The Path of Conflict

Last week my focus was on how Isaac didn’t really seem to get the same level of attention as Abraham or Jacob. This focus was based off the beginning of the “Isaac” story in Genesis 25:19-34. This week we’re going to be within the same passage, but the focus is going to be on Jacob, who the story follows quite a bit more than Isaac.

In many ways Jacob seems uniquely different than both Abraham and Isaac in his journey of following God. Jacob’s journey of following God seems to be marked by conflict. Walter Brueggemann goes so far as to title his section on Jacob, “The Conflicted Call of God,” in his commentary on Genesis.

This is not to say that Abraham didn’t experience conflict, but conflict was not a mark of Abraham’s life nearly to the extent it is in Jacob’s. In my mind Abraham’s life revolved around the promise of God and Abraham’s faith and doubt in that promise. Conflict, or at least external conflict, for Abraham tended to happen due to his own schemes of self-protection (pretending Sarah was his sister) and for the sake of Lot against the alliance of kings. The rest was largely focused on the conflict of faith and doubt regarding the son of promise.

Jacob’s story is quite different even from the very beginning. Even before Jacob and Esau are born, Rebekah feels them wresting about. This was enough to have her ask God about why this was happening. God’s answer was that the older was going to serve the younger. Esau winds up being born first, but even in the event of birth Jacob is holding onto Esau’s heel and in conflict. Of course we also realize through this that Jacob is the one who will be over Esau, even though Esau was the first born.

However, the story doesn’t let up in setting up the conflict between Jacob and Esau. It’s revealed that as they get older they are complete opposites. Esau is a “skillful hunter” and at home in the rugged outdoors. Jacob on the other hand is quieter and sticks around the tents. To make matters worse Esau is the favorite son of Isaac, while Jacob is the favorite son of Rebekah.

Now this information is probably not included to raise one personality over the other. These differences are presented to show the many ways that Esau and Jacob are very different. It is to deepen the contrast between the two and build the arena into which this conflict comes to be. All we have received is simple background information, but we then move into more active engagement between Jacob and Esau.

We see the first marks of active conflict when Esau came home from some expedition and found Jacob finishing up some stew. Esau was hungry from his trip and Jacob winds up getting Esau to agree to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. It’s a gutsy move on Jacob’s part, but Esau agrees to it almost too easily, and the text declares that “Esau despised his birthright.”

This whole exchange has long been a story I have trouble sorting out. Not because it is complex, but because I have long wondered if Jacob’s actions here were good or bad. After, all Jacob was the one God promised to be over Esau. Was this simply part of the way that this was to go, or was Jacob wrong in pressing this rather unfair bargain upon Esau. I still don’t know the answer, but I wonder if it really matters.

Part of my problem is thinking that if God has called a person then it would be possible for them to achieve that calling without any conflict or resistance. Yet, upon reading Bruggemann’s commentary I came across this, “The narrative affirms that the call of God is not only a call to well-being. It may also be a call to strife and dispute.”

This is not a popular idea, but you also see Jesus speak like this. Jesus says that the world will hate us because the world hated him. He tells us to carry crosses, which I feel is about so much more than just dealing the annoyances we face during our day. Jesus seems to speak to this reality that following God doesn’t just lead to happiness and bliss, but that it will lead to increased conflict and dispute.

This is largely the path of Jacob. His path is one that both follows God and yet is filled with conflict. He has conflict with his brother Esau, conflict with his uncle Laban, there is conflict between his wives, and at some point he even wrestles with God. Jacob often doesn’t seem to help this conflict as his actions can often be a bit sneaky. However, despite the somewhat questionable actions of Jacob, there is little presented against him from God.

What do we think of this idea that God would draw us onto a path of conflict? I don’t feel that it is a very popular option. I think we often prefer an easy path, and know that I do. A path where we never experience any conflict or pain, but that doesn’t appear to be how God always works things out. In fact following God may invite more conflict to our lives.

In some ways I feel that I could stop there, but there is a thought bugging me that I feel I must add. While I don’t think conflict and strife is the popular path for many of us, I do feel that there are those out there who use this idea to support their own rightness. They view disagreement as a sign that they are ultimately correct, especially if that disagreement is with someone viewed as a person of power.

I think there is a difference between experiencing conflict for following God and using the existence of conflict as a means to place yourself superior to another. After all in the Jacob story, like most conflicts, there were two sides. Jacob experienced conflict due to his following of God, but Esau also faced this conflict, but was on the other side of the matter.

The existence of conflict in our lives is neither evidence that we are not following God or that we are following God. However, I do believe that it shouldn’t be a surprise that conflict is a part of following God. As long as we also understand that simply having conflict isn’t somehow proof of superiority.

Not Everyone is an Abraham

After dealing with the death of Abraham and a short view of the descendants of Ishmael, one would expect that we would then turn to the life of Isaac and begin to follow his life. While Genesis 25:19-26 starts by saying “This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac,” it becomes clear rather quickly that the focus will not be on Isaac, but rather on his family line. Isaac’s sons, particularly Jacob, becomes the focus of the story.

Recently this has intrigued me. Isaac was the promised one. So much of Abraham’s story was spent in great tension. Would the promised son be born to Abraham and Sarah? Yes, he would be. Yet, the promised son has very little story of his own. His life seems rather overshadowed by his father’s life and the life of his sons. Even the chosen son of the promise does not seem to have the same kind of significant narrative of Abraham.

