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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Using Hagar instead of Faith, Genesis 16

A.1. A Faithless Plan by the Chosen Couple Backfires, vv. 1-6

#1 (Genesis 16:1–6) Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can get children through her.”  Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.  When she knew she was pregnant, she began to look down on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she looks down on me. May the LORD judge between you and me.” “She is your slave,” Abram said. “You can do what you like with her.” Then Sarai began making Hagar’s life so unpleasant, that she decided to run away. 

A.1.1 “Standing on the promises”? 16:1-6

In ch. 15 Abram was discouraged that God’s original promises had not yet come true, and he began to wonder if the promise that he would become a great nation would have to be fulfilled by adopting his servant Eliezer of Damascus. He also was wondering when he would begin to possess the land that God had promised him in chapter 14, after Lot left him. So now God gave him two additional promises to address those two worries: 

that his becoming a great nation would begin not with adopting his slave, but with a son borne from his own body (15:4), and 

that his descendants who would be as numerous as the stars of heaven, would indeed inherit the land of Canaan where he was not living, but only after a long period of slavery in a foreign land (15:13-14, not named “Egypt” yet).

At that time, even in his distress, Abram had not attributed his childlessness to Sarah’s infertility, although we were told as early as 11:30 that she was “barren.” Instead, he said—significantly—“you have given me no offspring” (15:3), confessing by these words his understanding that ultimately only God can cause the birth of a child. 

A.1.1.1. Sarah’s Proposal, 16:1-2

16:1-2 Abram had not doubted these promises, but believed them, and on that basis God considered him worthy to receive them. For the time being Abram was restored in his faith. But after he and Sarai had been living in Canaan for 10 years, and they had not produced the promised son, she began to wonder. The promise was for a son from Abram’s body, but that didn’t necessarily mean also from her own

So she had a bright idea: she had an Egyptian slave woman named Hagar who was unmarried, she could arrange for Abram to father the child of God’s promise through a second marriage to this woman. This was a widespread and accepted custom in the worlds of Mesopotamia and Canaan in which they had lived. It was neither illegal nor immoral in the eyes of society. In fact, later on it would be practiced by Jacob’s two wives Rachel and Leah [see note 39], both of whom would give their female slaves to their husband in order to procure children by them.

Sarah’s words in v. 2—“perhaps I may acquire children through her”—make it clear that she wasn’t writing herself out of the picture, but using Hagar as a surrogate mother. 
Although her intentions may have been good, Sarah’s plan represented a lack of faith that God could fulfill his promise by making her fertile. It was then a contrast to Abram’s attitude in ch. 15 of simply “believing” God. Yet we are told that Abram agreed to this proposal (verse 2); so clearly we cannot blame this lapse of faith on Sarai alone. Like Adam before him, Abram went along with the proposal of his wife and must bear joint responsibility for its consequences. Neither one of them was yet showing the kind of faith that they eventually would, a faith described in the book of Hebrews in these words:
“It was also by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past the age, was made able to conceive, because she believed that he who had made the promise was faithful to it. Because of this, from one man, and one who already was as good as dead, there came descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore which can’t be counted.” (Hebrews 11:11–12)

A.1.1.2. Hagar Conceives, 16:3-4

16:3-4.  In v. 3 Hagar enters the picture as a character in her own right. As a slave, she had no say in the matter: she must do as her master and mistress instructed her. Whether or not she loved Jacob was irrelevant. 

But she fulfilled her duty, and was successful: she became pregnant with a child by Jacob. All seemed to be rosy with Sarai’s and Abram’s plan. This was the beginning of the “great nation” God had promised, and they had been smart enough to figure out a way to accomplish it without being told how by God! But a new complication appeared—one that the two of them ought to have foreseen. Hagar’s new status as Abram’s second wife and the apparent mother of his only child created in her a new attitude toward Sarah: now she saw Sarai as a failure, a married woman unable to succeed in her primary duty of producing a son and heir! We aren’t told how Hagar’s attitude manifested itself: perhaps by snide words to Sarai, perhaps by boasting to the other servants. However it showed itself, it was intolerable for Sarai. Now Sarai’s magnificent plan was now beginning to cost her something, and the price was more than she was willing to pay. 

