|Toldot 5771—The God Who Chooses|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
The Messianic Jewish community is entrusted with a message to the rest of our Jewish people, and to the world beyond, that we describe as good news—the besorah, or gospel, of the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua. But, of course, this message is not often perceived as good news, no matter how well we express it. The besorah is hard for many to receive, and one reason for this shows up in this week's parasha, the scandalous idea of divine election. We proclaim a God who chooses according to his own purposes, not according to human priorities and values. That truth offends many, but also gives us hope that the besorah will in the end prevail among our people.
A promising problem
Our parasha begins with a problem. Isaac, the chosen heir, has married the chosen bride, Rebekah, but she cannot produce children.
This is the genealogy of Isaac, Abraham's son. Abraham begot Isaac. Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah as wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Syrian. Now Isaac pleaded with the LORD for his wife, because she was barren . . . (Gen. 25:19-20)
God had long before promised Abraham abundant seed (Gen. 15:4-5, Gen. 22:17). But Abraham and his wife were old and barren. Likewise, Rebekah was sent off to marry Isaac with a blessing of great fruitfulness: "May you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them" (Gen. 24:60), but she also turned out to be barren. Isaac and Rebekah must go through the same struggle as Abraham and Sarah, so that the birth of the chosen heir will depend not on human power but on God's mighty intervention. This story of impossible birth gets repeated throughout the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and the rest of Scripture, culminating in the impossible birth of the Messiah from a young virgin.
But, although the birth depends on divine intervention, there is still a human element to it—Isaac prays. This is another pattern that prevails throughout Scripture, as God does the impossible in partnership with humans who pray and trust. Perhaps the barrenness of Sarah and Rebekah, like our difficulties, is designed by God to bring them to him . . . but I get ahead of myself.
Now Isaac pleaded with the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her; and she said, Im ken lama zeh anochi? (Gen. 25:21-22a.)
The translation of Rebekah's question is difficult, but its anguish is unmistakable. "If this is so, why is it that I am . . .?" She has realized her great hope of becoming pregnant, only to find it miserable. Can you relate to that? Pregnancy, especially in the book of Genesis, is supposed to be a great blessing and fulfillment, but it becomes a time of struggle. God, however, will accomplish a higher purpose through it all.
So she went to inquire of the LORD.
So when her days were fulfilled for her to give birth, indeed there were twins in her womb. And the first came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau's heel; so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
So the boys grew. And Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man, dwelling in tents. And Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Gen. 25:22b-28.)
The scandal of election
"The older shall serve the younger." To the ancient Hebrews, choosing the younger over the older is a scandalous reversal of the way things are to get done in this world. Indeed, later on, the Torah will forbid such a choice and uphold "the right of the firstborn" (Deut. 21:15-17). But the choice of the younger over the older is what I call a divine reversal, a display of God's freedom to choose according to his own values and priorities, not ours.
To moderns, of course, the scandal is not that God chooses the younger over the older, but that God chooses one over another, period. The Midrash sometimes explains this choice in terms of human merit. For example, when the twins are struggling within Rebekah's womb, one midrash says that Jacob is trying to get out as she passes a Bet Midrash, a house of study, and Esau is trying to get out as she passes a shrine of idolatry. But Rav Shaul's interpretation is more in line with the story as the Torah tells it:
When Rebekah had ... conceived by one man, by our father Isaac—for the sons were not yet born nor had done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to his own choice might stand, not of deeds, but of him who calls— it was said to her, "The elder shall serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated." Rom. (9:10-13)
The God of the Bible is a personal God, who reserves the right to make choices according to his own purposes. He is not limited to safe, universal abstractions. This picture of God runs counter to modern ideas of inclusiveness and relativity. It insists that there is a Jacob and there is an Esau, one chosen and the other not, and a God who chooses.
The good news is that a God who can choose is a God who genuinely loves, who has a passion for his people. Moderns, especially in the west, are more comfortable with abstract ideas of God as "the unmoved mover" far beyond human categories of love and hate. But God himself says, "I the Lord your God am a jealous God . . ." (Ex. 20:5).
Long ago I counseled a couple who were having all kinds of problems in their marriage. At one point the wife said, "I never would have chosen Tom (her husband), but I know that he's the one that God chose for me to marry. That's why I want to make this work." Of course, it didn't work in the end, because she had to choose Tom herself. Without passion and even jealousy, a relationship remains abstract and sterile. God's jealous love for Israel, for the sons of Jacob, demonstrates that God is capable of passionate love, the love that will extend to all humankind in Messiah Yeshua. Without this passion, we're left with a God completely unknowable and unconnected to our humanity.
A second implication is that God acts for his own purposes. Any standing or relationship we have with him result from his doing (although, like Isaac, we must respond). We understand this truth theoretically, but often forget it when we get into trouble or discouragement, and wonder why God has abandoned us. Instead, we should never leave out the God factor, the factor of God acting on his own initiative to reverse what seems insurmountable and impossible in our lives.
A final implication is that Jacob, the one God chooses for himself, is Israel. We can be confident in the ongoing, secure, and unchangeable election of the people Israel, despite our current majority denial of Yeshua and alienation from God. God's choice of Israel—"Jacob have I loved"—will come to completion in Messiah Yeshua, even if Israel's embrace of Yeshua seems impossible in our eyes. We can put our hope in a God who brings about what seems impossible in the sight of man, and renew our outreach and testimony to our own Jewish people.
Baruch atah Adonai . . . ha-bocher b'amo Yisrael b'ahavah. Blessed are you, Lord, who chooses his people Israel in love.