Of the three great Patriarchs of Israel, Isaac tends to be the one who is most overlooked. The most likely reason for the relative oversight is because comparatively little is mentioned of Isaac. Abraham and Jacob have much longer stories. However, the Isaac story is absolutely essential to our understanding of Genesis. In Genesis 24, we have an extended story about Isaac finding a bride—or rather, a bride being found for him. Let’s look at some of the key elements of this story.

 

First, it is necessary to keep in mind that Isaac has already been presented as an ideal character. He was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. As I mentioned earlier, it is though Isaac was born “out of the mouth of God” since the text of Genesis specifically neglects to mention any sexual union between Abraham and Sarah resulting in Isaac, as it mentioned such a union between Abraham and Hagar that produced Ishmael. Instead, Isaac is promised by God and then Sarah appears with child.

 

Second, in this 24th chapter of Genesis, Abraham insists that Isaac remain in the land of Canaan. Abraham had evidently learned his lesson from when he had previously journeyed down into the land of Egypt. Consequently, Isaac is the only one of the three Patriarchs who was born in the promised land, lived his entire life in the promised land, and died in the promised land. Abraham began outside, but came in, while Jacob was born inside, but died in Egypt. That Isaac remained in the promised land his entire life is not insignificant. Isaac shows himself to be a true son of promise by staying within the promised land.

 

The third, and perhaps most important, aspect of this Isaac/Rebekah story is that Isaac does not have to slave or labor for his wife at all. Contrast that with the later story of Jacob, who labors a total of 14 years for Rachel. Being a son of God’s promise, and being faithful to that promise, Isaac is a free man, as St Paul referenced much later in Galatians 4. Faithfulness to God and putting our trust in His promises provides us with true freedom, while relying on our own selfish will leads us to slavery, even when we think we are free.

 

Finally, in this story of Isaac and Rebekah we have a happy ending—so rare in the Bible when human beings are involved! But the reason for this happy ending is simple: everyone in the story, from Abraham to Isaac to Rebekah, put their trust in God. This serves as yet another example of how we humans tend to complicate situations by forcing our own will upon situations rather than exercising patience and allowing God to do His work.

 

Again, although relatively little is mentioned about Isaac as compared to Abraham and Jacob, he is presented in Genesis as an ideal. He is the son of promise and is faithful to that promise, putting his trust in God. Isaac sets aside his selfish desires and follows God’s path, leading him to true freedom.

Genesis 22 is a fairly well-known story of Abraham’s faith in God being confirmed by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Of course, God does not desire human sacrifice, so He provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son. The moral of the story is obviously a willingness to be obedient to God, to put your trust in Him, even when it seems dangerous or absurd.

 

Many commentators correctly see a link between this story of Genesis 22 and the crucifixion of Jesus. God, like Abraham, was willing to offer up His Son for the salvation of the world. The legitimate question comes up: why would God do such a thing? Isn’t it cruel to sacrifice your son? And, by the way, isn’t it the son who suffers more than the father. The answer to these questions requires a contextual reading of the text.

 

In the ancient world, and perhaps most so in the Semitic world, the role of the firstborn son cannot be understated. Anyone who has spent time around people of Middle Eastern descent notices the great honor granted the firstborn son of the family. In the case of Isaac, although he was not what we Americans would classify as the firstborn to Abraham, for family purposes in the ancient Near East, Isaac was the firstborn, the only-begotten of Abraham from his wife, Sarah, and the heir to Abraham’s inheritance. Not only was the firstborn the heir, but the thinking in this time was that the firstborn especially (although, technically, not exclusively) continues the life of the parents. In other words, your life continues to exist through your progeny. To have no children, or for your children to die before re-producing, means your name and life is cut off for eternity (at this time, there was little or no idea like we have of life after death).

