* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Relying on Signs from God and the Abdication of Personal Responsibility

Much of the book of Genesis is about cultural history: where places are located and the origins of their names, the lines of successions of various places’ rulers, and the lineage of the forefathers of the Jewish people. Then there are stories about those forefathers, some of which seem like they could have been written by a sensationalist modern-day screen writer. Although some people see only encouraging spiritual lessons in these stories, the tales contain some rather disturbing content as well. Taking things in bite-sized chronological chunks doesn’t necessarily give a complete picture of what’s going on with these people, so the next few segments will dwell on a span of chapters from Genesis 24–36.

After Sarah dies, Abraham takes on another wife, Keturah (presumably a local Canaanite girl), and she is young enough to bear him six more children. The descendants of these children became the Letushites, Leummites, and the Midianites. Although the Letushites and the Leummites are not mentioned again, the Midanites thrive as nomadic, polytheistic shepherds until Moses raises up an army to destroy them. The atrocities of that hostility are not enough to put the Midianites down, though, because they return later on to be a thorn in Israel’s side during Gideon’s time.

Abraham apparently did not have the same kind of close or instructive relationship with the sons of Keturah as he did with his son Isaac. Still, before he died, Abraham gave considerable gifts to the children of his concubines (plural) and sent them away, leaving Isaac with whatever was left. But Abraham didn’t think a Canaanite girl would be good enough for his son, so he sent his right-hand man back to the land of Abraham’s people to get a wife for Isaac. The servant set out for Nahor, the town founded by Abraham’s brother, where he met Rebekah, the grand-daughter of Nahor (which means she’s Abraham’s grand-neice, and Isaac’s first cousin, once removed).

When the servant sees Rebekah, he knows that this is the woman for Isaac. He claims that this is because he prayed to God and defined the precise signs by which he wanted God to guide him. The precise signs were the first girl who offered him water to drink and water for his camels, and to make it easy on God, the servant stood next to a spring. This level of hospitality was not uncommon for the region and the time, so the servant was basically making it easy on himself. When he saw Rebekah, he also rushed to intercept her, doing his part to help things along.

Rebekah’s brother, Laban (who will show his true colors when Isaac’s son Jacob comes a-courting), and her mother, Bethuel, approve of the marriage and send Rebekah off to join Isaac in Canaan. The story suggests that they approve because of the servant’s tale about praying to God and then seeing Rebekah, and her display of hospitality in offering water to him and his camels. While it is impossible to know what goes on in the mind of every modern-day believer, it seems suspect to dictate exactly how a god should reveal the right decision. If I want to go out looking for a wife, I could say, “God, send me a sign by having the woman you want me to marry smile back when I smile at her.” I could then go out and smile at any attractive woman I encounter, and voila! God has spoken.

On the other hand, if I am enjoying bachelor life, I could say, “God, send me a sign by having the woman you want me to marry ride up on a grizzly bear, juggling artichokes and singing Mack the Knife.” I could then sit in my house all day and determine that God doesn’t want me to marry anyone. I might make such demands based on my level of interest in the result, or as a way of acting out a self-destructive drama. Either way, the decisions I make determine the likelihood that I will get what I want out of the situation. Attributing things to God serves the twofold purpose of getting human beings off the hook and making the decision indisputable.

The response to a prayer of Isaac shows a different side of the perceived external divine, however. Rebekah was childless, so Isaac prayed to God that she would have children. His prayer was answered. Rebekah got pregnant, but she had a feeling that something was wrong. God told her that the twins she was carrying would establish nations which would be at odds with each other, and that the older would serve the younger. Some kind of cosmic practical joke? “I will answer your prayer for children by cursing you with children who have problems getting along with each other.”

Well, these kinds of prophecies are easy to make after the fact. There are many women in the world who get pregnant without praying for it, and there are many women in the world who don’t get pregnant despite fervent prayer. Just as prayer doesn’t make the right bride appear, prayer doesn’t make conception occur. If it did, that would be like magic. And while it’s convenient to blame a divine prophecy for the behavior of siblings, the story reveals plenty of reasons why Rebekah’s twins, Jacob and Esau, would have a difficult time getting along with each other, not the least of which was parental favoritism which led to bullying and deception. We surely can’t lay all of that on the shoulders of an external divine being.

It’s convenient to place control of all that is good or bad in the hands of an external, all-powerful being. When we like something that has happened to us, the external divine can serve as an object for our gratitude. When we don’t like what has happened to us, we can blame an external divine instead of our own choices, and if we are fearful enough of that external divine being, we will accept the consequences without too much complaining. After all, “everything is just as God wants it to be.”

The problem, of course (as has been stated before), is that people make decisions and choices that impact their lives and the lives of people around them. Sometimes, it would be easier just to be honest with ourselves about what we want. After a long journey, if you are willing to ask the first attractive girl you see to marry your master’s son, just be honest about it. Gut reactions and personal desires are going to determine those things anyway. Just be honest with yourself. If you want to go out and get a job, make the decision to go out and do everything within your power to get it. If you just think that you should be working, out of a sense of obligation, be honest that your heart isn’t really in the search. Figure out what is standing in your way, and be honest about what you want. The results of being blatantly honest with oneself can be profound and life-altering. Attributing every outcome to something outside of oneself is a form of victimhood, and it can lead to seeing oneself as weak and incapable. Most people are strong enough and capable enough to be honest and take responsibility for their own actions.

Accepting a realistic level of personal responsibility for our circumstances is healthy, as is recognizing what aspects of our lives are simply out of our control. Just because something is out of our spectrum of control, however, doesn’t mean that it is meant to be or willed by an omniscient being. Sometimes, things just are. There’s no divine purpose behind a bad relationship, or a toxic work environment, or problems with the construction of a house, or the death of a family member in a car wreck. One can potentially reap spiritual benefits from any circumstance, but that again comes down to personal choice.

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