Better Bible Study Tip #65: Do Not Force The Bible Conform To Your Denominational Preferences

If you want to understand what the Bible really teaches, it is absolutely crucial that you do not filter the Bible through your denominational preferences or your church’s interpretive tradition. Don’t try to force the Bible to be something it’s not. Don’t try to force to Bible to address modern denominational debates that were not being considered when the Bible was first written.

I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating: If we are going to rightly apply the Bible in our own cultural context, we first need to make sure we are understanding it correctly in it’s original cultural context (see Better Bible Study Tip #41: Context is King). Thousands of years separate us from the time when the Bible was written. They were not us. We are not them. We can understand the Bible like they did, but it requires that we put ourselves in their shoes and read scripture in light of their worldview.

To illustrate my point, consider the phrase “I sent you a text.” We all know what that sentence means. But what if someone said “I sent you a text” in the year 1990? The same phrase would obviously mean something different, because “texting” as we know it simply did not exist. If someone said that in 1990, we would conclude that someone was sending somebody a book, or a manuscript or something. The same phrase would mean something completely different simply based on when it was said.

So for example, when Paul wrote to the “bishops” in Philippi, we shouldn’t imagine that Paul thought of a bishop the same way a modern Catholic thinks of bishops. When Paul wrote “be filled with the spirit” (Eph. 5:18), he was writing as a first century Jew, not as a modern charismatic. When Joel say “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”, he wasn’t imagining that people would be saved by saying the “sinner’s prayer.” John the Baptist wasn’t a “Baptist” in the same way we use the word. He was simply a baptizer. When Paul said “the churches of Christ salute you” he wasn’t referring to the Ephesus Church of Christ or the Corinth Church of Christ as if they were a first century denomination as many use the phrase “Church of Christ” today. He was simply referring those first century churches that belonged to Christ.

This principle goes beyond simple phrases, and extends to doctrinal teachings as well. When Paul wrote about the relationship of “faith” and “works”, he wasn’t referring to 16th century Catholic/Protestant debates. I could keep going, but hopefully the point is clear. We need to be careful not to make the biblical authors say more or less than what they actually said and meant in their own context.

To filter the Bible through our own denominational preferences or church traditions that post date the time of the Bible means imposing a foreign historical context on scripture. It means changing the original meaning of scripture. It means altering what the biblical authors were trying to teach. The more we cling to our favorite denominational understandings, the more we put ourselves at risk of misunderstanding scripture. We need to respect the Bible for what it is and what it teaches, and not force it to be what we wish it was or teach what we wish it taught.

What I – A Christian – Would Say to President Biden About Ukraine

Does being a Christian mean that I am opposed to Russia invading Ukraine? Does it mean that I am opposed to the United States getting violently involved in the conflict to protect Ukraine? If I, as a Christian, am pro-life, what would I say if President Biden asked me for my opinion on how America should respond to recent events in Ukraine?

The first thing I would try to explain is that I don’t think that being a Christian means that one must take the position that the governments of this world must embrace pacifism. Of course Christians are commanded to love to their enemies, to do good to their enemies, and to seek peace and pursue it. This is based not only on the commands of our Lord and of his apostles, but also on a strong pro-life understanding that all humans are created to reflect the image of God. To take the life of another human is to destroy an image of the God we serve. Because of this, many assume that Christians should all call the governments of this world to “turn the other cheek”. That’s not actually my understanding of what the Bible teaches. I don’t believe that Jesus and Paul’s instructions for Christians to love their enemies and do good to their enemies was ever intended as instructions for how the governments of this world are to respond to evil.

To the contrary, in Romans 12 and 13, Paul explicitly contrasts the attitudes and actions of Jesus’s disciples with the attitudes and actions of the governments of this world. Paul instructs Christians to “bless those who curse you” (12:14), to “repay no one evil for evil” (12:17), and to “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (12:19). Rather than retaliating against enemies, Christians are commanded to overcome evil with good, by giving food and drink to their enemies when they are in need (12:20-21). Then Paul immediately proceeds to say that God “institutes” all the governing authorities as he sees fit (13:1), which is why they “do not bear the sword in vain” (13:4). God institutes these sword-bearing governing authorities as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).

