What do you mean God speaks?

S3Finale: Frozen between faith and fear - How our Journey continues

September 30, 2023 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 3 Episode 18
What do you mean God speaks?
S3Finale: Frozen between faith and fear - How our Journey continues
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We have finally arrived at the final main episode of the third season. Here, we will survey what it means to believe in God, formed and expanded through the journeys of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and then Joseph. However, this account reveals that there will be times when those who are on this journey, become suspended between belief and unbelief, fear and faith.

That was how it was for Jacob—who had been named Israel. After he lost his son, Joseph, and likely even earlier, his life and his journey became frozen in place, until God spoke again. So, join us as we continue to follow the life-stories of the family of Abraham to its closing of the book of Genesis.

For most of October, I will be in Korea. Then, I will be back with a post-season episodes, featuring my commentary about the past season and some issues that were not included in this season. Following that will be a trailer, which will introduce  the Fourth Season, and reveal its title.           

 2:05     Fundamental analogies that relate us to reality             
 8:02     Believing in God is about which analogies to live by             
 13:55     What overturns our deepest beliefs and analogies             
 21:27     Jacob frozen with fear until God speaks again             
 29:48     Limbo between belief and unbelief, fear and faith             
 35:50     Though frozen, here we wait until God speaks again               

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Contrary to how it may seem sometimes, this series is not presenting some argument for a full-fledged belief in God. What it has been doing so far, rather, is to describe the world of those who do believe in God—and specifically that of Christianity—and why that world merits further exploration. This series itself is in part that exploration.

But, it takes a kind of faith to begin this exploration and to continue onward—faith not as how our modern society misunderstands it, but as how it is actually described in the life-stories of the people presented in the Jewish and the Christian Bible. This faith is not about simply believing some claims without evidence; it is about journeying toward a life we have not yet reached. We begin the journey when we have faith that it will lead us to something meaningful and worthwhile. We continue the journey as long as we have faith that whatever it is that beckoned us to it—a truth, a principle, a conviction, or ultimately, the voice or the person that spoke to us—will eventually bring us there. 

Yet, this means that there will be times when we become afraid that our journey was in vain, that our hope was for nothing, that the voice that spoke to us was a mistake or a lie. Faith is tested then, as this question will confront us: do we still go on?

And so, we wrestle with God, to arrive at the final episode of this third season of… 

[ music / ]

… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our 18th and finale of the third season, “Between faith and fear: journeying onward until you can’t.”

[ / music ]

There’s a difference between knowing a set of facts about something, and understanding what that something is. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say there’s someone you know quite well from work. You’d be able to list a set of facts about that person—her biographical information, her job, hobbies, relationships, and so on—which you’d have learned from different sources, such as her resume, or reputation, or your personal relationship with her. But, from all of that, you’d also have an understanding of what kind of person she is—kind, or talented, or hard-working, or trustworthy, or maybe spiteful, or deceitful. It is this character portrait, so to speak, that frames the various different facts about her, and enable you to understand what those facts mean. Is the excellent evaluation of her job performance, for example, due to her hard work and talent, or to something else? 

Even more to the point, this understanding of the kind of person she is informs how you are to relate to her at any given time. So, let’s say that she invites you to join a project she is heading; how do you respond? Well, aside from factors like the viability of her project, your personal circumstances, and so on, it would depend on questions such as: is she trustworthy to work with? Is she competent enough to head that project? Or is she deceitful or spiteful, so that you’d have a terrible time working with her? Again, this is more than just some facts about this or that work she did in the past; there could’ve been external factors that affected what happened—sheer luck, company politics, and so on. For you to decide how to respond, you needed to have drawn some general conclusion regarding her character from those events. The two are obviously closely connected. Your understanding of who she is would’ve been formed from the various facts you know about her—or from your experiences with her—specific things that she did, or particular things that she said. But, in turn, this understanding would shape how you interpret what she says or does afterwards. If you’ve come to believe that she is kind, her angry outburst at work would incline you to think there was a good reason for it, whereas if you believe she is deceitful, when she comes to you bearing gifts, you’d be suspicious, wondering what she is up to. 

This is how we relate to the world around us. We all have a general understanding of our world, which is more than just some set of facts, or even some simple description. And this understanding is a kind of frame that not only holds those different facts and descriptions together, but informs how we are to relate to everything around us. 

