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.

To Laugh at the Impossible

What if we were told by God that something impossible was going to happen in our lives? That something against the laws of nature or probability would occur? Would we believe such a thing or would we laugh? To be honest, I’d probably stick myself in the laugh category. It is so easy to be skeptical of things that seem beyond my comprehension that I would probably laugh either thinking that it was a joke or in derision.

I would not be the first to do so. As we saw last week in Genesis 17, Abraham laughed when God said that Sarah would give birth to a son. We see this play out again this week, only with Sarah now laughing in Genesis 18:1-15.

The story sets us up with the Lord appearing to Abraham. This appearance of the Lord is connected to the arrival of three men. How these two realities connect is uncertain. People have very different takes on it. Walter Brueggemann in his commentary basically says that it is enough to say that it is the Lord and move on. John H. Sailhamer in his commentary on Genesis goes into great detail and focuses on it a lot more. However, I am more in line with Brueggemann on this. How exactly these three men are the Lord isn’t really very important to the story, the main importance is that they are.

Abraham appears to know this or is just very hospitable and prepares a meal and rest for his guests. While the three men eat, they inquire about Sarah and say that this time next year she will have a son. Sarah hears this and laughs. She can’t believe what she hears. That’s impossible.

At this promise and declaration of the Lord both Abraham and Sarah have now laughed. Dwelling on this reality has two effects on me. First, it makes me suspicious of those who declare Abraham and Sarah as people of great faith, but never go into the struggle that they faced to be faithful to the difficult to believe promise of God. I’ve already talked a bit about this, but I think we do a grave disservice to fellow believers when we gloss over the doubt and struggle of faith in our own lives or the people whose lives are presented in the Bible.

The second effect is that it makes me rather suspicious of those who want to peg people from an earlier age as willing to believe anything. It’s a fairly popular thought that religion was only developed from superstitious people in the past who believed anything that they were told. These last two chapters cast doubt upon such claims.¬† Abraham and Sarah are recorded not as people willing to believe anything no matter how impossible it is, but rather as people who come up to the limitations of the natural world and have a hard time believing in things beyond that limit.

Both of these approaches are ones that I am not very comfortable with and seem to go against what you read here. They seem to me to be overstatements that have their own agendas. One seeking to marginalize doubt and the place of questions in the faith. The other seeking to marginalize belief and faith in God in general.

As Brueggemann says, “Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.” Faith will include a struggle, anyone who tries to say otherwise is selling bad goods.

Ultimately the response God gives to Sarah is something we all have to wrestle with. God replies to Sarah with a question. “Is anything to hard for the Lord?” What is interesting about the text is that we are not given a response to this question. Sarah simply denies laughing, even though God points out again that she did indeed laugh.

Yet this question is still something that we all must wrestle with. Do we believe that anything is too hard for God? It is a question that I want to say yes to. I do believe that nothing is too hard for God. Yet at the same time deep down I struggle with that idea. I struggle because believing in things beyond the natural world is looked down on in our modern, scientific, materialistic world. I struggle because of times where if God could do anything, why didn’t God stop this or change that.

These struggles don’t change my answer, but they are a struggle to fully embrace the idea that nothing is too hard for God. The positive thing though is that God doesn’t seem too hung up about our struggle to believe. Even with Abraham and Sarah, their struggle and their laughter at the “impossible” didn’t change God’s plan. They still received Isaac despite their laughter of disbelief when it was proposed.

So even it we struggle all is not lost. I think that often like Abraham and Sarah our lives are a mixture of faith and lack of faith. We may trust and have faith in the God we have sworn to follow, but still laugh in disbelief when dealing with the details of what God has planned for us all. It may be something large like a son at an advanced age, or it may simply be that God would use us in a meaningful way. Even in these times of struggle and doubt, the question of God is before us all.

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

The Gap Between God’s Plan and Ours

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.

 

 

When God Cares About the Outsider

For the past few chapters of Genesis it would seem that Abraham is God’s main focus. God cares about him, has given him a promise, and we’re reading about how Abraham doubts and believes God over the course of time. In that we could make the mistake of thinking that God only really cares about Abraham and his line. There isn’t really room for anyone outside of that. As we look at Genesis 16:7-16 that idea seems to be challenged. While there may be a focus on Abraham and his promised heir, those outside of the promise are not unimportant.