 

In this way of thinking, to allow your firstborn, only-begotten son to die means to essentially kill yourself. You are allowing your name, your inheritance, to die. You are being cut off the earth. You are making the sacrifice. So in Genesis 22, Abraham is himself making a great sacrifice. He spent 100 years childless, with no one to carry on the family name. Finally, God intervened and gave him a child, and now God asks Abraham to offer the child as a sacrifice. This would again put Abraham in the position of dying off with no inheritance, no name, no memory of him left on earth. Despite this, Abraham puts his trust in God, realizing the son he was given is not his own, but a gift from God. Abraham understands he is accountable to God for the child, and so obeys God’s seemingly outlandish command. Abraham is then rewarded and reinforced for his obedience and God reveals this scenario as a simple test of Abraham’s faith.

 

Incidentally, this way of thinking is also significant in the New Testament. That Jesus is underscored as God’s firstborn, only-begotten Son, dramatizes even more the crucifixion of Jesus. Before the victorious resurrection, it is as though God’s name, His inheritance, and the memory of Him is completely obliterated from the face of the earth.

One of the things I most appreciate about my seminary experience was the opportunity to study the Bible. Growing up in a Christian home I had, of course, read the Bible. I was quite familiar with what the Bible said. But I learned at seminary I often did not know what the Bible meant. Beginning at seminary, and continuing to this day, I have made an effort to better understand what the Bible means. I have learned not to take for granted any word that is used, any paragraph that is written, no matter how minor or tangential it may seem. Often, it is in these short clips we capture the essence of the Bible.

Today’s post on Genesis 21, and specifically verses 8 through 21 (the story of the departure of Hagar and Ishmael) is one of nearly countless examples of such an occurrence. In our normal reading of the Bible, we tend to gloss over 14 verses like this. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the biblical story; but, in fact, these passages are crucial.

To understand why I am saying this, let’s step back to a topic I have mentioned before. Probably all of us are familiar enough with the Bible to understand the main thrust of the narrative is the story of Israel. We tend to focus on major figures—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc. And certainly these men were vital to the story. But in so doing, we should not neglect to look at the bigger picture. As I have said before, Genesis is an introduction to the Bible. In Genesis, we find key words, phrases, promises, characters, etc., preparing us for the rest of the story. And as I have also mentioned, Genesis begins not as a story of Israel, but as a story of humanity. The story does not begin in chapter 11 with Abraham, but in chapter 1 with the creation of the cosmos and, shortly after, the introduction of Adam and Eve, the father of all humanity. It is my firm belief the Bible begins this way by no accident, but as a way to show that this biblical story is meant to instruct not only the Jews, but all nations; for God cares not only about the salvation of the Jews, but of all humanity.

In the 14 verses referenced in chapter 21, we are reminded once again of this greater context. Although the biblical story and, more specifically, God’s promise to Abraham, will not continue through Ishmael, God still shows his concern for Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. God assures Hagar that, although Ishmael is not the son of the promise, He will nevertheless care for Ishmael and make of him a great nation. In other words, God does not simply dispose of or overlook Ishmael and Hagar because they are not “chosen.” He still loves and cares for them—they are still His children. They will not be the main characters in God’s plan for salvation, but He is still their God and behaves in a fatherly way towards them. It is important for us Christians to remember this lesson in our dealings with non-Christians. They, too, are God’s children. God cares for them and loves them. So should we.

I’m quite sure few people consider the Bible to be funny.  It’s certainly not one of the first characteristics popping to mind when we think about Scripture.  But every once in a while the Bible throws in a little comedy.  My focus today on the birth of Isaac is one such story.  As is often the case with translations, the story loses some of its humor and wit in English, so I will try my best to convey those aspects of the story to you.

The birth of Isaac is introduced in Genesis 17:16, with God promising Abraham not only a son through his aged and infertile wife, Sarah, but a son who would become great, the father of many kings.  Abraham responds to God by falling on his face and laughing at God.  Let’s be honest, we might do the same if God made this promise to us when our spouse is 90 years old (actually, I think I would weep and beg for God to change his mind, but that’s beside the point).  But as I mentioned, some of the humor in this story is “lost in translation” (Bill Murray’s worst movie, by the way), so let me translate Genesis 17:17 slightly differently: “Then Abraham fell on his face and Isaaced, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?'”

