1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. 2 Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. 3 God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!”5 Thus Isaac sent Jacob away. And he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother. 6 Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. 8 So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, 9 Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.
The church is now at a crossroads. We are emerging, slowly and cautiously, from our pandemic quarantine to confront a world fractured with racial tension, unrest, anger, and strife. It seems to me that the church has an important question it must answer: What are we going to be? Not, what are going to do? What are going to be?
The church must ask itself if it truly wants to offer an alternative vision of community by being radically cross-shaped and Christocentric or whether it wants to play a game on the sidelines with just enough religious language slathered over it to convince itself that what it is doing really matters.
The church must be the church: a called-out community of radical Christ-followers whose lives individually and corporately present a countercultural vision of what love and life in the Kingdom of God looks like.
Our children are watching.
The world is watching.
God is watching.
In his important little book, The Anabaptist Vision, Harold Bender shows that even in the Protestant Reformation—that great effort to reform and change the church, this movement ostensibly to rid the church of cold, dead formalism, a poisonous theology of works-righteousness, and the detachment from an authentic walk with Jesus Christ that such can bring—the church still failed to be the church! Bender writes:
There is abundant evidence that although the original goal sought by Luther and Zwingli was “an earnest Christianity” for all, the actual outcome was far less, for the level of Christian living among the Protestant population was frequently lower than it had been before under Catholicism. Luther himself was keenly conscious of the deficiency. In April 1522 he expressed the hope that, “We who at the present are well-nigh heathen under a Christian name, may yet organize a Christian assembly.” In December 1525 he had an important conversation with Caspar Schwenckfeld, concerning the establishment of the New Testament church. Schwenckfeld pointed out that the establishment of the new church had failed to result in spiritual and moral betterment of the people, a fact which Luther admitted, for Schwenckfeld states that “Luther regretted very much that no amendment of life was in evidence.” Between 1522 and 1527 Luther repeatedly mentioned his concern to establish a true Christian church, and his desire to provide for earnest Christians (“Die mit Ernst Christen se in wollen”) who would confess the gospel with their lives as well as with their tongues. He thought of entering the names of these “earnest Christians” in a special book and having them meet separately from the mass of nominal Christians, but concluding that he would not have sufficient of such people, he dropped the plan. Zwingli faced the same problem; he was in fact specifically challenged by the Swiss Brethren to set up such a church; but he refused and followed Luther’s course. Both reformers decided that it was better to include the masses within the fold of the church than to form a fellowship of true Christians only. Both certainly expected the preaching of the Word and the ministration of the sacraments to bear fruit in an earnest Christian life, at least among some, but they reckoned with a permanently large and indifferent mass. In taking this course, said the Anabaptists, the reformers surrendered their original purpose, and abandoned the divine intention. Others may say that they were wise and statesmanlike leaders.
Where are these “earnest Christians” who are willing to stand up in the midst of a fractured social order and point people not merely with their words but rather with their lives to Christ Jesus? In Genesis 28, Isaac and Rebekah’s family begins to fracture. Jacob must flee, having deceived his father. Esau must navigate his great and bitter anger and hatred for his brother. In this parting of the ways we find truly two ways constituting two warnings. We must heed these warnings in our own day if we are going to be the church in any sense that can be called “biblical” and God-honoring.
A warning against an alloyed faith.
In Isaac’s words to Jacob we find a warning against an alloyed faith.
1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. 2 Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. 3 God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” 5 Thus Isaac sent Jacob away. And he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.
In Isaac’s words over Jacob we hear the echoes of Abraham’s words over Isaac: beware an alloyed faith, stay true to God! The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines an “alloy” as a “metallic substance composed of two or more elements, as either a compound or a solution.” Examples would be brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc and bronze which is an alloy of copper and tin.
An alloyed faith would therefore be the corruption of a true faith in God with elements that dilute, distract, and corrupt it. Specifically, for Jacob, this meant wedding himself to a pagan understanding of the one true God through wedding himself to a Canaanite woman and her gods. Hear the seriousness in Isaac’s plea:
- “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women.”
- “go…and take as your wife from there…”
- “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples.”
- “May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you…”
Do you see? Isaac ties the continuation of the covenant promises originally given to Abraham then passed to Isaac and now given to Jacob to his keeping faith and followership with God! If, however, Jacob allowed his faith to become alloyed with things not of God he might miss the covenant blessings.
We must be careful what we wed ourselves to! Our faith must be unalloyed!
This warning against an alloyed faith is one that we find in the writings of older Christians. For instance, in 1859, Thomas Vores wrote of how “earthly things” alloy the faith of Christians. “It is not often that faith can maintain its purity and brightness in the season of prosperity,” he writes, “earthly things get mixed with it; earthly joys alloy its purity; and earthly occupations interfere with its vigour.”
In an 1865 edition of The Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, in the article, “An Anchor Within the Veil,” the author writes:
The history of the church teaches that faith has been most vigorously exercised under frowning skies…When the people of God were few and feeble, their faith has been strong, their eye single. As they increased and grew strong…their faith has become alloyed, their eye double-sighted. They have looked much at accretions of worldly prosperity, and built much on the sands of flourishing circumstances, or the favourable opinions of men.
In 1861, Octavius Winslow, in his The Precious Things of God, spoke of how faith tends to become alloyed.