What we are told here is that like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah are facing barrenness as well. However, unlike the case with Abraham and Sarah, the barrenness is resolved simply by Isaac praying to God and with God answering the prayer. It is all put so simply. God is still relied on for life, but everything is resolved in a much neater fashion than with Abraham.

After this though the story moves away from Isaac and begins to focus on the twins that are now wrestling around within Rebekah. Already Isaac is moved from the center. It is even Rebekah who inquires of the Lord here. The rest of the chapter then focuses on the sons of Isaac, which I’ll look into more next week. While Isaac does take center stage again in the next chapter, it is really the only story that is really his.

It just seems so anticlimactic to me. We have all this anticipation for Isaac, but hear very little of his life directly. While still a bearer of the promise of God, he is not a trailblazer like Abraham, and doesn’t run into a life of conflict like either Jacob or Joseph after him. His life appears successful as we’ll see in Genesis 36, but rather subdued in comparison.

This strikes me so much, because I’ve heard so many people who want to be like Abraham, Moses, or some other major Biblical figure. Not only do they want to be them, some also think that everyone should be. While I think there is truth to that, as we are all called to be like Christ, the focus often seems a bit different.

Maybe I’m completely off here, but when I hear talk about being like Christ it seems more focused on our character and our ability to love others. When I hear people talk about being like Abraham or Moses, it seems that the focus is on accomplishment. Not to say that Abraham, Moses, or other significant figures didn’t have character, but what we focus on is the accomplishment. We invoke Moses because we want authority over a group of people like Moses did, often forgetting how much of a struggle it was for Moses). We invoke Abraham because we feel like we are setting sail in uncharted waters and want God’s promise to guide us, again ignoring that Abraham had doubts and wrestled with the implications of what God presented.

There can be times where we feel that our lives have some commonality with these figures, and that is okay. The thing is not everyone is going to be an Abraham, a Moses, or a Paul. I’m also pretty sure that’s okay too. Are lives that are somewhat uneventful somehow less appealing to God? I don’t think that’s the case. Isaac seems to live a rather uneventful life in comparison to some of the other figures in Genesis, yet Isaac appears to trust in God and God appears to bless him.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, we might be pressured into feeling like we need to live up to some expectation placed on us to be just like someone else. I guess I don’t feel like that’s the case. In fact I’ve grown suspicious of people who try to compare themselves too closely to figures from the Bible. It seems like a power play to connect yourself to a authority figure. That’s not to say that we won’t see reflections of these stories play out in our own lives, but that we shouldn’t be trying to convince others we’re just like them.

We’re allowed to be who we are. That’s not to say we don’t have sin or flaws that need taken care of. It’s also not an excuse to just do whatever we please. It is just that we will be placed in unique positions and have unique strengths and weaknesses. We don’t have to be like Moses, Abraham, or whoever else in those circumstances, it is about being ourselves faithfully following after Jesus.

This may lead us to do amazing things that will be remembered for years to come, or it could lead us to a quieter, but faithful life that isn’t remembered except by those closest to us. Both are valid expressions of the faith we have.

The Death of Abraham

The final transition of the Abraham story is understandably the death of Abraham. Genesis 25:1-18 presents us with Abraham’s death and begins to prepare us for moving on the Isaac. While this is a fairly significant event, it may be hard to view this with much interest.

After all, the account of Abraham’s death isn’t very long. Most of the account isn’t even directly about his death, but rather about what he did after the death of Sarah. Abraham remarried and had a bunch of other kids. In case anyone worries about the status of Isaac though, the story shows that Abraham left Isaac everything and gave gifts to each of his other sons and sent them away.

After all that we’re told Abraham’s age, and that he lived to a good old age (as if we needed that affirmation) and that he died. We’re then told rather briefly that both Ishmael and Isaac bury Abraham beside Sarah in the land that he bought a couple chapters ago. The direct account of Abraham’s death ends with God blessing Isaac, as if to complete the transition that we know is coming.

From there we move to the genealogy of Ishmael, which if you think too much about it is a strange thing. Ishmael is not the son of promise, and yet he we are shown his descendants. One wonders why such an account was included. It largely seems rather matter of fact, except for the closing verse that describes the descendents of Ishmael as hostile towards all the tribes near them. It is a bit surprising to see the account here since Ishmael was sent away.

It’s hard to draw too much out of these rather short accounts. The only thing that I can really think of is that life goes on without us, no matter how important we may be. Abraham was and still is viewed as the father of the faith. He is a man who displayed great faith in God, even while he still had the messy human tendencies of doubt. Even though Abraham was no doubt an important figure, he died, life went on and the following generations took up this journey of following God.

That thought isn’t necessarily a comfortable one, but it makes it no less true. My life no matter how important will come to an end and the following generations will continue life. The cycle will continue. Our impact may be written of in history books or only extend a few generations after us, but life will still go on.

This is true with Abraham. He lived a life in relationship with God. We see him act with great faith in some places, and in doubt and worry in others. Yet he still died. We then turn to his son Ishmael, and the time of his death is also recorded in this chapter. The story then turns to Isaac and will follow him and his sons through the next portion of the story. That’s where we’ll pick up next week.

