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Spare Siblings

After leaks, interviews, and much brouhaha, the book is now out. Yes, that book.


Spare, by Harry, Duke of Sussex, is now available in all good bookstores . . . and well, it’s everywhere, isn’t it? All over social media, on TV, on the newsstands, and never far from a comedian’s witty repertoire. This is a story which just keeps on giving. At least it is if you sell scandal and enjoy gossip at a level “never-before-reached.” This is not just a family tearing itself apart, but one of the most famous families in the world engaging in internecine warfare at its worst. No one is winning. Both sides are losing. (It could be argued that only one side is fighting, but that’s a minor detail. This one will run and run. Sadly.)


Are there warnings here? Is there something we can learn?


So, first a confession. I have found myself caught up in this story. It has not drawn out the best in me. We all have a little schadenfreude inside us and this story unlocks mine with alacrity. That’s not good. I have found myself at war with my own darkness. We should never enjoy others' suffering. So, here’s my first warning. Be careful of judgementalism. There is a lot to judge here, and it’s just so easy to feel superior when engulfed in the grisly details of the super-wealthy, super-celeb[1], super-privileged.


It's easy to forget that Harry and Meghan are just human beings. Fallen like us. Sinful like us. So are William and King Charles and the rest of the royal family. They never have been blameless. A quick read through the history books will soon uncover a family line capable of horrors. Just like our own, probably. So, no to the judgementalism.


Better, surely, to look to the Bible and seek a little wisdom.


Because this story is reportedly about sibling rivalry. That’s the source of the pain. That’s the source of the anger, the outbursts.[2]


Why him and not me?


Harry, meet Cain.

Harry, meet Ishmael.

Harry, meet Jacob.

Harry, meet Joseph.

Harry, meet the prodigal son.


You get the drift.


First, this isn’t just about primogeniture. Not all those listed above were second-born. Some were, but not all.


CAIN


The account in Genesis is sparse, sufficiently sparse that we often speculate as to why Cain felt so hard done by. What was wrong with his sacrifice? The Apostle John doesn’t waste time messing about. His words are damning.


Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.

1 John 3.12


Whoa. So what does Genesis give us?


Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’

Gen 4.6-7


Cain was the firstborn, but there is nothing in the text about his relationship with his brother. There is no information about sibling rivalry. He’s just so furious that he turns on him. It appears that Cain was consumed by fury over God’s rejection of his offering. If John is right, then he had permitted himself to be governed by Satan. That’s a strong charge. What had gone so terribly wrong? Without wishing to speculate too much, it certainly looks like his pride had been offended. Let’s leave him there.


JACOB


I have serious issues with Jacob. Okay, I’ll confess. I don’t like him. At least, I don’t like him at the beginning of his story. Who would? Conniving, deceitful, his name means “deceiver.” At least that’s what I thought until I did some reading. The actual meaning is closer to the word “supplant.” It also means “to follow, to follow behind” and then has connotations of “circumvent, assail, overreach.” Talk about a man living into his given name, Jacob is slimy and manipulative. Yet, I have been challenged by God’s perspective and his work in Jacob’s life. Jacob’s story is absolutely saturated with the grace of God. The Lord’s mercy towards him is truly extraordinary, and Jacob responds. You can see that when he agrees to meet with Esau and reconcile. He is a changed man, and God is the architect of that change.


JOSEPH


A favoured son, Joseph appears a little naïve when he shares his dreams with his brothers.[3] And as you know well, he pays for it. But again, it is the Lord whose character shines most brightly as we read. He takes a man in despair, and works to restore him at the same time as using him to save an entire nation. Like Jacob’s, Joseph’s story reminds us of God’s purposes. God alone is sovereign over him. He never abandons him (though he languished in prison for two years), but instead fulfils the words we read at the end of Genesis.


But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Gen 50.20


God intended it for good—never a truer word spoken, but just as importantly—Am I in the place of God? Joseph correctly identifies the one who is sovereign over all their lives.


