theology

Loki, The Prodigal Son, and Me

Note One: This is a remix of my original series of posts on the subject, which you can read here: I am Loki.

Note Two: This is the story of how the movie Thor helped me understand the prodigal son story. But I want to say upfront: if your parents are abusive (physically, emotionally, verbally, etc.), you are in no way obligated to ever go home to them. Even if they accuse you of being a “prodigal.” Even if they say you are “bitter.” Take care of yourself. This is just the story of how Thor helped me come to terms with the prodigal son story and your mileage may vary.

*  *  *

There is a story as ancient as time.

Two brothers.

They both seek to be blessed and loved.

One brother is favored. The other brother is not.

The ending isn’t always the same. Sometimes a brother is killed (Cain). Sometimes he must flee (Jacob). Sometimes he is sold into slavery (Joseph). Sometimes he demands his inheritance and leaves of his own free will (Luke 15).

It is a story we still tell. Even to the point that is serves as the emotional backbone of an entire superhero franchise.

For a story to be repeated so many times, it must be important. It must bear truth.

For a story to be spoken by Jesus, it must be truth.

For a story to be put in a Marvel movie, it must have a hero and a villain. And the clear hero of the Thor franchise is Thor, while the villain is his brother Loki.

*  *  *

There is a son who demands his inheritance. He doesn’t want to stay home and work under his father’s rule. He wants to strike out on his own, be his own man.

His father allows him.

But things do not go the way the son expected, and soon he seeks to come back to his father’s house.

His father runs out to greet him, kisses him, and throws him a party.

There is another son.

This son stayed home. This son believed that staying home and serving his father was for the best—possibly for his own gain and possibly because he honestly wanted to do what was right and serve his family. This son never strayed. He never wandered. He never caused his father to worry.

And he watched as his father stared out the window, almost every day, hoping that a wayward child might come home.

So maybe he worked harder. Trying to please his father, to erase the sadness from his face. If he just worked harder, if he was just a better son, if he just did more, maybe his father could forget all about the son who abandoned him.

And one day the son is working out in the fields, doing his duty to his family. He looks up and sees in the distance that there seems to be a commotion at the house.

He sees a servant and asks what is going on.

“Your brother has returned!” the servant responds joyfully. “We’re throwing a party!”

Returned? A party? But no one told him. Were they going to let him work in the field through the entire party? Was he going to be out here doing his duty to his family for no reward while his brother who abandoned them was getting a party?

So he sulks in the field—doing his work, his duty, because it seems that’s all he was ever good for anyway.

The father comes out eventually, perhaps suddenly remembering he has two sons. But he does personally come out—finally—and personally invite him into the party.

But the son is hurt. And his hurt manifests in anger.

He says angry words, which his father hears, but his father does not hear the words on his heart. For even though he is a grown man, his heart is crying a child’s lament: “I just want you to love me.”

And for that he is the villain of this tale. For that he is immortalized by churches as the brother whose heart was too encased in bitterness that he wouldn’t join the party.

Was his heart hard? Yes, his heart was glass. It had withstood all the scratches of the past several years. It was scratched when his brother left, saying “I don’t care about this family.” It was scratched when his father would stare out the window lost in sadness instead of paying attention to the son he had at home. It was scratched every time the son started a conversation with his father about his own hopes and dreams, only to have the conversation turn back to the lost brother.

But his heart was glass, so it could withstand that. Because hard materials can be scratched without compromising their integrity.

But his heart was glass, so when he wasn’t invited to the party—when his own father briefly forgot about his existence—his heart shattered. Because hard doesn’t mean tough. And glass is brittle.

Because despite all his hard work, it seems in the end, no one really cares about him.

*  *  *

The prodigal son story always bothered me. From my teens years, through college, and graduate school, even after college, this story filled my heart with anger.

I had heard too many preachers expound on this subject. I had heard to many “prodigals” speak of how comforting it is that the father saw the “prodigal” from the window, meaning the father must always have been there at the window waiting for him.

