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’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.

Split Opinions on Splitting the Land

It can be difficult at times to tell whether the actions of Biblical characters are to be viewed as positive or negative. This is because a number of times we see no moral judgment on the actions presented. Sometimes, as in the case of Genesis 12:10-20 that we looked at last time, we see good results for Abraham when his actions seemed morally questionable.

This week we look at Genesis 13 and we run into the problem of trying to figure out what this passage is about. Is the story positive, negative, or simply a bridge to what is yet to happen? This becomes a complicated matter as my two commentaries have diverging opinions about this story.

Before we get to the interpretation of the passage, what’s going on here? Abraham leaves Egypt a wealthy man and sets back off to the altar that he made before heading to Egypt. Once there though, disagreements began to take place between the Abraham’s herders and Lot’s herders. They both had too much wealth and there was not enough space for them both at this location.

Abraham wants to part company with Lot on amiable terms and decides to give Lot a choice, he can take the land to the east of where they are or to the west. Lot decides to move to the east and sets out. However, we’ve given the ominous foreshadowing that Lot has chosen to live close to Sodom and how wicked that city was.

After Lot leaves, God comes to Abraham and reconfirms the promise. He tells Abraham that all that he can see will become the land of his descendants. God also says that those descendants of Abraham will be so numerous that they won’t be able to be counted. After this exchange Abraham goes to Hebron and builds another altar to the Lord.

Now Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis believes that this story demonstrates the faithfulness of Abraham, in contrast to his act of faithlessness in Egypt. Brueggemann puts it this way, “In [Genesis 12], Abraham is self-seeking and self-serving. He trusts in no resource beyond his own shrewdness. He is willing to sacrifice others for his survival. In chapter 13, Abraham is very different. He takes no thought for himself or for tomorrow.”

On the other hand John H. Sailhamer presents Abraham’s actions very differently. To Sailhamer, “Abraham’s separation from Lot also carries on the theme of “promise in jeopardy. As the story reads Abraham is on the verge of giving the Promised Land to Lot.” While the story doesn’t go that way Sailhamer comments that “God’s promise was secure, in spite of Abraham’s passivity.”

To be honest I think Brueggemanns is reaching a bit far. He seems to hold a lot of weight on God’s blessing at the end of the chapter, but to be honest you could look at Abraham being blessed at the end of chapter 12 while he was in Egypt also. Does that mean what he did was faithful? It more falls on the idea that God is faithful even when we are not. I don’t see that God’s reiteration of the promise here is necessarily  a good job Abraham.

I’d say that I’m more in line with Sailhamer, but even then I’m not quite sure I’d put it in quite a panicked way. Is the promise really in jeopardy? I don’t think we need to go that far. In my mind, this incident with Lot and those that followed, add some credibility that Lot wasn’t really meant to be on this trip in the first place.

We’re never explicitly told this, but there are a number of possible pointers. First, we have the conflict here. While Lot isn’t the source of the conflict, his presence there creates two family groups that don’t appear to think of themselves as one coherent group. This causes some strife and they separate.

We also see Lot choose to go east. As I’ve said in previous posts, going east doesn’t have positive connotations in Genesis for whatever reason. Just in case we doubted that the whole going east was a negative, the story adds that Lot is traveling towards Sodom and how the people there are wicked.

So why did Abraham take him along? Admittedly, traveling away from the main family would not have been easy so having an extra family member wouldn’t be a terrible thing, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. It is very possible that Lot is the first attempt of Abraham to have an heir just in case Sarah remains barren. What we see in this chapter is that idea coming to a close. Lot and Abraham are separating here and being considered two separate family units.

If this is the reality behind Lot’s traveling with Abraham, it is no wonder that God reiterates his promise to Abraham after Lot departs. Abraham’s back-up plan may no longer be viable, but God is promising to give all the land he can see (including the east interestingly enough) to his offspring and that his offspring will be numerous.

I also wonder if that’s why we have the offspring language here. Abraham thought that Lot could be the one to inherit the promise of God, but here we have God tightening up the promise to let Abraham know that it will be his own offspring, not simply an heir from a close relation.

At the end though, my thoughts are not clearly expressed in the stories, so they could very well be wrong. Regardless though, why does it matter? I mean does it really matter to us if Abraham was right or wrong in how he separated with Lot or if Lot was to go with him or not? In some ways no, but I also think that no matter what God’s faithfulness is on display here.

If Abraham did what was right we see a picture of God as blessing that right action, just like he blessed Abraham even when he was self-centered in Egypt. If Abraham didn’t do the right thing in this story, God was faithful to Abraham and reiterated the promises to him once again. If Lot was a back-up plan of Abraham’s God is still faithful. Sure the back-up plan may cause some difficulties on the way (like this argument between the workers), but God is still faithful.

Maybe that’s simply playing one note too much, but I think the faithfulness of God is a comfort. It doesn’t always mean there won’t be discord, it doesn’t always mean that our own attempts to fulfill God’s promise won’t singe us, but it does mean that God will remain faithful to us. Even those times where our faithfulness is not so stellar.

