Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Radical Obedience of Bonhoeffer and Rebekah

(For an updated version of this post, check out this link posted on March 30, 2014)

I have recently finished reading the biography of "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy" , masterfully written by Eric Metaxas.  It is a lengthy book that warrants a more extensive review than the references I will be making today yet I wanted to briefly draw attention to a few motivations and actions of Dietrich Bonehoeffer as they relate to one of my newest hero's in the Bible, Rebekah.

Bonhoeffer was one of history's greatest and most surprising of social reformers.  He had the prophetic ability to understand the days he was living in, the insight to recognize how the Word of the Lord applied to his battle to save the Jews from Hitler's hands, and he possessed amazing faith and courage to willingly pursue justice and righteousness, even at the cost of his own life and reputation.  

Bonhoeffer was not drawn as much to the "letter" of the law as he was to the "Spirit" of the law.  Metaxas writes, "It was the God beyond the texts, the God who was their author and who spoke to mankind through them, that fired his interest."  Bonhoeffer was willing to learn from other teachers in the established church but he always maintained a level of "intellectual independence" which allowed him the spiritual freedom to follow the voice of his Shepherd, wherever it would lead. 

Early on in his ministry,  Bonhoeffer would meet with a group of young men in his home to discuss various topics related to the Christian life.  One of the key ethical questions that Bonhoeffer's group discussed, a question that links his heart directly to the heart of Rebekah, is this question:   "Is there such a thing as a necessary lie?"

For those who know the story well, you will know that Bonhoeffer's actions ultimately answer this question more effectively than words ever could.  The decisions Bonhoeffer would make (in direct opposition to Hitler's regime and in order to save the Jews) would draw much criticism from within the broader church context.  The murmurings of disapproval and condemnation were difficult to endure but the social isolation and pain he felt would serve to represent another "death to self" for him,  a surrendering of his reputation and "good name" within the church, all for the sake of following Jesus.

By the end of his life, Bonhoeffer "had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive.  It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules.  It had everything to do with living one's whole life in obedience to God's call through action."

At the point in the story where Bonhoeffer had officially joined the conspiracy to murder Hitler,  Metaxas points out that Bonhoeffer "was not just telling little white lies...he was 'sinning boldly'.  He was involved in a high-stakes game of deception upon deception, and yet Bonhoeffer himself knew that in all of it, he was being utterly obedient to God." 

Now let me introduce you to Rebekah.  

Like Bonhoeffer, Rebekah's story contains a troubling account of lies and deception.  When the church has traditionally read the story of Rebekah, they have often been quick to jump to conclusions, criticizing Rebekah, and calling her actions "manipulative".  Many sermons have condemned her for her lack of trust in God and her lack of submission to her husband.  

I totally disagree with the historical portrayal given to this amazing woman.  
I believe that, like Bonhoeffer,  Rebekah has clearly and sacrificially demonstrated, with her words and with her actions, that doing the will of God always supercedes doing the will of man.  

We know from our introduction to Rebekah that she was a woman who was willing to submit to God's leading in her life.  Her family did not force her to follow Abraham's servant in order to marry Isaac, a man she had never seen before.  They left the decision totally up to her and her simple response was, “I will go”.  

It was Rebekah who later inquired of the Lord as to why the twins were jostling in her womb.  “The Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ ”  The firstborn was Esau, the second born was Jacob. 

It’s important that we understand, as Rebekah did, that the traditional primogeniture (the law of the firstborn) would NOT apply to her boys.  This fact of God choosing to turn TRADITION upside down occurs over and over in scripture.   

As we read on, we see that Rebekah accepted what God had said to her about Jacob while it was Isaac who would continue to rebel against God’s spoken decree by favoring Esau.   Interestingly, this puts Rebekah in full agreement with God according to Romans 9:13; “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated.”

So, why did Isaac deliberately overlook the son that God had chosen to bless?  Why did he continue to give preference to the son who willfully violated God’s covenant by taking Hittite women as his wives?  Hebrews 12:16 calls Esau a sexually immoral and profane man “who sold his inheritance for a single meal”. 
In wrestling through these questions, we begin to see a different dynamic in the events of this story.  From a spiritual perspective, it was actually Isaac, not Rebekah, who was trying to manipulate the hand of God in trying to ensure that Esau got the blessing that rightfully belonged to Jacob.   

In Gen. 27:5, the narrative makes special mention of the fact that “Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to Esau” about going out to kill some game so that he could give his blessing to Esau before he died.  

