The Suffering of the Saints
The Suffering of the Saints
Genesis 35:8, 16-29
As I engage in pastoral counselling, one of the most common sources of frustration and discouragement I see is an unrealistic expectation of what the Christian life is supposed to be like. There’s a common assumption that even though we still live in a sin-filled world, that Jesus “fixes everything” for his people. We think that we’re supposed to be made holy in an instant—or least in relatively short order and if we follow the right programme. And then we find ourselves discouraged as we continue to struggle with sin years, decades, or even a lifetime later. Somehow we think that faith solves all of our earthly problems. Jesus heals all of our sicknesses, he restores our broken relationships, and he prospers our bank accounts, we think—and if he hasn’t, then it’s simply an indicator of our own weak faith. And again, we get discouraged—we even question our faith, because we aren’t receiving these “blessings” people have told us are part of the Christian life.
And yet if we study the Scriptures, we see a very different portrayal of the life of faith than the one that comes from popular “Christian” literature and televangelists. The Bible gives us a much more realistic picture of what it looks like to be a “saint”. Holiness isn’t instant. Noah was the one righteous man left in his day, he trusted God and threw everything he had into building an enormous ark, and yet at the end of his life we read about his drunkenness. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all follow after God, we’ve seen, but each of them also fell into grave sin. David, whom we’re told was a man after God’s own heart, was guilty of adultery and murder. Peter, one of Jesus best friends and the leader of the apostles, betrayed and denied his Lord three times on the eve of his crucifixion. The Bible makes it clear that sanctification—that our being made holy—is a journey. Faith has its ups and downs. God gives us grace, he pours his Spirit into us, and we ought to live in that grace and let his Spirit transform us, but we shouldn’t be surprised when a brother or a sister—or we, ourselves—occasionally stumbles or even backslides for a time. Perfect holiness is a reality that we’ll only experience on the other side of eternity.
The Bible also gives us a realistic perspective on the problems of this world. Faith doesn’t make the world go away; it changes how we respond to it. Jesus promised that if we really and truly do follow him, the world will hate and persecute us. Christians still have to deal with the ordinary problems of everyday life. Waterheaters burst on Christian just as they do on unbelievers; companies go belly-up and Christians lose their jobs just as anyone else does; stock markets crash and wipe out the savings of the Christian along with everyone else’s. Sickness and death are just as real for Christians as they are for the rest of the human population. All of us have sinned and the wages of sin is death; sin removes us from God’s presence. The early chapters of Genesis describe it in terms of humanity’s banishment from Eden and, more importantly, from the tree of life, the fruit of which was our source of eternal vitality. While God occasionally intervenes in the circumstances of life, he never does so arbitrarily or without purpose. Faith is not about controlling or directing God. Ultimately, faith is not so much about moving mountains as it is about how we respond to the mountains when they fall on us—how we respond to earthly hardships in light of the promise of eternity. True faith trusts God even in the midst of hardship and gives him glory even when things are at their worst. Faith declares with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).
As we look at the second half of Genesis 35 this morning we come to the end of Jacob’s story. On the surface it may look like a bunch of odds and ends that the editor of Genesis threw together to wrap up Jacob’s life so that they could get on with the story of his sons. Some of the material here is meant to set the scene for the story of Jacob’s descendants, but it also serves a reminder to us not to be discouraged or to doubt when we face the difficult situations of life. It sets a realistic contrast with the first half of the chapter.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a contrast like this. In Chapters 33 and 34 we saw Jacob really and truly living out the new faith God had given him and almost immediately compromise his family and his witness by settling with the Canaanites at Shechem. The contrast reminds us that Jacob’s faith has ups and downs; it has periods of obedience and disobedience; sometimes it’s strong and sometimes it’s weak—just like ours. Last week, in the first half of Chapter 35, we saw Jacob walking in faith again. He stopped compromising with the world and he followed God’s call to Bethel. He was afraid of the Canaanites, but as Jacob obeyed, God took care of him and put a supernatural fear of him into the Canaanites. But now the story of God’s care for Jacob as he walked in a strong and obedient faith is followed by several accounts of tragedy.
The first of these actually takes place in verse 8, in the middle of last week’s lesson.
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.
