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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar, Genesis 20


20:1   From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alien,  2 Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.”  4 Now Abimelech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent people?  5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.”  6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.  7 Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”

Abraham traveled south, following his usual practice of going where the conditions for his livestock are best. He stopped in the vicinity of the city of Gerar, which is c city on the southern border of Canaan, near Gaza (Gen. 10:19). Here repeated the trick he had used in Egypt in an earlier chapter, passing Sarah off as his sister, when she was both a half-sister and his wife. This stunt would later be pulled also by his son Isaac, who in the same way endangered his wife Rebekah (Gen. 26). 

The story is told extremely briefly, so that we are not told anything about how Sarah came to the king's attention and what about her attracted him. King Abimelech "sent and took" Sarah, the text using the same language that is later used of King David, who "sent and took" Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11). It reflects the power that a king could wield, although in this case the king is later shown to have acted without malice and in innocence of Sarah's married state. In fact, God says as much (v. 6).  

Because God knew that Abimelech did not intend anything wrong, he warned him not to sleep with Sarah (vv. 3-4), lest he die. But we learn in vv. 17-18 that before God appeared to Abimelech in a dream, he had already prevented all the women of the city from becoming pregnant.  In the dream, Abimelech defended himself, protesting his ignorance of Sarah's status, blaming Abraham for misleading him (v. 5). God conceded the point (v. 6) and merely advised him to return Sarah to her husband (v. 7), adding that Abraham was a prophet and could pray for his life to be spared. This may seem strange to us, since, if God admitted the truth of Abimelech's story, he knew that this "prophet" was the real culprit, and that there was no need for any prayer to protect the innocent king from dying. 


So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid.  9 Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done.”  10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”  11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.  12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.  13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”  14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him.  15 Abimelech said, “My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.”  16 To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”  17 Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.  18 For the LORD had closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

But later, in vv. 17-18 we see that Abraham's prayers were needed to undo King Abimelech's own illness (sterility?) and the barrenness with which God had afflicted the women of the city. I see this as an act of extreme mercy by God toward Abraham, for in forcing him to pray for the undoing of the harm to the women of Gerar that Abraham knew he himself had caused by his lie, it was a kind of penance, or (if you will) therapy. But God would also permit Abimelech himself to shame Abraham with questions which would bring out the shallow and false thinking that Abraham was guilty of (vv. 8-9). Abraham, who had so nobly pled with God in Genesis 18:16-33 to protect the innocent who might be in the city of Sodom, had condemned out of hand and without any evidence the menfolk of Gerar, assuming that they were all capable of murdering him in order to take his wife (v. 11)! And as if that were not enough, God had shown him before, in Egypt (12:10-20), that the only way Sarah would be taken by another man was if he—her husband—used such a lie to protect his own skin!

In all of this, King Abimelech shows himself to be a man of utmost integrity and generosity. He even pays Sarah a great deal of money—1,000 pieces of silver—as a sign of apology for the embarrassment and shame that she suffered through her husband's duplicity (v. 16)!

What are we to learn from this strange tale? For one thing, it shows that even the best of God's servants can do incredibly stupid and immoral things and be forgiven.  Secondly, it shows that God wishes to rehabilitate his servants, not just cast them off when they fail him. And thirdly, it warns all of us not to make rash judgments about others before we really get to know them. Who are the Abimelechs in your life? Someone you know at work or in your neighborhood or even in your church? Maybe you should try to get to know these individuals better—take the initiative to open the lines of communication and understand them better. Perhaps your initial judgment will prove wrong. But even if it proves correct, you will have taken the wise course of action that honors God and your neighbor. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Lot Fails to Prevent God's Judgment on Sodom, Genesis 19


Chapter 19 mirrors chapter 18 by comparing and contrasting Abraham’s and Lot’s reception of visitors sent by God.

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground.  2 He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.”  3 But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.  4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house;  5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”  6 Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him,  7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.  8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”  9 But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down.  10 But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door.  11 And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

As the scenes open, both men sit at an entrance: Abraham at the entrance to his huge Bedouin tent at noon on a hot day, Lot at the huge city gate, the entrance to his city Sodom in the evening. Because it is siesta time in chapter 18, Abraham can offer rest, food and refreshment before the visitors resume their travels. Because it is evening in Sodom, Lot offers the visitors lodging in his house through the night. Typically, the noon meal at siesta is the largest of the day, while the evening one is somewhat lighter, but is still called a “feast” (מִשְׁתֶּה mišteh) in v. 3. This is reflected in the detailed description of the large amount of food Abraham offers his visitors compared with the more modest repast Lot offered. Contrary to what some commenters claim, the text at this point does not portray Lot as stingier than Abraham or a less gracious host. His weaknesses will emerge as the story proceeds.

