Kill Any That What on the Wall? A Character Study of David, Nabal, and Abigail

One way I like to combine my love of Bible study and writing is with character studies of fascinating Biblical figures. David is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible. One particular story from 1 Samuel 25 tells us a lot about him and a woman who eventually became his wife. I am reposting it because it seems like a good time to bring it back. This is the first of a two-part series.


When you hear David and _______, what do you fill in the blank with? Or rather, who do you fill in the blank with? Probably David and Goliath, perhaps David’s most glorious moment. Maybe you think David and Bathsheba, definitely not David’s most glorious moment. Have you heard of David and Nabal?

The story of David’s dealings with Nabal (1 Samuel 25) is one of the most controversial episodes from David’s time before he became king. Many commentators read it this way: David asks a rich man named Nabal for some food for his men, so they can have a feast. When Nabal refuses and insults him, David totally overreacts and almost commits a mass murder. He tells his men to kill every male of Nabal’s household. Only the intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail, prevents him from slaughtering many innocents.

This is true for the most part. However, many people read this as David’s M.O. He would first ask for what he needed. If they gave it to him, no harm would follow. If they did not give it to him willingly, he and his men would ride roughshod over everyone, kill all the males, and take everything they could carry. Among those who present that view are Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord. This is an excellent work of Biblical Fiction concerning David, written from the perspective of Nathan, David’s court prophet and close adviser.

In The Secret Chord, while David is on the run from Saul, he gathers together a band of men, in part for his protection, and in part because leading warriors is something he’s good at. If you have an army, one of the most urgent and constant questions is how are you going to feed them? According to Brooks, he does to everyone what he does to Nabal: He asks and waits. If they give him the food he needs, he leaves them in peace. If not, he kills all the males of the household. The reason is more than just revenge. He wants to send a message to all he will encounter, “Give us what we want, or there will be no mercy.”

Was this David’s M.O.?

This was an old tactic among armies in the ancient world. Wholesale slaughter of one city creates terror in the surrounding areas. The next city might not even resist if they know how dire the consequences will be. And even if they do, a terrified enemy is much easier to defeat. His men, David tells Nathan, are his first responsibility. He will do “whatever is necessary” to feed them and care for them.

In many ways, Brooks did a wonderful job of fleshing out David’s story. However, when it comes to the question of whether or not this is how David normally operated, I have a different take on it. This is the only text where we see David behave this way, so let’s take a look at it.

Nabal the “Fool”

There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite.

(1 Sam 25:2-3 NRS)

Nabal means “fool” in Hebrew (v. 25). You have to wonder what kind of parents would name their son “Fool.” It also says he was a Calebite. It’s hard to know whether this was a significant detail or not. Every culture has its racial and ethnic stereotypes. Were they known for being surly and mean? (Cf. 30:14; Jos 14:13; 15:13). Whether or not he is typical of Calebites, we will see in this story he lives up to the name his parents had given him.

David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.

1 Sam 25:4

This is an important detail. Shearing the sheep for sheepherders and goatherders was like the harvest for farmers. This is when they get paid for the work they’ve done. They have plenty, they will usually celebrate with a feast, so this is when they are normally most generous. But, as we’ve been told, Nabal was surly and mean.

A Peaceful Delegation

So David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.

“Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.'”

1 Sam 25:5-8

Look at verse seven for a minute: …we did [your shepherds] no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Why do people think this is referring to some mafia-style protection racket? I suppose if you have Godfather movies on the brain, this might sound like a veiled threat. But the rest of the chapter makes it clear: They missed nothing, does not mean “We didn’t take anything, so you owe us.” It means David and his men protected them from bandits, who would have taken anything they wanted by force.

Let’s pause for a minute and notice a few things:

  1. David did not approach Nabal with all 600 of his men brandishing swords, which would clearly have been a request “they could not refuse.” He sent a delegation of ten. That doesn’t sound like he’s looking for wholesale slaughter.
  2. His greeting and request could not have been more polite, not like common bandits would ask.
  3. He asks at a time when Nabal has plenty, so it will not place any hardship on him.
  4. He reminded Nabal of the protection he had given his men and flocks before this. Since Nabal has reaped the benefits of David’s protection, was it unreasonable to ask him for help when he needed something?
  5. The bandits who roamed the land, looking for easy plunder, would not have been so polite. They were the reason why Nabal’s sheep and goat herders appreciated David’s protection.
  6. He asked on a feast day, when it was tradition to share your bounty with those in need.

On a Feast Day

Why does David mention they have come on a feast day? In Hebrew, the phrase is yom tob, literally, “a good day.” However, the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB) says yom tob sometimes refers to a “festal day,” or a feast (cf. Est 8:17; 9:19, 22; Zec 8:19).

Here’s an example from the Book of Nehemiah. On the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the priest, Ezra, reads the entire copy of the Torah to the people, and they have interpreters to help people understand. The people weep, probably because they know they have disobeyed it. But Ezra is quick to tell this festival is not about putting a guilt trip on them. It’s a time to celebrate and thank God for all the ways God has blessed us.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Neh 8:10

A festal day, a day that is holy to our LORD, is a day for celebration. It’s a day to enjoy your bounty and share it with those for whom nothing is prepared. The Law of Moses even told them to collect a tithe for that purpose.

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

Deu 14:28-29

And again in Deuteronomy,

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments:

Deu 26:12-13 NRS

Part of the purpose of the tithes was to make sure everyone would have something to eat on the religious holidays, or as is said in our passage, a feast day. Those who had an abundance were supposed to share with the poor and needy on the feast days. David and his men were needy. Try feeding 600 men, plus their wives and children, in the middle of a wilderness if you don’t believe me.

This is said today as part of the Passover Seder:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat: Whoever is in need, let him come and celebrate the Pesach”.

(Haggadah)

I know this comes from a time long after David. But like most traditions in the Haggadah, they were well known among the Jews and Israelites long before they were written down. I’m not saying this was part of the Passover Seder in David’s time, but the spirit of it was in their culture. You see it in the tithes they collected for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows. They should never go hungry but especially on a festal day. David’s request for some food, so he and his men could celebrate a feast, just like Nabal (who was enjoying a feast fit for a king, v. 36), was consistent with the spirit of the Law of Moses regarding feasts. That’s why he makes a point of saying it’s a feast day.

The Fool Responds

So David’s men make the request and wait. In vv. 10-11, we get Nabal’s response.

But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

(1Sa 25:10-11 NRS)

Nabal says, “Who is David?” as if he were a nobody. He likens David to a fugitive slave – because he ran from Saul. He compared David to an outlaw, the very kind of people David and his men protected Nabal’s flocks and herders from.

He said David and his men “Come from I do not know where.” He called them aliens. They really weren’t, but calling them this made him even more culpable. What does the law in Deuteronomy 26:13 say again? “Then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to…the resident aliens.’” If they are resident aliens, as he said, the Torah specifically requires him to share his abundance with David and his men, even if they had not protected him all year.

For a guy who claims not to know David, he seems to know exactly what insults will wound him the most.

Of course, David is furious. He orders 400 of his men to come with him while 200 stay with the baggage. Why? They need to protect their own stuff from bandits (see ch. 30).

Quick, Tell Abigail

The 400 who came with David were out for blood. Fortunately for Nabal’s household, one servant told Abigail.

But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.

(1Sa 25:14-16 NRS)

One of Nabal’s herders says he had felt safe because of David’s protection. Back in verse seven, David’s envoys told Nabal, “Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel.” Was this as a description of David’s mafia-style “protection” business? “You got some nice sheep and goats here. Would be a shame if something happened to them.”

I might be open to that kind of interpretation if it weren’t for two factors:

  1. David and his merry band of outlaws were not the only armed nomads in the area. If they had been, that interpretation would be likely. However, the land of Israel was notorious for bandits. It was a great territory to operate if you were a criminal. Because of the many caves, you and your gang could hide from the authorities, if they ever happened to show up (which many times they did not).
  2. The eyewitness report of the young man who tended Nabal’s flocks. He said they were very good to us…we suffered no harm…we never missed anything…as long as they were with us. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, so no bandits could slip past them and steal from us. Does that sound even close to what you would say about mafia henchmen coming to collect their “rent”?

Now let’s hear the rest of his testimony.

Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

1Sa 25:17

See? You were gonna skip that, weren’t you? How did he know evil has been decided against our master and against all his house? Because that’s how David operated.

No, that’s how bandits operated. How did he know David was planning evil against them? Because he saw his master take good from David and reward him with evil (v. 21). He knew David and his men were skilled warriors. He heard the insults Nabal hurled at him, and yes, David had his pride. He could not let such insults go unpunished. Any fool would have known that. That is, any fool except Nabal, a man so ill-natured that no one can speak to him. I bet the young man tried, but it was like trying to reason with a brick wall.