Is God Really Involved in the Day to Day?

Last week I mentioned that we are in the transitional part of Abraham’s story. The tension of Isaac’s birth has been resolved and the transition began with the death of Sarah. We now move to the second transition, which is the finding of a wife for Isaac in Genesis 24.

As I’ve thought about this passage, I’ve found that it strikes me as a bit odd. Here we are looking at a rather lengthy account of Isaac getting a wife. While on one level this seems expected and natural. At the same time it seems so common.

I think that part of the reason it seems so odd is because we don’t have a lot of expectation for God to show up or be involved much in the everyday. God may show up on Sunday morning for worship, a missions trip, during our efforts for social justice, but it’s easier to doubt that God has anything to do with the things we don’t label as spiritual.

Even Abraham’s story has an odd element to it in this regard. God is directly connected to something as simple as the birth of a child. Sure it was done in a rather miraculous way, but even Abraham and Sarah showed they could find ways to produce a child, as they did through Hagar.

Looking at the story of Abraham’s servant finding Isaac a wife, we see a story that sees God close even in the rather mundane details of life. Even though God doesn’t appear to take quite as active a hand in this story, as with the birth of Isaac, there is a sense that God permeates the air of the story. Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis says that this story is “…a presentation of how it is to live in an ethos in which life is accepted and perceived as a gift from God.”

I think Brueggemann is onto something with that description. We see this reliance on God throughout the story. Abraham starts it off by having his servant swear an oath in the name of the Lord. Abraham also doesn’t want Isaac to go back to the land of his father because of the promise that God had relayed to Abraham. The servant also prayed to God when he reached his destination, and expected that prayer to be answered. The servant also praises God when he finds that Rebekah comes as a seeming answer to his prayer. We continue to see this reference to God as the servant tells his tale and in the reactions of Laban and Bethuel. The point as probably been hammered enough, right?

Even though God is not directly active, the story presents God as being involved in the finding of a wife for Isaac. I suppose a push back to this is that God is simply being involved in the promise coming to pass. For Isaac to have descendants he needs a wife. At the same time the promise did not hinge on just the right woman being found. So it seems strange to pass this off as just God involved in his promise.

The question that arises out of this story that sees God in every action, is does God really work this way? Is God involved in our daily lives to such a point? It’s a tricky question. On one level yes may seem to be the obvious answer, but I wonder how many of us would struggle to give examples of this in our own lives. I also wonder how many people who would be able to say that they’ve been looking and longing for that, but God just doesn’t seem to be there.

Sometimes we miss God’s activity, because we just aren’t really looking for it. We just write everything off as perfectly natural or coincidence and think nothing of it. Other times we are looking for God. We are searching desperately for God to be found in the midst of our daily lives, but God seems to be missing. I wish I had a simple answer to gift wrap, but I don’t.

I do believe in a God who is active and surrounds our daily lives. I believe he can be found in interactions with family, friends, and complete strangers. I also believe that sometimes he seems very distant. Sometimes we realize that this distance wasn’t real, and in hindsight we can see how God was with us even when it seemed like he wasn’t. Other times we don’t know, and may never know what God was doing during certain periods of our lives.

Maybe part of the problem in all this is that we expect God will work certain ways in our lives. We expect every story will be in the vein of how God was involved in finding my spouse. However, we don’t seem to hold that same expectation in the stories of burying a spouse (my thought goes back to last chapter with the death of Sarah). We seem to be more comfortable with God’s activity in the good times and the difficult times. This is no criticism of that fact, just that is the reality I have experience personally.

Even so, I think that this story encourages us to trust that God works in our daily lives. To live in such a way to be expecting God to work. This doesn’t mean we’ll see or hear God directly intervening in our lives, like this story doesn’t show God directly involved (at least compared to the earlier parts of the Abraham story). It simply means that God is active in the world. In the common everyday aspects of life we have the chance to see God at work. I all too often miss those chances I think, I hope to have eyes that are able to see them more often.

Buying Into the Promise

Last week marked an end to a lot of the tension found in the Abraham story. The story known as the Akedah (binding) was full of it as Abraham was called to sacrifice his son that was the fulfillment of God’s promise. The next few chapters regarding Abraham shift in focus. The son of the promise has arrived and there is no further threat to Isaac.

In Genesis 23 we have the first of these shifts, the death of Sarah. While very little of the chapter is directly about her death, her death leads to a lengthy dialogue between Abraham and the Hittites as Abraham desires to purchase a burial site for Sarah. It’s a somewhat lengthy exchange, but opinions differ on what was going on here.

John H. Sailhamer seems to view the exchange as Abraham refusing to be given the site by the Hittites. In his view, the Hittites are offering Abraham his choice of a burial site for free. Sailhamer then views Abraham’s rejection of this as similar to Abraham’s refusal of the king of Sodom. He views it as Abraham’s reliance on God as source of his blessing, but that only works so far. After all Abraham accepted goods from both the Pharaoh and Abimelech with little trouble.

Another option, which is the view Walter Brueggemann holds to, is that this was a rather lengthy economic exchange. The Hittites were not really offering their land for free, but were simply going through negotiations. Brueggemann almost seems to present it in a way that the Hittites were reluctant to sell to Abraham.

