The Power of Humble Origins
There is a really important theme that runs through the Bible that we often miss because our eyes sometimes glaze over when we read ancient literature. It’s not exactly light bedtime reading.
The theme is that of power and humble origins.
Compare the story of Adam with the story of Israel. God creates Adam out of the dust of the earth. That’s pretty low. God creates a people for himself after 400 years of slavery in Egypt. You don’t get much lower than that on the food chain. God puts Adam in a lush garden. God leads his people into Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. God gives Adam a command regarding which trees he can and can’t eat from. God gives Israel the law. Adam disobeys God. Israel does a bad job of keeping the law. Adam is banished from the Garden. Israel is exiled to Assyria and Babylon.
Why does God seem to find it important to create man from dust and Israel from slavery?
Before we answer that, let’s consider a few other stories from the Bible.
Esau and Jacob are brothers. According to their ancient custom, Esau had the privilege of receiving a greater inheritance as the older brother. But he is not chosen as the patriarch through which God’s people would come. God chooses the younger brother, the unlikely choice, to receive his father’s blessing and his brother’s birthright.
Joseph was son number 11 out of 12. He was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, shipped off to Egypt, spent years in prison, and rises to a place of authority where he leads the nation to store up grain for years. When famine strikes, he saves everyone from starvation. The great leader is the unlikely choice, the younger son who starts out in slavery.
David was also a younger son who had a lowly position taking care of sheep. When Israel decides to name a king, it seems obvious at first that Saul should be chosen. He stands head and shoulders above everyone else. But God chooses David, from the bottom, who would be the person to lead his people.
Back to Israel again. God tells Abraham that he will become the father of a great nation, and eventually all the nations of the world will be blessed through them. But first they would have to be enslaved for 400 years.
Even Jesus is born in the most insignificant of little towns—Bethlehem. In a barn, no less. In the company of shepherds.
Why does this seem really important to God?
Let’s do a thought experiment. If you wanted to create a nation who could rule righteously, who could perfectly balance justice and compassion, who could hold the power in their hands without resorting to oppression, who could do what is right without stepping on the little guy, who could be a blessing to all the nations of the world… It might not be best to start with a person or a nation at the top. You have to start with a person or a nation from the bottom, from the dust of the earth, like Adam.
Consider some things God says as he is teaching Israel how to live after bringing them out of slavery. God gives the command that the Israelites should not have a servant more than six years. In the seventh year, they should go free. And in fact, you shouldn’t just let him go empty handed. You should give to him liberally. God says, “When you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” Deuteronomy 15:12-15.
If God were giving this command to say…Assyria…a powerful nation that dominated other nations, I don’t think they would be able to accept what God is saying here.
Again, God gives a command to the Israelites that they should not oppress their servants or the poor or the foreigners or the fatherless or the widows. In fact, you should not take all you can get out of your field or your orchard or your vineyard. You should leave some for the poor, fatherless, foreigners, widows. Why? God says, “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt. Therefore I command you to do this.” Deuteronomy 24:14-22.
I think other powerful empires would have had a hard time with this. But Israel was able to keep this in their thoughts as they interacted with the poor because they came from slavery, from the dust.
Five times in the book of Deuteronomy God reminds the Israelites that that they were once slaves.
I think there is an important lesson here. The world often admires and follows the powerful, the beautiful, the authoritative, the people at the top. But many times these are not the best people to consider the needs of the poor, the foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows. A person who comes from humble origins is able to sympathize with these people, find ways to help them, and not take advantage of them. Israel’s history of slavery was meant to keep them humble and compassionate, and less likely to fall into greed and oppressive behaviors.
And somehow, through a person’s humble origins, he becomes worthy of the right to lead. Jesus tells his followers over and over again that in order to be great in God’s kingdom, you must be a servant. In order to lead well, to do right by people, to pursue justice and compassion at the same time, you must approach it from a place of service, and not from a place of power.
Suddenly it makes sense how this culture, this ethic, might actually be the thing to “bless all the nations of the earth.” Genesis 22:18
Some people may resonate with this concept and say, “Yep. My family definitely comes from the bottom, from the dust of the ground.” Other people may say, “My family comes from the top, a little more like Assyria than Israel.” Either way, we all have Adam to look back to and learn from.
As Israel’s story of humble origins was meant to inform the ways they interacted with people, it should also serve as a reminder to us today, and inform the ways we view and treat people around us on a daily basis.