I imagine he had a lot of experiences like this: His master acting like an ass, and no one could tell him to shut up. He had learned where to go when his master was mean and surly. We’ve already been told Abigail, unlike her husband, was smart (v. 3). She knew what to do. Whenever you see a fool like him somehow rich, it has to be one of two reasons: 1) he inherited it; or 2) he has a clever wife who covers for his idiocy.

She gathered together enough for a feast for David and his men, loaded it on donkeys, and sent them ahead of her. She did not tell her husband, of course (vv. 18-19). Duh! We already know she’s no idiot.

Evil Is Coming

Next, we find out exactly what evil David has planned against Nabal and all his house.

Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”

1Sa 25:21-22

Most modern translations clean up the language. However, if we go back to a time before such sensibilities about cursing in a holy book, this is how the King James Version renders that last verse.

So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.

1Sa 25:22 KJV
Who's Next Album Cover
Better not let David catch you, boys.

In other words, any male—man or child—who is old enough to stand up to urinate, is good as dead. And now we are back to the question, was this David’s normal way of supporting himself and his men while he was on the run from Saul? So far we’ve seen not only David but Nabal’s own servant say he had been protecting Nabal’s men and flocks, so no. This was not his M.O. The next questions I think need to be answered are,

  1. What was he doing instead?
  2. Why did he change his mind here?

What Was He Doing Instead?

This is my take. I haven’t seen anyone else say this. But if David was not taking what he wanted by brute force, how did he support himself and his men? I think the answer is in what he had done for Nabal up until this point. He protected honest farmers, herders, and villagers from outlaws, and in return they gave him and his men the food they needed. Ever heard of Barzillai? Probably not. We don’t meet him until the second book of Samuel, but his history with David went back to these same days before he became king.

Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man.

(2Sa 19:32 NRS)

He had provided the king with food. David protected Barzillai, and Barzillai fed David. I don’t think he was the only one. There were humane reasons for it, and practical reasons on both sides. Men like Barzillai needed protection from bandits, who will kill anyone who stands in their way and take everything. David and his men needed food, so you gave them what they needed, and they would protect you from the bandits. If you hired guards, you would have to feed and pay them anyway, so this was not unreasonable.

For David, it helped him keep practicing his leadership and military skills. It also built support for him among the people. Saul either could not or would not protect them from outlaws. David did, and they would remember that when he became king.

In his King Arthur trilogy, Bernard Cornwell wrote the story of Arthur from the perspective of Arthur’s friend, Derfel. In the first volume, The Winter King, one of my favorite scenes is where Arthur explains to Derfel why they can’t just rush into villages and slaughter and plunder anytime they have a disagreement with the people.

It’s easy for us, he tells Derfel, to come in and take whatever we want and kill whoever we want. We have swords, shields, armor, and horses. They don’t. We are trained to fight. They aren’t. But there’s an unspoken agreement between us. We fight to protect them, because they can’t fight for themselves. In return, they grow the food that feeds us, produce the clothing we wear, and forge the armor and weapons we use to fight. As long as they know we are on their side, we don’t have to take what we need. They’ll either give it or sell it to us.

I think that is the kind of ethic David was trying to live by, and that he was trying to teach his men to live by. Which brings us to the second question.

Why Did He Change?

This is not an apology for David. I am not interested in defending the indefensible. I am, however, interested in understanding his state of mind at the moment. Writers need to understand their characters’ motivations, whether they agree with them or not. In David’s case, I think he felt pressure in a number of ways to behave like a bandit and outlaw. He resisted successfully for a while, but this was the moment when many factors came together at once and pushed him over the edge. Those factors were:

  • The death of Samuel (1 Sam 25:1).
  • It was a rough world.
  • A “Biblical” concept of justice
  • His men wanted him to do this
  • Building frustration over having to hide like a criminal
  • Insults that touched his own insecurities

Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.

The Death of Samuel

Just before this story begins, we are told,

Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran.

1Sa 25:1

Anyone can feel lost after the death of a mentor. Samuel was the one who started David on his journey that had taken him from being a shepherd to being commander of the king’s armies. Samuel had been with the people when they demanded a king. Against his better judgment, he accepted their pleas and anointed Saul. But after an act of disobedience, Samuel told Saul the LORD had rejected him as king. Since kings ruled for life, he could not remove Saul from the throne. That didn’t stop Samuel from calling David out of the fields and anointing him as king, even though Saul was still alive.

After defeating Goliath, David caught the attention of Saul, who brought him into the palace. He made David an officer in the army, where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a commander. Saul probably did not know Samuel had anointed David (they would keep that a secret for obvious reasons), but he still saw David as a threat. His jealousy over David’s rising popularity led him to put a price on David’s head, which was why David was hiding out in the wilderness.

That is a greatly oversimplified summary of how David got into the situation we see him now. All of that was to say Samuel’s death had to have affected him. All of Israel mourned for Samuel, and David probably mourned him more than most. The man who anointed him king was now dead. He had been on the run from Saul for years at this point. How does that make sense if the LORD had chosen him to be king? Samuel’s death probably left him with some unresolved questions.

It Was a Rough World

We’ve already noted bandits roamed throughout the countryside. You could barely travel from one city to another without running into them. The men David would have attracted could easily have fallen in with one of these gangs. They knew the ways bandits and outlaws operated. They accepted David’s leadership, but he had to be strong to keep their respect.

He told his men they would kill “every male of all that belongs to him,” but he did not invent that expression. It was already well known, both as a saying and as a tactic, among the outlaws and armies. I’m not saying he was right. I’m saying it was a rough world, and people sometimes sink to the lowest level of their world when they are under pressure.

“Biblical” Justice

David’s reasoning was, “We protected all that belongs to him. Now, we will kill all that belongs to him.” We wouldn’t call that justice, to kill the innocent of an entire household because one man returned evil for good. But there are parts of the Bible that show for people of that time, that kind of logic partially defined justice for the Israelites. For example, here’s an early pronouncement against men who abuse widows and orphans.

You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

(Exo 22:22-24 NRS)

If you abuse any widow or orphan, I will kill you. Then your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. It is the same kind of logic David used to justify what he was about to do. Over time, that attitude would change. In the later prophets, like Jeremiah, you see the people, and God, coming around to an idea that people should pay for their own sins, not for their masters’ or their parents’. To Israelites of that time, however, there was justice in what David was planning.

His Men Wanted It

This is another example of what a rough world it was. He was leading rough men. They respected him, but his hold on them was tenuous (1 Sa 30:1-6). I’m sure they were watching to see if David was strong enough to do what was “necessary” when someone tried to take advantage of David’s decency.

When David announced his plan, did any of his men say, “Wait a minute, David. Don’t you think that’s a little extreme? Of course we’re gonna kill Nabal, but come on now. We know the young men who watched his flocks. They’re good people”? No. I bet they were excited, like, “This is what we’ve been waiting for! Every man, strap on his sword!” At a time when David needed a voice of reason, there were none.

Rising Frustration That Came to a Head

David was supposed to be king. God sent Samuel years ago to anoint him. Why was he still having to hide out in the wilderness? In most nations, when one man believed the gods have made him king, he claimed it by killing the current occupant of the throne. David could not do that, and he could not send someone else to do it. His conscience would not allow him to lift his hand against the LORD’s anointed (1 Sa 24:5-6). Yes, the LORD had rejected Saul as king. That was why Samuel anointed David to take his place. But as far as David was concerned, once God anointed someone, that anointing never left. Even though Saul was trying to kill him, David could not defend himself like he would against any other enemy. So basically, he was waiting for Saul to die by God’s hand. Today, we would call it natural causes.

Now Samuel was dead. Maybe some questions he had been carrying in his heart became more urgent. If God has anointed me king of Israel, why must I live like a fugitive? Why would God anoint me before I could take the throne? Maybe Saul found out. Of course. That is the reason why Saul thinks I want to kill him. And why he will never believe I mean him no harm. There is nothing I can do to change that, so why did God put me in this position? How long will I have to wait before God fulfills his promise to me?

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

(Psa 13:1-2 NRS)

Pressure was building inside him, and it only took one fool to say the wrong things to make that volcano blow.

Insults that Touched His Own Insecurities

I mentioned before that Nabal knew exactly what insults would wound David the deepest. He compared David to a fugitive slave, because he was hiding from his master, Saul. That wasn’t true, of course. Even though God had made him a rival to Saul’s throne, he always tried to do right by Saul. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Saul, even when God gave him into his hands (ch. 24). But this could be interpreted in a bad way. He was living like a fugitive and an outlaw, despite his best intentions. It was a sore point for David, a scab no wise person would pick at. But what do you expect from a man whose name means “Fool”?

Nabal said, “Who is David?”

David thought, “Who am I? I’m the one who’s been protecting everything that belongs to you, your young men, and your flocks.”

Nabal said, “Who is the son of Jesse?”

David thought, “Oh, so he insulted my father too?”