 

 

 

The Path to Abraham

Just in case there hasn’t been a genealogy recently enough, Genesis 11:10-29 decides to add another one after taking a short detour regarding the Tower of Babel. On the plus side this section is focused only on one line of descendents, but the negative is that it is still another list of names that we can’t pronounce and for the most part only see once and then forget.

So what is the focus of this shorter, more focused genealogy? The easy answer is that we’re getting pointed to Abraham and the expected creation of Israel, but is there more to it than this?

In some ways no, but I have run across a couple perspectives that people use when looking at this genealogy . John H. Sailhamer in his commentary on Genesis from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series takes a view that the earlier genealogy of Genesis 10 was the wicked line and the genealogy here is the good and godly line. I’ve written about my thoughts on this interpretive view when talking about Genesis 5. I just feel that it is an oversimplification. We aren’t given any information about this line other than it ended in the birth of Abraham (Abram at this point) and his brothers plus there is the problem that part of this line is repeated from the genealogy in Genesis 10.

Are we tracking towards Abraham? Yes, but I don’t see that meaning that everyone from his line was good or that everyone from other lines were necessarily bad. I think we just need to be careful before wielding this interpretation about too carelessly.

Walter Brueggemann provides a bit of a different view. He does note a contrast between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11:10-29, but his contrast is more on the scope of the different genealogies. He states, “Whereas chapter 10 reports the multiplication, spread and vastness of humankind, leading to the Tower of Babel story, this listing narrows, restricts, and confines interest to this single family.”

Now this may not seem to contrast too much, but Brueggemann goes on from there to say, “There is a tension between the universal sovereignty (and providence) of God, who cares for and presides over all nations and the election of God, who focuses on this distinctive people. Proper interpretation requires maintaining this tension, refusing to relax in either direction. ” Now while using terms like sovereignty, providence, and election could muddy the waters as to what exactly Brueggemann is getting at I think his approach is more useful than Sailhamer’s.

To me this means that Brueggemann is talking about how God is active in both circumstances, just in different ways. That God is active in a more general way to the other nations, but there is something particular that he is planning to do through the line of Abraham and the nation of Israel. I find a view like this more helpful than trying to delineate between a line of good and evil.

There are a couple other insights that Brueggemann puts forward that helps put this into perspective as well. First, he points out that “the road to Israel is unexceptional. That is, there is nothing special, sacred, or religious about the appearance of Israel.” This genealogy is just like the others, in fact there is really less detail given than some of the lineages presented in chapter 10. There is nothing saying that they followed God better or were superior in any way. It is simply another genealogy presented as moving on to later generations.

Connected to this idea is the fact that the information we are given about the path to Israel isn’t exactly promising. We are told that Abraham’s wife Sarah (Sarai) is barren. Brueggemann thinks this is a very intentional point. He looks back at what he calls the “blessing mandate” which is the “be fruitful and multiply” language of Genesis 1:28 and 9:1. If that mandate is in view here then, as he says, “Israel is a major disappointment in terms of the purposes of creation.”

So not only is Abraham’s, and therefore Israel’s, lineage unexceptional it is below average. One would expect that Lot or the couple Nahor and Milkah to be the one the narrative follows after this, not Abraham and his barren wife Sarah. After all how does one make a nation without the ability to have any children? Yet as many who are familiar with the stories know, it is Abraham and Sarah who are called and respond to God.

Looking at it from this perspective it is God working with the unlikely of the world. Unlike the view that talks about a line of evil and good which seems to me to present the call of Abraham as some sort of triumph of a good lineage or upbringing, this presents a view of God displaying his power through unlikely and impossible ways.

So yes, we are moving towards Israel by way of Abraham here, but this movement is presented even in the genealogy as something that we may not have expected. That a family line with little notoriety and that the branch of that family line with barrenness is going to be God’s chosen people. This is certainly not the way I’ve read this passage of Genesis before, but I think it frames the situation in a much more complete way. What about you?

 

A Symbol of Pride and Fear

The Tower of Babel is not a story I thought could be all too controversial. I thought it was an example of human pride over and against God’s plan. It wasn’t until I read a post earlier this year from Morgan Guyton (actually he had a few where he talked about this story, but I’ll link this one) that this thought of mine was challenged. Admittedly, what he’s doing isn’t trying to give what he thinks about the passage, but more pushing back against an interpretive framework that a number of Christians use to understand the passage.

Now this isn’t to say that I felt his critique was completely accurate, but he did give me things to think about. His thoughts impacted me enough that as I started looking at Genesis 11:1-9, I thought of his posts. As we look at the Tower of Babel story a lot of questions come into view. What is the Tower of Babel about? Is it about human pride? Is God presented as fearful in the text? Is God against human progress or is there something else at work here?

My own thoughts after reading the passage, my two commentaries (Sailhamer and Brueggemann), and Morgan Guyton is that it is still about human pride, but not limited to that. I’d say it is also about our fears and our attempts at control particularly against God’s plans and purposes. I think there are a number of connections in terms of word usage and themes that make it hard to not take it as a negative setup. With this said I think it is possible to hold this without making God fearful of or against all human progress or urban life.

