Photo credit: Pok Rie
Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Secrets of Heaven (portions) #5757, #1413, #566 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/osMDs3Sbdxw
Today we come to the end of Moses’ journey. The children of Israel are close to the promised land, and Moses climbs a mountain in order to get an unimpeded view. He can see the sweep of the entire land before him.
And in one sense, this is a sad story. Moses will not get to step foot in the promised land. This is because of an incident in Numbers 20, a time when God was displeased with Moses and enacted this particular consequence. And in another way, it is a perfect time for a transition in leadership. Joshua has already been designated by the Lord to be Moses’ successor, and Moses has commissioned him in the presence of the people. A new leader to take them forth into a new land. It is implied in the text that it was God’s own self who buried Moses; a tender and intimate gesture.(1) The people grieved for thirty days, and Moses remains the greatest prophet of the Jewish tradition.
We’ve been following the Israelites on their journey toward the promised land for six weeks now. This seems like a good time to talk a little bit about the promised land and what it represents in the Swedenborgian worldview. For Swedenborg, all things in the Bible represent an aspect of our own interior, spiritual landscape. These representations have levels of meaning; levels that through their connected significance, work to bind us to each other, to heaven and ultimately, to the Lord. So, therefore, most things in the bible will have a personal or individual meaning, a communal meaning, a heavenly or spiritual meaning and then finally, a meaning relating to God’s self.
And so it is with the notion of “land,” and specifically, the promised land. The Israelites spent a long time heading towards that “land” that was promised to them, a holy land, a land of milk and honey. When we think about what “land” means to us, there are several things that come to mind. Land is something we walk upon, Something that we enter into, that has boundaries, that gives shape and form to our journeys, a place where we might make a home, a place that might inform our character, a space we inhabit as we live our lives.
Moses climbed the mountain and the Lord “showed him the whole land.” and said “this is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob….I will give it to your descendants. I have let you see it with your eyes…” The land is both promise and destination.
And it is in this metaphorical and poetic, yet concrete, sense that Swedenborg talks about what “promised land” means in these stories. In a personal way, the land represents the potential of our spiritual journey, the internal space to which we are heading, our angelic shape that is revealed through the process of regeneration. In a communal way, the land represents the earthly communities that we all seek, that shape and guide our journeys. In a concrete way, this means the church, or whatever spiritual community in which we gather. In a more mystical way, it means the Lord’s kingdom, the embodiment of justice and love in all human community in this world. Now, on a spiritual level, the land represents heaven; the ultimate formative community, the force that shapes us into angels, the destination of our soul, the place where we will find active and peaceful belonging. And finally, in an ultimate way, the land represents the Lord, elemental love and wisdom, from whom all these subsequent levels flow, and not just in a top down way, but as a loving vibrant pulse of life from the inside. (2)
This multi-level promise and opportunity of “the promised land” is the way that God shows up for us, the divine intentionality that God has for us and our lives. The Journey that the children of Israel have taken in these past weeks, represents aspects of our ongoing journey in relationship to God’s intentionality, a path away from that which enslaves our thinking and our feeling, and towards the promise of the land: a spiritually mature selfhood, beloved and just earthly community, supportive heavenly community, and a resilient connection to our God.
But, I found one little addition to all this talk about land that seems to take it even further. Swedenborg mentions that the “land” as it is when Moses is looking out over it in our text today, is different from calling it the “ground.” As we heard in our reading, the land is the church or the regenerate person who is still yet to exist, while the ground is when that reality comes into being. And that really resonates for me. When we see the land, when we think of the land, or even of *our* land, we think of it in a broad sweep, but the ground, the ground is something we touch and interact with. We put our hands in the ground, we work the ground, when we speak of someone being in touch with their own life and selfhood, we call them “grounded.” If we are going to live our lives in the land, if we want to inhabit the land, inhabit the generative opportunities that God is giving us, we have to have a relationship to the ground, to the everyday details and relationships and structures of our lives. To bring the reality of God’s intentionality into being, we are going to have to get to know the ground, till it and plant it, water it and nurture it. In Swedenborgian terms, the process of becoming an angel, or regenerating, is pictured in seeing land become ground, or seeing faith growing through love. (3)
And I find this a really useful way to picture the difference between vision and actuality. There are times when we need to be inspired by a grand vision, to know that there is somewhere purposeful and hopeful in the direction that we are heading. And then there are the times when we just need to get to work to make that vision happen. The children of Israel were not going to be able to inhabit the promised land by staying up on that mountain. They were going to have to come down to the ground and engage with the realities of inhabiting that land. And they would find plenty of challenges ahead for them.
And this is why Moses will often signify divine truth (4). It is the purpose of truth to show us what is possible, to show us the land, but knowing the truth alone won’t make the land our home, won’t make it so we know the ground, won’t make the ground fertile. Only embodied, active love guided by truth can do that.
Sometimes, maybe even each day, there will be part of us up on that mountain. We need those big picture moments. Moses was the vision, he saw the way out of slavery, he connected the people with God and translated God’s vision of the new land for them. He gave shape and reality to the covenant. But it wasn’t his job to oversee their transition from wanting to find the land to becoming grounded in their own home/space. And so another part of us will need to scrabble down that mountain, cross into the land and get busy tending the ground so that it can bear nourishment, so that it can be a home to us, so that it can be a place where our choices do some good, where our heavenly natures can start coming into being.
So, this really is a sad poignant story. A great man passed and the people mourned. Sometimes we would prefer to stay up on the mountain, stay in the anticipation of God’s kingdom. But, Moses’ death also marks the next important part of the journey: turning the land into the ground. We need to be able to see and appreciate God’s divine intention for us, and then we need to be able make it our own. To turn hope into love, truth into justice at the ground level where it makes a difference in people’s lives.
1 Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, 2 all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, 3 the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. 4 Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” 5 And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. 6 He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. 7 Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. 8 The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. 9 Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the LORD had commanded Moses. 10 Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
Secrets of Heaven #5757, #1413, #566
5757 'The land of Canaan' has various meanings, and this is because it is the kind of thing that includes very many meanings. It means the Lord's kingdom and it means the Church, as a consequence of which it also means the member of the Church, for a person is a Church. Having these meanings that land also means the celestial element of the Church, which is the good of love, and the spiritual element of it too, which is the truth of faith; and so on….
1413…Because it represented the Lord's kingdom, it also represented and symbolized spiritual and heavenly qualities of the Lord's kingdom and, here, of the Lord himself.
566…in the Word a careful distinction is made between ground (humus) and land or earth (terra)…when 'land' or earth' occurs in the Word it frequently means where the Church or some aspect of the Church does not exist, as in Chapter 1 [of Genesis] where the word 'land' alone is used, because the Church or regenerate person did not as yet exist. Not until Chapter 2 is the word 'ground' used because the Church has by now come into being.
Artwork by Aurelia Sullivan
Readings: Exodus 33:12-23, Secrets of Heaven #10579:9
So, I need to be completely honest with you this week. I’m feeling conflicted about this text. I’m owning it, it’s my own stuff. Because, I’d always remembered this text out of context, just the final section about seeing God’s glory, about Moses being put in a cleft of the rock and seeing God’s back as God passes by. And I had always interpreted in kind warm, safe, protective way, like when for a little child the whole world is just their parent’s legs and their face is so far away, and that it was more about Moses safety than anything else.
But, it takes on a different cast when seen in the context of the whole story. It seems a little more withholding, a bit more about God enacting a boundary, and that’s different than I remembered. So, we find ourselves in chapter 33 today, very close to where we left off last week. The children of Israel had made and worshiped the golden calf. Moses then comes down from the mountain enraged, and throws down the tablets on which the ten commandments were written and they break into pieces, a heartbreaking picture of a covenant in shambles. There are excuses made and punishments enacted. When Moses returns to the Lord, the Lord says that Moses and the Israelites are to continue the journey but that God will send an angel as God’s proxy to lead them. This feels like a blow, and the people mourn God’s actual presence with them. They are now starting to truly understand how they have damaged the covenant.
So Moses once again tries to advocate for the children of Israel. He petitions God with an insistence that God’s presence remain with the people, and God eventually acquiesces. But Moses goes even further, and desires to see God’s glory. He is intent that things should return to as they were before the golden calf. God even agrees to this and says: I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. This is in a sense, a complete reset, recalling the other time, the first time, that the Lord proclaimed God’s name, I AM, in Moses’ presence, all the way back at the burning bush. But, God also adds this final word: “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Turning now to our Swedenborgian interpretation, we are brought, as always, to a recognition that these interactions are a picture of our own internal processes. Swedenborg speaks of a rock being our faith, and a cleft in that rock being our experience of obscurity. That God’s face represents Divine Truth, but in those obscure and uncertain times when we are focused on external things, when we are unwilling to ground ourselves in the practice of goodness and love, when we are unwilling to open ourselves up to the divine goodness constantly flowing into us from God, wherever we cannot assist Divine Goodness to rise up to meet Divine Truth, this is when we cannot see God’s face, because God’s essential nature will always be Divine Truth given soul and life by Divine Good. (1) And if we can’t connect with that, we can’t see it.