Nabal said, “Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

David thought, “The reason you have this abundance of bread and water and meat is because my men and I have been protecting you. Without us, bandits would have taken all of it. And after all that, you talk as if I don’t even have a right to be here in the whole territory of Maon? I was anointed king of Israel. This whole nation is mine. I’ll show you who has a right to be here, and who doesn’t!”


This was a crossroads for David. If he had gone through with his plan, I don’t think it would have stopped with Nabal. I think it would have changed his character forever. The irony would have been he would have become exactly what Nabal accused him of. But remember, Abigail was already working behind the scenes to clean up her idiot husband’s mess—again (I guarantee this was not the first time she had had to do just that). What she did to assuage David’s anger was positively brilliant. I will pick up with that in the second part of this character study.

Entertaining Angels Unaware

Song: “Entertaining Angels” by the Newsboys, with lyrics.

Continuing this character study of Abraham and those associated with him, for the last two weeks I have pointed out that Hagar deserves to be listed among the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11. It might have escaped your notice that Sarah is in fact listed in this chapter. I missed it at first, because I was reading from the NRSV. Verses 8-12 talk about Abraham. But in verse 11, there is some disagreement. Here is how the NRSV translates it:

By faith he [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised.

(Heb 11:11 NRS)

Like the rest of this passage, the focus is on Abraham’s faith. However, in many translations, verse 11 is about Sarah’s faith rather than Abraham’s. Here is how the ESV translates it.

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

(Heb 11:11 ESV; see also NAS, NIV, and KJV)

To have such significant differences, there must be some quirks in the Greek text that make translation into English difficult. You’d be surprised how often that happens. This is why it’s good to read from more than one translation. Digging into a disputed text like this is just the kind of thing I love. However, since so few women are listed in Hebrews 11, we should look at how Sarah responded to the promise of bearing a child. And remember, she is ninety and has passed menopause.

Hospitality In The Biblical World

Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt
Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt

Turning our attention to Genesis 18,

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.

 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on– since you have come to your servant.”

So they said, “Do as you have said.”

 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”

(Gen 18:1-6 NRS)

This is middle eastern hospitality in action. This was true not only in Abraham’s time. Many cultures in the middle east still practice the ancient rules of hospitality. Traveling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. Traveling through a desert presented its own challenges. Hot, dry, and difficult to find water. Abraham is in a place famous for its trees, the oaks of Mamre. Imagine how welcome the shade would have been to travelers.

Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent in the shade in the heat of the day. Three men appeared near his tent. That must have been shocking, to be in your tent and “Holy crap! Where did these men come from?”

Sir, Please, Let Me Serve You

Abraham bowed to them, spoke to the leader as “my lord,” and called himself their servant. Again, this was not at all unusual for that time and place. Saying “my lord” and “your servant” did not mean Abraham recognized the leader immediately as God. It was normal to say this to someone when you offered gifts or hospitality.

The Hebrew word ‘adoni sometimes meant “my lord,” literally. It could also be equivalent to “Sir” (see Translation Notes). Abraham is saying, “Sir, please, do not pass by. Let me show some hospitality to you.” If you see LORD in all capital letters, this is referring to the Divine Name of God (Yahweh). But in this verse, the letters are lowercase.

Abraham tells Sarah they have visitors, and she needs to make some bread for them. Sarah would not have been angry with him for that. In their world, they could have visitors any time, and everyone had their jobs to do when that happened. If you saw people traveling around there, especially in the heat of the day, you knew they would be hot, thirsty, and hungry. He and Sarah flew into action to serve them.

Prepare The Fatted Calf For Them

Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

(Gen 18:7-8 NRS)

He didn’t just give them bread and water. He prepared a calf, tender and good, along with curds and milk. Herders like Abraham did not eat meat often. It was reserved for special occasions. When you showed hospitality, you gave your best.

While Abraham was entertaining them, one of the men (presumably God or the Angel of the LORD) revisited the promise of Abraham having a son with Sarah (Gen 17:15-16). God gave Abraham a timeline.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “There, in the tent.”

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

(Gen 18:9-10a NRS)

In due season, the meaning is clearer in the ESV: about this time next year (also NAS, NAB, NIV; see Translation Notes). In the previous chapter, God had told Abraham he and Sarah would have a son of their own at this season next year (Gen 17:21). We were told then that Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. How much time passed between this passage and Abraham’s last encounter with God in chapter 17? It couldn’t have been long. They are still the same age as in the previous chapter. Was it days or weeks? My guess is they traveled to the oaks of Mamre and were resting there, so it would have been a week or two to travel there.

As Good As Dead

In the New Testament, Paul says at this point Abraham was “as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old)” (Rom 4:19; see also Heb 11:12).

Paul did not mean he was like, in a wheelchair, barely able to move on his own. He and Sarah were still capable of doing the tasks of living. He bowed, he hastened, and he helped prepare food for the guests. Sarah prepared and baked bread. They weren’t ready for the nursing home. But in terms of his ability to procreate, he was “as good as dead.”

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

(Gen 18:10b-12 NRS)

It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women (cf. Gen 31:35). Sarah had passed menopause. Remember, she had been barren even during her childbearing years, and now she was past even that.

After I have grown old…shall I have pleasure? They weren’t even having sex anymore, so how was she going to get pregnant (see Translation Notes)? They were still in good shape for their age, better than my grandparents. But should we be at all surprised that Sarah laughed when she heard God say this? Was she laughing because she was surprised, or because it still sounded ridiculous? In other words, is this the first time she has heard this?

What Did Sarah Know And When Did She Know It?

I guess it’s safe to assume Abraham told Sarah what God told him from the previous chapter. He told her about the name changes, because she was introduced as Sarah rather than Sarai. Abraham had circumcised himself and every male of the household, and there was no way he could have hidden that from her. But did he tell her everything?

You know how sometimes when something big happens, but there is one embarrassing or unbelievable detail, you might leave that out when you tell others? Did Abraham leave out that one detail about the two of them having a son? Was he waiting for the right time to spring it on her? We don’t know from the text, but these are some questions you would need to answer to write a fictionalized version of this story.

When Sarah heard this, her reaction was the same as Abraham’s in the previous chapter: She laughed. Perfectly understandable if this is the first time she heard it. If Abraham had told her before, she could have stopped herself from laughing. On the other hand, maybe he did, and she laughed because it still sounded ridiculous. How will God respond?

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 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.”

But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid.

He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

(Gen 18:13-15 NRS)

She Laughs

Sarah and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall
Sarah and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall

God wasn’t offended when Abraham laughed (17:17ff). Why is God offended at Sarah for laughing? The answer I always heard was that when God made a promise, especially in person, Sarah should not have doubted. But come on, we’re adults here. We all know how babies are made. The text has made it clear. They were in their nineties, and that ship had sailed. And if that’s the reason, again, why wasn’t God offended when Abraham laughed?

No, there was another reason for God to be offended. God was a guest in Abraham’s house (or tent). Remember, in their culture, hospitality to guests was central to their sense of right and wrong. You must be kind and generous, and there was shame if you held back anything from them. Your guest says something, and you laugh at him. Is that kind and generous? Is it hospitable? Even if what he says is 100% certifiably insane, laughing at him was a breach of hospitality.

Not to mention it revealed she was eavesdropping. It probably wasn’t the first time. A stranger visiting your tent was the most exciting thing that could happen in that world. That was how they got their news of what was happening in other places. Of course she wanted to hear what they had to say. I don’t know if eavesdropping would have been a breach of hospitality, but it might have been.

Was God offended at her doubt or her inhospitality? Or maybe something else is going on here.

Why Did Sarah Laugh?

I actually think there was more going on here than God being offended. Let’s compare God’s response to Abraham’s laughter vs. Sarah’s laughter. With Abraham, God repeated the promise and gave his son a name, Isaac. God promised to establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac. Abraham saw then that God was 100% serious, and went home immediately to circumcise himself and every male of his household, because that was what God commanded. And he did it because, as the author of Hebrews says, “he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS).

When Sarah laughed, God said, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” As with Abraham, God is telling Sarah this is a promise from the LORD. God is 100% serious about this. And when Sarah denies laughing, God says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” She is probably doubly embarrassed, first at being called out for laughing, second for being caught in a lie.

But if you’ve been a parent, coach, or teacher, you have probably had moments when your children or students were laughing and joking when you knew they needed to be serious. You may rebuke them mildly, like God here, or you might totally pitch a fit. One way or another, you needed to make clear to them, “This is no joke.”

God doesn’t make promises God can’t or won’t keep. Abraham has already shown he is on board with this plan. Sarah needs to be on board too.

At some time, maybe after he healed from his circumcision, Abraham said, “Sarah? You know how God told us we need to have a son? I think now would be a good time.”

She lifted up his robe and said, “The dead has come back to life!”