You can see this is quite a strange “translation,” but I do this because the name Isaac in Hebrew means, “he laughs.”  So literally, in the Hebrew, Abraham falls down on his face and calls out his son, Isaac’s name (without knowing that yet, of course).  In English, you just do not get the same sense.  The only other way you could fully comprehend the significance in English would be to say Abraham named his son “he laughs.”  In either case, what is happening in this story is clear.  Abraham laughs at God’s promise in chapter 17.  Sarah laughs at Him in chapter 18.  And in chapter 21, God has the last laugh when Isaac is born of the senior citizen, Sarah, and serves as a reminder to his parents–by his very name–that they laughed off God’s promise.

Besides teaching us that God can overcome nature, and that we should put our trust in His promises rather than laughing at them, this birth story of Isaac highlights several other systematic biblical concepts.  I will mention some of them here only briefly, as they are related to the issue of Isaac’s naming, and the idea that God gets the last laugh.

The birth of Isaac shows the blessing of God comes through God’s promises, not through human planning and acquisition.  The story of Isaac is clearly contrasted to the story of Ishmael.  Ishmael was the product of Abraham and Sarah devising their own scheme, in order to give Abraham a child for the blessing God had promised him (to become a father of many nations).  In that story (Genesis 16), the Bible clearly mentions (in its own, modest way) that Abraham and Hagar had a sexual relationship to bear Ishmael.  In the case of Isaac, there is no mention of Abraham and Sarah having a sexual relationship.  Certainly, it is implied, but the Bible presents the story so that Isaac, in a sense, proceeds out of the mouth of God, a fulfillment of God’s promise.  Accordingly, when Paul mentions this story in Galatians 4:21-31, he mentions in vs. 28 how we are children of Abraham according to Isaac (i.e. the promise God made to Abraham). 

Similarly, the story of Isaac sets a precedent throughout the Bible, with God consistently choosing for His covenant to continue through one of the younger siblings rather than through the elder son.  This process shows that God will not be limited by normal human convention.  If He wills to do something, He is not bound by the limitations, ideals, or basic concepts of humanity.  In this case specifically, if God wishes for His covenant to continue through the younger son, Isaac, rather than the older son, Ishmael, it is God’s business.  Functionally, God behaves this way so no one can ever say His plan continues through human wisdom and strength.  Choosing the younger, the weaker, the poorer, etc., shows that God’s plan continues only by Divine Providence and not through the normal ordering of the world.

Or, as today’s blog title says, God gets the last laugh.

Today an excellent short article was being passed around my Facebook circles regarding the notion of someone being spiritual, but not religious.  You may refer to the original article from the Huffington Post here: http://tinyurl.com/7xag59f.  I liked this article, but wish to offer a few more thoughts on it that extend beyond the normal limits for Facebook comments and status updates. 

First, while I agree with pretty much everything in the article, I think those of us who are “religious” need to own up to our role in leading people to be “spiritual, but not religious.”  What I mean by that is simple.  If people from the outside–or probably even worse, from the inside–see how we behave, why would they want to be associated with religion?  We may rightly criticize the “spiritual, but not religious” group for their faults, but we should also be willing to accept criticism back for our own.  In fact, I would argue, if we were self-critical to begin with, most people would feel no need to be spiritual, but not religious.  For this reason, I make every effort to follow the authentic, but difficult, biblical tradition.  The Bible is extremely critical of those of us on the “inside” of religion.  So instead of spending time worrying about the so-called “culture wars,” I prefer to spend time criticizing and improving my own faults and those of my own faith community. 

Now, in some ways I am going to be hypocritical with respect to my previous statement.  I generally try to stay away from critiquing even other Christian denominations, at least publicly.  I confess, sometimes it is very difficult to avoid critiquing modern expressions of Christianity, especially when I believe such expressions give Christianity and religion a bad name in general.  So please understand I make these next comments in the spirit of the best interest of Christianity as a whole, and not from ill intent to simply criticize others for criticism’s sake.

