Genesis/Exodus Week 6
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Genesis 12:1–24:67
EnlargeThe Command to Abram
We knew a little about Abram and Sarai previously (11:26, 31). But there is no indication that their travels had a religious dimension. That changes when God commands Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house to go to a land to be identified later (12:1). The Lord has decided to make Abram and Sarai a great nation, bless them, make their name great, and make them a blessing (12:2). The election could not be more exclusive. It involves only one man and one woman. God also says that everyone will henceforth be judged depending on the response to Abram, Sarai, and their descendants. Those who bless God’s work through this couple will also be blessed. The reverse is true, too. We may not like this divine exclusivity, but it is a reality.
But God’s exclusive election has an inclusive purpose. God asserts that Sarai and Abram will be the vehicle for blessing all the families of the earth (12:3). Blessing the ancestral couple is not for their benefit alone. “All the families” are targeted for blessing. Abram’s and Sarai’s good news is everyone else’s good news. The marvelous act of grace in response to the Babel episode has begun.
Now, though it is transparent what the Lord wants to accomplish through Abram and Sarai, we are unsure why they were selected. We don’t even know if they knew the Lord. God’s choice of Abram and Sarai remains inscrutable.
An Ambiguous Response to God’s Election
Indeed, not only are no compelling reasons given for this election, but their response to God is such that one could make a case that they were a poor selection. Yes, sometimes they are faithful, obedient, and trusting. But just as often their faith is anemic, their obedience suspect, and their trust wavering. At the very outset there is an ambiguous response. Having been summoned, “Abram went as the Lord had told him” (12:4). That is laudable. But in the very next breath we learn: “and Lot went with him” (12:4). Lot is Abram’s nephew (11:27). While it might have seemed natural for Lot to tag along, the Lord had explicitly instructed Abram to leave his kin (12:1). Taking Lot along constituted Abram’s first disobedient act. It comes as no surprise to discover that every episode featuring Lot negatively affects Abram and threatens God’s agenda.
Throughout the story Abram and Sarai move back and forth between positive and negative reactions to God’s plan. For example, notwithstanding the mistake involving Lot, they recover by arriving at Canaan, where God promises the land to them and their descendants. Their passing through the whole land (12:6) symbolizes their eventual ownership. When Abram pitches his tent, builds an altar, and invokes the Lord, these are praiseworthy actions (12:6–9).
But weak faith is evident when Abram and Sarai head toward Egypt to avoid a famine. Upon arriving, Abram expresses concern that Sarai’s beauty will tempt the Egyptians to eliminate him to get to her. So he asks Sarai to say that she is his sister. Obviously, were Abram to be killed, God’s promise regarding descendants would be negated. But this eludes Abram, thus prompting his survival effort. Sure enough, Sarai’s beauty is immediately noticed, whereupon she is whisked into Pharaoh’s residence. Abram consequently receives gifts, but what about Sarai’s honor (12:10–16)?
Fortunately, God intervenes with plagues, which adumbrates what would happen later when Abram’s and Sarai’s descendants are in Egypt. The Pharaoh even lectures Abram for this stupid stunt, and then sends Abram and Sarai away unharmed (12:17–20). Pharaoh has actually done nothing wrong, for he acts within his rights as a king. The same could not be said for Abram and Sarai. Yet, because of God’s agenda, the ancestors remain unscathed and make a tidy profit besides (12:16).
This back-and-forth pattern continues. Back in Canaan, we see Abram in contact with God (13:4). Then two negative episodes featuring Lot intrude. In one, Abram suggests that he and his nephew divide the land to avoid squabbling over territory. But this is no ordinary land. God makes clear that the land has been promised (13:14–15). Plus, Abram’s countless descendants will live on it (13:16). As a good-faith gesture, God has Abram walk the length and breadth of the land (13:17). The point is that this land is a gift, not the result of an ordinary transaction. Abram recovers somewhat by building another altar (13:18). Yet it is disquieting to discover that the area Lot selected includes Sodom and Gomorrah (13:10–13), which are slated for destruction.
When Lot is captured by a coalition of kings (14:1–12), Abram risks his life in a rescue attempt (14:13–16). Still, there is a positive aspect to this episode. After Abram’s rescue, Melchizedek, king of Salem, meets Abram. Offering him bread and wine, Melchizedek blesses Abram in the name of God Most High, whom he characterizes as the maker of heaven and earth, and the One who has aided Abram (14:19). We marvel at Abram’s deft move in equating Melchizedek’s god with the Lord (14:22). Curiously, Abram gives Melchizedek a tithe of what he had gained while Abram himself refused to take anything except for expenses incurred (14:21–24). The mysterious Melchizedek illustrates that Abram receives blessing from unexpected sources. Later interpreters see Melchizedek in messianic terms (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7:1–17).
