Thoughts for Monday 3rd August, 2020

Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Genesis 31:22-42; Romans 1:8-15


Monday 3 August


I’m going to focus on a single phrase today, and it’s, ‘the hill country of Gilead.’ Genesis 31 is the first place in the Bible where Gilead is mentioned, but not the last. There are over twenty books which use that name, either for a person (e.g. Numbers 26:29-30) or for a place. And that place is the mountainous region east of the River Jordan in the modern-day Kingdom of Jordan.


It’s where Laban catches up with Jacob, and they come to an agreement; and it’s where (also in Genesis) the Ishmaelites are coming from when Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It was known as a region where plants with medicinal properties were grown, and its best known Biblical reference can be found at Jeremiah 8:22 where we have, ‘Is there no medicine in Gilead,’ Jeremiah then going on to say, ‘I wish my head were a well of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I could cry day and night for my people who have been killed.’


Powerful, therefore, metaphorically, it’s interesting, I think, the way Gilead has come to be used as a symbol in modern times – and especially within North American culture. There’s the African American spiritual, There is a balm in Gilead, for example; Edgar Allan Poe mentions Gilead in his most famous poem, The Raven:


On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore;”


the Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, sets her most famous work, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), in a fictionalised New England she calls Gilead; and the writer, Marilynne Robinson, wrote a novel she called, Gilead (2004). This latter work is a remarkable piece of writing as well. Set in a 1950s Iowan town, it’s a lengthy letter by a Congregationalist Pastor with a heart condition. He knows he doesn’t have long to live, and wants to leave his young son some account of his life before it’s too late.


In the book, Gilead is based on a real town founded for no other reason than as part of the Underground Railroad that sought to bring slaves north to Canada. The son and grandson of pastors as well, the dynamism at the heart of the novel is the contrast between the grandfather’s active support for the abolitionist, John Brown, and the father’s Christian pacifism.


What Robinson mainly seeks to do, however, is to take the Calvinist theology that underpins both Congregationalist and our own Presbyterian beliefs, and attempt to rescue us from the stereotypes that have grown up about ourselves as haters of the physical world and joyless exclusivists – which Calvin never ever thought, said or was in the first place. I think she does a pretty good job, and that this is a book which will still be being read in fifty years time.


Let us pray:


There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul.


Sometimes I feel discouraged,

And think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit

Revives my soul again.




If you cannot sing like angels,

If you can’t preach like Paul,

You can tell the love of Jesus,

And say He died for all.






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