Genesis Chapters 12-25
The Abrahamic Journeys
Read Chapter 12
This chapter narrows the focus of the story of Genesis. The first eleven chapters were about the history of humanity; where it came from (God created it) and how it ended up in the sorry state it now inhabits (we ignored God’s loving commands). The rest of Genesis will deal with Israel; the people of God. We will discover their purpose (being agents of God’s recreating work) and their problems (ignoring God’s loving commands). We begin the story of Israel with Abram and Sarai.
The new story begins with an absurd, three-fold promise of God. God promises (covenants with) Abram and Sarai, that if they are willing to leave behind the safety and prosperity of Haran, where they had been living, and follow where God leads, then God will give them land, children and blessing (the blessing is both for Abram and Sarai, as well as for all the nations of the earth). This is an absurd promise because the land to which they are being led by God is already occupied, Abram and Sarai are childless and there is famine in that land. These realities hardly seem like a recipe for success. And things look even worse when Abram “forgets” God’s promises and, to save himself, gives Sarai to Pharaoh as a wife (Abram is afraid that Pharaoh will kill him to get Sarai). Thus, at least for a moment, this new adventure appears doomed.
To fully appreciate this story, we need to reexamine the first eleven chapters of this book. What those chapters tell us is that God created a good world, we messed it up, but God had not given up on remaking the world the way it ought to be. Twice God “started over.” The first attempt was through Noah and the second was through the people at Babel. Both efforts failed. Nothing changed. What we have in the Abram and Sarai story then, is a third attempt at “starting over” (which turns out, in the end, to be the charm). What I mean by “starting over”, is that none of the characters, from Noah to Abram, had the ability to remake creation. They were merely part of the chaos. If there was to be a new creation, it would have to come about through God speaking the renewed creation into being, just as God had done in Genesis 1, when God spoke and order overcame chaos.
This is what God does in this chapter. He speaks to Abram and Sarai, calling forth in and through them the possibility of a new creation. But, unlike God’s previous attempts, this time God appears willing to invest for the long, rather than the short term. We can see the long-term nature of this plan and promise when, even after Abram gives away Sarai to Pharaoh (thus risking the entire endeavor), God insures her return along with parting gifts. In other words, even in the face of human unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to God’s promise to bless Abram and Sarai, and the world.
Reflection: Here at Everybody’s Church we have something called the Five Part Story. The parts are God Loves the World, We Wander Far from God, God Calls a Family, Jesus is the Way to God and The Spirit Helps Us Live God’s Love. These are the five major moves in the Bible. In the first twelve chapters of Genesis, we have encountered the first three parts, with God calling Abram and Sarai to be the family through which God will save the world, as the third. As we continue in Genesis (and the rest of the Biblical story) we will witness God trying to bring the world back to goodness and people wandering away. We will also see God keeping God’s promise to not only bless Abram and Sarai’s family in the face of their unfaithfulness, but to bless the world through them, even in the face of the world’s unfaithfulness.
Read Chapter 13
In the previous article, read about Abram and Sarai escaping Egypt, and the clutches of Pharaoh, through God’s intervention. This chapter picks up the story as Abram, Sarai and their nephew Lot, journey northward from Egypt. The storyteller makes it clear that God’s blessing had not only been given to Abram and Sarai, but to Lot as well. This blessing came in the form of gold, silver and livestock. They have so much livestock between them in fact, that, as they used to say in old Western movies, the land wasn’t big enough for the both of them. This reality raises a series of questions. Who will get what land? Who will get the better land? Will they fight over the land? Who will win? These are the natural questions that always arise when land is contested for (which will become a central part of the Biblical story). The outcome of this dilemma might surprise us.
The tradition of the Middle East is that the eldest always gets the best. This tradition would have us assume then that Abram, as the eldest, would select the land which best pleased him, and Lot would take what was left. This, however, is not how the story unfolds. In this tale, Abram says to Lot, “Look at all of the land. If you take the land on the right, I will take the land on the left. If you take the land on the left I will take the land on the right.” Abram is giving Lot the chance to pick the best portion, which is what Lot appears to do. The writer tells us that Lot looks toward and chooses the Jordan plain, which is well watered and very much like the Garden of Eden. This choice appears to leave Abram with the left-overs which would seem to put the promised blessing of God for Abram in jeopardy, because Lot has taken what ought to have gone to Abram.
One of the great themes of the Genesis stories however, is that what often appears to be the best, most logical, course of action may not, in the end, be the best. The stories constantly remind us that God knows more than humans know and thus we ought always to be open to the surprising ways of God. We can see this as the story continues. Lot, we learn, has chosen the area around Sodom and Gomorrah; which as it turns out is a wicked place (which does not bode well considering how God had dealt with evil in the past). Abram, on the other hand, trusts that God will fulfill God’s promised blessing, regardless of which portion of land Abram ends up with. In response to this trust, God renews the covenant by promising Abraham all the land he can see and more children than can possibly be counted. Abram’s response to this renewed covenant is to settle by the oaks of Mamre (Hebron) and there build God an altar, in order that God might be thanked and worshipped.
