(Reprinted from Mennonite World Review, Dec. 21 issue)
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).” Immanuel. God with us. What a dangerous name.
Jacob and Laban strike a deal: seven years for the ravishing Rachel. Jacob claims his ‘wages’: “Give me my wife; I want to make love to her.” (It was her mind he’d fallen for.) “Of course,” replies Laban, “only why don’t you let me throw you a wedding party.” So begins a classic cautionary tale of lust and alcohol.
The resulting three-party marriage goes about as well as you would imagine where two are sisters and only one is beautiful and desired. It’s no surprise the story devolves into a showdown between rivals. It’s a sisterly duel to the death, and God is the weapon of choice. Thirteen times God’s name is thrust back and forth like parried swords.
Leah names her son Simeon, which means ‘one who hears.’ “God has heard I’m not loved,” she declares, “and given me this child.” If she can’t have her husband, at least God’s on her side.
“Ah ha!” cries Rachel, after the birth of Dan, whose name means ‘he has vindicated.’ “God has put me in the right!”
“See here?” observes Leah, at the birth of Issachar, whose name means ‘reward.’ “God is rewarding me for giving my slave girl to my husband.” (?!?!)
“At last!” declares Rachel, upon the birth of Joseph. “God has taken away my humiliation.”
“God with us!” Joshua cries as he leads an army of former slaves to slaughter other peasants. “God with us!” as the prophets call down vengeance on their Edomite cousins. “God with us!” as David sings over Philistines graves. “God with us!” the kings of Israel and Judah both declare as they turn their swords on each other. “God with us!” the exiles rage as they pray for the death of Babylonian babies.
Has there ever been a competition between siblings, neighbors or nations in which divine right was not invoked on both sides? Surely the ‘rightness’ that’s clear to us must be evident also to God. God’s name is easily carved into our side of the sandy line. God with us, and God obviously not with those guys over there. Life for us and our people, life for us and our cause, and just destruction for them and theirs.
Immanuel. What a dangerous name. A name that has stoked more hate, burned more homes, ravaged more lands, and stolen more lives than any other name in human history.
Yet this baby, this Jesus, has come to reclaim the ancient, dreaded name. And in doing so, he will redefine it.
God with us. God with adulterous women. God with heretical Samaritans. God with Jewish zealots. God with Roman collaborators, too. God with Hebrew slaves, suffering under their oppressors. God also with Egyptians, looking for a deity worthy of awe. God with wandering Israelites, searching for a homeland. God also with Canaanites who already call this place home. God with Leah, seeing her loneliness. God with Rachel, seeing her shame. God with even careless Jacob and callous Laban who set this fiasco in motion.
God with us. Also God with our neighbor. God with our nation. Also God with our nation’s enemies. God with all who are hungry, all who are broken, all who are longing for truth. God with all searchers, God with all lovers, God with all who practice mercy. God with the desperate, God with the fearful, God even with the lost and destructive. Not God on our side but God at our side. God on God’s side’s, working justice and hope for every piece of this broken world.
Immanuel: the God who heard your cries has come running to your side. Just don’t be surprised to look across the line and find that God by your sister’s side as well.by