I would take Ms. Daniel’s argument a step further.  She correctly speaks of the importance of belonging to a community because in a community one must deal with people “calling you out on stuff” and “disagreeing with you.”  In other words, it is easy to be spiritual, but not religious, because you can be spiritual all by yourself, with no one to point out your imperfections.  This point is well taken.

Again, however, take this argument a step further to the situation we have today in Christianity with the multiplication of denominations.  Clearly, the “spiritual, but not religious” group was not the first to run off and start something on their own.  They were not the first to challenge or deny authority, however you want to spin the argument.  This general spirit and attitude towards religion comes from the Protestant Reformation.  And this attitude is still pervasive today among the majority of American Christians–most of whom still identify themselves as Protestants.  To me, personally, I would think “protestant” would be a derogative term.  Why would someone want to identify themselves as protesting rather than standing for something?

As I said, I am very hesitant to be critical of other faith traditions, whether different denominations or different religions altogether.  But sometimes, for the benefit of Christianity in general, I believe certain questions must be asked.  If we Christians begin accepting the presupposition that if we don’t like what’s happening in our church we will simply join or start another, then we have no right to criticize people who take that argument a step further and become “spiritual, but not religious.” 

Anyone who knows me realizes I have a lot of problems/concerns/complaints against the way we Orthodox tend to think, act, etc.  Technically, it is one of my job responsibilities to critique these things, at least in myself and in my own parish community.  But for the very reasons outlined in the article I shared, I cannot see myself leaving the Orthodox Church.  Do we have problems?  Yes.  Are we perfect?  No. But I also have problems, and fleeing the Church would be to run from my problems, to assert my own will and supposed expertise.  As our Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch once said (paraphrased): “The Church is not invented.  It was founded by Jesus Christ and is passed down for generations.” 

The ultimate challenge for us who are “religious” is to live in such a way that others would also at least respect “religion.”  As it stands, there are plenty of reasons to disrespect religion.  As it stands, most of us fall under the critique and judgment in this article leveled against those who are “religious, but not spiritual”–we just haven’t taken the argument to its logical conclusion.

The first half of the 17th chapter of Genesis deals with the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.  The sign of this covenant is the circumcision of Abraham, his household, and his progeny.  Below I have highlighted three important aspects of this covenant.

Age

In verse 12, God commands the male children to be circumcised on the 8th day.  Obviously, this is at a time when the child is not able to choose for himself whether to be circumcised.  We learn from this a vital lesson that Jesus later taught His own disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16).  Accordingly, in both the Jewish and traditional Christian tradition, a child is circumcised (Jewish) or baptized (Christian) as an infant.  They are put in covenant with God first, and then as they grow older are taught God’s commandments.  This is where the Jews get the name “bar mitzvah,” which means “son of the commandment.” 

So for neither Jews nor traditional Christians is circumcision or baptism seen as the end, but rather as a new life, “…that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).  You can now see from the full quote of Jesus in John 15:16 the consistency between Genesis 17 and Jesus’ teaching.  We are chosen by God, before we even have a choice in the matter, but only so we may go forth and bear fruit through following God’s commandments.

Sign

Another significant facet to circumcision is the obvious mark circumcision leaves on the one who was circumcised.  This mark is important because in the ancient world slaves were known by their mark.  In the Bible, it became common to refer to a believer in God as a “slave of God” (often weakly translated into English as “servant of God”).  This terminology became the common phrase used by Paul to refer to himself in the introduction of his epistles.  Obviously, the physical mark and the terminology used indicates we are “owned” by God and are, thus, accountable to Him.  It is our responsibility to live by the rules of His house, and we are to have no other master.