Reflection: On the surface, this chapter appears to be no more than a short travelogue of a portion of Abram and Sarai’s journey. Yet, as noted above, it is actually a deft piece of narrative theology (a story telling us something about God and ourselves). First, we learn that sometimes what seems to be the best, is not necessarily the best. This is so because we are not God, meaning we are not capable of seeing everything there is be seen as we make decisions. Second, God is fully capable of taking whatever decisions we make, and using them for God’s purposes (much more about this later in Genesis). Third, God’s desire to bless us will always win out, even if it does not appear to do so in the moment.
Read Chapter 14
This chapter is an oddity in the Book of Genesis. It is so because it is neither connected in any way with the material that has come before it, or will come after it, nor does it help to advance the storyline of Genesis. It is a stand-alone chapter composed of three nominally-related stories.
Story one concerns a war between kings and their cities. On the one side we have four kings and on the other we have five. The four kings had dominated the five for twelve years. Having had enough, the five kings rebelled. In a series of campaigns, the four kings defeated their opponents, took their goods and went home. Other than the names of some of the cities involved, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the names of some of the people groups involved, the Amalekites and Amorites, there is no knowledge of any of the other leaders or cities. The only possible connection with the Genesis story is that many of the warriors of Sodom and Gomorrah end up dying in bitumen pits (naturally occurring tar pits, such as the La Brae tar pits in California). This could be an earlier version of the end of those two cities/peoples prior to the fire and brimstone destruction recorded a few chapters later.
Story two, concerns Abram freeing his nephew Lot. In the previous chapter, Abram allowed Lot to choose which part of the Land of Promise, Lot wanted. He chose what appeared to be the best land. The land that looked like the Garden of Eden. It was also the land of Sodom and Gomorrah; the land which rebelled and lost. The result of this defeat was that Lot and his family were taken captive. An escapee finds his way to Abram and informs him of his nephew’s capture. Abram immediately gathers his forces (318 men to be exact), surprises the enemy at night and defeats them. He then brings Lot and all his possessions back home. The only real connection this story might have with the ongoing narrative, is that Abram’s ability to defeat a larger, seemingly undefeatable force is the result of God’s ongoing blessing.
Story three, is a story which has garnered much attention, while at the same time not offering much clarity as to its purpose or the personage involved. The personage involved is that of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of the “Most High God.” After Abram’s victory he and the freed King of Sodom meet Melchizedek. Melchizedek, brings out bread and wine, and gives thanks for Abram’s victory. Abram then gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything. The King of Sodom next offers to split Sodom’s rescued booty with Abram (which would have obligated Abram to the king), but Abram refuses. Instead Abram keeps nothing that was not his, stating that no can then say that they, rather than God made Abram rich. Unfortunately, the story never tells us anything more about Melchizedek, the God he worships or why Abram gave him a tithe of the booty.
Reflection: While these stories give us little historical or theological insight, they do offer us a window on the compilation of the book of Genesis. By including these stories, we learn that the writers were not as much interested in writing a carefully crafted story as they were about including material which pertained to their ancestors. Even when the stories were a bit cryptic (who was Melchizedek and why did he receive a tithe?) and not clearly related to the ongoing story, they were included because of their connection to Abram, the father of the faith. Thus, relational connections allowed the compiler of Genesis to include extraneous stories without worrying about a deeper connection to the tale.
Read Chapter 15
This chapter is the most important chapter in Genesis in terms of the Abrahamic tradition. Though Abram has left his homeland based on the promises of God, the formal covenant between God and Abram has not yet be signed, sealed and delivered. This is what take place in this pivotal account.
The story opens with God addressing Abram in a vision. God tells Abram not to be afraid for God is with him. This statement seems to be meaningless since Abram has no offspring and will have to give all that he has received from God, not to an heir, but to a slave. In other words, God has not fulfilled God’s promises of land (it still belongs to others) and children (Abram has none). God’s response is that the slave will not be Abram’s heir, but Abram will have a child with Sarai. The proof of this promise comes when God invites Abram outside and asks him to look at the stars in the sky. God promises that Abram’s descendants will be as many as the stars. Though this may seem an odd thing to promise (after all there are many stars), it is a reminder to Abram that if God can create that many stars, then God can create that many descendants. Abram’s response this time is belief.
This belief is described in one of the great passages of scripture. “Abraham believed, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6). This passage lies at the heart of both the Apostle Paul’s theology and our Reformed tradition. That is, belief, and not ritual, is what puts us in right relationship with God (which is what righteousness is). This is a person’s ability and willingness to trust in the gracious gifts of God, create a new and life-giving relationship. When Abram believes God, this creates a new reality in which life is seen not through the lens of what is, but through the lens of what can be because of the promises of God.