No matter how you view the Hittites, as either generous givers or reluctant sellers, both agreed on one thing. That this purchase indicates the first purchase of land in the promised land. This purchase by Abraham is viewed as an act of trust in God’s promise, despite the current circumstances.

Abrham’s family is not yet large enough to take possession of the promised land wholly. In fact with the death of Sarah, Abraham is probably realizing the nearness of his own death. Abraham will not see the fulfillment of God’s promise of this land. However, it seems that by purchasing this piece of land now, he is trusting in the fact that one day his descendants will have this land that God’s promise will be fulfilled.

I may be wrong, but this kind of faith seems foreign today. We have trouble trusting God for things after any amount of time goes by. Trusting in God to fulfill something after a few years seems like a long time. Abraham even surpasses that by literally buying into a promise that won’t be fulfilled for generations.

So often, I feel that faith like this eludes me. Maybe it is because I lack the tangible promises that Abraham relied on. Maybe it is because faith like this is difficult and can often seem foolish. To wait years and years for God to work? To wait generations? Who wants a God like that?

I don’t always feel that I have tangible promises to grab a hold of. I don’t have the promise of land or children or anything like that to look to. Yet, I feel that relying on this logic is a bit of a cop-out, at least personally. Logic like this can allow me to avoid God or the pressing questions about Him.

While I don’t think many of us have these kind of promises given to us by God, we still need to ask if we’re able to follow a slow God. A God who does thing in schedules and ways that seem slow to us. If God did give us a promise would we be able or willing to trust in him for years, decades, or even for something that wouldn’t be fulfilled in our lifetime? Would we be able to buy into the promise of God like Abraham does here?

While in some ways what Abraham does is unremarkable here. He is simply looking for a place to bury his wife. He is not responding to a command from God, nor does this action even warrant commentary within the passage. However, we still see a glimpse of the promise of God, that this land will be the land of Abraham’s descendent’s one day. Even if Abraham himself is only buying and owning a small portion of it.

God Tells Abraham to Do What?

Some time later God tested Abraham.” This is how the most difficult story in the life of Abraham begins, the call of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. This story is one that fascinates us and infuriates us. Some are drawn to the picture of a faithful God pictured here, while others are turned off by the mere idea that God would ask for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It is a difficult and divisive text to be sure. This will not stop me from moving forward in giving my thoughts, but that I am doing so in humility. I could be wrong and disagreement is more than welcome as long as it is civil.

It is hard to know where to start with this passage, so let us start at the beginning. God tests Abraham by telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. It is at this point that we think we must be reading something wrong. God is calling on Abraham to sacrifice his son? This is messed up.

I agree with the sentiment. It does seem messed up, but in the day of Abraham that kind of sacrifice was not unheard of. I think that this is one barrier we have to understanding this text. We look on the idea of human sacrifice, and particularly child sacrifice, as evil. I believe we are right in doing so, but such a line was not so clear in the days of Abraham.

We have both the gift and curse of hindsight to help us today. However, who knows what practices we do today that will be looked at with disdain thousands of years from now. It should also be noted that we don’t quite know how old Isaac was at this point. He was old enough to carry a significant amount of firewood. This doesn’t change the repulsiveness of human sacrifice, but it may change our image of a helpless little child also.

Some even suggest that this story is evidence of God providing a different way. That God here is rejecting human sacrifice. Walter Brueggemann, disagrees saying, “It is of no value to find in this story an exchange of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice, as it addresses much more difficult issues.” Honestly, I think Brueggemann dismisses the idea a little too quickly. Can this passage not have that message even if it is not the primary message? It is laid clear in Leviticus and Deuteronomy later that child sacrifice is not acceptable, so this passage could serve as an example of God’s rejection of that practice.

With that said, I do agree with Brueggemann that this passage is dealing with much more difficult issues. This leads to the next reason why God’s instructions to Abraham are so messed up. Not only is the idea of human sacrifice evil, but isn’t this the very son that God provided to Abraham in the first place? Even if human sacrifice was accepted in this age, you’d have thought that Abraham would have brought this to God’s attention.

In fact, some consider the silence of Abraham here as an indicator that Abraham, at least partially, failed God’s test. To be honest, I’m of mixed opinion on this. I can certainly see why some would come to that conclusion. A few chapters ago we saw Abraham confronting God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why would he not plead for his own son? Abraham has not had any problem bringing up doubts or difficulties trusting God in the past, why is it different here?

However, I could also see it as Abraham learning to trust God. Abraham had doubted God in the arrival of an heir, but God proved faithful. It certainly seems that Abraham is trusting again in the faithfulness of God. After all when Isaac brings up the fact that there is no animal for the offering, Abraham simply says, “God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.”

Of course we don’t completely know what was going on in Abraham’s mind. The thoughts of Abraham here are strangely blocked off from us. All we have is that one statement. Usually we have at least some glimpse into Abraham’s doubts or fears, but here we have little insight.

We can easily imagine what is going through Abraham’s mind though. God, the same God who enabled Abraham and Sarah to have a son, is now calling for the sacrifice of that son. Not only is it hard as a parent, the very notion of sacrificing our sons or daughters is heartbreaking. With Abraham this takes on an even more confusing element. Didn’t God promise to make my descendants into a great nation through Isaac? How can that happen if he is sacrificed? It appears that Abraham’s answer was bound up in faith that God would provide a way.