This was “providential” information for Rebekah and it would seem that God actually wanted her to know what Isaac was scheming.  Hearing Isaac’s words would confirm to her that, even in his old age, Isaac was still stubbornly intent on disregarding God's revealed will.  Knowing Isaac’s intent mobilized Rebekah into action and her response to this information was actually facilitating God’s purposes for the future nation of Israel.

A key factor in this story is that the oracle was given to Rebekah, not  to Isaac.  It was entrusted to her by God and where God imparts such knowledge, He also imparts great responsibility.  Yes, including a woman!! 

Rebekah then tells Jacob to disguise himself and Jacob raises a legitimate question in 27: 12: “ What if my father touches me?  I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself.” 

Rebekah's response “appears” as though she is incriminating herself: “My son, let the curse fall on me.  Just do what I say and get them for me.”  Was her strong language an admission of guilt OR was it related to something else?? 

Amazingly, there is a biblical connection that shines beautiful light on what Rebekah is saying and doing here.  Like Bonhoeffer, Rebekah's course of action will not appear to follow the human standard for "moral obedience".  Even though Rebekah lived prior to the laws of Moses, her actions reveal that God's law for obedience was already written on her heart.   It was her love for God's prophetic word that will ultimately determine the moral compass that motivates her subsequent actions.  This is very important so follow this connection closely!!!

The very same language that Rebekah uses in vs. 13 is echoed again by the apostle Paul in Romans 9: 3: 
[Note: Every mention of "theirs" is speaking directly of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel]

Paul said: “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.  Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!! Amen!!” 

Do you catch the excitement in Paul’s words as he marvels at God’s purposes in choosing Jacob [Israel]??  Can you begin to understand why Rebekah was SO intentional in making sure the blessing indeed went to Israel and not to Esau??  

Paul’s willingness to take on a curse, in the same way that Rebekah did, reveals how this unusual phrase is being motivated by genuine love for God’s purposes.  Bonhoeffer's willingness to sacrifice his life for the Jews was motivated by this same love.  Jesus himself became a curse for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.  

Like the apostle Paul, and like Bonhoeffer, Rebekah longed to see the purposes of God fulfilled even if it meant that she herself would be cursed.  That’s not manipulation or deception.  Rather, we are witnessing her sheer obedience and love for the word which God had spoken to her heart!!!   If only Isaac had submitted himself to God’s purposes as Rebekah had done. 

Just 7 verses later, the link to Rebekah is completed when Paul refers to Jacob and Esau as “Rebekah’s children”.   If Paul had wanted to rebuke her actions or reprimand her for her insubordination, this would have been the place to do it.  But he doesn’t.  Instead he affirms her by using the same language she herself used.

After Isaac’s shocking revelation that the blessing had not gone to his beloved Esau, Isaac responds to Esau’s plea with this lame excuse:  "Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing."  Excuse me???  Isaac still didn’t get it!!  He was blind in more ways than one.  This blessing was never intended for Esau!

Returning to Genesis 27, there is one more significant detail in the narrative that clearly demonstrates Rebekah’s strong desire to see Jacob [Israel] walk in God’s blessing.  As providence would have it, once again Rebekah hears, from an unmentioned source, that Esau plans to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies.  Rebekah’s love for God, and her love for “Israel”, shifts quickly into protective mode as she notifies Jacob that he is in danger and must prepare to leave.

Not only is Rebekah aware of Jacob’s physical danger but she is also aware of his spiritual danger if he remains among the godless women that lived in their community.  Rebekah addresses her concerns to Isaac and complains about the state of ungodliness all around her:

“I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”  

This was not an offhand comment made by a depressed and grumbling wife.  Rather, these words reflect a holy hatred for the same behaviors that God hated.  Her words reflect a zealous heart that yearned for Jacob to marry “in the Lord”, that he might choose a wife from within the family of God and that the blessings and promises of God would NOT be hindered by disobedience and ungodliness.  

As I continue to reflect on the amazing courage and spiritual leadership displayed by Rebekah throughout this story, I believe this is one story that it would greatly benefit the church to read more carefully.  Our voices need to join with the apostle Paul’s in affirming Rebekah’s love, not condemning her.  It’s a reminder to me that the patriarchal voices in various contexts of the church and home are not always to be trusted.  As women who follow Jesus, we must therefore find healthy ways of showing respect to those around us while making sure our obedience to God always comes first.  We cannot serve two masters.  

Like Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and Bonhoeffer, Rebekah has brought surprising clarity to what it means to live courageously  before an audience of One.  She
 inspires me to fear God, not man.  

[To read a similar story about another courageous woman who was sensitive to God’s leading in her life, read the story of Abigail and David recorded in 1 Samuel 25.]

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