This new relationship is then sealed in a ritual ceremony of covenanting. The act of creating a covenant (perhaps see it as a contract) always includes a ritual component. One of the most ancient is based on the Hebrew language of covenant making, which is to “cut a covenant.” This cutting of a covenant involves the literal cutting of animals in two, then having each side agree that if either of them violates the covenant, what happened to the animals will happen to them. We see this in Abram’s cutting animals in two, and then in God, as represented by a flaming torch, passing between the pieces, as an act of promise making. This covenanting ceremony ends with God once again promising the Land.
The covenanting ceremony is separated by God’s explanation of why it will take so long for Abram’s offspring to inherit the land. It will take some time because his descendants will end up in Egypt as slaves for four-hundred years. They will be aliens in another land before they can return and inhabit the land of promise.
Reflection: As we have noted before, God is a covenant making God. God is not a capricious God who is kind or cruel depending on what side of the bed God gets up on. God is a God who has a plan for the restoration of humanity and works toward this restoration by making and keeping promises. The preferred response from human beings to these covenant promises is faith. We are to believe that God can and will do what God has promised to do. In so doing we enter a loving and trusting relationship with God. This relationship changes our perspective on life, from one of fear and doubt, to one of faith and hope. We can become those who are “not afraid.”
Read Chapter 16
This chapter offers us another example of Abram and Sarai’s lack of trust in God and a glimpse into God’s care and compassion for those who are not directly in the line of promise.
We begin with the lack of trust. Abram and Sarai have been promised that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the grains of sand on the sea-shore. Unfortunately, this has not come about. Sarai is still barren and is becoming increasingly frustrated by her lack of children. Seeking “the child of promise,” she follows the custom of the day and gives her maid Hagar as wife to Abram. While we might think this a strange thing to do, it was widely practiced in that day and time. If the outcome of this union were successful, the child born would belong to Sarai since Hagar was her servant. Thus, Sarai would have “the child of promise.” Hagar conceives, but almost immediately begins to look down on her mistress. Frustrated, Sarai is given permission by Abram to mistreat Hagar, causing Hagar to run into the wilderness. For the story reader or listener, this event not only signals both a lack of trust on Abram and Sarai’s part (not being willing to wait for the child God promised), but also the possibility that if Hagar dies, there may be no “child of promise.”
What happens next ought to take the listener/reader by surprise. It should, because God not only protects Hagar, but issues her a promise similar to Abram’s; that her child will be the father of untold numbers of offspring. This occurs when an angel of the Lord finds Hagar in the wilderness and tells her to return to Sarai and that in exchange for so doing, God will multiply her descendants such that they cannot be counted. These events offer two critical messages. First, God blesses others who are not directly in the line of the Promise. While the child to be born (Ishmael) will not be the inheritor of the Promise, he will still be blessed with his own place and his own people. Thus, all of humanity matters to God. Second, God is also concerned with those who are the “least” in the world. Hagar as a slave, by the social structure of the day, is nothing more than a possession. Yet God treats her with great respect and demonstrates that she is of great value. She is of such great value that God not only saves her but also blesses her. These stories remind us that God’s work is about the salvation of the world and not merely the blessing of one family.
The chapter ends with two vignettes. First, Hagar declares that she has seen God and in the process names God, though we are not exactly sure what the name means. Second, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, which will greatly complicate the ongoing struggle between mistress and slave, and who will end up with the promise.
Reflection: Abram and Sarai reflect one of the great difficulties of being human beings in relationship with God. How long do we wait for God to act and when do we take charge? For many of us this might not seem like an issue, since many of us are very proactive people. We assume that whatever we are doing is what God wants us to do. Where this struggle arises though, is when we are dealing with something that is outside of our ability to bring about; healing, reconciliation or forgiveness, perhaps. How long do we pray? How long do we wait for God to act? How much time is enough time before we begin to question God or our assumptions? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the good news of this story is that God does not abandon Abram and Sarai, and continues to keep the covenant promises.
Read Chapter 17
This chapter is a story in five acts. These are covenant, naming, circumcision, disbelief and faithful response.
Act one is Covenant. We have looked at covenant before. It is the agreement between God and Abram that if Abram is faithful, then God will bless him with land and offspring. This retelling of the covenanting moment is a much later version than the one we read about in previous weeks. It comes from a time after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon (537 BCE) and mentions kings and nations coming from Abram and Sarai. What this shows is that the covenant between Abram and God, continued to shape the self-understanding of the Hebrew people across the centuries. It reminded them that they were God’s people.
