Genesis 16 – Sarai and Hagar

Protecting the patriarchy and male supremacy.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Volumes have been written on these two women. Volumes.  This older US News article provides a good summary of some of the major themes and subjects that continue to attract us to this story, some of which include the similarities between Hagar’s story and the female African-American experience during slavery, and the origin of Islamic and Judeo-Christian tensions.

Coming at it from a decidedly feminist-revisionist standpoint (yes, I can totally admit that bias), the most interesting theory I’ve read while researching this chapter is that the writer was just as concerned with propping up male superiority and the patriarchal system as he was with illuminating the divine supremacy of God.  Again, according to the US News article, by illustrating that God, then considered male, has the ability to control female fertility, the author has established male superiority over the very female power of child-bearing.

I don’t want to come across as cynical, but I do wonder how much of this story was written to make Abram look good at the expense of Sarai and Hagar.  There are many examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but it’s generally accepted that the belief was polygamy was not meant to be the moral ideal – remember Lamech lusting after both Adah and Zillah?  Sarai offering Hagar to Abram is reminiscent of Eve offering Adam the apple.  Here is something tempting (a young girl, a delicious fruit) that will bring about something desired (an heir, knowledge) that the weaker woman (Sarai, Eve) offers to the apparently blameless or at the very least coerced man (Abram, Adam).  As to this male inculpability, Abram is often depicted in art history with his hand extended palm up while Sarai brings him Hagar, a symbol of rejecting responsibility or designating innocence.  But he still sleeps with Hagar…so how is he innocent of impatience and faithlessness while Sarai is guilty of being so? I just have a hard time holding only Sarai responsible for deciding Abram better sleep with Hagar, especially if so many other parts of this story are written to reinforce male dominance.  I can’t imagine the anguish Sarai was going through experiencing infertility for so long, especially in a time when fertility was kind of your defining trait as a woman.  That just doesn’t seem like the mindset that would arrive at a decision of “oh, yes, let this other beautiful, fertile woman sleep with my husband instead.”  I don’t believe Sarai was blameless, because that would be reductive in the other direction, but I do think she’s been given too much of the blame.

Also, if Abram was (at least partially) more responsible for deciding to sleep with Hagar than the writing of this story would lead us to believe, it would help explain the animosity between these two women a little more, and why Sarai mistreated the pregnant Hagar (16:6) and why in a few chapters she is insistent upon Hagar and Ismael being sent into the desert.

Really, the more I write about it the sadder I become.  They both became mothers of nations, but how fraught both these women’s lives were.  Hagar literally needs an angel to lift her out of her despair in this chapter.  It sounds like Sarai has reached a breaking point, herself.  The only thing I can say is – Ladies, let it be a reminder that we need to work cooperatively.  Gentlemen (and everyone else!) you can totally get in on this, too.  Let us not be jealous of each other’s successes, or gloat over each other’s short-comings.  Let us work to uplift each other.  We have generations of embedded male superiority to overcome still, as was made abundantly clear by the recent Bret Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford Senate hearings, MeToo movement, and other news stories of the past year.

So yes, maybe I am a little sad and a little cynical this morning.  But I’m going to channel that anger into productive change in Jesus’ name, and I hope you will, too.  A quick Google search of “how to empower women” or “how to promote gender equality” comes back with some great ideas.  Below, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite, and I hope you’ll be moved to participate in some of them:

  1. Support New Moms – This can be anything from locally to globally.  The wonderful ladies at my church in Charlottesville set up a meal train for me when Betty was born, and I didn’t have to cook for a month.  It. Was. Amazing.  Reach out to moms of newborns, if they are in your community.  You can also support moms in developing countries through programs like the White Ribbon Alliance and the International Women’s Health Coalition, among others.
  2. Support Female Entrepreneurs – shop female-owned businesses, mentor female entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, or just provide encouragement and positivity to women and girls with an entrepreneurial spirit.
  3. Encourage young girls in school, particularly in STEM programs – girls are super smart, but we’re not always taught to value that.  Mentoring a girl you know, or one through a program like Big Brothers, Big Sisters goes a long way towards building a girl’s confidence to do well in school.  Additionally, you can support female education worldwide through organizations like the Campaign for Female Education.
  4. Speak up – speak up when you see sexism at work.  Speak up for the rights of other gender minorities (aka trans or non-binary peoples), because we are stronger together.  Speak with your vote and elect female candidates and candidates that are committed to furthering gender equality.
  5. Keep talking.  I’d love to hear some other ways you all have supported the women in your lives (or how someone has supported you) – whether it’s an anecdotal story of person-to-person support, or an organization you think is doing good work, or whatever!  I look forward to hearing them.

Genesis 15 – Billionaires and Felons

Everyone is deserving of God’s love.

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God has made promises to some interesting people just 15 chapters into Genesis.  He set a mark upon Cain, a murderer, to keep people from killing him, and promised vengeance seven times over should anyone do so (Gen. 4:15); he swore to Noah, who was really kind of a social oddball, to never destroy the Earth through flood again and gave his descendants dominion over everything (Gen. chapter 9); and now he’s promising an already extremely rich guy-not exactly our typical prototype of hero-even more blessings.  Also, while not exactly a promise, he did set up Adam and Eve – the first people to explicitly disobey him – for life outside the Garden of Eden when he clothed them in skins (Gen 3:21).

So, I see rebellious children, a murderer, a misfit who later becomes the first drunkard, and the Biblical equivalent of a lonely billionaire here.  That’s just one way, and admittedly a rather pessimistic way, of looking at it.  But I list them like that to illustrate a point:  Even those blessed with direct promises from God are not “perfect Christians.”  To be fair, they wouldn’t be Christians at all back then, they wouldn’t even be Jewish yet – since these stories pre-date either religion.  But my point is this:  God cares about all of us.  And belittling others or excluding others from our Faith because they are not “good” enough is so far removed from what God wants.