And so that doesn’t make me feel any better about the way I used to understand this text either. It is still a picture of not being in connection with God, and less so a picture of God’s protection and care.
Or is it?
Because the very next thing that God says is: “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets that you broke.” The very next things that God does is to re-establish the covenant. Once Moses does this, he bows to the ground and says: Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sins and take us as your inheritance.” And God replies: I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people, I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.” (Exodus 34:1-10)
Well, that certainly is enthusiastic on the part of God! I don’t know about you, and it’s not a good look, I admit, but I know I personally tend to be a little more tentative when repairing a relationship. I’m maybe not going to proclaim how amazing it is going to be when it is already failed before. But God is all in. And I’m realizing of course, that God is always all in, but that it is us that need to learn how to be ready for that.
Because, I hadn’t realized until I ventured well past our lectionary reading for today, that until Moses said “forgive our wickedness” there had actually been no apology, well at least not one that didn’t seem mired in excuses, and triangulation, and defensiveness. Restoration is a process, and God showed up to that process in a way that inspired the children of Israel to repent, that little by little inspired them to do the self-examination that was required for them to be able to re-enter the covenant.
Sometimes when we have done something wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, it does feel like we are thrown into a cleft of a rock. It feels uncomfortable and pokey. And repentance and self-examination isn’t easy. God knows this. If seeing God’s back is all we can manage at that time, that is all we will see, if we need a hand covering over the intensity of God’s glory and God’s call, it will be there for us. But the trajectory is always to get to the renewal of the covenant. We are not supposed to get cozy in the cleft. The cleft and God’s hand is protecting us in the moment, modulating whatever of Divine Truth we can understand, accept and absorb, but ultimately the goal is to stand up on the rock of our faith. To stand up on our own two feet so that we can then choose to bow down with a full knowledge of our shortcomings and a real desire to make restitution.
Knowing as we do, that the literal sense of the bible tells the story of God from a human point of view, when we wish to show up half-heartedly and tentatively to the covenant, then it may seem that God does so as well. We receive what we make space for, and God won’t force us to accept God’s presence unwillingly. But God is patient. There are times we need a holding pattern, and so God holds us. Which I guess does seem like protection and nurture after all. We just can’t see God’s face because God leading us out of the cleft and into the covenant. And thank goodness someone can see what is coming.
In the words of Father Thomas Keating: God is not just with us, not just beside us, not just under us, not just over us, but within us, at the deepest level, and in our inmost being, a step beyond the true self.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #10579 and #10582
12 Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” 14 The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” 19 And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” 21 Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
Secrets of Heaven #10579:9
Anyone can understand what 'Jehovah's face' serves to mean in these places, namely the Divine and everything which is an attribute of the Divine. Thus His 'face' serves to mean mercy, peace, and every kind of good, but in the universal sense Divine Truth since Divine Truth encompasses every kind of good. Both among people in the world and among angels in heaven Divine Good is embodied within Divine Truth; without it Divine Good does not exist, for truth is the receiver of good, thus also of mercy and peace. From this it now follows that where Divine Good does not exist within Divine Truth, neither does Jehovah's face. It also follows that where evil exists within falsity the Divine is not seen. This is what Jehovah's hiding His face and turning it away is used to mean…
Photo credit: Jan Koetsier
Readings: Exodus 32:1-14, Secrets of Heaven #8869 (see below)
See also on Youtube https://youtu.be/waekQgQylT0
We continue today in our journey with the children of Israel in the wilderness, and seeing how their challenges can be metaphorically applied to our own internal challenges. What we missed last week was the transmission of the ten commandments. Having reached Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain and communes with God, receiving God’s instructions for the life of the Israelites and their journey in covenant together, a people and their God.
However, Moses takes a fair bit of time up there on the mountain with God. If you check out the book of Exodus chapters 20-32, you will find that God has much much more to say to Moses than just the ten commandments. Chapter 24 v18 tells us that it was forty days and forty nights. In our time of constant contact and communication with each other, is it possible for us to imagine what it would have been be like to not hear from Moses, their leader, for well over a month? The Israelites start to get impatient, and we hear what happened in our text today. They commission (or though some translations would argue that they coerce) Aaron to melt down their jewelry into an image of a golden calf, and they begin to worship that calf and indulge in inappropriate behavior.
God, of course, is annoyed. We need only imagine how we feel when someone has reneged on a promise to us for this reaction to make some sense. It feels like a betrayal. We feel wounded and disappointed and angry. However, this is the point where we pause to recognize that the bible is a human story about God, and is not the final word on God’s nature. *We* would feel wounded, disappointed and angry. God is pure love and wisdom and sees things in an eternal way. Swedenborg tells us that…..”the Word speaks of Jehovah’s reacting in that kind of way because the sense of the letter consists of ideas of things as [humanity] sees them.” (1) We project our human feelings on to God, we move away from God and interpret that distance as anger. We cannot fathom the complexity of the simultaneous existence of love and judgment and transmute this into God having to be convinced of mercy. And that is a fascinating discussion, but it will need to be for another day, because I have a different direction that I wish to explore. But suffice it to say, God would never actually have to be convinced not to smite us. That’s not how God works.
What I would like to talk about today might seems like a very small issue in the original Hebrew, but I think it leads to some very interesting implications for our own lives.
In the very first verse of our text, the people come to Aaron and say “Come make us gods who will go before us.” The word translated as “gods” here is elohim, which is both the generic plural for “gods” and the singular for the God of Israel. So it could also be translated as “Come make us a god…” To quote from a commentary: “The reader must weigh whether, as biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson offers, the text is “referring to a false god other than the Lord or to a false image of the Lord.” (2)
In other words, were the children of Israel asking for a completely false god (ie another god) to worship or a false *image* of the one true God to worship? What was the sin here: worshiping a statue in the shape of a calf and believing it was a god, or making the statement that this statue is the shape of God?
This question takes on even more gravitas when we extrapolate the story to our own lives. We are invited to think about our own false idols, false gods that we worship. But as indicated by this interesting translation dilemma, there are two ways we can look at it.
The first is to ask, what is it that we are worshipping *instead* of God? What is it that we are making more important than God? And to answer this question, we can look simply to how we are spending our time, we can ask what occupies our thoughts? Where is the bulk of our energy going, physically and emotionally? What does our life worship? Security, wealth, superiority, reputation, control, body image, ideology…how much time and energy are we devoting to these things? These can all become false gods to us when we sacrifice the best parts of ourselves to them, when we bow down to them above all.
The second question however is, what image might we be projecting onto God so that we might worship that image while pretending that we are worshiping God? What image are we fashioning out of our own self-intelligence, our own selfish agenda, and lifting up as a picture of who God is and what God wants? The current administration’s preoccupation with the appearance of strength might be one example of the way this plays out. Do we fashion for ourselves a strongman God, an angry and judgmental God, so that we might be able to justify playing strongman ourselves, being angry and judgmental ourselves? Remember, the Israelites did not just go from a pious worship from the one true God to a pious worship of an image of a calf. They used the occasion to justify behaviors that they knew the Lord would not support. To quote author Anne Lamott: You can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
I think it can be argued that the second practice, worshiping a god that we have created in our own image, is the greater blasphemy. It is one thing to worship something other than God, to replace God with something that we find more important, consciously or unconsciously. It is another level of dissembling to lie to oneself and others about who God is, to make and perpetuate a false image of God to serve our own purposes. One could say this has a lot of similarity to another commandment: taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Our Swedenborg reading makes clear this process is worshipping that which comes from the self. We human beings are so very susceptible to this common failing, so much so that it is immortalized in our fairytales: Mirror Mirror on the Wall, who’s the greatest of them all? We look into the reflection that we are pretending is God and of course this god says: You my Queen, You my King. You are the greatest of them all, the most devoted, and the most devout, a warrior for our cause. And we are satisfied. But it is, of course, an illusion. Just as much as the angry God in this story, the one where God’s mercy needs to be explained as the brainchild of human being. Many times, we are looking at God through a veil of our own construction.