The point I would try to stress to Mr. Biden is that Paul forbids disciples of Christ from ever engaging in the very activity that he says God uses governments to accomplish, namely the the taking of vengeance against evildoers. We as Christians are to leave vengeance to God, who has promised “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” (12:19). This doesn’t mean that God wants Russia or Ukraine or the United States to act violently, but God does institute (or “organizes”) them and their swords to bring about as much good as possible for his disciples. Part of the good he works to bring about is specifically the punishment of wrongdoers so as to keep evil in check.

I do believe this implies that there are certain “sword bearing” activities that governments take towards their enemies that Christians are forbidden from participating in. But I do think it’s a misunderstanding to think that Christians have a responsibility to try to get their governments to try to take a pacifist position. This is to act as if the New Testament gives instructions on how to reform the kingdoms of this world, when in reality, Jesus came to establish a kingdom that is not of this world.

So what do I think that President Biden should do about the crisis in Ukraine? The most important thing I would stress is that whatever my opinion is – as a Christian – should not be taken as a distinctly Biblical teaching about what Mr. Biden should do in Ukraine. The Bible just doesn’t speak to that directly. Mr. Biden’s kingdom, and the kingdom of which I am a citizen, operate under a completely different set of values. Mr. Putin’s kingdom, and the kingdom of which I am a citizen, operate under a completely different set of values. The kingdoms of this world fight for their self-interest, while we die to ours. Their primary concern is with whatever is most practical. Our primary concern is with what is most faithful. They rely on the power to threaten and take life if necessary, while our confidence is in the power of self-sacrificial love and the hope of resurrection.

In this light, my allegiance to the enemy-loving Jesus probably means that whatever foreign policy advice I might have to offer Mr. Biden might not be very “street smart” when it comes to the best way to lead the American military. Although most Christians, including myself, have plenty of different opinions about how the United States (or Russia or Ukraine for that matter) should handle this situation, the Bible doesn’t give any specifically “Christian” guidance for how to run the governments of this world.

So with that somewhat strange point being stressed, what would say if Mr. Biden asked me what I think he should do about Ukraine? First, I would encourage him to act slowly and think very carefully. There have been numerous examples over the years of the United States acting rashly and violently towards enemies, in what turns out in hindsight to be quite foolish.

I would also encourage Mr. Biden to consider the long-term consequences of his actions. Violence almost always looks like a solution in the short run, but in the long run, violence almost always leads to more violence. How would American intervention against Russia be used in Russia and other countries to harden more people against the United States and be used to recruit a stronger anti-US sentiment in the future? I would encourage Mr. Biden to think about just how little has been accomplished in the middle east after decades of involvement. And if Russia is repelled, and Ukraine regains their peace and sovereignty, how long will this last before they expect us to get involved again?

If Mr. Biden asked for my advice, I would ask him if all other avenues have been exhausted. Have all possible diplomatic solutions been tried? Have we exhausted all attempts to dialogue with Putin? I know the media tries to make him out to be a Hitler-type madman, but ever since the cold War, the US has been able to maintain mostly peaceful relations with Russia. What changed? Is there anything we can possibly do to reopen the door for dialogue and peaceful negotiations?

I also would ask Mr. Biden to consider the costs of getting involved. The Federal Reserve is already struggling as they try to control high inflation without crashing the economy. What kind of impact will it have on the poor if they are asked to finance war expenses on top of everything else?

I would also encourage Mr. Biden to take a position that is principled, and consistent. If he views Ukrainian lives as worth defending, why stop there? Why not defend other innocent life? A great place to start would be to start defending the innocent lives of unborn children at home. If Mr. Biden recognizes Ukrain’s secession and independence from Russia, would he be consistent in peacefully recognizing the independence and sovereignty of one of America’s own states if they were to secede from the United States?

