The Suffering Servant as the Leper Messiah

My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).

In the last post, I introduced the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In the first song, the servant counter-intuitively brings justice by patiently and quietly enduring injustice. Second Isaiah addressed the Jews in Exile, letting them know their judgment had passed and they would soon be allowed to return home to Jerusalem.

The Fourth Song: He Was Despised and Rejected

This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.

I won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)

He/him refers to the Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly, many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace, healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.

In the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself. It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song, that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked human (52:14).

We see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him (53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says,

“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).

(HC 53:4-6 footnote)

And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.

Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.

He Grew Up Like a Young Plant

The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)

They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The Servant as Messiah

First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.

So I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

(Isa 52:13 NRS)

When the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only implicit.

The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.

(Rut 2:14)

The Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.

Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].

If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.

A Leper Messiah

Here is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

(Isa 53:4 NRS)

The Talmud comments,

The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.

(Sanhedrin 98b)

Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.

The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”

“… like a leper messiah,” 2:25

David Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,

One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.

Ziggy Stardust,” AZ Lyrics

Rabbi Bowie?

Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.

But God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes with it.

And out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.

The First Principle of Recovery

Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.

Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.

A Deal for You

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. In honor of this, it will be available on Kindle for only $0.99 throughout the month of January! (You can also get it in paperback if you prefer). I am humbled, amazed, and grateful. Thank you to Writer’s Digest and to anyone who reads it.

The Suffering Servant and Recovery from Depression

In the last post, I laid out the background that led to Isaiah chapters 40-55, often referred to as Second Isaiah. This is its own section that addresses the Jews living in Exile in Babylon. They have experienced the harshness of God’s judgment and humiliation and suffering at the hands of the Babylonians. But the message of Second Isaiah is one of hope. He says their period of judgment is over, and they will soon be allowed to return to their home and rebuild Jerusalem.

You might ask why I believe this theory of Second Isaiah when it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. The main reason is the difference in tone between First and Second Isaiah. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is clearly addressed to people pre-judgment, while Second Isaiah only makes sense post-judgment, where sweeping announcements of forgiveness and restoration can be spoken in ways not possible for First Isaiah.

One of the most striking features of Second Isaiah is the figure of the Suffering Servant, a mysterious figure whose suffering brings healing for the nations. Bernhard Duhm is credited with first identifying the songs of the Suffering Servant in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. He recognized the four songs in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and 52:13-53:12. In some commentaries, the songs might be longer. But this designation will work for our purposes.

The Suffering Servant in My Principles of Recovery

My first principle for recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” I connected that with Isaiah 53:3-6. My second principle for recovery is “God will not kick you when you are down.” I connected that with Isaiah 42:2-3. So now I’m going to show you how those passages helped me formulate those first two principles for recovery. I’m going to go backwards in terms of the principles and start with the song of Isaiah 42.

The Second Principle: God Will Not Kick You When You Are Down

You might be wondering what does the Jews’ experience of Exile and Return have to do with your experience of depression.

A dark night of the soul happens at the intersection of faith and depression. Usually, something has happened to you that you think shouldn’t have happened, and you wonder why God would treat you this way. Sometimes, it’s not something that happened to you, but rather feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of injustice in the world and wondering why God would allow it to continue for as long as it has. You want to do something about it, but you feel helpless. You pray, but you don’t see it making any difference. Maybe you reach a point where you’re so depressed, you can’t pray at all. Maybe you are so angry you are no longer on speaking terms with God. Or maybe you have become so disoriented you no longer believe in God at all.

The Jews in Exile experienced all these things: disorientation, humiliation, confusion, anger, unbelief, you name it. Even if they still believed in God, they could not trust God anymore. God had let them down when they needed God most. In some of the Psalms, we see they were not shy at all about telling God exactly how they felt (Psa 137).

God could have responded with anger in kind. God could have reminded them how they let God down by failing to be the example of justice and righteousness God had called them to be. Instead, God’s answer to them begins with comfort (Isa 40:1-2). That sets the tone for all of Second Isaiah. Not that there are no reprimands from God, but they are much gentler than First Isaiah and balanced with the promise that they would return home.

Is It about Me?

I believe before we make any personal application of scripture, it’s important to understand the context where it was given initially. I imagined the Jews in Exile when they heard the words of Second Isaiah, learning to hope where hope before seemed impossible, learning to trust God again, basically rebuilding their faith from scratch, and finding the courage to respond when God reached out to them.

As I came out of one of my dark nights of the soul, these words leapt off the page at me.

… a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; 

(Isa 42:3 NRS)

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the circumstances when I felt the full weight of those words. As I said, I had just come out of a dark night of the soul. During the dark night, I was filled with guilt over “disobeying” the Holy Spirit and “not believing” God’s word.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

(Rom 8:14 NRS)

For almost any Christian, that is great news. If you see yourself as a child of God, you want to be led by the Spirit of God. Through some bad teaching, I began to hear a voice I thought was the Spirit of God. The catch is, if you are being led by the Spirit of God, you must obey. And your obedience must be unhesitating and without doubt and fear. Whatever the Spirit commands, you must obey. If you hesitate, that is the same as disobedience. Some hesitation and doubt is okay in the beginning, as long as you obey. But over time, you should come to a place where you obey without hesitation and without doubt or fear.

For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. 

(1Sa 15:23 NRS)

Do not rebel against the Holy Spirit. I would hear the voice saying, “Witness to this person, witness to that person. Lay your hands on that sick person. Give money to this ministry. Give money to person.” And I would hear stories from people who said they heard the same voice, and they weren’t sure at first if they should do it, but they obeyed. They prayed and laid hands on the sick person, and they were instantly (or after a few tries) healed. They gave money to whom the Spirit told them, and they received more money just a few days later. They witnessed to the person, and the person gave their lives to Christ. In their stories, success and reward always followed obedience and faith. You hear those stories, and eventually you start asking yourself, “Why am I not getting the same results?”

When I looked for answers, one of my TV mentors said, “Either you or the Bible is wrong. Which is it?”

Well, if it’s between me and the Bible, it has to be me. I still have too much doubt. Doubt creates fear. Fear creates hesitation. And after you’ve followed for some time, hesitation is the same as disobedience. You’ve been a believer for six years or however long. You should know by now God’s word is the truth no matter what the circumstances say. If the voice you hear agrees with God’s word, hear and obey.

How do I know I’m supposed to witness to everyone the Spirit tells me to?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

(Mat 28:19-20a NRS)

And again,

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

(Act 1:8 NRS)

How do I know I’m supposed to pray for and lay hands on every sick person the Spirit tells me to?

And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

(Mar 16:17-18 NRS)

And again,

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

(Mat 10:1 NRS)

How do I know I’m supposed to obey the voice of the Spirit in giving money to this person or that ministry?

… give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

(Luk 6:38 NRS)

and again,

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

(2Co 9:6 NRS)

So there you have it. The voice of the Spirit I’m hearing and the Word of God are in agreement. Now, I understand they were taking all these verses out of context. But at the time I didn’t know that. And every time I failed or hesitated to obey, I would be wracked with guilt afterwards. I would pray for forgiveness and repent and promise never to do it again, but of course I did it again. And each time, the guilt doubled, because I promised to obey but did not. I would beat myself up, and the voice of the Spirit would pile on.

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? (Luk 6:46)

I can’t help it. I’m afraid, and I don’t know how to stop being afraid.

Didn’t I tell you in my Word I have not given you a spirit of fear but of power, of love, and of a sound mind? (2 Tim 1:7)

Yes.

So why are you afraid?

It might not work.

What do you mean it might not work?

I might not have enough faith for it to work.

Why wouldn’t you have enough faith? I have promised you everything in my Word. I have given you my Spirit, the same spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Why do you still not believe me?

I don’t know.

Let’s be honest. You’re afraid of looking foolish, aren’t you?

No! Well, maybe.

So you are disobeying because you love the praise of men more than the praise of God (Joh 12:43).

NO! That’s not it! I love you, Lord!

But you love the praise of men more. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Rev 3:16)

No, Lord! Please! Anything but that! Lord? Lord? Are you there?

{Silence}.


No matter how low I felt, the voice of God could always make me feel lower. And no matter how many times I fell down, the voice of God would kick me. Except … it wasn’t the voice of God.

What Was Really Happening?

There are two explanations I think are most likely: 1) The voice came from internalizing bad teachings; or 2) the voice was the product of a clinically depressed brain. I believe it was a combination of the two. A chemically imbalanced brain will speak to you, and it will sound like the truth. Add to that a belief that it is the voice of God, and you are sure to get kicked when you are down. You are sure to be led astray.

Why did I believe it was the voice of God? Because, as I said, it spoke from the Bible. It has to be true, because the Bible is the Word of God, right? On the factcheck.org scale, I would categorize that statement under “True, but misleading.” This is going to be a controversial statement, but it needs to be said. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied. Let that sink in. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied.

There are many different interpretations, many different rules people have formed for how to apply the Bible. How do we know which is right? I have spent the last forty years trying to answer that question. I can’t give you everything that came of that in one blog post, but I can tell you this. The Bible has to be read in context. That is why, in the last post, I gave you a basic historical background of events leading up to Second Isaiah, and the background of Exile and Return in which Second Isaiah was written. That is called context.

When I made the decision to go to seminary, people in the church I was in at the time said, “They’ll teach you not to believe the Bible.” Again, true, but misleading. What they did was teach me how to read the Bible in context. As a result, I started to believe the Bible again but not in the way they taught it.

The hallmark of bad teaching is they quote the Bible, but they never teach the context in which it was written. We have to understand what Second Isaiah would have meant to the Jews in Exile, because that was who it was written for originally. Then, maybe we can glean some message for us today. The same goes for all of the Bible.

The Suffering Servant and the Voice in My Head

In addition to the bad teachings and the clinically depressed brain, I had even more dysfunction. I listened to that voice in part because I thought I deserved it. I deserved to be kicked when I was down, because I repeatedly disobeyed the voice of the Holy Spirit.

So going back to that voice that said Christ was going to spit me out of his mouth, at the same time, I heard another voice underneath my guilt and depression, a still, small voice that did not come from the deepest depths of my soul. That voice said, “I love you.” Not “I love you, but you need to start obeying me.” Not “I love you, but you need to change.” No “but”s at all. Just “I love you.” Period.

That voice comforted me at first, but then I rejected it. I chose the voice I thought I deserved over the voice God graciously offered. But then I lost faith in the voice kicking me when I was down. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I rejected that one. What was left of the voice of God? I read again this suffering servant song, and when I came to the line that said, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” then I understood. Even though Second Isaiah wasn’t speaking to me directly, I am the bruised reed he will not break. I am the dimly burning wick he will not quench. God will not kick me when I’m down. That’s how I know that other voice is a false God.

And with that old voice bound, gagged, and kicked out of my head, I listened, and again I heard the voice of the Spirit saying, “I love you.” A voice as gentle and mild as the suffering servant, not crying aloud and making itself heard in the street, so soft you can only hear it if you quiet the false gods in your head and listen for it. “I love you,” with no qualifiers, as if I had already received from the LORD’s hand double for all my sins. That was the voice of the Holy Spirit. That was the voice I finally learned to listen to.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

(Rom 8:1-2 NRS)

What about You?

Have you ever heard a voice you thought was God? What was it like? Did it kick you when you were down? Hopefully, I have convinced you that was not God. If you have clinical depression, you might be more prone to hearing that voice (and thinking you deserve it) than most people. I overcame it, and so can you. So I want to invite you to take this little spiritual exercise.

Go into a quiet room with a notebook and pen. Not a phone or laptop, nothing electronic. Sit quietly and listen. Try to quiet your mind and listen from deep within. Just give it a few minutes, as long as you feel comfortable. Write down whatever you hear.

Do you think it is the voice of God? Why or why not? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

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Translation Notes

קָנֶ֤ה רָצוּץ֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁבּ֔וֹר וּפִשְׁתָּ֥ה כֵהָ֖ה לֹ֣א יְכַבֶּ֑נָּה (Isa 42:3 WTT)

a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (Isa 42:3 NRS)

Halladay’s lexicon would translate qaneh ratzutz as “a crushed reed,” as in 2 Ki 18:23. However, most translations render it “a bruised reed,” probably because of the phrase lo’ yishbor, “he will not break.” It doesn’t make sense to say, “he will not break a crushed reed.” How can you break something that’s already crushed?

Uphishtah kehah, Halladay’s lexicon says phishtah is a wick of flax, but it calls phishtah kehah is a dimly glowing wick. Lo’ yichbennah, “he will not extinguish.”

These are two beautiful metaphors for gentleness toward vulnerability. The reed is already bruised. Just a little pressure will make it break. But the servant of God will not break it. A dimly glowing wick is easily extinguished, but he will not quench it. In modern vernacular, we might say, he will not kick you when you’re down.

References

Duhm, Bernhard. Das Buch Jesaia (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892). Cited in Wikipedia, “Servant Songs.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_songs

Exciting Announcement and New Blog Series

2020 with snow background
Happy New Year 2020!

Welcome to my first blog post of the year. And since this is January 6, Happy Epiphany/Dia de los Reyes (whichever term you prefer).

I have an exciting announcement. The original version called Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction Category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. I’m still almost in shock. I say “original version” because I did some tweaking to it. The main reason for changes was I needed to add more material to make it viable as a print book. So even if you have a paperback, it’s the same material as the award-winner and more. I would recommend waiting until Tuesday, January 7, to order a copy, because that is when the “award-winning deluxe” version will be available.

There are four passages in Isaiah called the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” I used these in two of my four principles for recovery. I’ve found the Suffering Servant to be a great source of comfort, so that seems like a good place to pick up the blog.

But Isaiah is a long, complicated text, written over a period of more than two hundred years. So first, you should have a good overview of when, how, why, and to whom it was written. This is called context, by the way, which is pretty important anytime you do anything with the Bible.

Three Isaiahs?

Experts generally divide Isaiah into three sections.

  • First Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. Before and after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to Assyria, ca. 738-687 BC
  • Second Isaiah: Chapters 40-55. Near the end of Exile of the Jews, ca. 545-539 BC.
  • Third Isaiah: Chapters 56-66. After the return to Jerusalem, ca. 520-515 BC.

You won’t see these divisions in the Bible text itself. However, differences in tone, language, and references indicate each of these sections was written in different historical circumstances. If you are used to just reading the Bible without referring to the historical background, this may sound confusing, or you might think we are making it unnecessarily complicated. “The Bible doesn’t mention First, Second, and Third Isaiah. It’s just called the book of Isaiah.”

I understand why you might object to this. But I’ll say there are very good reasons for this “three Isaiahs” theory that come from the text of Isaiah, along with just basic knowledge of what was happening in Israel and Judah between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. Hopefully, that will become clearer as I walk you through it.