Swedenborg writes further:
Nor do those truths have the Lord within them which are taken from the Word, in particular from the sense of the letter there, and interpreted in favour of personal dominion and personal gain. In themselves these are truths because they come from the Word yet they are not truths because they are interpreted wrongly. (3)
The story of the golden calf is a very human story. And it is also a warning. Particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty, we crave certainty, and the surety of our rightness, and the easiest way to get that is to just make a god ourselves, and to make a god *out* of ourselves. But this is not what the life of the spirit calls us to. It calls us to a difficult practice of patience and trust and openness, one that will reveal to us our shortcomings but will also lead us to a land that will be our home. This is what our God ultimately looks like: one who leads and loves. Amen.
1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” 2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. 7 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” 11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Secrets of Heaven #8869
'You shall not make for yourself a graven image' means no product of self-intelligence. This is clear from the meaning of 'a graven image' as that which does not come from the Lord but from a person's self. A product of one's own understanding is meant by 'a graven image', and a product of one's own will by 'a molded image'. Having either kind as a god or venerating it is loving all that comes from self more than anything else….These are 'the makers of graven images', and the images themselves are what they hatch from their own understanding and will, and wish to be venerated as things that are Divine.
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 21:23-27, Secrets of Heaven #8554 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/t6kmSOzFu9w
There is nothing easy about extended trips with lots of people! How many of us have hurled this command towards the back seat of a car: “you stop fighting or I’m stopping this car right now!” We might well resonate with Moses’ frustrated cry: What am I to do with these people! Traveling can bring us face to face with our flaws, as we are challenged to be resilient, flexible, patient, and resourceful. This is one reason why these wilderness stories can speak to us so deeply about traveling on the path of life. All the ways in which the children of Israel were challenged, we find in them a picture of how we are challenged, for we are all human, are we not?
This week, the Israelites are still traveling from place to place. They reach a place called Rephidim and find there is no water to drink. They start sniping at Moses, and again wonder why they were on the journey at all, if they are just going to die of thirst. The Lord answers them of course, and bids Moses strike a rock with his staff, so that it might flow with water for the Israelites to drink.
And like last week, this story is a picture of a kind of temptation we might experience during our life, from time to time. Let’s first contrast it with last week’s story. Swedenborg tells us that the story of the manna in the wilderness speaks of a challenge in which we cannot see or find or feel any goodness. In terms of our experience with the pandemic, for example, this might be like the tension and sadness and regret and disappointment we feel around not being able to do the things that we used to be able to do, see the people we used to be able to see; the fact that our normal ways of giving and receiving love and goodness are disrupted, and we might despair and worry about how are to experience our life now, how we will enjoy life, how we will survive the isolation, how we might have to adapt and let go of our expectations, or how we might have to reach out in new ways. And the question for that story becomes, do we believe that the Lord is working to bring into being goodness and love for a us in new ways, and to bring goodness and love and growth out of our challenge. If we can believe that, we will see the manna available to us.
This week, we get a picture of a different kind of temptation. Bread represents goodness; water represents truth.(1) The Israelites were thirsty, desperately thirsty. And this is a picture of a challenge in which we cannot see or find or feel any truth, a temptation in which we are thirsting for truth, wanting to know what is real and right and true, but for whatever reason, it feels obscure to us. (AC8568) To use a similar example as before with the pandemic, this might be a picture of how frustrating and anxiety-producing it is to not know what the right thing to do is, how to handle our everyday life in the absence of helpful information, or in the presence of conflicting information. During the last six months, we have all been learning about the virus a piece at a time, as science finds out more about how it works. But that means that we don’t always know what the best thing to do is, and that can, at the very least, throw us off balance. We have had and will continue to have, many questions: Do we need to disinfect our groceries? How many people are okay to be together if we are outside? How well will a vaccine work when we get one? How do we care for people’s emotional needs if we can’t gather together? When will life return to normal? Will it ever return to normal? There are so many things that we don’t know, or don’t know fully, or find that the knowledge is developing and not ready yet.
And those everyday questions we have are ultimately connected to much larger philosophical questions: what is our responsibility to each other? how much can or should we be expected to sacrifice? how can God let this happen? where is God in all this?
This is the final central question in many of our spiritual temptations. The Israelites were wondering “Is the Lord among us or not?” As we read the story, that doubt might seem incredible given the miracles that the Lord had already, visibly wrought for them. But I think it is a doubt that we can all recognize, right? Is this not the secret heart, the secret cry, of many of our own temptations? We look at the world right now, with all its challenges, and we wonder Where is God, is God among us or not? How does God engage with the world? What is God calling *me* to do?
And so we resonate with the exhausted, traumatized, thirsty Israelites wondering “Is the Lord among us or not?” but turning that vulnerable wondering into a concrete complaint: how can Moses (and by extension God) let us camp here without water?” Moses is exasperated. So God engages in a little religious theatre. He asks Moses to take his staff, the very staff that convinced Moses of God’s power, the very staff that was used to convince Pharaoh of God’s power, and in front of the elders, (which were the leadership of the Israelites), Moses reminds the people once again, God listens, God cares, God will provide and God has the power to do so. As water gushes forth from the rock, and we look at that water through the eyes of correspondences, we are likewise invited to ask: What gives truth its power? Swedenborgian doctrine is unequivocal: goodness and service gives any truth its power, and connecting with this goodness this is how the Lord is among us.
I would argue that you won’t find a more foundational doctrine in Swedenborgianism than the assertion that truth takes its life, takes its soul, from goodness. For truth to actually be true, it must forward, perpetuate and advocate for goodness, love and service. If some principle is devoid of goodness, then it can never be spiritually true, no matter if it *sounds* true to our brains, to our egos, to our emotions. No matter if it calms our fears and makes us feel better, or gets us what we want. Falsity can do that just as well as truth, maybe even more so.
We see this demonstrated in our other lectionary reading for today, from the gospel of Matthew. In it, the chief priests are asked a question, but they resist answering truthfully for self-centered reasons. They chose to answer in a way that would avoid any accountability, that would simply calm the crowds and get them out of a jam. Their thinking was not based in truth but in expedience. This is the irony of that story, that they were challenging Jesus authority yet abdicated their own because they did not value truthfulness.
They answered “We don’t know.” And that is not a bad answer, per se. There is definitely a lot we don’t know, all the time, and we should be willing to admit to that. But there is a difference between humility and avoidance. Because in the story of striking the rock with the staff, we are reminded of the basic things we *do* know. As we look for truth, as we endeavor to quench our thirst, we know that the power of truth lies in goodness. We may not know the answer to everything yet, now or ever, but we know that much. And that foundational knowledge can go a long long way.
Last week, the Israelites asked “What is it?” and we were reminded that, when we look to God for sustenance, that it might come to us in ways that we don’t immediately recognize. This week, we are looking less for sustenance and more for guidance. The question is more, what do we do? How do we orient our life and our behavior? And the answer is to follow the staff to the rock and watch it make the water flow. The answer is to look for truth that finds its power in love, service, sacrifice and dignity. This is the power that quenches our thirst, and keeps us on the journey. This is how the Lord is among us.
1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?” 3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Secrets of Heaven #8554
The previous chapter dealt in the internal sense with a third temptation - a stage when good was lacking. The present chapter deals in the internal sense with the stage that came after the people had been given that good - a fourth temptation, in which truth was lacking. This temptation is meant by the grumbling of the children of Israel because they had no water; so they were given the truth of faith by the Lord, which is meant by the water from the rock of Horeb.
Photo credit: Flora Westerbrook on Pexels
Readings: Exodus 16:1-15, Divine Providence #59 (see below)
See also on Youtube https://youtu.be/3xogv3no4WU
I don’t know about you, but this text feels very timely. It is speaking into my soul and into this moment. Perhaps you can, as I do, feel some resonance with the experience the children of Israel. Obviously, not with their literal circumstances, but with the metaphorical sense of being in the wilderness, of feeling unmoored, lost, unsure, abandoned, afraid. We are in challenging times right now, my friends. We are experiencing a global pandemic, with all the attendant uncertainties and stressors, our concerns about our safety and our livelihoods, about juggling the needs of our children and our work. We are experiencing a time of extreme political division in the United States (and around the world), a heightened tension around questions of human rights, political competence and honesty, the continuance of democratic ideals. We are experiencing a time of increased urgency around climate change; daily we receive notice of signs that we are running out of time to make the changes we need…the Greenland ice shelf breaking apart, orange skies from constant wild fires, an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season.
So it is not surprising if we resonate with this story of a people in the wilderness, and particularly, perhaps, with how many times we are told that the children of Israel are grumbling. While it may at first be easy to dismiss this as petulance, we really know that what is underlying this impulse is fear and grief. Swedenborg writes that this is exactly what is indicated by the internal sense of their grumbling.(1) Even in the literal story, this makes sense, that a traumatized people might transmute their feelings of grief and fear into a type of complaining. Perhaps we do this, too? Perhaps we transmute our feelings of grief and fear into grievance, because grievance feels more powerful, more in control, more active?