If the father was waiting at the window, didn’t that mean his other son was being ignored? Why didn’t the father even consider sending a servant out to get the other son? He had to find out from a passing servant for goodness sake. Doesn’t that show the father in fact doesn’t care about him?

“But everything you already have is mine,” says the parent. Because yes, father, what I care about is your financial wealth, and not your attention, time, or love. Obviously.

*  *  *

There is a king, called Odin, who has two sons, close in age. He raises them in competition, telling them they are both meant to be kings.

But there can only be one king of Asgard.

The oldest son takes after his father. He is all brawn and athleticism, quick to make merry and quick to anger. He is brash and bold. A golden child. He is called Thor.

The younger son takes after his mother. He is quiet and reserved, slow to speak and slow to anger. But his mind is frighteningly fast and others can not keep up with its twists and turns. He is called Loki.

The two are inseparable. They are best friends and bitter enemies.

Only one child can receive the father's ultimate blessing and birthright. Only one child can be king.

In the end, it seems that it is Thor who will become king, but on the day of his coronation something goes wrong. Frost giants--the Jotun, who are the mortal enemies of Asgard--attack.

The father, who is still king despite the started coronation, thinks no action should be taken. Thor thinks Asgard should bring its full might to bear on Jotunheim.

Thor says, "As king of Asgard...!"

"But you're not king. Not yet," his father reminds him.

It will be Thor's inheritance to be king, but it is not yet his inheritance to have.

Once his father leaves, Thor devises a plan to go to Jotunheim anyway. He decides to punish them himself. As if he was king. But he's not.

He starts a war.

In the end his father is there to save them, as fathers do. And there are harsh words spoken between father and son. The father calls his son vain and cruel. Thor calls him a fool.

Odin realizes his son is not ready for the inheritance he is demanding, maybe not ever ready for it. So he banishes him.

Leaving another son left behind.

Loki.

Quiet Loki. Cunning Loki. Mischievous Loki.

Loki, who more than anything just wants to be loved.

But while following his brother to Jotunheim Loki discovered something horrifying.

He is actually a Frost Giant.

Suddenly Loki is re-watching his whole life with a different lens. Things that didn't make sense as a child--times when he was treated differently from Thor for no apparent reason--suddenly make sense. The pieces fall into place. Because Loki is a Frost Giant, and his parents have known that all along. That's why he's different.

That's why no matter how good he is, no matter how hard he works or tries to excel, he is never going to be king. Because a Frost Giant is never going to sit on the throne of Asgard.

Loki is confused and angry, but ultimately nothing has changed other than life makes more sense. His desires are still the same. He still wants to be his father's son. He wants to be Thor's equal. But most importantly, he wants to be loved.

Odin has a heart attack and is placed in a coma. Suddenly Loki is king. Because he's the only one home. He's the only one there to take care of Asgard. Because Thor was brash and demanded his inheritance before it was rightfully his. Now Loki has the burden of the entire family, people, and world on his shoulders.

Loki, the son left behind, must do his duty.

And Loki is king. He is now within his rights to demand the retribution from Jotunheim that his brother also wanted. But Loki learned from Thor's blunt force attack on Jotunheim. He cannot win such a battle. So Loki devises a clever plan. Perhaps too clever.

He invites the king of Jotunheim into Asgard to kill Odin, as if Loki is a traitor. The king takes him up on the offer. But right when the king is in Odin's throne room, Loki kills him. In one fell swoop Loki topples the Jotun's government and saves his own father.

A clever plan. Too clever for anyone else to understand. They can't understand it, so it backfires.

The prodigal son returns at the climax of Loki's victory.

Thor claims he's changed. He is a better man and able to be king after maybe three days on Earth. And as always everyone falls all over the prodigal son returned.

Suddenly Loki is the bitter son in the background, the villain.

But he did it for his family--his adopted family that he still loves regardless. He even killed his own biological father--the king of Jotunheim--to prove how much he loved his adopted family!

But it's not good enough. It never is. He is always second. Always one step below. Always the bitter, angry brother in the background.