Act two is naming. This version of the story contains the changing of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. The significance of the naming is not abundantly clear. It can signify that as people who have entered a covenant with God, they have become new people, with a new mission and thus need new names. It can also signify that because they are now officially God’s people they need new names. From this point on in the story we will know our characters as Abraham and Sarah.
Act three is circumcision. There is little consensus as to the reason for circumcision (ritual? health?). All we know is that Abraham received the command to circumcise all males including slaves he had purchased with money. In the future all newborn makes were to be circumcised at eight days of age. For those editing this story, circumcision had become one of the significant marks of belonging to the people of Israel. It assisted the community in maintaining its unique identity.
Act four is disbelief. We see this disbelief in Abraham’s response to God’s promise that he and Sarah will have a child. This was such an absurd promise that Abraham falls on his knees and laughs. Abraham knows how ridiculous it would be for a man who is a hundred years old to have a child with his wife who is ninety. Instead of believing this promise, Abraham asks God to make Ishmael the bearer of the Promise and the covenant. While God rejects this proposal, God still assures Abraham that Ishmael will be the father of a great nation, just as surely as their yet to be conceived child Isaac, will be.
Act five is faithful response. This is the act of circumcision. Abraham does what God has commanded and circumcises all the male members of his household along with the slaves that he had purchased. As we might imagine, this was not an action to be taken lightly. It was a painful action that demonstrated a significant commitment to God and the covenant.
Reflection: Faith is a word we often use in the church. Unfortunately, it is a word which has become synonymous with believing certain concepts about God, Jesus and the Spirit. These stories remind us that faith is more than an intellectual belief, it is a willingness to act upon those beliefs. This can be seen in the concept of covenant. Just as with a contract, that to be legitimate requires each side to give or do something, the covenant does so as well. On God’s side, God will bless Abraham and Sarah. On Abraham and Sarah’s side, the men will be circumcised and Abraham will not confer the blessing on Ishmael, but will act upon the belief that Sarah can become pregnant. Faith then, can be understood as faithfulness; a willingness to act upon belief as best one can.
Read Chapter 18
Chapter 18 consists of two very different stories, with two very different agendas, connected by the presence of “the men.” Each story has a tale to tell that is critical for us to hear.
The first story is contained in verses 1-16. This story can be summed up by the question one of “the men” asks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” But to understand that question, we need to return to our story. We have been following the adventures of Abraham and Sarah. They have been promised a child together (a child who would carry the promise of God’s creation-rescue work into the future), but that child had not yet arrived. They are both now too old for the natural course of baby-making to occur. Yet, one day, some men arrive at their tent and the natural order of things is called into question.
When the men arrive, Abraham demonstrates the hospitality of the desert by inviting them in for a meal. The men are given water with which to wash their feet, bread and meat are prepared for a meal, and Abraham stands and watches as the men consume the food that was set before them. So far so good and so ordinary. But then the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.
The men tell Abraham, with Sarah listening from behind the tent, that when the men return at this same time next year, Abraham and Sarah will have a child. This is the second time that Abraham hears this declaration, but it is the first for Sarah. In response, Sarah laughs, just as Abraham had done on the previous occasion. The men ask Abraham why Sarah laughed and disbelieved. Before an answer can be given, one man asks the central question, “Is anything too wonderful for God?” This question does not receive an answer as the text moves on to the second story.
The second story is contained in verses 16-33. This is an odd story about Abraham, God and the city of Sodom. As mentioned earlier, the only connection between the two stories is that the men move on toward Sodom under Abraham’s guidance. This leaves time for God and Abraham to engage in a conversation about the city. The context of this conversation is that God, because of Sodom’s sins, is going to judge the city. Abraham needs to know about this coming judgment because Abraham and his offspring are to be those who do “justice and righteousness” as the agents to God’s creation-rescue operation. What occurs next is a remarkable demonstration of what justice and righteousness look like. Abraham bargains with God to save all the persons in Sodom if God can find even ten righteous men. This negotiating session is told as if Abraham and God are bargaining in the market. While God, as the holy one, must judge, Abraham wants to save as many people as possible, even the guilty ones.
Reflection: The question posed by the men in the first story, “Is anything to wonderful for God,” and its answer, will resonate throughout the entire Biblical story. It will be asked by the people of God in the wilderness when they are hungry and thirsty. It will be answered by the gift of bread and manna. It will be asked by the Hebrews when they are oppressed by the Philistines. It will be answered by the judges and kings God sends to liberate them. It will be asked by the Jews in exile in Babylon. It will be answered by the Persian King Cyrus who will free them and send them home. It will be asked by First century Jews who were oppressed by the Romans. It will be answered by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Whenever it appears that all is lost, God does the wonderful in order that God’s creation-rescue operation continues.
Read Chapter 19
Chapter 19 is a story in three parts. The parts deal with hospitality versus inhospitality, the judgment of God and the creation of the peoples of Moab and Ammon.