This is also how we do science. So, suppose that we make a series of discoveries that overturn more or less everything modern physics has said about our world, such as an asteroid moving faster than the speed of light, or flying objects that ignore the laws of inertia, or places on Earth where gravity just does not work. Scientists would then say that they will have to quote, “go back to the drawing board,” and “start from scratch.”[1] But, they actually wouldn’t be starting from scratch—unless they had just given up on doing science altogether. Even with every existing scientific theory or account about our world overturned, they would still believe that there is rationality to the universe, which we can understand and describe with our language, mathematically or otherwise. And this belief is why they would continue to search for some unknown, deeper principles or laws that will explain these phenomena and enable them to formulate a whole new theory about our universe. And this belief is not a scientific theory; it is something far deeper and older, a particular way to think about the world in order to do science at all. It is not some set of facts or scientific descriptions of the world, but a fundamental understanding of reality, which informs how we are to relate to this world as a scientist, and a frame holding together everything science has—or will ever—discover. 

And at this fundamental level of understanding, we tend to draw upon analogies or imageries [2]. For example, one such imagery in the past was that of the universe as something like a vast clockwork, which science reverse-engineers; this is how scientists back then understood the universe, and this imagery in turn informed them of what they were to do—they need to describe the “machinery” of what they studied, and words like “mechanisms of evolution” are a holdover from this view. Now, this “clockwork” imagery no longer quite fits with how science today understands the world, and we seem to be moving toward new imageries—for example, that the universe operates like a kind of program with algorithms and codes. Of course, at the basis of both imageries is the idea of the Logos, which is also an analogy that there is a “speech-like” character to reality—a “rationality” to the universe, which can be understood and described by human speech [3]. But, my point here is that at the root of our scientific theories and descriptions are analogies and imageries. In fact, even the term, “laws of nature,” is an analogy, since something like “laws of physics” is not literally laws that are legislated and enforced by some governing body. Rather, to say that there are “laws of nature” is an analogy—that the universe is like something that is governed by laws, that everything in the universe exists through something that is like a set of laws, or rational speech

All this sheds some more light to a point that has been repeated throughout this series: everything we say of God is an analogy. So, what we say of God, is not some fact or a description of the world; it is a particular way we characterize, and relate to, reality as a whole, at the broadest and the deepest level—and we do so through analogies. And it is not that religious views understand reality with symbols and metaphors, while secular or non-religious views describe the world literally and scientifically. Rather, every view, at its most fundamental level, draws upon some imagery or analogy. With everything said and done—everything from the sciences, the arts, rational discourse, empirical inquiry, personal experiences, and so on—all of us still hold this wider understanding of reality, which frames everything we learned from them and informs how we are to relate to everything around us by that frame. And we form this kind of understanding through analogies or imageries; we cannot do otherwise

And so, here’s one way to think about what it means to believe, or disbelieve, God of religions like Christianity. We say that God is reality; then, what are our analogies of reality? And how far do we take these analogies to relate to reality, and live our lives? Now, some analogies may be shared by secular or even atheistic worldviews: reality is like a speech, with principles and laws, and unfolds like a story. In that sense, “all of reality is God speaking,” that “the laws of nature is the speech of God,” and that “history of the universe, Life, and humanity, is the story of God.” But, just how far are we to take these analogies? Can we say that “all of reality is God speaking like a speaker or an author”? And maybe we can do so in the sense that our reality, its laws, and its history, could have been different, rather like how a speaker could have spoken something different than what was said. But, does that really mean that this “Speaker” is personal, and can speak with us, person to person? How far can we take these analogies?

Well, again, you should remember that how we come to understand what a thing is, is formed from the facts about it, based on our experiences of it; so, how far we can take our analogy regarding reality depends on our experiences of reality—and for this series so far, what Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph experienced. Something spoke with them; this something, which people around them called “God,” or “El-Shaddai,” spoke as a voice in their heart, or as a thought or an insight that “came to them” in some way, or through a vision or a dream, and what this voice spoke, came true; reality unfolded what the voice personally spoke to them. This voice spoke with Abraham and Sarah and promised them that a son will be born to them long past their child-bearing age, and then, their son Isaac was born. This voice, now called “God of Abraham,” spoke with Isaac and promised him that he will be blessed even during a famine, and then, every time he dug a well, it struck water, so that his past enemies eventually offered him a treaty of friendship. This voice, now called “God of Abraham and Isaac,” spoke with Jacob in a dream, promising to bless him in a foreign land and bring him back home, and then, Jacob overcame many trials to return home safely with great wealth and a family of his own. This “God” spoke to Jacob’s son, Joseph, through dreams and insights, which taught him how to save his family and a nation from a great famine. Whatever this voice spoke was what reality then unfolded, which meant if we say, reality is like a speech and unfolds like a story, then this voice is the Speaker.  

