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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Abraham's Last Days, Gen. 25


Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Ashurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah. Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines [see note 39]and Sarah’s Proposal, 16:1-2] and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east. 

Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi. (vv. 1-11) 

The sequence of events given here in chapter is not necessarily in chronological order. The sending away of Hagar and her son (vv 5-6) took place before securing the bride for Isaac (Gen 24), and the birth of Keturah's sons may also have been earlier. They are put here for topical reasons: to show at the end of Abraham's life how he disposed of the issues of parallel lines to the line of promise which went through Isaac to Jacob. 

Note the structure of vv. 1-18. Two sections of genealogy (1-4, 12-18) frame a two central sections: vv 5-6 which states the testamentary primacy of Isaac, and 7-11 which contains the report of Abraham's death. Moses will use a similar literary pattern when later he separates off Esau's descendants from the primary line of Jacob.

Why are descendants so important to the life of Abraham? (Because God had promised he would become a nation as numerous as the stars and the sand. And because the true 'seed of Abraham', the Messiah Jesus, was to be born in Abraham's line [Matt 1])

Let's review the elements of God's primary promises to Abraham (12:2-3; 15:4-7; 17:1-8): 

#1 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram ; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. (Genesis 17:4–6)

#2  As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. (Genesis 15:12–15)

#3 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” … But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. (Genesis 17:19–21; 21:12)

Descendants (12:2; 15:5), land (15:7-21; 17:8), blessing through descendants on entire human race (12:2b-3). 

Why were such promises so incredible in Abraham's case? He was old and childless, and he owned no land. 

These were the primary promises of the covenant. But there were ancillary or secondary ones as well. Can you remember any of these? He was to be the father of many nations (ʾaḇ raham) and kings (17:4-6). The kings are not just Israel's kings but the kings of the descendants of Hagar's and Keturah's descendants: King Saʿud of Saudi Arabia would be one of those. But they are not part of the line of blessing on all nations. 

This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s slave, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps. Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt, as you go toward Ashur. And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them. 

The first genealogy (1-4) is of his descendants through the concubine Keturah  [see note 39 and Sarah’s Proposal, 16:1-2]. The second (12-18) is of those through the concubine Hagar. 

By the word "concubines" (pîlagšîm, plural of pîlegeš) verses 5-6 relate to both the first genealogy (Keturah), and the second (of Hagar's descendants). These two women were 'married' to Abraham and had children before Sarah died. So—contrary to what the sequence of the narrative in Genesis might suggest—Keturah [weblnk: Wiki, Ant. ch 15 weblnk:JosAntiq] was not taken to compensate for the loss of Sarah. To the descendants of these two women Abraham gave material gifts from his great wealth, but he sent them away to the East—i.e., into Arabia—so that they would have no part in Isaac's descendants' claim on the land God had promised. Abraham's giving preferential treatment to Isaac with regard to the major inheritance and the fulfillment of the promises was not based on prior birth ("firstborn"), since Ishmael was his oldest son, but because of God's choice of Isaac, communicated to Abraham by revelation. We will see the same pattern with Esau and Jacob later in this chapter. St. Paul seems to see in this also the principle that God acts in sovereign grace when he calls some to faith and allows others to pursue life through 'dead works'. 

The descendants of both Keturah and Hagar belong in the broad sense to the peoples of the Arabian peninsula, the large area to the south and east of Israel. Keturah's descendants seem to have been widely distributed over both southern and northern parts of the peninsula (Sheba and Dedan, but also Midian), while Hagar's were more restricted to the northern (from Havilah to Shur, v. 18). 

As the God of Adam and Eve, God is creator and father of all humanity: all peoples and races. But as the God of the promise of redemption for all peoples, he made a distinction between the line of promise, which went through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the other peoples of Earth. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman who believed on him: "Salvation is through the Jews" (John 4). 

Application: Today's secular culture worships at the shrines of diversity and egalitarianism, meaning that there are many equally valid paths to God, many acceptable ways of believing, of worshiping, and of finding eternal life. Jesus, of course, denied that flatly when he said: "I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except by me" (John). As we study Romans in the morning services this coming year, we will see that Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, affirmed the same pivotal role of the Jewish people in the salvation of the world, while at the same time affirming that in this age there is no distinction between Jew and non-Jew in God's sight: all come to him by grace through faith in his Son.

A. Rebekah's Twins: Esau and Jacob, 25:19-28

With the death of Abraham reported in 7-11, the spotlight shifts to his son of promise, Isaac. Thus the formula "These are the generations (תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת) of Isaac" (v 19). If you figure the chronology by the figures given in the biblical text, you will discover that Abraham died when Isaac was 75 and Jacob was at least 30 years old. He may have lived to see Jacob leave for Syria to get his wife. So these paragraphs are arranged topically, not chronologically.

This is the account of the family line (תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת) of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to Yahweh on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. Yahweh answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of Yahweh. Yahweh said to her,  “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 

Because of the topical sequence, it was necessary for Moses to give a brief introduction to this section to remind the reader about what was already told in ch. 24, the securing of Rebekah as Isaac's bride from her home in Paddan Aram. 

Rebekah the 'perfect bride', whose relatives (in 24:60) wished her 'thousands upon thousands' (אַלְפֵ֣י רְבָבָ֑ה) of children, was barren! Another test of faith—this time for Isaac and Rebekah instead of Abraham and Sarah.

Esau and Jacob's births are here attributed to a miracle from God in response to Isaac's prayer. This teaches us that, although God's promises to us are utterly reliable, they often require that our faith in them take the form of persevering prayer.

The Lord not only listened to Isaac's prayer for a son, he also listened to Rebekah's concern about violent movements in her uterus during her pregnancy. She—not Isaac—received a revelation from God about the struggle of the two boy babies in her womb, and the fact that the younger of the two would prevail in the struggle for supremacy. The fact that God had told her of the younger son's destiny was what later led her to deceive Isaac in the matter of the blessing (Rebekah & Jacob Steal a Blessing, Gen 27). 