And to be clear, I’m not talking here about oppression. When the Israelites cried out to God from the midst of slavery, this was true suffering, and true suffering deserves to be heard in authenticity and fullness. But that is a different thing to when we choose to retreat into grievance to avoid processing our own feelings of grief and fear. Part of the invitation of spiritual work is to notice our own grumblings and defensiveness and to go a little deeper, to willingly take on the responsibility of processing our own insecurities, so that we then might be able to show up to our lives with clarity and purpose, rather than just being reactive.
But interestingly, this story is not so much about what *we* do. While we can infer a message about our response to our own wilderness times, this story is more about God’s action. What this story tells us is that God hears us, hears our unprocessed grumbling and responds with compassion. We don’t have be a fully actualized person before God will hear our prayers. God sees who we are and sees what is below the surface and responds in a way that will help us to take whatever next steps we need into fuller understanding.
God stepped up into the experience of the Israelites and provided for them the most basic of securities: nourishment for the day. Many interpretations of this story talk about trust. The fact that the manna could not be hoarded, could not be kept beyond one day (except for the Sabbath) meant that the Israelites had to trust that it would be there every morning. They were being invited to salve their fear and grief and worry with the knowledge that God would show up for them consistently, that God was steadfast.
But what is standing out to me about this story today, is that while it can be argued that the grumbling came from a sense of distrust, the distrust itself came from an act of forgetting, or even an active misremembering.(2) As the Israelites experienced hunger in the wilderness, they cast their minds back to their time in Egypt and remembered the food available to them there. They yearned for their full bellies in that time, conveniently forgetting that the cost of that food was unrelenting labor. They yearned for the simplicity of knowing that food would be on the table, conveniently forgetting that the cost of that food was their lack of autonomy. They grumbled about the uncertainty of the wilderness, conveniently forgetting that God had just parted the Red Sea for them, conveniently forgetting all the miracles that had led to their freedom.
As so, as the Israelites wake in the morning and see the manna on the ground, they ask “What is it?” They meant it literally, as they had no idea what it was. But I also see a more poetic meaning to that question, one that points towards the forgetting that brought the manna to them in the first place.
The manna in verse 4 is called bread from heaven. Throughout Swedenborg’s interpretive landscape, bread means goodness.(3) Just as bread nourishes our bodies, so does goodness nourish our soul, our heart, our mind. Goodness and love given from ourselves to others, goodness and love offered to us from other people. We cannot live without it, in a most basic emotional sense. And so metaphorically, in this story, we are invited to see how God is committed to providing us with as much spiritual goodness as we are willing to gather in each day. And then God shows up again the next morning. This arrangement is not contingent on our diligence or our foresight; we don’t have to gather enough for both today and tomorrow or next week or next month. This arrangement is contingent on God’s nature; on the ongoing giving essence of God’s divine love.
But sometimes, many times, we forget. The stress of our lives, our ongoing challenges, contribute to a sense of amnesia about who God is. We might look back at previous times with longing, forgetting that *all* times have their challenges, and that God helped us through them even then. We might even look back and re-tell the story with ourselves as the hero. And then when we see the manna given to us, we look at it without recognition: what is it? Though God’s care for us has been manifest so many times before, we still ask, what is it? Trust is built on remembrance but there is so much that can distract us or tempt us from a true remembering.
And while we sometimes might forget the obvious goodnesses that come to us in challenging times: the sunset, the smile, the meal, the song, the nap that we needed; what we forget *most* often is that goodness also comes through our challenges, not just in spite of them. That God does of course apply a balm to our woundedness so that healing might come to us, but not as if somehow we could get back to being un-wounded. God helps us to see how goodness might come through our woundedness, how we might integrate our woundedness into our own sense of wholeness, and to know that no part of our experience is wasted, or alienated from God’s active care. We don’t recognize the manna because, on the outside, it doesn’t always look like something that will nourish us. But if we could remember how deeply God works for us, we might see…
…oh right, goodness happens when I have this kind of difficult, brave conversation. Oh right, goodness happens when I allow myself to rest. Oh right, goodness happens when I commit to doing the hard right thing. Oh right, goodness happens when I let myself grieve, or be angry, or stand up for myself. Oh right, goodness happens when I take this challenge and see what I can learn from it. Oh right, goodness happens when I put aside my version of how things are supposed to go.
Father Richard Rohr writes:
"If I were to name the Christian religion, I would probably call it “The Way of the Wound.” Jesus agrees to be the Wounded One, and we Christians are these strange believers in a wounded healer. We come to God not through our strength but through our weakness. We learn wisdom and come to God not by doing it all right but through doing it all wrong…If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it. Always someone else has to suffer because we don’t know how to suffer; that’s what it comes down to.(4)"
In this story, with all its grumbling, we find not a judgment but an invitation. An invitation to take an active part in our ongoing transformation, one that God modeled for us in Jesus. God knows who are all are. God knows our forgetful natures, our selective memories, our desire to feel that we have some control. As we grumble, God knows our grumbling can be a stepping stone into lament, that lament can be a stepping stone into surrender, and surrender can be a stepping stone into trust. We are given a gentle reminder: What is it? Oh right, I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen that:
In everything that it does, the Lord’s divine providence is focusing on what is infinite and eternal (4).
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #8402.
(2) Michael J. Chan, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #8414.
(4) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, “Transforming our Pain,” September 18, 2020
(5) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #46
1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. 2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” 8 Moses also said, “You will know that it was the LORD when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the LORD.” 9 Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’ ” 10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the LORD appearing in the cloud. 11 The LORD said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’ ” 13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.
Divine Providence 59
…divine providence focuses on our eternal state at every step of our journey. It cannot focus on anything else because Divinity is infinite and eternal, and what is infinite or eternal or divine is not in time. It therefore sees the whole future as present. Since this is the nature of Divinity, it follows that there is something eternal in everything it does, overall and in detail.
People who think in terms of time and space find this hard to grasp, though, not only because they love temporal matters but also because they think in terms of what is present to people in the world and not what is present to people in heaven. This latter is as remote from them as the ends of the earth. However, people who are engaged with divinity base their thinking on the Lord and are thinking in eternal terms even while they think about what is present to them...
Thinking like this is thinking in terms of eternity even while we are thinking about what is present; and when we both think and live this way, then emanating divinity with us, or divine providence, focuses on the state of our eternal life in heaven at every step of our journey, and is leading us to it.
Photo credit: Emiliano Arano on Pexels
Readings: Exodus 14:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #8206 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/SeBh1ORLHXM
Today we pop up right in the middle of some serious action for Moses and the children of Israel. Let’s back up a little to set the scene. We left off back in July with the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob would have son named Joseph, whose brothers would sell him into slavery in Egypt. But due to Joseph’s success there, eventually his whole family would join him as honored citizens in that new land. Over time, Joseph’s family grew into a numerous people, the children of Israel. And unfortunately, over time as well, the leaders of Egypt grew fearful of of the children of Israel and enslaved them, forcing them to perform hard labor. Into this situation comes Moses, an Israelite child secretly adopted into the Egyptian royal family, who after being called by God in the form of a burning bush, sets out to free his brethren. The Pharaoh, of course, has no interest in freeing such a lucrative source of labor for Egypt, but after God sends ten plagues upon him, he finally relents and lets the children of Israel leave.
And this is just about where we find ourselves in our text today. The children of Israel have followed Moses into the desert away from Egypt and towards his vision of the promised land. But eventually they come to the vast Red Sea, which hems them in and they can go no further. Even though Pharaoh agreed to their leaving, he cannot resist such a strategic gift, and he once again tries to assert his dominance. He orders his mighty army to pursue the children of Israel and bring them back.
The children of Israel are understandably afraid, and begin to wonder if they should have left Egypt at all. But God works a mighty miracle through Moses, who parts the waters of the Red Sea in two, so that the children of Israel might walk on dry land to the other side, and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned in the sea as the waters return.
This story has been a powerfully important narrative of liberation for many peoples over time. It gives hope because it tells us not only what God will do but what God is for. God is for the freedom and autonomy of people who are enslaved and diminished, and God is against forces that dominate and degrade and take advantage. This is an important thing to know about God.
The Swedenborgian interpretation brings it home to the level of our own personal psychological landscape: the domineering and hard hearted Pharaoh represents false ideas that enslave us. Perhaps we can all identify a particular idea that has gotten its hooks into us and prevents us from living as freely and authentically and as charitably as we might otherwise. Perhaps we have a story, a false but seductive story, that we tell ourselves about someone’s approval that we need, about our own lack of worthiness or conversely about our own natural superiority, a story about how we think things are supposed to go, about who our children are supposed to be, a story about what constitutes success, or honor, or safety, a story about what God wants that ever so conveniently coincides with what we also want.
