The Path of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God Really Involved in the Day to Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying Into the Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Faithfulness And Our Doubt Are Not Surprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear Makes Everyone An Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sin of Sodom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debating Destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbols Without Meaning

Religious symbols or rituals are a fairly common things. We even have symbols and rituals for what we would consider non-religious aspects of life. We have graduations and degrees done as a symbol of knowledge and education. I ran into one such religious ritual and symbol in reading Genesis 17 for my post last Friday, circumcision.

I didn’t mention much about circumcision in my post on Genesis 17, because it just didn’t seem to fit the best into the theme of how our ways of doing things can often be so different from God’s plan and methods. To be honest circumcision in general isn’t something that seems too easy to discuss in general, and I probably wouldn’t be here except for the fact I ran into a thought from Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis that intrigued me.

Here’s the thought:

Such religious symbols/acts hold enormous potential for empowerment of faith. But there is also risk, for the symbol may lose its theological intent and vitality. It then takes on a life of its own. And in its autonomy, it may become an empty form, nurturing self-deception. Or it may become an instrument of oppression and conformity.

Now this thought is first pointed towards circumcision, which I doubt we have little trouble with. Brueggemann uses the New Testament struggle over circumcision to show that this may be what happened with circumcision, but then he calls for us as Christians to move a bit closer to home by saying this:

It is equally important to ask about the temptation to autonomy in our own signs, symbols, and sacraments. Thus, for example, is it possible that baptism has also taken on a life of its own which has no intrinsic relation to the claims of faith?

Brueggemann doesn’t really give an answer to this question, but merely poses it. I think he is right to do so. It is often easy for Christians to look at something like circumcision and write it off as a symbol or act that doesn’t hold a lot of weight for today. We then however fail to use that same kind of scrutiny on our own rituals or symbols. So is it possible that baptism has also taken on a life of its own which has no intrinsic relation to the claims of faith?

Well of course it is possible. This doesn’t mean the symbol as a whole is empty, but of course people can misuse it and treat it in ways that were not intended. Misuse will depend on ones views of baptism of course. Two areas that would seem most dangerous to me would be the when of baptism (infants or only adults) and the what of baptism (does baptism provide any spiritual regeneration?).
In looking at the when, baptism can become empty in two different ways. For the baptism of infants, the problem is similar to that of circumcision. Does one’s infant baptism mean they are a child of God no matter what happens in the future? Does the physical act of circumcision, or in this case baptism, display the truth of their lives or is it an empty symbol that has been done, but means nothing in one’s current life? It strikes me that this issue is involved in the exchange in John 8:39, where ancestry, which would include the corresponding rituals and symbols, is believed to equal faith. Jesus challenges this idea based on the attitudes of those who claim faith based on ancestry. This would be a potential challenge for those who follow baptism for infants. To have that symbol or sacrament remain meaningful throughout life and not just assume that it holds meaning because it was done once.Even for those who pursue baptism for those old enough to proclaim faith, which is more where I land, there can be missteps here as well. There are churches that require baptism for any new members. In cases like this I think we’re taking the symbol of baptism and reducing the meaning to being a part of a local church congregation rather than a symbol and sacrament of belonging to the entire body of Christ. The meaning is then shifted from belief in Christ to acceptance by a certain congregation and I think that shifts the meaning and power of baptism quite significantly.Now this also becomes a difficulty when trying to figure out what baptism does. Does baptism aid in our spiritual regeneration? Must we be baptized to truly be saved? Or is baptism simply an outward sign of a present reality. While I don’t think you have to be baptized to be saved, the answering the other questions are difficult to pin down with any certainty, at least for me.If you do ascribe spiritual regeneration to baptism, it would seem like those who have been baptized only to walk away later from the faith would be very troublesome. Trying to quantify what kind of spiritual regeneration takes place through baptism could also cause some issue. We could easy ascribe more to the symbol than is really intended, and this would also cause issues in trying to deal with the inconsistencies when such regeneration isn’t noted.Reducing it just to a purely symbolic event with no actual power could be stripping baptism down too much. While I tend to lean towards this take on baptism, I’m aware that it could easily be too shallow of a view. We can take quite a bit of power away from baptism if it is just part of a public pronouncement of faith.So I do think that we have the potential to turn baptism into a symbol that either holds no meaning at all or is twisted into a meaning that it wasn’t meant to have. What I don’t think is that we need to throw baptism out entirely. Can we get it wrong? You better believe it. Do we need a bit more grace in our views of baptism? Probably, but I don’t think we need to throw it out. Ultimately, what we have to focus on is that these symbols like circumcision are not purely matters regarding the external. Unless our heart is truly a part of the ritual or symbol we are taking place in we are not entering into the meaning the symbol holds. Romans 2:28-29 puts it best when it says, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.”I think this holds true whether we talk about circumcision or about baptism. It is not just the outward reality that matters, but the inward one as well.

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.