So let’s take a look at some of the word connections shall we? John H. Sailhamer likes to point out the significance of east. For whatever reason, and I’m not exactly sure why it is, Genesis doesn’t seem to like eastward movement. After Adam and Eve sin they are kicked out of Eden and move east. When Cain kills Abel he is exiled to the east. So the inclusion of eastward movement here should be noticed. It can give us a hint that we’re not talking about positive activity. Alone it may not be enough, but that’s not all.

Walter Brueggemann brings attention to the word scattered. His focus is that scattering is not necessarily a bad thing and would align with God’s decree in Genesis 1:28 for humanity to “fill the earth.” If this is the case then one of the reasons for building the tower begins to be a bit suspect. In Genesis 11:4 the people say, “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Part of the reason for the building of this tower is to resist the idea of scattering or filling of the whole earth.

There is one more word that is often brought up when talking about this passage, and that is the word “name.” Before the people start talking about not wanting to be scattered, they talk about making a name for themselves. Now this may not seem too terrible, but if resisting scattering is to contrast the scattering and world filling action that God desires, than this making of a name is achieved by directly resisting what God desires.

This is especially contrasting with what we’ll see with Abraham in Genesis 12 where it is God who will make Abraham’s name great. It is not Abraham making his name great through his own plans, but by following and trusting in God and having God make his name great. So I would say that the making of ones name here is not a positive thing. I wouldn’t say that this is because God is against all human progress, but it appears that the name making that is happening at Babel is contrary to the scattering and world filling intentions God has with creation.

So I think that we are being led to view this situation as a negative one. The building of the tower to the heavens is an attempt to make a name for those who built it and dwelt there, but also in order to stop the people from scattering. While the common charge of pride may require a bit more work than a surface reading, I do think it is there. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that pride is the only reason for the building of this tower. Fear is another one.

Brueggemann puts it this way, “the fear of scattering expressed in 11:4 is resistance to God’s purpose for Creation. The peoples do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity.”I think this is a fear that many of us can understand. We often gravitate towards to those who are like us and either proceed with a hefty amount of wariness or disdain for those who are not. In some churches the idea of the homogenous unit has been used as a way to foster church growth. We are often accepted or rejected by certain groups based on our views on certain issues.

Even for those who may speak of unity, it is a hard thing to actually practice when we run into people who may be very different than us. This can be borne of pride (our views on everything are always right, we have no time for those who are wrong) or out of fear (those who are different than us may dislike, disapprove, reject, or just be different than us). We don’t want to scatter because we may run into people who are different, people who don’t fit into our comfortable homogeneity, people who maybe even dislike us. So we gather and build our towers to the heavens and huddle together even when it goes against God’s mission, purpose, and desire.

Now if this is the reasoning of the people who built the tower, then God’s disapproval doesn’t seem so strange. God isn’t worried because people are building a tower that will intrude upon Heaven. Now it is a bit curious that God is presented here as saying “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” but this is really only a problem if you have to read it completely literally, which is what Morgan Guyton was particularly critiquing, at least if I read him correctly.

We as humans are capable of great things when we work together. When that effort is unified with God and his ways then I imagine God has little issue with that kind of progress. When the focus is on doing what we want regardless of what God has to do with it, then should we be too surprised that God may disapprove? I don’t really think so.

Now this leads us to God’s supposed punishment in the first place. If God’s desire is to have the people spread over the whole earth, then his punishment loses a bit of an edge. It is more in line with the idea of getting people to spread out. If people are going to huddle together in their homogenous groups unwilling and afraid to spread out over the earth then he will confuse their language and scatter them himself. Not just as punishment, but as a way for the people to fill the land.

So all this to say I still think that the Tower of Babel story is a story where the human agents are viewed with negative intent. The Tower of Babel is a symbol of pride and fear. A pride and fear that causes us to trust in the names we make for ourselves rather than God. A pride and fear that leads us to band together in our sameness so we don’t have to be scattered around and interact with those different than us. How many churches, organizations, causes, and groups are these same symbols of pride and fear today? I’m pretty sure that there are more than we’d like to admit. We shouldn’t be too surprised if God scatters us when we’ve made our own towers like this.

A Genealogy of Nations

Biblical genealogies are not my favorite parts of the Bible. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. They’re full of names that are given once and never really thought of again. They seem to have some purpose, but what that purpose is isn’t always clear. I just find them tough to get through a lot of times.

Despite that fact I find myself facing Genesis 10, what is commonly referred to as the “The Table of Nations”. So while I may not run away from such a passage, one has to ask what is going on here?

Looking at the text itself we’re looking at the sons of Japheth, Ham, and Shem. However, this is a picture given particular focus. Japheth is given very little focus, we hear about his sons and the sons of only two of his seven sons and that’s it. Shem gets a little more attention and the largest focus is on the sons of Ham. Is there anything going on more than a bunch of names and nations being presented here?

I’m not entirely sure and the main commentaries I’m using haven’t helped me all that much. John H. Sailhamer seems to be very focused on how about half of the genealogy has associations with the number seven. He doesn’t really explain why this matters other than saying the author’s “intention is not to give an exhaustive list, but rather a ‘complete’ list, one that for him is obtained in the number seven.” However this doesn’t really mean too much, and only really applies to about half of the chapter.

Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis from the Interpretation series (yes I have procured a new commentary on Genesis) seems focused on the fact that this chapter is a “verbal ‘map’ of the world,” and that it “pays attention to the territorial and political realities.” So this chapter winds up being centered around a political reality for Brueggemann, but again what exactly does that mean? I think that he’s meaning that the chapter is functioning like a political map, developing the existence of certain nations and the area where they are located.

To be honest I found Brueggemann more helpful than Sailhamer on this chapter, but I still think that Brueggemann might take the whole political map angle a bit too far. So instead of just giving a general picture of the chapter I’ll give a few more specific thoughts that came to me as I read both the text and the commentaries.

1. To me genealogies in the Bible always seem to be about transitioning us from one point to another or about setting a background for what is to come, if given at the very beginning. This chapter is about transitioning us from Noah and his sons to the Tower of Babel, but also anticipating Abraham. We have the introduction of the land of Shinar here in this chapter and it also appears in the story of the Tower of Babel.

2. It is about setting up a political map of sorts. Not only are we establishing a connection between Noah and his sons and the Tower of Babel and Abraham, but it also introduces nations that Israel interacts with on a regular basis, particularly with in the line of Canaan.

3. Nimrod is the standout figure in this passage, but it is hard to know why he is standing out here. Sailhamer simply writes his inclusion off as an introduction to the land where the Tower of Babel occurs. Brueggemann on the other hand wants to compare Nimrod to Enoch from the last genealogy, only instead of the theological significance of Enoch, Nimrod is focused on politically as one of the first mighty rulers recorded.

Again though I find Brueggemann a bit more helpful. It doesn’t seem like an introduction to Nimrod would be needed if all he served as was an introduction to the land where the Tower of Babel occurs. My question ultimately becomes is Nimrod to be viewed in a positive or negative light? He seems to be positively mentioned here, but the land he rules is the setting for the Tower of Babel (although interestingly enough he isn’t mentioned in that narrative). So I don’t really know how to take him, and in the greater scheme of things, it probably doesn’t really matter all that much.

4. There isn’t much in the way of contemporary significance for this passage. You could like Brueggemann, say something like, “the ecumentical and political reality of this text affirms that all nations derive their historical existence from the life giving power of God and are called to be responsive to him.” I would agree with that assessment and add that it isn’t just the reality for nations, but the point could seem a bit abstract for some.

So these are my thoughts on this passage. I don’t think they’re all that profound, but then again I didn’t really expect as such from a chapter that was solely a genealogy. Do you have any extra thoughts on Genesis 10? Let me know.

 

 

Pointing Out Sins or Providing a Solution?

I know I’ve mentioned before how I don’t always know why some stories are included in the Bible. They just seem strange, and particularly not like the family-friendly, clean-cut, very moral, straight-laced version of Christianity that is so often presented in our weekly gatherings. Genesis 9:18-29 is one of these passages.

What is in this passage you may ask? Well the title above kind of says it all. Noah and his sons have survived the flood, but we get this last little story before moving on to the next generations. During this time we have Noah planting a vineyard, drinking a bit too much of the wine that vineyard produced, and next thing you know he’s naked in his tent.

Things become a bit stranger though as one of Noah’s sons, Ham, sees Noah naked in his tent and runs off to tell his brothers. Unlike Ham though, Shem and Japheth go to great lengths both to cover Noah’s nakedness and not look at it themselves. When Noah awakes, he curses Ham (well truthfully he curses Canaan, Ham’s son, but there seems to be a connection here) and blesses both Shem and Japheth. Then with little in between Noah dies.

So what is all this about? I wish I entirely knew. It just seems like a very strange story. Let’s look at some possibilities. Is it focused on Noah’s indiscretion with alcohol as some kind of indication that even righteous men fall? Potentially, but I see very little to center this story being about Noah’s failure. I mean he did get drunk which is viewed negatively at other places in Scripture, but at the same time if we’re reading Genesis as a whole there has been no prohibition against this so far.

Plus, we see little negative response directed towards Noah here. Some want to compare him to Adam that after the new creation that the flood has produced we see another sinful action showing the taint of sin in the world. I understand the desire to do this, but a few things make me uncomfortable with using this logic.

We were never told that human sin is gone in the first place, just that God won’t destroy the world because of it. We are given no introductory comments on how drinking wine is a sin or any confrontation afterwards to indicate Noah was wrong as we do with the Adam narrative. Sure later on drunkenness is indicated as sinful, but we have to go quite a bit further along in the Bible to see that spelled out.

In addition to this, Noah is naked in his own tent. Now maybe his tent was wide open or something that made it every easy to Ham to see, but still Noah’s not exposing his nakedness outside where anyone could see. What we are given is that he’s naked in his tent, which I’m guessing happened at times even without alcohol. Do I think Noah showed  wisdom in getting drunk? No, but I’m not sure this is a place to pile on Noah and launch into a talk about how the Bible speaks against drunkenness (as if getting naked and passing out in your tent is the worst thing alcohol could bring).

