a decade older, maybe even two. The dysfunction in the family is palpable in this interaction and sadly, Joseph isn’t mature enough to handle it in a way that would bring peace rather than more conflict, which we see in Genesis 37: 5-11.

Joseph’s Pride

Okay, so you have a dream that’s kind of interesting and you want to share it with your besties; that I get. What I don’t get is why Joseph thought this dream would be a good idea to share with people who already kind of hate him. Twice. And not with any kind of humility either:

Listen to this dream I had…

Listen, he said, I had another dream…

Genesis 37:6b; 9b

Note the command in Joseph’s voice as he approaches his brothers. He’s just a kid, but he’s been treated as though he is special his entire life. Probably pampered and a little spoiled. It seems as though he expects his brothers to, what? Congratulate him?  

I don’t know about you, but in my experience, there is nothing like the kind of jealousy that comes with sibling rivalry. It burrows into your heart and then spreads like a cancer destroying the good from the inside out. Joseph either didn’t see the jealousy and hate of his brothers, or he didn’t want to see it. I guess we could call it naivete, but I’ve worked with teenagers long enough to know that a good looking seventeen-year-old (Genesis 37:2) knows what buttons to push and is just arrogant enough to believe himself invulnerable to harm.

One of the most humbling verses in the Bible comes in Daniel 4:37b which says: 

Everything He does is right and He does it the right way. He knows how to turn a proud person into a humble man or woman (Msg).

These verses in context are spoken by King Nebuchadnezzar after his seven times of crazy wandering the desert–a direct result of his overwhelming pride. He speaks these words about God, recognizing the importance of humility in the face of th Almighty.

God had big plans for Joseph, but Joseph wasn’t ready to walk into his destiny at 17. He was proud and arrogant, perhaps as a result of his father’s favoritism. There is a big difference between confidence and cockiness. God wanted Joseph to be confident of his position, but Joseph needed a little humbling before that purpose could be fulfilled.

Humbling Joseph

God uses everything in our lives to a good and fulfilling purpose. Sometimes that is hard to understand or even accept, especially when the things happening to us are terrible and unfair. Genesis 37:18-36 outlines the process by which Joseph was humbled and it came in the form of years of enslavement, punishment, and a sense of abandonment. Whether or not you agree with the brothers’ anger, I think we can all agree that they over-react! Note that there are several different plots going down here, so I’m thinking this might not be pre-meditated, but I do think they’ve been chatting about this, maybe joking, for a while until it’s not such a joke anymore.

Regardless of what the brothers hoped to get out of their evil plan, they didn’t earn their father’s favor. As with most sin, instead of gaining what they’d hoped for, they lost pretty much everything. Because that’s what sin is: a lie. We tell ourselves it’ll be worth it, but in the end all we get is heartache and usually a whole lot of guilt and shame. 

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Fortunately, there is always hope even in the midst of our mistakes. Over and over again in scripture, we see this story of redemption playing out in God’s people. Proof of Romans 8: 28:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 NIV

Sure, the brothers made a mistake, even Judah and Rueben who attempted to save Joseph went along with the plan instead of standing up to their brothers.  And let’s face it, a half sin is still sin, and they dealt with the consequences along with the others. Fortunately, as is true with us, God took this terrible sin and worked it for His purpose and ultimately the good of Joseph himself.

Because that’s what sin is: a lie. We tell ourselves it’ll be worth it, but in the end, all we get is heartache and usually a whole lot of guilt and shame.

Work in Progress

Genesis 39 picks up with Joseph’s new life. Having been sold into slavery, he thought the worst was behind him. He settled into Potiphar’s household as a humble servant…or did he? He was definitely a slave, but Joseph seventeen…maybe eighteen by now and a total babe (Genesis 39:6b). Charismatic, young, and smoking hot–not at all a dangerous combo (*sarcasm*). No wonder he needed a little humbling. While I admire beautiful people in this world, I’m not entirely sad that I am not a part of this club. Beauty comes with it’s own set of issues, and Joseph found this out the hard way. Quickly rising to a position of power and trust in the household, Joseph let’s down his guard and God uses the opportunity to finish the humbling process. 