The Promise Fulfilled

Sarah and Abraham did indeed have a son. They named him Isaac, as God said (Gen 17:17, 19), because Isaac means “he laughs.” Abraham had laughed when God first told him, and so did Sarah. After he was born, Sarah said,

“God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me…. 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)

She laughed again, this time for joy rather than skepticism. And people laughed with her, not at her. The reproach of childlessness was gone. Why did God wait until Abraham and Sarah were both “too old”? A woman who had been barren her whole life, and a man who was “as good as dead” gave birth to a son when he was one hundred and she was ninety-one. Why was it so important for Abraham and Sarah to have a son? The New Testament gives two reasons.

  1. The Gospel of Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham and Sarah. This was the official beginning of the bloodline that would one day bring the Messiah into the world.
  2. Paul made a point of saying Abraham was “as good as dead” for a reason. It was the first hint that the Messiah himself would be resurrected. The theme of rising from the dead follows Isaac everywhere, as we will see next week in perhaps the most famous episode of Abraham’s story.

Of course, Abraham and Sarah knew none of this. As the author of Hebrews said,

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

(Heb 11:13-14 NRS)

Seeing From A Distance

Abraham and Sarah lived as strangers and foreigners on the earth. They were promised a homeland for their offspring, but they never received it themselves. They were promised through their seed, all families of the world would be blessed (Gen 12:3). They did not see that happen. But they fulfilled their role in God’s plan to make it happen.

Abraham was seventy-five when God first called him. He was one hundred when Isaac was born. Twenty-five years between the time when God first promised to give him descendants so many they could not be numbered, and the beginning of its fulfillment. Along the way, he and Sarah lost hope at times, they stopped believing at times, and they probably wondered sometimes if Abraham had imagined these encounters with God.

But when God appeared and made it 100% clear exactly what, how, and when the promise would come to pass, they considered the one who promised to be faithful. They trusted that God would not promise something God would not or could not fulfill. That is what faith looks like, according to Abraham and Sarah.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

(Heb 13:2 ESV)

Translation Notes

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season,[כָּעֵ֣ת חַיָּ֔ה] and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him

(Gen 18:10 NRS)

In due season. In Hebrew, the phrase is ka`eth chayyah. A literal translation would be “according to the time of life” (KJV), or “when the time revives” (NAS study note). I don’t know what that means, but I like the poetry of it.

NAS translates it, “at this time next year.” Halladay justifies that translation.

Hol2487  חַי

4. var.: Gn 1810•14 2K 416 a year from now.

(pg 101)

God repeats this promise in verse 14, adding “at the appointed time” לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד (WTT) (la-mo`ed) to “at this time next year” (ka`eth chayyah).

My Husband Or My Lord?

“After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

(Gen 18:12 NRS)

My husband, HEB ‘adoni, lit. “my lord.” In 1 Peter, we read this:

Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.

(1Pe 3:6 NRS)

This is part of a section where Peter admonishes wives to accept the authority of their husbands. I’m not sure he should have picked Sarah as an example of that. He may have been her lord legally. But as my wife once said to me, if I tried to be her “lord,” I would have my hands full. I don’t think Sarah was the type of woman anyone could easily boss around. Remember, her name meant “princess” or “queen.”

As I said earlier, “my lord” wasn’t always literal. Sometimes it was equivalent to “sir” (18:3). Sometimes a woman’s husband would be called her “lord,” but in that context it means “husband,” not necessarily “lord.”

Paul tells us that by faith in Christ, we have become Abraham’s offspring (Gal 3:29). But Peter also says women can be Sarah’s daughters by doing good and not letting fears alarm you. I think that’s a good takeaway.

Shall I Have Pleasure?

The Hebrew word for pleasure here is `ednah.

Hol6102  עֶדְנָה  (noun common feminine singular absolute) (sexual) pleasure Gn 1812. †

(pg 266)

I think it says a lot about Sarah that when God promises she will bear a son, her first thought is of `ednah, translated “pleasure.” Holladay notes it refers specifically to sexual pleasure. (By the way, I don’t think I will ever look at any woman named Edna the same way again). She was a woman who owned her sexuality and enjoyed it. In the Bible and in many conservative Christian and Jewish traditions, that is the most dangerous woman there is. Stay away from her, they warned their sons, as in Proverbs:

For the lips of a loose woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.

(Pro 5:3-5 NRS)

 Sheol is a Hebrew word for the underworld, the place where all souls go after they die. It wasn’t thought of as Hell originally, but it took on that meaning in some translations. So is that last verse saying, her steps follow the “Highway to Hell”?

If Sarah could have sung “Highway to Hell”

Seriously, though, Sarah’s first thought about sex was not childbearing but pleasure. She thought that pleasure was lost to her, so it was probably with some nostalgia she said, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

A Mitzvah Is Not For Pleasure

To orthodox Jews and some longstanding Catholic traditions, that is sinful. The primary purpose of sex was (and is) to conceive and bear children. Any sex that was done for pleasure rather than procreation was a sin. Engaging in any sexual activity that could not result in having children (pulling out, birth control, masturbation, put your dirty little mind to it and you can think of other acts) was and, in some traditions, still is forbidden. That included having sex with an infertile woman. How do they reconcile that with Sarah? Or Rachel? Or Hannah? Or the mother of Samson? Or Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist?

Not surprisingly, there is extensive discussion on this in Rabbinic Jewish tradition. That may be a topic of a future post. For now the point is the way conservative Western traditions have viewed women’s sexuality is like this:

  1. The man and woman were commanded to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). It is a mitzvah (command from God) for a husband and wife to have sex, so they can bear children.
  2. The mitzvah is to procreate, not to do it for pleasure.
  3. Men did not trust women who had sex for pleasure, even if it was with their husbands.
  4. Women could not be trusted to control their own desire. So her father controlled it before she was married, and her husband controlled it after.
  5. Having sex for pleasure makes you no better than an animal.

Give Me That Old(er) Time Religion

Sarah enjoyed sex with her husband and saw nothing wrong with that. We must assume Abraham did as well, since he saw no need to “control her urges.” She and Abraham used sex to enhance their relationship apart from childbirth, until they were not able. Even at ninety years old, she remembered it as pleasure. And she thought of it right in God’s presence. Sinner! God must have been furious!

Not exactly. God reprimanded her for laughing at the idea of having a child. God did NOT reprimand her for thinking of her pleasure. God told her in effect, “Yes, even at this age, you and your husband will have pleasure again. This time, you will be fruitful and multiply.”

Christianity and Judaism trace their origins to Abraham and Sarah. It’s a shame that for much of our history, we did not learn from how they approached sex as husband and wife.

The Original Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2: God Hears Hagar

Moira in handmaid's uniform, let them think they control you
Samira Wiley plays Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Part one of this character study showed how Sarai and Hagar mirror Serena and June in The Handmaid’s Tale. That post ended with Hagar running away from Sarai. Problem was she was running through a desert. Out there in the middle of nowhere, she finds a spring of water. I’m guessing not a moment too soon. And then she receives an unusual visitor.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

(Gen 16:7 NRS)

Who is the angel of the LORD? It appears a few times in the Bible. Sometimes when God wanted to appear to someone, the angel of the LORD showed up there instead. This Angel seems to be a divine figure who can stand in for God when God’s personal appearance would be impractical. Some Christian commentators believe it was a pre-Incarnate manifestation of Christ.

In the ancient world, people believed no mortal human could look on God’s face and live (v. 13; cf. Exo 33:20). It wouldn’t do if God wanted to give a message to someone, and they died the moment God appeared to them, would it? It seems, though, the Angel could speak to people face to face safely (cf. Gen 32:30; Jud 13:22). Are these direct encounters with God or with the angel of the LORD? Hard to know just from the text. But the Angel speaks to Hagar.

And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

(Gen 16:8-9)

I know what you’re thinking. This is not God endorsing slavery or Sarai’s harsh treatment. You’ll see that when we talk about the story in its context. Keep reading.

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

And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He 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.”

(16:10-12)

What are you thinking now? Gee, thanks God (for nothing). Again, context makes all the difference. There’s a reason God says this. Keep reading.

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

(16:13)

This goes back to what I said about the angel of the LORD earlier. She is surprised (shocked, probably) that she saw God and was still alive. She believes it was God, but we are told it was the angel of the LORD. Which was it? In scenes like this, the text is usually ambiguous about it, like when Jacob wrestled the Angel. Or was it God (Gen 32:30)?

{***SPOILER ALERT***}

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones tells his girlfriend to close her eyes and not look? While they kept their eyes closed, everyone else melted in the LORD’s presence like statues at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. How did he know anyone who looked at God would die? My favorite line in the movie: “Didn’t you boys go to Sunday School?” {End Spoiler}

Indiana Jones and his girlfriend don't look
No matter what happens, don’t look!

Finally, we should notice that she gives God a name. I can’t think of anyone else in the Bible who both saw God and gave God a name. Jacob asked for God’s name, but the Angel would not give it to him (Gen 32:29). God’s name to the Jews was (and still is) too holy to speak, so this is remarkable. NRSV notes say El-roi means “God of seeing” or “God who sees.” Some translations say “the God who sees me” (see Translation Notes below, if you’re into dissecting Hebrew and Greek).