And their experiences took our analogy a step further. This voice of God that speaks with people, speaks promises that come true. So, not only is reality like a speech, with principles and laws, but as we considered in the previous episodes 17, and 17.17, these laws that govern the regularity of our universe are like spoken promises that is being kept. According to the Jewish and the Christian Bible, this is what it means for God to personally speak promises to people—just as the sun, moon, and the stars, will move in the way they do, following the laws of nature, what God has spoken to us will come about, just as surely, because that is God’s character—Who God is.

This is what it means to believe in God. This is how those of us who believe in God frame every fact and every experience in our lives, to understand all of reality as a whole. We live by a series of analogies that we believe relate us to everything around us more fully and truly than by any other way.  

This is how we come to relate to reality as Who, and not a what.  

… Or, at least, this is how it starts.

[ Pendulum ]

Everything we believe can be shaken, or even overturned; every fact; every description of the world; even the most fundamental understanding of what—or who—reality is. 

We can learn new things that challenge our beliefs; like how hearing from marginalized communities can transform our positions on social or moral issues; or how some new discovery or findings can overturn established scientific theories. Or, things can happen to us or we can encounter things that will overturn what we believe about ourselves, or those around us, or the world in which we live; like how that course you took just for extra credit turned out to be something you wanted to do for the rest of your life, while your dream job turned out to be something you just couldn’t wait to quit; or like when a friend you trusted betrayed you, while a co-worker you thought was speaking ill of you behind your back, stood up for you when no one else did; or, when you hear the news that there is in fact Life on another planet. Things often compel our beliefs to change.

But, whereas it is relatively easy to challenge or overturn our beliefs regarding some facts regarding various things in our lives, it is much harder to do so with what is at their roots—how we understand and relate to the world around us. Deeper and wider in scope a belief is, more difficult this becomes; after all, we’ve just examined how our most fundamental understanding of reality tends to be a kind of analogy or an imagery that informs us how to relate to everything around us. But then, how do you overturn an analogy? Now, for example, a particular scientific theory can be overturned—it happened many, many times already. But, what would overturn the fundamental belief that there is rationality to the universe, the analogy that reality is speech-like in character, so that we can understand and describe it with our speech? That’s much, much harder, to even imagine. Even if every scientific theory and account we have so far is proven wrong, we’d still hold to that belief—this conviction. It would only be when every one of our attempt to understand the universe, to make sense of things, fail and fail utterly—a literally apocalyptic scenario where there ceases to be any order, law, or principle to anything that happens, just pure chaos. And it would only be then that we’d give up this conviction—if we’re still alive that is. And this is a key point. For a belief at this level, we do not disprove it; we give up trying to live by it. 

This leads us to another point. How firmly a belief of this kind is established depends on how long and how far we have lived by this belief. Or to put it in a different way, how long it would take for us we give up this kind of belief depends on how far we’ve been able to live with it so far. Now, some beliefs have been proven to be just unlivable. For example, very few societies still live by a strictly communist ideology, especially its Stalinist iterations, because within a single generation, it led to the deaths of millions, and unraveled their societies. Likewise, no large-scale societies live by fully libertarian practices, because it turns out that at least some governance is needed once there are enough people. But, if we have lived by some particular way of life, and our lives didn’t unravel because of it, then the fundamental understanding of reality that such way of life implicitly holds is rather difficult to overturn. For example, imagine what it’d take to reject our belief in democracy. Now, it isn’t that our democracies have no problems whatsoever. If fact, democracies have a lot of problems, because they are democracies. Leaders and policies of a democracy are decided by whoever and whichever is more popular, but what is popular, is often not what is needed; sometimes it’s downright harmful —a point made by philosophers like Socrates and Plato more than 2400 years ago. But, is there a better way to run our society, a society in which you’d like to live? That was the point made by Winston Churchill when he said, “democracies are the worst form of government, except for all the other ones we tried.” So, we ask instead, maybe there’s some way to fix these problems without, well, throwing away our belief in democracies. 