Brueggemann says that the challenge of this passage is in how we view God. God is both the tester and the provider in this chapter. In many ways I would say that is the case of God throughout the whole of the Abraham story. God’s promises to Abraham could be considered a test, will Abraham have faith in God and God’s promise?

God’s promise goes against what seems naturally possible though. Sarah is barren, how can new life come from that? Abraham does have faith even so, but also struggles in keeping that faith, particularly as the years continues to pass without an heir. Yet in that framework, God also is the provider. God takes the barren womb of Sarah, and makes life out of death. Not only is Sarah barren in the first place, but also significantly older than child bearing age. Yet, God still manages to produce life.

So it is no wonder that Bruggemann writes of Abraham’s faith like so, “Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even in this scenario of death. That is the faith of Abraham.” This is the faith we’re challenged to embrace. Do we believe in a God who can bring life out of death? Do we believe in a God who will test us and yet also provide for us?

If these are the questions we’re left with, it would mean that perhaps Abraham wasn’t the focus in this chapter. As Brueggemann in his final comments on this chapter says, “In the end, our narrative is perhaps not about Abraham being found faithful. It is about God being found faithful.”

I’m not sure all of this makes it easier. While I don’t think this story is something that we are ever going to be called to do, we are still dealing with the same God. A God who wants to see if we’ll trust Him even in the midst of testing and a God that provides even when the testing is of his own device and our faith in him falters.

God’s Faithfulness And Our Doubt Are Not Surprising

As we’ve been going through the Abraham story the promise of an heir for Abraham has been hanging over much of it. It has been the source of doubt for Abraham and Sarah. It has also caused them to develop their own plans for procuring a son. Yet here in Genesis 21:1-21 we finally have the birth of the promised son, Isaac.

For as much as the birth of Isaac has been anticipated, there is very little time spent on Isaac’s arrival. Just within this chapter there is more time spent on what happens regarding Ishmael than there is on Isaac’s arrival. Doesn’t that seem a bit backwards? It does at first, but I wonder if it is really all that backwards.

If you think about the fact that so much of the dialogue regarding the birth of Isaac has primarily been within two circumstances. The first is the announcement of a a promised son in the first place. This is the establishment of the promise of God and makes sense that this would be a place of discussion. The second circumstance seems to be in the context of doubts or struggles that Abraham is having. God shows up to reaffirm the promise and attempt to alleviate the doubts of Abraham.

At the birth of Isaac there is neither of these circumstances in play. We have been told of the promise already and there is no presence of doubt now that Isaac is actually here as God has promised. John H. Sailhamer puts it this way, “The plan not only came about, but more importantly, it happened as it was announced. Thus the narrative calls attention to God’s faithfulness to his word and to his careful attention to the details of his plan.” While I may disagree that God revealed his entire hand from the start regarding the details, the message that God’s promise was fulfilled is certainly true and may explain why this is such a short event.

Walter Brueggemann takes a similar track, as he focuses the importance of this passage on the connection between the word of God and the birth of Isaac. He goes on to say, “Indeed, the whole story depends on that coupling. It insists that one cannot separate the eternal purpose of God and the concrete biological reality.” Again the emphasis seems to be the faithfulness of God, but Brueggemann acknowledges that this was not just a spiritual achievement, but one that take form through the natural process of child birth.

So if the fact that Isaac has come just as God had promised is the reason for a short, but meaningful announcement of his birth, why then does Ishmael get a longer treatment? I think that this is because unlike Isaac, who is unmistakably the promised one, the problem is what to do with Ishmael. We should not be surprised by the arrival and future of Isaac at this point, but the fate of Ishmael is more uncertain.

Ishmael is introduced as mocking Isaac during the feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning. Sarah is the one who spotted this and tells Abraham to send him and his mother packing. Abraham is uncertain of what to do. Abraham does not have the negative view of Ishmael that Sarah seems to hold. In fact God doesn’t seem to hold this negative view of Ishmael either. While God tells Abraham to do as Sarah wants, God also let’s Abraham know that Ishmael will be taken care of. He will become a great nation also even though he is not the son of promise.

Brueggeman puts it this way, “God cares for this outsider whom the tradition wants to abandon. There is no stigma attached to this “other” son. All are agreed on the preciousness of Ishmael–Yahweh, angel, Hagar, Abraham–all but Sarah.” We see that put on display by the actions of the angel of God in Genesis 21:17-19. God provides water for Hagar and Ishmael even though Hagar had thought they were going to die (or at very least that Ishmael was going to). Ishmael is taken care of by God, even if he is not the son of the promise.

So what kind of impact does this story have on us today? I find it to be a somewhat difficult question to answer. As I’ve mentioned on earlier chapters we often do not have the direct promises like Abraham had with Isaac, so the idea of God’s fulfillment of promise can be a bit more nebulous than it appears in this passage. That’s not to say that God doesn’t promise us anything, but that often they aren’t as concrete as I will give you a son.

Again the biggest take away seems to be the faithfulness of God. Both the birth of Isaac and the care of Ishmael show God being faithful to his word. What is interesting is how understated this faithfulness really is, particularly in the case of Isaac. While it is worded in a way to get the point across very little space is taken to acknowledge God’s faithfulness. One could almost call the presentation matter of fact. As if there was never any doubt God would do as he promised so why make too big a deal out of it.