For Hagar, her reason for the name is that she “has seen God and remained alive.” That stresses her seeing God, so by that reckoning, we might translate it “the God who appeared to me.” In context, either meaning would fit. God has both “seen her” and “appeared to her,” and she lives. This is a God who subverts common expectations.

I like “God who sees (me),” because it pairs well with her son’s name, “God hears.” Putting seeing and hearing together also echoes what God said to Moses when God sent him to deliver the people of Israel:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed (or seen) the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”

(Exo 3:7-8a NRS)

God saw Hagar and heard her. God knew her sufferings and gave an answer to her cry.

Then the author tells us the name of the well where she saw God still bears the name of this encounter.

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

(Gen 16:14 NRS)

NRSV study notes say Beer-lahai-roi means “the well of the Living One who sees me.” Beer is not beer like we think of. It is the Hebrew word for well (sorry). The Living One was sometimes used to refer to God. In an earlier post, I discussed the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have their own son and name him Isaac. A little side note here: After Abraham dies, Isaac lives in Beer-lahai-roi for a time (Gen 25:11). Did he know the history it represented for Hagar and Ishmael?


There are still probably two big questions on your mind right now.

  1. Why did God tell Hagar, Return to your mistress and submit to her?
  2. Was verse 12 a blessing or a curse? This story is a perfect illustration of why it is so important to read the Bible in its original context.

Why Did God Tell Hagar to Return to Her Mistress and Submit to Her?

Think about Hagar’s situation here. When the Angel asks her, Where are you coming from and where are you going, she has an answer for the first question (I am running away from my mistress) but not the second. This was obviously an impulsive decision. She had no plan for how to escape beyond running away. What are her options?

  • A. Try to survive alone in the wilderness while pregnant. And when the baby comes, give birth with no one to help her. Then try to figure a way to provide the needs of her and her baby out in a hot dry place with no food and no shelter, and predatory animals who would love to make a meal of them, if she has survived that long.
  • B. Return to her mistress and submit to her.

This was not a blanket approval of slavery. All the Angel is telling her is B is preferable to A. There, the basic needs for her and her baby—food, clothing, shelter, water, and safety from wild animals—will be met. If she is submissive toward Sarai, she will most likely be less harsh with her. This is a survival strategy, one which slaves throughout history adopted. But God/the Angel gives her a reason to survive. God has a destiny and a promise for the son she is carrying.

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. The same promise God gave to Abram’s seed, which he is, a son of Abram’s own issue. God gives him a name, and I talked in an earlier post about the significance of God naming someone.

You shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael in Hebrew comes from shema`, meaning “hear,” and ‘El, meaning “God.” So the name means, “God hears.” If she ever needs to be reminded that God hears her in her affliction, it’s right there in her son’s name.

Now we come to verse 12 and the second question from above.

Was Verse 12 a Blessing or a Curse?

To review, verse 12 says, “He 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.”

Ladies, how would you feel if God appeared to you while you were pregnant to tell you this? Would you wonder why God was punishing you? Before you judge, remember Hagar’s circumstances were very different from yours. How would she have heard this?

He shall be a wild ass of a man. He will be strong, independent, and able to survive in harsh conditions.

…with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him. He will bow down to no master. He will enjoy the freedom and autonomy she longs for.

…and he shall live at odds with all his kin. She might not like the idea of him being at odds with her, but who else are his kin? Abram. Sarai by law, though not by blood. Anyone related to Abram. She knows they will not fully accept him, so why shouldn’t his hand be against them?

Legally, he will belong to Sarai. But Hagar will always be his mother by blood. He will feel that tension along with her, and it will come back on Abram and Sarai’s heads. He will not be a compliant child like a “good slave” should. She will be there to teach him the destiny God has for him, and that destiny is freedom from anyone who would make him a slave. What better justice could she ask for?

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum

I can picture the scene. Ishmael is a toddler. Hagar is playing Pattycake—or whatever games they played with little children back then. Sarai comes in and says, “I’ll take him now.” Ishmael lifts up his arms, and she picks him up. Abram tousles his hair affectionately. Sarai carries him out, saying, “What a sweet boy.”

And all the while, Hagar is thinking, “So, my master and mistress, you think he is the answer to your prayers. No, he is the answer to my prayers. You think he is sweet now? Just wait until he grows up,” and she laughs. “Just you wait.”


Do you see now what a difference reading in context makes? To our modern ears, the Angel’s words sound like a curse. But for a slave-girl like Hagar, in the land of Canaan somewhere around 2000 BC, these words were life.

The Angel gave her a strategy for survival—submit to her mistress. That would not be easy for her, but it would ensure both her survival and her son’s. And the Angel gave a promise worth living for—her son would be a free man. For the sake of that promise, she accepted slavery for herself.

Abraham was commended in Hebrews 11 “because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS). So did Hagar, which again tells me she should have been included in the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11.

Translation Notes (for Bible Geeks Like Me)

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13 NRS)

The translation of El-roi is uncertain in the Hebrew. WTM (The standard Hebrew text) includes a note that says ro’i is a noun (Masculine Singular Absolute) and can mean “appearance” or “appearing.” This might give the translation, “God who appears to me.” When Hagar comments she saw God and lived, that would point to God appearing to her rather than seeing her.

BDB (the standard Hebrew lexicon) says it generally means “looking, seeing, or sight.” It translates the name as “God who sees,” which would be appropriate, because God sees Hagar’s affliction.

However, KJV, NAS, and NIV translate it as “the God who sees me.” The entry for Job 7:8, same word and form, says it is a Verb, Qal Participle (Masculine Singular Construct), with a 1st person suffix, which would affirm that translation. It is also how the LXX (Septuagint) translates it.

 ὁ θεὸς ὁ ἐπιδών με  (Gen 16:13 BGT); ho theos ho epidon me.

ἐπιδών verb (participle aorist active nominative masculine singular) from ἐφοράω fix one’s glance upon, look at, concern oneself (with) Lk 1:25; Ac 4:29.* [pg 71]

The Septuagint adds the personal pronoun me, which shows they understood El-roi to mean “the God who looks at me,” or “the God who sees me.” We see another example in Job 7:8.

The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.

(Job 7:8 ESV).

Ro’i is translated him who sees me. So it appears we have either “God who appears to me,” or “God who sees me.” The verb could also be Past tense rather than present, so it could also mean “God who appeared to me,” or “God who saw me.”

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Sarai and Hagar: The Original Handmaid’s Tale (Genesis Chapter 16)

In last week’s post, I talked about how God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. The difference between Abram and Abraham is subtle but meaningful. However, I commented that the difference between Sarai and Sarah was not readily apparent. Both mean “princess” or “queen.” One possible explanation comes from Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a professor of the Hebrew Bible, who says “It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family, but to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large.” If he is correct, Sarai would mean “my princess,” or perhaps “my queen.” Sarah would mean simply “princess” or “queen.” Like the change from Abram to Abraham, a subtle but significant difference, one that marked a change in the trajectory of both their lives.

When I’m analyzing characters or stories, I don’t necessarily go in chronological order. Last week we were in chapter 17 of Genesis. This week we will look at chapter 16. With the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in its third season on Hulu, I thought this would be an interesting scene for many people.

Genesis Chapter 16

Now, we are going back to a time when they were still called Abram and Sarai. In chapter 15, God promised to give Abram a son “of his own issue,” and to give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. Chapter 16 picks up about ten years later. Abram and Sarai have been trying to have a child, and they are no spring chickens. Abram was 75 and Sarai was 66 when God first made that promise. Sarai never had a child of her own, even when she was young. Now they are 85 and 76, respectively. Sarai is afraid if Abram is limited to her, he will never have a son of his own issue, no matter what God said. To borrow a phrase from Atwood, no matter how many times she said, “Blessed be the fruit,” the LORD was not opening. So she approached her husband.

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store.
A scene from the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

(Gen 16:1- 2 NRS)

Hagar is Sarai’s slave-girl, also called a handmaid. In Abram and Sarai’s culture, this seems to have been an accepted practice. If a man’s wife was unable to conceive, the man could obtain children through his wife’s slave (presumably, if the wife permitted it). But as we already know, Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body or the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. So he told Sarai, “Just calm down now. God promised us a child, and God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises. We don’t need a plan B.” You know I’m kidding, right?

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

(Gen 16:3 NRS)

…and [Sarai] gave her to her husband Abram as a wife? I doubt that “wife” is a good translation here, because clearly in the rest of the story, Sarai was Abram’s one and only wife. She would not have let Hagar forget that. Perhaps “concubine” is more accurate.

Here is the mistake God made when God spoke to Abram in chapter 15. God told Abram he would have a son “of his own issue,” but God did not specify it would be through Sarai (15:4).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

(16:4-5)

Okay, if I’m Abram, at this point, my first thought is, “Oh, it’s all my fault? And whose idea was this in the first place?” And how she describes the wrong done to me, when you look at it in the Hebrew, reveals a lot about her.