The birth oracle can be seen as a variant of a type of omen found in ancient Mesopotamian sources: the so-called physiognomic omen [weblnk]. Other omen types interpreted circumstances such as unusual births as prophecies of successes or catastrophes on the national level, affecting the Babylonian king. But the physiognomic omens focused on the future of the individual involved in the described symptomatic appearance or event. 

A second type of parallel is found in literary texts, several of which are found in ancient Hittite literature, where an unusual circumstance of birth portends the future success or failure of the newborn. In these texts the newborn is not a mortal, but a deity.

The words of interpretation given to Rebekah are themselves a bit of a riddle, the ambiguity of its elements allowing for opposite ways of interpretation. The physical phenomenon of the violent movements in Rebekah's womb is interpreted as portending a violent struggle between two peoples for supremacy. No physical phenomenon within Rebekah's womb prompts the prediction that the older/greater will end up serving the younger/lesser: this prediction comes unprompted 'out of the blue', and will only be connected with a physical phenomenon in vv. 24-26 (יָדֹ֤ו אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו), at the time of the birth. There is nothing unusual or surprising about one of the two competing peoples becoming stronger than the other: it is only the final clause in the oracle that offers an unlikely prediction: the older and stronger will become subject to the younger and weaker. A topsy-turvy outcome, typical of the way epics and fairy tales like to end, and also typical of the way God's plans are often brought to fruition in both Old and New Testaments. St. Paul (1 Cor 1:26-29) would make of this what he made of so many similar parts of the Old and New Testaments (1 Sam 2:4-8; Lk 1:52-53; 6:20-25; Mk 10:31 w. par.): it shows how God's favor is not obtained by our merits. Esau is passed over in favor of the unscrupulous brother Jacob. Jesus said: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Not the deserving, but the undeserving.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26–29 ESV)

Esau's (weblnk: JewEncy) name—like Jacob's (25:26; 27:36)—is explained in several different ways in the narratives that follow. As an infant he had lots of hair, and the Hebrew word for hair (śʿr) is written like his name (ʿśw). Jacob emerges from the womb holding Esau's heel (ʿqb), and the word for heel sounds like Jacob's name (yʿqb). Yet we will see in vv. 27-28 and vv. 29-30 (p.  ? ) that both names have additional 'prophetic' references. 

The two boys are contrasted in both their lifestyles.  Esau was adventurous and different: a skillful hunter, a man of the open country; Jacob followed the traditional way of life of the tent-dwelling nomad herding his livestock. 

We can see the two lifestyles illustrated in verse 29 and following: Esau returned from a day of hunting wild game for exotic food, and found Jacob cooking a stew from lentils and the meat stock from a lamb of his livestock. Remember that later Jacob excels at livestock breeding when he lives with Laban. Jacob lived an undistinguished, normal style as a livestock breeder, while his older brother was more sensational and different from all the rest, excelling at hunting wild game, like a pharaoh or an Assyrian king might do. They are also contrasted by which parent favored each. Esau was his father's favorite, while Jacob was his mother's. 

These statements are not intended to teach that it is better to be a 'mamma's boy' than a 'daddy's boy', or to be a normal office worker instead of a Michael Jordan or Venus Williams: they merely show how opposite to each other the two men were. You couldn't be attracted to both: you had to make a choice. And that is what God himself is about to do, although not on the basis of what they were, but one the basis of his sovereign grace, "not of works, lest anyone should boast."


Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom [which means 'red'].) Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.  Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau considered his birthright worthless. (Genesis 25:29–34)

The opening verse tells us nothing new: it merely illustrates what we have already been told about the contrasting lifestyles of Esau the hunter and Jacob the herdsman who derives his food from the meat of his herds or from plants. In v. 34 what Jacob gives is described as "bread and stew with lentils." That stew may have contained also meat from the herds, as well as the lentils. It was a reddish-brown color,  described that way because of the need to once again play on the names of the boys. Reddish-brown was also the color or Esau's skin and hair. The ancient Jewish biblical scholars played with rearranging the three consonants in the word for "hairy", which describes Esau. Depending on how you order them, they can mean "hair" (śeʿar), "wealth" (ʿošer), "pertaining to Mt. Seir (śeʿîr) in the country of Edom", and even "wicked" (rāšāʿ). 

Esau is exhausted. He has been working hard to catch and kill wild animals for his and his father's favorite food. Jacob too has worked hard tending his flocks and cooking. But Esau thinks his need is greater. He says, "I am exhausted," which probably also means "famished." At that moment he was weak and vulnerable. He was physically weak because of the exertion of hunting, but he was spiritually weak and vulnerable because he valued tangible and physical things above invisible things that required faith in God's promises to properly value. If he had believed the promises to Abraham—and we have no reason to believe that he knew of God's secret revelations to Rebekah—he would certainly have denied himself the instant gratification of food, when Jacob set the terms for giving him food. 
There are questions we might have about this story that the Bible doesn't see fit to address: Could someone sell his own status as the firstborn son? So far there is no evidence—biblical or extra-biblical—to answer that question. It seems to us improbable, but we do not belong to that ancient milieu and culture. A second question concerns the situation here. Couldn't Esau have just taken the food by force? It is of course possible that in his weakened condition he would have been no match for Jacob, who although he lived a less glamorous style seems to have been physically strong as well. Wrestled with the angel and prevailed (Gen 32:28 "you have struggled with God and men and have overcome").  

But what the Bible does have to say about the incident in the closing verse (v 34) is that Esau had the wrong set of values: he considered his birthright—all that God had promised to Abraham and his seed—to be worthless (that is what "despised" means). In Hebrews 12:16 believers are warned against those in their midst who are like Esau: sexual immoral or unappreciative of what is sacred. The sexually immoral reference may be to the fact that unlike Jacob, Esau took wives from the local Canaanites. But this too shows his lack of appreciation of the promises of God, for the promise of the land of Canaan implied that Abraham's seed not assimilate or intermarry with the local Canaanites. And the insensitivity to what is sacred is explained by his selling his birthright for a single meal. In Philippians 3:19 Paul wrote about people like Esau, that: "Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things." For such people everything of value is what brings immediate physical satisfaction: food, clothes, sex, entertainment, money, reputation. Malachi 1:2-3 is quoted by Paul in Romans 9:13 to illustrate God's freedom to choose whomever he wishes: "Jacob I have loved [i.e., chosen], but Esau have I hated [i.e., rejected]" (p.  ? ). He who doesn't value God loses God. He may think that he has lost nothing—just as Esau did and many people today do. But in fact, he has lost everything. The stew last only for a short while in this life; the birthright lasts for eternity.