At some point, probably while Jacob and his family were living at Shechem, his mother’s nurse came to live with the family. Rebekah may have sent her to look after Jacob’s children and grandchildren or she may have been sent to him after Rebekah’s death. The text doesn’t give specifics, but during these intervening years, she’s become part of Jacob’s household. And we know that her death struck Jacob hard. He named the place Allon-bacuth, which means “oak of weeping”. He and his family wept over Deborah. And here is the account of that sad incident, sandwiched right between Jacob’s faithful obedience in building the altar he had promised to build thirty years before, and God’s appearance to Jacob to affirm his covenant promises. It comes as a reminder to us that the earthly consequences of our sins continue to be a reality this side of eternity. We live with the promise of eternal life; as Christians, when we gather at the Lord’s Table each week, we partake of the down payment of our future restoration to the tree of life, but between here and there, each of us has to grow old or grow sick and die. Our final resurrection cannot take place until we’ve set aside this old body of sin.
There’s also a warning here. It’s unusual that the narrator would tell us about the death of a servant. He tells us in this case because she was Rebekah’s servant and the report of her death underscores the fact that the narrator tells us nothing of Rebekah’s—reporting the death of Deborah is his way of telling us that he’s not reporting the death of Rebekah. Rebekah lied to and deceived her husband, Isaac, and for that she disappears from the pages of redemptive history.
The second tragedy is reported in verses 16-25. From Bethel, Jacob travelled south to meet up with Isaac, his father.
Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
Rachel had been praying for another son ever since the birth of Joseph. Now we find out that she’s finally pregnant again, but as the family journeys south, she goes into labour. But Rachel’s labour isn’t an easy one and she dies shortly after the boy is born. As was common in that culture and as we’ve seen with Jacob’s other sons, the baby was given a name connected with the circumstances of his birth. Rachel names him Ben-oni, which means “son of my sorrow” or “son of my trouble”. After Rachel dies, Jacob renames the boy Benjamin, reversing the name. Benjamin means “son of the right hand”. The right hand was a place of favour and good luck. For Rachel, Benjamin was the son of her misfortune; for Jacob, he’s the son of his good fortune—a second son born of his favourite wife and a reminder of everything that Rachel had been to him. Jacob responded to a difficult situation with faith. He chose to see God’s provision and blessing in the situation rather than becoming angry with God for taking away his wife. Grief becomes an opportunity to walk all the more closely with God.
The third tragedy follows in verse 22:
While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.
This wasn’t so much an act of lust as it was Reuben playing family politics. Rachel had been Jacob’s favourite wife. Now that she’s dead, Reuben manoeuvres to make sure that Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, will never take her place. This isn’t the first time Reuben has gone to bat for his mother, Leah. Back in Chapter 30 we saw him as a boy, bringing his mother mandrakes in the hopes that she could use them to conceive and get the upper hand over Rachel. From what we know of ancient Near Eastern culture, Reuben’s act of incest was also an attempt to seize Jacob’s leadership. Reuben was basically laying claim to his father’s concubine and with her, his inheritance and Jacob’s authority.
Reuben was the firstborn and had everything going for him, but instead of waiting on God’s timing and letting God fulfil his own promises, Reuben tries to get his own blessing for himself and in the end he loses his status. Consider that we’ve now seen Reuben, Simeon, and Levi lose their place in the family because of their sins. These were Jacob’s three oldest sons. But consider, too, that their fall from grace now leaves Judah as Jacob’s inheritor. Even in the midst of sorrow and sin, God is at work to bring his plans to fulfilment. In Rachel’s death, Benjamin was born and from him would come Israel’s first king. And with his brothers out of the way, Judah, the father of David and ultimately of Jesus, is in position to lead God’s people.
We can only imagine the shame and heartache that this would have brought on Jacob, especially on the heels of the grief he suffered over the loss of Rachel. But it’s telling that the narrator tells us that “Israel heard of it”. Israel heard it, not Jacob. He heard the news in the quiet strength of the new name—the new life—that God had given him. And there’s a lesson for us in this: this is the only real way to deal with sorrow and with pain and with shame—to meet it all in the strength of the Lord. Whatever the problem might be, we can meet it in faith, knowing and trusting that God is at work. He was the one who said, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Genesis then wraps up the account of God’s work through Jacob. It does this in two ways. Starting in the second half of verses 22 we have a list of Jacob’s sons—now that all twelve of them are on the scene:
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.