A.1.1.3. Rectifying the Situation the Wrong Way, 16:5-6

16:5-6.  Sarah’s solution was to “wipe the slate clean”, undoing what she had arranged without so much as admitting her responsibility. Now Hagar would be homeless and with a fatherless son. But this was no skin off Sarah’s nose. Now she only made a bad situation much worse, and God would not stand idly by and allow Hagar and her son to suffer.

Before giving Hagar to Abram as a secondary wife, the woman was Sarah’s property. But now that she was Abram’s concubine (secondary wife, see note 39 and 16:1-2 [p.  ? ]), he needed to be consulted before Sarah could act. Furthermore, Hagar would not allow herself to be expelled by Sarah. She would have to hear it from Abram himself. 

Unfortunately, Abram himself continued to be totally passive in the matter, allowing Sarah to do what she wished without one word of caution or disagreement. He was mirroring Adam in the Garden of Eden and was equally at fault thereby. 

A.1.1.4. The Seeing God Comes to the Rescue, 16:7-16

(Genesis 16:7–16) “The angel of Yahweh found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.  And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. Then the angel of Yahweh 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.”  The angel of Yahweh also said to her:  “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for Yahweh has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”  So she gave this name to Yahweh who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “Truly I have now seen God, after he saw me!”[BKMK:Seeing God]  That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi ["the spring of the Living One who sees me"]. It is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.  So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.”

The Hebrew word we translate "angel" simply means "messenger." Many believe that this “messenger of Yahweh” was God himself, not just an angelic messenger, because he seems to speak as though he were God and not simply relaying God’s message. He says “I will” do such-and-such.

Clearly Hagar thought she was seeing God (p.  ? ), because of what she said after he left her. The figure who addressed her must have had something about him that looked supernatural. 

Later on, in ch. 18, we will read how God visited Abram’s encampment, accompanied by two others, and had a meal with him. So there was nothing unusual about God’s appearing in person, looking like an ordinary traveler, visiting his special friend Abram. Jas 2:23 reads: “Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘friend of God’.” But Hagar wasn’t Abraham. She was only a slave woman. It was a remarkable honor paid to this Egyptian slave woman that God did not just send a messenger, but came to her rescue so-to-speak in person

16:8.  Note that God doesn’t ask who she is, but asks where she has come from and where she is headed. Hagar doesn’t answer the second question. She has no specific destination in mind: she is simply trying to escape from Sarah, whom she politely refers to as her “mistress.” There is no sign of haughty behavior in her words. She doesn’t call Sarah cruel. And by calling Sarah her “mistress”, she is admitting to this person that she is a runaway slave, which puts her in some peril, if this unknown person should capture and return her to Sarah. She seems to know that she can trust this man. Ancient bounty hunters often seized fugitive slaves and returned them for a reward.

16:9-12.  At some point during this meeting Hagar came to realize that this was God speaking to her. But at precisely what point in the conversation? It isn’t clear, is it? The messenger gives Hagar a command and a promise. His command doesn’t seem a happy prospect for Hagar: he orders her to return to her mistress and submit to her abuse. This must have seemed very cruel to Hagar, and might even raise questions in our own minds about the justice of God here in not letting her escape, or at least ordering Abram and Sarah to stop abusing her.

But the promise that he gives Hagar was certainly encouraging to her. She knew she was pregnant, but could not know if it was a boy or girl, much less what the child’s future would be. 

Although there is a dramatic contrast between the promises to Abraham about his descendants, and those to Hagar about her son’s: Abraham’s line through Sarah would produce the Messiah, who would save everyone from their sins and rule at God’s right hand over an eternal kingdom. Ishmael’s legacy, while it was a noble one, could never compare to that! Yet to Hagar the promises of her son’s descendants living free and powerful must have seemed like a dream come true. She was anything but free and powerful. 