THE PRODIGAL SON


I don’t need to rehearse this story. It’s one of the most powerful in the Bible, capable of touching the most resistant of souls. Here I think we are in Harry territory. The younger son who leaves home to pursue his own goals. No social media or book deals for this younger son, but if there had been, the Father would have been roasted. And as we know, it doesn’t go well. He didn’t have a $20m book deal to fund his partying, or TV talk show hosts to tell “his truth.” He was starving. I wonder if one day, Harry will find himself starving. Not physically, but starved of familial connection. He is no different from us all. The love of family is immensely precious and he appears right now to have lost it. Those bridges will be hard to repair. So, I tell myself, less of the judgementalism, and a little more compassion is needed. From all of us.


ISHMAEL


I’m finishing with Ishmael, but his story is not so much about him as his mother. We learn little of Ishmael, though he is there at the burial of his father, Abraham. He is called “a donkey of a man,” not exactly a compliment, but the Scriptures focus, of course, on his brother, Isaac, the son of the promise. These are the Hebrew Scriptures, after all. So allow me to turn to his mother, Hagar. Her story is one of the most heart-rending in the Bible. She was a slave, and that meant that when Abraham “took her as his wife,” he was using her for his own ends. What was he thinking?! That’s abuse, plain and simple. She was an abused woman. Abraham and Sarai act shamefully in this story. We know little of Hagar, though it’s recorded that she mocked Sarai at the weaning celebration of Isaac. However, the core of the story is the way she is treated by others.


Where was God in all this? What was he doing?


Hagar, it turns out, is the only person in the Old Testament who encountered the angel of the Lord twice. Twice. To my knowledge, no other person can claim that. As she was running away, alone in the desert, she met the Lord.[4] Here are the key verses.


Then the angel of the Lord told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’

Gen 16. 9-10


The story is filled with pathos, especially when, years later, she lays her son under a bush and awaits death. She encounters the Lord who is described as “the Lord who sees me.” Notice in these verses that the call to submission is followed by “I will increase.” As Hagar submits, the Lord responds with enormous blessing, for one’s descendants were of great significance in the ancient world.


And that’s where I’ll leave her.


What is the unifying theme in all these stories? God’s grace, naturally, but also God’s sovereignty. I think we hear it when the angel says to Hagar, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” There is no self-realisation in these stories. Every individual is subsumed within the great plans of God for his people. And not just his people, Israel. Ishmael is also the father of a nation. In fact, whenever a character chooses to force the issue—kill a brother, steal a birthright, claim an inheritance early—things do not go well for them. Each man who overreaches ends up suffering greatly.


Yet in all things, God. His ways, his plans, his purposes—they are never thwarted. The story of his people continues to unfold just as he planned.


And so I return to those words above:


Why him and not me?


Why indeed? Why are any of us dealt the hand we’re dealt? I cannot say, but when we force the issue and rail against what is given to us, things often turn out badly.


What about you and those you serve? Our nation is going through a lot of anguish right now. “Why me?” may well be on the hearts of your people. Though it is a hard lesson, we can choose to complain, or we can accept what we’re given and give thanks. Gratitude is one of the most precious forms of submission.


So give thanks for life and all its many wonders.


Go back to your mistress and submit to her.


After her encounter with the angel of the Lord, I wonder what life Hagar was given. Perhaps not an easy one, but I believe after she had submitted to the Lord’s will (and returned to her mistress), she would have lived her life remembering “the Lord who sees you.”


She and Ishmael were not forgotten, and nor are we. No one is “spare.”


For God’s sovereignty and his purposes are eternal.


No birth order can change that.



 

1. Super-celeb – a word I made up.

2. Harry’s behaviour is also driven by intense anguish over the death of his mother.

3. Scholars disagree over Joseph’s motives in sharing his dreams with his father and brothers. Some say he is arrogant; others say he’s foolish. At a very minimum, he seems naïve, but you must make your own decision and base it on the text in Genesis 37.

4. I won’t speculate on his identity here. Angel or pre-incarnate Christ, he was God or God’s representative to Hagar.



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