Part one of the story opens with the two men, or angels, from the previous chapter arriving in the city of Sodom. There they encounter Abraham’s nephew Lot. Lot, knowing what a dangerous place Sodom is, demonstrates hospitality by inviting the men into his home. As Abraham had shown hospitality in the desert by feeding the men, so Lot does in the city. The story then takes a dark turn when all of the men of the city come to Lot’s house and demand that the strangers be turned over to them to be abused. It is at this point that commentators have often wanted to say that the sin of Sodom (from which the term sodomy comes) is homosexual practice, but this is doubtful at best. The issue at hand is not sexual practice but how strangers are treated and cared for. We see this in that the people also demand that Lot be abused as well, because he too is a stranger.
In the face of this attack, the angels blind the attackers, thus making possible an escape for Lot and his family. Lot, his wife and his daughters all escape to the desert. Though the angels have told them to escape to the hills, Lot bargains with them to allow Lot and his family to only go so far as a neighboring town, Zoar. Along the way, Lot’s wife looks back (which she had been warned not to do) and turns into a pillar of salt.
Part two of the story deals with God’s judgment. If we were to return to chapter 18, we would remember that Abraham made a bargain with God, that if there were even ten good men in Sodom, God would spare it. The destruction of Sodom implies that there were not even that many good men in the city. The destruction of Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah is described as occurring by God raining down “sulfur and fire…” Or, as others refer to it, fire and brimstone. It is only at this point that we are told that Lot escapes, not because he is perfect, but because he is related to Abraham, the bearer of God’s promise to rescue creation.
Part three of the story concerns the creation of two of the Semitic peoples whose lands bordered Israel. These were the Moabites and the Ammonites. They are created through the sexual union of Lot and his two daughters. This liaison is set up by Lot taking his two daughters into the wilderness because he is afraid in Zoar. The daughters, being afraid that they would not bear children because they are hiding in the wilderness, get Lot drunk and sleep with him. Each then becomes pregnant. Interestingly, there is no condemnation of this act, and it serves instead as a reminder that Israel, Moab and Ammon are all related peoples.
Reflection: As noted above, this chapter has been used to condemn homosexual relationships. What this simplistic understanding fails to see is that this chapter wants to contrast the justice and righteousness of God (as seen in Lot’s hospitality) with the injustice and unrighteousness of certain people (as seen in the acts of the people of Sodom). God’s desire is for the restoration of right relationships between God, humans and creation. The people of Sodom chose to not only ignore this desire, but to move in the opposite direction; to violence and abuse. Their destruction then is not based on a simple moralistic equation, sin leads to destruction. It is based instead on God’s relentless work to restore creation as a place of love and grace.
Read Chapter 20
Chapter 20 is a retelling of the story we read in Chapter 12, in which Abraham (fearing that Pharaoh will kill him in order to steal his beautiful wife Sarah) claims that Sarah is his sister and so gives her away. This time, Abraham, again fearing for his life, gives Sarah away to King Abimelech. The setting for this story is that Abraham and Sarah are once again “aliens” in a foreign land. The implication is that because they are aliens they are at the mercy of the ruler of the land in which they are living. As aliens, they have no power and no standing and are thus vulnerable. What follows are two confrontations and a double blessing.
The first confrontation is between God and Abimelech in which Abimelech is told that he is about to die because he has stolen another man’s wife. Needless to say, Abimelech is a bit put out by this and he responds to God with the plea of innocence. He makes it clear that he has not only not slept with Sarah but that he had been told that Sarah was Abraham’s sister. And because of these two facts he seeks justice for himself, as an innocent party to this spousal transaction. What is fascinating here is that God agrees with Abimelech, that he is indeed innocent and that if Abimelech returns Sarah and asks Abraham (whom God calls a prophet) to pray for him, then all will be well. In addition, God informs Abimelech that God had protected him from sleeping with Sarah, so that both would be protected.
The second confrontation is between Abimelech and Abraham. Abimelech confronts Abraham and essentially says, “Why in the world would you do this to me and my family? Why would you lie to me?” This is a legitimate question, because it was Abraham’s half-truths that placed Abimelech in a difficult position with God. Abraham’s response was that he was being technically truthful since Sarah was his half-sister, but that the main reason he claimed Sarah as his sister was that he was afraid. It turns out that he was so afraid that even before Abraham and Sarah left on their journey, Abraham made Sarah promise that if they were ever in danger over her beauty, she would claim that he was her brother. We might wonder at this point in the story if Abraham had any faith at all in God. While his willingness to journey shows some faith, it shows just how shallow it was.