Hagar was told what her son’s name should be: Ishmael, and why that name was chosen by God. It means “God has heard your cry.” This tells us what the preceding narrative has left out: that Hagar in her suffering had cried out to God to save her, and God hears the prayer of any sincere petitioner. It also tells us that when we ask God for help, he often gives us much more than we ask for. Hagar asked God to rescue her from Sarah, and he gave her marvelous promises of the future of her son to boot. Fortified by these promises, she could go back and endure Sarah’s mistreatment, if she must.

vv. 15-16 imply that Hagar returned to Abraham and Sarah, as she was ordered to do: she believed and obeyed God. In a way, therefore, she is a replica of Abram, who also believed and obeyed God. As James would later write, “Faith that doesn’t lead to obedience is dead.” (James 2:26).

But vv. 13-14 also tell us that she not only believed and obeyed God, she worshiped him, praising him for answering her prayer, and giving a name to the place where God had appeared to her. “Yahweh,” she prayed, אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י “You are the god who sees me.” And she thought, “Truly I have now seen God, after he saw me!”

The Birth of Abram’s First Son, Ishmael, 16:15-16

Verses 15-16 describe the result of Hagar’s faith and obedience. We aren’t told if Abram and Sarai were surprised at Hagar’s voluntary return. Had they even noticed that she was gone? We also aren’t told if her situation improved under Sarai. God had told her to submit to her mistress. If she was truly obedient, she must have ceased putting on airs with the other servants and looking down on Sarai. About this the text is silent. What was most important in the narrative is that now Abram has his first son, and this made him happy, both humanly speaking as a father, and in his false belief that now God’s promise was being fulfilled in little Ishmael.

Asking Questions of This Section in View of What Will Follow

This will not be the end of the Hagar story. In future chapters we will see how her return did not end well. Eventually, she will be expelled again together with her son Ishmael, and this time at God’s explicit instructions to Abraham. This time not because of Hagar’s attitude toward Sarai, but because he was a competitor of Sarah’s son Isaac.

So why the delay? Why didn’t God just allow Hagar to leave at this point and have her baby away from Abraham and Sarah?

Although I raise this question now for you to think about, let’s postpone trying to answer it until we come to the later lesson treating the final expulsion of Hagar.

At that time too we must look at how St. Paul used the entire story of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians as a kind of picture of the difference between those who seek the fulfillment of God’s salvation promise by faith and those who seek to do it by deeds of law. 

What is important here is the lesson God has for us in this passage. What do you see?

God cares for everyone, for slaves as much as for kings
We can’t always know how God will answer our prayers, we must just pray and trust him (Hagar)
We shouldn’t be jealous of another person’s success, nor if we are the successful one should we gloat over it to others (Hagar and Sarai)
Faith in the promises of God should enable us to put up with mistreatment by others (Hagar)
God’s blessing is shown in different ways to different people (Abram, Hagar)
Faith must result in both obedience and worship (Hagar)

God’s ways and not our ways, and we must no assume that we can dictate to God how his promises should be fulfilled (Abram and Sarai)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

God Gives Abram Promises Confirmed by a Dramatic Sign, Genesis 15

A. The Covenant: the Pieces & the Smoking Furnace, Gen. 15

A.1 God's Promise of Descendants and Land, 15:1-6

After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord Yahweh, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of Yahweh came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed Yahweh; and he (i.e., Yahweh) reckoned it to him as righteousness.  (NRSV adapted)

After such success in battle, the recovery of his nephew's family, the blessing received from King Melchizedek of Jerusalem, and the satisfaction of refusing a share of the booty from Sodom, you would expect Abram to be positively bubbling with joy and confidence. But he was not. Instead, we see a discouraged man. Why? God had given him wealth, success, fame, and honor, and now promises even more:

"I am your Shield: your reward shall be very great." (v. 1). 

