Archives for posts with tag: Abraham

Although in recent times people have become more critical, generally speaking most Americans have an overall positive attitude towards our Founding Fathers. Pretty much no matter our political leaning, we look back to important documents they authored in establishing our country: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and their own personal writings. Their faces decorate our coins and they are usually remembered fondly in history textbooks. More or less, we could say the same thing about pretty much any great nation. They all have a founding story and, generally, the founders are held in high esteem in the people’s minds.

Not surprisingly, then, those of us from a Judeo-Christian background often hold the “founding fathers” of Israel in high esteem. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three great forefathers. Because we consider these three to be pillars of ancient Israel, and because God chose them among all people, our minds lead us to the conclusion that all three of these patriarchs must have been exceedingly holy. If we are decent, respectable human beings, that notion is certainly challenged when, for example, we read Genesis 27 and the story of Jacob stealing Isaac’s blessing. People have asked me a simple question: “Why is it acceptable for Jacob to lie, cheat, and steal?”

The simple answer is as follows: “It is not acceptable.” But the longer answer, provided below, gives some context to the simple answer.

Jacob is, in fact, an important character in the biblical narrative. He is the last of three great patriarchs, and is the one for whom Israel is named (Jacob’s name was later changed to Israel–see Genesis 32:28). He is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel since the twelve tribes descended from his twelve sons. In this sense, Jacob is the father of all Israel.

Unlike our mind’s overall positive picture of our own Founding Fathers, the Bible paints quite a negative picture of Jacob. According to Genesis 27, he lies, cheats, and steals his father’s blessing–the very blessing given by God to Abraham and then from Abraham to Isaac. The significance of this story should not be overlooked. To do so, in my opinion, would be to change the very core of biblical teaching, because the two most important aspects of this story are at the core of an authentic Judeo-Christian worldview. These two points are:

(1) God chooses whoever he wants to choose, for whatever reason(s) He wants to choose them. The decision is His, often completely unknown to us as to His reasoning, and certainly not subject to our own holiness or piety. This principle can most certainly be seen in Genesis 27. Jacob violated some of the most basic aspects of human morality (lying, cheating, stealing)–all of which would later be prohibited in the Mosaic Law and the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20. Why would God choose a lying, cheating, thief? We do not know the exact reasons, but we do know it was not because of Jacob’s own righteousness.

(2) Being one of God’s ‘chosen people’ does not make you better than everyone else. This second principle is related to the first, but seems difficult for people to grasp in reality. For some reason, whenever we think of ‘chosen people’ we think ‘better’ or ‘holier.’ As Jacob proves, this simply is not so. If one believes they are ‘chosen’ by God, the praise belongs to God–not to themselves–for as Genesis 27 proves, God did not choose you because you are holy. Even if you are both ‘chosen’ and holy, your holiness did not force God to choose you. In fact, if you are both ‘chosen’ and holy, then you are only holy because God loved you first, and thus you are expected to love all others (1 John 4:19-21), including your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). You have no right to boast.

You see, the Bible pressures the reader to view the world differently than normal. Instead of looking back to your nation’s founders with pride, the Bible forces you to look back and see your forefather as a liar, cheater, and thief. And if your father/founder is a liar, cheater, and thief, what right do you have to be arrogant, boastful, or cocky? What right do you have to glory in the fact you are ‘chosen’? You have none; rather, you have a responsibility to behave as your only true Father–your heavenly Father–behaves. And as Matthew 5:43-48 points out, that God loves all, both His friends and His foes.

I apologize for the lack of blog posts as of late. We have had several things come up in our family, preventing me from posting regularly. Thankfully, things seem to have settled down now and I hope to blog on a regular basis once again.

Returning to the book of Genesis, I have mentioned several times now how Isaac is presented as an ideal; an example to which we should aspire. This was certainly the case with Isaac’s patience and his trust in God. In Genesis 26, Isaac continues to be an example for us, most especially in his willingness to live at peace with his neighbors.

Genesis 26 begins with Isaac once again choosing to remain in the land God promised him and his descendants. In contradistinction to Abraham earlier and Jacob later, Isaac spends his entire life in the promised land. Despite the famine, Isaac trusts God to take care of his needs in the very land God has promised him. So instead of leaving for another as Jacob will later do (and end up enslaved in Egypt for 430 years), Isaac remains in the land God has given him and “reaped in the same year a hundredfold” (Gen 26:12). In other words, God rewards Isaac for his obedience and his patience.

But the most outstanding and exemplary aspect of Isaac in Genesis 26 is his willingness to live peaceably with his neighbors. Isaac had every excuse to be bitter towards his neighboring Philistines. They asked him to leave the land because of jealousy/envy (vs. 16). They stopped the wells previously dug by Abraham (vs. 15) and quarreled with Isaac’s servants over a well of running water they dug in the valley (vss. 19-20), as well as another well elsewhere (vs. 21). Nevertheless, when Isaac was approached by the Philistines to make a covenant of peace, Isaac gladly accepted, throwing a feast for them (vss. 30-31). In some ways, this passage reminds me of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 15:11-32): rather than “holding accountable”the Philistines for their sin, Isaac rejoices in his neighbor making the correct decision to return and repent. This is similar to the father in Luke’s parable throwing a banquet when his exceedingly sinful son decided to return home from his riotous living. Neither Isaac, nor the father in Luke’s parable, set conditions for the one repenting, but restored them immediately, rejoicing in their reconciliation.

Yet again, Isaac, who was born of God’s promise rather than of human will, is shown as a model. Despite famine and persecution, he remains faithful to God’s charge to remain in the land he was promised. Because of Isaac’s faithfulness and forgiveness, reconciliation with his adversarial neighbor is possible and Isaac is able to live in peace. Genesis 26 calls us to live at peace with our neighbors, realizing the world God has given us is big enough for us to co-exist, even with our adversaries.

I mentioned in my previous post, on Genesis 24, that Isaac is presented as an ideal figure. Genesis 25 confirms that and adds to what has already been said regarding Isaac. What is so significant about Isaac in chapter 25 could easily be missed. But if you catch what is happening, you see how Isaac models the virtue of patience.

Recall earlier how Abraham was promised directly from God he would be given a child. Seeing his wife, Sarah, barren, Abraham and Sarah concocted their own plan to have a child. This resulted in the union of Abraham and Hagar and the birth of Ishmael. However, God came back to Abraham and told him Ishmael was not the son of the promise. Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s suggestion that Sarah herself would bear a child in advanced age, but eventually Sarah did bear Isaac, the son of promise.

Genesis 25 paints a completely different picture with Isaac. In verse 21, when we learn Isaac’s wife Rebekah was barren, we hear that Isaac takes a much different approach to having a son than Abraham. He does not turn to one of Rebekah’s servants or come up with his own game plan, but “pleaded with the Lord for his wife.” Upon hearing this prayer, “the Lord granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived.” Sounds simple enough: Isaac is without child due to a barren wife, he asks God to grant him a child through his wife, and God hears his prayer. But pay close attention to the details.

Verse 20: “Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah as wife.”

Verse 21: “Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife, because she was barren.”

Verse 26: “Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.”

We could easily miss that 20 years passed from the time Isaac figured out his wife was barren and he entreated the Lord until the time Rebekah actually gave birth to Isaac’s sons! Obviously, this little tidbit is important. I think of how many times I have entreated the Lord and expected an answer immediately. Or how many times I have been disappointed when I did not see immediate results from prayer or other labors. Isaac once again stands as an example for us. May we learn to practice his patience!

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.