We all have many notions such as these, bumping around inside of us. We are all enslaved to false ideas of some kind or variety, under the thumb of a metaphorical Pharaoh, being made to do Pharaoh’s bidding, and building mighty monuments that perpetuate his dominion, all inside our own mind. But the children of Israel represent our growing awareness that there is freedom that can be had, that there is something else beyond that which Pharaoh decrees. They represent truths becoming clearer from goodness and love. The growing recognition that the false Pharaoh idea does not serve love and goodness, doesn’t not perpetuate love and goodness, and it so must not be true. In this moment, we start to wriggle free from our servitude.
And our text today gives us one way of understanding how God is present for us within this dynamic. Newly free, newly exploring what it feels like to think differently, we are not always free and clear right away. Reframing or reimagining how we think is often a lengthy winding process. We start to let go, we explore new ways of seeing things, but the old ideas hang on, coming back for us when we are particularly vulnerable or stressed. This is pictured by the Pharaoh’s army pursuing us, well after we thought we were finally free of them. In these times, we might feel frustrated, disappointed, afraid. The children of Israel resort to some dark sarcasm towards Moses saying: “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have brought us into the desert to die?” They are panicking. But Moses tells them simply: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still.”
And from this we understand that we are not in this alone. When we wish for freedom from false ideas, from ingrained and habitual ways of thinking, God helps to preserve and grow that freedom within us. If we were to look at Swedenborg’s verse by verse interpretation of this story, every action that occurs, the pillars of fire and cloud standing in the way, Moses stretching out his arm, the waters parting and standing as a wall - they are all in various ways picturing how God works to protect us internally from the false ideas that we are trying to move away from. And what is particularly important about this dynamic is the one that is highlighted in the reading: we are active participants in the process. When we move away from false ideas, and back that up with choosing new behaviors that allow us to live in a new way, this is the dynamic into which God can act. Our false ideas, "they are constantly attempting to rush in…, but they cannot do so because the Lord's presence, residing in the goodness and truth, holds them back.” When we take our own steps towards freedom, tiny but concrete steps, good and loving steps, God resides in the growing goodness and love that is being born there, and works from the center of our being to expand our access to our new freedom, to our new ways of living. The biblical text is but a pictorial representation of a process that might well take many go arounds, but it helps us to get a sense of God’s will for us, and God’s desire to help us.
But now, as with all Swedenborgian interpretation, which makes the bible about our own internal process, it is important to turn in the other direction and broaden the scope, lest the message become too much about our own internal reality, or exclusively about the personal spiritual journey. The bible IS about the personal spiritual journey, but all of our personal spiritual journeys are inter-connected. The false ideas that govern our thinking, feeling and acting, ripple outward from us like the circles from a stone dropped in a pond.
False ideas based in dominion, control, cruelty, superiority, tribalism; they have a cost, not only a cost to our psyche, but an actual human cost. We need only return to the literal meaning of the story to see this in the false and evil idea that one culture should be allowed to enslave another. The personal and the societal work hand and hand. The Pharaoh, enslaved himself by avarice, ego, domination in own mind, turns around and enslaves the children of Israel in body.
When false ideas are enacted through policy and culture they create suffering. We all have a collective responsibility to prevent this suffering, and to recognize when our own inner Pharaoh is adversely affecting the lives of others. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has said, no one is free until we are all free. And this takes on a particularly complicated shade when we get to verses 28-30:
28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived…30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.
We might wonder, how are we supposed to react to this? Are we supposed to be happy that the Egyptian soldiers are dead? Does the bible include this verse so we can gloat and cheer that they got what was coming?
Surely not. One commentary that I drew from for this sermon pointed to the Talmud for illumination on this point, and I quote:
…ministering angels desired to sing a song of praise before God in response to the decisive victory over the Egyptians. God, however, said to them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” These observations illuminate Exodus 14’s ethical sophistication.(1)
I so appreciate how the author highlights this aspect. The parting of the Red Sea is an iconic, exciting and cinematic battle, and the ones we are rooting for, the children of Israel, are victorious! But this story doesn’t actually allow us to have it so easy. It resists being a “tribalistic, us-vs-them story.”(2) Even as we acknowledge that God saved the Israelites, we must also look at the Egyptian soldiers dead on the shore (in the very same verse, and the very same sentence), and grapple with what that means. God sees the human cost of false ideas, the human cost of division, the human cost of collective hubris and the diminishment of empathy and God grieves it all. Let’s be clear; the army was prevented by God from doing the harm that Pharaoh intended. God’s stand is not negotiable; God’s stands for the value of every human person, and means for enslavement, for dominion over others, to end, in whatever form it takes. But God looks back at the whole it, and grieves every lost life, even the ones lost while still living, like Pharaoh.
And thank goodness this is so, for otherwise our God would be nothing but the captain of our particular team, and what a small God that would be. Amen.
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.” 26 Then the LORD said to Moses,“Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. 29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
Secrets of Heaven #8206
'And the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left' means that they were held back from falsities on every side…
 Goodness accompanied by truth destroys, that is, removes evil accompanied by falsity, because goodness is from God and consequently possesses all power…When the evils accompanied by falsities residing with a person are removed they stand around us, as stated, like a wall. They are constantly attempting to rush in on a person, but they cannot do so because the Lord's presence, residing in the goodness and truth, holds them back. These are the considerations meant by the waters being like a wall for them on the left and on the right…Yet no one can be held back from evil and maintained in good unless they have received that ability through exercising charity in the world. A life of good, that is, a life led in accordance with the truths of faith, and therefore an affection for or a love of good, achieves this. The person who has a love of and affection for good as a result of the life they lead can be in a sphere of goodness and truth, but not one who through the life they lead has taken on the nature of evil.
Photo by Aman Shrivastava on Unsplash
Readings: Genesis 32:3-21, 33:1-5,8-11, Secrets of Heaven #4247:2 (see below)
See also on Youtube
A lot has happened in our story since we left off. At Rebekah’s suggestion, after stealing his brother’s blessing, Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran. On the way, he has his famous dream of a stairway with angels ascending and descending, which is where we get the phrase “Jacob’s Ladder”. When he arrives in Haran, he immediately falls in love with his cousin, Rachel. He works, tending Laban’s flocks, for seven years in order to marry her, but on the wedding night, Laban switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob is, of course, livid. But he dutifully works for another seven years in order to finally marry Rachel. Over the course of time, he works hard and intelligently and builds up his own flocks. His wives bear him twelve sons and a daughter.
Eventually, the Lord speaks to Jacob and tells him to go home. Jacob has done a lot of living since he was last there. As we hear in our reading, Jacob makes elaborate preparations, terrified about how Esau will receive him after all this time. He sends on ahead of himself magnificent gifts, and in the final moments, bows down excessively as his brother approaches. And then, in one of the most poignant verses in the bible, Esau simply runs to his brother and embraces him. We read: “He threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” What an extravagance of love! No stand-offishness, no demanding Jacob apologize (though thankfully Jacob seems to insist upon still doing so), just a welcome full of grace and forgiveness.
This is a beautiful picture of the restoration of a family, and of a relationship. And it is a picture of the ultimate goal of our spiritual journey. Swedenborg writes:
As regards the actual joining together [of Jacob and Esau], it is that which brings about a person's regeneration, for they are regenerated through the joining of the truths they know (represented by Jacob) to the good they cherish (represented by Esau), that is, through the joining of matters of faith to the deeds of [kindness].(1)
The journey of Jacob and Esau is a picture of how we each change into more spiritually mature, loving, and wise people, people who live out what they believe. We all start out in one place, wherever or whenever we are, with our menagerie of thoughts, feelings, and perspectives….groomed from the culture in which we were raised, the environment to which we were exposed, the people we come in contact with, our education, and our natural temperament. Many times, in this headspace, we are comfortable with what we know and feel.
But, the beginning of spiritual development is the precious acknowledgement that we might not know it all, so we pause, and into that pause leaps Jacob. In listening, in learning, in discerning, we are separated from our instinctive Esau-mind, from the ways we have settled into what we think we know, the ways we are comfortable feeling what we feel. Jacob stretches us, and we are not always glad for it. Sometimes we might even rage, or sulk or resist.