This can be seen in the events that follow Hagar’s escape from Sarah’s mistreatment. Hagar has left, there seems to be no indication that anyone was really seeking to change any of these events. Hagar was running away and nobody was seeking to have her return. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:

It shows that all parties- Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael-would have left well enough alone. All parties except for God! It is God who reopens the issue.

While I’m not sure why Brueggemann included Ishmael here, I mean he’s not even born yet, his point stands. It is only God who intervenes in this situation. At first, if we weren’t aware of how the story turns out, it may seem that the child Hagar is carrying is the promised heir for Abraham. That would explain why God decided to go after her, but by the end of the chapter we really don’t get that feeling particularly with Genesis 16:12.

So we’re left with a strange situation. Hagar and her son are not part of the promise to Abraham, yet God is still seeking her out. God cares enough about this Egyptian servant woman to speak to her and even bless her, even if the blessing is a bit more mixed than the one directed to Abraham and his proper heir. It would seem a rather unexpected thing.

The blessing that is given to Hagar is that she shall have numerous descendants, which is similar to part of the blessing given to Abraham. She is also told that she will give birth to a son, that his name will be Ishmael, and that he will be in conflict often and either that he will be hostile towards his brothers, or that he will live to the east of his brothers, which could be an indicator that he will not be the recipient of the promised land and will live outside it.

Even with this mixed blessing, Hagar seems to be pleased to be seen by the Lord in her plight. She returns and gives birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael and that’s all for now. It’s a rather abrupt ending to this little aside, and to be honest I’m not sure what to make of it.

I do believe that it does show that God is interested in and shows compassion to those even outside of the “promised” line. At the same time I don’t think you can develop that too strongly simply from this passage. Yes, God comes to Hagar and makes her return to Sarah and Abraham, but we have little reason given as to why. Is it for Hagar’s good because she is trying to travel on her own while pregnant? Is it for Abraham’s sake because Hagar still carries his son? The section seems rather focused on Hagar, but gives us little detail as to why.

At the end even if we’re given very few details involved in the story it appears that God cares even about those who are outside of the promise. The focus so often may be on Abraham here, but God is even willing to appear to Hagar and bless her. The messes our decisions create can cause real harm to the people around us. While we often may be focused on who is in, or who is out. I think this incident presents that maybe God cares about more people than we would like to realize.

 

When Our Plans Make More Problems Than Solutions

I feel like it’s been awhile since we’ve taken a look at Genesis. We were last looking at Genesis 15 where God made a covenant with Abraham formalizing the promises of land and of an heir for the land. Now with a context like that you might expect to see Abraham trusting in that reiterated promise and formal ritual to solidify the promise even more. However, what we see in Genesis 16 is not just blind trust, but a very human reaction to a promised unfulfilled and the human desire to make that promise come to fruition ourselves.

Looking at Genesis 16:1-6 we see that Sarah (Sarai) is still without children. God may have reiterated and formalized the promise to Abraham, but the promise is still unfulfilled. Even with the faith Abraham showed in the last chapter, it has not changed the situation all that much. Sarah is still childless, there is no heir, and without an heir land will not really be an issue.

One can only imagine the desperation that is in what happens next. Sarah comes up with a plan. Since Sarah has been unable to bear any children and Abraham was told that the promised son would come from his body, perhaps what is needed is another woman to bear his child. There is this parallel track that seems rather contradictory. God is promising an heir, but Sarah is still unable to become pregnant. Abraham has been given reassurance, so perhaps Sarah is the problem.

With this line of thought in place she offers Abraham her maidservant Hagar to him to see if he can have a child through her. He consents and the plan is a success of sorts and Hagar becomes pregnant. However, the plan in its success also backfires on Sarah. Hagar is now pregnant, pregnant with the child believed to be the promised heir from God (assuming Hagar knew of it and there is no reason to believe she didn’t).

The new reality for Hagar causes her to look down on and despise Sarah. This, of course, makes Sarah irate and blames Abraham for this situation. Abraham then tells Sarah she can do as she feels is right to Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar and she runs away.

