It’s funny how differently you can think about certain stories after you read them a number of times. You’d think that after going through a certain story multiple times you would stop being surprised or encountering new things and ideas. Going through the Abraham story this time has caused a number of these moments. The thing that really gets me in it is the very slow way that God disseminates information and the completion of His promise.
Genesis 17 picks up 13 years after the end of Genesis 16, which concluded with the birth of Ishmael. So it has been 13 years and we have no details of that time. For all we know it could have been thought that Ishmael was the son of the promise. Something we really lose when we read through a handful of chapters quickly is how time is handled in the story. Years are passed by in the flip of a page.
What is also strange, is for all the times that we’ve had God interact with Abraham, here is the place where Abraham finally receives the most direct information. God appears before Abraham and seems to give a fairly significant amount of information to Abraham.
We get a reiteration of promises already spoken of. It is also here that Abraham’s name officially changes from Abram to Abraham and Sarai changes to Sarah. Circumcision gets introduced as a sign of the covenant between Abraham’s family and God. We also have God finally come right out and say that Sarah will be the one to bear a son who will be the inheritor of this covenant.
It seems strange after all this time that we’re finally getting to these details. They seem, in my mind, to be details that would have been nice to have when the promise was first laid out. Personally, it still seems like it would take a good deal of faith to believe them even with the added detail. While I understand that the whole plan that resulted in Ishmael is presented as a lack of faith, I have a hard time faulting Abraham for it too much.
We still see this doubt in Abraham even now. When told of the fact that Sarah will have a son, he bows down and laughs. Abraham then asks if Ishmael could live under God’s blessing. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Abraham is no longer pressed to believe in an heir to be given, for he already had one, albeit in a devious way.” In Abraham’s eyes he has an heir and there is no need for God to provide another one.
While God agrees to bless Ishmael, Isaac will be the son of the covenant. Abraham’s plan may have been effective in getting him a son, and God will still bless him, but it wasn’t the plan God had in mind. It’s an interesting world where you can achieve the goal you thought God was after, and totally miss what God’s plan really was.
Maybe this is why I have a hard time swallowing whatever people tell me is God’s plan or that God would certainly be for or against something. Not that they couldn’t be right, it just often seems that what we think and the plans we make don’t always line up to what God thinks or plans. Even trying to say something like “I believe the Bible” isn’t entirely helpful. I mean after all, this story from the Bible of God and Abraham is about God not revealing the details of his plan right away, and Abraham in his doubt and uncertainty doing something that didn’t line up with God’s plan.
I do believe that the Bible is the best source we have for what God seeks for us and about what He is like, but that doesn’t mean it is some answer book for every situation in life. It is not a book of formulas and is often a book that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when placed beside our way of doing things. I mean even Abraham laughs about Sarah having a child as old as they are. The truth is we’d be laughing right beside Abraham if that same plan was revealed to us.
We are often just as content as Abraham to let things be done our way. “Hey, God, I’ve already got an heir now so don’t worry about what you were going to do, just bless him.” We accomplish something or view something some way and then simply want God’s stamp on it. The thing is, God doesn’t really seem to work that way in this story. God doesn’t seem particularly angry with Abraham for the doubt, laughter, the plan which gave Abraham a son, or even the questions Abraham sent his way, but the plan God had in mind was still going to happen.
There is a significant gap between the way that God accomplishes things and the way we try to. If the Abraham story is any indication, God moves slowly. He is willing to let Abraham go without too many specific details for decades. I don’t think that this gap has gone anywhere. God still works in ways that are backwards to our normal inclinations.
I know this, but don’t feel that I often have any better clue at tuning in to what God’s plans or desires are. I still struggle against the unknown future and how to best follow after God. To try to learn to embrace his different way of doing things and not seek short-cuts to do things my way. I’ll probably not succeed, but I imagine I won’t be alone in that.