Another aspect to think about looking at the larger story is that God spent much more time with Abraham working through his doubts and worries. When we come to the resolution of the promise God is obviously the cause of it, but is absent in any kind of role in the story. We see Abraham and Sarah celebrating, but God isn’t an active player.

Compare this to the story of Ishmael and we see something very different. In the uncertainty of what to do with Ishmael, God is there. He is there with Abraham letting him know that God will take care of his son. The angel of God is there to help Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. The longest engagements with God in the Abraham story seem to be about doubt and struggle.

While I don’t want to draw any formulaic expression from this tendency, it does give us hope that the God we often doubt, even as we believe, engages that doubt and the struggles of faith. This challenges the idea that we must never doubt or at least never show doubt in our faith. We see God dealing with the doubt of Abraham a number of times in this story, but still keep his word to Abraham. It’s strange that we see God most silent at the fulfillment of his promise. What we have a God that doesn’t find his faithfulness strange, but also doesn’t seem to find our human tendency to doubt, worry, and struggle to believe strange either.

Fear Makes Everyone An Enemy

After focusing on Lot and the events at Sodom in Genesis 19 last week, we move again to Abraham. Strangely, despite moving back to Abraham, we are not really concerned with the promise of Isaac. Genesis 20 instead deals with an incident involving Abraham and Abimelek that is reminiscent of the incident that takes place in Egypt in Genesis 12.

What we see here is Abraham moving on from the trees of Mamre to Gerar. When relocated Abraham once again tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister. The position of this scheme is rather interesting. We see Abraham imploring God to show mercy to Sodom a couple chapters ago, with Brueggemann even going as for to say that Abraham was trying to teach God. Yet, here we have Abraham lying and scheming because he was afraid that Abimelek would not fear God.

Due to this lie, Sarah is taken in by Abimelek. This is strange in itself because we’re seeing Sarah as being rather advanced in age, at least if we take the story as chronological. That Abimelek is taking her in as a potential wife/concubine is a bit odd, but that’s not really where I want to focus. I’m wanting to focus on Abraham’s fear.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen it. We saw it in the similar incident in Genesis 12. Abraham feared these outside figures more than he trusted in God. The schemes that he hatched not placed Sarah in risky situations both times, since she’s taken in by the Pharaoh in Egypt and Abimelek here. Here though we also see that Abraham’s lie places Abimelek in danger as well.

What is particularly interesting here is that God speaks to Abimelek warning him about what he has done. Abimelek responds in earnest and is found innocent by God. When Abimelek confronts Abraham about it, Abraham gives a rather weak excuse that basically boils down to the idea that he was afraid of Abimelek and his people. This fear led Abraham to lie, or at least half-lie as Abraham was trying to spin it.

What we see is a rather strange role reversal in this story. Abraham is supposed to be the righteous one, yet Abimelek is acting much more righteous than Abraham. Brueggemann says that “Here Abimelek models faith lacking in Abraham, the father of faith.” It’s a strange irony.

Yet, I wonder if that irony doesn’t play out far too often in our own lives. I think we’ve all known fear. Fear is something I wrote about not too long ago. Yet, fear is a terrible motivator. It motivates us to do things like Abraham in this passage, to lie, twist, or hide the truth. It makes us look at others with suspicious eyes worried that they will hurt us or are out to get us in some way.

The trouble I often have in sorting through this is that often our reactions made in fear are due to the wounds people have given us in the past. We are often afraid of how people will respond when we say, act, or do something because we’ve been hurt before or seen other people hurt before. Our reasons for being wary are often not entirely unfounded.

We’ve all been burned by people we’ve trusted, whether parent, pastor, teacher, or even friends. We can look at statistics regarding abuse and sexual abuse and understand that there are people who are deserving of fear. I don’t think we should live life in a perpetual naivety thinking that everyone is friendly and will never ever hurt you. Yet I also think there is a danger of fearing everyone as well.

I think when fear is the first reaction to every person we meet we turn them into an enemy. We may not even know much about them, like Abraham and Abimelek, but we make assumptions and turn them into enemies who are out to get us. I think that this can look many ways.

We fear other parents who may look down on or disagree with our ways of parenting, so we go in with defenses raised and treat them as we would enemies.

We fear people who may look different than us because for some reason we think that looking different and coming from a different culture is a reason for viewing someone as an enemy.

We fear fellow Christians, no matter where they fall on the spectrum, because we worry we will face judgment and condemnation when we disagree. So we keep everything close, don’t share our own thoughts, and in our own way look down on them.

We fear people who aren’t Christian because we worry they’ll hate us or deride us for our faith. So we attack and make generalizations about them so we never have to worry about anyone like that getting too close.

We can fear pretty much anyone. If we let those fears take control than everyone around us can be turned into an enemy and I’m not sure we’re meant to look at those around us like that. In all honesty though, I’m not exactly sure how to approach people.

There is a dual reality underneath this whole incident. One can’t hide the fact that there are people who will attack, harm and judge us for little to no reason. They may be Christians or non-Christians; co-workers or strangers; they may even be people particularly close to us like family and friends. We have a reason to be wary, not every person is trustworthy, and simply being naive about that isn’t the answer.