Both Abraham and Lot address their visitors with the word ʾadōnay, which can mean either “my lords” with a lower case "L" or “My Lord” with a capital letter referring to God. In Abraham’s case, we eventually discover that God himself is in fact one of the visitors; in Lot’s there is no such discovery. For, since there were three visiting Abraham, but only two to Lot, we may surmise that the missing third party is God. Since angels wield the very power of God, a single angelic visitor could have destroyed Sodom. God had told Abraham, "I will go down and see." But instead he sent two angels. Why were there two? Ancient Near Eastern legal procedure—reflected also in the laws of Moses—required two witnesses in order to condemn an accused person (Deut 17:6; 19:15; Matt 18:16; 26:60; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28; Rev 11:3). The two angels investigated the situation and concluded that a verdict of death was required for Sodom.

Because in chapter 18 God himself was one of the visitors, Abraham could enter into a direct conversation with the Judge of All the Earth and probe his mind on what would be just in dealing with the moral outcry coming from Sodom. How should God punish the wicked without harming the righteous? Abraham does not himself presume to judge, but he is concerned that the God whom he worships act in accordance with his character as “the Judge of all the earth” who “does right.” Lot, on the other hand, appears sitting in the city gate, which is the place for trials to be held, and later in the story the men of Sodom criticize him for being a newcomer to the city and yet so soon presuming to be their judge (v. 9). Of course, they are responding to his attempt to deter them from harming his guests, but it may also imply that they are tired of his earlier interventions in the public trials in the city gate. Was this because they felt he was a hypocrite, or just because they hated his insistence on justice? We can only surmise, and we could be wrong.

That the two angels at first declined Lot’s offer and wished to spend the night in the public square (v. 2) was not because they considered him unworthy of themselves. Quite the contrary: by his offer of hospitality, Lot had showed himself one of the possible ten righteous whose presence in Sodom would induce God to withhold the judgment. By staying in the square, the angels want to see if others in the city will offer them shelter. But because Lot persists in urging them, they surmise that he knows there will be no other offers; so they accept his offer and go to his home, where their feet are washed, and they are given food and drink (v. 3).

In Lot’s house, as in Abraham’s tent, there was a separate quarter for the women. So the angels may not have seen his wife and daughters, who like Sarah at the tent door may have eavesdropped on the men’s conversation. Lot’s two daughters were engaged to be married to two men called Lot’s “sons-in-law” in v. 14. Unlike Abraham, Lot was blessed with more than one child, but since they were both girls, he too lacked a male heir.

After supper there came a knock at the door and Lot was presented with a problem. As the host, he was responsible for the safety and well-being of his guests. At the door of his house a huge mob of men—the text says “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man”—demanded that he bring the two guests outside, so that they could attack them and have sex with them (vv. 4-5) against their will. Again there is a subtle hint of wordplay, highlighting how this event contrasts with Abraham’s entertainment of God and the two angels in chapter 18. The verb translated “have sex with them” here in v. 5 is the same verb used in chapter 18 by God when he says to himself that he “knows” Abraham and will therefore not withhold his plan from him. “To know” in Hebrew (yādaʿ v. 5) means more than just to possess information: it means to enter into a personal and intimate relationship with someone. It is the term for marital sex as the most intimate and loving relationship imaginable. But in the mouths of these men it is a hateful term for the worst kind of violation of a helpless stranger. Two frequently used descriptions of the men’s crime are both insufficient. The oldest is that this was “gay” sex, which was in fact contrary to God’s laws (Lev 18:22-23; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:10-11) and to the laws of many pagan cultures surrounding Israel. But this was not just consensual homosexual sex: it was gang-rape. More recently, commentators wishing not to condemn homosexual practices have claimed that the crime was a violation of hospitality. That too is partially true, for we have seen how this incident is intentionally contrasted with Abraham’s hospitable behavior in chapter 18. But it is far more than that. What these men proposed to do was to gang-rape these guests in a manner most humiliating and degrading to their own moral standards. It was to trample in the mud their dignity and morals. It was to spit in the eye of God in the process.

