Is it just me, or does tonight feels a bit like the season finale of a television series. If I’ve counted back correctly, we’re just coming to the end of the fourth season of “The People Of God”. Season 1 was broadcast in the Autumn of 2016 and shared the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and his family. Season 2 came along in the Summer of last year, and we followed Abraham and his family as they received the promises of God, and had their faith tested and grown in a whole variety of ways. Season 3 n early Spring this year, picked up with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and the twists and turns of his life as he was drawn closer to God.
And now, in season 4 we’ve had the melodrama of Jacob’s son, Joseph, technicolour dream coat and all. The big reveal has just happened (I’m really your brother), loose ends are being tied up, we’re reminded of things that have happened in previous seasons, and the seeds of the story lines of the next season are being sown.
The cliff hanger at the end of the last episode was the news that Joseph is alive. He wasn’t killed by wild animals all those years ago, and he’s waiting in Egypt for his father, Israel. Tonight’s episode begins with Israel and his whole family setting out to be reunited with their long lost relative. But, on the way, Israel wants to make a stop, at a place called Beersheba.
We first come across this place in Genesis Chapter 20. Abraham was living in Canaan -but he wasn’t the king, he didn’t fill the land – he was a foreigner there. God’s promise that the land would be given to him and his descendants had not yet been fulfilled. As an owner of herds and cattle, he got into a dispute with some of the other herders, and especially those who worked for the King, Abimelech, over ownership of some wells in the land. In a desert, rights to the use of a well are incredibly important – a matter of life and death. They are also a sign of permanence, of settling in. You don’t go to all the trouble of digging a well if you are going to be moving on. To expend the effort required to dig a well implies a connection to the land that you intend to continue, it is a mark of ownership. In v30 we read, “Abraham told him, “I want you to accept these seven lambs as proof that I dug this well.” So they called the place Beersheba, because they made a treaty there. When the treaty was completed, Abimelech and his army commander Phicol went back to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and worshiped the eternal Lord God. Then Abraham lived a long time as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines.”
Now the name, “Beersheba” means “well of oath” or “peace treaty well”. So, for Abraham Beersheba was a place of watering the flocks, a place that implied a long term intention to stay in the land, a place of promise of peace, and a place of worship.
But what of his son, Isaac?
For his connection with Beersheba we have to jump forward a few chapters to Genesis 26, where we find another account of God’s people living uncomfortably under the rule of a Philistine King, in fact the same Philistine King – Abimilech. I’m not going to go through the whole story, but I am going to pull a couple of verses out.
V1and 2 “Now there was a famine in the land … The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live.”
This provides an interesting contrast and difference between Isaac’s story and Jacob’s story. The circumstances were very similar- there was a famine, but God’s direction was very different. Isaac was told not to go to Eygpt, but Jacob is reassured by God, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”. Sometimes situations can look very similar, either we’ve experienced them before, or we know that other people have. That doesn’t mean that God wants us to do the same thing that we did last time, we need to continue to be attentive to God and ask what is the right thing to do this time – it may very well be different to last time.
V 14 & 15 “he had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father, Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.
Isaac is blessed by God, and cursed by man. The King, Abimelech, grows concerned at the strength and influence of Isaac’s people and tells Isaac to move on. Which he does, and starts digging more wells- wells which the people of the land dispute his right over and keep him moving. Finally he reaches Beersheba, and the Lord appears to him in a dream, v24 “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendents for the sake of my servant Abraham.”
And what is Isaac’s reaction to this promise, this reassurance?
V25 “Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and his servants dug a well”.
Isaac’s response is worship, faith, and settling down. The altar is built for worship and the tent pitched and the well dug for taking up residence. This is where God has said they should be, and they’re staying put.
King Abimelech comes to see him, and they make another peace treaty, and so the name Beersheba is reaffirmed. Once again it is a “peace treaty well”. So, for Isaac, Beersheba was a place of watering the flocks, a place that implied a long term intention to stay in the land, a place of promise of peace, and a place of worship.
So, having received the summons from his son, Joseph, Jacob sets out and stops at Beersheba on the way. This is a place that his father received a promise. It is a place that his Father and Grandfather defended against the attacks of the citizens of the land. It is a place of a declaration of intent to stay. It is a place of blessing. Jacob is doing something new, he is leaving the land, the land that was promised to Abraham and Isaac. Is he doing the right thing? He goes to Beersheba to follow their example in worship – he offers sacrifices on the altar, and as he does, so God appears to him and reassures him.
This time it’s OK to go to Egypt. The promise still stands. I will continue to go with you. I will continue to forge you into a great nation. I will bring you back. Jacob is not deserting the promise by going to Egypt, and neither is God by taking them there.
For Jacob Beersheba is of watering flocks on the way, a place of worship, and a place that is connected with a long term intention to return to the land, and with the oath of God to bring them back again.
It is also the last time that we hear God’s voice speaking to one of the Patriarchs. How does it go?
“Jacob! Jacob!” – “Here I am”
We next hear God’s voice in Exodus, calling from a bush
Exodus 3:4 “When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” and Moses said, “here I am”.
A hint of the storyline to come in the next season, perhaps?
On both occasions God calls the name of the person being talked to twice and the response is “Here I am”. I wonder how many times has God called our name, and how good are we at saying, “here I am” and listening to what God has to say to us? I think I might be a bit more like one of those head strong spaniels who gets onto a scent and isn’t coming back until I’m good and ready, no matter how many times my name is called.
Talking of names. Does anybody else find this incessant swapping between Israel and Jacob a bit confusing? It’s hard enough to keep track of who everybody is without them having two names which seem to be used interchangeably. On the other hand, maybe it’s meant to remind of us something. This is a man who was born a twin, whose name meant “trickster”- who spent a huge chunk of his life living up to that name – tricking his brother out of birth right and blessing, tricking his uncle out of flocks and wealth. But then, on his way home to be reconciled with his brother, he met and wrestled with God, and although injured gained God’s blessing.
He was renamed Israel, the one who struggles with God, by God. As we come to end of Jacob’s story, as we hear God reaffirm the promises made to him through his life, this twin history is acknowledged by the intertwining of the names. We have come to this place because of both aspects of this man’s character – his trickery and his struggle, and God’s has remained faithful and will continue to bless.
And so, the family sets out for this journey into the unknown. In the following verses and chapters they head down into Egypt. Jacob and Joseph are reunited, and weep over each other. They meet Pharoah and are allocated a land of their own. The famine continued, but with Joseph continuing to manage the affairs of the Kingdom, the worst effects of it are mitigated and the people survive. God’s people settle and thrive and finally Jacob and Joseph both die, leaving their descendants to live on in the land of Egypt.
And so this series concludes. But the story is not over. Joseph leaves instructions that he is not to be buried in Egypt. His sons are to keep his bones and to take them back to Canaan when they return, as God has promised they will. The story is not over, because the promise of God has not yet been completely fulfilled. The people are becoming a nation, they are being fruitful and flourishing, but they have not yet been given the land that God has promised to them. That is still to come.
And so it is with us. For many people this time of year feels a bit like the end of one season, and waiting for another to start. Exams are over, holidays are coming, soon it will be September and then harvest and Christmas will be with us before we know it. Or maybe, on a wider scale, it’s a time of transition from one job to another, a child or grandchild about to be born, or retirement on the horizon. Whatever it is, the God of promise is with us, as we go from one stage of life to another, as we trust and hold on to that faith that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph showed, so we too will come into the fulness of God’s purposes and promises to us.