Genesis 20 – Just a Few Thoughts

Sarah as a cougar, Biblically acceptable incest, and Mamre.

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.

But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”

Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.”10 And Abimelek asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”

11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him.15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.”

16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

I’m not contemplating any greater truths today, rather just addressing some things I find interesting and didn’t want to let go unmentioned.

This chapter is all about Sarah being taken-for the second time-as a wife by a king who coveted her.  Sometimes Bible timelines drift back and forth and aren’t exactly linear.  But it seems pretty clear that this happened after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, which was after God’s revelation that Sarah, now in her nineties, will bear Abraham a child.  Sarah was said to be beautiful, apparently still beautiful enough in her nineties to make her a prized addition to a royal harem. The Bible also said she was well past her child-bearing years (which makes sense for a nonagenarian), but people were still living rather long lifespans – Sarah lives to be 127, Abraham was 175 when he died.  Being a super nerd, let’s say she’s exactly 90 here, which means she’s lived 70% of her life.  Apply that to today’s average life span of 80 years, and she’s the equivalent of around 57, which, yes, could reasonably be called “well after childbearing years.”  So is Sarah some super-foxy cougar? Like a Biblical Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer?  I kind of get a kick out of that thought.

Second, let’s talk about incest.  It happens a lot in the Old Testament.  I was reading an article about it some time ago – I think something I stumbled upon when researching Chapter 10 or 11 of Genesis with all their long genealogies – that was explaining Deuteronomic or Levitical law and it’s views on marriage.  I’m sorry I can’t remember which article to source it.  But basically it said intergenerational incest was OK as long as it was through different sexed siblings.  AKA, it is alright for a man to marry his niece birthed by his sister, but not his niece birthed by his brother. This was all about reinforcing family lines and establishing alliances.  A woman was under her father’s rule until she married, then she was then under her husband’s rule.  If that woman’s brother marries her daughter, there is now a double-matrimonial link between the two families.  It makes for some pretty complex family webs.

So, is Sarah Abraham’s sister or not?  Some, including my NIV text notes, say it was a little bending of the truth when Abraham says so to Abimelek.  Many scholars identify Sarah with Iscah, mentioned in chapter 11.  I’m still not really sure why, since Sarah is mentioned separately in the same passage, but I’ll defer to their more in-depth studies.  If Sarah and Iscah are the same person, then Sarah would be Abraham’s neice – through his brother, yes, but this is before both Deuteronomic and Levitical law, so I guess that’s still OK, by Genesis standards.  Since grandfathers and even great-grandfathers were referred to as “father” (again, see all those genealogy passages we went through earlier), then technically Sarah could be called Abraham’s sister, because they share common ancestors. Even if Sarah is not Iscah, and her relation to Abraham is matrilineal, she is almost assuredly related. This would reinforce the idea of Abraham and his offspring coming from a people chosen by God, able to trace their lineage not only through their father but also their mother back to Noah, even back to Adam, through all the important patriarchs like Eber and Enoch who preceded Abraham.

Finally, I wonder if Abraham and Sarah were sad to leave Mamre.  I’m assuming they had been living there for some time before Ishmael was born, and Abraham is said to be eighty-six when that happened.  He was 100 when God and the two angels came to visit him, so I’m guessing they all lived in Mamre for at least twenty years, plenty of time to get attached to a place.  The “sacred trees of Mamre” aren’t mentioned here, but are specifically mentioned twice, in chapter 13 and chapter 18. I love that the author felt the need to mention not just the site name but also the trees, and I’ve kind of built it up in my mind as a really lovely spot: Shady and peaceful, a micro-climate of flora and fauna not found in the surrounding desert, almost a mini-Eden.  I’d be sad to leave it.

Those are just my asides for today.  I’d love to hear little observations you’ve come across if you’ve been reading any of these chapters, too!

Genesis 19 – The First Clobber Passage

Focus on faith.

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

10 But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. 11 Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.

12 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”

14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.