Life is always about making choices on the basis of weighing relative values. All of our life decisions require us to do this. And faith in Christ is no different. The interests of the gospel and the kingdom of God must always influence our daily choices. How do I decide if I do X or Y? No other Christian can be counted on to make these decisions for us. They are ours to make. We are not wise to make them, however, without consulting God. To do otherwise makes us like Esau. 

I'm not saying—nor is the biblical text—that we are expected to admire everything that Jacob does or to assume that even what he did here was done out of purely spiritual motives. In our studies of the following chapters we will see many things in Jacob that are not admirable (27:18-29; 31:26-28; 33:12-17; 37:2–4). Even here we might ask why he couldn't have just given Esau some of the stew without requiring he give up his birthright. Maybe he was just testing his brother: to see if he really cared about the birthright at all. If Esau regarded them as so worthless, why should he be allowed to have them? Regardless of Jacob's motives here, he had one thing going for himself: he himself did value the promises God had made to his father, and wanted them for himself and his descendants. Non-believers who wish to devalue Christianity often point to conspicuous examples of professed Christians who do bad things. Well, there many of us who like Jacob aren't always living up to the standards of the God we have chosen and whom we trust. But we have made a choice: God and his promises are more valuable in our eyes than the goods of this present life. As much as we deplore our own behavior when it is inconsistent with what we profess, there is a fundamental truth that remains. It is also the truth we will hear repeatedly in the current College Church Romans series: obtaining eternal life is not about our moral merits, it is simply about faith in the promises of God. And that faith, Paul says, is "not itself a human accomplishment: it is the gift of God … so that no one can boast". Jacob had received that gift of God, and he used it here. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Bride For Isaac, Gen. 24


“Narrative time” (the time the narrator takes to describe each event) and “narrated time” (the length of time events are said to have taken) usually differ greatly in the Old Testament (see 2 Sam 13:23 and 38). An event on which the narrator dwells for a long time is generally significant. Thus in Gen 24, the meeting between Abraham’s servant and Rebekah is told twice, and in full, to emphasize that God’s hand can be seen in this event (see vv. 27 and 48).

Coming immediately after the extended negotiations for a burying place, this verse effectively restates the promises of the covenant and their fulfillment. The death of Sarah does not prevent Abraham from being blessed in all things.  The atmosphere of blessing is reinforced by our learning nothing of Sarah's actual burial, another subtle reminder of the scriptural rejection of death as a focal point for life in the covenant.

It is possible that the oath is sworn on the genitals of Abraham, which would then be understood to be binding even if Abraham should die. None of this can be confirmed, however, because the text offers no explanation and no parallels have been found in the ancient Near East. 

In the ancient world it was common to restrict or at least prefer marriage within the social group, a practice called endogamy. Endogamy is particularly significant in social contexts that emphasize inheritance. In this way the lineage is isolated for purposes of social status and property ownership.  Though in our modern context endogamy has a religious context related to orthodoxy, in the ancient world this was not the case because in large measure the wife simply adopted the gods and religious practices of the family into which she was marrying. In Israel the concerns are ethnic because the land was promised to Abraham and his family and he is avoiding assimilation with the people in the land. At this point in history, no one else shares Abraham's beliefs or worships "the God of Abraham" (at least as far as we know)-certainly Laban and his family do not, so this is not a matter of "marrying within the faith." 

Of course, today for Christians to marry only other Christians is a kind of spiritual endogamy, and keeps the inheritance in the fame family. 

Camels: In Gen 24, camels are mentioned 18× (one third of the total occurrence in the OT), where they have a significant role in the flow of the narrative. 

Camels are infrequently mentioned in the patriarchal narratives (here): (1) when describing the enormous wealth of Abraham (Gen 12:16) and of Jacob (Gen 30:43; 31:17, 34; 32:7, 15), (2) in describing the Midianite caravan that bought Joseph and transported him to Egypt, and (3) 16 times in this chapter (Gen 24:10–11, 14, 19–20, 22, 30–32, 35, 44, 46, 61, 63–64). Here they are mentioned both to emphasize how wealthy Abraham was and because the trip is a long one. Shorter distance transport was accomplished with donkey caravans. 

The Magi probably used camels to travel from their distant points of origin to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews (Matthew 2), although Matthew says nothing about their steeds.  For references to camels in the NT see here

The sizable convoy—ten camels—is indispensable to the progress of the story. It is designed to make a deep impression on the girl and her family of Yahweh's blessing on Abraham and his unmarried heir, to serve as the instrument for testing her character, and to have the practical purpose of providing the means of bringing the many heavy gifts to Rebekah's family and homeward transportation for the bride and her entourage.

When this procedure is used, it is typical that a highly irregular occurrence designates "yes" and the normal turn of events designates "no" with the expectation that God will thereby communicate his answer. Here the question is whether the girl whom the servant approaches is the chosen mate for Isaac. The designated indicator of a "yes" answer is if the girl offers to do far beyond what human nature or the conventions of hospitality would dictate, specifically, to water all his camels when he asked only for a drink for himself. Such an unusual offer would serve as evidence that deity was overriding all natural instinct and social etiquette. For similar mechanistic oracles, see the dewy fleece in Judges 6:36-40 and the Philistines returning the ark in 1 Samuel 6:7-12.

If the servant's camels had gone several days without water, they could potentially drink up to twenty-five gallons each. Given the standard size of the vessels used to draw water, this would mean that Rebekah would have to draw eight to ten jars for each camel, thus requiring nearly a hundred trips from the well-several hours of work. Since it is already almost evening when the scene opens (24: 11), it is sensible to conclude that the camels may have been watered more recently and would have required considerably less water than that. But Rebekah would not have known the current needs of the camels so the offer remains impressive and extraordinary.