And yes, while this is fun for me, I know I’m in the minority. So believe me when I say I wouldn’t drag you through this preliminary history and textual analysis if I didn’t really believe it was necessary to understand not only the message but the comfort the songs of the Suffering Servant can offer. So, I’ll try to make it as interesting as I can. And I promise, it will not be a waste of time. So if you’re ready, let’s dive in.

The songs of the Suffering Servant all come from Second Isaiah, but I think it’s important to understand First Isaiah to get the full impact of it.

First Isaiah: What You Need to Know

As I said, First Isaiah refers to chapters 1-39 of “the book of Isaiah.” He said he received his call to be a prophet in the year king Uzziah died, about 738 BC (Isa 6). He continued to prophesy and write until about 700 or 687 BC, depending on the date of his last word to the king Hezekiah. This entire time, the nations of Israel and Judah were in crisis because of the Assyrian empire. Isaiah’s message to both nations was, repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or God is going to send Assyria as the hand of judgment.

Assyria was the hyperpower of its day. They built a juggernaut of an army that no one could stand against. They conquered all the land of Mesopotamia, then turned their attention toward the land of Canaan. The nation of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. After this, Isaiah’s warnings to the nation of Judah became more urgent. Repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or you will be next on Assyria’s list of conquered cities and nations. The people didn’t listen until Hezekiah took the throne. He was known as a righteous king.

Even under Hezekiah, Assyria wreaked havoc through Judah. Isaiah warned them they would, but with one caveat: Because of God’s covenant with David, they would not take the city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 7:1-17). Isaiah proved right on both counts. Assyrian records said they took forty-six cities from Judah. When they got to Jerusalem, they laid siege like they had to hundreds of cities before. Until then, the result was always the same. The city fell, its treasures were plundered and sent back to the capital city, Nineveh, and the people were either slaughtered, tortured, enslaved, and/or exiled. The people within the walls of Jerusalem thought the same would happen to them, but Isaiah’s word proved true. The Assyrian army left with the city of Jerusalem still fully intact.

After First Isaiah

Now how do you think the people of Jerusalem responded to this remarkable salvation? They were probably grateful at first. But it didn’t take long for them to become arrogant. “This is the Temple of the LORD,” they said of the great structure Solomon had built over 200 years before. “No one can touch us, because this is where God has chosen to dwell on earth. Not even Assyria can stand before our God.”

Even the righteous king Hezekiah became so arrogant he foolishly showed all the treasures of the city, the palace, and the Temple to the king of Babylon. Chances are, said Babylonian king recorded them in the archives, so about 150 years later, king Nebuchadnezzar knew exactly where to find all the riches when he took the city.

In the meantime, people all over the Assyrian empire got sick of living under their iron boot. Assyria constantly had to put down rebellions throughout their territory in Whack-a-Mole fashion. No matter how brutal they were in crushing rebellions, they could not stop people from rising up to throw off their yoke.

Finally, in 612 BC, an alliance of Medes and Babylonians overthrew the capital Nineveh, and with it, the territory of the Assyrian empire became ripe pickings for the neo-Babylonian empire. No Jew shed any tears over Nineveh, that’s for sure. That is, except for the prophets who knew what would follow.

The Unthinkable Happens

Jerusalem, the chosen city, the one with the Temple of the LORD, the city God had chosen for his name to dwell on earth, the city even the king of Assyria could not conquer because of God’s presence there, fell to king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The immortal, impregnable, indomitable city of David, was conquered, torn down, and plundered. Even the Temple, with its great and huge stones, was torn down so not one stone was left standing on another. Its gold, silver, and bronze furnishings were all brought back to Babylon in about 587/86 BC. And the people were sent into exile, mostly to the city of Babylon.

If Isaiah had been alive at this time, the people probably would have said, “WTF, Isaiah? You said this couldn’t happen!” But Isaiah’s word concerning Jerusalem was for Isaiah’s time. The prophets of their time, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, warned them in stark terms, “Do NOT think God will save you this time. You have not repented of your unjust and unrighteous ways. Do not think the Temple of the LORD will save you. God has removed his glory from that place.” Even with his high view of Zionist theology, Isaiah probably would have said the same thing.

Second Isaiah

Like many other prophets, Isaiah had a school where he taught others to receive messages from God as a prophet. The school likely continued after his death. Over the years, they preserved his writings and teachings. They may have continued to write in his name. This was actually common in the ancient world. Students of a particular school, if they had mastered the founder’s teachings, might write new documents in his name.

Around 545 BC, there was a new major player on the world scene. Cyrus, king of Persia, looked like someone who could challenge the might of Babylon. As he racked up victories on the battlefield, a new hope arose for the Jews in exile, because unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians before, he acted with justice and righteousness.

In about 539/8 BC, he conquered the city of Babylon, and all of Babylon’s territory became part of the Persian empire. Two things are remarkable about Cyrus’s victory. One, the people of Babylon opened the gates for him, so he took the city without bloodshed. Two, one of the students of Isaiah’s school predicted his rise to power.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed:  

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

(Isa 45:1-6 NRS)

This is Second Isaiah, responsible for chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. He appears to have written between 545-539 BC, before Cyrus’s ultimate victory over Babylon. Second Isaiah predicted Cyrus would succeed in taking over the Babylonian empire, because the LORD had chosen him to rule and to free Israel, God’s chosen. He also predicted Cyrus would allow the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. And so his chapters are filled with hope and anticipation. “It won’t be long now. We will go home, thanks to our God and his chosen one, Cyrus.”

When the LORD Restored the Fortunes of Zion …

I have taken you on this brief journey back in time in the hopes that you could have some sense of how dreamlike it was to the Jews in Exile when the student of Isaiah told them they would return to their ancestral home of Jerusalem. The sense they had of being God’s chosen people and nation had burned down with their beloved city. For decades, the Babylonians had mocked them, saying, “Where is your God?” and they had no answer.

Now, God is promising deliverance through a foreigner named Cyrus, and they are seeing it come true. City after city either falls or surrenders to him. God calls him his “anointed,” like David. God calls him by name, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is all so strange. They are not used to hearing God talk like this about a Gentile king. And yet, if this was how God chose to deliver them from Exile, I don’t think any of them would have complained.

Comparing First and Second Isaiah

When you read First Isaiah, there is a strong sense of looming judgment. And it was no mystery how it would come. Assyria would steamroll them like they had everyone else. Though there is hope in Isaiah, it’s mostly directed toward a future king, a Messiah, who would execute justice and righteousness for the people (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-9). At times, it seems Isaiah believed the Jews’ present king, Hezekiah, could have been that Messiah. But for the present, he is mostly gloom and doom. Repent! Judgment is coming! Repent! Judgment is coming!

Right from the beginning, he says,

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!

(Isa 1:2-4 NRS)

What is the result?

Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.

(Isa 1:7 NRS)

Why has judgment come?

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers! … Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

 (Isa 1:21, 23 NRS)

That’s a small sampling, but it tells you mostly what you need to know about why God is angry, and why judgment has come for Israel and is coming for Judah.

… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry [of distress]!

(Isa 5:7 NRS)

But later, when you turn the page to chapter 40, suddenly the tone is entirely different.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

 (Isa 40:1-2 NRS)

That is the tone through most of Second Isaiah. The thrust of First Isaiah is judgment is coming. The thrust of Second Isaiah is judgment is over. First Isaiah makes sense when there is an enemy like Assyria, looking at them like a wolf licking its chops. Second Isaiah makes sense only after they have received their punishment. Now, God says Jerusalem has received double for all her sins. Their debt is paid in full. There is nothing to prevent them from returning home to Zion. He goes on to say,

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

 (Isa 40:4-5 NRS)

God will clear the way home for them. They had just been through the longest, darkest night in their history since the period of slavery in Egypt, and they were about to come out of it.

The Dark Night of the Soul Is Over

I don’t know where you are in your journey. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you finally see yourself coming out of your own dark night of the soul, like the Jews when Cyrus conquered Babylon. Maybe you are still so deep in darkness you can’t see the deliverance yet. I was there just a few years ago myself, but I can see it now. There were many years when the Jews thought they were stuck in Babylon with no way home. So don’t give up. Sometimes it’s just about living long enough for your work to start bearing fruit.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

 (Psa 126:1-2 NRS)

Now that you have the background, next week I’ll talk about the songs of the Suffering Servant and what they mean in the context of Second Isaiah and recovery.

Translation Notes

וַיְקַ֤ו לְמִשְׁפָּט֙ וְהִנֵּ֣ה מִשְׂפָּ֔ח לִצְדָקָ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה צְעָקָֽה׃ ס

 (Isa 5:7 WTT)

… [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7 NRS)

There is a pun in the Hebrew text not apparent in any English translation. The word for justice here (as in most cases throughout the Hebrew Bible) is mishpat. It carries with it the same meanings as in English. Justice, as in the justice system and its execution through legal process. Justice in a more conceptual sense of fairness and equality. It can also refer to following established customs and procedures. In this context, it is a synonym for “righteousness.”

The word for “bloodshed” is mishpach. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as “a breach of law,” so it is the opposite of mishpat. BDB defines it as an “outpouring (of blood), bloodshed,” the inevitable result when a society abandons mishpat. So to show the pun, I’ll say it like this.

He expected mishpat, but saw mishpach

The word for “righteousness,” here as in most places in the Hebrew Bible, is tzedakah. It can mean right behavior in general, honesty, integrity, or doing the right thing. It is often paired with mishpat (as in this verse), making it a synonym for justice. In the plural, it often refers to acts of generosity. The box in the Temple for collecting donations for the poor (Mark 12:41-44) was called a tzedakah box, and they are still found in synagogues today.

The word for “a cry” is tze`akah. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as a “cry of wailing, call for help.” It is the same word God used when God told Moses the cry of the Israelites living under slavery in Egypt had reached God’s ears (Exo 3:7). So Isaiah is charging the nations of Israel and Judah with being just as oppressive to the poor, the slave, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and alien as Egypt was to them. So again to show the pun,

… [God expected] tzedakah, but heard tze`akah.

Little Known Facts about Christmas Traditions

I thought I would take a break from blogging for the holidays. However, I managed to get this put together. It’s shorter than previous posts, and I didn’t get everything in here I wanted to. Just a little bit of background about our Christian traditions.

Did You Know?

Jesus was not really born on December 25

The Gospel of Luke says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth.

Emerson White Hours's depiction of the annunciation to the shepherds
The angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). Painting ca. 1485-90,

So why do we celebrate on December 25th, you ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, when and where a great man was born was not necessarily important in the ancient world. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Ancient Christian confession

They didn’t care much about his birth, at least not at first. The less they knew about his natural origins, the better (Heb 7:3; Jn 1:1-3). Great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them.

It was only in later years, maybe around the 70’s and after, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem?

Luke investigated (Luk 1:1-4) and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be … Bethlehem! So we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi he would have been born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them to pass along to let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

cave painting of the magi
Hard to make out but this is the earliest artistic rendering of the magi discovered so far, believed to be mid-3rd century.

Sorry to Mess with Your Nativity Scene, but …

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11). An angel appeared to them in a dream and warned them not to return to Herod, so they went home without informing the reigning king. Herod responds with shocking cruelty. He orders his soldiers to kill every male child two years old or younger. Granted, Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. So even though we have no other record of this event, it is certainly consistent with Herod’s character to do this.

But why kill all the males under two years old? If he was a newborn baby, he would probably have said any male child one year old or younger. That would give you enough margin for error to get him. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking. You can tell that’s not a newborn baby. And remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or younger.

The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (called “kings” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers that be would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. His kingdom was not of this world, but it changed the world.

He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the elites, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers that be have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military power. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

“O Holy Night”

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.

For Writers: Making the Impossible Believable

In my Abraham series, I have included writing tips that are illustrated in Abraham’s stories. We came to the end of his story in my last post. This post continues that series, but it is all for writers. How can these stories help you improve your technique?

The challenge for any writer of fiction is to tell a good story that keeps the reader/audience’s attention from beginning to end. There is an unspoken agreement between the storyteller and the audience: They will suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story, as long as you keep it believable to them. The trick is to know what is believable and what is not to your audience. Or perhaps, whether you have made it believable to them.

As fiction writers, we sometimes create moments when we could easily lose the reader, because we stretched their suspension of disbelief too far. So we should always consider whether we have succeeded in making that moment of “impossible” believable. In that regard, I think we can learn a few things from the author of this saga I’ve been following for the last several weeks.

The author/editor of Abraham’s saga was most likely not so much an author as an editor. These stories had circulated orally for centuries before they were written down in what we call today the book of Genesis. So instead of creating these stories out of nothing, the writer decided to put the individual stories together into one narrative. It’s a little easier when you’re working with stories your audience is already familiar with and has accepted as part of their history. Still, there are moments when the author has to overcome the disbelief any rational person would have. Perhaps the greatest of those moments is how and when Isaac is born.

Here it is to review.

The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.

And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:1-3, 7 NRS)

Remember, Abraham is one hundred, and Sarah is ninety-one. How did the author make that moment believable to his original audience?

Know Your Readers’ Expectations

The original readers of this story probably had heard these accounts of Abraham and his family before, but not exactly the way the author presented them in this written account. This author wanted to collect all those disjointed stories into one narrative. In sewing together these different patches, sometimes the seams show. While there are a few plot holes, his audience forgave him that. I think that is because,

  1. He ordered the individual stories in a way he knew would be satisfying to his audience. This is why it is good to know how to plot. The story arc this author used was familiar to his audience.
  2. Each genre carries certain expectations. These stories primarily come from the Origin Story genre, and they fit the expectations of that genre.

Expectations and believability for the reader/audience often depend on the genre. In a murder mystery, for example, the audience expects that there is a murder, and by the end of the story, the murderer is revealed and caught. In a fantasy, the audience expects there will be magic, sword battles, and mythical creatures. A dragon as the murderer in a modern mystery would not be believable. But in a fantasy? No problem. Knowing what your audience will accept, and what they won’t, is the first step to making your story believable to them.

Use Foreshadowing, Subtly

The author is skillful in how he uses foreshadowing. He doesn’t give away too much too soon. He used the genealogies to create just enough uncertainty that the reader could think they might be able to have a son, even at their advanced age, before telling us they were too old. God hinted to Abraham his son Ishmael would fulfill his destiny apart from him before it happened. If Ishmael was not the child of the promise, then who? His heir would come through Sarah.

And beyond this story, Isaac’s role in the story foreshadows many things that will happen later in the Torah.

  • Meetings at a well that lead to marriage (Jacob and Moses).
  • Wives who have difficulty conceiving and bearing a child (Rebekah and Rachel).
  • Wives giving handmaids to their husbands to conceive and bear a child (Rachel and her handmaid, Zilpah).
  • Parents’ favoritism or rejection leads to dysfunction among siblings (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers).
  • Covenants that involve name changes (Jacob to Israel).

Foreshadowing, when used well, will help the reader/audience maintain their suspension of disbelief and accept the “impossible” as the natural outcome of your story.