The Hebrew word for “wrong” here is chamas. It is occasionally translated “wrong” in a general sense. But more often, it means specifically “violence.” For example, Jeremiah says this to Babylon after they conquered Jerusalem: “’May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,’ The inhabitant of Zion will say” (Jer 51:35 NAS).

One of the authors of the Psalms says this, “Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends” (Psa 7:16 NRS).

One of Gideon’s sons killed all seventy of his siblings, with the help of the men of Shechem, to make himself his father’s heir. But later, the men of Shechem “dealt treacherously with Abimelech…so that the violence done to the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon) might be avenged” (Jud 9:23-24).

The word for “violence” in all these passages is chamas. Sarai equated the wrong Hagar was doing to her with mass murder.

May the LORD judge between you and me.

People only used this expression when they were 100% sure that the wrong, or the violence, done to them had no cause or justification. The responsibility of the other party was so obvious, they knew God was on their side (cf. 1 Sa 24:12, 15; Exo 5:21; Jud 11:27).

If you invoke God to judge between you and another, you’d better be right, because God will judge justly and with no partiality. I don’t buy for one second that Sarai did nothing to provoke Hagar in this. And Abram bears some responsibility, but certainly not all of it, as she claims. Hagar may have done wrong to her, but Sarai is blowing it way out of proportion, just like many wealthy and privileged women do. And she is not even considering the wrong she did to Hagar.

Abram gives her the same advice a wealthy slaveowner would give.

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

(Gen 16:6)

“Sarai, dear, did you forget who is the master and who is the slave? You don’t have to take it from her if you don’t want to.”

And Sarai is like, “Oh yeah. Time to remind her who the queen of this household really is.” She strikes back at Hagar, and Hagar runs away.

What Are We To Think of Hagar?

When [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress? Because she’s just a “B-word, rhymes with witch”? That is a question you really have to think about if you intend to turn this episode into a fictionalized account, especially if you want it to be as good as Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. You would have to consider her situation and how that would affect her attitude. You would have to flesh out just how she showed contempt for her mistress in what she said and did. And then you would have to flesh out what Sarai did when she dealt harshly with her. Whatever it was, it would have to be bad enough to make her run away, while pregnant, with nothing but desert around her.

Let’s start with that question, “Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress?” You could go with the B-word explanation, but that would ignore critical details about Hagar’s situation. She is a slave. She has already experienced the dehumanization of being sold or given to Abram and Sarai like a piece of chattel and taken from her home in Egypt (Gen 12:16-13:2). Then she is told her master will come in and lie with her, because her mistress decided that for her. Did they ask her if she would help with their fertility problems? She might have been willing if they had asked, and she saw how desperate they were to have a child.

Today, some women are willing to be surrogates for infertile couples. They negotiate the terms of conception (usually in-vitro, but that was not an option then) and what kind of care or compensation they receive. Hagar never had that chance. You didn’t negotiate with your slaves. You ordered them. “My husband needs to have a son. The LORD has withheld me from having children, so you’re going to do it in my place.” That was the negotiation.

Abram and Sarai saw nothing wrong with this. Your slave-girl is in your power. You can do with her as you please (Gen 16:6). They expected Hagar to accept this, because that was the way it was in their world. Many other slaves had to do the same, and they accepted it. It probably never even occurred to them she might have feelings about this. The most intimate decisions regarding her own body were taken from her, and something in her knew it was wrong. She would not accept the status of being property and not human. Like most slaves, she obeyed out of self-preservation.

The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer's character Janine, caption reads: Your body is no longer your own.

But when she conceived, that gave her a leg up on Sarai. She finally had a chance to let out the resentment she had kept inside, because, Don’t upset her. You don’t want to hurt the baby she’s carrying. Her resentment was not just at Sarai and Abram. It was at the whole system that did not recognize her rights as a woman or as a human being. Let’s not sugarcoat it. What was done to her was legitimized rape. Should we be surprised she showed contempt for her mistress?

And yes, it was no different for her than for countless other slaves. You could legally do anything to your slave you wished. They did not recognize at that time that slaves were human, made in the image of God, and as such had certain inalienable rights. Hagar was one of those independent souls who, over time, forced us to come to terms with an entire institution whose purpose was to dehumanize others. If you ask me, she should have been on that list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Serena and June Anyone?

If you’re familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably think this saga between Sarai and Hagar sounds like the relationship between Serena and June. June went along with the system in Gilead she was forced into, but she resented it. She resented the system that took away her husband, took her daughter away, made her the handmaid of Serena and Fred Waterford, and in every way possible told her that her only value was her ability to receive Mr. Waterford’s seed, get pregnant, and bear a child for Mrs. Waterford. The child she was forced to conceive would not even be hers. It belonged to Fred and Serena. It was primarily for Serena’s benefit, because she could not have children of her own. June’s family, career, autonomy, and even her name were taken from her, so a wealthy, powerful, childless family could use her womb, and she had no say in it.

There are a few moments of connection between her and Serena, but Serena is mostly harsh with her. She’s a little jealous that June can give her husband something she can’t and takes that frustration out on her. June engages in little acts of defiance, quietly, and mostly behind their backs, but gradually she becomes bolder with it, especially after she conceives. She milks the concern for the baby for all its worth. And she aims some insults right at Serena’s greatest insecurities.

In her introduction to the novel, Atwood does not name this particular scene but rather the episode where Rachel gives her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob, so she can have children (Genesis 30:1-8). But as I described the characters of Serena and June, don’t they sound just like Sarai and Hagar? I’m not knocking Atwood for lifting these characters from the pages of the Bible. On the contrary, I think what she did is a fantastic example of the potential of Biblical Fiction for creating compelling drama.

Biblical Fiction Vs. Christian Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale is not Christian Fiction, in case you were wondering. There’s too much sex, cursing, and graphic violence for it to be Christian Fiction. Biblical Fiction, you have to understand, is not the same as Christian Fiction. Christian Fiction has strict rules about what kind of worldview and morality your characters can present and endorse. Characters can be morally ambiguous at first, but in Christian Fiction, they usually convert to a Christian worldview and morality by the end. But hopefully, you see in this Biblical text all of the characters are morally ambiguous, and there is no “conversion” for any of them. Therefore, I say Biblical Fiction does not have to follow the same rules as Christian Fiction, because the Bible doesn’t.

Atwood lifted these characters from the Bible and placed them in a modern dystopian setting with new names. She did not take the Christian approach of turning Abraham and Sarah into heroes and Hagar into a villain. She kept all of their moral ambiguities intact. That is why Atwood’s story works so well. Her approach not only makes the characters more believable and human. It is a more faithful rendering of the Biblical text than the rules of Christian Fiction would allow. It highlights how unjust and dehumanizing the society of Gilead is. June acts like a fiercely independent handmaid would in a society like Gilead, and so does Hagar. The Waterfords act like members of a privileged class who want a child would act, and so do Abram and Sarai.

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Remember Hagar ran away to escape Sarai’s harsh treatment? What happened to her? The saga continues in the next part of this character study. If you are interested in buying a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, you can follow my affiliate link here. My “Recommended” page has links to this and other excellent examples of Biblical Fiction.

The man born blind, a character study

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been good about keeping up my writing, at least fiction. Since I finished a novel manuscript a few years ago, I have hardly written any fiction. I’ve been writing mostly about writing itself and Biblical reflections. I’ve told myself it’s research, because the area I most want to write is Biblical Fiction. In order to help me bridge the gap between fiction and Bible study, I’m going to do a little character study. Fiction requires compelling characters. That is what I’m using this research for, so I can picture the scene and try to get inside these characters’ heads. This will be longer than most of my blog posts so far.

In this study, I’m using one of my favorite unnamed characters in the Bible, the man born blind in John 9. I’m also hoping to make these episodes into a podcast. Sounds exciting, huh? Without further ado…

Who sinned and caused this man to be born blind?

In John chapter 9, Jesus and the disciples encountered a man born blind. Just prior to this, Jesus had an intense debate with the Jewish leaders in the Temple (Joh 8:12-58). This man would have been sitting somewhere begging, because there was very little work a blind man could do. Clearly, this was an organic condition. It doesn’t say whether he was partially blind or completely blind. The impression I get from reading it is he was totally blind. In first century Judaism, if a child was born blind, it had to be punishment for sin. Either the parents sinned, or somehow the child sinned while it was in the womb. This is why the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Joh 9:2 NRS).

How can a child in the womb sin, you ask? Let’s say, for example, the child’s mother goes into a pagan temple while pregnant. In their minds, the child participates in that sin, even though clearly he/she had no choice in the matter. There were also ways a child could sin in the womb without the parents’ knowledge. That’s all speculation of course. I would even call it superstition. The thing about superstitions is, if you believe it, it’s not a superstition to you. Jesus’ answer says a lot, not only about the fallacy of that belief but also his mission in the world.