Marriage customs included an exchange of wealth between the families with several purposes. The marriage price indicated here is given from the groom's family to the bride's family. This transfer is part of the socioeconomic system of provision and should not be thought of as purchase of chattel.  In ancient Mesopotamian sources, one form of bride-wealth was made up primarily of foodstuffs presented just before the wedding feast. A less common form sometimes included precious objects and is presented when the agreement is made between the families. The latter is more likely represented here. 

The transfer often took place in two parts: a small "down payment" offered as surety that the wedding would take place, with the remainder changing hands shortly before the wedding. These two stages are approximated in 24:22 and 24:53. In texts of the mid-second millennium before Christ, bride prices averaged thirty to forty shekels of silver.  At times, this property was "rolled over" into the dowry (and therefore referred to as an "indirect dowry"), which is the other transfer associated with marriage.  The dowry was given by the bride's family to the bride (a transaction from father to daughter, not between families per se) and represented her inheritance from the family since she typically did not inherit land. Moveable property and valuables were common dowry items. Its function was to provide for the support of the woman should the husband die, desert her, or divorce her. At times, part of the dowry remained the personal property of the wife, but whatever its disposition, it could not be sold [by her husband] without her consent. In like manner, however, she was not free to dispose of it. [In many ways, it was like a trust set up by her parents for her to use and pass on to her children.] If it were not used to support her at some stage in life, it would become part of the inheritance of her children. The dowry of Rebekah is not detailed; her [slave] nurse (24:59) may have been part of it (Walton); but she and Leah later claim Laban never gave them their dowries.

Until a woman conceived and bore a child to her new family, her status within the family was tenuous, and the proximity of her father's family would have been a strong motivator for her husband not to mistreat her or discard her. 

Compare the situation of Tamar, the wife of Judah's son Perez, in Gen 38. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Death and Burial of Sarah, Gen. 23

The testing of Abraham's faith and obedience in chapter 22 is in many ways the climax of God's dealings with Abraham. His has been an up-and-down walk of faith, not a steady ascent. But he has now proven all that God wishes him to prove. The events told here—Sarah's death and Abraham's  purchase of the field and cave of Ephron the Hittite—occurred 20 to 30 years after Abraham's test recorded in chapter 22. At the beginning of chapter 23 Sarah has reached the age of 127 years, which means Abraham is now 137 years old, and Isaac is 37.

There remain two important matters to ensure before Abraham dies:
(1) legally securing of some part of that land, as a kind of pledge,
(2) securing Isaac's descendants through a marriage. 

The first is accomplished in this chapter, and the second in chapter 24, where a bride is acquired for Isaac so that he can have a son to continue the line. Rebekah will be acquired three years after Sarah's death, when Abraham is 140. Abraham will live to the age of 175, and will live to see the birth of Isaac's twin sons, Esau and Jacob. He will have lived 100 years after he responded to God's call to leave Haran in Mesopotamia and travel to Canaan. 

Although Abraham is by now very old (137) and Isaac is 37, since Isaac is still unmarried and without a son, he is not yet the family head: Abraham still is, and cannot pass the baton to Isaac until he is married and with a son of his own. 

A.1. The Death of Sarah, 23:1-2
The family is still living in the south. In chapter 22 they were in Beersheba. Now they have moved northward to Hebron, referred to here by its older name Kiriath-arba. That name, which means 'city of four', probably refers to four tribal or family groups who originally joined in a confederation to found the city. The name Hebron itself means 'confederation'. 

Her death is the first recorded death in Abraham's family. And like any pious man, Abraham mourns for his wife and tends to the matter of giving her a proper burial. And since families then normally wished to be buried in a common family burial place, he needed to secure one that could not only house Sarah's remains but his own and those of his sons and grandsons and their families. Although he has wandered about, living a nomadic lifestyle in Canaan for over 60 years, he has no legal status as a permanent member or citizen of any community. He is what is called an 'alien', someone with limited rights of settling in an area but not acquiring real estate or rights of permanent residence—in Hebrew the word for such a person is gēr. He could accept a limited privilege from the town council of Hebron to bury Sarah on someone else's property. But that would not give him the guarantee that his descendants could use the same area later for his own burial. Furthermore, securing a family burial place would constitute the first step in laying legal claim to part of the land that God had promised would all eventually belong to his descendants. This would mean persuading the town council of Hethites that they should allow him to actually buy property and use part of it for the family tomb. 

A.2. Abraham buys land from Ephron the Hethite, 23:3-20

The majority of town leaders are called 'sons of Heth' in this chapter. Although another way of referring to them is with the English translation 'Hittites', they should not be confused with the Indo-European people now called 'Hittites' whose newly founded kingdom lay in Turkey far to the north, and who never penetrated this far south. Instead, these 'sons of Heth'—whose names are not Hittite, but Semitic and virtually identical in type to Hebrew names—are descendants of Heth, the son of Canaan and brother of Sidon and the Jebusites, in Genesis 10. They represent the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land of Palestine and are not immigrants from Turkey or Syria in the far north. To avoid this confusion with the Hittites of Turkey these 'sons of Heth' should be called 'Hethites", not "Hittites'. Not being foreign immigrants, but long-time established inhabitants of Canaan, these Hethites have legal claim to all of the real estate in the area around Hebron. 

The narrative of Abraham's negotiations first with the council as a whole and subsequently—in their presence—with Ephron, the owner of the land in question, is full of potentially confusing details. 
Initially, Abraham presents himself to the town council in verse 4, declaring his present legal and social status as a 'stranger and alien residing among you'. Using the verb 'give' in the sense of 'sell', he requests that they permit him to buy property on which to bury his recently deceased wife Sarah. The matter cannot be delayed because she must be buried promptly. One wonders why—at his and her advanced age—Abraham had not anticipated her death and procured the property earlier. In verse 6 the town rulers acknowledge his status as an outsider, but an honored one, when they call him 'a mighty prince (temporarily residing) among us', and offer to grant him the right to bury Sarah on the property of one of themselves. This kind of temporary solution to the urgent need of burial is unsatisfactory to Abraham, who wants to be able to have a guaranteed ownership of the burial place for later use. 

