Generational drama

Transition, legacy, new generation(s)—we’ve been hearing words like this a lot in the Messianic Jewish community of late, and this week we’re studying the Torah portion with that very title—Toldot, or “Generations” (Gen. 25:19-28:9). This week’s Toldot represents just one of ten appearances of that word in Genesis, alerting us that generational drama is a major feature of the whole book.

The drama begins as soon as God tells the first human couple to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. It intensifies when God calls Abraham and promises him a blessing that will benefit all humankind, but that must be transmitted from generation to generation to reach fruition, overcoming the obstacles of barrenness, scarcity, family strife, and doubt. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to discover how relevant this drama is to our current process of generation-to-generation transition, which faces the same sort of obstacles.

But before we consider this week’s parasha, I have to point out how important non-Hebrews, Gentiles, are to this whole generational drama.

The first toldot in Genesis is universal—“These are the generations of heaven and earth when they were created” (Gen. 2:4)—but the theme becomes increasingly particular, to focus on Abraham and his offspring, concluding with the final toldot, “These are the generations of Jacob” (Gen. 37:2). This increasingly narrow focus on Israel is empowered by the blessing and help of Gentiles, from Melchizedek to Pharaoh.

Melchizedek is the priest of El Elyon, God Most High, who meets Abraham after the defeat of the four kings (Gen. 14:17-20) and blesses Abraham—in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed. As Abraham is the father of the specifically chosen people, Melchizedek represents all peoples, the Gentiles, who will ultimately benefit from Abraham’s chosenness. He bears witness to Abraham, and confirms that the God of Abraham is God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; in other words, the Creator and true God of the entire human race. Melchizedek thereby affirms that the election of Abraham and his seed harmonizes with the universal purpose of blessing declared by the Creator in Genesis 1. Melchizedek the Gentile priest helps advance the generation-to-generation drama of Abraham’s Jewish line.

Pharaoh, in the Joseph story that unfolds after the final toldot, is likewise a powerful and positive figure. We tend to think of the later, evil Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8), but Joseph’s Pharaoh is a good guy. He has the wisdom to recognize that his two-fold dream is significant and must be interpreted, and to realize that the interpretations of his wise men are inadequate. He has the discernment to listen to Joseph and the boldness to put him in charge. Finally, this Pharaoh provides a place of provision and safety for the family of Joseph, thereby ensuring that Israel’s generation-to-generation drama can continue on toward its climax of blessing the nations.

Sometimes in the Messianic Jewish community, Gentiles feel second-class or incidental. But in Messiah, Gentiles, whether within a Messianic Jewish congregation or outside, have a role that is vital and worthy of honor. As representatives of the nations, they witness that the God of Israel is the God of Creation, the source of life and salvation for all. They demonstrate that God’s particular choice of Israel, the Jewish people descended from Abraham, does not diminish his love and blessing upon all peoples. By remaining Gentiles—respecting the unique calling of the Jewish people as Jews—and at the same time supporting this calling, they display trust in God’s ability to choose some for a special purpose and to still love all humanity. In Messiah Yeshua, of course, a remnant from all the nations is also chosen, but this chosenness doesn’t replace the chosenness of Israel as a whole people. And like Melchizedek and Joseph’s Pharaoh, Gentiles play an indispensable role in empowering Israel to fulfill this chosenness.

Gentiles don’t need to belong to Messianic Jewish congregations to play this role, although many do belong, of course. Messianic Jewish congregations should first of all be a home for Jewish people who have found, or are looking for, Messiah. But I also believe that these congregations rightly include “those from non-Jewish backgrounds who have a confirmed call to participate fully in the life and destiny of the Jewish people,” as our UMJC Defining Messianic Judaism statement says. They are essential players in the drama of toldot.

Okay, so now we’re ready to see how this week’s parasha sheds light on this massive generational drama.

Then Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham—the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death. He gave them the same names that his father had given them.

Then Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found a well of living water there. But the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s shepherds saying, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Quarrel, because they quarreled with him. Then he dug another well and they quarreled over it too, so he named it Accusation. Then he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he named it Wide Spaces and said, “Because now ADONAI has created wide spaces for us and we will be fruitful in the land.” (Gen. 26:18-22 TLV)

Isaac represents a new generation, and he navigates two great temptations that every new generation will face.

First, he honors the legacy of Abraham, the preceding generation, not just verbally by recognizing his accomplishments or agreeing with his convictions, but actively by doing the hard work of reconnecting with Abraham’s sources. Isaac isn’t content with admiring Abraham; he wants to drink at his well, even though it’s been stopped up by the enemy and will be tough to restore. He avoids the temptation of neglecting honor, or of practicing shallow honor, and thus losing connection with the previous generation. Instead, he practices the profound honor toward an older leader of really “getting” what he’s contributed, and keeping it flowing for a new generation. Isaac only increases this honor when he restores the names that Abraham had given to these water sources.

Thus Isaac avoids the first temptation, which is losing connection, whether deliberately or carelessly, with what came before us.

Acts of honor empower healthy transition, but they don’t constitute healthy transition. Isaac must overcome another temptation, which is to simply live off the inheritance of the previous generation. He must dig his own wells, which is even harder than opening his father’s wells. No matter how great the legacy, the new generation can’t expect to replicate the accomplishments of the previous generation without a battle. Isaac remains grounded in Abraham’s legacy, but he becomes his own man through his struggles. When Isaac dug the second well only to generate opposition, he must have been tempted to return to Abraham’s well and just settle there, but he kept on and found Wide Spaces.

Thus Isaac overcomes the second temptation, which is reverting to a safe status quo, instead of pushing through to the wide and fruitful place.

The art of transition entails a fine balance of drawing deeply upon the old, even as we battle to create the new. Neglecting either will damage the future. Isaac is finally rewarded only when he digs a third well, to remind us that the way to success is paved with failures. As our community continues the hard work of transition we can look forward to entering wide and fruitful spaces in the God of Abraham.

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