Finally, after what has hopefully been a kind and respectful dialog with Mr. Biden, I would ask for permission to ask a more personal question. Mr. Biden, as a Catholic, claims to follow Jesus. I would ask, “Mr. Biden, how do your reconcile your position as Commander and Chief of the most powerful military in the world with your profession to follow Jesus? What difference would it make if your allegiance to the teachings of Jesus were to surpass your allegiance to the United States? What difference would it make if your allegiance to Jesus were even more important than your allegiance to the Catholic church? Is there a chance that you would be willing to forsake everything else, be immersed in baptism, and begin a new life as a disciple of Christ? Would you be willing to become a citizen of His kingdom, and place your hope in the way of the cross and resurrection? Will you become a part of His church? Until Jesus comes back, there will always be plenty of violent men and women who will happily fill the role you currently fill. But in the long run, what hope does this way offer? When Jesus returns, and his enemies are defeated, don’t you want to make sure you are on his side?”

And finally, I would assure Mr. Biden that I am praying for him, and for Ukraine, and for Mr. Putin and for Russia. Because at the end of the day, I am confident that the prayers of faithful Christians will accomplish much more than violence ever will.

Better Bible Study Tip #61: Don’t Use a Study Bible as Your Primary Bible

I’m a big fan of study Bibles. Not only do they include the biblical text, but they also include all kinds of other helpful tools, such as maps, charts, introductions and outlines for each book, cross references, footnotes, as well as essays and articles that help explain difficult passages or concepts. However, even good resources can be misused, and of all the good resources out there, the study Bible is one of the most frequently misused.

The study notes and resources provided in study Bibles should be approached the same way we approach commentaries (see Bible Study Tip #60). Although teachers play an important role in the church (Eph. 4:11), we should always strive to follow the example of the Bereans who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). There is a difference between the inspired word of God and the non-inspired words of teachers who write about the word of God. It is important that we spend more time focusing on the text of the Bible more than on the words of teachers who are seeking to explain the Bible.

For better Bible study, don’t use a study Bible as your primary Bible. Using a regular Bible without study notes will eliminate the temptation to look away from what God has said. I’m not suggesting you should throw out your study Bible. But before you pull your study Bible off the shelf, force yourself to do the hard work of thinking about the text itself. When you struggle to figure out what a text means, meditate on it a little while first. Only by chewing on the text for awhile will you be in a good position to think through the strengths and weaknesses of the essays and explanations provided in your study Bible.

Who is a more reliable teacher? A biblical scholar, or God? When we are overly dependent on study notes, a subtle shift takes place from living by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” to living by “every word that comes from the mouth of our favorite Bible teachers.”

There is no doubt that there are some excellent study Bibles out there produced by wonderful Christian scholars. There is no doubt that a good study Bible can bless your study tremendously. But we must also be aware: if we use them in the wrong way, they may actually distract us from the text they seek to illuminate.

Better Bible Study Tip #53: The Bible is Always True, but the Bible is Not Always Literal

In Amos 9:11-12, Amos prophesies of a day in the future.

In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name.

If we take Amos’s words literally, we might expect that one day some sort of physical structure that once belonged to David will literally be rebuilt. The rebuilding of this physical structure will be connected to Israel possessing the remnant of the Edomites, as well as all other nations called by God’s name.

But the apostle James didn’t read it that way. In Acts 15, when the apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to hear how Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles, James responded by opening to the book of Amos.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Acts 15:13-17

James didn’t hesitate to read Amos non-literally. He understood that Amos’s “booth of David” was a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to David’s dynasty (compare this with 2 Samuel 8, where God promised David that he would build him a “house”). James recognized that “Edom” could be understood as a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to all of mankind (the Hebrew word “Edom” is very close to the Hebrew word “Adam” or “mankind”. The book of Obadiah uses “Edom” in this same way).