Yet, at the same time if we begin to fear everyone we run across, we isolate ourselves and take a pretty harsh stance on the people around us. Not only that, but we may miss relationships that are positive for both us and the other person involved. We may even fall in the trap of Abraham, where our fear becomes great enough that we begin to lie and twist the truth because we are afraid of those around us.

This puts us in tension. Not letting fear or complete naivety control us. To understand that there may be people out there who will hurt us, but being careful that we don’t hurt others or shut them out due to our own fear. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I do think it is a balance that reflects reality.

The Sin of Sodom

Dealing with times of God’s judgment relayed in the Bible is difficult business. There seem to be some who want to interpret these stories as having the potential to happen anytime for even the slightest infractions. Some want to dismiss them as being too disconnected from the message of Jesus to be too useful. Most of the time though, I feel that we just ignore them and hope they go away or that someone doesn’t shed any light on these passages.

A lot of the issue, at least in my understanding, stems from a conflict between the ideas of God as love and God as judge. If God is love and loves human beings, how does that not conflict with God’s judgment that sometimes takes human lives? This kind of conflict is what makes passages like the one I’m going to look at today so difficult. The passage we’ll be looking at is Genesis 19 which is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Last week we saw God speaking with Abraham about the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this story we see the details of what goes on before its destruction. We see Lot sitting at the gate of the city when two of the angels/men who were with Abraham last chapter enter the city. Lot insists they stay at his house instead of spending the night in the town square as they planned.

However, all the men of the city come out and surround Lot’s house. They call for him to give up the two men to them, so they may “know” them, which is often a way to refer to sexual acts. Now it’s at this point where I think we need to step back and ask, what is the nature of Sodom’s sin?

A popular view is that the sin that led to Sodom’s destruction is homosexuality. While that makes for a convenient weapon to fight with in the wars going on around that issue, the truth is that the sins of Sodom might be broader than that. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “…the Bible gives considerable evidence that the sin of Sodom was not specifically sexual, but a general disorder of a society organized against God.” While I agree with Brueggemann that, “It may be that sexual disorder is one aspect of a general disorder,” to isolate any specific issue out of this is sloppy work.

I think this can be seen just by looking at the context of this chapter. When God spoke to Abraham of the judgment on Sodom, it was due to hearing an outcry against the city, as well as Gomorrah. In other words Sodom and Gomorrah seem to have been creating victims on a consistent enough basis to warrant judgment because of the outcry against them.

While Genesis 19 may have been an example of how that victimization looked, it may not have been the only way.  To reduce this down to homosexuality, seems to be ignoring the mob’s intention to victimize those who they should be hospitable and welcoming to, like Lot is exemplifying. Would the mob’s actions be perfectly fine if the angels had taken the form of women? If you answer no to that, then the problems are something much broader than the way some would like to treat this passage.

The idea that this victimization of travelers (if it is even only contained to travelers) has been recurring may have been evident in the actions of Lot himself. He is sitting at the gate of the city. Maybe this is simply due to chance, but I wonder if it could have been intentional.

Could this have been his way to save people from the victimization that has been going on? He seems rather adamant to have the men stay at his house instead of the town square. This could just be his desire to be hospitable, but it could also be due to a knowledge of what may happen to these men if they stay out in public. There isn’t any way to know this for certain, but it certainly doesn’t seem too far-fetched to consider this possible.

Now it doesn’t really seem that Lot’s efforts here are going to work. If it weren’t for the actions of the men/angels he would have simply added himself to the victim list, and seemed quite willing to add his daughters to it as well. It is this kind of attitude and environment that is bringing the judgment of God upon these people. Even when stopped before doing something wicked, they do not flinch from it in the least but continue in it and scoff against anyone who would judge them.

So does this still warrant God’s judgment? To some that may be an illegitimate question. God is above us and who do we think we are to question his judgment, I get that train of thought and honestly, to some degree, believe it myself. However, with so many people who struggle with this kind of thing, it is worth asking the question in honest.

I think my biggest conundrum is this. Could there be times where God withholding judgment could reap more negative consequences than God actually passing judgment? Take this example. It seems that Sodom had been producing victims of some sort and that God heard the outcry against the actions perpetrated by these people. If God did nothing to stop this would that make it better? I’m not really thinking it would.

I still don’t have everything figured out about how God’s judgment works and especially how it works in conjunction with God’s love and mercy. However, what I do know is that love and mercy isn’t just overlooking victims and the real pain that has happened to them. I have to ultimately trust more in God’s ability to know when to judge and show mercy than by my ability to understand it.

In some ways I feel like Lot in this story. I know enough to know what Sodom is doing is wrong, but he’s not untainted by wickedness and his judgment on things aren’t the best. He tries to offer his daughters up to the mob, which to me is just as bad as offering the strangers. He becomes paranoid in Zoar and gets drunk and sleeps with both of his daughters. While I obviously have not done these exact things, the idea is that we can be a mix of both good judgment and poor judgment at the same time. Lot appeared to know that what the city of Sodom was doing was wrong, but had his own blind spots. His judgment was imperfect.