Finally, we end this story with a mutual blessing. The first blessing is that Abimelech gives Abraham back, not only Sarah, but livestock, slaves and cash. Abimelech even speaks directly to Sarah and informs her that his gift of cash to Abraham was a way of proving that they had not slept together and that she was innocent of any possible indecency. We should note the humor in the story when Abimelech refers to Abraham as Sarah’s brother and not as her husband. The second blessing is that Abraham, through prayer, “heals” Abimelech’s wife and concubines so that they can bear children. It is one more instance of God’s blessing flowing through Abraham to all people’s rather than it being a blessing only for Abraham and his offspring.
Reflection: Though it is not the central focus of the story, we ought to take note of the statement that Abraham and Sarah are aliens in a strange land. This is important because it reminds us of the love God has for displaced peoples. God protects Cain as he becomes a wondering alien. God hears the cries of God’s people in Egypt where they were aliens. God informs God’s people in the Torah that they are to care for aliens in their midst because their ancestors (meaning Abraham and Moses) were aliens as well.
Read Chapter 21
This chapter contains two very distinct stories. The first is the birth of Isaac and the second is the completion of the confrontations between Abraham and Abimelech.
The story begins with its roots in God’s promise to recreate, or bless, humanity through the lineage of Abraham. God, as we read earlier in Genesis, will not only bless Abraham but will bless all the families of the earth through him. To this point, while there had been numerous stories of God blessing Abraham (with slaves, wealth and military victories), the reality of blessing the world was still waiting; waiting on Abraham and Sarah to have a child through whom that blessing would come. This missing piece of the blessing puzzle is finally put in place by Isaac’s birth; a birth that should never have happened because Abraham and Sarah were beyond the age of procreation. This reality, a miraculous birth, tells the reader that the blessing, or recreation, of humanity is not something ordinary human beings can do on their own, but is completely in the hands of God.
The chapter continues with sin once again rearing its ugly head. Just as in the Cain and Able story, where jealousy causes Cain to kill his brother, so here too jealousy moves toward the same end; the death of Abraham’s maid, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael. Sarah, having waited so long for Isaac, desires that he, and he alone, be the recipient of the blessing of God. When she sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, as if they were equal contenders for the blessing, she becomes enraged and pushes Abraham to send Hagar and Ismael into the desert to die. Not sure what to do, Abraham is told by God to send the pair into the wilderness, but is assured that they will not die. In fact, they will be blessed because God will make of Ishmael a mighty nation. Though, “the blessing” does not continue through Ishmael (who does indeed become the father of a great nation), he is still blessed by God because he is Abraham’s son.
The chapter ends with the conclusion of the Abraham and Abimelech confrontation. In the previous chapter, Abimelech desired Sarah, Abraham gave her to him (claiming that she was his sister) and then God made sure she was returned. In this chapter, the conflict is not over a woman but over land. Abraham, as we are constantly reminded, is an alien in the land. Though God has promised land to Abraham, he has yet to receive it. This receiving of the land will have to wait another four-hundred years for its fulfilment. In the meantime, Abraham must deal with the socio-political realities of his environment. This means that he must strike a bargain and make a covenant with Abimelech for the use of a well from which Abraham’s family can draw water. Though Abraham now has a well and plants a tree to mark his territory, he knows that he is only a temporary resident.
Reflection: This chapter is a reminder of the great Biblical theme that humanity cannot save itself. The blessing of humanity, the recreation of humanity, will be a gift of God and not the creation of individuals or governments. In the Western World, there has been this belief in the slow but steady progress of democratic ideals; that we can fix it ourselves. Scripture argues that because sin is in even the best of our intentions, that only God can provide the solution. This is one reason for scriptures miraculous birth stories (Isaac, Samuel and Jesus). They remind us that when our best laid plans do not work out, God is still working to deliver us. Even so, we, like Abraham all have our parts to play.
Read Chapter 22
This chapter contains what is perhaps the most disturbing story in all of Genesis, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. It is disturbing for multiple reasons including God testing Abraham, God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son to prove his loyalty, Abraham’s acquiescence to the request, and God’s only at the last-minute reprieve. We will look at these issues.
First, testing. The chapter begins with the abrupt words, “After these things, God tested Abraham.” What this tells us is that God is not sure of Abraham’s sincerity in terms of his faith and obedience. While this may seem strange, it isn’t. It isn’t because Abraham’s trust in God has not always been wholehearted. While Abraham was willing to leave his home, and go where God led, he was unwilling to trust in God’s protection and provision such that he twice gave Sarah away to protect himself and laughed when God informed him that he would be a father in his old age. Now comes the true test. Will Abraham, sacrifice his only son, whom he loves, to prove that he trusts God.
Second, sacrificing Isaac. While we cringe at the idea of child sacrifice, this would not have been an unusual request from a god in the time of Abraham. As the rest of the Old Testament makes clear, child sacrifice was a common practice among the Canaanite peoples. The issue at hand though, is that Isaac is the heir to the promise. Abraham has already sent away his other son Ismael, and so Isaac is all that he has. To sacrifice him would be to place absolute trust in God, that God would once again provide a means for the promise to continue.