In the end when Odin looks at Loki and says, "no Loki," Loki breaks.

He did everything for Odin. He just wants to be the son Odin wants, the son he esteems, the son he loves, and instead Odin looks at Loki as if he's the biggest disappointment.

And in that moment, Loki realizes there is nothing he can do. He will never be equal to Thor. He will always be Loki, the mischievous one. Never the thunder god.

So he gives up.

Because it's hard to love them. It's too hard to continue trying. It's too hard to get continuously rejected. So he gives up.

He lets go.

Everything in Loki's life was done to be a better son, a better part of the family, to prove himself an equal part of the family. Instead they think he's the villain.

And if they're going to think he's a villain, he might as well be one.

*  *  *

I don’t know if it’s true for everyone whose sibling goes prodigal, but for me when a sibling went astray, I wanted to work harder, to be a better child. Not necessarily for myself—but because I didn’t want my parents to hurt anymore. I thought if only I was better, if only I was a perfect child who demonstrated that it wasn’t their parenting, but rather that other child’s own personal ways that led them astray, maybe they’d feel better.

I did everything right.

I got nothing I wanted.

Because you can’t erase another child’s delinquency with your own inerrancy.

But Lord did I try.

I failed. I felt like a failure. I felt taken for granted. 

I felt unloved. Because the amount of time and worry my parents expended on this prodigal child—on a child who wasn’t even there—was more than it seemed I ever got.

And I felt that either my entire life was going to be this: being a perfect child who cannot afford to slip up and do anything wrong lest I cause my already hurting parents even more pain and disappointment.

Being the non-prodigal results in things like this. I call my parents weeping, over a serious issue in my life. But oh hark! Call waiting pings! AND IT’S THE PRODIGAL. “Oh joy! The prodigal is calling! We must answer! Just to hear their voice!” The parents hang up on the weeping child who needs them with a “we’ll call you back.” I am left on a dead phone line not sure how to progress. How long will their phone conversation last? Will they call me back?

I didn’t know. I just knew the prodigal was more important than me.

Always.

So I hardened my heart against these parental infractions against me, because isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? The good child just takes it, right? We don’t leave. We don’t fight. We just submit.

Our heart gets harder.

Our heart gets brittle.

Every time the prodigal hints they might come home, we throw the party! And when the prodigal doesn’t follow through or leaves again, it’s the child left behind who picks up the pieces. And for that the good child gets no praise. No reward. Because their behavior is expected.

So perhaps it’s no wonder I would walk out on sermons about the prodigal son. That I would get in fights with people in my Bible Study over what this story meant, that usually ended with me in tears.

*  *  *

There is a moment in Thor where Loki and his mother are having a conversation by the sickbed of Odin. They're talking about why Odin and Frigga never told Loki he's a frost giant. His mother is trying to explain. Loki doesn't get it, and he's worried about his father, who seems so frail, so sick, so old. Loki loves his father and doesn't want him to die. And his mother tells him to never lose hope, not for his father or for Thor. And Loki responds:

"What hope is there for Thor?"

Oh, that question. That is not a question where Loki is condemning Thor. That is not a question of wishing the brother was gone. The emotion of the question is, "Why are we talking about this right now? We're supposed to be talking about me and the fact that I'm a frost giant and you never freakin' told me? Can we please get back to me?"

But of course he doesn't voice that. Because that would be selfish. And we're not supposed to be selfish, no matter how much we work just for our parents’ attention. 

Oh that feeling. I know that feeling so well. In the past decade, I would say that 75% of my conversations with my parents revolved around my older siblings. And to this day I have put it up with it with little complaint just so I could talk to my parents. Because that's the topic they cared about. And I just wanted to talk to them. 

So Loki is at home without Thor, and he's enjoying as much as he can. This single child attention is all he ever really wanted, even if it is tainted with the occasional discussion about Thor. 

And then the prodigal returns. 

He claims to have changed. He claims he's different. And it doesn't matter that you've been working the fields at home or just saved your father's life. Your mother goes from mid-hug with you to flinging herself into Thor's arms. Leaving you just standing there. 

