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Distractions

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Distractions

Elizabeth Ostring

Elizabeth Ostring, MB, PhD, a pastor for It Is Written Oceania and assistant pastor of the Royal Oak Seventh-day Adventist Church, resides in Helensville, Auckland, New Zealand.

 

Pastors often preach that Enoch walked with God, as that is what the text says. Walking with God describes the Genesis term for the ideal relationship between God and His people: Enoch (Gen. 5:22–24), Noah (Gen. 6:9), and Abraham (Gen. 17:1) all “walked with God.” The image of this gentle, continuous, present-tense activity is complemented by several New Testament metaphors for the relationship between God and His people, such as abiding in the vine (John 15:5) and eating with Jesus (Rev. 3:20).

It is also true that Genesis offers “theological propositions and convictions [that] are foundational for the rest of the Bible”1 and that “Genesis is second to none in its importance in proclaiming ‘the whole will of God’ ”(Acts 20:17).2 However, Genesis not only lays this foundational emphasis on walking with God; it also provides valuable insights into classic distractions that can thwart that walk, even for pastors.

And that is what this article will look at: the distractions.

The Genesis chiasm

Genesis has traditionally been seen in two parts, the primordial and the patriarchal, cleverly described as moving from generation to degeneration to regeneration.3 Some have challenged this traditional structure, with its “sin” versus “saved” outlook.4 Umberto Cassuto stated that the Golden Rule of Torah means that the conclusion of a narrative should reflect the opening;5 this is a literary technique known as “inclusion” and is commonly utilized as “chiasm.” Genesis has numerous examples of this form: chapters 2 and 3, which begin with humanity in the garden, then end with the expulsion of humans from the garden. Later texts then focus on their disobedience,6 the Tower of Babel,7 the Aqedah (the binding of Isaac),8 and the last words of Jacob and Joseph.Recently, the whole Genesis narrative was shown to have a chiastic structure.10

 

Use of the Genesis chiastic structure reveals three major “tests” that humans encounter. The first test challenged trust in God. At the heart of Genesis, God tests the love of His servant Abraham (Gen. 22:1). As the narrative closes, another test emerges, commonly thought of as Joseph testing his brothers, but it is, rather, a test of Joseph’s loyalty to God. Laurence Turner expressed concern regarding the character of Joseph: “With the Joseph story, or more correctly the story of Jacob’s family, we reach the most sustained, almost seamlessly constructed narrative block in Genesis. It is human activity, rather than the divine, that is at the centre of attention. God is present, though more often than not he is invoked by the characters rather than being explicitly active. Yet, as if to underline the nature of the book, Joseph might be the most finely portrayed character in Genesis, but he also is the most enigmatic of all, even more so than Jacob.” 11 When we recognize that Joseph is not the lead character (God is) but that his allegiance to God is tested, we see the mirror image of the issues that confronted Adam and Eve and Abraham. In these three situations, Genesis chapters 3, 22, and 39–45, we discover the spectrum of satanic temptations.

The first distraction

The issue at the tree was more than simple obedience and trust in God, although disobedience was the outcome. Not only did the serpent attack the sovereignty and trustworthiness of God, but, significantly, he attacked the worth of the couple. His first words, “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1), not only challenged the beneficence of God but implied a serious inadequacy regarding the intellectual ability of the woman. They imply that if she were smart enough and intelligent enough, she would understand God’s words correctly. Eve responded to this challenge by reiterating the words of God, and adding a reinforcement of her own, “or touch it” (v. 3, NASB). This reinforcement suggests that Eve was well aware of the challenge and that she and her husband correctly understood the dire results of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent’s next thrust ridicules the present human state: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” (v. 5, NASB), emphasizing that the woman is not yet a god but, instead, is only a human. The fact that she was made in the image of God is, conveniently, overlooked. With the woman now doubting her own intellect and status, she was groomed to accept the fatal, unproven, quick-fix solution of the serpent: just eat the fruit.

Making humans feel inferior opens the door to countless temptations and inappropriate choices, illustrated within the Genesis text itself. Abram felt inferior to the Canaanites when he told lies about his wife’s identity (Gen. 12:10–20). Sarah, feeling inferior because of her infertility, agreed to an extramarital affair in order that her husband produce an heir (Gen. 16:1, 2). Esau felt inferior when he sold his birthright (Gen. 25:29–34). Isaac felt inferior (old and blind) when he raced ahead of God and planned to bless his favored son (Gen. 27:1–4).