But God’s covenant with us will persist, and it depends upon our willingness to trust the separation into which the Jacob-mind has brought to us, to recognize, as Swedenborg wrote:
“Wisdom is perceiving that the things in which you are wise are scarcely anything compared with the things in which you are not.” (2)
For a time, perhaps over and over again for most of our life, we will need to consciously lift up the Jacob-mind, to remind ourselves to remain teachable, especially when we don’t think we need to. But the learning phase is not the endgame. Jacob cannot stay away forever. Transformed ways of thinking, in and of themselves are not enough.The primary thing that truth teaches is that we must ACT in love. Swedenborg writes: the “truths of faith regarded without love are mere sounds devoid of any life…"(3)
Our minds may have been open to learning new things but now we need to commit to transforming our will according to that new understanding. This doesn’t always feel easy. We will need to overcome whatever barriers we hold toward action. Our various fears, our real or supposed lack of competence, our selfishness or distractedness. Sometimes, many times, when we do start to act, it will feel hollow, performative, awkward, we might want to abandon the whole thing. This is pictured in what Jacob goes through returning to Esau: his fear of Esau’s four hundred men, his obsessive re-ordering of the arrangement of this traveling party, his wrestling with the angel the night before, which we will hear about on some other day.(4)
But eventually, our bumbling works of love become habits of being. Eventually, the truest kindest way to be is not something we think about, not something we know in our minds, but something that we know in our bones, in our gut, in our heart. This is Jacob and Esau joined together, embracing. A new way of being that has become a part of us. As we heard from our Swedenborg reading:
When a person is being regenerated however, which takes place…when we possess cognitions, good reveals itself, for we are then moved not so much by the affection for knowing truth as for doing it. For previously truth had been in our understanding, but now it is in our will, and when in our will it is in our true self, since the will constitutes a person's true self.
You see, love was always supposed to be the firstborn. Love *is* the firstborn, that which motivates us, that which moves us. And love is always that to which we will need to return.
But figuring out how to love well, in this broken world, that’s the trick, isn’t it? There are lots of ways that we think are loving that are really just loving ourselves, loving the way others make us feel, loving being right, loving to control, or loving the status quo. The story of Jacob and Esau is the story of how we can learn to love in a way that is self-sacrificial, that is brave, that is wider and fuller and mostly importantly, concretely useful.
Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
We are shown that eventually even the greatest things in our lives—even our loves—must be released and allowed to become something new. Otherwise we are trapped. Love has not yet made us free….When we love exclusively from our small selves, we operate in a way that is mechanical and instrumental, which we now sometimes call codependent. We return again and again to the patterns of interaction we know. This is not always bad, but it is surely limited. Great love—loving from our Whole Selves connected to the Source of all love—offers us so much more.(5)
To get to this heavenly “more” we take the road of Jacob and Esau. We are changed from small self loving to Whole Self Loving. We let God’s Divine love move us and stretch us and change us, in a multitude of ways, through letting go, listening, learning and then acting, until we find ourselves transformed. And this transformation might not wholly be a surprise, since we have taken a long road to get there, but it will be poignant and satisfying and feel something like destiny, like two long lost brothers weeping in each others’ arms. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4353:1
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #828
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4352:2
(4) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4248
(5) Richard Rohr, Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Great Love, July 23, 2020.
3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’ ” 6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” 9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ ” 13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” 17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’ ” 19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
Genesis 33:1-5, 8-11
1 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 5 Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked. Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”…8 Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said. 9 But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” 10 “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. 11 Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Secrets of Heaven #4247:2
…one may see that good flows constantly into truth, and truth receives good, since truths are the vessels for good. The only vessels into which Divine Good can be placed are genuine truths, for good and truth match each other. When a person is moved by the affection for truth, as everyone is at first prior to being regenerated, good is constantly flowing in even then, but as yet it has no vessels, that is, no truths in which to place itself or make its own; for nobody at the outset of regeneration possesses any cognitions as yet. But because good at that time is flowing in constantly it produces the affection for truth, for there is no origin to the affection for truth other than the constant endeavor of Divine good to flow in. This shows that even at that time good occupies the first position and plays the leading role, although it seems as though truth did so. When a person is being regenerated however, which takes place in adult years when they possess cognitions, good reveals itself, for they are then moved not so much by the affection for knowing truth as for doing it. For previously truth had been in the understanding, but now it is in their will, and when in their will it is in the person's true self, since the will constitutes the person's true self…
Readings: Genesis 27:1-35, 41-45, Divine Provident #147 (see below)
See also on YouTube
Here we are at the second stage of Jacob and Esau’s story. It does sound like a little bit of a replay, but Jacob seems to have upped his game. If he was simply being shrewd in convincing Esau to part with his birthright last week, he is downright deceitful in the way he cheats Esau out of his blessing this week. While the scheme was Rebekah’s idea, Jacob’s only real objection was procedural, and once the goat skins were on, he was all good. If anyone is the victim in this story it is poor Isaac, who as diligently as he could, tried to ascertain his son’s identity but was thwarted by the deception. Both Isaac’s and Esau’s desperate and heartbroken reaction to what Jacob did is incredibly sad to read.
Now we might find ourselves a little bit confused about the difference between the birthright and the blessing. The former relates to issues of inheritance, basically a private family matter, but the blessing was more ritualistic, a public declaration. What looks to us like an everyday affair of bringing Isaac some dinner actually represented a specific blessing ritual, with various elements agreed upon by social construct. Isaac could no more revoke the blessing and place it on Esau in the same way that a minister cannot just say a marriage they have officiated doesn’t count because they changed their mind.
So we understand why Esau was so very enraged. If Esau didn’t value the birthright and gave it away too easily, he certainly valued Isaac’s blessing, and it is clear that their bond was real and deep. Jacob had taken something that Esau could never regain. But also, that doesn’t mean that Esau had the right try to kill Jacob for what he did. Again, a messy human situation, with people acting badly all over the place.
If we return to our Swedenborgian interpretation we see more fully explored what was hinted at last week. Esau represents our natural will: what we want and how we feel. Jacob represents our natural understanding: how we think about things and what we understand to be true.
Part of learning how to be wise, of learning how to love effectively, is learning that our feelings, and our way of seeing things through the lens of how we feel, might be limited, might not represent objective truth. For this recognition to occur, we need to let go of the way that we feel, and let our understanding take the lead for a while.
Because there is a reason we have the phrase “look before you leap.” Many times it is really important for human beings to learn how to create a space between impulse and action, between feeling and thinking. When we are ensconced in our emotions, we don’t put much stock in waiting, in thinking things through; we don’t want to. Our emotions don’t necessarily care very much about ultimate truth, they are only concerned with what is true for us. And there are times when we do need to stand for what is true for us. But there are also times when we need to put aside our feelings so that we can be led by ideas that will expand us and bring us into spiritual growth. Life based only on how we feel, what is good for us, often ends up hurting other people.
One example might be from our recent common experience with white privilege and anti-racism. There are certain ways we might *feel* about racism in this country, and those feelings will lead our thinking and our conclusions. Our sense of personal grievance might lead us to think that white privilege can’t be real because we personally have suffered in various ways. Our sense of hopefulness, or let’s be real, our attachment to the status quo, might lead to us to conclude that we are now in a post-racial period because we elected a black president. Our feelings of defensiveness might cause us to reject the idea that we have participated in a systemically racist society, because how can we be a good person if we have done so, even unwittingly? But when our feelings are leading our thinking, we don’t always get to the truth.
This process of making space for new ideas, being willing to look outside of our own ego for truth, is not so much about second-guessing ourselves all the time, or ignoring our own intuition, but rather having the humility to recognize that our own feelings are not necessarily the final arbiter of truth and rightness, that we can learn something by listening to other people and other ideas, and especially that we can learn something from engaging with God’s word. Sometimes Jacob needs to take the lead.
And that is going to feel a bit like “stealing” what rightly belongs to our will. Think about how much “truer” our own thoughts feel to us than objective facts, or other people’s experience. The intensity, the closeness, of our own feelings give them a lot of power, and that is not easy to give up. When we go looking for another kind of truth, that might even feel like being cheated somehow. Many times our emotions are not ready to be called forth into a new way of being, into transformation. This call to newness might feel a lot like “taking away” something that belongs to us, like our peace of mind, or of usurping our right to feel the way we want, and we certainly might feel anger if we have been happy with the way things were.
But letting Jacob lead is integral to the path of regeneration, the path of spiritual progress. All of us are born into the primacy of the Esau-mind, and this sense of selfhood, about ability to feel things as a singular person, is a good and righteous gift. But it also can tend towards selfishness if we never learn to look outside of our own experience. God has made each one of us for a heaven of mutual love. We have a selfhood, we have feelings, so that we can experience the beauty and joy of heaven by being both recipients and participants in its mutuality. But if we never learn to look beyond our own feelings, we will never get to the mutual part of it. So God calls us to mutual love over and over and over again, as training for the joy that awaits us.