Belief that reality is Who, rather than a what—God that personally speaks with us—is something people have lived by. To be specific, this is the belief that reality is like a speech, and unfolds like a story, and that the voice that personally spoke with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the voice that—analogically speaking—“speaks this speech and unfolds this story; this belief is something that has been lived out by people. So far in this series, this belief was lived out by Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Joseph. Now, at the start, it was easier to shake this belief—it took just a single famine for Abraham to pack up and leave the land, which this voice promised would be the land of his descendants. Yet, in the next generation, when there was yet another famine, his son, Isaac stayed in the land because the same voice spoke to him. Longer they lived by their belief, and saw that what the voice spoke to them was what reality unfolded, more established their belief became.

So, what would challenge or overturn such a belief? And the answer is: if what the voice spoke failed to unfold in reality—if it turned out to be a lie. Some examples are straight-forward: if Isaac was never born—or worse, when God spoke to Abraham to present Isaac as a burnt offering, if God then proceeded to kill the child, burn him, and then send Abraham away, alone and empty handed; or, if Jacob wrestled with God, only to see his brother Esau arrived with his men and slaughter his entire family. Then, what the voice promised would have failed, and failed with an irreversible finality. But, neither of this happened. Just as God promised, Isaac was born, and when Abraham presented his son to God as an offering as an act of faith, God provided a ram as a substitute. God blessed Jacob with the name, “Israel,” meaning “he who wrestles with God,” and the next day, Jacob was reconciled to his brother, Esau. 

But, Life is rarely so straight-forward. Before Isaac was born, Abraham and Sarah spent decades waiting for a son until they just gave up. Their great-grand son, Joseph, spent years in slavery and then in prison, while the dreams that God spoke to him seemed to have been proven false. Most of our life is spent, in ambiguity, in limbo where promises God spoke have not—and may never—come true; God that speaks to us seem silent. 

So, then the question is: what keeps us suspended in between during that time?

[ Pendulum ]

It is interesting to note that throughout the story of Joseph, there is no part where Jacob hears God speak to him. And this is not simply because the story’s focus shifted away from him, because later on in this story, God does speak to Jacob again, and at length. 

And there is a specific point in Genesis after which there is no scene where Jacob speaks with God until that time near the end: It is after the death of Rachel, the wife he loved the most—in fact, only woman he wanted to marry. Afterwards, Jacob is depicted simply as a father, whose favoritism to Joseph, the son Rachel had left him, tainted his relationship with his other sons from his other wives. Then, when Joseph is lost to him, he is depicted as a terrified old man, gripped with fear that he will lose Rachel’s last remaining son, Benjamin. So, when his sons reported that the governor in Egypt, in charge of distributing grain during the famine, was demanding to see that son, he let out a plaintive cry, “I lost my wife. I lost my son. He’s the only one I have left!”

Here was a man, who was named Isra-El, because he had wrestled with God until he heard God speak to him and bless him. Now the same man cowered like Adam and his wife when they hid from God, afraid to hear what God will speak forth—what reality will unfold. Of course, he had his reasons. In the years since, he had lost the wife he loved the most, and then lost the son he loved the most in what should have been a routine and safe errand. Now, a seemingly hostile governor of a powerful empire, who had already imprisoned one of his sons, was demanding to see the very last son he left from the woman he loved. So, Jacob, who was Israel, no longer had the courage to wrestle with God and hear for himself what God is speaking to him, or what God is speaking forth in his life. He feared for what God would speak.  

But, the time came when Jacob had to stop running and face his fears; a time, like the night he wrestled with God, filled with fear that his brother, Esau, was coming to kill him and his family; a time like when God spoke with his grandfather, Abraham, to offer the son he loves, Isaac, as a burnt offering. And like his grandfather, Jacob also had to offer his son, Benjamin, to whatever God will speak forth and unfold, which included the possibility that he would never see him again. It is then that for the first time in Joseph’s story, the word, “God” appears again in Jacob’s lips. “Go,” he said. “And may God Almighty, ‘El-Shaddai,’ grant you mercy so that Benjamin returns here.” But, this was not quite the act of faith that his grandfather, Abraham, lived out when he offered up his son, Isaac, as he confessed, “God will provide the substitute.” Jacob has no choice but to let Benjamin go, since otherwise they would all starve. Israel who wrestled with God is now resigned to his fate; God will speak, and reality will unfold what it will, whether he wants to or not. So, he says, “If I lose my children, then so be it.”