Biology

Circumcision, as I understand it, was fairly unique to the Jews.  Certain other societies practiced it, but even today only an estimated 30% of males are circumcised, and the vast majority (if not all) of those have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  From a biological standpoint, what I find interesting about circumcision is God commanding the people to do something contrary to their biology.  In other words, God is asking males to do something that biologically changes them from the way they were born. 

The reason I find this fascinating is because the Bible—and most especially the teachings of Jesus—teaches us to behave contrary to our biological impulses.  For example, we have a biological impulse promoting selfishness, or an ability to survive.  In Scripture, however, you are taught not to be selfish, to give freely and generously to others in need.  Another example: biologically speaking, we intuitively know to stay away from people who are unkind towards us—it is a survival mechanism.  Yet, Jesus taught us to love those who hate us.  Many more examples could be given, but I think you see the point.  Most of what Jesus taught us to do is overcome our biological impulses, which is essentially what Paul means when he speaks about living according to the will of the Spirit rather than according to the desires of the flesh.

These three facets of circumcision are certainly not the only significant aspects of the covenant in Genesis 17, but to me they stand out as important principles that play a role throughout the Bible.

 

Genesis 16 begins a fascinating story of Abram (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Abraham) and his descendants.  In the previous chapter, God promised Abraham he would be given an heir, a son “who will come from [his] own body” (Gen 15:4).  In Chapter 16, Abraham and his wife Sarai (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Sarah) are said to be childless.  Consequently, they concoct a plan for Abraham to be able to bear a child.  As with basically all human ambitions and endeavors in the Bible, this plan goes awry. 

The first problem with Abraham and Sarah’s plan is clearly that they had lost trust in God’s promise.  Rather than waiting patiently for the promise to be fulfilled, or even praying to God for its completion, Abraham and Sarah devise their own scheme.  The second problem is Abraham and Sarah resorted to polygamy in an effort to force God’s promise in their own time.  I will briefly expound on each of these problems below.

Regarding trust in God, remember from chapter 15 that Abraham was deemed righteous for believing in God.  In the Hebrew and Greek, the words faith/trust/belief are summed up in one word and, therefore, could be translated any of these three ways in English.  So Abraham is straying from righteousness by doubting God, as shown by his effort to speed up or force God’s promise through his own devising.  Later in Genesis, we will see how everything works out much better when God fulfills His promise in His own time.  When Isaac, the son of promise, is given to Abraham, everything falls into place.

With respect to the issue of polygamy, or Sarah giving her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham to bear him a child, we see the disastrous results.  Before I discuss this any further, I want to dispel a notion many people have about the Old Testament.  Many people assume polygamy was OK or accepted in Old Testament times, and to a degree they are correct–it was the normal practice in the ancient Near East during these times.  However, an important distinction needs to be made.  Although things like polygamy, prostitution, and concubinage were more acceptable in those times than ours, the Bible, if ever so slightly, challenges those norms.  I plan to discuss in depth later how monogamy is upheld as the ideal since the three prime examples from Genesis–Noah, Isaac, and Joseph–are all monogamous.

But, for now, back to the main point.  The polygamous (or, perhaps more properly, simply extra-marital) relationship between Abraham and Hagar complicated the household of Abraham.  As we should expect a woman to do, even after giving her consent, Sarah becomes jealous and angry towards Hagar since Hagar was able to bear a son for Abraham.  After confronting Abraham, Sarah is allowed to expel Hagar from the household.  Genesis is quick to point out that God will continue to take care of Hagar and her son, Ishmael (multiplying his descendants also), but clearly serious, irreparable damage has already been done to the household of Abraham and to the relationship between Abraham and Sarah.

Again, these complications resulted from Abraham and Sarah forcing their own timing on God’s will.  As Genesis (and, God willing, this blog) unfolds, we will learn the proper response Abraham and Sarah should have had towards God’s promise.  Of course, these stories are related to us not to recount mere factual events, but to instruct us in the way we should behave towards God (1 Corinthians 10:11).  With that in mind, we are reminded by Genesis 16 to be patient in waiting for God to fulfill His promises and to refrain from forcing our own will on situations.