The storyteller arranges Jacob’s sons based on their mothers, starting with Leah and Rachel and then listing the sons of their servants. In doing this, he highlights the tension between the brothers and sets the stage for what follows. Jacob’s story ends by reminding us what a mess his family is. Jacob has doted on Rachel’s sons while ignoring Leah’s. When Leah’s daughter, Dinah, was raped, Simeon and Levi, her full brothers, had to take action themselves, because Jacob apparently wasn’t going to do anything about it. And if that’s how he treats Leah’s children, there’s no telling what his relationships with Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s children were like. This is the setup for the conflict we’ll see in the following chapters.
Finally, Jacob’s story closes with a note about the death of Isaac. Look at verses 27-29:
And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
As we’ll discover later, Isaac died after Joseph had been in Egypt for thirteen years, but the narrator inserts the account of his death here so that he can close the book on the account of the “generations of Isaac”. From this point on in the story, Jacob is the patriarch and head of the family. But, again, we see grief in the midst of the life of faith. And yet, Isaac’s death as Jacob “finally” returns home to his father reminds us once again that God is at work. Jacob’s story has come full-circle. God had promised to see him through his exile and safely home and God has done just that. Everything he promised has been fulfilled. In fact, God has done more than he promised. Despite Jacob’s dishonesty and his scheming, God has blessed him and through that blessing, Jacob has become Israel and a true son of the covenant. No longer is he only nominally circumcised in the flesh; through trials, exile, and grief and through promises fulfilled, God has circumcised Jacob’s heart established a real and living faith in him. Jacob’s life wasn’t an easy one, but God was walking with him through all of it. Not only was God working to bring Jacob to faith, he was also working to make Jacob a witness of his covenant faithfulness. Through Jacob, God was making himself known to the world in preparation for the day when, also through Jacob, he would send his Messiah.
Brothers and sisters, that’s the primary lesson we should see here. God plan is to grow our faith and to make us witness to the world of his grace. Sometimes faith is strengthened and witness made strong through blessings. Sometimes the world is awakened to faith through the witness of a miracle as we see here and there throughout the Scriptures. But the consistent witness of those same Scriptures is that faith is more often strengthened and our faith most powerfully witnessed as face the difficulties in life by resting in the grace of God—as the Ben-onis, the sons of sorrow and misfortune, through the lens of grace, are turned for us into Benjamins, into sons of good fortune.
Dear friends, every trial in life can be a catalyst for our growth in faith and godliness. Every trial is an opportunity for God to act and every act of God in our lives gives us yet another opportunity to recall his promises and his faithfulness to them. Abraham’s servant could go back to Paddan-aram and excitedly report all of God’s manifold blessings on his master. Through that he became a witness to the grace of God. Jacob, on the other hand, was a witness to God’s grace as he spoke of his having been taken to rock-bottom, where God met him in a wrestling match, crippled him, and then built back up into the father of a nation of faith.
I can’t help thinking about last week’s Gospel in which we read how Jesus fed the four thousand who had followed him into the wilderness to hear him preach. For them, to follow Jesus meant a long trek, sitting through the heat of the day, and having nothing to eat. Those people weren’t sitting in comfortable pews with coffee, tea, and snacks in the parish hall. They sacrificed their comfort to follow their Lord. But Jesus did provide. Jesus not only imparted new life to their souls as he preached his Good News to them; he also worked a miracle to meet their physical need for food. And yet Jesus, in performing that miracle, didn’t feed the crowd on steak and ice cream. He multiplied simple bread and a few dried fish. It wasn’t fancy, but it met the need and it did so in abundance. Jesus provided and even after the crowd had eaten, there was more food leftover than they’d had to start with. And that’s often how it is with us. Jesus provides for us in abundance. But friends, if we’re focused on or expecting something flashy or worldly or materialistic in God’s blessing and provision, we’re likely to miss it. If God were to manifest himself to the world at every opportunity with health and riches, he’d simply confirm the world in its worldliness—in it’s love of youth and beauty, gold and silver. This is why he so often meets us in our physical need, in our hunger and in our sickness, and in our griefs. The most powerful witness of our faith comes in the midst of adversity. Our most profound witness to the grace of God comes when, in our persecution, our poverty, and even in the face of death, we can look with gratitude to the Cross of Christ where our sins were forgiven, declare our hope in Jesus’ promise of resurrection and eternal life, and say with holy satisfaction that God is enough.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we prayed in today’s Collect, asking you to take away all hurtful things and to give us those things that are profitable. Give us faith we ask, to trust your wisdom in that taking and that giving. Give us the grace to trust you in faith in those times when you take away what seems good from our worldly perspective in order to build in us those things that are good from a heavenly and eternal perspective. And in all these things, make us witness of your grace. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.