This new plan, while effective in producing a pregnancy, was also very effective in producing a fairly large mess. It certainly doesn’t seem like it was the best way to handle the situation, but to me it is a very human way of going about things. So before we “Tsk, tsk,” Sarah for coming up with the plan and Abraham going along with it I think we have to realize a few things.

First, Abraham and Sarah may have trusted in God, but time can increase doubt. When we’re promised something that never materializes for years upon years, it is not unusual to start questioning. Sometimes that may result in questioning the one who gives that promise as Abraham did in Genesis 15. Other times we start to question ourselves wondering if we’re doing something wrong and if there is another way to solve the problem. I think you can kind of see that mentality in this chapter.

In some ways this whole situation feels somewhat removed from me because I’ve never really had God promise me anything directly. I think it is easy for me to say if I had a promise directly from God’s mouth then I’d be sure to trust in it. The reality is if I had to wait years and years to have a promise be fulfilled (we’re somewhere around 11 years of waiting at this point) I might be trying to fulfill that promise in creative ways too.

Second, simply saying that Sarah and Abraham are wrong for trying to do anything without relying on God seems like too simple of a conclusion to come to. Do I think their actions were really in line with faithfulness to God? No, but the reality is that they probably made a lot of decisions in their day to day lives that were not centered around God telling them what to do or not to do. To be honest God isn’t recorded talking to Abraham that many times considering the amount of time between interactions.

This is the same with us today, perhaps even more than with Abraham. I think that the majority of us go through our daily lives without specific promises from God involved. Do we still have to decide and do things everyday without this direct miraculous intervention from God? I sure do. Does that mean that God is not on my mind during the decisions, yes for some of them anyhow. However, reducing the lesson of this passage to the need to wait on God instead of making our own plans is partially there, but just doesn’t really cover the passage and the surrounding context well enough in my mind.

Lastly, this incident with Abraham and Sarah seems more like a warning against cutting corners and trying to do things our way thinking will be more effective. Maybe they aren’t illegal, because many commentators point out the practice that Abraham and Sarah used was not unheard of. However it seems to go against the waiting and trusting in God that Abraham was presented with the chapter before.

Today it may not look like this for many of us. Unlike Abraham we may not have a promise of an heir. However, I think things like this can still happen. When we focus on the results of pastors and leaders in the church rather than focusing on their character and how they achieve their success. When we begin to focus more on tradition or preferences than showing the love and grace of God. These things aren’t necessarily morally wrong in and of themselves, but they’re our own devised shortcuts that we think God will rubber stamp for us.

We’ll look at how much a church has grown over the last how ever many years, but ignore the shallow teaching or the major character flaws in the leadership that should be addressed. We lift up tradition and the way it has been as the way to succeed in following God. Or we try to figure out our own way to accomplish the promise that God has given us like Sarah and Abraham.

There is simply this desire to focus on human success and human solutions. Sometimes it is the right thing to do. We sometimes have ideas and they’re fine. Maybe we pray about them and seek God’s wisdom, but we may not hear anything directly. We have to make that decision.

There are other times though, that I think we try to accomplish what we think God wants but don’t really care how we get there. It’s about the end and not the means. I often think that this doesn’t really work out the best. It can create a mess just like Sarah’s plan did. People can get jealous, hurt, or angry when plans like this fall apart. Perhaps the most pertinent example of the would be the whole drama with Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll over the last year.

Within the whole Abraham story is the idea that faith has a way of being a slow method in the world. There are plenty of quick fixes we can turn to, but God doesn’t seem to always work in the way of quick fixes. In fact more often God’s movement appears very slow to us. Our desire for speed and results can sometimes hurt us, especially when we start to put the results above the path we use to get them. Then we often wind up with more problems than we did at the beginning.

Abraham in Egypt

“Undoubtedly, Abraham is offered as a model for the faith of Israel (as Heb. 11 attests). But taken alone, the model is unconvincing. In that presentation, Abraham seems to be almost plastic. Faith is not that easy. Faith is always a struggle. Even father Abraham must struggle for faithfulness.”

This is how Walter Brueggemann speaks of Abraham entering into the story of Abraham traveling to Egypt found in Genesis 12:10-20. Abraham while a model of faithfulness and trusting in God, was also very human. I even mentioned in my last post that Abraham’s taking of Lot may have even been a result of a lack of faith. However, in Abraham’s trip to Egypt we see a clearer example of Abraham’s humanity and that even faith for him was not something that always came easy.