So I’m just not convinced that we’re supposed to be focused on Noah sinning some great sin and ruining his reputation. Not to say there isn’t parallels between the Adam story and Noah story, the planting of a garden/orchard, the eating of that garden, and the presence of nakedness. However, there seems to be a different focus in these stories. Unlike in the story of Adam the focus seems to be on the behaviors of the sons in response to Noah’s nakedness, not on Noah’s sin itself (if his action is being considered sinful).

Now honestly Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Even if the situation is that Noah and his wife were having sex as I’ve heard proposed before, it still makes it hard to think that such an incident is worthy of cursing. This has led to speculation that something more was done to deserve this punishment or that because sins against ones parents and family were more serious at that time.

I’m not sure about either view, but I like the way that John H. Sailhamer puts in in the Expositors Bible Commentary on Genesis. He says that, “Whatever the details of the actual act might have been, taken at face value the sons’ actions suit the author’s purpose quite well. What he apparently wants to show is simply the contrast between the deeds of Ham and those of Shem and Japheth. This contrast becomes the basis for the curse and the blessing that follow.”

So we’re supposed to be looking at the deeds of Ham and the deeds of Shem and Japheth. Ham saw his father’s nakedness and proceeded to tell his brothers. We have no words on Ham’s part to know what was said or how it was said in this story, but we can gather it was not positive. After all he is not included in the deeds of Shem and Japheth. All we know for certain is that Ham points out Noah’s compromised position.

When Shem and Japheth hear this they take a garment of clothing into Noah’s tents with their backs turned and cover the nakedness of their father. Instead of simply spreading news of Noah’s state they take steps to cover it. If we’re wanting to focus on parallels between Adam and Noah it is interesting to note that God covers Adam’s nakedness and Shem and Japheth are the ones to cover Noah. It’s hard to say if that is intentional or not, but it is clear from the blessing and the curses that Ham did not do what was right and Shem and Japheth did.

This has made me wonder how often are we like Ham? We find someone who we don’t agree with, who fails, who is sinful, or who is simply found to be an imperfect human and we point it out to anyone who will listen. When we look at this passage and want to deride Noah for his sin aren’t we doing exactly what Ham did? Noah’s potential sin here is really very minor, but some point it out with great enthusiasm and many words.

If you compare this to the action of Shem and Japheth, they are part of the solution to this problem not just mockers on the sideline. They covered Noah with a garment and went on their way. It is so easy to point out the shortcomings and sins in people, it can be much harder to go in and be part of a solution to the issues (including sin) they may be facing.

I’m not saying that there is never a place to call out sin. We are all sinful, we are all imperfect, and the truth is we need to have it called out. There are people who are abusive and manipulative and they need to have their sin addressed personally and even publicly. I guess what I wonder is what do we do after we tell others about somebody’s sin?

Do we simply exit the story like Ham did or go on our way to find the next person to expose? Do we actively seek to cover the exposed sin with garments like Shem and Japheth? These garments may not be real clothing or covers like in Noah’s story. They may simply be garments of love, grace, and forgiveness, but those can be powerful garments. This isn’t always easy, because sometimes the one who needs these garments are people we can easily label as an enemy.

I know I can simply want to point out the sins or imperfections of other people. To sit on the sidelines and point it out. However, I don’t just want to just be a mocker. I want to be able to cover the shame and sin of those who I encounter with grace and love. Primarily because that is what I claim, the grace, love and forgiveness of God. This may not be what this passage was trying to get at, but it’s where it took me. What do you think?

Wickedness, Righteousness, Destruction, and How it All Fits Together

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these posts about Genesis. Last time I looked at the idea that Genesis 6:1-4 may not really be part of the reason why the flood took place. So in my post for today we’re going to be looking at Genesis 6:5-13. Here we’re given a direct reason for the flood, although even here we’re not dealing with too many specifics.

Here we see God looking over his creation and finding that every inclination of the human heart was evil. This fact causes God to regret making mankind and describes how he is grieved, troubled, or even in pain as John H. Sailhamer renders it in his commentary on Genesis for the Expositors Bible Commentary series. This passage always seems to create some discussion.

Such discussion tends to revolve around questions like the following. How can God regret? Doesn’t this go against the idea that God always the same and can’t change his mind? How can God regret his creation of humans and subsequently decide to destroy his entire creation because of their wickedness?

I don’t entirely know how to answer all these questions. I don’t necessarily find answers that deny the events of the passage or simply saying that God can do whatever he pleases particularly helpful. To be honest I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea that God regrets that his creation is saturated in wickedness than I am with the idea of Him sending a flood to destroy all of them.

To me a God who is able to feel regret and pain due to our sin, rebellion, and wickedness is one who cares about us and has an investment. At the same time destroying humanity because of that wickedness seems an odd way to show you care. This aspect of the story of Noah always seems to be overlooked or rushed by a bit fast.

In the popular children’s version of Noah all we’re typically given is that there was a flood, God told Noah to build a boat, so Noah built a boat and there are lots of nice animals on the boat getting saved from the flood. For some reason the purpose of the flood is usually neglected in this telling. God just seemed to think it was a good time for a flood or something and decided that Noah should be saved as well as two of each type of animal.