Leaving you bitter.

And the story of the prodigal stops there, but the story of Loki goes on. Because Loki goes where I've always thought to go.

When you have a sibling go prodigal and you see all the attention that gets them--attention you want--you have this serious temptation to go prodigal yourself.

I can't explain to you the number of times I'd seriously considered going prodigal, for a short while, so that I could get all that attention, worry, and concern to myself. And then I could come back to open arms and a party. 

I'd considered it so many times. I'd been deeply tempted. But it would hurt my parents, and I wasn’t callous enough to hurt them on purpose.

But Loki, Loki who has done everything for his parents, for his family, who has tried so hard to no avail, he does it. 

He gives up. He let's go. He goes prodigal. 

And it does get him attention. It works. His father goes to great lengths to send Thor to Earth in The Avengers in order to bring Loki home. He’s getting attention. What he always wanted. 

But the cost is too great.

The cost is villainy.

*  *  *

The story of the prodigal son doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It comes in a context of people complaining to Jesus that he hangs out with degenerates. Specifically, the people complaining are Pharisees and scribes, i.e. religious people, who are basically complaining that Jesus should hang out with them, the good people, and not the sinners/bad people.

Jesus responds with three stories.

In the first story, a shepherd with 100 sheep sees one go astray. He chases after that sheep, leaving the others behind. But then he brings that sheep back to the flock, and everyone celebrates that the lost sheep has been found!

In the second story, a woman with ten coins loses one. She searches the whole house looking for it until she finds it and now has ten coins again. Everyone celebrates the lost coin has been found!

The third story is the story of the prodigal, and it differs from the other two.  The first half, verses 11-24, seem to be very in line with the first two stories. A man loses a son. When the son is returned to him, he celebrates for his lost son has been found!

However, even in this first part there is a difference. The father did not go out looking for the son. He did not abandon his son at home to go find the prodigal. The father remained home, and the prodigal had to return of his own free will.

The other difference with this story is that it doesn’t stop in verse 24, it keeps going, and we get the perspective of the son left at home. The shepherd’s story doesn’t tell about how the sheep feel to be left behind by the shepherd. Presumably coins don’t have feelings to consider. But sons do.

If Jesus was just telling a story about God rejoicing when lost things are found, he would have stopped in verse 24, so why did he continue?

Well, who is Jesus talking to here if not the brothers left behind?

The father in the story isn’t rejecting the older brother. He is explaining himself, just as Jesus uses these three stories to explain himself to the Pharisees. But I also think Jesus is not rejecting the Pharisees here. Jesus is often harsh to the Pharisees in the gospels, but I don’t think this is one of those cases.

The Pharisees here are the sheep who haven’t wandered, the coins still in the purse, the brother at home. They’re already there. That’s the whole point of what the father says to the older brother. This story is an explanation to the Pharisees that they’re already home, and Jesus is trying to find the ones who are not and bring them home.

But the story of the sons is left open ended. It doesn’t end with the older son defying the father or the older son going into the party. We’re left hanging. Because ultimately, I think this story is an invitation to those very people Jesus is talking to. They’re not sheep. They’re not coins. They’re sons. And they can either join the party or leave.

No one ever talks about that.

When this story is preached the other brother is either villainized or worse—ignored. They just stop the preaching at verse 24. Because we other brothers aren’t important to the prodigal story, right?

But that’s not what Jesus is saying. Because this isn’t a sermon for prodigals. This is a sermon for the “other” son. Jesus is trying to reach the Pharisees. He is trying to explain to them why we celebrate for the prodigal, but that doesn’t mean God loves them less. It doesn’t mean they can’t come to the party.

God isn’t punishing them for not getting lost.

God is giving them a choice.

They can come to the party or not.

*  *  *

Loki could have come home at the end of the story.

He could have let Thor help him up. He could have seen how much his brother loved him—risking his own life just to save him despite all the villainous acts Loki had done. He could have had an honest talk with his father about how the false competition Odin had placed Thor and Loki in all their lives hurt them, and that Loki was no longer willing to play the competition game but he still loved them all.