A quick run down of the story: Joseph is Potiphar’s trusted servant, and puts him in charge of the household. Potiphar’s wife sees this yummy new slave in her home and gets the hots for him. She makes her move, and he rejects her. BUT, here’s why I believe Joseph was still fighting the sin of pride even as a slave in Potiphar’s household:

  1. Genesis 39:10 says she came to him day after day. Yes, he rejects her, but I think he might like the attention. Why? Because she keeps coming back day after day. Ladies, track with me here, I don’t know about you but when I am truly rejected by a man I don’t typically continue to pursue it. Now I’m not the kind of woman who would cheat on my spouse, but rejection stings no matter what. I don’t know that she would be quite as persistent if he had really rejected her firmly. 
  2. Joseph knows she has the hots for him, and when he enters the house and there are no other servants present, alarm bells do not go off in his head (Genesis 39:11). He’s not stupid. He knows what’s up, and he should have gotten the heck of dodge before he even came into contact with her, and yet he gets close enough to her that she can grab his cloak…AND she rips it off of him…a woman is able to take off the cloak of a built eighteen-year-old?  Something fishy is going on here.
  3. He never tells Potiphar about the advances. I know it’s not easy to take these kinds of situations to the person in authority, but it might have solved a lot of problems if Joseph had manned up and told Potiphar of his concerns from the get go. Communication is not at the top of a proud person’s to-do list. Do you know why? They think they can handle it all themselves. And usually, they can’t. 

Photo by Alberto Bobbera on Unsplash

Now I’m not trying to disparage Joseph’s reputation here, but I would like for us to recognize that he is human, and he’s still a kid. God has a purpose for all of us, and sometimes that requires that he breaks something in us before he can build us into what he wants us to be. Through it all, though, he is with us, just as he was with Joseph (notice the bookends of chapter 39: verse 2 and verse 21).

In Genesis 40, Joseph is in prison, but he has risen to a position of power (again) within the hierarchy of the prison because the Lord was with him and gave him success. When two men are cast into the prison by pharaoh, it comes to light that Joseph has been given the ability to interpret dreams.

The chapter recounts the significance of the interpretations, mostly that the cupbearer will be restored in three days and the baker will be killed in three days by the pharaoh. But I note a significant difference in the dreams from the beginning and the dreams from this chapter and the difference is in Joseph’s heart:

Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams”

Genesis 40:8b

No longer commanding that others listen to him, Joseph gives all the glory to God and God alone. 

Unfortunately, when the dreams come to pass, 

The chief cupbeaer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him. 

Genesis 40:23

Those three words, aside from “Jesus wept” might be the most devastating in the Bible. Being forgotten is the WORST. Feeling forgotten is just as bad. It would be two years (Genesis 41:1) before he was remembered and that’s a long time in prison when you had a little hope that was snatched away from you at the last second. And let us remember–he was in prison. Even an elevated position in prison is still prison and an ancient prison would not have been a great place to be. 

Genesis 41: 46 gives us a clearer indication of how long this humbling process lasted–he was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he entered the pharaoh’s service. That’s 13 years. And his response to Pharaoh in Genesis 41:16 proves the process was a successful one.

“I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “But God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”

NIV

Although Joseph was in a season of waiting, he was under God’s protection and authority throughout those many years. The story ends in Genesis 41:39-40 with the fulfillment of Joseph’s original dreams. As the man in charge of 7 years of abundance, he becomes a good steward of God’s blessings and as such during the 7 years of famine he ensures the kingdom will still prosper, which leads to his brothers bowing before him in Genesis
42:6. It was a long process before we get to Joseph’s declaration and forgiveness, but it is clear that Joseph believes God is at the center of everything: trials and blessings. A true story of suffering, redemption, and exaltation that points straight back to Jesus. 

Waiting…

Having been in a long season of waiting myself, I can relate to Joseph and his 13 years of waiting and wondering if anyone will ever remember him. Although his attitude left much to be desired, he did nothing wrong to be enslaved and imprisoned, and honestly, that’s how life works sometimes. Life is not fair. But God never promised that life would be fair. However, he did promise to work things out for our good and for His purpose. The reality is we think we know what is for the best, but He always knows what is best. Even if we can’t understand it.