Even in the more serious treatments of the flood we tend to move a bit too quickly past this whole setup and say as Sailhamer does that, “The central themes… in these opening verses are God’s judgment of man’s wickedness and his gracious salvation of the righteous…” While I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment, it just seems so casual. Yeah there’s judgment, but they deserve it and then we’re on to Noah.

It’s at this point where I don’t entirely know how to progress. For one there is a tension in this passage that isn’t easy for me to diffuse. I mean a few chapters ago when Cain killed Abel we didn’t see God act with swift justice, but grace. He even put a mark of protection on Cain. Yes, God did exile Cain, but his wickedness could have warranted death if we take what’s written later in the Old Testament or even Genesis into account. So we see grace with Cain, but here with the nameless multitude of the wicked we do not see that grace given to them, it is only given to Noah and his family, because of the favor Noah found in God’s eyes.

The second is that no matter which way you move on this passage it is troublesome. If you think that the flood happened the way that it is told then God was involved in sending a flood (be it world-wide or local but I’m not even going to get into that) because of the wickedness of mankind. To some this is one of the events of the Bible that turns God into some violent monster. You can’t really believe that this happened, after all look at Jesus and what he preached and how he lived. Jesus was the greatest revelation of God, so this stuff can’t be right.

It’s a tempting line of thought for me, but there is a tension between grace and this justice even within the first six chapters of Genesis, you don’t even have to get to Jesus. Sure he may up the ante quite a little, but I also don’t remember seeing Jesus saying, “You know the Torah that you believe in? Yeah, most of that you just made up.”

Instead most of the time I see him affirming what would have been the holy scriptures of his day, which would have been our Old Testament and the half of the Bible we have the most trouble with. He made laws apply to the heart just as much as the actions, he tweaked the way that interpretations of the law had been made, but Jesus never really just tossed everything aside and said that stuff is worthless and makes my Father look like a monster. That should give us some pause, at least it does to me.

However, if you think that this wasn’t up to snuff, that God really didn’t do this it is troublesome in different ways. If you lean this way you have a different set of people coming out with the pitchforks and torches saying you’re a heretic or you don’t believe the Bible or whatever. Any human element of doubt or questioning is a reason for great suspicion and we’ve got to try to root that out as fast as we can, often with poorly implemented methods and attitudes.

You see I kind of get this reaction though, even if I think the attitudes and ways that doubt and questions are handled in some Christian circles are harmful and poisonous. I mean if the flood and the reason for it are not real, why do we have it in the Scriptures? Why didn’t we see Jesus condemning certain passages as distorting God’s image and character? Is it only to tell a symbolic story about God’s justice and mercy? If that’s the case the example is still pretty extreme and, at least in my eyes, conveys the same message regardless of if it actually happened or not.

So yeah, I feel the tension and discomfort of a passage like this, but I’m not willing to push it aside or discard it completely. I don’t have a perfect way of removing that tension or discomfort, but I do have some thoughts that at least help me. It may or may not help anyone else, but this is what I have to offer at the moment.

First, if I’m going to believe in a God that’s bigger than me and can see much more perspective than I can, I have to acknowledge that I don’t have a complete perspective. I mean even on this passage, we’ve given very little information other than the people were wicked enough to cause God regret and pain in his heart. Do I trust that a God who showed mercy, at least the way I see it, to Cain a few chapters ago has a good reason for doing what he’s doing here? Who am I giving more benefit of the doubt God or my own doubts and discomfort? (I admit that here I am believing that the story is truly about God either in the events actually happening or being a story or allegory that accurately describes God’s character.)

Second, I find no place here rejoicing for the wicked being destroyed. Sometimes that seems to be the tone that some Christians take as they talk about the “wicked.” “They deserve it”; “they had it coming”; and “that’s what they get”are phrases that sometimes get tossed around or come into my own mind at times, but I find no place for it here. God is pained to have to do this, it seems like a last resort kind of thing to me. God is not cackling manically like some super villain, but seems rather painted tragically as given a choice between doing something like this or allowing even worse to go on. It may make me or us uncomfortable, but God’s not exactly pictured as enjoying the whole thing either.

Third, I’m willing to admit that I don’t have all the facts. Whenever the flood might have happened I know one thing, I wasn’t there. If it did happen and I was, well my name isn’t Noah, so I imagine that you’d know how that would have turned out. There are people who, for reasons I can understand, view Genesis 1-11 as non-historical stories telling us important things about God, but not really happening as historical events. I’m not completely one of them, but I’m not willing to dismiss them quite so quickly.

We’re all wrestling with something much larger than ourselves here, even if some of us aren’t so willing to admit it. To simply dismiss people who take one view or the other seems a bit like jumping the gun to me. Trading barbs or talking points back and forth seems to get nowhere. There are issues with both interpretations we have to own. Is one right and one wrong? Yes I imagine so, they might even both be wrong somehow, but I certainly don’t know with any kind of certainty which it is.