But is the "very great reward" all this wealth? And if so, what good is it, if he and Sarah have no son to enjoy it with, and to whom they could pass it on? Everything they possess would pass to the servant whom Abram had made his legal heir in the event that he had no child, Eliezer of Damascus (v. 2). Abram puts the blame for his childlessness squarely on God's shoulders: "You have given me no offspring," he boldly says to God. This may seem to you an impertinent attitude of a man toward God, but it can also be seen as rightly understanding the source of all life to be God, not just human beings engaging in sexual intercourse. In a very real sense, whether we read the words as a complaint or a sober statement of fact, Abram was right. It was up to God to give him offspring, if the promise "I will make of you a great nation" that God made to him in 12:2 are to be fulfilled. 

God's answer came to Abram, possibly not immediately but a day or two later: The slave that Abram had designated as his heir, if he never had a son of his own, would not in fact be his heir. Not an adopted heir, but a natural son would be his heir, one who "comes forth from your own body" (v. 4). Furthermore, the descendants would not end with just this one son. God took him outside, pointed up to heaven, and promised him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Of course, this was just a figure of speech, not to be pressed literally. But the point of it was to emphasize an extremely numerous posterity. This promise was certainly in line with what God had promised him in 12:2, "I will make of you a great nation," for the population of nations is never small. 

Abram's response is given in verse 6: "Abram had confidence in God, and he (i.e., God) counted it to him as righteousness." This verse formed part of St. Paul's argument in Romans 4 (and Galatians 3) that human righteousness was inadequate to make a person acceptable to God, and only the righteousness that God "reckons" or "credits" to a person on the basis of his faith in God can make him acceptable. 
Coming, as this verse does, immediately after the promise of the numerous offspring, gives it the specific sense of believing an extremely improbable promise. After all, Abram was already a very old man, as was his wife. And in all the years of their marriage they had not a single pregnancy to show for it. On the age factor, see Sarah's later doubts about herself having a son for Abram (Gen 18:9-15). So for Abram to now show complete confidence in Yahweh and his new promise was no small matter. 

This reminds me of the conversation recorded in John 3 between Jesus and a very learned and elderly Jewish leader named Nicodemus. When the latter inquired how a person might enter the kingdom of God, Jesus replied that he would need to be "born again" (or "born from above [i.e., from God in heaven]," Jn 3:3). To this Nicodemus was incredulous, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can he enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus replied that what was meant was not a repetition of natural birth, but a miraculous spiritual birth produced by the Spirit of God. How would someone secure such a miraculous birth?

John 3:14 — "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." These words refer to Jesus' being "lifted up" on the cross, and taking all of the human race's sins upon himself. As the bronze serpent Moses erected in the desert (Num 21:9) wanderings symbolically absorbed the lethal effects of the snake bites incurred among the Israelites, if they believed, so also in his death on the cross Jesus absorbed for our sakes the eternally lethal effects of our own sins.

And how do we acquire this benefit? "Whoever believes in him (i.e., the 'Son of Man' Jesus) may have eternal life." Just like Abram!

A.1 The Promises Confirmed & a Covenant Made by Pieces & Furnace Passage, 15:7-19

Then he said to him, “I am Yahweh who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord Yahweh, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then Yahweh said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”  (NRSV adapted)

A promise of numerous descendants was stupefying enough, but now God renewed the promise he had made after Lot separated from Abram, that he would give him the land in which he was not living as a landless nomad. And now Abram, who had believed without need of any supporting proof God's earlier promise of descendants (vv. 5-6), feels the need for a reassuring sign from God to confirm this renewed promise of the land. The request for a sign to confirm a promise or a claim is widespread in both Testaments, and, depending on the context and the spiritual state of the one requesting it, is either gladly granted by God (as here) or refused (see Jesus' criticism of the request by the Pharisees in Matthew 12:38-40; 16:3-5). In fact, the wicked Judaean king Ahaz was once criticized by the prophet Isaiah for not asking for a sign to confirm God's promise of deliverance from enemy armies surrounding his capital city (Isaiah 7:10-17).

The sign God gave to Abram was dramatic, to say the least! He first had him cut sacrificial animals in two and lay them each half opposite the other, leaving a pathway between the halves. Then he caused him to fall into a deep, trance-like sleep, and see a glowing fire pot and a flaming torch, passing between the pieces. 