This doesn’t imply that Amos’s prophecy was untrue simply because it wasn’t literal. “Not literal” doesn’t mean “not true”. It just means that biblical authors were open to using poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical forms of language to communicate truth. If we want to truthfully understand what Amos wrote, we have to recognize that the text was never intended to be taken literally.

This doesn’t mean that we can come up with any sort of weird interpretations of scripture we want. James didn’t just reinterpret Amos to say whatever he wanted it to say. He was reading the text responsibly, by paying attention to how the Old Testament develops certain images. By so doing, he was able to follow how the prophesy was intended to be understood.

For better Bible study, remember that scripture is always true, but scripture does not always have to be read literally.

Better Bible Study Tip #46: Try Hard Not to Filter the Bible Through Your Own Beliefs

There is no such thing as a purely objective bible student. We all have different experiences that shape the way our brain processes information. We all have a tendency to analyze information in such a way that reaffirms our preexisting ideas and convictions. When we study an idea that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right.

For this reason, we all need to own up to the fact that we might believe certain ideas only because a belief was handed down to us. We might believe something is true simply because we’ve filtered the Bible through our beliefs.

So what do we do about it? We shouldn’t pretend that we’re immune from being biased towards certain beliefs. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge our own beliefs, and be aware of the tendency towards confirmation bias. Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. It doesn’t take humility to admit when we are right. It takes humility to admit when we are wrong.

In other words, the best way to avoid filtering the bible through our own beliefs is to develop the humility necessary to filter our own beliefs through the bible. We need to be self aware of the need to examine our own ideas just as critically as we would examine the ideas of others.

Better Bible Study – Introduction

I’ve written a series of short articles filled with practical advice for better Bible study. The purpose of these articles is not to teach a particular Bible study method, nor to develop a hermeneutical system, but simply to offer several “tips” that hopefully will help others grow in their ability to study the Bible.

The truth is, I find myself frustrated with the shallowness of Bible discussions I’ve often encountered in churches. Often my frustration isn’t that churches are teaching error. In nearly every church I’ve been associated with, teaching the truth is of upmost importance, and for that I am thankful. But even still, it seems that Bible knowledge seems to be lacking in many congregations. When Christians don’t have their mind filled with Scripture, their minds become filled with the values of the culture they live in. That concerns me. Although there are certainly many notable exceptions, many Christians just don’t study their Bible on a regular basis.

The reason is simple. The Bible is a strange book, and at first glance, Bible study can be really boring. When we’re studying the parts of the Bible we are familiar with, we think “this is good, but I already know what this says.” For the parts of the Bible we aren’t as familiar with, we think “why am I wasting my time reading about Levitical purity laws or long genealogies?” We’re all busy people. It’s hard to continually invest time in something we’re easily bored with.

But I am a firm believer that Bible study isn’t supposed to be boring. The key to exciting and worthwhile Bible study is to learn to think carefully about what you are reading. Learning to think more deeply about the Bible is a skill that can be developed. We have to learn how to ask better questions. We have to learn how to detect and avoid flawed ideas. We can’t simply settle for explanations that aren’t comprehensive enough to satisfy a critical thinker. Learning to think deeply about the Bible is far more exciting and rewarding than simply trying to restart the habit of daily Bible reading. Careful thinking is what allows us to responsibly apply Scripture (even the obscure and strange Scriptures) to whatever circumstances we may be facing in our churches today, rather than simply giving the same prepackaged answers over and over.

These are simply Bible study tips. They are suggestions for things to try. They are words of caution for mistakes to avoid. If another Christian were to ask me for advice on how to become a better Bible student, these are the things I would say. Some tips will be more obvious than others. I hope that you will find at least some of these suggestions helpful as you try to get more out of your Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #34: Read or Watch Book Introductions

One helpful thing you can do before reading any book of the Bible is to try to form a tentative but informed idea about the content and historical context of the book. What was going on that caused the author to write the book? What was the author’s goal in writing the book? What is the attitude of the author? What are the main ideas he wants to communicate? Is there a flow or a structure for the material in the book? Finding the answers to these sort of questions can make it easier to track with the main themes and storyline of each book.