But he didn’t.

Loki chooses to fall into a void, to possibly die, rather than face his family. He ultimately ends up in the clutches of Thanos—tortured and abused—before making it back to Earth where he regains familial attention, but not in a good way. As a supervillain.

*  *  *

I don’t want to be a supervillain.

*  *  *

Whenever I thought of the prodigal's brother, whenever I thought about my own situation, all I could think was "it's unfair", and then my mind would start churning justifications, times when I've been hurt and neglected. And you know what, it's not fair. I have been hurt. I have been neglected. I have been wronged.

But churning, holding on, acting on those justifications when it can't change anything--because you can’t change anyone else—that was leading me towards a path of villainy. It was leading me towards a path where I chose to go prodigal even though I knew it would hurt people. 

It didn’t matter how many times people said “bitterness will eat you up” or “you have to let it go.” Because the hurt ran so deep, the wound was so raw, and I knew I was justified. People could say let it go all they want, but how do you let something go when your heart is in glass pieces on the floor? You can’t glue it back together the same. Nothing will ever heal that.

My justifications weren't wrong. The “other son” is not wrong when being mad he wasn’t invited to the party. Loki's justifications of the unfairness of his life aren’t wrong. Thor has been favored over him. Brawn is valued more than brain in Asgard. He will never get to be king or equal to Thor no matter how hard he works, because he's a frost giant. He is completely 100% right.

And it doesn't matter.

No, that's not right. It's not that it doesn't matter. It's that somehow I've got to choose to be better. Because if I don't, if I don't choose to change my path, I'm going to come back in The Avengers with an alien army and try to subjugate the world. 

I don't want to be a super villain. 

I have to choose not to be a super villain.

This seems a simple conclusion--choosing a different path--one I should have realized a long time ago. But in Christian circles we have a saying, where things go "from your head to your heart." This idea has been in my head all my life, but it was the movie Thor that moved it into my heart. 

Because my life isn't about them, my family. It's about me. I can't change them. I can't make them treat me differently. But I can change me.

Because I may deeply empathize with Loki, but I don't want to be him. I don't want to be Thor either. I want to be me. I want to be who Loki would have been if he hadn't snuck frost giants into Asgard and tried to destroy Jotunheim. I want to be who God wants me to be, and that's not a person who holds onto anger.

I can't change what's happened to me. I can't change how others will treat me. But I can change who I become. 

It's all about choice. 

And I choose not to be a super villain.

 

Rebekah and the Patriarchal Narrative

[Note all verses in this post are in the English Standard Version.]

I recently posted here my lesson on Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, famous for generally two things: (1) following a strange man back to a strange land to marry a stranger and (2) devising the plan for her favored son, Jacob, to steal his father Isaac’s blessing from her least favored son, Esau.

I feel like most Christians have agreed on the first famous act: that Rebekah was an incredibly faithful woman--a woman willing to follow God's call to leave her family behind, move halfway across the world (okay, an over-exaggeration but without mail or anything it would certainly feel that way), and marry a complete stranger. I'm pretty sure my faith isn't that strong, so Rebekah puts me to shame.

When I was being taught this story as a kid, this first act was viewed as faithful...with possible underpinnings of "of course a woman doing as she's told and being willing to follow God makes her great!" But this characterization of Rebekah being faithful was always altered dramatically when I was presented of the story of Rebekah devising the plan for Jacob, not Esau, to get the blessing.

Honestly this story was presented to me as thus: Rebekah was a devious woman who deceived her poor old blind husband so her favored son could be chosen. And poor Esau didn't even do anything wrong. Poor Esau. Poor Isaac. Even a little bit, poor Jacob because his mom made him do it. Evil manipulative Rebekah. And it’s not just my teachers who served up this interpretation. For better preparing my lessons on the women of the Bible, I often turn to resources, and in this one I turned to Liz Curtis Higgin’s Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible. In the book, she presents Rebekah as not just a deceiver, but a great betrayer. She betrayed her poor feeble husband. And Jacob’s taking of the blessing is likened to Judas betraying Jesus [1]. Strong words. This was a book I studied in college Bible study, which simply reiterated what I had been taught in my grade school Sunday School classes.

