Genesis 21 – Pondering the Silences

A little (spiritual) imagination.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

22 At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”

24 Abraham said, “I swear it.”

25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelek about a well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized. 26 But Abimelek said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”

27 So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. 28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, 29 and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”

30 He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”

31 So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

32 After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines.33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. 34 And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

So much of these three stories, and indeed all the stories in the Bible, are unwritten.  This can be cause for confusion and frustration, for sure, but also a chance for our spiritual imaginations to take flight.  Some might find this a dangerous or unsettling process, but I think anything that gets us to reflect on God and the Bible is good.  I had to spend most of the day in the car yesterday, so had plenty of time to ponder this chapter.  I’ll share three very short vignettes with you that I came up with:

 

Sarah smiled down at the baby on her breast.  He had taken to feeding right away and seemed content.  She had been worried about so many things, even though Abraham told her not to be.  One of them was feeding this miraculous infant.  She had seen mothers much younger than her who’s milk had dried up or never been enough for their infants.  Some had supplemented with goat’s milk, some had wet-nurses to help them; but more than anything she remembered one poor woman who, no matter what she tried, could not get her baby to eat, and seemed to whither away as her child did.  But that would not be the case with Isaac, she was determined.  God willing, he would grow to be the man she and Abraham had dreamed of so for so many years.

***

There was not a hint of warmth in the sky when Abraham woke Hagar. There had never been any true love between them, but a shared affection had grown over their son Ishmael, whom Hagar could see Abraham adored.  Which was why she was surprised by his curt words.

“Gather your things, you must take Ishmael and go now,” Abraham said.

“Why? What has happened?” Hagar asked.

“Sarah is displeased, and the Lord has willed that this be so.”

Hagar put her meager belongings in a sack: a comb, two small clay bowls, a toy horse Ishmael had long outgrown but she kept as a reminder of the small child he no longer was. Abraham handed her a loaf of bread and some dried meat wrapped in cloth and a small skin of water. Abraham led Hagar and her son to the door of the tent, and put his hands upon their heads in blessing, “God be with you,” he said, and turned abruptly inside.  Ishmael, still bleary and half asleep, looked at his mother, confused.  Hagar’s anger welled up inside her, and she marched towards the desert, now pink with the rising sun, as if it had been her decision, as it had been years ago.

***

News of the birth of Abraham’s son by Sarah reached Abimelek, and he smiled.  He had fifteen sons by his wives and concubines, and knew the joy of securing a bloodline.  He also knew that now the time was right to summon Abraham for an oath of allegiance.  Was he afraid of Abraham? Abimelek had pondered on this question.  It is true, taking Sarah as his wife had caused great affliction in his court, and it seemed that Abraham was blessed beyond measure in everything he did, and to cross such a blessed man surely would bring no good to Abimelek or his kingdom.  No, he was not afraid of Abraham, as Abraham seemed to have no designs upon his throne.  But still, better now to ally Abraham in official treaty while his spirits were high from the birth of his son.  Yes, Abimelek thought, now is the time.

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!