What it would have been like for Jacob during the many days his sons were away, we can only imagine. But, when they returned, as Jacob likely counted their numbers from a distance, with his heart pounding with terror. But, something was different about them. Their faces were a mix of elation, awe, and relief, as they said, “Joseph is alive! He was that governor of Egypt, and he is asking us to all come to live with him there!” 

Their words didn’t even register with Jacob at first. That happens whenever we hear something that is utterly unexpected and outside our imagination. Joseph was dead; he was obviously and clearly killed more than twenty years ago. But, now he was being told that Joseph was not only alive, but was a ruler in Egypt, with complete authority over the most crucial and important thing during a famine—the distribution of stored reserves of food. It was something so far beyond what Jacob could imagine, let alone expect, that Jacob was at first stunned, and then filled with disbelief.

But, then his sons showed him the herds of donkeys, laden with gifts and supplies, and then the finely crafted wagons that would carry them comfortably to Egypt. They went on to repeat what Joseph had said to them—that God had brought him to Egypt to save everyone from the famine. Overwhelmed and finally convinced, Jacob exclaimed, “So, my son Joseph really is alive! Let me go see him before I die!”

And it is then that Genesis reports that Jacob made offerings to God, just as his entire household was setting out for Egypt—it is the first mention of him doing so since the death of his wife, Rachel. Then, he has a vision in the night, and God speaks to him. 

“Jacob, Jacob,” God calls to Jacob by name, just as how God called to Abraham during his final test of faith, and just like then, God waits for him to respond. Now, we cannot really know whether Jacob truly did not speak with God since Rachel’s death—only that until this moment, there is no mention of it happening in Genesis. But, this passage, where God does not simply speak to Jacob, but calls him, then waits until he responds, sets this conversation apart from others. There is something poignant to it, something deeply personal and meaningful to the pause, before Jacob responds, “Here I am.” 

Then, God speaks, “I am the God of your father, Isaac.” It is as if this voice that spoke to him so many years ago, and wrestled with him, was re-introducing Himself. “Don’t be afraid to go down to Egypt. I will make you into a great nation there. I myself will go with you, and bring you back. And Joseph’s own hands will close your eyes.” 

With this, Jacob’s story comes to a full circle. Many years ago, Jacob had set out as a young man, to a distant, foreign land, anxious and alone, and God spoke to him in a dream during the night. Now, he was setting out to a foreign land as an old man, with his grown children, grandchildren, and his entire household, hopeful but anxious of what awaits them, and then, God speaks to him in a vision during the night. Years ago, God declared that He was the voice that spoke to his father, Isaac, and then spoke the same promise that was first given to grandfather. Now, God speaks, again as the God of his father, reiterating the same promise. And just as God promised back then to bring him back home to the land that was promised to his descendants, God again promises to bring him back here after seeing the son he loves the most, and spending his last years with him. The voice that spoke to him in the past is the same voice that speaks to him now; and what the voice speaks is what reality unfolds. 

But, after he lost his wife and then his son, Jacob had not fully lived by that belief—he was in limbo, too afraid to hear God speak, yet also unable to shut the voice of God out. It was when Joseph was returned to him that Jacob was able to look up and see just where this voice had brought him during those years, and that is when he hears God speaking to him again. 

And that is how it is in this journey. Sometimes, we do not quite live by our belief, yet neither have we abandoned living by it. Sometimes, we are unable to continue forward with faith, and instead are carried forward. And during that long time, we simply wait, like seeds fallen on the ground during winter, waiting for the spring. But, unlike seeds, we feel the flow of time, the chill and the frost, wondering if winter will ever stop.

[ Pendulum ]

What is happening when we find ourselves caught between living by our belief in God, and abandoning that belief? What was it like for Abraham and Sarah during the twenty five years before Isaac was born, waiting for a promised child that seemed would never come? What was it like for Joseph, during the years he spent in prison, when it would have seemed that God left him there to rot? What was it like for Jacob as he clung to his son, Benjamin, fearful that God no longer protected him and his family? What is it like, when it seems we cannot live by our belief in God? When it seems our belief in God has been shown to be false?