So when I was preparing this story for my Middle Schoolers I was prepared to have to do a lot of...explaining...and reminding the girls that just because the woman so far that we've studied have been characterized by basically being mean to each other and laughing in the face of God, women aren't actually inherently bad. I was prepared to have to deal with this fact that all the women of Genesis from Eve on are basically petty and bad.

This was what I thought. From what I'd been taught.

In my study of Sarah a few weeks ago, I discovered that Sarah's act of laughter at learning about Isaac wasn't actually an act of disbelief. That there was no evidence to support she knew of God's promise or that these men were angels. To her they were just random men predicting a post-menopausal woman would have a child--which would make me laugh too. I was also easily able to balance Sarah's faults of her meanness to Hagar with her faithfulness to Abraham, and how she honestly thought she was doing the best for her family. Sarah, I hope, came across as a three-dimensional woman with flaws and good points.

But with Rebekah I thought the only balance would be her early faithfulness in marrying Isaac. That everything after would just be bad.

So I prepared my lesson, easily handlings the act of faithfulness, and not struggling until I got to the idea of a baby holding another baby's heel. I pulled out my commentary to see what it said about the matter and learned something--that heels could symbolize betrayal and deception. And since I already had my commentary out I decided to read ahead and see what it thought about this business of Jacob stealing Esau's birthright.

I discovered something startling.

That Rabbinic tradition holds that Isaac was blind in more than one way. Not just physically blind, but blind to his favored son's shortcomings [2]. That Esau was not perhaps the best man, and Jacob was the more righteous of the two.

What?

Is there support for this? For Esau being not as righteous as Jacob? Well, let’s look at who Esau is. He’s a man willing to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. This is Genesis 25:29-34.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.)31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

This can possibly indicate a couple of things, but what it doesn’t indicate is that Esau didn’t think Jacob was serious. Jacob makes him swear it—a serious business in the ancient world. Esau would know Jacob was deadly serious. So we’re left with the idea that either Esau is not very bright or he just doesn’t care about his birthright. Lack of brightness is not a sin; however, lack of caring about your inheritance from your father, the son of Abraham, through whom God has established his covenant, well that’s a little more problematic.

The other thing we know about Esau is when Jacob stole the blessing, he wanted to murder him (Genesis 27:41):

41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Now I don’t know about you but this doesn’t come across to me as a metaphorical “I’m going to kill my brother” like we might say now, when really we mean we’re going to yell at them and nurse a grudge until it wears off. I get the feeling Esau was actually going to murder him. And this is supported by the fact that Rebekah immediately sends Jacob away. She sends him away—back to her brother Laban, half a world away—because she is afraid Esau might murder him (Genesis 27:42). And let’s not forget that murder of a brother is a serious issue in Genesis. There’s this whole story in Genesis 4 colloquially referred to as “Cain and Abel” in which an older brother killed a younger brother. Cain killed Abel, and God had this to say about it:

10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 

To say God was displeased with the murdering of a brother seems an understatement. He gave Cain a curse so great that Cain said it’s too great to bear.

And I’m not saying stealing of a blessing is not a serious issue, one worthy of anger, but murdering your brother seems like a reaction not in keeping with God’s idea of how one should behave.

At the very least Esau is a careless young man with anger issues. Is Jacob a perfect man? No. He has his own issues—his willingness to take advantage of his hungry brother clearly shows that. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hosea 12:2-4, which does condemn Jacob’s struggle with his brother.