Abraham and his family have to travel down to live in Egypt due to a famine that has hit the land. In order to protect himself Abraham tells his wife Sarah to act as she were his sister and not his wife. The reason being that she was so beautiful that Pharaoh would kill Abraham and take Sarah if he knew that she were his wife.

This whole scenario just seems very counter to the Abraham that we just left. That Abraham who traveled a great distance because of his faith in God’s promise and now we see very little of that trust here. Instead we see Abraham coming up with a way to avoid danger to his own life, even at the expense of Sarah.

Even stranger in this scenario is that it goes just like Abraham predicted. The Pharaoh does take notice of Sarah and she is taken into his palace. Abraham is granted many gifts because of Sarah. It is ultimately God who causes the end of the deception. He sends disease upon the house of Pharaoh and Pharaoh somehow figures out that Sarah is Abraham’s wife and that this is the cause of their malady.

This is not a tale that winds up with an easy moral lesson. Abraham lies about his relationship with Sarah and gets Sarah to as well, gains a good deal of material gain out of it, and God watches out for Sarah in the midst of it all. Abraham puts his trust in a deception instead of God, but God remains faithful despite Abraham’s apparent lack of faith.

I think that this is a significant take away from this story. It brings together two tests as Brueggemann calls them. It tests both the faithfulness of Abraham and Yahweh. Brueggemann gives this conclusion to these tests, “The graciousness of God is fully confirmed. The faithfulness of Israel, in its very first testing, is found wanting.” Abraham’s first recorded event after his calling is not his finest moment.

In fact it would be all too easy to pile on Abraham here, but the reality is that he was human just like we are today. He was not a plastic figure presented as being perfect in all he did, but like many of the people recorded in the Bible he was a figure of contradiction. He had great faith, but also had times where he tried to get by with his own schemes and plans.

Just like the choosing of Abraham and Sarah wasn’t based on their great ability to produce a nation, we see that God’s faithfulness to Abraham is not based on his faithfulness to and trust in God. Since we are all human and all lack when it comes to faithfulness to God, at least I know I do, this is good news even today. God is faithful even when we are not.

Now really this is what I feel the main thrust of this story is about. How Abraham is human and fails to trust in God, but that God remains faithful to Abraham regardless. Brueggemann, however adds another interesting point. Why does God punish Pharaoh when Abraham is clearly the one at fault? Brueggemann takes the idea of Abraham as being a blessing or a curse to the nations and applies it to this passage.

He says, “Both Abraham and Pharaoh are on notice: It is dangerous business to deal with Abraham. Something powerful is at work here, more powerful than the father [Abraham] or the empire [Egypt]. When Abraham acts faithlessly, as he has obviously done, curse is released in the world.” I’m honestly not sure what I think about this view. It seems odd for a God who is faithful regardless of Abraham’s faith, to put the blessings and curses at the whim of Abraham’s obedience and disobedience. It also seems odd that Abraham is not affected by this curse, but it instead blessed with material gain.

I am a bit wary of this view, not to say it couldn’t be possible, but it seems to be borne more out of trying to figure out why Pharaoh was punished due to Abraham’s lack of faith than anything else. If we are assuming a framework of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah then I think the events could fit into that framework. God is not only looking out for Abraham, but also after Sarah, even when Abraham doesn’t. The idea that Abraham brought curse seems to only work if the curse affected him also.

The idea of Abraham bringing curses could work if the curse is not simply because of unfaithfulness, but because Abraham’s unfaithfulness caused a situation that interfered with the promise that God had made. He in essence had to bail Abraham out. To do this he sent illness onto Pharaoh’s household in order to make them aware that something wasn’t quite right in taking Sarah. Which presents a reality that seems to be often missed, that Sarah is important to the promise God made and not just Abraham.

However, all that said I still think that the faithfulness of God is front and center here. God’s faithfulness endures even when we prove to be human and our faith is all too lacking. This is true for us today and is even true for someone often lauded as an example to our faith like Abraham. God’s faithfulness is much greater than our own and for that I am very thankful.