To his credit, Lot was desperate to prevent this. But his solution was not to warn them that God, the Judge of All the Earth, would judge them and their city for this—this would have been Abraham’s choice, but to offer them a substitute: to allow them to rape and abuse his own two unmarried daughters, quite possibly killing them in the process (vv. 7-8). Thus we begin to see how Lot contrasts with Abraham. Lot thinks like the men of Sodom and seeks to deter them from one crime by offering them another, which he may have thought was a lesser one, since it avoided both homosexual practice and the violation of hospitality. But Lot knew that rape too was an offense against both man’s and God’s laws, and he fails in his attempt to be a “judge.”

But the mob refuses and presses in to force the door open, whereupon the angels unleashed the power of God to temporarily blind and disperse the mob with a blazing light (vv. 9-11). This only delayed their real punishment, for God was giving Lot and his family time to escape the city before its destruction by fire.


Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city,  bring them out of the place.  13 For we are about to destroy this place,  because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”  14 So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters,  “Up! Get out of this place, for the LORD is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting. 

Having by now both saved Lot’s daughters from gang rape and determined that Sodom was indeed ripe for God’s judgment, in vv. 12-14 the angels set about the task of saving the fewer than ten innocent residents of the city from being killed with along with the rest of the city who were guilty, as God had assured Abraham. At this point we should clarify what the word “righteous” (Hebrew צַדִּיק ṣaddîq) means in the context of chapter 18-19. It does not mean sinless, for we have seen Lot’s personal failings and we will eventually see the failings of his wife and his two daughters as well. They would be held accountable for those failing ins different ways. But in the context of Abraham’s question (18:23)—should the innocent die together with the guilty—it is clear that what is meant here by “righteous” is a person not complicit in the sins that brought God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot and his family were not complicit: they were innocent.

The only ones not in his own house who belonged to Lot’s extended family—at least potentially—were the two men engaged to his daughters. But when he came to them and urged them to leave the city with him, because God was going to destroy it (v. 14), they thought he was joking. This tells us that Lot was in the habit of joking about such serious matters, and that his plea now was “out of character” for him in the experience of the two young men.


As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.”  16 But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand,  the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city.  17 And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life.  Do not look back or stop anywhere in the  valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.”  18 And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords.  19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die.  20 Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!”  21 He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken.  22 Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called  Zoar. 

In vv. 15-22 Lot has to be literally dragged out of the city by the angels, for he is reluctant even now to leave it. And once outside the city, he refuses to flee far away into the highlands surrounding the deep valley of the Dead Sea, but pleads to be able to settle closer, in Zoar. The angels reluctantly allow him that concession. But v. 30 tells us that he stayed in Zoar only briefly, because he was afraid—either of the similar mindset of its citizens or of a widening of God’s original judgment to include Zoar—and he went with his daughters up into the highlands, where the angels had originally ordered him to go.


The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.  24 Then  the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven.  25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.  26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became  a pillar of salt. 

In vv. 23-26 the destruction of the cities of the Plain is described concisely, for the narrator is not interested in the details of how it occurred. Most scholars who believe the Bible think it was an earthquake, for that region lies on a known geological fault line, and earthquakes are often accompanied by lightning, which could have ignited the bitumen deposits in that area, causing the fire and smoke.

Lot’s wife ignored the warning in v. 19 “Run for your life. Don’t look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.” She looked back and was killed, being turned into a pillar of salt (v. 26). Her looking back is thought to indicate her reluctance to leave behind what God had so decisively judged. This was her failing and her unique punishment.


And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had  stood before the LORD.  28 And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.  29 So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God  remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived. 

Verses 27-29 put what has been described in the earlier part of this chapter inside the interpretive frame of Abraham’s meeting with God in chapter 18. Abraham sees the smoke of God’s promised judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, but God remembered Abraham (v. 29) by saving Lot from the judgment because he was innocent of the sin of those cities.

The placement of the back reference to ch. 18 here in vv. 27-29, keeps what follows in the rest of ch. 19 separate. It is not part of the subject that dominates chs. 18 and 19:1-16—namely, God’s determination to judge the guilty and protect the innocent.


Now Lot went up out of Zoar and  lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters.  31 And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth.  32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.”  33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.  34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.”  35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose.  36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.  37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab.   He is the father of the Moabites to this day.  38 The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi.   He is the father of the Ammonites to this day.