Third, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. By Abraham taking Isaac to the brink of sacrifice, he demonstrates that he is willing to trust God. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story. Rather than trying to make a bargain with God, or even complaining to God, Abraham moves forward with the sacrifice. It is as if he has finally come to a place of absolute trust in God; that the miraculous gift of Isaac had elicited complete trust that God would provide what was needed.
Fourth, God’s last-minute reprieve. What we need to remember about this story is that it is a test of faith with a reward at the end. God had no desire to have Abraham sacrifice Isaac. God wanted to see if Abraham was ready to continue the journey of blessing the world. Because Abraham proved faithful, God not only provided the sacrifice (a ram) to replace Isaac as a sacrifice, but God also reiterated the promise of the blessing and then blessed Abraham’s brother with additional children.
Reflection: I was once taught that there are two kinds of testing. One is destructive testing; testing that destroys or damages what is tested (say front end crash tests). The other kind of testing is performance testing; testing to see if the product lives up to its expectations (testing a car on a test track). The kind of testing we find in this story is the latter kind. God does not test Abraham to destroy him or his son. God does this to see if Abraham is ready for the journey ahead; a journey that will not be easy. And Abraham is not alone in being tested. The people of God in the Exodus are tested by their time in the wilderness. When the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus after his baptism, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness to be tested to see if he is ready for his ministry. Testing is never easy or pleasant, but when it comes, remember that God desires us to pass the test and will give us what we need to do so.
Read Chapter 23
This is the first of three transitional chapters. These chapters contain the death of Sarah (23), the finding of a wife for Isaac (24) and the death of Abraham (25). These chapters move the story of the promise forward from the first to the second generation.
On the surface this chapter appears to be no more than the story of Sarah’s death and burial. But hovering just below the surface there are echoes concerning the promise that should not be missed. A straightforward telling of the tale lets us know that Sarah lived one-hundred and twenty-seven years. As a Biblical character she left behind a significant, yet conflicted, legacy. On the positive side, she was the one who agreed to travel with Abraham and seek a new life with a new God. She twice kept Abraham’s secret that she was his wife, in order to save his life. On the less than positive side, she laughed when she was told that at an old age, she would have a child. She also allowed her jealousy of the maid Hagar to pressure Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael (the son of Abraham and Hagar) into the wilderness to die (though God saved them). In many ways, she becomes the prototype for Biblical mothers; a woman torn by real fears and emotions, yet in the end faithful to God and to the promise.
When she died she was deeply mourned by her husband, Abraham, who desired to bury her in the land in which they were living. The problem with this desire (as we have seen in previous chapters) was that they were aliens and strangers in the land in which they were living. What this meant was that Abraham had to negotiate the purchase of the land from the Hittites (1700-1200 BCE), who were masters of the land. Abraham engages in the elaborate ritual of land purchase for a cave at Machpelah, which is near modern day Hebron in Israel. He ultimately purchases not only the cave, but the land around it for four-hundred sheckles of silver. There he buried Sarah. Again, on the surface this is a simple story of land acquisition, but what is hovering below the surface is the realization that this is the first purchase of “the land” which had been part of God’s promise to Abraham (remembering that Abraham had been promised land, children and blessing).
This account becomes significant in two critical moments in the future. The first is when the prophet Jeremiah, knowing that the Babylonians are about to destroy Jerusalem and send the people into exile, purchased a plot of land outside Jerusalem. He does so as a symbol that God will restore the people to the land, even as the people had been restored to the land after their captivity in Egypt, when they returned to the land purchased by Abraham. The second is for the people who were in exile in Babylon. It was in exile that they recalled both the prophecy of Jeremiah and the purchase of the land by Abraham. For if the land had been purchased by their ancestors, then in some way it was still their land, and they could trust that God would keep God’s promise and return them to it.
Reflections: Sometimes it is easy to believe that Biblical characters like Sarah are perfect people living perfect lives. What we see however is that Sarah was just like us; filled with faith and doubt; trust and uncertainty; willing to be used and to use others. In a sense then we are like her in that even in our imperfect ways, we try to advance the promise of God that the world will be renewed and made whole. Though we may not be called to journey to far places like Sarah, we still keep the promise alive when we serve at SOS, bring food to the food closet, or pack backpacks for children at Alcott or Orchards Family Services. In each of these we allow the promise of God to shine through our less than perfect lives.
Read Chapter 24
This is the second of three transitional chapters. These chapters contain the death of Sarah (23), the finding of a wife for Isaac (24) and the death of Abraham (25). These chapters move the story of the Promise forward from the first to the second generation.
The story, which appears to be about nothing more than finding a wife for Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac, is actually a continuation of the story of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. This covenant promise was that not only would God bless Abraham and Sarah with land, offspring and economic prosperity, but that through them the entire world would be blessed or recreated into the world God desired it to be. If we look closely at the story, we can see these themes play out.