This is why I recommend reading (or watching) Bible book introductions. Many Bibles will contain short introductory essays before good books. These are often very short, yet they contain good information. It can also be helpful to consult the introduction section of a commentary. One of my favorite resources is the Bible Project book overview videos. These short videos provide a helpful visual of the books’ structure and main themes.

Always remember the information you learn from book introductions should be viewed as “tentative” until you are able to verify their information with your own study. So while book introductions are helpful, make sure to jot down your own brief notes as you study the book for yourself. What does the text itself reveal about the recipients? The author’s attitude? The specific occasion of the book? Never stop studying for your own answers. But when you are just getting started, book introductions can be very helpful.

One Piece of Misinformation Christians Must Stop Sharing

Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether we are correctly informed about healthcare. Christians must stop sharing this dangerous misinformation by acting like it does.

Some will surely be quick to object, “No, but life and death really do hang in the balance! Look at the data! People are dying! We must start listening to the experts!” Of course, this objection may sound slightly different depending on which side of the argument a person is on. Some will point to data that suggests one course of prevention and treatment. Others will point to data that suggests other courses of treatment and prevention. The two sides will fight tooth and nail, pointing to the data and research and charts that support their particular side and prove the other side as foolish. But one thing both sides usually agree on is that the argument is worth having, because, after all, it’s a matter of life and death.

Let’s put the charts and the research and the scholarly opinions aside just for a moment, and reconsider the words of Paul in Romans 8.

Life and Death in Romans 8

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13

Read it again. Slowly. If Jesus is Lord, life and death do not hang in balance depending on whether or not we are looking at correct medical data. Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether or not we listen to the right experts. Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether we are informed or misinformed. Life and death hang in the balance depending on whether we live according to the flesh or live according to the Spirit.

For a better understanding of what Paul is saying, read the verse in context.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5-8

Paul contrasts two different ways of living. One is the way of the flesh, the other is the way of the Spirit. You can tell the difference between the two ways by what they think about. What are they focused on? What are they thinking about most of or all the time? Are they focused on the flesh? Do they continually dwell on the corruptible and mortal aspects of the world? Or are they focused on the Spirit?

To live focused on the flesh is to invite death itself, whereas to focus on the Spirit is to have life and peace. That’s Paul’s main point here. He explains it further in verses 7-8 when he says that those whose mind is set on the flesh are hostile to God. They are incapable of submitting to God’s law as long as the fleshly, corruptible, mortal aspects of this world are the things that capture their mind. They cannot please God.

But what about those whose minds are set on the Spirit?

You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:9-13

Those who have the Spirit dwelling in them will be raised from the dead. Even though their bodies are doomed to die, the Spirit will give life to their mortal bodies. They will live.

The promise of the resurrection is the promise that we will be rescued. Our hope isn’t simply for something better after death. Our hope is to be saved from death itself.

Notice how Paul can alternate between “The Spirit in you” and “Christ in you.” They are the same thing. That is why, as Paul says back in verse 1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Keep Things in Perspective

Now, without losing sight of Paul’s inspired words in Romans 8, consider the current healthcare debates. What if we are deceived into listening to the wrong so-called “experts”? What if we pursue the wrong form of prevention or treatment? What if accidently end up misinformed? What if we foolishly reject life-saving medical advice? If Christ dwells in us, we will be rescued. Even though our bodies die, we will still be raised from the dead to live.

Consider the flip side. What if we are able to sort though all the information correctly? What if we do everything exactly right? What if we avoid sickness and death from the disease? We still die. It might be a few years later, in a nursing home, dying of natural causes, but we still die. When we die, the only thing that matters is whether or not we have lived according to the Spirit.

This is not to suggest that we should run towards death while ignoring the various data and expert opinions out there. But as we try our best to process the latest information and respond as wisely as possible, we must keep things in proper perspective. When we act like we can control tomorrow based on making right plans today, we are spreading dangerous misinformation (James 4:14). When act like we are still enslaved to the fear of death, as if the devil has not been destroyed, we are spreading dangerous misinformation (Hebrews 2:14-15). When we think of ourselves as wise, without maintaining good conduct, we are being “false to the truth” (James 3:13-18).