The negotiations are loaded with statements showing how polite and gracious the negotiating parties are to each other. Abraham bows respectfully to the council members, but pleads for a better solution to his problem. 

In verses 8 and 9 Abraham asks the town council to intercede for him with Ephron, to allow Abraham to pay the full price for a parcel of his land with a cave in it, suitable for the family burial ground. The words 'as a possession' in verse 9 indicate that Abraham wants no loan, which might later be retracted, but an official and legal purchase, a transfer of ownership from Ephron to himself, made legal by the full payment of the purchase price in the presence of the members of the council. 

In verse 10 we learn that Ephron is in fact a member of this sitting council. In verse 11 Ephron agrees to sell the property, but leaves the purchase price unstated. Again the verb 'give' conceals the real meaning of 'sell'. He is not actually offering to give it. But in vv. 12-13 Abraham's reply shows that he wants no ambiguity about this transaction: it must not be considered in any way to be a loan; it must be a sale, a legal transfer accompanied by payment. 

In the different parts of the ANE land ownership and the transfer of land were handled differently. In Ancient Egypt the actual ownership of land was rarely transferred. What was purchased was the rights to income from the property. Consequently in what look like sale documents the prices of fields and acreage are unbelievably low: 400 years after Abraham, in the time of pharaoh Akhenaton of Egypt, a field was 'sold' for the price of a cow (Westbrook, R., “Mesopotamia: Old Babylonian Period” A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Volume One [2003], 337). 

When land was actually sold, in some cultures the price would be much higher, if the buyer was not kin to the seller. 

Many of the attested Hebrew laws ensured that land sold outside the kinship group could be restored to the original owner (Leviticus 25). … At Ugarit there are real estate contracts that provide favorable prices for those who wish to repurchase land that belonged to their fathers. For example, a Ugaritic text (Ugaritica V, 6) reports that a lady named Pidda purchased an estate that once belonged to her father for four hundred shekels of silver. The person that sold the land to Pidda, however, had to pay one thousand shekels of silver if he wanted to repurchase the property. (Hector Avalos, "Legal & Social Institutions in Canaan," CANE, 629)

To anyone in his kinship group Ephron would have sold this land for roughly one-third what he demanded from Abraham. 

In vv. 14-15—masked in the language of over-politeness—Ephron hints at the purchase price, which is enormous: 400 shekels of silver. He tests Abraham's willingness to part with such a sum, thinking he can bargain further.

In the final days before the anticipated capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah bought a three-acre field at the deflated bargain price of 17 shekels (Jer 32:9). 

But Abraham is in no mood to bargain, and he is a rich man who can afford to pay the escalated price, in order to get what he needs to bury Sarah and to establish his family in the land that God has promised to give them. So (v. 16) without making any counter offer, he simply says "Deal! Here's the 400 shekels. The council is witness to our transaction."

The apparent oral nature of the negotiation and sale in Genesis 23 should not be misread as something unofficial or non-binding. At north Syrian city of Emar:

Sale was an oral transaction before witnesses, sometimes accompanied by ceremonies. The Emar tablets … record the sale of land and slaves, for which the tablet acted as a document of title. A record of [a subsequent] litigation [on the sale] shows that, as elsewhere, payment of the whole price was necessary before ownership could pass. (Westbrook 2003:682f.)

Notice that Abraham insists on paying the whole price up front, so that there can be no subsequent contesting of the validity of the transfer. 

Verses 17-18 look like a slightly altered form of what must have been part of the deed of sale. It mentions the exact location of the property and indicates that there is no easement on it to permit Ephron or any other person to harvest timber or fruit from the trees growing on the property. 

God promised Abraham four things: (1) that he would become the father (i.e., ancestor) of many nations,  (2) descendants who would eventually amount to the number of the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore, (3) that his descendants in the line of blessing (i.e., through Isaac) would eventually possess the whole land of Canaan, and (4) that Isaac's descendants (and one 'seed' in particular) would be the instrument of blessing for all humanity. 

Obviously, a good beginning has been made to promise #1, since Hagar's son Ishmael will father the Arabs, and through his next wife Keturah, Abraham will father other sons each of whom will produce a nation.

Promises 2-4 will take much time to find fulfillment, but a beginning needed to be made for promise (3)—acquiring the land—and (4) descendants through Isaac.

 Now Abraham actually owns a small part of the land which his descendants will eventually possess in toto. When we study the next chapter next fall, we will see the steps he takes to procure a suitable bride for his son Isaac, in order to ensure the beginnings of his descendants in the promised line.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Abraham Asked to Offer Up Isaac, Gen 22

(Genesis 22:1–19) After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Yes?” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. He cut wood for the burnt offering, and set out for the place that God had told him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there. After we have worshiped, we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Yes, my son?” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the sheep for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “My son, God himself is going to see to the sheep for a burnt offering.” So the two of them walked on together.  When they came to the place that God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and laid the wood in order. Then he bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. When Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son, the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Yes?” The angel said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to harm him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son—your only son—from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will see to it”; as it is said to this day, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be seen to.” The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall capture the city-gates of their enemies, and by your offspring, all the nations of the earth will gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham continued to live at Beersheba.

A.1. The Aqedah, 22:1-19

It may seem strange to us that the text doesn't read "God tested Abraham again," since he had been testing him all along. And not only Abraham. God tested Adam and Eve with a command not to eat the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He tested Noah with a prediction of a universal flood and a command to build an ark to save his family. In Ur he tested Abraham, giving him a command to leave his homeland and a promise of universal blessing through him. He tested Abraham again by confiding His intention to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness, to see if Abraham would urge him to be true to his just character. Yet this is the first time in the entire Bible that the Hebrew verb for 'test' is used. Here only—for the first time—what God commands Abraham to do is called a 'test'! Why? Is it because it is the ultimate test, the test that validates Abraham's confidence in God to do what is right, despite appearances to the contrary? Perhaps so. 