First there is the land. When Abraham sends his servant to look for a wife for Isaac, the instructions are first, that the servant is not to look for this wife among the local people (who were not part of the lineage of the Promise). Instead, the servant is to return to Abraham and Sarah’s homeland and find a relative for Isaac to wed. Second, the servant is to not take Isaac with him, thus insuring that Isaac will not abandon the land that God has promised.
Second, there is the issue of offspring. The Promise will only work if Isaac, the miracle child, is able to have his own children. The story is crafted in such a way as to keep the reader in suspense as to whether the servant will be successful in his search. In fact, the criterion for the search (finding a relative who will act in a certain manner and in a certain time-frame) would seem to make success doubtful. Perhaps as doubtful as Abraham and Sarah having Isaac in their older years. Yet, once again, God, to whom the servant prays, proves that God’s promises are sure and certain, as we read of the servant finding the right woman, named Rebecca. The story teller adds some other elements intended to keep the outcome in doubt (Rebecca’s parents trying to delay or prevent her from going), but in the end she goes, and Isaac loves her.
Third, there is the issue of the blessing, or economic prosperity. While this is not central to the story, we can see this theme arise in the blessing that Rebecca’s parents give as she is leaving. “May you our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” (vs. 60). This is one way of saying, may you have offspring who will be economic assets, but also will you control land such that you will prosper.
Finally, one of the interesting aspects of this story is that Rebecca is given the choice to go with the servant, or not. While this would be highly unlikely in times when women were possessions of their fathers’, it is a theological claim, that Rebecca, like Abraham chooses to make the journey in order to fulfill the promise.
Reflection: While, the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca is often portrayed as a “love story,” they are no more than transitional characters, taking the reader from the extended Abraham stories, to the extended Jacob/Joseph stories. Even so, the major themes of the Promise, as noted above, are woven into their rather short time in the spotlight. In some ways, the briefness of this spotlight can be a reminder for us, that we don’t have to be major actors in the story of the Promise, to be part of God’s world transforming work. Each of us plays our part, and each part is as important as any other.
Read Chapter 25
This is the third of three transitional chapters. These chapters contain the death of Sarah (23), the finding of a wife for Isaac (24) and the death of Abraham (25). These chapters move the story of the Promise forward from the first to the second generation.
This chapter opens with Abraham, after the death of Sarah, taking a new wife, named Keturah. With Keturah he has six more sons (not too bad for a guy over a hundred). One of the sons was named Midian, from which the Midianite people were supposedly descended. We also learn that Abraham had concubines by whom he had other sons. While some people might be put off by such behavior, not only was it typical of the age, but it is also a theological reflection on the Promise. In this case it demonstrates that Abraham did become the father of many nations, just as he was promised. This kept promise is also emphasized later in the chapter when Ishmael’s twelve sons (yes, just like the twelve tribes of Israel) are listed and spoken of as princes of villages, encampments and tribes. Of note, is that while even the sons of the concubines are given gifts, they are all sent back to the east, so that only Isaac will be the Promise bearer and Promised Land owner.
The chapter then turns to the death of Abraham at the age of one-hundred and seventy-five. He is buried by his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, in the tomb which Abraham had purchased as a burial site for Sarah. Once again, we are reminded that the tomb and the land around it had been purchased from the Hittites. Thus, Abraham is buried on holy, promised ground and the Promise moves to the second generation.
Though the Promise is to continue through Isaac, once again it seems to be at risk when we learn that Isaac’s wife Rebecca, just like Sarah, is barren. This issue is quickly resolved when Isaac prays to God and Rebecca conceives twins. What happens next is some of the great foreshadowing in the scripture. It begins with Rebecca complaining about the constant activity of the twins in her womb and her seeking the Lord’s advice about it. What she hears is rather odd. She is told that in her womb are two nations and that there would be division and the older twin would serve the younger. We catch a glimpse of this upcoming competition when Jacob, who is born second, comes out grabbing the heel of his older brother Esau.
What happens next shows the inscrutable nature of God. By all accounts and tradition, the Promise ought to go to the elder son; especially in this case because the elder son Esau, is dad’s favorite (a hunter) and the younger son Jacob, is momma’s boy (loves to cook). Yet this is not what happens. Esau comes home hungry from hunting and willingly sells his birthright (the Promise) to Jacob for a meal. Somehow God has turned culture and tradition on its head.
Reflection: This chapter is a powerful reminder that God works with ordinary people, in extraordinary ways, to accomplish extraordinary things. Esau and Jacob are both flawed people. Jacob is a schemer and Esau is focused on immediate gratification. Yet, as we will discover, God uses them both to do great things. This chapter allows us to reflect on what God can and does do with us as people of the Promise; that we can be less than perfect people and still do amazing things.