When the Lord appears to Abram in a vision to reiterate the promise of descendants, the patriarch is unimpressed. Since he and Sarai remain childless, Abram worries that a slave will be his heir. But God rebuffs Abram even while reaffirming the promise. God reminds Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as stars. We are gratified that Abram for a change believes, something the Lord considers a righteous act (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1–3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:3). God also accents the promise of land. Abram asks for assurance, whereupon God demands an offering (Genesis 15:8–9).
Then, during a mysterious sleep, the Lord reveals that in the future Abram’s descendants will be slaves for 400 years in a land that does not belong to them. Afterwards, once the oppressors have been judged, the ancestor’s people will emerge with great possessions. In time, Abram’s people will return to the land that has been promised. God then makes a covenant with Abram which emphasizes the extent of the Promised Land (15:12–20). Things are looking good.
Hagar and Ishmael
But this does not last long. Sarai attributes to God her failure to have a child. So she orders her husband to father a child with Hagar, an Egyptian maid who apparently was among Pharaoh’s gifts (12:16). Abram complies, and a son is born. This turns out badly. When Hagar is smug about her pregnancy, Sarai lashes out at Abram, who responds by reminding his wife that the maid belongs to her. So Sarai ousts Hagar (16:1–6). We should not conclude that this domestic upheaval resulted from an affair. Abram was permitted to have wives of varying legal status (see 25:1–6). His failure lay in not having faith that he and Sarai would have a child on God’s terms and in God’s timing. The couple’s impatience revealed their lack of trust.
Though we are dismayed when God has Hagar return home, we are relieved that she will not be completely at Sarai’s mercy. Plus, Hagar is promised innumerable descendants (16:7–10). Her son’s name, Ishmael, alludes to God’s response to her. Conflict is in the lad’s future, but he does have a future. Hagar even has a visitation from the angel of the Lord, whereas Sarai has yet to encounter God. As for Abram and Sarai, they still have a problem. Abram is now 86 years old. Can he father another child? Likewise, how can a woman Sarai’s age conceive [Author’s Note 1]?
Matters only get worse, for soon Abram reaches 99 years. Unfazed, God appears as “God Almighty,” admonishes Abram to “walk before me and be blameless,” and repeats the promise of descendants.
Name Changes and the Covenant of Circumcision
Additionally, God will make a covenant with Abram, change his name to highlight the promise, bring forth nations and kings from him, and finally make a covenant with his descendants. Then God repeats the promise of the land. This is a perpetual promise to Abraham and his descendants (17:1–8). As a sign of this covenant, God wants Abraham to circumcise every male in his household (17:9–14).
God also changes Sarai’s name to signal that she will be the mother of the promised child. Amazingly, this is the first time God has mentioned her. As it turns out, however, she is actually more important than Abraham, for he had other wives and therefore many children (16:15; 25:1–6). But only Sarah’s child would be the child of promise. Removing any doubt, God says that Sarah will be a mother of nations and the source of “kings of peoples” (17:15–16).
The first time Abraham fell on his face before God it was reverential (17:3). The second time it reflects disbelief. He laughs at God, as he was incredulous that a 100-year old man and a 90-year old woman could have a child. Abraham even suggests that God accept Ishmael as a substitute. God refuses. Certainly, God also will bless Ishmael. But the child that Sarah bears is to be the one with whom God covenants (17:17–21). Nothing illustrates Abraham’s impoverished faith and failure to trust God’s promise better than his rolling on the ground and laughing. Without another word, though, Abraham circumcises the males in his household (17:22–27). At least this act of obedience balances somewhat his faithless outburst.
The next episode offers us good news and bad news. Abraham and Sarah entertain three mysterious visitors. The couple scurries around to provide hospitality (18:1–8). As the trio dines, they ask where Sarah is. Abraham points to the tent, prompting the Lord to speak: the time has come for Sarah to have the long promised child (18:9–10). This is good news.