What is the hardest thing you can imagine doing because God asked you to do it? Well, think about this man Abraham and all that he has been through—all in order to see the fulfillment of God's promise to give him the chosen son, from whose descendants would come the answer to the world's desperate need of God's forgiveness and blessing. Think of all the delays and false starts we have seen. Think of his age, 100 years old. Now after the circumcision of this long-awaited son of promise, just imagine how he must had thoughts like the words of Simeon, when Simeon saw the circumcision the child Jesus on the eighth day of his life:

"Lord, now let your servant die in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all nations" (Luke 2:29-31). 

But now—the unthinkable! Will God tantalize me with the gift of Isaac, only to take him away, so cruelly—even making me the agent of his death! Is this my God? 

No explanation accompanies this command. No ameliorating promise, that somehow God will make it all right. Not even a hint. Not even the words: "I know this seems insane and even immoral, Abraham. But just trust me!" Only one other example of such truly blind faith occurs in the Old Testament and that is Job. He too was given no explanation for his sufferings and the loss of his children from God himself, for that would have lessened the test. Instead, he was given all sorts of 'good advice' from his so-called 'friends' and from his loving wife, who advised him to 'curse God and die'! (Job 2:6-10)
Since all that God says to Abraham is the brief wording of verse 2, it deserves careful scrutiny. The words seem to mock Abraham by reminding him of the very words that God used in his original call in chapter 12. "Go (Hebrew לֶךְ־לְךָ֔ lēḵ lĕḵâ) to the land of Moriah [weblnk], … to one of the mountains that I will tell you". [In 12:1 God had used אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ 'Go to the land that I will show you']  Would everything—all the way back to that first encounter with God, now be negated? 
Look at how God identified the sacrificial victim that Abraham was to offer. Not an animal: a human being! That was bad enough. Israelites were never supposed to offer human sacrifice! ([Wikipedia ISBE).  Even the pagans in surrounding nations only resorted to a human sacrifice on the very brink of doom, when an enemy army had surrounded them and was on the point of annihilating them all (RLA 8:60f). Human sacrifice was repulsive enough! But God wanted as the sacrifice not just any human—a slave, a criminal—but Isaac. The words hit Abraham like the blows of a hammer. Of the modern English translations, only the NIV reproduces the exact sequence and number of the words identifying the victim: 

… (1) your son, (2) your only son, (3) whom you love—(4) Isaac!

At this point Abraham had two boys who were his natural sons—that is, not adopted: Ishmael whom at God's command he had sent off, and Isaac, the promised son of his old age, born of Sarah his beloved wife. The first word 'your son' might identify either, but realistically only Isaac. The words 'your only son' means the one-of-a-kind son, not born in a natural way through Hagar who was fertile and young, but born by a miracle through 95-year-old barren Sarah. This Hebrew word yāḥîd probably lies behind the Greek word μονογενής that describing Jesus in the New Testament, and is often translated 'only-begotten'. It too actually means not 'only-begotten', but 'one-of-a-kind'—the One who is God's son in a unique and special way that none of us who are 'sons of God' by adoption and faith can share. 

The words 'whom you love' not only describe the feelings of affection that Abraham had for Isaac, but mean 'the one whom you have preferred' (to Ishmael) as the chief heir, the one who is chosen. This is what is meant in the New Testament by calling Jesus God's 'beloved Son'—he too is the chosen One, the Heir of all things. 

In the first sentence Abraham has been told whom to 'take', but not yet what to do with the one he takes. Then comes the final blow:  'go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering'. Moriah [weblnk] is another name for Mount Zion, the mount on which eventually Solomon's temple would be built. It is also the site of Calvary, on which Jesus was offered as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. 

If Isaac is to be made a burnt offering, this means he will not only die by a knife thrust from Abraham's own hand, but his body will be totally consumed by fire, so that only the bones will remain for the old man to bury. And this will take considerable time, during which this 100-year-old man will stand there watching his hopes burn up with Isaac's body.

This he cannot tell Sarah, for she would never allow him to do this thing that God has commanded him. And how he will ever be able to tell her, after the deed is done, is beyond comprehension. She will certainly curse him and leave him. 

Yet—in spite of all this—the remarkable thing is that the Bible doesn't take note of any of these thoughts or reservations. No mention of what Abraham was thinking, of his agony. Only the New Testament offers us a glimpse into his mind, when it says in Hebrews 11:19 that he 'considered that God could even raise (Isaac) from the dead'. But Genesis only records in verse 3 his instant obedience.
He chose two of his servants to accompany them, and then 'took' his son Isaac, as instructed. He made preparations for sacrifice by cutting wood to burn on the altar, and—to judge from Isaac's subsequent question—some burning coals in a metal or clay container to use to set fire to the wood. His preparations show his intention to obey God to the very last. We aren't told that he took the knife to use to kill the victim, but men in those days who traveled were always armed with knives or swords. 

We aren't told where Abraham left from. In chapter 21 he was in the vicinity of Beersheba. And since in verse 19 the men eventually return to Beersheba, that was probably their starting point as well. Three days is enough time for a journey on foot with a pack animal from Beersheba northward to the vicinity of Jerusalem. 

When he was in view of Mt. Moriah, Abraham ordered his two servants to wait there with the donkey, while he and Isaac walked the rest of the way, worshiped and returned—וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם 'we will return to you'. His promise that they would 'return' either means he was lying in order to conceal what he intended to do, or he firmly believed that God would miraculously spare Isaac. The statement in Hebrews 11 apparently saw it as evidence of his belief in God's power to raise Isaac from the dead, even after his body had been burned to ashes as a whole burnt offering. 

Young Isaac carried the heavier items—the wood for the offering fire—while his father carried his knife and a metal or clay pot containing burning coals. There was one thing conspicuously absent, that prompted Isaac's next question: "Where is the sheep (הַשֶּׂ֖ה) for the burnt offering?" How would Abraham answer? He answered as faith and hope compelled him to answer, but also truthfully: "My son, God himself will see to the sheep for the burnt offering." He doesn't tell his son that God had already indicated who the victim would be, for he believes in the God he once called the 'Judge of All the Earth' (šōfēṭ kol-hāʾāreṣ), who always does what is right (Gen 18:25), and he knows that somehow this God will honor his promise and find a way to save both Isaac and the entire world whose salvation depends on the descendants of this boy. God will 'see to it'; God will find a way. It is only my job to be obedient and to trust him. 