Ultimately, life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether or not we are “right” in our response to this healthcare crisis. Ultimately, life and death hang in the balance depending on whether or not we have Christ and walk in step with His Spirit. Do not be distracted by all the death and disease. Do not set your mind on things of the flesh. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit, and you will live.

Better Bible Study Tip #29: The Old Testament Came Before the New Testament

I know. I’m stating the obvious here. Even people who have never read the Bible can learn this by looking at the table of contents. Obviously, the Old Testament is older than the New Testament.

Some of the most important keys to good Bible study are hidden in plane sight. Unfortunately, even many seasoned Christians study their Bibles as if this fact is little more than a piece of Bible trivia rather than an indispensable clue as to how to understand the Bible better.

To study the New Testament without having a firm grasp on the Old Testament is like watching the Empire Strikes Back without watching Star Wars first. We can still get the gist of it. We can still enjoy the movie. We can still tell that Han Solo is a pretty cool guy and Darth Vader is bad. But we would be missing an important backstory. We would be missing the context.

The Old Testament should be treated as more than just reference material to be used on occasion to illustrate a New Testament point. Since the Old Treatment is older, it was the text studied by Jesus, the apostles and the earliest Christians. They quoted from it often. Their theology is directly tied to the Old Testament.

It is essential to understand the Old Testament in order to rightly understand the New Testament. It is often said that context is the key to good Bible study. The Old Testament is the context for the New Testament. For better Bible study, don’t skim past the first 3/4ths of your Bible. Study the Old Testament.

The Most Embarrassing Family Story

If you’re looking for a strong internal proof that the book of Genesis is historically reliable, read Genesis 30:1-24. This passage records for us the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Benjamin, although his future birth is alluded to in 30:24). It would be difficult to imagine a more embarrassing family story. You would never make up a story like this to describe the origins of your great nation.

If you wanted to craft an impressive origin story for your nation, you would come up with something along the lines of Romulus and Remus, or some other exalted tale. But you would never write a story about how your nation was formed by two sisters who became so envious of one another that they got into baby wars with their concubines while the founding father of your nation was helplessly passed back and forth between these feuding women.

But the story is written in a way that, while surely causing shame and embarrassment for the tribes of Israel, ultimately gives glory to God, who’s greatness is highlighted with every birth.

Jacob’s Helplessness

The background of the story can be found in Genesis 29, where Jacob falls in love with Rachel. He works seven years to marry Rachel, but when the time comes, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Rachell’s less attractive sister, Leah. Jacob then works another seven years for Rachel.

Chapter 29 ends by focusing on Jacob’s unloved wife, Leah. “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb” (29:31). God blessed Leah with four sons:

  • Ruben (meaning “See, a son”, because the God saw Leah’s affliction)
  • Simeon (meaning “heard” because God heard she was hated)
  • Levi (meaning “attached”, because she hoped that Jacob would now become attached to her)
  • Judah (meaning “praise”, because she praised the LORD for her sons).

But, as the text notes, “Rachel was barren” (29:31). Chapter 30 begins with Rachel confronting Jacob about her childlessness. “Give me children, or I shall die!” (v. 1). In response, Jacob is forced to admit something that he has never admitted to himself before, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (v. 2).

This is the same Jacob who manipulated Esau out of his birthright and who schemed Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. Now, for the first time in his life, Jacob is powerless to change his circumstances. He was having sons left and right, but he couldn’t change the fact that Rachel was barren. He loved Rachel. He would have loved for her to have children, but Jacob was not God. With language echoing the Garden of Eden, Jacob recognized that God had “withheld… the fruit”.