To me the only one capable of perfect judgment, perfect mercy, and perfect love is God. In our blind spots we may not recognize that at times, but that is ultimately what I trust in. I may not have everything worked out and I will act accordingly in that, but I will trust that God does. It’s about all I can do.

Debating Destruction

I know I’ve missed a couple weeks in my progress through Genesis. I’m hoping that I can get back on track and be more consistent on it, but getting this out will at least be progress in the right direction.

I was last going through Genesis 18:1-15, where Sarah is informed of how she will soon have a son. Coming out of this passage, we move away from the story of Abraham and Sarah’s son for a bit. Within Genesis 18:16-33, the focus begins to shift towards the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for a couple chapters.

It’s an interesting passage for sure. We start things off with what appears to God’s inner monologue. The men (who are connected to and referred to as God) are getting ready to leave and God wonders if Abraham should be made known of the plans in store for Sodom and Gomorrah. Here we have a reiteration of how Abraham will be a great nation and how all nations will be blessed through him. All this is because God has chosen him and that because of that Abraham will seek for his children to follow the way of the Lord.

God must convince himself to let Abraham in on the plan. I’m struck though that God puts this whole situation in a very strange manner. God speaks of hearing an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. God is going to investigate this outcry and see if it is deserved or not. This seems strange, because often our idea is that God knows all.

Does God personally verify any claim of wickedness before passing judgment? Is this just an extension of God’s mercy to go and try to experience this wickedness firsthand? What’s going on? I wish I had a solid answer, but I’m fairly sure that God knows whether the claims of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah are accurate or not.

In response to this news, Abraham begins to debate a bit with God. He wants to know if God would still destroy the city if there were fifty righteous people amid the wicked. God says that he would spare the city if there were fifty. Abraham continues all the way down to ten people and God confirms each time that he would spare the city even if there were only ten righteous there.

This whole exchange is just rather interesting. We see Abraham fulfilling, at least partially, what God spoke of at the beginning of this passage. That Abraham would be a blessing to the nations. Abraham is wanting to make sure the righteous are not being punished alongside the wicked, because that would be wrong on God’s part.

I’ve typically taken this passage, and still do, as Abraham’s concern bringing this up to God, but God already being on the same page. God agrees with little hesitation or qualification to Abraham’s hypothetical situations. God agrees that if there is even ten people who are righteous in the city it will not be destroyed. Despite Abraham’s questioning God does not seem taken off guard or indignant at this line of questioning. This back and forth only seems to highlight the justice and mercy of God, how the righteousness of few can protect the many, and as will be seen in chapter 19, the pervasive wickedness of Sodom.

In reading up for this post though I ran across another thought from Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis. While it failed to convince me, I will admit that it was interesting. This position was that Abraham was acting as a teacher to God, and presenting to God, for the first time apparently, that God should not simply destroy the wicked if there were righteous among them. The thing is I’m just not sure that it jives with what comes before and after, even if this is a later story (as Brueggemann believes), I still think we need to take the story as it is in the final form.

Even within Brueggemann’s own framework of God bringing Abraham and Sarah’s barrenness and offering an alternative way of life (in more than one way), it doesn’t seem to fit. God has been the one trying to get Abraham to have faith in the way that God is doing things. This seems to be another one of those times, only with Abraham actually speaking God’s heart a bit more than usual.

Abraham has been so slow to catch on to what God is doing and how God operates, that it seems unlikely that Abraham is getting  a leg up here and instructing God. Abraham seems to understand that if God punished the righteous then He wouldn’t be God, but how does he really know this unless he is basing it off of what he knows about God in the first place? Other religions didn’t always make that claim, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a universal concept of God or anything.

Even then, Abraham’s questions here could be just as much from the same type of doubt he has displayed regarding God’s promises to him. He has had trouble wrapping his head around God’s promise of an heir. I don’t think it is too far out there to think that he is stuck in a similar conundrum here, He knows the goodness, mercy, and justice of God, but perhaps doubts that Sodom could be that bad and that there is nobody worth saving there (I know those are so often my thoughts on issues like this). So he questions God to make sure he understands God’s heart in the matter.

Yet all of this serves to stress, at least in my opinion, that God is not doing this act of judgment lightly. There has been an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, which I would assume comes from victims of their wickedness, and God is investigating it using these two men he is sending there. He even agrees that if there were ten people in the city who were righteous that he would spare the city. Then before the judgment we see the messengers of God take Lot and his family out of the city, not based on their own righteousness, but because God remembered Abraham (Gen 19:29).

Now even though that is my conclusion, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have this whole judgment thing figured out. It makes me uncomfortable either way. I’m a bit uncomfortable jettisoning judgment, because there are those out there who are simply out to hurt other people and make victims, some of which wear the label Christian. I think turning a blind eye to that is not good at any level.

Yet, at the same time I’m a bit uncomfortable with judgment too. I rely on grace and mercy because I mess up and hurt people too. I want to be able to extend that love, grace, and mercy to others. So I live in this tension, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Even if it is coming out of some doubts about how God does things, I think we need more people to ask the questions Abraham does here. Instead of delighting in judgment or being quick to proclaim any natural disaster or human attack as God’s judgment, maybe we need hearts that care about the ones who don’t deserve this getting mixed up in it. Hearts that even seek repentance for those who do, all while trusting in the God of the universe as a just judge– which is sometimes the hardest thing of all.