 

 

When God Calls the Barren to Life

The call of Abraham, or Abram as he is called at this point in the narrative, is one of the pivotal points of the Bible. It is the beginning of what would become the nation of Israel. It is a story that I have heard preached on both directly and referenced in other sermons.

I think the story of Abraham’s call is one that is easy to inspire us. Many of us have been there. We’ve heard the call of God to follow Him and we do, even if it isn’t always the safe or secure route. This could simply be found in coming to faith at all or in some event where you follow after God despite such a decision lacking a lot of security and safety. Maybe I’m wrong and many of us haven’t been there. I know I’ve been there a number of times in my life, so the passage resonates with me quite a bit. However, let’s look at it a little closer.

The call of Abraham takes place in Genesis 12:1-9. Here we have God talking to Abraham and asking him to leave his country and his father’s family and go to the land that God would show him. This request is conjoined to a number of promises of what God will do to Abraham and his descendants. God promises that Abraham will be made into a great nation (which would include both an heir and land), to make Abraham’s name great, and that he will be blessed.

Now it may be easy to nod our heads at these promises, but let us stop and think through this a bit. If we remember from the end of Genesis 11, Abraham and Sarah were barren. The promise of a great nation would indicate both children to make up a nation and land of which to build that nation upon. Abraham and Sarah were barren and unable to have children and were being called to leave whatever land they might possess (if they had any at all to begin with).

Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis from the Interpretation Commentary series really brings this intersection between the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God to the forefront. He even says that, “A proper reading of the Abraham-Sarah texts depends upon the vitality of the metaphor of barrenness. It announces that this family begins its life in a situation of irreparable hopelessness.”

I think this reality is so easy to forget as we go through the text. We know that this promise of a son to a barren couple is something God could only do, but I don’t know if we stay there quite enough. God is choosing to do something very unusual here. As Brueggemann later says, “Inexplicably, this God speaks his powerful word directly into a situation of barrenness. That is the ground of the good news. This God does not depend on any potentiality in the one addressed.”

This God chooses to make a nation out of a couple who could not make a nation through any natural means of their own. However, it is not limited to a physiological barrenness as Brueggemann connects the Abraham and Sarah story to the call of Jesus to follow Him.

Bruggemann considers the call of Abraham to be “a call to abandonment, renunciation, and relinquishment. It is a call for a dangerous departure from the presumed world of norms and security…The whole of the Abrahamic narrative is premised on this seeming contradiction: to stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.” Due to this he equates it to Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35 “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” True life is found not in our own efforts and in the order of the world, but in accepting the promises and gifts of God even though that may put us on a quite strange and unexpected path.

Admittedly the talk of losing ones life or departing from norms and security is a tricky thing to unravel. Does it have any kind of blanket meaning? Does it mean that Christians shouldn’t buy homes, save money, or have tight-knit families as they’re means of security the world seeks after? I don’t think we can make a general assessment like that, it’s not that we can’t get called to such a journey, but more that it will vary from person to person. Even among the descendants of Abraham we have different challenges and situations, not simply rehashes of what God asked Abraham to do.

What this really comes down to is the fact that we are all barren. We are all in need of the life that God promises. This life is not something we have to earn through good deeds or good genetics, but we do have to choose to believe in it. Is this future that God offers real? Do we align ourselves with that future and how does that change what we put our trust and faith in?

As we all probably know, Abraham believed God and set out on his journey. What I find interesting in this is that the barrenness that God’s promise would have to do away with was not removed right away. Sarah’s barrenness continued for years after this. If it was one of the Christian movies produced today, I can’t help but feel that once Abraham wrestled through the decision to trust God and set off to the land that was promised, Sarah¬† would suddenly find out that she is pregnant.

The thing is even when we have faith, even when we’re actively chasing after the future God has presented in front of us we can still have barrenness be a part of that journey. We will still have times where we feel that God isn’t present. We will feel the pangs of loneliness as we feel we have no community to call our own. We will feel that we are wandering blindly to a destination and a future we don’t know. That barrenness lingers, but the question is do we follow the one who we believe gives life? The one who can create life in dry and barren places? Do we follow God on our own journey of faith that he calls us to, or do we stay where we are and try to make the best of it on our own? That is the question before us all, only each one of us knows what decision we will make to that invitation to that journey.

 

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?