The rest of ch. 19 is of course germane to what precedes it, but it is more like a codicil or excursus. We have seen how God gradually separates the branches of the line of Terah from the main line leading to Israel, and eventually to Jesus. As each branches off and leaves the picture, we are told something about the future descendants. Abraham’s son by Hagar, the boy Ishmael, will not inherit the promise to Abraham, which will pass to Sarah’s son Isaac. But Hagar receives good promises about the success of his descendants in other areas. Eventually Esau will be allowed to branch off, when the promised line continues through his twin brother Jacob, and again we will be told of Esau’s descendants, who become the Edomites. In this passage we are told tacitly that Lot will not partake of the promises to Abraham, but through his two daughters he will become the ancestor of two nations who will play significant roles in Israel’s later history, Moab and Ammon. Although their ancestors were born out of incest, the nations themselves are not portrayed here in a negative way. Indeed, although no Ammonite or Moabite who did not become circumcised and convert to the faith of Israel could ever partake of the blessing promised to Abraham, we should not forget the heroic and godly roles played in subsequent history by a Moabite woman, Ruth, or that through her was the line that led to King David, who shared a distant Moabite ancestry. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Abraham Pleads for a Righteous Remnant, Genesis 18

A.1. Abraham entertains strangers & is rewarded by the promise of son by Sarah, 1-15

Our word "hospitality" a translation of a New Testament Greek word philoxenia, which means literally "love of strangers." What is a “stranger”? Leviticus commands: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But who is a “neighbor”? The Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story (Lk 10:25ff) didn’t know anything about the man he found wounded by the side of the road, only that he was a person in need.

The Place: At the oak grove of Mamre, near Hebron. Time:  Noon on a hot, hot day. Abraham is sitting, not standing or walking about, and not just because he is old, but because noon is siesta time, a time for rest during the hottest time of day. Three men are approaching. What is known about them? Are they natives of Hebron? Are they Canaanites? Egyptians? Midianites? Nothing is revealed. They are just strangers. 

Abraham’s response: He thinks: "Locals would be home in their houses. These must be travelers, away from relatives, food, shelter. And walking (not riding) at such a hot time of day!!" Abraham’s concern is for a way to help these weary travelers any way he can. The following verses from the New Testament are worth meditating on:

Romans 12:13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

1 Timothy 3:2 Now [a church leader] must be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 

1 Peter 4:9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 

3 John 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth. 

Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 

Note that Abraham initially promises his guests only foot-washing, a cool drink, a seat in shade, but he gives much more: a sumptuous meal: veal (a whole calf; so there was plenty for seconds and thirds), yogurt, and lots of delicious warm pita bread.

Then comes the conversation at the dinner table.  The strangers ask a polite question about his wife. Not prying (“where is she?”), just polite curiosity. They are told she is inside, in the huge bedouin tent, at the rear, in the women’s quarters.

Abraham still thinks they are just ordinary human strangers.

The leader speaks up and gives Abraham an astounding promise. “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” 

“Return?” thought Abraham. “Is this a trip this man makes annually? And what does he know about my barren wife? How do these strangers know Sarah is without a son or wants one or is young enough to have one? And who is he to make such a prediction?”

Abraham is too polite to dispute his guest’s well-meaning remark.

But Sarah is not in rear at all: she is eavesdropping behind the entrance flap.

When she hears the preposterous promise by the ignorant traveler, she smiles silently at his naiveté. Silently she thinks “Doesn’t he know this is out of the question? I’m past 90 and long beyond having periods.”

But to everyone’s surprise, the visitor reads her thoughts! "Nothing impossible for Yahweh," he says. “I will return and she will have a son.”

Sarah’s denials are overruled.  Admittedly, the stranger has said nothing that requires that he is claiming himself to be Yahweh: he only claims that Yahweh can do it, and that he expects to see the result the next time he comes a year from now. But Abraham knows his God and recognizes him. 

From this point on in the dialogue he will speak accordingly. Strangely, when he thought the visitors were just strangers, as a gracious host he refrained from challenging anything they said. But now that he knows he is talking to Yahweh, his 'Friend', he does not hold back to question the stated intentions. 

A.2. Abraham shows concern for God’s Justice, 18:16-33

18:16–33.  Abraham acts as a gracious host setting his guests on their way.  They are headed toward Sodom, where Lot lives.

vv. 17-19 are key to the purpose of this section. 