15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”

16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

18 But Lot said to them, “No, my lords, please! 19 Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die. 20 Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it—it is very small, isn’t it? Then my life will be spared.”

21 He said to him, “Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. 22 But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it.” (That is why the town was called Zoar.)

23 By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. 24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. 26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

27 Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.

29 So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave.31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Woohoo! The first of the clobber passages!  Actually, some people say Genesis 1:27 is the first clobber passage – the bit about God creating male and female, but this is the first really explicit clobber passage.  And what is a clobber passage, you ask? It is a set of verses in the Bible used to condemn sexuality other than heterosexuality, most specifically, male homosexuality. There’s about six of them (again, some people put a few extra in, like Genesis 1:27), but this chapter is kind of the first really big one.  So let’s dive in, shall we?

Let’s talk about this “wicked thing” the men of Sodom want to do to Lot’s guests in verse 7.  It’s not homosexuality, rape.  Yes, it’s males raping males, but it’s still rape.  That is the evil thing.  And there is no Biblical atonement (other than death) for male-on-male rape.  As horrific as it sounds, I believe Lot offering his daughters to the men was his way of trying to do right by everybody.  You see, his male guests couldn’t be married to their rapists, but his virgin daughters could be – thereby negating the rape (See Deuteronomy 22:28-29) Again, horrific, but Lot literally has his back against a wall here and is trying to appease an angry mob.

Just to thoroughly debunk this clobber passage, let’s say Lot was talking about consensual homosexual sex and not rape when referring to this “wicked thing.”  Would you really want to be taking moral advice from this guy?  He has a lot of strikes against him.  First, in chapter 13 he chose to live near Sodom and Gomorrah, known hotbeds of deviant activity even at the time.  Second, he is either so prone to histrionics or so disrespected (or both) that his own sons-in-law don’t heed his ardent warning to get out of town before it is destroyed.  Third, the guy is getting so drunk that he doesn’t remember sleeping with his own daughters – twice!  Yes, they gave him the wine, but he drank it.  I seriously doubt they held Lot down and poured wine down his throat.  Again, is he really the one we want to be leading the conversation on morality here?

So if condemning homosexuality isn’t the point of this including this story in the Bible, then what is?  I also don’t think it’s an illustration of God’s wrath just to scare us – that’s just what earlier interpreters have used it for, and, as I’ve stated several times now, this blog is all about finding evidence of God’s unbounded love for us. From a literary standpoint, this is the conclusion of Lot’s story.  As his one daughter says in verse 31: “Our father is old.” Fathering the Moabites and the Ammonites is his last major act, and while there is no “and then he died” passage of finality like earlier lineages in the Bible, we can infer the end.

From a teaching standpoint, this story shows that God has a plan, the importance of our faith in it, and the tragedy (of our own making) that happens when we lose faith.  Lot has had numerous chances to rejoice and trust in the Lord.  We hear nothing of him paying any sort of homage or sacrifice to God after Abraham rescues him from Kedorlaomer, as faithful Abraham does; Lot does not first turn to his celestial guests (who can totally take care of themselves – they struck the men outside Lot’s door blind!) to seek a resolve to the angry crowd of this chapter, but instead offers up his daughters; his lack conviction in God means he isn’t even able to sway his own family in a time of great peril; and he leaves Zoar for the mountains.  These angels, or whoever they were, that destroyed Sodom, agreed to Lot living in Zoar because Lot said he couldn’t make it to the mountains.  Basically, he got special dispensation to live there.  Even this he did not trust, and fled later to the mountains to live in a cave, where he came to a rather ignominious end.  And this is just Lot – his wife’s lack of faith literally got her killed. Same with his sons-in-law who refused to listen to Lot’s warning.