But, here’s the thing about falsifying our beliefs. It’s more complicated than you think. Here’s an example. Let’s say you believed that you were getting a promotion at your workplace. You worked hard for it, you did a good job, and your boss and co-workers support you. But then, someone else gets the promotion. Now, you were wrong in your belief—that you’d get a promotion. But where did you get it wrong? Is it that you didn’t work hard enough? Or, the job you did wasn’t as good as you believed? Or, maybe one of your boss or co-workers stabbed you in the back? Or, maybe your company is not as fair and transparent as you thought it was? Perhaps there were some underhanded deals about who gets what? Or, maybe you were mistaken about what was needed for the promotion. It may even be that you didn’t hand in your application when you thought you did. Which was it? Which of these beliefs was wrong? 

Even science has the same problem. In episode five of season one, “Which is the ‘real’ Christianity” we considered how different scientific theories have different status. Some are relatively simple to confirm or falsify, like say, the model of how the planet Mercury will orbit around the sun, which was the example I used back then. But, if that turns out to be wrong, what then? In the 19th century, scientists found that the orbit of Mercury was not how it was supposed to be according to Newtonian physics. But then, which part of their physics was wrong? Were their instruments faulty? Did they make a mistake in their calculations? Or, did they miss a planet near Mercury that affected its orbit? Or, was there something wrong Newtonian physics as a whole? Scientists back then could not believe that Newton was wrong, so they concluded instead that there was a planet they had not discovered—and named it Vulcan. It was only when Einstein presented his general theory of relativity that they realized that Newton was wrong, and there was no planet Vulcan. Every scientific hypothesis or theory works only within the framework of theories that are much larger in scope, called “paradigms,” and if something seems wrong with those, it’s very difficult to figure out which part of the whole thing has been proven wrong. Larger and more complex your beliefs, more “parts” they have, and when something seems wrong with beliefs of that scope, figuring out where it seems to have gone wrong becomes very complicated. 

This difficulty becomes exponentially greater, when we consider how belief in God is a kind of fundamental understanding of reality, larger and greater in scope than any set of facts or theories—a way we relate to everything, and how we live it out. Belief of this scope needs to become unlivable; if every effort to understand our reality fails; if every truth that was spoken to us is proved false. Or, for a more specific belief that God spoke to people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it can only be overturned if the promise to them become literally unlivable, for example because Isaac was killed as a child, or because Jacob and his entire family was slaughtered by his brother, Esau. 

But, most things are in-between, ambiguous and gray. During that time, those who have lived by the belief in God, find that nothing has yet happened that would overturn the whole thing, to make their way of relating to reality, unlivable. God had spoken to Jacob that his descendants will become a great nation and inherit the land promised to his grandfather Abraham. And neither his loss of his beloved wife nor his son has made that promise a lie. Yet, their loss still raised the question: why? If the voice that spoke to him speaks forth and unfolds everything that happens, why did he lose his wife and his son? And that question would have raised that fear, borne from that gnawing suspicion toward God that became rooted in humanity since Adam and his wife ate the fruit of their distrust of God. That has since tainted our knowledge of possibilities—of what reality may unfold, what God may yet speak forth—so that those of us who wrestle with God become afraid, unable to continue onward toward where God beckons to us.

But, neither can we abandon the journey. Again, nothing happened that has made our belief unlivable, and the destination of our journey unreachable. We cannot continue forward, but we cannot stop. We know something about our belief is not as it should be, but we don’t know what it is. We may then start to re-examine our beliefs; we may even take steps we believe would fix the problem, without having to abandon the journey altogether. And that is what Abram and Sarai did when they took a surrogate, Hagar, to bear a son for them, when it seemed that they would never have a son between them that God promised. But, we may also simply become frozen in place, unable to neither move forward nor abandon their journey. We hang suspended between fear and faith. And so, Jacob stayed in the tents, clinging to his son, Benjamin. 

So, like seeds in the ground during winter, we wait, feeling the chill and the frost, until God speaks again.

[ Genesis music ]

And God does speak again, just as God spoke to Jacob after he heard the news of Joseph. That is what it means to believe in God, to believe that all of reality is like a speech and that the voice that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the Speaker. If so, even if we lie like seeds in the ground, unable to sprout until Spring comes, even if we are caught, suspended between living by our belief, and abandoning it, even if we are unable to grasp and wrestle with That which unfolds our reality, God will still call us by name. Because reality is not only like a speech and unfolds like a story, but speaks with us and authors our lives.      