There was no altar already standing on Mt. Moriah. But Abraham knew he wouldn't have to bring building materials, for the abundant rocks in that hill country made ideal building materials for a simple altar. In fact, in the instructions God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai in Deut 27:5-6, it was specified that the stone altars that He would approve of should not be of quarried or hewn stones, but whole stones (אֲבָנִ֤ים שְׁלֵמוֹת֙) in their natural state. 

Abraham was accustomed to building altars to God in the places he settled in Canaan (see 35:1-4), but this was the first time that he would have to make such an expensive offering, the life of his only son!
After the altar was built, and the wood arranged on it, it was time for God to see to the sacrificial victim. Since nothing had happened to change his instructions, Abraham tied Isaac up and positioned him on the altar. How he managed this, we are not told. Would Isaac really allow this? Perhaps Abraham told him of God's message, reassured him of his own love and faith in God's mercy and salvation, and urged him to believe with him. It seems impossible that 100-year-old Abraham could overpower Isaac.  We really don't know. In view of our Lord Jesus' willingness to be the sacrifice for our sins, it has always seemed fitting to think that Isaac too was obedient to his Father's awful plan, at this Isaac's Gethsemane: "If it be possible, Father, let this cup pass from me; but if not, then may your will be done!"  If that is so, then Isaac would not have been screaming and weeping, when Abraham raised the knife, poised to strike the mortal blow.

We were told at the outset of this chapter that this was all a test. What would constitute passing this test? Would Abraham have to actually kill Isaac? Or was it enough that he showed his willingness to believe and obey to the very point of delivering the fatal blow? It appears that the latter was the case. God spoke again to his faithful servant, this time through an angel. This time he spoke his name—twice—the name 'Abraham' that God had used to replace his birth name 'Abram', the new name that symbolized the fulfillment of the promise: "You shall become the father of many nations." And that fatherhood would take two forms: (1) physically, he would become the ancestor of the Arab peoples through Ishmael, and through Esau of the Edomites, and through Jacob of Israel and Israel's messiah, Jesus. But (2) spiritually he would also become, as St. Paul, put it, "the father of all who believe and are justified by faith" (Romans, Galatians). If Isaac had died under the knife, the plan would have been aborted. So calling him by the special name Abraham hints that God will now 'see to' the sheep for the burnt offering, as Abraham had told Isaac he would. 

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in his letter, that "faith without works—being alone—is dead." Ironically, the works that Abraham used to show God his faith seemed to be headed toward death for Isaac. But instead they showed God that he had passed the test: "Now I know," God said, "that you fear God [יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה], since you have not withheld your son, your one-of-a-kind son, from me." Paul says in Rom 8:32 that "God did not withhold his son, his one-of-a-kind Son, but gave him up for us all".

It is interesting that—although we would rightly conclude that what Abraham showed was faith in the goodness and justice and wisdom of God, which allowed him to do the unthinkable in order to show it—what God says he showed was that he 'feared God' (v. 12 [BKMK]) and refused to hold back even his one-of-a-kind son from God. This isn't the way we would be likely to put it. But the notion must have stuck in Abraham's and Isaac's families, since years later Isaac's son Jacob refers to God as 'the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac' (Gen 31:42).

Abraham had told Isaac that 'God himself will see to the sheep for the burnt offering,' and now that statement and that faith was vindicated. Abraham looked up from his focus on Isaac, and saw a ram (i.e., a male adult sheep) caught by its horns in a nearby thicket. The thorns are God's trap: God caught the sheep for the sacrifice, and let Abraham see it and retrieve it. Knowing that this was God's work, Abraham accepted it as God's permitted substitute for Isaac, and—remembering his own words to Isaac (vv. 7-8)—he named the place Yahweh yirʾeh, which means 'Yahweh will see to it'. The alternation of terms for God in this passage is significant. When he first appeared to Abraham and demanded the unthinkable, he wore the less endearing name of 'God' (ʾelōhîm), and Abraham continues to use that term when reassuring Isaac that 'God' (ʾelōhîm) would see to the sheep, but after God intervenes to save Isaac and provide a substitute, Abraham  confesses that  'Yahweh has seen to the sheep', now using the name of the trustworthy covenant-keeping God. Generations afterward, whenever believing Israelites brought their sacrifices to the temple on the mountain of Yahweh (i.e., Zion or Moriah), it was said, בְּהַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה יֵרָאֶֽה "On Yahweh's mountain it will be seen to" (v. 14), God will see to the forgiveness of his people. 

After Abraham availed himself of God's provided substitute and offered up the ram, he received a final commendation from heaven and a powerful new promised blessing: 

By myself I have sworn, says Yahweh: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

It is rare that God takes an oath. Jesus taught his disciples never to take one, but to assure people with a simple 'yes'. So when God does take an oath, you can be sure that he really wants us to know how very sure the promise is. The things promised are not new: they embody all that has been promised previously to Abraham. But now the nations of the earth will gain blessing through Abraham's offspring, not just through Abraham himself. St. Peter in his sermon at Pentecost interpreted the blessing promised to Abraham as the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 3:25-26).

It is sobering to think that all that comes to us through Jesus was in some inscrutable way dependent upon the obedience of this hundred-year-old man. But God's plans are often the results of a vast network of people's actions. Each of us in the network needs to do God's will, and the result will occur. It isn't up to us to see all the synapses in the network—that is God's job—ours is just to follow his instructions and trust him. 

A.2. The Descendants of Abraham's brother Nahor, 22:20-24

Now after these things it was told Abraham, “Milcah also has borne children, to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Moreover, his concubine [see Sarah’s Proposal, 16:1-2], whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.

This short paragraph is a literary bridge, for by returning the focus to the relatives of Sarah and Abraham back in Mesopotamia, it prepares for the events to be narrated in the next two chapters: (1) the death of Sarah, and (2) sending back to the Mesopotamian relatives for a bride for Isaac. 