How many people today are induced to use deleterious substances like tobacco, alcohol, and narcotic drugs in vain attempts to make themselves feel less inferior? If this basis for their behavior is recognized, the pastor is more likely to be compassionate and nonjudgmental. A sense of inferiority will induce people to make inappropriate marriages, wear inappropriate clothing, and eat unhealthy food simply to fit in the crowd. Inferiority provokes defensive and aggressive behavior. The pastor is not immune to this powerful distortion of truth. The problems arising from the first temptation (God cannot be trusted, and you are not good enough) are still present today.

The second distraction

The text declares Abraham was tested when asked to sacrifice Isaac, but what was he being tested on? The simplistic answer is once again obedience, but that fails to appreciate the rich layers of meaning in this intensely emotional story. Jacques Doukhan, who delineated the chiastic structure of Genesis 22, noted that the passage centers on the dialogue between God and Abraham and noted the significant episodes of silence in this dialogue.12 Most importantly, Jo Ann Davidson notes that for the first time in the Genesis narrative (and therefore the whole Bible) the word love is used.13 The text identifies what Abraham loved: “Your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v. 2).

But Isaac represented more than a beloved son, a beloved relationship, important as that was. Isaac was Abraham’s greatest achievement, his dearest possession, his hope for the future. In short, Isaac represented all the blessings of God to Abraham, concentrated in one human package.

The devil turns the gifts of God into the most powerful distractions. Instead of loving the giver, we, like children, focus on the gifts. So, Abraham’s “test” was not simply one of obedience but of whether or not he loved God supremely—more, in fact, than he did his beloved son, his achievements, or his dreams. In his personal observations and testimony, Julian Archer poignantly demonstrates how modern society offers a huge range of distractions that start as the blessings of God.14 Pastors are not immune to this type of temptation. It is all too easy for us to be distracted by loving the work of the Lord more than the Lord of the work.

The third distraction

Modern society relishes a success story so much that it is easy to miss the third distraction of the Genesis narrative. Thomas Brodie noted the Joseph story “picks up the elements of the first story (Genesis 2–4) and uses them in a radically new way.”15 After being the victim of brotherly hatred—reminiscent of the Cain-Abel tragedy of Genesis chapter 4—Joseph, in Egypt, becomes the focus of the narrative. Seven times in chapter 39 it is emphasized that Joseph is successful because God was with him (vv. 2, 3 [2], 5 [2], 21, 23). When he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and gives wise advice about how to cope with the predicted famine, even Pharaoh declares, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:38). Joseph remains, clearly, a superior human being.

But how does Joseph behave when unexpectedly confronted with his murderous brothers? The text says he immediately recognized his brothers, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them (Gen. 42:7). The reason for this: he remembered his dreams (v. 9), those dreams that portrayed his superiority over his brothers.

Yet the man who gave wise counsel to Pharaoh and offered workable plans to avert the national disaster had no sensible plan to deal with his brothers. Irrationally, he accused them of spying; next, he demanded that they must send for their missing brother (how would that help break a spy ring?); and then he put them all in prison, which made sending for the brother impossible. Finally, he kept one brother in prison, sent the rest home with money in their sacks, and when they returned, offered them a banquet. This is not a coherent strategy, and Joseph’s frequent bouts of weeping further suggest a general loss of control. Worse, Joseph twice swears by Pharaoh (vv. 15, 16), which no other Hebrew ever does.16 This indicates that Joseph was a very troubled man.17 It is dangerous to be a superior person.

The chiastic structure of Genesis reveals that Joseph’s test is similar to the temptation in the Garden of Eden. The mention of Joseph’s dreams elucidates the issue. While Eve, confronted with her inferior position, separates from God, Joseph was tempted by his superior situation to separate himself from God. Will he admit what the reader has repeatedly been told throughout the narrative: that Joseph prospers because “Yahweh God” was with him (Gen. 39:23), or will he force his brothers to worship him, as his dreams suggested?