The Lord has an indictment against Judah
    and will punish Jacob according to his ways;
    he will repay him according to his deeds.
3 In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
    and in his manhood he strove with God.
4 He strove with the angel and prevailed;
    he wept and sought his favor.
He met God at Bethel,
    and there God spoke with us

I’m not a strong enough Biblical scholar to say too much on this, and I don’t have a commentary on Hosea. However, it seems clear to me Jacob’s struggle with his brother is condemned but his struggles with God—his wrestling of an angel and his seeking of favor—are lauded. But I also feel those things are connected in these verses. He strove with his brother and with God—it’s the same inquiring and unsatisfied mind that led to both. Jacob was a flawed man who sought God. (Which isn’t to say Esau couldn’t have been the same, but I don’t think Jacob is ever described as having murder in his heart.) And if I look back at those verses about Cain, it seems that is a sin God takes quite seriously.

Maybe the Rabbinic tradition of Esau’s lack of moral fiber isn’t entirely without merit.

This all leads me to so much thought. As I was taught this story, Isaac was right because he was the man, even though he was just as guilty of favoritism as Rebekah. Even though it didn’t seem he consulted his wife about who should get his blessing. The prior characterization of Rebekah in this story is that of faithfulness. Not deceit. So why suddenly would she become deceitful? Because she favored Jacob? Her love of her son was greater than her love of God? That seems unlikely. After all, this was a woman willing to leave her entire family behind for God. And sure, the love of a child is greater than the love of a sibling or parent (so I’m told), but…leaving your whole family behind to travel basically by yourself to a strange nation to marry a complete stranger because God told you so is a far greater act of faith than anything Isaac has done in Genesis.

Or is it more likely that it was Isaac whose love for his son blinded him to God’s will? That Isaac was blind to his favored son’s ways? After all, we’re talking about Isaac here, the man who didn’t learn from the stories of his father, and pulled the same “lie and say my wife is my sister” business (Genesis 26:7). Isaac who the Bible says favored Esau because Isaac “had a taste for game” not because Esau had a stellar character (Genesis 25:28). Isaac is far from a perfect man.  So maybe, Isaac wasn’t just blind literally but blind metaphorically. But Rebekah, the mother who raised them, saw all. And since she was merely a woman, Isaac wouldn’t listen to her.

Everything going forward in the Bible from here hinges on Jacob being Israel, that he is the father of the Jewish people. He had the blessing, not Esau. And is it really possible that a mere mortal woman could thwart the God Almighty’s plan? Or is it more likely that Rebekah was still as faithful as ever, not blind to the truth, and she did what she had to do to stay faithful to her God—to ensure God’s blessing and the divine inheritance from Abraham continued through the son worthy of that blessing.

Who chose Jacob as the father of Israel? God or Rebekah?

Or as an early Christian leader, (we’re talking 350-ish AD), John Chrystostem put it: was it “a mother’s affection, or rather God’s design?” [2]

The apostle Paul supports this reading, that it is God who chose Jacob and Rebekah’s actions were in accordance with God’s plan, in Romans 9:

10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!

But it’s perhaps the book of Malachi, which Paul is referencing here in Romans 9:13, which is most condemning:

2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob's brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” 4 If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” 5 Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”

It seems pretty clear that God chose Jacob. That Rebekah could not have thwarted God’s plan. If God wanted Esau to be the progenitor of his chosen people, he would have chosen him.

It seems to me Rebekah made the right call, made the faithful call, and did what God wanted her to do. She did not deceive her husband for her own gain, but to save him from his own folly. She did not just secure a future for her favored son, but secured a righteous future for all her descendants to come. Rebekah is not the villain of this story; she is the hero.

I think my Sunday School teachers growing up taught me wrong. That they were deceived by the idea that a man who leads and makes a choice—like Isaac choosing Esau—is doing right, while a woman who makes a choice and uses the only means she has (deception in Rebekah’s case) to bring about God’s plan is doing what is wrong. But the text does not support this.

My eyes have been opened.

It’s amazing what you can learn teaching Middle School Sunday School.

References (other than the Bible):
[1] Higgs, Liz Curtis. "Chapter 5: Rebekah the Mother." Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible: Flawed Women Loved by a Flawless God. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2007. N. pag. Print.

[2]Mathews, K. A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005. Print. The New American Commentary.

 

Theology as a Rubik's Cube

Sometimes I think I should have been a Bible scholar.