In its own nature faith, as it comes from God, is pure and without alloy. Essentially there is no admixture whatever with the faith the Holy Ghost inspires—it is pure, sinless, and untainted as was our humanity when it first came from the hands of God. But, as the mountain stream which starts from its hidden source pure and sparkling, partakes of the earthiness and tint of the soil through which it courses its way into the vale beneath, so the faith which proceeds from God holy and unmixed, mingles with the hidden corruption and unbelief of the heart in which it dwells, and thus becomes alloyed and impaired.
What are the alloys that call us to us today? With what might we distort and dilute our faith? Consider:
- The alloy of the middle to upper-middle-class comfort template.
- The alloy of uncritical political alignment.
- The alloy of racism.
- The alloy of anger and bitterness.
- The alloy of spiritual and ethical compartmentalization.
- The alloy of self-advancement.
- The alloy of capitulation to the spirit of the world.
For Jacob, it was the possibility of marrying himself to a Canaanite woman and her gods. For us it is the possibility of marrying ourselves to the gods of America.
We are to be an authentic family, an alternative expression to which the world might look and say, “That is what life should look like!”
A warning against a mechanistic, self-serving faith.
We find a warning in Esau as well. Esau, hearing his father’s words to Jacob, decides to try to mimic the steps of Jacob so as to leave open the door that he himself might yet receive that blessing that has eluded him for so long.
6 Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. 8 So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, 9 Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.
There is something very sad about this. Esau now sees not taking a Canaanite wife as possibly the way one gets the blessing. He is trying to work his way back into the picture. So Esau takes another wife, Mahalath. This union is an apt symbol for what is happening here, since Esau marries a girl in the line of Ishmael, Abraham’s son through Hagar the slave, the son who was not the conduit through whom the covenant would advance (that being Isaac). Robert Alter sums up nicely what is happening here.
Esau once again fails to get things right. Overhearing Isaac’s warning to Jacob about exogamous unions, he behaves as though endogamy were a sufficient condition for obtaining the blessing, and so after the fact of his two marriages with Hittite women—perhaps even many years after the fact—he, too, takes a cousin as bride. There is no indication of his father’s response to this initiative, but the marriage is an echo in action of his plaintive cry, “Do you have but one blessing, my Father? Bless me, too, Father.”
So Esau is still crying out for the blessing! In his marrying Mahalath he is trying desparately to get back into contention for the great prize! Kenneth Mathews sees in Esau’s actions an attempt to “imitate” Jacob and sees this as “the final stroke to the picture of hapless Esau, who sealed his status as the rejected son by marrying into the family of the discarded Ishmael.”
In other words, Esau’s approach to the faith was mechanistic (i.e., If I do “a” then “b” might happen!) and it was self-serving (i.e., It was still all about Esau). And, friends, if that does not sound like American Christianity I do not know what does.
Americans are great at fostering a mechanistic approach to the faith.
- If I go to church, God might bless me.
- If I put money in the plate, God might be pleased with me.
- If I avoid these certain sins, God will not punish me.
On and on it goes. It is a mechanistic faith. It is also staggeringly self-serving. This kind of thinking is ultimately all about how we get to heaven, how we get blessed, how our lives are better. And then the churches indulge this kind of thing by setting up systems whereby faith can be mechanistically quantified by works-righteousness merit badges that keep the whole weird cycle going. So if I take enough classes and go on enough mission trips and serve in enough places in the church I must be doing this right…right? But no! That kind of thing cannot foster actual faith, actual love of God or neighbor! That kind of thing creates narcissists, not Christians.
You can marry Mahalath and still miss the point!
The point was even marriage per se. The point was what marrying a Canaanite woman meant: wedding oneself to her gods and setting a trajectory for yourself away from the one true God!
We must be freed from the prison of our own selves so that we might value Christ and His way more than our own lives! The Dominican friar Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges writes, “Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.”
Yes! And for Christians this “dominant, wholly absorbing idea” that must so grip our minds is looking and sounding increasingly like Jesus Christ. In Colossians 3, Paul writes:
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
That “If then” is important, no?
If you have been raised with Christ…
If you have been born again…
If you are truly a disciple of Jesus…
If this is so, then “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.”
This is the “dominant, wholly absorbing idea.” This must be it! What must we do to do this? We must reject, Paul says, the “things that are on earth,” namely, our own advancement, security, prosperity, and domination of others. Why? How? Why must we do this and how do we do this?
3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
You. Have. Died.
What is this? This is conversion. This is Christianity. This is the gospel. This is discipleship.
Some of us, as Dallas Willard put it, are admirers of Jesus, not disciples of Jesus. Being an admirer is insufficient. We were called to follow.
Henry Varley once said to D.L. Moody, “The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully consecrated to Him.”
But the world could see it…if we would be fully consecrated to Him.
Let us die to self.
In so doing, we will be raised anew with and in Christ.
 Bender, Harold. The Anabaptist Vision (pp. 17-18). CrossReach Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Thomas Vores, Loving Counsels: Being Recollections of Sermons. (London: Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt, 1859), p.135.
 J.W. [John Wesley?], “An Anchor Within the Veil.” The Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine. 5.11 (1865), p.235.
 Octavius Winslow, The Precious Things of God. (Darolt Books [via Google Books]), p.47.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.99n4.
 Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary. Old Testament, vol. 1B (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 2005), p.405.
 Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (p. 33). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Dan R. Crawford, The Prayer-Shaped Disciple. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p.140.