This has gone longer than I hoped, but it wound up being a challenging topic for me to approach. I don’t come as an expert and having all the answers. I simply come, hopefully humbly, and say I’m not sure but this is what I’ve got. If you’d like to share your thoughts or opinions on the passage or surrounding issues I bring up here, feel free. All I ask is that it is kept respectful even in disagreement.

Introducing the Flood?

Do you ever run into passages that make you scratch your head wondering what they mean? They may not even be greatly important passages, but they just seem to be confusing and have a history of ambiguous or maybe even strange interpretations. Genesis 6:1-4 is one of those passages (of which there are many) for me.

It’s a verse that I’ve always taken to be a precursor of the flood. In Genesis 6:5 it talks about the wickedness of man and how God is going to do something about it. The way the chapter is divided causes many to view that it is the events of Genesis 6:1-4 that are the reason for the wickedness. So we get all kind of interesting interpretations of what “sons of God” mean.

If you were to look around you tend to get three main views. That the “sons of God” are angels who have children with humans, which just sounds rather out there. The other two are less fanciful, but view the “sons of God” as either ancient kings, or that they are men descended from the “good line” of Seth. The problem is that these interpretations either seemed far fetched in the case of the angels; rather benign in the case of the kings marrying women, or just something that made me a bit uncomfortable with the whole godly line of Seth and wicked line of Cain idea.

I had never really heard any other interpretations of this passage, so I pretty much didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. I mean if there was something negative here that caused the flood do we need to know exactly what? It’s not like a major aspect of faith so I pretty much left it at that.

However, John H. Sailhamer in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis presents another option. He takes Genesis 6:1-4 as the epilogue to the genealogies rather than an introduction to the flood. Now you might be asking what difference does this make? Well, what if the author is just saying that as males and females, human beings just had children?

I mean we just spent over a chapter talking about descendants and who begot who. Why does having a little wrap up indicating that human beings are having children and getting married have to be a negative thing? It makes a lot more sense to me than the other options, but there is still one problem. God doesn’t seem to be happy with humans in Genesis 6:3.

Here’s the verse, “Then the Lord said ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty days.'” So it seems like this is a negative thing, but even if the verse preceding was negative, what would change from this statement?

Genesis presents our mortality entering the picture when God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. After all the reason given for why God’s Spirit isn’t going to contend with humans forever, is their mortality not necessarily their wickedness. Sailhamer wonders if the Spirit wasn’t given to people for a period of time which enabled longer lifespans, but that this was going to end. Really I have no idea what to make of the long lifespans, but the point here is that it doesn’t seem like this is necessarily a direct punishment for the previous verse.

On the subject of “I have no idea,” let’s talk about the Nephilim (aka the men of renown”). Yeah, I don’t really know what’s going on with them. Sailhamer tosses out the idea that they could be the ten men that were just talked about in Genesis 5. However, he also admits that the existence of Nephilim in Numbers 13:33 may complicate matters.

My question is does the “men of renown” mean it’s a different race of man or giants or whatever? Could the men in Numbers simply be men that had great reputations and renown in that day? Not to mention that the spies report on Canaan isn’t exactly trying to be put positively, so could their use of Nephilim be for effect? I certainly don’t have concrete answers to these questions, but I think they’re valid questions to ask.

Now as I’ve said, this isn’t much of an important section really. I don’t know if Sailhamer’s idea is right or not, and either way it’s not going to affect my faith all that much. Personally, Sailhamer’s idea sounds like it has a little less baggage with it than some of the other interpretations of the passage. Does it mean that it’s right? Not necessarily, but it may be the way I go for the moment.

However, all this revealed something to me. It’s easy to assume a certain interpretation of a passage just by the way that it’s been divided and the way that you’ve heard it interpreted before. I mean if Genesis 6 started with what is now verse 5 it could totally alter the way that we’ve read this passage. Since it doesn’t we tend to read and interpret it differently. It’s something that I’ve known, but Sailhamer seems to do a good job of challenging some of the ways I’ve come to view a number of passages. I’ve quite enjoyed the challenge to be honest.

How do you take the passage in Genesis 6:1-4? Have you heard of this interpretation before? What are your thoughts on it?

A Line of Evil and of Good?

Last time I looked at Genesis, I focused on Cain murdering Abel in Genesis 4:1-8. While Cain’s murder of Abel was talked about, I didn’t go too much into what happened after the event. I’ll be doing this here, but I want to think about a concept that comes out of Cain’s murder and subsequent punishment. Does this event cause an evil line of men to come from Cain and a good line of men to come from Seth (who is born at the end of Genesis 4 to replace Abel)?

In Genesis 4:9-15, God comes to Cain after Abel has been murdered and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain plays innocent, but God knows of his sin and uncovers it. God also punishes him with further exile and that he will be unable to grow crops. Cain appears to be remorseful and laments the punishment.

It is interesting that Cain’s punishment is not death, and that God is even willing to place some kind of mark that both reminds Cain of his guilt and protects him against those who might take revenge. Cain, now an exile, leaves and settles in another land. There he builds a family and a city.