Rachel’s Schemes

But forbidden fruit didn’t stop Rachel from thinking herself to be wise. Like Eve giving Adam the forbidden fruit, Rachel “gave him” her servant Bilhah to bear fruit in her place. Rachel’s servant then bore Jacob two sons:

  • Dan (meaning “vindicated”, because Rachel felt that God had finally vindicated her)
  • Naphtaili (meaning “God-wrestles”, because Rachel was “wrestling” against her sister, and God allowed her to prevail)

But Rachel’s plan was stalemated when Leah countered by giving Jacob her servant girl, Zilpah, by which Jacob had two more sons.

  • Gad (meaning “good fortune”)
  • Asher (meaning “happy”)

This leads to Rachel’s second plot. Rachel approached Leah, and decided to purchase some of her mandrakes (a fruit believed to increase fertility) in exchange for giving Leah a night with Jacob. But the plan backfires. The mandrakes don’t help Rachel, but the night with Jacob does help Leah. Leah has two more sons:

  • Issachar (meaning “wages”, because God had given Leah her “wages”)
  • Zebulun (meaning “honor”, because Rachel now believed that Jacob would finally honor her)

God’s Gift

These embarrassing baby wars set the stage for verses 22-24:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph (meaning “may he add”), saying “May the LORD add to me another son!

Genesis 30:22-24

Rachel was finally given a son, Joseph. Considering the larger context of Genesis, we know why this birth was so significant. This is Joseph, the brother who would save his family from starvation during the famine.

After the powerlessness of Jacob, and after all the failed schemes of Rachel, the LORD finally makes His move. The LORD simply opened Rachel’s womb, and she conceived. That simple. Suddenly, for the first time in the story, Rachel utters the words “The LORD.” Despite all the scheming, and all the embarrassment, ultimately it is God who gives what is needed.

The Gospel According to Genesis

What are we to make of this strange and embarrassing origin story? Why is it important to realize that the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel came about through such a pitifully dysfunctional family?

On one hand, it would be easy to draw a few moralistic lessons from such a story. Polygamy is bad. Don’t be jealous of someone else who has more kids than you. Don’t blame your spouse for something that is outside of their control. These are all good lessons that could obviously be drawn from the text. But the significance of this story is not just to offer good advice on how to avoid getting into a messy situation, but to remind us that even in the worst situations, God never stops working to fulfill his purposes.

God always keeps his promises. It is incredibly important that we remember this. It’s easy to see how messed up the world is these days. And unfortunately, in many cases, the church it seems like the church is just as messed up. Yes, it’s easy to grow discouraged, but the danger of forgetting God’s faithfulness is far greater than simple discouragement.

When the thought of God’s faithfulness fades into the background, and we grow frustrated like Rachel, we may find ourselves, like Rachel, looking to our own schemes to fix our situation, rather than simply being faithful to God. If we’re not careful, frustration can cause us to lose focus on the big picture.

What Genesis 30 shows us about God’s character is seen even more fully in the cross of Jesus. Israel’s embarrassing origin story has nothing on the embarrassment of the Christian origin story. There has never been a more poignant example of human failure than what is seen in the false accusation, corrupt judgment, and gruesome murder of the innocent Jesus. The cross shows us that no matter how wicked or dark things may get, God can bring about his good intentions. If God can bring about the world’s greatest good out of the murder of his innocent Son, he can bring about good from pandemics, social panics, apathetic churches, and corrupt political schemes (cf. Rom. 8:28).

Think about the significance of the names of Jacob’s sons. When we find ourselves lonely or rejected like Leah, we need to remember that we serve a God who “sees”, a God who “hears”, a God who provides “attachment”, a God who deserves our “praise”. When we feel powerless to fix a bad situation like Jacob, we need to remember that we serve a God who “vindicates”, who “wrestles” on our behalf. When we are tempted to come up with our own schemes like Rachel, we need to remember that “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wages”, and “honor” come from God. In the end, God remember Rachel’s sorrow, and he “added” to her a son, a savior.

The gospel is the most embarrassing family origin story of all time, and yet it is the greatest reversal of evil this world has ever seen. God will remember his people and his purposes.