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

(Joh 9:3)

First, he addresses the question of “who sinned?” As so often happened with Jesus, when they presented a question in the form of “Which is it, A or B?” he answered, “C, none of the above.” The man’s blindness, he tells them, has nothing to do with anyone’s sin, not the man’s or his parents’. Then he told them God did have a purpose in having him born blind. The purpose was that God’s works might be revealed in him.

This is admittedly difficult for many people to take, the idea that God would cause misfortune on someone, because there is some mysterious purpose behind it. However, in this case, that mystery would not remain hidden much longer. God’s works were about to be revealed, not in the man’s blindness, but in what Jesus was about to do for him.

Then Jesus said something else that spoke to the nature of his mission.

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

(Joh 9:4-5 NRS).

I think here, he hinted that the miracles and healings he was doing would not continue much longer. Why? Because this was the only time in history when the eternal Word (in Greek logos) walked the earth as a flesh and blood human being. That would not last forever. Night was coming. He knew his mission would end at the cross. Until that day, however, he and his disciples had to work the works of him who sent him. Notice he stresses the words work and works. That is going to be important later in the story. For now, let’s continue and see what he does for the man.

Where did you get that mud?

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).

Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

(Joh 9:6-7 NRS)

How did Jesus heal him? He spat on the ground, made mud from the dirt and saliva, spread it on the man’s eyes, and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. Is there any indication that Jesus was doing this in response to the man’s faith? None whatsoever. The man did not ask to be healed. I bet he didn’t even know it was Jesus rubbing mud on his eyes because, hello! He was blind! He was just sitting in the same spot he had sat begging every day for all of his adult life; and all of a sudden, some fool comes along and rubs mud on his eyes. Why would anyone do this to me? Who is this man rubbing mud on me? What kind of man takes advantage of a blind man like this? Do you think this is funny?

Jesus tells him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.”

“Oh, I’m going to wash this off, all right, because that’s what I do when someone covers me with mud. Where did you get the mud from anyway? Wait a minute! Did I hear you spit? Oooohhh! You mangy dog!” he wags his finger at Jesus. “Don’t you go anywhere, because after I wash this mud off, I’ve got some words for you!”

I’m sure after washing the mud off, he would have given Jesus an earful. Except…after he washed his eyes, he saw a shimmering light. “What’s this? I know it’s water. This is what water feels like,” as he dipped his hands in it. I imagine he scooped some up in his hands and let it fall back into the pool. “Is this what water looks like? Wow, this pool is beautiful. I’ve been to this pool many times, but I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen anything before! I see people all around. I think they’re people. I don’t know, because I’ve never seen people before. What’s your name?”

“Simon.”

“Simon! I can see you! I can see all the people around here. I can see the sun. I can see the Temple over there, where they won’t let me in because I’m blind. Was blind.” He inhales with mouth and eyes wide open as the realization sets in. “I was blind. But now I see. Where is the man who did this? I’ve got some words for him!”

Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?

He did not understand how he was healed. He did not know it was Jesus putting mud on his eyes until after he was healed. He didn’t even know Jesus was healing him, because Jesus never told him why he was putting mud on his eyes. Jesus had his own reasons for healing this man, whether he believed in him or not. You’ve heard of “faith healing?” Call this a non-faith healing.

Some people around the man noticed him, and they were like, “Look at that man! He can see!”

“So what?”

“He’s the blind man who used to beg over in that corner. I saw him every day as I passed on my way home from the Temple.”

So John tells us,

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”

Some were saying, “It is he.”

Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”

He kept saying, “I am the man.”

(Joh 9:8-9 NRS)

I picture this debate going like, “That’s the blind man who sat there and begged.” “It can’t be him. Look, he’s not blind.” “It sure looks like him.” “That’s it. It’s someone else who looks like him.”

And the man is like, “Hey, I’m right here. You can ask me.”

“Are you the man?”

“Yes, I am the man.”

So then John tells us,

But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

They said to him, “Where is he?”

He said, “I do not know.”

(Joh 9:10-12 NRS)

Yeah, the man couldn’t point out Jesus in the crowd, because he never saw Jesus. (He was blind, remember?). So they take him to the Pharisees. They are the people who are supposed to know God and the scriptures better than anyone, so maybe they can make sense of this. Because if a man who was blind now sees, God must have had something to do with it. But the Pharisees have already had some controversies with Jesus, and this is not going to change their minds.

The work of a “sinner”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

(Joh 9:13-14 NRS)

Uh oh! That is going to be a problem. Making clay and putting it to use is defined in the Traditions of the Elders as work. Every Jew knew working on the Sabbath was forbidden. That was not a minor commandment. It was one of the Top Ten. Jesus has already gotten into trouble with the Pharisees because he healed a paralytic on the Sabbath in chapter 5. It’s like he’s doing everything he can to thumb his nose at them. But actually, he explained earlier why he needed to do this, even though it was the sabbath, in verses 4-5.

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

(Joh 9:4-5 NRS)

This is why he stressed doing the works of God while it is day. By working the works of God, he broke the sabbath. Why? Was it just to antagonize the Pharisees? No. He said, As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. But he would not be “in the world” for much longer. Soon, he would be crucified, dead, and buried. He would not be able to contact sick people in such direct fashion after that. So when he saw an opportunity to both heal a man born bind, and teach an important lesson to his disciples, he had to take it, sabbath or not.

Cognitive Dissonance: A great way to create tension in your story

Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

He said, “He is a prophet.”

(Joh 9:15-17 NRS)

The Pharisees are experiencing something called Cognitive Dissonance. This is a condition, usually temporary, where the mind is stressed because it’s trying to hold two facts together and knows both of those facts cannot be true at the same time. Fact 1: Jesus opened the eyes of a man born blind. Fact 2: Jesus broke the Sabbath. From fact 1, they should conclude that he was sent from God. From fact 2, they should conclude that he is a sinner. They cannot both be true. Either he was sent from God, or he is a sinner. How they should react to him depends on which side they pick.

For the man, there is no dissonance. He opened my eyes. Only God can do that, so he was sent from God. But…. No buts! He was sent from God. Period.

The first impulse in Cognitive Dissonance is to deny the fact you don’t like. Fake news, the Pharisees say. But they had to investigate. Probably someone suggested, “Why don’t we ask his parents? They should know if he was born blind, because, you know, they were there.” Here’s how that went.

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight  and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”

His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”

(Joh 9:18-21 NRS)

John says “the Jews” did not believe, but sometimes John refers to the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus as “the Jews.” Most of the authorities continued to oppose Jesus, because they saw him threatening their most cherished traditions. But there is no way everyone who was there “did not believe.” I guarantee you some of the Jews who were there came to faith in Jesus because of this. How could they not? Some of you, if you saw this happen, would come to faith as well. The religious authorities, here represented by the Pharisees, were another matter entirely.

If they could have proven the man really wasn’t born blind, the debate would have been over. But his own parents, who would know, confirmed he was their son, and he was born blind. Their level of cognitive dissonance is off the charts now. What will they do?

Though I was blind, now I see

The Pharisees investigated the case of a man who was born blind and now sees. He claimed he saw because Jesus opened his eyes. That’s a problem for them, because they have already declared “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Joh 9:22 NRS). Why? Because he was a “sinner.” Why? Because he healed on the Sabbath, and he claimed to be equal to God (Joh 5:9-10; 17-18). To be fair, no Jew should ever believe any man or woman who claims to be equal to God. But if he is a sinner, how could he have opened the eyes of a blind man? {COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ALERT}.

If they could prove this miracle was fake, there would be no reason for anyone to believe he was the Messiah. But their own investigation proved it was real. {COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ALERT}. What do they do now? We pick up the story at John 9:24-25.

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” {That’s how they resolve their cognitive dissonance}

He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 

(Joh 9:24-25 NRS)

This is not only a story of a blind man who receives sight. It’s also a story of willful blindness. They can’t acknowledge Jesus had any role in this miracle, so instead they insist the man give glory to God. I think it’s good to give glory to God when you receive a blessing, but sometimes people use that to avoid giving credit where credit is due. In this case, they “give glory to God” so they won’t have to give Jesus, a “sinner,” any credit for it.

For the man, they could call Jesus a sinner all day. Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong. There is only one fact he knows for sure. He was blind, and now he sees.

John continues,

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

(Joh 9:26-27 NRS)

I think at this point, the man recognizes the Pharisees are just being willfully blind, and he is not willing to suffer fools gladly. And I wish I could have been there to see the look on their faces when he asked, Do you also want to become his disciples? Continuing, verses 28-29,

Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” 

(Joh 9:28-29 NRS)

No one in this story would dispute that God had spoken to Moses. Not this man, not any of the witnesses, and certainly not Jesus. He had already told the Jewish religious leaders,

“Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

(Joh 5:45-47 NRS)

That was a bold claim from Jesus. That Moses, who wrote the Torah, on which all scripture is based, wrote about him. Christians today are so used to hearing Jesus fulfilled Old Testament scriptures that I wonder if we understand how shocking this statement would have been to first century Jews. There was no way they should have believed anyone who said something like this without evidence. In this case, however, that evidence was standing right before them in a man who was born blind and now sees. Let’s see how that evidence responds to the Pharisees’ objections.