First, although Abraham has been calling himself “your servant” throughout the entertaining of the guests, he is much more than that. In Gen 20:7 God tells King Abimelech of Gerar that Abraham is a prophet, and we are assured in Amos 3:7 that: “the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets”). 

Furthermore, Abraham is not just a “servant” of God—a believer and worshiper—but a friend and confidante. Hear what Jesus had to say, centuries later, about the difference between God’s servants and his friends. 

“No one has greater love than laying down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant isn’t taken into his master’s confidence. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13–15)

Second, his descendants will bring blessing to all nations of the world (v. 18). That includes Sodom and Gomorrah.

Third, a pre-condition of bringing this blessing is that he will teach his descendants, and they pass on to their descendants, “the path of Yahweh,” which consists of “performing (lit., doing) righteousness and justice” (v. 19). 

So God will reveal his intentions to Abraham not just because he is a confidante, but also as a kind of test of his sense of justice. Which he must have and pass on to his children.

Verses 20-21 reveal the test. “What should I, your Lord and God, do about the cry of oppression coming from Sodom and Gomorrah? People are being mistreated, especially strangers, who are helpless and vulnerable. I intend to be fair; so I will go down and see for myself, in the guise of one of those unwelcome and vulnerable guests.” 

The Lord doesn’t say what he will do if the cry is correct, but several possibilities are envisioned by Abraham. And he began to wonder:

How would God handle the situation? Put only the offenders to death, or destroy the whole population of the cities?

In the ancient Near East, and in some clear instances in God’s own laws for Israel, there is a principle of corporate responsibility for maintaining justice: a community that fails to restrain evil is held responsible for it—as a community

Is this fair? Is this just? Abraham doesn’t concern himself with how difficult it might be for a small righteous minority to enforce justice in a wicked city. Instead, he is just worried about the possible fate of those innocent people in the cities, when God’s judgment falls. He is disturbed not so much for those people themselves, but for the character of his God (v. 25): “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” In Babylonia, the sun-god Shamash was called the “judge of all the earth.” Abraham believed only in Yahweh, and he must be just, or Abraham’s faith is vain. The test God put to Abraham was not just to see if he had sympathy for possible suffering, but to see if he understood what the just way would be in handling such a difficult situation. His descendants will have to handle such a situation many times in Israel’s history. Their father must demonstrate now that he has a true sense of justice and mercy. 

Notice how persistent Abraham is in arguing for God’s justice (vv. 22-33). He begins with setting the cutoff at 50 - 40- 30 -20, and finally 10 innocent. But he doesn’t go below ten. Why? Ten righteous men in a city is a minyan! This is the minimum number of Jewish men necessary for a synagogue in a city. 

Perhaps it was thought that God would never destroy a pagan city having enough righteous Jews there to form a synagogue. That may not have been the meaning in this chapter. But perhaps it bears on Jesus' statement that believers are the “salt” of the earth (Mt 5:13), keeping back God’s final and universal judgment. Once the Church has been taken out of the Earth at the second coming of Jesus (1 Thes 4:13-18), God will judge the earth. 

Abraham’s intercession will not prevent Sodom from being destroyed, because there will not be even ten righteous persons living there (Gen 19:24-29). Therefore, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will not be spared, but Lot, his wife and two daughters will escape the judgment. Abraham’s challenging and probing God’s justice here was not a futile exercise. It showed the character of the man God had chosen and called to be the progenitor of Israel and of the world’s Savior. The whole visit of the three strangers gave Abraham the opportunity to show not only his own hospitality and love for strangers, but to defend the justice of his God and Friend by insisting that innocent persons not be punished for the sins of others. This assures God that Abraham and his descendants will insist on justice and righteous living, which will be a necessary preparation for the giving of the law through Moses and the eventual coming of the messiah and the blessing to spread to all nations through him. Both Moses and Jesus followed Abraham’s example by interceding for God’s people, that the righteous not be destroyed with the unrighteous. Both of them understood as Abraham did that God’s judgment was appropriate and would certainly come, but only on the wicked, not the righteous.  Abraham’s love of strangers and his keen sense of justice will form a foil to the total lack of love for strangers and total rejection of justice by the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (19:4-11).