A double dose of bad news follows. First is Sarah’s reaction. Just as Abraham had laughed when the Lord mentioned Sarah’s pregnancy (17:16–17), so she now laughs (18:12). And why not? Not only is the couple old, Sarah was postmenopausal (18:11). God calls Abraham and Sarah on this negative reaction and reminds them of the divine ability (18:13–15).
Sodom and Gomorrah
The second part of the bad news involves Lot (again!). The three visitors take their leave and head for Sodom. The Lord decides to inform Abraham of the mission to determine whether Sodom and Gomorrah are as bad as has been reported. Hearing God’s plans, Abraham argues that it would be wrong for the Lord to destroy the cities if righteous folk live there. The Lord agrees, and a discussion ensues. But there’s more to this debate than meets the eye. We already know the fate of the cities (13:10).
Also, we are suspicious that Abraham is worried more about his nephew Lot than about a theological dilemma. Interestingly, Abraham is actually winning the argument when the Lord abruptly leaves. The patriarch does not protest, which is strange. On second thought, there is the distinct possibility that Abraham saw that he had walked into a trap. Were Abraham to ask whether the city(ies) would be spared if only one righteous person were found, logic dictates that God would have to answer affirmatively. But what if God asked Abraham at that point if he had a candidate in mind? Naturally, Abraham would mention Lot. To which God might say: “And what, pray tell, is Lot doing there? Did I not tell you at the beginning to leave your kin behind” (18:16–33)?
The cities are destroyed, though Lot is saved for Abraham’s sake (19:29). But the negative aspects of Lot’s presence continue. Lot and his daughters manage to escape the destruction. Unfortunately, while they’re still hiding out, the daughters, who decide that they are sole survivors, attempt to preserve their future by getting Lot drunk and sleeping with him. This abominable behavior leads to the births of Moab and Ammon, who become the ancestors of peoples who will later frustrate Israel (19:1–37).
Abraham and Sarah With Abimelech
Notwithstanding this epochal divine visitation (18:1–15), Abraham and Sarah are back to their old tricks when they spend a little time in Gerar (20:1). Once again Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister, thus making King Abimelech think she was available. In a dream God warns the king. Abimelech pleads his innocence, which God acknowledges.
However, given God’s plans for Abraham and Sarah, normal ethics do not apply. In the same breath God demands that Abimelech restore Sarah to her husband and calls Abraham a prophet who will pray for the king (20:2–7). Ironically Abimelech, who has done nothing wrong, is being prayed for by Abraham, who doubted God’s ability and lied again.
Once more, a king who does not know Abraham’s God lectures the patriarch on moral behavior (12:18–19; 20:9–10). We are floored by the added irony that Abraham justifies his prevarication because “there is no fear of God at all in this place” (20:11). It does not help much that Abraham’s lie was a half-truth (20:12). Abraham once again gets a nice return for his dubious efforts (20:14–16). His prayers for Abimelech and his people are fortunately efficacious (20:17).
The Birth of Isaac
After all these ups and downs, at last the promised child appears. The child’s name is delightfully ironic: Isaac/“he laughs.” Both Abraham and Sarah had laughed in disbelief (17:17; 18:12). In a delicious turnaround, laughter now accents the joyous realization of an impossible promise (21:6–7).
The blessing of Abraham and Sarah overflows. Though conflict exists between Isaac and Ishmael (16:1–16), even this yields benefits. The tension leads Sarah to expel Ishmael and Hagar, which displeases Abraham (21:8–11). Yet this prompts God’s reiteration of the promise (21:12) and the bonus of God’s promising to make a nation of Ishmael’s descendants (21:13). To that end, God provides a life-giving well for Hagar and Ishmael when the water which Abraham had supplied is gone (21:14–15, 19). God also offers the distressed woman a future-affirming promise (21:18). Hints of this future are immediate (21:20–22). Blessing abounds.
Others become aware of God’s beneficial treatment of Abraham and Sarah (21:22). When Abraham develops relationships with such people, there are more benefits. Not only does Abraham agree to live peaceably with the Philistines, but also, when a potential conflict over a well arises, he responds with a more formal arrangement, ratified with gifts (21:23–27). Abraham sets apart seven ewes (symbolic of a perfect number of life-giving sheep) as a testimony to the well which he had dug and which was the reason for the original conflict (21:28–30). Wells emphasize life (21:19). Abraham testifies to God’s action in his and Sarah’s life by planting a tree in Beer-sheba (a name alluding to his oath with Abimelech and the life-giving well) and invoking the name of the Lord (21:33).