The words of promise that then came were somewhat unsettling, even if the final promised outcome was encouraging. His numerous offspring would become aliens in a "land not theirs," that is, not Canaan, and would remain that way for four hundred years—a very long time. Eventually they would become slaves and be oppressed, but at the end time appointed by God he would judge the oppressing nation and bring his people out with "great possessions." They would return "here", i.e., to Canaan, "in the fourth generation," which seems to be equivalent to the earlier words "four hundred years." One of those two expressions is a non-literal equivalent of the other. Most conservative Evangelical scholars take the 400 years literally and the four "generations" as non-literal. But of course it is equally possible to adopt the opposite interpretation. This affects the matter of dating the time of the exodus, but is not directly relevant to understanding the present passage in Genesis.

How does all this relate to Abram's initial question? He wanted to know how he could know that his descendants would acquire this land. The sign of the fiery objects passing between the halves of the sacrifice is thought by most scholars to indicate God—who is symbolized by the fiery objects—pledging himself in support of the promises. And since you will be reading this on Easter Sunday, it is uplifting to think of God in the person of his Son Jesus as the flaming objects, for Jesus passed through death into resurrection life, so that we—like the descendants of Abram leaving Egypt with "great possessions"—might pass from death into eternal resurrection life (John 5:24)!

But it is also possible that the fiery objects symbolize Abram's descendants, the Israelites later enslaved in Egypt, who passed through the slavery and oppression promised and emerged alive after the exodus to inherit the Promised Land. Either way, this dramatic sign was to encourage Abram's faith.  In verses 18b-19 the boundaries of the Promised Land are given for the first time. The "river of Egypt" is not the Nile, but the wâdi—called "the Brook of Egypt" that formed the northeastern boundary of the Delta Region. The Euphrates River formed the northernmost boundary. The extent was also indicated by the people groups possessing it before Israel occupied it. 

Abram's faith has had quite a workout in this chapter: first believing that he will have not only a single son and heir from his own body, even though he was now very old; then believing that his descendants will some day be as numerous as the stars, and finally believing that although living outside the land in eventual slavery for a long time his descendants would return with great possessions and occupy a very large area stretching from the northeast border of Egypt all the way to the Euphrates River in the north. 

Does it sometimes seem to you that God gives you an awful lot to believe? Actually, it isn't all that complicated. We shouldn't focus on how much we need to believe: rather we should focus on the One whom we can always trust. In verse 6 it doesn't say that Abram believed in what God said (although he certain also did that), but that "he believed (i.e., had confidence) in God." That is where our focus should always lie. If there is any person in all the universe that is trustworthy, it is this Creator and Savior God of ours! Let us cast all our worries on him, since he cares for us!

I sent this out a few years ago at Easter time. This year we didn't get down south during the winter. Happy Easter!

The flowering trees and bushes and the gardens of Sun City, SC, where we are today, wish you all a Happy Easter!

"Jesus is Risen from the Dead",
they say! "Hallelujah!"

He has killed Death and given birth to Eternal Life for us!

Happy Resurrection Day!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Abram and the Kings, Genesis 14

Abraham rescues Lot from the eastern coalition, Gen. 14:1-16

At the time when Amraphel was king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goyim, these kings went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea Valley). For twelve years they had been subject to Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim and the Horites in the hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran near the desert. Then they turned back and went to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and they conquered the whole territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazezon Tamar. Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five. Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills. The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom. A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.  (NIV)

In the narratives concerning the patriarchs, Moses interweaves scenes in which the patriarch meets personally with God or relates to family members, with those in which he relates to outsiders. Here for the first time in the story of Abram we see him involved in an international incident. A confederation of military contingents from countries to the north and east of Palestine invade the eastern parts of Canaan and defeat and carry away captives from Sodom and Gomorrah.

This invasion might not have concerned Abram personally, if it were not for the fact that among those carried off captive were Lot and his family. Here family loyalty comes into play. Although Abram would not have felt it his duty to rectify all wrongs related to nations attacking other nations, he did feel an obligation to his nephew.