Sunday, May 04, 2014

God Gives Abraham a Covenant Seal: Circumcision, Genesis 17

Gen 17:1–8  When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty: conduct yourself under my oversight and be blameless.  2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”  3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,  4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

One day, when Abram was now ninety-nine years old, God appeared to him and announced his intention to fulfill his previous promises and even to expand upon them.  Already he had promised Abram in chapter 15 that he would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky (15:5), and Abram had believed this promise (15:6). He had further promised that after those descendants had spent four hundred years as oppressed slaves in a foreign land (Egypt), they would be delivered, would return to Canaan, and take possession of it as their own land (15:12–21). Here, in 17:8, he reaffirms the promise of the land. Now he adds that through Hagar and Sarai he would become the ancestor of a multitude of nations (vv. 4, 6), not just Israel and Judah, but nations descended from his son Ishmael and his grandson (Jacob's son) Esau as well. And because nations will descend from him, there will be kings among his descendants: kings of Israel and Judah, and kings of the nations and tribes of Arabia. 

To commemorate this destiny, God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which in Hebrew sounds like the words "father of a multitude." 

As gratifying as the birth of Ishmael must have been to old Abram, there were stormy days ahead for him and his two wives, Sarai and Hagar, days that would rupture the carefully laid plan of Abram and Sarai to use Hagar to fulfill God's promise of an offspring that would become as numerous as the stars in the sky. 

Furthermore, God had in mind the formalizing of his promises to Abram, in order to make them legally binding upon himself. He would now draw up a covenant (Hebrew בְּרִית bĕrît, vv. 4 and 7), a legally binding contract between himself and this man whom he had chosen. And this covenant would not be for a predetermined and limited period of time: it would be open-ended, without any termination, an "everlasting" covenant (v. 7).

Gen 17:9–14  God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.  10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.  13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.  14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

True, there is no hint of a written document, as most contracts in the ancient world were formalized. But oral contracts were also known in those days, attested by witnesses. God, whose very word is his bond, needed no human witness other than Abram himself. But there was to be something tangible to attest to this commitment on both sides of the arrangement: it was "written" (as it were) in Abram's own flesh and the flesh of all his male descendants. It was circumcision. In later times, Moses would insist that this covenant "written" in the foreskins of Abram's male descendants was actually to be written in their hearts. He would write: "Moreover, Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deut. 30:6).

It is implied, therefore, that no Israelite could claim to stand within this covenant unless he was circumcised in both in his foreskin and his heart, by true repentance and a commitment to live by faith, as Abram had done. Not just Abram, but all his descendants must do what Yahweh instructed Abram to do: "conduct yourself under my oversight and be blameless" (v. 1). The word rendered "blameless" (Hebrew תָמִֽים tāmîm) did not mean "sinless(ly)," since no one but Jesus ever lived a completely sinless life. The Hebrew word implies total commitment: whole-hearted living with and for God. As in the words of Moses cited above: "so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul." It meant a life of faith-driven commitment to God in righteous behavior and prompt repentance of occasional sins. 

Gen 17:15   God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”  18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”  19 God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.  20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.  21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”  22 And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

But God's promises were not just for Abraham: they were also for Sarai, whose name God now also changes: from Sarai (which sounded like a word meaning "like a princess") to Sarah (which does mean "princess" or even "queen"). As the "queen mother", as it were, will now come the descendants spoken of in the preceding lines, among them kings. Abraham finds this laughable, since in another year, when the pregnancy would reach term, he would be 100 years old and Sarah 90, unheard of ages for child-bearing, since the birth of Noah's grandson Arpachshad, whom Noah's son Shem sired when he was 100 years old, two years after the universal flood (Gen 11:10).  Instead, Abraham pleads that God fulfill the promises through Ishmael (who is the ancestor of all the Arabian peoples). But God refused, and insisted that the promised descendants to bring worldwide blessing would be Sarah's, and not Hagar's. Many centuries later Saint Paul made much of the Hagar–Sarah opposition in determining just who the children of promise are (Gal 4:21–31).

Gen 17:23   Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.  24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  25 And his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised;  27 and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

Scripture is not just about God's promises and commands: it is also about recording the proper responses of people who believe. So this chapter concludes with a record of Abraham doing exactly as he was told. What a model he provides for us today! He pled with God to do things his way. But once God said, "No," and repeated just what he intended, Abraham gave up his resistance and pleading and simply followed orders. God expects us to have wishes of our own. He does not object to our bringing these requests to him in prayer. He delights in the interchange with us. Often our wishes coincide perfectly with his own plans.  But once he makes it clear to us that his plan is different from ours—usually by our meditating on the words of Scripture intended for us—we should delight to simply follow those instructions, knowing that if God wishes it, it will be best for us after all is said and done.