Show the Heroes’ Humanity

When God appears to Abraham at ninety-nine years of age and says he will have a son with Sarah, who was ninety, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom 4:19-20 NRS).

That’s the “hero of the faith” version, which is totally unreal and not how the story tells it originally. How did Abraham really react? “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (Gen 17:17 NRS), and that’s how any human with a brain would have reacted. Sarah also laughed, and who could blame them? Any of us would have laughed at that as well. They know as well as we do this is impossible.

Sarah overhears three angels promise her a son
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen 18:14 NRS)

When the promise is fulfilled, we see Sarah’s humanity in her joy as she holds her newborn son. She lets us know everything she went through to get to this moment was worth it. The author shows their humanity in so many other ways as well. In contrast, Paul presents them as believing God, and it being accounted to them as righteousness (Rom 4:3, 9; Gal 3:6), as if this were a 24/7/365 reality. God said it. They believed it. And that settled it, once and for all.

That is not usually what a life of faith looks like, and Abraham and Sarah are prime examples. When God commanded, they obeyed. But for years, they struggled to understand what God really wanted from them. They said things like, “How do I know this is true?” (Gen 15:8). God said things that made them laugh. They wavered between belief and disbelief in the long time between promise and fulfillment.

Another thing to remember is even heroes have faults. I have talked about failings in the character of both Abraham and Sarah. Whatever character flaws your characters have, you don’t need to hide them. They make your characters more human. Some of the most fascinating characters are those who infuriate us one moment and inspire us the next.

Prepare the Reader for the Big Moment

Abraham and Sarah are going to have a son. That is the most crucial event of this story. It has to happen, and it’s impossible. Everyone knows it is impossible. So how can the reader believe it when it happens? In this case, they are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah, so they know it happened. The big question they had was not if but how.

Getting back to genre expectations, origin stories often involve interactions between human heroes and divine beings. In this case, when God announces the big moment to Abraham, God has already appeared to him twice. God has made big promises to him, but none of them can come true unless he has a son with Sarah. That is the one promise God absolutely must fulfill in this story. The rest can happen later, but this has to happen now.

The author has helped prepare the audience for this moment by how God has guided Abraham thus far. God only hinted at the promise before. They did not understand what God meant at first. Then, at this crucial moment, God promises much more specifically to both Abraham and Sarah. And when they actually did “weaken in faith” and “waver concerning the promises of God” momentarily, God made sure there was no misunderstanding this time. God made specific promises, not that this will happen sometime in the future. It will happen “by this time next year.”

They had hoped for this sooner. They had given up hope of it ever happening. But God keeps God’s promises at the time God chooses. And now, I, the angel of the LORD, am telling you, this is the appointed time.

Bring in an All-Powerful God

Origin stories often use a technique called Deux ex Machina, literally “God of the Machine.” Just when everything is lost, some divine being—a god, goddess, angel, etc.—swoops in and fixes everything. Today, that is considered an amateur move. This author avoids that pitfall, however, by having God appear to Abraham before this and make promises that are not specific enough. The audience knows more than Abraham and Sarah. They know God wants this to happen, even when Abraham and Sarah have given up on it.

This is God’s third visitation to Abraham, so the big pronouncement does not come out of the blue. It is consistent both with the previous appearances and what God has promised before. “I am El Shaddai,” God tells Abraham this time (Gen 17:1). That is a name Abraham has not heard before, so that alerts him and us the story is about to take an important turn.

This particular name is usually translated “God Almighty.” Another meaning I found was “God the Overcomer,” meaning that God can and will overcome any obstacles when it’s time to fulfill a promise. In this case, the obstacles were pretty significant. To review,

  • Though they were still in good health, the text makes it clear they were not having sex anymore. Not because they were unwilling, but because they were both unable.
  • The deadness of Sarah’s womb. She never had a child nor got pregnant, even when she was young.
  • Even if somehow God made her barren womb fertile, Abraham still had to rise to the occasion. That hadn’t happened in years, because (D’uh!) he was nearly a hundred years old.

But God addressed those objections even before Abraham had a chance to raise them by saying, “I am the God who overcomes every obstacle that exists and any that will exist.” And when God tells Sarah, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” that signals to her and the audience this is going to happen, in spite of any obstacles that would normally prevent it.

If your type of story allows it, you can bring in a god, goddess, angel, or superhero to make whatever needs to happen happen. Just be sure you’ve set the reader up to accept it, so you don’t look like an amateur.

Have Your Heroes Make Missteps along the Way

It was twenty-five years from when God promised Abraham a son of his own issue to when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. When God first promised, Abraham had no problem believing it. He was still a “young man” of seventy-five. He and Sarah still were active in the bedroom. Sure, she was sixty-six and had not yet had a child. But if God promised he would have a son, he would have a son. God would do God’s part in fulfilling the promise as long as they did their part (keep having sex).

But after ten more years of trying, still nothing. Sarah concluded if Abraham was to have a son of his own issue, it would have to be through another woman. So she convinced her husband to go in to her handmaid, and he had a son, Ishmael. On the one hand, it was a misstep. They stopped believing that they would have a son together. On the other hand, this misstep was not a product of doubting the promises of God.

God had not yet promised that Abraham’s heir would come through Sarah. God only promised that he would have a son of his own issue. Sarah was seventy-six before she resorted to bringing in a surrogate. She had no reason to believe at that point there was any other way. They gave up only after giving every reasonable chance, and then some, for God to make it happen. And that makes the big moment even bigger.

Heroes Recognize the Moment When It Comes, Even after Hope Is Lost

God shows up again when Abraham is ninety-nine and says now is the time, and Abraham is elated. He jumps for joy that the hope he had been living for was about to happen. Sarah is ninety when God tells her this is it, and she forgets the deadness of her womb and her husband’s flesh. She believes immediately and does not doubt it, because God said it. You know I’m kidding, right?

Sarah and Abraham react the same way at first. They laugh, not for joy, but because the very idea is utterly ridiculous. They had given up on this happening years ago. If God wanted this to happen, God should have done it before now. But note that God did not say, “You don’t believe me? Then forget it. I won’t do this for you, because you doubted my word.”

Instead, God makes it clear this is no joke. For Abraham, God repeats the promise and lets him know Ishmael is not forgotten. God will make him a great nation as well. But his heir would come through Sarah, “by this time next year.” Then God appears again and repeats it so Sarah can hear.

Last time God promised this, God was totally vague about how and when it would happen. This time, God is totally clear. You, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. And God says, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” When God makes a promise, nothing is too wonderful to prevent God from fulfilling it. God even incorporates their laughter into the promise by saying, “You will name him, ‘He laughs.’”

How did they recognize now was the time? God finally told them so. But did they believe immediately? No, they laughed. Even if they did, that was not enough to make it happen. If Abraham was not able, he was not able. If Sarah’s womb was barren, it was barren. There was nothing either of them could do to change it. The only thing they could do at this point was be open to the possibility. And that was all God required of them.

And there was one other way they recognized it was time. After all God did to tell them to be ready, there was one particular sign they needed to see. One day, for the first time in years, Abraham was able to get it up. Sorry for being crude there, but we’re adults. We know without that, there was no way God’s promise could be fulfilled. Somehow, God brought both their dead flesh back to life. Sarah conceived and bore a son at ninety-one, and they named him Isaac (“he laughs”).

Irony Makes for Memorable Stories

Sarah laughed again (Gen 21:6-7), but the meaning of her laughter changed from disbelief to joy. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” to remind both Abraham and Sarah they once thought this was impossible. When a story turns in a way either the characters or audience doesn’t expect, that creates irony. I’ve talked in previous posts about how the author uses irony effectively. The irony happens when they go from laughing at God to laughing with God. For the Israelites who first heard this story, the irony was a reminder that their very existence was once considered impossible, just like Isaac’s.

As I’ve examined how the author used irony in Abraham’s story, I was struck thinking how many of my favorite stories, the ones I come back to time and again, make effective use of irony. And it is not just in this story. Across many different authors and thousands of years going back to when these stories were first told around campfires, the stories in the Bible use irony as much as O. Henry. When it comes to making the impossible believable in your stories, irony says to the reader, “I know you didn’t expect this. I know you thought this was impossible. Now, I just showed you it’s not.”

From generation to generation, this and all the stories in the Bible have been passed down, because they are so memorable. They make us believe the impossible is possible. Or if not believe, they at least make us question whether “impossible” really is an absolute term. They open us, like Abraham and Sarah, to possibilities we had once dismissed. I think one reason is because this author and all the others represented in the Bible saw and highlighted the irony in the stories they passed down to us.

Whether or Not This “Really Happened” Really Doesn’t Matter

Anne Rice is a bestselling author who first became famous for her vampire novels. After a conversion, she turned her attention for a while toward religious fiction. In an interview, she said she used to have readers call her at 2:00 AM, begging her to reassure them that her vampires really were made up. In fiction, it doesn’t have to be real. It has to be believable.

Perhaps the same can be said of Abraham’s saga. I’m not saying it’s fiction. I’m saying it is an origin story. The reason we study origin stories is not to learn historical fact so much as to learn about the personality and culture of the people who produced those stories. What experts have found is they often began with some historical event. Over time, legends and myths grow around that event. Homer’s Iliad, for example, was once thought to be pure myth. Then archaeological excavations of the city of Troy revealed it was once a prosperous city that underwent siege and destruction around the same time as Homer said.

That does not prove that everything it says about the gods and goddesses and Helen’s abduction/escape launching a thousand ships all “really happened” as well. But it appears the whole saga began with a real event. Experts still study the Iliad to learn about the character of the people who produced those stories.

The Hebrew Bible was written primarily in what they called the land of Canaan. However, those authors were familiar with Babylonian myths. They showed some influences from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian sources. The story itself says Abraham immigrated to Canaan from cities in Mesopotamia. Could that point to a historic migration of people from Mesopotamia who eventually became part of the Hebrews and Israelites? He left the city and became a nomad and herder, so perhaps they were herders as well.

Tissot, the Caravan of Abraham
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. (Gen 12:5 NRS)

What is most important in origin stories is usually the moral and theological lessons they teach. What lessons did this author want to teach?

  1. God called their ancestors to this land with the intention that they would inherit it.
  2. God chose them to bring justice, righteousness, and the fear of God to this land.
  3. God preserved offspring through their ancestors so that through them, at the right time, the Messiah would come into the world.
  4. Remember all of God’s promises, and make sure your children know them. One day, they will all be fulfilled.
  5. Remember “nothing is too wonderful for the LORD” when it is time to fulfill a promise.
  6. Do not despise the Ishmaelites, because God had a purpose for them as well.

So what about your WIP?

Do you know the expectations of your genre? Are you meeting them? If you want your readers to believe something impossible, how are you going to make it believable? If you do it right, they should see the “impossible” become “inevitable,” just as it was inevitable that Sarah have a son at the tender age of ninety-one.

Abraham’s Story Ends

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Southern View
Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham and Sarah are buried. Photo by Utilisateur:Djampa – User:Djampa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7964820

It was very important that Isaac have a wife. That has been done. The next episode is written like an archive record according to my NRSV Study Bible (Genesis 25:1-18). This is an example of how the Bible was not written simply by divine dictation. The authors had written and oral sources they used and maybe edited as well. The archive gives Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, their descendants, his death and burial, and the descendants of Ishmael.

Another Wife, Whose Name Was Keturah

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.

(Gen 25:1-2 NRS)

Another wife, and he had six children with her. I assume this was after Sarah’s death, and after Isaac married Rebekah (Genesis 24:66-67). This would make him over one hundred forty years old. It took one hundred years for him to have one child with Sarah. Now he has six with his new wife in just a few years, relatively.

Not sure why he felt the need for it. He was too weak to travel in the previous chapter, but then he’s healthy enough to marry again and start bearing children to another woman? Again, the details of Abraham’s story are not always consistent. But if we allow that he had another revival of health, like the one that produced Isaac, what will become of these children?

Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah.

(Gen 25:3-4 NRS)

The sons of Midian are the most significant of this group. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, was a Midianite. Despite that, they often tried to thwart the Israelites during their wandering in the Wilderness (Num 22:4; cf. Jdg 6:1).

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

(Gen 25:5-6 NRS)

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. We saw how stingy Sarah was about giving anything to Hagar and Ishmael, even food and water, when she sent them away. Abraham gave nothing to his other sons as far as inheritance. But he gave them gifts while he was still living. I think, without Sarah to oppose him, he was probably more generous with these gifts than he was with Hagar and Ishmael. But Sarah’s word, “The son(s) of the slave woman will not inherit with my son,” prevailed (21:10).

The sons of his concubines; why does it give the plural, concubines? Hagar was called both Abraham’s wife and his concubine. The same is happening with Keturah. Maybe that means both Hagar and Keturah. Did he give any gifts to Ishmael after Sarah died? As a writer, I would like to play with that possibility and imagine Ishmael’s reaction when he receives the gifts.

An Old Man Full of Years

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.

(Gen 25:7-8 NRS)

One hundred seventy-five years was believed to be an above average, but still normal, life span in the age of the patriarchs.

Abraham breathed his last …. There are a number of English expressions that come from the Bible (see v. 17; 49:33). I think this might be one of them.

…and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years. This is the fulfillment of the promise God made him in the covenant. “As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (Gen 15:15 NRS).

…and was gathered to his people, a biblical euphemism for death and burial. Cf. Gen 25:17; 35:29; 49:29, 33.

Isaac and Ishmael Buried Him

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with his wife Sarah. 

(Gen 25:9-10 NRS)

Despite his troubled history with his father, Ishmael was there to bury him with Isaac. In the cave of Machpelah…the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. See 23:16-18. He was buried there with his wife Sarah.

tomb of Abraham, northwestern view
Tomb of Abraham, photo by By A ntv – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12042233

There is a lot left out, particularly any tension between Isaac and Ishmael. Compare that with all the detail of how Abraham bought this cave as a family burial plot, or how Abraham’s servant vowed (TMI there), went to Haran, and brought back a wife for Isaac. Those conversations are recorded in detail. There is literally nothing of the conversation between these two half-brothers. The archivists who recorded this were not concerned with that. They were only concerned with the facts: How old Abraham was when he died, where he was buried, and who was there.

After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

(Gen 25:11 NRS)

Beer-lahai-roi, the place where the angel of the LORD saved Hagar when she was still pregnant with Ishmael (16:10-14), is where Isaac settled. Did Ishmael see this as one more thing his half-brother took from him?

The Twelve Princes of Ishmael

These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes.

(Gen 25:12-16 NRS)

This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

(Gen 17:20 NRS)

… and Hagar:

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

(Gen 16:10 NRS)

Ishmael had twelve sons, who became twelve princes according to their tribes, like Jacob later. The descendants of Ishmael are called Ishmaelites and Hagrites (Psa 83:6; 1 Chr 5:19). The names are also recorded in Chronicles, along with each of their descendants (1 Chr 1:29-43).