And as we do let Jacob lead, and especially as we learn to *remember* to let Jacob lead when it is important, it won’t feel comfortable, just as the Jacob and Esau story is wrenching, and tense and chaotic. Both Esau and Jacob end up suffering. Jacob is sent far away to his uncle’s home. As we stretch our natural understanding, as we search for new ways of thinking about things, we might well feel discombobulated, or estranged, like we are living in a foreign land. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted, when we give up the primacy of our feelings and open up to learning something new, something that will change us, we feel actual psychological pain. I think we can all relate to this through our experience, those times when some new information, or a new willingness to listen, starts turning us inside out, changing what we thought we knew, and consequently, how we feel and how we act. But this is a good thing, because God is reordering something that needs reordering within us. If we can bear it, then we will be building within us a greater capacity to see the truth with clarity, building within us a greater capacity to love others effectively, building within us a greater capacity to act with both wisdom and empathy.
Jacob and Esau remain separated for a really long time. And I don’t think that needs to be a picture of how we will always be suffering the psychological pain of letting our thinking be reordered, but do I think it is a picture of how the work of humility is ongoing. Swedenborg writes in relation to this story that: The arrival at intelligence and wisdom takes time. In the meantime [a person] is led on by means of those truths to good.(1) (AC 3330:2) And what he means here by good, is essentially kindness. The point of this separation of the Jacob-mind and the Esau-mind is not to demonstrate how bad and wrong we are, but to lead us to kindness, to teach us how to live with kindness. Jacob and Esau do a whole ton of living while they are apart, and eventually they reconcile. This is what we will hear about next week.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3330:2
Genesis 27: 1-35, 41-45
1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. 3 Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.” 5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob…8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: 9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. 10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.” 11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made. 18 He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied. 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” 22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied. 25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.” 27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. 28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.” 30 After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. 31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 32 His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” “I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!” 34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”
Divine Providence 147
…we have an earthly mind, a spiritual mind, and a heavenly mind, and that we are wholly locked into our earthly mind as long as we are caught up in our compulsions to evil and their pleasures. During all this our spiritual mind is closed. However, as soon as we look into ourselves and realize that our evils are sins against God because they are against divine laws, and therefore try to refrain from them, the Lord opens our spiritual mind and comes into our earthly mind by way of its desires for what is true and good. He comes also into our rational processes and from there rearranges the things in our lower, earthly mind that have been in disorder. This is what feels to us like a battle, or like a temptation if we have indulged in these evil pleasures a great deal. There is actually a psychological pain when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted.
Photo credit: Photo by Frédéric Dupont on Unsplash
Readings: Genesis 25:19-34, Secrets of Heaven #3330 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/f0zspfw3_cE
Today we will begin a three part series on the story of Jacob and Esau. This first week we will explore Esau selling his birthright. The second week will focus on Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing. And the final week we will hear about their ultimate reconciliation.
Jacob and Esau, the disparate twins, are a well known story from the bible; it is detailed, suspenseful and deeply complicated in how it asks us to think about how God is present in the actions of the faithful. We know that Jacob will go on to father Joseph, who will eventually bring his whole family to Egypt, and bring us to the story of the Exodus. Jacob is an important, pivotal figure in the history of the people of Israel, and in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Yet, he acts deceitfully in stepping into his role as patriarch. How are we to understand this? That the end justifies the means? That God’s chosen can act however they want? Certainly, it cannot be so.
So the first issue that we bump head first into is the fact that these characters are so very flawed. Jacob and Rebekah, and Esau as well, do not act morally or prudently, or in any way in which we would hope people who bear an important covenant with God would act. But this is part of what makes the bible ultimately so powerful. It is not a litany of perfect people enacting God’s word perfectly. It is made up of stories of imperfect people living into God’s promises imperfectly. And yet God remains steadfast in the face of that imperfection. This does not mean that God condones our mis-steps or our selfishness, but rather, that God believes in the possibility of our growth. We human beings are the ones who want to declare definitively who is good and evil, but God makes no such ultimate declaration.
Now it is reasonable that we might want the Bible to clearly tell us what to do and what not to do. Part of what I find to be so overwhelming about figuring out how to act for good in a broken world is that it is not always clear what is the right and good decision, because often there are many intersecting implications. So course, we want the bible to tell us how we should act and give us people to emulate. And we do definitely get some of that from it. But the bible is also the story of humanity, the story of us, not just of what we can be but of what we are. And this is strangely comforting, because in this we can know that God is not with us only when we get to a certain level of perfection, but also with us on the journey of figuring all that out.
So the upshot is: human beings are messy. But God remains. (Thank goodness). The story of Jacob and Esau is even messier than it might at first seem. First, we need to appreciate the nature of inheritance in those ancient times. The firstborn received everything; all the family’s land and riches. Which left subsequent sons at the mercy of their older brother, or on the hook to figure out their own livelihood. Tradition is often important for keeping order; we can understand the wisdom of such a system, even as we recognize the unfairness of the burden it placed on younger siblings. But in this case, Jacob was only the younger by a few minutes; thus the unfairness of this particular situation is heightened. This is not so far away as we might think; fans of the book Pride and Prejudice might recall Colonel Fitzwilliam with telling Lizzie that he cannot marry for love; as a second son he was going to have to marry for money. We can criticize such an unromantic understanding now from the comfort of modernity, but for many in the past, especially women, questions of livelihood were questions of life and death.
While being the firstborn certainly conveyed a serious advantage, it also carried with it a lot of responsibility. And in this case, it carried with it the responsibility of taking forth God’s promise to Abraham into the future and partnering with God to bring it into fulfillment. So Esau would not just charged with taking care of the family, but shepherding an important covenant with God. And what we learn from the text, is that Esau despised this birthright. We don’t know exactly why he despised it but it becomes clear later in the story that Esau was of a particularly contrarian nature. We all have had the experience of rebelling against the expectations that our parents or society have put upon us. And we don’t always value things that are passed down to us, as opposed to things that we have built or discovered ourselves.
So while Jacob absolutely took advantage of his brother, Esau contributed to the way things turned out as well. He acted impulsively, without care for the future, intent on immediate gratification. We don’t generally give up things that we value so easily. For whatever reason, Esau did not care all that much for the important role that he would be stepping into. The gravity of it, the weight of the covenant with God, that did not concern him, or occupy his mind. So he sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. And in the moment, he was satisfied.
But satisfaction is not the ultimate mission of a spiritual life. In Swedenborg’s worldview, this ancient story tells timeless truths about each of our inner natures. Esau represents our natural will and Jacob our natural understanding. Or in other words, in our daily lives, Esau represents the desires that we have, and the things that we want, and Jacob represents the way that we think and the things we understand to be true.
Esau was the firstborn, and we see this reflected in the fact that our desires are primary, that we usually feel things more acutely and immediately than we think about things. Motive comes before thought. We can see the truth of this in the physiology of our brains. Our limbic system, which governs emotion, is evolutionarily older than the frontal cortex, which governs thought, and so our brain processes feelings more quickly than higher order thinking. And from experience, we know that if we were always guided purely by our feelings, we wouldn’t always do the right thing. Many times our impulses *are* loving; to give a hug, to take care, to defend. But just as often they are selfish: to lash out, to shut out, to dismiss, to take, or to hurt.
And so there are lots of examples in the bible of the regular order of things being inverted, from Jacob and Esau all the way to the cross, and this is always has the same representation, always paints the same picture. The way of spirit is sacrifice. Not martyrdom necessarily, not subservience necessarily, but recognizing privilege, priority, and advantage, and interrogating it, using it for the benefit of all. And specifically, in the context of this story, it is recognizing that the closeness, the intensity, of our feelings about something will always make them *seem* like the most important and truest possible thing…but it might not be so. We need to be able recognize when the intensity or the priority of our feeling is simply covering over the fact that those feelings are selfish. Not all feelings are selfish, of course not. But emotion is a gift, just as being firstborn for Esau was a gift, and with a gift comes responsibility, the responsibility to take a step back and question our motives.
Esau had already sold his birthright long before Jacob made him say the words. He was stubborn, and repudiated what being firstborn was going to mean. And what does being firstborn ultimately mean? It means being willing to sacrifice: in our external story, a sacrifice taken in order to shepherd the covenant, and take care of the family; in ourselves, a sacrifice taken in order to be transformed away from self-centeredness wherever possible.
So, while narratively, it seems like selling the birthright was not a good thing for Esau to do, spiritually it *is* something we need to be willing to do. Perhaps selling it is the wrong word, but we need to value our birthright enough that we understand what it means, and that means being willing to give it up when it becomes clear we are clinging to it for the wrong reasons. We have to be willing to give up the primacy of emotion when necessary, when it is stopping us from being loving.