What is striking is that we have not thought of Abram up to now as a man of war. We have seen him as a pastoralist, a man of sheep herding and livestock raising. Yes, he was more than a simple shepherd: he is now wealthy, and he deals with pharaohs and kings of local Canaanite city-states as a peer. But we have not conceived of him as a military strategist. Yet when the need arises, God makes him a successful warrior. He pursues the foreign coalition as they withdraw to the north, and cleverly attacks them when they least suspect it.

Another new feature of Abram that we see here is his cooperation with other clan leaders in Canaan, namely three men from the vicinity of Hebron by the names of Mamre, Eshcol and Aner. They are described as "allies" of Abram, showing that he did not despise the local pagans, but maintained a friendly relationship with them, while not sharing their concepts of God. We will see more of this in the next section, in the account of Abram's dealings with Melchizedek, the king of Jerusalem (called here Salem), and with an unnamed king of Sodom. 

Abraham & Melchizedek, 14:17-24

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to Yahweh, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (NIV)

This event inspired many later texts in both the Old Testament and the New. The man Melchizedek, by virtue of what is said about him here, became a symbolic figure, first applied to the kings of Israel and Judah descended from David (Psalm 110), and then to Jesus as the ultimate "king after the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 7). We need not go into all of that here, since it has to do with how subsequent inspired authors of Scripture employed this text to teach vital truths about God's kingdom mediated first through the Davidic kings and finally through Jesus the Messiah. Here we should not go beyond what this text itself tells us about Melchizedek. He was the king of Jerusalem in the days of Abram, he blessed Abram as he returned from his victory, and he received from Abram a tenth of the plunder the patriarch had captured. We are not told why Abram chose to give him this tenth, but it is at least possible that Melchizedek had aided Abram's alliance in some way, perhaps with supplies or weaponry. Somehow, Abram felt indebted to this king and showed his gratitude by generously giving him a tenth of the plunder.

In the course of their interchange, Melchizedek blesses Abram by "God Most High, the Creator of Heaven and Earth." The phrase "God Most High" can also be understood as a god's name and his title, "El, the most high, creator of heaven and earth." This would make him the Canaanite god El, worshiped by Melchizedek. Otherwise, one would have to assume that the name El was simply an archaic variant of the Hebrew word ʾelōhîm meaning "God," and that Melchizedek somehow was an isolated monotheist in the midst of surrounding polytheist cities. Considering Abram's friendly and polite relations with the pharaoh of Egypt, who was certainly a polytheist, the second option is not necessary. Abram in his reply to the king of Sodom, applies this ostensible name and title to his own God, Yahweh, when he says, "I have sworn an oath to Yahweh, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you." His attitude toward the king of Sodom is markedly different from his attitude to the king of Jerusalem. Some would say it was because Melchizedek shared Abram's faith in one God, Yahweh. That is certainly possible. But there are other possible reasons. Melchizedek had blessed him and possibly equipped his men with supplies before the battle, whereas the king of Sodom had only offered him a reward afterwards, a reward that Abram did not need. And Abram may have already understood what we learned in the previous chapter, that the men of Sodom were wicked, who sinned against God greatly, and he wanted nothing to do with them. 

What might these events teach us about our relationships with those who did not share our faith? Abram never conceded either to the pharaoh (in chapter 12) or to Melchizedek and the king of Sodom in this chapter that he agreed with their religious views. But he acknowledged the friendly and honest behavior that he found among these pagans. He did not treat them with disrespect. His witness was his life, and the testimony of his building altars only for Yahweh, the only God, and the true "Creator of heaven and earth"! This is what I would call an uncompromising, but gracious witness to those in need of that witness. Abram was certainly not shy about confessing his faith in Yahweh! And it contrasts with what we shall see about his nephew later on in Genesis 19

May our witness to Jesus, our Lord and Savior, be just as firm, clear and gracious as Abram's was to Yahweh!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Choosing What's Truly Valuable, Genesis 13

A. Abraham parts from Lot, Gen. 13

A.1 Introducing Lot, 13:1-7

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD. Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time. (NIV; for other versions see here.)