The Handmaid and Her Son

Depending on the situation, Hagar is referred to as Abraham’s wife, concubine, or Sarah’s slave girl. It reminds me of how Offred was treated by the Waterfords in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fred sometimes wanted a relationship with Offred and at times engaged in activities outside the bounds of her role as a “concubine,” almost like he wanted her to be a second wife. Serena treated her at best like a concubine and at worst like a slave girl. The impression I get from the texts regarding Hagar is pretty much the same in her relations with Abraham and Sarah.

The Ishmaelites were known as nomads, but they also had villages and encampments, like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones. {Yeah, I’m a nerd. You got a problem with that?}

From Havilah to Shur

(This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.)

They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

(Gen 25:17-18 NRS)

Ishmael’s death is recorded in archival fashion similar to Abraham’s (cf. vv. 7-8). They settled from Havilah to Shur. Just prior to King David, this territory was settled by the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7).

The land of Havilah has several possible locations, as this map indicates.

Map of ancient tribes includes various Havilah locations
Havilah shown in modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.

Here, it appears to be the territory in present day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is mentioned as part of the Garden of Eden, where the river Pishon once flowed (Gen 2:11). A ancient source called Pseudo-Philo said this land exported jewels to the Amorites, who used them in making their idols.

Shur means “wall.” The location is given as opposite Egypt.

Map, likely location of Shur
They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; (Gen 25:18 NRS)

In the direction of Assyria would indicate the northeastern border of Egypt, as Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1893) says.

Shur is “a part, probably, of the Arabian desert, on the north-eastern border of Egypt, giving its name to a wilderness extending from Egypt toward Philistia (Gen. 16:7; 20:1; 25:18; Ex. 15:22). The name was probably given to it from the wall which the Egyptians built to defend their frontier on the north-east from the desert tribes. This wall or line of fortifications extended from Pelusium to Heliopolis.”

-cited in Shur, Wikipedia

He Settled Down Opposite All His People

The Egyptians are his people, because his mother was Egyptian. The land of Shur borders Egypt to the northwest. Isaac and his descendants are his people, because they have the same father. The land of Havilah borders the Negeb desert, where Isaac settled. Is this location information only?

There is another possible definition of this sentence. It could read “He fell down in opposition to all his people,” according to my NRSV Study Bible note. This is reflected in some translations.

“He settled in defiance of all his relatives” (Gen 25:18 NAS).

“And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them” (Gen 25:18 NIV).

Alongside of, or against His People?

Like the word “opposite” in English, the Hebrew phrase `al-penei can be benign, “alongside,” or “facing towards.” In that sense, it would only mean they share a border, like Georgia is opposite Alabama and South Carolina. Or it can carry the more malevolent sense of being “in opposition to” or “at odds with.” It is used twice in this verse, where the Ishmaelites settled “opposite” Egypt and “all his people.” Did they simply live alongside Egypt and Isaac (later part of Israel)? Or is this referring to the hostile relations they had at times with both Egypt and Israel?

My conclusion is this verse means the Ishmaelites shared a border with Egypt and Isaac’s land, which would later become part of the nation of Israel (See Translation Notes). However, there are other texts that indicate hostile relations between the Ishmaelites and their neighbors. Even the name Shur (meaning “wall”) refers to a border wall Egypt built for protection against raids from its neighbors, who could be the Ishmaelites, or alternatively, the Hyksos or the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7). Kedar and Nebaioth (two tribes of Ishmael) sometimes were hostile to the nation of Israel (Isa 21:16-17; 60:7; Jer 49:28; cf. Gen 28:9; 36:3).

So perhaps the double meaning of `al-penei is intentional. During times in their history when relations were friendly or at least neutral, it would mean “alongside of.” During times when relations were antagonistic, it would mean “in hostility.”

The End

Abraham’s saga began with a genealogy (Gen 11:10-32) and now ends with a genealogy (25:12-18). “The emphasis here is on the secondary lines of Abraham’s—those displaced by Isaac” (HC Study Bible, 25:1-18 note). We have his children by Keturah and the descendants of Ishmael. This completes the character study of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Lot and his daughters, based on the Biblical material. There are other sources we could consult about them: Rabbinic commentaries, the Koran, archeology, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET). But the Biblical material has given us quite a bit. There are others I’m not naming, like Isaac and Rebekah, because their stories have not finished.

For Writers: Choosing a POV Character

If I were to make a work of fiction based on these stories, I would look for a Point of View (POV) character. Abraham would be difficult. Even though he’s the main character, and he was there for all of it (except his death and burial), it’s a bit daunting to try to get inside the head of someone who plays such a big role in the Bible. Sarah would be difficult for the same reason, and because after going through this story in detail, I have less sympathy for her overall. Notice, I didn’t say no sympathy. I said less sympathy. I would want to portray them both honestly, flaws and all, not excusing their bad behavior at times, but trying to make the reader sympathize with them in spite of that.

Most of my favorite biblical or historical fiction is not from the POV of one of the big names but rather from someone close to them. Eliezer of Damascus would be a good candidate in that vein. Or one of the unnamed slaves of Abraham or Sarah. Or one of the co-religionists, who followed Abraham and Sarah from Haran because they worshiped the same god. If I chose Hagar or Ishmael, I would have to make the story about them, with Abraham and Sarah as secondary characters, who could recede into the background after they were sent away. I would have a hard time making Hagar the POV character. She is much more fascinating than I realized. But I feel Margaret Atwood has already done a great job capturing all the complexities of her character in June/Offred. {Disclaimer: Atwood never claimed June was based on Hagar, but I say the similarities are undeniable.}


Who would you choose as a POV character? Would you choose more than one (that will make it more difficult to publish today, just so you know)? Personally, I know I couldn’t do Abraham’s whole story from Ishmael’s point of view (He was only with his father for about seventeen years). But he would make a great POV character at least for the time he was with Abraham and Sarah.

“Props” for Ishmael

I think Ishmael would make a fascinating character, because I haven’t seen a serious in-depth story done of him as biblical fiction, and because he is the unwanted stepchild in this story. A troubled childhood has so much potential for character development. It could not have been easy growing up knowing he was his father’s plan B. Plan C, actually, because before he was born, Abraham had made his servant, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir in lieu of a son of his own issue (Gen 15:2). As his stepmother, Sarah probably loved him until Isaac was born. What happens to Plan C when Plan A suddenly becomes reality? If he picked on Isaac a little, it was probably the frustration of losing Abraham and Sarah to their natural son.

Then he learned at an early age that masters have absolute power over their slaves when Sarah insisted casting them out into the Wilderness, along with his mother, and Abraham obeyed. He learned then he was going to have to be tough to survive in this world. There were only two people he could count on, his natural mother and himself. And one other, El-roi, “the God Who Sees.” And so he spent about seventy years of his living “alongside” his father and half-brother. And after all that, he showed up for his father’s funeral.

That rough childhood prepared him for life in the wilderness (Gen 21:20). All that happened to him, fair or not, made him into the man he became: a wild ass of a man, strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions. Those details alone are enough to create a fascinating character.

Conclusion

I will save any further conclusions for the next post. I thought I already knew these characters, but they have all surprised me again and again on this extended in-depth character study. I hope you got something out of it as well.  

Translation Notes

I include these notes for people who (like me) love dissecting the original languages. If that’s not your bag, I put the pertinent information in subheadings and bold text.

They Settled from Havilah to Shur

וַיִּשְׁכְּנ֙וּ מֵֽחֲוִילָ֜ה עַד־שׁ֗וּר (Gen 25:18 WTT)—vayyishkenu mechavilah `ad-shur.

They settled from Havilah to Shur.

Hol8596  שָׁכַן (shakan) Settle or dwell. {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine plural}

It looks like there is a puncta extraordinaria over “Shur.” In some cases, this can indicate a significant difference, as you saw if you read my post on Lot’s Daughters. However, none of the commentaries pointed it out here, so it’s probably not important. My guess is it only calls for a defective spelling (without the vav).

Opposite Egypt

עַל־פְּנֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם (Gen 25:18 WTT)– `al-penei mitzrayim.

Opposite Egypt, or alongside Egypt.

`al-penei, lit. “against the face of.” Halladay’s lexicon says,

15. in the face of, in the sight of, before 2S 1518; in front of 1K 63; opposite to Gn 2319; against = to the disadvantage of Dt 2116.

(pg 294)

BDB says,

(d) of localities, in front of, mostly (but not always: v. GFM:Ju., p. 351) = east of, 1 K 6:3 the porch in front of, etc., v:3, 7:6, 8:8, 2 Ch 3:17, Ez 42:8; Gn 16:12 על־פני כל־אחיו ישׁכן (cf. 25:18 b), perh. (Di al.) with collateral idea of defiance;

The “collateral idea of defiance” is most significant. He could have been both alongside of his people and in defiance of them.

In the Direction of Assyria

בֹּאֲכָ֖ה אַשּׁ֑וּרָה (Gen 25:18 WTT)—bo’achah ’ashshurah.

Hol838  אַשּׁוּר  (‘ashur) a proper noun referring either to the city of Asshur or (most likely in this case) the territory of Assyria; “directional heh” at the end makes it “to Asshur” or “to Assyria.”

In the direction of Assyria, lit. “as you go to Assyria” (or “to Asshur”).

Hol975  בּוא (bo’) Go in, come, or arrive. {verb qal infinitive construct; suffix 2nd person masculine singular}  

BDB says,

e. † in phr. עַד־בּוֹאֲךָ עַזָּה Ju 6:4 cf. 11:33, 1 S 17:52, 2 S 5:25, 1 K 18:46 (עַד־בֹּאֲכָה) until thou comest to = as far as; so also בּוֹאֲךָ (בֹּאֲכָה) alone, = as far as, or in the direction of, Gn 10:19, 10:19, 10:30, 13:10, 25:18, 1 S 27:8 (all sq. ךָה loc.) 1 S 15:7; so לְבאֹ חֲמָת Nu 13:21, 34:8, Ez 48:1, cf. Ez 47:15 (in a different connexion לָבוֹא אפרתה Gn 35:16, 48:7);

He Settled Down alongside of All His People

עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו נָפָֽל׃ (Gen 25:18 WTT)—`al-penei kal-echav naphal.

…he settled down alongside of all his people.  (Gen 25:18 NRS)

`al-penei, see above.

kal-’echav, lit. “all his kindred.”

The wording is almost the same as 16:12, the only difference being the verb is shakan “to settle” rather than naphal “to fall.” There, the footnote reads:

The same phrase is used of the lands of Ishmael’s descendants in 25:18. It can be translated “in opposition to” (Deut 21:16; Job 1:11; 6:28; 21:31), but here more likely means that Ishmael’s settlement was near but not in the promised land.

-YouVersion, NABRE Gen 16:12 note

He “Fell” or He “Settled”?

Naphal, lit. “he fell (down or upon),” can carry the meaning of death (1 Sam 31:8; Deut 21:1; Jdg 3:25). In fact, it was translated that way in the King James Version, … he died in the presence of all his brethren. (Gen 25:18 KJV). John Calvin commented that was how most translations read it in his time.

The Geneva Study Bible reads that way, but adds the note, “He means that his lot fell to dwell alongside his brothers as the angel promised [Gen 16:12].” They stress he died there because it was his home.

The NRSV is consistent with most modern translations, where the verb is understood to mean “he settled (down),” or perhaps “he fell upon,” as in “he raided” or “he plundered,” rather than “he died.” Though it is a consensus, it appears to be a recent development.

Halladay’s lexicon says naphal can mean “fall,” in both literal and metaphorical senses. This can include “fall upon,” as in “make a raid” or “attack” (Jos 11:7; Job 1:15).

Hol5626  נָפַל  (naphal) “abs. make a raid Jb 115; … settle opposite Gn 2518.”

However, with `al-penei, it means “settle opposite.” BDB also believes naphal here means “settle Gn 25:18 (J).”

So while naphal can in certain contexts mean “raid” or “die,” these two Hebrew lexicons believe it carries the benign sense of settling in a place opposite all his people.

This could also apply to Genesis 16:12, which is perhaps best translated, … alongside all his kindred shall he encamp (Gen 16:12 NAB), rather than … and he shall live at odds with all his kin. (Gen 16:12 NRS). See https://www.bible.com/bible/463/GEN.16.nabre, note on v. 12.

References

Genesis, the Land of Havilah, and its Gold.” (A paper prepared for Christian businessman Graham Daniels, retrieved from Genesis Science Research).

Joshua J. Mark. “Hyksos.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 15, 2017.

Topical Bible: Havilah.” Biblehub.com

Topical Bible: Shur.” Biblehub.com

Verse by Verse Commentary: Genesis 25:18.” Studylight.org.

Where is the Land of Havilah in the Bible Located?” Answers.com.

Who Were the Amalekites?” Got Questions.

Wikipedia

Havilah

Shur

Cylindrical seal of King Ur-Nammu. Seated figure is probably the king. The god Sin is represented by a crescent moon.

God as Matchmaker: Isaac and Rebekah

In the last post, Abraham returned to Kiriath-arba to bury Sarah (Genesis 23). It is one of the most poignant scenes in the entire Bible, not just in how it shows his grief but also for how the “Sons of Heth” in Kiriath-arba show friendship and kindness to him. I also started talking about the search for a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24). It is a long chapter. I wanted to break it up, so this post would not be quite as long.

So far, we saw Abraham was too old to make the journey, and he wanted Isaac to marry a woman from his own kindred in Haran. However, he did not want Isaac to go there himself. Apparently, he was afraid if Isaac went to Haran, he would stay there, like his father Terah had done. So he sent his oldest and most trusted servant to the city of his brother Nahor to find a wife for his son Isaac.

The servant swore to do as he asked, but with one caveat. If the woman was not willing to come back with him, he would be released from the oath. Abraham agreed (Genesis 24:1-9). That’s where we pick up the story.

Will Ten Camels Be Enough?

Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor.

He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.

 (Gen 24:10-11 NRS)
Map of Aram-naharaim, a.k.a., Haran
Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. (Gen 24:10 NRS)

The servant, most likely Eliezer of Damascus, the servant who at one time was made an heir, because Abraham had no children at the time (Gen 15:2-3). He’s taking ten camels and all kinds of choice gifts, no doubt to entice the woman to agree to marry his master’s son, sight unseen. The ten camels, it turns out will be necessary to bring not only the girl but the maids she will take with her.

Aram-naharaim, appears to be another name for Haran (Gen 11:31). He made the camels kneel down, because you have to do that to dismount from a camel. I remember that from my past trip to Israel.

Outside the city by the well of water, usually the first stop for a traveler. They would naturally be thirsty. It was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water, you would want to go when the sun was not so brutal during the day. But I thought the time for drawing water was in the morning. Anyway, it was the ideal time for the servant to see some of the women of Haran. But how will he know who he should ask to be the wife of his master’s son?

