Fear and Trembling
Not surprisingly Jacob was stunned when he got the news that Joseph was alive and was ruler of Egypt. At first he did not believe it: “his heart became numb” (Gen. 45:26). We can imagine that the man was at risk of a heart attack. Judah had warned that the loss of Benjamin would kill the old man; the knowledge that Joseph was alive nearly did. It was a heart-stopping shock.
However, when the brothers reported what Joseph had said, and when Jacob saw the tangible evidence of wealth in the wagons standing in his courtyard, he rapidly came back to life and decided to go and see his long-lost son before he died. He would once more be a father to and for his son.
As chapter 46 opens, God confirms to Jacob that he is trustworthy. God will be faithful to his promises. On his way to Egypt, Jacob stopped at Beersheba to worship God. Beersheba is at the southernmost edge of the Promised Land. In the film The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a point where Samwise Gamgee stops and tells Frodo, “This is it. If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” Passing that particular spot marked for Sam a decisive break with the past and a leap into an unknown future. Likewise, Jacob was about to break with his past. Famine to fortune sounded fabulous, except it involved the family going in what appeared to be the wrong direction – out of the Promised Land to live in Egypt. God had told Jacob, when he gave him his new name Israel, “The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you” (Gen. 35:12).
Here, after decades of silence, God graciously confirmed to Jacob that his plan was still on schedule. Indeed in Genesis 15:13-14, God had told Abraham that his offspring would sojourn in a distant land and be afflicted for four hundred years, after which he would bring them out with great possessions. The reiteration of that promise to Jacob was not only an encouragement to him, but also to the first readers of this story. The nation of Israel, after the exodus and before the conquest, needed to hear this reminder of God’s faithfulness. If Jacob felt that he was going the wrong way, they often must have felt that they were going nowhere, as they wandered in the wilderness.
That may sound familiar to us. We too may feel that we are going in the wrong way or nowhere at all. Sometimes, like Jacob, we find ourselves facing a fork in the road, and it looks like we have to choose either the way of obedience or the way of blessing and happiness. Why is our journey to receive what God has promised so circuitous? What does God have against taking the easy route?
In such times, we need to keep two things clearly in mind. We have seen God’s plan to alleviate tangible, physical threats to his people, like the famine, but he also has other goals in mind. Some of those aims concerning the future of Israel will come into view in the chapter 47. Yet looking back through Genesis, we can see how every advance of God’s overall plan for his people also weaves together important changes in their individual lives.
Remember what happened to Abraham almost immediately after he first received God’s promise. In response to a famine, he went down to Egypt and acted in a manner completely antithetical to that promise (Gen. 12:10-20). Later, during another famine, God told Isaac outright: “Do not go down to Egypt: dwell in the land of which I shall tell you”(Gen. 26:2). So Isaac traveled to the Philistine city of Gerar – where, however, he copied his father’s ill-advised plan. For Abraham and Isaac, these experiences revealed that their fear of men and their love of safety were stronger than their trust in God and their love for their wives and their hosts.
Jacob, on the other hand, kept trying to force God’s hand to acquire the promised blessings through his own efforts. But God changed him, so that he was actually willing to leave the Promised Land and trust that God would eventually bring his family back. Whether one is coming or going, Egypt generally reveals more about the spiritual condition and personal idolatries of each individual or generation than anything else. Likewise, depending on the person concerned, God can use the very same circumstance to teach two people completely different things. He can also challenge the same idolatry in two different hearts in widely different situations.
When we face our toughest dilemmas, the urgent question on our lips is usually, ‘What does God want me to do?’ Instead, we should probably ask, ‘What is God revealing to me about my heart?’ ‘How is he using this issue to uncover the distance between my values and his?’
This coming Lord’s Day we will look at Jacob’s ‘fear and trembling’ in Genesis 46:1-7 to see what ‘heart work’ the Lord was doing in his life. But more importantly, we will raise the question, ‘What kind of ‘heart work’ does the Lord desire to do in my life?’ I hope you can join us as we seek to honor the Lord with our lives.
For His Glory,