Genesis thus testifies that even during the years Jacob hid from God and what God spoke forth, God spoke to Joseph, teaching him how to save the land from the famine, God spoke to the Pharaoh to free Joseph, so that he can do so, and God spoke his brothers, bring them to repentance. So, while Jacob lay like a frozen seed on the ground, God was speaking forth the Spring. 

And in the meanwhile, like Abraham and Sarah as they waited for their promised child, Isaac, like Jacob wresting with God during that night, and like Joseph standing firm in his years of slavery and imprisonment, we wait, and hold on. We don’t give up until the promise of God truly fails, because the Bible testifies that what God speaks, never fails. 

Those who believe in God live by that hope.

And so, Jacob arrived in Egypt and met Joseph. The Pharaoh was ecstatic to hear the news that his trusted minister was reunited with his family, and granted Jacob’s family a spacious and rich land near Joseph’s home in which to live. The famine raged on for five more years, but, Joseph had stored enough food to keep everyone alive until it finally ended. People were brought to destitution, but Joseph instituted a system where the lands they lost would belong to the Pharaoh, but they would be able to live and harvest there, as long as they turned over a fifth of their produce—just as they did during the seven years of plenty.

Jacob in the meanwhile spent his last years near his son, Joseph. Then, Jacob became ill, and sensed that his death was near. So, he called for Joseph, who arrived to see him with his two sons. “I didn’t think I’d see your face again, but God has let me see your sons!” Jacob said. Then, he reminisced about how Joseph’s mother, Rachel died, so that he buried her in a place called Ephrath—which Genesis notes is now the town of Bethlehem. Then, Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons and declared that they will be given the status of his sons, the sons of Israel, so that just as Reuben and Simeon will each become a tribe of the people of Israel in the future, Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, would each became a full tribe as well. 

Then, Jacob prayed over them with these words of confession—words of belief that he in the end had come to live by: “God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked in faith; God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day; the angel who has redeemed me from all harm: please bless these boys, and may they be called by my name, Israel, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac, and grow into a great people.”

Then, Jacob called together all of his sons and blessed them one by one, telling them of what their descendants would become, as a tribe of the people of Israel. Now, after all these years, Jacob has learned that everything the voice has spoken and promised him and his ancestors will come true. What was spoken will be what reality unfolds, through the years, through the centuries, until the end. 

So, he spoke to them of a future people, his descendants and theirs, tribes of Israel, then said, “Make sure to take me back to the land God promised us. Bury me there, where my grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, and my parents, Isaac and Rebekah are buried, and where I buried Leah.” With that, the man who wrestled with God, by whose name the people of God in the Bible would be called, breathed his last.

[ Genesis music ]

Joseph and his brothers mourned, along with the rest of Egypt. The Egyptians embalmed Jacob’s body, and his sons carried their father to the land of Canaan and buried him there with his ancestors. 

Joseph then lived to a very old age, and then said to his family, to the descendants of Israel, “One day, God will bring you out of this land of Egypt, and take you to the land that was promised to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That day, when God does what He promised, take my bones with you and bury me there.”    

And this is how the first book of the Bible, Genesis, closes, setting the stage for the next step in the inter-generational journey of the people of God.  

[ Ending Music ]

So, please join us next season as explore how a single family became a people, a society, a nation, that spoke with God. 

In the meanwhile, I will be in Korea for most of October, and will return with a post-season episode, followed by the trailer and introduction to our fourth season. 

Thank you everyone for listening, and please support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others, and by rating it on your apple podcast platform. You can also support this series at buymeacoffee.com—which you can go to by clicking on the line, “Support the show” in the episode description. 

 

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 [1] That, by the way, was what they said almost word for word a few years ago when they thought some particles in their experiment seemed to move faster than light—which turned out to be instrumental error.

[2] Something like what sociology or philosophy termed, “social imaginaries.” Charles Taylor, for example, would call this a “social imaginary,” though this example would perhaps be described as a large, interconnected series of “social imaginary” that describes the most comprehensive and whole level of our experience.  

[3] This idea again, is what Albert Einstein described as a “conviction, akin to religious feeling,” of every truly profound scientist, and how he saw what he would call as Divine, even though he did not ascribe to any religious belief. The “program” imagery is perhaps the most prominent in proposals that our universe itself may be a simulation 

Fundamental analogies that relate us to reality
Believing in God is about which analogies to live by
What overturns our deepest beliefs and analogies
Jacob frozen with fear until God speaks again
Limbo between belief and unbelief, fear and faith
Though frozen, here we wait until God speaks again