WWAD?

What would Abraham do? Ask the LORD.

And he said, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’– let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

(Gen 24:12-14 NRS)

I’ve heard of “putting fleece before the LORD.” It refers to Gideon’s call. God told Gideon to attack the Midianites, because they were oppressing the people of his tribe. He wanted a sign to be sure it was really God, so he said,

“I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.”

And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.

(Jdg 6:37-38 NRS)

How will Gideon know this is really God speaking to him? He will lay fleece on the threshing floor. In the morning, if the ground around it is dry, but the fleece is wet, he will know it’s the LORD. And it was so.

The servant appears to be doing something similar. He will ask a girl for a drink of water, which almost any girl in that society would have given. If she offers water for his camels as well without him asking, he will know that you have shown steadfast love to my master. In other words, she is the one God has chosen for Isaac.

There Was Rebekah

Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder.

(Gen 24:15 NRS)

We were introduced to this part of Abraham’s family tree in Genesis 22:20-24. Nahor (Abraham’s brother) and his wife (and niece) Milcah had eight children, Bethuel being one of them. Bethuel was the father of Rebekah, ergo Abraham was her great uncle. She was then Isaac’s cousin, either second cousin first removed, or first cousin second removed. I have a hard time keeping that straight. She fits the criteria Abraham gave the servant.

Of course, incestuous marriages like this would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But for Abraham’s family, marrying in the family seems to have been preferred.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister: "That's cute."
What does Cersei have in common with Sarah?

The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up.

Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.”

“Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink.

(Gen 24:16-18 NRS)

She was very fair to look upon, always a bonus. It may seem sexist to think in those terms, but isn’t the princess in every fairy tale beautiful? And, to be fair, the prince who wants to marry her is always rich.

A virgin, whom no man had known. Okay, this is sexist. Women were expected to be virgins when they married. For most men, this was very important. But did the man himself have to be a virgin? No. It was a patriarchal society, so there were some double standards.

My lord, not literally. It was a polite way to address someone. Here, I picture him receiving the cup from her and hesitating. He waits for her to offer water to his camels. He looks expectantly at her. She smiles at first but then raises one eyebrow as if she’s thinking, “Why are you looking at me like that?” He sighs, drinks the water and hands the cup back to her.

When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.”

(Gen 24:19 NRS)

The Daughter of Bethuel Son of Milcah, Whom She Bore to Nahor

Good thing he had finished drinking, because he would have spit it out when she said this. God has not only been faithful but extremely prompt. He had seen her even before he had finished praying and run to meet her. And yes, she is the one.

So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”

She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.”

(Gen 24:20-24 NRS)

She had already passed his “fleece” test, but he’s still watching her to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. He doesn’t make his move until the camels had finished drinking. This might indicate why Abraham entrusted this task to him. He knew this servant would be as diligent in examining the woman as Abraham himself.

Painting of Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Rebecca draws water for Abraham’s servant

She is beautiful and kind. That’s enough for him to offer a few of the gifts he had brought to win the girl’s favor. What did she think when she saw them? When women drew water for thirsty travelers, they did not expect gifts for it. It was just normal hospitality.

He asks to spend the night at her father’s house. Again, this was within the hospitality customs of the time. She didn’t need the gifts for that. He wants to know about her family. She introduces herself as the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor. Instead of her own name, she gives the name of her father, grandmother, and grandfather. Ancestry was usually traced through the fathers, so I think it’s unusual that she includes her grandmother, Milcah. But the servant knows all of these names as relatives of his master. She has passed not only his “fleece” test but also met his master’s requirements.

A Place to Spend the Night

She added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to spend the night.”

(Gen 24:25 NRS)

So he can stay with her family tonight and tell them the purpose of his journey. I can only imagine his excitement.

The man bowed his head and worshiped the LORD and said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”

(Gen 24:26-27 NRS)

He wasted no time thanking Abraham’s God for his success. Rebekah knows something big is about to happen to her.

Then the girl ran and told her mother’s household about these things.

(Gen 24:28 NRS)

I’m not sure, but I think it is unusual to call it her mother’s household rather than her father’s. In her novel The Red Tent, Anita Diamant presents the women of Dinah’s family as more autonomous than one would expect in a patriarchal culture. In subtle ways, this story seems to be raising that as a real possibility.

And Let Me Introduce You to My Brother, Laban

Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban; and Laban ran out to the man, to the spring. As soon as he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man; and there he was, standing by the camels at the spring.

(Gen 24:29-30 NRS)

As soon as he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms … he went to the man. This hints at Laban’s greed, which later will play into the story of Jacob.

Thus the man spoke to me.” He hasn’t told her much so far. He asked for water for himself. He asked who her family was and if he could spend the night. She heard him thank his god, called Yahweh, for steadfast love and faithfulness to his master. And she knows his master is of her kin (v. 27). What does all of that mean? He hasn’t told her yet. But Laban saw that gold jewelry, and suddenly he was eager to meet the man.

He said, “Come in, O blessed of the LORD. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels?”

So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.

(Gen 24:30-32 NRS)

Blessed of the LORD. The patron deity of Haran was the moon god, Sin.

Cylindrical seal of King Ur-Nammu. Seated figure is probably the king. The god Sin is represented by a crescent moon.
Cylindrical seal of King Ur-Nammu, dating to about 2100 BC. The king is commissioning a governor. The god Sin is represented by a crescent moon.

How did they know about the LORD? Somehow, they must have been introduced to the god called Yahweh, either in Ur of the Chaldees or Haran. At the very least, Abraham would have told his brother, Nahor, that Yahweh had called him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1 NRS). Laban doesn’t know yet who the servant belongs to, but he probably suspects it’s Uncle Abe.

He offers standard hospitality to the servant and the men who were with him. This is the first time the story mentions anyone accompanying the servant. Although, for a long journey like this and taking ten camels with him, you would expect him to have some men with him, preferably some of his master’s trained soldiers.

I Will Not Eat until I Have Told You My Errand

Then food was set before him to eat; but he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.”

He said, “Speak on.”

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has.

 (Gen 24:33-36 NRS)

Again, I can only imagine the servant’s excitement as he speaks. He can’t even eat “until I have told my errand.”

I am Abraham’s servant. Last time they saw Uncle Abe, he was named Abram. Did they know God had changed his name to Abraham? It’s possible. There was a line of communication with him somehow (Gen 22:20-24).

Just like fairy tales have the beautiful princess, they also have the rich prince who wants to marry her. We don’t like to think of marriage being about such superficial things, but it still doesn’t hurt, does it?

“Tale as old as time/ Song as old as rhyme/ Beauty and the Rich Prince.”

The servant says his master has become wealthy … and he has given [Isaac] all that he has. I’m sure Laban is happy to hear that, especially when he hears that Uncle Abe sent him to find a wife of “his father’s house,” and “of his kindred” (vv. 3-4, 37-38). Sister Rebekah fits that description. The servant goes on to tell the details of what Abraham told him, what he had prayed, and how Rebekah checked all the boxes (vv. 39-49). Except there is one more box that needs to be checked. Two actually.

Telephoning

“I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’

“But he said to me, ‘The LORD, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my kindred; even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’

(Gen 24:39-41 NRS)

Originally, Abraham told the servant he would be free from the oath “if the woman is not willing to follow you” (24:8).

Even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath. This is the one detail the servant added (cf. vv. 3-27; 34-49). In recounting his oath to Abraham and the journey that led him to Rebekah, the servant told the story just as it happened, except they never discussed the possibility that her family will not give her to you.

This is an example of how and why telephoning occurs as stories are repeated. He is speaking to the male leaders of the household, Bethuel (her father) and Laban (her brother). It probably occurs to him then, “Oops! I didn’t ask my master what happens if her family will not let her go.”

But like Rebekah, they also have veto power over this. Adding this detail is his recognition that he needs their approval in order for his mission to be a success. Is it technically an exact literal retelling? Mostly, but not quite. Is it consistent with the spirit of the agreement, that if the party (or parties) concerned do not agree to the proposal, he is released from the vow? Yes. He cannot control their choice any more than he can control Rebekah’s.

The Thing Comes from the LORD

Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken.”

(Gen 24:50-51 NRS)

The thing comes from the LORD. That was obvious to everyone, considering how the LORD brought Rebekah to him as he was praying. They tell him he can take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son. Is this them saying, “We are the men of the house, and you, Rebekah, must do whatever we say”? Or is it them saying, “You have our blessing in this matter,” because they recognize that the LORD has spoken? I think it’s the latter, mainly because of what happens next.

When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the ground before the LORD. And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments.

(Gen 24:52-53 NRS)

My NRSV Study Bible note says these gifts are not a bride-price (v. 53 note). It is proper for him to give more gifts to Rebekah, and also to her brother and her mother, even though he still can’t be sure if Rebekah will come with him. The first necessary step has happened. An agreement has been made with her family, so it is time to celebrate. The gifts are extravagant, but his master can afford it.

We Will Call the Girl and Ask Her

Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.”

Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.”

But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the LORD has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.”

They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.”

(Gen 24:54-57 NRS)

Her brother and her mother. Again, even though the father was the final authority in the previous night’s negotiations, the mother still has a say in what happens to her daughter. And though the text does not mention her until now, this indicates she was probably there at the negotiations and nodded her agreement before her father spoke.

The servant anticipated having to get the girl’s agreement. It might seem a little late now to ask her. But in Biblical times, negotiations for the terms of a wedding always took place with the families first. We have seen the result of that. After the families of the boy and girl reached an agreement, the girl had to give her approval. So the possibility the servant raised with Abraham was still there. She could still say no.

And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?”

She said, “I will.”

(Gen 24:58 NRS)

Yes! The servant must have been ecstatic when he heard that. Imagine if she had said no. After all the signs that the LORD had blessed his mission and given him success, she could still have derailed the whole thing. But she said yes. Now there is nothing to stop him from delivering a bride to his master’s son. Not just any bride, but one that the LORD and his master together chose for him.

What Made Rebekah Agree to This?

On the face of it, it sounds crazy. We learn later that she is sixteen, significantly younger than Isaac. At the time, that was not unusual. Still, she is leaving her country, her kindred, and her father’s house to go to a foreign land (does that sound familiar?) and marry a man she has never met. What convinced her? Was it the extravagant gifts the servant showed? She knew that was just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly, his master had wealth to spare. I’m sure the servant talked up his master’s son. Maybe he said he is not only heir to his father’s wealth but his mother’s good looks as well.

I think more than anything, it was the uniqueness of this situation. She was exactly what his master told him to look for. He prayed for her to appear, and there she was. I admit sometimes it is hard to believe in God. But if this happened to you, it would be hard not to believe in God. The people of her home city worshipped the moon god Sin. But what had Sin done for her? Nothing like this, I’m sure. The LORD sent this servant to call her to be the wife of this man, who clearly had the LORD’s favor.

Who Are All These Camels For?

So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men.

(Gen 24:59 NRS)

Most rich young women at the time had a nurse, a female slave to tend to their needs. Rebekah needed a camel for her to ride as well. They don’t tell us how many men accompanied the servant, but it had to be less than eight, to be sure the woman could ride back, along with whatever she needed.

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.”

(Gen 24:60 NRS)

That is the same blessing God pronounced over Isaac and his offspring (22:17). She will become thousands of myriads. God already promised that to Isaac and all of Abraham’s descendants. May your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes. Their wish for her, in other words, is that her enemies will have no power over her offspring. Again, this is what God promised through the angel who stopped Abraham from sacrificing him.

Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

(Gen 24:61 NRS)

So it’s not just her nurse, but her maids. How many? Going back to the number of men, I’m guessing there was the servant and four men, each one riding a camel and leading another. That would leave five camels for Rebekah, her nurse, her maids, and her belongings.

Isaac Meets His Bride

Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming.

(Gen 24:62-63 NRS)

Beer-lahai-roi, see Gen 16:6-16. If he had come from here and was settled in the Negeb, that indicates he was not with his father, whom we last saw at Kiriath-arba (cf. 23:2ff). The text does not say where Abraham was when he sent the servant on this mission, so we can only assume he was still there.

The servant has returned, and it looks like his journey was a success. All the camels are either mounted or loaded with baggage.

And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?”

The servant said, “It is my master.”

So she took her veil and covered herself.

(Gen 24:64-65 NRS)

“Oh, he’s my husband.” She can’t let him see her before the wedding, so she took her veil and covered herself. Cf. Gen 29:20-25.

And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.

(Gen 24:66 NRS)

And that was quite a story. If Isaac had any doubt she was the one for him, it was gone after the servant told him everything that happened. He was forty, and she was sixteen, which for us today would be a problem. But again, it was not uncommon for this time.

He Brought Her into His Mother’s Tent

Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

(Gen 24:67 NRS)

Isaac brought her into his mother’s tent. Rebekah brought the servant to her mother’s household. It was there she learned about Isaac, so this is a nice full-circle moment.

This is another one of those humanizing moments, like I talked about in the last post. Writers, you should pay attention to this. We learned in Genesis 23 that Isaac was thirty-six when his mother died. We learn in the next chapter he was forty when he married Rebekah (25:20). It’s been four years, and he still lives in his mother’s tent. He still needs to be comforted. I haven’t lost my either of my parents, but if you have, you probably understand why he still mourns.

He took Rebekah. “Wait, we can’t talk about sex.” I always find it ironic that Christian literature often avoids talking about sex, but the Bible has no problem talking about it. In this particular case, it is not long or detailed, but it is one of the most beautiful “love scenes” in the Bible. He brought her into his mother’s tent. He took her. She became his wife. He loved her. She comforted him.

This is an example of how sex becomes making love. And in the right circumstances, with the right person, it can be a source of comfort for the wounds we carry in our hearts. It is also the perfect closure for an episode that began with Sarah’s death (23:1-2). We see her presence still looms large in Isaac’s life. And in a subtle way, it gives us a sense that she would be happy with how this worked out for her son.

And for this story’s original audience, this was the moment when both their ancestry and the bloodline of the Messiah was secured for one more generation. They didn’t have a child yet, but Isaac and Rebekah would become the parents of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.

For Writers: Self-Editing

You can (and should) get someone to edit your work. But before that, do as much self-editing as you can. One thing to look for is whether you gave the details the reader needs when they need them. At first, we are told the man goes with ten camels and all kinds of choice gifts. Later, we are told there are men with him, though not how many. The reader has one picture in their head. I wondered at first how one man could lead ten camels. Then they have to erase that picture to account for more men on the camels.

How many men? If we know that, we can guess how many camels are carrying men, since each man can only ride one camel. It was probably less than ten men, because some of the camels carried gifts. But the image would have been clearer if he had said how many men were riding. Instead, we have these men magically appear beside him in Bethuel’s tent.

And then we have this.

And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?”