Of his descendants we’re told that the originators of animal husbandry, musical arts, and metalworking come from the line of Cain. Now if we view this as an evil line, then it is not too much of a stretch to view these activities as suspicious. However, this seems unlikely. Owning flocks of animals was never viewed as a negative in and of itself, musical instruments appear in the worship of God later, and while metalworking could create weapons of war, these are hardly the only things that could be made out of metal.

This reality challenges the idea that these inventions were negative. So if the line of Cain is to be understood as an evil or ungodly line of men, we’re left with the idea that evil men can still create good and useful human accomplishments.The idea of those who don’t follow God can still contribute to humanity shouldn’t be too hard to swallow. Many advances over time have been accomplished by those who are not followers of God.

This doesn’t really answer the main question though. Were Cain’s descendants this evil line of men who didn’t follow God at all or was the reality a bit more mixed? I’m thinking that our answer to that question will depend on how you look at the figure of Lamech.

Personally, I’ve always viewed this figure as negative. He takes two wives, which is not a detail I would view as being positive. We also have the somewhat odd speech in Genesis 4:23-24 where it certainly seems that Lamech is making a pronouncement that seems more natural coming from the lips of God and could be another example of mankind trying to be like God.

However, John H. Sailhamer in his Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis again presents an idea that challenges my perception of this passage. He presents the idea that Lamech may be the originator of human law. Sailhamer puts it this way, “When read in the context of the Mosiac law and in the context of the teaching regarding cities of refuge, however, Lamech’s words appear to be an appeal to a system of legal justice.”

So “If Cain, who killed his brother with malice, could be avenged, then Lamech would surely be avenged for killing in self-defense, that is, for “wounding” him.” This makes some sense to me (although it may be stretch to call Lamech the father of law), but I like the way that Sailhamer concludes this section. He says, “The point of this narrative is not so much to show that Lamech’s sense of justice is correct or even exemplary. Rather, it is to show that Cain’s city and descendants had a system of law and justice representative of an ordered society.”

So where does this leave Cain and his descendents on the good-evil scale? Beats me, as they seem awfully human, or at least as human as you can get in such a short telling. Is Lamech usurping God’s authority in his declaration, or acknowledging God’s justice and mercy by appealing to what happened with Cain (He admittedly, doesn’t speak of God directly, but who else would be doing the avenging?)? It could be either or a combination of both honestly. Still doesn’t make the whole line wicked or good.

To further explore this, let’s briefly look at Seth’s line. Seth’s birth is presented in Genesis 4:25-26. Now, we’re not told much about him other than that he was considered a “replacement” of Abel and that he had a son named Enosh.

Then we have the rather cryptic phrase, “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” Was this because of Seth and Enosh? Is this phrase more indicating the completion of the introduction to humans here in Genesis 3-4? I mean Adam and Eve called on the name of the Lord right? We have them doing that in this passage, as well as earlier in the chapter. So if it is an indicator beyond just Seth and Enosh, does that mean that Cain’s line could potentially have called on the Lord’s name as well? Is that what Lamech was doing by reiterating and expanding the promise of God to Cain?

Then we have the genealogy presented in Genesis 5. There is little indication that this line is godly or for that matter ungodly. Most of it is just a rather specific line, even within the line of Seth, followed. The only two that get any kind of further note are Enoch and Noah. Enoch is recorded as “walking with God,” and that “God took him away” and he didn’t experience death because of his faithfulness to God.

Noah’s significance seems more like an element of foreshadowing his purpose in the flood. Nothing about his following of God is displayed here, but he is presented as a positive figure. So really Seth’s line isn’t really marked out as overwhelmingly positive or negative. After all when we get to the flood we see that only Noah and his immediate family are saved from the flood. The rest of the unnamed line of Seth is just as destroyed as the even more unnamed line of Cain.

So all this to say that I have a hard time labeling one line as wicked and ungodly and one line as being pristine and godly. That’s not the way that the Bible honestly handles people. The ones who follow God can be sinful and wicked, the chosen line can disregard God and chase after other gods.The “pagans” can sometimes be ones who are faithful, I’m thinking of Rahab and Ruth as two examples of this. So it would seem a bit strange to put this in terms of a godly line and an evil line. It seems that all of humanity was wicked at the time of the flood so what do we do with that?

In some ways, I feel that presenting the idea of a good and evil lineage here potentially causes us to do that in our own lives and relationships. We feel that we are the true godly line and that those who are outside of the line are wicked and ungodly. The line could be our literal families, our denominations, our local church, or whatever kind of group we’d like to present as the good, Godly, choice. We can fail to see the evil that lurks in our own hearts and take actions and attitudes that may not be in line with following God at all. Then we fail to see the “wicked” as those made in the image of God and human just like us.

So we wind up setting up barriers rather than erecting bridges of love, mercy, and hope. In the story of Cain,  God still seemed to care for Cain, protecting him despite his sin, and Cain seemed to care for God in his lament that he would be hidden from his presence. I’m not sure I’m willing to sit in the judgment seat for Cain, Seth, their descendents or anybody else for that matter. Doesn’t mean that I can’t see what Cain did was wrong, just means I don’t know the final result of his life to say his line was therefore evil.