The Binding of Isaac
Toward the conclusion of the Abraham and Sarah story there is an episode as famous as it is troubling (22:1–19). In the Jewish tradition it has a name: The Akedah (or “The Binding”). Its beginning signals that we are to read it in light of everything that has already happened. We learn at the outset that God is testing Abraham (22:1). Ever since the initial call, Abraham has obeyed and disobeyed, trusted and doubted. God apparently wants to probe deeper. Using familiar language, God commands Abraham to take Isaac, head for Moriah, and sacrifice him (22:2). As stupefying as this is, we are equally stunned that Abraham does not even ask: “Why?” This seems strange for someone who has argued with God, suggested this or that tactic to God, and laughed at God. Now there is utter silence. Perhaps Abraham was traumatized, as we are.
Quickly making all necessary arrangements, Abraham shortly arrives at the destination with Isaac and his two young men (22:3–4). We don’t know what to make of Abraham’s telling the young men to stay behind while he and Isaac go to worship (22: 5). Did Abraham truly believe that he and his son would return? Or did he say this to mollify the young men and to keep Isaac calm? We can’t say. Likewise, when Isaac asks why there is no lamb, Abraham answers that the Lord will provide the animal (22:7–8). Was Abraham sure? Or was he shielding his boy? Again, we can’t say.
However, we are certain that Abraham was going to obey God’s directive, for the text is clear (22:9–10). We are, therefore, as relieved as Abraham must have been when an angel intervenes. Abraham passes the test (22:9–12). The episode concludes when Abraham sacrifices an animal found nearby, names the site, and receives another confirmation of God’s promise (22:13–18).
But there’s more. First, there are allusions to the beginning of the Abraham story, such as the command to go and the place-name Moriah, which has to do with “seeing” or causing to see (i.e., “showing”; Genesis 12:1–2). We are being urged to read this story in the context of the whole narrative. That is, the obedience reflected in Genesis 22 is what God expected all along. Then there’s the matter of the two young men. At first one surmises that they are servants. But they don’t do anything. Abraham saddled the ass, cut the wood, and carried the fire and the knife (22:3, 6). Also, only the two young men descend the mountain with Abraham (22:19). Isaac remains, as though he had been symbolically sacrificed. Is the story telling us that the two young men are Abraham’s other two sons? One is a legal but not biological son, whom Abraham worried would be his heir (15:2–3). In fact, the animal that Abraham spies in the bush and sacrifices is a ram and not a lamb (22:7, 13).
Only in the episode when Abraham mentions Eliezer does a ram appear. This is how Genesis 22 alludes to Genesis 15 (15:9). The other young man is the son of convenience, Ishmael, who was born because neither Sarah nor Abraham believed that God could fulfill the promise (Genesis 16). An allusion to this son may be found in the six references to Ishmael as a young man in Genesis 21 (12, 17 [two references], 18, 19, 20). The point is that Abraham must fully realize that Isaac is not only his son but the child of promise and the means of universal blessing. Short of that realization, Abraham will not have a proper understanding of his other two main sons, Eliezer and Ishmael.
The Death of Sarah
As the story ends Sarah dies and Abraham procures a grave. Significantly, he insists on paying full price for the plot even though a site is offered for free. This signals a pre-emptive hold on the land (Genesis 23). Finally, Abraham makes arrangements for his son Isaac to marry within the extended family. With a combination of human ingenuity (Genesis 24:22, 30, 34–36) and providence (24:7, 13–21, 50–51, 56), Rebekah, Abraham’s niece, is selected. She will marry Isaac so that the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah could continue (24:67).
Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 12:1–24:67
- Abraham and Sarah are sometimes considered the father and mother of our faith. Do they live up to that billing? What does it say that they seemed to bounce between faith and doubt, obedience and reluctance, trust and distrust?
- How should we view theologically the juxtaposition of an absolutely exclusive election in God’s choice of Abraham and Sarah and an absolutely inclusive purpose for this election?
- In light of the questionable religious posture of Abraham and Sarah, what should we conclude about God’s grace? Is it accurate to say that Old Testament characters lived by the law whereas New Testament characters lived by grace?
- How should we understand the many instances in which God speaks directly to a biblical character? Should we consider this sort of communication a thing of the past, or ought we to “translate” this into other forms of divine communication?
- What should we conclude about the difference between Abraham’s behavior prior to the Akedah and his radical obedience to God in spite of the consequences in Genesis 22?
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