Sometimes, we need to learn something new that has the potential to change how we feel. And this means that Jacob will need to be ascendent. And this is what we will explore next week. May God’s word continue to open our understanding and our hearts. Amen.
19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 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.” 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. ) 31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.
Secrets of Heaven #3330
3330. 'And he sold his birthright to Jacob' means that in the meantime priority was conceded - to the doctrine of truth represented by Jacob…The chief reason why with the spiritual person truth has dominion first is that in their initial state delights that belong to self-love and love of the world are present. These they believe to be the goods which attach themselves to their truths and constitute the greater part of the affection for truth with them. Indeed at this time they suppose that truths are able to assist them in the acquisition of important positions, or of material gain, or of reputation in the world, or also of merit in the next life. All these arouse that affection for truth with him and also set it ablaze. These are not however good but bad.
Readings: Psalm 119:33-45, John 8:31-34, 36-43, Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3 and Divine Providence #145:3 (see below)
See also on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/Hq9dmSWor4M
Since we are just one day removed from July 4th, Independence Day, I thought that today would be a good time to think about the topic of freedom. This might be on our minds already due to the holiday, or it might be on our minds because around the nation, safety protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic have sparked debate around what personal freedom means, and what is reasonable to ask people to do for the common good. And of course, this grappling with the balance between respect for individual freedom on the one hand, and how we must all submit to some level of governance in order to create a civilized society on the other hand…well, this is a very old dilemma and we are seeing it take a new form within our specific context. So while July 4th might be prompting us to consider what freedom means in a political or even a sociological sense, I want to round that out today with a consideration of what freedom means in a theological sense.
The early Christian evangelist, Paul, would often describe the experience of faith as finding freedom in Christ. He understood sin as a cosmic power that could indeed tempt us, but that also more insidiously was capable of convincing us that our sinfulness was actually good, and blessed by God. By Paul’s own experience, he found himself enslaved by his unyielding and unsympathetic devotion to his own tradition, leading to his persecution of early Christians. The antidote to this, in Paul’s mind, was for people to give over their desire to judge what is righteous *to* God, by recognizing that what God wants is revealed in the boundary-busting upside-down event of the crucifixion of Christ. For Paul, it is our desire to judge what is righteous, to own the power of that discernment for ourselves, that keeps us in servitude to the power of sin. Conversely, belief in Christ, essentially a relinquishment of the notion that we can define, own, build, collect, or withhold righteousness, frees us from all the ways that sin would try to control us. By its nature, sin enslaves, while faith emancipates.
Swedenborg would agree with certain aspects of this formulation. But he would depart from Paul in defining spiritual freedom as not just a function of belief or faith, but also as a function of the choices that we make. Swedenborg speaks about freedom in two ways. The first way is in the more classically enlightenment sense: the state of being able to make various different unfettered choices by our own will. He understood the possibility of this state as integral to our spiritual life. God gives us the gift of free choice so that our choices can have meaning.
However, he also speaks of freedom as defined by what it is used for(1). When we use our freedom to think, will and do evil, then that is hellish freedom, and when we use our freedom to think, will and do good, then that is heavenly freedom. Whenever we use our freedom to actualize what we think and want, whatever that leads to, it will *feel* like freedom to us. But Swedenborg points out that “to be led by evil is enslavement…to be led by good is to be led by the Lord.” If our freedom ultimately leads us into ways of thinking and being that are defined by fear, self-aggrandizement, selfishness, etc we become beholden to those ways of thinking and being, and so it doesn’t actually end up looking much like freedom at all.
Which leads to his really interesting assertion, as we heard in our reading today, that when we compel ourselves to do something good for the sake of others, thinking of others and not just ourselves, we are actually in a state of greater freedom than when we choose otherwise. The more we voluntarily work to relinquish servitude to our selfhood, the free-er we will ultimately be. So again, we see spiritual truth manifesting itself in a kind of paradox - that a higher state of freedom actually comes from a thing that doesn’t seem like freedom at all: self-compulsion.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way, right? In moments of self-compulsion, we often feel really constrained. Think about how it feels to compel ourselves to choose healthy food instead of a treat, or to choose to calm ourselves instead of giving in to anger, or to have a conversation that we know we need to have but don’t really want to have. Those moments feel really hard. We might feel resentment, we might feel fear, we might feel embarrassment, and we certainly don’t feel free in the way that freedom is usually characterized, by a sense of being unburdened or unfettered by some expectation. In these moments we are burdened indeed, but by our conscience, by our sense of what is right, and our love for our neighbor. And Swedenborg is saying, that when we consciously choose to do the hard thing but the right thing, instead of the easy thing, we are more fully exercising our freedom than if we were to choose the easy thing. And in a strange way, this does make sense. Choosing the harder thing when we could have chosen the easier thing goes against our instincts, and to choose something that goes against whatever flow we are in demonstrates the true power of free choice. When we choose to stop being bound by our own fears, or selfishness, and make a decision not based in those things, we are stepping into a new realm of freedom, the realm of no longer being bound by that fear or selfishness.
Heavenly freedom, then, is not defined by the simple fact of its own existence but rather by what it leads to. Heavenly freedom is not just having the choice, but using the choice to create more freedom, love, and belonging for others. It is essentially generative, connective and hopeful, not so much something we have, or something that happens to us, but something we practice. Which might not sound all that appealing to our lower selves. Because the notion of heavenly freedom gets weighty real quick. Self-compulsion isn’t fun. It’s kind of exhausting. Our lower selves want to do the easy thing, not the harder thing. Our lower selves want to exist in a realm where nothing difficult is asked of us, a realm where freedom just means getting to do what we want. Notice that at this point we are hearing echoes of Paul, seeing how the cosmic power of sin can even take an inherently good thing like freedom, and turn it into something that serves only the self. But this kind of freedom, one that only looks inward, ends up only being a shell, an impersonation, of the real thing, because it revolves around the self like a moon in orbit. It is necessarily limited, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Our devotion to our own selfhood keeps us small, and I do believe that God wants to invite us into a kind of freedom that is more creative, expansive and inclusive. The trick though, is that we have to choose it by consciously submitting our will to God’s will, and that doesn’t feel like freedom to our selfhood. And so our selfhood won’t want to do it. So here is the crux of the paradox about freedom as I see it. We often equate freedom with feeling relief, or safety, or peace. And this is good, because ultimately freedom should create those things, for everyone. But heavenly freedom should also feel a little bit challenging, a little bit nerve-y. Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
Let’s use the word emancipation to describe a deeper, bigger and scarier level of freedom: inner, outer, personal, economic, structural and spiritual. Surely this is the task of our entire lifetime.(2)
Freedom isn’t the same thing as comfort. In fact, heavenly freedom calls us away from the whatever our selfhood calls comfort, into a realm where love continually expands us beyond our small way of seeing things. This can feel scary but it is also beautiful. Swedenborg writes: “The more present the Lord is the more free we become…” (3) We are not doing this alone. God calls us into a deep freedom that recognizes our fundamental connection to each other, and our unbreakable connection to the divine. May we trust in this essential connective design, and may we celebrate the gift of spiritual freedom that allows us to choose to enter into it with our whole selves. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #43
(2) Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from The Center for Action and Contemplation, Inner and Outer Freedom, June 17, 2020.
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #905
33 Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. 36 Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. 37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. 38 Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. 39 Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. 40 How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life. 41 May your unfailing love come to me, LORD, your salvation, according to your promise; 42 then I can answer anyone who taunts me, for I trust in your word. 43 Never take your word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. 44 I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. 45 I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
John 8:31-34, 36-43
31 To the Judeans who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.” 39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.
Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3
When a person is being regenerated they compel themselves from the freedom the Lord imparts to them, and humbles, and indeed afflicts, their rational, so that it may submit itself, and in consequence they receive a heavenly [selfhood]. This [selfhood] is then gradually perfected by the Lord and it becomes more and more free, so that as a result it becomes the affection for good and for truth deriving from that good, and possesses delight. And in that affection and delight there is happiness such as the angels experience.
 What this freedom is, is totally unknown to those who do not have conscience, for they identify freedom with feelings of being at liberty and without restraint to think and utter what is false, and to will and do what is evil, and not to control and humble, still less to afflict, those feelings. Yet this is the complete reverse of freedom.
Divine Providence #145:3
…We can see that this is not inconsistent but in accord with our rationality and freedom, since it is our rationality that starts this struggle and our freedom that pursues it. Our essential freedom, together with our rationality, dwells in our inner self, and comes into our outer self from there.