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.

Genesis 17 – Patience and Listening

God patiently waits for us to listen.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan,where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant,you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen;26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day.27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

I bashed Abraham (so renamed as of this chapter) pretty hard in my last post, and I was still in a bash-y sort of mindset when I was reading this chapter. The main question I kept asking myself was “Why him? Why did God chose Abraham? What was so special about him?”

The answer? Nothing, really, except Abraham was a ready listener.  I’ve already illuminated Abraham’s many shortcomings or possible shortcomings (twice denying his wife to save his skin, questionable faith when sleeping with Hagar…) But everything I’ve read about Abraham shows that he listened to God, and was ready to receive his message.  Sometimes he was incredulous, as in this chapter when he laughs at the idea of a man one hundred years old having a child by a woman who is ninety (17:17), but wouldn’t you laugh, too?  But when God said “leave your country” (Gen 12:1), Abraham left. When God said “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Gen. 15:1), Abraham believed him (15:6). When God requested a sacrifice, Abraham brought it forthwith (Gen. 15:9-11). And when God made circumcision a sign of his covenant with Abraham – more about that in a minute – he did it.  Not only did he make sure he and his son were circumcised, but the Bible takes care to tell us that “all those born in his household, or bought with his money, every male in his household,” (17:23) were circumcised.

Abraham’s failures occurred in the God’s silences.  That lays the blame at God’s feet – let me see if I can phrase it a different way.  Abraham’s failures occurred when he stopped listening for God.  No, God is not going to verbally converse with us all the time, not even with Abraham, but He is still there, it’s just up to us to seek His guiding hand and follow it.  Abraham didn’t trust God when he gave Sarah to the Pharaoh.  Some argue he didn’t trust God when he left for Egypt during the famine in the first place.  I’ve argued that he was also guilty of at least impatience with God if not flat out faithlessness when he agrees with Sarah to sleep with Hagar.  But don’t we all fail in our faith sometimes? Maybe even on a daily basis?  And when faced with really dire consequences – starving to death, being killed by the Pharaoh, seeing the end of your bloodline in a patriarchal society – it’s hard to trust God’s plan.

And you know what the beautiful thing about that is?  God forgave Abraham.  His forgiveness is so pervasive it’s not even really mentioned, just implicit.  At any time God could have cut Abraham off for his faithlessness, but He recognized Abraham’s human fragility and forgave him for it. Perhaps even Abraham’s lapses in faith are even part of God’s grace: You can’t hold a conversation with a drowning man.  Perhaps God let Abraham go to Egypt, even though He was fully capable of saving him from famine, because He knew Abraham was not in a good place to listen.  But, when the time was right, God continued to talk to him, because He knew Abraham was ready.

And perhaps that is why God waited until Abraham was a full one hundred years old to make this covenant with him.  Think of your grand- or great-grand parents and all the wisdom they have accumulated over their lifetimes.  Age generally seems to give people a larger world-view. I hope, as I get older, to be less bogged down in petty details but also able to enjoy all of life’s small pleasures more fully.  Abraham, wised-up and mellowed-out, wouldn’t balk at a little genital mutilation the way a twenty-something year old man would.

Something I learned about circumcision while reading this chapter: It wasn’t unheard-of before Abraham.  In fact, Egyptians and Phoenicians were among some of the populations who practiced circumcision at the time.  At least for me, knowing that it had a certain degree of cultural norm before the Abrahamic Covenant makes it seem like a less bizarre request.  There are a myriad of proposed reasons as to why any group performed circumcision – some in direct conflict, including both to limit sexual arousal and to improve sexual performance. But Abraham’s circumcision, the one that we are most concerned with here, was to signify this new covenant with God. It is symbolic.  God said to Abraham “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, shall be cut off from his people.” (17:14)  People means family means offspring, so it makes sense that cutting the organ used for procreation symbolizes the cutting off from offspring should the covenant not be followed.

Should we still circumcise today?  I don’t have any boys, so I haven’t had to deal with that question directly.  Paul argues against it in the New Testament, others say it still holds as a symbol of faith.  I really don’t know.  It’s a topic I’ll think more upon as we cross it again, as it’s mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. (Thanks, Google!)

For now, I’m just thankful to have a God that is patient with us.  It is something I will try to remember when things aren’t going my way.  Sometimes things don’t go our way, that’s true, and we chalk it up to not being part of God’s plan.  But perhaps it is not part of God’s plan because he is just waiting for us to be still and ready to listen. Again, it’s not easy to quiet yourself in the midst of a crisis (whether that crisis be dealing with as little as a traffic jam or as large as car crash), but it’s something I’ll try to remember, since God always remembers me.

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.