(Gen 24:64-65a NRS)

When she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel. It sounds like she hopped off the camel while it was still moving, and immediately started talking to the servant. That would be a neat trick. Most people would wait for the camels to stop and kneel down (like the servant did, v. 11). And that’s probably what happened. But the way it was written made it sound like something else. You don’t want to make the reader stop to try to figure out what you mean. Make it clear from the beginning how many men are coming with the servant. Make it clear that the camels have stopped and knelt down before she “slips quickly from the camel.” The reader can fill in the rest of the details.

Translation Notes

It’s Charan, not Haran.

I have to correct an earlier mistake. In the post “Abraham’s Field of Dreams,” I noted that the city Abraham’s family moved to had the same name as his brother who died. That’s not true. It looks the same in English. But in Hebrew, the name of the city is Charan (with a cheit). It probably means “parched” (Hebrew) or “road” (Assyro-Babylonian). The “ch” is not pronounced like “church.” There is no equivalent in the English alphabet. It’s like the sound you make when you’re hocking up phlegm, as in “Chanukah,” or “chutzpah.”

Haran, Abraham’s brother, is spelled with a hei, which sounds like an “h.” It probably means “mountaineer.” Har is Hebrew for mountain.

That you have shown steadfast love … (Gen 24:14 NRS).

כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד  (Gen 24:14 WTT)

Whenever you see “steadfast love” in the NRSV, the Hebrew word is probably chesed. When it follows the verb `asah, Halladay’s lexicon renders it “show loyalty.” In this context, it would mean loyalty or faithfulness.

The servant is there on a crucial task for his master. He knows all the difficulties the LORD overcame in giving Abraham and Sarah a son. But it will all be for naught if Isaac does not have a wife, so he can continue the covenant and the bloodline to the next generation. He has seen the LORD show chesed to his master in many ways. Since so much depends on the success of this mission, he is asking the LORD to show “loyalty” (or “steadfast love” in the NRSV) to him now.

Hol2710  חֶסֶד  noun common masculine singular absolute homonym 2

‘asâ chesed show loyalty Gn 2123; [24:14].

Hol6607  עָשָׂה verb qal perfect 2nd person masculine singular homonym 1  

A Half-Shekel … Ten Shekels

A gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels (24:22).

A shekel weighs about 0.4 oz., or 11.34 grams. The gold nose-ring would be about 0.2 ounces (5.67 grams). The bracelets would be 4 ounces, or a quarter-pound (113.4 grams).

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

… His Steadfast Love and His Faithfulness (24:27 NRS)

חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ (Gen 24:27 WTT)

“Steadfast love,” in Hebrew, chesed. “Faithfulness,” in Hebrew ‘emet. Halladay’s lexicon notes when paired together, chesed and ‘emet means “lasting loyalty, faithfulness,” or “lasting kindness.” The idea is God’s faithfulness and loyalty [to his master] never wavers or ends.

Hol609  אֱמֶת  noun common feminine singular construct suffix 3rd person masculine singular

hesed we’emet lasting kindness Gn 2449; a) of God 2427, b) of men 2449.” See also “hesed we’emet Gn 2427•49 lasting loyalty, faithfulness;” (chesed, p. 111).

References

Seal of king Ur-Nammu museum page

Haran (Biblical place), Wikipedia

Haran and Family Tree of Terah, Abraham’s Father

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

From Seinfeld, George explains "shiksappeal" to Elaine

Sarah Dies and Isaac Needs a Wife

In Genesis 23, Abraham moved away from Beer-sheba. While he was there, he passed off Sarah to king Abimelech as his sister, had a son with Sarah at an impossible age, sent Hagar and Ishmael away at Sarah’s insistence, made a covenant of friendship with Abimelech, and nearly sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah. Now, he has brought Sarah and his household to Kiriath-arba, also called Hebron.

Map of Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, and surrounding area
Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, located about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.

He and Sarah have some history there. After he and Lot separated, he settled there at the Oaks of Mamre nearby (Gen 13:18). They were living there when he had to rescue Lot from the kings of Goiim (Genesis 14:1-15).

Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

(Gen 23:1-2 NRS)

One hundred twenty-seven years, so Abraham is one hundred thirty-six, and Isaac is thirty-six.

Kiriath-arba, named for Arba, the greatest of the Anakim (Gen 14:15). The last time we saw Abraham and Sarah in this area, Abraham hosted three angels before they went to Sodom (Genesis 18). This was when Sarah heard the angel of the LORD promise she would have a son and name him Isaac. Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. They had moved to Beer-sheba by the time Isaac was born (Gen 20:1; 21:1). So it’s been thirty-six or thirty-seven years since then.

Though they have not been here in a while, the place has some memories for them. Perhaps he came because he Sarah asked him to bury her here.

Find the Anachronism

Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

(Gen 23:3-6 NRS)

The Hittites, a bit of a misnomer. The Hittites, like the Philistines, did not show up here until several centuries later. The Hebrew is literally “sons of Heth,” meaning “pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine” (HC NRSV 23:3 note; see also 10:15). On the history of the Hittites in the region, see Eze 16:3, 45.

I am a stranger and an alien residing among you. Kindness to the stranger and alien was always important to Abraham and his sense of right and wrong. Even Lot, who seems to have been corrupted by living among the Sodomites, never forgot that. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Ownership of burial land is a crucial step in establishing legal residence” (23:1-20 note). We are starting to see the of fulfillment of God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham has the well of Beer-sheba, and now the cave of Machpelah.

A Hero’s Welcome

Even though Abraham has not been there in decades, the sons of Heth have not forgotten him. They speak to him with the same respect he shows them. When Abraham rescued Lot from kidnappers, I wonder if some of their children were among the others he rescued. That seems the most likely explanation for calling him a mighty prince among us.

Bury my dead. He doesn’t say, “bury my wife.” The phrase suggests a legal formula.

Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. He said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me Ephron son of Zohar, so that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as a possession for a burying place.”

Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, “No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it; in the presence of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:7-11 NRS)

Even though Ephron seems to know him well, Abraham speaks almost as if he doesn’t recognize him. Entreat for me…, also suggests a legal formula or ritual.

Abraham wanted the cave of Machpelah to bury his dead. He knows Ephron son of Zohar owns this land. The names are Semitic, not Hittite. Cf. 26:34; 2 Sa 11:3.

All who went in at the gate of the city, where business transactions often took place. This is likely a formal description of the elders of the city, who judged or decided official matters. The way they speak, especially Abraham, sounds very formal, as if this were a familiar ceremony to the sons of Heth.

Abraham offers to buy it for the full price, because he needs a burying place. But instead, Ephron offers to give it to him. He’s being very generous.

Listen to Me! No, You Listen to Me!

Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. He said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “If you only will listen to me! I will give the price of the field; accept it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.”

Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:12-15 NRS)

Business in the Middle East almost always involves haggling. Usually the buyer tries to argue down the price, and the seller argues for more. But here Abraham wants to pay more, and Ephron is trying to give it away. Abraham wants to give the price of the field, so that I may bury my dead there. Ephron says he can bury his dead there. But he doesn’t want to take any money. “I give it to you,” he says. “Bury your dead.”

A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver…, Ephron must be fairly wealthy, because four hundred pieces of silver was nothing to sneeze at. It only took thirty pieces of silver for Judas to sell out Jesus.

What is that between you and me? This is something you say to someone who has been a friend for a long time. He’s saying, “Four hundred shekels of silver is nothing compared to our friendship. Just take it. It’s yours. Bury your dead.”

An Agreement Is Reached

Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

(Gen 23:16 NRS)

Abraham agreed, lit. heard. Cf. vv. 6, 11, 13; Translation Notes. Ephron was willing to give him the land for free, but Abraham still insisted on paying. This reminds me of the time when King David wanted to secure the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Zion. A man named Araunah was keeping it on his threshing floor. David wanted to buy the land to build an altar to the LORD and make burnt offerings there, before taking the Ark to the place God had chosen. Araunah recognized how important this was not just to David but to the whole nation. He offered his threshing floor to David for free, like Ephron did for Abraham. But David said,

“No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.”

(2Sa 24:24 NRS)

I think Abraham felt the same way. He had been married to Sarah for a hundred years, maybe a little more, and he did not want to bury her in a place that cost him nothing.

So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city.

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.

(Gen 23:17-20 NRS)

 Abraham has secured a burying place for his wife and himself. He will later be buried in the same cave (Gen 25:9-10; 49:29-32). And he got more than just the cave. He got the trees in the field too. In the last post, I talked about Abraham planting a tree. Here, he and Sarah wanted to claim a burial plot with trees around them. I bet they appreciated trees more than most people today, considering they spent a lot of time in the desert. Trees gave beauty, shade, and sign of life in the land.

For Writers: Humanizing Your Heroes

This scene is great for humanizing Abraham. We see him grieving the death of his wife. He knows exactly where he wants to bury her. The text doesn’t say Sarah requested this, but it’s not hard to imagine she did. We see his friendly relations with the people of Kiriath-arba. Though Abraham is a stranger and an alien among the Sons of Heth, they regard him as “a mighty prince among us.”

The text says, “He rose up from beside his dead” (23:3). He is still keeping her corpse. I see no indication how long this is, but he goes straight from a vigil beside her corpse to the sons of Heth. He says he wants this place to bury Sarah “so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:4). Do you feel the pain in that? I sure do.

His negotiation with Ephron is the opposite of normal bartering. The seller tries to give it away, but the buyer insists on paying fair market value. But it is exactly the kind of negotiation that would happen between friends. Ephron recognizes Abraham’s loss. He is in a position to offer a special kindness to his friend. “You need to bury your wife, so go ahead. Take the field. It’s yours. Don’t worry about payment. Between you and me, this is nothing.” But Abraham can’t bring himself to accept it. He cannot bury his wife in a plot of land that costs him nothing. It’s a very touching moment.

A mighty prince like Abraham of course becomes known for doing great things. I think their favor and friendship to Abraham goes back to the incident where Abraham rescued Lot from the kings of Goiim. Abraham was actually living among the Oaks of Mamre nearby when this happened. I believe some of these Sons of Heth were among those taken captive. That is why they called him “a mighty prince.” And it’s possible that among them, his legend has grown greater in his absence.

But heroes need some humanity for the audience to connect with them. This is the kind of scene and humanization that will help your readers connect with your characters.

Finding a Wife for Isaac

In the next chapter, Abraham finally gets around to finding a wife for Isaac. It is a long chapter, so I’m going to start it in this post.

Isaac was thirty-six when Sarah died. Abraham still has not found a wife for him. He seems to be dragging his feet, considering how important it is to continue the bloodline of Isaac. I used to think the death of Sarah lit a fire under him to get moving—well, of course, give him time to mourn first—but it would be another four years before Abraham decided it was time to get his son hitched, so he could have a grandson (Gen 25:20). With the lifespans for Abraham and his family typically being in the mid- to late- hundreds, maybe this was not so unusual. And God gave Isaac to him and Sarah when they were in their nineties, so maybe he did not think about it much.

Now, don’t roll your eyes at me. I’ve explained in earlier posts this writer’s audience had heard stories of impossibly long lifespans in the ancient world, and how he used his audience’s expectations in Abraham’s saga.

For some reason, he decides now is the time.

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

(Gen 24:1 NRS)

Abraham was old, well advanced in years. This could be the reason. We are told later Isaac was forty, which would make Abraham one hundred forty (Gen 25:20). If he was close to dying, that would explain why he felt now was the time to find a wife for Isaac. He would want to be sure that was taken care of before he was dead and buried. But he went on to live to one hundred seventy-five (Gen 25:7). It doesn’t sound like he should be on his death bed yet.

Under His Thigh? Blessed Be.

Abraham calls in his most trusted servant and charges him with finding a wife for Isaac. He makes the servant swear in an unusual manner. This is another example of how different cultural practices can make us uncomfortable when we see them for the first time.

Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and earth,

(Gen 24:2-3a NRS)

Say what??? Put your hand under my thigh? That almost sounds like sexual harassment. But that is not what Abraham has in mind. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Near the organs of procreation, signifying the solemnity of the oath that follows.”

Okay. Apparently, this was a custom of the time, even though this is the only place in the Bible where two people make a vow in this manner. If I were the servant, though, I think I’d say, “Can’t I just split a sheep in half and vow to you while I walk through the blood?” (See Gen 15:9-21).

Abraham has some very specific ideas about the kind of woman he wants for Isaac, so here’s the vow.

“…that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

(Gen 24:3b-4 NRS)

One requirement is he does not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. The local girls aren’t right for his son. The servant has to go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.” He does not want a shiksa for a daughter-in-law. I have a feeling, if Sarah were alive, she would say the same thing. Remember how George explained “shiksappeal” to Elaine in this scene from Seinfeld, the “Serenity Now” episode?

Seinfeld Meme, George tells Elaine, "You've got 'shiksappeal.' Jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman that's not like their mother."
No shiksa for Isaac.

His country could be in Ur of the Chaldees or Mesopotamia in general. But when he says he wants the servant to go to his kindred and get a wife for Isaac, that means going to Haran, where his brother Nahor still lived. The Hebrew word for kindred (moledeth) refers specifically to a blood relative, so he wants a woman from his brother’s family. Remember, Abraham was married to his half-sister, Sarah. The woman the servant would bring back would most likely be Isaac’s cousin. This kind of incestuous marriage would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But to Abraham and his family, marrying within the family appeared to be not only accepted but preferred.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister: "That's cute."
Cersei: That’s cute.

The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?”

Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”

So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

(Gen 24:5-9 NRS)

Abraham seems to have conflicting desires for his son. He does not want Isaac to take a wife among the people where he lives. However, he does not want Isaac going back to their country, where an acceptable wife could be found. So he sends his servant to go without Isaac and entrusts the choice to the LORD, the God of heaven.

He trusts God with this, because God was the one who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth and … swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ That explains why he does not want Isaac to go there himself. They were already in the land God promised them. There is no place in the kingdom of heaven for those who, after beginning to follow the LORD, turn back to where they were before.

[The LORD] will send his angel before you. The servant has been around his master long enough to know he is a prophet (Gen 20:7), so that should make him feel better about his prospects for success. However, the servant recognizes he could make the journey, find a woman suitable for Isaac, and she could still veto his choice. Abraham tells him if that happens, he is off the hook as far as this vow goes. Apparently, even in this patriarchal society, the woman did have some control over who she married. In that case, Abraham will have to come up with a plan B.

What will happen to the servant when he gets to Haran? Will he find a wife suitable for Isaac? Will she agree to leave her country and kindred and go back with the servant? Will she marry Isaac sight unseen and become part of the bloodline of the Messiah? Tune in next week and find out, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. (Or, to state the obvious, you could read the rest of Genesis 24).

Further Study

-Location and references to Kiriath-arba (Hebron).

-Oaks of Mamre: “Do You Want a Long Life?” God as a Gardener (blog).