Does it seem like you’ve had a string of bad luck lately?  Perhaps it’s just that, a rough patch you need to get through. But perhaps it’s also a good time to turn to God and ask, “Am I still doing right by You?” It can’t hurt.  I think if Lot had maybe asked that question a little more his story would have been different. God does have a plan, probably untold number of plans, to guide our every decision towards His desired outcome.  The moral of this story?  Not that homosexuality is bad, but that faith is good.

Genesis 18 – A Compassionate God

And the importance of being instruments of His compassion.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

First off, let’s just talk about how much flour three seahs is.  My NIV text notes tell me that’s 36 pounds!  Abraham made a ton of food.  Also, let’s talk about how long this must have taken.  If Sarah and her household have to prepare bread (which takes a few hours to knead and rise and bake), as well as slaughter and dress an animal (by hand) as well as cook it?  Hours.  So I’m thinking, if these guys came in the heat of the day, in other words mid-afternoon, they must have stayed until well into the evening.  Basically, Abraham had a dinner party with God, which is kind of cool.

But what I want to talk about a little more today is yet another example of God’s compassion.  I was always taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and punitive God.  For sure, there is a fair amount of punishment that goes on in the Old Testament, but even more than that there is compassion.  Again, the punishment that happens is more that of a parent correcting a child than a spiteful king condemning an unfortunate subject: He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but made sure they were clothed and continued to check in on them and their descendants; He set a mark on Cain so no one could further persecute him; instead of completely obliterating mankind through the flood He saved us through Noah and his family; instead of striking mankind down completely at the Babel he simply confused their plans and redirected them.  See what I mean?

Spoiler alert – Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed.  But Abraham doesn’t know this yet.  He is distressed that good people might pay the price of the wicked if God obliterates these cities.  Once again, my NIV footnotes put it beautifully: “Abraham’s questioning in vv. 23-32 did not arise from a spirit of haggling but of compassion for his relatives and of wanting to know God’s ways.  Perhaps Abraham stopped at ten because he had been counting while praying.”

And the amazing thing: God says yes to sparing the whole wicked land if there are just ten good people there.  What wonders a few good people can achieve without even realizing their impact!  Simply by existing, ten people would have saved two entire cities.

There may be some who counter this argument by saying “So where is God now in Syria? Or Yemen? Or Somalia? Aren’t there at least ten good people there?” And I unfortunately have nothing but the cold comfort of history to offer them.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed thousands of years ago: that story is finished and easy to be seen both historically and allegorically.  As to current or recently ended conflicts (and I’m including things like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars in recently ended conflicts), we are still in the middle of that unfolding story.  These stories are not finished:  We have people who can trace their lineage back to slaves in the 18th century (or earlier), veterans of World War II still living, refugees from Syria seeking asylum.  It is too raw, we are too invested, to gain any allegorical wisdom from these more current events. God’s plan is still unfolding.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just say about every bad thing “it must be God’s plan.”  We should fight where we see injustices, and be living examples of God’s compassion.  This country has a lot of healing still left to do from it’s history of slavery and it’s historical exploitation of Native Americans. We can’t bring back the literally millions of people killed, but we can make space for their descendants at the table.  We can also welcome the asylum seekers who call for help at our borders. We can advocate for alternative energy, which would lessen our reliance on oil and stop adding fuel to the fire of oil-related conflicts in the Middle East but also in our own country.

What I’m saying is, we’re still living these stories.  My ardent hope is that in several hundred years we, too, can be an allegorical as well as historical story.  I hope future historians can say “The USA’s first three centuries were marred by social inequalities of almost every kind.  But the country has been a leader in global peace for just as long.”  Or perhaps they’ll say, “Global unrest was driven by a reliance upon fossil fuels in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Through the dedicated work of scientists and social activists, fossil fuels haven’t been used in over 100 years.”

One thing we can learn is from this is that I’m clearly not cut out to be a news writer.  But if you can get past my hokey headline-writing skills, just remember that these are the outcomes we are fighting for.  We are the instruments of God’s compassion.  Abraham was an advocate for the righteous in a wicked world.  Let us be the same, today.