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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Value Differences

Our church has been involved in a fascinating Bible exercise this month. We're reading some of the key stories in the Old Testament. I've blogged before about the significance and wealth of wisdom in the Old Testament. So much of who God is gets revealed there.

Some might be surprised that so much of humanity gets revealed in the Old Testament. Seriously, we can see that much of how people think, make judgments, etc. hasn't changed much in thousands of years. From Adam and Eve playing the blame game to the lying, cheating, murdering, slandering, arguing, adultery, and even incest ... some of mankind's most amazing characteristics are revealed in great detail.

On the other hand, I think there are some surprises. I've begun to notice that there were some value systems at work in Old Testament times which we would absolutely not buy into. The most obvious might be polygamy or slavery. Both were common among people whom God called righteous and holy.

A less obvious value system at work in the Old Testament was a practice that followed the tradition of birthright, or the tradition of one's word. Protecting a birthright or keeping one's word seems to have been upheld despite circumstances that we in modern times would consider preposterous.

Jacob & Laban
For example, Jacob found Laban, a long lost relative and wanted to marry his daughter, Rachael. Laban told Jacob he could marry Rachael if he would first work for Laban for seven years to "earn" the right to marry her. Jacob agreed and worked the seven years. But when we went to the wedding, Laban tricked him and he actually married Leah, Laban's oldest daughter, without realizing it! When he discovered the trick he was furious and went back to Laban. Laban justified his behavior with cultural tradition, but offered to let Jacob have Rachael if he would work another seven years to earn her. Jacob agreed.

Can you just imagine? I mean - poor Jacob! Why didn't he call his attorney? Why didn't he have the first marriage annulled? Why didn't he sue Laban? Why on earth, after working for Laban for seven years and getting cheated, would Jacob agree to work another seven years? Would anyone in our modern society ever put up with this kind of crap?

Jacob & Esau
Another example that shocks me is the time that Jacob stole Esau's blessing from their father, Isaac. It seems that Isaac was an old man who'd lost his sight. He thought his death was near and wanted to have a meal with his eldest son and bestow a special blessing on him. His wife Rebekah liked Jacob better than Esau, so she hatched a plan. The plan, in a nutshell, had Jacob masquerading as his brother Esau, so he could get this special blessing from Isaac. Because of the old man's poor eye sight, they pulled it off. Isaac thought he was dining with Esau, touched him physically and imparted a special blessing on him. When the trickery was discovered, Esau of course was devastated. His father was grieved as well. But when Esau asked his father to bless him, Isaac told him he couldn't. It was only one blessing and it's gone now. "Sorry Esau. Your brother just snatched it from you. There's nothing I can do."

Can you just imagine? First, we have the fraud perpetrated on poor old Isaac by his shrew of a wife and scheming son. Then we have poor Esau who is left out in the cold. Basically Esau got screwed (to put it in modern terms). But why wouldn't Isaac have cancelled the blessing he'd given Jacob by mistake? Why wouldn't he move to make things right for poor Esau?

Modern Changes
I think the most startling contrast between these stories and modern thinking is really two-fold for me.

For one thing, it seems that a man's word was worth a whole lot more back then than it is now. It couldn't be changed ... for any reason. Today, we would always let the circumstances dictate an exception. You lied to get what you have? Then I have the right to take it away from you? You swindled people and got something dishonestly? Then you don't have a right to it! Isn't that how we think in today's society?

Another thing that I see in stories like these are a vastly larger scale of forgiveness back then than we're used to now. Take Rebekah, for example. She screwed and cheated her own husband - to say nothing of what she did to poor Esau. And yet they remained a family. In today's society, ole Rebekah might have found herself divorced and fighting for a decent share of the assets to fund her old age alone. Esau would have gotten power-of-attorney for Isaac, challenged the will and they'd have fought a huge battle in that family for years maybe.

So are the differences worth it? I mean are the differences appropriate? Is our sense of justice and fairness working better for our society than forgiveness, tolerance and keeping one's word, no matter what? There are days when I wonder.

I look at families and segments of our society and I think about whether we've really evolved in a positive way. And maybe more to the point - are our values more pleasing to God than the values held in society back then?

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