Wikipedia

The Hittites

Hittites of the Bible

Kiryat Arba

Translation Notes

Oak of Mamre (Quercus calliprinos), called a Palestinian Oak, the most common tree in the modern nation of Israel. Sometimes mistakenly translated “terebinth,” which is actually a different tree.

“In the Bible, oaks were associated with power, strength, or longevity in the sense of long life. The great oaks of Mamre symbolized Abraham’s long life. A Palestinian oak near Hebron, called Abraham’s Oak, is thought to be over 850 years old.”

-Carolyn Roth, “Do You Want a Long Life?

Kiryat Arba or Qiryat Arba (Hebrew: קִרְיַת־אַרְבַּע), lit. “Town of the Four.”

Arba in Hebrew is “four.” It is also the name of the father of Anak, founder of the Anakim. Anak, who was believed to have been a giant, had three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, also believed to have been giants (Jos 15:13-14). If Arba here means “four,” then this could mean the town of the four giants. Or it could refer to the four patriarchs who are buried there: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam. Adam’s placement here does not come from the Bible but from a Rabbinic tradition called the Zohar.


“Abraham agreed with Ephron” (Gen 23:16 NRS). וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע (WTT). qal waw consecutive masculine singular. Halladay gives one possible translation as “heed,” which matches “agree with” in this translation.

8737  שָׁמַע  

1. hear: abs. Is 12; w. acc.: s.one speak Gn 276, voice 310, trumpet Je 419listen to s.one Ez 37; w. acc. of thing (content of message) Ps 1326; w. kî 2S 1126; w. indir. qn. Ju 711; w. dir. qn. w/o introduction Dt 92; — 2. listen to s.thg Am 523, abs. Gn 275; listen (& agree) 238; w. °el Is 463, … Pr 834; … gladly hear 2S 1936; — 3. heed (a request) Gn 1720; 306, … 1611; — 4. hear > obey Ex 247;… Gn 2218, … 287; abs. be obedient 2K 1411; — 5. hear = understand: obj. … Gn 117; … — 6. š¹ma± bên try, examine (as a judge) Dt 116; distinguish 2S 1417.

(Halladay, p. 377)

A King Wants to “Friend” Abraham

We first met Abimelech in one of the “wife-sister” episodes. (Follow the link, you can scroll down to the subheading Abimelech King of Gerar: Another Unwitting John?) After sending Hagar and Ishmael away, Abraham encounters him again (Genesis 21:22-34).

At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.”

And Abraham said, “I swear it.”

(Gen 21:22-24 NRS)
Map of Five Cities of Philistia, et al.
The Bible identifies five Philistine cities: Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath. Gerar is identified as part of “the land of the Philistines” in the time of Abraham.

Abimelech was king of Gerar at that time. Why is he so keen to make Abraham an ally, even though he resides there as an alien? He had taken Sarah into his palace, because Abraham told him she was his sister (didn’t mention she was his wife). God appeared to him and told him the only reason God did not kill him was he did not know Sarah was his wife. God told Abimelech to return Sarah to her husband and ask him to pray for God to forgive him. That was how he concluded God is with you in all that you do.

Since God is with Abraham, and he almost lost his life because Abraham had dealt falsely with him, he wants to be sure Abraham understands I have dealt loyally with you, so you will deal [loyally] with me. When he first came there, Abraham thought people in this area had no fear of God. Clearly, they do now. Either he wants to remind Abraham he dealt loyally with him, or he wants to be sure Abraham understands, “You know how you told me Sarah was your sister but didn’t tell me she was your wife? Don’t ever do that again. You may have thought we don’t fear God, but you know better now.”

Yes, Abimelech, and by the Way…

When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.”

(Gen 21:25-26 NRS)

When Abraham complained to Abimelech… A better translation would be, But Abraham complained to Abimelech… (NAS), or Abraham, however, reproached Abimelech (NAB; see Translation Notes). Abimelech says he didn’t know about it. He also says, you did not tell me. Why? I understand why he wants to be sure Abraham knows he did not order that or even know about it. It was the same defense he gave to God. “I did not know. He did not tell me.” It was true then. I guess we have to assume it is true now as well.

Artist's rendersing of Abraham's Well, 1855
Artist’s rendering of Abraham’s Well, 1855

Certain Details Left out

So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant.

Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?”

He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.”

Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there both of them swore an oath.

(Gen 21:27-31 NRS)

It is not clear at first that they are making covenant. Or maybe for them, it was clear when Abimelech asked him to swear to me here by God. I’m not sure how this particular covenant ceremony works. Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech. Did they cut them in half and each walk between in turn, swearing the terms of the covenant (Gen 15:9-21)? If so, why did Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock? Maybe they slaughtered them for the covenant.

But then why did he say, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand,” as if they were a gift? Did he give them or slaughter them? Which animals were slaughtered and how? That was normally how a covenant would be sealed. Was the agreement sealed with the gift of oxen and sheep, or the gift of the seven ewe lambs?

This is one of the difficulties in reading not just the Bible but any text from a culture that is markedly different from ours. I bet the original audience was so familiar with this type of covenant that the author did not need to explain those details to them. So unless archeologists find some more specific accounts of similar ceremonies, those details are lost to us.

They Invoked the Seven

But however they ratified the covenant, setting apart seven ewe lambs was important to this origin story of how Beer-sheba got its name. In Hebrew, be’er = “well,” and sheba` = 1) seven; 2) oath. The oath was sealed by setting apart seven ewe lambs. This is one of those moments that makes the Hebrew text much more intriguing than the translation. The fact that sheba` is the root of both “take an oath” and the number seven indicates there was probably an ancient connection between seven and giving an oath. One of my professors said in the ancient Canaanite (or other local) pantheon, there was a team of seven gods associated with oaths, sort of like in Greek mythology, there were three fates and three furies, who were for the most part inseparable. To “invoke the seven” meant to make an oath.

First it says Abraham gave Abimelech sheep and oxen in order to secure his claim to the well. Then Abraham says, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” That’s what makes the details of the ceremony confusing. What did he give to Abimelech? Were any of the animals slaughtered for the ceremony?

Once again, I think I may be confused because the original audience did not need these details explained to them.

From Oral to Written

Maybe there were two accounts of this story, one where Abraham gave an unspecified number of sheep and oxen, and one where he gave seven ewe lambs. The author did not want to choose one and leave out the other, so he put them both in, i.e., looks like another doublet.

The terms of the covenant are 1) they will each deal truthfully and loyally with each other, and 2) Abimelech recognizes this well belongs to Abraham. And once again, they are at peace.

Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba. Abraham and Abimelech get credit for naming the place. Later, as with the wife-sister episode, we have almost the exact same story between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen 26:26-33). Isaac is given credit there for naming the place Beer-sheba, and it is also based on an oath between him and Abimelech of Gerar. Even the name of the commander of his army, Phicol, is the same in the Isaac account. Pharaoh was the title not the name for the king of Egypt. Abimelech could similarly be a title not a name. But could Phicol be the title of the commander of the army? I doubt it.

So the wife-sister episode was not the only case where we have the same story, same characters, but switch Isaac for Abraham. It is extremely unlikely this exact same story happened to both Abraham and Isaac. Again, this looks like a doublet. I attribute this to the fact that these stories circulated orally for a long time, probably hundreds of years, before they were written down. In that time, Abraham could change to Isaac in some localities. Any other differences in those stories could be attributed to the same thing.

Anachronisms

When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines.

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.

(Gen 21:32-34 NRS)

Beer-sheba was an important location in the Negev Desert. It marked the southern extent of the land of Canaan. The biblical site is believed to have been at Tel Be’er-sheva, which is a few kilometers east of the modern city. Archeological excavations indicate it became a major city in the tenth century BC, with streets laid out in a grid and separate areas for administrative, commercial, military, and residential use. This again is centuries after Abraham. Archeologists found evidence for settlements as early as the fourth millennium BC, but there appears to be a gap in settlement from about 3200-1100 BC.

Tel Beer-sheva archeological site
Tel Beer-sheva archeological site

It appears to be the earliest planned city in the region. “From Dan to Beersheba” became a common expression for the entire cultivated land of Israel. Several wells were dug there, many of them attributed to Abraham and Isaac.

Map of Beersheba and surrounding area
On the banks of the Nahal Beersheva (the main wadi of Beersheba)

The river on the map is called the Nahal Beersheva. It is actually a wadi, so it is dry during the summer months. However, the wells plus a cistern to collect water during the wet months ensure water supplies year round. Its water sources made it a target for conquest, and it was destroyed and rebuilt many times.

The Land of the Philistines

The Philistines did not appear in the land until hundreds of years later. They are not listed among the nations Abraham’s descendants will displace in Gen 15:18-21, and from lists of nations Moses says the Israelites would conquer (Deu 7:1 and 20:17). In the time of the Judges, they were among the deadliest of Israel’s enemies. They are associated with “the sea peoples” in Egyptian texts.

The most commonly held belief is they came from Crete in the twelfth century BC. They settled mostly along the Mediterranean coast in the area today called the Gaza Strip. The most famous Philistines from the Bible are Delilah and Goliath.

This type of anachronism might give us a clue to when the stories were first written down, at a time when the Philistines were active in the area. Another possibility the Rabbis propose is that “the Philistines” Abraham encountered were actually a different people than the ones who dominated the Israelites during the time of the Judges.

Abraham Planted a Tree…

A tamarisk tree most likely refers to the Tamarix aphylla species, typically found in northern Africa and western Asia. It grows needles instead of leaves (the meaning of aphylla) and can grow to a height of fifty feet. It is also called an athel tree, athel pine, or salt cedar (because it excretes salt on the needles, making them sometimes appear white). The shade provided coolness and increased the moisture in the air underneath. As the dew collected on the needles in the morning, they could provide a source of salt. As the moisture evaporated during the day, it would cool the shade even more.

Tamarix aphylla in its natural habitat in Revivim, Israel
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. (Gen 21:33 NRS)

Most other times when Abraham called on the name of the LORD, he built an altar. This is the only place where the Bible says Abraham planted a tree. It think it is significant that this takes place after Isaac was born. Planting a tree is something you do not just for yourself but for future generations. Now that he has secured his claim to this well, the tree will provide shade not only for himself but for Isaac, his children, and grandchildren.

…and Called on the Name of the LORD

Abraham…called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. There is obviously a special meaning to this. Beersheba later became a major cultic center of Israel.

Four-horned altar, replica of one excavated at Tel Be'er Sheva
Replica of a Four-horned altar found at Tel Be’er Sheva

The LORD spoke to Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob there. When Abraham called on the name of the LORD, it was probably under that tree. Calling on the name of the LORD, along with creating physical landmarks to worship the LORD (altars or a tree), may have referred to his actions to make the LORD known to his neighbors. We also have this from the NET translation notes,

Heb “he called there in the name of the LORD.” The expression refers to worshiping the LORD through prayer and sacrifice (see Gen 4:26; Gen 12:8; Gen 13:4; Gen 26:25). See G. J. Wenham, Genesis (WBC), 1:116, 281.

NET, tn 64.

The Everlasting God

In Hebrew, this is ‘el olam (See Translation Notes). Olam does not always mean “eternal” or “everlasting,” but as an attribute of God, I think it is appropriate to translate it that way. A comma separates “the everlasting God” from the LORD. That indicates he uses this phrase to describe the God he has come to know as Yahweh, “the LORD.” I wonder, though, if this could be a name for God, the LORD God Everlasting.

Olam can also be spatial, meaning “the world,” or “the universe.” On that note, I will close with this from Matthew Henry.

In calling on the Lord, we must eye him as the everlasting God, the God of the world, so some. Though God had made himself known to Abraham as his God in particular, and in covenant with him, yet he forgets not to give glory to him as the Lord of all: The everlasting God, who was, before all worlds, and will be, when time and days shall be no more. See Isa. xl. 28.

Commentary on Genesis 21:33.

PSA: Easiest Way to Plant a Tree (or Several) Like Abraham

The earth has become so politicized that too many Christians treat caring for the land, air, and water as completely opposite from worshiping God. How did that happen? Abraham planted a tree AND called on the name of the LORD, probably from under that same tree. Why not? Didn’t God create trees and call them good (Gen 1:12)? You do believe God created heaven and earth and everything in it (plants, animals, land, water, and humans), don’t you?

We’ve cut down a lot of trees in the last century, but here’s an easy way to help replace some of them. The Arbor Day Foundation has a new campaign. For each dollar you donate, they will plant a tree. Their goal is to raise $20 million to plant 20 million new trees. Go to teamtrees.org or #teamtrees, and like Abraham, for just a few dollars you won’t even miss, you can leave something that will benefit the earth, your children, grandchildren, and generations to come.

“How we gonna breathe without them trees?”

Translation Notes

וְהוֹכִ֥חַ אַבְרָהָ֖ם (Gen 21:25 WTT) But Abraham complained…. The vav at the beginning is translated “When” in the NRSV and ESV. That makes it sound like this could have taken place at a later time. But, however, or then makes it clearer that Abraham said this following Abimelech’s request.

The verb yakach is a hiphil perfect 3rd person masculine singular. It means to complain, reprove, or reproach.

Hol3332  יכח  

hif.: pf. –1. set s.one right, reprove: a) abs. Jb 3212; b) w. acc. Is 113; w. l® Is 114; c) w. ±al (+ person) reproach s.one for s.thg Jb 195, w. °el go to law with Jb 133; w. b® requite s.thg 2K 194.

Halladay

The LORD. When the “Lord” appears in all capital letters, it refers to “the divine name,” YHWH, pronounced Yahweh. Most Jews do not speak or write the divine name out of reverence. They will often use the Hebrew word for “Lord” (Adonai) or “the Name” (Ha-shem) instead.


The everlasting God, Heb ‘el `olam. אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃ (Gen 21:33 WTT).

El is the most common word for “God” in the Hebrew Bible. Olam, translated here “everlasting.” As an attribute of God or part of God’s name, it could refer to either God’s eternal nature or the scope of God’s sovereignty as “the world” or “the universe.”

References

Bible Map: Beersheba

Carolyn Roth, “Abraham Planted Tamarisk Trees,” God as a Gardener (blog), Carolyn Roth Ministries, March 24, 2011, https://godasagardener.com/2011/03/24/abraham-the-tamarisk/

Gill, N.S. “Understanding the Philistines: An Overview and Definition.” Learn Religions, Apr. 17, 2019, https://learnreligions.com/the-philistines-117390  

Tel Beer Sheva National Park (brochure).

Who Was Delilah in the Bible?” Got Questions. Accessed October 31, 2019, https://www.gotquestions.org/Delilah-in-the-Bible.html

Wikipedia

Beersheba

Goliath

Philistines

Tamarix

Ishmael, a Different Destiny

About last week’s post, it occurs to me you might have been confused. I talked about Lot’s daughters and how their actions were complete folly. Then I told you about Genesis Rabbah, a Rabbinic commentary which suggests:

  • Lot may have been fooled the first time his daughters got him drunk, but not the second.
  • Lot’s daughters somehow knew they were part of the bloodline of the Messiah.
  • Lot deliberately isolated his daughters, so he would be their only option for continuing the bloodline.