The turning point was the selfless speech of Judah, although Joseph had probably been thinking deeply throughout this ordeal. Fourteen times Judah mentioned the sorrow of his aging father, and then, and only then, Joseph confronts reality, cannot control himself (Gen. 45:1), and passes the test. Now, four times in rapid succession, Joseph declares that he was nothing without God. “God sent me. . . . God sent me. . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God; . . . He . . . made me a father to Pharaoh” (vv. 5–8, NASB).

Personal application

The distractions beside the tree and the altar are ones all humans face. Who has not felt inferior and been tempted to accept the devil’s unproven, quickfix, easy answers? Who does not cling to the gifts of God, forgetting the Giver? Yet, “[n]othing is apparently more helpless, yet really more invincible, than the soul that feels its nothingness and relies wholly on the merits of the Saviour.”18

But, for Christians in general, and pastors in particular, the test of Joseph becomes very significant.

Doubtless Joseph was God’s instrument for saving not only his own family but also Egypt and other countries affected by the drought. Yes, he had an important, God-given, superior role. But it was God, not his own efforts, who made him a superior person. How easy it is for pastors to inadvertently see themselves as more essential to God’s plan than they are. If, like Joseph, our focus is on our own high calling and what we must do, we are in danger of “treating roughly” the brothers and sisters God wants us to lead to Him. This can trigger a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack, when the pastor now feels inferior and is in danger of the negative spectrum of emotions that leads to depression and burnout. Once Joseph recognized that it was God who had been leading all the way, that it was God who had called him to his superior position, that God had enabled him to accomplish what he had done and had given him success, he was able to bring reconciliation into his family. What follows in the narrative is a succession of blessing incidents (Jacob blessed Pharaoh [Gen. 47:10], Joseph’s sons [Gen. 48:1–22], and all his sons [Gen. 49:1–27]). But most important was Joseph’s final, repeated assurance that God will be with His people: “God will visit you and bring you up out of this land,” and “God will surely visit you” (Gen. 50:24, 25, ESV).

The temptations Christians and God’s leaders face today are the same as they have always been. Whether a pastor or a layperson struggling with a sense of inferiority, distracted by the gifts of God, or burdened by the enormity of the task, the answer is the same: walk with God. If you feel inferior, remember you are made in the image of God and redeemed by His blood. If things, position, or relationships distract, remember the Great Giver of them all. When tempted to savor the superiority of pastoral calling, remember we do nothing without God (John 15:5). Although two New Testament passages describe the Christian walk as a race (1 Cor. 9:24; Heb. 12:1), the first biblical description of successful partnership with God is encouragingly described as a walk. There is nothing inferior or superior about a walk. Taking one step at a time, we will reach the destination as long as we are not distracted from the Guide or the goal.

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1 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, ed. Ben Witherington III, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 18, 19.

2 Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1996), 22.

3 Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1–17, ed. R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1990), 11.

4 Robert R. Gonzalez, Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis With Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 264, 265.

5 U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two: From Noah to Abraham, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964), 190.

6 Roberto Ouro, “The Garden of Eden Account: The Chiastic Structure of Genesis 2–3,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 40, no. 2 (2002): 224.

7 Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 176.

8 Jacques Doukhan, “The Center of the Aqedah: A Study of the Literary Structure of Genesis 22: 1–19,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 31, no. 1 (1993): 17–28.

9 Nicholas P. Lunn, “The Last Words of Jacob and Joseph: A Rhetorico-Structural Analysis of Genesis 49:29–33 and 50:24–26,” Tyndale Bulletin 59, no. 2 (2008): 164.

10 Elizabeth Ellen Ostring, Be a Blessing: The Theology of Work in the Narrative of Genesis (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 141–157.

11 Laurence Turner, Genesis, 2nd ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2009), 8.

12 Doukhan, “The Center of the Aqedah,” 23, 28. 13 Jo Ann Davidson, “Eschatology and Genesis 22,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 11, no. 1-2 (2000): 243.

14 Julian Archer, Help! I’ve Been Blessed! How to Stop God’s Blessings From Becoming Curses (Franklin, TN: Carpenter’s Son Publishing, 2014).

15 Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 12, 13.

16 Turner, Genesis, 185.

17 R. R. Reno, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 275; W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary: Genesis (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974), 407.

18 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 182.

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