Archives for posts with tag: God’s promise

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.

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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.