In 25:1-6 we will eventually be told that after Sarah's death Abraham took a third wife named Keturah, and by her had six sons, each of them the ancestor of a people, adding still more 'nations' to his descendants. As astounding as it may seem to us, this man of faith lived 75 more years, dying at the age of 175, and having an enormous posterity, just as God had told him a century before his death that he would! 

Our God is a God who not only keeps his promises: he does far and above what we could ask or think. So let us claim the promises of answered prayer—for Carl's surgery and healing, and for so many other needs in our family of believers—and let us expect not just the minimum, but far more than that. The goal will not just be the specific answer, but that God will be glorified by it, and that multitudes will be added to the 'nations' that receive God's blessing in the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of eternal life. 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Birth of Isaac, the Expulsion of Hagar, and the Treaty with King Abimelech, Genesis 21

21:1-7 The Birth of Isaac

The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.  2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.  5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.  6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” 

At last, after several false starts, Abraham sees the fulfillment of God's promise to him in 18:9-15, the son of promise born not by a secondary wife ('concubine'), but by Sarah herself! god had even predicted the time of the child's birth (18:14), about a year after he made the promise. You may recall that, when Sarah heard God's promise, she laughed silently in her mind, but God knew this, and asked why she laughed; was it because she thought God unable to do this? And Sarah denied that she had laughed. Now, when Isaac was born, the theme of laughter returns. Only now it is not the laughing at a prediction deemed ridiculous, but in sheer joy at a totally unexpected miracle: a child born to a couple both in extreme old age. To commemorate this new laughter, Abraham named the boy "Isaac", which in Hebrew means "he laughs." Sarah also makes a new connection, when she says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” The earlier actions of both parents that showed their lack of faith are now forgotten, swallowed up in the sheer blissful joy of God's miraculous faithfulness to his promises. 

The naming was only the first step taken by Abraham in gratitude to God. The second was to circumcise the new son, applying the sign of God's covenant to his son's flesh (Gen 17:1-14). This was done on the eighth day of the boy's life, in accordance with God's covenant stipulations (Gen 17:12).

21:8-14 Trouble with Hagar's Son Ishmael

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making fun of her son Isaac.  10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.  12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

Weaning occurred later in ancient times than it does in modern ones: mothers sometimes nursed their children for as long as two years. We cannot be sure that Isaac was that old when the weaning celebration was held, but it is certainly possible. At two years, the boy was old enough to understand the difference between innocent playing and mockery. The text in verse 9 uses a Hebrew verb that can be translated in a fairly wide spectrum of English choices: sometimes it means just playing, at other times love-making (as in Isaac's fondling of his wife Sarah in chapter 20, sometimes mocking or making fun of someone, and even the dancing about that occurs in man-to-man combat (see 2 Samuel 2)! Paul in Galatians understood the verb in this passage to mean mocking. Certainly, Ishmael's innocent playing with Isaac should not have angered Sarah, as this action apparently did. So we have to understand—with Paul—that Ishmael was old enough to resent this child who would take his  place as the number one son, and he was thoroughly capable of making the toddler miserable, by poking fun at him. It was this that convinced Sarah (v. 10)—and later also the Lord (v. 12)—that Hagar and her son could no longer live with Abraham and Sarah. God did not wish Abraham to be saddened; so he promised to also bless Ishmael and his descendants (v. 13). Abraham reluctantly obeyed God and sent Hagar and her son away, after first giving them adequate provisions.

21:14b-21 God Cares for Hagar and Her Son

And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.  16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20   God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Hagar traveled south, in the wilderness near the city of Beersheba. But the water that Abraham had provided ran out, with no spring, well, or oasis in sight. And in the desert you don't want to be without water. It means a very agonizing death. The boy Ishmael was more vulnerable to this than his mature mother. So Hagar put him in the meager shade afforded by some desert bushes, to make him a little more comfortable, and she turned away, not wishing to see or hear him in his final suffering. Verse 16 says she "lifted up her voice and wept", meaning she wept in loud sobs. Perhaps she also cried out to any god who might hear her. And the only God who exists did! Her prayers and weeping were heard by God, who through his angel reassured her that he would preserve her life and that of her son, and that God would make from his descendants a great nation. Then miraculously a well appeared to her sun-faded eyes, and she "went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink." god kept his word, and Ishmael grew up, married an Egyptian woman, became the ancestor of many powerful Arabian tribes. 

This episode is intended to show us how God's primary mission through Abraham and his descendants was not his only concern: as the Creator of all humanity he was always concerned to help those in suffering who cry out to him for help. He asks nothing of Hagar but to believe his promise and follow his instruction. IN this she proves as much a woman of faith as heer erstwhile husband Abraham was a man of faith. 

21:22-34 Abraham and Abimelech Again

At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do;  23 now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.”  24 And Abraham said, “I swear it.”   25  When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized,  26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.”  27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant.  28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock.  29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?”  30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.”  31 Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there both of them swore an oath.  32 When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines.  33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.  34 And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.

God is not finished using Abraham to bring blessing to others besides his own family. Earlier he brought anything but blessing to King Abimelech of the city of Gerar. But now God will use the prosperity that he brings to Abraham as a means of allowing the patriarch to enter into a covenant with Abimelech. Covenants—or as they are called in secular parlance, 'treaties'—were a standard form of social interaction in the ancient world. These were the ancient equivalents of contracts and agreements in the modern business world. Abimelech saw how God was prospering Abraham and wished to make an agreement of mutual respect and protection. He would not harm Abraham or in any way hinder his way of life, if Abraham would make a similar pledge to him. This Abraham did. And in keeping with that agreement, any apparent infringement—including that about which Abraham complained in v. 25—could be considered a sign of breach of contract, and a violation of oaths taken at the time of the treaty by both parties in the names of their gods. Such breaches would be punished by the violator's own god (or God).  

Again, the application of this to today is that God intends Christians to show complete honesty and integrity in all dealings, not just with fellow Christians, but with anyone. And we are to honor all commitments, whether in writing or by word of mouth.