I feel I’m quickly turning into an apologetic for Prosperity Theology, but even at that risk I do want to make a point of saying that acceptance goes all ways:  Do not scorn a person who has achieved success who wants to connect with Christianity.  I see individuals eyeing successful people with suspicion.  I have been blessed to meet many successful entrepreneurs in my life, and they have enriched my life in many ways.  It’s scary to reach out to someone seemingly “above” you – there is always that risk of being rejected.  I’ve definitely been snubbed myself.  But don’t scorn somebody first to keep them from scorning you.  Extend that hand of friendship.  Blessings of all kinds might be exchanged, as between Abram and Melchizedek.  If not, and they scorn you, then it’s fully on them.

Alright, enough of the “poor, misunderstood rich people” admonishments.  I just felt I had to acknowledge it.  You know who else we need to acknowledge? Everyone. Even the most abhorrent.  Even Cain, the first murderer, received protection from God.  Now, I’m not arguing for no corrective actions, as a parent I can tell you the mayhem that would ensue if there were no time-outs or toys taken away from time to time.  But again, as a parent, particularly a parent of an Autistic child, I can tell you that solely punitive actions have no lasting effect for creating good behavior.  This is why I applaud those reaching to out inmates and recently released peoples, those advocating for prison reform, and defense attorneys working on behalf of not only those in the wrong place at the wrong time but also those who have committed truly horrible deeds.  Again, God saw fit to protect Cain, even after Cain murdered his brother, so shouldn’t we also be respectful of our own brothers and sisters, no matter how misled they are?

It looks like I just wrote several hundred words defending rich people and felons…which isn’t really what I meant to do when I started this blog post, but I’m standing by it.  Because the main point, once more, is this: We don’t need to be perfect to receive God’s love.  Even Abram, the “father of all believers” wasn’t perfect – he denied his wife twice calling her “his sister” (once we’ve seen, the other time is coming up) to save his own skin.  The first time I guess I can understand…but after God sends a plague on Pharaoh’s household because of it, you’re really going to try that again? Come on.  But I digress. One last time, because it always bears saying again: No one is perfect, but that doesn’t make us any less deserving of God’s love.


Genesis 14 – Wait, was that Jesus?

Who is this Melchizedek guy?

At the time when Amraphel was king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goyim, these kings went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea Valley). For twelve years they had been subject to Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.

In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim and the Horites in the hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran near the desert. Then they turned back and went to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and they conquered the whole territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazezon Tamar.

Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills. 11 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.

13 A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram.14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus.16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).

18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth.
20 And praise be to God Most High,
    who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

So, who is this random priest-king who blesses Abram on his way back from rescuing his nephew Lot?  Melchizedek, a Canaanite, is thrown seemingly out of left field into this little vignette.  He is only mentioned three times in the Bible (twice in the Old Testament, once in the New), but he seems to have captured people’s imaginations.  He certainly caught my attention.  Some say he is a foreshadowing of Christ, or even a pre-Bethlehem appearance of Christ.  Most of the arguments for this line of belief come from the other two mentions of Melchizedek (Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7) but I’ll outline them here.  First, his name and title.  “Melchizedek” means “my king is righteousness” and the name of his kingdom is Salem, which means “peace.” So, he’s the representative of righteousness in a kingdom of peace on earth – much like Jesus.  Second, he brings out bread and wine for Abram, similar to the Last Supper offering made by Christ that we reenact with the Eucharist today.  Third, Abram paid tithes to him instead of the other way around, implying that Melchizedek was even closer to God than Abram was.  There is some debate over who paid tithes to whom if you get into original translations – apparently there’s just a whole lot of masculine pronouns flying around – but most believe it was Abram who paid tithes to Melchizedek. Finally, and this point is made more clear in Hebrews 7, Melchizedek is without mother or father or any genealogy, like Christ.  The fact that he reigns “as a priest forever” (Psalm 110) also implies his eternal nature, again, like Christ.

So is he Christ? I’ll admit, I kind of like the idea of Jesus popping up in the Old Testament.  Along this line of thinking, God walking with Adam and Eve could be seen as a pre-Christ Christ-figure, as in, He takes a human form to be with His creation.  Seeing Jesus in these passages is kind of like a Biblical “Where’s Waldo,” and I get a kick out of it.  So should you believe this or not?  I don’t think it makes a direct impact on my faith, kind of like debating what color sandals Jesus wore, but I do like it.

I think it may be more important to see Melchizedek as a foible to King Bera of Sodom, who also has an interaction with Abram, technically right before Melchizedek’s (see verse 14:17), but told more fully after Melchizedek’s interaction.  When Melchizedek meets Abram, he prepares a feast for him and blesses him, not asking for anything.  In return, Abram gives him a tenth of all he has.  When Bera meets Abram, no feast is prepared and he immediately starts haggling with him-“give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” (14:21) Some may see this as a generous offer, but Abram is under no obligation to give this defeated king anything.  Also, my NIV footnotes tell me Abram refuses because basically Bera is trying to buy Abram’s loyalty.  The footnote reads thus: “Abram refused to let himself become obligated to anyone but the Lord. Had he done so, this Canaanite king might later have claimed the right of kingship over him.” It seems even in the patriarchal period, Sodom was already synonymous with evil, and not anything you with which you would want attachment.

Melchizedek, even in his brief appearance, can be a role model for us still today.  Let us strive to give freely, both of our worldly goods and less tangible blessings.  By blessing others, you will be blessed in turn.