That is a much different impression you get from reading the English translation. There, it looks like the daughters got him so drunk he did not know what happened, and that they foolishly believed they and their father were the last people on earth. But the Rabbis who put together the Genesis Rabbah saw things in the Hebrew text I would never have seen.

  1. They conclude Lot was not as drunk as we thought because there is a dot over the last word in the verse. According to the Rabbis, the dot over the last word changes the meaning of the end of Genesis 19:33 from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.” That changes Lot from clueless to complicit. (See Translation Notes).
  2. They conclude the daughters knew they were part of the bloodline because the elder said to the younger, “so that we may preserve offspring through our father” (Gen 19:32 NRS), not “so that we may keep a child alive from our father.” They say this means their concern was not just to have a child but to “preserve offspring,” i.e., the bloodline of the Messiah.
  3. The Rabbis point to this verse, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire” (Pro 18:1 ESV). Lot isolated himself with his daughters. They conclude Lot had it in mind to have children through his daughters when he took them to live in a cave in the hills.

The Rabbis make Lot look a lot worse, and his daughters look a lot better, than any English version of this passage. This is maybe the greatest example of “lost in translation” I have ever seen. I’m not sure I agree with all the Rabbis’ conclusions. But considering they had a lot more experience than I do in reading the Hebrew texts of the Bible, they know the editorial marks I don’t, and they know subtleties and nuances in the text I don’t, I can’t dismiss any of it.

All of that is to say if it was confusing how I started out as if I was going to conclude one thing about Lot and his daughters and then went in an entirely different direction, sorry. I wish I could promise that will be the last time I do that, but…anyway, on to the next lesson.

God Brings Laughter for Sarah

When Abraham and Sarah thought their chance at having a son had passed, Sarah told him to go in to her maid, Hagar. Legally, she could claim the son of her handmaid as her own. Ishmael was going to be Abraham and Sarah’s heir. But then, against all odds, Sarah had her own son at ninety-one. She and Abraham named him Isaac. One can only imagine the joy they felt when this dream they had given up on actually came true.

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

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

A joyous moment for Abraham and Sarah. Isaac, whose name means “he laughs,” was the heir God had promised them finally manifest (18:13-15). But what did it mean for Hagar and Ishmael?

How Dare He Play with My Son!

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

(Gen 21:8-11 NRS)

The ceremony for a child being weaned was a big deal back then, maybe comparable to a bar mitzvah today.

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian … playing with her son Isaac. Why would playing with her son make Sarah go to such an extreme as cast out this slave woman with her son? The Hebrew verb tsachaq comes from the same root as “laughter” or “to laugh.” The same root is used for Isaac’s name, meaning “He laughs.” In the form used here, it can mean “playing,” like children often play and have fun together. Or it could mean “laughing at, making fun of, making sport of, or mocking,” as the Philistines did to Samson.

And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.”

(Jdg 16:25 NRS)

Let him entertain us is the key phrase here. They had already robbed Samson of his strength and blinded him. Now, they wanted to take advantage of his vulnerability and “make sport of him.” In context, that looks like the most likely way to interpret playing with her son Isaac. Have you ever seen a Jewish mother’s wrath when someone messes with her child? You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that.

But in this case, Ishmael is her son too. Or is he? Now that Sarah has a son that came from her own issue, Ishmael is the son of this slave woman. It sounds like Ishmael sensed Sarah never truly accepted him as her son. And between him and Isaac, Isaac has more claim to her, even though legally Sarah is his mother. Maybe he took out his frustration on Isaac and gave Sarah the excuse she wanted to break with him and Hagar, in order to protect Isaac’s inheritance.

The Matter Was Very Distressing to Abraham

But Abraham still thought of Ishmael as his son. He did not want to cast them out. Sarah, though, once she makes up her mind, will not budge. Being a prophet, Abraham would seek a word from God.

But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

(Gen 21:12-13 NRS)

So God tells him to do whatever Sarah says to you. I don’t think that made him feel any better about it, but when your wife and God are both telling you the same thing, you’d better do what they say. I’m just saying.

God promises to make a nation of him also. God will always watch over him because he is your offspring. This moment was foreshadowed when God said to Abraham,

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”

(Gen 17:20-21 NRS)

The Child of the Promise

Abraham has to let Ishmael go, but God will not abandon him. God promises again to make Ishmael a nation. But Isaac was the child of the promise. He was the one God would establish God’s covenant with. He was the one Abraham’s offspring would be named for. And as we know today, he was the one through whom the Messiah would come into the world. God had a plan and a destiny for Ishmael too, but it was apart from Abraham and Sarah. And God had also hinted to Hagar the same thing.

“He (Isaac) shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

(Gen 16:12 NRS)

He shall live at odds with all his kin. He was at odds with his half-brother, Isaac, and that put him at odds with Sarah. Their tent was no longer big enough for everyone.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

(Gen 21:14)

Beer-Sheba is in the northern part of the Negev Desert. The town is named for a well Abraham is said to have dug (Gen 21:25) and was the southern border of the land Israel occupied when Joshua led them in. It has a wadi that runs nearby in winter but is dry in the summer. Given Hagar’s difficulty finding water, I’m guessing this is the summer.

Bread and a skin of water? That’s all? He sends them into a desert with only a skin of water and bread. Sounds like the exact opposite of the generous hospitality he showed the angels. How much you want to bet that was Sarah? The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.

Sarah’s Bad Side

She has shown in the past when you get her angry, she has no pity whatsoever (Gen 16:5-6). “So they don’t have enough food and water to survive a trek through the desert? How is that my problem? I told you the son of the slave would not inherit anything from us.”

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.”

And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.

(Gen 21:15-16 NRS)

If they had died, I’d say the blood would have been mainly on Sarah’s hands. As for Abraham, God told him to do whatever Sarah told him in this matter. I still think he could have pushed for at least two or three water skins, or at least go where they could sell Hagar and Ishmael to someone who wouldn’t cast her out into the wilderness. But then when Abraham died, Ishmael might have come back to claim part of his inheritance. Sarah was having none of that.

“God Hears”

But God had promised Ishmael would not only survive but become a great nation with twelve princes. He cannot die here.

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

(Gen 21:17-18 NRS)

And God heard the voice of the boy. This plays off the meaning of Ishmael’s name (“God hears”). We were told what Hagar said, but not what Ishmael said. Still, God heard his voice. Did he say anything, or did he just cry out because he was suffering and afraid? But God speaks to Hagar and promises again to make a great nation of him.

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

(Gen 21:19 NRS)

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. The well was there, but she didn’t see it. There is a powerful metaphor there. She cried out to God in her distress, and salvation was right there all along. But she couldn’t see it until God opened her eyes.

God Was With the Boy

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

(Gen 21:20-21 NRS)

God was with the boy. God kept all God’s promises concerning Ishmael, even though he was not the one God chose to continue Abraham’s line and Abraham’s covenant. Being Abraham’s child was enough to secure a blessing from God.

He lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. See 16:12.

His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Hagar was Egyptian, so that was a natural choice.

…and he grew up. Wait a minute! He grew up? I thought he was already grown!

Hmm. Something amiss here.

How Old Was Ishmael When This Happened?

According to the story so far, Abraham had Ishmael when he was eighty-six and Isaac when he was a hundred. So Ishmael was fourteen years old when Isaac was born. This happened when Isaac was weaned, which would make him about two or three. That would make Ishmael sixteen or seventeen when it says he and his mother were cast out. That makes no sense in this story. Did you notice these details?

He…took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the childshe cast the child under one of the bushes.

(Gen 21:14-15 NRS)

The Hebrew word for “child” here is yeled, which can mean “child, offspring, son, youth, or little child.” Since Abraham put him on Hagar’s shoulders and she cast him under a bush, it seems like it should be translated “little child” in this case. But at sixteen or seventeen, he would not have been a little child. He would have been considered already an adult in that society. Could Ishmael have been a midget?

Mickey Abbott from Seinfeld tells George, "It's Little People. You got that? Little People!

Sorry. Could it be Ishmael was a little person? And by the way, what happened to him being “a wild ass of a man”—strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions? He should have been the one finding the well for his mother. Except he wasn’t a man yet. After Hagar gave him water, it says,

and he grew up;

(Gen 21:20 NRS)

So he was a normal size child, and I think it’s safe to assume he grew up to be a normal size adult—after this incident. He was a little child, small enough for Abraham to place him on Hagar’s shoulders, small enough for her to carry on her shoulders, and small enough for her to cast him under a bush. Sixteen or seventeen years old is out of the question. He was more like three or four, possibly five. It looks like we have another doublet.

Another Doublet?

One example of a doublet I’ve already shown is the “wife-sister” episodes (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). This happens when the same story is passed down orally in different locations over several generations. It will essentially be the same story but with some variations in the details. This is the second story of Hagar leaving Abraham and Sarah. In both stories, Sarah drives Hagar to leave, and when it looks like she will die, an angel appears and rescues her at a well. The angel also makes promises from God concerning Ishmael.

It looks like the story of Abraham originally had Ishmael just a year or two older than Isaac. That changed when this author spread out the birth of Ishmael and the birth of Isaac timewise, making Ishmael’s age a serious logistical problem for this episode. Why did the author place it here? Because, despite those problems, this is where it makes the most sense to the story as a whole. The tension between Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael came to a head after Sarah had a son of her own.

Why didn’t the author clean up those details that don’t fit Ishmael for the whole story? My best guess is he did not want to change this tradition, because it was sacred. So he placed it where it had the best dramatic effect. And that applies not only to this episode but to all cases where we find these logistical difficulties. He had more than one version of most if not all these stories about Abraham, and he wanted to put them together into one narrative without changing the traditions he received. The result, anytime you do that, is you will have some inconsistencies in the details.

What Does It Mean?

Ishmael is supposedly sixteen or seventeen when this episode takes place, but the episode itself is told as if Ishmael is at least three years old but no more than five, maybe six. I’ve explained why I think this is the case. But this is an example of why we can’t just say, “Believe the Bible, everything literally, word for word.” Sometimes, the literal word contradicts itself. Which are we to believe literally, that Ishmael was a little child of three to six years old, or that he was a young man of sixteen to eighteen? I’ve shown you they are both in the Bible. I can’t believe both, so which one do you say I have to believe?

In cases like this, I take my sister’s approach and go deeper. What did the story mean to the original audience? Why did the author write it this way? If it really happened, which version is more likely? What if it didn’t really happen? Yes, I do consider that possibility, especially when the details of the story don’t make sense. But whether it happened or not, the fact is this is how the story was passed down to us. Why is it here? What are we supposed to learn from the story itself?

Why is it here? It is an origin story for nations Israel encounters who claim Ishmael as their ancestor (Gen 25:12-18). What are we supposed to learn from it? I see the lesson in what God says to Abraham and Hagar.

Whenever God appears in the Abraham saga, it is for three reasons: to make promises, to keep promises, and to maintain the bloodline of Abraham or the Messiah. We see all of these playing out in this story. God said Ishmael’s destiny would take him away from Abraham and Sarah, and this is the fulfillment. God told Abraham and Hagar Ishmael would become a great nation, and we see the fulfillment here as well. And even though Ishmael is not part of the Messiah’s bloodline, God pronounces blessings over him because he is Abraham’s offspring. So the lesson here, as I said about the wife-sister episodes, is God keeps God’s promises, even if, as in this case, it is to someone who would often be hostile to Israel over the years.

An Allegory

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses this story as an allegory (4:21-31). He tells the Galatian Christians through faith in Christ, they became Abraham’s offspring, children of the promise, like Isaac. But when they submitted to the circumcision party, they left the life of the spirit for the life of the flesh, i.e., righteousness by works of the Law. They became children of the slave, like Ishmael. The point he is making is,

So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

(Gal 4:31 NRS)

That is why as Gentile Christians, they do not have to become Jewish in order to follow Christ.

What if this story never really happened? Does that negate Paul’s lesson? Absolutely not. (Or in Greek, me ginoito). Because the story itself, as Paul uses it, is an illustration of a spiritual truth, which is why he called it an allegory.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

(Eph 2:8-9 NRS)

That is true whether the illustration “really happened” or not.

Translation Notes

Playing with her son Isaac. Gk Vg: Heb lacks with her son Isaac, so it was probably understood given Sarah’s reaction.

מְצַחֵֽק (Gen 21:9 WTT; mitsacheq) verb piel participle masculine singular absolute, from tsachaq:

8119  צָחַק [8120] (Hebrew) (Strong 6711) 2. sport, play Gn 21:9 (E) Ex 32:6 (J); make sport for Ju 16:25  (BDB, 850).

(1905f) מִשְׂחָק (mischaq) object of derision (Hab 1:10)….Sarah insists that Ishmael be driven away because he was “mocking” Isaac al ( Gen 21:9). The RSV innoccuously renders this participle “playing.” Yet in the light of Gal 4:29, on Ishmael’s persecuting Isaac, KJV, ASV, NASB, NIV prefer mocking. Observe that the Hiphil of sahaq (2Chr 30:10) describes the mockery by Israelites of the Northern Kingdom at Hezekiah’s invitation to share in the Passover at Jerusalem. (TWOT)


Yeled = “the child” (Gen 21:14, 15)

Hol3340  יֶלֶד

יֶלֶד: יָֽלֶד; pl. יְלָדִים, cs. יַלְדֵי (4 ×) & יִלְדֵי (Is 574), sf. יְלָדָיו, יַלְדֵיהֶם: — 1. boy, male child: a) Gn 423; b) pl. boys, children Gn 3026; = fetus (in a miscarriage) Ex 2122; (pg 135)


Na`ar = “the boy.” (Gen 21:20)

Hol5604  נַעַר (ca. 230 ×): נָֽעַר, sf. נַעֲרוֹ, נַעַרְךָ; pl. נְעָרִים, cs. נַעֲרֵי, sf. נַעֲרֵיהֶם: marriageable male while still single: — 1. boy, youth Gn 194; — 2. young man, pl. young people Gn 1424; 400 °îš-na±ar 1S 3017; — 3. boy, (man-)servant: of Abraham Gn 223, weapon-bearer 1S 141; pl. Jb 115; can write Ju 814; military, i.e. personal retinue 1S 213•5; (Strong)


Gadal = “he grew up”

וַיִּגְדָּ֑ל (Gen 21:20 WTT; vayyigdal) {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine singular}

Hol1442  גָּדַל (gadal)

1. grow up, become great Gn 218•20; wayy¢lek…h¹lôk w®g¹dôl 2S 510 « h¹lak 4, cf. g¹d¢l; — 2. be great 2S 726, of God 2S 722; — 3. become wealthy Gn 2435; — 4. become important Gn 4140; g¹dôl b®±ênê is valuable for 1S 2624.