Photo by Sam Mgrdichian on Unsplash

Authentic :: Cain and Abel

When I was about 12, I convinced myself that my parents loved my siblings more than they loved me. My sister, I decided, was most like my mom, so logically that meant she liked my sister better than me. My brother,
being the only boy and, in my mind, a make-up for the mistake of having a second girl instead of a boy, was obviously liked better by my dad. Which left me in the middle, stuck in this mind-space and convinced I was
unwanted, unloved, and a mistake.

Now let me be clear. My parents are WONDERFUL people and they NEVER  did anything to feed this belief; it was simply the enemy attacking my insecurities as quickly as I would let him in. And honestly, I let that belief go on for a lot longer than it should have and as a result, it poisoned my relationship with God. I came to believe that God, like I projected on my parents, played favorites. There was nothing particularly special about me, so clearly, I was not a favorite.

And then I started looking at the world around me. Why did some people receive healing and others die of cancer? Why did the Smiths have four children, all taken away to foster care out of an abusive home, while the Joneses were infertile? These questions plagued me, because, it seemed, some people, good people, experienced the pleasure and blessings of God and some people simply did not. And, to me, there was no logic in the how or why, so that must mean that God played favorites, just like I believed my parents did.


Right?

Um, no. No, no, no, no, no, no. No!

Just like the enemy played on my skewed perception of myself, he
LOVES to use this argument to poison our relationship with God. But it simply isn’t true. Cain and Abel, well they prove that.

Genesis 4:1-5 begins the chronicle of the very first set of siblings. We don’t get a lot of Cain and Abel’s background; almost none about their
childhood, but it does appear as though one brother is favored over the other. 

Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash

However, it’s been my experience that within the first few minutes of getting to know a person, you can usually decide how you feel about them. At least on some level. Whether that’s fair or not, I don’t know, but we make judgments about people based on their actions, words, and reactions all the time. It’s human nature. In the beginning, both brothers appear to be following the same natural direction of offering thanks to the God who gave them life, but a second glance reveals something distinct about the two: their motivations are vastly different.

Abel Gives with a Gracious Heart

Verse 3 is the crux: Abel brought the fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock (NIV). In other words, he brought the best of the best to lay before the throne of God. If we read Numbers 18:12 we are reminded that the Lord expects us to show our gratitude by giving back all the best of what we have been blessed with. Granted, the laws haven’t actually been set yet, but that’s not really the point. God sees our hearts and knows if our giving is out of gratitude for His love, grace, and mercy, or if it is out of obligation and a misguided notion that doing the right thing will earn us brownie points which we store up to prove our worth when we inevitably screw things up.

Photo by Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash

The fact is, we can’t buy our way into God’s grace–that’s the antithesis of grace and all it stands for. Abel epitomizes Psalm 147:10-11

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor His delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. 

Abel gains the Lord’s favor, not for being Abel but for having a heart that seeks to delight in the Lord (Hebrews 11:4; 1 John 3: 12). But just because the Lord delights in us, doesn’t mean we will always have an easy life. We know how this story ends, and it’s not with Abel being made King of the world. No, injustice seems to triumph as Cain brutally murders his brother and Abel’s blood calls out to the Lord from the ground (Genesis 4:10). As with much of this world, appearances can be deceiving. As it turns out this unfortunate situation is just the beginning of a greater redemption story. Abel’s sacrifice, of his flock and, as it turned out, his life wasn’t a mistake. God doesn’t make those. As hard as it is for us to understand, sometimes the righteous are persecuted and even murdered, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ‘go well for them’ (Genesis 4: 7). On this side of heaven, we don’t always see the whole picture, but Abel was ultimately rewarded. And, his life and death pointed us directly to Jesus, whose blood still cries out from the Earth to God who uses it to cleans all of us, unworthy sinners though we may be (Hebrews 12: 24).