I was raised fairly feminist for a Southern Baptist. My parents told me I could do anything I wanted and encouraged me in my path to become an engineer.

Yes, I could do anything…except go into the ministry. That was a thing for boys, boy who would walk confidently forward during the alter call and tell the pastor they had felt “the Call.”

The call to ministry was for men, unless I felt interested in leading children or women, which I did not, or practical things like feeding the hungry. All good and necessary things but what I hungered for was the esoteric—deep understanding of the Bible, history, and theology—a realm firmly and always for men. (It’s interesting to note that the only women I remember going forward for “the Call” were to be missionaries, never because they felt called into women or children’s ministry. I don’t know if you were even allowed to go forward for that.)

I’m not a Bible scholar. I am an engineer, and I love my job and my career path, so I don’t anticipate a job change. But one of the reasons for this blog is to ponder and study what I feel led to—whether it’s the practical or esoteric.

For those of us, though, who are not Bible scholars, I feel like we often fall into one of two camps about the deep esoteric theological discussions. (1) It doesn’t affect your day to day faith so why does it matter at all? (2) The deep questions trouble us so we avoid them lest we find out something that would make us contemplate God differently from how we want. (There is a third option—we think we know everything already and for us there is no mystery in God or the Word. This position is mind boggling to me, so I won’t address it.)

I get this. What does it matter if predestination or free-will is the truth in my day to day life? I still feel as if I have to pick out my own socks, so every day I will pick out my own socks. The answer to the question doesn’t affect how I live my life.

On the other hand, contemplating the question makes us uncertain and when simplified in the way those of us who are layman can understand, makes us afraid of what we might discover. If everything is predestined what does this say about God’s character? If everything is free-will what does this say about God’s sovereignty?

(It should be noted that the predestination/free will debate is merely an example and not all inclusive of the esoteric questions that exist. It should also be noted that these questions way over simplify this debate and complete ignore the concept that God is outside of time and space, but that is a post for another time.)

For some reason, when someone not Called into the ministry or academia starts asking these questions people immediately assume you’re “doubting.” They assume that either you are currently in doubt and seeking answers OR that seeking answers to esoteric questions will lead to doubt. (I find the latter particularly troubling since it seems to indicate our faith does not hold up in the face of study.)

For me at least this is not the case.

I always wanted to be an astrophysicist (which I'm not, I chose the more practical path of engineering, but that is neither here nor there). Two of my favorite classes in college focused on Planetary Science and Space Plasma Physics. I have a desire to see how things work, to understand the natural laws that govern our existence, to marvel at the beauty of the math that holds everything together.

Theology is no different.

For whatever reason God chose not to reveal Himself in a way that is crystal clear to our modern minds. Our Bible is a collection of books of different genres and not a clear and straightforward textbook on theology. Why is this? We can talk about the limitations God imposed on himself by using men to write his holy book. We can talk about Jesus and how he chose to reveal himself to the disciples, the way he couched his words. But I think God knows us, he knows our nature.

He gave us mysteries to be wrestled with because we are like puppies who need a bone to gnaw on to keep us occupied. Because we are by nature curious and seeking creatures, instead of giving us a straightforward toy, God gave us a Rubik’s Cube.

I think of the mystery of theology similarly to how I think of a Rubik’s Cube. I have never been able to solve one on my own. But I believe the cube has a solution. I have faith it can be solved. But I’m also not satisfied with someone showing me how to do it. I must figure it out for myself.

Does this sometimes lead to frustration? Yes. Does this sometimes to lead to doubt? Maybe, I know I’ve doubted that Rubik’s Cubes actually have solutions sometimes. But at my heart even when expressing frustrations and doubt, I believe there is a solution, and I believe God gave this cube to me so I can play and wrestle with it—not so I can put it on a shelf and ignore it.

My theology is not a porcelain doll which can only be looked at and never played with lest it break. It is a rough and tumble Rubik’s Cube that I can drop down the stairs, disassemble, reassemble, and still have the same toy that I know has a solution even if in my life I never find it.