For Abraham's altars, see 35:1-4.

We have met Lot's name before this. In 11:27 he was first mentioned as a son of Haran, who was Abram's brother. Four verses later, in 11:31, we are told that, when Terah left "Ur of the Chaldees" to travel toward Canaan, he took with him Abram, Lot, and Sarai (AKA Sarah). But after that, he is not mentioned. We are led to believe that he accompanied his uncle Abram from that time on. this is confirmed by 13:1, which shows that he also visited Egypt with Abram, as recorded in chapter 12. You remember that the pharaoh was very generous to Abram, when he believed Abram's lie that he was Sarah's brother. the many gifts and favors conferred on Abram in Egypt probably included livestock, silver and gold. Gold was particularly plentiful in Egypt, where there were gold mines. That metal was much rarer in the rest of the ancient Near East, where silver was the basis of exchange. We might also conclude that Lot shared in the pharaoh's largesse, at least indirectly, because of his relationship to Abram. Both men became extremely wealthy, and this precipitates trouble. 

At that time the areas around Bethel and Ai were already populated by local farmers and livestock breeders (v. 7). They needed grazing lands. When the numerous cattle and sheep of Abram and of Lot were added to the mix, it became clear that coexistence was impossible.  "Good fences make good neighbors," and in this case the fencing needed was distance! 

A.2 Why the Two Men Separated, 13:8-13

So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD. (NIV; for other versions see here.)

We don't know if there was "strife" between the herdsmen of Abram or of Lot and the local populace. Abram's concern was with his close relative. He makes that clear by referring to themselves as "kindred" (literally אַחִ֖ים "brothers", v. 8). In v. 9 Abram makes a generous offer: he lets Lot choose the grazing (and living) area he wants, and promises to take another area farther away for himself. Abram was the older man, and should have been given preference in choosing grazing land. But he relinquished this right in the interest of peace and goodwill with his nephew. 

In vv. 10-13 we learn what Lot's choice was. He surveyed what could be seen of the surrounding areas from the vantage point of the elevations around Bethel and Ai, and saw that the lowlands around the Dead Sea, far off to the east and southeast, had ample water supply, which meant reliable, year-round grazing for his numerous livestock. But as readers we are given advance warning of the dangers that lay ahead for Lot, for this area is compared to Eden, "the Garden of Yahweh," and to Egypt, both places associated with either catastrophic sin (Gen 3) or catastrophic oppression (Exod 1-12), requiring God's judgment. And in fact the narrator adds, "This was before Yahweh had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah"! Not good! And in case we didn't catch on already, in v. 13 it is made crystal clear: "The people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against Yahweh"! The stage is now set for the following chapter, which will be the subject of our next study.

A.3 God Reassures Abram, 13:14-18

The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the LORD. (NIV; for other versions see here.)

The Lord never fails to reward the good choices made by his servants. Sometimes that reward is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. Here it takes the form of an augmentation of his original promise to Abram, enlarged to include the promise of the land in which he was presently living as a landless foreigner. Did Abram comprehend how long it would take before that promise was realized in the days of Joshua? Probably not. But he was learning to trust the God who had called him by name and stood by him in all his wanderings. Isn't that what we do too? He had "given away" to his nephew what looked like a treasure-land in the lush lowlands around the Dead Sea. But God was promising him the highlands to the west of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and much more! 

What shall we take away from this one? Generosity is always a good thing, and notice even if it is given to someone "undeserving"—think Lot! Furthermore, what Abram "gave away" was not something he could have or should have kept: it was an area of wicked sinners, which would eventually become a pile of smoldering ruins, and centuries later the home of the Moabites. This was not the "Promised Land" at all! "(S)he is no fool who gives what (s)he cannot keep to gain that which (s)he cannot lose!" (Jim Eliot).  

Think of that this week, as you make new acquaintances and learn to treat them as if they were Jesus in disguise.