Here is an astonishing thing!

The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes”

(Joh 9:30 NRS)

Okay, I have to interrupt here for a moment to say, I love this man! I think he might be my favorite unnamed character in the Bible. He was a walking, talking “no B.S. zone.” He’s like, “How shocking! You don’t know where he comes from! Forget that he opened my eyes. I thought that proved he was sent from God. But you don’t know where he comes from. Well, that totally discredits him. I was going to become his disciple, but if you don’t know where he comes from, well, I was clearly a fool for thinking that.” You do get he’s being sarcastic, right?

Then he drops the sarcasm and gets to some serious theology, continuing from verse 31,

“We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing”

(Joh 9:31-33 NRS)

God does not listen to sinners. God listens to those who worship God and obey God’s will. If he were not from God, he could do nothing. You didn’t need any advanced theological training to know this. Every Jew knew this. This was Judaism 101. Shabbas school even. If he were not from God, he could do nothing, so look at what he just did. He opened the eyes of a person born blind.

This was not your run of the mill, ordinary miracle. This was something no one had ever done since the world began. In Jesus’ time, there were others who claimed to be miracle workers and healers. But none of them had done anything close to this. Search through history, and you won’t find anyone who had done this. No angel, no prophet, none of the patriarchs, not Moses, no miracle worker, no healer, no magician, no one has ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. So if he’s a sinner, you tell me how he opened my eyes.

Quite a convincing argument, don’t you think? He’s going toe-to-toe in a theological debate with the best theologians in Jerusalem, and he is crushing it. Did I mention I love this man?

Is this enough to change the minds of the religious authorities?

They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

(Joh 9:34 NRS)

So they made good on their threat to throw anyone out of the synagogue who confessed Jesus as the Messiah (9:22). What did they mean that he was “born entirely in sins”? Remember back in Verse 2 when the disciples asked Jesus whether the man sinned or his parents? That was the common belief about children born with blindness, deafness, or some other disability. The child was born in sins, either because of the parents, or because the child somehow sinned in the womb. And again, I’ll remind you Jesus said sin had nothing to do with the man’s blindness (Joh 9:3). But the man would have been treated with that attitude all his life, so I don’t think he felt any great loss when they drove him out [of the synagogue]. And if he was eager to be Jesus’ disciple before, he was all the more eager after that. Time for Jesus to reenter the scene.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

(Joh 9:35-38 NRS)

As I said before, no Jew should have worshiped Jesus, called him Lord, or believed he was the Son of God, or the Son of Man for that matter. Not without evidence, and it would have to be evidence way beyond a reasonable doubt. This man received exactly that, so it was appropriate for him to worship Jesus and believe him when he called himself the Son of Man. He’s like, “Son of Man? Who is he? Just tell me, and I’ll believe. In fact, I’ll believe anything you tell me. I’ll believe anything you want me too. Why shouldn’t I? I was blind, and you opened my eyes.”

This man knew how to put two and two together. If Jesus were not from God, he could not have opened my eyes. I know we are taught not to have any gods except the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But he would not ask me to do anything God would disapprove of. If he did, God would not have let him do what he did for me.

Summary

There are a lot of unnamed characters in the Bible. Usually, we don’t get much of their personality. They are mostly props or role-players. This man’s personality leaps off the page. I love how he debates the Pharisees. I keep thinking what must it have felt like if you couldn’t see and someone just started putting mud over your eyes, no explanations. You think he has pulled some kind of cruel joke on you. But then you wash the mud off, and you can see. Even though he was a Jew, John tells his story in a way that his worship of Jesus near the end of the chapter makes sense.

Nothing annoys me more about Christian or Biblical fiction than when someone converts to faith in Christ, but the author does not make it feel authentic. There is nothing inauthentic about this man. In one chapter, he went from blindness, to seeing, to believing, to worshiping, and every bit of it felt real. Like I said, he is a walking, talking “no B.S.” zone. I know it’s not right to call him a fictional character, but I would be proud to have a character like him in one of my novels or short stories.

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Is Multiple POV Dead?

When I first started seriously shopping my novel manuscript in 2014, secular agents/publishers said

  1. It’s too Christian for us.
  2. We don’t want more than two points of view.

Christian agents/publishers said

  1. It has too much sex and violence for us (none of it gratuitous, I assure you).
  2. We don’t want more than two points of view.

I expected #1 from both to be an issue that I would just have to negotiate and maybe make some changes for them. #2, however, came totally out of the blue for me. All my life I’ve read and liked novels with multiple points of view (POV). Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel devotes a whole chapter to how to write in multiple POV. But they just wouldn’t seem to budge on that. They really prefer one POV. Even two is pushing it.

When I first started writing this manuscript, I envisioned it as two POV, a criminal condemned to death and his prison guard. It wasn’t working. After trying different things with the plot and working on my writing technique, it improved, but I still didn’t feel like it was ready for publication. When I wrote some chapters in a third POV (the wife of the condemned criminal), that opened up new scenes and characters that made the story and main characters more real to me. I felt I was moving in the right direction.

Then I tried out a chapter from the perspective of the Procurator of the Games, to get access to important Arena scenes and intrigues around the emperor. My critique group loved it, so I wrote some more. So that meant I had four POV characters.

At the time, I had no idea it would even be an issue. When I kept running into the same brick wall, I stopped sending query letters and tried to figure out what to do with it. Can I eliminate two POV’s? And if not, what then?

A sock in the gut from an author and an agent

A few months ago, award-winning author Lynette Eason spoke at the local chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). She writes mainly romantic suspense for the Christian market. She wrote one novel with four POV, like mine. It was 90,000 words while mine is 76,000. She suggested they might be thinking it’s not enough words to develop all four of these characters. It was the first thing anyone in publishing said that made sense to me.

However, I recently attended a workshop through Writer’s Digest that suggests I may not be able to overcome this no matter how many words I add. I got to ask all my burning questions to a reputable agent. She asked if there were any bestsellers comparable to mine that

  1. Were written by debut novelists, and
  2. Were published in the last two years.

There’s the rub. I can think of multiple POV bestsellers. Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, the most recent of which was The Obsidian Chamber (2016). George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, which has been adapted very successfully for television. Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, which has seven POV in one chapter. But all of these authors have consistently written bestsellers going back to the 90’s. They have a proven track record. As a debut novelist, I do not. In fact, the last multiple POV bestseller from a debut novelist I can remember was The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009). Eight years ago.

And I can’t fall back on Donald Maass, as great as his book was, because Breakout Novel was published in 2002. Book publishing has changed a lot since then. That’s why in your query letters, when you name published books comparable to yours, you can’t go back more than two years. What sold three or four years ago is already outdated. The one bit of good news I have is I found three novels set in ancient Rome all published this year. But, of course, they are all single POV.

I spent about twelve years working on this novel, writing and failing, writing and failing, over and over again until I finally had a manuscript I believed in. And in that twelve years, the very thing that breathed life into my novel like God breathing life into clay became the thing that makes publishers say, “Thanks, but it’s not for us.”

What to do now?

I don’t know. I could maybe bring down the number of POV’s to three. That’s still too many for the major publishers. Are there any agents, and maybe independent publishers, that are willing to take a chance on a debut novelist with a multiple POV story that is a damn good novel if I do say so myself? I’m going back in the ring to find out. Because after all the work I’ve put into it, I just can’t accept that I created something no one will care about.

If you are a writer, what POV do you write in? First person? Third person, deep POV? Third Person omniscient? Do you use one POV character? Two? Do you ever use more than two?

And whether you are a writer or reader, what do you think about this situation? Are publishers right that multiple POV novels don’t sell any more (unless you are an established bestseller)? Or are they misreading the market? I would love to hear your comments.

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In the meantime, we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. I wrote a short story imagining them meeting in heaven called “A Requiem for Two.” It’s available on Kindle for only $0.99. And it’s only one Point of View (Princess Diana) in case you were wondering. If you like it, I would so appreciate a rating or review.

Reblog: “Clean Fiction” as Evangelical White Magic

Great post from Mike Duran, “Clean Fiction” as Evangelical White Magic.

This is a point I’m trying to make about my fiction and Biblical fiction in general. If Philippians 4:8 means to only watch, read, consume, or create media that is “clean,” i.e., devoid of violence, gore, nudity, profanity, sex, and other types of immorality, why does the Bible contain stories with all these elements?

So how do you consume or create material with immorality and not be corrupted by it? The same way you do when you encounter it in the Bible, by exercising discernment. And such “unclean” elements exist in media for the same reason they exist in the Bible. Because they exist in the world, and telling the truth sometimes requires we make that plain.