Cain Gives out of Obligation

In Genesis 4:3 we see Cain’s sacrifice is less than worthy in the added adjective of some compared to Abel’s best. If we take a look at Deuteronomy 6:5 and 10:12-13 we see that we are commanded to love the Lord with ALL our heart, mind and strength, not SOME. The whole purpose of a sacrifice or offering is to present the best to the Lord, not your leftovers.  A closer look at the situation shows that God is not playing favorites, but drawing near to those who draw near to him. Not so shockingly, this relationship is meant to be reciprocal! So many times we are quick to discount God in our lives, saying that he’s failed us so there is no reason for us to pursue a relationship with him. But that is total crap, if you’ll excuse the crass language. Relationships aren’t built on what you get out of them, but what you put in. Biblical revelation is predicated on the breakdown of this human/God relationship and God’s constant pull to redeem us–so much so that he sent his son, who even though he gave everything we still reject on a regular basis.  

The whole purpose of a sacrifice or offering is to present the best to the Lord, not your leftovers.

Some Cheese to go with the Whine? 

After his offering is rejected, Cain sulks (Genesis 4:6-7)…like a baby. Despite this attitude, God personally speaks to Cain. He doesn’t ignore his whining as my parents would have done (with good reason—let’s just say I was a world class sulker back in the day. And if I’m truly honest, I’ll admit that I can still throw a world-class pity party on occasion). No, God doesn’t ignore him, he encourages Cain. Even though he already knows what is in Cain’s heart and the path he will choose, God still cares enough about his child to point him down the right path. Which he repeats over and over in scripture: 

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it. 

Genesis 4:7

The same command is repeated in Deuteronomy 4:40; 5:16,33; 6:3,18; Jeremiah 7:23; 38:20; 42:6; Ephesians 6:2-3. God makes Cain a promise: do what is right and it will go well for you. I love how simple this command is, and also how true. Now that doesn’t mean that all good people will be wealthy and healthy–that’s the world’s view of ‘go well’. God’s version is much more eccentric, but also more fulfilling. Cain is whining and angry because he’s embarrassed that his little brother ‘won’ the favor of God–which is ultimately the best prize there is. In the end, Cain murdered Abel out of jealousy and vengeance. His heart was hard and cold, but God’s definition of “go well with you” different from the world’s. Yes, bad things happen to good people, but this life is just a blip on the eternity radar and the best things will happen to those who love God with their whole being–even if we don’t experience it until we are in his presence. 

A Redemption Story

The story comes to a close in Genesis 4:13-17 where redemption and grace are always offered by God. Even to Cain, and, it appears he accepted (I hope). Although it’s hard to say given Lamech’s (Cain’s great-great-great-
grandson) declaration in verses 22-24 whether or not Cain changed, he at least taught his sons what it is to sin and be punished for it.

Balancing grace with holiness is tricky business. He commands our obedience as a byproduct of our relationship (John 14:15), but we can’t obey our way out of our sinful natures. One hard truth I’ve come to terms with is that I identify a lot more with Cain than with Abel. I get angry and embarrassed when I fall short of God’s expectations, but instead of heeding the advice of my father to do what is right, I sometimes rebel and do what I think is right–and that is not the same thing. And so I have to find some practical things to master the sin that is constantly crouching at my door. One thing I’ve learned works for me is having someone to hold me accountable. There is nothing quite like having a sister in Christ who knows you well point out that you are believing a lie. Yeah, it hurts, but it also makes me strive to do better. After I get over wanting to kick them in the teeth for pointing it out in the first place (kidding…mostly). 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash2

Worshiping God the Right Way

Believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to worship the Lord. No, I don’t mean there are certain kinds of instruments or songs that the Lord appreciates the most. Worshiping well has to do with your motivation. Seriously, check out Jeremiah 7—In this chapter, the people are going to the temple and doing everything right, but their hearts are all wrong! It’s not having the perfect worship set or the best pre-roll and pictures, or even having an order of service that is never flawed. Worship is about having your heart set in the right place every. single. time. Knowing that all you have belongs to Him and He expects you to love him with ALL your heart, soul, and mind.  All the time. 

Worshiping and loving God means obeying his commands. Do what is right, and it will go well with you. We see this from Genesis to Revelation. We don’t obey God because we have to (grace, remember?), we obey because it is a reflection of our deep love for Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12-18). We deserve nothing but are given everything–favored by God when we seek His heart with our whole hearts.